The Coolie on the Verge

Marco Ng

Marco Ng

It was an ordinary weekday in July, but indeed extraordinary in terms of its temperature. The news lady decently dressed on the television screen claimed it was one of the most grueling scorching days this year. Preventing themselves from being melted, local dwellers resorted to bottles of refreshing juice and effective performing air conditioners that can grant them cool. While nobody seemed to notice that in the small alley behind the Starbucks in Tsing Yi Mall, instead of sitting on a cozy sofa reading poems (like what a group of college students were doing in the café), Charles, an assiduously working coolie, was trapped in a suffocating container with innumerable bags of heavy white flours lied on his broad and reliable shoulders. He capably moved to and forth from the edge of the lorry to the inner cell which was too dark for pedestrians to glimpse into even standing at the tail of the lorry.
By the time I was still an ignorant kid, I was accustomed to be nurtured by grandma with plentiful lectures on the importance of academic excellence, in a repetitive and incessant manner. To deter me from being lazy or turning out to be a mediocre, grandma invariably threatened me with a bunch of arduous professions like farmers and coolies (and even the humiliating beggars). Her words were effective to me in some extent (thanks to my impressionable, if not gullible, personality), and more importantly, entrenched in my mind a hardly reversible, negative perception on the blue-collars – I thought they deserve physically demanding tasks, as a logical result of their laziness in early years. Though my grandma's theory may hold some water, fate differs from every individual, and I didn't start ruminating on the bitterness of a marginalized blue-collar in this gorgeous metropolis until I befriended Charles, a veteran lorry driver who turned to be a coolie after his informal "retirement".
He sighed out several circles of smoke, and the smell of cigarette infiltrated every corner of the alley. I kept my mouth shut and veiled, but I didn't groan nor make a grumble. I knew cigarette to Charles, could be even more crucial than the rejuvenating morning tea to me. His eyeballs are round and beautiful, somehow sparkling, unlike those blurry cataract eyes which a normal old man in his age usually possesses. Glancing through his watery pupils, I could see how strenuous the road he had gone through along the years.
Following a cluster of yelling and screaming from a young leader, herds of youngsters resemble groups of wild monkeys, dressed in red and flocked into every apartment to snatch whatever valuable in the houses. Teenage Charles tightened his mother's arm, attempted to rescue her from the plight of being tattered and battered by the group of rebellious youths. Two of his famished brother and sister had already died, due to starvation several days before, when the onslaught of Cultural Revolution finally loomed over their village. He found life insanely hopeless, seeing his tears and sweats and blood mixing up together dropping to the messy ground, where lively grasses turned into deadly corpses and pristine blue lake into a pond of bloody red water. Cries and yells, pain and misery penetrated the entirety of his world.
It was not the first time I hear his deplorable past encounters, but my feelings of pity and empathy towards Charles didn't fade over time. It was not his indolence which drove him towards the blue-collar status, but his misfortunes, coined in Chinese, his "predestined fate".
Our conversation paused and fell into several minutes of silence. His skin was still shining in wet, with white powders scattering ubiquitously on his sweating body. It reminded me of the white traces left on fingerprints after holding a piece of chalk writing on blackboard. Such experience is joyful, yet such for him was not.
The burning sun was setting, and it splashed the sky with plum red. Feeling embarrassed, he wiped his eyes and clothed himself. We left the alley and proceeded to a restaurant for dinner, not even turning our head back to the two middle-aged women sitting along the window in Starbucks, whom I believed gossiping on Charles throughout the conversation.
When I heard from a mother at the neighboring dining table who urged her son to study hard and intimidated him with the term "coolie", I smiled as I love Charles' sparkling eye, and I despised upon remembering the years living in my grandma's fallacy.

We love sharing Short Stories