To promote creative talent in Hong Kong, RTHK Radio 3 has joined hands with Hong Kong Free Press and PEN Hong Kong for the second year in a row to co-organise the English writing competition Hong Kong’s Top Story 2018. Judges selected eight prize-winners in the Junior and Adult Categories, with two granted the Most Creative Award. An award presentation ceremony was held on Tuesday, December 11 at RTHK.
The awards were presented by RTHK’s Acting Deputy Director of Broadcasting (Programmes) Kirindi Chan Man-kuen, Managing Editor of Hong Kong Free Press Sarah Karacs and President of PEN Hong Kong Jason Ng. Chan mentioned that the competition has again attracted a lot of talented writers, and that almost 400 entries from the community were received. She also hoped that, in promoting literary activities, Hong Kong’s cultural and artistic scene will grow and benefit all English speakers, young listeners and readers.
This year’s theme was “Sounds of Hong Kong.” Participants were invited to find inspiration from familiar tunes, chatter, beeps, clangs and clatter that remind us of a moment, evoke a memory of a person or prompt an echo. Winners were presented with books from Pan Macmillan and dining vouchers from the Lan Kwai Fong Group.
Today, HKFP shares stories from the runners-up.
Before the sun breaks open the day’s gold, before pelagic rumble of traffic undulates through Tai Wo, before the trees inhale the sometimes mist that lingers from the night’s cold comfort, before apartment buildings blink their many eyes, Philip hears a bird call, as mythical as anything that happens at the precipice of daybreak, true but not yet fact, as plaintive in its two tones of rising pitch reaching for a response, ko-el, ko-el, Tchaikovsky, he thinks, and of course he would, obedient son who studied violin unlike his brother Nick who preferred playing together than with instruments, with whom Philip was staying for a while, waking up in a room where his brother has cleared out just enough space for a mattress, suitcases stored inside larger suitcases, gadgets and paperwork put away in boxes and between boxes, everything that could be stacked, stacked, imbricate like how Hong Kong overflows over itself.
As soon as Philip turned eighteen, he had left his family for America. It wasn’t until he graduated, stayed, and stayed away that he realised the stranger that his family was to him. Of course, his mother felt differently and cared in the most ordinary, maternal love, pestering after his weight loss and singleness, whether he was warm in winter, whether he drank enough water. Nick, though, kept his distance if not because a hard worker’s reward in Hong Kong was more work, then because he, too, understood how different they were.
When Philip lost his job as a real estate agent, he made a begrudging concession to come home. Because their parents’ flat was too small, Nick, motivated by familial piety and who made good living at an IT firm, asked his hoarder wife to do what she could about his computer room/her storage. Nick was a collector – CDs of soundtracks from his favourite movies, comic books, T-shirts – but Siu Fa, an administrator at a local pet rescue shelter, was a hoarder with a talent, inherent to her kind, for finding use and future use in all things miscellaneous: hats for occasions, bottles and vials of organic makeup past its use-by date, tarot cards and inspirational books, tote bags, piles of unopened mail, which when they did go through them disrupted not a few pincher bugs. They welcomed Philip and he was grateful. That was a year ago.
Now, as he lies in bed, he listens to the bird calls and thinks there is just one bird. He pictures a small dragon, as slender as it is solitary, serpentine and slithering through shady banyan trees, parting their aerial roots like curtains, searching for companions or for the day’s quest.
Sometimes, a different call, gwo-gwo-gwo-gwo-gwo, a staccato, also in ascending pitch, an announcement or laughter. In the year since he’s returned, he has seen it once, bluish black feathers, berry red eyes, and refusing to sing for his smartphone. He knew to look for the Asian koel because it was featured in a local article that included diverging testimonies about these neighbours as auspicious or annoying. Then he learned that koels were brood parasites, laying their eggs in the nests of other bird species, the koel chicks evicting the host eggs and forcing the host mother to feed them. Having no opportunity to learn this behaviour, ornithologists concluded that this was genetic, instinctual drive to let others do the caregiving. He imagined the koels as orphans, lost and home-calling, taking with them their cares.
When he hears a clatter about the apartment, he knows it’s almost seven in the morning. Nick and Siu Fa will leave for work and likely not return until Philip is ready for bed. He pretends to be asleep until he hears the metal gate’s soft clang and latch. The day for him remains undecided but he dresses as if going to work. For a year now, he’s lived off of his savings, free room and board, and tutoring English to local professionals, but he is still unsure of what’s next. He could do real estate again but he can barely explain himself in Chinese, like one time to Siu-Fa how he wished to spend more time with Nick getting reacquainted and his refusal. When they had these conversations, she’d dismiss the concern, not unkindly but with slight resignation, and say, “you know he’s like that.”
He doesn’t feel like looking for a job today. He calls his mother.
“I won two hundred dollars at mahjong last night,” she says.
