By Jennifer Wong
We went into the noodle place and sat down at the table by the window. This traditional, unglamorous eatery in Happy Valley was one of his favourites. He didn't even glance at the menu, knowing what he wanted. He waved for the waiter and ordered a few sharer dishes: chief's special dumplings with diced pork and Chinese cabbage, Chinese wonton noodles, Choi Sum in beef brisket sauce and the house special chicken congee. A lot to share between two.
He liked to come and eat here because all the waiters here knew who he was and had an understanding not to show it. The other diners were mostly locals of the posh neighbourhood, who were rather wrapped up with their own interesting lives that they couldn't be bothered with him. It might also be a statement of taste. The round dining tables and dining chairs were made of unpolished hard wood reminiscent of Ming style furniture. The food served here was always in very generous portions.
'So, have you sorted out my Kowloon Tong project?' he asked, as he poured tea into those petite china cups for himself and for me.
'Yes, I did this morning. We have confirmed the deal with the estate agent. I have got the layout plan and would discuss with your interior designer on a few adjustments. At the moment one of the key issues is to introduce more light into the main room,' I said. He nodded and elaborated his preferences. Light and space. He wanted the place to be unassuming, imbued with a sense of space: unglamorous, practical and comfortable. Somewhere he and his friends (only a few, well-chosen ones would have the privilege to visit) could sit down, have a brew of tea and relax in the surrounding closeness of nature.
I supposed, as I sometimes did, that people around us might wonder or gossip: what relations would I have with the middle-aged man? I thought he looked young for his age, but it was evident that he was at least twenty years older than me, if not more. He was short and had dark skin, often stared at people with his eagle eyes, and seldom smiled.
After a while the waiter came and laid down the assortment of steaming hot dishes, and went away to fill us a fresh pot of tea. (I could tell that the waiter found it hard to suppress his excitement or anxiety in being assigned to serve our table, as he trembled a little while he set down the dishes, though I was not sure if Mr Li noticed.) Mr Li's mobile phone on the table flashed, I was about to alert him of the incoming call but he caught my eye and shook his head. He did not want to pick it up now. In a while the red flashing died down and presumably the caller left a voicemail message. I went on to explain a few questions raised by the interior designer yesterday, as I would be meeting his team tomorrow and would like to confirm some ideas from him before then. I added pepper to the congee for him.
This was one of his newest projects, and I must say one very close to his heart. He had just bought a two-storey detached residence in Kowloon Tong – the upper class yet modest-looking residential neighbourhood on Kowloon peninsula, to house his rock collection. It would be a private gallery of some sort. Over the years he had maintained a remarkably comprehensive, carefully-chosen private collection of rare rocks. 'Rocks are the very core elements of Nature. They have so much force and life expressed in them. Their endurance makes us reflect, in comparison, how fickle human life and passions are,' he said once, in his private office that didn't resemble an office at all, filled with rare and jagged rocks, pots of fern, ceramic items and homely wooden furniture (you could hardly see any documents or papers in his office, for he trusted none). Over the weeks I had been busy in overseeing the inventory count and packing up of the collection, which demanded a lot of care and time, so that when the property was properly furnished, we could move the treasures into the gallery. At times I caught myself admiring and touching a few pieces which he prized more highly than the rest with an unexpected surge of tenderness.
Other than collecting these rocks from his various trips all over the world, some of them were gifts from friends and social acquaintances. Apparently, someone as rich as he was – an influential community patron – enjoyed much admiration and respect from all quarters, and they were eager to show their appreciation for his generosity by giving him what suited his taste. However, not many knew that he only collected certain kinds of rocks, especially those that were unpolished, grainy and individualistic in character. He hated getting precious stones. He considered it an insult almost. Far too flashy for his taste.
As we finished our meal, I took care of the bill when it arrived and tipped generously on his behalf. He gave me various credit cards with unbelievably high credit limits and I used them to help settle his day-to-day payments: shopping, food, golf and club memberships, home bills and furnishings, his daughter's kindergarten school fees and so on. The manager, trying hard to be as unobtrusive and polite as possible, asked him if the food was okay. He said yes. Then we put on our coats and left.
It was inexplicable why I became his assistant. I came back to Hong Kong, where I was born, after my Stanford degree as I was landed, without much complication, with a job in a top-notch international law firm. The working hours were demanding, but the work itself wasn't too difficult for me. In fact as long as you got familiar with the routine of it all, anyone might do well there. It was all just process and form, and sometimes, staring at the pile of corporate and listing documents in the late hours, I felt I functioned more like a proofreader than a lawyer. I couldn't decide whether I liked my colleagues there or not. We were from very similar backgrounds and one found comfort in that sometimes: the familiar hobbies and the lack of need to explain with one another. A sort of complicit comradeship. At other times I was simply bored by the monotony of their conversation and their narrow pursuits. I couldn't understand whether their lack of imagination or adventurousness was a cultivated trait or something acquired from the job. Maybe a little of both.
