Degas figurines in watercolor. Blue lights, white lights, a dimness to the glare. Tony’s eyes glazed like the ice slashed by skates before him. You haven’t moved for hours, Chan. What’s so calming about the skating rink, that wasn’t even here four years ago? Did it remind you of the one you went to as a boy, the one where all the commissioners’ sons had their birthdays? The commissioner wives’ club rented it out and filled it with balloons. At that age, those skating parties were the fashion. They wheeled in a white and green cake in the shape of a football pitch and the size of a stretcher, the kids all stuffed their faces. Eventually a different ‘they’ tore it down and built this new one in the chintzy mall for the upward set. Were you sitting in the corner with your hands in your pockets, and that’s why you never got a slice of cake? You tried everything, feigning illness, hiding in the closet or what have you, but your mother knew how to goad you with dignity. She powdered her cheeks with rouge in the trophy-mirror brought from Shanghai. And the way she primed her hair for everyone but her husband. We’re better off, he says, his commissioner’s cap stout on his head in the memory; now it’s hanging on the wall, swapped for the downy judge’s robes. It was inevitable she’d go. What’s so comforting about the ice skating rink? A more puerile mind might mistake this for Oedipal angst, this memory of your mother daubing rouge on her cheeks in the mirror, when what you’re really thinking about is Leila Chau. But Leila wasn’t a whore. You can’t judge her for skipping out like that. The children shink and shhk in formless patterns. Moving in one direction, they carve their own paths along it. And look at you, Chan, watching them go round and round on the ice. Chan, Chan, Chan. Why couldn’t they just call you by your first name?
It was here, you’re remembering, that Leila bit into a cherry tomato, squirting the juice across her lips. What were you doing that night when she dragged you to the skating rink? The same thing that draws you here now. Tony sat lump-shouldered at the Western-style café, drawing up rice noodles from a laksa broth. Two identical bowls already cluttered the table, empty and stained with yellow—the evidences of his appetite. Classical music was piping through the speakers. Some peace, some kind of stay against the weightness, is what. A maybe ten-year-old girl in a pink tutu and a black sweatshirt with glittery animals on it prancing about and practicing toe-loops. Her coach, tailing her and confiding appraisals of her movements to a headpiece. Another—a teen, spinning like a dreidel in place on one skate. You hadn’t seen Leila in weeks. No one likes getting played, quit feeling sorry for yourself! But I’m not feeling sorry for myself. He cocked his head and examined the slippery noodles pinned between his two chopsticks, translucent and wet. A little steam was still coming off the third laksa and it obscured the blue lights that ringed the rink and the figures passing between them, between the steam and the lights. If you could fuck on a skating rink, would you do it? What? It’s a simple question. Don’t you have any fantasies? Yeah, only they don’t involve lying naked on a sheet of ice. Imagine it, with no one around! Just you and a total stranger, naked on a skating rink. You didn’t mention it was a stranger. I hardly know you, what am I supposed to call you? She bit too hard into a cherry tomato, it squirted everywhere. Ha ha! Errrrn. The buzzer signaled the zamboni was due to interrupt the memory. The teen slowly unwound from her spin. With the noodles hanging and gleaming just before his lips, Tony watched as the figures gradually disbanded and made for the ramps. The whole picture seemed so awfully slow and suspended, as though connected to a mobile. The teen’s cheeks were flushed bright red, her skin glowing diaphanous, nearly the same color as the ice. A giant celestial mobile, each person bound and threaded along it. What’s so comforting about the ice skating rink?
The offices of the Honourable Chan Wai Hung, set in a steely Wan Chai government building, appeared limned and blue with the sun’s slow steeling into evening. The waiting room was painted a languid cream color. ‘He’ll see you in a moment,’ said the new secretary. Different one from the last time and the time before that.
‘I’m his son.’
She inclined her head Tony’s way. ‘He’ll see you in a moment.’
Presently there was the sound of phone clapping receiver from behind the frosted glass door. A buzz at the secretary’s desk followed, a sound that Tony had come to identify as paternal. She got to her feet and opened the door. ‘You can go in.’
The room was wood-paneled and hung with framed Audubon prints of painted buntings and pelicans in sinewy dramatic poses.
‘The prodigal son’—the voice had seemingly become more distinguished with the years—‘returns for an audience.’ This without looking up from some purposeful scrawling of the pen.
‘Sir,’ Tony said, with a bow.
He took his time finishing the scrawling. The authoritative stab of a period signaled the end. He looked imperial in his robes. He refused to clip his nosehairs.