“That’s good. Don’t lose it in the next game,” he says and she laughs, a well-worn routine.
“How’s the job search?”
“You should go back to school. My friend’s son got into an MBA programme this year.
“I don’t know.”
“You see him every day.”
“Only sometimes. He’s fine.”
Only five minutes pass, and he has no one else to call.
He makes a grocery list and changes into something casual. He wants to make lion’s head meatballs, tells that to the butcher, who promises the best cut as he throws some fat to the grinder. His Chinese is passable, as it is to the auntie selling vegetables who bags the muddy water chestnuts separate from the napa cabbage, and to the auntie selling fruits who insists he try some lychees before buying them. At home, after shaping the meatballs and frying them, he puts them in a steamer and picks up around the apartment. He vacuums, moves the couch to get at forgotten surfaces that dust and hair accumulate on. He wipes the table and the leather couch, arranges the cushions and shoes, and neatly stacks the growing pile of mail. Every ten minutes, he checks on the meatballs until the juice runs clear. For the bathroom, he scrapes off the grout buildup, scrubs the rust from the tiles near the faucet without success, bleaches everything. He takes a nap.
When Philip was selling homes, he loved it. To prepare to showing, he would imagine Christmas and birthday photographs lining the hallway walls freshly painted light tan, set a table for a family party of ten, consider how far the bedrooms were in case a child woke from a nightmare and needed to find her mother. Even the boring and ubiquitous apartments in their bland carpets and boxy layouts, he could love, the sun warming a couch by the window on a winter morning, the furniture pushed to the walls for an impromptu wrestling match with the kids. He compared an empty home to a blank canvas, except that each canvas was shaped differently, and on this canvas, he could paint for his potential clients what they couldn’t yet imagine.
The understanding that Philip’s stay would be temporary did little to ameliorate the friction between him and Nick. As river rocks are smoothed by abrasion, it would take time for them to adjust to another; they both knew this, one as brother, one as guest. Philip imagined a kindling of a friendship with all the attendant misunderstandings and forgiveness, but Nick, as laconic as he was absent from home, had little margin to spare than hosting a guest, a driftwood caught for a little while on its way to the ocean. Once, Philip insisted that the two of them go out on a Friday night, but was caught off guard by a litany of grudges Nick had been brooding over for months. And though there was a familiarity Philip recognised, he couldn’t identify its shape, like how Philip got detention once for being late to the school bus departing Ocean Park, making everyone in his form one class wait, something for which he did not remember feeling any guilt.
Since then, Philip tried to make himself domestic and scarce, but in the soft, fertile silences of a long day boiling soup or washing dishes, a thought might hatch that he was not welcome. At first, he entertained the thought, fed it speculations, till it grew and crowded out all other thoughts.
The only thing he could do at that point was to push the thought from his mind, killing it. But then it would be laid again, hatch and squawk, demanding nurture and being adopted as his own. Eventually, he got good at early detection and eviction.
By the time Nick gets home, Philip has finished dinner, showered, and is reading something he’s sure he won’t remember the next day. Nick makes himself a plate of rice and meatballs and sits down to continue whatever show on Netflix he was watching the night before.
“How was your day?” Philip asks Nick.
“How are the meatballs?”
“I haven’t had them yet.” Nick answers and takes a bite, “they are fine. A little more salt.”
“I’ve decided to move out.”
“I’ve been here a year already.”
“Can you afford it?”
“I’ll figure something out.”
“OK. Good luck.”
Within a month, Philip moves to Sham Shui Po, sharing a modest three-bedroom flat with a Vietnamese banker who is young and energetic, staying out after long hours at his work, jazz at The Fringe Club, salsa dancing at 1563 at the East, and an e-commerce specialist who also keeps long hours but when she’s home is otherwise a homebody, playing MMORPG games and listening to K-pop. Everyone mostly keeps out of each other’s way. The living room, because it is mostly unused, is spare: a non-descript IKEA coffee table, an old off-white couch, a rag of a carpet. The kitchen is even more barren: a spoon and a pair of chopsticks per person, a rusting chef’s knife, and whatever was needed to make an emergency pot of rice or soup. He stocks the kitchen with more utensils and pans, herbs and spices. He also splurges at the Prince Edward flower market: basil, mint, flame lily, peace lily, snake plant, heartleaf philodendron, devil’s ivy. The leaves, like fire, mesmerize and calm him.
To be frugal, he avoids the A/C whenever he can, but even when it’s cool enough to open the windows, the traffic and occasional weekend argument from ten stories below wake him up at night. Often, a siren from an ambulance or a fire truck would break the night’s quiet sepia, its flashing red and white lights, its wail that grows more woeful the fainter it gets. During the day, he imagines the outside world as oceanic, motors and tires sonorous like waves, the incessant honking as if humans turned into geese, the seagull squawks of long metals carts piled to the top with cardboard boxes or with black trash bags and pushed by old ladies in thatched triangle hats and long sleeves.
