Creative Reading | Short Commentary Novel
“Fishponds Virtual Observation Diary”
Written by CHEUNG Wai Sum Eddie
After moving to a village house in District N, he dreams strange dreams, flat and dramatic, every night. Some are well-founded and authentic; some are fictional and elusive. Sometimes, it takes him some effort to figure out which parts of the dreams are true after waking up. Struggling to distinguish fiction and reality, he seems to be disoriented in his daily life.
Like the butterfly dream of Zhuangzi, he remembers seeing a fishpond in his dreams. But this also made him suspicious whether his new house is haunted.
After several applications, he finally gained access to the library’s reserve stack. Although every citizen of City H has this privilege, none of them seems to know about that. Perhaps they have forgotten it. But the truth is that none of them cares about this superfluous right except him.
“Dood...” Half an hour late for work, a librarian patted his key card for the restricted area and walked back to the front desk. Upon returning to the reception, the staff scrupulously checked his government’s confirmation letter back and forth before handing him a slightly oxidised key. He took the key in his hand and felt like being liberated.
Libraries have become period pieces nowadays. People either do not bother reading or have turned to electronic publications. The concept of books has become more and more obscure. The reserve stack presumably stores only old books published in the last 50 years. Some say the older books are either sent to warehouses or disappear without a trace. He opened the wooden door to the reserve stack; the white LED lights lit up from the doorway to the back of the room. In this windowless, long and narrow room, two rows of rolling bookshelves stood neatly on both sides. “To be frank, the collection is a bit small for books of the last 50 year.” He thought to himself.
At first, he wanted to look for information about local fishponds. But his sensibility trumped his rationality. Driven by curiosity, he headed to the blind corner of the room. He slid open the bookshelf marked “Sociology” to see what is inside. Next to the spotless shelf, the thermometer recorded 23 degree Celsius with 55% humidity in this dustless room. Even though no one cares about this place, every book is conserved with the utmost care. He exerted some force to pull out the book Food: The Key Concepts by Warren Belasco. Seeing the books’ plastic wrapping sticking together, he concluded that no one had read the books on this shelf for long.
“Food: The Key Concepts. Food...”, he read silently. This book is an essential reference for food culture research since there are little publications on this topic. However, the word “food” aroused his doubt as its definition has twisted in City H. Local citizens generally see “food” as processed food instead of raw food. In this capital world, food has long been a commodity. Who would bother to prepare raw food themselves in this society dominated by mass-produced packaged food? Who would still associate an “apple” to fruit instead of a digital gadget?
Like an archaeologist, he began reading the book in detail. To become an enlightened food consumer, one has to balance the factor of “convenience”, “identity”, and “responsibility”. One may decipher the meaning of these dialectical factors literally: “Convenience” refers to the price, availability, and the ease of preparation of the food. In other words, it means the food cost for consumers. “Identity” refers to food culture, which concerns why a foodstuff, like egg-tarts, can represent a place, and why everyone welcomes it. As for “responsibility”, it examines whether one will affect society or even ecology by buying and eating a specific kind of food. In theory, “identity” and “convenience” form the baseline of the dialectical triangle, with “responsibility” at the apex. The three factors weigh the same in principle, forming an equilateral triangle. But we tend to be more concerned about the “identity” and “convenience” aspect, like whether the food is delicious and its cost. This negotiation between “identity” and “convenience” upsets the balance of “responsibility”.
According to documentation, the “T” Plain locates in the southwest part of City H. Subsequently, locals took advantage of the bay adjacent to the plain, where they farmed fishes and shrimps, and developed it into fishponds. Later on, people moved to T Plain, turning the place into an estate of luxurious mansions.
Once a fish pond, T used to supply H with plenty of local freshwater fishes. But times have changed, and T has lost pace with the development of H. Although citizens of H can now travel from the northern tip to the southern islands in hours with the convenient transportation network, the plain remains like the Land of Peach Blossoms looming in the wilderness. Perhaps it is the Ramsar Convention that inconspicuously protests the plain from Capitalism and development. I seemed to have heard a news report that an illegal immigrant sneaked into City H. Upon landing at T, he followed the city light, thinking he would arrive at the centre of City H. But it turned out that he followed the trace back to his homeland.
It seems to require an immense effort even for H’s citizens to get to T. Apart from local villagers, only photography enthusiasts or ecologists would come to this worth protecting place. Being one of the stopovers of migratory birds, T would get featured by the media for its stunning scenery every once in a while, attracting a flash flood of H’s citizens pouring in. Because of its inconvenience, T has never been a place of attraction to the local citizens of the bustling city H. In H citizens’ mind, inaccessible areas are places of no concern. Hence, T is always an alienated place without any subjectivity for the majority.
