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April 15, 2024

Old Sugar

By Barbara Rendall


Crossing Hong Kong harbor on the Star Ferry had always made Trevor feel like a character in a movie -- a person with a story, a person who was truly going somewhere. Everything around him, from the steep, green-plush Peak to the busy boats of every size going in twenty different directions across the choppy water, spelled worldliness, glamor, and success. He could almost hear stirring theme music riding along on the stiff, damp January wind. Instead of sitting with everyone else on the rows of wood-slat benches, he liked to stand at the rail near the front, squint his eyes, and lift his face at an interesting angle, the star of that fascinating, long-running film, The Life and Career of Trevor Lo.

But the little drama wasn't working for him on this brisk and bright morning, the day before Lunar New Year's Eve, even though all the tall buildings around the harbour were elaborately decorated for the coming Year of the Snake. Giant lucky characters, depictions of gods and goddesses from Chinese legends, and every type of snake covered entire facades of thirty and forty story buildings. Most of the displays were fully illuminated, even though it was broad daylight.

Unfortunately, the only effect they had on Trevor this year was to turn him a little queasy at the thought of the expense behind such lavishness. The electricity bill alone would be staggering; who could pay for such decorations in these uncertain economic times? To be sure, a good part of his uneasiness was related to a smaller (but more dramatic in its own way) electricity bill that had brought about his sudden departure from his friend Wilson's Tsim Sha Tsui flat and this trip on the Star Ferry.

Since losing his job at Moonextra Financial Consultants in November, he'd been staying with his friend, just until he was able to straighten out his financial situation, which he had come to realize had been a bit of a house of cards -- credit cards. Wilson didn't mind him sleeping on the couch for a while, but generous as he was, he took the traditional Chinese hard line when it came to heat indoors, even in January. Like most modest places in Hong Kong, there was no central heating and Wilson didn't believe in electric radiators.

"Wrap yourself in a quilt," he told Trevor when he compained. "Make some tea. Buy long underwear."

But Trevor had lived for four years in America, in New York, and had grown accustomed to being comfortably, effortlessly warm in winter, even on the coldest days. He'd admired how Americans wore t-shirts inside on snowy days, turning up the thermostat with the flick of a finger if they felt the slightest chill. Drinking endless cups of tea just didn't do it for him anymore.

Wilson accused him of being soft and when the shockingly high electricity bill came, it roused his suspicions and he searched Trevor's belongings. In a suitcase he found the space heater Trevor plugged in and turned up to high when Wilson went to work. Of course Wilson knew that he couldn't get the money out of Trevor, down to his last dollars as he was, so he kicked him out.

"What am I supposed to do?" Trevor had wailed to his friend, realizing he'd reached the end of his rope in Hong Kong. He cringed now, remembering that pathetic wail. This was the Trevor Lo who had gone to university abroad for four years while his old middle school friend had slogged away at a grim eight-guys-to-a-room mainland university.

"Go back to Macao," Wilson had suggested reasonably. "Don't be so proud. Live with your family until you find another job. That's what everybody does these days when they get laid off."

Easy for him to say, Trevor thought, a guy who works for a mobile phone company and who would probably never lose his job. But at least Wilson had the good grace to seem almost embarrassed for him as he gave this advice, even though he was out nine hundred Hong Kong dollars. He didn't gloat like Trevor's other so-called friends. Or drop him in a flash as soon as his gold card was cancelled like his ex-girlfriend Sherrade. She was the most beautiful girl he'd ever dated, but she was expensive. She expected an elegant dinner on every special occasion, and frequent gifts of Godiva chocolates and flowers that had to come from only one trendy shop in Central where the floral arrangements looked, to Trevor, like something from outer space. It had been a nightmare of humiliation at first, but once he could no longer afford his mobile phone, things actually got a little better. There were no more awkward calls, or messages to return. It was like being dead except for the disadvantages of still having to eat and force himself to go on ever more discouraging rounds of job-hunting.

But now he found himself with no job possibilities at all on the horizon, no place to live, and the Lunar New Year holiday approaching. What else was there to do but go back to his family in Macao for the holiday and hope that something might turn up there. Who knew? Getting out of Hong Kong might change his luck. Not that he believed much in luck anymore, but he still had a few shreds of hope left. All he had left were the dregs of his funds, and the change from his spare coin jar -- luckily Hong Kong change was accepted in Macao. In his flush days he had carelessly tossed the thick silver five dollar coins and the smaller silver and gold ten dollar coins into a jam jar. They'd been too heavy and bulky to carry in the pockets of his nicely tailored trousers. Now they seemed like small treasures.

