A story about the difference between being Chinese and Ethnic Chinese.
At the China Tang restaurant in Hong Kong’s central business district, Tong Hwee Peng and Stephanie Kuok sat at an elegantly set table inside one of the private dining rooms. Hwee Peng had flown in from Singapore yesterday afternoon. She was the first to arrive, and had ordered a bottle of Moët & Chandon Brut Rosé, their favourite. Stephie had landed on a flight from Kuala Lumpur a few hours ago. With her suitcase in tow, she showed up 15 minutes after Hwee Peng. She hugged her friend, proclaimed she was “starving,” and with her chopsticks, started picking away at the steamed peanuts in the condiment dish near the edge of the marble Lazy Susan.
A young waitress came in with the champagne. Hwee Peng was about to say “m goi” – “thank you” in Cantonese – a phrase most who’ve lived in Hong Kong, even for a short time, know. But she changed her mind. There was something about the girl’s appearance and the way she carried herself that made Hwee Peng decide on “xie xie” – “thank you” in Mandarin – instead. Seeing the waitress’ flushed, tofu-like cheeks, and bushy brows, she surmised that the woman was not a Hongkonger, but from the Mainland. With amplifying political tensions in the city, Hwee Peng understood that speech should always be adjusted to suit the ears of its intended recipient. As an investment finance consultant, she knew: ears were the route to people’s hearts – and bank accounts – so one should always manipulate language to best cater to the listener.
When the waitress left, Hwee Peng slid her chair close to Stephie’s and held out her Samsung Galaxy. Someone had sent her a YouTube video that she thought Stephie might like. She canted her phone at a 45-degree ankle so they could both watch the video together. A scene of the entrance of Citygate outlet mall appeared on her screen.
“Wei, Stephie, watch this,” said Hwee Peng.
“This is where? Citygate is it? I have a friend who lives in Tung Chung. She told me, after they built the bridge, she cannot even shop at the supermarket anymore ’cause the place is crawling with M.L.C.s,” said Stephie.
Hwee Peng paused the video. She wanted Stephie to focus. “Is that what you call them in Malaysia? M.L.C.s? In Singapore we call them P.R.C.s: Peoples Republic of China people.” She adjusted the silk-rayon blend Prada pencil skirt sliding up her tanned, yoga-sculpted legs. “Why is there an ‘L’ in M.L.C. anyway? Mainland Chinese is only two words, so shouldn’t it be M.C. rather than M.L.C?”
“Walao eh! How I know why they call them M.L.C.? M.C. stands for Medical Certificate, what you get from your doctor when you’re sick, right? I guess they had to find another acronym lor,” said Stephie.
“Yah, maybe har. Okay, okay. Watch this,” Hwee Peng tapped Stephie’s knees twice to get her to pay attention, then pressed play.
A horde of leathery-skinned Chinese men and women had gathered near the eateries and cafes around the entrance of the mall. The YouTuber’s voiceover explained that the people were some of the tens of thousands of Chinese citizens who could now easily cross the border from China to Hong Kong since the newly-built, Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge opened.
Hwee Peng turned up the volume on the narrator’s commentary:
Citygate in Tung Chung is the Hong Kong mall nearest the bridge’s China checkpoint. Since the bridge opened, massive crowds of Chinese tourists have been visiting Citygate, an outlet mall selling branded luxury fashion goods at wholesale prices. This has resulted in long queues at the mall’s shops, eateries and public toilets, pile-ups of rubbish outside and inside the mall, and an increase in noise pollution. Tung Chung residents claim that the onslaught of visitors is disrupting their lives, and are now petitioning the Hong Kong government to curb the number of China nationals entering the Special Administrative Region.
Stephie interrupted again, and Hwee Peng harrumphed and paused the clip for the second time.
“Aiseh! Branded goods at wholesale prices. Of course the M.L.C.s will go to Citygate lor,” said Stephie. “China people are the most cheapskate. If there’s a chance to save money, they for sure will show up. You can always count on that. I’m not surprised if some of them cross the bridge just to shop at Citygate then go straight back home afterwards. Same like how you Singaporeans like to drive across the Johor-Singapore Causeway just to eat our cheap seafood, then return home.”
“Yah, yah,” said Hwee Peng impatient to get back to showing her friend the video. “Wei! You ready to watch now, or not?”
