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Book Jacket

0830743280
Trade Paperback
256 pages
May 2007
Regal Books

Chasing the Dragon

by Jackie Pullinger

Review  |   Author Bio  |  Read an Excerpt

Excerpt:

1

The Trail of Blood

The guard spat into the alley but nodded quite kindly and allowed me to pass. I left him there squatting in his soiled T-shirt. Having no further interest in me, he removed one of his flip-flops and returned to picking his black toenails. The entrance he was so ceremoniously guarding was almost hidden, and I had to squeeze between two dark buildings as I crept into this strange Chinese “city” so feared by the people of Hong Kong.

The darkness blindfolded me for a moment, and although I knew the way well by this time, I stepped very cautiously along the narrow lane that was barely wide enough for one to walk. I kept my eyes lowered on the ground for two reasons: to avoid stepping on nameless horrors, and so fall into the open sewer, and to avoid presenting an upturned face to the windows above, which intermittently spewed their refuse onto the street below. I clapped my hands to make the rats run, but some of them were so tame that they sat arrogantly in what they obviously regarded as their territory; it took several loud claps to shift them.

Then I saw it—a small spot of red gleaming in the filthy mud, and a little way ahead several more drops. It was certainly fresh blood. My stomach gripped into a tight knot, for I feared that I knew whose blood it was. Ah Sor had been given to me by a magistrate to look after as a son for one year. Then a Triad group, nicknamed Seui Fong, came after him to slash him over some unfinished gang business. It seemed that they had found him. As I hurried on, I saw glistening patches ahead and stepped past two more tin-man-toi—the watchmen for the Triad gangsters who controlled the Walled City. They knew me and yielded as I passed; their faces showed nothing.

I turned a corner into another street, indistinguishable in its foul broken-walled buildings from the last except that it contained the main gambling den operated by the brothers of the 14K gang. I continued past the evil archways of the opium dens where more watchers leaned, nodding and dozing and seeing nothing. The gap between the hovels here was barely an arm’s stretch wide, so I stepped into a doorway to avoid bumping into a crazed looking dope addict who was walking somewhere very quickly.

Up the next street, the patches of blood lay in clusters. I couldn’t run in this stinking maze—it was too slippery and dark—but I was impatient to find the source of the blood. Yet I dreaded it, too.

I reached the main street, one of the few that were lit inside the Walled City. I had to walk more carefully now as I passed another gambling den, slimy outside with urine-soaked earth. The prostitutes recognized me and called from their orange boxes outside the blue film theatre. “Miss Poon, Poon Siu Jeh, will you help us?” They put out their hands, the backs of which were scarred with needle marks—their aged faces almost without hope. Then I turned into my little alley to the room I rented and opened at night to welcome the Chinese gangsters.

Outside, I found a large dark puddle. The shadowy people around looked unconcerned. “Please, what’s happened?” I asked fearfully.

An old Cantonese man shook his head and muttered, “Nothing, nothing.” But the others looked away. In a place controlled by Triads, you keep your hands over your eyes to survive. It is safer to see nothing—to not be involved. Then a woman appeared with a broom and a bucket and swept the blood down the street until it was absorbed and obliterated. Several barefoot children, babies strapped to their backs, played as if nothing were happening.

Full of fear for Ah Sor, I unlocked the iron gate—a protective feature of all Hong Kong dwellings, however poor—and went into our small clubroom. It was dark, damp smelling and hard to keep clean, as there was no water supply for the inhabitants of the Walled City. What water they needed had to be carried in buckets from taps and stand pumps outside. Terrible things crawled out of the sewers and across the clubroom walls. I was always more afraid of the large cesspool spiders than the gangsters, but that night as I sat alone in our room, my thoughts were on Ah Sor.

His mother had sold him as a baby to a childless opium addict who was frightened of going to hell without a son to worship his dead spirit. Thus, Ah Sor grew up with a desperate sense of betrayal—longing to be loved, but unable to recognize it when offered. In fact, “Granny”—the addict’s mother—loved Ah Sor fondly, but as she was also a seller of heroin, her influence on his life could hardly be called refining.

To counter-balance his sense of total unbelonging, Ah Sor joined a Triad gang. It gave him prestige and a place to belong. He grew up fighting and earned his first spell in juvenile prison at the age of 13. Over the years I had come to know of his life and problems and had tried to help him, but he continued to go in and out of prison and was as hopelessly hooked on drugs as was his addict stepfather. I felt that I really loved him, but this love had not changed his life a bit, and so I sat on one of our crude handmade benches in the club and did the only thing I could—I prayed.

Five minutes later, a girl burst into my room, panting, “Miss Poon, go to the hospital immediately, Elizabeth Hospital—they called for you!”

