There was the sound of an aggrieved tut from the Wong family balcony. ‘You make us sound like robots,’ said the eldest boy. ‘Pen-spinning human calculator clones, slurping our noodles and scurrying around like we’re all pulling rickshaws.’
‘It’s my experience,’ said Chen-Yao.
‘Yeah, but we don’t all want to end up in IT or doing beansprout deliveries to stir-fry places. Not every Asian has a vision of the future that’s littered with tech and high-density misery.’
‘It’s just a story,’ Sanath said peacably. ‘If you don’t like it, tell your own.’
There was a short, three-way conversation between father, mother, and eldest son, after which the boy said, ‘My dad’ll tell the next one – I’ll translate it for him.’
The Father’s Tale
This is a story about stones.
At the time I was a bit of a rolling stone: I’d been a pick packer in Shilin, then a labourer in Shitou Cheng. I wanted to leave China; back in 1989 it was an even unhappier place than it is now. All my low-grade jobs were stepping stones to Hong Kong eventually America or Australia. After the Tiananmen Square Incident there was a big operation to get anyone involved out of China to safety in Hong Kong or Malaysia. It was called Operation Siskin. I said I’d been a student leader – it wasn’t exactly true but I had once told one of the students carrying a banner that they were banging their heads against a stone wall. On the strength of having talked to one of the student leaders in a cafe, I got out and made it to Hong Kong. You might think this was a cheap scam, but I say that people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.
I was working as a chauffeur there when I saw her. A stone fox, you might say. Red lipstick, immaculate hair, sunglasses, murderous heels that carry them from the heliport to the car – the standard stone-cold Hong Kong businesswoman’s uniform. You might as well try to wring water from a stone as a smile from one of them.
I was supposed to collect the Fox on Stonecutters Bridge Viewpoint, near the container terminals. She was waiting for me, stony-faced. I’d picked up a sharp pebble on the road and landed a flat somewhere on the Tsing Sha Highway. I had to roll up my sleeves and change the tire myself, leaving me sweating and ten minutes late.
She was a stone-trader. Gemstones, I mean. I don’t know what she was doing down at Stonecutters Bridge, but I dropped her in front of a ritzy jeweller’s in Stone Slab Street, in Central. She told me to come back in one hour. There wasn’t much to do, so hung around the back for a while and hoped the cops wouldn’t tell me to move the car along.
Something else that happened in 1989 was the discover of Paraiba tourmalines. They come from a tiny part of Brazil, and are so rare that only one Paraiba tourmaline was mined for every 10,000 diamonds. The gem market in Hong Kong went crazy for them. The Brazilian supply has long since been mined out, which makes them even more valuable, and in 1990 they were the only thing the Hong Kong tai tais wanted.
Anyway, I was hanging around the back of Stone Slab Street when a girl came out of the back door to the jewellers. We got to talking, which is harder than it sounds, since my Cantonese was terrible and her Mandarin was pretty bad too. She was a gem polisher in the jewellers. I asked her about the Fox. She said that the woman had a guaranteed supply of Paraiba tourmalines, and could get them into Hong Kong without paying excise. I didn’t even know what a tourmaline was back then. She nipped back into the shop and brought out a brochure. It was the most fantastic blue I’d ever seen – a real neon blue, just like the ocean beyond Tap Mun.
‘And these are valuable? More than gold?’
‘Not at today’s prices for gold, but certainly more than diamonds.’
‘So how much will she make from the sale of one of these?’
The stone-polishing girl thought for a bit and then named a figure I couldn’t even believe was real. ‘And we’ll make more than that when we set and sell them,’ she said.
‘Do you do that?’
She shook her head. ‘I just polish them. Maybe some day they’ll let me do the cutting, but it’s not really a woman’s job. The boss’s wife makes some designs but most of the designs come from the customers. And some of them…so ugly! Not suitable at all for the stones they choose. But money talks, and when you’ve got it you’re stone deaf to anyone else.’
She showed me a sketch of the final design for a stone she was polishing. I didn’t know anything about jewels, but I could see that she was right – it was a horrible design, and wouldn’t show off the stone at all. I made another sketch, of an entirely different shape and setting, which would allow light to strike the facets from the sides as well as beneath. ‘You’re good,’ she said. ‘You should ask the boss if he’d take you as an apprentice.’ She smiled winsomely. ‘You’d get to see me every day too. Kill two birds with one stone.’
