Lai Yuen

Lee Wai-Yi

Artwork by Miko Yu

The year was probably 1985.

It was a cold winter.

In those days, a lower-middle-class family could still rent a flat in Yau Ma Tei or Jordan that had a view of the sunset or the moon rising over the sea.

In those days, for a child from a lower-middle-class family, a trip to Lai Yuen was a dream within reach.

The father had to take his daughter to Lai Yuen on a very cold and cloudy day because it was the only time he had: he had to keep his promise, and her school results had improved. The prize that his daughter had waited so long for finally came. Excited, she woke up very early in the morning. Her mother made her wear many layers, and she waited by the front door with a small rucksack, swinging her white canvas shoes.

They finally reached Lai Yuen. When they got off the bus, the ticket office and park entrance were dim. The father's heart sank: oh no, the park is still closed!

The father had lived in Hong Kong for years, but he was always busy at work and had no extra money or time for places such as Lai Yuen; unsurprisingly, he had not checked the opening hours of the amusement park. He had barely managed to find a few hours to make his daughter's modest dream come true. He also had to leave for work in the afternoon, and that made him anxious.

They stopped a passing cleaner near the ticket office. The father was a polite man, and it took him a long time to ask a simple question. The daughter hung behind, waiting and hoping. Her father bent his head to her and smiled, "Don't worry, we only have to wait half an hour."

On the bus, the daughter had seen the Ferris wheel behind Lai Yuen's huge sign from afar. Despite the cold, she pressed her nose against the windowpane to gaze at their destination. Now that they were there, she was confused by not being able to get in. "Oh," she said.

There was nothing at the entrance to Lai Yuen, except a bus stop and a few cars scattered in the car park. Buses came and went, and no one got off. It was windy, and they huddled together in a corner. The father put his daughter's small hands between his own large ones and rubbed them. The daughter looked at the father's fat, calloused, oven-warm hands, and thought of the description of cacti in her science textbook. They were always referred to as being "fat and thick-skinned", just like her father's hands. "Cactus," she said to herself.

"Fairy?" the father was puzzled.

"Fat and thick-skinned, like your hands!" the daughter laughed, her eyes squinted up behind her plastic-framed glasses.

"Silly!" the father patted her on the head, and kept rubbing her hands. "My hands aren't prickly!"

Finally, a ticket seller ambled into the ticket office, and let them into the amusement park.

After entering the park, the father and the daughter looked around. The lucky-draw booths near the entrance hadn't been opened, the amusement rides were unmoving, and all they could hear was the sound of rubbish being blown along the asphalt by the wind. The father thought, what a waste of money buying these tickets, if nothing works! They are too expensive. He couldn't stop thinking about it, and didn't dare to look at his daughter. He held her cold little hand and took her around the place, searching for something that was open.

"I want to ride the Ferris wheel!" his daughter said.

"Okay," he said.

But there was no one at the control panel of the Ferris wheel.

They waited for a few moments, but no one showed up.

Their hearts sank again. The daughter said, "Let's ride the carousel?"

"Okay, we'll ride the carousel," the father said.

"We're just opening and the carousel isn't ready yet. Go do something else," a park attendant told them.

"What's ready?" the father asked.

"Don't know, why don't you look around yourself," the attendant said as he walked away.

The father thought of the look on his boss's face when he asked for leave. He felt cold. Suddenly, a cold little hand took his hand: "Let's go somewhere else." The father was encouraged and kept looking. They wandered among the motionless machines; they walked purposefully, with no goal in mind.

A sign saying "ZOO" caught the father's eye. He was excited: that's great, nothing's running, but at least there'll be animals in the zoo! "How about seeing the animals?" he suggested.

"Sure!" his daughter grew more hopeful when she saw his enthusiasm, and nodded hard.

But there wasn't so much as a bird chirping in the zoo. They walked past cage after cage labelled with the names of various animals, but all they saw were photos of the animals on the placards. They saw a man carrying two buckets, and the daughter asked in Cantonese, "Excuse me, where are the animals?"

The guy gave them a look, and laughed, "It's so cold they're all in bed! We're getting up early to wait on them." He turned away as he uttered the words.

"Look, a sheep!" the daughter suddenly exclaimed, staring and pointing forward. The father looked back, the daughter already dashed to the fence.

