Dragon Boat, by Ge Liang
Ge Liang was born in 1978 in Nanjing, and is descended from a distinguished literary lineage that includes his great-uncle Chen Duxiu, renowned author, philosopher and a leading figure in the May Fourth Movement, and his grandfather, the renowned artist and art historian Ge Kangyu. His literary background is reflected in his stories that are often steeped in history, philosophy, classical literature and art – particularly in his novels The Vermilion Bird, set in his hometown Nanjing, and North Kite, a love story that spans the turbulent years of Republican China.
In his most recent short story collection Typhoon Neoguri, Ge Liang fixes his gaze on Hong Kong, his home for more than a decade. ‘Dragon Boat’ is a story of a young immigrant’s chilling encounter on Cheung Chau. This lonely, outlying island, with its listless shopkeepers and sole policeman patrolling on his motorbike, is haunted by the deaths of many who chose the island to commit suicide by inhaling charcoal fumes, and where lingering spirits and superstitions are a natural part of everyday life.
In Yuye’s mind, there are no vast stretches of sea in Hong Kong. Victoria harbor, viewed from high above, looks like nothing more than a narrow strip of water. It is only after nightfall, in the waning light, when scattered twinkles on the boats and piers frame the contours of the water, that the sea starts to look more impressive.
Yuye grew up by the sea – a real one that stretched to the horizon. At high tide, giant waves crashed against the shore, untamed waters rushed in every direction. Their thunder resonated splendidly inside him.
He was a child when he first arrived in Hong Kong, but already knew how to induce a despondent mood in himself. This sea is like water in a bathtub, the nine-year-old had said to his father. It’s so still, it makes you want to die.
His father was alarmed at these despairing words, but did not know what to say.
They had been living in his grandfather’s house, waiting for him to die. It was cruel, but Yuye had no feelings for this old man. He abandoned his wife and child on the mainland and remarried in Hong Kong, but a car accident killed his entire family, and he was alone again. It was then that he thought of Yuye’s father. This son whom he hadn’t seen for thirty years was the old man’s only legal heir.
His grandfather had stared dispassionately at Yuye, as if he was bestowing charity on him. Then he saw his grandson’s expression was even more dispassionate than his own.
This place is definitely not like it was seven years ago, Yuye thinks to himself, standing on the pile of rubble at the far side of the beach. He is now twenty but looks younger, especially as he is wearing his Diocesan Boys’ School uniform. He is in truth a second year student at the University of Hong Kong, no longer a child. He stands in silence, and there is an impression of steadiness in this tall, slim figure, although it does not bear too close an examination. His twenty years have been uneventful. He has managed to dodge many of life’s blows, and his pale complexion, his eyes, and the traces of acne all give the contours of his face an unfinished look, callow youth that he is.
No, it wasn’t like this seven years ago.
There would never have been so many people, seven years ago.
Once in Form Three, he had skipped school, jumped on a ferry at the Central pier, and come here. The ferry had sailed halfway, the water deathly calm, as usual. When strong winds suddenly rocked the boat, he had the illusion that he was seeing a trestle bridge in the distance, and the red roofs and white walls of German-style buildings, row upon row of them, lining the shore.
No. Those were things from back home. But the sea and the waves were real.
The ferry had docked at an outlying island.
Yuye stepped cautiously off the boat, and saw a market directly opposite the pier. There were a few people strolling around. The shops were open still, mostly selling seafood. In the dusk, the creatures in the aquariums looked tired, as did the people. A fat woman, leaning on an old metal shop gate, was grilling oysters. The oysters were done, and sizzled as white juices oozed out of them. The woman, who seemed not to have noticed, continued grilling them. Suddenly a mantis shrimp leapt out. Yuye hesitated, picked up the shrimp, and threw it into the tank. The sound of the shrimp hitting the water was clearly audible and the woman heard. She straightened up, gave Yuye a chilly look, and swore, a clean, sharp expletive. Startled, Yuye ran off.
The road was lined with dilapidated qilous – old, arcaded buildings with ground-floor shops, from which hung grandiose advertisements. He walked over the grey flagstones, then suddenly there was a splash, a spray of water. Yuye glanced at his wet trousers legs, and felt miserable. At that moment, he saw a man in police uniform on a motorbike, coming slowly towards him. The man looked him up and down: “Hey lad, why aren’t you at school today, where do you live?” Without waiting for Yuye’s reply, he moved slowly off. Yuye watched him go, and felt even more depressed.
