by Mark Talacko

I rose early to the cool dawn light and the voice from the loudspeakers. School would start again, but not today. Today I was free to run headlong at my future.

I sprang from the kang and pulled on my cotton padded pants and jacket, slipped on my cloth shoes and threw back the curtain that separated our sleeping quarters from the rest of the space that we called home.

My mother ladled out rice porridge with chunks of taro into a cracked bowl and set down a cold, hard boiled egg on the table my father had built from discarded wooden crates.

She told me that was all we had and gave a wistful smile.

But tomorrow we might have pork, she announced with fleeting vigour and gathered up the dishes her and my father had used. She said this every morning, like a prayer and put the dishes in the blackened and dented pot to take them outside to wash.

I bolted down my breakfast and ran for the door just as my father was coming in. His leathery hands halted my forward progress momentarily.

Whoah. Where are you speeding off to? Don’t you have school to prepare for? They’re starting classes again soon, he said looking me up and down like he didn’t really recognize me.

I know. I know, but I have to go. There’s going to be some rennao down by the river today. I’ll prepare tomorrow.

I heard about that.

He seemed to be weighing something in his mind. His eyes took on the same look they did when he told me stories from his youth.

Yes. You should go see what it’s all about. Wouldn’t want to miss it. No. Not a young man.

He reflected. Contemplated. Decided.

You’ll do double preparations tomorrow to make up for it.


Won’t you?

You bet. Thanks Ba, I said starting to move passed him before he could change his mind.

Hold on there.

He arrested my motion once more with a firm but gentle hand on my shoulder. His eyes scanned around. With great secrecy he fished a new one yuan coin from his pocket and put it in my palm. The coin shone up at me in the sun’s growing warmth. Its edges were rough in my hand; the Great Wall snaked into its silvery distance.

Don’t tell your mother, he said with a wink. A young man needs a little travelling around money to get by.

I stuffed the coin deep into my trouser pocket. It felt like it weighed at least three jin. I thought I was rich.

Thanks Ba, I said and kissed his time weathered cheek. The coal from the factory was deep in his pores.

And I was gone. Leaving him and my mother behind.

I shot down the alleyway passed returned youth with dirt under their fingernails. I tore passed the big characters already fading from the walls and turned a corner.

The streetcar nearly knocked me over.

Easy there young man!

A hand grabbed my collar and pulled me back in the nick of time with just enough force to keep me on my feet.

Where are you off to in such a hurry?

The man was dressed in a suit that I’d only seen people wear in movies; and they were usually bad.

I’m heading for the river, I said hesitantly. There’s going to be something big down there today.

I bet there is, he said smiling down at me. But you better watch out or you’ll miss it completely; if you know what I mean, and his eyes directed my vision to the road in front of us across which raced a motor car.

What the…, I said. Where did that car come from?

Same place they all do, he answered. Out there, his eyes seemed to look into nothing and everything at the same time. Better look both ways before you cross the street if you’re going to jump the gun. Or you can wait a bit and cross with the rest of us, he said raising a finger.

He pointed to a black box mounted on a pole beside the road. The figure of a striding man in red changed to green and, like a sluice gate opening, a sea of people moved forward.

You want to race ahead. But you want to stay alive, the stranger said and let go of my collar.

Thanks, I called out to him and turned to face my destination again.

As my head swiveled I noticed many more people wearing suits like him. They stood out like black flowers in a field of green and blue.

I rushed on and gleamed over the paving stones. The cars disappeared and the road fanned out. People seemed to stroll rather than rush.

Out of the corner of my eye I caught someone racing against me and turned my head slightly to look. It was me. But the reflection in the glass fronts of the stores didn’t look right. Too elongated. Maybe I was moving too…

…Pah; Ai!

I collided with something soft and springy and stuttered my feet to keep balance as I sprung backward, tottering.

Hey! Watch it you ruffian.

The voice sounded strange. Sweet. Like birdsong.

A hand caught my wrist halting my precession.

Make sure he didn’t steal anything!

Another voice, different in pitch, but with the same lilt.

I looked up and two tall beauties looked down at me. The lobes of their ears glinted in the sun. I couldn’t see their eyes behind their dark glasses. They wore bright yellow and red dresses that only came to their knees. I could see their toes through openings in their high heel shoes.

You think just because we’re from Hong Kong that we don’t know your tricks, the slightly taller one said, shaking my wrist. Huh? Do you?
Hong Kong? Was all I could mutter.

Yeah, you clod hopper. Never heard of it before?

Check the bags Victoria.
I did. It’s all there. He’s just a goof that needs to watch where he’s going.

Hear that you goof? Look where you’re going next time.

Understand? Her lilting Chinese broke off and my comprehension ceased.

