By: Hon Lai-chu
Translated by: Karen Curtis
Hon Lai-chu is widely regarded as one of the most outstanding young authors in Hong Kong. Her clean, absurd and abstract style is often compared to Franz Kafka, while her intensely psychological stories reflect her characters’ inner struggles for freedom, against the futility of attempts to find meaning in everyday existence. Her collection of stories, The Kite Family, translated by Andrea Lingenfelter, appeared in 2015, and is on the Words Without Borders, March 2016 Watchlist of “books to be excited about.”
Karen Curtis adds: ‘Dummies’ is taken from A Dictionary of Two Cities, a collection of short stories (co-authored with Dorothy Tse) that adapts the structure of a dictionary and expounds the tales of different cities replete with their own myths and memories, fears and desires. In a world where sex dolls are commonplace and lifelike luk thep dolls are cuddled as if they were children, Hon’s dummies unsettlingly blur the boundary between the real and the unreal.’
Dummies: wooden replicas of human beings; expressionless companions popular since the late 90s.
Only those who are truly familiar with City 8 will know that the biggest attraction of this city is not the litter-free streets, or the dazzling night-time illuminations, or the cut-price shopping; it is that once inside its borders, visitors can promptly let their faces go, so that their facial nerves, which at any other time are prepared for all manner of facial expressions, can temporarily relax. The inhabitants of City 8 like to call this deliberate burying of expressions, “shut-face”.
In fact, the minute sensitive visitors step out of City 8 Airport, they will be able to detect a subtle change of atmosphere: the inscrutable faces of drivers, information desk assistants, salespeople or commuters walking towards them all have features, whether finely structured or flat, that are immobile as metal boxes in the wind. Even when the residents come across inquisitive visitors whose wide eyes linger on their faces and who then, with a hand over their mouth, bend their head to whisper into another person’s ear, their faces remain still as the unruffled waters of a lake as they walk silently past the astonished visitors – not because they are too absent-minded to notice the staring eyes of these strangers, but for the reason that the city’s strict education has trained them to be polite at all times, and to conceal all telltale emotions.
This does not mean that City 8 is an unfriendly city. On the contrary, it attracts tourists with its freedom and hospitality. Though it continues to be one of the most polluted and populated cities in the world, there is a constant influx of tourists crossing its borders; for City 8 has successfully created a culture of distance, an illusion for overexcited visitors who believe the inhabitants’ apparent indifference means that their actions go unnoticed, that they have finally found a large enough space entirely for themselves. Because of this, one often finds on the clean streets and roads, in shops and even by food carts, people performing inexplicable acts: doing headstands naked, kissing in foursomes, taking selfies with stockings over their heads.
On the second Sunday of every month, the motorways in City 8 are used as footpaths. No one knows when it started, but the motorways are always crowded with people behaving strangely – running along, screaming at the top of their voices, dawdling in their pajamas, doing cartwheels in front of billboards. These are people who are eager to use their bodies to display their creativity, a contrast with the ghostly unemotional passersby so great that one can effortlessly distinguish the visitors from the residents.
This does not mean that City 8 is a laissez-faire city. In metro stations, elevators, changing rooms, restaurants, cinemas, museums, at entrances everywhere, are signs like “Please shut-face before entering” and “Please maintain a calm facial expression”. Even the reluctant ones obey, and on the impassive faces of security guards or waiters in this city, one never sees expressions of disgust or resentment.
I first arrived in City 8 in 1996. Perhaps it was due to the nameless lethargy that gripped me – several years after I graduated from university, I suddenly had no idea what I wanted to do – but at the time I did not understand why the expressions had vanished from the inhabitants’ faces. Perhaps what interested me then was not their facial expressions or lack of them. It was the way that City 8 had always branded itself as a “tourist city”, a place that belongs to no-one, which anyone can enter, stay briefly, and leave; even the residents themselves, the descendants of the first generation of dark-skinned people who discovered and settled in City 8, are merely visitors who have stayed longer than others.
One afternoon, after having spent two weeks in City 8, I decided to settle down here. This was the only way I could become a long-term traveller.
It could also have been the Matchmaking Shop at Number 456 in Area E of City 8 which prompted this fortuitous decision.
It was during the mid-90s when the City 8 dummies had not yet been popularized by the extensive coverage in travel magazines that was to attract tourists from everywhere. The dummies, in those days, were considered mere toys, handmade by poor artists or amateurs for their own entertainment. The dirty little shop was located in a dark, damp alley behind a restaurant. If it were not for the scorching summer afternoon heat, I would never have been tempted by the bottled coca-colas on sale at the entrance to walk inside the shop. As the ice-cold drink trickled down my throat into my belly, its chill enveloped me like a shadow – it must have been the logs of wood cluttering the shop that gave me the illusion that I was resting in the shade of trees.
