Robby McRae turned the motor scooter off and removed his crash helmet. It was steaming hot this far south and he felt as though he was dying of thirst. The scooter was stylish and comfortable to ride but the small 50cc engine meant the journey down here had been slow and methodical to say the least. He looked over at Wen-Ling, his travel companion who was fumbling with the keys on her own scooter. McRae pulled the audio recorder from his pocket and clicked “REC”.
“Taiwan day four. It’s Wednesday, one fifteen in the afternoon according to my watch and we are somewhere south of Hengchun but really this could be anywhere. Must be at least a hundred and three degrees out here and the humidity is killing me. I think we’re going to be here a while.”
Wen-Ling sighed and said something in Chinese then looked at McRae. She had pulled off her crash helmet and McRae watched as she shook her long hair loose. He liked her a lot: for a Taiwanese girl. Not that he’d ever really thought much about dating Chinese women. It had just never occurred to him before. He was surprised that he thought about it now. Wen-Ling wandered over to a sign filled with Chinese characters and began to read. McRae watched her closely. Not speaking or reading any Chinese himself he had relied on her for everything this past few days. He continued to dictate a travel report into the digital recorder until Wen-Ling returned and stood next to him.
“It say there restaurant ten kilometer back up road from here.” The girl gestured back the way they had come. “I don’t remember see it when we come. We go back look?”
McRae sighed and looked around, a little annoyed. The black smoke that had poured out of the tailpipe of Wen-Ling’s scooter probably meant it was toast. They could ride his scooter back to Hengchun but that could take hours with two of them on the tiny bike. That and thought of losing three hundred Dollars in rental deposit did not appeal to him too much.
“I don’t know about you, but I’m starving!” McRae finally exclaimed, running his hand through his sun-bleached hair. Just then, a short man wearing traditional blue Chinese overalls and what appeared to be a thick white bandage wrapped around his neck. He wandered across the street from a building that McRae had assumed was abandoned. He appeared to be elderly and limped slightly as he walked. He regarded McRae with interest then turned abruptly to Wen-Ling and spoke to her in a staccato of Chinese syllables. She nodded profusely with bursts of “Xièxiè! Thank you! Thank you!”
“What was that all about?” McRae asked at length as the man retreated back into the building.
“He say we go eat at his house!” Wen-Ling replied, still smiling. “He say he see us have trouble. He give us food, he fix scooter!”
“Well, hot damn!” McRae exclaimed. “Looks like our luck just changed! Let’s go!”
The two of them hurried across the road and into the ramshackle building from where the man had come. It was nothing more than a broken down brick and plaster cattle shed with a small kitchen at one end and a living room at the other. A mattress was thrown on the ground between the two rooms and the floor was covered in personal effects. An old picnic table was erected in the courtyard and several plastic bowls of food were already prepared. The man had exchanged his blue shirt for a white chef’s apron and he was standing by a large iron wok, stir frying some peppers and what McRae hoped was either pork or chicken. The man bantered on in Chinese and Wen-Ling nodded and interjected some words of her own ever few sentences. She did not stop to translate anything to McRae, who found an old chair to sit on out of the sun. The air became filled with an infusion of hot oil, chilies and garlic and McRae stood up to watch the man as he masterfully tossed the wok and added more ingredients: scallions, bok-choy, cilantro and a dozen other things he could not name.
“He say we sit eat!” Wen-Ling said at last. It was the first time she’d addressed McRae in an hour and the two of them moved to the table in silence. It looked like a feast to them. Fried chicken, braised pork, several types of rice and noodles, steaming vegetables and some fruits and snacks the like of which McRae had never seen before.
“Where did all this food come from?” McRae asked, puzzled. “He didn’t just cook all this!”
