A Promise Veronica Li
Dedicated to all the lost souls out there and the survivors of such a tragic time period in Hong Kong’s history. Disclaimer: The plot, characters, and events are purely fictional. Any coincidences are by chance.
1945, July I have come to realize that the most gripping question is not – no longer, at the very least -‐ ‘Are you Japanese or Chinese?’ but rather, ‘What if?’
What if the story had not twisted on itself?
What if I had the choice in changing my destiny?
What if it wasn’t supposed to turn out this way?
As I lie on the thin sheet covering the soft, lush mattress, my beady eyes
stare sullenly up at the spotless ceiling, imagining it to be cracked and chipped. It was too perfect for me; too pristine and proper. I press my body deeper into the mattress, hoping to feel some resistance, something stubborn. None comes. Heaving a sigh, I relax, and push the regret deeper in my gut. It sits there permanently, like a homeless man with no other place to be. It has been almost five years, I think – of course I don’t remember the feel of an unforgiving bed. Why should I? That feeling belongs in the deep recesses of my mind, where my memories stay under lock and key. It belongs with my previous life, that life in the country, picking up the manure of animals, tending to the younger and silly cousins while continually trying to avoid being caught red-‐handed in mischief. Such a disparity, when compared to the life I now lead! The kimono that wraps around me, the delicate shoes I dangle on my manicured toes, the headache-‐ inducing wig on my head: all testimonies of a life where the most I had to do was entertain guests. And yet those are the questions that plague me when I am most vulnerable: at night, when I am alone, with no companion save for the thoughts attempting to race to an unknown destination in my mind. Out of the corner of my eye, I catch the sight of a pair of fireflies traipse leisurely past the glass of my window. My stomach churns uncomfortably when I realize that even they have their other halves, joining the innumerable pairs of souls in the world who are no longer lonely wanderers. What is that quote that Tsumori once told me? Ah yes. Tsumori, with her shrewd eyes and thin lips, tsk-‐tsks me, saying with a grandeur air: everyone was born searching for their other half. Or, you know, something among those lines. I, on the other hand, was born with my other half, and somehow lost it on the journey of life…
I shift my weight on the bed, listening to the music of the creaks and
groans of bed springs, and shut my eyes. I squeeze them tight, as if the force of will could force my mind to shut itself in as well. Futility ought to be rewarded, I thought. The bravery and determination to continue with a failing feat sure exceeds those of a successful attempt.
Perhaps what pricks my heart the most, though, is not what happened –
not precisely. The hollow that throbs from time to time somewhere in the vicinity of my heart was created through the knowledge that this wasn’t supposed to have happened. There were larger plans to undertake, larger shoes to fill, larger dreams to realize.
I still hear her voice, sometimes. Soft, curious, crisp. “Meimei, what do you
want to do when you grow up?”
“I’m going to be one of those girls that sell toys at the market! They must
be the happiest people alive. All those toys to play with all day!” A wistful sigh escapes from my lips, gracing the corner of the bed covers I had pulled up to my nose.
Outwardly, a smile touches upon my sister’s face, but the sad lines
stretching from the corner of her eyes tell me something is wrong. I think nothing of it, though, and chew the bed covers experimentally. It tastes like gravel. While I frown down at the cloth, little do I realize that this is running through her mind:
You can do so much better than that. You should be able to see the lights
that shine like a million burning stars down in the city. You should be able to dress in fine silk that flows around your ankles. You should be able to come home from school everyday with a book-laden bag. I promise you that, and you know I’ve always kept my promises.
Today, five years after the day that broke my life into ragged pieces (and
some), I am angry, disappointed, confused, and hurt. Though mostly, I consider myself numb. I think: be careful what you wish for, because it will come back to haunt you.
Should I be proud that I was now considered Japanese, or should I despair
over my lost Chinese identity? Should I lament what my Japanese relatives did to
my kin, or should I be grateful I was not among those they tortured? I do not know, nor do I think I will ever find a definite answer to these questions. This is my story.
1941 – December 4th
A board is held about fifteen feet away and Uncle stuffs his hand over my
left eye, almost knocking me over in the motion. I blink at the black board, where a single Chinese character now sits, waiting for me to guess its identity. Or is it a shape? There are lines, sure, but everything is quite murky and blurry. I raise a hand to my eye to rub it a bit, but Uncle grabs it away almost immediately. “What do you see?”
“Um – uh –“
“You see, my brother, she needs glasses.”
Mother, bent over the chopping board, exchanges a meaningful glance
with Father. This is ridiculous, I read from the eye-‐rolls. To myself, I think, What are glasses? They sound ridiculous.
And hey, you didn’t even give me a chance to say anything!
My mouth opens instinctively to bite back a remark but a voice cuts
across mine. I barely manage to utter a syllable. A bubble of annoyance rises in my chest, and I tap my toes against the granite ground.
“No, she doesn’t,” Father insists, staring down at me with an assessing
gaze. I am jerked this way and that while he gives me a perfunctory once-‐over. “She’s perfectly fine. She can see when she does chores, she doesn’t mix up the wrong seeds for the farm. Granted, she’s tripped far more than I thought humanly possible in the last month, but that just means she’s clumsy. Honestly, when hasn’t she been stumbling over everything that doesn’t move?”
“Ya –“ I interject, but once again my voice is smothered.
“No, that means she needs to have her eyesight checked,” Uncle argues
vehemently, still gripping my shoulder. I wish he’d let go. It hurts. “Just let me bring her to get it checked this weekend. I told you my friend would do it for free, since I just saved his skin at work and he’s completely willing to pay me back for that favor.”
“I simply do not understand why she would need these strange
contraptions anyway – they are so cumbersome. Didn’t you tell us only people who read a lot need them?” Mother chimes in in the pause of chopping.
“Well,” Uncle begins, smiling – is that smugly? – at me. “She’s been doing
some late-‐night reading without the lights on. Haven’t you, Fish?”
Traitor. And how did he find out in the first place? Of course. He came into
my room to ‘clean’ that one time…
“I – I was reading letters!”
Groans erupt across the room, and I swear I hear a giggle in the room to
my left. Meili. I try not to hurl the nearest carrot at the door, but it is getting exponentially more difficult at every second. Mother, Father, and Uncle appear concerned and are talking in murmurs among themselves. I catch words like ‘money’ and ‘time’ and ‘how long’. Grown-‐up talk. “Private letters,” I add, but no one seems to be paying attention to me anymore. I hate this exclusion; why must my voice always go unnoticed? Am I not important? Deciding it was now clear for me to leave the scene (and that I would not be sorely missed), I dash off to the room, my skirt hooking onto the loose floorboard, which I tug free absent-‐mindedly with ease. I reach for the wooden doorknob and almost stumble head-‐first into the person standing behind the door. “Meimei,” my sister chimes and pulls me in from the doorway, completely ignoring my protests. “What are these letters you haven’t been telling me about? Remember, I know all your secrets, Fish, and I will use them for blackmail.” In the village, everyone who knew me (and that was everybody, unfortunately) called me Fish, in remembrance for the time I made fins for myself and took to the sea. To my horror and embarrassment, the paper fins had dissolved before I was even waist-‐deep in the water. I was left flailing my arms mid-‐ocean while someone had the smarts to haul me out of there before I could make a larger fool of myself. I had sulked with a scowl for weeks on end. Why hadn’t anyone told me that paper, no matter how many layers I had added, didn’t hold in water? But the damage was done -‐ the nickname stuck. Fish. What an ugly name. That was one year ago, when I was seven.
I am the youngest in a family of four: my sister, who I call Jiejie but
everyone else calls Meili, my father, and my mother. My sister is twelve, and her name literally means the pretty one. Often, I find myself simply staring up at her,
beautiful in a muted, quiet way, wondering if I would ever grow up like her – admired by all, hardworking, humble. She never complained whenever I blamed her for my mischief, merely rolling her eyes at me as she suffered through Mother’s reprimand. Once, she even took the blame for cracking Mother’s favorite pan – no need to say who was the true culprit, obviously – but since then, I have looked up to her as my role model. But if names were anything to go by, I was fated to be a fish. My family, like many others, lives in the New Territories of Hong Kong. Hong Kong is a lovely place, though the Japanese have been surrounding us for quite some time – they have been in the mainland for over eight years now. Every time they are mentioned, a look of despair and anxiety flashes across my mother’s face, though I’m not sure why. The adults refuse to let us know, but we have picked up snippets of information across our village – apparently there were soldiers around the borders, ready to charge at us and wipe us all out, or so the village gossip, Little Oat, insists. He really does have the largest mouth (and most sensitive ears) ever. They have been here for three years already, but little has happened – days still pass by like usual, and I do not recall any disturbances. The tension definitely exists, though, and I remember an emergency meeting I eavesdropped on that discussed what the evacuation procedure was if the Japanese troops moved from Canton to Hong Kong. There was hushed discussion over the cruel way they snatched young children and teenagers – the youngest was fifteen, I remember -‐ and forced them to join the Japanese army. “Utterly incorrigible,” my father had muttered. That was three years ago -‐ 1938. Since then, there are brief moments of fear and worry, but nothing ever really happens. The children – that is, we – have grown impatient. Where’s the excitement? It is almost somewhat morbid the way we wait for something, anything to happen, even if it may bring danger to everyone around us. True, I am still alive, but for how long, I wonder? Our tiny village, which our grandfather had helped establish, is embedded among the dirt roads and skinny trees that characterize that area. I often wonder where those dirt roads would take me – the farthest I ever went was to a village that took an afternoon’s walking time. My mother came with me, so she didn’t let me see anything interesting, only ushering me into some grandmother’s hut and
then talked about the weather for the rest of the time while I snoozed with my eyes open. Needless to say, the experience was incredibly dull. I do hope the rest of Hong Kong isn’t the same, though my Uncle laughs whenever I tell him that. He, unlike the rest of my family, has actually left the village for the city one or two times; he insists he is a professional, a word he picked up in the city. I’m not sure what he means, but I always listen to his stories, which tell of some large, black, loud monster that carry people from one place to another, painting the clouds ashen, as if it was about to thunder. Whenever he visits, he wears clean uniforms and insists on carrying a box with a handle, which I have never seen him open. It is curious, that. He tells of miraculous contraptions people put in front of their eyes to help them see better and strange signs that light up because of some weird gas (or something). Recently, he has also been bragging about all the English he has been learning – “okay!” is his catchphrase. He is certainly interesting! Only an hour’s walk away from the Tolo Harbor, the village we live in is known as The Jade. I must tell you, we are rather famous around there. Visitors come daily to trade with us – we would give them fish in exchange for some corn, or some rice, or, well, anything. Each area specialized in its own crop, and this inter-‐dependence ensured that we remain good neighbors with each other. It is a good and tried system, I’ll tell you that. We are connected with the rest of Hong Kong through roads worn down through years of trekking and, lately, people being pulled by other people in vehicles with two wheels. They look a lot like what my cow – her name is Cow – pulls in our farm. But with blankets on top. And seats. Uncle insists there are metal cages that carry people around with four wheels, but I doubt it. Who pulls those? Though my village never runs out of anything, we never have too much, either. There is a saying that my father told my family every night before dinner: those with good hearts will be rewarded. He says his own father lived by such a saying, and would often give away his extra food to neighbors in an emergency, or simply because he felt like it. My father admired him very much and tries his best to do the same, setting a good example for my sister and me. During the holidays like the Lunar New Year, he would give every extra scrap of food to the village as a whole, and the villagers would take him as an example, donating their
portion as well. The village is, as I said, exceptionally close and intimate. It is my extended family. “They’re just letters,” I grumble and yank my arm out of her vise-‐like grasp. “Just letters.” Meili’s eyebrow arch raises the silent question. Through the thin wooden door, I can hear my mom worriedly ask, “But is it safe? You know how I feel about travelling. Let alone travelling to the city!” I tune her out. “Fine,” I mutter. “They’re from a boy in the village.” “Oooooh,” my sister breathes, grinning a silly, dimpled smile when she notices the flush across my cheeks. “Shut up.” Miraculously, she does, but she still sits on the makeshift bed – it’s always been makeshift – looking immensely pleased. At twelve, she thinks she knows everything there is to know about the world, and it’s just so annoying. I glower at her and open my mouth to protest, but Father interrupts before I manage to say anything. “Fish! Come here!” I sigh, and shuffle off towards the direction of the living room once again. The adults appear to be waiting for me, sitting at the kitchen table in a row. The impulse to gulp arises in my throat. “You need glasses.” It is not a demand, it is not a question, but rather, it is a statement of truth. I appreciate it, because I don’t need to reply, which I have found is the best way to deal with grownups. The nod I make is barely perceptible. “Uncle will take you at the end of this week to Kowloon, where you will get glasses. These things,” Father explains, jutting a finger at two circles sitting on the bridge of Uncle’s nose. Uncle scowls. “You are to be careful with them and never let anyone else touch them, because we will not be able to get you another pair. You are also to be obedient to Uncle, and do whatever he says. You will return on Monday. Do I make myself clear?” “Yes,” I say, eyes cast downward in a filial manner.
“You must always let Uncle know where you are going. Remember that Hong Kong is not safe – the Japanese are surrounding us – so do not go poking your nose in places it should not be. Understand?” “Yes,” I repeat. “You may go now.” I dash off back to the room, where, again, Meili was waiting with a bright face. Leaning forward, her eyes shimmer with expectance as she awaits my reveal of the impending trip – much to my own regret, I simply cannot keep anything a secret when faced with her puppy dog eyes. It just isn’t fair. “I’m going to Kowloon to get glasses!” my voice raises to a loud squeak, joined by Meili’s piercing shriek of excitement. “Those things Uncle have?” “Yep!” “Meimei, you’ll be the talk of the whole village when you get back! Everyone will want to take turns looking through them. Oh, promise me that you’ll show them to me before you show them to the other village girls.” I smirk. “What if I don’t?” She lets out an indignant gasp before reaching forward to tackle me. I should have known better. Ever since she realized she was stronger than me, we have been solving disputes with bruises and (once) blood. Tugging at her hair, she retaliates with a good-‐natured bite on my arm. I wince in pain, and stop struggling against her. Tossing her hair back, she smiles down at me while I frown, trying hard to smother my laughter. “We’ll meet at our tree right when you get back, okay?” Grudgingly, I say, “Promise.” If only I didn’t take promises so seriously.