I found out from Sylvia, a college friend of mine, while we were playing tennis, that her friend worked as an advisory on some personal investment matters for Mr Li, and heard that the man was looking for an overseas graduate as an assistant. I had worked for two years in the law firm by then, and continued to be trapped in a prestigious, mind-numbing existence. I had heard about him often enough, as everyone else did, since he was much celebrated as a successful homegrown entrepreneur who owned a chain of popular dim sum eateries in Hong Kong and overseas. Everyone was surprised by and envied the magnitude of his success. His company went public a year ago, and the share price had gone up steadily.
Despite how well he was known, he shied away from reporters and kept himself to himself. The newspapers and magazines reported on his whereabouts and his business anyway, as far as they could with whatever sources and information they had. His billionaire story was exactly what readers liked to know: a local Hongkonger who didn't even finish his secondary school education, worked as a waiter for a year in a small Chinese teahouse, and went off to invest all his savings in starting a modern dim sum place which became knockout popular. His chain always opened till very late so that those with the cravings could still enjoy dim sum on weekday or weekend evenings. The range of dim sum was far more than you could find anywhere else and the prices were amazingly inexpensive. Nowadays you actually had to book well in advance during weekends, or else you had to wait for an hour to get a table, like everyone else. Whenever I passed by his teahouses, they were always full.
I didn't know what got into me that I decided to go for an interview. Sylvia said that he was a highly intelligent but strange boss and nobody knew how to get along with him. But he liked me enough and I was on board. He didn't even ask me if I would accept the offer or not, he simply assumed so after the interview, went out of his room and told the few people working in his office to welcome me on board. They looked at me from top to toe and did their best to hide their amazement. I supposed he liked the fact that I wanted to break out from what most people would consider a highflyer's career. He liked taking risks and enjoyed seeing young people do so. I didn't tell my colleagues in the law firm the actual reason why I left. I said I wanted to take a break and travel in China. Some of the senior associates and a couple of the partners in the firm said they were sad to see me go. They said I had been doing so well.
When I arrived at the hospital ward he was already there, reclining on a sofa. He was on the phone, talking about the design of the new London eatery. I went into the partitioned bedroom in the private suite to check on his mother. She was quite fragile these days, after the fall she had from the stairs. I asked her how she was and she told me that the nurses had been neglecting her yesterday, forgetting to switch on the TV for her in the early morning and this made her miss her favourite morning talk-show. I gave her a glass of water, and a soothing neck massage. I promised her I would see to it that the nurses would not repeat the same mistake.
After hanging up the call, he came in the bedroom to see her. Even though she experienced signs of an onset of Alzheimer's disease, old Mrs Li was always very glad to see him. We were not sure if she recognised him completely.
'How come you're here?' Mrs Li asked, knitting her brows.
'I've dropped by here to visit you! How are you today?' It's very unusual to see him in such sunny mood. Only for old Mrs Li.
'Good. Not getting worse if you ask me. But the nurse forgot to turn on the TV this morning. Anyway Hannah said she will take care of that for me,' pointing at me. I nodded.
'Good,' he said, squeezing her hand.
'I thought you're a busy man. Why would you have the time to visit me? I'm just nobody. Don't you need to work?' She looked bewildered, glancing at the clock on the wall and was suddenly reminded that it was noon on a weekday.
'A little bird this morning told me you're ill. So I thought I would drop by and check on you,' he winked at old Mrs Li. 'And I have brought you some flowers,' he said, and she turned to look at the huge bouquet of orange and pink tiger lilies already tidily arranged and looking sprightly in the tall jade-green vase. I had removed the pollen from the lilies beforehand in case it might stain or arouse any allergy. The room was filled with a harmonious fragrance.
'That's very nice of you. So kind. I feel better today. My left leg feels less swollen. Look here,' she said cheerfully, rolling up her light blue pyjama trouser-trunk to show him the improved conditions of her left knee. 'The nurse says she is coming soon for my injection time. So why don't you just run along and go back to your office before your boss finds out you have sneaked out? Everyone has to work to make a living,' she said. He looked at me and I smiled. We both wondered whether old Mrs Li might have lost count how many years had it been since her son quit his job as a waiter in the small restaurant, or was it just meant to tease him.
When we were back in the office he asked me to discuss the renewal of his golf membership and to explore options in installing a digitalised fingerprint-identification system for his house. He also asked me for ideas for his new London teahouse. I said that it could be more daring, more fashionable in terms of the décor because of its clientele. Say an open kitchen, or if not, a glass-panelled kitchen so that the diners could see the food being prepared and to reinforce the concept of fresh, made-to-order dim sum. He agreed and said that he would raise this with Simon the next morning. Simon was the newly appointed restaurant manager for London. At the end, after we finished our discussion, he looked away at his rock collection sitting on the cabinet by the window, dusting them one by one even though there wasn't the need (the cleaner would do that every morning), not speaking. When he turned back to face me, his eyes were red and swelled with frustrated emotions.
'The doctor told me mother is dying.' He wept, and for a long time I just sat there, holding his hand, sharing his sorrow.
