Smile

Down on his luck, a lonely Hong Kong doorman sees his colleague’s optimism as the ultimate insult.

Wah Ye Gau had had a bad week, a bad couple of years in fact, but he hadn’t expected it to end this way. He didn’t know why he did what he did. Perhaps his name compelled him to. After all, Gau meant dog in Cantonese. His parents, superstitious watercress farmers, had worshipped green skinned, four-faced gods. Afraid these celestials would steal their only son, they named Gau after an animal, believing this would fool those gods into assuming their child a village mongrel, and thus ignore him.

Gau’s colleague and neighbour Fu was now in triage. Seated on a blue plastic chair – part of a three-seater waiting room bench – in Wong Tai Sin Hospital, the anxiety Gau’s face could not express egressed through his maniacal scratching at a piece of scotch tape that sealed a crack in the seat. His dull, droopy eyes and thin, straight lips would not divulge the contents of his mind or heart. He took out his mobile phone and dialed 999. Being arrested would mean losing his job, but at least a jail cell might keep him safe from the loan sharks. Gau tasted iron as his tongue ran over a particle lodged between his incisors. He stopped scratching the tape and started picking at his teeth with the long nail on his little finger instead.

The week before Chinese New Year had started out like any other.

On Monday, Gau arrived at The Gallant and entered the staff room, which was located behind the concierge desk at the fifth-floor lobby. For the last twelve years, he’s been working six-day weeks at The Gallant, one of the tallest and most exclusive condominium complexes in Hong Kong. At 8:15 a.m., fifteen minutes past the start of the day shift, he walked into the changing room, which was really just a long curtain hung on a curved ceiling rail in a corner, and changed into his uniform. When he stepped out, he saw Fu coming towards him with a wagging finger.

“You’re late for work again! Me, I was here early, at 7:30 a.m., you know?” said Fu who took the night shifts from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays, and the 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. shift together with Gau on Saturdays.

Aiyah, ai chai, if you can’t even show up for work on time how are you going to get anywhere in life? Whoever can be trusted with little things can also be trusted with big things, and whoever is dishonest in little things will also be dishonest with big things. Luke 16:10,” said Fu in Cantonese. “Here, I bought an extra char siu bao for you. Enjoy.” Fu pushed the warm roast pork bun into Gau’s hand.

Though Fu, who was sixty and more than a decade older than Gau, offered his advice and the breakfast snack because he felt it was the right thing to do, Gau perceived his gestures as patronising. Feeling pleased that he had been helpful, Fu then flashed Gau one of his dazzling smiles and, with hands clasped behind his back, sauntered out of the staff room and towards the elevators humming a Teresa Teng song.

“Why is he always smiling? What’s he got to be so happy about?” thought Gau, who over the course of their association had become increasingly agitated by Fu’s optimism and buoyant disposition. He imagined the old man tripping and falling on his face. Perhaps he’d hurt his hip, quit smiling, and start walking the way Gau thought someone Fu’s age should – slowly and with some level of discomfort. Though Fu was scrawny and his hair all white, he had a spryness about him that Gau had never had, not even when he was younger. A firm believer in “early to bed, early to rise” Fu was never ever late for work, but often early. Gau didn’t think there was anything wrong in being a little late now and then, but over time, Fu’s consistent punctuality made him feel guilty about his own tardiness. Gau didn’t like feeling guilt – in fact he didn’t like feeling feelings period, even good ones, but especially bad ones – so he decided that the problem wasn’t his inability to show up on time, but the fact that Fu was a sanctimonious and self-satisfied peacock.

As doormen at The Gallant, their hours were long, their work mindless and monotonous. They received low pay and no respect, so Gau didn’t see what Fu had to smile or hum about, or why he was always in such high spirits. Two years ago, Fu had converted from Taoism to Christianity, and since then, had acquired the habit of quoting Bible verses, which annoyed Gau to no end. Gau also detested the nickname “ai chai” – “shortie” in Cantonese – that Fu had given him at some point.

