Fish

By Clara Chow

  Notebook Drawing, by Ira Joel Haber

Notebook Drawing, by Ira Joel Haber

At the train station, she dithered in front of the area directory, deciding where to go.

A name on the board: Gum Yu Gai. Goldfish Street.

(An adult taking her by the left hand, while she swung a plastic bag in her right; the bag swollen-bellied with a shot of oxygen from a rusted tank, a shiny orange fish bobbing in its miniature ocean. Complete and utter happiness, like sunshine in the gut.)

There. She wanted to go there again.

Following the signs to the right exit, she surfaced at ground level, spat out into the gray palette of a rainy day. The street-level crowd swallowed her again, buoying her along as she struggled to put up her umbrella – a turquoise-coloured fungi blooming in the gloom, its cheery colour at odds with the calculated monochrome of her designer wardrobe. It was a Wednesday, and she should be at her lectures, but Meiying wanted, for once, just to play tourist. Drizzle tapped her shoulder, shy droplets sliding down her leather jacket. She slammed her battered motorcycle boots into puddles, but stopped when she felt her socks getting wet from undiscovered holes in her soles.

People hurried by, brushing the hem of her polka-dotted dress with their plastic shopping bags. They moved in a cloud of Cantonese, from which a Filipino accent or a Thai lilt would occasionally spike like lightning, reminding Meiying of how Kowloon had changed – migrants to the Fragrant Harbour congregated north, away from the higher rents and posher calm of Hong Kong Island. She, on the other hand, avoided opening her mouth, for fear of giving herself away. Her poor Cantonese and relatively fluent Mandarin often led people to mistake her for a mainland Chinese day-tripper.

After heading in the wrong direction for a spell, and turning around, she found herself at the start of Goldfish Street, gazing at a tankful of turtles. The turtles climbed quietly, stoically over one another, in ever-failing bids to get away. The street was almost comic in its uniformity. Shop-front after shop-front holding aquariums of swimming fish. Wire-grid partitions stood beside each door. On these partitions hung neat rows of plastic bags, each holding some freshwater species. A single puffy-cheeked, ribbon-finned goldfish here; a handful of guppies or zebra fish there.

Balancing the stem of her umbrella between her cheek and collarbone, Meiying slid her cracked phone from her jacket pocket and began taking photos. She snapped one of a puppy wearing pajamas, sleeping in a cage, its little body inflating and deflating with each breath. Hesitating in front of a teeming population of terrapins, she wondered if she dared sneak one into her tiny apartment in Kennedy Town with the exorbitant rent, at the risk of incurring the wrath of her landlady. Company, even reptilian, would be nice. No, she finally decided. She would feel even lonelier if the creature died.

She had moved to Hong Kong two months ago – a homecoming, except it was not one. She had been a baby when she left. No memory of leaving, so how could she be returning?

The first week after she landed at Chek Lap Kok Airport, she had called her father in Canada because she was hungry.

“I don’t know how to order anything,” she had said. “It takes me forever to read the menu. I don’t know how to pronounce the dish names.”

“Why so useless?” he sighed. “Char siew fan[1] you also don’t know? Ngao lam meen[2]? Yu dan fan[3]?”

As he named each food, tiny charges of recognition detonated in her mind. Yes, of course, she knew them. Why, she had loved them on the previous trips they had taken back to see their relatives when she were a child. How quickly memories had solidified like calcite and become obscuring bedrock.

“Oh,” she said. Right, right. Wanton mee, tsui gao[4].

What she had really wanted to say to her father was: Can I come home now? Is this experiment over? But she said nothing, and, after a while, her father muttered something about long-distance calls being expensive, and hung up on her.

The rain was coming down harder now on Goldfish Street. Pedestrians squeezed their way along, to keep under the narrow awnings of the dirt-streaked concrete buildings. Men with cigarettes in their hands stooped to avoid the spokes of her umbrella, while lovers giggled and jostled past whenever she stopped, fascinated, to examine a plethora of individually packaged aquatic plants, or some pythons coiled on sand behind glass. Meiying pulled her scarf – cashmere, navy, with a pattern of sailboats – over her hair and walked on.

