The train doors hissed like a soft drink can, spilling passengers out of the carriage. Through the platform speakers, a sweet-sounding woman said something about standing back from the doors in a British accent before repeating it in Cantonese. An office man balancing a briefcase in the air almost elbowed Dandaulo in the eye. ‘Hey, careful,’ he said. The man never said a word. That was Hong Kong.
He was heading to the mainland. Guangzhou to be specific. A port city in Guangdong province with an influx of African visitors. Most of them were entrepreneurs. Shipping containers bloated with food, construction materials, fabric, technology, machinery − anything that could turn a profit in their own developing countries. In turn, China benefited through the Belt and Road Initiative. Dandaulo was not a businessman, but he was involved in the family business. He had been to Guangzhou before, with his sixty-five-year-old mother. She showed him the ropes, shipping forty thousand dollars’ worth of tiles to Malawi through Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. They had a contact in Dengfeng, whose name was Gong. He was a short, effeminate man who giggled rather than laughed; embarrassed perhaps by his tiny brown teeth. Dandaulo liked him. He covered his eyes with Ray-Bans, and sported fancy suits without socks. His hair was black and greasy, slicked-back but trimmed on the side. There was ample charm in his presentation as well as his professional conduct. His hardcore work ethic made it clear to Dandaulo that in the twenty-first century, it was the Western dragon that was asleep.
He had travelled to the Far East to buy a door. A church door. After his older brother, Nyonga, died six months ago, their mother − who was devoutly religious − began constructing a church. She said it was a gift for the local CCAP, ‘To thank God for his blessings.’ They wanted the largest church door they could afford, so that visitors from all backgrounds would be humbled by the height, as if entering the Walls of Jericho. Though the narrative was widely accepted, deep down Dandaulo felt it was her way of honouring her son. Grief does that. It holds the Taj Mahal together, and preserves the great statues and spaces around the world. Out of death springs the sacred, sometimes.
Dandaulo took a window-seat and admired the port. The sky was a hopeful blue. The journey would last two hours so he popped some music in his ears and watched the window. Mystic Man, Peter Tosh. Reggae was his brother’s favourite music. It was on par with his other love: martial arts. It all started with Bolo Yeung, the hard-as-nails villain in most of the action flicks of the eighties. His brother wanted to be just like that. So, he learned gong-fu from television, books and anybody with the skills until the opportunity of mastering Shotokhan karate presented itself at secondary school. He continued to practice well after university and into working life − even on the morning of the day that he died. It was an inseparable part of him. The last gift Dandaulo received from Nyonga was a book of kata − martial arts moves. He always wanted Dandaulo to fight, but he was an artist − it just wasn’t his thing. In that moment on the train, though, he would have given anything to take up his brother’s offer.
Birds soared in the air. Clouds drifted. He thought of the last time he had been on this route with his mother, knocking each other about like boiling eggs while carrying her luggage through crammed carriages. On that trip he realised that somewhere along the way, their hand-holding had switched. It was he, now, who had to shield both of his parents at the crossings of life.
The landscape was a green man sleeping, tiny farmers ploughing its soil bed in order to fulfil their own dreams. While other passengers were glued to their mobile phones and drop-down screens, Dandaulo pictured his brother with an ancient sage in the mountains, both dressed in white, practising shadowless kicks and sipping pu’er tea. Free from modern life, at least.
A few months back, Dandaulo had started feeling uneasy in public places. For some reason his heart would just suddenly jiggle, as if tapped, lightly, by the man within. The first time it happened he was in a Starbucks in Stratford-upon-Avon, England, where he lived. After sharing a coffee with his girlfriend Marta, he felt a little tingling sensation in his toes, then fingers, and it worked its way up the forearm to his chest where it grew and spread out. Heart attack, he thought at first, panicking. Pretty soon, the Homunculus had put on gloves and was doing combinations in his solar plexus. His shoulders shot up like he’d been splashed with cold water. He drew quick and sharp breaths, dreading death. Alarmed by a distressed customer, the manager quickly brought him a cup of water.
When he confided in a friend at work he said, ‘You know when you scare someone and it’s like—’ He put his hand on his chest and popped his eyes out. ‘It was like that. Shock and adrenaline, and it took forever to settle.’
‘I’m sure it was the coffee, mate,’ the friend said. ‘Same thing happened when I took a Red Bull on an empty stomach.’