“Yes,” Stephie nodded like a good pupil. She tucked her fringe behind her ear so she could see out of both eyes. She had a sleek platinum-dyed pixie crop, short at the back and shaped like a thick, downward-pointing arrow in the front. From the back, people sometimes mistook Stephie for a blonde. It was very fashionable, but her styling putty was not doing a good job holding up the heavy bangs, so they hung low, covering her left eye.
Hwee Ping hit play again. The camera had zoomed in on one of the figures. Hwee Peng and Stephie were now looking at footage of an elderly Chinese woman wearing a green-and-white floral track pants, a faded maroon sweater, and a tired looking straw hat. Small, stooped and crinkled, the old woman walked towards a concrete drain outside a cafe. In full view of all the people sitting along the bar seats by the cafe’s fully glazed wall, she pulled down her pants, squatted, directed her bony, naked ass towards the drain, and proceeded to do her business. The contents landed not inside the trough but just along the edge of the drain, close to the pavement. The coffee drinkers and croissant-munchers stared in horror as the woman pulled up her pants, and walked away from the fresh, steaming turd she’d just deposited on public property. With a big smile that revealed yellow-brown teeth, the woman then walked towards her toddler grandson who handed her a cone of ice cream he’d had enough of.
“Walao! That’s damn disgusting. What’s wrong with these people? She think she still at the farm is it? Aiyoh, imagine what it was like for those poor people having their breakfast,” said Stephie cupping her mouth to prevent her giggles from becoming full-blown laughter.
Both ladies pretended to vomit.
Hwee Peng, Stephie and Amy hadn’t seen each other in almost a year, but whenever they reconvened, it always felt as if no time had passed since they their last gathering. Hwee Peng, a Singaporean, Stephie, a Malaysian, and Amy, a Hongkonger, became best friends seven years ago, while working together at Standard Chartered Bank in Hong Kong. Back then, in their 20s, single and living apart from their respective families, the three women were as tight as a triple braided cord. They shared a passion for good food, wine, and premium gins and whiskeys. On the weekends, they would take turns organising cocktails then dinner at one of the city’s many bars and restaurants. During the summer months, the three would go to the beach at Stanley, or hire a junk and have a picnic on one of the Outlying Islands. In autumn, they would hike Dragon’s Back or Lion Rock, then go for foot massages at Gao’s in Sheung Wan.
Since then, Hwee Peng and Stephie had moved back home and gotten married. Hwee Peng had started her own consulting business. Stephie had joined a private equity firm and was now mother to a two-year-old boy. Amy, who still lived in Hong Kong, had taken on a more senior role at Standard Chartered, and had only recently met her Mr Right. She was the youngest and the last to get hitched. This week, Hwee Peng and Stephie were back in town for Amy’s wedding. Both had showed up at the China Tang for their reunion lunch earlier than planned, and were now waiting for their third musketeer to arrive.
“Aye, Hwee, I dunno what to get my hubby for his B-day. Any ideas?”
“How about a spa package from the St Regis or Four Seasons? I haven’t been before, but I heard the spa at Four Seasons Kuala Lumpur is damn swank,” said Hwee Peng, putting her phone face down on the table.
“Walao! Four Seasons is super ex. Hallo, I’m Malaysian ok dah-ling! We not so high-class like you Singaporeans,” Stephie teased, flicking her wrists and patting her hair as she did an impression of a hoity-toity lady of leisure. “My hubby only gave me a lipstick, and not even a Dior, but Estee Lauder, for my last birthday. What for I get him hundred-dollar spa package? I give him Kampong House spa voucher can already lah.”
Hwee Peng chuckled. “Alamak Stephie! Why you Malaysians always think we Singaporeans are atas har? Plus, you’re Chinese Malaysian, so say what you’re still more high class than the Malays, right or wrong?”
“Tolong Hwee, don’t even compare me to them. We’re from two different planets. If I see a mat or mina teller at the bank, I can cancel all my meetings for the day, I sure have to wait damn long, ’cause they always take their own sweet time. No matter what you say, they won’t change, everything also perlahan-lahan, slow slow.” Stephie flapped her hands slowly mimicking a duck’s glue-footed waddle.
“Wei! But your hubby is a mat.”
