Tsim Sha Tsui
Listen to me, it’s not too late. On quiet nights, you will hear us speak. At the end of the last water snake year, the year that autre calendar brackets between February 10, 2013, and January 30, 2014, our storytelling began. During that lunar year, the Seven Sisters Club vanished for good. Once upon a time, a perfect geometry of white smoke against dark pistachio and rust that was almost vermilion graced its facade. Remnant tiles, like torn evening wear, barely cover the gunmetal wall now, but under streetlight, the colors still glow. I watched the building disappear. Each year, a little more deterioration—a sign gone, a door off its hinges, a windowpane shattered—until finally the wreckers appeared, and now we might never have existed at all.
The girls, they were all there, most idling in doorways along Minden Row, others squatting along the uphill path toward what had been the Royal Observatory, some loitering at the crest of the hump toward Middle Road. They all came to tell their stories to anyone who would listen, and once they started, they wouldn’t shut up.
But the first time they came it was because I called. Our home was gone and we needed a way to come together. We were like that, you see, undeniably sisters in eternity’s muddle. The Milky Way swirled through our story every 乞巧節, that Chinese heavenly Romeo and Juliet story for thwarted lovers all girls adore. Occasionally, we gathered in the forgotten village in North Point, along the shoreline where bathing pavilions later stood, although even those are gone now, remembered only by a street named 七姊妹道, meaning Seven Sisters, which correctly transliterates into English as Tsat Tsz Mui Road. Unlike our own mistranslated Minden, named after a Royal Navy ship to recall the 1759 Battle of Minden, our street’s name in Cantonese is Myanmar, formerly Burma. Our club on Minden Row, we have nothing to do with Burma. Even if it is possible to cross over a hump to get here, this isn’t the “over-the-hump” air route of that long-vanished airline, the one that ferried legal and not-so-legal cargo to and from Burma during and after the second war.
Our only crime was being bar girls at Seven Sisters.
And girls like us are better off dead, at least while we still answer to girl instead of woman, the way I did. The way I still do. I’m not old enough to be forgotten. None of us are. Which is why they all come when I call, these girls who were not privileged to ever become women, no matter how old they are when they die.
* * *
Men don’t lie to whores. I once had a lover who had been MI5. He was gentle, though, and sometimes cried after he fucked me. The man who killed me was rough and never cried. He kept two fierce Alsatians in his bathtub. That’s the trouble with Hong Kong flats—too small for dogs, especially large ones, but some people insist on having them. This man, an English police inspector, he was vice. Those dogs were hungry the night they ripped me apart and almost tore his left hand off in the process. He still has the scar. The photo in the newspaper caught it when he put up his hand to cover his face the day he was arrested, although that happened years later, long after I was gone. Jail ended his career, but he just went to the mercenaries. There’s always a place in the world for the rough ones.
About my death, though, that was an accident. He lost control of his hounds and they savaged my jugular and feasted on my flesh until he muzzled them. Afterward he hid my corpse because what else could he do? First, however, he cleanly sliced off my hands and feet to be found with no canine teeth marks, separated from the rest of me. It saddens me that the American sailor was wrongly accused. He, the police inspector, pinned it on him. Easy because the other girls saw me go off with sailor boy. They didn’t know Alistair came by after he left and took me to his home with the dogs. So that’s my story. And now I have no feet to walk or hands to cradle my favorite fleurs. All I can do is talk my story till someone hears me.
“Kowloon, Hong Kong” was silly pop, sung in our day, with its choppy chop-chop 2/4 or 4/4 time, like the impossible waltz that is “Chopsticks.” We didn’t say TST back then, since we were mostly Cantonese and said 尖沙嘴, Tsim Sha Tsui; the impossible English of our district’s name confounded foreigners who showed up later, in the eighties and nineties amid rampant nightlife (and daylife as well), and our neighborhood was abbreviated to TST, an acronym better suited to a parasitic bloodsucker, the tsetse fly.So here I am beginning at the end, or what you out there think of as the end. I am dead, have been dead since the mid-seventies. Alistair scattered my hands and feet in some kind of perverse ritual.
