Top Story Winners 2019



    We had a fantastic response to our annual English-language writing competition, Hong Kong’s Top Story 2019, with a total of 317 entries! The judges selected eight prize winners – four in the junior category and four in the adult – with the results announced on the 123 Show on February 14, 2020. The aim of the exercise, which is held every year, is to encourage and promote writing talent among the public. It was clear from the standard of the entries that talent and love of writing exist in abundance!

    The competition was open to secondary students aged 12 to 17, as well as adults aged 18 and over. This year, entrants were invited to write an original story with the theme of “Festival”. The winners in both categories were rewarded with book vouchers, and the First Prize winners would also receive a one-hour consultation with renowned British author Paul French.



    Festival: Reflections of a Newborn Dragon by Jocelyn Tsang; Read by Hugh Chiverton

    The water has always been a constant comfort to me. The gentle, rhythmic lullaby of the warm waves lapping against my sides was the only mother I needed. Yet, the cogs of time cease for nobody; all children must fly the coup someday. Then, one’s heartbeat would stutter and fail, finally descending into the eternal silence nobody has come back from.
    The Dragon is the only mystical creature in the Chinese zodiac, revered for its mastery over the heavens. Be it rain, sleet or snow, whether the clouds gathered in lazy wisps or angry clump, the dragons bent the weather to their fancies. The Duen Ng Festival is a tradition that persisted through the ages; from the times when the majority of people still relied on a more agrarian lifestyle, wishing for a merciful rain for a bountiful harvest, to mourn the betrayal and despair of the loyal minister by his country, to remember the loss of a brilliant man. I plan on carrying out this legacy proudly.
    The carefully crafted boats are vessels for a dragon’s spirit; only when the eyes are completed, will the dragon truly descend and propel the year forward with good fortune  and cheer. I could feel the shallow incline of sand rubbing against the extended length of my sides; I could almost taste the white-fringed lace of sea foam rolling relentlessly, playfully splashing my snout. Murmurs of excitement and anticipation from the surrounding crowd rose to a roar as I heard the telltale plodding someone in front of my face. The people fell into a revered silence. My teal wood heart seemed like it would burst out of the front of the brow of the boat.
    The wet slurp of the naiads grabbing at the heavy garments of the figure became unbearably close. A huff of tired breath, a creaking of bones that gave away his age became apparent.
    Infernal itching and scratching on both sides of my eyes, a sudden bright beam of light piercing my vision – I could see! For a brief moment of narcissism I couldn’t help but admire the azure, slightly metallic paintwork. A lovely gradient encompassing what looked like every shade of blue in the universe covered my chest, presumably painstakingly done with eternally patient, gentle brushstrokes. A pair of heavy, silver horns curled elegantly back. I imagine them framing the drummer – my ‘heartbeat’ – in a halo bestowed upon him by the gods. Little red ribbons trailed in the water as whiskers. Amusement bloomed up in small puffs. Such mischievious beings, humans. I felt the urge to preen (even though I didn’t have limbs), observing that I had stolen the brunt of the attention of the crowd. The eyes of a dragon could also see the hue of emotions. Never have I ever seen such an array of vibrance worthy of challenging the Aurora.
    The minutes blurred into hours as I took in my surroundings slowly. Before I knew it, a rude sort of burping sound shattered my wonder into fragments of surprise and indignance, and my replacement legs – paddles, drove into the bay with a steady, determined beat. They propelled me forwards, my slimmer body slicing through with an incomparable elegance. Cutting through the water so smoothly, listening to the unceasing drumbeat, my blood was boiling, bubbling with the desire to show off my crew, to win this competition. As a dragon, momentary victory seemed trivial to any of us, but being plunged into the midst of the action, it was hard not to be riled up. Streamers in a myriad of colours trailed from the railings, preventing a number of the overenthusiastic audience from keeling over into the water. Local fishermen and hawkers were grinning from their own boats; the sweat gleaming on their suntanned mugs dripped into the glimmering unknown, disrupting the tiny sparkles of sun. Life had not been merciful to these people, yet the hardship of toiling in the ocean had licked them into hardy, tough people, with a sense of wisdom that was lacking these days. Simple phrases that conveyed more about respect, mindfulness and gratitude were much more effective than the elaborate prose and useless posturing of the so-called ‘educated’ sector.
