The handover on June 30, 1997 had come and gone. The euphoria of the last-blast before midnight faded into the stark realization of the new dawn as a regiment of the Chinese Red Army occupied the former British Garrison. The Union Jack was ceremoniously taken down and in its place flew the red and yellow flag of the People's Republic of China.
In some respects, Hong Kong was still the same, and others, it was vastly different. It was still hot and sticky in the summer. People still got up early to go to work, crowding onto the subways, trams, and highways. Griping about high rent, inflation, and rudeness of today's youth were still popular watercooler topics. The old woman with the weathered face still begged for spare change on the street corner and the man who didn't smile still sold the fishballs from his small cart on the street corner. A body washed up on the beach early one morning. The police raided a suspected brothel in Kowloon. A bus and car crash closed off the Lion Rock Tunnel for a few hours, tying up morning rush-hour traffic.
A few new buildings had gone up, and some old ones were torn down. Whereas the former was a British colony, the area was now part of China, the Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong. Gone was the Governor appointed by the Queen. The Legislative Council, the governing body of elected officials, that managed the affairs of the colony before the handover, was still around, though not exactly the same as before. The people of Hong Kong still got to vote for the most of their representatives, however under the Chinese system, all political parties were one big happy family, working together for the common goal of stability. There were a few seats that were appointed by Beijing, who always offered the point-of-view of the National People's Congress, the highest organ of state power in the PRC. And if you disagreed with the wisdom of Beijing, you committed political suicide.
Over on the Mainland, things had also changed... for the worse. China's industrial base had lost ground to the growing economies of other South East Asian countries such as Malaysia and Singapore, partly due to the bureaucracy that one had to wade through to do business in China plus the political concerns about the Mainland government made them less attractive to foreign investment. The continuing strain in relations between China and its Western trading partners, which had begun in 1995, and gradually worsened over the years, didn't help either. With unemployment and inflation eating away at the Chinese economy, an increasing proportion of the population became disenchanted with the progress of economic reforms, that had begun over a decade and a half prior. China was becoming stratified, with a small proportion of the population holding an ever-increasing proportion of the wealth. Premier Li Peng had made alliances with the more conservative elements of the National People's Congress who felt more comfortable with the old ways. And so Beijing policy had shifted to the more hard-line approach of government.
But other than that, things were still pretty much the same.
Danny relaxed uneasily in the plush back seat of the shiny-black Mercedes-Benz 420. Next to him sat Steven Yip, the boss of a criminal empire that also owned legitimate businesses on the side, such as the Kwun Tong Shipping Company, which was where the 420 was parked at the moment. He was one of the richest men left in Hong Kong-- most of the them had transferred their assets elsewhere and emigrated to the West. If you look around Hong Kong and saw a prominent-looking restaurant or franchise store, most likely it was owned by Steven or he was somehow involved in its financial affairs. Steven was in his mid-sixties, dressed in an expensively-tailored Giorgio Armani suit, and each finger had a ring on it, an ostentatious indication of his wealth. Steven laughed, revealing the two front teeth which had been capped with gold. "Drink up my friend. Take it easy," Steven said as he offered Danny a drink from the small bar in-between them.
Those words are all remainders,
Echoes growing in the heart of twilight.
"Thank you, Brother Yip, but I am not thirsty," Danny said politely.
"You look so uneasy... you look like an undercover cop when you're like this," Steven joked.
Danny looked at him nervously, and then laughed when Steven began laughing.
"I'm always uneasy... it's just my nature. It's a tough world where things can completely change without warning. I guess you could say that I'm always waiting for the other shoe to drop," Danny said.
"You are a troubled young man," Steven said, "I can see that. Always thinking. Let me tell you... thinking is dangerous. The more you think about things, the worse you feel. And it won't change anything that has happened already. You have to make the best of what you have now, and forget about the past."
Was I chasing after rainbows?
One thing for sure you never answer when I call.
And I wiped away the water from my face,
To look through the eyes of a stranger.
For rumours in the wake of such a lonely crowd,
Trading in my shelter for danger,
I'm changing my name as the sun goes down.
In the eyes of a stranger.
Danny listened to the old man's words silently, and loosened the tie that had been uncomfortable around his neck. "When I was young, a mere boy, the Japanese had landed in Hong Kong. It was December of '41. My family was well-off back then, but within one night, it was all gone," Steven said.
