I attended two different schools after primary school. At one of them, there were lots of strange occurrences: a body was once found by the school’s main door, which opened onto the cluster of houses built into the hillside to its front. A side entrance opened onto a notorious traffic black spot, where countless buses and container trucks came swooping along, the highway like the blade of a giant guillotine. The girls’ toilet on a certain floor had been filled in and sealed. Unmarked burial mounds. Stuff like that.
The side entrance off the highway was not to be used, or blood would spill. No one could confirm if that order had come directly from the principal. He was a well-known Tai Chi practitioner, coach of the Hong Kong team. He was also a feng shui master. Or so it was said. Every time the gate was opened, it wasn’t long before a student was hit by a car.
In the past, this school was a regular feature in the once very popular pulp books and magazines about the supernatural. It was all there in black and white. The students, the parents—everyone knew. The ghosts had nowhere to hide. Today I went looking for old news items online, but the information has mostly vanished. Nowadays, no one can say for sure it wasn’t all made up. The world wears a bright face, but underneath it, skeletons lie buried. When did the world’s exterior and interior start to move in different directions?
Listening to the radio was still a popular thing to do during our school years. Some of my classmates liked listening to ghost stories on the radio, feeding their hearts with shadows while they burrowed under the covers. We had no Ghost Hunter to livestream, but we did have all the dangerous and terrifying spirits from folktales and urban legends. Any of these could be summoned with a Ouija board, which cost ten Hong Kong dollars at the stationery shop.
When some classmates and I heard about a fellow student’s encounter with a ghost in one of the classrooms, we were thrilled. We planned a séance, to be held in secret at the school. When we got to the stationery shop, however, we all held back, afraid to say anything. Moving hesitantly up and down the narrow aisles, we fiddled with rulers and ballpoint pens, flicked through blank notebooks in the hope of turning a page and revealing words no one had noticed. Then we heard the voice, calling us over—a classmate waving the box of a counterfeit Beyblade spinning top. Back then, there wasn’t as much stuff as there is today. As kids in the housing estates, the only toys we could afford were the fakes in the housing estate shop, the ones that looked okay but were vastly inferior to the genuine items. In the end, we didn’t buy a Ouija board. We bought the tops and a cardboard spinner wheel instead, these second-rate but tangible things a backing away from our uneasiness.
We found a rear stairwell. Some of us squatted; others lounged. We ripped open the packaging, the shoddy cardboard boxes so soft they tore like moldy bread. Everyone became absorbed in putting together his top of choice. I struggled to assemble mine, the crude plastic connectors denying me at every turn, the recessed holes somehow utterly resistant to the pressure I applied. Eventually, I managed to force all the pieces into place. This interference with our plans stole the entire afternoon.
A few months ago, I attended a body rhythm workshop hosted by the choreographer Lam Chun-ho and the screenwriter and actor Li Yong-lei. In addition to dance, there were also components for theater and creative writing. The workshop was held at Tai Kwun, formerly the Central Police Station, Central Magistracy, and Victoria Prison. I hadn’t gone out of my way to look up anything about the big, high-ceilinged Cube where the activity took place—what it had been before and who had lived there; even so, nothing could stop the intuitive associations from forcing themselves into my head. Overly cramped bodies or historical afterimages once closed in by concrete walls and iron fences now swam uninhibited half a story up, wave frequencies undetectable to the naked eye: arms and legs flailed just above our heads, kicking us in our healthy, this-worldly skulls.
We followed the workshop leaders’ instructions, two strangers paired up at random, deft movements keeping a wooden rod upright between our extended index or middle fingers. Other than the soles of our feet, finger tips were our only physical points of contact with the external world, and the only points to relay external energy. We stood on a mat, stepping back and forth to a metronome’s rhythm as we made the rod hang in mid-air, twisting our bodies this way and that. At first, we didn’t speak; or we simply repeated a few words of whatever the previous pair had said until we had the knack of it. Only then did we begin to tune in to the words accumulating inside our bodies. It hurts. So hungry. The names of various foods. Lines of communication that had lost all form. Nonsensical answers.
More and more people came to stand on the mat. As the rods continued their trajectories between two extremes, people upped the complexity. They squatted in quiet contemplation, leaned backwards to dodge nonexistent arrows, absorbed an alternative direction of rotation. From time to time, however improbable, the independent movements of two people would coordinate, evoking a life scenario that appeared wholly plausible: sitting down to drink a cup of coffee became an argument, followed by an abrupt exit and an encounter with a reckless, relationship-severing vehicle—while another pair showed no inclination at all to erupt into violence as they moved carefully, solemnly through the turbulence.
Like Ouija board spirits, I said after the workshop. A mysterious will existed between the rods, separate from our physical gestures. The energy of friendly cooperation emanating from the other party would change form, grow or shrink into condescending malice or ambiguous artifice. Our instructors said to be bold; if the rod fell, nothing terrible would happen. I kept the rules of summoning spirits to myself: pull back your hand and a ghost dragged you away.
Headed home. Entering the subway car, we always looked for a spot with a handrail. Passing through station after station—when we arrived at an interchange station, for instance—the solid and indisputable tactility of that metal bar would gradually dissolve. Moist greasiness. Viscous skin. This a situation that became even more obvious during July and August, when heat seemed to pass from the narrow bar into our bodies, instead of the other way around. I began to wonder: who had leaned against the handrail while they embraced and kissed? Who had wept? When might someone hold the handrail while kneeling? Are you like me, right down to a subtle awareness of the fear, hurt, and benedictions that unknown individuals have left behind? For no reason at all, we suddenly perceive another space and time that continues to exist, or an object or person already gone, come from some in-between place.
I left Tai Kwun, left the workshop’s human Ouija board. The Beyblade top and cardboard wheel of all those years ago had been set spinning again. Had there been three or four classmates in that rear stairwell? In the end, I had not become fast friends with them like the teenagers in manga. We maintained a polite cordiality. My Beyblade had put up a violent struggle atop the cardboard wheel, blasting across it in an explosive surge just as it was designed to do. But its trajectory was strange. Rather than saying it ricocheted or glided, that its movements were defensive or offensive, it would be better to say that the toy’s pointed axis faltered across the board, inscribing a planchette’s transparent, unfathomable language. After a while, the whole thing was jostled apart, falling to pieces long before I was ready to call it a day, its parts strewn over the stairs. Back to the way it looked in the beginning. Our houses, stairwells, and prisons are a spirit board, and we are the words written across it, ground into dust.