I take one more look at the mirror and check the angle of my pocket square. The suit looks good, but then it always does—one of the few perks I have left.
One more admiring look before I pull the image from the mirror, ball it up, and put it in my pocket. I don’t need Mira following me where I’m going.
I light a cigarette in front of the ɴᴏ ꜱᴍᴏᴋɪɴɢ sign as the elevator begins to judder upwards. The smoke unravels towards the fire alarm in the ceiling, but with a finger, I beckon it back down.
“All I have to do is make everyone believe. Just for one night,” I say to the smoke, and it follows my finger and curls around it before fading away.
The elevator rings and I walk through—right into Jun, Lu’s second-least friendly bouncer.
He glances at me, standing in front of the double doors that I need to get through. He’s about two times my body weight with more muscle than he knows what to do with, so I smile back. Always smile, like they’re the ones with something to lose. I’m not quite sure if he remembers last time, but let’s just say he certainly isn’t going to be giving me a red packet anytime soon.
“Bro, you expected?”
I spread my hands like, Do you even need to ask? And I try to step past, but he steps in front of me.
“Nah, bro,” he says.
“Well, Jun, I tried the easy way. Let the record show.”
His brow furrows while he tries to parse the individual syllables, and I lean in with my hands open like, No harm here, just a word in your ear. I whisper three syllables, and his face goes slack, his eyes looking out at a constant nothing. His hands lower.
I’m down to two coins in my pocket, but that doesn’t matter for now.
I leave Jun and push open the double doors like a dealer cutting cards.
Inside, the sound of yum cha hits me like a slap: shouts and laughter, tears and cooks’ curses, waitresses announcing their carts’ contents, calls from the tables, children crying and grandparents’ stories and others’ too—golf stories and career advice and restaurant suggestions, news of in-laws and gossip about outcasts—all overlapping, each one louder again than the next so they leap over the noise for a moment, like a wave, and then fall to become part of the sonic ocean, swelling out across the restaurant, across the white tablecloths and lazy Susans, across the bamboo steamers of food and tanks of fresh lobsters.
It feels like home—albeit one from which I’ve been forbidden. Mostly.
Not so welcome is the smell—flaky pastries and pork buns, steamed prawn dumplings and delicate tossed greens—a delight to the nose but a warning note to my stomach, reminding me how little I’ve had to subsist on recently.
I hum the karaoke song looping on the screen, where a girl in a yellow swimsuit roller-skates down a boardwalk, and I trail a waitress pushing a cart through the maze of tables so Lu doesn’t see me until I’m right there.
Lu is sitting there with the usual hangers-on who take all their fashion cues from Chow Yun-Fat and ’90s movies and laugh at his bad jokes. He’s sitting there in a Hawaiian shirt with buttons that stretch around his stomach, a mess of gold chains around his neck, and a beard as patchy as his hygiene.
Lu is gossip. He exists on it and thrives on it, and in turn, it feeds him, here, at the centre of this world, in Chinatown. He’s not a god, exactly, so much as what a god would be if they didn’t bother to advertise.
And as for me, well, I’m not quite on his level, but I also haven’t quite faded yet.
“Ah Lok! What you want? How did you get in?” Lu says, and peers at me through a pair of ill-fitting, smudged glasses.
I hear the hubbub fading out around me. And I sense the muscle tensing around the room, the hangers-on reaching inside their jackets. I hold up my hands and smile a smile like people are actually glad to see me—just everyone’s uncle with a magic trick. “Lu, you’re too jumpy! I got in the same way everyone else did. I’m just here for a trade.”
He glares at me, mistrust brewing in his eyes like water in an old teapot.
“No trouble?” he says at last.
“No trouble,” I say. That one is a lie. But it’s the kind that is half-true—I won’t be trouble for him. Not if everything goes according to plan.
