October 04, 2016
Maybe you’ve listened to a song by the Jump Boys, a group I fronted, which had three gold records that launched countless jingles for a remarkable array of consumer products. Or on television, as the host of a reality show where contestants dared to eat horse cock sandwiches and cling to helicopters zooming over a tropical bay. On billboards, hawking heavy gold watches, cask-aged cognac, or alligator leather shoes, my shirt unbuttoned to reveal six-pack abs.
I didn’t think so.
In America, most likely the only reference you’ve seen of me would be a blurb, news of the weird, along the lines of “those funny Asians, at it again.” Video-game pets, robot butlers, used schoolgirl panties sold in vending machines, and the sex scandal involving Kingsway Lee, the Hong Kong star whose compromising photos were stolen off his laptop, played out in the tabloids, and posted on the web.
Thousands of shots from my cell phone, scoring with scores of women: the actress wife of my former bandmate; the Canto-pop star and lover of a reputed mobster; and the daughter of a shipping magnate with ties to Beijing and the Red Army.
I’ve been forced to flee to the safest place I could think of, where no one would recognize me: my hometown.
Trying to flag down the pork rib cart, Ma waves as frantically as a passenger in a life raft toward a distant light.
“Ma, she’ll be back again.” I’m jumpy and jet-lagged from last night’s sleeping pills and this morning’s Red Bull. Her contortions turn vigorous, like martial arts or semaphore, aggressive to assure the best dishes for her family.
Risky, for me to suggest going out and possibly blow my cover, but I am still pretending I returned home this summer for a long overdue visit. I have yet to discuss what happened with my parents, who don’t know that hours after The Look, Hong Kong’s biggest tabloid, published my photos online, my cell phone began clicking and hissing, and my archived messages mysteriously disappeared – signs that I must have been hacked, placed under surveillance, and my whereabouts pinpointed. Paparazzi swarmed the entrance to my building, a triad offered a reward for my hacked-off hand, and I’d left that night.
Yet on my first public outing in America, no one recognizes me, which hurts more than I want to admit. How dim, my star across the Pacific. Surely, someone in Chinatown might stare for too long, might whisper with excitement, might acknowledge the calamity that swept me to these shores. Evidence of fans, women my parents could blame for preying upon their firstborn and only son.
Ba serves my sister a shrimp dumpling. “Seafood is brain food. For the baby.”
“For me too,” Ellen says, though we all know her son, in utero, has usurped her in our father’s heart.
Hybrid vigor – her genes, bred with her husband’s Irish ones, will create superior offspring, healthier and resistant to disease – according to Ba. In retirement, he’s become obsessed with orchids: joined a local club, won prizes at shows, and traveled to buy specimens, lavishing more attention upon the flowers than he has upon his children. A refined undertaking, noble as learning calligraphy or playing the zither, awakening a sense of beauty suppressed during the many years he designed utilitarian freeways and bridges. From his backyard greenhouse, he coaxed elegant blooms from leathery bulbs and debuted them at Ellen’s wedding in the bouquets, boutonnieres, and centerpieces.
I’d skipped the ceremony because I’d been on location for a movie in the far western deserts of China. A swords-and-slippers epic, endlessly delayed and over budget, a role supposed to propel me to greater stardom, be a contender for the foreign-film Oscar, and attract the attention of Hollywood. The movie flopped.
The scandal hit less than a month later, first breaking on the website of The Look whose publisher, Pius Lo, I had once considered a mentor. Sik si gau. Shit-eating dog. Close as family to me and my girlfriend, Viann. We called him Uncle Lo. One day we’re cruising on his yacht, and the next he’s calling me a haam sup lo, a salty wet man, a pervert, on the cover of every magazine in his empire.