He passed by a dark, cavernous shop, with the sign ‘Yuen Seng Kee’. Yuen seng, the source of life. Yuye put his head round the door. A very old woman came out, saw him, muttered a casual profanity, and went back inside. Inside the shop, in the dim bluish light, a gaudily-colored mannequin was smiling at him. The old crone smiled too, a friendly smile that showed dark red gums. Then she beckoned to him, patting a piece of clothing beside her. It was a funeral supplies shop.
It was when Yuye was feeling utterly despondent that the beach had appeared.
He looked at it in surprise, as it came into view at the end of the long, smoke-filled street.
A nice beach, he thought.
The beach was wide and flat, winding past dark shapes towards the foot of the reef in the distance. The white sand, fine and soft, was burnished a light gold in the setting sun, like the outside edge of an egg tart pastry.
He took off a shoe, filled it with sand, then slowly poured it out. Against the peaceful sea and sky, the sand flowed, making a hushing sound. It was like an hourglass, sieving time grain by grain, in an uninterrupted stream. Then the sand changed direction in the breeze, and drifted away into the distance. Shells dropped from the shoe and were quickly buried by more sand. Above him a seagull dove earthwards with a tragic screech, then flew away.
He sat on the beach until the horizon dimmed. The tide rose, surged quietly towards him, and the sound of the waves became louder. Under his feet, he saw his shoe float with the waves. It quivered in the water, then disappeared.
For seven years, Yuye has had a private, intimate connection with this island, as if they were friends.
He mostly avoids high days and holidays, deliberately stays away from them: Qing Ming Festival, the annual Taiping Qingjiao, Buddha’s birthday, the important events that welcome tourists and locals alike. This island has always been the Hongkongers’ favorite for traditional celebrations. After the handover, it became the base of the People’s Liberation Army Hong Kong Garrison, and was used for water parachuting performances; on National Day, it is always bustling.
The beach would be crowded, then quieten down. This was the time for its intimate friends; its quiet hours belonged to Yuye. He sat in this stillness alone and watched the tide rise and fall, until the wind and sea calmed again.
But still the crowds grew. When he saw, one Tuesday morning, the foaming waves push a soda can towards his feet, he couldn’t help frowning. He kept running into tourists and tour groups, even on non-holidays. They would appear on the beach, sounds of merriment carried to him on the wind. Then the government opened the beach to the public, to windsurfing and rowing and the frivolous trails they left on the surface of the water.
In the end he decided to go at night, when the hectic heat of the island had properly dropped off. The bright lights of the market were a sea of fiery yellow until the lights went out, and pitch blackness fell all around.
Today, Yuye stands on a pile of debris behind the beach, gazing into the distance. He sees bobbing heads, and his legs quiver despite himself. He is disgruntled. He has not planned to come on the day of the Dragon Boat Festival, but his father has brought that woman home. If only she had stayed in the hospital to wait for the birth. He would not have left the house then.
Dragon Boat Festival, in this city, is a depressing event. People here care little about the passage from spring to summer. The air is so muggy that one can almost squeeze water from it. Around the time of the festival, one might find them eating zongzi dumplings, or perhaps remembering Quyuan. But on the day itself, the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, most of them let the day pass without comment.
So when he comes to the beach at dusk and finds it a riot of color, he is genuinely surprised. He sees swaying banners and hears loud shouts. He watches as men in different colored vests walk towards him, carrying dragon boats, chanting their rallying cries.
When the dragon boats have been placed on the beach, he finds himself drawn towards them. The boats are brightly painted with dragons’ faces. The eyes are gigantic and cartoon-like, friendly, their heads decorated extravagantly with red silk and wormwood leaves.
He suddenly realizes that it’s the island’s annual dragon boat race.
The competitors are warming up on the shore, providing the surrounding crowds with plenty of opportunity to nitpick and compare notes.
An elderly man shouts out a command, the boats enter the water, one by one.