Gau was a head-and-a-half shorter than Fu and of considerable girth. Sluggish and flabby, always hunched and dragging his feet, Gau was a sorry sight next to Fu who always looked much spiffier than him in their black pants, white shirts, and red ties. Though not technically a dwarf, at four-feet-eleven-inches, Gau was unusually short for a Hong Kong Chinese adult male. He perceived his shortness as a terrible affliction and believed it made others regard him as less than a man. Fu calling him “ai chai” only made him even more self-conscious about his diminished stature.

Both Gau and Fu lived in North Point, which was eleven subway stops from Kowloon Station, the station nearest The Gallant. On Saturdays, when they both worked the day shift, they would ride the train together to North Point before parting ways and walking back to their respective abodes.

Fu lived with his wife, his unmarried daughter, his son, daughter in-law, and his two grandchildren in a spacious, four-bedroom apartment in Provident Centre. The flat belonged to the son, a successful corporate lawyer, who out of filial piety and brotherly love had invited his parents and sister to come live together with him and his family. Not only did Fu not have to pay rent, he also received monthly spending money from his two dutiful children.

Upon discovering they were neighbours, Fu had once invited Gau to a home cooked meal with his family. Out of politeness, Gau accepted, but it had been a tedious and awkward affair. He sat stony-faced as the Fu family laughed about the children’s antics and shared stories of family hikes and holidays. He nodded like he was paying attention when Fu’s buck-toothed daughter, a history teacher, discussed land reclamation in Hong Kong. She clearly received her gift for lecturing from her father, Gau had thought. Fu’s son and Fu’s wife had asked Gau about his family, but when he mentioned “divorced” and “living alone”, the questions stopped. That was the first and last time he accepted a dinner invitation from Fu.

A taciturn man, Gau found Fu’s loquaciousness draining on their Saturday train rides home. He had tried excuses: “I have to get something from the shop, you go ahead without me” or “I have to use the toilet. Why don’t you just leave first?” but Fu would follow Gau into the supermarket or wait for him at the entrance of The Gallant like they were best buddies. There was no escaping the old prattler.

Fu’s subway soliloquys usually sounded something like this: “You know ai chai, I don’t really need to work, but I love working. My children tell me, ‘Pa, relax with Ma at home. We have the means to take care of you. You don’t need to work so hard anymore.’ But who wants to stay home and watch TV all day, right? I’ll get bored. The next thing you know, I’ll become senile,” Fu chuckled as he often did at his own jokes. “Plus, I love all the wonderful people living in The Gallant. I can practice English and Mandarin with them. And Mr. Wu is such a good boss. You know ai chai, we’re so lucky to be surrounded by all these elegant and friendly people. It’s so good to be able to serve. To give them a smile. Add a little extra happiness to their lives. Who knows? I may be the only example of Jesus they see. I want to give joy to the world,” he’d start singing the Christmas carol and making a grand, arm-opening gesture, which made the hairs on Gau’s neck rise.

Gau wished he had the option to stay home watching TV all day, but that was a luxury he couldn’t afford. He lived two streets down from Fu, in a 180-square-foot bedsit on the fourth floor of a hazardous-looking, mould-covered tenement building with no name. He had a microwave, a hot plate, a tiny aluminum sink, a lumpy mattress set on a makeshift plywood bed, a small television mounted on the wall across from the bed, and little else. The bathroom, which he shared with two other residents, was located along the corridor outside his bedsit. Every day, when Gau walked through the lobby of The Gallant with its shiny Carrara marble columns and crystal chandeliers, or when he did his rounds inspecting the sky garden and swimming pool, he was reminded of how very pathetic his own living conditions were. Unlike Fu, Gau did not think the residents of The Gallant were “wonderful,” and to “give them a smile” or “add a little extra happiness” to their already golden lives was the last thing he wanted to do. Residents rushing to work frequently rolled their eyes at Gau, because he was always too slow opening the door for them. Because Gau never smiled or said hello like he ought to, no one ever smiled or greeted him either. Gau thought they were all arrogant and intimidating, and didn’t like any of them.

