When Katie thought of the family home, it was the red gates that she remembered most clearly.
Large, imposing, and adorned with golden studs glinting in the sunshine, Katie remembered the sound they made as they creaked open. Katie’s parents were never allowed to touch the gates, her grandparents’ driver fussing and objecting as they protested.
“No ma’am,” he would say, waving his hands at her mother. Katie’s father was the next player in this farce, going so far as to unbuckle his seatbelt. “Please, sir,” the driver begged.
“If you insist,” Katie’s father would reply. They knew who would win the faux argument—the man was Katie’s grandparents’ driver, instructed not to let the family lift a finger. He represented the House, and the House always won. Still, they engaged in this exchange every time. It was an unspoken rule within the family—always fight over who opened the gates and who paid the bill at the end of a meal.
The driver opened his door and humidity slid into the car, prickling against Katie’s air-conditioned skin. She watched him from the back seat, heaving against the red gates, taut and wiry muscles straining beneath his crisp white shirt. Brown hands grasped the brass handles of the gate. He pushed with his right shoulder and the doors edged open, bit by bit. Katie held her breath—she always did at the moment the backdrop of Hong Kong gave way to the wild jungle paradise of the family home, an unexpected oasis in the city of concrete and smog.
Driving in through the gates revealed the land her great grandfather had worked on tirelessly for years, criss-crossed with multiple bridges and pathways. It was said that the land the house had been built on masked a loong muck—“dragon vein”—a deep pulse of life beneath the land indicating an ancient dragon’s presence. The spirit of the mighty dragon brought prosperity and power, and her ancestor, Katie understood, was a very spiritual man, fascinated by mysticism and mythology. He had believed deeply in the magic of the land—amongst his peers he had even been known as The Dragon—and upon entering the grounds his obsession was evident.
Immediately to the left a great glass-tiled dragon weaved in and out of a murky pond, its green and red head spewing water into a smaller body of water below. The shadows of koi lurked below their protector, hiding beneath one of the many lily pads dotted across the grounds’ man-made pools.
During the day the dragon was an incredible sight to behold, but at night it was the source of Katie’s nightmares. They were the same every time: Katie was trapped in darkness. The dragon’s talons gripped her, claws scraping along her back. Hot, foul breath gusted across her face and the low growl of the dragon who had her in its grasp shuddered through her body. A roar, and then the ceramic teeth crushed her, over and over, and Katie would wake, drenched in sweat, tangled in the bedsheets and heart thudding through her chest.
The narrow road up to the house had been designed to twist and turn around the land, a safari populated by spirits. Chinese gods, figurines and murals were dotted all over the grounds, short stories in tableau everywhere you looked. Lighting had been carefully placed to highlight them, some harsh spotlights, others dramatic red bulbs, making the scenes ten times more sinister.
Chinese gods were not like the beautiful gods of Western culture; here were Guan Yu, Yan Wang, Caishen and Shou Xin Gong—the gods of War, Death, Prosperity and Longevity. Their features were grotesque, often posed to depict strength. The idea was that they would ward off evil spirits, the reality was that they terrified young children. Katie averted her eyes from the statues as they drove.
Finally, the house appeared in all of its glory. It had a traditional red roof, full wrap-around balconies, and whitewashed walls. To the right was a Chinese pavilion with a jade roof that overlooked the almost-Olympic-sized outdoor swimming pool, a point of pride at the home. Further around the house stood the domed shrine and mausoleum that housed her ancestors’ remains. The white tiles reflected the sun, harsh white light blinding all those who dared scale the mausoleum’s many stairs.
The house had multiple floors and at least 10,000 rooms, all with distinct purposes. At least, that’s how it seemed to Katie. There was her grandfather’s office, her grandmother’s art room, guest rooms, the servants’ rooms, the dining room, the living room, the bedrooms of long-gone grown children, and many more. It seemed that one’s status was dictated by how many useless rooms your home could have. As many rooms as it had, Katie believed the house held many more secrets, and she was sure that little gods and spirits populated the mostly empty home.
