The day the General Election was called, Wu Zai finally agreed to teach Ah Bing the lost art of the Nine-Nine Divine Skill. Ah Bing hadn’t really pestered Wu Zai about it – except for that one time he’d seen Wu Zai leap into the air and slam dunk a watermelon through a basketball hoop, and wondered where on earth he’d learned that kind of kungfu.
“It’s called the Nine-Nine Divine Skill. But it’s also called the Emperor’s Skill. Because, in the past, only the Emperor could practise it. If anyone else dared to try it, they were immediately beheaded.” Wu Zai picked up the watermelon, which had smashed to a pulp beneath the net. He glanced at Ah Bing, then pawed at the fruit’s crimson flesh like a starving dog.
“Is it like the Nine Yang Divine Skill?” Ah Bing remembered his schoolmates talking about this; it had been featured in the Hong Kong kung fu TV serials that were all the rage.
“It’s even more powerful than the Nine Yang Divine Skill. I’ll teach you when you’re older. But you must remember to stay a virgin. If not, you’ll have a hard time learning it. Like me.”
Ah Bing, who was only 11, did not quite understand what it meant to be “a virgin”. Wu Zai broke off a piece of the crushed watermelon and handed it to him. He looked up at the threatening black clouds. In the distance, a few swallows skimmed over the school’s sparse, muddy field. Ah Bing gulped down the watermelon, which was dripping with juice, and then the two of them ducked through a hole in the fence. The watermelon husks left strewn on the basketball court drew the attention of several stray cats.
Wu Zai had returned to his hometown, grieving and alone, in the rainy November of 1984. His homecoming filled the neighbourhood’s gossip column. If they weren’t discussing Wu Zai, they were dissecting the elections, a drama only staged once every four or five years.
Like Ah Bing, Wu Zai was an only child. He’d only spent a few years at school before becoming an apprentice to a blacksmith, and then a runner for a bookie, but had skipped town at 17, the year his mother died of a serious illness. He found work on board a ship and drifted across the seas for almost 10 years. It was only when his father died of a stroke that he returned to take care of the funeral arrangements.
The wake went on for three days. They put up a tent for the Buddhist rituals in the middle of the estate, but only a handful stayed for the overnight vigil to protect the soul. They were mostly old neighbours, and it was a quiet affair. Ah Bing’s parents brought him along to the wake to pay their respects. He hadn’t known that the silver-haired old man living across from them actually had a son. At the wake, Wu Zai, eyes glistening, shuttled between the untonsured nuns and his relatives at the mahjong table. When he had a bit of time, he would grab a handful of sweets and stuff them into Ah Bing’s hands.
After the wake, Wu Zai confided in Ah Bing: “I’ve forgotten almost everything else, but I remember you, in your mum’s tummy. Like you were proof of my disappearance – and my existence.”
Wu Zai had a habit of speaking to people that way, tossing in a couple of deep, oblique sentences as concluding remarks, as if he’d read them from some book. Ah Bing felt that this was one of the most mysterious, magnetic aspects of the otherwise coarse quality that hung about Wu Zai.
Adding to the mystery, Wu Zai would often wake up in the middle of the night, burst out of the flat, curl up in the stairwell and sleep there instead – apparently because his dead parents, who returned at night to watch him toss and turn in his sleep, would not stop whispering to him, asking him where he had been all those years.
This very scene greeted Ah Bing one morning, a few days after the wake. While on the way downstairs to get his father a pack of cigarettes, Ah Bing stumbled across Wu Zai, fast asleep in the stairwell between the second and third floor. Ah Bing, terrified of waking him, tried to step over him without tripping, but Wu Zai blinked awake and grabbed his ankle.
“Where are you going?”
Ah Bing was about to let out a frightened yell when Wu Zai released his hold and gave his eyes a good rubbing. There seemed to be the imprint of a beer bottle on his tanned chest, along with a distorted tattoo of a malevolent half mermaid, half demon.
“I – I’m going to buy cigarettes. For my dad,” Ah Bing said, his voice quivering, as if he’d just roused a strange beast.
“Oh. Can you buy a watermelon for me?”
After buying the cigarettes, Ah Bing took a detour and bought a watermelon the size of a basketball, its polished green skin the colour of moss agate. Wu Zai let him keep the change.
“When I was at sea, I needed to eat watermelon the moment I woke up. They were bigger than this one,” Wu Zai said as he gazed at the fruit in his hands. He seemed reluctant to go home.
Ah Bing gathered up his courage. “Uh… why were you sleeping here?”
“Oh, it’s too noisy at home… They’ve all come back.”
“Oh… those who have passed away, but haven’t passed on.”