“Search him,” he says. One of his goons pats me down while I grin and bear it. The goon spills the contents of my pockets on the table. What’s there is nondescript: a transit card, three—no, two—small jade coins with square holes, some string, my mirror image like a balled-up piece of paper, a faded mahjong tile with a small bird perched on a bamboo stem, and a crumpled pack of cigarettes. It’s not nothing, for sure, but I don’t much like thinking about how close it is. And a box—coffin-black, the size that might hold a ring.
The goon goes to open the box and I yank it out of his reach.
“Uh-uh. I wouldn’t do that. Didn’t Auntie ever tell you not to poke around other people’s boxes?” I say.
The goon is still trying to puzzle out the double entendre when Lu waves him away. Then Lu notices the tile.
I put my hand over it—too late. The bird on it has been half-scratched off, the green and red flaked away. You can only work out what it is—what it was—once you stare for a while.
“Looking faded, ah? How long you got?”
I do my best to smile. “I have long enough.” I’m an excellent liar, but this is not a good one—it doesn’t start anywhere close to the truth and ends up running in the other direction.
I slip the tile and my things back into my pocket and leave the box on the table between us.
Lu sighs and gives me the same look you’d give to a crab the waiter is offering to cook. “I know I’ll regret, but hospitality is still hospitality, sekh ma? Come, eat.”
I try not to show how eager I am. The lackeys at the table move away, and I sit with Lu and the mountain of food.
As hungry as I am, I wait for Lu to choose a dumpling, and then I take it before he can. I’m hungry but not stupid. It would be too easy for Lu to poison me here and leave me languishing in a back room until I fade. The truth is, I’ve got so close to the edge, where I won’t matter anymore and I’ll come off the tiles.
“So, what you want, Ah Lok?”
“I need safe passage, Lu.”
He begins to giggle, enough that he begins to cough and a lackey has to come and thump his back. “You going to try one more time, Ah Lok? Why not just accept it, huh? It’s probably not so bad.”
On the screen, a man and a woman spin on a deserted city street, fake excitement on their faces like they’re in a ’50s Hollywood musical.
“Because I’m not done yet. How could I deprive everyone of looking at this face so soon?” I say.
He swallows down a pork bun, Adam’s apple bouncing. “What you want to trade for?”
I nod down at the box.
His eyes narrow.
“What is?” he asks, but his voice is low, and I know I’ve got him. See, Lu is greed as well as gossip, and he can’t resist the idea of there being one more thing. One more thing he can’t have.
“What’d you think? What’s the one thing you want that would fit inside a box that size?”
He glances at me, his eyes bulging so hard that they almost collide with his glasses. “Cannot be? You got it?”
My grin is sharp as a surgeon’s knife. “You know I have ways.”
He reaches out, but I put my hand over it.
“I need passage.”
He nods, and one of the lackeys puts a paper pawn ticket on the table—bearing the number 44. Just my luck.
I take it, nod my thanks, and toss the box up into the air so high it almost touches the ceiling. Lu flails up from his chair and almost falls backwards. He completely fails to catch it, so it drops under the table; he shoves aside the lackeys who try to dive under and get it for him, realises he won’t fit either, and shouts at the lackeys to get it for him after all.
That’s what I imagine, anyway—by this time, I’m down the elevator and far away. Far enough away that I also have to imagine the look on his face when he opens the box and finds it empty.
• • •
This is how it happened. Your standard deck of cards, for example, has never just been cards—it’s a system of belief. You do card tricks to sustain an illusion in something beyond understanding. You play poker to sustain a belief that skill will carry you through a future that is parcelled out one card at a time. You play cards long enough, and tarot cards emerge—a material belief that a deck of cards can divine the inner workings of the world.
Where we’re from, we have mahjong. One hundred and forty-four white tiles, each the size of a matchbox. As with cards, they have suits: circles, numbers, and my favourite, bamboo. But they also have the special tiles: Winds, Flowers, and Dragons.
Those tiles aren’t a history—they’re a reference point to reality. In the past, we had tiles for Heaven, Earth, and Harmony. But nobody believes in any of those anymore, so those tiles are gone. Now we have Lu, the Green Dragon of greed and gossip.