When he was getting acquainted with Fu, Gau had disclosed a number of things about himself, which he later regretted. He had told Fu that he was once married, but had divorced about ten years ago. That he had a son, but didn’t pay child support. That his favourite thing to do was betting on horses. Worst of all, he had told Fu that he didn’t believe in any kind of benevolent, supernatural being or beings, and that people weren’t much different from animals. Now, Gau is convinced that his early revelations had given Fu the impression that he was a godless man in need of pity and salvation, and reasons to treat him like one.

On Monday night, Gau received a phone call from his sixteen-year-old son Peng, the only person who could temporarily alleviate his perpetual glumness. Peng asked his father how he was doing and reminded him to eat more nutritiously, then gleefully reported that he had passed his A-Levels and been accepted into a local university. Gau was thrilled at the news and told Peng he was proud of him. Peng then reminded his father that he had promised to help with the down payment that was needed to secure his place at the university.

“Ma is paying for the school fees, but you said you’d take care of the security deposit, remember? It’s HK$21,000, and I have to pay it to the university registrar the day after jyun siu zit at the latest. But if you don’t have the money, just let me know. I’ll try asking Uncle Chan for a loan if you can’t help.”

Gau had barely enough money to pay his rent this month, and he was already overdue on the HK$19,520 he owed the moneylender, but the thought of his boy asking his ex-wife’s new boyfriend for assistance made him bristle.

“No need to ask that man! Of course I’ll help you with the deposit. Don’t worry Peng, I’ll take care of it. I’ll have the money ready for you by then,” said Gau hoping some miracle would enable him to secure this amount by jyun siu zit – the last day of the 15-day-long, Chinese New Year celebration.

“Thanks Pa. You’re the best! I promise, once I’m rich and famous, I’ll pay you back,” Peng teased. “Oh, and Pa, Ma told me to tell you, this year we are not having nin saa maan at our place. We’re going over to Uncle Chan’s house instead. And…” Peng hesitated “Ma and Uncle Chan are getting married next month.”

***

When Gau was a young man, his parents had hired a matchmaker who arranged for him to wed their distant cousin’s daughter, a girl named Sansan who had just arrived with her family to Hong Kong from a farming village in Guangdong. Gau, who had never been with a girl till then, could not believe his eyes when he saw his pretty new bride. Sansan was kind, hardworking, and took good care of him. Being married to her was the happiest time of his life. Gau had always thought to thank his parents for arranging the marriage, but he waited too long, and soon poor health took them both. They didn’t even get the chance to see their grandson Peng when he was born.

As the eldest daughter in her own family, Sansan always cooked the nin saa maan meal for the customary family reunion that took place on the eve of Chinese New Year. Sansan’s parents, her younger siblings, nieces, and nephews would gather at her home to feast and usher in the New Year with her and Peng. Out of goodwill, and because she thought it was important that Peng stay connected with his father, she had always included Gau. Nin saa maan was the only night of the year when Gau didn’t have to dine alone. But as soon as the meal ended, so did the illusion of family, and he would return to his rathole, wondering why he hadn’t at least tried to fix things with Sansan before she finally left him.

***

The matter of the university deposit troubled Gau and kept him up all night. On less than four hours of sleep, he showed up to work on Tuesday morning looking more lethargic than usual. That day, someone had vomited along the common corridor on the 46th floor. Two of the cleaning staff had called in sick, so Gau’s manager, a well-groomed man in his late twenties named Wallace Wu – Mr. Wu to his staff – sent Gau to take care of it. With the mop trolley, Gau rode the elevator up to the 46th floor, and slopped the mop over the vomit, missing a few spots. Once he was done, he waited for the elevator to take him back down to the lobby. It arrived packed with residents. Rather than wait for the next carriage, he squeezed himself and the mop trolley into a corner. He stood facing a lanky pubescent Mainland Chinese girl wearing denim shorts and a tight, neon pink t-shirt with a yellow smiley face decal on it. She was chatting in Mandarin on her mobile phone. As two more residents crammed into the carriage, Gau was pushed closer to the girl. The top of his head ended where her neck began, and his eyes latched on to the smiley face, which reminded him for some reason, of Fu’s grating smiles.

