A raven-haired young woman in a red dress is the deity which presides over this slim collection of eight short stories set in modern-day Macau.
This is Mazu, a Chinese sea goddess (better known in Hong Kong as Tin Hau) and the patron saint of seafarers. She is seen most clearly in the second story, “And All Will Be Well”, through the eyes of a fisherman, Ling-wah. Being just 19, he is the youngest of the four crew on a junk trawling for shek baan yu (grouper) around Taipa. From childhood, Ling-wah has regularly spotted a mysterious lady in a red dress around the seashore. Sometimes she is sitting on a rock, sometimes she is standing on the prow of a boat. Whatever her location, she goes unnoticed by the sailors and laborers around her.
Ling-wah’s observations are dismissed as fantasies until one night when he is out fishing in Chinese territorial waters. The boat’s engine breaks down and the junk is drifting towards the rocks as a patrol boat approaches and opens fire. Ling-wah sees the mysterious lady standing on the water nearby and is compelled to jump out of the boat to join her. As he does so, he hears the engine fire up behind him and knows “all will be well”.
Other stories in the collection reflect some of the legends surrounding Mazu and her supernormal powers. One myth describes how Mazu was visited by a Taoist master from whom she learned Buddhist lore and, soon after, gained clairvoyant powers. This meeting is reimagined in “An Apartment on Coloane” where an ageing psychic encounters a young female client and is surprised to discover she shares his skill. Again in the first story, “A Short History of Chinese Tea”, an arranged marriage which turns out unhappily echoes one version of Mazu’s death: protesting an unwanted betrothal.
Some characters feature in several stories. We are first introduced to local girl Mei-Wa in “The Price of Medicine”. With her mother seriously ill, Mei-Wa chooses to become a prostitute to meet the cost of her treatment. Her unpleasant mainland Chinese client is shot dead in a dawn raid on his hotel room. Mei-Wa hides in the bathroom and escapes after emptying his wallet. But she is too late to save her mother and she realizes she is pregnant.
The final story, “Somewhere the Scent of Jasmine”, takes up the tale from after the child, Bi-Bi, has been born. Mei-Wa’s father is now dying and receives nightly visitations from his dead wife—coincidentally wearing a red dress—as he sleeps. In the final dream, he follows her into a beautifully scented garden. Mei-Wa comes to the house in the morning to pick up Bi-Bi who her father is supposed to have been babysitting. Bi-bi is safe and well but her father has inexplicably disappeared.
Touched with a Gothic sensibility, the stories are not a cheerful read. Death, persecution and failed ambitions are recurring themes. Their setting is also dilapidated. Macau appears as a former colonial society in decay with only a nod to the shining skyscrapers and casinos which characterize it today. But there is a poignant beauty in its decline and, more importantly, there is hope. The Goddess of Macau finds ways to salve the pain and the knowledge that she is among them provides comfort for the sufferers. For example, when Mei-Wa finds her father vanished, she sees her mother (another alias for Mazu) “everywhere” in the house’s ornaments. Hall writes:
She looks into Bi-Bi’s eyes which seem to be speaking to her, telling her that it will be alright. We’re together, he says.
Life is tough, author Hall is telling us, but if we have faith and each other, we can survive. This is a pertinent message for all nations today, not just Macau.