Then come the drums. The drummers are not skillful but they make a powerful noise. Yuye sees, among the crowds on the shore, a group of young boys standing erect in snow-white uniforms and black trousers. Two of them are wearing brightly colored kilts. He can see, under the black and red-checkered woolen skirts, their thick, strong legs. They must be the island’s band, hired for the occasion, a tradition inherited from Britain.
For ten minutes, amid the drumming, the dragon boats gather around a pole embedded in the sea in the distance, the real starting point of the race.
A bright red flag flaps in the wind, the boats hurtle towards it. The competitors are giving their all, shouts ring from the crowds on the shore, deafening drum rolls start up again. They are from the drummers on the boats, beating to control the rhythm of the paddles.
A yellow boat is in the lead. The drummer stands at the head of the boat, elbows splayed, beating powerfully, every part of his body in movement, giving a vibrant performance.
Yuye is unsettled by the loud noises, but forces himself to continue watching. To his surprise, his eardrums feel good under the assault. It is as if they could burst at any minute, or rather, as if they have been awakened by this clamor from the sense of decay that the dark, corroding years in his grandfather’s house have filled him with.
He gives a cry, loud and sharp, and his voice breaks. He stops, slightly embarrassed, but no one has heard. His voice is completely drowned out by the sound of the waves.
At this moment, the horizon starts to move; a fiery color, a setting sun. The dragon boats press on, as if they too are on fire. The onlookers crowd together, getting more and more excited.
Suddenly at the final sprint, a red boat passes a line of several others, outruns the leading yellow boat and reaches the shore, winning first place.
As the referee places a banner at the head of the red boat, Yuye feels a sense of loss, as if he had missed something important.
The race itself, compared to all the preparations, has been too simple, too fast.
The band has started up again. This time it is different, not clamorous. The two boys in kilts are playing bagpipes. A bleak, pure sound echoes in the distance, somewhat out of place amid the jollity. Dusk finally falls, ending the performance.
The crowd disperses, the band members start to chat in low voices. The dragon boats are lifted up and moved slowly away, but this time there are no rallying cries. The large eyes and joyful expressions of the dragons seem out of kilter with the increasingly somber notes of the bagpipes, as the two boys march side by side. Both boys wear oddly serious expressions, like funeral musicians. Yuye sees a white shadow follow the band, then disappear into the darkness.
Finally all the people have left. There is quietness again, and it belongs to him. He sighs in relief, and sits down.
Yuye looks around him, reassured that this is the beach he knows. Brown clouds have gathered above the sea. The moon rises, moves in between the clouds, then hides itself behind the reef. The temperature has dropped. There is a chill in the air.
He squints, combs the outline of the beach. He sees a long, thin shadow, something that does not belong on this beach. It is the shape of a curved head. He stands up, peers into the distance, and makes out an abandoned dragon boat.
Bathed in moonlight, the dragon boat looks extraordinarily still on the sands. Without the waves in the background, it is just a dead object.
He walks towards it and touches the dragon’s head; it is still wet. The colorful silk ribbons, now a wet bundle, lie limply on the dragon horns. From the horns hangs a paddle, its blade entangled in seaweed. He picks it up and, all of a sudden, something falls on his feet and scurries away in fright. It is a small crab.
He sighs in relief, drops the paddle, and turns round to leave.
There is a gust of wind, and the swish of fabric, and an icy draft rushes past his ears.
Yuye turns around and sees a white shadow standing at the tail end of the boat.
What are you doing? The white shadow says.
He stands rooted to the ground, panicked for a moment then calms down. It is a lovely voice that tails off like gossamer.
Nothing, he says.
The white shadow walks towards him. It is a girl, the same age as him it seems. She lifts her head and brushes back her hair to reveal a pale round face.
You’re not from this island.
Yuye does not reply. He watches the girl’s white dress flutter in the sea wind. The material of the dress is extremely thin, like silk. She must be cold, he says to himself.
The girl walks closer, takes a good look at him, and says, Diocesan Boys’ School, that’s posh.
He lifts his hand, uneasily, to cover the school badge on his shirt. Not any more, I graduated, he says.
The girl laughs, cynically. At this moment the moon becomes a little brighter, and Yuye can see her face clearly. The girl has elongated, upward-slanting eyes, their corners curving sharply towards her temple. This must be what people call phoenix eyes, rare among Guangdong natives.