Like a stock market indicator, the tiles tell you how you’re doing if, like me, you exist in between—in between humanity and the cosmic tycoons. If reality were a casino, I would be neither the boss nor the ordinary people who come in by the dozen. I’d be a croupier or a dealer, someone who can maybe shift the odds a little in my favour if nobody important is looking.
I’m a demigod, if you want to use the crude name for it. Things fall my way. I have friends in low places and IOUs in high places. I’m the smoke but not the mirrors. I’m the smile that tips the scales, the person you meet once who you’ve known your whole life.
Except, judging by the way I’m fading from the tiles, my time is coming up soon. No one’s noticed me for too long, my existential stock is dropping, and the tycoons may decide they no longer need my services. Unless I can fix it by the end of the night with one more deal.
• • •
The train smells of fast food and body sweat, the carriage empty apart from me. I drop into a seat, and Mira appears in the reflection of the window.
“Lok, what are you up tooo?”
You can never look at Mira head-on, only out of the corner of your eye. In the window’s reflection, I can see her next to me, but if you looked at the seat itself, you’d see nothing.
Mira is the daughter of the White Dragon—she is images and mirrors—and because every cellphone and computer has a camera, Mira looks out from them, as many as she can, always watching . . . always a little distracted.
“Mira,” I say, choosing the smile I save for problems. “To what do I owe the honour?”
When I glance at her, she’s outfitted in a golden halter top and tight leather pants, but it won’t last long. She is dressed in something new each time I glance away and look again—different hair, different makeup, different outfit. It used to be a thrill. Now, it gives me a headache—a gut sensation that reality is unravelling in a way I can’t profit from.
“People are talking, Lok. People are discussing. Not many photosss.” Her voice always has an echo of feedback, a ringing loop that gives the words a rough edge. “But people are talking. They say you conned Lu out of passaggge.”
“I made a deal, that’s all,” I snap. I tell myself that it’s just this one night, that I wouldn’t have done it if circumstances didn’t demand. But the only person I’ve never been great at lying to is myself.
“What are you going to do? Is it true that you’re fadinggg?” she asks, circling around me in the reflection, this time in a backless purple cocktail dress, her lithe arms raised in matching gloves.
The problem with giving her an answer is I need to let everyone know I’m coming, but without signalling how bad things have gotten. I need Mira—but I don’t need her to know that.
“Well, between you and me, Mira, the tile is a little faded. I need to make this run at passage, but maybe you could keep it between you and me. For old times’ sake. Remember the Harbour Steps?” I smile my second-most winning smile.
“For old times’ sake . . .” Her eyes widen. She bares her teeth. She rounds on me in the reflection, her blouse fiery red, so angry that she forgets to change clothing for two blinks. “What I remember is that you had eyes for everyone else. What I remember is that you cared about being seen with me, not being with me . . . for old times’ sake.” She’s shouting now in a voice only I can hear, the feedback screeching like a wounded beast under her voice. “I’m going to tell everyone you’re coming and how close you are to the edggge. I’m going to tell them the wonder boy, Ah Lok, dies tonight. And I’m going to take a thousand photos of the place where you die and tag them ‘Good Riddance.’”
With a sound like shuffled mahjong tiles, the train clatters into a dark tunnel that shutters out the reflections. Mira is gone. She doesn’t reappear.
Now Mira will spread the word out of spite, and I can sneak in through the chaos—my natural element. If I had the time, I’d almost feel bad about it.
• • •
I get out at Central and walk the couple of streets to Chinatown.
Outside, dusk is pushing its way through the cordon of clouds. Day shops are beginning to clatter their security doors down, and restaurants are beginning to light up signs advertising ʜᴏɴɢ ᴋᴏɴɢ sᴘᴇᴄɪᴀʟ and ꜰᴀᴍᴏᴜs ᴄʜɪɴᴇsᴇ ᴄᴀᴋᴇ. In between are the neutral zones: the stores of endless souvenirs and knick-knacks that are at once too strange for tourists and too kitschy for locals, the vaguely named business centres. The less impressive these places look, the more power that resides in them.
