by Christopher New
June 4, 2012
The day he learnt he was dying, Dimitri Johnston went to Victoria Park in Hong Kong, to join a candlelight vigil for the people killed in Beijing twenty-three years before. He’d gone there with Mila every one of those years. He still remembered the first time, eight years before Britain handed Hong Kong back to China. For weeks the taxis all flew black pennants from their aerials—so had he and thousands of others—and the shock was like the stunned silence after a thunderclap.
By now the vigil had become a ritual, sometimes he thought an empty ritual—why remember the hundreds killed then, but not the untold millions killed a few years before? But he still went there all the same. Perhaps because those few were demanding reform, not just passive victims sacrificed on the altar of their rulers’ blind certainties and ruthless ambitions? Whatever the reason, he’d never forgotten that BBC correspondent’s voice—what was her name?—quivering with suppressed indignation as she described the killings of that June night while the camera focused on the shocked faces of the living and the limp bodies of the wounded and the dead.
But that was then and this was now, and he’d just found out he was dying himself.
It was past seven when he left Dr Chan’s consulting rooms and dusk had rinsed the last jaded light from the hazed and sultry summer sky. When Chan told him the results of the scan, Dimitri had felt a thud in his stomach and then a long churning emptiness. It had been some seconds before he could ask “How long?” and his voice had sounded faraway, not his at all really.
Now he was only numb, numb except for that faint insistent churning in the top of his stomach. He walked past the fountains in Statue Square and boarded a crowded tram, climbing the steep narrow winding stairs as he always did. The bell clanged, the tram lurched forward and he gazed at them all while his stomach quietly churned—Filipina maids volubly gossiping …Old women sighing over heavy shopping bags … Mothers holding children on their laps … Office-workers busy texting or sagging gratefully on the plastic seats, heads lolling, tired eyes closed. And an Indonesian maid standing near the front, demure and silent in her headscarf and ankle-length skirt. Gazed as if from a great distance, or through a thick glass wall that would never be broken.
A young girl gestured to him, half-rising from her seat, as someone always did—he’d reached that age. He smiled and shook his head, as he always did. “Thank you, but I like to stand,” he said in Cantonese. As if he was still strong as a horse and the cancer cells weren’t madly multiplying inside him. He imagined them like seething maggots in a lump of raw meat—and what else was a human body if you peeled the skin away?
The girl raised her eyebrows as if to say Are you quite sure? then smiled herself and, with a faint shrug, sat down again. Perhaps she was going to the vigil, too. But then she’d have a better reason than he had; she’d still be there next year and next year and the year after that. She was Chinese, she’d have to live with China’s authoritarian government, with corruption big and small, with petty injustice and gross, mild and harsh suppression. She’d probably have children one day who’d have to live with all that, too … Yes, she’d have a reason, whereas he—not any more. Besides, it never was his fight anyway, not as it was hers; he could only be an ally, a supporter, never mind he’d lived there all his life. British (even though his mother was a white Russian), a foreign devil, he could leave at any time and take Mila with him. Even now, when he was under sentence of death. But he’d never wanted to leave, he was born there, it was his home.
The tram jolted and ground past the glitzy malls, the grand hotels, that age-old sports ground—a soccer match under floodlights in all that humid heat—and then the humbler family shops, the hawkers and street-side restaurants. Huge double-decker buses growled past on one side, glistening limousines or dull red taxis cruised or crawled by on the other …
He could tell they were reaching Victoria Park just by the thickening crowd on the street, quietly shuffling through barriers towards the still distant vigil. Yes, quietly, as if heading towards church. It was always like that—no shouts, no noise, except from a few fringe demonstrators. Just a slow orderly progression into the park. Tens of thousands were making their way there, and it was as gravely quiet as a funeral procession. Well, that was almost what it was, a vigil for the dead.
Then he heard the far-off amplified voices of the speakers. He was late, the ceremony had begun. Now the Filipinas paused in their gossip, the demure Indonesian maid turned to look, the weary office-workers woke or glanced up from their phones. Even the tired women with their heavy bags craned their necks to see, while children knelt on their mothers’ laps. There weren’t many police there, he saw. There never were. Or were they somewhere out of sight? The side-streets leading to the park, closed to traffic, were teeming with people heading towards the vigil.
When the tram stopped, it almost emptied. They were nearly all going there, he realised, even an old man with a buckled back, limping along on a bamboo stick, and a woman with two young children in their smart school uniforms—a Catholic school, he recognised the badge. The girl who’d offered him her seat got out just ahead of him and smiled again when she saw he was going there, too. A quiet, almost a collusive, smile. Narrow black jeans and a sleeveless white blouse. She walked on along Sugar Street with quick lithe steps, dodging and weaving through the quietly shuffling crowd. Probably a student. Ten or fifteen years ago, she could have been his student. But that was all past now. Soon everything would be. It was as though he was watching the world now across a deep chasm, an unbridgeable abyss that had suddenly opened at his feet.