Wen-Ling shrugged and smiled at McRae. She was hungry too and was single-mindedly tucking into a piece of crispy pork. The old man stood back from the table and nodded proudly. He was still bantering in Chinese but neither Wen-Ling nor McRae paid him any mind. For twenty minutes, the two of them feasted like royalty. McRae taking bite after bite of the meal and exclaiming to Wen-Ling how he had never had Chinese food this good back home in Boston. She commented that she had never tasted food this good even in Taipei either. When they were all done eating, McRae turned to compliment the old man who had stood by like a waiter during their whole meal. McRae bowed, his hands clasped together in the Asian gesture of humility and gratitude. The old man returned the gesture appreciatively. McRae tried to make Wen-Ling ask if they could pay the man but she seemed reluctant to ask, telling McRae it was rude to impose obligation on their host. McRae had been working as a travel writer for years and immediately had thoughts of how to put this place on the map. He looked around again to remind himself there was not much to put on the map: this was not a four star eatery – it was barely a shack in the Taiwanese jungle. Perhaps the old man had once cooked in a famous kitchen in Taipei, Shanghai or Beijing? He would have to ask when he got back to the hotel.
“Mr. Hseung say we please leave now. He say thank you for giving opportunity to host us.”
McRae looked puzzled. He was thanking them for eating his meal? That truly was a sign of humility. McRae nodded to the old man again and they started back towards their scooters. McRae kept turning and looking back over his shoulder as the old man stood, stock still watching them, the same old smile on his face. The face of someone who had seen everything, understood everything, wanted nothing.
“That was great! But now we have to work out how to get you scooter fixed so we can get out of here. Wait a moment, didn’t Mr. Hseung say before lunch he would fix your – .”
Wen-Ling pressed the “start” button on the scooter’s dashboard and the engine sparked into life, buzzing like a chainsaw. She turned to him and shrugged, putting her crash helmet back on. McRae stopped dead and stared at the scooter. It was running perfectly, no black smoke, no awful noises. How was that possible? The old man had not even been over there! He must have had someone else quickly come over and fix it while they were eating. That was it. There was no other possibility, was there?
McRae looked back towards the building again. There was no sign of the old man. As the two of them rode their scooters back past the house, McRae slowed down and looked again closely. The place was certainly abandoned; there were no signs of the mattress or kitchen or even the table where they had just eaten. He blinked and shook his head. Was the heat worse than he’d thought? Was he hallucinating? His full stomach and the lingering taste of ginger in his mouth said otherwise. They rode back to town in silence. Wen-Ling took the lead and occasionally looked back over her shoulder to see if McRae was still riding with her. McRae rode back in a daze, barely aware of anything. Eventually they got back to the hotel and they parked their scooters. The rental assistant looked worried and looked over Wen-Ling’s scooter with a lot of scrutiny. He scowled at McRae and pointed to the engine.
“How you get back here? Engine go bang! No good! All broken!”
McRae looked down and saw oil pouring out of the engine. As the man wheeled the bike away it sounded like rocks in a coffee can. The engine was dead alright and had been the whole time. After a few moments, Ralph Böhmer, a fat German travel consultant who McRae had worked with a few times before came out to see what the commotion was about. He had lived in Hengchun for a few years, settling down to write an internet column about local cuisine and culture on one of the more obscure culinary web sites. He had invited McRae over to write a piece for site. McRae hurriedly told him all about their adventure and their great meal with Mr. Hseung.
“But holy cow, he’s world-class, Ralph! You should have him cooking in one of your places in Munich or even New York!”
“Mr. Hseung, you say? Really old guy, lives in a cattle-shed down the coast road on Cape Eluanbi?”
“Yeah, that’s him! You know him already?”
Böhmer’s eyes narrowed and he smiled thinly at McRae, putting a sweaty hand on the American’s shoulder he pulled him to one side.
“Old Master Hseung has been dead more than fifty years, Rob! He was probably the best Chinese chef on the island outside of Taipei. He cooked in his restaurant every single night for forty years without so much as a day off. People would come from all over to eat there. Then one night a bunch of Chinese Communists stormed his place and demanded free food. He was against the commie regime and he refused point-blank to serve them – so they slit his throat. His place was abandoned and now nobody will go near it. The locals say he haunts his old home, eager to keep cooking there for visitors. I guess you two got lucky.”
Robby McRae felt the blood drain from his face. He shivered despite the heat. Xièxiè, Mr Hseung. Xièxiè…
Copyright ©2010 Owen Fish. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. This article is protected under International and Federal Copyright Laws and Treaties. Any unauthorized reprint or use of this material is prohibited. No part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system without express written permission from the author. This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events or locales is entirely coincidental. This story has been modified from its original form for publication on this blog.