    Yet, the closer I looked , the more questionable side of things rose to the surface. I could see dulled, tired eyes of a pair of parents standing behind their squalling children, melting, red-faced in the sweltering heat. The children were hollering, spurned on by the flashy appearance of the boats. One of the little girls tottered too close to the side,  teetering on the worn rocks. If I had facial expressions, my face would’ve been drenched un immediate alarm. But her mother merely yanked her back unceremoniously, pushing her face close to her child’s and shrieking about her ungratefulness, her carelessness. Her frayed temper lashed out again and again, hurling needlessly cruel words at the pour soul. Dark, violent black from the adult struck chords of navy in a small field of white in the child. As I watched, a tiny bloomed of blood welled up in the child’s heart.  That stain would only grow……
    I shook off the image vigorously, trying to get it out of my mind. But the bout of unpleasantness had only begun. A sweet old woman whose age was belied by the folds and wrinkles in her face and hands was selling a small pile of rice dumplings. Her frail form trembled with the effort of pushing the cumbersome wooden cart forward. A dim glow of violet stemmed from her. Numb, stagnant grey tinged with revolting swamp muck revolved around her in a suffocating ring. Bystanders were deliberately looking away, disgusted by the doddering figure stripped of her dignity. Miraculously, a flower of pink blushed in the old woman’s mind. This was a stripling of hope, stubbornly hanging on despite the ugliness around it. Lead weights, the heaviness of Atlas holding up the sky – what was this feeling? Exhaustion? Despair? These words are too superficial, unable to put a finger on the exasperation that such beauty could only be seen against a backdrop of thorns.
    A flash of crimson distracted me from the depths of these dire musings. The finish line was near! The desire to win, the accumulated apprehension at the prospect of winning gave me one last boost of energy. I willed the winds to propel us forward, for the multitude of celestial beings to take away the rowers’ fatigue. An air chrysalis separated us from the rest of the world – the only thing that mattered was the nearing goal. One last surge, and the deafening roar of the crowd gave us all a definitive answer. The bugle of victory sounded, and my visage was the face of triumph.
    As a horde of fishermen rushed forward to haul my salt encrusted torso back onto the shore, the residual shot of euphoria crawled sluggishly through my mind. The whirl of overwhelming information I gleaned had thrown me into a kind of sensory overload. My tired eyes landed on a pair of polished designer shoes. Dragging my view upwards, an impassive face with a wide forehead stepped casually onto the pebbles. He leaned forward, allowing me to get a clear view of his greasy pompadour, accentuated with tacky bright slacks and an appalling polka-dot shirt which didn’t do much to conceal his lardy middle. Rage and indignance churned unpleasantly in my mind, but the fat hand overwrought with rings extended to the drummer. A handshake of congratulations, I suppose. Perhaps I’m paranoid from the race.
    There was a crackly, crinkling sound next to my ear.
    An ungodly amount of bank notes was shoved into the captain’s awaiting hands.
    Sniffing, snuffling. Grisly snorts of murky chuckling among the men. Suddenly these weren’t the honorable companions who had brought us to victory. The true driving force was a sour shade of citrine and piss – greed. Greed was the lever and greed had set the rhythm of my stale hear.
    If I could see my own emotions, the blank white canvas would seethe with a rioting field of red hyacinths would’ve been smothered in a bed of dead autumn leaves, finally giving way to yellow carnations. 

    18/10/2020 - 足本 Full (HKT 18:45 - 19:00)



    Edges by Marcus Leung-Shea; Read by Atom Cheung

    He runs his hands down the side of the paper, the stack firm, exact.  The deep warm made it feel hewn of wood, yet could peel away into a hundred slices and soar into the wind.  He straightened the paper, and then his back, and carefully placed the stack back on the emptied shelf.  With two top corners of a sheet pinched in both hands, he stoops slowly through the low doorway and into the store front.  It was less of a store front and more of a rectangular room with a heavy oak table set in the middle, the size of a single bed.  It is eight o’clock in the morning precisely.  The morning sun peered in through the high windows, casting trapezoid slats like a four of diamonds across the face of the table where he places the sheet.