Mila was waiting for him under the big old Flame of the Forest tree that grew near the entrance. He could pick her out from the crowd at once by the red band she wore round her head. There were people brushing past her, yet it was as if she stood completely alone, separated by some essential detachment that held her always apart. He remembered how she’d stood alone like that waiting for him near the border over forty years ago, a young woman then, when she’d just escaped from China during the Cultural Revolution. She’d swum across Deep Bay, braving the sharks, with an old tire for a lifebuoy and phoned him from a call box as soon as she’d reached land. She didn’t even know then whether he was still there or not—or had she sensed it far away in China? But there she’d stood in the damp baggy shorts and T-shirt she’d swum in, calm and detached, waiting for her fate and him. And some part of her had remained detached, remote almost, even when she was closest to him. It was one of the things that had attracted him from the very first, that inviolable composure. And now he was going to leave her. A sudden throb of tears behind his eyes. He paused until he’d mastered them, then walked more slowly on. How could he tell her? How could he not?
She didn’t speak, but her eyes questioned his and he could only wince a smile then glance away. Away at the tall buildings all round the park, towers of glittering lights, at the dark uneven hills beyond and between them, then back at the hundred thousand people, it must be—half a dozen soccer pitches-worth, anyway—already gathered there, each holding a flickering candle in a white transparent paper cone. And, leaning low down over them as though to bless, the large golden face of the full moon. The Flame of the Forest’s bright red flowers were blooming over its fresh green leaves, he noticed, and the smaller bauhinia nearby were delicately blossoming too.
“How’s your back?” he got in before Mila could speak. Yes, he’d seen from the faint stiffness as she turned to him that her back must be hurting. Whenever he saw her move gingerly like that, he pictured the Red Guard zealots in Shanghai throwing her from the stage all those years ago because her father was a bourgeois intellectual and she’d been to colonial Hong Kong. He’d never known exactly what happened, she kept it all locked inside her. So he imagined it a hundred different ways. And yet, despite that stiffness, you could tell at a glance she’d been a dancer. A certain poise, you couldn’t miss it.
She dismissed his question with a shake of her head as though a fly was buzzing round it. “What did he say?” she asked.
He shrugged. “Wasn’t much to say.” His voice trembled faintly. He glanced quickly round, anything to deflect her, round at the myriad candles flickering in the dark. “A lot of people here tonight.” His voice a tone higher than usual, false, strained. As there always were a lot of people, he thought. They never stopped. “More than last year by the look of it.” What irony, the only place in China where people could demonstrate in their thousands against their own government—and it was a colonial park named after a foreign queen! Was that the legacy of empire? There could be worse. What did the Russians leave in Afghanistan but a few burnt-out tanks? What did the Americans leave in Iraq, what would they leave in Afghanistan, but the charred and twisted wreckage of a few helicopters? Here there was at least a place to gather and remember, to offer hope. Wasn’t that a better legacy? But how was it such thoughts came to him now, when he was standing on the edge of that dark abyss?
She was watching him, he felt it, with those questioning eyes. “Shall we give it a miss today?”
Had she guessed at once? He shook his head. “It may be the last time,” he said wrily, yet, again, with that faint quiver in his voice.
Her single-pleated eyelids closed a moment. He imagined her registering the last time, considering each word one by one.
“Well, yes, they may not allow it much longer, I suppose,” she answered in her precise level learnt English, each word a pebble dropping into clear water.
As if that was what he’d meant. But not allow it? This was Hong Kong, not Beijing! How could they stop it here? There’d be riots in the streets. But then Mila had been through the Cultural Revolution. She’d seen what they could do then and she thought they could still do anything if they chose. Besides, weren’t there riots in the streets in Beijing twenty-three years ago, and still the army shot them? He imagined columns of tanks rolling over all this green, row after row of soldiers, as they did then down Chang’an Avenue and into Tiananmen Square. No, surely that couldn’t happen in Hong Kong. But then—a little thump in his gut—even if it did, he wouldn’t be there to see it. He was remote from it already, moving away from the earth like a dying comet …
He listened and didn’t listen to the speeches, numbed by that dense dark certainty like a black hole inside him. His eyes strayed to the giant characters RESIST! projected onto nearby buildings, while the crowd chanted Never forget June 4! and Democracy will win! What had that to do with him now? It was only when they all stood to hold up their candles in silent tribute while the names of the dead were solemnly read out that he forgot that dark yawning abyss which had opened before him. And when that victim rolled onto the stage in his wheelchair, his legs amputated after a tank crushed them during the massacre—what was that like, to feel a forty-ton tank rolling over your legs?—and, laying a wreath for the dead, thanked them all tearfully for twenty-three years of support. Only then did he forget. Yes, for a time he was there, back in 1989, watching that night unfold on television for all the world to see, the shouting, the flames, the helmeted troops, the unmistakable deep sharp bark of small arms fire … He heard again that student leader’s voice rising unsteadily as the troops approached; heard the students singing defiance; saw ordinary people making barricades, setting buses and lorries ablaze; saw limp bleeding bodies being carried away; heard again those desperate voices shouting Tell the world! Tell the world!
[Editors’ note: The novel Chinese Spring was published in the UK on 16 May 2019.]
Christopher New was born in England and educated at Oxford and Princeton Universities. He taught philosophy at the University of Hong Kong for many years, during which he wrote The China Coast Trilogy (Shanghai, The Chinese Box and A Change of Flag) and Goodbye Chairman Mao, as well as The Philosophy of Literature and numerous philosophical articles. Christopher now divides his time between Europe and Asia and has written further novels set in Hong Kong (Gage Street Courtesan), India (The Road to Maridur), Egypt (A Small Place in the Desert) and Europe (The Kaminsky Cure). His books have been translated into Chinese, German, Italian, Japanese and Portuguese. Chinese Spring is his latest novel, published by Saraband in May 2019. Visit his website for more information.