‘Tell us what’s on your mind, son.’ He stood and came around his massive desk to indicate one of the two guest chairs opposite it to Tony. He himself did not sit in the other, but went back to his own plush reclining chair behind the desk.
‘I was called up yesterday,’ Tony began.
Judge Chan was seized with a cough. Recovering, he said, ‘I try to help you out, son. I’ve sent word down. Don’t be so ungrateful. You have to help yourself, how do you think this works? This isn’t the circus.’
‘I’m not asking for anything here.’
‘You know what goes into good police work, Kau?’ It was Chan family idiom, his portmanteau of Ka + Yau. Invoking it to address his son produced a softening effect on his tone, something that might have been mistaken for endearment. ‘I’ll tell you. It’s half who you are. That’s the good news.’ He reached for the cigarillos he got on special order from the Dominican. ‘Lucky for you, you’re a Chan, and a Chan means dignity in this business, a Chan means respect.’ He stopped to take a good whiff. There was an especially unnaturally-posed loon foreshortened across his shoulder blade. ‘But that’s only the half of it. The rest is twenty percent ass-kissing, and twenty-five percent propriety.’
Tony said, ‘And the other five?’
He seemed annoyed as he tried to light the cigarillo. ‘Resourcefulness.’
‘You’re fifty-five percent there, then.’
Quiet in the room as the Zippo flared to life.
‘I got called up yesterday,’ Tony repeated.
His father looked at him. ‘I told them to throw you that bone. Did you make anything out of it?’
‘I’m here to say I want to.’
‘Want to what?’ He started puffing.
‘Have you heard anything about the deaths on Sai Kee Wan? There was two of them. A young woman and an older man.’
‘You think those play-cases get up to me? I got you set up in that precinct because the suits owed me a favor.’
‘Doing mailroom work.’ He found it hard not to sound ungrateful.
‘I even got you the title of Inspector. You think everyone gets that privilege?’
‘This case is a chance. I can manage it. But Fung told me to piss off.’
The Judge snorted. ‘That one. He’s doing what you should be doing. He’s climbing the ladder.’
‘I can’t climb anything if they keep me down there.’
‘Why don’t you get a better job, Kau? Get into law. That’s where your future is. Not in make-believe detective crap.’
‘I just thought you might know what the deal is with this case.’
He snorted again, the smoke was streaming around his lips. ‘I’m not on that side anymore.’ Tony didn’t know what to say. ‘Kau, Kau. I told you when you got into all this that you weren’t cut out for the job. This is your father speaking. Don’t I hold some authority here? It takes a certain kind of man to do that work. Why do you think I got out so quickly?’
Tony didn’t know what to say.
‘I got out because this is where the real money is.’ He pointed to the gavel poised gymnastically like a stuffed loon. ‘I played that game, I moved up. Anyone who’s got any sense gets out eventually. But you—’ he took a puff— ‘you insist on rolling around in it.’
‘Dad—sir—if they let me prove myself…’
‘Already told you. Don’t know anything about that junk. I can only pass on the word to those fools that you’re competent, that you’ve got the natural eye, that you’re a Chan, you’re a born cop. You have to help yourself. What else is there to say?’
Tony felt the blow. His father didn’t seem to notice the astringency of his words.
‘You’re right,’ he deferred. ‘It’s my problem, not yours.’
‘What you’re looking at here is the real game. This is where the real cases play out, where the real money comes through. You could get in on this, if you’d just listen to your father for once. If you just went back to school.’
‘This isn’t where I want to be.’ This wasn’t where he wanted to be.
‘This is white collar stuff. Stanley Ho level stuff. Industry crime. Not…what was it? Some turtles found dead in Shau Kei Wan.’
‘Sai Kee Wan.’
He stood up. His name shone dully on its placard. CHAN WAI HUNG – DISTRICT COURT APPEALS. ‘But what do I know?’
Tony stood up too. ‘I’m sure you’re busy, sir.’ He bowed. ‘I didn’t come to ask you favors.’
Judge Chan sat back down and returned to his work, the cigarillo seesawed on the ashtray. ‘You’re your own man. Do what’s necessary, and don’t complain along the way.’
He waited for a moment, but his father didn’t look back up. A day had passed in phantasmagoria since Leila Chau was found dead in coitus with another man. Tony decided to go back to the ice rink up in Kowloon. For some reason the cool light and the children skating in circles had a calming effect on him. He could walk down to Sham Shui Po for some noodles afterwards. Or he could eat a bowl or two of laksa there.