    She used to say that the paper would absorb the sunlight differently depending on the season.  It wouldn’t change the hue or texture, but how warm and alive it felt to the touch.  He never believed her, but he longed for what she said to have been true.  As he set the bundled set of mulberry branches into the steel pot for boiling and softening, through the steam he watched her sinewed forearms working the branches into position, her pale Japanese skin still warm and alive.


    Monday, he opens the paper shop to customers.  He runs his hands along the edges starting from the top and working his way down, straightening the paper and pressing it into the table.  He knows the paper is as flat as it can be, but this paper made from mulberry bark felt like silk with a pulse under his rough hands. This particular sheet has been finished, rubbed over with an agget stone, designed to be written on with an ink pen, used for formal invitations.  He used to remember what year and what season his paper was made, but with this final stack of paper, the sense of time is lost on him.


    The engaged couple arrived twenty minutes late to see the Paperman of Piura.  He brushed aside their cursory apologies and directed their attention on the sheet in front of him.  Breathing out slowly through his nose as the couple gazed down at this legendary sheet of choshi paper.  “It’s really nice.  I like it. It’s softer than I thought it would be.  Dear, what do you think?”  She didn’t reply. Just pinched her chin and tilted her head. “It goes well with the name cards,” he added.  Before she could reply, the old man wordlessly slid the paper out from under their gaze and returned the sheet to the store room where he called out, “This one is not right for you.”  Ten minutes passed before they realized he was not returning with another option, the couple let themselves out, the man apologizing to her for something the old man couldn’t quite hear.


    The first time he delivered the mulberry branches to their farm, the girl’s parents felt a dutiful pity toward the boy.  Without her consent, they asked him to apprentice at the paper workshop under her tutelage.  Though they couldn’t feed him or even to speak to him, their Japanese sensibility that a child should be shaped by constant labor and discipline was imposed on this undomesticated Peruvian boy from the village.  Acceding to her parents, she welcomed him with civility, suspicion and curiosity intermingled.  He was two years older,  but nobody knew, including himself.  But what he did know was that someone was watching over him for the first time.


    He gripped wooden mallets in both hands as she stood behind him with her hands wrapped around his, the copper ore of his skin accentuated her cloudy white fingers.  Without words, but with him as the willing marionette, she beat the mulberry plant fibers, rhythmically sending deep echoes from the rocks into the ground where they stood.  He felt her chest against his back rising with breath, exerting herself but never tiring, he thought her rhythm could continue for eternity, like the internal mechanism for the universes clock.


    It was a Wednesday, so he found himself in the basement clearing the drains beneath the pulp vats.  The inside of the basins were chalky, neglected for years since the last time he’d poured in the ghostly slurry. Since before pain wracked his body.  The walls where the sieves hang were once slick with steam now cracked and dried.  He ran his finger around the rim of the bottom pipe to dislodge a chokehold of slurry he knew wasn’t there.  With familiar motions he reached up from underneath the basin and pulled himself up by the wooden ledge of the vat.  Desiccated by time and neglect, the ledge gave way with a snap that echoed like  a gunshot in the echo chamber of the workshop.  Falling backwards, his skull clattered with the end of the drain pipe, a shock of pain seared through his mind.  Suddenly breathing hard, blood flowed through his fingers as he clutched his head and labored to his feet with eyes closed in a wince.  Laboring to his knees, then to his feet, then up the stairs as he spat vitriol at himself, baka baka.


    He sensed his usefulness most when they loaded the paper press with a post of sheets, deeply laden with pulp water.  His stocky mass could maneuver the stack between the metal plates with a single shove as she would begin the slow process of lowering the press using her body’s weight to drive short turns of a ratchet.  And it was then that her transformation would begin: with each tug of the ratchet and tightening of the press, she became silent and dark, almost vindictive.  A bold vein, a subcutaneous snake, would emerge on the side of  her neck.  He sensed the light drain out of her as she bitterly exorcised the water from the paper.  Once the press was set and locked, she would slink away silently, leaving him there to sit alone in the backyard on an upturned plant pot for hours as rivulets seeped slowly from the paper.  Anxiously he willed the water out of the paper, as if the sooner it drier the faster her light would return.  The mother and father would chuckle at the sight of this boy watching paper dry.  The girl too would pass by him she’d pat his shoulders and with a half smile and sing song voice say baka, baka.