“Who is it there—is it Ah Sor?” I was so relieved that there was some news at last.

“I just have to tell you to go quickly—something about dying.” The girl disappeared into the dingy labyrinth. She was only a message carrier and knew nothing more.

I locked up and collected a couple of boys I knew on the way out. We raced back through the alleys as fast as we could, and once outside the Walled City, they hailed a taxi.

“Quickly, quickly, Elizabeth Hospital! Maybe our friend die!! More quickly!”

Hong Kong taxis need no encouragement to speed, and our driver mentally slew the other drivers. He zigzagged in and out of the traffic lanes, driving deliberately with only one hand on the steering wheel, never slowing but crashing on his brakes at the last moment. My hands were clenched—I was praying and thinking and racing all at the same time. Maybe my friend die, I thought in Cantonese. What a miserable kind of half-life Ah Sor had lived, and how I longed to show him something better. If only he could know that somebody cared.

“God, please save his life—let him be saved,” I prayed. The driver was, by now, bouncing up and down in his seat with excitement, and for several terrifyingly long moments he took his eyes completely off the road and swung around in his seat to observe the macho impression he was making on us. By this time, we were all praying out loud. As if finding the Casualty Department were a surprise, our taxi screeched to a sudden halt, and we leaped out to find Ah Sor before he died.

But it was not Ah Sor who was dying. It was Ah Tong. It was his blood that had left that sinister trail along the streets. I had only known Ah Tong by reputation as one of the most depraved gang leaders. He lived off prostitution and used his gang followers, such as Ah Sor, to make collection from the brothels. Even among his own kind he was despised because he used to go to parties, seduce young girls and then sell these ruined lives into the rackets.

As we waited in the passage outside his ward, I learned more of the story. Apparently, the Seui Fong gang had hidden down a dark alley near my room, armed with knives and water pipes. This was reciprocal warfare over a brother who had been wronged years previously. The target was Ah Sor.

As Ah Sor moved toward the street with Ah Tong and another brother, he was unaware of the ambush. A knife glinted; the gang jumped and made for their victim. But Ah Tong saw them coming and threw himself in the way to protect Ah Sor. Ah Tong’s arm was slashed until it was nearly severed before the attackers left him lying in a pool of his own blood. Ah Sor, with the other brother, ran home, fetched a mintoi (Chinese eiderdown) and wrapped up their protector, their gang boss. They staggered with him along the streets until they reached an exit and could take a taxi. After delivering their burden to the hospital, they fled. (There are police at hospitals who ask questions about gang fights, and they did not want any report of this incident.)

Another brother relayed this story before he, in turn, disappeared, but the only information I could extract from the nurse was that the patient would almost certainly lose his arm, if not his life.

Sitting there on the hard hospital seat, I thought over what I had heard. I grew more and more impressed with the behavior of the man I had yet to see. All right, he was evil and lived a revolting life, but I felt he had also shown a rare degree of love. Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”1 Ah Tong had been ready to die.

I rang up some friends and told them to come to the hospital, and we stayed there all night praying for Ah Tong’s life. When his family turned up, they stood aghast at our totally incomprehensible behavior. What were we, good people—Christians even—doing praying for their son? To them he was bad. He had left their home young, ran the streets, organized the gangs, and merited only a turning by on the other side.2

At last, the sister gave us permission to enter the ward. I heard the Chinese nurses telling each other, “They’re pastors, come to pray.” Dressed as I was in old jeans and a sweater, I could understand their curious stares. We were hardly a conventional group come to administer the last rites in the middle of the night.

I stood by the bedside and looked at Ah Tong. He lay desperately pale from loss of blood, with drips in his uninjured arm and a huge wad of dressing over the sutured injury. He was deeply unconscious still. Afraid to disturb his bandages, we cautiously laid our hands on him and prayed for him in Jesus’ name. He did not immediately sit up, although I believed he might, and as long as we were there he did not recover consciousness.

The bulletins from the hospital each day thereafter, however, were extraordinary. It seemed that Ah Tong was making amazing progress—almost miraculous? And then, to our joy and with the incredulous consent of the medical staff, he was discharged. His release was within five days of the attack. He had made a remarkable recovery, keeping not only his life, but also the full use of his arm.

Anyone would think that after this miracle Ah Tong might be pleased to see one of his intercessors, but far from it. In the following months, if he ever spotted me in the dark and dreary alleys, he would run as if I were the Chief Inspector after him. He was afraid to see me. But I did get several messages from him saying “thank you.”

“Thank me for what?” I asked the message bearer—a yellow-toothed youth with a grown-out perm.

