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Hong Kong Paradise
by Martin David Edwards.



Arien followed the crowds into the Hong Kong shopping mall. He revelled in the paradox of the people jostling around him, combining the anonymity of the city with the intimacy of rubbing shoulder-to-shoulder. The hot November sun cradled him in his shorts and t-shirt. He had left dark nights and a house for one in an English village. The holiday was his rebirth.

Inside the mall, he heard chanting and looked up to the rows of shops towering above him. Teenagers dressed in black and wearing face masks thronged the staircase leading to each floor. He watched them from the safety of a clothing store, envious of their solidarity with each other. Their slogans were a mixture of Cantonese and English, referring to names he could not pronounce. Nodding with an approval that disguised his longing, he bought an extra pair of underpants.

At the MTR underground station, Arien stopped and wondered if he was still at home, hallucinating under the cocoon of his duvet. An English police officer, wearing dark green overalls and carrying a gleaming plastic riot shield, was giving orders to a line of Chinese policemen.

Their eyes met and the English policeman advanced towards him, his riot shield swinging against his overalls.

Arien cradled his shopping bag, the underpants his talisman. “Do you speak English?” he asked the policeman, taking care to mouth each word clearly and slowly.

“Of course I speak English,” the policeman replied. “I was born in Tooting.”

Arien considered the obvious. “Are you going to arrest me?”

The policeman eyed the shopping bag. “Not unless you’re hiding petrol bombs. Enjoying your holiday?”

“I’m not on holiday. I’ve come to paradise.”

“That’s what I said at the Handover. But I couldn’t leave with the rest of the English.”

Behind him, someone made a joke in Cantonese and the policeman laughed. Arien thought that the joke was directed at him until the policeman waved him to pass, his attention fixed on a pair of teenagers coming out of the MTR station in matching black.

Suddenly feeling lonely, Arien retreated to a Starbucks outside the mall. Standing in line, he waited to order a coffee and spied on the drinkers at the table.

“Name?” the barista asked, a felt tip pen poised over a polystyrene cup.

“Luck,” he replied.

The barista wrote two characters on the side of the cup that looked like a pole waving a flag next to a tent. “That’s Cantonese for luck,” he said. “Bring the cup back for a four dollar saving on your next order.”

Arien took the cup and weaved through the tables to the empty seat he had seen.

A girl was reading a book on her own. Half a title in English peeked out from under her thumb. Her hair was cut into a bob and her skin was smooth like sunlit silk. A cartoon kitten was drawn on the rucksack propped on the seat next to her, its paw swiping at a strap. Arien thought the girl was impossibly beautiful.

“I love little cats,” he said to her and patted the rucksack.

The girl looked up from her book. “Do you want travel directions?” she asked.

“I’ve already arrived where I want to be.” He sat down and placed his shopping bag on top of the rucksack.

“You’re from the UK?” The woman half-closed her book.

“The land of rain and warm beer,” he replied with a mock sigh.

“I would emigrate if I was given the chance. But your government denies us visas.”

“I didn’t need a visa to come to Hong Kong.”

“You don’t have the Mainland looking over your shoulder.”

Arien turned his coffee cup so that the Cantonese characters faced the girl. “Your English is excellent.”

“Not as good as it could be. I’m studying English at the University of Hong Kong.” She eyed the coffee cup.

“I studied English too.” He held out his hand. “My name’s Arien.”


“That doesn’t sound Chinese.”

“In Hong Kong, we don’t quite know if we belong to the colonial past or the promises of the future. Arien doesn’t sound English either.”

“My parents wanted to be French.”

“You have a Hong Kong sense of humour.”

He bowed. “I like to be a funny guy.”

 “Ah.” The girl opened her book to continue reading.

Arien leaned sideways to her table. “What’s the book?”

“A study on Dickens.”

“My favourite author.”

“Which of his books do you prefer?”

He looked at her blankly. “All of them.”

“They are easier to read for older people. The books are too long.”

Arien rang his fingers through his hair, conscious that grey roots might be showing. “We could meet up to discuss why longer books are more entertaining.”

“I’m not too sure. I have essays to write.”

A black t-shirted boy with a broken pair of glasses held together by white tape came into the Starbucks and started shouting at their table in Cantonese. The barista propelled him to the exit.

“You know that boy?” Arien asked Elisabeth.

“I do need to consider Dickens more carefully,” she replied. “Let’s meet tomorrow.”

He tapped the cup. “My squiggles are working.”

“For one of us.”

“Luck can spread. Where can we meet?”

“Do you know Hong Kong?”

“Only in my dreams.”

She scanned the exit. “We can meet here. I don’t live far.”

The barista returned and spoke to the girl in quiet Cantonese. Arien sat waiting patiently, his eyes fixed on the ceiling.

Elisabeth picked up her rucksack. “Eleven o’clock tomorrow.”