1941, December 8th , morning
There is a rumbling from somewhere in the vicinity, and I am almost
tempted to look up into the sky – Uncle’s told me about ‘airplanes’ before – but I know where the sound came from. “Uncle, I’m hungry.” For the fifth time since beginning our long trek at four in the morning, Uncle groans and trains a wary eye on me. I raise an eyebrow in return. He rolls his eyes, and I respond in kind with a nudge into his side (and a pair of puppy dog eyes I know he can’t resist). “We’re almost there, Fish,” he says, and true to his word, within five minutes, I am staring up at the single tallest building I have ever seen. Actually, make that a road of the tallest buildings I have ever seen. My jaw unhinges most unattractively, and the sound that passes my lips is breathy and light. “Welcome to Tsim Sha Tsui.” The street is packed with people, more people than I can imagine. There are foreigners – all those strange hats! – dressed in strange clothes that looked impossible to walk in. (What are those things the women carry? Surely they can’t put anything worthwhile in them.) My wide eyes watch as men – mainly Chinese, I gather – pull other people in canopied, two-‐wheeled structures. Ah, rickshaws, I learn, as someone calls out for one. I am jostled and almost whipped around the head as two men looking more like the farmers I knew walked past me, carrying a stick between them, from which boxes dangled precariously. There seemed to be an anxious undercurrent among those that I passed by – all straight faces, no smiles, and frowns, with legs that moved so fast I couldn’t even register what the people wore before they were gone. Something felt intuitively wrong, but at the same time, I am permeated with the undeniable sense of purpose and glamour that cannot be found back at The Jade. “Stop staring,” Uncle urged. He pulled me along, while I put up no resistance, too amazed at everything before me. “We have to get to the hotel and check in.” “Hotel?”
I could care less where we were going. Shielding my eyes from the glare of the morning sun, I estimate the height of the stiff, too-‐white buildings I am now walking past. They have got to be at least fifteen times taller than my house! There are Chinese characters written on each one, I notice, but they are too difficult for me to read. More interestingly, though, there was a line of another language beneath those Chinese titles on many buildings – probably English. Not that I could read anything besides my ABCs. I try my best to turn my head at all the smoke wafting into my face from the food stalls littered on the street, where people seemed to hurry the poor cooks so much I could spot the tears running down their faces. Or was that sweat? And the sounds – the pitter-‐patter of footsteps and the clanging of metal and oh, the voices – my brain was beginning to hurt – chootchoot! “Wah, what was that, Uncle?” “That was the sound of the train here. You remember what a train is, right?” “Um –” “Well, there’s a train in Tsim Sha Tsui that takes people from Hong Kong to the mainland. It’s made Hong Kong a lot more popular with the mainlanders!” “Oh. What’s a train again?” “Fish! I don’t have time for nonsense.” I avert my eyes from the scene developing on the street and push my legs to go faster, even though they groaned and strained in protest. The sweat layered across my palm loosened my grip on Uncle’s hand considerably, so I let go momentarily so I could wipe the sweat on my hands. I reach forward for his hand again – “The Japanese are here!” I will never forget the woman’s voice that shouted that sentence, nor the eerie, almost holy silence that followed for a heartbeat. Then: calamity. Screaming – crying – yelling – all the sounds that erupt around me pierce through the silence, almost as if it was the sound of a knife cutting through the tension coursing through the street. Vendors rush to pack up, not even caring when oranges and buns and noodles spill onto the dusty ground. Some people fall like puppets to the ground, but no one spares them a second glance: they are
treated as a second layer of the ground as others step onto their bodies in a frantic desire to escape. Rickshaws caught in the motion prove futile against the power of the mob – the wooden frame snaps under the pressure and weight of eight human beings piling on top of its frail body, making an audible craaack. The mob push and pull, desperate to get home, and I struggle to reach for my Uncle’s hand, which moves farther and farther from me with every second. “Fish!” My Uncle’s voice is muddled against the din. I push with every ounce of my body against the man in front of me, but to no avail. Three more people squeeze in between us, and Uncle’s face disappears for a second. “Uncle! Uncle!” I scream, watching him float away in the movement with the people with tears running down my face. “Uncle!” The only response I receive is the one I dread the most. I witness the whole process in slow-‐motion: the airplane flying above us, entering the scene from the left, stooping down low in the sky, letting a black object drop down, casting a larger and larger shadow on the crowd, which screams. Those who can duck into the narrow spaces between buildings or under stalls, but those who cannot flatten themselves on the ground and pray, pray that their lives will be spared. Those who managed to out-‐push the rest of the mob climb into their underground shelters, while others are unlucky enough to find that the closest shelter is full. Me? I run as fast as I can into a passageway I managed to push my way into, and I clamber into the closest shelter I can find: a trash can. Then the crash. Smoke. Screaming. Crying. Fire. Death. It’s over. The tears simply can’t stop. I do not know how long I have hid here – it is a remarkably fresh trash can, actually – and I do not know where Uncle is, and I
do not know what time it is, when I will ever get food or water again, if I will even survive. My ears prick up at any deep rumble overhead, and I pull myself together in a fetal position, mentally and physically preparing myself for the impact. It never comes, and I breathe a sigh of relief that seeps the energy out of my body. Until it happens again. That is the worst part of this experience: the uncertainty, and the omnipresent reminder that it can be me next time. That the next boom could take away the weak breath that sustains my life. That I could be the next addition to the long list of deaths the Japanese were probably keeping track of. Bile rises in my throat, and I stuff my fist in my mouth – pain, pain will help me forget. I can taste the blood flowing through the raw skin I gnawed through. I try not to think about Uncle. My fingers clench unwillingly when his crinkled, almost disapproving, but somehow gentle face flitters into my mind. Is he alive? What if – No. Fish, you can’t think like that. Mother’s voice interrupts the silence that I had forced upon my incessant, annoying inside voice. “Who are you?” Wait – I frown. Her voice isn’t quite so husky, she doesn’t have such a strange, foreign accent, nor would she ever ask such a ridiculous question. Is this the sound of Death? Oh no, I’m dead, and I hadn’t even married! “What are you doing in my trash can?” the voice whispers harshly, and then I feel two bony yet strong hands grip me under the arms, hauling me up out of the metal bin. My legs scrape against the uneven, unforgiving metal, but I do not react – I barely even acknowledge I am being (dare I think it?) saved. Those exact same hands pushed me into a door, and then I hear the door slam behind me. “Who are you? Are you a spy? Or are you here to kill us?” Standing before me was a woman dressed in a kimono, pressing the cold barrel of her gun into my chest.
1941, December 8th, Afternoon Blood pulses loudly through my mind, while my hands instinctively grip the hem of my drab cotton shirt. Breathe, I remind myself with increasing frequency. The skin pressed against the stiff gun feels hot, like I am being branded. Murky marble eyes bore into my watering ones. The woman’s hair has begun to fall out of the perfect arrangement, and a sliver of dry, black hair frames her face. Thick white paste has been spread over her skin, appearing almost unnaturally pale. Her lips are blood red, and I watch as her nostrils dilate once, twice. I open my mouth. My mouth is dry; I run a tongue over the bottom lip, then the top one. The thoughts running through my mind must have caused an audible buzz in the killer silence by now. The woman’s eyes narrow to slits. I can almost hear hissing, feel the bony scales. The gun digs into my chest, jerking me backward. Oh no oh no where’s Uncle what am I going to do – “Please,” I begin, my voice wavering and shaky, betraying me completely. What exactly am I pleading? “Tsumori, put that gun down.” His voice was quiet, but persistent -‐ gentle, but strong. No wonder people say first impressions count: they do. I felt a glimmer of hope that I would survive this ordeal, that I would not be killed at gunpoint. He walked into the room so silently, nothing had discerned his presence except the stirring dust. He was dressed from top to bottom in grey – dark grey, light grey, mourning grey, old-‐ man’s-‐hair grey. He was not, unlike the woman – Tsumori, I told myself – wearing a kimono, but instead had donned a formal-‐looking suit, one that I did not recognize. There was a curious badge on the shirt with writing I did not recognize, and a pencil was tucked in the pocket. I watched curiously as he pulled out a piece of paper and set it down on the table. Then, his soft eyes first fell on Tsumori, who glared back but eventually dropped her arm, and then on me. I knew the Japanese were cruel and I should not be interacting with them at all, but I also instinctively realized he was a good man with a pure heart. It reminded me of something Father had once told me: good hearts recognize each
other. There was an aura around him that I could tell was warm and harmless, and the lack of weapon-‐brandishing was enough for me to relax my guard (somewhat). “I thought you were at the General’s.” The man puts up a hand – later. Tsumori rolls her thickly lined eyes, tucks the gun back into the folds of her kimono, and slides up the stairs, disappearing behind the barrister as if nothing had happened. The man’s back remained pointed toward her the whole time. “Now, child,” he said once she was out of sight. He held me firmly by the shoulders, and I forced myself to look into his eyes. They were a deep brown. “Why don’t you tell me why you’re here.” It was not a question, but a command – a peaceful, kind one, but a command nonetheless. I pause, unsure what I should say, whether I should even speak. “You can trust me. I will let you go once you have answered this question.” “I was outside because I am hiding from the – the Japanese,” I finish quietly, my eyes once again averting to the floor. He does not say anything, so I struggle to fill the silence, which threatens to overwhelm me. “There are bombs.” “I know,” he responds. “Very well. Is that it?” “Yes, sir.” “You may go now.” He abruptly stands up straight, looming above me, waiting for me to move. I shuffle my legs uncomfortably against the worn-‐down wooden floor. Creaaak. The floor groans in protest as I clamber over to the door, swing the rectangle of peeling paint open to open fire and dangerous skies. “Thank you.” Over the threshold I go, and I don’t look back. It seems that the world has corroded into more smithereens since I made my small discursion and was, to put it lightly, almost killed. The trash can I had once hid in bore the signs of gunfire, and I saw a bloodied body at the opening to the alleyway. I couldn’t bear the sight as I ran past it; I ducked my head into my arms as I did so, too much of a coward. The rancid stench fills my nostril, and my
gag reflex kicks in – I just barely make it out of the alleyway without throwing up. Not that I had anything to throw up in the first place; I haven’t eaten since that morning, which feels more like an eon ago. The street resembles the backyard of my home: dusty, disgusting, as if a hurricane had run through the place. What was previously recognizable as food stalls now resemble metal toothpicks, arranged haphazardly on the chipped sidewalks. There was nothing to be heard except for the scurries of mice and the buzzes of mosquitoes and flies, hovering above the facedown bodies that littered the street, and though I tried to ignore them, the cries of people who had lost family and friends permeated my very soul. I walked slowly down the street, transfixed, terrified, and lonely – walking among the dead. My insides felt numb; I couldn’t feel anything. It was as if my emotions had decided to take a break. I didn’t want to face this – I just wanted to go home – I need to find Uncle -‐ “Ow!” I had tried to prevent my fall with my two hands, but the stumble was so sudden that I am taken completely aback. My palms feel slightly raw, and I try not to wince when I push them against the concrete again to right myself. Glancing down, I notice the fraying and a few tears (threatening to grow into large holes) at the knees of my pants. Not too bad; I could fix that damage in five seconds flat. I spare a glance at what I elegantly tripped over, and my heart leaps to my throat, bile rising from my stomach. No – it can’t be! My Uncle’s eerily unblinking eyes stared up at me, not seeing anything but sheer blackness. I took a staggering step back, my face frozen, my eyes brimming with tears, hands shaking. “No, no…” I shook my head vehemently, my ebony hair momentarily blocking out the view. I couldn’t bring myself to recognize the similarities between the Uncle who had watched me grow up since a child and the one lying motionless before me. The hands that had once grudgingly braided my hair upon request were now limp, lying lifeless next to his body. His glasses, which I had tried on more than once in the middle of the night just to see how they looked like, lay shattered and broken. The heart that had loved me like a daughter had stopped beating.
“How could they – how could they do this to him?” I breathed, my voice cracking halfway. The Japanese! I felt a surge of something strong, ugly, and dark crawl into the crevices of my trodden soul. Who did they think they were? I scanned the street through anger-‐tinted eyes: the deaths that cover every corner of the street represents broken families, hearts -‐ and the gaps that they had left in other people’s lives would take years of grief to mend. There is simply no other way to call the Japanese than murderers, stealers of lives. My eyes see red, a fiery red that floods my whole vision; I clench my fist together, swearing under my breath that I will get revenge. My parents have always said that any obedient daughter or son should avenge their foul deaths; as a tradition, I cannot let my parents down. I have a strong itch to break something, and I release the pent-‐up rage by kicking a pebble across the street, scuffing my heels against the rugged ground. It does nothing except leave my flesh ringing in my shoes. I move closer to Uncle’s body, and in a surge of emotion, I reach forward to close his eyelids as a final act of filial respect, wiping my eyes on my sleeves. Where am I supposed to go now? How do I go home? What am I supposed to do? Uncle had left me no address, and I cannot bear to search his pockets for his wallet – I simply cannot do it. I would have to face up to the fact – the fact that he is truly gone, not just asleep in a deep doze. I do not know how to walk home; the trek is a couple hours long and I do not trust myself not to get lost. Weariness seeps through my bones as I sit there, besides my Uncle, utterly hopeless, waiting for a miracle. Sounds of machinery and the faint scent of gunpowder erupt from a neighboring street, but I do not move, enjoying the echoing calm that washes over me, numbing me from pain. I sit there for a long time, thinking, wondering, thirsty. A wave of lethargy pulses through my body. My eyes close – I am too tired with this, with life, with everything. I just want to escape; I want to dive into darkness and let it engulf me… And I do, my mind shutting itself against the last image it sees: the sun glaring at me through the heavy haze of debris in the air.
1941, December 9th, Morning I wake up to the distant rumbling of jet planes and a few seconds later, a booming crash greets my ears. I jolt upright, my chest heaving and gasps wheezing through my mouth. Instead of the cold concrete scraping at my skin, however, a layer of wood lies beneath my thin, wiry body, sticking to my sheen layer of sweat. A soft blanket covers me, and now that I’ve sat up, lies pooled near my waist. I lift my arms, glance down at my knees: I am dressed in a kimono, but what looks like kimono pajamas. The restricted feeling near my waist and the heavy outfit’s weight on my body causes my movements to be sluggish, awkward. The humming of the fan hung on the ceiling causes me to glance upwards, taking in the wooden rafts and the strangely rectangular room. The room is sparsely decorated, with little to reveal about where I am, but I notice the lack of a proper bed and the table sitting next to me. A cup of liquid sits there, staring at me, tempting me. I lick my dried, cracked lips; I pause. No one will care, right? Why am I here anyway? I take a sip of what tastes like extremely bitter (and cold) tea and place it quietly back onto the wooden table. How long have I been here? Where am I? The door slides open out of nowhere, and I dive back under the covers, adjusting my breathing. I hear some muttering in a different language, and a cold hand brushes across my forehead, feeling clammy and wrinkly. I try to stop my eyes from flickering beneath my eyelids – “I know you’re awake.” Woops. My eyes open with panic; my eyes are dilated frantically, and I’m sure my hands are grasping desperately in the air. I find myself staring (yet again) into the eyes of the manic woman who had pointed a gun at my chest days (days, right? How long has it been?) ago. Screaming in horror, I try to squirm out from beneath the covers, but her pale hand grips my shoulder with a steel-‐like clamp. I struggle, but to no avail: Tsumori does not even blink an eye. I pull back as far as I can, attempting to place as much distance as I can between us.
