Besides the willow-striped shirt, mended and patched many times over, and an equally worn-out pair of yellow-twilled shorts he had on, only some small coins and a crushed cigarette were in his pocket – these were Witty Rong’s entire property after he was thrown out by the landlady.
Just before leaving, he tried to bring with him the broken rattan casket placed on the foldable canvas bed but the fat landlady snatched it and said in her spluttering manner:
“You shan’t take this!”
“Fuck it, I shan’t then! There are only two worthless worn-out clothes in the casket anyway, but – “
“But, spare me some face, will you?”
He intended to bring with him the tattered blanket.
“Pay me the three months rental for the canvas bed and I’ll return you everything,” the landlady stretched out her hand, “or you shan’t remove even a strand of hair!”
“Fifteen dollars, what’s the big deal! ‘Uncle’ will pay you in two days time!”
“I’ll return these items when you pay the sum. Your ‘old sum’ will wait for three and a half years.”
Actually, he was only being stubborn, refusing to give in verbally. He had been unemployed for more than half a year. How could he possibly raise fifteen dollars in two days’ time to retrieve these items? Forget it, only fools would ever retrieve them. They were worth not more than fifty cents. So, on the way, blown by the warm May breezes, he felt contented. One broken casket, two worn-out clothes, a piece of blanket, all these mortgaged for fifteen dollars rental, he had made a profitable bargain.
But the complacency did not last long enough. He was forced to solve the imminent problems of living.
Witty Rong was a happy-go-lucky guy, careless of the seriousness of his problems. He remained joyful and carefree in matters looked upon as intolerable by others. He simply put on a wry face and this is how he came to be called ‘Witty’.
But, at the moment, though he remained calm, some thinking needed to be done.
He took out that crumpled cigarette from the pocket, moved towards an Indian who maintained a cigarette stall, borrowed a fire and leaned against the pole next to the Yu Dong Xuan street canal. He began to smoke and ponder about his day to day problems.
There were no worries about a sleeping place tonight. He quoted his favourite phrase:
“One makes one’s home wherever one is.”
He could easily find a lodging spot for the night. For example, People’s Park would be quite a good spot for sleeping. At dusk, empty stalls in the Markey place turned into ideal beds for the unemployed in the Colonial city centre. The whole group of them swarmed to the market, occupied by these stalls and slept till the break of the day. Latecomers could simply lay out some newspapers on the cemented floor and spend their night there.
Hunger was the only problem.
Nothing had gone into the stomach since last night and it was now growling.
He inserted his hand into his pocket instinctively, touched the small five cent coin and the two one cent coins, a total of only seven cents which was insufficient even for a small piece of buttered bread.
How to solve the hunger problem then?
There was no solution after a long thought. Finally, he shrugged his shoulders, flicked the remaining butt into the canal and decided to leave the matter tentatively.
The noon day sun radiantly lit up the street, but it was not burning hot. A cool, bracing breeze blew occasionally from Pearl’s Hill.
On the main road, all sorts of vehicles were driving past at close intervals.
A middle-aged lady, with a small child, waited for fifteen minutes but could not cross the road.
The bus stop, approximately twenty feet away from Witty Rong, had attracted a large group of people. Some left and others came, all busily boarding and alighting.
Witty Rong reflected that everyone in this big pier were unaccountably busy except for himself who was leaning at this cross junction canal, bored to death.
A number ten bus came. Two guys, about twenty years of age, wearing checkered shirts with tight denim jeans alighted; Witty Rong spotted their aura of evil despite the fact that they dressed as smartly as the pampered sons of a wealthy or influential family.
After some time, an overcrowded number three trolleybus came. The two guys in jeans signalled to each other and went up the bus together.
Witty Rong recognized them as the notorious gangsters of the Yau Jiu, who operated in this area as professional thieves.
This reminded him of his old buddy, You Bing Guang Yin, whom he had worked with for a living in the past. Now that he was down and out, why not try him for help? Despite his young age, You Bing Guang Yin was fond of the code of brotherhood. Back in those days, when Witty Rong was released from prison after six months there, he intended to wash his hands off the thieving profession. That young chap even subsidized him fifty follars, patter his shoulder and said:
“Uncle Rong it’s great that you could turn over a new leaf! Please accept this small token, use it to establish a small business…”
Following that, the young chap lowered his eyes and sighed:
“Fuck it, this isn’t a humane line, but I’m forced to…”
True, in those days when You Bing Guang Yin had just cohabited with the girl Sai Sai who sold meat at the Hua Street, he heeded her advice and withdrew from theft for a period of time. However, good moments never last. Sai Sai had a relapse. She was admitted to the Hua Liu hospital in Mi Tuo Lu and You Bing Guang Yin was forced to resume his old profession. Nowadays, he was rumoured to have sought his living even on buses near Colombo Street. Witty Rong had not met this guy for more than half a year.
He left the canal, rushed to the dilapidated Four Story Building located at Chinatown, but in vain; the dark room that You Bing Guang Yin stayed at was locked.
Realising that someone was here to look for You Bing Guang Yin, the landlady said unhappily:
“Humph! He has not come back for one whole week!”
The guest scratched his half-bald head:
“When will he be back?”
“The Devil knows! That sort of people, Humph….”
Before she had finished, the landlady left Witty Rong, moved her big fat buttocks and retreated to the kitchen.
