After spending the night in an actual bed I breakfasted with Master Que in the hotel’s restaurant. There had to be better ways of serving smoked fish with rice than they had in their breakfast buffet and I resolved to find out what they were. To add insult to injury, breakfast was both an ‘extra’ and an extravagance. When we left the hotel to go to the real estate agent’s office I was also scouting for an alternate breakfast location.
Fortunately we had the name of the salesman I’d been dealing with because the receptionist tried to pass us to the rentals division. Miss Cheong, the elegantly turned out receptionist, assured us that Mr Han would be available momentarily and complimented us on realising that student rentals would be very scarce this close to the beginning of the academic year.
Mr Han, when he came out to reception to meet us, was a florid man of expansive manner that made him seem bigger than he actually was. I believe he was pleasantly surprised that I was following up on the packet of information he’d sent me and he seemed quite understanding when I told him that, aside from the two properties that really were outside my distance parameters, I hadn’t been able to prune down the list of potential houses he’d sent me. He didn’t even look resigned when I asked to be taken to see them, or at least be given the keys so Master Que and I could look at them on our own. Mr Han professed himself delighted to drive us on a house inspection tour and, after arming himself with house keys, led us to a well maintained, originally expensive, northern sedan with a rich, plum coloured exterior. I suspected that Mr Han enjoyed ‘classic’ cars and he drove this one with more skill than the average taxi driver and a street knowledge that wouldn’t have been out of place in such a person.
To be utterly fair to Mr Han, or Han Tsung as he introduced himself, the properties he had included in his list were indeed fixer uppers. Three of the remaining ten properties on the list were built on riverside sand deposits and their walls had cracking or incipient cracking due to foundation movement. I eliminated those from the list almost as soon as I saw them because although they were salvageable, I didn’t want to spend the sort of money that would be needed to stabilise their footings.
Two more near the river were built on solid rock, but showed the effects of repeat flooding. They had stone walls, and stone floors on the ground level, but I didn’t think I could face repeatedly cleaning out river mud – plus whatever else the flood waters might wash in. A short conversation with Mr Han eliminated another two houses on the other, flatter, side of the river sight unseen for their flood history.
That left three houses to look at.
One was on the far side of the river from the university, sitting on the near slopes of a hill that been the site of the intermediate signal tower between the citadel and the port in the old days. It was certainly a possibility, with a large room that Master Que and I could use for gi training, and sufficient other rooms for the private and shared spaces that we thought a household of two unrelated people of opposite genders would require. That was all the space it had, there was nothing over for a guest room that could, potentially, be rented to another student if I couldn’t keep up gi fighting for some reason. The building itself was larger, and when I looked it became clear that it had been divided into four by some enterprising previous owner who’d built out most of the central courtyard with new kitchens and bathrooms before quartering the whole property for on sale. I couldn’t help but notice that what was left of the courtyard was occupied by a completely in-use clothes line. I was told by Mr Han that the courtyard had “always been treated as being held in common by all four households” and that was enough to make me wary.
The second house was right up against the wall of the university and had apparently been built as the gatekeeper’s house for a gate that was no longer there. The wall overshadowed the house and garden, and the house was built up hard against the side of the property where the access to the university grounds had once been – apparently so that in bad weather the gatekeeper could deal with the gate without leaving shelter. The grounds were neatly kept and full of shade loving plants, which made Master Que wonder what the aspect was like in winter. I notice that there were several worn tracks through the garden that went nowhere near the house. A very little poking around showed that one ran from a door in the university wall, hidden behind the swathe of a vine that I didn’t recognise, to the front garden gate. Mr Han expressed surprise and assured me that there was no recognised public thoroughfare through the property, but Master Que observed that someone was obviously using the door, and rather often. While we were standing there discussing the matter, there was the snick of a lock, a soft creaking, and the vine was swept to one side to reveal a group of four boys my own age and a young man only a few years our elder. He had obviously been about to say something to the others as he stood there holding the vine aside, but he froze when he saw us.
Mr Han asked, in a most impressive voice, “And just what is this?”
The entire group bowed to him and on straightening the young man said, “We’re from the Sing Bao Residential College for Young Men. I’m just giving some of our new students the tour.” He bowed again and said, “I am Li Pei, sir.”
“And I am Han Tsung,” Mr Tsung handed Li Pei one of his business cards. “My firm has been commissioned to sell this property. Am I to understand that the residents of your Residence are in the habit of traversing this property as part of their entrance and exit from the University grounds?”
“Well, this is the Residence’s back door,” Li Pei gestured with his free hand at the entrance they’d opened. “I understand that it’s been here and in use since the wall was built.”
I admit I wasn’t thrilled by the prospect of having random people tromping their way through my property, if I bought this house, but a short cut to classes did sound tempting and I could always lay paving along the already worn paths, so I asked, “So, if I moved into this house, could I use this door to come and go from classes?”
Li Pei looked shocked. “Oh, no. It’s a private door, besides women aren’t allowed in Sing Bao. Even the domestic staff is all male.”
