I turned 16 today and as I set foot on Hong Kong, I dreamt of big opportunities. Life has always been hard but today, I felt different, like I could finally change my fate. I am promised shelter, food and a comfortable life here in Hong Kong. All I need to do is sing. My parents must have accepted some money, because that's what they do all the time, trade me for some money. At least this time, they have given me hope for a better being.
I was taken to a hostel, given a small room with a bunk bed. Nothing much was said until dinnertime, when I was told to shower and get dressed into what must have been the most beautiful dress I'd ever touched. At the dinner hall I was introduced to the rest - all young girls just like me, in lovely dresses. Tonight, it seemed, we were to practise how to dine like ladies. I had no idea what dining had to do with singing, but I obeyed and learnt what was taught.
Now I lay in bed in the lower bunk, with my roommate snoring above me. I can't fall asleep. There will be more lessons tomorrow. I can't tell if I'm excited or afraid.
Tonight started off like any other. As a full fledged Songstress, I sang on stage then moved amongst tables of customers entertaining, keeping that well trained smile and appropriately drinking just enough whisky to make them happy. I was a star now, the most popular Songstress of the lot, commanding applause and patronage, living a life more glamorous than I could have imagined.
At the high of the night, I was called to a table where a powerful looking man sat. They said he had asked for me and told me he was our new boss. They all called him Dai Lou. I threw him my best smile and poured him some whisky. He touched my hand gently, asked me to sit with him. The night moved on in a whirlwind of sequins, music, laughter and alcohol. And I was enthralled by his power.
It is now morning and I'm replaying last night in my head. For the first time, I glimpsed a better life than that of even the most well-loved Songstress. I would need to see him again.
I'd heard he arrived in Hong Kong looking for me. I didn't realise how quickly he would find me, cowering in a corner of the nightclub's backstage, sobbing my eyes out. He didn't say anything, just reached out and held me. I felt safe.
Leong Sum, also known as Sum Sok to the regular customers of his butchery, is my childhood everything. He has always been there for me and I suppose I'm not surprised he is here now. I'm not sure who told him, but he knows. Dai Lou is on the run, and I'm now left alone.
Sum has always warned me about the trappings of the underworld, that voice of reason that hoped to save me from my destiny. Except I never wanted to be saved. I was put on a boat for Hong Kong to find a better life, and that was exactly what I was going to do.
He told me to run, go back with him. Go where? Back to the village? I pushed him away. No way. I am going to fight, I said, I deserve to have this. As I said that, I knew it was true. I am going to fight so that Dai Lou can come home.
It's been 3 years since Dai Lou went into hiding. He has written once before, saying that he is well hidden and safe somewhere in Japan. I only know that her name is Chi Kinjo, daughter of a Yakuza member who owes a debt to Dai Lou and is now paying it back.
He wrote for the second time today. To say he was on his way home. I have made this possible, having fended off his enemies in ways that I do not want to remember. I've changed. How could I not have? There has been so many battles to survive, so many wars to win, so many people to sacrifice, just to come up top. Just to make it safe for us again.
I've told myself that I'd have time to get my conscience back when he takes this burden from me. But now when I read his letter, I realise I don't want to give him what is rightfully mine. I worry too that he would bring her back with him. What then? After all, it was I who made sure we rose again.
It seems somehow significant that it is our 1st anniversary today. When he came back that night, a year ago, he knelt down with a ring to place on my finger. I needn't have worried, it seems. He has always loved me. Or maybe he just knew he needed me. Anyhow, same difference. I agreed to be his wife, his Third Wife, for there were 2 others who, long ago, got there before I did.
I've built a place where the gang can hang out over beers and Cantonese food, while waiting to see Dai Lou or myself. There's a rooftop too and I always welcome friends and business associates to come up top. I enjoy being Sum Yi Tai, there is a nice ring to it. I continue to wield a lot of his power and fight a lot of his battles. In some ways, nothing has changed. But at least I'm entitled to his empire now.
I'm staring at my gin, sitting in my backroom lounge in between the ground floor hang out and the rooftop, wondering if he's coming home to me tonight. There are many question marks in my life, but sometimes this one is the biggest, even on our anniversary night.