He arrived at Guangzhou East around 6pm. It was July, so the sun was dossing about on the horizon. On his first trip, he and his mother were greeted by smiley faces with tentacle-arms who pulled them away from the licensed taxi rank at front of the station. Their stay was only two weeks so they were tricked out of plenty of money. On their return to Hong Kong − and just as they were starting to wise-up − all the train tickets had been bought out by the same smiley faces who were extorting tourists for up to thrice the value.
In a tiny, smoke-filled minicab, Dandaulo reminisced. The only things he didn’t like about China were the phlegm and smoking. And perhaps one led to another. People didn’t hawk and spit in Malawi or in Britain. The thing that surprised him most was how friendly people were. It really seemed like ‘race’ was not a thing there − though in Foshan, a cloth-shop lady kept patting his mother’s hair and asking for selfies. Generally, everyone was too busy with money to notice such trivial things. Perhaps it was a socialist thing.
In Mandarin, Dandaulo carried a few phrases: Nǐ hǎo and Xièxie nǐ (hello and thank you). He knew there was no Google so he filled out a booklet with phrases he would likely need, first in English then translated to simple Chinese. Can you take me to Hotel X? − 你能带我去X酒店吗？Nǐ néng dài wǒ qù X jiǔdiàn ma? − for example.
The cab driver’s name was Freddy, and he spoke English, so there was no need for translation. When he stared in the mirror to ask the passenger his name, Dandaulo answered, ‘Wong Fei-Hung.’
His eyes lit up and crinkled with laughter, ‘Aiyah! How you know this legend?!’ he said. It was the name of a famous martial artist and medicine man from Guangzhou who had been mythologised in comics, movies and games.
‘My brother,’ Dandaulo began, hesitantly. ‘He loved Drunken Master.’
‘Wong Fei-Hung is buried on Baiyun Mountain. Close-close.’
The cabbie waved a dismissive hand. ‘Many people think Chinese pow! pow! fighting − no. Only the poor villager goes to the monastery or becomes a monk. Now, everybody is working hard in school to make money!’
‘That’s very good,’ he replied, then remembered to answer the question, ‘My name is Dandaulo.’
‘You sound African but you have an accent. You’re British or African?’
‘Here for business?’
‘This and that,’ he said. This wasn’t the time for church doors.
After a long moment of silence, Freddy leaned over his seat and said, ‘Your brother, Wong Fei-Hung. He not come?’
Dandaulo pointed to the roof of the car, saying, ‘Big brother… dead.’
Freddy shook his head, and focused on the chevrons.
As the car snaked around the city, Dandaulo avoided eye contact for he knew that any reflection of a soul would surely make him cry.
They arrived at the hotel and Dandaulo was about to haul his luggage out of the boot when Freddy shouted, ‘Lai-lai-lai-lai!’ and did it himself. After counting his money, he shut the car door and whispered, ‘Wong Fei-Hung… Big brother. Sorry-sorry. If you need,’ − he pulled out his business card – ‘I help you. Anything-anything!’
The hotel was fancy, but well-priced. It boasted a Michelin star restaurant, a shopping mall, and a swimming pool on the roof. In the elevator Oud fragrance wafted, and Ferrari-shirted men of Egyptian and African descent walked around looking busy. Dandaulo was out of place. An illustrator from the Midlands, mingling with millionaires. All because of a church door. He had showed his mother various designs on the internet: Italian basilicas, wooden, with engravings of cherubs and crosses; others from England, gothic with colourful stained-glass windows; many more from America. It was on Alibaba where they settled on a huge iron door measuring 1.5 metres wide and 3 metres tall. ‘Now, this will humble the congregation,’ his mother murmured with leaky eyes.
That night he slept for fourteen hours. ‘Jetlag,’ he said to Gong in the lobby at 12pm, a few hours late to their appointment in Liwan for the church doors.
‘Dandaulo!’ Gong giggled, ‘Sleepy sleepy! Now we’re late. Maybe we go to cloth market today instead?’ So they did.
The wholesale markets are divided into districts specialising in particular products: lighting, electronics, ceramics, fabric and so on, each with infinite stores selling or manufacturing variations of similar products. Because of this overwhelming choice, business was pleasant exercise for Dandaulo. There were so many things so see. Everywhere they went tea was offered, followed by the unrolling of cloth, picking of the right patterns, or challenging the manufacturers to produce whatever they required – and, of course, there was always haggling involved. Once the cloth orders were done, the ‘go-between’ − in this case, Gong − would arrange to pick up the items at a later date, filling in the necessary paperwork for the consignment in order to ship to Malawi. Agents like Gong did this for a small commission, but they had so many clients that he was driving the latest Baojun 4×4.
