Under the stairs

In 1948, in a village about 60 miles on the China side of the Lowu border, a baby boy called Au Siu Lun was born.

In 2015, in a village about 60 miles on the Hong Kong side of the Lowu border, 67-year-old Au Siu Lun picked me up in a taxi. He told me his life story on the short ride.  When he put me out at my destination, I told him he should write a book.  “What for?  Nothing much to say,”  he said, having actually said so much that I had constantly slipped my seatbelt so I could lean forward, the better to attempt to take a stealth photo/hear his quiet words.

taxi

Well fuck it.  I haven’t written a book since primary school, and only then because I wanted a crack at that machine that inserts comb binding, also I had a lot to say about What I Did On My Holiday.

combHalcyon days spent in the school library.

I no longer have access to a comb binder so I’m obviously not going to write a book now, what would be the point.  I don’t even have the right size staples for my stapler.  But Au Siu Lun’s was a good story.  So here it is, presented without any sort of binding device.

***

AU SIU LUN:  Hello madam!  Do you want to put your suitcase in the boot?
ME:  MM-SAI MM-GOI! [“NO NEED, THANKS!”] [I still speak Chinese really loudly because someone in the conversation can’t understand the language properly yet.] [It is me.]
AU SIU LUN:  Are you sure?  Is it very heavy?  I’ll help you.
ME:  WAH LEI GEH YING-MUN HO GOR NGOR GEH GUANGDONGHUA!  [“Wah, your Chinese is way better than my English!”]

Whereupon Au Siu Lun is relieved of me bastard-shouting his own language at him, and the reader is relieved of any more capitalised pinyin.

AU SIU LUN:  *cough*duh*cough*.  Actually my son says my English is quite poor.
ME:  If I may say without affronting the patriarchal underpinning of this entire society, SIR, your son is a dickhead.
AU SIU LUN:  He says I never get the tenses right. I told him I can communicate effectively with my customers nonetheless.
ME:  You are really good at communicating for sure. I suppose you learned on the job as a taxi driver, driving foreigners about the colony etc?
AU SIU LUN:  I taught myself English in 1960.
ME:  Wait please, for quite a long time. You know how good you are at English? I am inversely as bad at maths.

We drive for approximately 14 kilometres.

AU SIU LUN:  ?
ME:  Wait I’ve nearly got it.

More driving.

ME:  You were only 12 years old when you taught yourself English then?
AU SIU LUN:  Correct!
ME:  I admit from an outsider’s perspective your industry seems wildly unregulated here in Hong Kong, leaving the door wide open for Uber and other competitors to gain a foothold, but surely they don’t give out taxi-driver licences to 12-year-olds.
AU SIU LUN:  They don’t. I was born in China. I left in 1959…
ME:  [Gets fingers out]
AU SIU LUN:  ..when I was 11. I had no food. I was starving. It was flee or die.
ME:  [Puts fingers away, consults wide agrarian knowledge]  Flooding, was it? Bad year for the crops?
AU SIU LUN:  No, fucken! The Communists.
ME:  Flooding…crops…SICKLES…I would have got there eventually.

sickle

AU SIU LUN:  I was starving. I had to run away from the Communists. Also my father.
ME:  He was the one who ate all the crops? The patriarchy etc?
AU SIU LUN:  No!
ME:  He was…chasing you with a sickle?
AU SIU LUN:  No, idiot! He was a Communist. This turns out to be a really interesting story, if you want to listen instead of making constant interjections about farm machinery and political history, which concepts you appear to have difficulty separating.
ME:  [Sits back.]
AU SIU LUN:  And put your seatbelt on, I can see it is merely draped over your shoulder for effect. I didn’t run away as an 11-year-old and endure the intervening 56 years of struggle only to be picked up at a police roadblock with an unsecured passenger.
ME:  [Clicks seatbelt on.]
AU SIU LUN:  Now, where was I?
ME:  1959!

harp
Harp glissando interlude.

AU SIU LUN:  Ah yes, 1959. I had to run, from the Communists, and my father the Communist. I had some cousins said they were going to Hong Kong because there was more food there. So I followed them and their friends. We snuck across the border. We heard that if we went to Shatin or deep in the New Territories, the authorities would find us and send us back, but that we’d be safe on the island or the Kowloon Peninsula. We ended up living under a stairwell in Yau Ma Tei. We lived there for six years. I got a job as a plumber’s labourer. The site overseers were British of course and all the maps were in English. I copied all the English terminology – galvanised steel, gasket, brackish, O-ring, valve – into a notebook and soon I could read the maps. The pictures helped. I used to go to playgrounds in Kowloon Tong in the evening and speak to little Western kids. Lots of foreigners lived in Kowloon Tong then and kids are the best to learn English from because they speak simply. Gradually I added thousands of words in my notebook and eventually I learned English.
ME:  That is AMAZING. Also please turn left.

AU SIU LUN:  After six years, we obtained papers, so we were able to return home legally. We went back to our village in China to visit our mothers, but we couldn’t stay. Our fathers hadn’t forgiven us. This time, my grandmother asked if she could come back with us to Hong Kong. Our lives really improved then. She was much better than us at food. Sometimes she got us meals from a church charity. Most days she hung around the wet markets at the end of the day and scavenged the offcuts. The best was when she got the skin of a pig. She could make ice-cream out of it.
ME:  Ice-cream? Out of pig skin? That doesn’t sound right.

piggy
It could never be right.

AU SIU LUN:  Remember that thing before with the sickle? Like anyone believes you know how to make ice-cream one way or the other. I don’t either, but she did, and it was delicious. She washed our clothes in the harbour. We had a happy time then. I married in the early 1970s. My wife was also very poor so we qualified for public housing. I still live there. My wife died of cancer in 2006, the same year as the famous actress from Pearl TV. We had three sons; that’s why I’m still poor, even though I work seven days a week. They have four bachelor degrees and a masters between them.
ME:  [Dares not speak, but offers hesitant applause]

AU SIU LUN:  I go back to my village every Chinese New Year. All the villagers are lazy now. They all have free houses because of ding law. Because of the one-child policy, there are all these “ghost people” without papers – second and third children who weren’t legally able to be registered. So they come out to the rural areas and live off the radar, renting homes from villagers and working on their farms. So the villagers do nothing. But I’m going to garden when I go back. I haven’t stopped working since I was 11, and I’ve always lived either under a concrete stairwell or high up in a highrise. I am the only old man who wants to put his hands in the dirt when he stops working!

To my dismay, we arrive at my destination.

ME:  Can you give me your phone number? I want to call you next time I need a taxi so I can hear more of your stories.
AU SIU LUN:  Too late! I am retiring in five days!
ME:  That is too disappointing. For me. But good luck with your garden, full circle, you deserve it, lay your toils down etc.
AU SIU LUN:  [Grinning broadly]  Thank you, missy!
ME:  Please write a book.
AU SIU LUN:  What for? Nothing much to say.
ME:  [Gives him $50 tip, winks, makes what are possibly actions related to operating a sickle]  This is for a gardening tool then.
AU SIU LUN:  Thank you! I will buy…a shovel.

Speeds away noisily in shitbox taxi, smiling diamonds over his shoulder at me.

***

This was about a week ago, so he’s probably sowing a line of seedlings as we speak.

Either that or he spotted me coming from a mile off and I was literally taken for a ride.

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