Fu was always delivering long sermons on the importance of being more positive no matter how bad one’s circumstances, and chiding Gau on his inability to smile. “I know you don’t feel like smiling. But even you fake a smile, it can change how you feel inside. Try it. A smile is the first step to solving your problems,” Fu had told him more than once.

Gazing absentmindedly at that big smiley face and thinking about how he’d like to punch Fu and turn his stupid smile upside down, he hadn’t noticed that the girl was now glowering. Her arms jerked forward, almost knocking him in the nose as she wrapped them tightly across her small chest, protectively forming an X across the round, smiley face. When the elevator door opened, the girl yelled “Kan shenme kan! Bian tai. Ser lang,” at Gau as she exited in a huff. The other people in the elevator glared at him. Gau lowered his head and hurried out with cleaning tools in tow. He understood enough Mandarin to know that the girl had called him a pervert and a lecherous wolf. In the last year of his marriage, his wife had called him a lecherous wolf every time he tried to touch her. So he had given up. After the divorce, he had tried meeting new women, but whenever he attempted a smile, his tense diffidence and unease would contort his face into a creepy grimace that immediately put them off. Accepting that love was not for him, he had retreated into quiet bachelorhood, and took comfort from gambling instead.

After work that night, rather than go home, Gau went to the Hong Kong Jockey Club Off-course Betting Branch at Quarry Bay and dropped HK$500 into the pool. He was always convinced that the next race would bring him a big windfall. Every time he gambled, he believed he was a step closer to changing the course of his life. When he lost yet again, he told himself it was because the horse wasn’t feeling well, the jockey hadn’t eaten a good breakfast, or that he had arrived at the betting station at the wrong time.

He had started betting on the horses two years before Sansan left him. Despite his constitution and dour temperament, he had won himself a lovely wife, and they had produced a handsome and intelligent son, so surely luck was on his side. At first, he placed modest bets of about HK$50 a day, but not long after, he was compelled to increase his wagers. Soon he was borrowing, then stealing money from Sansan to gamble. No pushover, Sansan refused to support a husband who squandered all their money, so she eventually filed for a divorce. After he separated from her and moved out of his family home, Gau spent most of his time alone. His meals consisted of white rice with pickled mustard leaves or instant noodles. He grew fat, lost much of the hair on the top of his head, and developed a habit of mumbling to himself as he moped around his bedsit.

On Tuesday morning, while having coffee in the staff room, Gau overheard a conversation between two young doormen, both recent hires at The Gallant. They were complaining about how unfair it was that they had to give up their day shifts to the most senior doorman during the first week of the Chinese New Year. It was a practice at The Gallant that only the most senior doorman be given the privilege of taking all the day shifts on the first week of the Chinese New Year, tending the lobby at its busiest.

“The first four days of Chinese New Year are the best days to work. That’s when you can collect the most lai see,” said one of the doormen referring to the red envelopes with money tokens that residents give the building’s staff at this time of the year. It was common knowledge among employees: the doorman who worked during the daytime that week would haul in the biggest bounty.

“The people living in The Gallant are some of the wealthiest in the city,” said the other young doorman. “I heard that last year Ah Yoke got almost HK$35,000 from all the red envelopes he collected.”