“Exactly! That’s why nothing ever gets done around the house. He takes his own sweet time with everything. The shower door in our guest bathroom broke down two months ago. Until now, he still haven’t fixed. But he’s slow in the bedroom too, and that’s good, you know what I mean?” Stephie’s brows bobbed up and down smuttily.
Hwee Peng laughed; a deep, gut laugh. She had forgotten how funny Stephie could be. They had called themselves the musketeers, and their little trio had been the best thing in Hwee Peng’s life back then, when she was a disgruntled bachelorette facing the prospect of permanent spinsterhood. She recalled how the two would cheer her up on Sunday mornings, after yet another self-esteem-crushing Tinder date with yet another unavailable white male. Amy would fix her a banana and coconut juice hangover-cure smoothie while Stephie grilled her about the previous night’s “pump and dump”, an epithet – stolen from the term for investor scams – that Stephie used in reference to Hwee Peng’s numerous one-night-stands. Out of anyone else’s mouth, it would have been a cruel insinuation, but from Stephie, they were wise words of caution that helped her ease away from pernicious habits. Now, married to a sweet Singaporean man whom her mother adores and she tolerates, Hwee Peng wondered if she might bump into one of those Tinder boys while she was here, and what she would do if she did.
“Speaking of slow, why is that Amy taking so bloody long arh? I’m super hungry. Should we just order first?” asked Hwee Peng as she swooped to secure the last peanut before Stephie got to it. “This Amy arh, always make people wait. I bet she’s still at the office. Typical Hongkie. I tell you, they don’t know the meaning of punctuality one.”
They exchanged conciliatory looks. “What you expect?” Said Stephie. “Everyone knows, Hongkies are like that lor. Very inconsiderate one. Make money first, friends and family second. At least Amy went to uni in Toronto, so she’s not that bad. If she’s one of those cheena cheena Hongkies, then aiyoh! We wait here till dinner time!” They sniggered as Amy sauntered in.
The three ladies were pretty, slim and always fashionably attired, but Amy – her real name was Ai Mei – who never went more than a week without a manicure, more than three months without a laser facial, and who could sprint in three-inch Christian Louboutin’s – was the musketeer who turned the most heads. Tall and willowy, with soft-permed, waist-length locks, she sashayed towards her friends swinging a Louis Vuitton shopping bag in one hand. “So sarry, so sarry, gurrls”, she gushed.
The women exchanged hugs and French-style, double-cheek kisses. The waitress entered the room and they ordered an assortment of dumplings, char siu, braised chicken feet, Yunnan fried rice, stir-fried choy sum with conpoy, sea cucumber with broccoli and Chinese mushroom, and fish maw and abalone soup.
“Soo gurd to see you both. Thanks for organising my Hen’s Night you two. I’m so excited! I’m so sarry I’m late. I was held up at the Louis Vuitton store in Kowloon. There was a long line of M.L.C.s waiting to buy the newest handbag. I had to wait almost an hour to collect the one I orrdurd,” she drew out her new, shiny, electric pink leather baguette from the shopping bag. “Da tah!” She handed it to Stephie who grimaced at the lurid thing before passing it on to Hwee Peng to inspect.
“See,” Stephie turned to Hwee Peng and smiled smugly, “here in Hong Kong, they call them M.L.C.s too. P.R.C. is a Singapore-only term. Hallo! No one except you Singaporeans say P.R.C.,” said Stephie. She turned to Amy. “Sorry dear, I don’t like your new bag. But this I like,” Stephie said as she lifted Amy’s smooth, pale hand and admired the three-carat diamond on her slender ring finger.
“It’s De Beers. We bought it at Harrods,” said Amy who then rested her hand on her décolletage like a jewellery model.
“Aiseh! You went all the way to London to buy this?” Stephie pushed back the platinum curtain that was now obstructing her vision again.
“Yes. My fiancé’s family live in London, so we’ll probably move there eventually. We picked this up when we visited them in July. Oh, I can’t wait for you gurrls to meet him!” Amy’s nose twitched, the beginning of a sneeze. She achooed into her table napkin. “Oh dear. I hope I didn’t catch a cold. The M.L.C. man behind me in the queue was coughing like crazy, and he didn’t even cover his mouth. I hope he didn’t pass whatever he had to me,” she said then dropped her spit-splattered napkin next to the fresh dish of peanuts that the waitress had just placed on the table. She leaned closer to her friends and spoke in an undertone. “Do you know why the M.L.C.s line up to buy designer bags?” she asked Stephie and Hwee Peng. “So they can bring it back to China and make imitations,” she opened her eyes and mouth wide and shook her doll-like head disapprovingly.