One evening, Nick texts Philip about a missing soup pot that Siu Fa is looking for.
<You never cook so I thought it’d be OK.>
<You’re a selfish bastard>
<Can’t we talk in person? I’m unhappy, too.>
<You too? ha. there’s nothing to talk about>
Philip sends a few more texts, but Nick has stopped responding. The sudden escalation surprises Philip, but he also feels a sense of relief, as if an unexplained disease finally has a diagnosis. He misses the koels. He gets dressed and walks to the nearest park in Prince Edward, the only other place he’s heard them nearby. At the park, dimly lit with low, amber lights, he finds a ledge in the shadows and sits. Strewn about in clusters are old men with hand fans and cigarettes, mothers chatting while kids run about, Pakistani men laughing. He imagines his old room, the mattress vertical against the wall, shoe racks and storage bins repopulating in its place. The kitchen would be spotless but dusty and the living room spacious again. The koel would still call in the mornings. From a distance, a siren begins its crescendo. Then another and another. It must be a disaster, he thinks. When they pass by the park, three emergency vehicles blaring, he can think of nothing else.
Judges’ comment: This entry begins with an extraordinarily poetic introduction, a lengthy single-sentence paragraph which introduces the main character along with his current situation and some background, and the iconic call of the koel bird – one of the sounds of Hong Kong. Throughout, the author maintains an admirable control of grammar and syntax, which is in contrast with the story itself – one of displacement and the dysfunctional nature of modern city life, reflected in the embittered relationship between the two brothers.
Sam was awake early in the darkness of his room. He felt it in the myriad of senses that were disjointed from their routine, bleary and stalling in confusion. He heard it, first in the angry huff of the rumbling air-conditioner, whose complaints would typically be interrupted by the gargle of water plummeting down plastic pipes at roughly 5:12, 3 minutes before his first morning alarm. He smelled it, in the marked absence of nicotine, which would have normally begun creeping through the door from the renter across the hall who smoked early in the morning despite living too, in a windowless room of a tong lau hidden away on the outskirts of Causeway Bay. Knew it, from the annoyed, vibrating thrum of his tabby’s tail, the cat curled up in a ball, a warm, pulsating spot on the corner of his bed, probably the only creature alive that despised disruption more than Sam did.
The vibration down by his feet was the culprit for the unhinging of the day’s routine. There, a small, curved cuboid that was supposed to only ring at 5:15, 5:20, 5:25, and 5:30, shone as faint lighthouse amongst the maroon-red waves of Sam’s blanket and mattress cover. The light barely penetrated the murk of the room, but the waking screams of it would be enough to warrant a silencing of the sound, before the unsnoozable alarms; the slam of the showerer’s door up above 5:17, and the shouts of a mother from below: Hay sun a! Ng sai farn hork meh? at 5:22 . If Sam were not ready by the time that the screaming was over, it would be roughly 5:37. Late.
But there was nothing. Just:
With a tired groan, Sam flipped around. At the foot of the bed, a power strip’s orange glowing eye lit up the varnished bed frame and the dusty wooden grain of the wardrobe it was wedged between. Sam flipped the attached phone open, letting the umbilical cord slip to the floor. His bleary eyes were met with a picture of a ring, a hand, and two familiar, smiling faces.
<Hi all!! Pre-Announcement before everybody else on FB: We’re engaged!
Wedding details TBA!>
After Sam checked the initial message, the picture rose upwards as the salvo of other names and messages began, buzzing, blurring and pushing the picture upwards as the multi-coloured nicknames of the chatroom writhed over one another like flashes of koi rushing for feed.
Sam joined the fray with a simple: <Congrats!!> with bleary eyes, and then slipped both his eyes and the phone shut, a kaleidoscopic remnant of brightness burning a spot into the dark of his eyelids.
He had mere minutes before the day would begin, starting with a shower, and cigarette smoke. The phone continued to buzz, but Sam had closed the cover on that chapter of life. They, like other participants across the world, were simply secreted in another closed volume of a chat room.
He lay down. Beneath his back a rogue spring jutted into the side of his spine. Most nights, he slept around it like a river bending around stones in the way, but some nights, he woke up, the hull of his back breached on the spike, the small of his back sure to be sore for the rest of the day. The city had done it to him too. Gave him the best, before sweeping them out, leaving nothing behind but the hard tumours of their absence.
No, it was best not to hope any longer. This was his network now, a small tunnel of closed doors in a split up flat, each room uninteractive, except in the simple knowledge that they were not alone. So he kept his nose open for smoke. In thirty minutes, he would be on a rumbling train listening to the beeps of closing doors and announcers orating to carriages, his cheek smeared on a vertical glass panes in a nap measured not by time, but by train stops.
