It runs to 3,260 words and, to me at least, feels a lot like scene setting. (But what do I know?)
We parted company with Mr Han and I dragged Master Que, on foot, over to the university to see the Nientsien Pagoda and the Yu Tan Kee Building. He was impressed and the stone tea party above the Yu Tan Kee’s front door made him laugh. Then we swung by the Water Science fountains and I lost him for an hour while he played mah jong with a woman I would have described as a stiff necked dowager, except that she played the game the way he did. At the end of the hour they were even on points and her son came to collect her, so their match had to stop.
Master Que and Madam Ong exchanged cards, while her son looked on a little helplessly and her granddaughter, about my age and all black lipstick and darkened hair, stood around looking cynical. They left the precinct going north while we strolled back towards the main entrance of the university. I thought no more of it.
Until the next morning when I joined the queue outside the Student Registration Office half an hour before it was due to open and she was the person who joined the line behind me. She wasn’t shy – her opening remark was, “Aren’t you that Que girl from yesterday afternoon? The one my grandmother was raving about all last night for her ‘good manners.’ While she was trying to find your senior in the Mah Jong Society’s records.”
“My name’s Sung Nai,” I corrected quietly, “and Master Que is my gi teacher. I don’t know if he’s ever played mah jong competitively or professionally, except in the sense of betting on his hand for real money.”
“Ong Tien,” her bow was as brusque as her voice. “His level of skill impressed my grandmother. She’s never going to believe he’s not been in the competitions. She was up half the night looking up old record books.” She looked hard at me. “You almost made him sound like a tile shark.”
“I don’t think he is, but he does know a lot of ways to cheat at mah jong,” I admitted before observing, “I think he finds competent cheating in his opponents a challenge, but that he’ll forgive a lot for good company.”
Ong Tien looked at me oddly, the black eyeliner emphasising her expression. “Now you’re beginning to make him sound scary. Does he use gi when he plays?”
“I don’t think so. Gi is his work. It’s what he does.” I gestured comprehensively. “Mah jong is for fun. I think he finds taking tile sharks apart even more fun.”
“Definitely scary.” Ong Tien nodded in emphasis and I noticed that her hair looked unnaturally fine and straight. I wondered what she’d done to it. “Is he any good at gi?”
“He won a few national championships,” I admitted. “Under his professional name, of course.”
“Which school?” Ong Tien looked behind her to see how many more people had joined the line.
“Wait, you’re training with a former national gi champion who’s a Hoshun?” She looked at me as if I’d grown a second head.
“Who’s not a relative?” She got a funny look on her face.
“No, but he’s been my teacher since I was six.” I didn’t know what she was getting at.
“Who’s moved here because you came here?” She was getting excited now.
“I supposed your parents organised it because they think you’re some gi super prodigy,” her cynicism or sarcasm was back. I wasn’t sure which it was, or if it was both.
“My parents have nothing to do with it,” I corrected her calmly. “I haven’t even told them which university I’m at. My arrangement with Master Que is wholly between the two of us.”
“You are so much cooler than Grandma made out!” She threw her arms around me enthusiastically. “This is great!”
“We’re just teacher and student,” I said quietly.
“But breaking the bounds of convention and deciding for yourself what you’re going to do,” she gestured with clawed hands turned towards each other as of grasping at something. She sighed, “I so would like to do that, but instead I’m doing a double degree because I can’t say no to either my mother or my grandmother. It’s going to take me six years, not four,” she added glumly.
“What are you doing?” I asked because I understood entirely what she meant about not being able to say no to your older family members.
“Water Sciences and Modern Studies,” Ong Tien told me resignedly. “Grandmother and Grandpapa used to work in the Water Sciences Faculty, and Mother lectures in Political Science at Gushan University in Cui Zhu. Both want me to follow in their footsteps. At least I only need to do one set of non-faculty compulsory subjects, but they’re already arguing over what my first year elective should be.”
Something about what she said caught my attention, and as we shuffled forward in the queue as someone ahead of us realised that there was too big a gap between them and the person in front of them I asked, “Are you planning to do fourteen units this year?” A normal course load was ten.
Ong Tien didn’t pretend to not understand what I was asking. “Mother and Grandmother say I can handle it because I don’t have to take travelling into account. Pa says I should talk to him after I find out how much work is involved. What are you doing?” She politely changed the subject.
“Earth Sciences.” Something made me add, “While working as a professional gi fighter to pay my expenses – having run away from home and everything.”
“So, that’s your downside then,” Ong Tien nodded in acknowledgement. “Do you mind me asking where you got your boots?”
We continued chatting while we waited for the office to open and then for our turn at the counter. The Registration Office wasn’t stupid, they had all ten service positions on their counter manned as the front door opened. For the rest of the year those ten positions would probably be excessive but today, and probably all this week, every single one was essential. It still took us half an hour after opening to get to the front of the queue. Then we put in our paperwork and money, and got our student numbers, to then be directed across the walkway separating the Registration Office and the main building to the Chancellor’s Hall so we could find our family names, by character stroke count. At those tables they put our student numbers against our names and gave us our folders of information: class timetables; textbook lists; orientation timetable; and university handbook.