“I won’t be late.”

She peeked outside the exit then disappeared into the crowds.

Arien darted after her with the book. “You’ve forgotten your Dickens,” he said to the sea of faces flowing past. He kissed the front cover, imagining her bob of black hair. Paradise was being fortunate to him; Elisabeth would have to meet in the morning if she wanted her book back.

The receptionist at his hotel looked up from a television screen showing the riots. “Sir is being safe, I hope?” he asked. “The news reports are showing troublemakers only. Hong Kong is calmer without students.”

“I’ve already found a student at her calmest,” Arien replied. His stomach rumbled. “I’ll need room service this evening. Something that’s a mixture of Chinese and English.”

In his room, Arien showered and lay on his bed to absorb the early evening breeze. He opened the book and started to read. Fifty pages later, his chin nodded against his chest and he jolted himself awake. Air conditioning was what he needed to keep himself alert, he decided.

A knock on his door broke his concentration at the half-way point of the book.

“Enter Mrs Dickens,” he called out.

A waiter came into the room, holding a tray and shivered. “You want air conditioning repaired, I can arrange,” he said.

“You local people can only think about superficial comforts,” he replied. He took the tray from the waiter and removed a silver lid covering a plate. Fish and chips, and a mound of gleaming seaweed stared back at him.

He resumed reading and wiped the pages clean with every second bite of the fish. Elisabeth would be insulted if he returned her book covered in crumbs.


a short blue line


The following morning, Arien woke up, changed into his new underpants and left the hotel at ten o’clock precisely. Rioters dressed in black ran past him, pursued by police holding batons high in the air. Arien drifted through them, unawares. In his mind he rehearsed his answers to questions that Elisabeth might ask about Dickens. He wanted to impress her with his commitment to her studies. The prospect of returning to a life alone in England appalled him. Life without crowds would be unbearable, and especially without Elisabeth.

He arrived at the Starbucks half an hour early and settled down to wait with a cappuccino and a reassuring glance at the book. An hour later, he busied himself with the index. Elisabeth would have stayed at her home late, preparing for their encounter like him. They were both diligent people who did not want to make mistakes.

Ten minutes later, Elisabeth slipped into the coffee shop. She tucked a black t-shirt into her rucksack. “I was delayed in the mall,” she said.

“That’s my luck again. I had more time for reading.” He handed her the book.

“Let’s go for a walk along the harbour,” she said.

“I was thinking we might be going to the library together.”

“You want to go to the university instead?”

“The council closed my village library last year. I have to go into town for my renewals.”

“The English and their creature comforts. You have no idea what you are missing.”

“I have every idea,” Arien replied and slipped his arm into hers.

“Quiz me on Little Dorritt,” she said and unhooked their arms, but so gently that he did not notice.

“An inspiring novel.”

“What inspires you the most?”

“His view of England, of course.”

“A paradise gone wrong.”

Two protestors in black sprayed graffiti on a concrete pillar. They waved at Elisabeth.

“Hong Kong is such a welcoming community,” she said to Arien and reversed her direction away from the protestors.

“Everyone ignores me at home.” Arien gave the protestors a thumbs up.

They paused at the harbour front and watched a cruise ship leave, its decks empty of passengers.

“Hong Kong has no tourists coming anymore,” Arien said.

“All except one.”

“I travel where the heart is.”

“Did Dickens say that?”

Arien racked his brain over his midnight reading. He was afraid to say Yes or No out of fear that Elisabeth might correct him. “He said many things that are wise about life.”

“Indeed.” She fell silent, waiting for him to provide an example.

“I could admire the view forever,” he said, edging closer to her.

“Did Dickens visit the sea in England?” she asked, moving away from him in parallel.

“He could have gone to Brighton. There are half-hourly trains from Victoria.”

“You know more than my tutor.”

“I exist to serve,” Arien said, pleased at Elisabeth’s reply. He turned towards her and looked straight into her eyes, confident that he was reading the signs correctly. “Dickens wrote love stories too.”

“You’re suffering the effects of delayed exposure to tear gas.” She broke eye contact and checked her phone. “I should be getting back to my flat.”

“Essays to write. You deserve a prize.”

“I’ve been falling behind.”

They left the harbour and walked inland through a rabbit warren of skyscrapers, shuttered for the weekend. Arien breathed in the sunshine warming his face. “I could never go back to the cold,” he said.

“You’d miss the snow and the rule of law.”

“I’d miss talks about Dickens more.”

“At the University they are thinking of removing him from the syllabus in favour of African freedom writers.”

“I’ve already found my freedom.”

“Maybe the planners will realise the example will be dangerous and change their minds.”

 Elisabeth jangled her keys outside a block of flats. “This is where I live,” she declared.