Rising from the city like giant extraterrestrial crucifi, the cranes arc against the waning afternoon light, punctuating the bruised-orange of buildings and perforated bamboo scaffolding. First it’s the wide berth over Tai Po Road, then into the constellated expanse below. One more pulley’s tug behind the hills like husked mountains, and the sun will surely breathe its last. But for now everything is bruised and orange: the filtered light, the cranes dormant and cruciform and Sauronically vigilant, the crawling ants of trucks. The light is not aqueous, ribbon-like, or green. The hand sweats against the handrail as this bus-window scene rattles into view. It is hot when this happens, when it happens to Xavier Levi-Chaban with his palm sweating onto the handrail he’s gripping as he sways back and forth before the bus’s stained window and the bruised-orange panorama opening over Kowloon.
The cranes are never visibly at work, is the thing—yet overnight the pulp of their labor pops up as if by some black industrial magic: new terraces here, reconstituted trusses there, superficially lustrous office space and residential lofts and any number of unholy combinations of grout, steel, gum, cement, glass, tile: propagating. Surveyors from on high, they watch over the city, seem to silently direct the tectonics below. Their work is so subtle you can hardly tell it’s happening. But within that expanse the city grows up, climbs on top of itself, scaffolds and de-scaffolds. Below, the people careen in double-decker buses, as Xavier. They spit onto sidewalks, they drag their feet. And the great patrolmen watch from above, their immense beamed shoulders unmoving in the smoggy light of afternoons and mornings.
Smoking in a city like Hong Kong is redundant at best. [Try telling that to the thought.] The ground seemed to vibrate as it embraced him, as he tumbled off the bus. All day long of Day Two of the All-Substance Cold Turkey the thought hasn’t stopped droning. It started as a plea, a sweet-like, unctuous plea. That was how it started on Day One. Come late afternoon, Day One, the plea audibly soured into a whine, then a shout, then a shriek. Come dinner time some pleasure nodes connected in some back-alley synaptic way to something roughly resembling thirst chimed in with their resounding demand for a drink, any drink, a whiskey or a brewski, are you listening, Xavier??!! Combine this with the abstinence from the dramamines, the addies, and the oxies, and he hadn’t caught more than a few fragments of sleep. No way totaling more than an hour’s worth, couldn’t have. Day Two has been a day of mostly droning with occasional punctuations of shrieks. It was a drone now, but it could at any time erupt into a full-on, incapacitating shriek. The thought had multiplied into a chorus of thoughts, as well—a chorus of shrieks. Coming at him from different angles in his head. Surround-sound, is the word. A surround-sound chorus of shrieks in his head. Like bringing a fridge to the North Pole to keep your beer cold, is how redundant smoking in a city like Hong Kong is. Are you listening, Xavier? Try telling that to the thought.
Xavier’s dragging down the street with his usual brusquerie, the massive headache notwithstanding, tearing past the idling Chinese and sucking back his big shallow breaths. It seems when he takes a breath he’s drawing it from a massive well and as soon as it goes in his lungs it disappears, and he has to draw again. Scaffolding everywhere. Latticed facades of bamboo. Workers move arachnoidish up the stalks bound and rigged together at retch-worthy heights to form an open-air sheath around the outside of the building. The building a heavy-beamed skeletal structure with the cakes of reinforced concrete exposed—either a condemned shell or a work in progress, it isn’t clear. A flier from the Safety Partnership Programme proclaims 9,475 worksite accidents in the last 3 years and is headlined with unsafe practices cause injury for life. Two deaths reported in the last month alone, another cautions. It’s true people are always falling from these scaffolds, but there are things to build, and people are needed to build them; the cranes can only watch and direct with their unblinking eyes; it’s strong men with stained lungs and chunky neck muscles that’re needed for this work.
The place crawls with people and their sweat, people and their kids, people and their trash. Sham Shui Po used to be one of those Triad haunts that Xavier got all engrossed with when he was way into Hong Kong cinema back in the day. He’s seen Infernal Affairs twelve times (with the addition of several truncated viewings that don’t really count as viewings, considering his degree of intoxication at the time) [though technically that one didn’t have much to do with Sham Shui Po]; he’s seen The Killer and he’s seen Hard Boiled. Xavier personally suspects the Triads have something to do with the pills he used to cop from the noodle shop on Pei Ho Guy. The price fell every time he went until it finally stabilized at a reliable $80HKD a bottle. Which Xavier took it as they’d slowly taken to confidence in him, first charging the outrageous foreigners’ price on suspicion he might be some kind of mole [what is this, a film?] but later, in all likelihood, realizing that he was just another addict like them and he was looking for his fix and he was streetwise enough to find a cheaper price than the ass-rape they’d been charging him, and thus adjusted prices accordingly. Thereafter it was all tobacco-stained smiles and outlandish thumps on the back whenever he came around, which was about as frequently as a shootout in a John Woo film. For all he knows, it still is a Triad haunt.
