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.
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.