Ong Tien and I emerged at the same time, clutching our folders and glad that we hadn’t put off coming in until later. We retreated together to the Student Services cafeteria to get a pot of tea and look at what we’d received. “Twenty one hours a week,” groaned Ong Tien. “It doesn’t sound so much until you realise that we’re supposed to do twice our face-to-face hours in assignment work and study.” She looked more closely at her timetable. “Heaven be merciful! I start the week with an eight in the morning Political Geography tutorial and I finish it with an afternoon tutorial at three on the day before the weekend.”
“I’ve got a tutorial at three on the last day of the week too,” I said. “A little more wriggle room to get to tournaments might have been nice but,” I shrugged. “Mine’s in Statistics for Science Studies. What about you?”
“The same,” replied Ong Tien. “Are you in Room 3-2 in the Sung Mah Memorial Building?”
“With Ai Kwan?” I smiled, “Yes! We have a class together. Shouldn’t there be another tutorial or lab or something?”
“Five o’clock on the middle day of the week,” groaned Ong Tien. “Grandma’s mah jong night when she wants to eat at six at the latest. At least she was the one who insisted that I do the Water Science course, so she can only blame herself, or Ai Kwan for getting the worst teaching times,” she added philosophically. “I know this course is so big that they give the lecture in three different slots and that ideally the whole tutorial group should be down for the same lecture spot…”
“Two on the second day of the week?” I looked at the rest of my day on the time table, and added, “That gives me an hour to eat and get almost all the way across campus from my Physical Geography lab.”
Ong Tien queried, “How do you have a lab in Physical Geography?”
“I don’t know,” I answered honestly, “but I’m sure I’ll find out.”
We finished our pot of tea and our dissection of our timetables, then took ourselves off to the campus book shop to get textbooks. I returned to the hotel far more heavily laden than I had set out.
After that, I checked for messages at the front desk, took an unencumbered walk to the post office, and found some lunch. I did not hear from Mr Han that day.
After checking over the orientation timetable, an activity designed to fill the last two days of that current week, I took out a few notes I had made during our lunch with Tong Kwai at the noodle bar before we’d boarded the train from the capital to Xiamtian. After that I took advice from the front desk staff of the hotel before stopping at the nearest branch of my bank to make a withdrawal. Then I went solicitor shopping.
First I hopped on a bus into the centre of the city and then I found Tu Shu Guan Street. Mr Tong had spoken well of several firms that had their offices there, and he had given me their names. I had also found out from the hotel staff that Tu Shu Guan Street was known for being where the legal firms clustered, apparently it was convenient for three different courts, public transport and the provincial government. Desirable real estate in fact.
In the flesh, so to speak, it was a four block long street of five and six story office buildings with tea shops, book shops and stationery stores at street level. The Citadel was clearly visible to the northeast but not so close as to overshadow the street. There were courts, I wasn’t sure which ones, at either end of the street and an entrance to an underground train station occupied a central intersection. I found one of the firms Mr Tong had mentioned in a building opposite the station entrance and climbed the stairs to the second floor where they had their office reception desk. Dong, Pan and Su had a soberly dressed young man on their front desk whose hands sported wine coloured nail polish. He had a pleasant smile and manner, and didn’t bat an eyelid when I asked if I might see one of their legal staff with a view to getting representation for buying a house.
After a fifteen minute sit in a small but pleasantly appointed waiting area I was shown in to see Mr Su. He was a tall gentleman with a shock of grey-white hair, tailored blacks made of patterned black silk, and a wall of qualification certificates. He stood and bowed when I was ushered in, greeting me with, “Miss Sung, please sit.”
I bowed before I sat in the indicated chair and replied, “Thank you for seeing me, Mr Su. I’m hoping that we might suit each other and that you can help me with my house purchase.”
When I was seated he picked up his pen and asked, “So why did you select this firm to approach, Miss Sung?”
“I mentioned to my gi-teacher’s legal representative in the capital that I was planning to buy property here, and he mentioned your firm and another as being ones here that he had heard good things about. Yours was the first of the two that I found.”
“It’s always pleasant to be recommended. Might I know the name of your referrer?” Mr Su smiled paternally at me.
I smiled back. “Mr Tong Kwan. I believe he’s the ‘Son’ in Tong, Associates and Son, Legal Practitioners and Registered Court Representatives.”
“I have also heard good things about their firm,” acknowledged Mr Su. “Now, can I enquire which property you intend to buy so I can check that there would be no conflict of interest if we represented you?”
“It’s on Heng Mien Street,” I told him. “An old courtyard house. I believe the locality is Xuexing. It’s a little patch wedged in between the University District and Northern Citadel Ridge.”
“I’m aware of it,” admitted Mr Su, “but I don’t believe that we have any clients with connections there. I believe that we will be able to work together, if you are agreeable, Miss Sung.”
