Hong Kong smog



Treasures From the Vault:

This story was originally published in the Summer 2008 issue of the Asia Literary Review.


Then the cool north wind blew. Meili stood on the top of Victoria Peak and looked across the bay to the distant mountains behind Kowloon. She imagined she could smell Hunan again – the kebab stalls spicing the night markets with cumin – hear the hiss of chillies in oil – and she held that thought for as long as she could before the impatient crowds pressed in on her again, yabbering and pulling and nagging for attention. She took in a deep breath, like a swimmer breaking the waves and called out, ‘Hong Kong skyline! Skyline paintings!’

     It was the kind of voice that used to call out ‘Candied crab-apples’, Wen Jun thought as he painted. He painted and she sold, that was how it worked. Wen Jun was Meili’s husband. The description still amused Meili. Husband. It still felt like putting grown-up adult words to a childish thing. She didn’t feel old enough to marry, or be married, but it had been necessary for her to get the resident permit.

     They’d been living in Changsha when they met. People said they looked alike, almost like brother and sister, so it was natural that they’d fall in love. He was finishing his doctorate in computer animation, showed her strange faces that could move and talk on screen. But when he wasn’t programming he talked about his past and the future. ‘I can’t do what I want here.’

     ‘What do you want to do?’ she asked.

     ‘I want to paint,’ he said.

     ‘You could paint me,’ she said, and he nodded and smiled but his smile was distant.

     ‘I want to paint foreign skies,’ he said that night, as he walked her home along a busy Changsha street. She turned to see his eyes, but his face was turned away from her, and she followed his gaze to the end of the road, as if it were a rainbow, with foreign skies at the end.

     That sentence stayed with her for a long time afterwards. I want to paint foreign skies. She decided that she liked him. Liked him enough to lean in and kiss him. She’d kissed other boys before, but that May holiday evening of 1998, sticky with early summer heat, she felt as if she was weightless, as if the world around them ceased to exist, and when they walked back home that night, leaning against his arm, she felt that she was in love. ‘Can I see you again?’ he’d asked, and she nodded and smiled and then stopped herself and hoped that she wasn’t appearing too keen.

     She’d never been in love before, she realised then. It was like being an ox, led by the nose. In the days that followed she clung to him like a shadow. They lived together for two years. She never told her parents. They didn’t understand the new world: its rules and slang and opinions. Their minds were as narrow as old village alleyways; her world was busy five-lane highways.




One dull Spring Festival morning, a year after they had moved in together, came the letter granting Wen Jun residency to Hong Kong. They danced round their living room, taking it in turns to re-read the letter. ‘Foreign skies!’ she toasted that lunch and they drank beer till their cheeks shone red and their world seemed to be full to the brim – and then he faltered and she worried that something was wrong.

     ‘Are you alright?’

     ‘Will you come with me?’ he said.

     ‘Of course,’ she said, not quite understanding.

     He smiled at her. ‘You’ll have to marry me,’ he said.

     ‘Oh,’ she said, flustered and surprised and a little disappointed that he hadn’t asked her properly. ‘OK.’ And so they agreed to it without really talking about it.

     The next day she picked up the phone. ‘I’m getting married,’ she told her mother. ‘His family name is Wen. His name is Jun. He is an artist and he is brilliant and we are going to live in Hong Kong.’ It all came out in a rush, which wasn’t how she had meant to say it, but she could see her mother there, despite the miles between them, crumpling like a tissue. Meili listened to the sobbing and rolled her eyes and said ‘Is father there?’

     Her father took the phone. ‘What is it?’

     ‘I’m getting married.’

     ‘Who to?’

     ‘My boyfriend,’ she said. Boyfriend was one of those new and modern words that he didn’t understand.

     ‘Is he a good man?’

     ‘He is, father. He is a very good man. He was born in the Year of the Ox so he will be hard-working. He has a doctorate. He is a hundred and sixty-five centimetres, and he is not so handsome, but very kind.’ It sounded silly trying to reduce Wen Jun to sentences, but her father seemed impressed.

     ‘Does he make you happy?’ her father asked, and the shift of emphasis threw her for a moment.

     ‘Yes. Of course!’ she said and his questions and his curiosity ended there. Like a dead end.


An earlier version of this story appeared in Fifty-Fifty – New Hong Kong Writing, edited by Xu Xi (Haven Books, Hong Kong, 2008).



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