He could only make the trip to Macao because Wilson had "loaned" him the price of a one-way ticket as a way of cutting his own losses. Since Trevor had been living on Wilson's stash of Cup Noodle and using his shampoo and toothpaste, not to mention the electricity, it had clearly been cheaper in the long run for his friend to finance his trip home.

As he watched Hong Kong Island and Central draw closer, Trevor could almost see the building in Midlevels that held the tiny, perfect flat that had been his home for the last six months of his former life (the past two months in Tsim Sha Tsui hardly counted as "life"). With a pang he remembered that cozy puce and olive space (he hadn't known the color "puce" until he'd taken the place over from a style-mad friend). He could still see the dark oily glow of the wood floor and the sliver of harbor view from the far corner of the lone window. It had been small, about the size of a room in a cheap hotel, and the bathroom was so tiny that you had to be careful not to bruise yourself on the fixtures when you used it. But the guy he sublet it from had it done by a designer who was currently hot with young people on the rise, and it had actually been featured in a photo spread in the Style section of the Sunday Morning Post: its sliding crinkle-paper wall dividing the bed area from the couch and tv; the electrical socket and marble slab that served as a kitchen ("the resident bachelor eats out"); and the bathroom sink that looked like a lopsided pottery wok, with its "interesting," crane-shaped brass faucet so tall that he'd nearly knocked himself senseless on it several times while rinsing his face after shaving -- all of it had been there in full-color, standing as a model for what other young professionals might aspire to.

God, how he missed his own space. He'd felt like a stray dog these past few months.

The ferry bumped up against the old wharf padded with discarded tires, and everyone began massing at the exit gate, in a tearing hurry as usual, waiting impatiently for the slow old men in their vintage sailor suits to tie up the boat and release them from their floating pen. Trevor joined the pre-holiday crowd and mounted the worn wooden ramp toward the choked streets and pedestrian overpasses of Central. He knew he looked good, not like a stray dog at all, wearing his Hugo Boss suit, his Guccis, and wheeling his richly-logoed Louis Vuitton suitcase behind him like a pampered pet. He still looked his old "investment representative" self only because no one he knew would stoop to buying anyone else's used clothes. He would gladly have parted with some of them for ready cash if it had been possible in Hong Kong.

He did get a bit of survival money out of his laptop and his CD and DVD collections, and just yesterday he had finally prevailed upon Wilson to buy his buttery-brown leather Prada backpack, which Wilson had long admired, so that he could pay off some of his endless debts and get through the Lunar New Year holiday in Macao with his family and friends without losing face. He'd also bought a few necessary gifts for his relatives, a tradition carried over from each time he'd returned from the States during his university years. The products of that last-minute shopping trip filled the big slippery holiday-red Watson's bag he carried in his other hand.

Unfortunately, with a bit of money in his pocket again he'd given in to the temptation to treat himself to a last meal in Hong Kong at his favorite restaurant, Habibi. The platter of stuffed vegetables and the half bottle of wine consumed in a dim, cushioned Persian nook had given him a lot of comfort -- he'd missed the good things in his old life more than he could say. But consequently there hadn't been enough money left to buy the type of gifts he usually took to Macao at New Year to stoke the admiration and envy of his relatives. This year there would be no hand-dipped chocolate truffles from the Mandarin Oriental; no gold-paper-wrapped assortments of expensive tea with tiny porcelain cups included; no mammoth hamper of gourmet treats from Oliver's swathed in yards of red cellophane, looking like a miniature Spanish galleon under sail.

This year he'd had to settle for a modest tin of Danish shortbread cookies, a paper box of assorted nuts in individual foil packets, and an embarrassingly small offering of Ferrero Rocher chocolates, a mere twelve-pack in a plastic box. He'd decided he would tell them he'd been so busy at work he hadn't had time to shop, but he still felt guilty. On the way to the Star Ferry he'd seen some small artificial orange trees in a Japan Home Center and had picked one up to add a bit of color and bulk to his offerings. It poked out of the top of his bag now, the little neon-orange plastic fruits bobbing as he trudged along the elevated walkway toward the Shun Tak Center and the Macao ferry terminal.

It used to be, he recalled, that you could see the harbor from this walkway and catch a bit of a breeze, and the feeling of living in a major port on the China coast. Now the pedestrian route to the Macao ferry led in and out of a series of cold, polished-glass-and-granite shopping centers on the ground floors of various business and financial buildings. When he'd been working, he used to get such a great rush from walking through these places on his lunch hour, stopping in a Starbucks, window shopping for clothes, or filing away the names of smart new drinks spots he might try out to impress Sherrade some evening after work.