Winter in Hong Kong this year had been exceptionally mild. Temperatures hovered in the low-20s in the day. The usually-cutting wind that blew in from the harbour called truce and mercifully lowered its blades. Sure, the rain was an inconvenience, but the weather was unseasonably balmy. Meiying was used to snow in Vancouver in December, or to cool summer sunshine. Not for her, this paradoxical humid coolness that quickly became smoky, mingled with the breaths of thousands of others, as one pressed one’s way through the clogged arteries of the city. Not for the first time, among scores of Chinese faces that looked like hers, did she feel unbearably foreign.

She remembered a song that she would hear on the radio when she visited Hong Kong as a child: a Sam Hui number enumerating in rapid fire Cantonese all the things that he would do to distract himself from the impending Handover. Watch a mo lei tou comedy, hit the video game arcades in Mongkok, and then buy a trashy tabloid to read about beauty queens and their post-cosmetic-surgery triumphs. Meiying came to think of these as quintessentially local activities. Since arriving, she could not shake the feeling that she had to work her way through the list, accomplishing each item, in order to rewind time and prove herself a native once more.

China was now the future. Her father had become convinced of that. Never mind the exodus, pre-1997; the unfurling of umbrellas and Occupy Central movement, the political instability. It was time for the swallows to fly home, to rebuild their nests in the eaves of a new era. Like a general deploying his troops in a war game, a player scattering his chess pieces, her father believed in sending his children, one by one, to study in cities he deemed strategic. Her elder siblings had been dispatched earlier, like trade envoys. Meiying imagined her family as a kind of fast-fashion or mass-coffee outlet, opening outposts in a string of Asian cities: Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam.

And now Hong Kong.

Meiying suspected her parents were tired of being perceived as outsiders or, worse, second-class citizens in a Western country. All they did was move in a tiny, rarefied circle back home, haunting Chinatown after Chinatown, and following the same routine, taking the same trains to the same malls with the same expatriate Asian faces, day in and day out. Perhaps, they longed to slip back into the habits of their youth, navigate narrow streets they once knew well, and disappear effortlessly into the people mountain, people sea.

She enrolled at the University of Hong Kong, for a degree in business administration. Her father had opened the prospectus and nodded approvingly: the pictures of the campus in the privileged Pok Fu Lam area, nestling against auspicious hills, had gelled with his notions of old money. (Meiying’s mom had been more enamoured with the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, citing her favourite TVB actress Myolie Wu as a famous alumnus, but had been roundly ignored. Meiying favoured the young and up-and-coming CityU College of Business, but nobody asked her.) The plan was that Meiying would figure out the lay of the land, brush up her Cantonese, and find a job, paving the way for her family to return. To reclaim their stake on the pearl of the orient they once abandoned.

“We’ll join you in a few months,” her mother had promised when they saw her off at the airport. “After we sell the house and wrap up loose ends here.”

Meiying came. Meiying waited. Meiying always did as she was told. A tide of resentment rose in her like vomit.

We are all pulled by some kind of cosmic force thought Meiying, as she wandered along the street of pet fish purveyors. Palpable but inexplicable, it compels us to criss-cross the world in search of optimum climes. Like schools of fish flashing in the deep, abruptly switching directions, as some group-think informed them about the approach of predators.

The light was rapidly fading, winter prematurely bringing no dusk at 4.30pm. Meiying found herself standing in front of a giant tank of a tropical fish, gliding like steel sabres through brackish water in a shop with black walls and UV-light. “New arrival! Blood-red arowana from Indonesia!” blared a LED sign in front of the tank. She stared, hypnotised, as the arowana cleaved their way around the gelatinous space afforded them. Like spacecraft in a starry night.

Golden dragonfish. That’s what the Chinese called them. Many years ago, her father had bought one and installed it in their suburban home in Canada. Confined to its three metre by one metre tank, flanked by the bulky astronaut helmet shape of their old cathode-ray television and the clanking radiator, Goldie the arowana had nevertheless lorded over the living room. It prowled up and down in the water, a disdainful expression on its face, twitching the short antennae or whiskers near its mouth disapprovingly at Meiying as she watched the Sunday morning cartoons.