Ah Bing was puzzled. He looked up and glanced over at Wu Zai’s house. Thin streaks of silvery bright light were shining through the cracks. He shuddered and a wave of cold rushed through him as he imagined the man-eating ghosts that might be lurking inside the house. Wu Zai, sensing Ah Bing’s fear, quickly added: “Oh, don’t be scared, they’ve left. Wait for me, I’m going to put some clothes on and then we can go eat this watermelon.”
Ah Bing turned into something of a wild child during the school holidays. His parents often left him on his own, so he spent most of his time glued to Wu Zai’s side. They would often sneak into the school’s basketball court and eat watermelons while Wu Zai told tales of his adventures at sea: the luminous deep-sea jellyfish; skies aglow with falling stars; their Belgian captain, whose ropy beard would wobble and bounce as he talked; and the sex-starved sailors, who found comfort in each other’s arms after going months without a woman’s touch.
“You know, guys can do it with guys too. Actually, sometimes when a guy is with another guy, he’s more liberated than when he’s with a woman.”
Ah Bing nodded, even though he didn’t really understand what “guys doing it with other guys” meant. There was just something about how Wu Zai spoke, his eyes as deep and mesmerising as the ocean, that made Ah Bing sit up and listen and nod. These stories were like nothing he’d ever heard before, in his textbooks or in comics or on TV. They cracked Ah Bing’s little world wide open and set his imagination on fire.
“It was like a turbulent world within a turbulent world,” Wu Zai would say, drifting off, after he’d told his tales. And sometimes, Ah Bing would actually feel himself bobbing up and down and taste the salt in his mouth, the tang of the sea.
Wu Zai decided to stay grounded in Singapore for the time being. The neighbourhood was buzzing with excitement, wondering whether a member of an opposition party would contest in their ward. But they didn’t forget about Wu Zai – how much of an inheritance had his father left him? As gossip swirled around him, Wu Zai would only reveal to Ah Bing that he was waiting for one of his old sailor friends to bring him a shipment.
The chest arrived. It looked like the one Ah Bing’s grandfather had sailed back to Tangshan with a few years ago. Apart from some magazines of naked girls, Ah Bing couldn’t really tell what the rest of the junk was.
Wu Zai took out the items one by one, casually explaining each of them. There was a repulsive, dark green bug, known as the Spanish fly, preserved in a bottle of medicinal liquor. Just a few drops of this concoction in half a glass of water would be enough to scorch the stomach. Then there was a scaly plant from Mongolia called Suo Yang, shaped like the bamboo shoots that Ah Bing’s mother used in her cooking. This plant could only be picked by women; otherwise it would disappear right back into the earth. And then there was an old, wrinkled branch from the forests of Johor. It had once been a walking stick, but was now in several pieces. There were many more items which Wu Zai did not explain, save to say that some were for men and some were for women.
Ah Bing knew there had to be something more behind Wu Zai’s offhand inventory of these heirlooms. He reached into the chest, dug through a pile of junk, and pulled out a postcard. There was something printed on it – the size of a black date and the shape of a small bell.
Wu Zai snatched the card away. “It was cut out of a dead man,” he said, menacingly.
There was no way Ah Bing would let him off that easily. After much pestering, Wu Zai relented. “This is from Myanmar,” he said. “No one knows how to make it now, so we can only cut it out of a dead body. It’s really rare.”
He frowned. Then, like an Old Master imparting his ultimate skill to a disciple, he reluctantly went on.
According to legend, there lived a fierce bird of prey in the steep cliffs of northern Myanmar. The locals used to collect its semen and coat it in layers of copper until it resembled a toy bell. This small bell was then inserted into the male genitals and would ring when the man was aroused. Sometimes a crystal bead was inserted instead, in a process known as Pearling in Nanyang, or Dragon Pearling in the imperial court of ancient China, as a symbol of status and power.
Once inserted, this little bell rang in an unlimited supply of women.
“So, is this the Nine-Nine Divine Skill?” Ah Bing asked, remembering the watermelon in the basketball court.
“It is a symbol of manhood.”
Ah Bing did not ask Wu Zai if he’d inserted the bell anywhere in his body. But from then on, whenever he looked at Wu Zai’s crotch, he could not help but wonder if a strange bird from Myanmar might be trapped inside his shorts.
After that, Wu Zai went out every night dressed to the nines. The neighbours didn’t really know what he was up to, and some of them wanted to introduce him to a couple of nice, good girls. Wu Zai would always turn them down, politely but with a touch of shyness, saying that a fortune teller had warned him against settling down, and that their match-making would only bring misfortune.
