In response to Anonymous' prompt "More Nai - something surprising (to her?) about her teacher" I have manged to include several things about him that came as a surprise to Nai.
It truly was a night’s journey from Changzhu to Haizhang and we slept in our seats in our compartment. The morning was being fresh and enthusiastic when we disembarked from the train and went in search of a hotel. Once we had secured rooms at an establishment that labeled itself a ‘traditional inn’ we went out again and found breakfast. We had it in a hole-in-the-wall place that seemed to have been open all night and was serving chilli dried fish with rice and radish pickles washed down by tea. It was actually very good.
I think we both felt much better with food inside us and I went with Master Que to hire a practice room. It turned out to be quite a complicated business of paying respects, taking tea together and negotiating both price and time. It was fascinating, particularly when the proprietor of the training rooms, a Master Lee, tried to confuse the issue by talking to me instead, using a great deal of flattery. I wasn’t sure what he was trying to do but Master Que was very good at getting him back on track and we got a good rate on the training room.
On the way back to our hotel we stopped and bought me a stack of white shirts in a selection of natural fabrics. I thought the silk ones were an extravagance but Master Que insisted. We went to work in the training room after lunch and spent most of the next day there too. The tournament was in the evening of the day after that, so we spent a few hours at the training room in the morning, had an early lunch and then I had a nap before we headed off to the venue.
The tournament was interesting. I made it to the final two but was beaten by Tai Hu Gee, a Taozhu, who knocked me backwards out of the ring with a solid stream of water. All I could do was laugh because I must have looked ridiculous. Tai was kind enough to offer me a couple of dry towels. I needed them.
Having come second there wasn’t as much money in the purse as when I won, but there was enough for me to buy two new sets of everyday blacks and a suitcase before we moved on to the next town. I thought my new blacks were far more stylish than my old ones and they were certainly less worn. My wardrobe now looked very grownup and even sophisticated. Apparently Master Que had a sense of style, something I hadn’t realized about him before. His own clothing certainly didn’t reflect it.
We had reason to discuss it in the next town, Juying, after I won the tournament there. Master Que was persuading me to buy black silk trousers and a brocade jacket.
“But I have enough new clothes,” I protested. “The jacket’s beautiful, but I don’t need it.”
“You’re not a school girl anymore,” he told me firmly, “and while you need to save, you also should be projecting an impression of substance. A certain style, a bit of dash and elegance, becomes you.”
“Master Que,” I pointed out, “you don’t dress like that.”
“But I’ve always been a slapdash sort of fellow,” he retorted with a twinkle. “Cheap cigarettes and bad booze, that’s me. It’s not you though. We dress you properly and those young men you meet in the ring will realize how lucky they are that you give them the time of day.”
I wound up buying two pairs of black silk trousers and two brocade jackets. Both jackets were beautiful and I didn’t want to choose between them. Deep down, and probably not that deep, there was a part of me I didn’t want to admit it to, not even to myself, that wanted to be attractive to men I found interesting. Later I rationalized that if Father was going to have my marriage all arranged by my birthday then presenting myself in a more interesting package would be a good thing.
It didn’t occur to me to wonder who Master Que classified as a ‘young man.’
That first two and a half weeks set the pattern for the month that followed. We crisscrossed the country by train and, on one occasion, by bus so I could compete in two tournaments a week. Bus travel isn’t as comfortable or convenient as train travel, but there’s no train to Wuhei and the Pagoda of the Rising Moon there was worth every bump. I realized afterwards that Master Que’s little moon viewing party on the verandah of a tea house the night before the Wuhei tournament was my first proper grown-up party. I enjoyed it much more than I expected, particularly when I realized it was the type of party my parents went to because they ‘ought to.’ Perhaps their friends don’t supply the standard of refreshments Master Que did? I’m quite certain that the round singing game I was the audience to was not the result of drinking tea or cheap booze. Master Que’s friends sang well enough to be applauded by surrounding parties.
We were in Anjun when my exam results came out. I called the hotline about midday, put my student number and my password in, then wrote down my results and hung up. I took a good look at what I’d written down, then gave my access details to Master Que and got him to call the hotline and write down the results again. I compared the two sets and they were the same. I was stunned, they were so much better than I had expected. If my parents had signed my application form, I would have gotten into my first choice course at my first choice of university. I could even have qualified for scholarships. To celebrate, Master Que taught me how to listen through walls with gi and treated me to dinner at a very swanky restaurant called the Red Pheasant. I wore one of my brocade jackets with a pair of the black silk trousers and I looked like I belonged at the very good table they gave us. I was very pleased with myself.
