Sam Gold felt rather befuddled as he
staggered out of the elevator and searched his pockets for his door keys. He had just returned from a visit to a
psychic Shenzhen masseuse recommended to him by his maid as a cure for
insomnia. He had not known that insomnia was a problem until his maid told him
it was. He just thought that he liked to go to bed late and get up early and be
very tense all day. Being tense and sleeping four hours a night marked him out
as an alpha male.
Sam Gold felt rather befuddled as he staggered out of the elevator and searched his pockets for his door keys. He had just returned from a visit to a psychic Shenzhen masseuse recommended to him by his maid as a cure for insomnia. He had not known that insomnia was a problem until his maid told him it was. He just thought that he liked to go to bed late and get up early and be very tense all day. Being tense and sleeping four hours a night marked him out as an alpha male.
“Mark you out for heart attack,” was the maid’s diagnosis.
“Perhaps you only dream that you don’t sleep and you really only awake for four hours,” was the masseuse’s diagnosis. He could tell that she did not really believe what he told her, but she took his money nonetheless and assured him that the Chinese medicine she gave him would help him relax.
As she therapeutically hammered the soles of his feet, he took the pill and dreamt that he was Napoleon the Third and had discovered the Empress, amidst a swirl of incense, worshipping a trouserless Chinese man who sang the famous song - or at least famous amongst Chinese scholars - “We part, we go on our way, naked without a tie in the world.” Sam had not cared much for the experience. He thought he would rather stay awake and keep a rational eye upon his wife instead of let his imagination get carried away.
As he turned the key in the door he heard a high-pitched screech sounding like sex with a cat, which he assumed was sex with Mrs. Gold. He listened a moment for the mantra of the Fire Breath Orgasm - Mrs. Gold’s specialty - but only the screeching continued. He burst in and found Mr. Tian singing, his face covered by a red mask with white eyes and a painted curling black moustache. He wore it with a yellow gown that had large flowing sleeves. Tian explained that tonight’s Chinese lesson concerned “The Peony Pavilion.”
Sam took a deep breath, fetched himself a gin, and since he paid good money for his tutor, he calmed down and proceeded to take on the role of the diligent student.
“After this,” asked Sam, “will I know how to tell a taxi driver where to go?”
“Ah,” said Tian, “You drive Mercedes, so not a problem.”
The lesson was strenuous, especially when all Sam wanted to do was seek out his Ching Yi, a name that Tian had used in reference to young beauties, and make sure that she need not seek satisfaction elsewhere. But he supposed that a smattering of Chinese would come in handy since he lived in China. However, despite being able to read prodigious amounts of it, he still could not hold the simplest conversation with the average Hong Kong man.
“They’re ignorant people,” explained Tian, “They have nothing worth listening to anyway.”
Tian was oblivious to Sam’s weariness as he coached him through a few lines of the opera and had Sam play the female part of Li Ni Ang.
In perfect classical Chinese, Sam précised the story, explaining that Li dismissed the advice of her tutor and instead of studying, escaped into the heady atmosphere of the perfumed garden where she dreamt of sex so perfect that she died for fear that she might never get it for real.
“That’s not quite the story,” explained Tian. “That’s your Western thinking. Think Chinese.”
Sam tried again: “The fake dream lover takes advantage of an innocent girl and she kills herself because she liked it too much. Then, when the lover she thought was a dream is revealed as real, she returns from the grave to seduce him. Which nearly gets him executed because everyone thinks he’s lying. Then they all go to Hangzhou and live happily ever after.”
By the look on Tian’s face, Sam could tell that he was somehow wrong.
“Why don’t the Chinese have farces?” asked Sam.
“We have face.”
Tian was not familiar with the concept.
“When the person you least want to see bursts through a door, that’s a farce,” explained Sam. “The French do it very well.”
Tian thought for a moment. “Ah,” he said, “We have an un-farce. In Chinese stories the person you most want to see, walks out of the door and is never seen again.”
“Unless they’re dead.”
Tian sighed, “I think today’s lesson is over,” and then he packed his mask and left, still in his gown. Tian’s spindly trouserless legs poking out of the end made Sam suspect something. He almost ran after him to say so, but his maid marched in announcing that dinner was about to be served. She shuddered on seeing Sam who was still wearing the mask of Li Ni Ang.
“You look like a ghost,” she exclaimed and crossed herself.
“If you believe,” said Sam in his best Chinese, “There will be ghosts, but if you don't, there will not." A Song Dynasty scholar was reputed to have said that, and now Sam had said it. He felt rather pleased with himself. His maid did not understand a word. She was from the Philippines. She understood even less his penchant for amateur dramatics and how it had taking him into an alarmingly intense interest in Chinese Opera. Its high-pitched delivery, banging gongs and interminable plot lines were the obvious products of insomniacs who wished to inflict their perpetual half-baked state upon the rest of the world. But, for Sam, a language was meaningless without the stories that it told and in lieu of a Chinese wife, otherwise known as a sleeping dictionary among linguaphiles, opera was his key to the mysterious landscape of the Chinese soul.