The shape of her eyes makes it difficult for him to decipher her expression. You’ve graduated but you’re still wearing the school uniform? she says. Are you pretending to be younger than you are?
You must come here often?
He pauses for a moment and nods. How do you know? He asks, a bit resentful.
The girl raises her eyebrows, as if searching for something on Yuye. He hears her say softly, You might not be from here, but your body has the smell of this island.
And she bursts into a peal of laughter. The sound shudders on the night wind, and trails off.
He frowns, thinking the laughter was uncalled for, but finds himself attracted to this strange girl.
He waits for the girl’s laughter to die down. He musters his courage and asks, Are you from this island?
The girl’s expression suddenly becomes serious. Sort of, she says.
He does not know how to respond. Oh, he says in a low voice.
The girl points away to the west of the island and says, I live over there.
Why did you come? To watch the dragon boat race?
The girl gathers her dress, sits down on the beach and points to the space beside her. Yuye is taken by surprise, but sits down beside her.
As she turns around to look at him, the wind blows her hair into a parting. The skin on her neck is extremely white, almost translucent, with visible blue veins. She is silent for a while; he feels a rush of cold air.
I can tell from your accent that you were not born here, she says.
These words irritate him, but after the silence, they reopen their conversation.
He grabs a handful of sand, and slowly lets it flow through his fingers.
He remembers his mother.
His mother died the first year they arrived in Hong Kong. His father became Yuye’s only family. A man of few words, he started to age prematurely. He did his utmost to keep grandfather’s business going, but he was no entrepreneur. He had thinning hair, a big belly, and on top of that, rheumatic heart disease. He did not have serious relationships, only the occasional sexual ones. There were different women coming and going in the house, like revolving doors. Then one morning, Yuye realized the current woman looked familiar. She took out clothes from the dryer, folded them one by one. When she saw him, she took a carefully folded pile of shirts, pajamas and underwear, and handed it to him. They’re yours, she said. Here.
Yuye’s face reddened, and he threw the clothes on the floor.
Seven years passed.
This plain-looking woman still did not have an official status.
She was the one who had bought Yuye’s birthday present every year. If only they had been merely superficial gestures – but somehow the gifts were always exactly what he wanted. Not being a materialistic boy, there were few things he liked. When he was twelve, he found a limited edition Ultraman toy on his desk. He had wanted that toy very badly for a very long time.
He tried to refuse it, but the woman grabbed him and put the gift in his hand.
Her hands were soft and warm.
In the old days, before a race, they always sang the dragon boat song, the girl says. Have you heard it before?
Yuye shakes his head.
The girl starts to sing softly. He does not understand the lyrics, but is struck by the solemnity of the tune. She sings, then says the lyrics out loud.
“Stop the sound of gongs and drums Bow your heads and sing Go forth to the ancient world Hold the yin and yang of the sun and the moon Light and darkness give birth to the elements Then the columns of heaven and earth...”
This is a very old song, she says. Nobody sings it anymore, it was passed down in the family. There are no boys in my family, so my grandfather taught it to me.
He listens to her in silence. The song is long, but she keeps singing, without sounding tired.
He remembers that the woman also likes to sing. ‟Jasmine”, her favorite song.
‟Flower of jasmine, so fair! Flower of jasmine, so fair! Budding and blooming here and there, Pure and fragrant all do declare."
The woman was singing this song that night. Yuye was passing by their room, the door slightly ajar. He saw her body. She was writhing on top of his father, like a white dolphin. He had seen a white dolphin once in Tuen Mun. The shiny, fat creature was jumping out of the water, flapping its tail, making dull, moaning sounds.
He could see it now, how his father put down the red wine in his hand, caressed her, and stripped off her clothes as if she were a molting cicada. He saw her straddle his father, with the moans of a dolphin, singing softly. On his father’s bloated body, her smooth back and behind rose and fell. As if he was a boat, she rode the waves of lust, now stopping, now moving, slowly advancing. Suddenly she let out an unbearable scream. In his frenzy, Yuye stumbled towards the mains power control and pulled the switch.
