And there she was, lovely as Ziyi Zhang, amber eyes, copper-colored hair, high-collar gold cheongsam side slit to ivory thighs. And there stood Harry, not entirely sober, eels in his belly slithering. She pretended not to notice his staring until he wanted the free second drink. Taking his hand, she led past unnoticed other girls, to a booth. The jukebox was playing the Platters, Red Sails in the Sunset.
Harry was twenty-two, she claimed sixteen, looking younger.
‘What’s the age of consent in Hong Kong?’ he asked.
‘We learn to say Yes very young in Wanchai.’
But not to him, it turns out. Jen was a cherry-girl, indentured to Mama Lee who awaited the best offer.
‘You’re being sold?’
‘Just my cherry.’ The jaw tightened in her beautiful face. ‘No man can buy me. Not me!’
‘Just buy you drinks, right?’
‘Right!’ she laughed. He liked her voice, high and mellow.
‘Can I take you out?’
‘You have to pay Mama. You must pay to take me out.’
‘I know what’s what. But you have to say yes, don’t you?’
‘Did I say no? Did I?’
‘Is she your real Mama?’ Jen Lee, reminded him of something.
‘No. My mother ran away to Canton and left me with the missionaries. They tried to make me believe in Jesus. I would not. But I liked Mrs Entwhistle. She made me read Jane Austen. And the Bronte sisters. She did.’
‘And your Dad?’
‘I do not know. He was gweilo.’
She had such a sweet face, such merry eyes, she charmed everyone. And there was an inner toughness too, making her the top earner of all the young lovelies in the Top Hat, itself a bar several cuts above the rest. Harry was to be on the receiving end of one of those cuts.
Over the following weeks much of his pay went to Mama Lee to buy Jen out for a few hours at a time, for what Harry hoped would be romantic trips to the Peak, Tiger Balm Gardens, here and there. They would find a bench under a tree, stare at mandarin ducks on a pond of ornamental fish, or find a secluded place to lie, her head pillowed on his arm. Harry would try to talk romance and she would turn away.
‘That is not for me. No. Not me.’
‘It’s just business between us then?’
She sat up, face flushed. ‘How can you say that! What you pay Mama Lee does not come to me. I could stay in the bar and make money from the Yankee sailors. I could. Maybe, Harry, I should!’
‘So why do you come out with me?’
‘Everyone needs money but sometimes I like to do things just because I like to do things. I feel comfortable with you, Harry. You are respectful, most times. I am enjoying to do things a normal girl does, things I would do if I were free. Look at me. Half Chinese, half foreigner. Half-caste,’ a tear spilled, ‘and although I believe my year is Rat, I do not know the day or hour of my birth. No Chinese man would marry me. I do not know my luck.’
‘Hey,’ he exclaimed. Harry followed his horoscope in the Hong Kong Standard, ‘I’m a Dragon. Do we match?’
‘We do by year. But it is not so simple. Even without the cherry price,’ she gave a childish smile. ‘Rat is survivor. I know one day I will have money. I will.’
‘And Dragon? Dragons capture virgins and hoard gold.’
‘Every Chinese family wants a Dragon for a son-in-law…’
Hearing this, his heart started racing. Other Army guys married Chinese girls and took them back to Blighty.
‘…but I have no family. And I have to make my own life, Harry. My own life.’
‘And it has to be this life? Waiting for some rich fat f***…’
‘I do not like these rude words.’
‘Sorry! Come on, Jen. You’ve had an education, you speak perfect English, surely there’s something else…’
‘There is! I am writing stories. I send them to Mr Run Run Shaw to make into movies. Soon I shall be rich, and have no worries, and do just what I like, every day. I will even pay the Army and take you out!’
‘And has Mr Run Run Shaw made any into movies?’
‘Hundreds of people must send in stories. Every day.’
‘Then I will deliver them in person.’ Defiantly. ‘By hand!’
Careful, Harry, he thought. Don’t be the one to deflate her, despite day-mares of her defloration by Studio Security en route to the casting couch.
‘Hey, Jen, sure they’ll take them, just a matter of time. These guys must be always on the lookout for new stuff. I bet they have teams of readers going through everything that comes in. They’d be stupid not to.’
‘This is what I thought. Myself.’
‘Have you shown them to anyone else?’
‘Sometimes I read to the girls. Some things I write about I do not know. They help me.’
‘Makes sense. Can I read them?’
With a mischievous smile she pulled a yellow pad from her purse and handed it to him. He opened it, to inked vertical lines of black Chinese characters.
‘Shall I read them to you? You can correct my English.’ Harry nodded, happy she wanted to share, hoping to know her better, falling in love. She began, looking up every so often to see what effect her story was having or perhaps if he was paying attention.
‘There are many legends of China long ago, of pirates in the eastern seas, bandits in western lands, desert nomads, raiding on horseback. My story is about Ah Su, like me, a virgin but, unlike me, without experience of men. Elder daughter of a noble house, she was betrothed to the younger son of her father’s vassal. They said he was handsome. Her father sent her with guards, gifts and treasures, across a stretch of desert to the lands of her future husband.
‘The Raiders of the Khan attacked her bridal caravan…more?