Once, in the middle of the night, jet-lagged and hungry, Katie, her older brother Andy, and her mother had crept out of the bedroom where they had been watching late-night TV. They descended halfway to the kitchen before they were stopped in their tracks by an enormous dark red millipede with jet-black legs and huge horn-like antennae, making its way up the stairs towards them in a smooth motion. The millipede stopped when it saw them, the clickity-clack of its legs ceasing their tapping against the varnished wooden floors. It reared upwards, waving its antennae in the air, and Katie and her family squealed with horror, hurrying back to hide in the bedroom. Katie stuck her head back out of the door just in time to see the last of the millipede’s legs disappear into an empty room, never to be seen again. She wondered if the millipede was a spy, sent by Zao Shen, the Kitchen God, to keep her family out of the snacks cupboard.
Summers in Hong Kong were horrifically humid, but they also coincided with the British school holidays, so every August they would hop aboard a Boeing 747 and fly for 12 hours to return “home”. Katie couldn’t help but feel ashamed of the fact that she felt nothing for her parents’ homeland.
“Why do we insist on travelling here in summer?” Katie’s mother said from her perch on top of the luggage, fanning herself with her passport. “Every year we say we’ll never do this again, and then every year we do.”
Her father grunted in reply, too absorbed in trying to get the MTR machine to accept his crisp HK $5,000 note to properly pay attention to the complaint. They still had to get the MTR into the city where the family driver would pick them up to drive them the rest of the way to the house.
“Muum,” said Andy, “I’m thirsty.”
“Me too,” Katie chimed in.
“Here,” their mother rummaged in her purse and dangled a note at them. “Go to the 7-11 and buy yourselves a Coca-Cola.”
“But Muuum,” Andy whined, “I don’t know how to ask for it in Chinese!”
“Yes you do: ‘haw-lock, mmgoi’.”
“Muuuuuuum! Come with meee!”
“For the love of—” she cut herself off and hauled herself to her feet. “Fine. Come on.”
Katie trudged through the station after them. Just the thought of the heat awaiting them once they left the MTR station was enough to sap her of all of her energy. Breathing in Hong Kong in the summer was like trying to breathe underwater, never quite managing to suck up enough oxygen to get your brain to work properly.
Drinks in hand, they returned to Katie’s father who had won his battle with the ticket machine and held four tickets in his hands.
“Time to go home!” he said, grinning.
Not my home, thought Katie, but she didn’t say it. Instead she followed her family into the cavernous entrance of the MTR, feeling her shirt sticking to her back, and a sense of trepidation in her stomach.
Katie’s grandparents were standing in the entranceway of the house ready to greet them. Her grandmother’s clothes always smelled of mothballs—camphor and perfume weaving through nostrils and into lungs as Katie and her brother’s faces were pressed into the material. Their grandmother was a walking hug, her soft belly a pillow.
“My babies, my babies, my babies,” she cooed, tightly holding onto her grandchildren, smearing red lipstick all over their faces.
On the other hand, Katie’s grandfather made her think of an owl with his stiff arms and glasses that magnified his eyes. He was stern, blinking, the loose skin around his jowls hung in a semi-permanent frown that creased upwards on the rare occasions when he smiled. But Katie knew the feel of his hand when she held it, the dry softness of his skin, and his surprised pleasure when they ran to him for hugs. She associated him with the smell of tobacco, leather armchairs and books in his office, which he seemed to be in almost constantly.
Katie’s grandfather had a dagger he kept in a glass case on the wall of his office. It was Italian, he told her, a gift from his father on a trip to Venice.
“What’s it for?” Katie asked.
Her grandfather’s frown creased upwards. “Hunting evil dragons.”
“Are they common?” Katie asked, in awe.
“More than you think,” was the reply. “They hide in the most obvious of places. Like caves. And forests. And swimming pools.”
Katie shivered, thinking of the many dragons that adorned the family grounds, wondering how you could tell which was a good dragon and which was evil.
“Don’t worry,” said Katie’s grandfather. “You’re protected by your great grandfather. No evil dragons would dare to harm you on his land.”
Every time they returned, on the first day Katie and Andy would be paraded in front of an endless stream of unfamiliar aunts and uncles, hosted by her grandparents in the ancestral hall, where family portraits stared down at them from the walls. The aunts and uncles pinched their cheeks and pressed red packets into their hands, fed them dry biscuits and steaming cups of tea. Katie and Andy drank the tea out of politeness, scalding their tongues, silently wishing for an iced Coca-Cola or 7-Up, tolerating many hugs from relatives they didn’t remember who spoke in a foreign tongue. Thank you Auntie Annie-Por. Hello Uncle BB. Yes please Auntie Cynthia. Nice to see you again Uncle TQ.