Following that Witty Rong searched You Bing Guang Yin’s favourite roadside coffee stalls but still saw no sign of him.
Finally he proceeded to Colombo Street where this guy was said to be seeking his living nowadays.
Witty Rong wondered around the few bus stands at Colombo street, took note of every bus and trolleybus that passed him, looking out for You Bing Guan Yin.
A big question came to his mind:
“Could he have missed again?”
The sky had turned from dark red to light purple. It was getting dark.
Witty Rong was extremely hungry. Slowly, he dragged his tired footsteps and proceeded to the Ninth Story Building at South Bridge Road. The sky was totally dark. Right ahead, three huge buildings flickered with numerous ‘eyes’ and made the Ninth Storey Building appear more desolate.
Back to the wall, the two legs weakened and he squatted by the drain involuntarily. His stomach kept growling, even louder now.
A rank of lorries were parked along the roadside across the small sand field. They had just returned from Malaya after unloading.
Four to five drivers and lorry attendants from the trading company stood talking beside the covered lorry.
A layer of hazy dim light obscured the faces of these people but their conversation was clearly transmitted by the night breeze to Witty Rong.
“Gosh, another one today!”
“When was it?” asked someone in a white Hawaiian shirt.
“About twelve noon. It was a trishaw rider who had a badge on the shoulder.”
“Oh, what a pity, it’s the fifteenth!” sighed another in big baggy pants tied with a sash.
The one in the white Hawaiian shirt questioned closely:
“Where did he jump from”
“From the eighth floor,” the elder one answered, pointing towards where Witty Rong squatted. “He fell right there, stretched out one of his legs, and died eventually….”
Witty Rong felt a sudden chill. He stood up hurriedly, spitted onto the sand field and moved off.
A fried food stall was set up at the empty space next to the tall huge building, with twenty to thirty tables properly arranged.
A scent of fried beehoon flew into the nostril. Witty Rong couldn’t help but let his saliva drop uncontrollably. Both his legs seemed to be nailed tightly onto the ground, impossible to be moved.
With an effort, he moved to the table further away from the stall.
“Fried fish beehoon,” he placed his order.
A bowl of hot You tou mi fen was served. Witty Rong surveyed the ground as he gobbled with big mouthfulls; this was a good spot, there were many entrances in the three huge building and it would not be difficult to escape by dashing into the middle one.
His bowl of beehoon was devoured in a short time. Taking advantage of the ignorance of the stall holder, Witty Rong lifted his legs and darted into the shadow of the huge building.
“Hey, catch him, catch…..”
A shadow caught up right behind. Witty Rong smartly sneaked behind the spiral staircase. Noticing that the man had turned into a sidedoor that led to the back street, Witty Rong climbed up the stairs hurriedly. He hoped to get upstairs and escape from another staircase without being noticed. But those workers chatting next to the lorry began to yell.
“Hey, somebody is jumping down again!”
“Come, come, pull him, quick….”
For a moment, the whole street was filling with exclamations of “Somebody is jumping! Somebody is jumping!” People came from all directions crowding the spiral stairs. The few who ran ahead rushed up the steps.
Witty Rong began to panic and blame himself for not turning into a dead end. However, an idea came to him and he continued to rush upwards.
It was a confusion of noises right below.
“Hold on! Hold on!”
“Don’t let him jump!……”
But Witty Rong increased his pace. He turned to take a glimpse when he reached the sixth floor and slowed down deliberately till those behind caught up with him. Then he lifted his right leg over the railing and pretended that he would jump. At this very moment, his belt was pulled back by someone. The lorry driver’s loud voice sounded behind him:
“Hey, friend – why do you want to commit suicide?”
“Hey, don’t take such a drastic step.”
“Just leave me alone! I-I-I can live no longer lah…”
Witty Rong pulled a long face, struggled and threatened to jump, but was laughing silently tight inside.
The lorry driver held on tightly to his shoulders and refused to let go:
“Hey, all matters can be solved ….”
“Yah, don’t think of doing this…”
The others too helped to hold on to Witty Rong. The spiral stairway was no squeezed with more people and they all chipped in a word or two to dissuade Wit Rong from making light of his life.
“I don’t want to live any longer. I don’t want to live any longer…”
On the one hand, he yelled loudly but on the other, he let the others drag him down the spiral stairs.
The sand field was packed with a crowd. The crowd rushed forward and crowded around once Witty Rong was ‘safely rescued’.
The stall holder pushed his way angrily through the crowd, caught hold of Witty Rong and said:
“Hey, pay me for the You tou mi fen”
“I have no money…”
Witty Rong blinked his eyes.
“Fuck it, you, you assume it is a free meal!” the stall holder stamped his foot, refusing to give in.
The lorry driver frowned:
“Forget it, he has no way out, don’t force him!”
“Hey, just a few dollars, take it was relieving the poor….”
The stall holder was furious. At this moment, two policemen managed to separate the crowd and come forward.
The first sight of the policemen frightened Witty Rong. But that was only a wink of an eye and everything was back to normal.
After he was questioned, by the two uniformed policemen and brought to the police station, Witty Rong felt extremely happy.
“Ha, this is good, even lodging for tonight is settled….”
His blinked his eyed and almost laughed out loud.
By Miao Xiu
Translated by Tan Piak How