“Walao eh! That’s old news Amy. Everyone knows that,” said Stephie raising a finely tweezed eyebrow that was a different colour from her hair.
“You call them M.L.C.s in Hong Kong and Malaysia, we call then P.R.C.s in Singapore, but no matter what you call them, they’re all the same lah, all super no-class one,” said Hwee Peng as she took out her compact and powdered her nose. “Now in Singapore arh, you go to the food court to buy laksa or char kway teow, and guess what? You have a bloody Mainlander cooking it, and it tastes nothing like the real thing,” she clucked before snapping her compact shut.
“Yah lor! They’re everywhere now,” chimed Stephie. “You go to Jalan Alor in Kuala Lumpur for dinner, and you see them charging out of the tour buses like animals, so noisy, so chor lor – that means rough,” she turned to explain to Amy who wasn’t familiar with the patois used by both Malaysians and Singaporeans to describe people who are crass. “Then, after they eat, they throw their chicken wing and sting ray bones and tissue paper on the floor. And they spit their phlegm everywhere. Disgusting!”
“My hairdresser, even though she can speak putonghua, she told me, if a Mainlander walks into her salon, she will only speak Cantonese,” said Amy making a gesture like a military salute in midair to emphasise “only”. “When I travel to Australia, at the airport custom area, I always repeat to the immigration officer that I am a Hong-kong-er. I don’t want them to think I’m a Chinese. If they think I’m from China, they will take me aside and pull out everything in my suitcase. Because you know how the Chinese are, right? They will bring raw chicken, preserved vegetables, fermented bean curd, all the things that you’re not supposed to bring. I don’t want the officers to think I’m the same as them. Oh, but once, one of the custom officers thought I was Korean. Oh my gawd, I was so, so happy.”
“Yah, you do look a little Korean. Actually maybe more Japanese. I think it’s your big eyes, like Manga girl. I know what you mean though, China people are not very good at following rules,” said Hwee Peng. “Honestly, I don’t have anything personal against them arh, but they’re just really very rude lah. In the train, they stand sooo close to you. Like they don’t understand the meaning of personal space meh?”
Stephie nodded. “And have you seen their kids? Walao! They dunno how to discipline them. They treat them like kings and queens. Just let them run wild, scream and kachao other people, and they won’t bother to stop them.”
“And they talk so loudly, and many of them have bad breath,” added Hwee Peng.
“Yes. Because they don’t floss,” said Amy. “Well, at least the two of you are luckier than me. In 2047, Hong Kong will belong to China. Can you imagine that? It’s such a scary thought,” she mock-shivered. “I pray I’ll be living somewhere else by then.”
Once the procession of food arrived, the conversation between the three women shifted to the dishes being served. The musketeers referred to themselves as “foodies.” They enjoyed cooking, and Instagramming their meals when they ate out. Amy even had her own cooking blog. They took photos of every dish that arrived at the table.
They rated the dishes they were eating. “4.6 out of 10 for the char siu. I would give it an eight if the glaze was just a little less sweet,” said Hwee Peng.
“Eight out of 10 for the sea cucumber and mushrooms. I’m sure they used a Grade A sea cucumber,” declared Amy.
“7.5 for the soup,” said Stephie mid-slurp.
After tucking into a bowl of Yunnan fried rice, Hwee Peng told her friends that her favourite rice dish was still her grandmother’s Hainanese chicken rice. Last year, Hwee Peng’s grandmother had asked Hwee Peng to accompany her to Hainan Island to visit the village where her grandmother had been born, and where some of her distant relatives still lived. Hwee Peng was too busy and had baulked at the idea.
