The Unwalled City

Excerpt from chapter one

March 1995

In the reception area of JB&D, Andanna You Fun Lee paced, glancing impatiently at her watch. Gwailo photographers, always late. Why had she accepted this assignment anyway, killing her only free day? She despised modeling and this whole ad agency scene. But the money was good, and playing hotel lobby piano gigs didn’t pay the rent. Sometimes, she wished she’d stayed in Vancouver where everything was cheaper and no one complained about what she did since she was far enough away. It was just too boring there though. Despite all its transplanted Hong Kong life, it wasn’t the real thing.

She glanced at the pictures adorning the walls. A section titled “FMCG’s” was empty. When she’d met Jake Wu, the agency’s creative director a year ago, he had called her that and laughed. Pretending to know, she had laughed along with him even though she suspected an insult. Fast Moving Consumer Goods. Every agency’s rice bowl and the work the creatives hated. Andanna knew that JB&D paid the most, had the best facilities, and handled the highest profile fashion accounts. Next to the empty wall space hung a framed testament to their success: the 1994 agency of the year award for Asia. But that was last year, and this year, what she’d been hearing was that they’d lost two of their big FMCG’s. Easy come easy go, just like her piano gigs. The modeling jobs, on the other hand, were there as long as she could play the part.

“Andanna?” Vince da Luca introduced himself, apologizing for his tardiness. They shook hands.
She took in the photographer, a tired-looking, middle-aged American. A bit thick around the waist, he didn’t look shaved, although perhaps, she decided, he simply had too much hair.

They headed towards the studio area, past rows of open cubicles lining the window. JB&D’s office was at the east end of Hong Kong island, and their premises in Taikoo Shing framed a perfect view of the airport runway across the harbor. A green and white Cathay Pacific plane rose towards the clouds. Behind it, a purple and gold Thai International aircraft waited in line for takeoff. Sunday afternoon traffic jam.

“Did you just graduate from college?”

The photographer’s voice interrupted her thoughts. She had been thinking about Albert Ho, whom she’d run into last Saturday night at Club 97. He hadn’t called even though he said he would. Men.

“Ages ago. Almost three years.”

“Oh, what did you study?”

He didn’t want to talk, did he? She hated these foreign guys who tried to draw her out. Everyone knew that all they wanted was to fuck. “Music.”
“That’s cool.”

Mentally, her eyes rolled. But she remained polite, smiling. No point being rude. He couldn’t help being old. Of course, Albert wasn’t all that young either, but not only did he like her music, he was rich. Very rich. Perhaps she could get him to fund a music video or CD. It wasn’t as if she were interested in him for anything else.

At the art department, Jake Wu was trying to sort out which outfit would be used for the shot. The assignment was for some Italian sounding designer brand which Andanna had never heard of. She picked up a very short, lime green dress with orange flowers that was absolutely hideous. The price tag read HK$4,500 or ¥52,000, half of almost a month’s rent for the 300-foot flat she shared with her boyfriend. “That’s it, put that one on,” he yelled in Cantonese, gesturing towards the bathroom. She made a face and he snorted. “Women,” she heard him say, “always so critical.”

When she returned, the photographer was setting up. Jake was telling him about the house he was restoring in Beijing. “One of those old places with a courtyard, you know the kind? I’m preserving all the historic detail but modernizing the plumbing and putting in central air. It’s not far from Tiananmen, about a ten minute taxi ride. Very convenient. You come as my guest some weekend, okay?” He gazed meaningfully at the photographer, his fingers lightly brushing the hair on his arm.

It was ludicrous, Andanna thought, the way Jake ran after Western men. She knew that was the only reason this guy had the assignment, since he wasn’t one of the regulars. Couldn’t Jake tell this one was straight? Jake was one of the hot directors, but for all his talent, he could be a total dope.

The photographer continued setting up. It astonished her how much time was spent lighting and preparing to get one silly shot. And the rolls of film these photographers went through! Could the creatives who hired her really see any difference in all those rows of contact sheets? In the past year, she’d turned down a couple of local art photographers who had asked her to pose. After all, they couldn’t pay much and it wasn’t like she was a real model. Would they work as slowly as this guy?

He framed her through his camera. “Photogenic.”

“Really?”

“Sure. Andanna’s a pretty name, by the way.”

