Servitude

At one thirty, Chung put away the last of the lunch things and proceeded with his toilet. He removed his suit—one of five, one for each work day—from the wardrobe, changed into a clean shirt, dressed, and, after tying his shoelaces, selected a tie from the rack and deftly knotted it. Windsor, he said to his late wife, repeating the lesson learned from his employer on how to tie the sophisticated knot of suited gentlemen. A last check in the mirror to hold the remaining white hairs in place with a little Vaseline and he was ready. By two thirty, he was well on his way to Central, speeding past Tsimshatsui, the last stop in Kowloon before the subway crossed the harbor to the island.

Emerging from exit A, he crossed the foyer of Worldwide House onto Connaught Road. The morning’s drizzle had ended and the sun was drying the pavement; he carried no umbrella. He walked the familiar five minutes west, weaving slowly through the weekday crowd, his balance steady despite stooped shoulders. At Henry Suen’s building—he still called it his boss’s building even though Suen Enterprises no longer owned it—the security guard returned his greeting, pressed the lift button, and held the door open for him. Tenth floor to the office that looks out to the harbor, the one that had seen its view progressively blocked and altered over the past forty-five years, which was almost as long as Chung had been going there every single weekday, without fail, except for public holidays and the one week’s vacation Henry Suen granted him each year.

When our story began it was exactly ten years to the day that Chung had officially retired, at the age of sixty-five, a month and a day after Hong Kong was returned to China. Henry Suen did not observe such pedestrian anniversaries, because between Suen Enterprises and the large, extended Suen family, there were more birthdays (both lunar and Western calendars), weddings, funerals, newborn full-month dinners, retirements, new appointments, as well as a host of other incomprehensible occasions to celebrate and recall (grandparents day, of which he was recently informed by his third son’s daughter who presented him with a card she’d drawn at school; not to mention secretary’s day; father’s day; Valentine’s day—the latter being one all his daughters observed, although Mrs. Suen, his wife, thought this ridiculous). So Suen was not thinking of his long-time bookkeeper cum chief accountant’s retirement anniversary, or the handover, when his employee arrived that afternoon.

“We must check the share certificates today, mustn’t we, Ah Chung?” Suen said, as soon as he saw him. “You did bring the key, didn’t you?”

Chung removed his suit jacket, and hung it on the coatrack, the rack he’d been instructed to purchase fifteen years earlier when, after more than half a century’s service, the original one broke, the one acquired by Suen’s father. “Yes, I have the key, Mr. Suen. We must check right away.”

“How is the market today?”

“The Hang Seng’s up.” In fact, the index was down, but Chung hadn’t checked at the MTR station where share prices were broadcast all day long on suspended TV monitors. He seldom bothered anymore although he occasionally did, just to see, curious, you know, since he had never purchased any shares in any company, despite his wife’s constant urging to do so. I just don’t like gambling, never will. Only the rich afford that luxury.

“Ahh, that’s good. Come open the safe. We need to check the certificates.”

Chung signaled Rayson, the personal attendant, to push Suen’s wheelchair aside. The young man did and then left the room, closing the door.

“Don’t like this one, Ah Chung,” Suen confided as soon as the door clicked shut. “He’s got a lousy temperament.”

“Then you must tell Vera tomorrow, she’ll do something about it,” Chung responded, as he regularly did since Rayson entered the Suens’ employ three years earlier. Chung liked Vera, the youngest Suen girl—year of the horse, always has a ready smile—who came on Fridays. He unlatched the walnut cabinet behind the desk. The ancient safe, green paint chipping off the door, rust creeping around its black iron frame, sat on the bottom shelf, inches above ground. Crouching down, he began twirling the dial, listening for the clicks. Right, three times, thirty two; left, twice, fourteen; right again past zero to twenty-six and then a hard turn left to zero, and then the key…oh, it’s all right if I tell you. Chung was the only other person, besides Henry Suen, who had a key. The brass skeleton with three notches, well crafted, reliable, it never failed to turn even once in all the years. A thing of beauty. The safe door swung open obediently.

A knock on the door interrupted.

“Go away!” Suen shouted. “We’re busy.”

The door opened and daughter number one, a well-dressed, self-consciously attractive middle-aged woman, stuck her head in. Chung stood up at once, guarding the open safe. Dragon girl, the least filial. She’s the one with the lousy temperament, not Rayson.

“I don’t have all afternoon, Ba,” she said. “Ma wants me to remind you to be back on time today. You have to get ready for dinner at the Summer Palace?” Seeing her father’s baffled expression, she added, “Shangri-La?” She made an exasperated noise. “Ah Chung, tell him.”