“I regret not going with my po po,” she now told her friends. “She passed away two months after that Hainan trip,” Hwee Peng felt her throat clenching. She missed her grandmother. Thinking about her po po made her heart ache. When Hwee Peng was little, her mother had to return to work as a secretary at Scott & English, so Hwee Peng lived with her grandmother till she was seven. She had so many memories of their time together, and she began to share these with her friends as they ate their lunch. She remembered the Hungry Ghost Festival. She couldn’t have been older than four. Her po po had lifted her up in her strong arms so she could drop paper ghost money into the metal drum fire, watch the hypnotic flames, and feel the heat from a safe distance. She remembered wearing little red clogs for bath time in the bathroom with the corrugated tin door, chipped tiles and squatting toilet. Five years old, she would stand there with her eyes shut as po po sang to her in Hainanese while dousing her shampoo-smeared head with pails of water scooped up from a large plastic bucket. She remembered sitting on her po po’s lap in the evenings while watching the Cantonese television show Shanghai Tang with Chow Yun Fat. This was before there was The A-Team and Family Ties, the type of TV shows that her Singapore-born, English-speaking parents would watch.
She remembered her po po showing her how to make sticky rice dumplings – as pink as Amy’s new handbag – during the Lantern Festival, and eating the sweet, chewy desert at the large foldable table where her parents, po po and gong gong, aunts, uncles and cousins would gather round at dinner time. “Zhia” – “eat” in Hainanese – each member would announce, a respectful courtesy call before tucking into the complex and sumptuous dishes po po had sweated all day preparing. Tears rolled down her cheeks as she gulped her champagne and shared these childhood memories with Stephie and Amy.
Stephie handed Hwee Peng a tissue. “Your po po sounds like an amazing woman,” she said rubbing Hwee Peng’s shoulders. Then she sighed. “Things seemed so much simpler back then hor? It felt like in those days, we were more, more….” Stephie struggled to find the right word.
“More Chinese?” asked Amy looking adorable.
“Exactly!” said Hwee Peng, still sniffling.
Stephie was uncomfortable around crying people, so she tried to lighten the mood. “Aye Hwee, can you still speak Hainanese? Say something in Hainanese for us.”
Hwee Peng recalled a Hainanese song that her grandmother had taught her. She was surprised she could still remember the words.
Qua qua qua
kwey boh swar kwey kieh hu au tuah,
au tuah boh beh yah,
swar dui su hai,
gong zhe kak,
po zhe bai,
boon bor beh,
pah zhe tao tai
Stephie and Amy looked at Hwee Peng, mouths agape, and clapped, like children seeing a rabbit for the first time. “Wow! That was so gurd!” said Amy.
“Aiseh! You can still remember. Walao eh! Not bad,” said Stephie.
“So cool! What the hell does it mean?” asked Amy.
“Qua qua qua, that’s just the sound of a chicken quacking. Then mother hen brings the baby chicken to the backyard. But there are no termites to be found there, so mother hen brings the baby chicken back home to be slaughtered. Grandpa gets half, grandma gets half, but the portions are not equally split, so they fight all over the kitchen.”
“That’s creepy, but also kinda cool. I didn’t even know you were Hainanese,” said Amy.
“My maternal grandparents are Hainanese, but my father’s side are Teochew,” said Hwee Peng.
Stephie jumped in, explaining that her mother is also Teochew, but her father, Hakka. Amy proclaimed excitedly that though most of her ancestors were from Guangdong, she had a grandmother on her father’s side who had taught her how to speak some Hakka. Stephie and Amy exchanged a few pleasantries in Hakka. Soon the three were speaking a mishmash of English, Mandarin, Cantonese, Hakka, and Teochew, with a splattering of Hokkien and Hainanese, and laughing heartily at their lack of proficiency with these Chinese dialects.
“Hello, ladies. Sorry to interrupt,” came a male voice with a crisp British accent.
A tall, handsome Eurasian man in a well-cut charcoal suit had entered the dining room. He had thick black hair and though he was, like them, of Sino-descent, his height and broad shoulders, squared chin, aquiline nose and deep-set eyes made him look like a tanner version of Clark Kent.
“Darling, you left this in the car,” the man said as he walked up to Amy. He handed her her wallet, and kissed her lips.
“Gurrls, this is my Prince Charming,” said Amy as she introduced her fiancé Darren to her friends.
Stephie and Hwee Peng invited Darren to join them and Hwee Peng ordered another bottle of Brut Rosé.
“Pleasure to meet you both. I’ve heard so much about the two of you. Good things only of course,” he smiled in a way that made Stephie think of toothpaste adverts. “I have a client meeting at three. I suppose I can join you ladies for a bit,” he said.