The phone buzzed again by his side, and Sam checked the names again.
Bethanie. Switzerland. A doctor. Seven hour difference.
The married couple in London, Lydia and Xu. Thanking everybody in the chat. Eight hours. Actuary. Lawyer.
Ben, New York. I-Banker. Twelve-hours away. Probably still in a cubicle, texting underneath the desk despite how much mulah he was bringing home.
A shower began from up above, and the pipes began a mournful lament.
Once upon a time, Sam had conquered time. He’d pinned friends to his shoulders and cheeks, clattered down steps littered with emerald-green Heineken bottles, and sung, laughing underneath starless skies. He had wine over candlelight and had hovered over, and under, gentle, past-midnight kisses. He’d watched moons dance away, sometimes yanked down by the sprightliness of youth, or sung to sleep, and watched suns rise, sometimes peeking up from behind the windowsill of the horizon, other times obscured by fog at the harbourside. He and his companions had torn up time, and laughed at it. And then what happened? The next night? And then?
His alarm sounded and Sam snoozed it.
Sam slapped his phone from its place on the mattress and drew it up with a sudden bend of his elbow. He tensed. Then set the phone down. And then? Autumn overcame summer, and they scattered like leaves in the Fall. Vrrrr. They froze across cities, across jobs, and were swept away by the spring melt that life brought round and round, meandering and settling in pools elsewhere. But Sam had stayed.
Juliana said it, when they finally separated at the airport. The world was too big to know what you wanted at 19. So she found it later at 27. Found the right man. Had two kids. Stayed the breadwinner of the family. He found those things out years after he received the invitation that remained unopened. He still had the envelope tucked away in drawer. Two weeks later, he at least opened the email that wafted into his inbox.
< Did you get my card? In case you didn’t, here’s a digital copy… I hope you can make it.>
Sam had replied then:
<Sorry! Didn’t get anything… can’t get away at that time though. Wish you the best of days up ahead though, truly.>
He was unable to resist signing off the message with ‘Love’, and the weaponised icon of a heart.
Sam rose. He pressed his ear to the air-conditioner, checking for the sounds of water on the machine’s metal top. He had no way to check for rain otherwise. From downstairs, the mother’s voice, warped by metal:
‘ H(r)ay sun ar(n)! Gum guai laan(ndk) geh nei dei(s) leung gor?’. The accusation of laziness came with the sizzle of sausages and eggs, and the scrape of lunchtime meals being prepared on a wok on the next stove top. The air was clean. Where was that smoke?
A paper slid underneath Sam’s door. It was joined by the grumble of wheels and the sliding and click of a suitcase handle snapping into place. The air was clean. The mattress creaked as Sam rose, feet finding purchase on the cold tiled floor, and picked the sheet. He used the phone’s notifications as light.
[I AM GO BACK TO UKRAINE. SORRY. FOR THE SMOCKING.]
Outside in the hallway, a door slammed, and the rumble of the lift began.
The alarm rang. Sam silenced it, and slipped back onto the bed. He couldn’t even see the face of the man who had left. He could only imagine him from behind, with shoulder-length, dirty blonde hair, and an unlit cigarette hanging out of his mouth. He had heard the man close his door before. Heard him and his occasional companions, some quiet, some loud. He wondered what would waking in the chamber across the hall would sound like.
When 5:25 came, he let the alarm ring, and ring, let it pass, and go. When 5:30 came, he let it ring, and ring, vibrate and ring, and let it all go. He stretched across the bed and stared into the dark, arms flat above his head. His tabby rose, and with ginger, silent steps, slipped up Sam’s thigh, and curled itself in the valley of his legs. It slept, and Sam let himself join it.
Where he was, half between the worlds of sleep and wakefulness, he stretched into the nothingness in surrender. His feet pressed against his wardrobe, his hands against his bedframe. He pushed harder, listening as the phone continued to – Vrrrrrr. Vrrrrrr- twice more at his side, more names buzzing upstream from somewhere in the world from someplace from his past. He sighed with a heave and breathed so that his chest swelled; his arms passed through the bed, his feet through the wardrobe, passing through the rooms and rooms, through the families and neighbours both present and vanished, his fingers travelling up floors and through homes, past souls all awake and asleep, up, up and out, and out, out into the unlit morning sky. He felt none of the wood or concrete, the warming breath of the sun, or the cooling sigh of the night. He felt instead, only his hollow yearning. He felt instead, only his fingers flailing, clenching, and the blood in him churning into the acid sharp stab of wishing, a wishing that he could snatch ahold of the vibrating web that now buzzed, interlacing him and all of his friends, ensnaring the memories that spanned more than just timezones but encompassed moments, moments of joy, memories of graduation, throbs and throes of love, sobs of mournings from the past, and the inevitable funerals of the future. Sam stretched, and curled, and stretched so far that the dark began to light up, and he saw the world and the crystalline web with people like dew glimmering across the lands, and he gazed into the constellation of people, people, people. Sam quivered and stretched, his tabby purred, and dreamed, and then?
