Honi Soit Writing Competition Fiction Shortlist

The dream starts to fade as morning warmth encloses me, sunlight crawling. Yet, I still remember skyscrapers rising from the soil like thin crystals, moonlight shining across mountains and tunnels, highways and bridges, concrete jungles and wild grasses, illuminating furious faces. People gathered in the city: they raised banners, they sung slogans—like five years ago, only amplified.

These visions came like hallucinatory newsreels: I saw a boy biting off a policeman’s finger, citizens throwing barricades against windowpanes, blood on train carriage floors. I heard screams, commentaries, and words that sounded like the traffic. I saw cars stuck within the labyrinthine cityscape. I was flying across the sky too; I saw crowds gathering, permuting like particles under an unknown force. Would they light their torches and inflame the city?

I blink my eyes to force away the confusions. I do not know what to believe, or which side to stand by, or who to follow. I am lost in ideologies; I am thrown between rhetorics, like a plastic bag blowing in a hurricane. Sometimes I think my homeland is being changed by politicians and by greed. At other times, I think my home has never existed: a home is only something you imagine under a golden hue. These days, I want to understand the world like how birds understood each other’s songs. But perhaps I never could.

The birds outside my Australian home chirp a dawn chorus in baroque-sounding counterpoint. I rub the back of my hand against my face; I want to memorise the melodies of the birds’ song. But soon those notes slip pass my ears like a waterfall, rolling towards forgetfulness. Undressing, I sigh: maybe beauty is best preserved through oblivion.

The slippers slide pass my toes as dream remnants disappear from my mind’s edges; electric sensations flow through my back. I try to remember the dream again, holding my pen against my dream diary’s empty page. I feel a trembling in my chest: no recollection. As always, the more I try to recapture lost moments, the more illusionary all experiences feel to me. Like when years ago, while staring at bronze dusk by the sea in late summer: I start to remember.

Through gentle sea wind and clashing waves, I feel all the laughters in my life coming back. I feel, but cannot recall, all the eyes I have stared into. Sounds of all the words I heard warp around me like a storm. I see the sea turning from hazel to grey, golden sky dimming. At this moment, the past touches present, space marries time. I mutter to myself: there will be a day when today is old.

It was 2006. The city: Hong Kong, nine years after the Handover. I was five. I was sitting on the top of the Saddles Mountain, about twenty minutes walk from my childhood home, near the countryside. We were far away from apartment blocks. The bronze landscape breezed with autumn; waves grew quieter as the sky darkens. The golden, dropping sun made the rattling wheat field shine like a throne room built by nature. The sound of the sea was mixed with trembling grasses, like a grand concerto.

Wet feet. Slippers. Small beach. Telling stories in the garden, by the sea. Sea view seen through mirror. Seabirds flying, chirping a song of desire. Black toes. Numb fingers. Electrifying skin. Electric infatuation, like words from a garbage bin. The sea, the waves, laughters. Strong breeze, soft moist. Weak grass, waiting parents. Playing children, departing souls. The winner: time and time only.

My cousins ran across the trees while their parents ate biscuits, sitting on a wooden mat, talking about our relatives, the economy, and pop musicians. About me too: they joked how my passions often change—now it is magic performance, before it was dance, before that it was chess, plants, and rockets, what’s next?

They did not predict, I would perform at my first open-mic as an aspiring singer-songwriter ten years later, in another country. In the dark bar, many middle-aged couples were drinking. The venue was located near Sydney central business district. Young people too—likely friends of the other performers that night—were there; I did not bring anyone to see me. Chatting across tables, they ordered pizzas, gin-and-tonic, some just sat there.

The hour before I got on stage, I talked with other singers—about our influences, ambitions, hopes. I then introduced myself to the host. He wore an absurd gold t-shirt, shimmering under the dim bar lights. His voice was energetic; he reminds me of an insomniac who drinks too much coffee. He asked me where am I from, to which I replied with my home area in Sydney.

“But I mean where you are from… where are your family from? I mean, where are your parents from?”

I could say: I was born and lived in Hong Kong for thirteen years and then moved to Australia. I remembered in school I was taught, to be Australian sometimes means to belong to somewhere else; to be Australian is to be whomever you want—an idea I didn’t understand. I always felt an unexplainable guilt, a sense of having intruded something.

After World War II, my grandmother’s family fled from China to Vietnam, where she birthed my father. During the Second Indochina War, my father and my grandmother fled Vietnam and settled in Australia. Once, when we were watching a war movie together, my father joked that burnt human parts would fly around every time a bomb drops. On his sixth birthday, an American soldier’s ashen leg landed on the family house’s tiny porch in a ‘splash’ sound; he said it was his birthday present. Once, my grandmother, while making an ominous face, told me how when she was ten, Japanese soldiers flung their military swords—known as guntō—around her: she was too afraid to move. We were watching television; she laughed, it was loud and unnatural.