Although I invited my family to various premieres and award ceremonies in Asia, they never came. Not even Ma. Too busy, they said, and after a while, I stopped asking. Ellen offers me a glistening dumpling, her chopsticks crossing in the back, not staying parallel. Her ineptitude cheers me up. She never holds her chopsticks correctly, no matter how often Ba coaches her. Ellen was my first audience, watching with reverential absorption as I conquered video games, clapping when I moonwalked and when I juggled, hobbies of a teenager with a lot of time on his hands.
Full, I block my plate with my hand. Ellen flushes and the look she gives me – tightening around her eyes, the parenthesis around her mouth – before smoothing into an uneasy grin, makes me almost certain she’s seen the photos, seen what no sister should see of her brother.
I can’t breathe. Ba fumbles with his chopsticks, the chicken feet splatting on the tablecloth. Ma purses her coral lips. Probably, they know too.
Ma plops a zongzi onto my plate, nimbly unwrapping the leaf with her chopsticks. By stuffing our faces, we can avoid discussion. Though Ma favors me, she finds me suspect, maybe from the time she caught me scribbling answers for my first-grade spelling test in my palm. She scrubbed so hard that my hands were raw for days. She despised cheaters and short cuts. With honest hard work, you could achieve your every goal. “Xiao cong ming,” she called me. Clever-clever, trivial victories at the expense of the significant. To her, Hong Kong is a corrupt city that welcomes my sort of thinking, a place where success comes not from diligence, but from deficiency.
I bolt, muttering I’m going out for a smoke, and at the entrance, I stop short to avoid barreling into a woman with her back to me. Her arms are attractively muscled, defined, not the pale twigs in vogue in Hong Kong, where women in my circles lack the strength to lift their arms above their heads and have wrists no bigger than a kindergartner’s. Her tanned skin has a creamy latte glow. Delicious, not the watery skim milk complexions to which I have become accustomed.
My neighbor, Jenny Lin.
My family has dined at Legendary Palace since I was a kid, and my parents often bump into neighbors coming from the suburbs to Oakland Chinatown to eat and shop. But the coincidence of running into her feels like another blooper in the gag reel of my life. Jenny Lin. I’d always envied her popularity. How she knew what to say, as though reading from a script, how easily she slid into crowds, clubs, and committees. Since the first grade, teachers and classmates expected us to be friends because we were both Chinese, in a town with few Chinese families, and our last names were Lee and Lin, which meant that our photos appeared next to each other in the yearbook. Annoying, how others tried to get us to play together and, later, expected us to date. A matched set. Who better to squire her to Winter Formal than the Oriental in alphabetical proximity?
Which is why we had steered clear of each other in high school, why we never partnered in biology and never paired off in P.E., why we hadn’t stayed in touch in the years since.
A decade ago, Hong Kong had thrilled me like no other place I’d been. Grimy, glittering, pulsing. After my freshman year at Cal, I was visiting my aunt on a stopover on my way to Taiwan. My first passport, my first overseas trip and though I was jet-lagged, and though I didn’t speak Cantonese, I knew within hours of getting off the plane that I wanted to live there someday. My parents didn’t know the med school future they’d planned for me was in peril after I’d flunked organic chemistry. In the absence of their ambitions, I was beginning to find mine.
At an outdoor electronics mall, I haggled with a vendor over a video game, via a calculator and caveman English. Afterwards, a stranger sidled up and said I sounded like a rapper. A rapper?
“You from California?”
When I nodded, he brightened and asked if I’d ever modeled.
Senior year, I’d appeared once in my yearbook, stiff and pained in my formal portrait, as though I were encased in a back brace. I’d since shed my glasses and shape-shifted with protein shakes and weight lifting, but this question had to be a scam. I wasn’t a model. I was a failed pre-med, a fuck-up son. As I turned away, the man handed me his card and explained he was a talent scout.
I didn’t know then that my kind charmed in Asia: someone who looked Chinese but spoke and carried himself like a Westerner. The American exotic – beach lifeguards, football, cowboys – made accessible through us. We were chop suey, orange chicken, egg foo yung, Chinese and yet not, American and yet not.