And so I engaged my solicitors. Mr Su and I went over the documents I’d received from the bank detailing what they were prepared to lend me and for what, and he explained to me what clearances and checks we needed to obtain before the purchase could proceed and he could, in good conscience, advise me to go on with it. I paid my deposit to get the work started, and then I left with a number of Mr Su’s business cards in hand to distribute to Mr Han, the vendors’ solicitor, my bank and my own records. I was feeling very satisfied with myself as I made my way back to the hotel.
I even had time when I got back to take my Geology textbook to the park and spend an hour reading it on a pleasant bench.
Dinner with Master Que was at an establishment called The Riverside Terrace. He had me wear one of my brocade jackets and we went, unusually for us, at the fashionable dining hour. He had even made reservations, under his professional name. “Advertising,” he told me as he handed me graciously into my seat, the two of us sitting not opposite each other but positioned so that a third person could easily join us without disruption and so that each of us had a view of the room. “We are indicating that you are open to offers and discussions of sponsorship. They can approach us, but we are not, at this time, actively seeking support.” He grinned. “Let’s see if anything turns up.”
“What sort of sponsorship?” I was considering the choice of mains as I spoke.
“Nothing improper,” said Master Que, “but let’s see what might be on offer. You are about to have a household to maintain, after all.”
“Very few people know what I look like,” I pointed out as I considered the beef or chicken decision.
“True,” agreed Master Que. “A necessity until you reached eighteen, given the nature of your departure from your parents’ home. A few more people probably know I look like.”
“And I have no independent professional name at the moment,” I acknowledged.
“Intelligent and interested sponsors are best,” nodded Master Que. “Would you be interested in sharing the mixed duck starter plate?” I was and so dinner was mixed duck starters, the beef special and a spicy chicken dish with greens, and a generous, seafood laden fried rice. Master Kung emerged from nowhere and exchanged greetings just as our fried rice was served. He declined our invitation to join us and then disappeared again, but I caught sight of him eating with an elegant lady of his and Master Que’s age. I suspected that she was Madam Kung and simply thought that it was nice that they were having an evening out together.
The foot traffic around the restaurant increased as evening drew on. I had expected to leave once we’d finished our fried rice, but Master Que ordered a fresh pot of tea and a plate of sweets. “This,” he said mischievously, “is when things start to get interesting.” I duly sat back with my tea and watched.
There were a number of people obviously in circulation. Several of them were obviously the worse for physical wear and I suspected that they were down on their luck gi-fighters. Others were in a better state but still, I thought, gi-fighters. There were several women in robes that were, well not quite suggestive, but certainly gave the impression that they could be – it was amazing how much suggestion you could imply with a cloth fold, a motif and a colour choice. Then there were the obvious business people, exchanging greetings and business cards as if they were in their offices. There were more people like Master Que and me, sitting back at our tables and either watching the crowd, as we were, or receiving visitors.
“We’re not hungry for it,” said Master Que, “so we’re not attracting the predators. Let’s see who’s about and what’s afoot before we make any approaches or commit ourselves to anything.”
I asked, “What about those sponsorship and agents’ offers I received in the capital?”
“Still on the table,” said Master Que, “but we’ll need to make our first responses to them this week. Some of them may no longer be interested once they hear that you’ll be spending much of the year operating out of Xiamtian. On the other hand other, more local, lucrative opportunities may present themselves once your presence is known.”
“Once your presence is known,” I corrected him. “After all, my presence is just an inference.”
“Then we shall sit here for an hour or two more so that others can infer your presence, and we can learn the faces of the players in town.” He poured himself some more tea. “We may also develop sources of information.”
I asked, “So, should we get extra teacups and a plate of red bean cakes, or is that too blatant an invitation?”
“Too blatant for now for the circumstances we wish to project,” replied Master Que, “but we will have supper before we leave. To justify our occupancy of the table for so long,” he added.
Really, he and I had a very quiet evening - aside from Master Que I think the only other person I exchanged more than a brief greeting with was our waitress. Master Que covered our bill for the evening but I left a good sized tip for the waitress because of her forbearance: there were a couple of table hopping characters that I would have killed if I were her. It’s probably a good thing that I’ve never waited tables for a living.
On our way back to the hotel Master Que commented, “According to my source, there are other establishments in Xiamtian where a fighter might make useful connections, but the Songbird Café appears to be a hive of iniquity controlled by a triad offshoot and Madam Ji’s frankly congenial establishment appears to be outside the scope of your tastes. We will persevere with The Riverside Terrace for now.”
“So, who should I introduce myself to next time,” I asked, “aside from the representatives of the other schools?”
“Only those Masters and Master Kung,” Master Que told me. “They may introduce us to other people, but we will widen your circle of acquaintance slowly.” He grinned at me and added, “You’ll seem less of a threat that way, until you start winning their tournaments. Watching other people play catch-up can be such fun.”
This is now followed by Housing, Orientation And Small Stuff.