Pukeahu Anthology

A Shilling

Alison Wong is a New Zealander of Chinese descent. Her novel As the Earth Turns Silver (2009), set in the Mount Cook / Te Aro area of Wellington, portrays a relationship between a Chinese immigrant and a New Zealand European woman in the early twentieth century, the era of the poll tax and of the notorious white supremacist Lionel Terry, who murdered a Chinese man in Haining Street in 1905. Unlike the Haining Street imagined by the characters in Hyde’s Little Houses, Haining Street in this excerpt is a place to go for ‘soupy wontons and noodles.’

Photographic copy of a part of the <i>New Zealand Mail, </i> 1904, including a photograph of Haining Street, Wellington.
Photographic copy of a part of the New Zealand Mail, 1904, including a photograph of Haining Street, Wellington.
1/2-C-012470-F. Alexander Turnbull Library.

They had just turned into Tory Street, past Mount Cook Police Station, Chung-shun and his younger brother Chung-yung, on their way to Haining Street for soupy wontons and noodles. A late Sunday morning, the sun shining with the heat of ripening fruit, the wind for once not too vigorous. Yung whistled some folk ditty, oblivious to gweilo rules that made whistling, singing anything but hymns, and playing the piano on Sundays frowned upon. Shun merely frowned. His leg ached and made him lose all appreciation of the one day of the week when the shop was closed. He did not notice the calmness of the day, the lack of dust and grit swirling from the road to assail their eyes and coat their skin and clothes and hair. He did not notice the man approach them.

Yung saw the man coming. Even from a distance there was something strange about the way he walked, an ambling stiffness. As they got closer, Yung saw the man’s eyes focus upon him, saw his face spread into a toothless grin. He watched as the man walked up to them, stood too close (the stink of stale piss and unwashed clothes) and said through sunken cheeks, ‘Gif me a shilling.’

Yung held his breath and stepped back, looked the man over. He was a good four inches shorter and very thin, and there was something wrong with his eyes. His hands were hidden in the pockets of his dirty oversized coat, and for a moment Yung considered whether he might be concealing a weapon.

‘What for?’ he asked.

Yung could see him thinking. ‘Haaaf you aaany muun-neee?’ the man said slowly, his face loose, his lips hollowing into his gums. ‘Muun-neeee.’

Yung smiled. ‘I haaf muuneee,’ he said. He slapped his pocket, rattling the coins.

The man pulled his hands out of his pockets, held up his fists. ‘Gif it to me or I’ll…’

Yung laughed. Muuneee.

He turned and walked back towards the police station. He hummed. He liked the solid red brick building, the black and white brickwork forming arches above the windows and doors, the imprints of arrows stamped into the bricks. If he didn’t think about the prisoners who’d made them, then he found it amusing, the way the bricks were placed so randomly, sometimes with the arrow facing inwards and hidden from sight, sometimes out, sometimes pointing to the left, sometimes to the right. They were like clues left behind at the scene of a crime, a scene that had been contaminated by reporters, curious onlookers, bumbling policemen.

He walked into the coolness of the building, across the geometric tiled floor, past the staircase, to the room where Constable Walters sat in the depths of the building. They knew each other well. The constable often passed by the shop on his nightly patrol and Yung would offer him a banana or a ripe pear, taking comfort from knowing the police were around.

Constable Walters rose from his desk, and as they came back out onto the street they saw the man hurry in the opposite direction and disappear down Frederick Street. The constable followed but soon lost him.

When he returned, red faced and breathing heavily, he asked what the man had looked like. Yung described a man in his forties, no, thirties (gweilo always look older than Tongyan), about this high — he motioned with his hand — light hair, no teeth … Shun described the man’s big red nose.

‘Shun Goh,’ Yung said, addressing him politely as elder brother, ‘all gweilo have big red noses.’ He turned back to the constable. ‘Nose just like you,’ he said, ‘and here…’ He touched the right side of his jaw, trying to describe a scar but not knowing the words. ‘He velly stupid,’ he added.

After the constable had gone, Shun berated his brother, throwing his hands in the air. Why tell the gweilo he had money la? Why shake his pockets? Was he mad? After he walked off the gweilo harassed him for money too!

Yung wanted to laugh but he had to show respect. He tried to explain — after all the man was harmless, a simpleton, no more — but Shun wasn’t listening. How come Yung was so stupid? Just two months ago Ah Chan was beaten up in the street. Didn’t he know how dangerous it was?

Yung closed his ears. Already he was dreaming up a couplet. About a man with no teeth and half a mind, about a confusion of arrows and no idea which way to go.