Old Mai

I’ve known Old Mai all my life.
This fellow clansman of mine
Used to live next to my grandpa’s village
Amidst the chicken farms of northern Canton.
Since he’s retained the rustic accent,
Whenever he hollers, “What’s the matter?”
You’ll hear instead, “What’s the tree trunk?”
Old Mai and I aren’t really friends;
He’s like a distant uncle nonetheless:
When I hired him for our warehouse,
I did ponder how one would call
The opposite of “nepotism”—
“Uncle-ism”, perhaps?

A friendly chap without a lot of friends,
With which I have a fair affinity,
Autistic Old Mai is quite obsessed
With dates and numbers and all that sort.
When even your kins can’t remember well,
He’ll be the first to wish you “happy birthday”.
And if he’s ever out of things to say—
Albeit rarely so—
He’ll recite Pi,
Up to the 50th decimal place.
It doesn’t matter if you begin
With weather, sports or politics,
If you can’t get away within two minutes,
He’ll assume you share his fascination with
The Ten Facts of Bruce Lee You Never Knew,
On which he’ll enlighten you
With unfailing gusto,
For the next hour and a half.

Be it sunny, cloudy, rainy or stormy,
The warehouse supervisor is never sick or weary.
With a graceless flick of his wrist,
His signature straw hat is on,
And off he dashes
Into whatever the wind has brought.
As reliable as he is predictable,
Old Mai scrutinises each deliveryman
As a detective would with any dubious lout.
I don’t suppose you should try,
But if you do,
You should find it more excruciating
To sneak an unrecorded pebble through his gates
Than to pass a stone of twice the size!

Oh, but don’t you dare, no, don’t you dare!
Never mind he cannot swear or curse,
Nor his inability to hold a grudge;
Old Mai’s temper is hardly fair!
I gave him a telling-off the other day
When we needed him to bend his way;
But the stubborn man argued back hotly,
For he couldn’t see beyond his lines and boxes
On our silly organisation chart.
Perhaps, Old Mai’s intolerance of
Any veering off from pre-established lanes
And deliberate neglect of labels or signs
Owes itself to the traumatic loss
Of Mrs Mai and their only son
Some twenty years ago
In a terrible traffic accident.

So, next time when you visit our factory,
Feel free to drop in on the good old chap.
You’ll find him on the same old bench,
With his straw hat on his lap,
Outside of the corner shop
At exactly 12:30,
Where he’ll be gorging on
A chain of cheap ice cream,
While chatting up passers-by
By hollering, “What’s the tree trunk, mate?”
And if you have an hour and a half to spare,
You’ll make Old Mai’s day
By enquiring about
The Ten Facts of Bruce Lee You Never Knew.


Colin Lee


Good evening, friends. As mentioned yesterday, I still have a few more real-life tales to tell. For this particular collection, provisionally titled Sweatshop Stories, I’m featuring pictures taken in the factory to accompany these tales of real people I work with.

21 thoughts on “Old Mai

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    1. Thank you, again. I think I should be able to expand this into a series. God knows how much longer I’ll be working in this factory; might as well scribble down these memories while still fresh. Writing about the real-life has inspired me to look more closely into the everyday and the Johns and Janes around, until I see for myself that nobody and nothing are sheer ordinary. (Guess what, I can hear Old Mai making a phone call outside of my window right now, talking aloud about the proper way to cook prawns and chicken. Lol)

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Get those stories down, Colin.
        Now, you know that a good writer will never place a butcher knife on the table without using it… You are expecting a change in work environs?

        Liked by 1 person

      2. And the Chinese say, “Don’t use the butcher knife (for cattle) on the chicken.” Lol Change … Maybe. But probably not within the very near future. Housing and some living expenses are soaring to ridiculous heights, which makes me think of moving somewhere with a little more tax but cost a little less on housing, education and medical. But then, what can I do for a living elsewhere? Get sent back to China as a bilingual expat? Heck no, please!

        Liked by 1 person

      3. I do love the idioms you share from the Chinese language!
        I get the part about cost of living rising and all. Do for a living elsewhere? You could always do something insane, like, teach! (God help you!) It is what we did seven years ago.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. I do give that a lot of thoughts. But my science and maths are all rusty. My piano is amateur. Obviously, I have a passion for writing — but as a second language? (And a mindful individual like yourself would probably be aware of the racial and cultural stereotyping of “minority”, which serves an extra set of screening in job interviews.) When I’m made an expat even in my own home and get sent to the PRC … oh, yes, God help me! Lol

        Liked by 1 person

      5. Hmmm – well, I know how the stereotype works here – you are Asian? That equals ‘smart’ & ‘driven’. There is a high school here that offers Mandarin as a second language, but they have a hard time keeping a teacher because most people can make more money doing something else. Also, your version of ‘rusty’ in math & science may put you at a higher level in other places than you think. Food for thought 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  1. read it and loved it like the last one . you really can give life to characters .
    if you don’t mind , you can check out my post on todays prompt too 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Tamo. I do wish to see your page; but for some unknown reason it can’t be opened here in China (and so are a few other WP pages). I’ll try again tomorrow, and if it can’t be done, I’ll wait til I am out of the Chinese firewall to drop by at you guys’. Time to hit the hay now. See you later, alligator.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I have met a couple of people of this sort and felt miserable for the next hour and a half. Wait ! What a coincidence ! Both these boors took exactly an hour and a half to slow down and stop.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I know! Hard to get away once they get started. But I don’t blame Old Mai. He’s autistic, and all he’s trying to do is to entertain his friends to the best of his ability. (Imagine a deaf mother trying her best to sing a child to sleep.) I myself am on the spectrum too (somewhere bordering with “normal”, I suppose), so, even though, like him, I can’t “feel” very much for him nor he for me, I can somewhat relate analytically and appreciate his virtues instead. To be fair, his stubbornness, single-mindedness and excessive honesty do make him a superior performer at his job comparing to the “normal” folks I hired before. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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