1. Exodus in The Morning, Via Bus
He rises early every morning, brushes his teeth, checks his e-mail, and runs as quickly as he can to the nearest bus stop while towing what seems like a thousand bags around. But he’s never quite quick enough. It doesn’t matter how he times his schedule- anytime he gets down, there’s always a snaking line of people clamoring for the next bus and breathing in the exhaust.
When his bus arrives, the crowd surges in like a tide and towards the Octopus card reader. His turn comes after a chorus of beeps; the card reader cheerfully flashes what’s left in his payment card for a brief second before the next passenger shunts him further into the bus. The upper level of the bus is, of course, fully occupied- he doesn’t even know why he bothers looking anymore- and while his head is uncomfortably near the ceiling and the cool air blasting out of ceiling vents, he finds a surface to lean on anyway for the thirty minute trip into the center of the city, to where his school is.
He nods off five minutes into the trip, slumps onto the wall in ten, and wakes up when the bus start ejecting the first of the passengers like squeezing toothpaste from a tube. Eventually, it’s his turn and he follows the slow trickle of students into the blinding sun and the rolling dust of the roadside.
He stretches his stiff limbs, or as well as he could with two bags on each of his arms anyway, and saunters down the worn brick road to his school, following a steady stream of teenagers in the long march to their centers of education.
Another new day.
2. Fa Yuen Street
Why exactly did he let his older sister bully him into shopping for her again? Fa Yuen Street was near his school- a fifteen minute walk away- but Fa Yuen Street was a mixture of chipped cement, bartering housewives, crowding tourists, dripping air conditioners and he was extremely averse to such a recipe.
He is a corner away from the street when the guttural bellow of an old man advertises the benefits of a dishwasher to him. It’s the same voice that advertised one-wipe dishcloths, whatever that is, to him the week before, and he ignores it with the same gusto he had the last time while he tries to mingle into the milling clusters of heads. His height helps a little with the ordeal of weaving through jabbering housewives, sprawling little stalls and ducking into an outrageously pink accessory shop with an equally pink shop sign.
He feels awfully awkward standing in the presence of little groups of giggling schoolgirls, but when a cheerful sales girl in a smart purple uniform accosts him, he wishes he were standing alone.
“Can I help you with something?” she grins invitingly.
He runs a hand through his hair and frowns, embarrassed. Ah, to hell with it. “I’m looking for a Rilakkuma iPhone case,” he mutters, and flushes when the sales girl dropped her voice to a teasing drawl.
“Yes, sir. Is it for a girlfriend?” she adds, and hides her smirk behind a hand when he rolls his eyes in the most sarcastic way he can manage.
3. Exodus In The Evening, Via MTR
The mass on the MTR during the evening at the Kowloon Tong station is somehow even worse than the morning exodus near the bus stations. The jam of people begins before he gets past the payment gates, and even as he swipes his Octopus card on the card reader there’s already another old man jostling him and clicking his tongue for his turn.
It gets impossible to move freely once he’s past the gates, and being able to stick his head above the crowd helps with nothing. It gives him a bit of extra oxygen, sure, but with the way he’s being hemmed in by that multitude of bodies, he may as well be swimming in a compress of clothes and voices.
He somehow manages to avoid the gap between platform and train when he boards it- he wonders idly, some days, if he will slip through the masses and into the gap to a painful death while he is being herded into the car, but by then he will have to duck before he clips his forehead on the door frame. The next challenge will be finding something he could support himself on, but more often than not, he relies on the press of the bodies around him stay upright as the train sways alarmingly around bends.
It’s a rare event, but occasionally he manages to free his arm to check his watch. The hour hand, very often, will point to the number five.
He sighs. It’s lucky he didn’t get to the station half an hour later.
4. Chasing Skirts On Street Courts
He doesn’t remember which of his classmates persuaded him to get lunch at the kiosk near the basketball court two streets away from his school, but he’s positive that the classmate responsible is one of those making googly eyes at the girls from the neighboring school.