He passes Pei Ho Guy and wills away the thought to turn toward the noodle shop.
On every street in Sham Shui Po, the experiment of capitalism finds its greatest expression and its most faithful practitioners. Each street fanning gridwise from the cluster of consumerism that rings the MTR stop proffers items unique to that street and that block—items so specific, a sixteen-block sweep of the area reveals a kind of intelligent spontaneity to the way it’s all laid out, to the way the goods and services on hand tessellate around a network of interlocking industries all seemingly set in place in order to support the whole. On Jiu Loon Guy you pass the zipper fly distributors, a whole block of them, the street flanked left and right with little mom-and-pop zipper fly stores jockeying alongside more polished-looking ones with pendent signs that brandish bold Chinese characters. Maybe twelve or fourteen of these on this given block. Every one of them selling one thing: zipper flys. This ends at the end of the block on Jiu Loon Guy. Cross the street and you encounter the sixteen or eighteen iterations of belt buckle shops. Then Xavier passes the button manufacturers’ street; the brass and silver accessories street; the clasp-and-chain jewelries street. As the streets change, the fabric of the place takes on new shapes, molds to different pockets of industry. It isn’t a far mental or cartographic leap to the clothing streets, beginning with underwear, then bras, then second-hand wear, then Indian tailors chopping up suits behind half-slitted curtains, curlicues of cigarette smoke awaft. Xavier passes it all weaving among the straw-faced Cantonese stragglers and insouciant Pakistanis lounging on corners. And then of course people need to eat in addition to zipping their pants and linking their cuffs, so without much delay it’s the stovetops street; the grill parts street; the sinkworks street; the tiling wholesalers’ street; the industrial solvents street; the bathroom fixtures street… the glass importers’ district becomes the bulk fabric district, the bulk fabric district splinters into textile purveyors and dye specialists; carpeting businesses and upholstery stores; upholstery stores shimmy crabwise along an impromptu alley market of competing silk hawkers’ stalls; on the other side of the alley the upholstery stores give way to rod and wall-mounting stockists; a turn of the corner deposits you at the rhombus of eight or twelve indistinguishable hardware shops and their caddies of nails, nuts, screws, bolts, latches, hinges, handles, knobs, fixtures, wrenches, hammers, awls, pins, clasps, threads, waxes, sealants, primers, cigarettes, turpentines, varnishes, liniments, grouts, caulks, glues, puddies, plasters, cleansers, casings, laminates, cigarettes, polymers, resins, synthetics, disinfectants, bleaches, power tools, electrical tapes, extension cords, batteries, wires, hooks, bulbs, canisters, vaseline [?], cigarettes, paintbrushes, lubricants, motor oils, syphons, and now you’re in the paint district, the Chinese paints shipped in from Guangdong province stacked alongside the Dutch paints and the German paints with authoritative brand names, you’re digressing into the cadmium blues and dejected cream colors of public housing units, Xavier holds his breath as he ducks past a truck strapped with bamboo stalks, weaving through the dusky human tapestry of his neighborhood: straw-faced Cantonese, grab-bag Muslims, cell-phone-wheeling-and-dealing Africans, Pakistanis galore… not your homogenous Han stir-fry… he stops all of a sudden before a ruddy storefront on the corner. The big glass windows are glazed with a chalky film and all the lights are off. The highlighter-orange of the posterboard taped from the inside offers a bitter elegy for the thrift store that was. Xavier pauses at this landmark, the one he passes every day—now a failed monument to consumption. Inside, twelve or twenty pairs of eyes disperse gazes in unconsummated directions. Where once they stood all fashion-laden and akimbo, the manikins now sulk like lifeless shells: stripped, bald, and whitely plastic. In the gutted lightless room, their frames are all that remain. Then, before he can get too introspective, Xavier’s head reminds him it’s still there, a little parched, and if you could just fetch me something to sip on, if you don’t fucking mind.
The handsome wad of notes crinkles in his pocket as he tears up the stairs to his flat, nearly ramming down the door. The sun is just about sunken in the buildings now. His room is laid out as normal: blankets in a clump, his desk a wash of notebooks and glasses, the bookshelf a warped panel in the wall’s depression. Spread on his laptop lies the manila folder of Mr. Xifu. Xavier moves toward it, desperate for anything to take his mind off the shrieking. The sounds of power saws and heavy-duty drills belch outside. In twenty-four hours he managed to crank out a passable college admissions essay and hand it over to the torpid Indonesian who answered Mr. Fu Xi Man’s door. She looked at him corpse-like from the threshold and thrust a fatted hand toward him without a blink. There was nothing in those eyes, but Xavier felt fine splinters of something like judgment firing from them as he collected the cash from her palm. Xavier held them for several insufferable moments. A fussy voice came from back in the hall then. ‘Who is it???’ Something dead flashed in the maid’s eyes and Xavier turned and left. He had never met his Clients before, and he didn’t intend to start then.