I light up a smoke and signal it to mask my face, just as I pass two more goons—no doubt looking out for me after Mira’s call. The smoke obeys . . . but there’s a pause before it does.
I take the tile from my pocket to confirm, and sure enough, the bird is almost completely gone now. Just the bamboo underneath is visible, and one claw holding on for dear life.
I make one stop on my way to the pawn shop, which is in an alley off Chinatown’s main mall. Its sign declares, in gold: ꜱɪᴡᴀɴɢ ʜᴀᴏ ᴅᴇ. The English underneath it translates to ᴅᴇᴀᴛʜ sᴏ ꜰɪɴᴇ. Usually that kind of humour is a comfort, but right now, it feels a little on the nose.
I push open the door and the motion sensor beeps its warning in a pitch that makes you want to leave. The shop smell doesn’t help, either: vintage dust, decaying plastic, and burning incense. Somewhere, an air conditioner chugs like a tired dog.
Around me are shelves reaching up and up, filled with the detritus of the ’90s—outdated technology, GPS systems, cathode-ray TVs, computers that aren’t old enough to be valuable or new enough to do anything useful. The shop doesn’t so much move with the times as it does twenty years behind them—a time capsule of obsolete items that are past their heyday. In ten years’ time, it will be full of chunky video game consoles and mobile phones with actual buttons, and Yin will still be here, presiding over it all.
As I walk through to the back, I can’t help glancing at the door on the right, half-hidden behind tubs of pink cleaning fluid, with its hand-written ᴏᴜᴛ ᴏꜰ ᴏʀᴅᴇʀ sign written in English and Mandarin.
Straight ahead of me is the glass counter. And behind the counter is Yin.
Yin is a small woman, made to look smaller by her voluminous red hiking parka, two sizes too big. Her haircut is terrible, an off-shape feathered pixie cut that somehow looks essentially the same yet slightly worse every time.
She nods to me, glancing up from the small TV on the counter playing the same soap opera on a loop. Her eyes glint—despite the TV, Yin doesn’t miss a thing, in or out of her store. Yin is a Passage Keeper, one of four. And let’s just say she’s the only one of them who still tolerates me.
“You making trouble?” Yin says.
I smile, all innocence. “Doing my best not to, Auntie.”
She snorts. “Hah. I know what I hear. What you need?”
“I thought you might like a present, Auntie.” I proffer a white cardboard box—bought with the second-last of my coins.
Her eyebrows rise. “Custard tarts?”
“Fresh. All for you,” I say. I put the box on the counter and lay the ticket from Lu on top of it. “I have passage, Auntie. Could you open it, please?”
She looks down at the box of custard tarts again, then back to me. “You may not come back. You want to spend the last of your life in there?”
“I’m not sure I have a choice, Auntie. If I want to live much longer.”
She snorts again. “We always have choices. Me, I choose custard tarts every time.” Yin takes the piece of paper, puts it to one side, and opens the box to check the tarts. Then she bashes a key to open the beaten cash register with a bing, puts the paper into the register’s drawer, and tilts her head toward the door at the side.
While she pulls the first golden custard tart from the package and takes a loud bite, I open the door—and what’s behind it is not a bathroom but the impossibly wide street of a city that doesn’t exist.
I look back at Yin, knowing this is the last time she might see me, and half wonder if she has any parting words.
“Bye. Bye,” she says, each word enunciated, and her eyes are back on her soap opera, watching the artificial lives playing out on the small screen.
• • •
On the other side of the door, the sunlight hits my face. There is a cycle to the time here that I’ve never been able to work out—it doesn’t seem to correspond to any earthly time zone.
From the look of it, it’s late morning. Grass lines the wide, paved boulevard on either side; a Chinese ceremonial arch rises above me. A group of elderly men bicker politely yet loudly on one side; on the other, a group of teens is practising the latest dance meme, and they hold up mobile phones when I appear. The hall is up ahead.