I laughed, and then the Fox came out and I had to go. I dropped her somewhere near the Blue House on Stone Nullah Lane and never saw her again.
I pinned the brochure on the wall beside my mattress. I was living in a coffin-flat in Sham Shui Po with another guy; we were hot-racking, like on a submarine. I had it at night and he came back from his job at 6am and needed the bed. 20 square feet where you slept like a stone, tried not to let go of your hopes and added to the smell of lonely men. I lay on the mattress and looked at the picture of the tourmaline. I wasn’t up for stone smuggling, like the Fox, but I thought I could probably do the polishing. What I liked most about the picture the girl had shown me was the colour. The same year, the little probe Voyager had taken a picture of Neptune; the stone was the same colour as that huge, unimaginable world so far away.
I decided I had nothing to lose, so I went back to the jewellers and asked him if he’d take on a penniless Mainlander with no references who suddenly fancied the gem trade. The boss said no, naturally. Hong Kongers weren’t kind to Mainlanders then. They said we were poor, ignorant, the peasant slaves of a peasant government. But sticks and stones only stop you for so long – when you’ve broken everything else, there’s nothing left to lose. Dripping water wears away even the hardest stone and I dripped pretty hard. Eventually the boss gave in and took me on as a runaround. I was allowed to sleep in the tea room as some kind of security, because I was so stone-broke I couldn’t even afford the coffin flat any more.
Yanmi brought me food, and showed me how to polish stones when she had a few spare minutes and eventually the boss let me have a go at a stone myself. I polished like my life depended on it, even though it was the crappiest piece of schist I’d ever seen. It took five years of polishing before he put me to cutting. When I had a decent salary, I asked Yanmi to marry me. We lived in a tiny flat in the New Territories and started saving to emigrate. I did some gem trading on the side – nothing big, just little things – until one day I saw a Paraiba tourmaline at a sale on a quiet day. I left no stone unturned. I called in every cent and favour I was owed. I bought the tourmaline and took it home with shaking hands.
I said that I never saw the Fox again, but that wasn’t quite true. I cut and set the tourmaline in a ring of diamonds, and asked the boss if I could sell it through the shop. I guess he knew that we were trying to leave Hong Kong, so he let me do it and didn’t take a cut. It had been in the window two days when the door rang and the Fox came in. Ten years later, and still as cold as a stone. She admired the tourmaline, asked where it had come from, and seemed to accept my explanation that I did a little stone trading on the side. She bought the ring and I thought about the circles of fate as I slipped it on that long, unmarked finger with its red claw, and how the woman who had brought me into the business was now my ticket to a new life. Sometimes you think you’ve hit a stone wall when really you’re only a stone’s throw away from getting everything you want.
On the profits of that one sale, we applied to come here as temporary residents. The boss graciously let us go and made us swear to keep in touch, and I do a little business with him now and again. I had to work three jobs when we came here: I worked in a jewellery store during the day, then I drove food orders around for a restaurant until 10pm, and then I cleaned shops until 3am. I was stone dead by the time I got home every night. But there’s a time for everything, a season for stones and a season for mops and takeaway boxes. If you’re real, honest, eventually things will pick up. The trick is not to let yourself get worn away, eroded, before they do and to recognise when the opportunity, the right time, has come.
Eventually I got enough money together to start trading in stones again. The gem trade here isn’t like it is in Hong Kong; it’s mostly diamonds in white gold (for the Chinese) or rubies in 24k (for the Indians). Other than that, it’s pretty small potatoes. People here don’t buy jewellery for fun, or for gifts. I tell that to my son, but he wants to go into the business and design things. He’s got a good eye and makes nice sketches, but I tell him you’ve got to have charm too. Got to kiss the Blarney Stone; talk up your product, your design. He’s a good boy, my son. He doesn’t go out and get stoned like other kids. He works hard; he’ll come good when this pandemic is over. Nothing is set in stone; you’ve just got to wait until the opportune moment, and then go for it.
In Chinese, the word for stone is shi. But the word you say is quite different to the word you read. I could write all the words which sound like shi, but they would mean less to you than the footprints of an ant with inky feet. So take my word for it, that shi is also involved in words about time, reality, age, eating, recognizing – so many things! This is what lures people – stone cold sober people – to the beauty of gems. They are like the foundations of a world, the magic of chemistry and geology, our only chance to cut and polish reality until it looks just as we imagined. And when we’ve all sunk like stones, the jewels remain, until eventually they return to the same dark crevices we took them from, millions of years from now.