Her father fed Goldie a diet of tiny frogs, which he kept in an acrylic container. Come feeding time, he would use a net to grab a couple of the bumpy-skinned frogs and dump them unceremoniously into Goldie’s tank, where they would be gulped up immediately. Besides feeding it frogs, he scrubbed its tank out every week, carefully transferring it to a round red basin of water first.

Meiying had not thought she had any particular feelings for Goldie. If anything, she might have felt jealousy at the tender way her father treated it. Sibling rivalry. But when the fish died after a few years, she had been inconsolable. She had come home with her parents and elder brothers and sister to find the king of the living room belly up, red parasitic worms already writhing in its gills, abandoning their sinking ship. While the others had congregated with a mixture of disgust and awe around the tank, Meiying had sat down hard on the sofa – her legs and patent Mary Jane-shod feet sticking straight out in front of her – and burst into tears. Even she had been surprised by her own depth of feeling for a pet she never actually cuddled.

With hindsight, she could see that it was the way her family worked, too. They basically ignored one another, percolating in their separate domestic spheres, until somebody went away, and the others felt their absence like the loss of a limb. Or maybe she and her siblings were just silk-wrapped flies, suspended in a web gently worked by their parents – snug in their beige windbreakers and never venturing far from Tsui Hang Village or Dinesty Dumpling House, taking their morning exercise in Stanley Park – who knew all too well that old centres of power still existed, for all this millennial talk about out-sourcing, decentralisation, and digital warriors.

Much later, she would look up facts about the ancient freshwater fish on Wikipedia, and read that the Chinese believed that the arowana could shield its owner from death by dying itself. 逢凶化吉。Had Goldie taken a bullet for her? Increasingly, she specialised in morbid thoughts.

Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed a cluster of middle-aged men smoking a few steps away. One of them detached from the group and glided over on white Adidas sneakers to stand next to her. He was tall and tan, in a blue polo T-shirt and white bermudas. A black dragon tattoo on one bicep peeked out from under a sleeve.

Lang, leh?” he boasted in Cantonese. Pretty, right? Jerking his chin at the ghostly metallic fish, their scales flexing like the joints of armour.

She nodded, not trusting her words to come out correctly. The rusty syllables of her mother tongue remained in her throat, her unpractised mouth afraid to make the requisite shapes. His voice was baritone, warm in the cool glare of Kowloon’s ever-present neon and fluorescent lights which evened out day and night. She felt flush, hypnotised by the coarse nylon weave of his polo tee, the same brand her father wore. Ordinarily, she would stalk away. But something in the swishing movement of the arowana before her, their savage fluid grace, gripped her. Predators sometimes mesmerised their prey before devouring them. There was something ironic, perverse even, that the carnivorous, territorial arowana were now bait in this man’s attempt to reel her in.

“Listen,” he went on smoothly. “Would you like to come in to see some more fish? There are more of these blood-red dragons at the back of the shop.”

He gestured at the doorway, towards the dim interior of the shop, with the glowing tip of his cigarette. She nodded, then followed the back of his peacock blue shirt over the threshold. Inside, a few youth sat around a foldable mah-jong table, laying down poker cards on the green baize in silence. Plastic bags bloomed at their feet, containing empty beer cans. More giant tanks of arowana stood in an octagon, like a Taoist formation to ward off evil, around the room. The card-shark youths looked up briefly, bored, as the man led her over to a tank lit by UV light. The purple light traced the mosaic of raised ribs on the fish, giving them with an otherworldly outline. To and fro, they swam, canvassing the cuboid of liquid they were trapped in. Left to right. Restless.

Having gained this inner-sanctum, Meiying put her hands on the aquarium glass – as much to brace herself against the ruthless beauty of these unfathomable and unchanging creatures, as from a desire to leave her palm prints on its pristine surface. I was here, those prints would say. I matter.

“Do you want one?” asked the man beside her.

By way of answer, she laid her cheek on the cold glass and closed her eyes.

“How much?” she whispered.

If she opened her eyes now, she knew she would see the sci-fi-noir reflections of passers-by scurrying in the puddles outside, as headlights from dirty vans slashed at their bodies. A disagreement broke out among the card players behind her. Metal stools were scraped back and sent clattering to the floor, four legs in the air. Low, guttural notes sounded as accusations of cheating flew. Cold laughter expressed disdain.