He chews on some siu mai and glances covertly from their bench at a pair of female students. They giggle, point, and hurry away to the kiosk. He tries the same method with a lone girl in the same uniform, a white short-sleeved shirt and light blue knee-length skirt, and winks. The girl catches his eye and throws him a poisonous glare.
“Alright, whose dumb idea was this?” he asks his classmates, both of which were slurping on soggy rice noodles.
They shrug, and point at him.
5. Grave Sweeping
Sometime around spring, his mother will bring him to the little paper and incense shop around his local market and hunt around the displays for the little paper effigies of cars, clothes and ten-million dollar notes. He remembers asking his mother, when he was five, what those paper things were for.
“It’s for your grandfather and grandmother up in heaven,” she answered, after a while. “They can use these for their home there once we send it to them.”
“But we don’t have dollar notes with that many zeroes behind the one in Hong Kong. Where can grandpa and grandma use those?” he pursued.
“The currency is different in heaven, Ah Wei.”
And then, when the right day came, his entire family- father, mother, his older sister Ling-yi, and himself, would take that long, long bus ride, out into what seemed like him to the middle of nowhere, what with its’ mists and mountains, and start climbing the many stone steps to his grandparents’ grave.
In the strictest sense, it wasn’t a grave- it was a place where his grandparents’ ashes were poured into an urn respectively and left there- but he had been taught to bow at the stern grey picture of his grandfather and gentler, but no less solemn grey picture of his grandmother on their section of the marble wall and pay his repsects anyway.
And pay their respects they did. His father would brush the smooth cool stone and pour new rice wine into the cracked red ceramic cups, his sister would replace the wilted flowers, and his mother would take him to the nearest furnace to burn the paper effigies so they could send them to heaven.
As he threw the dollar notes into the furnace and watched them blacken and burn away, he wonders if his grandfather was enjoying the Ferraris their family sent him each year.
6. The General Pains Of Shopping In Mongkok
The rest of Mongkok, he sometimes felt, was just an extension of Fa Yuen Street. Everywhere he turned, it all looked the same- tourists chattering in Putonghua or some other language he couldn’t discern, middle-aged women selling their wares, be it drinks or handbags, from mostly air-conditioned little shops, and the unmistakable flow of people going somewhere.
Oh, sure, it wasn’t quite as bad as Fa Yuen Street or the MTR when the evening came- but the mixture of exhaust and sweat wasn’t exactly appealing. When striding through the uneven cement streets and enjoying the occasional blast of cool air from some brand-name retail shop he can’t recognize, he’d much rather be back home in Sheungshui, where there were plenty more trees, much less exhaust and arguably less people in a square meter. At least he could stop walking and take a breather there.
But the amount of things selling there was phenomenal- even as he turned back into Sneakers Street, he catches fruit hawkers, newspaper stands, banks, a Giordano outlet, and an electrical appliances shop all next to each other. He could see why it was a tourist spot.
And Sneakers Street, of course, is his own personal favorite out of all the overcrowded streets in Mongkok- sneakers of all brands, prices and sizes, all conveniently available at one location which he could walk straight down.
As he stares at his dream pair of sneakers, though, he doesn’t need to tear through his wallet to know that he can’t afford it.
Who knows, maybe he can ask his mother about it. It always worked with his older sister when she wanted some new electrical appliance- why not try the formula himself?
Thus decided, he turned sadly away from the appealing pair of sneakers in the window.
7. Night Lights
It wasn’t always bad, of course, to take a stroll in Mongkok, or near it anyway, whatever insane reason he had for being there.
On his way home from school and to the Mong Kok East train station, he would pass a quiet little church, and from there he could see and hear the lights and noise of Mongkok a good distance away, provided he was late enough. They were impressive- it was as if a festival, like the ones he read about in those wushu novels, with all its bluster and cheer and red lanterns, had came to life just a few streets away.