Don’t you speak English?

I stared at her dumbly.

Ah! They have such a long way to go, she said to her friend and cast me off with a flick of her wrist like I was a fly.

I stumbled, turning my head back towards my goal, caught my balance and sped on.

I noticed other women in similar dress. Their high heels clicked down the street with the steady beat of a metronome.

Could they all be from Hong Kong? I wondered to myself.

I hit the old section of town and the grey stone of the foreign built buildings seemed to darken the street. Out ahead of me I could see the space beyond them that arched over the river. It was misty. A giant screen of mist hung over the moving water. I stared into it and projected my dreams of what today’s big excitement would look like…

…Paf; oof!

I hit a solid wall and bounced back onto my ass.

Hey. Are you all right? A hand came down at me and I followed it up to its face.

Waiguoren! I shouted louder than I had intended.

The hand withdrew. A uniformed man came bounding down steps that stood beneath a green awning. It took a moment to comprehend that he was yelling at me.

What’s with you! Never seen a foreigner before? You’re lucky he’s OK. Get up. Get up. Get out of here. There’s a lot of important people at this hotel. Don’t you know? You can’t go charging into them and expect them to feel sorry for you and give you money you urchin. Get up. Get up. Get out of here.

He turned to the foreigner.

Sorry about that sir, his voice dropped an octave and grew calm. He spoke in that strange tongue that the Hong Kong women had used. The more he spoke the more I was able to make out some of the words.

He [ ] country [ ]. Never [ ] one [ ] you.

The foreigner smiled and extended his hand again. I took it and he pulled me up.

Well, you better tell him he’ll be seeing a lot more of us around so he better watch where he’s going.

The uniformed guy said, The foreigner says he’s going to bring more of his kind over here to kick your ass unless you get out of here right now.

I took one more look at the smiling foreigner and sped off again, sprang across Zhong Shan road and up the steps of the raised river bank.

As I reached the top I felt myself slowing down, tiring. I stopped and turned to look back at the distance I’d run. I hadn’t even thought about the time. It was astonishing. The light must’ve been playing tricks because I saw things that didn’t seem real.

I shook my head and turned back to my immediate surroundings; used my thumbs and index fingers to really open my eyes and wake myself up.

I noticed many others around me. They must have run the same distance for they looked out of breath; withered but full of something energetic – hope?

So many people. Milling about. There were foreigners too. The colours of all the clothes, even through the fog and the fading light, seemed to exuberate something new. There was a charge in the air. Everyone seemed different; wanted to show it; wanted to see difference in others.

I counted to 30; caught my breath and wiped my brow; stood up straight.

Ba ba, the voice of a young boy. Small warm fingers pulling mine interrupted the stream of my thoughts. I looked down and caught sight of my own hand.

When had my skin leathered? I thought. Where did the lines come from?

Ba ba, look what I found just lying on the ground, the boy’s voice cut short my confusion.

Can I keep it? he said holding up a shining coin.

My coin, flashed through my mind as I snatched it from his hand with my left in fear that he’d run away with it. What would I tell my father? Instinctively my right hand went to my pocket. I felt the roundness beneath the fabric. I fished it out and lay the two coins side by side in my palm.

Fireworks exploded.

I looked up and out over the river. The fog had cleared. I saw the other side clearly. There stood a dazzling, dream like vision before me – a skyline I’d only heard about, glowing and towering.

The fireworks exploded and in the pale coloured light of the flaring elements I looked down at the coins in my hand. The Great Wall lay next to a Chrysanthemum. I turned over the Great Wall and read the date.


I looked down at the boy staring up at me, his face full of incomprehension mirroring my own.

I turned over his coin.


A burst of red lanterns exploded over the river and floated down carrying phosphorous candles that hissed and extinguished when they hit the surface and were swept out to sea.

Nao zi wa te le! The sharp accusing tone of Shanghainese pierced my thoughts.

Give the boy his coin already. You want to trade it with your old one? Give him both. What do you need that old thing for? And those clothes. Hmmph! Get with the times. What’s with you? I mean, really, grabbing it out of his hand like that…

I looked into her eyes and saw the tofu heart behind the knife edged tongue.

Yes. Of course dear. I was just, caught up in the moment is all, I said with a sweeping gesture over the river and everything beyond and above it. I gave the boy back his coin.

You know son, I said palming my coin, in my day you’d never find a coin just lying on the street. People have too much money now.

I don’t, the boy shot back eagerly and held out his hand expectantly while stuffing the found coin into his pocket like it didn’t exist.

I sighed and leaned against the railing, folding my arms on top of each other and rested my chin on the bridge they made.

Have a safe journey, I said to myself and let my coin drop silently into the muddy river below.