Ah Yoke had been a doorman at The Gallant for sixteen years, four years longer than Gau, but last month, Ah Yoke retired. Gau realised that this year he was the most senior doorman. That meant that all the day shifts on that auspicious week would be his. The Gallant has 75 floors, he calculated, with ten units per floor. The average amount in each resident’s lai see was usually around HK$30, though some of the more generous ones might give as much as HK$200. Gau realised that he could possibly receive close to HK$22,500, maybe more. He ran to check the roster and clapped softly when he saw his name on the whiteboard calendar for the day shifts from Monday through to Saturday on the week of Chinese New Year.

That evening, he walked home from the subway station feeling relieved that he would have some money coming in soon. He still had his gambling debt to pay off, but that could wait. He was glad that he could now help his son. As he approached the door of his hovel, he smelled something foul. On the floor he saw lumps of dog turd. Painted crudely in blood-like, red paint on his door were the words “Sei Gau” – dead dog –, and a note pinned below it with a fish-gutting knife – a reminder from the loan sharks: “Wah Ye Gau, pay up by jyun siu zit, or we’ll break your legs.”

***

On Thursday, just before noon, Mr. Wu summoned Gau into his office. A Frenchman living on the 46th floor had complained that his golf bag, which he had left along the common corridor, had disappeared. “Mr. Legrand said he saw you mopping the floor before his bag went missing on Tuesday night. Did you throw it out by mistake?” asked Wu.

Gau denied having done any such thing, and told Mr. Wu that all he did was clean up the mess as instructed.

Mr. Wu harrumphed and rubbed his chin. He looked like a boy examining a spider, deciding whether to let it go or kill it. “Another thing Gau, I was informed about an incident in the lift. I heard you upset a young girl. What was that all about?” Gau’s ears reddened as he explained to Wu that he had no idea why the girl had reacted the way she did.

“I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt on both counts, but if such things happen again, you’ll be in serious trouble,” said Wu, not looking at Gau but at a logbook on his desk. “You’re really not suited to be a doorman. The only reason I haven’t fired you yet is because you’ve worked here for so long. Residents have complained to me about your poor manners. You’d better start smiling more. Say hello to people for goodness sake! Otherwise you shouldn’t be working here. Seeing your face puts me a bad mood.” Wu raised his head and directed his stern eyes at Gau. “Next week, I’m putting you on the night shift,” said Wu.

“But, but, Mr. Wu, I am the most senior doorman. I should be given the day shift.” Gau’s jaw dropped so his mouth hung open in a way that made him look not shocked, but strangely catatonic.

“Yes, but these things can be changed as management sees fit. Just be grateful you still have a job,” said Wu before he dismissed Gau with a flick of his wrist.

On Friday evening, Gau sat on his bed and was about to tuck into a cup of instant noodles when his mobile phone rang. When he answered, a menacing male voice told him that he now owed HK$20,000 after interest, and that Gau could say goodbye to his legs if didn’t pay up by the last day of the Chinese New Year. Terrified, he dropped the cup of noodles. The hot liquid scalded his hands and seeped right through his thin mattress, which soon smelled like Spicy Korean Shrimp. When he got up to get a kitchen rag, the phone rang again. This time it was Peng calling to invite Gau to his school graduation ceremony. He also asked his father when he could come round to get the money for his university down payment.

“Son, I’m sorry. I don’t have the money. You’ll have to ask your Ma or her boyfriend to help you. Pa wants to help, but I don’t have the money. I’m so sorry Peng, I’m so sorry,” Gau felt himself shrinking, becoming even shorter, less of a man than he already felt.

“Why didn’t you just say so before? Why did you say you would help me in the first place?” Peng was infuriated. “You’re always lying! I don’t ever want to talk to you again.” Peng hung up.

On Saturday, Gau showed up at work feeling as if his bones had accumulated extra weight. Seeing Fu looking as jaunty as ever only made him feel worse. At the end of the day, they rode the train together back to North Point. For the first five minutes of the journey Gau, addled by his troubles, didn’t hear anything Fu said. Then Fu mentioned Mr. Wu.

Ai chai, I heard you got a dressing down from the boss yesterday. What happened?”

