Tiger Gate

By Cherry Celilia Chan

There was a certain familiarity of this place, the green shoots poking out of the red bricks, the endless wall, the yellowish skies, the floral scent in the air, the feeling of walking the path.

Jasmine remembered the frightening steps she took the first time when Grandmama led her to this place hand in hand. People still called her Xiaoxiao back then. “You are the first girl in the family who goes to a grammar school. Study hard and become someone useful.” The rough hand gave a gentle pat on the back of the smooth one, the old woman saw the young girl walk through the gate. That was her first Tiger Gate.

From then on, she was a student.

“Xiaoxiao!” A voice rang behind, a middle age woman walked towards her at a brisk pace, “Xiaoxiao! Should I call you Jasmine now? The Hollywood big star!” Jasmine looked at the woman curiously. Since her return, everyone she saw on the way looked like they were from another lifetime; as if they appeared in her dream so long ago, the forgotten dream of her childhood. “Mr. Fa will be so happy to see you! He is performing for the village tonight at the school hall! Let me take you to his dressing room.” The woman took her hand, just like Grandmama did on her first day of school.

Today, she went through the same gate again. This time she was the glorious pride of the village.

But she wasn’t a Hollywood big star hanging on everyone’s lips, she was only a struggling small potato in the cinematic world. Making a name wasn’t difficult in her village where people talked all the time about what was happening next door. Leaving a mark in the world of moving pictures was the real tough task. She told her parents that she needed a break between projects. The truth was she got nothing to work on after her first movie.

Somber skies, dusty windows, the fourth one on the second floor was the turning point of her life, the day she met the two travelling Broadway producers. Sometimes she wondered, if she were never chosen, where would she be?

The two US gentlemen went to so many villages before coming to hers, it took them two seconds to decide on the perfect girl for the role. They came to her house after her audition at school. Her parents urged her to leave immediately, it was a great opportunity; she would get better education, possibly a better life. Everything that parents could wish for their only child, nobody wanted their kids to stay in a small village, greatness could only be found in big cities.

That day, her uncle parked the car in front of their house, her parents with luggage ready at the door, waiting. She walked out of the wooden red threshold, another Tiger Gate, and bowed to enter the car as her parents loaded the bags.

From then on, she was an actress in the making.

On way to the dressing room, the woman kept talking about her being the Brightest Star in the village, recounting names that she could not recall anymore and telling her about Mr. Fa, “The old man is still teaching, occasionally performing for the village. Nowadays there are big drama tours come by but the neighborhood still prefers him, after all, he is the much loved by all of his students.”

They stopped and she was led to a small room, the “dressing room”, which was an old storeroom with obsolete, abandoned chairs and tables. Inside sat a man in his 60s, he carefully picked up an old blue-rimmed china cup with his trembling hands. The mirror in front of him had a few fissures on the left corner, two frayed and brown pictures lied on the table like two dead butterflies. The man stopped when the woman knocked, “dearest, guess who come to see you!”

“Mr. Fa.” Jasmine’s lips quivered, the master turned his head. She could still recognize this face but time had left a few wounds on it; a kind, round face, perfect for the buffoon role in Chinese Opera. A thin fume on his eyes clouded his sight, she thought, her teacher was getting old.

“Is this Xiaoxiao?” His face lit up.

“Yes. Our biggest star comes back to see her Si Fu,” the woman moved the chair beside him.

Jasmine entered the room, passing through another Tiger Gate and became his humble student. A stuffy pang gathered in her chest. She took his hands in hers, big warm hands that guided her through gates after gates.

“I am not her Si Fu. We never really had the time to arrange the ceremony before she left town.” She could hear a tint of regret. His grip was tight, the care was there. “How are you lately, Xiaoxiao?”

“I am well.” Jasmine answered quietly. She sat down on the empty chair, her hands still holding his. She realized that the old man’s movement was a bit odd, as if he wasn’t familiar with the surroundings.

“I’ll leave you two for a chit-chat.” The woman closed the door.

“My wife, my very faithful assistant.” He smiled, “she follows me all her life. She is the one loyal fan that everyone dreams of.” Indeed, she was the biggest supporter of the best teacher in this village, no, the best teacher in the world.

He was her class teacher when she started school. Mr. Fa taught her everything, from Chinese literature to Maths to Chinese history to Geography to Russian to Physical Education, everything; village schools could not afford a teacher for each subject; one had to know it all to teach. The classroom was simple, an ever-filthy blackboard with forty wooden benches and tables full of little holes and graffiti. All her good and bitter memories resided there.

One afternoon, she saw Mr. Fa in a deserted classroom after school. He was talking in a strange accent with a lot of strange movements. She hid and observed until she learnt all the words and gestures by heart; the weird sounds, the odd vocabularies, the bizarre postures. She showed it to her Grandmama at home and learnt that it was Cantonese opera. Xiaoxiao had never seen one before, the drama tour never came to her village.