What was that other deal he’d mentioned to him, Mr. Xifu? Something about some letters. He picks up the folder and collapses on the bed. Tosses aside the depressing transcripts of Fu Meina and some bleak highlights of her unremarkable life. She drove a car! Hey, she learned to drive! That was sure to be of interest to any university official, wasn’t it? Her family was from the Mainland! They were first-generation Hong Kongers! Their struggles as immigrants must have been trying! Her Daddy was on several important public works committees and he was the chairman of a major civic-industrial development board! How about that! She’d done ballet since the age of 5! Auditioned for several very important plays until she decided to focus on her schoolwork, which explains the sharp dip in theater accolades come secondary school! Runner-up at the Little Miss Guangdong Beauty Pageant, age of 9! Half Miao on her mother’s side! That’s a minority culture! Her Daddy made shit-tons of money in commercial real estate speculation and had turned his impoverished Jiangxi upbringing into a story all Chinese can appreciate, he’d made his ancestors proud!
Xavier was good—so good now, he could absorb all the details and weave them into a touching narrative with little difficulty along the way. It was formulaic, really. They all loved the success story, the story of willful self-determination. Xavier also knew how to work with what the Client gave him. He could bend the essay around some choice endearing lexicon without sounding obsequious to the dictates of admission-talk. The Miao culture is a rich heritage I take honour in claiming as my own, etc. In addition he knew how to plant less-than-stellar word choices like ‘take honour’ at opportune moments in the text and he knew how to craft the kind of dodgy, not quite right syntax that is the telltale sign of second-language writing—just in case the admissions officers got to thinking it didn’t sound authentic. He employed several go-to phrases. ‘Worldly perspective.’ ‘Critical thinking.’ ‘Committed learner.’ But you need a drink, Xavier. Don’t you think you can do with just one drink?
A couple neighborhoods away from here, Tony Yau Chan was kissing the dark-white breasts of Leila Yu Chau in the penalty box of an ice skating rink.
Xavier was convinced that no one ever helped themselves without the fortuity or charity of another’s misfortunes. There was no such thing as free will; self-betterment was a process of scaling others’ backs; no exercise of human labor existed that did not compromise the free will of someone else. A thought he immediately rejects as unanalogous and pseudo-philosophic occurs to him: that free will is like the transitive verbs he sometimes leaves hanging without their objects in his admissions papers, in order to make the sentence sound more second-language authentic. That is: every action required a receiver of the action. [That’s the worst metaphor I’ve ever heard, Xavier. Yeah, you’re probably right. Of course I’m right.] The thing about the no-free-will-in-a-vacuum argument is that it quickly degenerates into the most morbid fatalism, a philosophy which Xavier also despised, and which contributed to his spiritual schism with the Catholic faith. Because if God were really as omniscient as he’s made out to be—he reasoned with Dr. Levi on that same windswept porch in Eure—then why’d he bother creating the whole apple-and-tree in the first place, knowing we’d give in and eat the damn thing? Dr. Levi looked at him like he was talking to a heretic, his mustache bushy and sandy-colored. I mean, what kind of God gives you the choice to fuck up, when he knows perfectly well you’re gonna fuck up? Dr. Levi said, That’s why your mother didn’t want children.
He chucks the folder on the nightstand, missing half the nightstand. The papers maroon onto fledgling dust-bunnies. When the mall closed later that night, Leila showed Tony how you can climb behind the maintenance tower through the security door that was left unlocked by the security guards and enter from the back of the ice rink’s vinyl divider curtains. The ice rink was serene and otherworldly in the near-black shadowed with blue. It was extremely difficult to have sex on ice. The worst part was when an entire squadron of Kowloon Tong precinct officers pounced SWAT-like into the darkened arena with a dozen flashlights freezing them to the spot. Fish cried with laughter around the mahjong table back at the annex as he asked whether the inspectors’ exam included anything about silent alarms. Tony shivered under a blanket with his feet in a pail of warm water and he was sneezing but his penis was still warm and it felt good. Below Xavier’s second-floor window, three Pakistanis were passing an early-model i-Cloud around, fidgeting with the keys and holding it up to each other’s ears. It appeared to be in decent condition. ▶