We were poorer then, during the four decades before and after the second war, even though wealth lined some of the lanes, avenues, streets, and roads of TST. We came to TST because of that wealth and the men who haunted the district, trolling for love, gluttonous with desire. But we were happier then because any money is better than being impoverished. After all, we were young and pretty enough, smart and hungry enough, sad and desperate enough to go away and stay away in TST, far from the shanties or villages or homes of our birth. Those homes where love was absent and our desire for more translated into lust for a future that could be our own. We came in droves during war and peacetime, hunting out a perch to land on for what passed as a lifetime.
So here I am beginning at the end, or what you out there think of as the end. I am dead, have been dead since the mid-seventies. Alistair scattered my hands and feet in some kind of perverse ritual. My left hand propped by the back entrance to the Peninsula Hotel, the one where we sometimes used to enter the kitchen where his friend Gaston the chef served us scrumptiously gourmet dinners for free. It surprises me Gaston did not recognize my hand when he found it. After all, I was sometimes payment for those meals, jacking him off in his office while Alistair waited outside. My left foot he tossed in the harbor, late one night, from the Star Ferry Pier in TST. It didn’t sink to the depths and landed on a ledge where it wavered precariously, never tipping into the sea. Someone found it and turned it in to the police, and it was preserved as evidence for a while until the case was closed and it eventually rotted away. My right hand and foot were never found.
We girls don’t mind, though, where a story begins. We have, as we like to say, all the time in the world, so sometimes we begin in the middle, other times at the beginning, and often enough at the end. It doesn’t much matter how you tell a story, as long as you tell it. This is my story so I’ll tell it however I want.
I don’t like the beginning of my story. Remembering myself in long pigtails when I really was a girl just makes me miserable. I had a cloth doll Ah-Ma sewed for me and I hung onto her and called her Little Miss, the polite form of address for a young lady. Siu jie, I’d admonish, where have you been? Don’t you know it’s dangerous out there at night? You stay with me and I’ll take care of you. It was what Ma used to say before she died, TB or something, I’m not sure, but I remember she coughed a lot. Pa sold me. I was twelve with buds for breasts and had only just begun menstruating. It was summer. He dragged me out of bed in the middle of the night and hosed me down like one of the pigs. A woman undid my pigtails and combed out my hair. She put me in a thin dress, stuck a pair of sandals with plastic flowers on my feet, and took me away from the village. I was too scared to speak or even cry. The last memory I have of Pa is a vision of his back to me, walking away toward our hut. He never even said goodbye.
And then for a while—I’m not sure how long, maybe three or four months—it was a cyclical blur of sleep, food, nights, men, men, men, and more men, until nothing they did could ever hurt again.
Until Monsieur Autre.
That wasn’t his name but it was what we girls called him. He was French, but he spoke our language very well, had lived in Taiwan where he said he studied Mandarin, and was in Hong Kong teaching French, and he spoke Cantonese too. He visited Auntie Lam, our mama san, once a week, always asking for her freshest flower. Usually he chose Little Pear or Night Blossom—they were sixteen and eighteen but dressed to pass for younger—until I arrived at Seven Sisters.
So this is the real beginning of my story, when I became Monsieur Autre’s “Little Cabbage,” his special amour.
I met him the night of my debut at Seven Sisters. It’s a fancy word, debut. Some American sailor taught me that. It was my sister’s debut, he said, and when I asked him what it meant, he said that where he came from, young girls were presented to society at a ball for debutantes to make their debut. His sister wore a pretty white dress like all her girlfriends and young men escorted the girls so everyone could check them out and see how special they were, and one day one of those young men would make her his bride. The sailor was a gentleman, soft spoken, whose English swayed like a willow in a typhoon. He didn’t wear a naval uniform but from the haircut you knew he was one of them. An officer, Auntie Lam whispered when she assigned me. Treat him nice and he’ll give you a big tip, maybe even buy you something special. He kept me a whole weekend. Did one of them marry your sister? I wanted to know. No, he said, she died. He was silent after that and I didn’t have the heart to ask what happened. His name was Jefferson, like the president was what he said.
But Jefferson was during Vietnam, long after Monsieur Autre, a time when Tsim Sha Tsui was flooded with boys who waddled like ducks. Those were good days, when all us girls made money, when Seven Sisters was busy every night. Even that was a long time ago, and now TST is all about jewelry stores and designer boutiques for mainland tourists or massage parlors where the girls make a pittance for their slavery. The flower markets are gone, along with the food markets and 好好, our favorite won ton noodle haunt. The good days are over and we, despite all our talk, are forever dead.