In the darkness, he heard, in relief, the man and woman falling from the peak of desire.
That night, Yuye dreamt that he was riding on a white dolphin. He followed as it swam steadily, made a sudden flip in midair, twirled and slipped in and out of the disorienting waves. As they were rising to the peak of the highest wave, he suddenly felt a sharp pain in his back. He turned round and saw a dagger in his father’s hand, dripping with blood. He flailed in the air, hit the water surface, then slowly, slowly fell to the bottom of the cold, dark sea.
He woke with a start, sat up, found himself utterly exposed to the bright moonlight. Dazed and shamed, he took off his underwear, and threw it under the bed. When he came home from school, he saw that the underwear, together with other clothes, was hanging on the balcony, dripping wet. The woman put down the laundry pole in her hand, turned around, and smiled at him. Her smile was very gentle.
Feeling parched, Yuye takes out a can of Coca-Cola from his bag. Then, after thinking about it, he takes out another can and hands it to the girl.
She turns towards him, and looks at the soda can. She screams suddenly, covers her face and whispers, Take it away, take it away, it’s red...
The girl, trembling hysterically, puts her head in between her knees. Yuye is irritated, but puts the can back into his bag.
I have to go, the girl says.
Yuye does not look up.
Above him the moon has risen. A crescent moon, shining a dim light.
Yuye sees a long row of buildings on the east side of the beach. One or two of them are still lit. As he stares, a light is swiftly turned off.
These small cement buildings were originally local homes. Later on, when more people came to the island, the islanders converted them into simple vacation houses. From the looks of them, business is not good.
Yuye decides not to return home. He hesitates, then walks towards the houses.
He passes the rubble he stood on before. Suddenly he stops, rubs his eyes and sees, growing from under the pile of pebbles, a wanton white flower that looks sumptuous in the darkness. He hurries past.
Outside the vacation houses is a shack for the gate-keeper. It appears they also make a living from a little shop selling snacks and drinks, and lending out barbecue equipment. On prominent display are various kinds of condoms. As Yuye look, a skinny man comes out, and says, You want ribbed, or fruit flavored? They’re new products.
I need a room, Yuye says.
He takes out a book and asks, One person, overnight?
Yuye lifts his head to look at the dark skies, says, Yep.
The man puts his glasses on, takes a closer look at him, ID please.
Yuye shows him his identity card. He glances behind Yuye, No-one else?
Yuye does not reply. Difficult to do business these days, the man mumbles, Got to be cautious. Here you go, 303. Second door on your left.
Yuye climbs the stairs, the wood creaking under his feet.
He reaches the third floor and finds room 303. The door looks like it has been newly painted in bright blue, but the florescent light turns it almost purple.
He takes out the keys, opens the door. The room is about a hundred square feet, and surprisingly tidy. The light green wallpaper dotted with a strawberry pattern looks old, it must have seen better days. Near to the wall is a wooden platform with a mattress on it. The bedsheets and duvet cover are the same light green, with patches of white, and have obviously been washed many times. A television. He turns on the air-conditioning, and with the rumbling noise, the room cools down.
Near the balcony, a rice cooker. He opens the lid, and finds a set of bowl and chopsticks inside, tidily placed but with a chip on the rim.
He opens the door to the balcony. A sea breeze rushes into the room, its salty tang smelling somehow stale. He can hear the sound of rolling waves. The moon has disappeared, the horizon is indistinct in the darkness. Near the reef, he can make out the curved shape of the abandoned dragon boat.
The small bathroom in the room barely fits one person, and in place of a door hangs a filmy pink plastic curtain. Yuye pulls back the curtain to find, written on the white ceramic tiled wall, eight characters large and clear in thick, black paint.
Burning Charcoal Is Prohibited Offenders Will Be Prosecuted
Yuye remembers the look the man gave him, and understands. In recent years, coming to the outlying islands to burn charcoal has become a popular suicide method for young people in Hong Kong. Most of them to die for love. Yuye suddenly finds the warning comical. If the burning of charcoal achieves its results, who is going to be prosecuted?
Could this have been the scene of a suicide? He thinks to himself, and smiles. He turns on the tap. The hot water is working, and almost scalding.