And then the image fell back into darkness, and the cat yawned, glaring
sidelong with one large pupil . Sam braked back into the world of the morning. The phone was barely abuzz now. The lights that Sam had imagined were beginning to fade. It was a dream to repack the fireworks of his generation, to regather the dazzling, but fading embers that had scattered across the sky.
He rose to his wardrobe, dressed, took his umbrella off the doorknob and rushed through the portal. In the sallow glow of the lift, an exhaust fan blasting up above him, Sam’s phone struggled, muffled by the fabric of his suit trousers.
When Sam broke out of his apartment building at 5:48, the sky was still dark. The streetsides were being watched over by the interminably impatient clicks of the red and green men at road crossings. The street before the train station was still, save for the rattling cart of a hunchbacked old lady, trying to make the fruit market early enough to scavenge boxes. As for Sam, he gazed upwards into the soft glow of the city lights, looking for stars, even as the horizon began to melt into a lighter shade of grey.
He swallowed into a dry throat as he scanned the skies, and wondered then, just how foolish it was, how despite not ever seeing them in the morning, evening or night, that he still clung onto the thought that the stars glowed somewhere far above the city of Hong Kong. Foolish, but he held onto the thought nevertheless, and as he descended into the bowels of the city to board a train that would jettison him beneath both the earth and water; he felt the stars there, in his pocket, buzzing with cheers and congratulations.
Judges’ comment: The sounds of Hong Kong are fully evident in this description of life in the pressured urban environment. The author uses the ubiquitous mobile phone alert to insert dramatic pauses in the text before introducing new fragments and episodes to build up the story of the main character. It is a somewhat bleak world we read of – life in sub-divided apartments implicitly compared to prison cells, and each of them, to quote the writer’s memorably made-up adjective “uninteractive”.
The archive section in the university library was a rather magnificent place. Yes, you needed a pass to gain access to the section, but that’s what made it more mysterious. Recordings, papers, and clips of past research done by scholars and graduates alike, ranging from two centuries ago to the present, all together in one place. Hidden treasures waiting to be discovered.
As I glimpsed through the shelves, I found one compendium that completely fitted with the title of my project: Street Culture of Hong Kong. I glanced at the racks of information and discovered that one particular project was out of position, evidently placed there in a hurry. It was a cassette tape labelled ‘Street busking- Hong Kong’. Perfect. It was the same as my topic. I momentarily wondered if the tape was purposefully put there for any use, but finally decided that it was just a coincidence.
It was strange. There weren’t any tags or information on the cassette, only a piece of paper labeled ‘Street busking’. I found the ancient cassette player from my father’s storeroom, slotted the tape into the player and pressed ‘play’.
The raspy sound of the cassette resonated loudly. There was a lot of noise in the background, the imaginable sounds of traffic, cars honking, the combustion of bus engines, the irritating ticks of pedestrian lights.
The clatter continued for about a minute. I was just about to give up and switch the cassette player off when the voice finally sounded.
I am on Nathan Road, Mong Kok.
It was a mellow baritone. The kind of voice that you would hear on audiobooks or, perhaps, a song.
The road is in its own way; remarkable under the sunset. The chain of buses is a large screen, blocking the last rays of the sun bouncing off the glassy buildings. And amid the crescendo of chatter and chaos, a machine starts whirring, a beast arising from its slumber as the lights on commercial buildings diminish gradually, and eye-catching neon lights illuminate the night sky.
And if you are listening to this, you can just read it like a story. Or a history book. But I encourage you to walk the streets with me, and experience the lights and shadows of such a noteworthy street.
Acting upon the request from the mysterious tape, I immediately rushed to find the portable cassette player in the storeroom and packed my notebook. Such a generous teacher, giving me a tour of the street which my project was going to be based on.
The streets of Mong Kok were crowded as usual. It was almost sunset and white-collars were scrambling through the streets, hastening to get back home. As I made my way through the deep currents of Nathan Road, I pressed ‘play’ on the cassette player to continue listening to the spoken wonders of the streets through the voice of a stranger.
You know, Sai Yeung Choi Street south is a haven. A place for art, photography, performing arts, and blooming like wildflowers in ancient forests, the indisputable scent of music in the air.
And what is the nutrient that causes street art to flourish on this particular vessel among countless others in the commercialised district of Mong Kok? The crowd. Workers and citizens alike, longing for entertainment, the fuel powering the machine that extends across the whole street.
They had only cardboard boxes and a few musical instruments. Nothing else. But in a few years, the art had bloomed. Artists set up their homes, and it was their kingdom. A domain of creative art, in the heart of the commercial district of Mong Kok. It was paradise.