“He believes your prayers saved his life.” The boy was sniffing and sweating and clearly in need of a fix, but he looked at me with respect. Anything his boss believed, he was prepared to believe, too. But if Ah Tong believed that my prayers saved him, why did he run from me? The illogicality of it all puzzled me for some time. Months afterward, I found the pathetic reason behind it all. He was an addict, and he needed a shot of heroin several times a day. All the time he had been in the hospital, his girlfriend, whom he had originally raped and sold into a live sex show when she was 14, had been bringing him drugs.

Ah Tong knew I was a Christian. He knew that Christians were “good people,” and he knew that drug addicts were “bad people.” So, in his mind, it was wrong for him to express his gratitude in person. He felt dirty—not clean enough for those good Christians.

It wasn’t until several years later that Ah Tong fell across the doorstop of my little Walled City room. It was nearly the middle of the night. I do not think he had come through any conscious decision. He looked at me with devil-tormented eyes and blurted out, “Poon Siu Jeh, I’m desperate. I’ve tried to kick it so many times, but I can’t get off drugs. Can you help me?”

“No, I can’t,” I said, “but I have good news for you. Jesus can. I think you should understand something about Jesus’ life. Some years back you were willing to die for your brother, Ah Sor, and I’ve never forgotten that. You did something very wonderful.”

Ah Tong’s brows were drawn in concentration as he listened, and his face mirrored his disappointment, hope and puzzlement.

“What would you think about dying for someone in the other gang?” I asked.

“Tcha!” A lump of spit shot from his mouth and he looked bitterly at me. “You must be joking! Your brother is one thing, but no one dies for his enemy!”

“That is just what Jesus did. He not only died for his own gang but also for everyone in the other gangs. He was the Son of God. He never did wrong but healed people and made them whole—and He died for His enemies—for us. If we believe in Him, He will give us His life because He loves us.”3

I do not think the drug-riddled mind of Ah Tong understood all of the doctrine of redemption. He was crazy for drugs and this had been a long speech, but I could see that something had happened. He was absolutely amazed at the idea that Jesus loved someone like him. For the first time in years, something—or someone—had penetrated his mean heart, and he was moved.

I hurried him out of the Walled City, down to the Kowloon waterfront, across the harbor on the ferry and up to the small flat on Hong Kong Island. He knew we were going to the “church,” but quite what he had in mind I do not know, for he looked stunned as we entered the apartment.

It was minute by Western standards and not like a church at all. He was standing in what was obviously the living/dining room, which was bright and cheerfully decorated—even curtained. Everything was so clean and beautiful, and it felt like a home, not a church. But most extraordinary of all were the people, who were all smiling. There seemed to be a lot of Westerners as well as a lot of young Chinese men, all of whom Ah Tong recognized.

There were men he had known in jail; there were men he had fought with or against. There were men with whom he had taken drugs. But now they were all shining and happy and fat with good health. They began to tell him that they believed in Jesus and that Jesus’ power had changed their lives.

“Yeow—even you here too?” he said as he greeted another friend.

“Yup, it’s true, Ah Tong.” (They spoke in the equivalent of Cantonese Cockney.)

“You know us—we’d never use this ‘holy’ talk if we didn’t really believe. I mean—well, you’d expect Miss Poon and those priests to spout the Bible and all that, but they’ve never kicked drugs—they don’t know what it’s like. It got so the pain, the screaming agony, was so bad that I prayed to Jesus like they told us, and it worked! My pain went away and I felt really changed, and—well—sort of new. I got this strength, like—it’s called the Holy Spirit, and I spoke in a new language and I didn’t have any pain at all.”

It was a bit incoherent, but Ah Tong clearly thought, If they can, so can I. If Jesus did it for him, He can do it for me.

Ah Tong told us he would believe that Jesus was God and ask Him to change his life. Then he prayed, and as he did so, his desperately thin and pain-lined face softened and relaxed. He smiled.

The other former crooks looked at one another joyfully. Once more, they were taking part in a miracle. Ah Tong had received the gift of speaking in a language he had never learned and found that praying came easily. Joy filled his eyes, and as he lay on his bunk bed, he grew more and more at peace. We all joined him and sat with him until he slept soundly.

Ah Tong stayed on in the house. There was no need for him to go “cold turkey,” an experience that so tortures the human body that it can result in an addict’s death. (The term is derived from the fact that when an addict is withdrawing from drugs without medication, as well as severe and painful symptoms, there are also fits of cold shivers that cause “turkey” skin.) We gave him no medication, not even aspirin. We did not even give him cigarettes to help him in his withdrawal from heroin. Every time he began to feel a slight pang, he went back to praying and using his new language. His withdrawal period was pain-free. No vomiting, no cramps, no diarrhea, no shivers. With this miracle, Ah Tong began a new life.