Chung opened the desk diary and pointed to the day where he had personally inscribed the occasion. “Mr. Suen, see, you have a dinner appointment this evening at the Shangri-La Hotel restaurant. Your grandson Jaspar, number two son’s middle boy, you’re celebrating his exam results.” And then, softer, so that the daughter wouldn’t hear. “Mrs. Suen’s favorite?”

Reassured, Suen smiled at his employee and then stared at his daughter. “Okay, I’ll be there. Tell that—what’s his name—the man on your way out.”

She shook her head, impatient. “Am I your secretary? Ah Chung, you tell him,” and then, as an afterthought, added, “please.” On her way out, she shut the door loudly.

Suen grinned at Chung and giggled like a child. “Good thing she didn’t see, huh?” He indicated the open safe.

“Yes, Mr. Suen.” Chung crouched down again and removed the stack of large white envelopes, rubber-banded, each one neatly labeled in his own hand with the name and quantity of shares as well as the purchase date and price. The ink—Pelican, that’s the best—had faded to pale violet and was almost translucent. Written with my Mont Blanc fountain pen, a ten-year service gift, you know, the one clipped to his shirt pocket.

In fact, Chung was more upset at the interruption than he let on, as upset as Suen himself would have been before the onset of his Alzheimer’s. Mr. Suen hates disorder; he has a very orderly mind and is strict about observing schedules. Chung placed the bundle on the desk and wheeled Suen back in place. That daughter is ungrateful and nasty. She should know better than to burst into her father’s office before three forty-five. All the others observe the schedule. Why can’t she? It’s not too much to ask, is it? Not for a man who has dedicated his life to his family. How many times has Mr. Suen bailed out that useless playboy husband of hers for his gambling debts, huh? Lost count! Just so she can continue to show her face at the Jockey Club.

For the next half hour, Chung placed each certificate on the desk for the old man to study. Useless certificates, since all paper records had long been electronically converted. That Suen’s share holdings were in reality now managed by number three son, the stockbroker, was not something Chung troubled his boss with. Mr. Suen is a distinguished man and no longer needs to concern himself with details. He just likes me to count the certificates, to make sure they’re all there. That’s my job, so I do it.

Today, however, Suen was less interested than usual. Halfway through the daily count, he abruptly released the lever on his chair and wheeled himself over to the window. “Hey, Ah Chung, look.” He pointed to a helicopter over the harbor. “Big bird, big bird,” and clapped his hands, his eyes following the path of flight.

Chung followed him to the window and gazed down at his employer. “Yes, Mr. Suen. It is big.” But it’s sad, seeing him like this. Good thing he doesn’t know.

Minutes later, Suen looked up at his employee. “Ah Chung! What are you doing here? Go back to your work. You should know better than to be standing around, doing nothing.”

“Yes, I’m sorry, Mr. Suen. Right away.”

By three forty-five, all the certificates were returned in good order to their place, the safe locked and the walnut cabinet doors latched until the next afternoon.

Chung went to summon Rayson. The man switched off his PDA, on which he’d been playing the latest downloaded game, and whisked Henry Suen out of his office to the waiting chauffeur below. Not a bad fellow really. Polite enough, does his job okay. Could be a little friendlier, but young people today are all so surly. They have too much pressure, you know, not like when we were young.

At four, Chung turned off the lights, checked that the windows were all shut—sometimes he opens the bathroom window—and was about to leave when the phone rang.

It was Mrs. Suen. “Ah Chung, he’s left, hah?” Before Chung could reply, she continued. “Good. Oh, you can wait till my son calls? Should be soon. He has something to tell you.”

“But…” He stopped, because Mrs. Suen had already hung up, a bad habit of hers never even says good-bye or thank you, just hangs up on everyone all the time, even her own husband, but he got used to it and never complained.

Should he wait? Chung wondered. If son number two—Mrs. Suen could only mean that one—needed to talk, he knew how to reach him at home. Inconsiderate though, just like his mother. A spoiled brat from the time he was a boy. Mr. Suen would never make such an unreasonable demand because he respects my personal time.

Chung glanced around for a newspaper, thinking to while away the time until the call came. The office was strangely empty, he noticed. The electric kettle Vera bought her father was missing from the shelf in the reception area. He switched the lights back on and studied the two-room space. A small office, one that had satisfied Henry Suen for a lifetime. Even after Suen Enterprises sold the building, and all their former office space had been leased out by the new owners, Henry Suen kept this one private office with its harbor view and inner reception area, where his late secretary used to sit. Chung’s old office was gone, not that he needed it any longer.