The recording went on and on, describing the prosperous performing business, but no, the street was paradise no more, for the government had closed the pedestrian zone. Some of the skeletons of previous stalls were still there, but no performing had taken place since then. Rivers of vehicles now flood the area, with the torrents of traffic among nearby streets.
Alas, I advanced into the street that was once heaven for the nation of street buskers in Hong Kong, to glimpse at the advertising stalls that were set up in lieu of the once blossoming representatives of street culture, to glance at the timeless ice cream cars with that forever soothing tune that has always been here for me, and the whole of Hong Kong children. To smell the fishy scent of the wet market that had always been so familiar, to listen to the rustle of brooms sweeping the floor and the clinking of china crockery from herbal tea shops.
Nonetheless, I tuned in the recording, and the surroundings before me, and tried to imagine the situation here a few years ago.
By sunset, the street is already blooming with business. Buskers had already set up their simple stalls and equipment, and have already started their performance.
I always listen to the buskers here; a sentiment I had come to keep after my busking career ended. A struggle against the dark society and government that despises us artists, a protest by supporting the art cultural business here in Mong Kok.
There is always a crowded stall here somewhere, although the bands and performers always differ. I walk to the largest stall, where they have bigger loudspeakers and a whole vocal band. There are even a small stage and a few wooden benches. I don’t usually listen to such ‘concerts’ but as you’re listening, I hope you’d have the opportunity to listen to such performances.
(I’m just fooling myself, thinking someone would ever listen. Haha.)
The music starts.
I hear music in the background, but I was not able to hear it clearly.
I stood at the spot where the popular band supposedly took place, a place carved out of curbs and some skeletons of a canvas booth, and tried to imagine the band, standing on this very spot, performing.
The song is raw, as if it was sung in pain. The soloist grasps the microphone tight and closes his eyes. The vocalists, the guitarists, the musicians – they all look at each other – their eyes are not observing the crowd, or the bustling streets and their distracting lights, not even looking at their own scores, but at each other. They feel the same thing, they know the same thing. Not only the lyrics, the chords, the ups and downs, but the sentiment. The emotions. And in this song, it was pain. The coarse voices whisper, cry out, then serenade the vocals, with enthusiasm, no, passion.
The audience – some, the less concentrated, less professional ones, cheer loudly, clapping wildly to the beat, not knowing that in reality they had caused disruption to the music, but the real ones, the preoccupied ones, who had brought foldable chairs to listen to the performance as if it was a formal concert, who had wholeheartedly respected the performers, were silent.
If you were one of them, the true, ardent listeners, you’d notice the shouts, the cheers, the claps, were shallow and unsettling. Because in the core, the elemental part of the music, is silence. The silence of appreciation. The silence of respect.
The man went on and on, narrating what he heard in different stalls. But what caught my attention was the audience. Because sometimes the appreciator was more important than the performer. Only a professional audience could mould a professional performer.
I imagine a young man, standing at the place where I am standing right now, looking at the performers, and speaking into a recorder. How absurd it would be, but such passion! Such enthusiasm for music, for performing arts, that made him record his appreciation, one that made him aspire to influence a stranger.
I was once a busker, in the days when my eyes were spotless and my soul was clean, when the fire in my heart was raging so furiously that I was yearning to perform. That was just a handful of years ago. But the city had aged me. The smoke of the city had extinguished the flame of passion, however small it was, and the reality of Hong Kong had smothered my wild dreams.
Back in secondary school, I had a group of friends who were into jazz. Every day we would play music, even write our own, and perform to our unsuspecting classmates. But we played not for them, we played for ourselves. We played for the euphoria that came with it, the love, the joy.
But our friendship did not stand. Among our quartet, two of us were forced by our parents to pursue careers like medicine and law, while one betrayed us and trod his money-oriented path. “There are no prospects along the road of an artist,” he said, “abandon your musician path and you’ll have a future ahead.”
I was defiant. Proving them wrong, I entered a music academy and majored in jazz. But it was not until my first performance that the problems came. My mentor, seeing the talent I showcased, advised me to play the fiddle instead of the guitar. “You must teach classical music, if you want to make your stand in the industry.” He advised me, for the deceiving realm of music in Hong Kong was also a commercialised and profit game, however beautiful the wrapping may have been.
When I completed my education, I tried to work as a jazz musician, in underground bars, parties, but most of them said they’d rather employ pianists. I tried as a busker, with a few dreaming fools…
I listened as he went on with his backstory, but that wasn’t as important. The most significant thing was that he stopped doing it. After years of dreaming and hard work, he stopped busking, and playing music, and continued with an ordinary job. That was society. The thoughts towards creative artists, which cannot be changed in a short time.
But his passion, his love for art, brought him on, however broken his journey in music was, and still continued as a listener, as a recorder, to influence more. To inspire more.