“Where am I?” Her drawn eyebrows rise, as if she cannot fathom my stupidity. My cheeks burn, and I turn away from her. “In my house, of course.” What? Why would she ever take me in? “Wh-‐what am I doing here? You’re not going to kill me, right?” I ask, my voice quivering on the last note. She rolls her eyes, releasing her death grip on my shoulder, which had begun to feel numb. “Of course not,” she answers nonchalantly, picking up the cup on a tray I had not noticed when she entered the room. “Tadashi-‐san found you on the street, all pale and barely breathing. You were laying among the dead and the nonliving, he said. He took you in.” “But – but – you – he’s Japanese!” At the mention of the word, I am reminded of what happened, my Uncle, the street, and red-‐hot fury courses through my veins. “Why would you ever take in a Chinese girl like me? You hate us, and I hate you too! Your kind killed my Uncle, my innocent Uncle! Have you ever thought about the poor families broken up by your country’s –“ “I am not the one killing innocent Chinese,” Tsumori cuts in, her voice calm but icy, efficiently cutting across my words. She refuses to meet my stricken, angry gaze as she straightens and makes her way to the gaping door. “I have no say in what my country does, and I am not its pawn and slave. If you find my husband and me so deplorable – even after saving your life, might I add – you are free to leave, if you wish. We are not forcing you to stay.” “But did you know that –“ “The door is two left turns once you step into the hallway.” With that, the door shuts with a snap. Having stared at the street from the window in my room for half an hour, I can conclude a few things: a few days have passed since I travelled here, the amount of damage and suffering has skyrocketed, and the Japanese flag soars high in the air. Intimidating black metal vehicles slowly roam the crevices of what was once a buzzing hub of city life, carrying men that stand with rigid backs. Piles of decaying bodies are scattered on the sidewalk, where blood stains
of irregular patterns and magnitudes tell a brutal story. Soldiers carrying long, metal black machines on their shoulders, pass by the cadavers as if they were trash that had not yet been cleared away. More rubble than ever litters the street, forming piles and mountains, and I can clearly discern a gaping hole on the other side, where a building no doubt stood and overlooked Tsim Sha Tsui only days ago. Besides soldiers, there was no one who dared tiptoe onto what was clearly now Japanese ground. It is an eerily quiet morning. Tsumori’s words echo through my mind, as I close the window shutters and consider my options. Why had the man deigned to help me, dirty as scum in the eyes of the Japanese, the people he belonged to and worked for? Were they going to sell me off as a slave? Work me to the bone? Kill me? I could not trust them; at least, not yet. I could not forget the people they belong with, the line of blood that separates us. The recollection of standing at gunpoint was still fresh in my mind, and chills would erupt through my body when I remember that I could easily have been one of those who were lying on the street, breaths stilled forever. And my Uncle – one of them. At the same time, however, I have nowhere safe to return. The aching hollow in my chest for my family did not ease over time; on the other hand, it has only become more and more painful to deal with as time passed, as I had more chances to consider the impact my disappearance would have on my whole village. I do not know anyone here in the city, and Tsumori and Tadashi could only manage to find their ways around a two-‐mile radius. I did not know how to write my village’s name down, so asking strangers is clearly implausible (and dangerous)… “I see you are still here.” I spin around, heart leaping into my throat at the thought of Tsumori demanding me to scamper. To my surprise, I stand only two meters away from the mysterious man who had singlehandedly saved me from potential death a few days ago. Now dressed in a dust-‐laden pressed button-‐up grey shirt and unremarkable pants, he retains the same aura of calm and warmth that I had recognized earlier. He is not what I would call neat – there are threads missing from patches of his clothes, and spots of dust grace the knees of his pants. His hands, however, fall to the side of his body, comfortable and confident. Without
the blood pulsing through the veins in my eyes, I can see him much more vividly than before: I notice a gash near his right cheek, lending a war-‐weary and distinguished air to his look. His bleak black (and graying) hair matches the steady, hypnotic gaze he holds on me, and though his stance is relaxed, his back is as straight as a board, the result of many hours of discipline, no doubt. There is nothing particularly unique about his features: black hair, brown eyes, and an average nose and mouth, but something strikes me differently. He resembles a jaguar, peaceful at most times, but there is a streak of feral strength that cannot be ignored. What does he do for a living? I ponder this as a hint of a smile graces the corner of his lips. I found myself gravitating towards him, and I almost despise myself for it – he is Japanese, I remind myself resolutely. The wings of my eyebrows furrow in determination and I take a deep breath to steel myself for the encounter. “Are you here to kick me out?” A single eyebrow rises in response. “That is neither here nor there.” Frustrated, I try again with a different question. “Why did you save me?” Silence reigns for a few minutes, and I am about to open my mouth again when he cuts across me. “I think it is time to tell you a story. Please, sit down on the tatami.” He gestures towards the wooden planks I had slept in. I eye him warily before slowly making my way there, being sure to sit as far as I could from him. I am only willing to trust him to a certain extent. He smiles warmly at me, unaware or oblivious to the brewing quell of uneasiness inside me. Bringing my gaze up to his eyes, I realize they are steady, without an ounce of hesitation at all. He is willing to open himself to me, I realize with some surprise. I wait expectantly for him to begin, and after a moment of deep thought, with his brows furrowed and eyes darkening, he tells me this: “The Japanese have been terrorizing the Chinese for a long while already – ever since the late 1800’s, probably, when the two came head-‐to-‐head in the First Sino-‐Japanese war. Both sides were trying to control Korea. Japan won; China had been cripplingly weak due to the Opium Wars with the British and French and its ineffective government, while Japan had been furiously reforming
and modernizing themselves, clearly at an advantage. That was one of the first cases of friction between the two neighboring countries. Then came World War I, which I’m sure your parents have told you about – you’re shaking your head. No? Well, it wasn’t pretty, I’ll tell you that.” He shakes his head, the bitter emotions creeping into his voice uncontrollably as he continues the story with more gusto. His hands slice the air and he offers me his most serious stare. “Japan was on the side of the Allies, and though, yes, China was too later on, Japan still set demands on China – which China no doubt felt bitter about. These demands made up the Twenty-‐One Demands, which expanded Japan’s presence and control in China. The Chinese did not like that one bit, and rebelled through the May Fourth Movement.” At that, I nod – the village still discusses it once in a while, even though it took place in Beijing. It was a moment of pride, from what I had been able to infer. A sudden shift of Chinese values from the more traditional ones to modern, Western thinking was a good thing, they thought. Every time Mother brought it up at the dinner table, Father would sit up straighter, and drink more than was really necessary. “I was younger back then, and it was during this time that I was at school in Japan when I met a boy. His name was Ming. He was Chinese, but had grown up in Japan. What a deadly combination. He did not hide from it, however: the first thing he told me was this snippet of him. I was pulled in by his vivacity, the way he walked through life like it was a chess game – fun, not too serious, but every action had a consequence that you had to have considered, or the rug would be pulled from underneath you, leaving you facedown in gritty dirt and direction-‐less. I, on the other hand, was incurably shy to the point where I faded into the background. No one noticed me, and it was unlikely that anyone remembered me at all. School was a decidedly painful experience, and picking myself off the floor and out of the house was a fight to the death every morning. Strangely enough, he approached me one day, one hand deep in his pocket, the other one thrust in front of me. ‘Hi.’ Such bluntness, simplicity; I liked that about him. We grew close, gravitating towards each other without considering what would become of our unlikely friendship. My parents,
liberal as they were, didn’t mind that I was spending so much of my time around someone who was mixed. Others did, though. I still remember that day: Autumn of 1913. Windy. The cold was biting through my skin. Ming and I were leaving the school, laughing about some stupid joke, probably, when I heard the deep, gravelly voice of the Mayor’s son. A bigger idiot I haven’t had the fortune of meeting. And by ‘bigger’, I also mean in the literal sense. He was large – larger than life, some would say. With his booming voice and the baseball bat he carried around at all times, I was surprised I hadn’t noticed him following us. I usually took the utmost precaution in avoiding him – he was a bully, and worse still, no one could do anything about him. Teachers would pointedly ignore his antics in class, and some would go as far as to praise him on his less-‐than-‐mediocre achievements. Those who didn’t were terminated, without fail. The Mayor was a dictator, and a mean one. His son took after him, with the same bigotry and arrogance that left me wondering how on Earth his father was voted in office. No one liked him, but he didn’t care. He believed he was going to be the dictator of Japan one day, and no one would stop him. Unfortunately, the son also took after his father’s extreme racial prejudice. It all happened quickly, not like the scenes in books that take around seven pages before anything actually happens. He was taunting us, and then whipped around on Ming, said something derogatory and hurtful. It was all a blur – all action, all confusion. I remember a flash of something, like the sunlight reflecting across metal, and then there was a yell of pain. I had been trying to separate the pair, so I was relieved when the scuffling stopped, but when I glanced back across my shoulder… I saw him lying on the ground, writhing in pain, shuddering and moaning. My blood ran cold. I carried him all the way to the hospital, which was a couple of blocks away. My clothes were soaked through with blood and sweat, and I ran as hard as I could, but when I got there, the doctors told me – I’ll never forget – ‘he’s dead.’” Head bowed, Teacher Tadashi stops speaking, and I can hear his breath slowing from the rasping gasps to more even, natural breathing. With his
hunched shoulders, he looks so young and pitiful; I can not help but feel a pang of guilt and sorrow for the boy who had lost his best friend. Still, however, I do not say anything. I sit on my hands to prevent them from betraying my feelings. “That is why I saved you – to stop you from becoming another victim of oppression and idiotic racial bigotry. That is not, however, why I kept you, which I’m sure you’re just about to ask. I can see it from the way you’re sitting. I’m good at reading people, so don’t try to bluff to me. I can tell. “Precisely one year ago, my wife was pregnant with a child – it was her life and joy, reveling in the glow of life. She was excited for every aspect of the experience, bearing the pain with a wonderful smile on her face. She went shopping everyday for baby clothes, musing over possible names and nicknames, exploring the joy of motherhood. I still remember taking a photo of her with the largest smile I have ever seen, smiling as if there was nowhere else she’d rather be, nothing in life that wasn’t going well for her. Then –“ His voice breaks. Tears twinkle near the corners of his eyes. He struggles to regain composure, taking a deep breath before continuing. “Then – she just lost it. Miscarriage. In her fourth month – it was so unexpected and terrible that she broke down, completely and utterly. She refused to eat for days, didn’t want to move out beyond her bedroom for a month, and the tears pouring from her eyes simply didn’t stop. She couldn’t bear to burn the clothes she had bought already, but she couldn’t put it away either, so she spent her days moping away, wasting away. It was like walking in a funeral home, where the only company I had was an unresponsive skeleton that was decaying before my eyes. “The doctor diagnosed her with depression, treated her. There was a time when she refused any help, preferring to climb back into the darkness that threatened to envelop her whole – but after a while, I managed to get her to see the light at the end of the tunnel. She is currently taking her medication; I don’t know whether she’s fully recovered or whether there is still a remnant of that monster in the recesses of her heart, but I would much rather not trigger such a response ever again – I can’t risk it.”
As I digest this dump of information upon my shoulders, Tsumori’s voice slits through the door. I jump. My face burns, as if I had been a thief caught red-‐ handed mid-‐crime. “Teacher Matsumoto is here to call upon you, Tadashi-‐san.” A flicker of fear flashes across his face, and he eyes me cautiously, as if measuring me up. His face sets into hard lines, and I feel as if he is boring holes into my face. My body flames in his assessment; I feel transparent. Can he hear my pulse? Feel my fear of everything he – his country could do to me and my family? Sense the knot in my heart, which cannot decide whether to trust him or run for my life? See through the calm façade into my distrust of everything he represents? His voice lowers as he whispers, “Now see here. I have already done you a great service by saving you and sustaining your life at the risk of mine. In return, you must stay in the house, in our family on the pretense that you are our surrogate daughter, helping Tsumori recover fully from the physical and emotional pain. You will care for her. In return, you will receive shelter and safety for as long as you require. At the end of this time period, you will be able to return to your family.” My eyes widen in anxiety and surprise. Is that a… threat? I can hear footsteps nearing our room. A sequence of images flashes across my eyes: the Teacher’s intent gaze, Tsumori’s snarl, Uncle’s skewed and broken glasses, Mei Li leaning forward to pinky swear with me, the worried calls as I began my journey away from home, the thundering of jets zooming above me in the sky. I see the Japanese flag rising on the flagpole. I bow my head in obedience, sealing my fate forever more.
1941, December 9th, Later in the Morning Teacher Matsumoto is, if anything, the archetype of Tadashi. As I sit silently in the corner of the room while the two men speak in rapid Japanese with the occasional bout of laughter – most likely Matsumoto’s – I try my best to gauge his character. The moment he had stepped over the threshold of the room, I had averted my eyes from him, because it was clear from his booming voice and absolute certainty in the thud-thud of his walk that he believed he was always correct. His receding hair betrays his true age, however, when his animated, jerky hand movements and the energetic bounce within him do not. I notice his habit of slapping the table for emphasis in his speech, effectively calling Tadashi to attention more than once. The quick, reflexive way he speaks leaves no filter in his thoughts or words, and more than once, I notice Tadashi wince, though Matsumoto did not notice, barreling on in his speech with even more vigor. Matsumoto had been interested in my presence when he first saw me, but after a few punctuated sentences, he turns away – Tadashi’s stern gaze at me when he answers Matsumoto’s questions told me to remain quiet and maintain the appearance of a quiet, unobtrusive daughter. I didn’t need him to say it twice; being quiet and obedient is ingrained into my very being. It didn’t take long for their conversation to end. Tadashi was half-‐ heartedly participating and responding, and after a while, Matsumoto lost the momentum to carry on a single-‐sided discussion and they both lapsed into reflective silence. I keep my head bowed, only glancing up once in a while to observe the situation and whet my curiosity. Moments later, to my reluctance, Tadashi waves at me, mouthing for more tea, and I shuffle over, uncomfortable at being watched at such close proximity and afraid of committing a social faux pas. It didn’t matter that I had poured tea over a million times and could probably do it with my eyes closed and one hand tied behind my back; I had never done so in the presence of someone I barely knew, and in a culture whose customs I was illiterate in. Gritting my teeth together, I let the sleeves of the kimono fall as low as they could and hook my fingers around the tiny teapot, slowly pouring out tea while keeping my eyes downcast.