Wu Zai quickly made a name for himself after opening a stall in the downtown red light district, The Five Trees. This might have been due to his clutch of rare curios – or his own hard work. He befriended a couple of girls who frequented the area, and sometimes brought Ah Bing there to set up the stall. There was always a group of heavily made-up prostitutes who would hang out and make small talk. After a bit of flirty banter, Wu Zai was always in a hurry to pack up the stall and leave with one of these women. He would give Ah Bing a bit of money to take a taxi home, reminding him to keep his mouth shut about this little secret.
On Nomination Day, everyone in the neighbourhood had the same question on their minds. Ah Bing, however, had a different one: of all the women around Wu Zai, which one did he like best?
Wu Zai wanted to brush aside Ah Bing’s questions, to say that these were all one-night stands, just a few lonely souls finding solace in each other’s company. But somehow all he could manage was : “Actually… I like your cousin.”
Ah Bing’s cousin was a couple of years younger than Wu Zai, and although she lived on the other side of the estate, she often came to visit. Ah Bing had heard that even as childhood playmates, Wu Zai and his cousin were destined to be together. While Wu Zai was at sea, her parents had died and she’d gotten married and divorced in just five years, then quietly moved back to the estate. Wu Zai had, on occasion, casually asked Ah Bing about her, saying he only remembered fragments of what his cousin had been like as an enigmatic schoolgirl.
An independent candidate with no political background appeared out of nowhere on Nomination Day. He said that he would be contesting this ward during the election, much to the excitement of everyone in the neighbourhood. Ah Bing heard from Wu Zai and the other adults that the candidate was a lorry driver, but others said he was a taxi driver. The newspapers mentioned him briefly, then said nothing more. Everyone treated it as a running joke, but also as a talking point. After Nomination Day, the independent candidate sent everyone a leaflet with a blurry photograph of himself and a few paragraphs about his political manifesto. This was a world away from the impressive scale of the current MP’s campaign – there were pictures of him and that party symbol on every lamppost, school gate and marketplace wall.
Ah Bing didn’t care very much about the election. He was more preoccupied with thinking up ways to make sure that Wu Zai and his cousin got together. If he could pull this off, the Nine-Nine Divine Skill would finally be within his reach. As he looked at his father talking enthusiastically about the election, he had a brilliant idea.
The next day, the neighbourhood was ablaze with debate, everyone speculating about the odds of the independent candidate forfeiting his election deposit. Wu Zai was about to head out to his usual spot to set up shop, but Ah Bing cornered him, insisting that they go to a new fast food joint nearby.
There was Ah Bing’s cousin, sitting in a corner, sipping on a glass of Coca-Cola. Wu Zai quickly realised that this was all part of Ah Bing’s plan. He wanted to leave, but it was too late – she’d seen Ah Bing and was calling to him. Flustered, he grabbed hold of Ah Bing’s arm as they sat down.
On the edge of his seat, with his head down, Wu Zai mumbled an apology, brushing it off as a silly joke by a kid who didn’t know any better. It’s no bother, she said, but he could see that she couldn’t quite mask the awkwardness on her face, the uncomfortable smile. She was, however, very curious about where he’d been for so long, and asked about his travels as Ah Bing mowed through a hamburger. But in front of Ah Bing’s cousin, Wu Zai’s usual show of bravado melted away. His stories didn’t have the wildness or vitality that they usually did. It was as if he’d suddenly gained a stutter, tripping and stumbling over his words as he tried to force out a few fragments of a tale.
Ah Bing’s cousin only stayed for half an hour because she was attending night classes, and Wu Zai felt the tightness in his chest dissolve. He decided that he wouldn’t open for business tonight, so he brought Ah Bing to see a 7.30 movie instead. Even in the darkened theatre, Ah Bing could tell that Wu Zai was turning something over and over in his mind. After the show, Ah Bing asked why Wu Zai hadn’t talked about their childhood. Wu Zai shrugged, and said it was if all of his memories had come together like a tidal wave on the tip of his tongue, and he didn’t know what he ought to say.
“So are you going to chase my cousin?”
“Would your cousin ever like someone like me?”
“If you don’t try, how will you know?”
“You know, we sailors had a saying: you need a big anchor for a big ship.” Wu Zai forced out a bitter laugh, but then, not wanting to let Ah Bing down, said: “Okay, how about this. If this lorry driver actually wins the election, I’ll chase your cousin.”
Even though Wu Zai didn’t bring this up again, Ah Bing wondered: if the lorry driver practised the Nine-Nine Divine Skill, getting elected wouldn’t be a problem at all – but, if the MP also practised the Nine-Nine Divine Skill, well, then, that wouldn’t be as clear cut, you’d have to see who was more powerful.