“When you were little,” one aunt announced in a loud voice, “you said to me you needed me to wipe your bum-bum. So you said, ‘You! You wait here!’ Then, after a few minutes you said, ‘Okay, I’m ready!’” The collected aunts and uncles in the room laughed. “Aiya! ‘I’m ready’—you know what that means?”
They all laughed again, Andy dying silently behind her, and Katie blushed, reaching up for her mother’s hand and squeezing hard.
“Wah, so strong now!” said a voice that was not her mother’s, and Katie looked up, alarmed to discover she had grabbed the hand of an unknown aunt. Her eyes crinkled with mirth in a face that was one giant wrinkle. Katie dropped her hand and quickly cast around the room for her actual mother. She was in a corner, deep in conversation.
“Are we done yet?” Katie said in her mother’s ear.
“Don’t interrupt, the adults are talking,” said her mother, waving her away like a mosquito.
An older relative burst into the room holding a screaming baby, red face partially obscured by a shock of black hair. The room oohed and aahed, fussing over the infant. She was the newborn daughter of her father’s youngest uncle, making her Katie’s elder. It didn’t make sense to Katie how she had ended up with an infant for an aunt, but Chinese tradition dictated that this angry little potato demanded respect. The baby was handed around in a strange game of pass-the-parcel, little red face screwed up and comical in her pink frilly playsuit. She reminded Katie of Guan Yu the God of War, the statue of whom was just outside the hall.
“Say hello to your Auntie Joanne,” Katie was instructed, and she reached a finger out to the screaming infant, who grabbed hold tightly.
“Hello Auntie,” she whispered. The baby cried and spewed milky liquid down the front of her playsuit.
They were eventually permitted to leave and walk around the gardens before the annual family dinner. Katie and Andy trailed after Dai-Gor, one of the many household helpers. In the dwindling light, he pointed out the various features of the gardens to them.
“This is the giant turtle your great grandfather had made by a famous artist here in Hong Kong,” said Dai-Gor. “He faces the East to greet the sun every day.” He hopped over the stream that cut through the grounds, the metal bucket he held swinging in his grasp, a large stick in his other hand. “The dragon you know,” he said, pointing in the distance to the dragon fountain by the front entrance. Katie averted her eyes. “And there is the Virgin Mary and the Baby Jesus, made from recycled glass,” Dai-Gor said, pointing to the crude mural on one of the walls.
“Why?” said Katie, bewildered to see the Christian effigy in the garden.
“Why?” repeated Dai-Gor, pausing as he hopped and skipped through the grounds. “Why not.” He shrugged and moved on, the two children hurrying after him.
Squatting in front of one of the many ponds, he reached into his bucket and scattered some feed into the water. Gold and orange flashes stirred beneath the water and came to the surface. The gardener looked over his shoulder and beckoned for Katie and Andy to come closer. They squatted next to him and watched the goldfish bobbing up and down, little ‘O’ mouths opening and closing. Andy suddenly grabbed her by the back of her T-shirt and pushed her forward, yanking her back at the last minute. She screamed, her arms windmilling around wildly, before landing on her backside. Andy cackled.
“Saved your life!” he said. Katie scowled in return. Dai-Gor chuckled and reached out a hand, pulling her to her feet.
“Come,” he said, leaping away again. Katie looked at Andy, still grinning mischievously, and ran after him.
The sun was setting, casting a red glow across the grounds. Around the back of the house close to the mausoleum was a bank of earth, shaded and damp. Dai-Gor was digging into it with his stick, making a hole just slightly bigger than his fist. He got up close and peered into the hole, his face inches from the dirt. Katie and Andy stood a little way back from him, watching. She could smell the damp. Being this close to her ancestors’ remains in the mausoleum made her uncomfortable. Being on the grounds at night made her even more uncomfortable.
Dai-Gor turned around and grinned. “Look!” he said, and thrust his hand into the hole he had just made. Katie held her breath, though she wasn’t sure what she was waiting for. He suddenly yelped with pain, withdrawing his hand to reveal the tiniest of crabs, the size of a ping-pong ball, holding onto one of his fingers with minuscule pincers.
Andy nudged her in the ribs. “He’s mental,” he whispered, watching Dai-Gor shake the crab off his hand and jab it from bottom to top with a skewer he’d drawn from his bucket.