At the last moment, however, I mistakenly glance up at the two men – or rather, Teacher Matsumoto specifically. My eyes catch the surprise that lights up in his, and I turn away immediately, as if a hurricane had whipped in my direction, rubbing my face raw. The thick, hairy caterpillars that frame his muddy eyes had lifted to unforeseen heights. The moment, from the perspective of an innocent bystander, could not have taken more than a few milliseconds, if that, but it felt like a minute to me. Teacher Tadashi’s reprimanding look told me enough; I’ve made a mistake. Servant girls are not supposed to look directly in the eyes of their masters and those of higher standing, especially when performing acts such as pouring tea; this held true in some circles of Chinese culture, too. Great. Now I’ve caught his attention. I begin to make my retreat into my safe corner when something solid clasps onto my wrist, shocking me into knocking into the wooden table. I wince, knowing a giant black-‐blue-‐and-‐purple bruise will be there when I check on it later. The hand that grasps my arm is connected to a tangible arm, and then to… Matsumoto. I dare not breathe. His eyes had taken on a feral look, with creases around his forehead and nostrils flared. I pray – oh, how hard I prayed that he would not ask a question. While he leans closer, I try to inch backwards, but he only strengthens his grip. He murmurs something low and fierce (in Japanese) into my left ear, his foul breath tickling my skin. I shiver. It is only later that Tadashi explains to me that he had said, “Don’t ever do that again, filthy servant girl. You remind me of the Chinese trash who was begging me to save their lives – unaware of where you are as far as social status goes.” Clueless as to what had just been said to me, I pluck my arm out of his grasp and flee to the corner, feeling his hot gaze on my back. I do not make so much as a peep until the visit is over and I had bowed deeply, mimicking Tadashi’s moves. As I right myself, I find the room once again occupied by the two of us – I gulp. Tadashi turns to me, notes my silence and wide eyes, and pats the seat Matsumoto had sat in only seconds previously. It was still sickly warm. I squirmed in my seat, hoping I could forget the memory of him. “You realize, of course, that you must keep up this ruse now. Matsumoto will have told the entire teaching population by nightfall, and word will spread to
the officials that I have an ‘incompetent’ servant by tomorrow.” He smiles, a genuine one where the corners of his eyes lift, letting me know that he did not think me at all incompetent. Suddenly, the smile falls. “And I should probably tell you what he said to you.” He repeats Matsumoto’s words, and the boiling hot anger in my heart rises rapidly. The hatred for the Chinese, the class prejudice, the bigotry – so many things were despicable in his words I could not focus on one thing at a time. Instead, I resort to simply letting out an indignant gasp and making rapid hand gestures. “Yes, yes, I know. He is one of the most arrogant and classist people I know, but unfortunately, he is also the head, or master, of the Japanese teachers here in Hong Kong. He is in charge of the education of the Japanese language, and I am but an understudy of his. He is behind the Japanese occupation (for I am sure that is what this – this attack – will result in) completely. We are in dangerous waters, and we must tread carefully.” I nod, my chest still heaving from breathing too heavily. “Thus, starting tomorrow, we must teach you the Japanese culture, or else you will be discovered for who you truly are, endangering not only you, but me, my family, and yours as well. Do you understand?” Again, I nod, murmuring a defeated and reluctant ‘yes’. I do not want to touch Japanese culture with a yard-‐long pole, but alas, I had no choice. It was not mine to make. “Tomorrow, then, you will begin studying the Japanese language. I expect you to work hard. Till then.” He stands up, brushing off his pants. “But what if the Japanese fail? What if Hong Kong stays strong?” I blurt before I can stop myself. Tadashi does not say anything, but rather gives me a long, hard, pitying look and exits the room. The sliding door glides shut with a snap. I let my shoulders droop and my head fall into my hands. The sinking feeling in my stomach is too much to ignore when it was complemented with complete, utter loneliness. I will a tear to drop and slide down my cheeks, but none come. I sigh instead.
Did I make a stupid decision in the haste of finding safety? I do not know.
1941, December 28th Hong Kong has fallen, reads the first Japanese headline that lies on the table. A second paper on top of that blazes the words Japanese victorious! Accompanied is a simple picture of the Japanese leader – General Rensuke Isogai -‐ whose name and face Tadashi and Tsumori had forced me to memorize immediately. The papers were old, dating from the 25th of December. Illiterate as I am in Japanese, Tadashi read it aloud to me, putting a voice to the events that would haunt the lives of everyone living in Hong Kong for decades to come. The ‘severe’ losses of the Japanese army at Wong Ngai Chung – nearing 600 – were not put into perspective by the lives stolen by the Japanese jets that had bombed Admiralty. No one mentioned the deaths of one thousand, five hundred and fifty-‐ five or the casualties of another thousand three hundred in Hong Kong’s line of defense, and civilians were tossed aside without a single thought. Tadashi told of how, on the 24th, the Japanese army wiped out the remaining defenses in North Point. From the image plastered across the page, the bullet holes in the small stone hut that housed the final line of defense were innumerable; holes of large and small were carved into the skeleton of the barely-‐there shelter. I could almost picture the soldiers, knowing they were about to die, with flustered faces and beads of sweat chasing down the sides of their cheeks. He read about the quick surrender of Hong Kong by Sir Mark Young, the Governor, a day later, describing the haughty steps of the Japanese army as they rode into the city on horses, heads held high, suits pressed and caps stuffed atop their heads. They had officially entered Hong Kong. On the second day of the occupation, the Japanese military had not wasted time in establishing their commanding post at the Peninsula Hotel across the harbor. The five departments (politics, civilian, economy, judiciary, and navy) were lead by the General, and they swiftly decided to capture former members of the Hong Kong government to emphasize their power and status. The Hong Kong Police became a pawn under the Japanese, subjected to their tyranny and abuse. I flip the newspapers over, finding the regular arrangement of text – albeit in a language I was having enormous difficult with – much more soothing. Of course, if I had known that it was writing about the scenes of destruction that
had occurred across the Victoria Harbor, I would not be quite so calm. As it so happened, I do not, and thus sit at the table with my legs bent under me, beginning to lose all feeling in my toes. A tingling sensation crawls down my leg, and I shake it vehemently, dispelling it only momentarily. It returns within seconds. Grumbling, I shift my weight onto my other leg. How do people sit like this all the time? I try not to think too much of the titles of the newspapers’ headlines; they had already robbed me of a few nights’ sleep. The shadows under the hollows of my eyes are impressive, if I must say so. The first night after Hong Kong fell (Christmas Day – I will never forget that) was dismal; I twisted and turned in my bed, wondering what Meili was doing right now, and whether (heaven forbid!) Mother and Father were alive and well. More than that, however, I wonder when this will all be over, when I could return home. I squeeze my eyes shut, picturing their smiling faces after I entangle myself in a prank, shaking their heads at my insolence. Their voices drift in and out of my mind, telling me to be strong and be safe. They say, Fish, you will come home one day. I begin counting my days: today is the first official day of misery. The only trouble is I do not how long I will be counting for – whether I’d even stop counting at all. The pair of Japanese newspapers seems to mock me as I struggle for the fifteenth time today to memorize the Japanese alphabet. All squiggles and nonsense! I slam the maobi down on the table, causing a splatter of unforgiving black ink to stain the wooden table permanently, but I can’t care less. With bundled energy inside me that threatened to burst out of me at any moment, I am restless and irritated that my life is being spent uselessly, that the most productive thing I had done so far was water the plants in the miniscule garden. I still wake up every morning at the crack of dawn, wanting to change into messy clothes so I could pick up some ingredients at the local market and help Mother make breakfast. I miss the different twangs of scents that would hit me as I strode through different parts of the village on my morning walk. The sounds of children squabbling over some old board game mingled with the mature chatter of grandmothers created a warm environment that brought a delighted smile to my face everyday.
Here, though, I wake up to nothing, and I have nowhere to go. I have not left the house for two weeks, and my skin misses the warmth of the sun. My brain feels numb, as if it has been demanded to do more than it can possibly process. I stand up, stretching my arms and legs, and then traipse to the sliding door. Tsumori would be angry beyond comprehension that I have not completed my studies – we were running through the vowels again -‐ but I had had enough. I need a break. Peeking around the banister, I make sure Tsumori is not just around the corner and step tentatively out into the corridor, stealthily placing my foot on a stable area with no cracks. A slow creeeeeeaaaaak escapes from the boards underneath my feet. I wince. I had forgotten how old the building is – everything is either half-‐broken or completely broken, as far as I can tell. There were cracks in the walls, chipped paint, and more often than not the doors would get stuck whenever anyone attempts to open or close them (which is why almost all doors are neither open or closed, just hanging somewhere in the middle). Thankfully I had covered my feet with socks, muffling my heavy footsteps. Tiptoeing around the corner, I press an ear to the door of the room next to mine. Though the doors are framed with wood, the area within the frame is mostly covered with a special type of paper, which I had discovered a few days earlier when I accidentally poked my maobi into the paper. After trying to stick the paper back together using different materials, including my own saliva, I gave up. Thankfully the hole was small and no one has noticed yet. To my surprise, Tsumori is speaking to someone in Chinese. She rarely does so, though her Chinese accent is almost perfect. She even refuses to speak to me in Chinese -‐ every morning, she insists on explaining my breakfast in Japanese. I barely listen, only nodding once in a while to acknowledge that she is still talking and to placate her when she asks if I understand (“Wakari masu ka?” “Wakari masu.”) As if I would ever need to know, or want to know, what pickled cucumbers were called in Japanese! “Thank you for bringing in this cloth. I have been wanting to buy some silk for quite some time.”
Silk? My eyes widen at the mention of that luxury. Mother had once told me that she would trade a limb for an item made with silk, and Father had scolded her for being fantastical. Mother had not lost that wondering, yearning gaze, however. I itch to go in and run my hand across it and see what it was for myself. And how did Tsumori manage to get so much money to buy silk? “You’re very welcome. I hope you like the pattern – Master followed your instructions on the dyeing process so you will no doubt find it of excellent quality.” The voice that responded is deeper, but reminds me more of the village boys I had played with and grown up with. A pang of regret and sorrow fills my heart. “I do indeed. Would he mind if I ordered another batch of the same pattern but with warmer colors?” “Of course not! I will let him know and he will personally contact you when you have made a decision on what specific colors you desire.” “That sounds perfect. Let me find my purse.” I bounce back from the door. Tsumori’s shadow, however, does not come near, but I decide that I have heard enough, and instead clamor on by, past her room. Skipping down the stairs two steps at a time, I make sure Tadashi is not at home (his working hours are highly irregular, and I had found out no more about his work than the fact that he taught Japanese at a school in Kowloon – reluctantly, I observed) and poke my nose in the kitchen. All clear. Grinning, I speed towards the door and fling it open, feeling the wind blow through my hair for the first time in days. I take a deep breath of fresh air, feeling it seep through my lungs and replenish the energy in my body. I smile in spite of myself – Hong Kong is in a dire state, but the day is too beautiful for me to dwell too long on such a fact. Though much of the street remains doused in layers of dust, the beauty of the remaining buildings still peek from under the blemishes. To my surprise, hundreds of Hong Kong civilians, like me, crowd the street. I almost smile when I realize it looks quite a bit like the village marketplace every morning, but something is wrong – people are screaming at each other, shards of glass are
lying on the ground next to a giant hole in a shop’s window, and people are piling into the shop one after another, like worker ants on a mission. The few that manage to come back out of the hole return with hands full of food. “Why are you doing this?” I hear a voice wail above others, desperately clinging to some morals. “Because we aren’t going to die here, like this!” Someone shouts over the din. I remain hidden somewhat in the shadows, with my hands over my eyes, watching the scene develop from between the gaps of my fingers. I had not expected to come out and see the desperation to live in everyone’s eyes, nor had I expected to witness complete anarchy in the street. There are no soldiers around to mitigate the crowd or damage, physical or economical, but that may have been for the better – they would not have done anything, preferring to stand in the corner and watch mothers fight for a single loaf of bread, lips curled in a cruel smirk. They would whip the children who were dying of thirst and had approached them as their last effort. I turn away, my bangs falling into my eyes. My desire to escape the confinements of Tadashi’s house had evaporated and dissolved as quickly as water baking under the sun vanishes. I do not want to see a face that I could recognize, and then see them sneer in hatred at me, the few fortunate ones whose stomach did not growl in hunger. “I can’t believe you still have the guts to walk around here.” Whipping around, I find myself face-‐to-‐face with a woman – wait, it is a woman, isn’t it? She is dressed in absolute rags, even at my lousy standard, dirt stains splattered across the beige cloth, and I am almost positive the one on her pants are from feces (hopefully not human feces). An overwhelming stench greets my nose; I sniff, disgustingly curious, and almost cough up a storm. Her skin seems to be layered in grit that must have taken weeks to accumulate. Somewhat impressed, somewhat horrified, and mostly scared, I take a step back, wondering what the hell she is talking about. Should I tell her I understand every single word she is saying? It would fully betray my Japanese alibi and potentially come back in a full circle – what goes around comes around, as they say. Instead, I keep quiet, merely staring at her as she advances slowly towards me, a fox
stalking its prey. I shake my head meekly, not quite knowing what I am saying no to. “We have to dress ourselves like this to prevent ourselves from getting raped by the vile Japanese army. Even nurses – nurses aren’t free from their morbid touch! Every minute is soaked in terror, as one by one your closest friends fall victim, some of whom have even attempted suicide. Every cousin, sister-‐in-‐law, and even mothers – yes, mothers – you know are frightened for their lives, not daring to put a step outside their houses. They live like a crab, hiding in their shell unless absolutely necessary. Some women are starving to death, others are depressed. And you? You walk out here dressed to the nines, wearing a kimono all covered in pink patterns, looking at us like we’re barbarians. You’re not even scared! Why would you be, when you’ve got food and water and shelter that no one will raid? When you’ve got a status that suddenly puts you above us? Well -‐ I would say I’m sorry but I’m really not – it’s time you Japanese learn a lesson – that we’re not people you mess with and get away with –“ She leaps towards me, bearing her teeth like a tiger would, but with angry tears brimming in her eyes. I bounce back in terror, glad my reflexes have been honed since childhood. Scurrying against the wall of a building as quickly as I could, I almost trip over pebbles scattered on the ground. The kimono makes running physically impossible and my shoes are inflexible, so I kick them off in the effort of placing as much distance as I could between us. The woman, probably due to the fatigue that accompanied an empty stomach, soon dropped pursuit and I sprint towards the door of Tadashi’s house, flinging it open and collapsing against it as soon as I slammed it shut. Half-‐bent and wheezing, I sink onto the floor in astonishment. When had anyone ever glared at me with such pure, unfiltered hate and anger in their eyes? People hate me – they hate what I represent, what I hadn’t chosen to represent. Hell, if I had not entangled myself on the wrong side of this, I would hate myself, too.