    Thursday was responding to correspondence.  He pulled a beige shade down over the storefront window, pulled a stool up to the oak table and worked his way through a handful of mail. The first was a short typed letter from a thousand kilometers away, a printing shop in Lima inquiring about drying methods for large sheets.  The letter’s paper felt supple to his touch, its crests and contours like the moon’s surface was visible in the evening’s fading light.  He imagined the letter dropping into a postbox, then a postman’s duffel bag, hands sorting, then a large canvas bag on a train through the mountains where the moisture levels climb. He thought about the invitations he cut, bundled, and shipped out from his shop were pristine and crisp.  Virgin slabs of marble, still frozen and uncaressed.  He’d never known the feel or aroma of his invitations after being printed on, or hand written, or being tossed about in a postman’s duffel.


    She kneels besides stone pit filled with running water, her legs folded underneath her chest in tranquility.   Her arm extends like a seeking proboscis, retrieving a striation of boiled mulberry bark and bringing it within her eye’s keen inspection.  Once plucked clean of impurities, she spread it across grey river stones like mermaid hair.  He would kneel beside her until his knees and back screamed, pulling apart the bark for her fingers to pick through.  Though he wondered if this would cripple his knees for the rest of his life, he didn’t dare move.  A sideways glance, just long enough to catch the rising and falling of her curved spine, kept him in place.  As months passed, he knew the pain would crash over him but gradually fade away, so he could work side by side for hours, breathing, plucking, until every strand was declared pure.


    On Friday’s, using the glow of the morning sun, he held up each sheet and inspected the thickness, evenness  of pulp, and color tone.  He’d inspected this same stack of paper countless times.  With a loupe pinched between his thumb and index finger, he peered into the magnified contours of the paper where pulp emerged like mountain ridges and tributaries.  He remembers watching her grade the paper, her figure silhouetted against the window, the sun’s rays reflecting off her pure black hair.  He squeezed the loupe in his hand, the single possession of hers that he retained.  She never gifted it to him, but deputized him to use it until she returned from Japan, which she never did.


    He’d never heard her scream, except the time when a modest but muscular dog of unknown provenance darted through the ichu grass that bordered the backyard workshop.  They later surmised that it had managed to ford the river that bordered their land and was drawn by the smell of burning mulberry, which some farms used to smoke meats.  By the time she’d leaped to her feet and chased it off with a feral howl, the

    dog had broken a set of drying boards and flung flecks of dirt into the stone pit where the once pristine mulberry bark lay, ruining her days work.  Peering up at her from the ground, he saw blood beginning to ooze from a graze on her forearm as she cursed after the dog baka! Baka!  She looked down at his terror-stricken form on the floor and saw a glimpse of comprehension in his eyes.


    The shelf is empty now, the final sheets of paper finally vacated, but a sense of triumph eludes him.  In its place, a growing sense of solitude.  It was a diplomatic attaché from Lima who found himself the small port city of Paita untangling a dispute with a shipping company refusing to release some goods that had arrived from Japan.  Resolving the problem swiftly, he drove one hour east to Piura to meet the famous Paperman.  The attaché wore a tailored but conservative black suit, perfectly matched to his hair.  He spoke  diplomatically, yet was too direct to be an actual diplomat himself.  “Invitations for a cherry blossom festival,” the man started, “to celebrate the friendship between our two countries,” he said in his textbook Spanish. “Why not a mulberry tree festival?” the old man replied. He had meant it as a joke, banter, because who cares about mulberry trees, but the diplomat replied sincerely, “It is a good idea.  A symbol of our two countries.” The attaché sped away, paper bundled tightly in waxed paper and buckled into the front seat, and the old man raised his hand and began to call out to him and tell him to slow down.  Realizing he’d never be heard, he returned inside the shop, the door closing behind him.


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