After that encounter with Ah Bing’s cousin, Wu Zai decided to stop running his business. A few of the ladies went looking for him at home, but he yelled at them and chased them away. Wu Zai asked Ah Bing’s father to help him keep an eye out for job opportunities, and he also asked Ah Bing’s mother for his cousin’s telephone number, as a way of asking for the family’s blessing. And so, the day before Polling Day, Wu Zai and Ah Bing’s cousin went on their first real date. Ah Bing was dying to know where they had gone. He stared blankly into space as he waited on the doorstep deep into the night for them to come home, but there was no sight of Wu Zai.
Early on the morning of Polling Day, all the grown-ups went to Ah Bing’s primary school to vote. Without even brushing his teeth, Ah Bing ran to the stairwell to see if Wu Zai was there. He wasn’t. Ah Bing pounded on Wu Zai’s door, but no one answered. Maybe he was out all night, Ah Bing thought. That night, Ah Bing’s father was glued to the television, waiting for the election results to be announced. Immediately after their constituency’s results were released, he grabbed his carefully-prepared abacus and rattled out a calculation, before yelling with delight to Ah Bing’s mother: “I’ve won, I’ve won – 3,692 votes – he didn’t forfeit his deposit!”
At first, Ah Bing thought that the lorry driver had actually won and Wu Zai would have to keep his promise to woo his cousin, but was upset to find out that this wasn’t the case. The independent candidate had received less than 20 per cent of the vote, but he’d crossed the 12.5 per cent benchmark and managed to keep his election deposit of a few thousand dollars. Ah Bing’s father couldn’t have been more pleased with the news, since he won all of his bets.
The next day, the estate resumed its regular rhythm and daily routine, and the buzz and bustle of the night before felt like a dream. The re-elected MP made his rounds through the neighbourhood early in the morning, sweeping through the streets on a pickup truck with his supporters. Ah Bing could hear the blast of the loudhailer in the distance, repeating the same phrase over and over again in broken Hokkien: “Kum sia! Thank you everyone for giving me your vote! Kum sia!”
After the independent candidate’s defeat, Ah Bing was plagued with a sense of foreboding. He’d heard his mother tell his father that after his cousin had gone out with Wu Zai that evening, something had not felt quite right. His cousin wouldn’t say anything about the date. Ah Bing grew increasingly anxious. He remembered that Wu Zai had a spare key, so he felt under the flower pot at the gate and plucked up his courage to open the main door to Wu Zai’s house. He wondered if the old uncle’s ghost was actually still there, refusing to depart. He peeped through the crack of the door. To his horror, he saw Wu Zai sprawled across the living room floor.
Wu Zai’s scrawny upper body was exposed. The lower half of his body was covered in a white towel, which was stained with an enormous patch of blood. There was the familiar smell of stale beer and the stink of urine. Ah Bing panicked. He squatted down next to the semi-conscious Wu Zai and shook him violently. Ah Bing let out a guttural noise and began to cry.
Ah Bing had no idea how long it was before Wu Zai woke up. He glanced at Ah Bing’s tear-stained face, and then looked around the living room. He looked lost, and cast adrift.
“Am I… on the ship?”
Ah Bing held back his tears and shook his head vigorously. Drained, Wu Zai struggled to sit up, as if he’d been stabbed. In his hands, he held what looked like a little blood-stained bell, the same one that Ah Bing had seen on the card in the chest.
“Look… I took it out.”
Wu Zai held the bell between his finger and thumb, as if he was holding his fate in his trembling hands. Still recovering from the shock, Ah Bing barely found his voice. “T..t..the lorry driver l..lo-losst.”
“Oh, he lost?” Wu Zai grew old before Ah Bing’s eyes. He spoke in a voice so calm it sent chills down the boy’s spine. Wu Zai gently wiped the tears from Ah Bing’s face. “There’s no need to feel sad about the loss. You know, I actually forgot to vote.”
Three days later, Wu Zai moved all the furniture out of his flat. He packed light. He was going back to his old job on the sea, but before he left, he gave Ah Bing a small pouch, saying he would only find peace in the other turbulent world. Not this one.
“What about my cousin? I thought you liked her?”
“They say I’m not good enough for your cousin. And they’re right, love can’t save me.” Then, to cheer Ah Bing up, he struck an exaggerated kungfu pose, clenching his fists. “Besides, I practise the Nine-Nine Divine Skill.”
Ah Bing knew who “they” were this time. He went home and opened the small pouch. Inside was the little bell, all cleaned up.
In that moment he knew that Wu Zai had, with his own hands, stripped himself of all his divine power.
Translated by Corrie Tan and Lim Hwee Min, during the Translators Lab, organised by the Select Centre, Singapore, in partnership with Writers’ Centre Norwich. The workshop leader for the Chinese-English strand was Shelly Bryant.