But sound. I heard him say. I stopped thinking, listening to his thoughtful words once more.
Sound is not just music, the blasts of rock you hear from street buskers’ stalls, or the shrill sopranos of Cantonese operas you hear in temporarily built scaffold theatres, or the timeless Cantopop in shops, on streets, even on stereos of bicycles and cars. Neither is it just noise, the never-ending chaos of traffic congestion, the clangour of worksites nearby, or the continuous and hoarse shouts of hawkers selling their goods on the pavement.
Because sound is more than music, more than noise. It is a connection, no matter how narrow it may be. Thin as a tiny thread, broad as a tree trunk. It binds. It attaches us to the wonders of the world, to each other. Through sound, we find passion. Emotion.
It makes us feel.
The rasping sound came out again, indicating that the recording had ended.
I stopped the recording and surveyed the surroundings beside me. Unconsciously, I had returned to Nathan road, the crowd already dispersing into smaller gangs of young people that roamed the streets at night.
Sound may be unheard music in a tumbled down cardboard stall where a passionate heart of a busker once resided. Or it may be a voice that guides me through the streets of a sunken Atlantis, in the depths of a vehicle sea, showing me the darkness and materialism of Hong Kong society in the clearest of ways.
Somewhere into the night, a koel bird screeched in the distance. A defiant pose against the nature surrounding it, an artist struggling helplessly ― but hopefully ― in the cultural desert of Hong Kong.
Judges’ comment: Longing for a different rhythm to life in Hong Kong, this short story caught our eyes for its musical cadence and its veiled criticism to some of the main values that characterise our city. But the passion of its young writers confirm that there is more to Hong Kong than its celebrated financial and economic expertise.
This is a very original piece, drawing on the controversy that was stirred over the closure of the pedestrian zone in Sai Yeung Choi Street South in Mong Kong, owing to noise complaints. The area had become a haven for street performers, and the author is able to bring out the passion of a busker who stood for artistic freedom. Told with a commendable linguistic flourish, the story becomes a philosophical reflection on the nature of music and sound in general, and its importance in our lives.
Moonlight poured over the place, and yet inside the shed it was pitch dark and eerily quiet. It was another full-moon night, and everyone had left. Inside the darkness of this deserted depot shone a flashlight, quietly and discreetly searching for its target, like a snake looking for its prey. Finally, the torch stayed focused on an object, in fulfilment that it had helped its master to find his target.
“Let’s go, baby,” a sound whispered. Tommy inserted a makeshift key to ignite the engine. The object jolted a bit, like waking up from a dull sleep. He pressed gently the alarm button.
“Ding, ding …”
The familiar sound rattled in the darkness and echoed in the ears of Tommy. He would now start his monthly ritual – a midnight ride.
Tommy had never thought that he liked trams so much when he was an adolescent. He was an introvert. If God created a mouth for men to speak and eat, you would have thought that in the case of Tommy, God might have forgotten to give half of the functions of the mouth to Tommy. He rarely spoke. Instead he liked to watch and observe. Also, unlike most of his classmates and work mates, he didn’t like to rush, and that was why he did not get along too well with people around him.
He lived in Shau Kei Wan and worked in Kennedy Town. He loved spending time on the slowest mode of transport over the fast paced Hong Kong Island – a journey that would take more than an hour, passing over 120 stops. Every morning, he would take the first tram, sitting in the front row seat. He liked to soak in the loneliness and quietness of that seat, absorbing the scene of the streets from the window. Every day, the streets were hectic as usual. Parents were hurrying with their children to school. Hawkers were shouting and yelling at the passersby. Taxis and minibuses were screeching and shrieking. Drivers were pressing their horns for no apparent reasons. But sitting in the tram seemed to be a totally different world to Tommy. Everything outside seemed to be taking place in a slow motion. There seemed to be more time and space to think, to observe, and to digest. And Tommy savoured that time and space.
The familiar voice seemed to stir Tommy a bit. During the day, he was a regular and loyal passenger of the tram company. But once in every month, he would be the midnight lone rider of the tram. He would slip into the depot in Shau Kei Wan. The security was rather lax. After all, there were not many valuables inside the shed worthy of a tight security. Throughout the years, Tommy had quietly and diligently observed how a tram driver operated a tram. He had learnt all the skills he needed to operate his pet.
Tonight as usual, he put on the “Not in Service. Return to Depot” sign in the tram, and drove it all the way along its familiar route. He expected that he would not be caught as usual. After all, the streets were very quiet after midnight, and he drove the tram rather smoothly and skilfully enough not to arouse any suspicion. Only this time, something unexpected was awaiting him.