The man in blue uttered an astronomical number that made her head spin. He picked up a lock of her hair and moved closer. Meiying held her breath and went still. She imagined a back room, a rickety single bed, the unwashed taste of him. She considered how far she would go, to deviate from her mapped-out existence.

The sound of glass smashing. Irritation crossed the man’s face, and he whipped his head back to yell at the minions to knock it off. Ignoring him, they began shoving one another. Tentative punches were thrown, and the fledgling fight tumbled outside. She pressed her ears to the aquarium glass and heard only the hum and bubbling of the water pump.

She felt an overwhelming urge to call her father. To ask him if he, too, remembered Goldie, the Golden Arowana that died; the one he used to feed all those little frogs to; the one destiny stabbed and gutted instead of her.

Somewhere, from far away, but drawing nearer, a police siren began blaring. Everything started happening at once. The brawlers, as though puppets yanked back comically on strings or automatons in reverse gear, piled back into the shop, searching for a back way out. In desperation, a fist closed over a hammer and swung it. A starburst was instantly carved on the aquarium next to the door. Distempered, the glass gave way and fish cascaded to the floor. Arowana slid to Meiying’s feet and flopped around furiously at her toes, gaping with indignation at being so swiftly evicted from their display case.

Policemen skidded into the shop. An officer’s lip curled in distaste as he stepped on one of the arowana, slowly asphyxiating in the air. He and his colleagues picked their way, bow-legged, over the fish, towards Meiying, who shrugged and pointed towards the back door, now open and rattling in the wind. The youths had already melted into the crowd on Prince Edward Road, leaving a trail of blood that mirrored the reddish hue of the fish. The cops gave chase, in no particular direction.

The man in blue, too, was nowhere to be seen. Left alone in the shop, surrounded by dying fish, Meiying struggled with her conscience. But not for long. As curious neighbours and busybodies began rubber-necking outside, she scooped up a plastic bag, floating in the ankle-deep water, and shook out its empty beer cans. Then, grasping the nearest arowana with both hands, she shoved it in the bag.

Fish had such short memories, she mused, as she retraced her steps towards the train station, the plastic bag dangling from her white-knuckled right hand. Two seconds, and they forget all about you. Two seconds, and you are totally new. Same watery prison, different fish. Refresh. Reinvent. Repeat.

The afternoon’s drizzle had turned into a downpour, but Meiying had lost her umbrella in the melee. Rain plastered her hair to her scalp and ran down her neck, soaking her dress, but she felt as sharp as a knife.

She stopped at a traffic light, flashing an inexplicable smile at a rain-coat-wearing schoolgirl, who ducked her head and plugged into her ear phones. Where, earlier, Meiying had felt out of synch with the masses that thronged Kowloon’s winding streets, she now felt conspiratorial, euphoric. Her heart buzzed in a strange way for several seconds, before she realised it was only her soaked phone in its death throes in her pocket. Tonight, she decided, she would call her father on her land line and tell him about things that swam in her head. About how much she loved him. About how she wanted to live her life.

She turned her face towards the crying heavens and suddenly felt extremely hungry. This city was ravenous. She thought about how the expensive ornamental fish would taste, fried in garlic and butter, when she got home. She thought about picking every morsel of flesh from its bony spine.

 

[1] “Roasted pork rice” in Cantonese

[2] “Beef brisket noodles”

[3] “Fishball noodles”

[4] Dumplings


Clara Chow is the author of the short-story collection, Dream Storeys (Ethos, 2016). She contributes to The Straits Times and South China Morning Post. A former writer-in-residence with South Korea's Toji Cultural Centre, she also received a merit award in TheatreWorks’ 24-Hour Playwriting Competition in 2016.

Ira Joel Haber was born and lives in Brooklyn. He is a sculptor, painter, writer, book dealer, photographer and teacher. He has received three National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships, two Pollock-Krasner grants, the Adolph Gottlieb Foundation grant and, in 2010, he received a grant from Artists' Fellowship Inc.