"No, believe it or not, it was the Chinese. With the chaos and disorder that came with the occupation, all the thieves and the gangs came out of the woodwork to get a piece of Hong Kong before the Japanese had time to tighten their stranglehold. It was after the British garrison had surrendered to the Imperial Army. I remember it, even to this day. It was cold, since it was winter, and from my bedroom window, I could see them coming. And I knew quite a few of them-- by name. Some of the people that I had occasionally passed by in the street, or seen in the shops. I even remember a couple of cops that were with the mob, still in their uniforms. They had allied themselves with one of the local toughs, who was carving a niche for himself amid the confusion. They came, burning torches, armed with cooking knives, axes, anything with a blade. My father shoved me into a crawl space in the floor that would allow me to escape. Of course, I wanted to stay with him, but he didn't let me. He shoved me in and then sealed up the opening... my father refused to let them in to take our possessions. They killed him. With the rest of my family. And when they were done, they took anything of value that they could carry with them. And when they were done doing that, they burned the place to the ground. I was hiding in some bushes on the mountainside, shivering, watching everything that I ever had turn to ashes. I never forgot that, but I don't keep replaying it in my mind, like a movie. Life went on for that ten-year old who then wandered through China, spending his days getting food and a place to sleep. When I was older, I came back to Hong Kong, after the mainland had fallen to Chairman Mao's forces, and started over. And here I am today, talking to you. Asking you to leave the past behind, and to get on with living."
Danny smiled and answered, "Thank you Brother Yip, you are a very wise man."
Can't tell the real from reflection,
When all these faces look the same to me.
In every city such a desolate dream,
Some days are strange to number,
Some say the seven sounds a little bit stranger.
"Whatever happened to you, I can probably guess that it was very painful..."
The image flashed in Danny's mind. Carla's eyes widening as the bullet ripped into her back. Danny winced, experiencing the pain of the fleeting moment.
"... for you, and I can read that on your face. After we're done here, let's go get something to eat, and maybe you can tell me about it."
Danny nodded and turned to face the window, where he could see the neon lights of the Hong Kong skyline. As his face turned away from Steven, a look of unease tightened its grip around his face.
And I'm not seized in desperation,
No steel reproaches on the table from before.
And I still can't feel those splinters of ice,
I look through the eyes of a stranger.
There was a knock on the window on Steven's side. Steven pressed a button that lowered the tinted window. Jacky, one of Steven's lieutenants, poked his face through the open window. His colour scheme was more casual, an olive shirt under an aqua blue sports jacket. No tie. Danny noted the distinctive wide-eyed look that Jacky had, which gave him a look of constant paranoia. "Brother Yip," the man said, "the cargo is now loaded."
"Excellent," Steven answered and then turned to Danny, "it will be just a minute while I speak to the captain of the ship. I want to make sure he knows how important this cargo is to me."
Steven and Danny opened the doors of the 420 and stepped into the early morning air. The lights of Central District glowed brightly from across the bay, reflecting off the calm waters. Though it was one in the morning and pitch black, the air was still muggy and humid. However, there was a slight breeze that blew in off the sea, slightly offsetting the heaviness of the air. Steven walked towards the chubby man in dirty pants and an undershirt. "Brother Yip," the captain bowed.
Steven put his arm on the captain's shoulder, not in a demeaning manner, but more like the manner of a close friend. "It's important that this cargo reaches Los Angeles. I can trust that you will look after it and make sure it arrives in the condition that it left in, right?" Steven said.
Without looking up, the captain answered, "Yes, sir. I will guard it with my life, and make sure that it is not discovered by the Coast Guard, that is, if they board us."
Danny looked at the exchange between Steven and the cargo ship captain. The captain always kept his head and eyes down, whereas Steven put his arm on the man's shoulder. Danny couldn't hear what they were saying, and he guessed that it was a very important cargo, and Steven was making sure that it would reach its destination. Danny then looked around at the various armed men, dressed in dark suits and sunglasses that stood around him. Behind him were the two he called Laurel and Hardy-- they made an odd pair, one was skinny as a rail, and the other was exaggerated in the other direction. Beside him stood Jacky. In front, there were three more men, Fred, Barney, and Dino. Not that they looked like the cartoon characters, but that was the first thing that came into his mind when he saw them. On a BMW parked to his left, Bill and Ted, sat on the front bumper-- they were the youngest of the bunch. They were puffing away on Marlboros, blowing smoke rings above their heads.
Suddenly, several police cars appeared from around a corner, their lights flashing and the sirens wailing. "Police! Get Brother Yip out of here!" Jacky yelled as he popped the trunk of the 420 open to grab a shot gun.
"This is the Hong Kong Police. Stay where you are and put your hands on your heads!" an electronically-amplified voice shouted out.
Jacky slammed the trunk of the 420 shut and cocked the shotgun.
Laurel and Hardy were the first to open fire. They noisily raked the stopped police cars with their AK-47's. Sparks bounced off the police cars shattering windshields and blowing tires. A couple of officers were knocked down as the machine gun fire came across their positions. One police car exploded, sending a bright yellow and orange flame high into the air, followed by acrid black smoke. Danny could see the silhouettes of the two officers that were caught inside the car, slowly being consumed by the fire.
"Return fire!" the amplified voice ordered.
A hail of gunfire was unleashed. Laurel and Hardy were the first to go down, followed by Dino. Jacky returned fire with the shotgun, which blew through a police car door, knocking down the officer crouched behind it. But the onslaught by the police was too much for the handful of men. Steven ran towards the 420, covering his head with his arms. A trail of gunfire followed him as he ran, leaving a trail of broken concrete. Danny grabbed him and pushed him into the 420 and jumped into the driver's seat. A bullet from a policeman's gun shattered the back windshield. Jacky jumped in and Danny drove off, the tires screeching and smoking.