1942, April 28th Five months. I cannot believe I have pulled off this façade for five months, tripping and colliding my way into survival. Every day feels like a bittersweet blessing: I am alive, thank the heavens, but I constantly live with the insecurity of not knowing where my true family is and how they fare under Japanese rule. Compounded atop that emotional burden is the fear that permeates my daily routine, the fear of being discovered. After the traumatizing incident with the Chinese woman in December, I have severely limited my trips outside of the house, relying instead on the Japanese newspapers and notices to fulfill the gaps in my knowledge of the events that occur. To do so, I had to improve my Japanese, fast. Against my original plan when I agreed to live as Tadashi’s surrogate daughter, I picked up on the language quickly, working hard to memorize colloquial terms, slang, and the lilting Japanese accent. Tsumori guided me in my lessons, rarely praising me, but far more generous with her cold put-‐downs. Still, she once went as far as to say, “Your Japanese has far exceeded my expectations – well done.” I should have felt some euphoria – I had managed to achieve my goal, after all. Instead, however, I feel my insides turn hollow. I accept her rare compliment with as much grace as I can muster, then turn and frown. I didn’t want to be good at Japanese, and the fact that I had picked it up with such speed bothered and repulsed me. Filthy, I told myself with a grimace. I felt filthy. Shaking my head sullenly, I watch silently as Tsumori works her magic into the silk kimono that has become her personal project for the past five months. The cloth has been transformed into something of abhorrent beauty – extravagant, with its sickly detail, and alluring, in the way beautiful things often are. From afar, I watch as each stitch is placed properly with her neat fingers. “Fish! Get the vegetables prepared before I make my way over there!” Almost jumping out of my skin, I scurry back to the kitchen and throw my hands up at the raw materials that will be used for the social dinner tonight, which Tadashi was forced to host. “I’d much rather stay at home and read,” he had grumbled. Still, he obliged, and the task of cooking for the dinner fell onto my disadvantaged shoulders. Tsumori had gone as far as to teach me how to fine
tune my Japanese cuisine, tasting and critiquing the dishes, but had left me with the bulk of the responsibility of actually cooking the meal. Frowning in resentment, I reached forward for the rice and began washing it diligently under the sink, rolling my eyes when Tsumori shouted yet again, “Get a move on!” Thankfully, cooking was an art that came easily to me, and I could spend most of the time peering over the frying pan thinking – about what I had overheard during dinner and some analyzing of what was true in the Japanese-‐ managed newspapers. I often pretended not to understand what I was reading or listening to, turning my face away with a blank expression, betraying nothing of my understanding that they were discussing the anti-‐Japanese guerrillas along the Hong Kong border, for example. There were times when I purposely failed to recognize certain hanji in the presence of Tsumori – the Chinese characters embedded into the Japanese language – when I could read and write it with no problems at all. By enforcing the illusion that I know less than I actually do, I am able to ‘infiltrate’, if you will, the adult conversations, gathering more information that I can use. Though guilt pulsed through my veins whenever I pulled off such a trick, I swallowed the emotion, letting it sit deep in my gut, reminding myself that I needed something to protect myself with. Though the information I received was flimsy and biased at best, I managed to piece together a working image of Hong Kong. Trading, once all the rage when Hong Kong was under British rule, was fully controlled by the greedy Japanese. Factories were placed under their management, and the Hong Kong Dollar was rendered ultimately obsolete and worthless, replaced by the Japanese Yen. Can you imagine exchanging two dollars for one yen? I almost scoffed when Tadashi told me of this change – was this just a stupid joke? It was not a terrible prank, however, and I quickly saw the effects of such a ruthless exchange rate in my daily trips to the military-‐controlled market to procure food: beggars sat at every corner that I turned, tugging on my basket and clothes. My heart throbbed at the sight of my kinsmen reduced to such a state, but I had to maintain the Japanese appearance, and coolly brushed past them, head held high. Every day, however, I ‘lost’ a couple bills or a small amount of food, which appeased the pain and guilt somewhat.
Take this a step further, and imagine my surprise when I walk onto the tried and true streets that took me to the market when I do not recognize a single sign that stand at the corners of the roads. What had once been English and Chinese signs had been fully replaced by Japanese ones. The names were now fully unrecognizable, such as “Kirishima-‐Dori”, which only left everyone puzzled and angry that the classic road names had been stripped down. For a few days, the street children and families seemed unnaturally silent, as if feeling a sudden loss of history in what had been their streets for decades. Clang! I almost drop my knife. The sound of metal on metal was fully recognizable: someone had entered home, and by the way the footsteps were brisk and rhythmic, I knew it was Tadashi. Sighing in equal parts relief and expectation, I slide the tofu down into the warm pot, watching as it sizzled at the contact between hot and cold, waging a war before suddenly everything went still. “Fish, I have something to say to you.” I turn, wiping my greasy hands on the makeshift apron. I wait, my hands folded across my chest, as if that barrier could protect me. I am already prepared for bad news – that is what this life is about, anyway: endless disappointment and anger. Dressed in his ‘teacher suit’, as I call it, Tadashi approaches me slowly, with a sense of wariness that he rarely shows. He is stiffer than usual, and he does not exude a sense of calm in his actions anymore; he is twitchy, and I notice him fidget and play with something in his pocket before he opens his mouth. Even then, he hesitates before speaking. My gut falls, falls, falls. “I sent someone to check up on your family, and he came back today. Your family isn’t where they used to be – your house is empty and everything appears to be gone. There is no sign of breaking in, and no struggle. That’s not all, though. The entire village seems to have evaporated into thin air: nobody lives there, and a thin layer of dust has covered the stalls in the market. They have disappeared.” No. Now I do not have a home, either? Why are you so unfair, heavens above?
My hopes of returning back to the village, joining our lives together again, seeing their faces greet me as they lift their heads from the work in the fields. I had pictured the scene occurring at twilight, with the sun falling diligently in the background, and my sister dropping everything to run towards me. We would hug tightly, like two souls who had been ripped apart finally reunited as one. And now… the fantasy disappeared into a puff of smoke. I seemed to have frozen, and Tadashi takes a glance at my slumped figure and dejected frown before he envelopes me into a tight hug, his hands wrapping around my petite figure, my head reaching his stomach. I hesitatingly hug him back, wary of the sudden contact. This is the first time he has shown direct emotion to me, and I am further shocked, the wires in my brain going haywire. He seems to have really embraced the role of being a father here. After a few moments, he pulls back, and in that instant, I am unwilling and reluctant to relinquish my grip, finding his solid presence comforting. I am reminded of my own father, the way he would hold me at night when I have nightmares, soothingly singing ballads and childhood rhymes to calm my nerves and put me back into slumber. He would tell me everything’s alright, and brush my hair away from my sweat-‐laden forehead, pulling the thin, scratchy blanket up to my chin. Tadashi peels my fingers away from him, and I blink, trying to dispel the emotion welling up in my eyes – a mixture of loss and homesickness and annoyance at myself for having relented into that temporary lapse of judgment. I should have pushed him away, demanded that I need space. This is too much – too much, too soon. “You’ll be okay, right?” He bends down to survey my eyes. I yank my arm away, spinning on my heel. I do not want to see him right now, and instead grunt in the affirmative. “Are you sure?” The only sounds in the kitchen are the thomp-‐thomp-‐thomps of the reliable knife sawing away at the pork. My eyes are resolutely fixed on the not-‐ so-‐interesting crack on the bone. “I’m going now,” I hear from behind me, followed by footsteps that gradually fade into nothing. In my heart, I shout, I don’t care!
But as I firmly continue slicing the meat into thinner and thinner sections, I ask myself, are you sure you don’t care? What frightens me most is that the question is met with a resounding no. Furrowing my brow, I attack the food with a fiery hand. “Are you finished?” Tsumori stands at the kitchen door, one eyebrow raised in that frustratingly calm manner that never fails to raise my ire. I take a deep breath, glance at the nine individual trays of food, and respond, “yes.” I don’t want to be, but I am indeed quite proud of having prepared the meal to utmost perfection. Too bad Tsumori doesn’t care enough to take a bite. “Then please bring out the food. The guests are here.” Obediently, I carry the trays precariously balanced on my two hands into the previously prepared dining room. As in usual Japanese custom, there is but one wooden table situated at the center of the lengthy room, which is rather elaborately decorated with a Japanese flag and multiple watercolor paintings of unknown origin. Each seat was marked by a tatami, where each guest was seated. The conversation was well underway when I entered with the food, so I did not capture any attention, much to my relief. Matsumoto’s incident was still fresh in my mind – I was quite possibly scarred for life. Seated at the head of the table was Tadashi, putting on his social face: all smiles, bright eyes, energetic gestures, carefully-‐considered speeches. Beside him was Matsumoto, who I quickly passed by when I handed out the food. I recognized a few government officials down the table, and there were definitely some significant military generals as well. They were mostly men in the room, all of them wearing similar dull suits and glasses, clinking glasses together as they talked of the recent situation in Hong Kong or Japan, reiterating themselves after a few minutes, repeating everything I already knew. I quickly lost interest as I stood in a corner, waiting for a signal to clean up or pour more tea. One person caught my immediate interest, however, and my ears piqued when one of the men addressed her directly.
“Ayaka-‐chan, why are you here? I thought you were still in Japan, doing whatever you young ladies do.” A jeer of laughter erupted throughout the table. Tadashi frowned, which did not escape my notice. I was proud and warmed to him instantly – the men poking fun at the only woman in the room did not favor themselves in my book. Ayaka did not even react. “I’m merely here to keep an eye on my brother,” she spoke calmly, her voice clipped and icy (she could give Tsumori a run for her money) but her face was still as friendly as could be. Dressed in a beautiful olive kimono, she stood out in stark contrast to the grays and blacks of the men’s uniforms. I got the impression she was a lioness waiting for the right moment to attack. “Oh, and of course, to teach. They have requested that I spread Japanese culture in the schools through the teaching of tea culture, among others,” she adds as a last-‐ minute thought. No one seems to have paid attention to the second part, however. “Your brother?” Thankfully, one man asked the right question. “Tadashi-‐san.” What? He has a sister? I had to physically hold a hand up to my jaw to prevent it from unhinging. “Ah, I see. Why does he need your supervising? Surely he isn’t up to any nonsense.” “Oh, I would never doubt him.” She flashes a winning smile at Tadashi, who glowers and gives her a warning glance, which does absolutely nothing to her comfortable countenance. As she leans back, I glimpse a shimmer of a smug smile. The unvoiced question hangs over all the guests in a cloud of confusion – what is going on? Is Tadashi harboring a secret? Everyone stares at each other for a few beats, but Tadashi clears his throat. “Now, men, have you heard the announcement that…” The evening is inconsequential; nothing of considerable notice takes place, and I follow the conversation half-‐heartedly with my head up in the clouds. My nails, shoes, and the minute details on the edge of the wooden table are
consequently fascinating – I never knew there were so many ways to make a flower pattern! At the same time, I follow Ayaka’s movements lazily with my eyes, watching the way she delicately put her cup down, the ramrod straightness of her back, the flashing of her eyes and nostrils whenever someone dared to put her down. I admired her from afar, but I did not dare approach her. At the end of the night – which progressed far too slowly for my liking – the men (and woman) finally decided to pack up and return home. Brightening at the prospect of getting some sleep, I escorted each one obediently to the front door. The men completely ignored me – other than when they needed an errand completed for them – but Ayaka approached me as she left the room, catching me off guard. Leaning in close, so close I could see some well-‐hidden freckles on her nose, she whispered, “Don’t think you can fool me. I don’t mind Chinese girls like yourself – I’ve got no grudge against your people, and all this fighting is incredibly stupid, really -‐ but if you even dare to cause an ounce of trouble for Tadashi, I will personally make sure you never see the light of day again.” Her perfume was making my nose run. Sniffing in indignation to hide my astonishment that she could see through my well-‐kept mask, I guided her quietly to the door, where I helped her drape her shawl on her shoulders. Repressing my pride, I knew I was no longer the coward that showed up on the steps of this house, frightened to death. I had grown; I was stronger. I whispered back, “Of course. Warning taken.” Watching her perfectly plucked eyebrows rise in – could it be? – newfound respect, I waved cheerfully as she turned her back to me. After one lingering gaze, I shut the door behind her, and fell into the guest chair nearby. It sagged under my weight. If – if Ayaka were to turn me in to the Japanese, would Tadashi come save me? Did he care enough about this surrogate daughter? I bit my lip, which turned a crimson shade of red. Did I care if he did? Yes. I was falling into an abyss, and I knew it was trouble, but I couldn’t stop.