I had only seen his wife once, at an annual Christmas dinner of the company. That was the only time that I did not need to sit with him at the same table. Mrs Li was way beyond beautiful. For one thing, she was very tall and had very appealing long legs. As a former A-list film actress, she was considered to be very lucky to have married one of the richest tycoons in Asia, at a time when there were signs that her acting career was slowing down, especially with the new surge of young and hot Mainland actresses and models. Over dinner, my boss didn't talk much to his wife. Each time Mrs Li went away to the restroom, he seemed to grow more relaxed, and more talkative. At one or two junctures, I spotted Mrs Li staring into space, playing with her snazzy mobile in a bored way. Nevertheless, when Mr Li was invited onstage to give a short speech and to toast the company, she clapped her hands warmly along with everyone else, and beamed warmly at him. Obviously the very few reporters invited to the occasion set about snapping photos of her then, the pretty wife with a glamorous past, wrapped in a soft, pastel-coloured pashmina shawl, who looked happy enough in her well-matched marriage.
Obviously they must be very attracted to each other, and well-matched because each became something of a legend in their own way. I knew he had bought her a horse of excellent pedigree to celebrate their wedding anniversary and gave it the name 'My Only Love'. In fact 'My Only Love' seemed a lucky name, and the horse had won quite a few races last year. He made a point of always answering her phone calls, no matter where, and he would pick up her call to say he would call her back even if he was in the middle of an important business meeting. Sometimes I wondered why young Mrs Li never visited her mother-in-law at the hospital. It seemed to me only natural that she should care. I knew young Mrs Li never did because the nurses told me daily old Mrs Li's health conditions and the names of all the visitors. But I never found it appropriate to ask why she didn't. And Mr Li never explained.
It didn't last long. The job, I meant. Everything went on fine and I must say on most days I looked forward to the interesting and varied mix of chores required of me. I dealt with such domestic, easy tasks such as helping Mr Li draw up the guest list for a private boating trip, signing six or seven digit checks for him, accompanying him to concerts, golf trips and dinners, and sometimes, delivering presentations in business meetings attended by managers and directors. Sometimes he might criticise me for a blemish or two, argue with me over a proposal, but most of the time we got on well. After my three-month probation, he bought me a seven-seater car with a chauffeur to drive me to and from the work. He paid me extremely well, and I wondered if my wages might surpass what I would earn otherwise, in a top law firm. On my birthday, he cancelled a pre-arranged business trip, and asked me to go to watch Billy Elliott, saying that a business acquaintance had passed him the extra tickets. That surprised me but I went, and it was an enjoyable evening for both of us. I had once told him that I would like to see that musical. We went in after the show began, so that people were less likely to notice him.
He was pained to see me go, to put it mildly. I didn't give him a reason why I wanted to leave, and he didn't ask me to. I did not explain my change of career with my parents, though I could see that mother was rather relieved that I gave up the job. She was embarrassed by the frivolous nature or position I took up in the first place, especially when she met other well-to-do, easily excited mothers whose children became either lawyers or bankers, or some other cog functions in the elaborate capitalist machinery, and kept hoping that I would return to the law firm after a short break.
I didn't return to where I was. I went on to do a course in bag design. Based on the little I knew about the craft, I began making colourful felt bags with lace trimmings and evening clutch pouches embellished with tassels or glass beads. I got inspiration from magazines and looking at the bags as I walked around the shopping malls and the streets. I negotiated deals with some small boutiques and succeeded in securing a few locations for selling my items on consignment. A few of them had got sold in recent months. I didn't know where it would lead me to. I simply felt the irresistible desire to sing a new song. To try something utterly new and on my own.
I remembered what he had said to me once, while his chauffeur drove us to the high-end residential neighbourhood, Babington Path, to look at a property site to be auctioned. He was interested to see if the property would work for his gallery. Before he found out about the Kowloon Tong property later.
Before the way uphill, the saloon car sped past rows of grocery stories, small shops and boutiques and a few restaurants near Pokfulam. As it pulled to a halt in front of the traffic lights, we could see more closely a shopkeeper coming out to the storefront to replenish and rearrange the merchandise: filling an empty rack with the newly delivered toilet rolls, shampoos and shower gels.
'These people may not have much of an education. But who cares? They too can raise a family, make a living. Maybe even support their kids to go to universities,' he pointed to the shopkeeper busying outside.
'I don't give a damn what people think. We live our lives the way we want. Other people's opinions are useless.'
'I think you don't care too.' He paused a little, but seeing that I made no reply, he continued.
'You are so young, you think you have all the time ahead of you. It makes me think what more do I want. I've got what most people have wished for, struggled for, maybe even more than what most people may have wished. I've simply lived ahead of my time.'
'What more is it that I want? What's this lack?' He stopped looking at the scenery outside the window and turned to look at me.
There was the lapse of an uncomfortable, incoherent silence as both of us sat still in the reclining back seats. I wouldn't know. And even if I did, I wouldn't tell him.QLRS Vol. 10 No. 2 Apr 2011