I recall blinking back surprise when I laid eyes on her today. For the last couple of years I had been ignorant to the emotional tension that exists between them! He had always said she was his benefactor, that he would always owe her. But to see that intangible chemistry that I did today … women are intuitive that way, it would seem. I guess in some ways, I’d always known.
What I could not know was why she did not follow him back from Japan then. Maybe even he does not know why. Today she came knocking only to ask for a favour, to which he immediately jumped through hoops to fulfil. But that wasn’t what alerted me to her presence in his heart. It was the way he stood with her, never near enough to touch her, for fear of electrifying himself, but always close enough to hear her breathing. It was the way his eyes almost watered when he looked at her, just before he quickly turned away. It was the way she seemed apologetic for claiming his debt, like instead, she owed him an even larger one.
I can’t un-know now what I do know. There is a real threat to my position, in the form of Chi Kinjo.
Naturally this was not what I asked for, but I found myself mothering Eliza, in the wake of her mother’s death. The Second Wife to Dai Lou, Eliza’s mother was always weak-willed, and unsurprisingly succumbed to addiction. She was never a fighter. Her daughter, on the other hand, was a rebel even at the young age of 18.
So there we were today, arguing endlessly and somewhat pointlessly about what she was going to do with her life. She was going away to school in London, a decision Dai Lou made probably to put an end to the bickering between us both. It was doing his head in, and frankly, I was relieved. My last task was to somehow mentor her into choosing an education befitting of her family’s stature and helpful to her family’s business. Of course Eliza wouldn’t make that task easy for me. She was going to choose her own path, she declared, and it would have nothing to do with me.
I hear jazzy tunes float out from her bedroom now as she is packing to leave on a plane. I don’t think I’ll try to care anymore. She can do whatever she pleases.
We sat at his mother's old curry mee shop in Ipoh, away from the hustle and bustle of feuding Hong Kong. I could not stop thanking him for saving my life. That stab could have killed me, had he not taken it for me. Now, in recovery back in his home town, he seemed happier, lighter almost.
I've always known Lucky only as Dai Lou's driver and personal body guard, a loyal man of few words who misses his mom's curry mee everyday and loves to bet on horses. The gang calls him Lucky Gor as a form of respect for his proximity to Dai Lou. Today I look at him with a different lens. He is my benefactor, I owe him my life. Why? I ask him. He just shrugged. Because it is my instinct to protect you, he answered quietly. And then he started talking more than I ever heard him speak.
He told me how his allegiance would always lie with Dai Lou, but that it tore at him when Dai Lou mistreated me. He told me he felt an injustice when Dai Lou prioritised his debt to Chi Kinjo over his debt to me. Such deep gratitude, Lucky said, should not only be towards her. I didn't know Dai Lou felt so deeply for her, I said, and he stopped talking. I patted him. It didn't matter, I was Sum Yi Tai, and she was not. I had Lucky to protect me, she did not. Tonight, I will sleep soundly knowing that.
Eliza stormed back into our lives today, having been in London for so long. She announced that she was going to move her fashion studio to Shanghai, and that she expected to take over some of our businesses there. I said no, she wasn't qualified, not since she all but abandoned the family business in search of her so-called Freedom.
Things have changed, Eliza said, after 1997 and the modernisation of China, we needed to evolve. She spoke about jazz and fashion, the pinstripe suits for ladies that she was now well-known for; about empowerment and equality; about cocktails and grandeur.
To Dai Lou, Eliza was just sprouting dreams and new-age fantasies. He listened in the manner any doubtful father would, with a kind smile that never reached his eyes. To me, however, I saw Eliza’s resolve. I saw that she was an uprising going to happen and that there was nothing we could do to stop her.
My back-room lounge is my solace. I take comfort in it's seclusion and my lack of inhibition when I'm here. I can be me, Mona, not the Third Wife.
Tonight, I let my memories take-over, as I sipped on my cocktail. I thought about my best friend Sum, who I cast aside when he tried to deter me from my fight. I thought about Dai Lou, all that we have and all that we’d left behind. I thought about Chi Kinjo, the woman I would never get to know. I thought about Lucky, the man who saved my life. I thought about Eliza, how much I loved but hated her at the same time.
Lost in my thoughts and my cocktails, I almost didn't hear my friends come in to join me, friends who have always stood by me since my days as a Songstress. They must have asked to see me and were given the passcode to my lounge. I'm glad they are here. It's time to drink now.