“Wu is an asshole. Some Frenchman on the 46th floor couldn’t find his golf bag, and Wu is blaming me. But it wasn’t me. This is a total injustice,” blurted Gau. To make it through the day, he had lulled himself into a state of numbness. But Fu’s query churned his anaesthetised mind, and now he felt a strange and uncontrollable panic welling up within him.

“Was it a red and white leather bag with a bull logo on the front?” asked Fu.

Gau nodded.

“Oh-oh. I know what happened. I was inspecting the common areas. You know residents are not supposed to block the corridors with their things, right? The bag looked so old, and it was in the middle of the floor, so I took it and placed it in the garbage area,” said Fu. “I didn’t mean to get you into trouble ai chai. Don’t worry, I will tell Mr. Wu it was me who threw the bag away, not you. I’m sure he’ll understand.”

Gau didn’t know what to make of this new information. He felt an ocean of darkness rising within him – anger and disbelief at Fu’s stupidity, indignation at being wrongfully blamed, deep sadness at the loss of his relationship with his son, and terror at the thought of losing his legs – but this maelstrom of emotions couldn’t escape through his face, or his movements, or his words. “Yes, you better tell Wu the truth,” he said with a barely discernable scowl. “Who told you about my meeting with Wu anyway?”

“Mr. Wu himself,” said Fu. “On Thursday evening, when I came to work, he called me into his office. He said he wants me to do your day shifts all of next week. I told him that you have worked at The Gallant longer than me, so day shifts that week were meant for you. But he told me he had given you a scolding. He thinks you don’t deserve that privilege. He said that my personality is more suitable for the festive season than yours, so he insisted I take all the day shifts on Chinese New Year.”

Clogged with a conflation of rage and other intensely unpleasant emotions, Gau didn’t know what to say or do. He saw a vision of himself in the train with his eyes at the level of Fu’s kneecaps. He looked up and saw Fu’s face transforming into a giant, yellow smiley face. He looked down and saw that his own legs were now two stumps. He had to use every ounce of strength in his arms to move a few inches. Down the next carriage, he saw Sansan locked in an embrace with a very tall man. Gau could not see this man’s face, but saw that he was clutching a stack of horse betting tickets in one hand. Then came Peng dressed in rags, holding an upturned baseball cap and begging the passengers for spare change. Peng spotted his legless father and started yelling. “Sei Gau. Sei Gau. It’s all your fault. I hate you, I disown you!”

Fu’s mouth was moving and he was wagging that finger of his at Gau again. “You must smile more ai chai. If you keep up that long face of yours, it’s a matter of time before Wu fires you. If you don’t make an effort to be more cheerful, nothing good will come your way, you know? Ai chai, are you listening to me?”

All Gau could see was Fu’s wagging index finger.

The pointer bobbed like a cruel metronome, a taunting reminder of the loan sharks’ impending visit. The bony appendage ticked derisively like the second hand of a faulty clock, signaling all the petty transgressions and crimes of impassivity that had shaped his wretched existence. In a daze, Gau lunged at Fu’s animated digit, his jaw clamped down hard on the tip, and he heard a nail crack. He spat out the tip of Fu’s finger. The taste of iron and Fu’s scream jolted him back to his senses. At that moment, the train arrived at Diamond Hill station and the doors opened. Fu had gone limp from shock. Gau swooped up the severed fingertip from the floor, put his right arm around Fu and supported him as they shuffled out of the train, through the station, and up onto the street. Gau took off his shirt and wrapped it around Fu’s finger, hailed a taxi, jumped in with Fu before the driver could notice the blood, and brought his friend to the nearest hospital.

***

Just as Gau finally succeeded in dislodging what was stuck between his incisors, the police entered the waiting room. They announced that they were looking for Wah Ye Gau. Like a schoolboy in class, Gau put his hand up. He stood up straight and walked confidently towards the policemen, took a deep breath, and smiled the most beautiful, bloody smile.

Copyright Michele Koh Morollo

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