From there, he sees, in blessed near silence, why Hong Kong was called the Pearl of the East.
He never fails to let himself be blown away.
Every other Thursday, his classmate, Ming, would drag him to the McDonald’s near the Mong Kok East Station and groan in faux-depression when he saw that there were no seats left. Then he would lug his shorter companion through the narrow passage between tables and to the little back corner, where there would be, six times out of ten, a table open- and if there were none, they would discuss how to get something for the two of them to eat with thirty-odd dollars between them. He himself was fine with a hamburger, small though it was, but Ming had a voracious and ever-changing appetite and they always ended up digging into other, previously hidden funds for more food.
Then, when they finally sat down, they would argue over who was supposed to go out and order the food. More often than not, he would win, and he would try to figure where his legs were supposed to go comfortably under the small table without kicking over anyone’s bags or ending up awkwardly twisted up.
He always had to settle for awkwardly twisted up- Ming was very quick with the queues outside and would be grinning expectantly at him while he set his heavy tray onto the plastic table. He would pay up whatever his hamburger of choice cost, and then they would finally dig in.
He doesn’t quite know what he was doing there, chewing on sometimes soggy fries with Ming under the warm yellow lighting while his friend sometimes teases him for his height, but by the time he’s reached anything near a conclusion, he would have to untangle his legs while Ming looks impatiently at his battered electric watch.
It becomes his turn to groan in depression when he sees the people at the paying gates.
9. Hong Kong Style Eggs Puffs
He swears by his newest pair of sneakers that it gets harder to find these treats anywhere, but when his forages into Sneakers Street brings him near a stall that sells those elusive egg puffs, he forks over a bill in his wallet for a batch of them.
When he was a child, he watched the stall owner pour the soft yellow batter onto the rectangular grill, licked his lips as it turned golden, and practically jumped at the brown paper bag as it was handed over to him with the prized egg puffs inside.
Now that he’s older and more in control of himself, he savors the sweet, soft puffs and the crispier edges around each puff with more grace. He likes to tear each puff out carefully- when he was young he chomped on the whole batch- to make the experience last longer as he walks to the nearest MTR station, but he always finishes them before he’s halfway there.
Next time, he always thinks, I’ll buy two batches.
10. Mid-autumn Festival
He’s never figured out why the commercials for mooncakes start when the start of the summer holidays come, right in the middle of July, because the festival itself was a few weeks after school begins in September- but he enjoys the mooncakes that his parents’ colleagues send them at any rate.
Every year, the number of snowy mooncakes looms ever more over the number of traditional mooncakes, the fact of which his sister is endlessly grateful for, but he himself can’t stomach the sugary artificial filling under the bland white crust. He prefers the traditional version- sweet golden-brown crust, lotus paste and salted egg yolk filling. It’s always a great task to divide the two egg yolks evenly between four sections, but he filches away the quarters with more egg yolk before his mother sees anything.
Then, on the day of the actual festival, they’ll take a picnic mat, a small cooler with soda and go down to the nearest park and watch the full moon. He doesn’t see how it’s fuller than any other full moon in the year, but he likes watching the children play with glow sticks and lanterns, so he sits quietly while his parents whip out their smartphones and start clicking.
His sister laughs at him for being unromantic and old-fashioned while she tells him of the story of the lady who flew to the moon on this day, so many years ago, but he chomps on his mooncake anyway as he watches the glow sticks flicker like multicolour fireflies between the trees.
11. Night Lights, Or Lack Thereof
The area around his school isn’t always bathed in lights. Sometimes, if he decides he wants a quicker way back, he’d go straight on instead of turning left when he leaves the street court near his school and head for the bus station.
It’s vastly different from when he heads for the bus station and when he heads for the Mong Kok East train station. The road to the train station grows quiet and then becomes saturated with lights and noise again, but the little paths to the bus station only grow darker and quieter.