Dandaulo was dropped off at the hotel around 8pm. The sun was rolling over the horizon, leaving a streak of purple in the sky. Dinner was expensive there so he explored the streets, trailing behind gangs of Nigerians and Arabs blowing smoke in the wind. As with all great cities, Guangzhou came alive at night. Not only was it a nocturnal creature, it was ecstatically bioluminescent. LEDs − hidden during the day − wrapped around trees, traffic lights and shop windows, and shifted colours from neon blue to green like a Hawaiian bobtail squid. The skyline was filled with fluorescent flowers. People were obsessed with lights − but it was delightful. Dandaulo dined at a noodle bar off Jianshe Road. He was served jasmine rice, chicken chow-mein and prawn dumplings by a waiter who also happened to be called Freddy. Clearly a popular name. These chosen names made it easier for foreigners to build a rapport. The truly unique guy was a barista who’d scribbled the word ‘STAR’ on his nametag.
He was on the crossover above Huanshi Road, marvelling at the shimmering nightlights, when he felt a sudden kick in his chest. He panicked for fear of a heart attack. Sweat trickled down his forehead and his heart fluttered, like it was taking a jog without informing him. Thoughts: I’m alone in a foreign country − what if I faint? Who will help me? His little booklet of phrases didn’t even have ‘I need an ambulance; 我需要一辆救护车.’ With a jittery finger, he grabbed his phone and dialled Gong. Dead. He choked. It was like someone had placed a plastic bag over his head, denying him all the good air. So he scurried down the steps, past the hotel’s entrance to the front desk.
‘Excuse me,’ he said to the receptionist, heaving. A small-shouldered woman poised her brown eyes at him. He clutched his chest. ‘Please help me. I’m not feeling so good, my heart.’
‘Room number?’ she said, as though she hadn’t personally checked him in the previous night.
‘What does that matter? I need help,’ he said.
His elevated tone alarmed some of the guests, and it was when they began to point that she turned to her colleague and whispered something in Mandarin.
‘Take a seat,’ she said with a wince, pointing at the other side of the lobby. ‘The porter will help you.’
Porter? I need a bloody doctor, he thought. With his heart pounding and head dizzy, he drifted across the sea of brown carpet, soft lights and sentimental music to an armchair, where he anchored himself. The Porter brought him two bottles of hotel-branded water.
‘Xièxie,’ Dandaulo said.
‘You need a doctor?’ the man said, as though he were asking a child if they needed the loo.
Dandaulo shook his head and returned to the car park, where there seemed to be more air.
When his heart cooled, he called his girlfriend Marta in England. It was morning for her. The warmth in her voice made him feel better but she insisted they see the GP upon his return. She asked what triggered it: was it food? The lights? Fatigue? He took a deep breath and said, ‘I dunno. But I was thinking of Nyonga.’
The next day in Liwan district, in a spacious warehouse brimming with lights and doors and marble floors that twinkled, Dandaulo sipped tea with Gong and the manager of the factory, Mr Yan. They were gathered round his massive oak table going through his latest pamphlet of doors. They had already explained − to a puzzled Yan who kept patting down what little hair was left on him − that they were looking for a church door. ‘What kind of church?’ he asked. Gong gesticulated a massive pyramid, like the city’s own Sacred Heart Cathedral. The man raised an eyebrow, ‘No factory in Malawi?’
Dandaulo replied in basic English, ‘Malawi has agriculture, sugarcane, tea, coffee, tobacco − no doors.’
Mr Yan formed a comprehending ‘Ah’.
As they flipped through more samples, Dandaulo’s mind wandered to thoughts of his brother. He had once asked Nyonga why he was so obsessed with wuxia − those martial arts adventure stories featuring gravity-defying Masters with names like Lady Snowblossom and Beggar Wong, who could block spears with their biceps. He had said, ‘Because they have honour. Every village needs a protector, and I am this family’s.’
As the green tea turned cold in Dandaulo’s porcelain cup, a certain melancholy brewed in the air. He felt like an imposter. The lone stranger unaccustomed to the ways of the land. It was then that the scene before him went bleary, because he realised: it was the older brother who should have been there, in the birthplace of Wong Fei-Hung.
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