And now he saw that the goldfish etching was gone as well—witness the leftover dark imprint—the one that hung on the center wall for as long as Chung could remember. When had that been removed? He opened the door to Suen’s office and realized that the only thing remaining on the bookshelf was the framed certificate from the Stock Exchange honoring Henry Suen. It wasn’t a real honor, just some kind of recognition award that hundreds of people get. Vera framed it anyway, because she knows her father is the old-fashioned kind of businessman, only understands family, not community, and he never even finished high school so no degrees for display. How proud he was of that, saying he’d done his duty to Hong Kong as well as his family. How proud. Vera’s always been a good girl.

The ringing phone interrupted the conversation with his wife. “Hey, Ah Chung,” said the number two Suen son. “I’ve been meaning to call you since last week, but you know how busy things get.”

“Last week?”

“Yes, when we agreed to surrender our lease, didn’t Rayson tell you?”

“The lease for the office? But where will your father go?”

There was an awkward silence. Finally number two Suen said, “Ah Chung, the old man’s gone, you know that. I mean, what with the Alzheimer’s.”

“I see.”

“Anyway, Ma thought it better for him to stay at home from now on so we returned the office to the building. They can get good rent for it. Hey, you can only ask for a favor for so long, right, right?” He chortled in that rough way Chung despised, had always despised.

Tongue frozen, Chung remained silent.

Suen number two said, “You still there?”

“Yes, Mr. Suen.”

“So you need to remove those stupid share certificates and dispose of them.”

“The share certificates?”

“Right.”

“And the safe, the key?”

“The building management will junk the safe—it’s a useless old thing now, hah—so you can junk the key as well. Oh, and leave the office keys inside and just single lock the door with the handle button. The management will pick those up in the morning.”

“Junk the key…”

“What’s the matter, Chung, is it my cell? Can’t you hear properly? Listen, I’m in a hurry, have to get going.”

Chung pulled himself together and cleared his throat. “That must be it, bad reception. Very well, Mr. Suen, I’ll take care of everything.”

“Oh, and my brother will transfer to your account the amount…”

But he cut him short. “No need to speak of that. Whatever the Suen family wishes to do is acceptable to me, as you know.”

Yet afterward, after he’d bagged the certificates and the framed award in a plastic bag (fortunately, not everything had been emptied out of the office) and disposed of it in the building’s rubbish room, he could not throw away the key. It seemed sacrilegious to discard the one thing Henry Suen still always recognized. When he exited Henry Suen’s building, the sky was already darkening. How late was it? Chung had lost track of time and no longer wore a watch. His body knew the afternoon hours it needed to know, the way it knew the weather, and had for the past eight years since the Suen family summoned him out of retirement into this part-time, daily role, once Henry Suen’s Alzheimer’s was diagnosed. After all, Chung was a widower. His wife’s unexpected death, even though she was the younger. No children, no known relatives in Hong Kong. What else should he do?

Ah Chung stepped out into the evening, his gait a little less steady than it had been earlier that day. In his pocket, the key clinked on the chain against his personal keys. Crowds surged along the pavement, headed hither and yon, to a thousand appointments and families and friends and overtime hours in ten thousand tiny office spaces. As our story ends, the workday in this year and time had pushed later into evening than Chung had ever known during his entire work life in the service of Henry Suen. Seven was the new five, nine the dinner hour in many Hong Kong homes. It was six thirty now, because he had lingered longer than he knew, reading those share certificates one by one for the last time. The city honked horns, pounded footsteps on pavements, gushed humanity into the caverns of subways and the ordered queues of surface transport.

He began the walk back to the subway exit, slowly at first, ignoring the crowds around him. His shoulders stooped—to a passerby he might have looked tired—but it was not fatigue that troubled him. He needed something to tell her, so she wouldn’t worry the way she had back when retirement ended his income. We’re not broke, he’d reassured her, because the pension was more than generous, but she hadn’t believed him then and now all he could do was keep reassuring her, keep telling her stories of all the Suens, the huge clan of Suens and their business dealings and private lives, especially Henry Suen, the man who gave him, Chung, all his face, respecting his dignity despite his lowly role, repeating the subject that dominated their nightly conversations forever.

What could he tell her now?

He fingered the key in his pocket, caressing its familiar shape, willing it to show him what to do here, now, in this place and time before he was forced to face her, before that moment, at the end of each workday, when he need no longer be merely the Suens’ servant, Ah Chung. An idea formed, grew, and his gait quickened. Four and a half minutes, five, and he was on the steps of Worldwide House. Vera, he began. Vera Suen will call tomorrow—it’s her day, after all, Friday—to tell me what my new job will be. You just wait and see. Henry Suen needs me. He always will. We won’t have anything to worry about as long as Henry Suen is alive. Promise.

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