However, this doesn’t bother T residents at all.
IV. “Auntie Lan” V. “Fish Food”
Auntie Lan is a fish farmer living in T. This bold and indomitable lady is the breadwinner of her family. Now her children have all made a mark in their profession. They would not follow her path, and it is actually what she hoped for.
Auntie Lan is the owner of a few fishponds. However sumptuous may it sound, owning more than one pond is merely a must for fish farmers to practise freshwater fish aquacultural rotation. Fish feed remains the most crucial component in pond fish nonetheless. However, since the early days of freshwater fish farming, the fish feeds available in H have always been inferior leftovers like peanut cake, bread crust, and instant noodle scraps from the food factories.
The bunds between fishponds are barely wide enough for a 5.5-ton truck to pass. A truck driver transporting fish feeds was driving slowly and cautiously to Auntie Lan’s cottage next to the ponds. Although the delivery was hours behind schedule, it didn’t seem to trouble anyone. Auntie Lan was playing mahjong with her friends. Besides, she and the carrier have developed a tacit understanding of this routine delivery. Hence, the driver handled the consignment like a hot knife through butter. After switching off the engine, the truck driver jumped out and walked to the back of the truck. Upon opening the tailboard, he chose an empty spot on the bund and threw several bags of crusts on the ground fluently. He lit a cigarette afterwards and drove away after some puffs. Uninformed passers-by would probably mistake the process as littering. Stroke by the impact of hitting the ground, the opening of the bags blasted open. The exposed bread crusts attracted a lot of birds and nocturnal animals for an effortless feast. On the foliage by the ponds left a lawnmower. Someone comes to mow the waist-height weed by the pond regularly like clockwork. Not only does removing the pondweed beautify the ponds, but fish farmers also collect these weeds and turn them into fish feeds while they are still fresh.
Convenience is, all the same, the first and foremost consideration to animals or the humankind.
The guy named Humchuk built plenty of fish-shaped moulds and placed them around the ponds. He then took a large piece of moist crust and pressed it into the moulds like a Chinese pastry master. After a series of pressing and popping, he made a profuse of fish-shaped dough before throwing them into the ponds. Simultaneously, a girl named Ku-Sem was picking up all kinds of weed by the pond to make edible recycled papers. Did the fishes notice the difference of the fish-shaped dough to the regular fish feed? I suppose only the fishes would know. Both the fish-shaped bread and the edible papers are human-made products that have undergone two rounds of transformation. First, the crusts, which were initially the waste in food production, were given a second life to feed fishes. Then, they were transformed into a more decent form, so were the weed by the pond recycled into edible papers. Undoubtedly, these transformations are done for people just like upcycling. By changing its appearance, perhaps people would pay the slightest more attention to fish feeds. But disregarding the change it might bring about, I suppose no one has ever made such a micro-observation on bread crusts or weeds as Ku-Sem and Humchuk did. Not only did they witness the transformation of fish feeds but also gained a deeper understanding of fish food.
He wanted to tell them a quote he once read from the Ways of Seeing: “We never look at just one thing; we are always looking at the relation between things and ourselves”. But for some reason, he only fixed his gaze at Ku-Sem and Humchuk on the pond bund and held back.
VI. “Seat for One, Thanks! “
The layout of every fishpond is similar. If you are not familiar with the place or have a poor sense of direction, you are prone to lose your way. According to a few outsiders, many were curious about the container’s “skeleton” remaining from a fire at the fishpond, even though there is nothing inside it. But for him, a person without a sense of direction, the “skeleton” was just the perfect landmark for navigation.
A few days later, the situation there changed slightly. A few stools with eaves and a small cabin popped up around the “skeleton”. After enquiring the villagers, he learned that a guy named Brandon Chan placed these objects. “You can take a seat and enjoy your meal,” a villager passing by said.
He sat on one of the stools. The little eave attached to it reminded him of the private ramen booth at Ichiran. But he also perceived that the eave is perhaps the signifier of one’s “home”. It was noontime, not the best time for migratory bird to forage, and he missed the time of fish harvesting. It was a bit windy, but at least he could enjoy a solitary moment.
There was a lunch box with fruit and a notice on one of the stools. He picked them up before sitting on it. Once he sat tight, he inspected the palm-size fruit and peeled it meticulously as instructed from the notice. One peel after another, his breathe synced with the process. A breeze with the bitterness of the fruit made his nose sour and his eyes red. He recalled that fish farmers also planted fruit trees with the pond mud for revenue and to indicate the area of their fishponds. The fruit he ate was perhaps the fruit of a fish farmer’s hard labour.