Her laugh reminds me of screams heard on Hong Kong protest news. On my phone, I have seen triad gangs dressed in white shirts beating train passengers’ heads with baseball bats. I read that a news reporter needed eight stitches on his head. In a video, blood drips on the train carriage floor while a man begs on his knees. I watch broken lips, fallen glasses. More screams.

I looked at the open mic host’s plump face, his voice echoed: “I mean, where are your parents from?” I was silent. He then asked me another: “So, why do you sing? Why do you write songs?” I felt artificial warmth from his sweaty skin. His smile pulsated the question like how Sisyphus pushed a rock uphill.

“I don’t know why.”

I said these words five years ago, to my uncle, when he asked why did I want to leave Hong Kong. The farewell took place at the Check Lap Kok International Airport gate. My uncle and two school friends, by my sides, were smiling. I look at this photo now: three thirteen years olds and an eighty years old. The girl’s awkward arm was around my neck; the boy kept a two-steps distance from my uncle; my uncle’s hair was white, unkept—his eyes squeezed into two lines, his smile—a happiness feigned by the weight of parting. These faces represented people who would drift away or pass on. I thought: love is a language we learned to speak with our faces, a tunnel we learn to leave.

We took the photo in 2014, during the Umbrella Revolution. My friends talked about change and hope. My uncle just sighed. Symbols of yellow umbrellas were on magazine covers and Mong Kok streets. The western media published articles on democracies while some Hong Kongers worried about traffic blockage because at times, ambulances could not pass protest areas. I recall during those months, around us were tear gas, rhetorics, shouts for resignation. But of course, one couldn’t observe all this from our airport photo.

So I said to the host: “I don’t know why.”

He soon left me when the performances began. The first singer was loud—her amplified, fuzzy guitar spilled over her sweet voice, like fire drowning a spoon of honey. Her performance defied genre: it was original. The roaring riffs and volume modulation crafted an emotional tsunami. As she came down the stage, I shook her hand and told her how much I liked it. I got on with my mahogany acoustic guitar, and began to sing in a foggy, dawn-like voice.

A man begging on the side of a train carriage: his hands up in the air—‘please stop hitting us’. He picks up the glasses of his abuser. Got punched again. Facedown, on the ground. White shirts all around, sticks in their hand. Panic. Smoke above the city.

The protests and screams escalate. They penetrate my ears like snakes. I sensed the fury of ideas, the fury of freedom, the fury of belonging. I walk into history like approaching a helicopter—I hear the flicking rotor blades turning—like a furnace fan, like the confused hurricane in my mind. I refuse to join. I refuse to decide. I don’t know.

Youth sealed in a silver bag. Moon. Moan. Memory: a grave to dig. Moment: a jug of skulls. Glass. Glaciers. Gravity. I cannot go back. Look into the stack of noise. Thick, glowing blood. Sunglass windows. Showers. Storm. Against buildings. A metal scrap blown off. Strong shadows. A few feet from me. Desires. Ecstasies. A future or the future? Nature or nurture? Painted walls. Graffiti. Foreign languages. Glass, scattered and warm. Storm, insomniac and insane. I can only understand your madness through my madness.

It is eleven in the morning. I jump myself onto bed and fling my arms around my stomach; my navel feels my bicep. I curl myself up like an infant; my thighs now against my chest. The winter sun grows whiter; it casts away my body’s shadow and illuminates my legs, then my chests, my armpits, my ears. It warms my skin like a stranger’s touch. Through the window, sunlight engulfs me. I’m now within a sunny womb, bathed with affection. I know the light will soon fade away and cast its warmth somewhere else. But for now, it intensifies like a spotlight; at this moment, I don’t believe in the future.

Maybe when it’s over, I will think: longing always fade to a wound I mistake for a heart. I will watch dawn-lit clouds pass by like a washing machine of passions. I will yearn for affection when a year turns into starlight. I will lament: dreams always ache half as much as desires when loneliness is hardened into language. I will be moody and write: affection is never a thirst between the heart and the body—it is the madness where you sacrifice sanity for hope. I will realise our veins are galaxies when the night bleeds into stars. With moonlight hanging on my back, I will try to love my memories. I will recall bus bumps and birds screaming along the horizon; I will listen to footsteps and see faces that like to swirl into themselves. In imagination, I will leave off the silence between lightning and thunder. I will write a song.

Maybe then, I will feel wind passing through Saddles Mountain again. I will listen to my relatives talking about my cousin’s high school friends and the girl he met at the swimming pool. I will listen again to the wheat field’s whistle. I will look out for the coming storm and bring an umbrella. I will apologise for whatever. I will run to the edge of the hill; I will hear the wild waves roar. I will breathe among concrete jungles and wild grasses, glad to be lost. I will remember everything. I will wait for tomorrow while dozing towards a new dream. Will I arrive?

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