Ghosts had been seen that summer, though only hysterical teenage girls hunted down by The Apple Daily saw them. This was not that unusual in Hong Kong. Even the most reputable newspapers ran stories on haunted toilets, Mass Transit Railway Stations, and hotels notorious for their attracting clientele who light charcoal fuelled barbecues in their rooms and “Smoke themselves to death.” Despite the Chinese not believing in anything in particular they took great delight in conjuring up ghostly apparitions. In this instance, they were first seen playing on the stairwells of housing estates and then frolicking on New Territories’ tyre dumps. It was a bad sign, as all but the most special ghosts tend to be, and doubly so because the gates of hell were not supposed to be open until the seventh lunar month and the mid-autumn festival.
For Sam, despite his obsessive attention to Chinese details, or maybe because of it, the fact that ghosts liked to spend inordinate amounts of time in unsanitary conditions during very high temperatures, proved their non-existence. Nothing in Hong Kong could exist without air-conditioning. His wife, for instance, existed only because she was a genie of the air-conditioner, living in perpetual pursuit of congenial masters. Just set her to cool and dry and she was yours.
But during the seventh lunar month, Sam was driving slowly down Queens Road. He was close on the bumper of a Lexus and having premonitions that inside the Lexus, his wife was meeting her lover - or, at least, that a Lexus was the sort of car that would be driven by the sort of man who would take his wife as a mistress - when he thought he caught a glimpse of either a ghostly procession, or a swirl of pollution. He drove through it, turning it into swirling eddies of grey ectoplasmic shadows that spattered upon passersby.
“The ghosts are the voices of the city,” announced Tian from the car radio - a man who owned a Lexus, and besides being Sam’s Chinese teacher, was also the all round expert on all things Chinese that English language radio dragged to their studios to entertain the ex-pats with his simultaneously astute and bizarre feng shui fuelled political commentary. “Yes,” he continued, “They march because they protest what we have done to the world!”
Sam shouted back at his car radio: “Voix de ville!” This was the mantra he used during Fire Breath Sex! His wife had explained the technique and how he had to yell something at the point of orgasm in order to intensify it. So he chose the French for the voices of the city: “Voix de ville!” Was it a coincidence that Tian had called the ghosts the “voices of the city”? He turned off the radio in disgust at anyone taking ghosts seriously. Especially if that person was rogering his wife! To steady his nerves and put aside all such paranoid thoughts of Mr. Tian, his Lexus, and his wife giving new meaning to the term “eating Chinese,” he sank into a reverie on the origins of the name “Vaudeville”.
He had spent four years studying French Literature, writing a thesis deconstructing the influence of Napoleon the Third upon French theatrical tradition - based solely upon the semiotic relationships conjured up by the possibility that Georges Feydeau was The Emperor’s illegitimate son, thus writing, “as Leonard Pronko has suggested, lurking beneath the frenetically joyous surface of Feydeau’s farces is a vision of the world in explosion”. He rapidly became disillusioned with academia because, as he informed his tutor, “Who gives a fuck?” The clincher was that the tiny world of University Literature Departments was unable to enjoy a good laugh without asking whether the portrayal of a speech impediment - a comic device much loved by farceurs - was morally reprehensible. So, much to the disgust of the exquisite and largely homosexual intelligentsia that he called his friends, he took a corporate position. Naturally his company sent him to Asia. And not even Francophone Asia, not that he would have relished the Ho Chi Minh City office, but at least the Vietnamese could make decent pastries and coffee.
Ten years in Japan, ten years in Korea, and now he was in Hong Kong where he expected to end up like most ex-pats of his kind, marrying his Filipina maid. Then one day the future Mrs. Gold appeared at his door with a backpack and a scrap of purple paper bearing the address scribbled across a Buddhist Swastika. She walked in, took one look at the wealthy immensity of the living room, another look at the thin, stooped, middle-aged risk assessor, and said, “You’re older than your photo. I assumed it was a fake.” And she pushed her way through the door. She said she was twenty years old, liked pineapple and was called Mayflower, after the Pilgrims, and she had a tattoo on her arm saying: Essex Born. “People often read it as Eastbourne,” she chirped.
She was not the sort of girl to say no to, so despite her obviously being at the wrong address and really searching for “Hong Kong Dick”, the Broadband chat room beast of Mid-Levels who probably had several backpacker skins decorating his walls, he said yes to her staying a few days - it seemed the humane thing to do - and magically his prostate trouble cleared up and he proposed within a week. The Fire Breath Orgasm was a powerful beast.
“You’re sort of like my soul lover,” she said. “I feel like you’re the first person I ever loved.”
She believed in karma and never admitted she was at the wrong address but his maid kept reminding him that Mrs. Gold seemed to spend all her time looking for the right one.
“She paints her face,” she said, “and fools you.”
“By removing the mask, we conceal,” said Sam, ever the theatre buff, “But by wearing it, we reveal our true selves.”
He loved the theatre and the way one forgot the artifice and lived in the dream. He thought that if the entire world was an illusion, what was the point of seeing through it? And so spent an inordinate amount of time thrashing about with the prehensile Mrs. Gold and feeling satisfyingly wasted for the rest of the time.
“You kill yourself carrying on like this,” said his Maid. “You got good life insurance or something?”