I didn’t win or even come second in every tournament I went in but I was never out of the money or the points. My worst result was fourth. Given that I was beaten by the eventual tournament winner who’d also won two national championships, I felt I had nothing to be ashamed of. We worked a lot after that on counter measures for his strategy, once being a learning experience but one that required work so as not to be repeated. I was beginning to know some of the other fighters too, as even though we travelled a lot for tournaments we were still running into some fighters again and again.
Bing Lu Ming wasn’t one of them, his leg was keeping him out of competition for six weeks and the rumour was that he might be disqualified from competition for as long as Chung Man Fu was unable to compete. There was great discussion of the case in the papers, both of whether Bing had done something deserving sanction and of what that sanction should be. I noted that my part in the episode was barely mentioned, except to point out that the injury I had given him meant that the Illustrious Board of Referees had time to deliberate on the matter at their leisure.
One thing that had disappeared from the newspapers was me as a missing person. After several mentions in the first couple of weeks, there was nothing. When I bothered to think about it, I rather thought that my disappearance had been replaced in my parents’ attention by other matters. Life with thirteen children gets hectic and it’s the noisy wheel that gets greased. As least in sight, by virtue of complete absence, I was obviously not the noisiest wheel at home at the moment. I was too easily shushed, perhaps, ever to have been that.
After six and a half weeks of tournaments we found ourselves in the city of Kwansu in time for the midsummer festival. Kwansu was big enough to be divided into prefectures and two of those were having their gi tournaments on either side of the festival. One of the reasons Master Que and I had picked these two tournaments was so we wouldn’t have to travel during the festival itself. Certainly there was no point in thinking of taking part in a midweek tournament as none were held during the festival. I hadn’t bought any new clothes since Juying but after we arrived in Kwansu and had hired both hotel rooms and a training room, Master Que took me shopping for formal robes.
Mother’s favoured purveyor of all sorts of formal robes was an upmarket department store that had outlets in all the major towns in our province. That was not the sort of place. This was really serious clothes shopping for both sexes. There were carefully displayed racks of beautiful robes and Master Que steered me away from the girls’ robes and straight into the adults’ section. He was buying himself a robe for the formal temple visits of the holiday so, after giving some low voiced instructions to a lady assistant who reminded me so strongly of my mother that I would not have approached her on my own, he went off with a gentleman fitter and left me with the lady assistant and her assistant. I was already intimidated.
That turned out to be unnecessary. I was firmly but kindly ordered to strip to my underwear and then I was measured in more sections and directions than I’d ever been measured before. The assistant’s assistant produced an under robe specifically meant for trying formal robes on and then she started producing robes. Robes that fit properly and wouldn’t need adjustment at home. It was as if I’d gone to clothes shopping heaven.
Our final choice was not in the current fashion of two colours, though I certainly tried some like that on to have them rejected by the lady assistant. Instead it was black around the base, graduating upwards through swirls of dark blue to a midsection of pooled dark aqua to then shade to a zenith of near-silver pale blue at the back of my neck. When I was dressed in the under robe that went with the garment and all the correct accessories I was reminded forcibly of the picture of one of my paternal great-grandmothers on her wedding day. The main difference between my memory of that elegant portrait and my reflection was that my hair was too short for the elaborate combs that lady had used to keep her hair up. Master Que was summoned to give his approval of the outfit and the price, both of which were forthcoming before he retreated to the gentlemen’s fitting room.
While the formal robes were folded and wrapped for me, we moved on to selecting two festival robes, simple garments for going round the food stalls and watching festival events like the tug-of-war competition or the nightly fireworks. This was almost more fun than selecting my formal robes because these were the first I’d had that weren’t hand-me-downs, a side effect of being kid number eight and not the eldest girl. My gold and yellow geometric and blue with green water pattern selections were being wrapped when Master Que emerged with his final choice of a formal robe. I wasn’t quite sure what my reaction should be, he'd managed to find a robe that echoed the patterns of his demon-faced gi mask.
It was an expensive piece of shopping, even if Master Que was paying for his own robe, but I was glad that I’d done it. My beautiful new robes hung in the hotel wardrobe for the next few days while I practiced in the training room and then took part in the Western Prefecture tournament. Fortunately for our living expenses, I won.
The next morning was the first day of the midsummer festival. We breakfasted early then went back to our rooms to change into our formal robes so we could make the day’s temple visits. You should visit at least one temple every day of the festival but it’s excessive, almost needy, to visit more than three in a day. As Kwansu was so large, Master Que and I intended to visit three different temples every day without repeating any. It was a very tourist thing to do.
