Twenty Three published

Hong Kong Future Perfect, a collection of twenty stories about the Hong Kong of the future, was launched last night. I’m still reading the others, but here’s how my contribution starts…

Twenty Three

Making lasagna is always an adventure, and George likes to give Fan a thrill now and again. And what better way to celebrate the first and a bit-th anniversary of their move to Hong Kong, not to mention George’s debut, than an adventure?

Olive oil in pan, crushed garlic, oregano, secret spice, a handful of mint and rosemary from the plants on the balcony that, unlike most of his horticulture, haven’t yet died. One medium onion, a lively one, George reflects as he dabs away a tear. Chopped onion in the pan, low heat, soften it up while he butchers tomatoes, enjoying the tomatonian blood on the chopping board; add meat and simmer. Lasagna: two eggs, flour, some olive oil, and knead until it no longer sticks to his hands.

He steps back from a scattering of vegetable carcasses and a halo of flour around the mixing bowl and sees an hour has passed. Cooking is nothing if not absorbing, and he needed a distraction from the seventy-five minute soliloquy spinning around in his head. He leaves the dough to do whatever it does and wanders into the combined living and dining room of their four-hundred square foot apartment. The computer regards him with a baleful stare. He ignores it and phones her.

She doesn’t pick up. She’s probably in a meeting. Fan spends most of her life in meetings.

He succumbs to the computer. George was born a century late. Quill pens and leather-bound ledgers are more his style. Alone amongst his peers, he learns his lines from a printout rather than memorising them from the screen of an Indriod, A-phone, or whatever. Nonetheless, he has, over the years, come to appreciate the virtual world, and especially the Blog of Nemesis.

It is a subversive blog. Not a call to arms, but nevertheless a critical eye on the random flailing of the disintegrating polity that Hong Kong has become. George doubts that things were any better under the British who, in his view, got away with it because they were white rather than because they were good, or even competent. Nonetheless, since the CEO of Hong Kong was replaced with a mayor by executive fiat from Beijing, the gentle decline has become more of a rapid tumble.

Whither art thou? he asks the computer on seeing that the blog’s author has not yet posted. And thou, sweet shrew? he asks as Fan’s phone once more rings out. In this age of Whatscrap, Fakebook and the like, an SMS is the equivalent of a quill pen. He types one into his unsmart phone, and hopes Fan will read it.

Back into the thick of things. He rolls the pasta flat, cuts it into sheets, makes the béchamel sauce and assembles the lasagna. The oven is the flat’s only concession to things Western: he sets it on 220 and puts the dish in.

Chef, thespian, luddite. As the lasagna cooks, he repeats his lines out loud. When the dish comes out at the end of his seventy-five minute soliloquy, he attempts once more to make contact with Fan. Still, no one picks up, and she has not responded to his message. The lasagna cools. The computer doubles up as television and integrated home entertainment console: George checks the local channel, but switches off in disgust on seeing the face of Hong Kong’s mayor.

Delay no more (his favourite Canto-pun). He eats a quarter of the lasagna, which has turned out to be one of his better ones, with a shout of spice and the cheese crisped without being burnt. He scribbles a note for Fan and props it up on the lasagna’s serving dish before taking the four flights of stairs down to the street.

The streets are quiet, as they have been since the suppression of the HK Independence Movement a few months ago, when all twenty-three of its leaders were rounded up and sentenced under some archaic colonial law which, in the best tradition of ex-colonies gone basket-case loony, had been dredged up, but with the nice local twist of being ‘reinterpreted’ by Beijing. Even so, the quiet tonight is almost preternatural. As if Lady Macbeth had just found the spot on her hand.

One of the reasons that George and Fan live in a tiny apartment, probably an illegal structure, on the roof of a crumbling village house in the arse end of the New Territories is that he is a stage actor, a career that pays even less than television, which makes it a pittance indeed. Add to that the fact that George is an English-language stage actor, with a total potential audience of less than one per cent of Hong Kong’s rapidly migrating seven million people, and compound that with being ethnically Chinese and speaking both Cantonese and English with a Liverpudlian accent, and it’s a wonder he gets any parts at all. But the immediacy of the footlights is inimitable. Nothing comes close. With cameras, there is always a second chance; with the stage, one fuck up and you’re dead.

In what used to be the McAuley and is now the Zhou Enlai Studio of the Arts Centre, George faces an audience of fifty-two. Two-thirds of capacity, which, for the debut performance of experimental theatre written, directed and acted by George Kwok Chi-man, is pretty good. He had hoped that Fan, as executive producer, would make it fifty-three but, as the lights dim and the audience wrestle their phones into silence, there’s still no sign of her.

Seventy-eight minutes later – an overrun of three minutes – and George is chuffed. The audience laughed where they were supposed to, oohed and aahed on cue, and nobody’s phone went off. For all the government’s nasty words, subversive theatre is not dead yet.

And, when he gets home, the lasagna’s still uneaten.

‘Fuck,’ he says.

It’s nudging midnight, and Fan hasn’t returned his call or messages. His phone is a dumb phone so checking the e-mail means switching on the computer.

No e-mail from Fan. ‘Double fuck’. As executive producer and thus bank-roller of his play, he’d hoped she would at the very least make time to accompany its director, writer and sole performer for a celebratory drink after its opening night. No such luck. He checks his watch: he can still make it to the pub before closing time.

‘The usual?’ asks Ah-Ping. ‘Dim ah?’

`Quiet tonight,’ says George as he looks around the all-but-deserted bar.

‘Haven’t you heard?’ says Ah-Ping. ‘The twenty-three are going to be executed. There are a million people in Victoria Park.’

To read the rest, you’ll have to buy the anthology.