1942, August 3rd Ever since Ayaka’s less-‐than-‐friendly caution, she has visited her brother a couple more times, each visit sporting the same warm face in front of the family while becoming more distant and hostile when she was alone with me – which she made sure happened at least once per visit. She would offer to help in the kitchen, eliciting useless cries of refusal from Tadashi and Tsumori; she cornered me when I was folding the laundry; she dragged me around the garden, pretending to be appreciating the freshly blooming lilies while dictating the areas of my posture and dress that were not “Japanese enough”. Secretly, she rapped my knuckles when I dared to contradict her opinion, and gradually, I learned to keep my mouth shut whenever she was around. The last time I had spoken up – “does speaking up in class endanger poor Tadashi?” – she had beat me with a backhanded slap on my neck that stung for a few hours. I was always happiest when she left. It frightens me when I flip open a recent newspaper, read the biased accounts of the latest clashes between the Japanese and the Chinese, and feel utterly nothing. I have become numb to the notion of rivalry between the pair; I do not feel a belonging to either. Often, I glance at the newest headlines emblazoned on the recent newspaper issues and I feel like a third person watching a somewhat amusing, somewhat morbid, and all together pointless film. The pictures blaze by my eyes, but they leave no imprint on me: I am immune. It is of no surprise that my Chinese has grown rusty from disuse, and I would not be surprised if it has grown to adopt a Japanese accent. The lack of Chinese material to read and the difficulty of finding any Chinese person to speak to has limited my exposure to my native language, which slips through the slits in my fingers like grains of wet sand. School is a usually painless intervention in the daily monotony of household chores and Tsumori-‐handling, but the Japanese have infiltrated the education of children, spinning history in their favor, inserting as much propaganda as they can into the blank banks of the young students. Chinese is thoroughly banned on campus, and though the Japanese would like us to believe
everyone enjoys this wondrous, amazing change, the dissatisfaction among the local teachers is as real as it can get. “Fish!” I whip around to face my only friend that I made at school – Utani. Though I used to be relatively social back in my village, I find myself without words and wincing every time I must talk to someone at school. There is simply a barrier, an invisible yet powerful one, that stops me from being myself; I do not even know if I know who I am anymore. With a cheery wave, he takes long strides with his wobbly legs and plops himself beside me on the ragged threshold of the classroom door. The hallway is deserted otherwise, and any movement we make is enhanced by the hollow, echoing cement walls. Utani’s dropped pen sounds like a missile, and he shyly picks it up, brushing it off absentmindedly with his equally dirty shirt – the white button-‐up that is required of all students. “You made it here early for once,” I note with a wry smile, the corners of my eyes crinkling. “Yeah,” he mutters, dropping his pen into the tattered briefcase he always carries around. “I delivered Master’s cloth quickly. It’s just so boring after a while, you know?” I watch as he turns the clasp on his bag and turn his face towards mine – an older one than I had first expected after hearing his voice through the thin paper of the doors. With a prominent deep scar above his right eye, his face is not one that is easily forgotten after seeing it once. His thick eyebrows heavily frame his eyes, which casts a brooding, pensive look on his face. The jet black mess sitting atop his head resembles a nest more than it does hair; as he runs his hand through it, it only manages to look worse. The twinkle in his eye reveal his hidden mischievous personality, which he only reveals when he feels comfortable and at ease. It took a few months for him to warm to me; the first time I met him I had stumbled into him at home. Surprised to find someone my age within the four walls of my home, I smiled warmly and bowed, assuming he was a guest. He stammered, blushing, reaching forward to pull me up from my deep bow.
“I’m just a delivery boy,” he said quickly in Japanese. “No need to do that for me.” He ducked out the door in record time, leaving me in dust and confusion. I had seen him again the next day at school, and though I registered the shock and embarrassment in his features when he recognized me, I took no notice, but instead approached him directly. I wore my brightest smile, bluffing up my courage, and introduced myself. He frowned at my boldness, and with my face falling, I apologized, making my way back to my seat with my hair hiding my face in humiliation. He grabs onto the crook of my arm, though, and tells me his name steadily – “Yeah, I know,” I respond quietly. “Though I’m thankful for Tsumori and Tadashi, being a maid there does get old pretty quickly. And Tadashi’s been really absentminded lately.” “Thankful?” he raises an eyebrow quizzically, stopping me in my tracks. Woops. I mentally curse myself in the two languages I knew while I rummage my brain for a distraction or a reasonable excuse. He didn’t know that I was living under their protection; I berate myself repeatedly for letting down my perfected guard. “Why do you and your Master work for both the Japanese and the Chinese? That’s a rather interesting side to take,” I say quickly, sprouting out the first words that come to mind. Watching his expression, I do not see any telling sign of suspicion, so I wait with bated breath and sweaty palms for his answer. His eyes seem focused on a point in the empty hallway, but he speaks anyway in a matter-‐of-‐fact voice. “Business is business; money is money. Those bills can’t tell whose hands are currently holding them – they only know that they belong to someone or something. As merchants, we run to wherever money is, because that’s what keeps us alive.” “But as a Japanese person,” I inject, “don’t you feel like you’re betraying your people when you do business with the Chinese?” “No,” he answers curtly, his hands fumbling with the knot on his shoes. “I don’t feel anything, really. Business is business, and that’s that. There’s no race involved at all; everyone’s out for themselves. That’s just how the world works.” Lifting his head to finally look up at me, he looks at me for a moment with a bleak note in his eyes before he visibly brightens up, his smile filling the gaps in
the hallway. There seems to be more energy in his whole body, as I watch him grin from ear to ear in that Utani way. “You want to follow me to deliver some cloth after school today?” I fake pondering the issue over as if it was a life-‐changing one. “Mmm,” I murmur. “Sure!” Little did I know that that was about to alter the dimly lit path I was slowly making my way down. Mathematics, Japanese history, Japanese language, geography, literature – the classes never seem to end, but the time passes quickly, as if someone had wound up the clock incorrectly so that its arms spun twice as fast. With something to look forward to, I breezed through the learning, actually enjoying the lessons (rather than, say, loudly snoring through the teacher’s monotonous lecture). Snapping my bag shut, I was the first student out of the classroom, leaving dust in my wake. I was too early, however, so I stood impatiently in the corridor, which was now full of students of all ages, pushing and elbowing each other in a rush to reach the main door faster. I ducked out of the jostling, which always reminded me too much of that day in the street when I had been pushed, breaking the sole connection I had held to my past life. Smiling bitterly, I hold my breath as someone sweaty presses their body way too close to mine. A hand waved in my face. I blinked. Recognition floods my face, and my eyes crinkle upwards in joy. “Hi!” “Let’s get going, then, shall we?” Utani points to the overflowing basket in his hand almost apologetically. He runs a nervous hand through his head. “Let’s.” I hitch my bag further up on my shoulder, and follow him as he cuts through the crowd like a ninja, while I merely follow in his footsteps. His atrociously tall and lanky body sure has its advantages. I wish I wasn’t petite. We make it through the crowd successfully, with only a few bruises here and there. Grinning winningly, I take a deep breath and ask, “So – where to?”
“Hmm,” Utani murmurs as he ransacks his basket for the list of customers he must visit. It takes five minutes for him to locate it – conveniently stuffed at the bottom of all the piles of cloth – and read his own misshapen handwriting. He scrutinizes it with the face of a scientist investigating a deadly disease, then declares, “Eiji Nakasone.” I lift my eyebrows appreciatively. It is well known among the Japanese population in Hong Kong that Nakasone is not a man to be trifled with. Wealthy, power-‐hungry and arrogant, he takes Matsumoto and makes him look like a timid cat. Originally a major player in Hong Kong society prior to the Japanese invasion, the Nakasone family has only risen in fame after the Japanese occupation; even the government turns a blind eye to some of the illegal dealings that Nakasone no doubt swims in. Rumor has it he bribes the court to rule in his favor whenever he is accused of violence against another member of society (usually someone with guts but no brain) and the record is one thousand Hong Kong dollars. Recently, the word on the street that has been passed from house to house via maids has told of his daughter’s impending marriage to a government official. Ah, the gossip. “Is he a regular customer?” I ask, hoping to draw attention away from my curious silence. “Not really,” Utani shrugs noncommittally. “It’s not like he can’t afford anything more expensive. It just so happens his wife really likes this cloth that can’t be found anywhere else.” His chest swells with pride and I smile fondly when he points at the beautifully threaded crimson and white cloth with dyed flowers and falling petals. I feel envy worm its way through my heart, but I swallow it instinctively. I know if I dare so much as touch it, no one will purchase it, and Utani will never forgive me. “Do you talk to them when you sell the cloth?” “I try not to,” he says with an accompanying wince and shudder. “They talk down to you a lot. I’m used to it, but still, it’s – uncomfortable.” His face betrays more than he wants to reveal, and he avoids my gaze, so I don’t press him about it. We remain silent as we walk up the stone steps toward the Nakasone mansion. I suck in my breath when I see the grand vision reaching towards the sky with its pillars – the sheer whiteness almost blinds me. The
neatly cropped bushes and the black gate are enough to deter any visitors from even daring to ring the bell. Utani steps forward like it’s no big deal while I stall behind him, in awe and feeling somewhat belittled by the grandiose display of wealth. “You can wait out here,” Utani explains as he swings open the gate deftly. “I’ll be back soon.” He flashes me a final smile and closes the gate, leaving me standing alone in a strange road, somewhat tucked away from the main street. I spot a sign pointing to the left – I suck in a breath as I read it (Stanley Prison) – and I peer down the street, wondering where it was. It has been name-‐dropped multiple times in the news but Tadashi had never bothered taking me to visit (“what would a girl like you have to do with the prison?”). A few minutes pass by uneventfully, with a few sighs and furtive glances at the door, wondering when Utani was going to return. I pace back and forth impatiently, kicking at the pebbles on the ground mindlessly. I count the number of stones from one edge of the gate to the other. The clouds passing above me look suspiciously like the ones I had eaten the other day in my bento. In the distant, I hear a distinct clatter and pit-‐pats of footfalls. Shrugging, I discard it as rowdy children having too much fun chasing each other, playing hide and seek. Tag, you’re it! When it grows louder and louder, however, I begin to watch the end of street curiously, wondering what it could possibly be that would generate this much noise and clanging of metal, along with the occasional yell and scream – which sent a shiver down my spine. I could not shake off the chilling feeling I had about this, peering left and right to satisfy both my curiosity while praying that nothing untoward would pass along this street. Then I saw it – or more accurately, them. Headed by an authority dressed in a drab suit of greys and blacks, the crowd marched along, one step at a time, one person at a time. After squinting for a bit, I noticed the chains that tied them together, and I could discern the red circle against white rectangle symbol I had come to tolerate sowed onto the authority’s pressed shirt. The chained people wore the same type of indistinct clothes – muddy, dusty, and ripped at various places. Several were not wearing any shoes.
They passed by me, unusually quiet given what I had heard earlier, and several slowed their paces to give me a good, hard look. There was anger in the bleak eyes of some of the prisoners, while others admitted defeat. I thought I saw someone spit at me, and I tried to ignore it with the stoniest face I could manage. I did my best to raise my chin in the haughty attitude I had seen Tsumori practice on me too often. More than ever, I hoped Utani would hurry up. I glanced back at the progression as the ones at the back of the line passed by me. I was about to breathe a sigh of relief that nothing had happened, I made the mistake of lifting my eyes to meet the unswerving glance of a man, and then – a woman – a child – I gasp in horror as one by one their faces match the ones I had forcibly repressed in my memory. The same jet-‐black hair, wide and thin deep brown eyes, and the high check bones – I was now staring at my twin, Mother, and Father. Our eyes lock, and a tense current fills the air. I waver between joy at seeing them alive and well, anger at their treatment, and shame of being identified while dressed in a Japanese school uniform. There are merely two feet between us, but what separates us feels more like a mountain. Father’s eyes narrow into slits, his fists curling up as he whispers a word to Mother and Meili, who had been oblivious of this exchange. Their heads swing in my direction, as I keep up my bold gaze. Should I pretend I do not know them? Or should I beg for forgiveness? Meili strays from the perfect progression, almost reaching an arm out to me, staring wide-‐eyed at my face and dress, and as she brushes past I see the reflection of the sun on the tears glistening as they pour down her filthy cheeks. Father smacks her arm down with so much force she stumbles, almost knocking Mother over. Mother glares at her with a hard face, one I had never seen her using. The authority yells, “What’s going on at the back?” Making one final lingering look at me, Father yells back, “Nothing!” Towards Meili and Mother, he berates them harshly: “Don’t do that again with anyone you don’t know.”
Without glancing at me again, he drags Mother and Meili along, leaving dust and a bruised heart in their wake. None of them look back.
1943, January 25th The days dwindle by slowly, like the endless drip-drop of the rainwater falling from the windowsill onto the thirsty concrete. With my elbows pressed against the cold marble of the table, I stare out of the window with dull eyes, watching men and women tiptoe across puddles underneath the wooden wagasa – the traditional Japanese umbrellas. Tadashi reads the newspaper beside me while he smokes a long stick that a friend gave him (it smells vile, really) while Tsumori hustles about the room doing nothing but making a lot of noise. Hong Kong population decreases, reads the headline of the paper that faces me. I almost roll my eyes at the obvious news – it must be a slow news day. The food rations were decreasing at an alarming rate, and the citizens were being stripped of their money… anyone in their right minds would leave. Only those who were rich enough and in good relationships with the Japanese could afford to stay. In the bottom right corner was an image of recent anti-‐Japanese attacks by the Hong Kong Kowloon Brigade, who were a troop of armed citizen forces dedicated to rescuing prisoners-‐of-‐wars and other rebellious activities. I didn’t know whether I should be supporting them or not; I felt a curious sense of apathy. Earlier, in September last year, there was news of the sinking of the Lisbon Maru, the ship that was carrying around 2,000 prisoner-‐of-‐wars from Hong Kong to Britain. The public was in uproar: the Hong Kong population was furious that the Japanese officers had abandoned the ship at its crucial moment, leaving the POWs to die on the sinking ship, while the Japanese was astonished that the United States had instigated such a forceful attack. The newspapers ran around the city like mice to cover the story from various angles, and for a whole week, no other story claimed the front page. I was glad that something else could dominate dinner discussions; I did not want to talk about what was “wrong” with me, as Tadashi and Tsumori tried to corner me one after another, hoping I would talk. I have not seen my family since our meeting near Stanley, and I was almost hoping they would be one of the two thousand to board the ship for Britain, until I found out they were all prisoners-‐of-‐wars from the Shamshuipo
Camp. “Why do you want to know so much?” Tadashi gave me a pointedly curious look with a raise of an eyebrow when I asked about the incident. “Oh, just wondering,” I quipped, ducking back into my room, feeling ashamed. They were my family, not had-been. The blood bonds between us were permanent, and I owed my life to them. Why, then, did I feel the need to hide in this house forever so I will never have to see them again? It was more than shame and guilt; I was afraid that I was so far along that I was Japanese. I couldn’t be Chinese anymore, and I couldn’t bear to see Mother’s disappointment when she realizes I haven’t spoken Chinese in more than a year. Tsumori enters the room, her arms laden with an assortment of china and teacups that I have never seen before. I suspect they are new purchases. Though Tsumori has always been something of an over-‐spender, recently she has been splurging on items that we clearly have no need for. No idea why, though. Tadashi doesn’t even notice. “Matsumoto’s here again,” she quips as she passes by our table. “Again?” A groan. “Tell him I am not receiving guests right now.” His voice is terse, unlike his usual calm, even demeanor. She turns slowly, one eyebrow raised, her hands on her hips. “Why?” “He… has some suspicions.” Both eyebrows on Tsumori’s face rise, and I am certain that there was a quiver of fear that passed through her face. Her hands stop wiping at the bowls, and her lips purse disapprovingly. She turns away, her eyes focused on nothing in particular. I can practically hear the wheels in her brain grinding up to speed. “Of course,” she says finally, putting down the cleaning cloth, daintily exiting the room, leaving nothing but a faint scent of her perfume perforating the cracks of the walls. We are plunged once more into silence. My hands fold and unfold, and I glance up and down several times, unsure how to broach the subject which had clawed at my heart for several days and nights, leaving me sleepless, walking around like a zombie. “Tadashi,” I start quietly, my voice surprising even myself in its quietness. “Can I ask you a question?”