Tommy was driving the Tramcar 171, also known as the “HKT Millennium” model. The Tramcar 171 was a powerful workhorse among its breed – the hydrogen fuel cells underneath provided a strong 24 volt electrical system to the cart. It can go up to 60 km per hour. Though at the daytime, it usually used only half of its speed. Tonight, Tommy would release the power of his pet restrained for too long. On its track, the tram saw zero obstruction ahead. Its master pulled the throttle at full speed. It roared and sped and didn’t forget to sound “ding, ding…” occasionally along its way.
Tommy was enjoying the night breeze and was approaching Tai Koo Shing station. He didn’t expect any passengers waiting for him, and so he had no intention to slow down. But suddenly, a shadow jumped out in front of the windscreen and waved frenetically.
“Stop! Stop! Please stop!”
Tommy pressed the brake hard enough to avoid hitting the man. He was in his mid-forties, wearing an expensive Italian suit not quite fit with the surrounding environment.
“Hey, man, can you take me to Kennedy Town? My car just broke down. There is no MTR, and I can’t catch a taxi,” he gasped.
“Ah… but…no, not in service,” Tommy stuttered.
“I know, returning to the depot, right? You are going to Kennedy Town, right? Come on, just give me a ride. It’s urgent. A matter of life and death. I will give a huge reward to you, okay? Wouldn’t cause inconvenience you. please. Just a short drive,” the man babbled at a speed that would shame Tramcar 171.
“Ah… okay, then,” Tommy did not want to argue and surely didn’t bother to explain that he was not a real tram driver.
The man hopped onto the tram, “David, my name. And yours? Can’t see your name plate.”
“I…ah, not a normal driver…No, I mean… I am not in the normal shift. No name plate. Tommy.”
“Okay, I see, Tommy. Nice meeting you. Thanks a lot,” David said, trying to shake hands with Tommy, but thought better of it, “I think I’d better not to disrupt you.”
No, please don’t. Tommy thought and tried to concentrate on manoeuvring the tram at its full speed.
After a while, as the tram was approaching Kennedy Town station, it was greeted by a sea of flashing red and blue lights. Sirens were rattling around the air.
What the …? Are they going to catch me? Tommy’s head was swirling and his heart was throbbing fast.
“Oh, they have arrived. How efficient? Hong Kong Police,” David uttered.
“What’s happened?” Tommy spluttered.
“Oh, you don’t know? They found a bomb in Kennedy Town station. I was called to help them.” David jabbered, “Ah, by the way, I am their bomb disposal expert. Not exactly a policeman. Some sort of consultant. Like Sherlock Holmes, I guess. Thanks for the ride, Tommy.”
David jumped out of the tram and rushed across the “Do Not Cross” police line and joined a group of policemen. Some of them were eyeing the tram and Tommy suspiciously.
Tommy wanted to turn the tram away, but the track ahead was blocked. Two officers were approaching the tram.
“Hey, pal, heard that you gave our expert a lift. Nicely done,” one of the officers spoke to Tommy, “Can I see your ID please?”
OMG, I am finished. Tommy thought.
Three months later.
“I noted that the accused hadn’t hurt anybody in this case and he did not cause any damage to the properties of the Tram Company. Besides, I have also noticed the petition letter from Dr. David Chan, who was given a ride by the accused at the night of his arrest so that Dr. Chan could arrive speedily at the scene where a bomb was found. Due to the behaviour of the accused, Dr. Chan was able to defuse a powerful and lethal bomb swiftly and timely so as to avoid a potential catastrophe that might have killed and injured thousands of people. Also considering that the accused has pleaded guilty to his act, I now sentence him to jail for two months.”
Tommy was then taken away by the court guards, while a man in Armani suit sitting in the bench waved at him.
Two months later.
Tommy walked out of the prison on a sunny day, and he didn’t expect to be greeted by him.
“Hey, nice to see you again in one piece,” David was blabbing as usual, “You look thinner, but okay. The hairstyle suits you. Let me take your bag. Not that I think it was heavy. But anyway.”
“Oh, thanks…” Tommy didn’t know how to respond.
“I said I’d have a reward for you. The petition letter didn’t count. Just a piece of cake for me. Much easier than toying with a bomb,” David continued, “I am not sure if you like it. But, if you like it, I want to hire you as my chauffeur. Not that I can give you a huge salary, but I guess it’s better than a tram driver.”
From that day, the midnight tram rider no longer appeared, and the midnight ding ding had become legendary.
Judges’ comment: I was enchanted with the inventiveness of this short story. It knows how to weave the possible and the impossible into a short fantasy of a parallel world of dream and desire while bringing to light a nocturnal Hong Kong which – who knows? – might or might not exist.
The Midnight Rider had the most comical concept of any of the final entries and featured one of the most commonly recognized sounds of Hong Kong – the “ding ding” of the trams on the Island. It is a fast-moving piece, in terms of the content and story development, with appropriate snappy dialogue to match. It was clearly fun to write and is good fun to read.