A dirty grey sheep stood there in the mud. It looked straight ahead and blinked its sleepy eyes. Wolves howled on distant hills. The father thought of himself as a young man, only just married, sent down to the village to herd sheep and listen to the wolves howl. He had to hold a rifle in his cold, cracked hands. The rifle was for frightening and chasing the wolves away, but he was not sure if he really met those howling wolves in the mountains, whether he would know how to fire or not. Fortunately, the wolves were animals that were heard but not encountered.

"Bah...bah..." his daughter clutched the fence and bleated like the sheep. "Papa, come look!" she said, turning to him. But the sheep ignored her and refused to cooperate: it just stood there, looking straight ahead and blinking its sleepy eyes. His daughter nudged him, "Papa, you did bring the camera, right?" The camera, one of the only small luxuries he permitted himself, which he had packed in anticipation. He took it out, adjusted the focus, and took a photo of his daughter with the sheep. As he pressed the shutter, he thought of his own father, that good-for-nothing who would spend his days either wandering the streets with his camera or hiding in the darkroom. Every time he needed a few extra cents for school fees or for food, he had to ask his uncle instead. When his daughter had been born in the wintry and freezing capital, the father remembered thinking, "Ha, lao zi is a father now! I will never be like my lao zi!"

The daughter ran around looking for something else she could have fun with, and found all kinds of things that she wanted him to take photos of:


"The Ferris wheel!"

"Bumper cars!"

"Haunted house!"

None of them were moving.

So the two had fun taking photos: they pretended to be robots, made believe they were on the Ferris wheel, drove imaginary cars, and scared each other by imitating ghosts in the haunted house...

She also found "Flowers!" and "Magic mirrors!"

When they got tired, they sat on a bench, drank from water that tasted of plastic from a bottle, and ate some bread with butter and sugar that her mother had prepared. The amusement rides had not started yet, and the father glanced at his watch; time to leave for work. Just as he was starting to feel anxious again, music-box music interrupted the stillness of the amusement park. They looked up right away and found that the carousel had started moving! The daughter leapt for joy, and her father lifted her onto a wooden horse. The music started again, and it sounded familiar to him. Isn't this Troika? He thought. How has the music-box tune turned it into such a happy song? The daughter knew nothing about the Volga River, the landowner, or the old horse. She rode the colourful wooden horse alone, imagining herself at the head of a pack of horses. When her horse passed in front of the father, she waved hard at him and called out, "Bye!" The father was taken by surprise. But he responded with an exaggerated smile and wave, as though the goodbye would take all his strength.

Troika came to an end, and the wooden horses stopped. The daughter said, "I want to ride the Ferris wheel."

"But Papa really has to go to work..."

His daughter stared at the ground. She thought about it, and plucked up the courage to suggest: "Then I'll go on the carousel again!"

On the bus on the way back, the sun finally came out.

The sun is like a big red flower, hanging in the eastern sky—"What's that song?" the father was shocked.

"We learned it at school," the daughter swayed her legs, and sang, The sun is like a big red flower, hanging in the eastern sky, its round face is shy like a rosy cloud, it smiles and never speaks. The sun is like a big pumpkin, hanging high up in the sky, it shines on the happy mountains. Tender grass springs out of the earth. It grins, its face beams, it rises again after setting low. I respect it, love it, I entrust my heart to it! When the drowsy sun returns home, I get a bit scared at night, tomorrow morning the moon will set and the sun will rise—"That's enough dear," the father patted his daughter's braided hair lightly. "You must be tired," he said softly. "You were up early this the morning. Take a nap."

The daughter wanted to cheer her father up because she saw his frown, that was why she sang her song. Now he wanted her to stop, guess that's okay, it's hard cheering someone up. The rays of winter sun felt good, and she slept in her father's arms...The father looked at the changing scenery outside the window, and thought of himself as a teenager: he had returned to the Mainland to escape the poverty his father had left him in. He often vomited during the weeks of travel by sea, and when they finally reached land, he thought that a paradise had been prepared for him...

Vague memories had been arranged into a tidy narrative.

In fact, even though I have been to many amusement parks since then, the only time I remember is an exceptionally cold winter morning, when my father and I tried as hard as we could to enjoy ourselves in an empty park. Until time was up.

translated from the Chinese by Charlie Ng Chak-Kwan

We would like to thank Louise Law and Fleurs des Lettres for their help in making this article happen.