You see what I mean about our talk-stories? We have so many middles there are no beginnings. Monsieur Autre, though, he looked after me for a time, so I suppose he was a kind of beginning.
The day he finally left, he told me his real name. It was difficult and he laughed when I tried to say Archambault. So long, I complained. Why do you people make such long names? Chinese so much easier! I’ve always wondered, after he left, why he told me his name. He didn’t ask me to remember him like some johns did. Nor did he tell me to look him up if I was ever in Paris the way others occasionally would. As if I’d ever go to Manhattan, Kansas, which is where one john was from. He wrote down his address and phone number, insisted I keep the torn slip of paper. I threw it out the minute he left. Such a boy, sweet-faced, told me he wanted to show me off to his friends, to introduce me to his mother. Dor yu! Many fish! as Monsieur Autre would say, making us all laugh at his deliberate mistranslation by mispronouncing the tones for 多餘, meaning something superfluous or a pointless endeavor. He taught me a lot of English words and phrases, and a little French, although sometimes I think he was poking fun by teaching me deliberately wrong words and phrases. Don’t make me look like a fool, I’d complain, and his answer always was, You could never be a fool.
Was I a fool? Now that I have all the time in eternity, it is the only question that still vexes and nags. All those sexy clothes and bright shiny things, just to earn a few dollars from so many johns I lost count. Wasn’t there anything else I could have done? Monsieur Autre, he often said: Why don’t you go back to school, learn something? But honestly, that would be way too many fishes! He was just as much to blame, don’t you think, because he liked fresh girls? And I was young and fresh and even though my hymen was already torn and too many cocks had come before his, he could still pretend I was his baby girl. Pedophile, that’s all he was. It doesn’t matter now how nicely he treated me, all he wanted was to fuck a child, and there’s something so vile and wrong-headed about that, so . . . unnecessary, this burning desire of his. Don’t you think?Look around, it’s always only the girls who come when I call. Many of our johns are just as dead as us, but do you see them here?
You know, I don’t even know to whom I’m speaking anymore. Look around, it’s always only the girls who come when I call. Many of our johns are just as dead as us, but do you see them here? No. Bang, bang, thank you, ma’am, as the sailors used to say. And then they get to sleep the sleep of the dead. Meanwhile we’re wandering, exhausted, famished ghosts with no hope of rest. What we’re looking for to appease our restless spirit we’ll never find, and what we need to still our hunger pangs is lost to that heaven where emperors rule and girls must remain girls forever.
Listen to me, it’s not too late. You can still fix things. Girls are not pigs to be hosed down and sold. We all return to where Seven Sisters once stood, because it’s the closest thing to home. But the club’s long gone, and even the abandoned space that stayed vacant for so many years has been transformed into a third-rate restaurant, famous mostly for its rat population. Maybe it’s just as well it’s gone, although for every Seven Sister who dies, a new one is born elsewhere in TST. You’d think one of those johns would at least come back and visit, maybe look for one of us? Like Manhattan, Kansas, and his earnest plea that I should come visit? Oh sure, they’ve had their wives and daughters or girlfriends and maybe even other younger, fresher girls. But I can’t go very far because my feet are gone, and I can’t reach out to strangle the ones who are still alive because my hands are gone as well. It’s a hell of an eternity, and if you had any sense you’d do something to turn this world around, find some way to right the wrongs, figure out a better way for me to die.
Listen to me, it’s not about fate. We girls love to chatter on about fate because it’s a small comfort to think that really, there’s nothing to be done so why not just shut up and die the hand you’re dealt? But look at us, we’re all here, and we haven’t shut up, not like those johns whose dead-to-the-world sleep is peacefully silent. There’s only one thing I’m sure of and that is that I have to keep talking-story until you hear me, until you truly listen, until you fix this mess you call life. Fix things so that girls like me can become women, need not always be enslaved, stripped, beaten, fucked, or treated like dolls, created just to satisfy impersonal lusts. You will hear us, me, one of these days, because I know you can if you try.
Listen, it’s never too late. Just listen.
Excerpted from “TST” by Xu Xi, copyright 2018 by Xu Xi, included in the anthology Hong Kong Noir edited by Jason Y. Ng and Susan Blumberg-kason. Used with permission of the author and akashic Books (akashicbooks.com).