The photo shoot for a bottled grass jelly drink seemed legit. The scout didn’t fleece me with an up-front fee, and miraculously, the make-up artist with the smoky voice and smoky eyes seemed to be flirting with me. With me! In high school biology, the teacher had explained that asexual organisms, like the amoeba, divided and reproduced without a partner. When the teacher asked for more examples, someone blurted, “Kingsway.”
The make-up artist leaned in, enveloping me with her musky scent, and when her breasts pushed against my arm, I thought I might pass out. She wasn’t interested, I told myself, until she asked what I was doing that night. To be wanted like that made me feel like a superhero, like I could fly or stop bullets with my hands.
After the shoot, the scout asked if I was available for a television show, adding that I wouldn’t need to audition because the booker owed him.
Did I need a work permit?
“I get, I get,” he said. A favor from another contact. “Rush job.” My initiation into Hong Kong’s network of connections, shortcuts, and open disregard of rules that my mother would have scorned. I cancelled my plane ticket, my ad appeared in the subway, and strangers began recognizing me: a bigger brighter version, me all along, like a moth’s hidden brilliance, exposed by ultraviolet.
I kept thinking my runaway fame was a practical joke, that I’d wake up and revert to the loser I’d been. Instead I became a star.
Jenny gazes over the balcony onto the plaza below where children whoop and chase each other around the fountain. Over the loudspeaker, the hostess squawks “89” in Cantonese and English. Jenny checks her slip of paper, and I wheel toward the elevator. Catching sight of me, she calls out my name. I grit my teeth into a smile, face her, and to my surprise, she throws her arms around me. As I return her embrace, a dangerous heat lights in me.
“Back from Hong Kong?” she asks. We break apart. She’s followed my career, at least nominally. Her parents, watchful and amused, hover nearby like chaperones at a school dance.
“Taking a break.” I wonder what she knows. Someone, or a team of someones, has updated my Wikipedia entry with a blow-by-blow of the blow jobs performed by spoiled rich girls, auto-tuned singers, and cue-card actresses. The sheer magnitude in the aggregate might appear staggering. Nothing on the order of Wilt Chamberlain’s 20,000 women, but three or so each week add up – an equation of no comfort to Viann, whose status as my girlfriend hangs in doubt.
“You might have traveled the farthest,” she says. “Unless Ben comes from Brazil.”
It takes a second to realize she’s referring to our high school reunion, our 10th, held tonight in San Francisco. The invitation had piled up with the rest of the mail addressed to me that kept arriving at my childhood home, as though I led a parallel life that fulfilled the expectations of my parents.
Ellen waddles up, rubbing her fist into the small of her back. Jenny hugs her, a squeeze from the side to avoid her pregnant belly. Somehow she and my sister have become friends. Life here has continued without me, the college degrees and weddings that I once wanted.
“Have you picked a name yet?” Jenny asks.
“His first name we won’t decide until he’s born. But his middle name – Kingsway.” Her apology, for ratting me out to my parents? Even still, the honor floors me. A name Ma had chosen, hoping I might follow the king’s way. When Jenny smiles at me, I feel something akin to déjà vu. Like a fast-forward hallucination to a time when Jenny and I are paired off, meeting my family on a routine weekend. As if I could trade one life for another, as if I am choosing scripts, tossing aside a drama in favor of a rom-com. I’d done it once already, gone from nerd to superstar. I picture us slow dancing at the reunion, Jenny’s head tucked against my chest, my hands stroking her waist. In this flick, I would right wrongs from those years. I wouldn’t arrive by helicopter, Porsche, or elephant, but I could talk about filming on location, about projects in the pipeline, vague enough to impress and vague enough for me to believe my future remained in reach.
In my attraction to Jenny, I’ve betrayed my girlfriend again.