The SDU made short work of the remaining men. Barney and Fred. Bill and Ted. Cut down by automatic gunfire. As Steven watched from the shattered back window of the 420, his men were cut down by the police. Danny saw the look of desperation come across Steven's face. He saw him mouth the word "why" over and over.
"Somebody must have told the police that we were going to be here!" Jacky shouted, "That can be the only explanation, Uncle Yip!"
"But who? Who would betray us?" Steven asked.
Jacky didn't need a second to find the answer. He looked at Danny. "You! You informed the cops, didn't you, you ungrateful bastard!" Jacky said, pointing at the man sitting next to him.
Jacky pulled out his handgun and pointed it at Danny's head. Danny stiffened. "I didn't tell the cops. I'm loyal to you," Danny said, staring down the dark barrel of the gun.
Danny could feel the sweat make its way out of his pores. A bead of wetness dribbled down his forehead. His armpits suddenly felt damp.
"Jacky, put that away! I trust Danny. He wouldn't betray us!" Steven said, putting his hand on Jacky's outstretched arm.
"Be quiet! He's fooled us... he's fooled all of us!" Jacky shouted angrily.
Jacky pulled back the hammer on the gun. Danny slammed on the brakes, bringing the 420 to a rapid halt. Jacky's gun went forwards just as it fired, shattering the front windshield. Danny then reached inside his jacket and pulled out his handgun. He fired, killing Jacky instantly, his body slumping backward. The blood splattered over the leather surfaces of the front passenger seat, as well as on the front passenger window.
Danny then turned around and pointed the gun at Steven. Steven sat there dumbfounded, unsure of what to say. "I don't believe it," Steven said, "You're a cop aren't you?"
Danny nodded slowly and said, "Chief Inspector Danny Lee, CID."
"Well, you got me," Steven said, "you know, I really had high hopes for you. You had good qualities. It's too bad that our roles do not allow us the flexibility to be friends."
Two SDU officers, in black uniforms and black face masks, came alongside the 420 and pointed their automatic weapons at the two occupants of the car. "SDU, put your hands on your head!" one of them shouted.
Danny took the gun away from Steven's head and dropped the gun.
It had taken five months to crack the case and Danny was exhausted. Physically, and especially emotionally. He had infiltrated them, worked with them, had good times and bad with them, and now he had betrayed them.
"Chief Inspector Lee?" a voice called out.
Danny turned around and saw one of the younger recruits. Felix was his name, Danny believed. He was young, not-so-bright from what Danny had heard, and was deemed the "least likely to see 30". He belonged to another investigative team, so Danny hadn't worked with him previously. "Sir, we've found the cargo. Did you want to come look at your handiwork?" Felix said.
Danny got up off the crate that he had been sitting on and followed the young recruit onto the waiting cargo ship.
The cargo ship was a hive of activity. CID officers crisscrossed the ship with flashlights, looking for evidence. The cargo. Steven was a very careful man. Whether he communicated in person, by phone, or telex, they always referred to the cargo. Not whether it was drugs, or guns, or what have you. Just the cargo. But with a criminal empire like Steven's, what else would be so hush-hush? It had to be something big. And now the CID had caught Steven with his pants down.
Danny and Felix made their way into the bowels of the ship, their way lit by the flashlight that Felix held in his hand. The air was stale and musty. The leftover aroma of previous cargoes permeated the air. The wide beam of the flashlight caught the occasional rat in its beam, which then scurried off to the nearest dark corner. The ground was damp, making it slippery to walk on. After a minute wandering through the darkness, they approached a well-lit area, where some other officers were gathered, including the new superintendent, Hoi. Two greenshirts, armed with wire cutters, snipped the heavy padlocks that secured the cargo container, which were quickly discarded. They dropped the wire cutters and pulled the heavy door of the cargo container open.
As the heavy door creaked all the way open, warm humid air that smelled of sweat and urine rushed out. Danny grabbed the flashlight from Felix and pushed his way to the front of the crowd. He shone the light inside and the beam focused on a face. Two eyes were looking straight back at him. The boy probably was twelve or thirteen. His face was haggard-looking and his clothes were dirty. He put his hand over his eyes to block the blinding light. Slowly panning the flashlight beam, Danny scanned the rest of the cargo container, and saw more people. Some men, women, and children. There must have been about twenty people squeezed inside, lethargic from the hot summer air trapped in the cargo container. Their meager possessions littered the floor, and some clear plastic bottles of water, some empty, some still full, were tossed about. Cockroaches scurried through the empty foil packages of junk food that lay in a haphazard manner. Danny panned the light onto the ceiling and noticed the holes that had been punched into the roof to allow air in.
Refugees. That was what the cargo was. People who were trying to escape from the rule of the Mainland. Who wanted to start over again across the ocean. Danny dropped the flashlight and walked away in disgust.