By AA Patawaran
Just as he starts the engine, Ton feels the burden on his shoulders that literally weighs him down, so leaving the engine running, he got off the car in his garage and returned to the house. In his bedroom, with his shoes on, he crawled back into the sheets.
For the first time in over a decade, Ton is feeling restless, unsure of what is coming, maybe even afraid of it. There is a sense of foreboding that feels tight in his chest.
And he knows why.
Mr. Tsai is dead.
Ton first met Mr. Tsai over a decade ago, and all these years that they knew each other had been, to put it simply, trouble-free. This old Shanghainese geomancer moved from China to introduce feng shui to Manila and its citizens, Ton included.
It wasn’t an easy connection. They met over the phone and, at first hello, it threatened to be a disastrous relationship, Mr. Tsai’s English being all broken and, to Ton, incomprehensible in most parts.
When he called, Mr. Tsai grunted, as if rudely interrupted, “What you want?”
Ton cleared his throat to introduce himself as the new writer, whose job it was to help Mr. Tsai with his monthly column in the society magazine in which Ton was turning a new leaf.
So that was how they met.
In the five minutes they were connected by phone, Ton couldn’t count how many times he had to resist the urge to bang the phone on the old man.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Tsai, I didn’t understand. Would you say that again?”
“I said!” snarled Mr. Tsai. “Come to house! Get paper! I write there all!”
Getting Mr. Tsai’s address proved impossible. Ton asked him to say the street name three times and, on the third round, Mr. Tsai was practically screaming in his ear.
“Ok, I got it, thank you,” he said, but he didn’t. There must be another way to get the man’s address. “It was good speaking to you, Mr.—”
But Mr. Tsai had hung up.
It took a while, but one day, on his usual visit to pick up the manuscript at Mr. Tsai’s Binondo apartment on Engracia Reyes Street, Ton was invited into the parlor for the first time. It had been many months since he took on the task of turning Mr. Tsai’s bad English into magazine-worthy articles, which proved harder than writing articles from scratch.
He sat in the parlor waiting for what might have been more than an hour, although, dazzled by the red lanterns, the ornate hanging veils, the calligraphic art, and lacquer vases, as well as the scent of neroli wafting in the air, he lost track of time. He might have well been on the set of Raise the Red Lantern, maybe even something more magical like Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon.
Working with Mr. Tsai had been no less than magic, though they needed to be careful about that, the goal being that feng shui, a 5,000-year-old Chinese tradition, was presented to the public through Mr. Tsai’s column as something more practical, nothing esoteric or even mystical.
In truth, it took Ton less time to understand feng shui than to understand Mr. Tsai. The words feng shui alone had a ring to them that he found soothing, whether in Mandarin or in English, wind (feng) and water (shui).
From Mr. Tsai’s writings, he began to make heads and tails of feng shui, soon concluding that all the lucky colors, lucky directions, and the auspicious objects and rituals were really only meant to realign people’s energies with the forces of nature.
Sometimes, he worried that he might be oversimplifying such a complex belief system, but when his friends would ask him to try to explain it in easy terms, he would say things like, “It’s only common sense that you do not build your house such that a window or a door opens up to a garbage heap.”
But, yes, to Ton, feng shui, at its simplest form, was awareness of the natural flow of energy in the universe. It was about making the most of sunlight, respecting the direction in which the wind blew, or wearing colors that mimicked nature.
Ton was lost in these thoughts when finally Mr. Tsai joined him in the parlor. The old man was exactly what his booming voice made him look like in Ton’s head, cold and rudely brief, except that he wasn’t as big as his voice was loud. In fact, he was diminutive.
Mr. Tsai wore a changsan, a long tunic in silk with a dragon embroidered on the back, the equivalent of a lady’s cheongsam. When Ton, attempting to make small talk, made a comment on his look, the geomancer shook his head and said “Don’t know why in Manila costume so important. In Shanghai, no need. I wear a suit is OK.”
Mr. Tsai dispensed with any more niceties and went straight to business, saying that, instead of a general forecast, he would rather answer readers’ questions, as long the readers would give him their time of birth. “Without exact time of birth cannot be, OK?” he said.
Ton promised to take it up with his editor and when Mr. Tsai said that that was all, he readily excused himself, but before he could make his exit, the old man called him back.
“What time you born you know?”
Ton beamed, “As a matter of fact, I do, Sir, thanks to your column. I was born at 8:10 p.m.”
“Your sign?” asked Mr. Tsai, still looking disinterested.
“Rooster, Sir, Oct. 16, 1980.”
“What you want now?” the old man continued. “What you want feng shui make happen for you?”
“Travel, sir,” Ton said, after a moment’s thought. “I’d very much like to travel, Mr. Tsai.”
Mr. Tsai consulted his book, rose from the divan, looked into a cabinet, and gave Ton a dragon figurine in brass. “Here,” he said. “Put in southeast corner of your room. Important you see it from your bed, OK? Ok, can go now, can go.”
That was over 10 years ago. And Mr. Tsai has been gone a year.
Ton is now regional editor of an Asian-circulated magazine based in Hong Kong, but ever since his move, he has timed his Manila trips with important dates in the Chinese calendar, such as the Chinese New Year and the Tai Suey blessing on the first day of spring, to see Mr. Tsai.
Life to Ton has been a great ride, except that everything has happened like magic, too fast, too easy, without a lot of hitches. Mr. Tsai and feng shui, of which Ton has become a disciple after the dragon figurine made him travel the world, have been instrumental in warding off the challenges that could have derailed or slowed him down.
Ton is convinced that feng shui is not magic, but it has helped him put his life in his hands, to have some control over his fate, if all it takes is rearranging the furniture or wearing the right color of shirt.
But no more Mr. Tsai.
Now, for the first time in many years, Ton feels unsure of what life has in store for him. Here, in his bedroom, under the sheets, in his shoes, he looks at the spot where the brass dragon had been, and remembers what Mr. Tsai told him a few years ago when he said the dragon took him far into the world.
“No, no,” said Mr. Tsai, still curt and cold but kinder—over the years they had become friends—“It was you. Dragon only remind you what you want.”
The spot where the dragon had been is now empty, most of his essentials he had brought with him to Hong Kong, but weighed down by feelings from which he has long been estranged, a sense of being lost, a certain sadness, he is reminded of what Mr. Tsai had told him that he somehow ignored.
“Feng shui, good,” said the old man. “But problems good also. You put hand on stove you burn, tells you to take your hand away. Protects you. Guides you. Teach you. Let you know something wrong.”
Something whispers to Ton, urging him to get up and go. He has a flight to catch in three hours and he has yet to drive to his sister’s house so she could drive him to the airport and send him off to Hong Kong to resume the life that has taken him thus far.
But this emptiness in his soul, this heaviness in his heart, this inexplicable burden that pins his body down to his bed, it’s like a stranger he has met for the first time again.
He needs a little more time to understand it.
Maybe, these feelings, disagreeable and distressing, will point him in a new direction.
Like Mr. Tsai did.
The author is also on Twitter and Instagram as @aapatawaran and Facebook as Arnel Patawaran.