Tadashi lowers the newspaper, but his eyes are still fixed on the text, his reading glasses dangling off the end of his straight nose. His hair, I note, seems to be graying considerably. “Of course, Fish,” he mutters. “What would you do if I saw my family again?” He stills, his hands tensing as there is an audible crackle from the paper he grips. “Why are you asking that?” he responds, his voice taking on an edge. “N-‐no reason in particular.” “Then you shouldn’t ask, because that will never happen. Your family -‐ ” he breaks off, his eyes wide at his own blunder. It takes me a moment to catch his meaning, while his arms wave with an uncharacteristically uncontrolled twinge. “You know what’s going on with my family?” my voice rises in volume, eyes narrowing at Tadashi, who had been my protector and guardian all this while. “No – no, I don’t,” he replies hastily, dropping the newspaper onto the table, leaning forward. “I have no idea what happened to them!” “Liar.” I spit out, slamming my palms onto the wood, ignoring the ringing of the skin. I spin around, crashing into as many things as possible, until I add insult to injury one final time: “Coward.” My shoes clang against the tiles as I make my exit, each step venerating around the room to fill up the gap left by my silence. Tadashi says quietly, “Take that back.” I stop, my body stiff and rigid. “No.” There is a beat, one that barely lasts longer than a heartbeat, before a crash erupts in the room. I can hear Tsumori’s pacing stop suddenly. Turning slowly, I glance at the shards of glass from the broken teapot scattered across the floor. What was one whole separated into a million parts in one stride. Tadashi breathes heavily, his palms sweating against the table which holds up most of his weight as he leans on it, his stance intimidating and his dark brown eyes gleaming in undiluted anger. His nostrils flare, and I take a wary step back, hearing a crack of glass underneath my slippers. “You think you’re so special, do you?” he asks in a sneer. “Oh, it doesn’t even cross that feeble mind of yours that I am living everyday in fear for being
found out, even when the people who could put me in prison are stepping over that same threshold you just did on a daily basis. Let’s just forget about the danger I’m in! Because you’re so important, your family matters the most. Well, I’m sorry to be the one to break this to you, but it isn’t. I’ve got to keep my head on my shoulders for as long as I can, and your family really isn’t my priority right now. I never made the promise to protect them, mark my words.” His breathing is heavy, and his chest heaves with every few words that spits out of his mouth. Standing with my feet seemingly rooted firmly in the flooring, I shake – my fists curl into a tense ball, and my arms quake, and I grind my teeth together. My eyes, red and puffy, narrow considerably. I wet my lips slightly before letting out a ragged breath, controlling my words down to the intake and exhale of air. “There’s a difference between my family and your family.” It is a statement of fact, not a question. Tadashi, taken my surprise, raises his head with furrowed brows that only emphasize fiery glare that pierces through the fiber of my being. He takes some time to respond, and when he does, his voice is lower and clearly controlled, flat and even. “There always was.” Unbeknownst to me, tears had been forming in the corners of my eyes. I take a deep, shaky breath, and hold those tears in as long as I can. It is the hardest thing I have ever done. I think back to the moments – moments that took place in this room, with its antique furniture and bird chirping outside the windows and the squeaky sink – and I see warmth, acceptance, and love. Scenes of Tadashi and me bent over the newspaper shaking our heads at the inanity of some new government policy, of him giving me support when I am at my weakest, or of him helping me with my Japanese homework – they all flash by before my eyes. The sense of loss is unshakable, and the question rings in my ears: did that all mean nothing? “I see.” I stand up straight, lift my head, and look Tadashi square in his eyes. I am not the Fish that came crawling onto his threshold begging for a home; I have grown up, seen things I ought not have, and learned what it meant to survive in this world: no allegiances will ever last.
“So what happens to us now?” I ask quietly, my tongue numb. Tadashi blinks – once, twice, his blunt eyelashes grazing his skin as he struggles to come up with an answer. “Nothing,” he finally says. “Let’s pretend nothing happened.” He raises an arm in surrender, and reaches out to me. The hand looks inviting, and I suddenly remember Uncle’s outstretched hand in the crowd, which I had groped and pushed so hard to grip onto, but fate had had other ideas. Like Tsumori only a few moments earlier, I pivot on my heels and leave Tadashi standing at the table with wide eyes and hand stretched, wondering what the hell I’m going to do now.
1943, January 26th Though I went to bed with a sudden existentialist crisis, I awoke with a new sense of determination. Pushing the blanket off my body in one stroke, I stand up, change quickly into plain clothes, and then race down the stairs two steps at a time, ignoring the staircase’s loud protests. Tsumori almost crashes into me with a tray of food, and though she opens her mouth to berate me, I am already gone when she is able to gather her bearings. “Fish! Fish! Where are you going?” The door clicks shut behind me as I fly out the door, my messy ponytail swinging behind me. There are students dotted among the early risers as I weave through the 5-‐AM streets, some wearing prefect badges on their chest, others with their ties on backwards. No one seems to take notice of the girl who runs in the other direction. No one, that is, except Utani. He spots me immediately, his own basket of clothes in one hand and schoolwork piled in a battered-‐looking (almost war-‐ weary) briefcase in the other. I groan, having hoped for no distractions, and had already avoided taking our usual route the school to avoid him. Why, why, why… My feet speed up, as if they could render me so fast as to be invisible. Utani shouts my name as I pass by him, and I wince as I hear his hurried footsteps nearing me. I grit my teeth, push myself harder. Just my luck to be running up a hill when he catches sight of me. The chase continues for a few hundred meters, but then feel his hand on my shoulder. Inevitable. “Fish!” he pants heavily as I come to a stop. My breaths are wheezing out of my lungs, and I shake my head at how winded I managed to be even though I barely even hit a mile. “Where are you going? We have school.”
Breathe in, breathe out, Fish. “I’m not – not going today.”
“What? Why not?”
“Got – got something to do.”
He doesn’t seem convinced, by the look of the eyebrow raise and the
pursed lips. I bite my lip in frustration and stuff my hands in my pockets.
“Look, I have to get there soon, and I’ve got to get there by foot – T-‐ I
mean, my parents didn’t give me money, so I really have to get going now – “
“Ah, come on, Fish,” Utani says, giving my shoulder a good slap. “You don’t need to look so serious when you’re just skipping school!” He leans closer, and I instinctively lean back, my bangs falling into my eyes. “I do it all the time.” “Er – okay?” I stammer. “It’s really important, though-‐“ Utani rolls his eyes good-‐humoredly, then drags me forward, tugging at my arm. “Well, if it’s important, then we’d better get going, right?” He smiles as he tilts his head. “Let’s go!” I blink at the sudden turn of events, then reflect Utani’s smile with one of my own. For the first time in a while, I feel like someone is on my side, no explanations necessary. Perhaps the cracks in my heart are on their way to healing. Utani doesn’t ask any questions, even when I ask him quietly if I can borrow some money to take the tram instead of walking the whole way there. He simply hands over a few coins, and we scramble on board. As we sit silently side by side, I wonder if he makes note of the fact that we are on our way to Stanley. I steal a glance at his profile once in a while, but he looks calm and composed, while my insides churn with anxiety. My palms are sweaty and my legs keep moving; the pent-‐up energy seems to burst out from within. With nothing to preoccupy my mind, all sorts of thoughts sprint past each other in my mind: This isn’t such a great idea after all – what were you thinking taking Utani with you? What will he think? Oh, fantastic, what are you going to say to your family? How are you even going to get in in the first place? Fish, planning was never your strength. Get off this tram right now. Something’s going to go wrong – It takes all my strength to shut up the voice that kept rambling incessantly like an annoying mosquito in my ear. I turn to Utani, who has fallen asleep. I watch for a while, watching his body heave with every breath, at the bony structure that shrugs on so much weight. The basket that he carries everywhere is full to the brim with beautiful fabric, but he probably won’t be delivering them to any doorsteps today, which nags at my conscience. I should have known better than take him with me – but I wouldn’t have made it without him and his unconditional support. Though I know he can’t hear it, I mutter a sincere thank you – arigatou, Utani-san.
We arrive at our stop, and I shake Utani awake. He groggily staggers off the tram and blinks in the sharp glare of the sun. I bid for him to follow me, and after grabbing his belongings and a quick rub of his eyes, he drags himself behind me. It takes a bit more walking – and many more curious glances from Japanese women and men who knew we were supposed to be at school right now – but we finally arrive at the destination. Standing in front of the prison, we both look up at the sign – “Hong Kong Prison at Stanley”. Still, Utani doesn’t ask any questions. I am starting to wonder if he lost his voice on the way here. I walk in, taking a deep breath with every step. Behind me, Utani follows slowly but surely. The guard looks up from his work and bids us over to him. Standing, he looms over me, almost double my height. I gulp and clear my throat. “Names?” We both stammer our names as he scribbles something on a piece of paper. “Reason for visit?” “Visiting of – of a family member,” I manage. Utani turns toward me, displaying the first outward reaction to anything today. I ignore his questioning glance. “Name of family member and relationship?” I knew the person I wanted to talk to the most – and I knew who would be more willing to talk to me. I murmured the name, and the guard nods, sweeping out from behind his desk to check our belongings. With nothing on me, my check takes only a few seconds, but Utani’s basket and briefcase takes a while. He shoots me an apologetic grimace, and I shake my head. No big deal. The rules are discussed, and then we are ushered into the room. Utani isn’t allowed in, so he sits outside, still a bit dazed, while the guard – or someone else? I don’t really notice – directs me to a small, grimy-‐looking room. There are stains on the walls that I really don’t care to know about, and there are no windows whatsoever. The table in the middle of the room is bare, and I sit myself nervously down on one of the two chairs. I wipe my hands on my pants, and try to ignore the suffocating sensation that the room forces on me. Breathe. Breathe. The guard standing outside the barred door makes a sound, and then I hear the
click of the lock. Taking one last deep breath, I swivel in my chair, and watch, as if in slow motion, the door slides open. Someone walks in.
1943, January 26th “Meili.” The word bounces off the empty walls, reverberating in my ear. It sounds foreign, rusty, like metal that has been in water for too long. The person who stands before me looks nothing like the healthy girl who I had abandoned a little more than a year ago. Her once-‐beautiful long black hair is brutally cut short, uneven and blunt. Strands of hair fall into her eyes, and she makes no move to push it away, letting it drop dully in front of her. Gashes and scars cut deep into Meili’s face, which has taken on an ashen green color. The life in her brown eyes – which the villagers had said was so expressive! – is gone, leaving a shell that stares at me like I am an alien. The circles under her eyes are nothing in comparison to the weight she has lost since I last saw her: her cheekbones are unnaturally visible, and her cheeks cave in. What I can see of her arms and legs resemble sticks and branches. I take in the torn clothes and soiled pants with a gulp; my mouth is suddenly drier than I had ever thought it possibly could be. My eyes avert from the burn that marks its deadly territory on her bare arm, unable to look at her any longer. “Sit down,” the guard says monotonously, pushing Meili into the chair opposite mine. He takes a stand in a corner of the room, watching our actions with a blank face. I wait for her to acknowledge me, but she doesn’t. I cough, suddenly questioning why I even thought this was a good idea. “H-‐how are you doing?” I finally say, unable to handle the silence any longer. She doesn’t glance up from staring at the table. “Fine.” Her voice sounds like sandpaper. I wish I had brought some water, at least. I take a deep breath. “How’s Mother and Father?” There is a pause, and she finally looks up at me. Meili looks like a ghost, and I lean back in apprehension. She raises a fragile hand to push some hair away from her eyes, but it falls back again.
“I’m surprised you still refer to them as Mother and Father.” “I –“ I begin, at a loss of what to say. My heart begins pounding, and blood rushes to my head. The room looks as if it is swaying – left, right, left… “You’re Japanese now,” she spits. Her nostrils flare and the malice in her eyes ignites a fire in me at once. The guard stares into the air, completely disinterested. “Look, I had no choice,” my voice heats up and I sit up straight, shaking my head furiously. I have never spoken to my sister like this, but there’s always a first for everything. Even at this stage. “No choice? No choice?” Meili sounds hysterical. Her eyes blink wide, and she sucks in a deep breath before barking a laugh. “Little pretty Japanese girl thinks she has no choice, oh ho –“ “I had no choice!” I yell, loud enough to cut through my sister’s tirade and catch her attention. She leans back in her seat, eyeing me like a piece of trash she had no choice but to take out. The distaste, I feel it. “I had to survive – I wanted to find you – but a Japanese man offered me protection when the bombs were still flying left and right –“ “And you selfish bitch decided that you would sell out your loyalty for a chance to live?” Her voice is cold as ice, sharp as a knife. Stunned, I stammer something unintelligible. It seems the feeling in my legs is gone, and my eyes could easily drop out of its socket anytime now. What happened to the Meili who was willing to reach out to me only a few months ago? What happened to the Meili who I once knew and had once shared a bed, clothes, and my entire life with? Who was the stranger sitting across me, with her bony arms crossed so tight I was sure they would never unwind again? I am almost sure I can feel the vibration from Meili slapping me across the face. “I thought – I thought you of all people would understand.” The quiver of uncertainty can’t help but find its way into my words. “Why? Just because we were once sisters doesn’t mean anything. You’re part of them, now. You’re part of the people who deny us food, while they languish in their homes having feasts upon feasts. You never had to pick at the
scraps your people threw out on the streets for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The pain of not having food for a week or more –“ My hands reached up to cover my ears while I shook my head frantically. Meili disregarded me coldly. “It was more degrading than being a beggar. And then, of course, we get caught, and thrown into prison.” She tosses it out like it was nothing of significance. I feel my jaw unhinge. “Honestly, we get more food here than usual, so I’m not complaining.” The throbbing silence overwhelms us for a few heartbeats, before she opens her mouth to ask a question for the first time. “I do have one question, though.” “What?” I ask hurriedly. “What happened to Uncle?” her voice reveals no emotion. “Uncle?” I repeat, shaken by the sudden inquisition. I had not been expecting them to ask about that; I had thought they would have figured it out by now. I take a deep breath, closing my eyes for a moment. “He’s dead.” For a few moments, all Meili does is sit across from me, her lips a thin line, and her eyes burning with fury. I wait for the explosion. “His death had something to do with you.” She doesn’t even ask. The assumption hangs there between us. “I – it wasn’t my fault!” “I’m sure.” I never knew how much sarcasm could be packed into one word. “Nothing is ever your fault, is it? Your choices aren’t your fault, you tell me.” Her words leave her mouth in a hiss. “You really are Japanese, those lying bastards who believe they’re above everyone else.” “I – I can help get you out of here,” I offer. “No thanks.” She throws a look of disgust at me. “We don’t need your help. I don’t want anything that has any connection to the filthy Japanese, and that includes you.” “But –“ “We’re being tossed back to the mainland, anyway, in a week’s time.” “What?” “So this is the last time you’ll ever be seeing me again.”