“Excellent,” said Sam the risk assessor, “I optimize all risk return ratios in everything I do.”
The mysterious Lexus that could have been Tian’s, could have been Hong Kong Dick’s, or might never have existed and was but a product of sleep deprivation, disappeared amidst rattling trams, glistening umbrellas and rain that fell like willow branches. Sam switched the radio back on and found Tian was still waffling on about angry spirits demanding the right of representation in a world that was being destroyed without concern for their infinitely possible future and explicably, Sam felt very tired. He hoped that his vision in Shenzhen had been the result of chemically induced insanity rather than insight, but he was not sure because the psychic had also predicted that buildings would tumble like waterfalls, temperatures would soar, islands would sink, and we had all better prepare ourselves because the veil of illusion was about to be ripped from our eyes. All that seemed horrifyingly prescient, but he decided that he would either have to rid himself of his fears by taking a holiday and sleeping for a week, or confront his wife and risk offending her - or worse, seeding the adulterous idea in her marvelously chaotic but deeply erotic mind and regretting it so much that he might purchase a Rip’N’Burn Barbecue Pack and have done with it.
Back home he was greeted by nothing but his array of Chinese Opera masks exhibited upon the dining room wall. He could remember some of their names: Huang Pang, Zhang Fei, Cao Cao. He opened a cupboard door and removed the make-up box that Tian had presented to him for being his most loyal student, and set to painting his face. He painted his lips red, and then around his eyes he smeared a greasy pink. Finally he painted in thick black eyebrows. His epicine friends at the Sorbonne would have approved far too deeply for his own comfort, but he was now a randy young aristocratic scholar about to exhume the body of the beautiful maiden he loved. Dead girls were always the most insatiable lovers in Chinese stories and randy lads were never adverse to digging up a good corpse and putting it through its paces. He would in such a state conjur up his wife and there would be much yab yum, or at least a bit until dinner was served.
He went to the bedroom so that he might see himself in the full-length mirror but hesitated by the door. The moans that he heard spoke of one thing: sex. The die was cast. He had always known. It had disturbed his equilibrium. But a moment’s thought and he could have deconstructed the signs right from the beginning. It had been destined. The drama had moved through all the required developments. The entire universe, even the collective consciousness of the Chinese, had conspired to create this cycle of events. He now had no choice but to move to the denouement and so burst in through the door to find Mrs. Gold naked but for a navel ring, lying on the satin sheets of their king size bed, hyperventilating as the Fire Breath Orgasm engulfed her.
Sam quickly looked beneath the bed, flung open the wardrobe, then checked to see if Tian was naked and dangling by his fingertips from the windowsills of their twelfth floor apartment.
“I am opening my chakras,” explained Mrs. Gold in a long exhalation.
Sam was suspicious.
“You will receive the benefit,” she explained.
“Is there any left for me now?”
Apparently there was not and she proceeded to take a shower.
“I am practicing my orgasm for you,” she shouted from behind the shower curtain. Then she began a deep breathing exercise while soaping herself.
“I hope you are thinking of me,” shouted Sam.
There was no reply, merely the gurgling of suds down the drain. Sam felt all the adrenalin that had been pumping through his veins gurgle down the drain with the suds. He felt a little ridiculous. He was a skinny, round-shouldered, purveyor of probabilities with a fetish for make-up and oriental poetry, and definitely undeserving of the affection of anything so fresh, so juicy, as Miss Essex Born, 1984.
“Did you know,” he ventured upon a subject he knew his wife would be interested in, “that ghosts have been demonstrating in Statue Square?”
Mrs. Gold emerged from the steam, glowing. She kissed Sam lightly upon the lips smearing his red lipstick.
“Who were these ghosts?” she asked.
“I don’t know!” said Sam, “Chinese ghosts tend to be anonymous. Western Ghosts are always Francis Drake or Elvis. They’re always someone.”
“Am I someone?” asked Mrs. Gold.
“Of course you are.”
“Someone to you?”
“You’re the only one!”
“That’s nice. I’ve heard lots of stories about how rich men in Hong Kong have one wife in Hong Kong and another in Shenzhen.”
“When would I find the time?”
“If the day comes when I can’t satisfy your needs, you will give me fair warning?”
“I’ll try and be satisfied with what I have.”
“You’re too sweet. Now I must get ready. I have to meet someone who might want to use me in a modeling assignment.”
“My wife, the model! I’m a lucky man.”
Then he heard the maid announcing dinner. He left Mrs. Gold and joined his maid who glared at his smudged make-up and told him that Mr. Tian had phoned to say that he had left his trousers in Mrs. Gold’s wardrobe.
“Why on earth did he do that?” asked Sam as he sat at the single place set for him.
His maid was about to explain that she knew exactly why, but Mrs. Gold entered, wearing a T-shirt cut to below her breasts and a skirt slung at the bikini-line.
“I’ll be back,” she said, as she walked out of the front door.
“We part, we go on our way, naked without a tie in the world,” said Sam, translating a Ming poet.
“But you have some very nice ties,” whispered the maid as she kneaded away the tension in his neck. “You have lots of nice clothes.”