That first morning we went to the three temples closest to where we were staying. Aside from making a small offering part of the ritual of the temple visits is exchanging formal greetings with people you know who are visiting the same temple when you are there. Over the course of our three visits that morning we met all the fighters who’d rented training rooms in the same place we had, our training room land lord (twice), several more gi fighters we’d met since leaving home and the proprietor of the place we’d been having lunch at in the lead up to the tournament. Each time we formally bowed to each other, then Master Que and they exchanged cards. As I was Master Que’s student I didn’t have cards of my own but I did get to carry the cards Master Que received in my purse.
Once the morning’s formalities were over, we went back to the hotel, changed and went to spend a few hours working in our training room. Then back to the hotel to shower and change into our festival clothes. I was wearing my new yellow and gold geometric print with its fine, alternating triangles of colour while Master Que was wearing another set of blacks. We hit the festival market closest to the hotel that first afternoon, agreed where and when to meet up for dinner and went our separate ways. I don’t know what Master Que did with his afternoon but I: lunched on chicken skewers, rice balls and cold tea; browsed the tents selling souvenirs and plush animals but didn’t buy anything; did buy a set of embroidered handkerchiefs; watched a drumming performance and a marionette play; and declined a walk through the nearby park with a group of boys my own age that I didn’t know, frankly they seemed rather…young, but that might have been the company I’d been keeping.
When we met up for dinner, Master Que smelt strongly of cigarette smoke and was carrying a cup of clear, tawny brown liquid which may have involved tea. He did seem to be perfectly steady on his feet and we wended our way to a temporary outdoor food court where we feasted on dim sum, laksa and fried rice. Later, we watched the night’s fireworks from a vantage point in the park I’d turned down a walk through. Finally we went back to the hotel to turn in and start again in the morning.
The second day of the festival was much the same as the first, except we went to three different temples that were further away from the hotel and so only met three gi fighters we knew the whole morning before we went to the training rooms. I wore my water pattern robe in the afternoon and we went to the major festival precinct for the prefecture. I tried my hand at a hoop throwing stall that I expected to be rigged and I won a prize, much to my surprise. It was actually a good one, a set of carp flags, the ones you fly from the roof of the house when a son is born, real silk and hand painted. I showed the set to Master Que when we met for dinner and he was surprised that it had been on a stand like that. Then he treated me to dinner in the night market because he’d gotten into a game of mah jong and won.
The third morning of the festival we left the hotel earlier than we had the previous two days and got a taxi into the old city so we could go to the three main temples there. We did want to see them but Master Que said most people would go there in the last few days of the festival and we wanted to avoid the rush. We met no-one we knew in the first two temples but at the third, crowded enough now that I was glad we hadn’t come later in the day or the festival, we ran into a man who knew Master Que. A man from Jingshi.
He was a normal looking man of average height, perhaps a little wiry but not scrawny, with a short, thick haircut and clever eyes who wore a plain, dark robe distinguished only by the raised nub of the fabric and the five small family crests that adorned it. He was accompanied by his wife who wore an elegant two-tone peach formal robe and three children, the oldest no more than ten. He bowed to Master Que saying, “Master Que Tzu, what a surprise! May I make known to you my wife, Loong Mai, and our children?”
Master Que bowed in return, “Sergeant Loong, a pleasure as always. Madam Loong, an honour. Children, a delight.” The rest of the Loongs returned his bow and then cards were exchanged. “Finally, I would like to present my student, Sung Nai.” That was my cue and I bowed.
When I straightened I thought Sergeant Loong had an odd look in his eye. “It’s fortunate,” he said slowly, “that your parents withdrew their complaint about your disappearance, Miss Sung, or I would be obliged to report this conversation or even escort you to a local police station.” He turned to Master Que, “I understood Miss Sung was travelling with you and your professional protégé, who doesn’t appear to be here this morning?”
“Nai is my only student, Sergeant,” Master Que answered him levelly.
“You’re dressing her?” The sergeant’s lips pursed in a slightly disapproving manner.
“Nai pays for her own clothes and expenses from her winnings,” replied Master Que firmly and the sergeant’s expression relaxed. He went on, “You two have almost met before, you know.” We both looked at him questioningly and he went on, “When I was checking out that cage fighting venue on the Fifth Circuit for your Inspector, Sergeant. I took Nai along so I could use her education as my excuse for being there.”
I gaped at him in surprise. It had never occurred to me that Master Que would do work with the police.