This was the first time Hwee Peng and Stephie were meeting Amy’s fiancée. They were impressed. Hwee Peng thought that if she closed her eyes and just listened to Darren speak, she could picture Jane Eyre’s Mr Rochester, or perhaps the dashing Sir Stamford Raffles. Stephie thought he had the swagger of an American cowboy, but in a suit. She thought of Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street. Both had to do everything in their power to stop themselves from swooning.
Once Darren sat down, the mood at the table changed. The ladies became more self-conscious, more genteel. They avoided colloquialisms, spoke in grammatically correct sentences, and made more of an effort to enunciate their Ts and Ds.
“I take it you’re not originally from Hong Kong, Darren?” Hwee Peng had one elbow propped on the table, and was swirling the champagne in her flute.
“No. I moved here from New York about six months ago, but I grew up in London. My dad’s English and my mum’s Chinese. She was born in Beijing, but she’d moved to the U.K. long before I was born.”
“Whereabouts in London did you live? I know London pretty well. I studied at Birbeck in Bloomsbury for a few years,” said Stephie. “Oh, I just luv London,” she raised her flute and clinked it against Darren’s, a high-five to London and those who know it well.
“I grew up around Holland Park. But it’s been a while since I’ve been back. After I got my law degree at Cambridge, I joined Baker McKenzie in New York. Been in Manhattan for almost six years now.”
“Darren’s a hedge fund lawyer. gurrls. He’s moved here to head up Baker McKenzie’s Hong Kong office. I’m so proud of him,” said a beaming Amy.
“That’s lovely. Long-distance relationships are terrible. It’s a good thing that the two of you will be living in the same city now. Where did you two meet, anyway?” It was too late for her now, but Hwee Peng wondered where girls went these days to find men like Darren.
Amy and Darren gazed into each other’s eyes like teenagers. “At church,” said Amy. “We were both in the same Bible Study group at Saint John’s. We’re both Anglicans. My mum once told me, it’s not good for people of different faiths to marry. She said, when two people of the same faith marry, their chances of success are much higher.”
“Oh-oh,” said Stephie whose cheeks were now turning red from the champagne. “Then my hubby and me are screwed lor, ha ha ha ha ha.”
Darren did not understand, but Hwee Peng knew that Stephie was Buddhist, but her Malay husband was Muslim. “I guess you are, Stephie, but at least you’re getting screwed slowly, perlahan-lahan arh,” Hwee Peng was also getting tipsy.
“Aiyoh, Hwee, you damn funny!” Stephie laughed so hard her eyes moistened.
With every sip of champagne, syntax fell apart, sentences lost their formal structure. Once comfortably inebriated, Hwee Peng and Stephie reverted to the manner of speech they were most comfortable with.
After lunch, while driving Amy home, Darren started snickering. “Your friends, their English is appalling. I mean, the way you speak is a little strange, but I’ve gotten used to it I suppose. Now I think it’s cute,” he brushed her cheek with the back of his hand. “But those two, I can hardly understand what they’re saying.” He then proceeded to do unflattering stuccato-ed impressions of Stephie and Hwee Peng. He adopted a nasally voice, retracted his tongue, shortened his vowels, and eliminated his rolling Rs. “Ai-yah, ai-yoh, wei, wa-lao, meh, lor, lah,” he chortled, repeating some of the exclamations he had heard the two ladies use. “Reminds me of that joke. How do Chinese choose names for their children? They throw pots and pans down the stairs.”
Amy was silent.
“Get it?” asked Darren.
She nodded and feigned laughter. She felt mildly offended, but wasn’t quite sure if she should be.
“You Asians are so strange,” said Darren planting a kiss on Amy’s forehead.
She felt like she should say something, but she wasn’t sure what. That kiss felt so good, like a promise of a house with a big garden, of snow, of holidays in Mallorca or The Hamptons, so she decided not to risk any potential unpleasantness between them.
“What do you feel like doing this evening, darling?” she asked him instead.
“I’d like to have a look around this mall called Citygate. Do you know it? I’ve heard you can find Armani suits there for half the retail price.”
Published in Quarterly Literary Review Singapore (QLRS) Vol. 19 No. 1 Jan 2020