Yuye takes off his clothes and washes himself. There is soap in the bathroom. He squeezes some on his palm. It has a cheap, orange scent. He frowns, and turns up the water. The curtain, splattered by the water, surrounded by steam, instantly turns an eerily cherry pink.
He turns off the tap, the hot steam disperses. In the mirror his pallid face looks sickly.
There is a towel in the bathroom, but he does not use it. He walks out dripping wet, spreads his clothes on the bed, lies on top of them and lets himself dry. Reddish brown and yellow stains, probably from all the rain, meander across the ceiling.
Yuye hears a knock on the door. He does not budge, but the knocking becomes urgent. He sits up, pulls the towel from the bathroom and wraps it round his waist. He opens the door to find the skinny man, with a key in his raised hand. You left this on the door, he says. Be careful, young man. Yuye takes the key and closes the door.
He turns round, and sees someone standing in front of him. It is the girl.
She is in the same white dress, her damp hair hanging on her shoulders, shimmering under the lamplight like dark-colored seaweed.
Yuye’s eyes harden. He takes a step towards her, and embraces her. He becomes forceful, the girl struggles, his towel falls.
He bites her lips, she turns her head aside. He grabs her waist. The girl is soft in his arms, like a roll of fragile, thin white silk. The feeling excites him. He touches her, tries to pull off her dress. But the dress is so slippery that he cannot get a hold. He tugs it violently, and tears it off.
Under the dress, her body is porcelain-white.
It is translucent, too. In the crease of her neck, her breasts, her bellybutton, even her private parts, he can just make out greenish-blue veins, with a cold fluid flowing through them.
Yuye feels a chill emanating from her, eating away at his burning desire.
Impatiently he enters her, and shudders, as if an icy shroud has wrapped itself around him. He feels empty and trembles uncontrollably, unable to stop.
He thinks of that woman’s body again; it was different from this.
It was an October night when the summer heat had passed. She came into his room. When she forced herself onto him, he felt real, fiery heat. It burned him, melted him, tempered him so that he changed from a boy into a man.
This heat he had only experienced once, but he was bewitched.
He knelt at the woman’s feet and begged. He wanted her to give it to him, just like she gave him the Ultraman toy.
The woman stroked her enlarged belly, shook her head, then gently pinched his cheeks and said approvingly, Well done, boy, just once and you did it. You’re a hundred times more powerful than your old man.
He said he did not understand.
You have created another heir for your father, the woman smiled coldly. One who will take away all that belongs to you.
He remembers the warmth that woman gave him. Cursing, he gives another thrust, and feels his body grow cold.
The girl merely looks at him with a smile. His head suddenly clear, he tries to withdraw but cannot move, becomes instead more deeply embedded. In his panic he grits his teeth and slaps her, so that bright red blood trickles from the corner of her mouth. At this moment, an icy liquid drips onto his back. He turns his head to look at the ceiling, and sees the cracks bulging with red trickles, that gather into giant, crimson drops above his head.
The next morning, daybreak comes early.
The sun shines into the room, and falls onto the naked body of a young man. He is no longer breathing, but looks relaxed, and there is a smile on his face.
There is a commotion on the beach, where a few people are busy moving a dragon boat. The boat wears a joyful expression, and looks almost alive with the rippling tide behind it. Beside the rubble, a small crowd has gathered. From a distance, a police car approaches.
Slowly more people amass. The body of a girl who disappeared half a year ago has been discovered beneath the shingle, so badly decomposed it is hard to identify.
But the remnants of the girl’s white silk clothes, shimmering under the sunlight, are mostly intact.
The young forensic scientist who is collecting evidence suddenly screams. The crowd watches as she blushes and tells the detective in a shaking voice that she has found a man’s fresh semen on the corpse.
At Saint Peter’s Hospital, a woman is in labour. She was sent there when her contractions started in the early hours of the morning. A caesarian is required because of the enormous size of the baby. Outside the delivery room, a distraught, middle-aged man keeps making calls on his phone: his son did not return home last night. There is no answer.
An hour passes, then a shrill cry is heard. Everyone breathes a sigh of relief. As they watch, the newborn baby suddenly stops bawling, lets out a big yawn, and opens startled eyes. They are the eyes of a woman, a pair of piercing, phoenix eyes.