When I glance back, the door is already fading from view.
See, Chinatown has always been a stage show—a place to gather, and a place to be seen gathering. A place to offer a version of ourselves that’s fit for polite company, the takeaway box version of the Ethnic Experience.
And if Chinatown is the stage show, then this place is Offstage: some sort of collaborative illusion of the best parts of our memories and realities. It’s peaceful here, an agreed-upon quiet place where the gods can sort out their business.
So you can probably tell how they feel about me coming to mess all that up.
East’s goons meet me halfway down the boulevard, walking five across, strutting like the part in an action movie after someone says, “Suit up.” The one in the lead looks familiar: his hair looks like he’s spent a lot of time and used a lot of mousse to recreate a style called Bedhead.
As they approach, I raise my hands. And when they’re close, I lean in to say something, but Bedhead backpedals and scowls.
“No, Ah Lok. None of your whispering here. We’ve been warned.”
“And here I was about to offer you boys some cigarettes,” I say in my normal voice, proffering the pack.
The four look at Bedhead, who eyes me up and down—but even here, he can’t resist the offer of a free smoke. Bedhead leans forward and selects one, and I pass the pack around. They’re already off-balance, hearing that I was coming in ready to raise hell and being confronted with the opposite.
And that’s good—off-balance is where I like to keep people.
“Here’s what I’m thinking, gentlemen. I don’t have a weapon on me, and I’m guessing you guys are packing. Am I right? What’ve we got?”
The one on the left pulls his jacket open to show the black pistol at his waist—almost sheepish, a child showing off a toy—until Bedhead gives him a look, and he lets the jacket fall back into place.
Guns work here. They won’t kill a god, or even someone like me, but they will slow me down, and healing from bullet wounds is not on my list of things I’d like to do before I cease to exist.
“Me, I’m unarmed. I figure you escort me inside and shoot me if I try anything, right? Tell your boss you captured the golden boy and shut him down?” I raise my hands and turn slowly, so they can see there isn’t anything on me big enough to spoil the lines of my suit.
“No tricks?” Bedhead says.
“No tricks,” I say. And really, if he believes that, it’s on him.
Bedhead clamps down on the cigarette in his mouth, then nods to the others. They form around me in an escort, and I wink at Bedhead as he lets me move past him.
As I pass, he punches me hard in the small of the back. The pain burrows inside me, and I drop to one knee.
“Get up. That’s for last time.”
I stand, wondering if I’ve misjudged—if more is coming—but he seems to have got it out of his system. And I try to remember what I did to him last time. When I do remember, I realise I probably did deserve it.
• • •
They march me to the Eastern Pagoda. Inside, there’s the hundred-beetles sound of forty mahjong games going on simultaneously: cousins, aunties, uncles glance up at me as I come in. There’s a change to the tone of the chatter, a rise in volume and tone: people talking louder to try and cover the fact that they’re watching me, or starting to film me with their phones. And not just me: they’re watching to see what East will do to me.
East is seated at the table in the centre, a wall of mahjong tiles and a pile of chips arrayed in front of him. He’s a big guy, broad-shouldered, wearing a tailored pinstripe suit (almost as nice as mine), silk shirt, and a thin black tie. His eyes are the colour of wood before it burns. He nods at the plastic chair opposite and signals to the guards to wait outside.
“Hey, wait.” I toss the cigarette pack to Bedhead.
He catches it and glances at East, unsure whether to accept. But East just waves him out.
“Come, sit. You want tea?” He gestures, and two blue and white cups appear alongside a white teapot, steam threading from its spout like a stray thought. He pours.
I tap the table, two fingers to the side of my cup, a sign of respect. About as much respect as I have left.
He takes his cup, pauses to peer at me over it, and sighs. “Ah Lok. What are you doing? Everybody’s been talking. A lot of chatter about how you’re going to come up here.”
