By Kay So (蘇朗欣)
Translated from the Chinese by Jacqueline Leung
Translator’s note: Chain-smokers is an autobiographical account of Kay So’s experience in Japan during a working holiday in 2019. The timing meant she was absent for most of Hong Kong’s anti-extradition bill movement, and this sense of displacement is worked into her prose, light and unassuming, along with thoughts around identity, belonging, and place. In So’s other works, similar themes appear, but they are not so much about travelling as they are about the relations between locations and the self, and moments that shine in their precariousness. Chain-smokers is her first work in English translation.
I worked as a night-shift cashier in Tokyo for a while. Customers who came late at night were usually regulars who always bought the same goods, especially cigarettes. You can tell from the number of people coming in to buy them that the Japanese are as addicted to tobacco as they are to alcohol. These substances run deep in their very bones.
In Japan, each kind of cigarette has its own code, unlike in Hong Kong where the staff need to memorize their abbreviated names. If you’re not sure which kind a customer is looking for, just ask them for the number. An uncle came once every two days to purchase no. 260. After a while, I recognized him and he recognized me; we didn’t spend much time interacting, but slowly our exchange at the counter amounted to two fingers—he only had to hold up two of his digits for me to know he wanted to buy two long packs of no. 260, the LARK Ultra 1mg. He dressed ordinarily, and was always seen in simple attire.
Another uncle who also bought cigarettes was more extravagant. On winter days, he would wear a long black fleece coat and leather gloves, his hair slicked back with wax. I can’t remember if he bought no. 92 or 93 Kent 1mg cigarettes. He asked me where I’m from. Hong Kong, I said. “Hong Kong! It’s been pretty bad recently.” Yeah. I think it’s better not to go. “Do you speak English?” English, Cantonese, and also Mandarin. “And Japanese too, apparently.” As he smiled, his eyes crinkled deeply at the edges. Everything about him exuded the fine, middle-class presence of a middle-aged Tokyo man.
The food supplier delivered onigiri and bento at 2:30 a.m. Handling the delivery was an old man in his seventies. We called him りっぱい (rippai), and no matter how much I thought about it, I never got what りっぱい had to do with onigiri. In any case, りっぱい was りっぱい, the old man who sent us frozen goods, who smoked no. 66. Once the products had been arranged on the shelves, he would buy two packs of no. 66 Mevius 10mg, sometimes with one or two onigiri which he’d brought here. On my first day of work, when I still didn’t know who he was, the man disdainfully found another staff and said, “りっぱい is here.” After that, soon as he parked his truck outside our store, I would communicate his arrival through the walkie-talkie, prepare two packs of no. 66, and finish with a practiced “お疲れ様です (otsukaresama desu).” I felt I’d more or less fit in with the place, even though the store I worked at was just a tiny shop on the edge of the slum district.
Surprisingly, I was the only smoking female worker on the night shift. The men each had their habits: the lanky old man smoked no. 245, the hi-lite menthol made in Japan; the young Nepali, still making his way through life, would go for the no. 60 Marlboro. The Sri Lankan teen younger than me tried a different kind each time. He took a liking to thin peppermint cigarettes by Kent or Mevius recently, and was developing his taste the way he was figuring out his future. Having graduated from Japanese language school, he was deciding if he should go for further studies.
As for me, I’m used to rolling my own cigarettes. It’s freer, lets you mix and match, and costs less. In Hong Kong, I didn’t actually smoke, but in Japan, with its excellent selection, I tried out new flavors like my new way of life. But now, half a year later, I find myself buying the exact same combination as when I inhaled my first cigarette: Choice’s rose blend with rolling paper that tasted like mugwort and a slim filter tip. They weren’t even mine to begin with, but what someone gave me after sorting and putting them in my bag. Taught me how to roll and exhale properly, as if demonstrating a whirlwind romance.
I’ve decided to quit smoking, but I don’t even know how to start. Japanese cigarettes are still very tempting. I also enjoy the leisure of puffing away with my colleagues and lighting one in the alley to watch the dawn break before going home. To quit for me is to give up my routine at the same time, but this is no different from when I held my first cigarette, which led me to a new world. It all depends whether you are ready to take a leap of faith, or a step back; in retrospect, the two sides aren’t as different as one imagines.
在日本每種煙都有編號，不像香港當店員還得先記熟簡稱，你要是不知他要哪一款，問他號碼就好。有一個叔叔每隔兩天都來買260號。一陣子後我認得他，他也認得我，我們還是沒有多餘的交談，不過收銀過程慢慢簡化成兩隻手指——他只要豎起兩隻手指我就知道他要兩盒260號LARK ULTRA 1mg長盒。這個叔叔扮相比較平民，每次來都是簡便衫褲。另一個同樣來買煙的叔叔就比較華貴。冬天的日子他會穿著黑色長身絨毛外套，戴皮手套，頭髮俐落地用髮膠抹起，來買不記得是92還是93號的Kent 1mg長盒。他問我是哪裡人。香港人。「香港！最近香港很不妙啊。」是呢。我覺得不要去比較好。「會說英文嗎？」英文、廣東話，也會說普通話。「還會日文。」他笑的時候，眼角的魚尾紋深深的散開，他身上處處流露一種精緻的東京中產中年男子的氣息。
Kay So (蘇朗欣) is a Hong Kong writer with a focus on short stories and essays. She lived in Tokyo for a working holiday between 2019 and 2020 and is currently based in Hualien, Taiwan, where she is completing an MFA at the Department of Sinophone Literatures at National Dong Hwa University. Her first novel Water Burial《水葬》is forthcoming.
Jacqueline Leung is the translations editor of Cicada and a translator of contemporary Chinese literature. She is Asymptote’s Hong Kong editor-at-large. Her work has appeared in ArtAsiaPacific, the Asian Review of Books, Artomity, and Voice & Verse Poetry Magazine.