“Feel free to look around.” When a man wearing a dark grey apron came out from a small inner room, I had a fleeting desire to leave. For many years after I believed that what made me stay was not the desperate heat outside but the logs in the shop, each with a clear and inimitable expression, that aroused in me an indescribable feeling that was at once vague and familiar.
“You know that these logs come from ancient trees that died of disease or old age. Before they were completely devoured by insects, we cut off their branches, polished them, and turned them into dummies,” the man said.
Some of the logs looked like chairs or tables; others were lifelike, resembling a man, a woman, an old man, a child; still others were in strange shapes, the grains on them forming interesting expressions.
I touched the rough grain of the wood, and had the sudden urge to possess them.
“Are these dummies used for performances?” I turned around, and saw that the man was wearing thick black-rimmed glasses, and had a head of silver-grey hair. (Years later, this man became a world-famous dummy-maker and moved to City 30, after which he never made dummies again.)
The man wiped his dust-covered hands on his apron, adjusted his glasses, and said, “The dummies made here are for the sole purpose of matchmaking.”
“Many people have found here a mate with whom they can spend the rest of their lives.” As the man pointed at the sea of photographs on the wall of people holding their logs, a satisfied smile appeared at the corners of his lips. There was a time when the institution of marriage was about to collapse in City 8, he explained, and the appearance of these dummies had reestablished people’s confidence in relationships and emotional ties. “Ten years ago, distressed by society’s expectations of marital commitments, people who failed to find their mate succumbed to an anxiety disorder widespread at the time. The dummies rescued them. If a log suited them, they could choose a log; if the idea of family was a joke to them, they could use disguises, just as in theatre, for make-believe.” The man’s words, like the logs that were about to become dummies, were enticing. I pretended to listen attentively; in truth I didn’t believe a word. But then a round piece of wood in front of me reminded me of Kiki.
Whenever Kiki woke up from a dream, a detached expression, strongly reminiscent of this very piece of wood, would appear on her face, although she probably wasn’t aware of it. As for the image of me in Kiki’s memory – I will never know that either.
After we separated at the City 16 train station, we never saw each other again. What I mean by separation is not a missed connection, but a premeditated plan. At the station, I held a ticket to City 8 in my hand, in Kiki’s hand was a ticket to City 10. I was standing on the left side of the platform, she on the right, five minutes before the trains’ arrival; that was our first fight on our tour of Asia, we had insisted on going to a different city, and neither of us would give in.
During that long silence, the air seemed to have solidified into lead. Kiki spoke first. “How about we carry on our journeys separately. If two people are standing on the same circle, they’re bound to meet each other again at some point along the line.”
She said this quite naturally, and neither of us was surprised. From the beginning of the trip, we never had a difference of opinion, only too many silences. Sometimes I would ask her casually, “Are you bored?” She’d say no, then ask, “You?” I’d shake my head and remind myself to always look happy. The truth is I wasn’t unhappy. It was only that I sometimes longed for the present moment to become the past and slowly transform into memory, whenever Kiki was impatient and her face tightened, whenever there was confusion in her eyes when we got lost, whenever she unconsciously stiffened when we were speaking to strangers and struggling to understand a foreign language.
The trains headed in opposite directions. Many years later, I realized we had known all along that we were standing on two different, parallel lines. I never believed that there could be more than one person standing on the same circle.
I did not know whether I chose the round block of wood, or whether it chose me. I handed the log and a photo of Kiki to the man. According to him, the final shape of the dummy was to be determined by the hands of the maker, “so that it retains the element of uncertainty, just like when you choose a mate”.
Years later, the Matchmaking Shop became a City 8 tourist attraction, not only due to that man’s exceptional skills, but because in the neighboring City 14, long working hours meant that its inhabitants lacked the spare time to find their mates. Every Sunday afternoon, outside the door of the Matchmaking Shop, crowds of men and women who had made the long journey to City 8 waited in line to order dummies that were compatible with themselves.
Now, I can no longer say why I remain in City 8 year after year. All I can say is that, during many a dark night, I lie in bed with my arms around my smoothly polished dummy, while the city’s popular song “Half” plays repeatedly in my head. Now, I can only remember snatches of lyrics:
of a half
of a half
is one half
of a half
of your half
A half lost in a safe
a half a half a half
a firmly locked safe.