Now the atmosphere of well-dressed, well-shod young people quickly clicking their way along the gleaming corridors, their laptop satchels slung over their shoulders, only made his heart sink. He had been one of them this time last year, and he still looked just like them. But all the glass doors had shut in his face. Nothing was happening in his life anymore. His lucky streak, which he had found hard to believe at first but then taken for granted, seemed to be at a definite end.

His plan now was to stay in Macao for a while, at his mother's. She had an extra bedroom and every New Year she complained he didn't stay long enough for her to show him off to her friends. This time he would say he was taking extra vacation time, since the stress over his work had been high lately -- which was the truth in a way. It wouldn't be hard to be convincing about that.

His idea was to look up old friends who were also home for the holiday and feel them out about job opportunities. "I need a change," would be his line. "The financial game is such a rat race," he'd tell them, giving them the impression of long hours and heavy demands.

Another idea -- and this was how desperate he'd become -- was that he might try the casinos in Macao. It occurred to him that he might be able to turn the stash of red-pocket money he always received from his relatives into something he could live off for a while. He knew people who'd done that. Nearly everybody could win something -- you just had to know when to stop. The thought of getting lucky again comforted him.

The shame of the last few months had been pretty hard to bear. He was an oldest son and up until now things had nearly always gone his way. His younger brother Rocky had to struggle more, and out of frustration and rebelliousness he had gone to the bad in middle school. Now he was up in Guangzhou involved in some kind of shady business. They hardly saw him anymore, although his mother liked to talk a lot about a gold bracelet he'd given her the last time he'd been in Macao. But other times she fretted angrily that Rocky was going to turn out to be, as she put it, "a worthless idiot like your father." Trevor hadn't seen his father since he was in primary school, so he couldn't gauge exactly how dire Rocky's fate might be. His own success -- in school, in university abroad, and then in landing a job in the "financial sector" in Hong Kong -- had always been a consolation to his mother during all those years of raising them with her own mixture of fierceness and haphazardness. Now this added to his shame.

In Shun Tak Center he bought his one-way ticket and followed the chrome and vinyl labyrinth of walkways and escalators through immigration procedures and seat assignment to the waiting area for the 12:15 departure. The jetfoil crafts bounced and splashed against the docks below, departing and arriving every few minutes like a string of overachieving water beetles. Back and forth, back and forth they went across the wide mouth of the Pearl River from Hong Kong to Macao with their hordes of gamblers in cheap suits carrying their meagre necessities in oddly feminine-looking paper carrier bags with brand-name logos on them. What exactly was in those bags? Trevor always wondered. A change of underwear? Wads of cash? Lucky charms? A gun? Mixed in among the gamblers were gabby teenagers on shopping sprees, lovers or middle-aged expats on their way to a getaway weekend at the Hyatt or the Westin, Mainland tourists with their group rate reservations at lesser hotels agog at the prospect of being turned loose in a gambling mecca, and a few European backpackers looking for the cultural relief of Iberian architecture and African chicken after an exhausting week in the vertical maze of Hong Kong.

Macao wasn't really too bad these days, Trevor reminded himself, trying to be upbeat. He'd hated it, though, when he was growing up there in the confusion of his loud, fractious family, and at the mercy of a big, crowded, fenced and gated school that was like a cross between a prison and a live-chicken market. Now, grown up, he could have a bit of fun with his New Year's money, see old friends, and walk around and check out what was new, like the Macao Tower and the old Portuguese sites that were being restored so the Chinese people wouldn't forget their Portuguese heritage.

At the very least, he could count on free meals with relatives as long as the holiday lasted. Chinese family traditions made sense to him now. They couldn't throw you out at this time of year, even if you were a disappointment -- a loser. But he did have some hope. After all, he was a loser who'd been a pretty big winner once. He'd gone to university in New York for four years. Some people said he sounded almost like an American when he spoke English. His cousin Starry still called him "Yorkie" to tease him about how he'd worn his university t-shirt all the time when he came home that first summer. But he knew she was really impressed by him, and inspired too. She herself was anxious to get out of her little village on Coloane Island and see the world. To that end, she was studying her brains out in the English Section of Santa Rosa da Lima Middle School so she could study abroad, too -- and be a big success just like him.

Part One of Eight

Article © Barbara Rendall. All rights reserved.
Published on 2011-01-03
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