Here we present an excerpt from Hong Kong Noir, an anthology of noir stories set in Hong Kong and written by a dozen authors. Each story takes place in a different district of the city. This one, by Carmen Suen, is set in Wah Fu, a housing estate on the southwest coast of Hong Kong Island.
Co-editor Susan Blumberg-Kason says:
Carmen Suen’s “Fourteen” brings the reader to a more innocent time in the 1980s. Hong Kong public housing had expanded and the decades of squatter villages were becoming a thing of the past. But it was still difficult to be poor, as it always is, especially when the government doesn’t care. “Fourteen” tells the story of a young girl from a broken home in Hong Kong’s first public housing estate that provided private bathrooms and kitchens. Even with these “luxuries”, the vulnerable still struggle to find happiness and meaning in Hong Kong. This is the story of one girl who seeks to fine a place in the 1980s, yet the same story could be told today.
by Carmen Suen
The elevator door opened on the fourteenth floor. Siu Wan shuffled out and headed toward her apartment, number 1424, where her family had been living since she was a baby. When they first moved in,Wah Ming House was the newest building in Wah Fu Estate. It was a hopeful time.
But today had not been a good day for Siu Wan, and it had nothing to do with the number fourteen, as one might suspect. Fourteen, sup sei, is not the most auspicious number in Cantonese culture, especially in Hong Kong. It sounds like sut sei—must die. Some developers would skip the fourteenth floor on their buildings, choosing instead to have the fifteenth floor immediately above the thirteenth. Not the case for government housing like Wah Fu Estate. The government most certainly didn’t give a damn whether residents in housing projects lived or died based on superstitious beliefs.
For Siu Wan, fourteen or not did not make any difference. It was the same tiny apartment with no privacy no matter the number. Every unit in the building was the same 300-square-foot cube with a kitchen, a bathroom, a balcony, and an open space in the middle with barely enough room for a dresser, a double bed, a bunk bed—or two, depending on how many kids and in-laws lived there—and the all-important round folding table that served as a dining table–cum–homework desk. In most cases, the table had to be folded up when not in use, so as to make room for TV viewing. To save space, some families would forgo chairs and sat on their beds when they were eating or working at the table. The only separation between the living space and the “bedroom,” if you could call it that, would be some curtains hanging from the ceilings to block one or two sides of the beds to create some sort of private space. That is, if the parents cared about privacy at all. Privacy was a luxury not everyone in Hong Kong understood, especially when one was poor.
It could have been much worse for the poor. The government did try to improve social welfare after the 1967 leftist riots and Wah Fu was an ambitious attempt to improve the standards of public housing in the territory. It was the first to have a kitchen and a bathroom in each unit. Dubbed “New Town,” Wah Fu was also the first public housing estate to have its own wet market, shopping mall, schools, public library, parking garage, and bus terminal. It was no exaggeration to call it a town. When the eighteen buildings were completed in 1978, about fifty thousand people moved into the development.
If that wasn’t enough to tout Wah Fu as one of the best public housing estates in Hong Kong, there was also the million-dollar location. There’s a reason why Wah Fu Estate was called the “poor men’s mansions.” It was the only public housing development in Hong Kong that had full ocean views. A couple of miles away was Victoria Road, where some of the wealthiest in the city lived. Of course, it would be naive to think the government chose that location for Wah Fu because they believed the poor had the right to live well. The truth was, no other developer would build anywhere near Waterfall Bay or Book Bo Wan. There had always been rumors that the ocean was haunted. The nearby Kellet Bay was allegedly a dumping ground for dead bodies during the Japanese occupation. Despite Wah Fu’s good feng shui—having the sea on one side and the hills on the other—there was too much to risk developing a high-end residential project there.
Obviously, none of these were any of Siu Wan’s concerns. In fact, like most other kids in Wah Fu, she quite enjoyed all the ghost stories that were circulating around. If only she had friends she could share these stories with.
To Siu Wan, ghost stories were just that—stories. If she were to believe in every superstition in Chinese culture, she might as well not do anything, which, on this particular day, was not such a bad idea. Sure, the elevator smelled like urine and was covered in graffiti of every curse word you could imagine, and she was drenched in sweat after walking home from school in the sweltering heat. But that was nothing unusual. What made it such a dreadful day was that it was Siu Wan’s last day of school as a primary school student. She was going to start middle school after the summer ended.
Siu Wan did not look forward to the summer or to middle school. Although she was somewhat relieved there would be no school in the coming months, it meant having to spend more time at home with her older brother Chi Wan. Not that Siu Wan disliked her brother, but it wasn’t exactly a twelve-year-old girl’s dream to hang out with her fifteen-year-old brother all summer long.
Other kids went to the park and did fun things with their families when school was out. That would have made summer much more bearable. Unfortunately for Siu Wan, that was not an option. She hadn’t seen her dad in years, and her mom, Mrs. Wong, worked two jobs just to make enough money to pay the rent and not much else. Mrs. Wong had neither the time nor the extra cash to spend on fun things. Fun was as much a luxury as privacy. When you’re poor, you learn to live without both.
Like most girls her age, Siu Wan liked to wear nice clothes and feel pretty. She didn’t mind hand-me-downs from relatives and neighbors. She knew she couldn’t afford new clothes, and she was fine with that. The problem was that her clothes always looked dingy. Mrs. Wong could never find time to do the laundry, and so Chi Wan, being the older sibling, had to do it. No matter how hard he tried to clean them, there always seemed to be a grayish tint on the clothes. Kids at school didn’t like to play with Siu Wan because they thought she was dirty. Neither did any other kids in the neighborhood. Except for Ah Yan.
Ah Yan was a seven-year-old girl who lived in Wah Hing House, just a couple of blocks from Siu Wan’s building. Siu Wan had met Ah Yan for the first time a month earlier when the younger girl was playing alone on the beach by Book Bo Wan, just a short walk from where they lived. Maybe it was getting dark. Maybe Ah Yan didn’t pay attention to Siu Wan’s clothes. Ah Yan did not think for a second that Siu Wan looked dirty. Much like Siu Wan, she only wanted to have a playmate.
What puzzled Siu Wan was why no one wanted to play with