They watched him rummage in his pockets and then the bucket, dropping newspaper sheafs and random scraps of paper into it. Finding a matchbook, he struck one and dropped it in. After a few moments of careful blowing and stoking with his stick, he had a roaring fire going, and he popped the skewered lonely crab on top of the flames.
“We’d better get back for dinner,” said Andy, grabbing Katie by the elbow. Dai-Gor looked up at them from where he crouched next to his makeshift barbecue, the flames casting darting shadows that flickered across his long face. Katie was reminded of Hak Bak Mo Seong, the black and white grim reapers in charge of escorting the dead to the Underworld. He held the dead roasted crab out to her by the end of the blackened skewer, and Katie backed away.
“Come on,” Andy hissed at her, starting to jog back towards the house.
“No thanks,” Katie said, before turning and running after her brother back down the hill, feeling Dai-Gor’s eyes on her all the way.
Katie and Andy had been jumping in and out of the swimming pool all afternoon. Their grandfather was supervising them, the children running around the pool doing cannonballs and attempting to learn how to dive. The latter wasn’t going very well, and Katie had given up after one too many belly flops.
At the bottom of the pool was a red mosaic dragon. Katie’s great grandfather had built the swimming pool with his own hands, sourcing recycled tiles to build it. He had marked the pool with his symbol and, though she knew it was irrational, Katie had developed a fear that if she got too close to it, the dragon would eat her. Her mother, whilst helping her to swim on a previous occasion, had gently backed away from the shallow end to the deep end of the pool, beckoning Katie to follow her.
“Swim to meee, swim to meee,” she sang at her, Katie doggy-paddling like mad but sinking further and further into the water, until only her wide eyes were visible, and then her eyebrows. Eventually her mother scooped Katie, panicked and choking on chlorine, up out of the water, scolding her for being a scaredy-cat. What she didn’t understand was that it wasn’t the fear of water that prevented Katie from being able to swim properly, it was the fear of the dragon.
At one end of the pool, in a slightly recessed cavern built into the side of the hill, was a tableau depicting some of the more terrifying Chinese gods. In the centre was another dragon, its body twisting and curling around in endless loops, claw-like feet perched on top of carefully placed rocks. A heavy and tattered red velvet curtain hung on one side of the cavern on a brass railing and could be drawn across the tableau, presumably to protect the statues from the sun. Katie hated those statues the most out of all of the ones on the grounds, and she always paddled as far away from them as she could, careful not to turn her back on them.
In her bright pink swimming costume, Katie pulled herself out of the pool and saw her grandfather lounging in the sun, his brown belly protruding over his royal blue swimming trunks, chest rising and falling as he dozed.
“Hey, Katie, come here,” came Andy’s voice from behind her and she turned to see her brother standing in front of the statues.
“I don’t want to,” she said, hugging her arms across her chest. She felt a chill, despite the summer heat. The dragon watched her from his perch.
“Don’t be such a big baby,” Andy called. “Come on. I’ve got a surprise for you.”
Slowly, Katie’s feet trudged towards him and the tableau. “What is it?”
“Look.” Andy pointed at something.
“I can’t see anything,” said Katie, still standing a reasonable distance away.
“You’re too far away. Come closer.”
Katie took another reluctant step forward until she was standing next to her brother. Her heart raced as she stared up at the dragon and the gods in the cavern. She was close enough to reach out and touch them. “What?” she whispered.
“Surprise,” said her brother, and he shoved her into the tableau and drew the velvet curtain shut.
Later Katie couldn’t explain what had happened, but somehow, the moment the curtain was pulled shut, the statues all came to life.
Frozen in the thick darkness, the dragon’s hot breath curled around Katie’s body, drying her swimsuit in a single puff. She could smell dust and tar and sulphur mixed together in a strange heady concoction, making her dizzy. It was like her nightmares but try as she might, Katie couldn’t wake up.
Cold ceramic hands were stroking her skin, whispering words she couldn’t understand in her ears, sounds buzzing in her brain, seeping into every nook and cranny. It was roasting hot, and she heard the dragon’s ceramic scales sliding over each other as it unfurled, stretching and clinking against the cavern’s walls. She heard claws scratch against the stones, scraping and screeching. Her fear had her paralysed, her eyes searching in the pitch black, seeing movement where there should be none.
Something sharp wrapped around her waist—a talon—and hot foul breath was in her face. She felt something drip on her chest. A claw pressed against her skin. The whispers grew louder. A sudden intelligible voice crept through Katie’s mind.