None of the photos posted online had been taken after I started dating Viann. Well, almost none. I’d hooked up with my co-star, Bobo Sun, a few nights before filming our love scene, to ensure our chemistry on-screen. And every once in a while, with starlets Scarlett, Kimmee, and Cherry. Nothing serious, like my films, which wavered between violin-string sentimentality and slide-trombone silly from one scene to the next. With each rumored affair that I denied, with each inch of ink in Uncle Lo’s celebrity magazines, my star rose, shining bright onto Viann.
The day the scandal broke, we’d been lazing in bed, in sheets ripe with the scent of sex and sweat. I had a business proposal for her, but I was having trouble thinking about anything beyond her nails scratching my back in slow circles, on the edge of drawing blood. In truth, she was a bit of a bitch, with an alluring abrasiveness, like a grain of sand in a pearl, beauty born from irritation. Her temper was appealing after years of compliant groupies.
“Harder.”When I reached for the script on the floor, she propped herself up.
“You get older, but the characters stay the same age.”
She had a point. I couldn’t play a teen heartthrob forever. With each year, I’d seem more and more like a loser dropout lurking at the high school. Like a pervy uncle who lingers around his niece’s friends. My accidental success had been a windfall, a blessing – what I was owed after my early, unhappy years. But I needed an exit strategy before I stopped getting offers for starring roles, before I became pathetic. These days, Beijing toddlers gorged on McDonald’s and learned English from Disney, and my Western upbringing was no longer as glamorous.
Viann was always pushing me to think beyond the next line and the next script.
“You settle because it’s easy.”
Maybe I’d go into directing, or get out of the movie business entirely. Padding into the kitchen, I grabbed a tin of shortbread, manufactured by the baked goods company Viann’s great-grandfather founded more than a century ago. I bit into a buttery, crisp wedge, and began the presentation I’d been rehearsing in my head. “What about different flavors? Chocolate chip. Peanut butter and jelly.”
“We’re not a kid’s snack. You Americans and your sweets.” She had an annoying habit of declaring my quirks emblematic of my national origins.
“No preservatives. Moms will love it.” I ate another, wiping crumbs off my mouth with the back of my hand.
“We’re not in lunchboxes.” Her family’s signature product sold in upscale department stores and duty free shops.
“Not ever.” She’d take over the family business someday. Although she often hinted I might help expand the brand overseas, nothing I said appealed to her, and I wondered if I should become a consultant elsewhere, advising Americans on how to sell to the Chinese: how to attract followers on social media, how to navigate the backroom deals, how to position luxury cars and handbags, and which Hollywood has-beens to Hasselhoff.
In Hong Kong, you needed to be underhanded to gain the upper hand, to land the role, the cover, and the girl. I had more choices than my parents, whose only ticket out of Taiwan had been in science and engineering. More choices than my sister, too, who dutifully joined my mother’s optometry practice. My phone rang non-stop, a tinkling rendition of my No. 1 single, “I am the Sun, You are the Dawn.” When I answered, my bellowing agent directed me to The Look’s website. Viann peered over my shoulder. Scroll, scroll, scroll – click and up popped a photo of her best friend Brigitte, her distinctive star-shaped mole, and her collagen-plump lips around my cock. I might have denied everything if it weren’t for the next photo, a selfie in the mirror of me entering Brigitte from behind.
Risky, to take the pictures, and riskier to keep them, but I’d believed that someday, if – when – the cosmic prank ended and I reclaimed my destiny as a loser, I’d have the pictures to remind me of my time in the stars.
(Excerpt from the short story Line, Please)
VANESSA HUA is a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle. She received a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award, the San Francisco Foundation’s James D. Phelan Award for Fiction, and a Steinbeck Fellowship in Creative Writing. For nearly two decades, she has covered Asia and the diaspora, filing stories from China, South Korea, Panama, Burma and Ecuador. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, FRONTLINE/World, Guernica, ZYZZYVA, and elsewhere. Her novel is forthcoming from Ballantine. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her family.