The seafood restaurant on Lantau Island bustled with diners. As Frank ate his meal, locals and tourists waited in line at the entrance next to the glass tanks full of giant crabs, lobsters and rainbow fish. Large family clans occupied most of the other tables. A loud whoosh caught Frank’s attention. He looked over to the steam-filled open kitchen at the back of the restaurant and watched flames flashing up and dancing around a wok. His view became blocked as a waiter hurried by with a heap of dishes, to place them one by one onto the revolving stand in the centre of the neighbouring round table.
The proud restaurant owner wearing his trademark straw hat came over to ask Frank and his companion how their food was. His smile revealed he was devoid of his two front teeth.
“Hou hou.” Frank had been practising his Cantonese.
The owner made a thumbs up. “Number one?”
“Yes, number one.” Frank nodded.
Although he and his parents had been excited to find out Frank had been given the opportunity to work in the company’s Hong Kong office, he was still apprehensive about moving to the British colony in the Far East – apart from a short trip to France, he’d never been overseas. On his plane’s final descent he’d gripped onto both armrests when he realised how close they were to nearby city apartments – he could see people in their living rooms as the plane prepared to touch down on the airport runway jutting out into the harbour. But after acclimatising himself to foreign city life, Frank understood there was nothing to fear about the place. He’d embraced the skyscrapers and high-rise buildings; the trend-setting crowds dressed in the latest fashions and accessories; the giant advertising boards for luxury goods on every corner; the mass of taxis competing for business with the trams and buses; the multitude of malls, boutiques, gold shops, money exchanges, restaurants, Western burger joints and Eastern food stalls; the local and more touristy street markets; the bright neon signs of the pubs and clubs; the golf courses and racecourses; the barbecues amongst the hills and down on the beaches; and the international cruise liners, floating restaurants, yachts and container ships docked in port and out amongst the harbours and islands. This is the London of the future, he realised. And over time he began to fall in love with the vitality and vibrancy of the place — and with Wendy, too.
Frank smiled at his girlfriend across the restaurant table.
When they first met in the office, Frank had quizzed her name. “That doesn’t sound very Chinese.”
“My given name is Tsz Wai.”
“I’ll stick to calling you Wendy then.” They both laughed.
And that was the beginning of Frank’s lessons, feeling like a schoolboy with a crush on his teacher, eager to learn. Wendy taught him well — about the many local habits, how to use chopsticks, how to address people, and some Cantonese phrases. She even explained some basic facts he was surprised not to have known already, particularly that their culture was one of the oldest in the world, thousands of years old, and that they’d invented gunpowder, the cannon, the compass, even tea.
She was still teaching him now as they dined in the seafood restaurant, observing the other patrons. She told him about extended families and the respect for elders they all had. It’s a shame you don’t see this too often back in the UK, Frank thought. All you hear about are tearaway teenagers and old people being shelved off onto retirement homes.
A garlic prawn dropped from the clutches of his chopsticks.
Wendy laughed. “Here, let me show you again.” She went to his side of the table and, leaning in behind him, reached over to help him hold the chopsticks properly. “Now, try again.”
Her warm breath on his ear and neck caused him to have that feeling in his stomach again. Like that time in Stanley Market at a stall when she pressed a “Made in Hong Kong” T-shirt against his back to confirm his size, or the evening they sat close to each other on the Star Ferry, holding hands, admiring the lights spanning the skyline over Hong Kong Island as they crossed Victoria Harbour, old junks sailing silently beside them.
Frank also had that same feeling as they’d stood together on his apartment balcony watching the fireworks that welcomed in the New Year. And afterwards, his passion intensified when he waited for her on the edge of his bed, transfixed on her silhouette behind the embroidered dragon screen. As she stepped forward into the soft light he became mesmerised by her porcelain face and petite red lips, her silk gown hanging loose to reveal one naked white shoulder.
Frank couldn’t stop himself from opening up to her — he’d never done that before with anyone — and share his deepest feelings. He told her his intention to continue working in Hong Kong once his contract ran out so he could be with her. He told her he wanted to learn the language so he could talk to her parents. And finally he told how much he truly loved her.
Wendy’s alluring eyes trapped his gaze across the table in the restaurant. Enchanted, he couldn’t physically move, only think through in his mind when to announce his intention to settle down with her… marry her …
However, as with even the best of illusions in life, the magic didn’t last.
After Wendy didn’t show up for a date and return his calls, then hid from him at the office, Frank decided to confront her at home. He waited outside the apartment front door for her mother to fetch her.
“I can’t see you again, Frank.” Wendy had stepped out into the corridor, but kept the door slightly ajar behind her.
“Why? What’s happened?”
“My parents don’t approve of our relationship.”
“Don’t approve? What have I done?”
“You’re a foreigner.”
A foreigner? Me?
Chinese opera on the TV blared out from across the corridor as an old man left a neighbouring apartment.
“But I thought they liked me? We seemed to get along.”
“I’m sorry, Frank. They don’t want me to see you anymore.”
Frank glared at the door behind Wendy. “Can I talk to them?”
“Okay, fine, but surely it doesn’t matter what they think?”
Her mother called out from inside their apartment.
“Yes, it does matter, Frank. I’m Chinese and they’re my parents. You must respect our ways.” Wendy placed her hand on the door handle.
“Don’t you love me, Wendy?”
She released her grip. “Yes, I do, but… I cannot see you anymore. Please go. You’re making this hard for me.”
Bewildered, Frank left the apartment block and wandered around, searching for a taxi. Not paying attention as he stepped off the pavement to cross the street, he landed in a pool of filthy water that splattered his office trousers.
Eyes stared at him. And in that moment he became conscious of himself and his surroundings, and realised how different he looked from the others. He sensed their disgust, their contempt. All of them. The old man who squatted on a stool and smoked outside a shop. The two uniformed students who brushed past him with their rucksacks. The women waiting at the bus stop who stared at him, whispering to one another, one raising her eyebrows, laughing.
Other pedestrians began to give him a wide berth, as if he were a disease-riddled leper. He stopped briefly to check the dirt on his trousers, and then with his head lowered, strode more briskly down the street. Where’s a taxi when you need one? Hurrying past a roadside food stall, he witnessed a hawker hack the head off a chicken on a wooden block.