There is no trace of morose in her words, and I slump backwards in my seat, floored and confused. Meili eyes me stonily. “You broke your promise,” she finally says. I glance at her. Her face remains blank, but there is a hint of emotion stirring within her from the ways her eyes blink rapidly as if trying to dispel tears in her eyes. “What promise?” I whisper. A laugh of disbelief. “You don’t remember?” I think back to the time before the ‘incident’, allowing myself for the first time to recollect precious memories that hurt too much. After such a long time, it takes me a while to recall what promise I had made. “Meimei, you’ll be the talk of the whole village when you get back! Everyone will want to take turns looking through them. Oh, promise me that you’ll show them to me before you show them to the other village girls. We’ll meet at our tree right when you get back, okay?” “Promise.” I remember. I dip my head in defeat and sorrow, letting my pent-‐up tears roll down my fair face. Meili smiles cruelly at me from across the table, unfolding her arms for the first time. Leaning forward, she breathes into my ear, “Oh yeah, remember that? You never were the type to keep promises – you never made your bed, kept your New Year resolutions, or paid me back – but I still held onto the hope that you would actually keep a promise for once. I was so delusional; I hung out at the tree every single day after the bombing began, crossing my fingers and peering into the horizon, looking for a trace of your shadow or silhouette. Nothing. I stayed there for over half a year, even though I knew it was dangerous. The Japanese soldiers that passed by could easily take me or rape me, but I was still hopeful that you’d return, the only ever best friend I’ve ever had. But you never did. You didn’t even write a letter!” Her voice breaks. “And when I saw you a few months ago, I realized you’d never even planned on coming back. You were happy living in that safe Japanese bubble of yours, completely forgetting whose blood flows through you, willing to give
yourself over. Your unfortunate sister and mother and father probably became a burden for you, right? If anyone knew of us, you’d be killed in a second, you two-‐ faced traitor. “I’m smarter now. I’m wiser now. Promises are meant to be broken, and nothing lasts forever. Everyone’s a liar, out to save their own skin. I’ve learned that much. War teaches more than anything I’ve ever learned at school. “But unlike you, I haven’t given up on my family as a lost cause. I haven’t forgotten my roots, where I come from. Unlike you.” She stands up, her chair creaking from the sudden lifting of weight and scratching against the rugged floor. The guard wakes from his daze, and takes a step forward, but I raise a hand. I stand up as well, and we stare at each other, eye to eye, as enemies and rivals. I know where she stands, obstinate and boxed in as she is in her mind. I also know where I stand – on the precise line between two sides, unable to choose one over the other, conflicted and confused. I cannot make a choice; I am physically unable to. “Roots can be yanked out and replanted somewhere else; given this second chance, the flowers will bloom even more beautifully.” I stare at my sister – the one who knew me the best, the one whose features I could find everyday in the mirror – and bite my lip. “It’s time to give them that chance.” She eyes me calmly. “All flowers wilt,” she finally responds. For a few seconds, silence reigns. The bell clangs, slicing through the air like a sword. The guard steps forward, yanks Meili’s arm, and she follows easily, without resistance. I watch her back as she glides out of the room, head resolutely pointed forward the entire time. I memorize this image – this image of her leaving the room, leaving me alone in the four walls that seemed to be closing in on me. She left me alone in the world.
1945, September The war is over. That doesn’t mean the one inside me is over, though. Hardly. I look at myself one last time in the long mirror standing languidly before me. A chubby baby face has narrowed and hollowed itself into a chiseled and defined one. Gone are the round cheeks that everyone wanted to pinch; they are replaced with a high cheekbone emphasized with a touch of rouge (Tsumori’s, not mine). My hair has grown down to my waist, but for this occasion, they are piled on the crown of my head, changing the center of gravity so that I cannot nod properly. A butterfly pin keeps the mass in place, holding the bun together tightly as if it were a boa constrictor choking its prey. It attempts to flutter and sparkle away, but it is held down, unable to spread its wings and fly away. The atmosphere in the house is heavy; after the bone-‐hallowing news of United States’ bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima on the mainland came the inevitable surrender in Hong Kong. The newspaper that bore the headline – the first local newspaper that I have even set my eyes on since the beginning of the occupation – showed scenes of elation, celebration in the streets, and public defaming of various Japanese leaders. The scheduled trial for General Takashi Sakai is to take place at the end of this month – and I already know, without even thinking too much about it, that this will not bode well for him, or for the Japanese. We have already been in relative hiding for the past month. We dare not to traverse the streets in Hong Kong unless we find commoner clothes and can easily blend in with the crowd – and when we do not have to speak. As the only one who understands Chinese, I am the one who is often sent to purchase food and basic supplies, but even then, I have once been caught and pelted with vegetables and fruit until I managed to throw people off my trail. Ever since then, I have made sure my excursions are short and sweet – and only when we are in a dire state. I have heard of stories of other Japanese teachers and officials beaten up in alleyways and such – the victims are seeking their revenge. The kimono that wraps around my slim body is among the heaviest and most ornate that I have ever put on. Tsumori had helped me dress – as my first
complete kimono, I was unversed in what exactly to do with the undergarments, obi, and the assembly of all the parts was unnervingly complex. Standing still for over half of an hour, I was merely a model for Tsumori to wrap endless cloth around me, while I stood staring vacantly into space and into the mirror. I slip my feet into painfully straight sandals and click-clack my way out of the chamber into the hallway. My feet only advance my body three, four inches at a time, but like I have been taught my Tsumori, I glide gracefully and much more elegantly than ever. The lessons she lectured into me over the past year seem to be taking some effect. “Keiko-san!” A woman’s voice from behind me startles me into attention. Tsumori bears down on me like a lioness stalking its prey. Her eyebrows are constricted and she holds a stick in her hand, as if ready to whip it on me. I take a step backward in fright. “Where is your bag? Our ship leaves in fifteen minutes!” I roll my eyes and gesture towards the small bag that lies next to my feet. “There,” I say. “Are you blind?” Tsumori opens her mouth as if to say something scathing back at me, but a crash upstairs distracts her and she flies up the staircase to yell at Tadashi some more. Sighing, I take a look at the close-‐to-‐empty room around me – the tables and the chairs have been sold, the cutlery and china all neatly packed into secure boxes. The faded wallpaper hangs sadly on the walls, dejected by our abandonment. Even the sunlight refuses to pass through our open windows. Truth be told, I will miss this place – my safety hideout for the past five years, the place which I now identify as home, even though I feel a flicker of regret and shame whenever I do so. I will miss the people I have met – Utani, most of all – and I will definitely miss Hong Kong, my home for all my life. The nuances of the markets that fill my mornings with mirth, the villages I grew up in, Victoria Harbor that I will be coursing down today… too many memories, bitter and sweet all the same, that I will be leaving behind here. I smile as Tadashi and Tsumori clamor down the stairs, harried-‐looking with bags hanging from both hands. They glare at me as I make a jab, “Having fun there?” “You be quiet, Keiko-‐san.”
I flinch slightly when I hear the name again; I have not gotten used to it, even though I have been formally introduced as Keiko to all of Tadashi and Tsumori’s family friends – including, of course, Matsumoto. He didn’t even recognize me (for which I am eternally grateful), immediately speaking to me with much more polite regard than I have ever heard escape from between his lips. Ayaka and Utani are the only ones outside of my family who know of who I truly am; Ayaka merely pursed her lips when Tadashi revealed my new identity to her. “Well,” she murmured after scanning me from head to toe. “She doesn’t look too shabby.” Thanks, Aunt Ayaka. Utani already knew, of course, of my double identity. He was smart enough not to breathe a word to anyone after that day in Stanley, but he also shied away from me for a short while. I stopped seeing him on my way to school, which was at first puzzling, then decidedly frustrating. Gritting my teeth when he brushed past me with a furtive look at school, I caught his arm and yanked him to an empty classroom. He squirmed and attempted to struggle away, but I was determined and strong enough to thwart his resistance. “Spill.” With my hands on my hips and my black hair tied back in a tight bun, I no doubt looked like I meant business. Utani’s eyes were like saucers as he backed towards the door. “I d-‐don’t know what you mean.” His hand sneaks towards the doorknob. Angered by this response, I kick him (lightly!) on the shins. “You know full well what I’m talking about. After that trip to Stanley, you’ve avoided me like the plague. You don’t sit next to me, you don’t walk home with me, and you barely even look my way. You’re so subtle with your ways, Utani.” Appropriately abashed, he ducks his head, hiding his eyes behind his fringe. “I’m sorry,” he murmurs, “I didn’t know what to do after I found out.” “You didn’t have to do anything.” My voice takes on a softer inflection and I pat his shoulder somewhat affectionately – and a little bit awkwardly, considering he has a good few inches on me. “If I didn’t want you to know, I
wouldn’t have agreed to you coming with me. I knew you were a great friend, and I knew you would support me no matter what, no matter who I am. Right?” I wait, and he nods. Smiling satisfactorily, I nudge him slightly. “So you stop your nonsense and we’ll stay being friends. No matter what, when, or where. Promise?” I hold out my empty palm. The sense of déjà-‐vu doesn’t leave me when fits his hand in mine, but this time, I feel a sense of confidence that everything will work out. We pile our belongings into our car and stuff ourselves onto the aging leather seats. Tadashi expertly maneuvers the car onto the main street and we speed along diligently, keeping our faces low as we pass by the walking families on the sidewalk. A wide hat covers Tsumori’s eyes; she doesn’t like crouching down like I do. “My back hurts,” she complains, though no one particularly cares. “Almost there,” Tadashi mutters, and I peek from behind the driver’s seat at the dock that we are nearing. Tsim Sha Tsui, again. So much has changed since I first glimpsed this part of Hong Kong – half the buildings have been demolished, technology has changed the faces of the vehicles that bumble by with more vivacity than ever, the street names have returned to the old Chinese ones (besides a few – those have been painted over in large Chinese swear words). I clamber out of the car when we arrive, knocking my knee into the door and reeling in pain for a few seconds. Grabbing my bag, I turn around only to find myself face to face with Utani. His smile – though I think I detect a trace of crying from his swollen eyes – infects me immediately. Taking my bag away from me, he guides me towards the ship waiting for us. “So,” he begins unceremoniously, “you’re going back to Japan, then.” I nod. Tadashi and Tsumori felt out of place – no doubt they felt guilty as well – here in Hong Kong, and though tearing me away from Hong Kong was like ripping meat off my bones, I agreed readily. I was ready for a change, and I didn’t really have a reason to keep staying here: I wasn’t welcome, my family didn’t bother, and I wanted to see what my adopted culture was like back in its native surroundings. Of course, Japan was in a state of distress and panic, but the United States was willing to lend a helping hand, and that was enough for Tadashi to
believe our move to Japan would be a difficult one at first, but eventually “work out”. I had my doubts, but I was willing to stay and see what would happen. After all, I had survived the past five years without having been found out – entirely – so anything, in my mind, could happen. “Well, not back, since I’ve never been there in the first place. But I’m going to Japan, yes,” I reply, casting a sideways glance at his profile. He has grown even taller, and his face is slimmer than ever, but the planes of his face have become more distinct. I also note with some humor that his hair has not changed at all: still that bird nest, albeit a little less tangled today. His eyes seem to be focused on the ground in front of us, and he scuffs his feet against the floor, hands stuffed in his pocket. “I can’t believe you’re leaving me all alone here.” He murmurs and frowns slightly. “It’s going to take me a while to forgive you for this.” I laugh gently. “I’ll make sure I write back really often, okay? And you’re probably coming to Japan soon, anyway.” “Yeah,” he grunts in agreement. “See? So don’t miss me too much. We’re friends no matter what.” He raises his head and smiles at me – a genuine one that touches the side of his eyes so that they crinkle upwards. “Keiko! Will you get moving?” Tsumori makes yet another demand. I roll my eyes (again) and wrap my arms around Utani for one final hug. I’m going to miss him, surely, and tears begin to well up in my eyes. Stay strong, stay strong. Taking a small sniffle, I pull back, and smile brightly, hoping and praying the tears will stay in their rightful place. “Bye, Utani.” My hand makes a jerky motion. “Bye, Fish.” Fish. Hearing that one word sends the tears sprinting past each other, but I hide my face in the wall of black hair that protects me as I pivot on my heel and board the ship. Leaning against the banister of the ship, I stare sullenly at the dock that we are slowly but surely distancing ourselves from. Very few people are on the deck, so I am rather alone. I spot Utani, and I wave both arms, squinting my eyes
to witness his reaction. We keep waving at each other until I am too far away to discern him among the crowd. Right in the front of the throng, I spot a family of four – a mother, father, and two sisters. The sisters are fighting for a bear, which each one holds a leg of, and I as a watch the quibble with an amused eye, the bear tears into two. I can’t see their expressions, but I am sure the mother steps in to comfort both of them. The figures fade into the background as the ship leaves the dock so far that I can no longer make out anything distinct on the harbor. Fish, Utani had called me. A name I was now discarding, for better and for worse. I stare at the horizon that we are now approaching, and sigh, letting years of conflict leave my body for the last time. It’s time to move on – but not forget. “Keiko-‐san! What are you doing up here?” “Just taking a breath, Tsumori. I’ll be down soon.” Standing up straight, I take a deep breath and make a pinky promise with the setting sun: to make as much of who I am now, but to never forget what I have learned from who I used to be.
Published on May 15, 2011