Arien inspected the rows of windows towering above him. A sign advertising a flat to rent in English with Cantonese characters underneath swung as a woman brushed away cobwebs from a balcony above. “None of your neighbours are lonely. I live on my own in the UK,” he said.

He followed her inside the lobby, waiting for the reply to his mildest of hints.

“My neighbours are experts in gossip.” Elisabeth nodded at an old woman sitting on a deck chair. She stopped outside a flat with a number two painted to its door. “Thank you for your conversation about Dickens. I recommend an Uber to the airport. The train will be disrupted.”

“Nothing can disrupt my journeys. I’m the most determined of travellers.” He shook her hand and winked.

Outside the block of flats, Arien took a photo of the To Let sign with his smartphone. A couple passed him wearing black t-shirts and holding hands. He blew them a kiss and waited for his Uber to arrive, the destination his hotel instead of the airport.

The receptionist waved at him. “Would Sir like to order lunch? The chef is excited to be thinking of further culinary masterpieces.”

“I’m too busy for a sit-down meal.”

The receptionist shook his head and returned to his computer.

Inside his room, Arien opened his laptop and emailed the estate agent the photo from his phone. An out-of-office message pinged moments later in his In Box. He continued with his next email, announcing regretfully that he would not be returning to his work selling science textbooks on Monday. In a postscript, he asked for a reference written in simple English that companies in Hong Kong could understand without translation. With a twirl of his fingers, he gave notice on his rental agreement for his house. For a finishing touch, he cancelled his return flight, accepting the administration fee.

Back in reception, he coughed in front of the computer. The emails had made him bolder; he had passed the point of no return.

“Has Sir changed his mind? Shrimp and chicken balls with curry sauce, perhaps?” the receptionist asked.

“I need to extend my booking by one night. My estate agent is closed for the weekend,” Arien replied.

“Is Sir moving to Hong Kong?”

“Sir is relocating to Paradise,” Arien beamed.

“Macau is excellent for the gambling.”

“I was referring to love. At my age you can’t afford to be cautious. Here’s a tip for your troubles. I won’t be needing these anymore.” Arien fished in his pocket and handed the receptionist a twenty-pound note.

Returning to the block of flats, he glided through the protestors as if he was a knife cutting butter. He whistled a love song he thought he had forgotten from ten years ago to drown out the chants in Cantonese.

In front of the door marked Number Two, Arien rehearsed his speech. He was giving up his life in England to ensure that Elisabeth could flourish with her English degree. He would encourage her concentration by studying with her in the evenings. The flat available for rent in the same block was his, so she would not waste time cooking for herself.

A kiss on the cheeks to celebrate might be in order, but nothing more adventurous. She had her essay to finish.

He knocked on the door and dropped to his knees.

Elisabeth opened the door. Arien looked up, ready with his declaration.

Through the gap of her knees, he could see the boy with the black t-shirt and the broken pair of glasses from outside Starbucks. He dabbed at his cheeks with a tea towel embroidered with a kitten. The white tape that held the frame together was speckled with drops of blood.

“We thought you were the police. Xin was hit in the mall,” Elisabeth said to Arien.

The boy held aside the tea towel, revealing a gash. “Thank you for helping my girlfriend with her Dickens. Do you also know First Aid?” he asked.

Arien rose to his feet. “You locals should learn to look after yourselves. God knows we’ve tried hard enough to make you independent,” he replied.

Returning to the mall, he pushed through a crowd of protestors to find the line of green overalls.

The English police officer was picking at a crack in his riot shield while a group of policemen watched, making suggestions in Cantonese. “You again. I suspected Hong Kong was contagious,” he said to Arien.

Arien straightened his t-shirt and stood to attention. “I wish to report two terrorists,” he replied.

“Only two? You should go back to your hotel. The paperwork will keep you behind for months.” The English police officer took a roll of tape from a Chinese policeman and fixed it to his shield.

Arien tapped the riot shield with his finger. “The students were making petrol bombs,” he said loudly.

The suggestions in Cantonese from the policemen drifted into silence.

“You’re still sure you want to get involved? Not suffering sunstroke, by any chance?” the English policeman asked.

Arien nodded proudly. “I’ve never been surer of anything in my life.” He showed the photo of the To Let sign to the policeman and gave the number of the flat.

The English policeman sighed and spoke in rapid Cantonese to the green overalls around him.

Arien returned to the Starbucks and ordered a cappuccino.

“Four-dollar special?” the barista asked.

“I forgot my cup but I’ll have your squiggles. You local people are endearing with your superstitions,” he replied.

He looked around the tables while his coffee was being prepared. A girl was sitting on her own reading a textbook. His view of the cover was unobstructed.

When his cappuccino was ready, he sauntered over and placed his cup on her table, the characters facing her. “I used to be a salesman for Chemistry textbooks. With luck, I could offer you the inside track,” he said to the girl.




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