The first time Mr and Mrs Chiu, the caretakers of my apartment on Caine Road in Central, met me, I was technically squatting illegally. Indeed, I was often found crouched in a corner, trying to camouflage myself amid the hulking brown furniture.
This flat had been hastily vacated by a friend who dropped out of law school and moved to Cambodia, essentially dropping the lease — which banned subletting — on my lap.
I was all too happy to leave my subdivided room just a block away in the Mid-Levels. Lounging on my new mattress on Caine, with its stains and damaged springs and a human-shaped indent on the left side of the bed, I felt like I was in a palace.
The first few times Mrs Chiu saw me, taking the garbage out, she smiled and asked, “Ryan – girlfriend?”, referring to my Canadian ex-banker, weed-smoking, Jerry Maguire-watching, sports start-up-funding neighbor.
I said yes, and that was what I was for a few days until I started having nightmares of them bursting into the studio, discovering me living in Scott’s apartment and then marching me out.
The real introduction wasn’t as bad as I dreamed, really. With the help of a former roommate who spoke fluent Cantonese, I explained that I was living in 3A now, and I produced a packet proving that I had money, a job and a visa. You could see the shock on their faces: “Where is Scott? Why is he gone?” But they let me stay, for almost two years.
Mrs Chiu, in her 70s and still attractive, seemed wont to back down in confrontations when her husband wouldn’t — although he would always accede to his wife’s opinions, albeit grudgingly. She was a compulsive cleaner, and he a compulsive sleeper, although he’d always be counted on to fiddle with broken fuse boxes and spray oil on calcified sliding windows.
I made Mrs Chiu cry on Lunar New Year when I gave her a gift of a decorative gold-flecked mosaic plate, which the lady at the “lifestyle store” down the street said would be great for displaying Lunar New Year fruit. The day after handing her the present, I was awoken by sharp raps on the door and Mrs Chiu unlocking my door — they liked to enter our flats without permission — bearing a huge plate of noodles topped with chicken strips and a halo of steamed broccoli. Mr Chiu had a tray with coffee and an egg tart.
Since then, she always wanted to feed me — giant hunks of ham and cheese sandwiches, a whole boiled chicken with the head and legs attached, biscuits with her saccharine coffee — until I said please. Please stop.
The turning point for that, I think, was when my fridge broke and she gave me a big bowl of Tom Yam soup as a “sorry for the inconvenience”. I was on my way out to buy dinner-date food, so could only place the big bowl of noodles in my broken fridge. I left for about 20 minutes. When I came home, grocery satchel in hand, Mrs Chiu burst into the hallway, motioning, “Kristine, come here.”
I enter their apartment and it’s exactly what I imagined — a sort of magpie-esque menagerie, with their far, far larger premises stuffed with discarded but still functional furniture from their former tenants, several flat-screen TVs showing different channels (his & hers, maybe), Chinese furniture from the 1970s (an aesthetic that has spilled into the flats they rent out). Otherwise, there was this air of frugality, as if they were the type to sleep on mats so that the TVs and old washing machines can have some space to sleep, and to buy up all the marked-down, near-expiring items at the ParknShop.
She sat me down on their rectangular wooden table. I look down and there’s the bowl of soup she’d given me earlier. I look up and she’s giving me a (sinister?) smile, like there was nothing wrong with coming into my apartment, snooping in my fridge and taking things. The look on her face meant, “Eat. That Bowl. Of Noodles. Now. .. Please.”
The day Ryan moved out solved it all for me. He was shouting in the hallway, “Give me my money! I just want to leave! You enter our apartments without our permission!” because the Chius were making him pay for every little scratch, every little tear. Red-faced, the elderly couple let him go. Since then, they stopped entering our apartments.
But they didn’t stop going through our mail. Envelopes would be slipped under our doors, taped back where it had been torn. Some of the parcels containing spare keys mysteriously disappeared. But they never throw anything away, even letters meant for tenants long gone.
The rest of my stay was pretty uneventful, and they gradually, I felt, came to regard me as daughter figure. A niece of theirs from Canada, who stayed for a spell, later told me the Chius were childless, and had been tasked to manage the properties Mrs Chiu’s sister (the niece’s mother who emigrated to Canada) left behind. Part of this filial feeling probably contributed to the fact they didn’t raise my rent come real estate rip-off season, and the fact they didn’t even make me sign a new lease after my old one lapsed.
This year, however, when the A/C stopped working at the height of summer, the jackhammer-and-wrecking-ball thunderclaps from the construction site across the street became too overwhelming, and the right side of the bed finally succumbed to the pull of gravity (at the same time it broke in half), I knew it was time to go. The apartment, cozy and equipped with a balcony as it was, was heaving under years of wear and tear, and stingy renovations, and the groans of tenants crushed under the rubber slippers of landlords and landladies allowed for decades to gain the upper hand.
Leaving day was pretty emotional for Mrs Chiu — and for me, because I wanted to cry from the hangover I’d dutifully acquired from a pub crawl and gay-club debauchery the night before. She had a translator present, Helen, a tenant and friend who spoke good English and dressed like she was a retired umbrella girl at a posh golf course.
After the ledger was cleared and Mr Chiu went off to do an inventory of everything that’s stopped functioning in my apartment, Mrs Chiu started clucking in Cantonese, stroking my hair and crying like my leaky rainshower. Helen helpfully translated this scene as, “She wants to tell you that you’re the best tenant she’s ever had. She says it’s like losing a daughter.”
I looked positively nauseated, Mrs Chiu soaked her make-up in tears, and Mr Chiu was quietly wresting 4,000 dollars from my deposit to pay for some damage or other, but we still looked composed enough for a souvenir photo, which I promised to mail them.
Days later, they would shake me down for more money via Helen, who started living in my former apartment.
They wanted me to buy them a new TV (to replace the old one I never used, and whose coils and wiring just gave up waiting), a new washing machine (which was working when I left), and a new toilet (whose cover broke) — probably just to see if they could, and not from any malice. Still, I yelled and yelled against their demands until the pit of my stomach burned, and Helen understood, saying, “Don’t worry, she can pay for it. Mrs Chiu is rich.” Still, for weeks I didn’t answer Helen’s calls.
Finally, a few weeks ago, I picked up when Helen rang, and it was Mr Chiu, speaking in broken English, asking how I was and informing me that there were three new letters in the mail they’d kept for me. I told them to discard the letters, and asked politely if they needed more cash. “No more, no need,” he said. Helen later passed on that Mrs Chiu felt bad about “the incident” and that I could stay on 3A, Caine Road, any other time in the future — even without paying a deposit.
I’d rather not relive the discomfort, the strangeness and frequent (though well-meaning) invasions to my privacy, but it’s nice to know that somewhere, in a run-down penthouse flat in Central, there might be a steaming bowl of noodles waiting for me.