Read by Daniel Levia
I was the last person you’d expect to get a tattoo.
Most people knew me as the quiet, geeky English-as-a-foreign-language teacher at a local school in Yau Ma Tei. But anything can happen after you’ve been drowning your sorrows in a nearby Mong Kok dive bar at 2am.
You see, I’d been having a rough time at school. I’d joined it a year before only to soon find my self-esteem being crucified everyday by the most vicious fourteen-year-olds, none of whom could understand how in this white man’s world such a pushover of a gweilo teacher had been handed to them to taunt, heckle and occasionally even slap or kick as they wished. Within the span of every lesson, it felt like centuries of colonial oppression around the world were being reversed and fully compensated for.
And so I found myself getting smashed one school night with my only colleague who spoke to me on a regular basis: Freddie Fung.
Now I do remember that after I’d bawled my eyes out to him, it was Freddie who suggested that the best way for me to reclaim my dignity was with a big diu lei to society like a tattoo.
But everything after that is blank. All I know is that it was the next morning when I caught a glimpse of my neck in the bathroom mirror. And I almost swallowed my toothbrush.
Two monstrous, unintelligible Chinese characters sat right across my throat. They looked like a stain on my very soul.
But I managed not to lose it completely. Winter was only just ending, I told myself, so I could get away with wearing a scarf at school for now. As for the long term, I’d simply have to get laser removal.
When I did get to school, I ran into a hungover Freddie Fung, his eyes full of sorrow and self-loathing.
“Freddie, what the hell happened last night?” I asked, trying to keep my voice low.
He wouldn’t answer. Instead, with an air of secrecy and shame, he unbuttoned the top half of his shirt to reveal a fresh small tattoo of a dragon.
“My wife wanted to cut it off with a cleaver last night,” he quivered.
“Whatever,” I said, “that dragon’s practically a mosquito. Now I need to show you something, and I need you to tell me what it says.”
As I lifted up my scarf, the shame on his face suddenly mutated into horror.
I grabbed his wrist. “What?!” I demanded. “What is it, dammit?!”
He was shaking now. “S… Sing Sun… the name of the most violent triad society in Hong Kong.”
I almost collapsed. The words themselves felt like a crowbar to my kneecaps. The characters on my neck might as well have signified a deadly curse. I knew I had to remove them immediately.
But I couldn’t do so soon enough.
Not before Suzy Cheng, a colleague who enjoyed teasing me in front of the others, spotted me with my scarf later in the staff room.
“Wai, winter’s over la!” she jeered. “You’re mummy still make you wear this?”
Then, as others began to look, she grabbed the scarf and whipped it off with a hideous titter.
Laughter began to erupt in the room, but then died a stillborn death in the air. Everybody looked at me as if a bomb was strapped beneath where my scarf had been. Looking most alarmed was the dean, who happened to be sitting right opposite me.
After a minute of wide-eyed silence, he ordered me into his office.
“Well, there’s not much to talk about,” he said once we were inside. “I take it you know staff are forbidden to have tattoos? And that you know they’re most definitely forbidden to be members of organized crime societies?”
For a second I was too terrified to speak.
But then suddenly I felt an inexplicable shift inside me, and almost before I was aware, I heard my own voice coming out more confidently than ever before in my life.
“Actually, there’s a fair bit to talk about,” I replied. “Let’s say your suspicions about me were right, and I am part of an organized crime society. I take it you know what could happen to anyone who fucks with such a society?”
I was amazed. It was the first time I’d ever used language like that in my life. But I was also amazed at watching the dean. It was the first time I’d ever seen somebody scared of me.
I continued, venturing that perhaps it was my turn to propose a few rules, and that these might just include a pay rise, fewer classes, and extra holidays for a certain staff member.
And thus I first discovered that my new tattoo was no curse at all, but a blessing. Yes, it might have been a stain on my soul, and all that other stuff my saintly, small-town mom and dad would say. But it gave me a bigger pair of balls than their saintly mix of genes ever did.
The dean loathingly accepted my requests. And things only got better from there. After word got around that I was head of the Yau Ma Tei chapter of Sing Sun, I started demanding lunch money everyday from all the brats who used to torment me. To make them feel extra humiliated, I had a weedy little nerdling named Herbert collect it from them.
Herbert had been the only student who ever treated me with respect, and they’d picked on him for it. “Never trust a teacher’s pet,” they’d said. And they were right. I gave my spectacled sidekick a ten per cent cut of everything we took from them.
There were other rewards. My colleagues who used to laugh at me for being the misfit gweilo now treated me with fearful respect. And I found Suzy, the one who’d teased me the most, starting to get flirty with me.
It all felt like I was finally enjoying the manhood that had been withheld from me my whole life.
Until one day around the middle of term, that is.
It seemed a day like any other at first. I was in the school carpark counting the day’s lunch money takings with Herbert. But this time, when I offered him his usual share, he spat and demanded the full amount.
I chuckled, thinking the former bully victim was developing a sense of humour.
I was expecting anything but the swift kick to the groin that he then dealt me.
After I collapsed on the ground, gasping, I looked up through tears and saw the tattoo artist now standing behind Herbert. Also behind him was Freddie Fung.
“Herbert?” I asked, sobbing. “What’s going on?”
“Please address me as big brother,” the fourteen-year-old said. “You’re talking to the head of the Yau Ma Tei chapter of Sing Sun. And your membership fees are long overdue.”
I felt like the manhood I’d recently thought was mine was suddenly being recalled by a loan shark. “But you?” I asked, now crying like the mama’s boy I suddenly was again. “Why?”
“Never trust a teacher’s pet,” he said. Then he kicked my short-lived self-esteem back into oblivion.