“Thank you,” she replied automatically, thinking, no it wasn’t, now that she knew better. All her friends had made up their English names too when they were thirteen. Living in Canada, she had come to realize how ridiculous that was. Thank god she’d at least not accidentally used a real English word like her best friend Clitoris Ho — pronounced “Cly-toris” to rhyme with fly — who survived the embarrassment when they’d first got to Vancouver for grade twelve. She went by Clio now, but had thought the whole thing a big joke. Andanna would have died if it had happened to her.

“Did you go to school abroad?”

This guy didn’t give up! Perhaps she should tell him she already had a boyfriend, although that probably wouldn’t stop him. It didn’t stop other gwailoes.

“Yeah, Canada.”

“No wonder you speak English well.”

“Thanks.” She smiled but knew he was just looking for an opening. When she was growing up, she hated studying English. The grammar was difficult, and no one spoke it anyway. Her father, who was in business, wanted her to master it because he believed it would be important for her future. He insisted she study abroad, saying her English would improve faster. She had wanted to go to the Academy of Performing Arts at home with her friends. If her mother hadn’t begged her to go for the passport, and if Clio hadn’t been going, she would have refused. Music was easier. Tones sang in her head and her fingers obeyed. Fortunately, Mother didn’t give her a hard time about English, but then, she didn’t speak it all that well either. As long as she knew the language, Andanna couldn’t see why speaking mattered.

Over in Vancouver, it hadn’t mattered, except in high school classes. She hung around with Clio all the time and spoke Cantonese. Clio liked speaking English and made Canadian friends. What was the point of making friends you’d never see again? Andanna knew she was going home. Fortunately, music teachers didn’t talk a lot, even in Vancouver. Once in college, she avoided classes where speaking up contributed to the grade. Since she’d been back, however — was it already three years? — she found herself holding conversations in English with foreigners at her hotel gigs. So maybe the old man had a point, even if he didn’t like what she did. English helped her make money.

“Vincent . . .” Jake began. He had come around from his side of the art table and was standing right next to the photographer.

“It’s Vince,” he corrected, lighting a cigarette. “I’m ready, let’s work.”

Jake turned towards Andanna and went all businesslike.

“Over there,” he barked, “and make like Lolita.”

“Lo-who?”

“Kids today. Don’t know anything.” Jake was huffing, hands on his waist, disgusted.

Vince ambled over to her and pulled up a tall stool. “Here, sit-lean on this. Legs slightly apart, one foot on the rung of the stool. Tip your head forward and pretend you don’t want your boyfriend to kiss you.”

She tried to do what he asked, feeling like an idiot. It wasn’t working. Jake was becoming increasingly impatient which irritated her. But she didn’t know what he wanted. It had been much easier last time for that sanitary napkin ad. All the brief demanded was that she look “fresh as a morning sunrise.” Vince seemed reasonable, patiently suggesting different poses. After about thirty minutes of this, Jake finally blew up with “oh, give me a break, what does he have to do, fuck you?” in Cantonese, so Vince wouldn’t understand.

“I don’t need this shit,” she said coldly, in English, and began to walk towards the bathroom. She didn’t care if Jake gave her a lot of work or paid big bucks; it didn’t give him the right to yell at her.

“Okay, time out,” Vince declared. “You,” he pointed at Jake. “Out of here. I’ll get this done myself.”

Jake resisted, face simmering, and then flounced off. Andanna glared at Vince. “Now what?”

“Relax. Sit a minute.” He gestured at the vending machine. “Want something?”

“Diet Coke.”

He handed her one. “By the way, what was that he said?”

She tilted the popped can to her mouth. Hesitant, surprised at her own coyness, she translated Jake’s remark. Vince laughed, but quickly turned it into a cough saying, “how rude of him.” She felt suddenly better about being here, about doing this ridiculous assignment and smiled, genuinely happy for the first time in days.

He picked up his camera. “So what d’you think of all this?” “Borrr-ring,” she said. He shot her. “And the dress?” “Want to rip it off.” “Who’d buy it?” “Girls trying to be foreign, trying to be fashionable.” He took more shots. “So why’re you doing this?” “Need money.” Andanna realized he hadn’t stopped shooting. Whatever he was doing, she hoped it was right because she didn’t want to have to listen to Jake grumble.

They wrapped an hour later. Vince barely looked at her as she departed, although he did wave a cursory good bye. For just a second, that bothered her. But she forgot it as soon she boarded the MTR beneath Taikoo Shing, heading back, home to Sheung Wan.

Copyright © 2001 Xu Xi (aka S. Komala)