Having meditated at the place for ten minutes or so, he developed a cognition of cultural empathy at the moment of eating driven by sensations. He thought of the difference between a scene and scenery. Without any memories of the place, the prior experience of savouring the fruit before the fishpond scenery altered his judgement of value.
You may wonder why he didn’t feel suspicious of the fruit and notice it appeared out of thin air. But why do you bother if they caused him no concern?
This time, he made a new friend in the library. However, something happened afterwards.
Under the roar of the oxygen pumps in the fishpond, you heard two unknown sounds from the two shores. On one side, Uncle Kan was striking his silvery homemade “instrument” with the back of a knife to disperse the cormorants. The migratory birds, however, seemed to have accustomed to this high-pitch percussion sound. Once on TV, Uncle Kan is a man full of history. Whenever there is news featuring the people and matters in T, it must be related to money. Even a three-year-old recognises that the land in City H is money and the purpose of scenery is consumerism. One may notice why once they see the protest banners put up by Uncle Kan.
On the other side, Fiona Lee was leading a group of people listening to the sounds of nature at the moment, while imitating fish harvesting and “enacting” the daily works of the fish farmers seriously. Most duties at the fishponds, like feeding, water changing, ploughing, harvesting, involve machinery use. These routine works leave us with an uneventful feeling even though they are the fish farmers’ way of living. By involving participants to “enact” fish farmers’ day-to-day tasks, Fiona’s approach in turning routines into eventful experiences is probably an excellent way to regain people’s interest in the life at the fishponds.
VIII. “Food from the Ponds”
This year is significantly different from the past: the village gate is chained up, reminding photography enthusiasts and outsiders not to enter. But some people ignored the warning nonetheless. At the end of the day, what is arousing our curiosity towards this piece of land? Is it the land property, the beautiful scenery or the migratory birds? I suppose it is all the visible matters there arousing our curiosity.
A lot of anomalous matters have become the new norms. Have you ever thought that street roaming videos on YouTube will become the comfort food for hundreds of thousands of frequent travellers? Have you ever imagined that you will meet with your colleagues or students through the computer screen for work and lectures? One cannot even dine out due to the current circumstance. The world on the screen appears to be a haven from reality. Seeing the low battery alert on a communication gadget pumps one’s adrenaline as it feels like the world is about to separate from me. I finally realise the importance of this world at this very moment.
The duo named “Studio Biped” has long accustomed to this “world” nonetheless. Strictly speaking, this “world” takes on in innumerable ways. It is self-contained, independent to the “reality”: It is the virtual world. In terms of cognitivity and convenience, the virtual world is more functional and efficient than T in reality.
That day, the duo invited him to a virtual tour in the fishpond simulator to make up his unrealised wishes in the physical world. This web-based virtual amusement combined the element of gaming and guided tour, from which one may acquire knowledge about ecology or migratory birds. The simulator made me think of the once-popular game “Animal Crossing”. In this age of social distancing, we still yearn for a second life in social activities or simulate ordinary life in the virtual reality.
He played the fishpond simulator on a computer in the library. He was fully aware that one can feel the consequences without paying the price in the game because a restart rectifies any wrongdoings in its virtual world. Yet, he recalled seeing people dumping construction waste at T plain from time to time. He also recalled that a farmer once said it took seven years or more of countless plough and sows to restore a contaminated field for “edible” yields—this farmer’s words reverberated in his head.
IX. “No space, no ending, it’s just about seeing”
“Have you ever seen The Matrix?”
“Nope. How could I have seen it? It’s such an old movie. What’s the film about?”
“You haven’t seen it? But this doesn’t matter. The world we live in is getting more and more similar to the one in The Matrix; the reality has become a bit fictitious. Perhaps the movie is truly a prophecy.”
“Look at these grey mullets, Crucian carps, whiteleg shrimps, and grass carps. They either spend their whole lives in this “pond world” or are moved to another by humans. They can live an abundant life as long as they stay in the pond as there is an ample supply of bread crusts, noodle scraps, and fresh weeds in these chemical-free fishponds. However, they have to bear risks in this borrowed space and time they didn’t choose to live in. For example, they may see the newborn kids of their pals being taken away by the migratory birds from the north. At other times, the battened hatches are caught and sent elsewhere before a new group of perplexed newcomers are sent in.
“The world we live in is no different from the world in the pond.”
“Is it? Did you bring me all this way to give me the red pill? I can’t take on this responsibility.”
“In the end, none of us is willing to bear the responsibility... Didn’t you say you have never seen The Matrix? Were you lying, or were you pretending to be younger?” He asked in a surprised tone.
“Perhaps I was the one who held this key previously.”