“I will discuss the matter with the vendor,” said Han Tsung. “Thank you for your time and the information, gentlemen. I trust that your study year will go well.” He bowed to them and then turned to me, “Is there anything else you would like to see with this property, Miss Sung, or are you ready to move on to the next one?”
“I believe that I’m ready for the next one, thank you, Mr Han.” I still I think sounded incredibly prissy when I said that, so Heaven knows what those boys thought, particularly when I then turned to them and bowed farewell, saying austerely, “Gentlemen.” I followed Mr Han back to the car and Master Que brought up the rear, also having bowed to the students.
As Mr Han steered the car out into traffic, Master Que commented, “I don’t think I could recommend that you buy a property that a pack of young men thought they had free rein to traverse or otherwise enter. I merely have to consider myself at that age to know it would be a bad idea.”
“As I said to young Li Pei,” added Mr Han, “I will have to speak to the vendor about this. There may be some arrangement with the College that is not clear from the documents we have, but there may be issues that I am also unaware of. Now this next place is a deceased estate, and the family is selling so they can divide the value between them.”
“So no hidden issues prompting the sale,” finished Master Que with a chuckle.
The final house on the list was an old-fashioned courtyard house that had been modernised for plumbing and utilities, but not much else. The late owner had lived on his own, leaving most of the two storey complex empty. The backside house, originally for the use of servants and unmarried daughters, was three storeys and looked like it hadn’t been used for years except for storing things that weren’t wanted for use but were not yet to be thrown out. It had plenty of room, too much if anything, and it all needed cleaning. The courtyard sections were overgrown and I suspected that there were days of work in there alone.
Mr Han then suggested that I look at another house that had come onto the market the very morning after he had posted me the packet of information. It was much newer than anything else Mr Han had shown us and was part of a development obviously aimed at student accommodation. We were unable to park outside the house in question because there was a moving van there, shifting furniture into the place next door. Looking at the outside of the building I couldn’t see why it was marked as a fixer-upper. Then Mr Han opened the front door and the smell of stale cigarette smoke rolled out – Master Que was the only one of us who didn’t cough. Inside, the front two rooms were frankly dishevelled. Their internal walls were marked and gouged from being bumped with furniture corners and the floors had drag marks on them. When we penetrated to the kitchen I looked around and said, “I thought the house was supposed to be vacant.”
“It is,” said Mr Han grimly. “It was, last week. This is…new.”
We were looking at the neat stack of dirty plates beside the sink, waiting to be washed. The refrigerator was running and when Master Que looked inside, it was about a quarter full of food.
“Who are you people?” The voice from behind us belonged to a slightly dishevelled young man who was holding a staff in a business-like opening stance. “What are you doing in here?”
Mr Han produced another business card, “I’m Han Tsung of Golden Mountain Real Estate, and I’m showing this property for sale. As we were instructed by the seller that the place is vacant, I would like to know who you and why you’re here.”
“Qiao Tao, and I rent a room here through Student Services. When I paid for the semester last week and picked up the key yesterday, they didn’t say anything about the place being up for sale.” He didn’t relax from his stance.
“I shall have to follow that up,” said Mr Han stiffly, “as the vendor has instructed us that a buyer would have vacant possession. That is obviously not the case.”
Qiao Tao looked slightly less tense, but not much. “Obviously. Now, as I have had no advice that the property is for sale and to expect inspections, I must ask you to leave.”
“Obviously,” replied Mr Han. “My apologies for the intrusion.” He bowed and Qiao Tao saw us out.
We all bowed as we left and I heard Master Que’s comment to Qiao Tao, made behind me so I couldn’t see their faces, “Come and see me if you find yourself with nowhere to live. My name’s Que Tzu and I will be registering my residence with the Xiamtian office of the Hoshun Affiliation Gi School Association.” When we all got back into Mr Han’s car, Master Que added comfortably, “I like that young man. He reminds me of…people.”
If we had been alone I might have asked what people, but Mr Han apologised for the unexpected complications with two of the last three properties and asked whether I would consider expanding my parameters a little.
I opened my mouth to agree but what I said was, “Might I consider things overnight please? Now I’ve had a chance to see Xiamtian for myself, I might have some different ideas.”
“Of course,” Mr Han sounded unsurprised. “Would you like me to drop you at your hotel?”
“Thank you for the offer, but I’d rather walk back from your office so I can learn my way around.” I smiled as I answered because not only didn’t I want to offend Mr Han, but I was telling the truth.
“And I have business about a block from your office,” added Master Que cheerily, “so a lift back there would be most welcome.”
I asked, “What time would be convenient for me to come back to your office tomorrow, Mr Han? I was thinking perhaps nine or ten?”
That got me a quick, sharp glance from our driver and it occurred to me that he might have thought I was giving him the brushoff and dumping his services after all the time he’d already invested in my query. “Ten would be very suitable,” Mr Han replied. “It gives me time to go through the morning’s correspondence and check any new listings for suitability.”
“Ten it is,” I agreed gravely. Then I added, “Thank you for your time this afternoon sir.”
His answer was just as grave, “It was a pleasure, Miss Sung.”