I take the cup and sip. It’s bo lei—the rich, earthy flavour swirls in my mouth. No matter how much I don’t want it to, it still tastes like home. But there’s something else that he’s added to the mix, something new. “Is this new, Uncle? I’m not sure I’ve had this one before.”
He ignores the question. Like I’m trying to distract him from the conversation, which is especially rude, because I am.
“Why do you think this is all about you? It’s the way of things. The rise and fall. Sometimes you must decrease, sekh ma?”
I take another sip and give him a look. Easy for him to say. For as long as I’ve been around, he’s been one of the Four Winds. Each one—North, South, East, and West—takes a turn, once a year, to run things here. The others have been replaced one by one in their internal power struggles, but East has remained.
“Sometimes we must withdraw. Like the flower that hides from the winter season, we need to be still and look beyond our feelings to what is greater and more substantial. Look to the lesson inside rather than lashing out in anger,” he says, like a long-ass fortune cookie.
I go to say something, but he raises a finger and keeps talking.
“Sometimes the wisdom says we need to flow like water, let the trouble pass by us, like the mountain stream and—” I lose focus and tune out for a little bit as he rambles on.
When his mouth stops moving, I speak.
“That’s all well and good, Uncle. But I have places to be.”
“I know, I know,” he says. “Everyone is saying that you are going to come at me with something. You have some plan to put yourself back on the tile. What? You going to fight? Here? You know you cannot win.” He puts his teacup down and gestures.
And that’s when the poison in the tea takes hold.
The guards from outside come in behind me. My body is as still as terracotta. It takes everything in me to roll my eyeballs at him.
“So what was it, young Lok? What was your plan? How were you going to win at the game this time?”
I choke in a breath and put everything I have into two words: “Already . . . won . . .”
He blinks at me, perplexed, and gestures again, releasing me, my throat, my mouth. I slump back in my seat and haul in a ragged breath. “My tile was fading. I needed everyone to talk. To believe in me again. And now they are. Everyone’s wondering. Wondering what I’m going to say to you. Everyone’s watching. Everyone’s believing.”
Around us, the activity of the mahjong games has slowed. Phones are out; people are whispering to each other. This will travel through the gossip network faster than an anime meme.
He stares at me, perplexed. “Then why play this game, Lok?”
I smile—a genuine smile. “Because the game’s more fun when I play according to my own rules.”
East frowns and folds his arms. He doesn’t like that answer. “But you also know I can’t let you leave. Otherwise everyone will do the same. Will come here and cause a ruckus when they start to fade. I have to teach you a lesson,” he says, and he raises his fingers again, but this time I’m ready for it.
I move faster than East, and pull at the smoke—all the smoke, from the boys smoking my cigarettes—and I yank it inside and pull it open to expand into the hall like a gas grenade as the last coin disappears from my pocket. It’s like being inside a stormcloud; the smoke is everywhere. East doubles over in a coughing fit, the guards’ eyes water, and nobody sees as I roll from my seat and run, low, through the door.
On the way out, I almost bump into Bedhead, who is gawping at his cigarette and the thread of smoke streaming horizontally towards the door.
“Here, hold this?” I say, and I take the balled-up mirror image and toss it. The image hits him in the face and splashes, rippling down over him. A moment later, his face distorts, his suit smooths out to a facsimile of mine, and then the mirror image sticks. For a few crucial minutes, at least, he looks like me, the lucky bastard.
“Looking good,” I say, before I run. He’s looking down at himself, wondering what’s just happened, when the guards from inside emerge from the smoky hall like bees from a beehive and grab at him.
The door opens long enough for me to stagger back through the passage. Yin doesn’t look up—so she can honestly say that she didn’t see me leave—and I make it back to Central and the safety of the train.
As the train gathers speed, I glance back over the roofs at Chinatown and its false facades and communal hope. I take the tile from my pocket and turn it over in my hand.
On the face of the tile, there’s a picture of a bird on bamboo, but the bird is on fire—a phoenix staring back out, beginning to raise its wings. And if you tilt it one way and then the other, it glitters just like gold.