Fan Te Xi (範特西) died while I was studying his book on endangered species in the Amazon. Ten years ago, I had the good fortune to meet Mr. Fan in the City of Water Alley (禾日水巷, also known as City W). Mr. Fan was an enthusiastic traveller and learner. I was (and I still am) fascinated by his vision of the field of zoology. At that time, he had already aspired to complete an encyclopedia about the imaginary species in the world cities, including Tokyo and New York. As I have known, Mr. Fan’s death was a tremendous loss to the world of academia, but it is heartbreaking to see a lack of any obituary, which would affirm his efforts and contributions. In the hope of commemorating this scholar, I request the permission from his parents to publish his incomplete notes of the imaginary beings in City W.
NOTES ON THE IMAGINARY CREATURES IN CITY W
These travelling notes were found in Mr. Fan’s handwriting. The pictures were attached in his memorandum-book. The subtitles were not the author’s. They were designed for the sake of clarity of expression.
The most difficult part of a journey is the first step. I am heading to a legend of a sleepless city, the City of Water Alley. Beyond the oval glass is an illuminated land – but unlike Les Vegas and Macau – the boundaries are encompassed by a veil of paleness. (Am I flying towards the shore or away from it?) I withdraw my consciousness and project it to the book cover of National of Voyage Round the World in HMS Sulphur. This British captain, Edward Belcher, had seen a giant toad on the sea when his navy ship was reaching the destination. In the appendix, he had even attached his sketching on the monster, which later became the first colonial map of the island. My thoughts are interrupted by the plane announcement. Still failing to acquire a sense of direction, I look out again and meet the shining eyes of the creature.
The Giant Toad on the Victoria Harbour
After having a proper sleep, I begin to scrutinise my memory. At that particular moment, the wet body of the toad was lightened by its red eyes. Using the coastline as a measure, I estimate that its size can reach approximately twenty-seven football fields. In the Chinese classics, including the Water Margin and Dream of the Red Chamber, there is a proverb “a toad lusting after a swan’s flesh” (癩蛤蟆想吃天鵝肉). This saying is still widely used in daily conversation, which means someone “craves for what one is not worthy of”. Since this, the toad would appear to be considered an inferior and undesirable being (I doubt that Belcher had thought of this too), but this is not true. Mostly forgotten by the new generations, the toad is a mythological symbol of the moon. According to the Chinese folktale, before the goddess Chang’E flew to the moon, a three-legged golden toad had already inhabited in the moon. Tamed by the hero, Lau Hai, the monstrous toad lost one leg and learned to be sincere. With its supernatural power in multiplying money, the golden toad assists the hero in spreading wealth to the poor. Doubtlessly, the giant toad that I encountered is the generation of the moon. The negative image of the toad, I suspect, is created by the inhabitants’ mistrust on the magical potential of their land.
The Unicorn (qi-lin) of City W
In Chinese culture, the four typical magic creatures are the unicorn, phoenix, tortoise and dragon. According to Borges’s The Book of Imaginary Beings, the Chinese unicorn is an auspicious symbol, which “has the body of a deer, the tail of an ox, and the hooves of a horse”. On its forehead is a pair of short horns. Its coat is piebald of five colours and its belly can be brown or yellow. The unicorn is a gentle animal that “when it walks it is careful not to tread on the tiniest living creature and will not even eat live grass but only what is dead”. The zoological records about the Chinese unicorn are extremely limited, though even a child would know that it is a good omen.
A few days before, I had visited the Che Kung Temple and heard that the qi-lin had knocked down a local politician. Initially, I insisted that this was an exaggeration, since such a soft-hearted creature would hardly bring harm to humans. But this incident appeared to be very appealing to the local people. The next morning, the incident made the headlines: “The Qi-lin upheld Justice at Che Kung Temple”. Seeing my perplexed face, the store keeper told me that the qi-lin would only show itself before the birth of an upright ruler or a saint (like Kong fu-zi), thus its presence must foretell something about the local politics. Being unable to settle my doubts, I can only conclude that the unicorn of the City W has evolved according to the local imagination, and thus possessed (or preserved) a critical spirit.
The Floating Fishes in Tung Choi Street
When I look at the map of City W, I feel ashamed of my failure to identify two types of vegetables, the Tung Choi and the Sai Yeung Choi. (Indeed, what are the differences?) Because of this confusion, I fail to recognise the distinctness of the two streets which embodied these names. Later, from Dung Kai Cheung’s Atlas: Archaeology of an Imaginary City, I learn that the Tung Choi represents summer and Sai Yeung Choi signifies winter. Yet, what draws my attention to Tung Choi Street are neither the vegetables nor the street names, but the floating fish. Fish are incredibly intelligent and adaptable creatures. Contrary to popular misconception, their memory capacity can range from 12 days to half a year, but they are still often misunderstood or underestimated by humans. Indeed, the best way to conceal the shame of being ignorant, as I know, is to place the others in a subordinate position.
The only witnesses to the floating fish are an old lady and her grandson, but the grandmother had passed away two weeks before my arrival. As the grandson, Mr. Yu, spent his childhood in his family shop, he has developed his own theory about fish. According to Yu, he saw the fish of the whole street floating in midair when he was ten years old. He can still remember how his grandmother was fascinated by seeing the clownfish and blood parrots flutter around the shop. For sure, none of his neighbours believed his words, because he can provide no evidence for his observation. Before my departure, Mr. Yu picked a normal goldfish for me as souvenir. He said that all the goldfish in his shop are familiar with the history of his family and this street. To prevent the loss of memory, they transfer their stories to the others, by a language that humans are too naïve to understand.
Back at the hotel, I check the date when Yu met the floating fish. There was no special report in the local news, except a humpback whale stranding near Lamma Island. I look at my souvenir, which is also looking at me, as if we are gazing at something far away from us – it may be the sea, or the shore. At that night, I heard someone has whispered during my dream:
They never in the least expected
and they could never believe
that you’d come because of this place
that you’d come because of them
and that you’d come to bring them the ocean’s warning…
LOCAL NEWS REPRORT ON CITY W
A British-born Chinese zoologist, Fan, was found dead in the Oriental Hotel. The police believed that his death was due to an overdose. His parents said his habit of mixing prescribed medications with alcohol was unknown to them. The police believed that there was no foul play and no reason to doubt his cause of death.
Paulina Lee is a BA graduate in Stylistics and Comparative Literature (Class of 2015). [Click here to read all entries by Paulina.]