The heat from his game or drills at the court dissipates; every drag of his feet along the gravel is louder; the shadows grow eerily long; he starts imagining footsteps behind him and glowing eyes in front of him, and clutching his sports bag or his basketball against him does nothing much to calm his overactive imagination.
He’s always grateful for the bright flare of the lights above him when he reaches his bus station.
12. Minibus Queues
It seems like the entire world is up in arms against him when he decides, once in a blue moon, to take the minibus instead of walking to the nearest train station. The line either extends endlessly like the bus line in the morning, or every other type of bus, car, taxi and even bicycle can come without so much as a hint of a minibus. More often than not it’s a mix of both, and he’s constantly reminded why he walks to the station instead of waiting for any sort of transportation.
So he waits as patiently as he can, and stares at the grey walls of the more posh apartments in Kowloon Tong. All sorts of people come to vie for a place in the line- students from his own school, little boys from the primary section of his school, girls from the neighbouring school, and old ladies towing their children as well as the kids’ bags.
The old ladies, more often than not, leap on the first minibus that comes along regardless of their place in line; the younger students flit back and forth from the nearby snack hawker and the line; and sometimes, someone he knows will ask if he fancies a taxi ride to the nearest train station.
It’s always far too late when this question gets asked, in his opinion, but he accepts nevertheless.
13. I Don't Speak Putonghua
He doesn’t know when it begins, but every so often, he sees someone from the mainland around his the area of his school. Sometimes they bluster past; sometimes they babble in quick Putonghua, and occasionally, they accost him and ask for directions in the same speedy dialect.
He gathers, sometimes, that they’re looking for some school or another. But his literary talent is painfully lacking. If Ming is with him, then he’ll explain nicely for him, but if he isn’t, he can only answer in jerky Putonghua that he doesn’t know while he hefts the slipping sports bag over his shoulder again.
It’s always very awkward- sometimes, the mainlander would hurry away without so much as a thank you; sometimes they would thank him politely for his time; and there was one who he was sure swore at him before stomping away.
Always very awkward.
14. Dragon Boat Festival
The festival equals to an extra day of holiday to him, but he enjoys lazing in the morning on the sofa and eating the rice dumplings that his mother makes by the ten.
He never really believed it, but the story behind the festival goes like so- an officer of the government threw himself into the river in protest against a tyrannical king. The people, loving the official and fearing that the fish will eat his corpse up, beat drums in boats and drew rice dumplings into the river in order to distract them.
I wonder how badly they polluted the river, he muses as he finishes the dumpling and goes on watching the dragon boat competitions.
15. Up And Away I Go
It’s not often that he pays a visit to the airport, though he likes the place- high arched white ceilings, glass everywhere, and lighted blue signs with a thousand directions on them as well as blatantly overpriced shops.
But this time, it’s his turn to fly somewhere else- to a boarding school in Akita, wherever that is in Japan, and his mother’s eyes are red as she tows some of his luggage for him to the conveyance belt. His sister wordlessly hands him his ticket as his mother goes through the procedures to send his luggage into storage, and gives him a pat on the back as Ming turns up, panting, with a box in his arms.
“Good luck, Ah Wei, dude,” he wheezes as he stuffs a pair of those sneakers he’s wanted for so long. “The guys raked up enough money for this,” he explained, practical even with a red face. “We asked your sis for your shoe size.”
He turns to his sister, surprised, who shrugs and pats his shoulder awkwardly. “For your sake,” she says, as she throws him his backpack, “I hope there’s a basketball team in that school you’re transferring to.”
“Yousen’s basketball team is very good,” his mother sniffed, dabbing at her eyes with a white tissue. “You take care of yourself, you hear?”
He nods repeatedly, shows his mother his ticket and his passport, and waves as his father herds him to the departure gate.
Yes, he smiles, even as his old life disappears behind green glass and he joins the many people heading to their planes, I hope there’s a good team in Yousen.