A story of old Hong Kong – by Rosalyn Shih
Gor Tsai’s first words were the grumblings of a policeman’s walkie talkie.
Peggy’s husband brought him home in a bell-shaped bamboo cage he balanced on his knees for the minibus ride from Yuen Po Market, only three stops away. The bird’s name meant “little brother”, because the Cantonese name for his kind was baat gor or “brother eight”.
Setting his bounty on the dining room table, the husband solemnly shushed his parents and his wife, waiting for the bird to speak.
Most pet stores play cassette tapes of generic phrases like “lei hoh” or “gong hei faat choi” on loop for the birds to learn. But like a regular Mong Kok native, Gor Tsai picked up the sounds from the street – cusswords of local triads, walkie talkie chatter, roars of airplanes heading towards Kai Tak. The bird had especially taken to imitating to the garbled radio traffic from the police officers who idled their motorcycle outside the store, ending each dispatch with “over, over!”
Peggy, her husband and in-laws all peered at the cage expectantly. But Gor Tsai only ruffled his black feathers and growled with static.
“Mngrhhhh … Over, over!”
The bird soon picked up new sounds from their shoebox apartment on Cameron Street as well. Once, when Peggy was washing pak choi in the kitchen, she thought she heard the hacks and hocks of her father-in-law’s smoker’s cough. Just as the sound crescendo-ed in violent gasps, she exploded into the living room, only to find Ah Ba calmly leafing through the Sing Tao Daily. Next to his armchair was a fidgety and apparently phlegm-prone Gor Tsai. They joked how lucky they were that he never learned how to imitate the telephone.
It was Gor Tsai who betrayed the fact that Peggy’s mother-in-law was secretly hosting mahjong circles on the Wednesdays that Peggy went to the North Point Wet Market. Peggy had warned her mother-in-law about mahjong, having read articles of grannies collapsing at the table during eighteen-round marathon sessions. The family was eating together one night when Gor Tsai started chirruping exactly like the distinct clacks of shuffling tiles. Peggy nearly dropped her chopsticks.
Gor Tsai’s most unbelievable achievement happened the evening that Peggy’s husband received a letter from the Masters of Medicine program at the University of London that he had applied to. The correspondence was waiting unopened when he returned from the Queen Elizabeth Hospital and greedily tore open the envelope.
“Peg! Come here!” he yelled, loud enough for the neighbors to hear. “Yup zoh ah! Yup zoh ah!” I got in!
That one shout was enough to make a lasting impression on Gor Tsai. In the following days, the bird jumped from beam to beam in his cage, announcing proudly: “Yup zoh ah!” He cocked his head to the side as he spoke, puffing his feathered crown.
Gor Tsai’s obsession with the phrase amused Peggy. Sometimes she tossed the remains of the chopping board into the waste basket when he said it, fancying him her sports announcer. “Yup zoh ah!” Sometimes she wondered if it was the bird itself who was celebrating getting into university abroad.
After her husband left for London, Peggy delegated the responsibility of walking Gor Tsai to her father-in-law. Bird cages hung from the trees in Kowloon Park while their owners – mostly retired men – chatted and lazily fanned themselves. It was a good way for Ah Ba to get outside, not to mention for Gor Tsai to socialize with the other birds.
Peggy’s tummy was not yet showing then, but she took extra care as she stood on the stool to hang laundry on the bars of her caged balcony. She made cold-weather soups with pork bone and red date to replenish her chi. She upgraded Gor Tsai’s cage to a mahogany-tinted “luxury apartment,” and wondered when she might move with her family out of the public estates.
She called her sisters often on the long-distance line. Having won scholarships for university in Canada, they moved abroad years ago and eventually settled down to raise families. They spoke of growing pear trees and winter melon in the back garden, of their children running free in grassy yards and public parks.
When Peggy’s husband called, he gushed about his life in the United Kingdom. Yes, the buses were double decker, but the taxis were as fat and black as beetles. His classmates went to the pub after almost every lecture. No, he hadn’t seen the Queen, but the neighbor’s St. Bernard was named Lady Di!
Peggy was patient when her husband spoke. She wanted to ask if they had approved not only her visa application as a dependent, but also his parents’. Her sisters had already advised her how to bundle up in winter coats and hide her belly at inspection, but what if they couldn’t get the papers until spring?
The neighbor’s dog had learned a new trick, her husband shouted. It was collecting the morning newspaper!
Peggy forced a smile into the receiver. Gor Tsai ruffled his feathers in the background, and she held the phone to her chest to listen.
Beyond the balcony, the sun was setting. The orange and pink reminded her that the wild birds would be chirruping as they settled into their nests for the evening. Soon they would be migrating to warmer coasts.
But Gor Tsai only rattled his cage and rumbled like a Honda cruiser.
Rosalyn Shih is from Hong Kong and lives in Beijing, where she helps students with their higher education futures and co-runs the Beijing Contact Improvisation Group
Photo credit: Mark Heath on Flickr