Stanley Market, Hong Kong
The unrelenting rain danced off the steel and plastic roofing of the market alley. Stanley Market was bustling and the people were just as likely to be escaping the deluge as there for the shopping. The shops in the market were crammed along a tight enclosed alley and were open fronted so you could see what each shop had on offer without walking in. The effect was a visual treasure for the eyes: colourful silk pyjamas on display, copies of famous Van Gough paintings, lacquered ware from Vietnam, bamboo tableware and famous brand name clothing at heavily discounted prices.
A tall teenager deftly weaved his way through the crowd oblivious to the noise as he quickly made his way along the alley. His features were slightly handsome with a square jaw and a short crop of hair that was gelled at the front so that it curled up like a cresting wave.
The youth walked into a shop with two red Chinese lanterns hanging on each side of a sign with the name ‘The Red Lantern’ etched in black letters on a lacquered piece of wood. This shop was different to most of the shops in Stanley Market in that it had more authentic wares on offer. Terra cotta figures unearthed from China, embroidered tapestries and tunics from the hill tribes of Yunnan province, bronze busts of Buddha from Thailand and Nepal. There was something else that made this shop different. Most of the shops were shoe box shaped with only the big entrance at the front but this shop was deeper and there were stairs at the back that went up to another floor which fronted onto Stanley Main Street.
It was the uniqueness of the shop that attracted the teenager and he would regularly visit to see what new had come in. He had recently spoiled himself over Christmas and bought an intricately carved soapstone statue of a dragon curled around the base of a cylinder. The top was a removable dragon’s head that revealed a compass underneath with Chinese characters at the cardinal points. He liked that it was handmade and he had never seen another like it in the other shops around.
He walked to the back of the shop and saw the shopkeeper behind a low glass cabinet with a counter top. A large calculator and thick paper pad for receipts sat on the top of the counter. He had gotten to know the man, Alex Tang, well over the years and they enjoyed a warm relationship.
“Hi Alex, how’s business?”
The shopkeeper looked up. The man’s face lit up into a big smile when he saw the familiar teenager with short brown hair that was curled up at the front.
“Hey Harvey, good to see you. Things are a bit slow this week. How are you?” asked Alex.
“Not bad, actually I can’t complain now that I’m on holiday for Chinese New Year. Gung hei fat choi!”
“Gung hei fat choi!” replied Alex using the familiar greeting used during the first few days of the Lunar New Year holiday.
“So how is school? Are they working you hard at St. Stephens?”
“I can’t wait for this year to be over, my final year at St. Stephens has been quite a slog,” replied Harvey.
“You’re clever, I know you’ll do fine.”
A playful smile appeared on the middle aged Chinese man’s face.
“Hey Harvey, where’s that attractive girl I saw you with during Christmas?”
Harvey paused as he wondered who his friend was speaking about.
“You brought her here to the shop and I remember you buying something,” continued Alex.
Realisation spread across Harvey’s face.
“Oh, that was my friend Emma.”
“Pretty girl. Are you still dating her?” asked Alex.
“Oh no, you’ve got it wrong. We are just friends.” Harvey replied a little too hastily.
“Too bad for you she’s not more than a friend,” Alex said and then gave him a wink. “Anyway, I have something that I think you’ll be interested in. I’ve never seen anything like it before.”
That got Harvey’s attention. He was always interested in the new and unique. Alex took out a small jewellery box from the cabinet. It was a plush blue box, which he opened to reveal a ring.
“Can I look at it?” asked Harvey in an excited voice. He felt drawn by the ring’s beauty.
“Of course you can,” his friend replied as he offered the ring.
Harvey liked the weight of the ring. He wondered what it was made of. It seemed to be a blend of metals. Alex seemed to guess what he was thinking.
“It’s not made of gold, there may be some silver or possibly platinum blended with a very strong metal alloy. The metals appear to be merged together. You should try it on.”
It fit snugly on his ring finger. He liked the feel of it instantly. He thought it had a slight blue reflection from the light and, strangely, he thought his senses seemed suddenly more acute. It was like he was more alert to his surroundings. He took a closer look at the ring and could see intricate detail of the metal weaved together. The surface of the ring looked like it had a pattern similar to the fine grain of wood. He had never seen anything like it before which was saying a lot since Harvey prided himself on his wide exposure to art, antiquities and museum artefacts.
Harvey had saved his money over the years to buy a number of art pieces, most of which he had bought from Alex. He appreciated the advice the shop owner would give him, telling him honestly which pieces were worthwhile. Most of the time he visited the shop he wouldn’t buy anything but would chat with the friendly Chinese man. Harvey had learned a lot about Asian art and antiques from his friend. Sometimes, Harvey would stop at a coffee shop before visiting Alex and get a couple of drinks for them.