He let us out of the car outside the real estate agency, but we didn’t go back in. “I’m going to the Hoshun Affiliation Association to update my details,” Master Que told me. “Normally I wouldn’t bother until we were settled at a permanent address, but I did tell that young man he could contact me through them and I suspect his tenure at that place is not as safe as the University Student Services would like.” He flashed me a smile then said, “One of the reasons I took up buying real estate was so that I’d never be at the mercy of a dodgy landlord again. That and so I’d never find myself being the difficult tenant ever again.”
Tentatively I asked, “Would it be alright if I come to the Association with you? I know I’m not a teacher, but they sound like people I should get to know.”
“It certainly wouldn’t hurt,” agreed Master Que, “and having you along as my reason for coming here might reassure the established teachers that I have no intention of poaching their students and income. We would all be happier without a school turf war.”
I looked at him sideways, “That conjures up visions of venerable gi masters in backstreet duels….”
“You make it sound so genteel,” he wasn’t smiling. “Sometimes it’s not and the rest of us have to sort it out before the authorities or the other schools get involved. One night, when I have rice wine with dinner, I’ll have to tell you about the Laosung problems in Zhuan a few years back.”
Then we were at the Association office which I had expected, from the streetscape, to be on the floor above a street level shop, but instead the sign inside the street door directed us down the stairs to an open, naturally lit room that faced away from the street into a sheltered, green courtyard with a corner water feature. Apparently the Association had taken what should have been a basement, opened up the bit of hillside and made it all better. While I was admiring what they’d done, Master Que got on with his business. I wasn’t so focused on the beauty of the stonework and the design as to be oblivious to the fact that I wasn’t the only student present. Most of them were about my age and scanning the Affiliated Schools directory for the names and addresses of teachers they could approach. The directory held no interest for me, but there was a stack of pamphlets advertising the University Gi Club, I took one and earned myself a couple of supercilious looks from my age mates, but the receptionist behind the counter smiled and looked as if she might have wanted to talk – if she hadn’t already been busy.
I also picked up copies of every tournament schedule on the counter, grabbed a paper cup of complimentary tea, and settled myself in a waiting area chair with views of both the courtyard and the office area to wait for Master Que. My tea was half gone and I was digesting the intricacies of the Provincial Winter Championship Series when one of the supercilious ones deigned to speak to me. “You can’t stay here all day and drink their tea, you know,” he said “It’s not a free tea house”. I noticed that he didn’t even look like introducing himself.
“And I am Sung Nai,” I said brightly, standing and bowing. “As it happens, I am waiting for my teacher, Master Que Tzu, to conclude his business here. When he is ready, we’ll leave.”
“If you already have a teacher, why are you interested in the University Gi Club? It’s only for people who don’t have teachers or want to compete on the university gi team.” He made both sound like a disease.
“Because I want to meet other people who are interested in gi,” I corrected him. “As you pointed out, I have a teacher and, as it happens, I don’t qualify for the inter-university competitions.”
“Why not?” He was still being quite rude.
“I don’t know you well enough to wish to share that with you, Mr….?” I smiled at him.
“Deng Sui.” He bowed very briefly. “I am enrolled in Literature Studies.” He added, grudgingly, “And you?”
“First Year Earth Sciences Undergraduate Program.” I added breezily, “Perhaps we’ll see each other in my compulsory Classics courses or your science ones?”
“I think that’s unlikely,” he said with the air of someone depressing another’s pretensions. “I don’t expect the dedicated students will be mixed in with the generalists, it would slow the specialists down too much.”
“If we’re all heading for the same exam at the same time, I really don’t see that as a problem.” I smiled brightly at him, “If you absorb the basics faster than the rest of the class, then that will give you time for extra reading while the teacher gets everyone else over the stile, won’t it?”
He glared at me. “That isn’t the point.”
I continued to smile brightly and made a stab in the dark, “Oh, haven’t you mastered the self-directed study thing yet? I hear that can be a problem for the truly classically educated.”
He stood there and his face turned a sort of dull red colour – he may not have been breathing. Then he abruptly bowed and strode off. He did not, to be fair, stomp.
I resumed reading about the local tournaments, and continued to do so until Master Que was escorted by a bowing official from the office into which he’d disappeared. The official paused to introduce Master Que to the receptionist, with whom he exchanged bows, and then he was led by Master Que over to me. I was already standing when they arrived and I bowed as Master Que said, “Master Kung, this is my student, Sung Nai. Nai, this is Master Kung Hsiao, one of the local Hoshun Association committee members.”
I replied, “It is an honour, Master Kung,” and it felt like it was. Master Kung was not precisely venerable but there was a certain sense to him that he went down a long way and that more was hidden than was visible.
“Oh, the honour is mine,” he captured my right hand and patted it genially. “If you’re Master Que’s student, then you must be our current Professional Division National Champion. I can see some of our local young men getting their noses disjointed and handed to them on a plate in the not too distant future. Have you seen the flier for the Student Professional Tournament they’re holding at the Mat Di Sen Arena on the other side of the city later this month? You don’t have your professional name yet, so you still qualify.” He gave Master Que and I a most disingenuous smile.
It was, I suspected, the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
This is now followed by An Offer Is Made.