“Little girl,” said the voice, and Katie knew it was the dragon. “Little girl of flesh and blood.”
Katie whimpered. Help! she screamed inside, but couldn’t get her vocal cords to respond to the command.
“Who is she?” whispered another.
“The child of The Dragon,” cried a voice in the cavern, almost a scream, a call, echoing in the darkness.
The dragon growled low and deep, the rumble reverberating through Katie’s body.
“Little Dragon Girl,” whispered the dragon, and Katie heard the teeth gnashing, clinking against each other.
Katie heard the clicking of the dragon’s jaw as it widened, and in the same moment the distinct sound of glass breaking and metal being drawn.
The sound dislodged something in her and Katie finally opened her mouth and screamed, and suddenly the velvet curtain was slashed from above, and it was falling, and something scratched along her lower back as the dragon released her with a long hissing shriek, leaving a thin red cut, and Katie was falling, she was struggling through layers and layers of material, but then she was free, and then she tripped and her body hit cold water, and the red dragon at the bottom of the pool was coming for her, and she felt its talons take her, and she was pulled upwards, up out of the water, and then she was coughing, choking and spluttering, and the chlorine stung her eyes, and she was crying, and her grandfather had her in his arms, his clip-on sunglasses floating in the pool next to them, and Andy on the side of the pool was pale and shaking, the velvet curtain torn and tattered on the ground beside him, and the statues were all still, and she was fine, she was safe, she was fine, she was fine, she was fine.
Katie’s father loaded the last of their luggage into the back of the driver’s car and pulled down the boot, pressing down firmly to make sure it would hold.
“My babies, my babies, my babies,” sobbed Katie’s grandmother, pulling the children into her softness for one last crushing hug.
“Thank you, Mommy,” said Katie’s mother, kissing her mother-in-law on the cheek, wiping tears away with a Kleenex. “We’ll see you next year.”
“Aiya, it’s so far away,” she cried, holding the children even tighter.
“Bye, Daddy.” Katie’s mother kissed her father-in-law on the cheek. He nodded, briefly embracing her.
“Get in the car, kids,” said Katie’s father, pulling them away from their grandmother and ushering them into the vehicle. Katie saw the family driver leaning just out of sight against the side of the house, having one last cigarette before the long ride to the airport.
In the back of the car, they did their seatbelts up and watched through the window as their father shook their grandfather’s hand and dutifully kissed their grandmother on the cheek. Katie caught her grandfather’s eye and he nodded curtly at her, then turned around and walked slowly back towards the house. She could see the outline of something through his shirt, something that looked like a small dagger, brought from Venice to Hong Kong many years before. Her hand crept to her back, feeling the long thin scratch against her skin.
When Katie thought about her near-drowning episode, the one thing she knew for certain was that she had been saved by the red dragon in the pool. The pool Katie’s great grandfather had built with his own hands, pressing his seal into the earth, binding the dragon vein and its power. She also knew that after this incident her recurring nightmares disappeared completely, gone with the red velvet curtain that had been removed and discarded, deemed “too unsafe”.
The one thing that didn’t make sense to anybody was that, though it was widely accepted that Katie had fallen and torn the curtain, the tear at the top of the material was clean, almost as if it had been sliced by a blade.
“Time to get going,” said Katie’s mother, bundling into the car beside them. Her father got into the front seat and the driver, cigarette finished, joined them.
They drove slowly through the winding road that wove around the grounds, one last tour of Wonderland before they left. Katie heard the dragon fountain before she saw it, giant head looming up out of the water, white teeth glinting in the afternoon sun. But now she no longer feared it. She stared the dragon in its eyes as she passed, willing it to try and scare her.
I am the great granddaughter of The Dragon, she thought. See the power of my land and fear me.
They paused before the red gates, started the argument again about who got to open the doors, and Katie watched as the family driver pulled at the handles with brown hands, the gates slowly swinging open towards him with a shuddering movement. Driving through, he stepped out of the car one last time and heaved the doors shut behind them. Turning in her seat, Katie had one last glimpse of the jungle within before the gates creaked shut with a thud.
The driver got back into the car and put on his seatbelt.
“Airport?” he asked Katie’s father, though he already knew the answer.
Shifting the engine into gear, he pulled away onto the main road. Katie watched the red gates speeding further and further away from them, until the car swung around a corner and she couldn’t see them anymore.