“Where did you get this beauty?” Harvey asked enthusiastically.
“Now that is the interesting part in the story. It actually came by chance. Last week I attended the Ho family auction. You may have heard in the news that Mr. Ho died early last month?”
Harvey did remember reading that in the paper. Ho Yin Au had been a big tycoon in the city. He had been an old man and left most of his fortune to his two daughters. The oldest one was to move into his villa on The Peak, quite a large property that had been in the family for many generations.
Guess she was cleaning house and selling what the family didn’t want, Harvey thought.
“Yes, he was a big property tycoon I believe,” Harvey replied.
“The Ho family is one of the five richest families in Hong Kong. Anyway, I placed a winning bid on a miscellaneous lot. I was interested in some floral vases and two camphor wood boxes. The ring wasn’t even included on the listing. I found it in one of the vases that was stuffed with paper. A nice surprise I would say. The ring fits you, Harvey, and looks good on you,” continued Alex. “It’s yours for one-thousand dollars, if you’d like it.”
Harvey hesitated, he felt mixed emotions. He definitely wanted the ring but didn’t want to take advantage of his friend. He had noticed the price tag on the ring’s box listing it for five-thousand. He took the ring off.
“That’s way too cheap for this.”
“Harvey, this is Chinese New Year, a time to give lai see to the young and unmarried. I would like you to have this ring.”
Harvey was familiar with the custom of giving lai see, or lucky money, to unmarried relatives and friends during Chinese New year and he liked the ring. He took out his wallet and gave Alex a crisp new thousand-dollar bill.
More a token payment than anything else, the tall teenager thought.
“Thank you, once again you’ve been very generous with me,” Harvey said with a big smile as he looked into his friend’s eyes.
Elated, Harvey looked closely at the ring and was appreciating its beauty. It was the finest he had ever seen and now it was his. He was intrigued by the intricate pattern of the blended metal.
A burly Asian man in a blue silk suit walked up to them and spoke to Harvey.
“That is a very special ring, young man. I will give you ten-thousand for it. That should be more than enough to compensate you,” the man said.
Casually, the big man took out his wallet and started to count out the bills. Harvey looked carefully at the man quickly taking in a few details. His suit was finely tailored, he had a dark blue cashmere scarf around his neck and wore freshly polished black wingtip shoes.
Harvey could see the man was well dressed, but his features were a bit brutish. There was a livid red scar about two inches long by his left cheek bone. The tall teenager looked into the Asian man’s inky black eyes. He could sense dark menace in those eyes. They were cold dark pools.
“It’s not for sale.”
“Yes, you are right to consider this carefully,” the stranger replied. “This ring is mokume-gane, wood eye metal. It is very special to come upon such a fine and old example of this Japanese art. I am a collector and will pay you handsomely. I will pay you thirty-thousand and ten-thousand to the shopkeeper for all the trouble. You are clever to hold out and now you will be well rewarded.”
Well spoken, Harvey thought, and quite a sum of money the man was offering.
Harvey also had to consider Alex’s position. He looked at the shopkeeper.
Alex slightly shook his head and in a low voice spoke so only Harvey could hear. “The ring is for you.”
Harvey gave a slight nod then turned back to the man.
“As I said, the ring is not for sale. I’m sorry to disappoint you!”
The man stared hard at Harvey like he was trying to etch upon his memory every detail about him. Harvey noticed something dark flash across the man’s face, something almost dangerous but it quickly disappeared and was replaced by a thin smile.
A good poker face, Harvey thought.
“I see there is no way to change your mind. You’re a lucky young man to have such a ring. Enjoy it.”
The man then abruptly turned and walked away leaving Harvey and Alex alone again.
Harvey raised his eyebrows and looked at his friend.
“Very persistent fellow,” Harvey said.
“I didn’t like that guy. I’m glad you didn’t sell it to him, even for such an excessive amount of cash. This ring is special, Harvey. It is better for you to have it than our honey-tongued friend. Let’s take a closer look. I remember seeing something inscribed inside it. Yes, there is a Japanese name written in characters or what the Japanese call Kanji. It says Okanabe.”
Harvey looked closely at the inside band and saw what looked like two Chinese symbols to him. These must be the characters for the name Okanabe.
A strange smell filled the air.
‘Oh my god! There’s a fire!’ Alex yelled out as he pointed to a wall in his shop.
A large Chinese Tapestry on the wall at the front of the shop was ablaze. There was a hanging row of silk pyjamas close by in danger of catching. The two of them rushed over to put out the fire. Harvey spotted a large steel rod used for removing items from the wall. He used it to knock the tapestry to the floor and they both stamped out the fire. Harvey turned back to the counter. The ring was gone. Everything had happened so quickly. His mind raced as he wondered what could have happened.