“Master Fa was an oddball,” her Grandmama commented. “He could have stayed in a Cantonese opera company with all the amenities. But he chose to teach little kids how to write and how to count.”

The next day after school, she left behind and asked if he could teach her a few things about Cantonese opera. At first, Mr. Fa refused and brushed her out of the room, saying that one should focus on reading and becoming someone useful. Acting was a second-class activity.

“I promise you, I will work hard.” The little one pled, standing beside the threshold.

“Why do you come to me?” He asked her, annoyed by her endless nagging.

“Because of the light.” She paused, searching for the right words. “There was a light shining above your head when you act.” He could feel the admiration and intensity in her eyes, “I want that little shower of light shines on me as well.”

Learning was easy, the practice was the hardest part. Xiaoxiao had to wake up an hour early for the voice training; she stayed up late working on her postures; she recited the melodies and lyrics when her class became boring, writing and rewriting the ancient characters on her wooden table again and again to memorize everything.

One weekend, Mr. Fa took her to the nearest town for a show. It was the first time she saw a Cantonese opera. As the leading lady walked towards the stage with her sparkling headpieces and matching jewelries, the glamour radiated from the actress blinded her eyes. One day, I will be like her, a voice in her head echoed. People will love me the way I love her. Meanwhile, her master tried to cramp everything in her little head when they were watching: explaining the set, the cast and every single detail of the ancient art. “See, right there. That’s the entrance to the stage. We call it Tiger Gate.”

“Every actor has to walk through the gate to the stage. Once on stage, you are not Xiaoxiao. Once on stage, you have a role to play.” The scene ended and everyone applauded. “Life is a series of Tiger Gates, my dear Xiaoxiao. Each time you pass through a door, remember you have a role. Play it well.”

Two months later came the producers of the musical. They gave this little girl a new identity and a new life. She didn’t even have the time to bid Mr. Fa goodbye.

“How many years has it been?” The good master asked, his head tilted to a side, waiting for an answer.

His listening skill was deteriorating, her mind started to tick. “Fifteen.”

“I heard you are playing on the silver screen now.” He clasped on her shoulders, “tired of the stage already?”

“No, I wanted a change but the cinema is harder than I thought.”

“Have you been working hard?” His voice was stern.

“Yes!” She replied immediately, then after a few seconds, she hesitated, thinking about the reviews, “but the critics…”

“Ignore them. If you give your heart to the audience, they will know. Critics are crickets who make meaningless noise that mimics the salvo you hear in theatres. The real salvo is when you actually hear them.” He turned around, his hands on the table, touching every corner of it.

“Mr. Fa…” Her lips trembled as she started to understand his odd moves, her old teacher could no longer see clearly that he had to use his hands and explore.

“Surprised that a teacher can be blind?” He chuckled, his hand scooped the cup up, his lips kissed the blue rim. “My students think I am still able to see, even laid a red ribbon at the edge of the stage as a hint to prevent me from falling off. Only my wife knows that all I see now is pure darkness.”

She stood up and helped the old master to stand as he raised. Somebody knocked on the door, a youthful voice reminded the actor to the stage. “Fret not, Xiaoxiao, I am used to it.” Then he shouted a little louder, “you guys don’t have to help me tonight, there is Xiaoxiao, my only apprentice will take me to the Tiger Gate.”

Slowly they walked together, his hand grabbed on her forearm tightly, “be a good actress.” When they stopped at the stage entrance, the master said, “Tell me, what happens if I pass the door…”

“You have a role to play.”

The old man smiled as he carefully took her hand off his arm, “good.” Nodding, he repeated, “good.” Then he stepped forward, entering the performing space in bold steps.

Through the crack of the Tiger Gate, Jasmine watched her Si Fu. Nobody knew he was blind. His movement fluid, his voice angelic, his posture graceful. On the stage, he was someone else, the Mr. Fa she first saw in the empty classroom, with a light shining from above, feeding on the love of the audience. The laughter and clapping shook the tiny little school hall packed with people, the old and the young. The mini stage, which was a hundred times smaller than her first on Broadway, could recreate a closeness to the viewers that she had never felt before. She woke up from the daze she had lived.

After the show, the master strode his way back to the backstage confidently, the humble apprentice and his wife took his arms, each on one side. Before they reached the dressing room, Jasmine went forward and kneeled in front of her former teacher, “Please make me your apprentice again. I promise I will work harder than ever.”

“Get up!” The master ordered, “you are blocking the way.”

“Please…” Jasmine pled.

The old man chortled, “Xiaoxiao, if you don’t move, my wife can’t get us tea for the apprentice ceremony.”

She shifted quickly to the left, making room for the woman to pass, her left shoulder hit the threshold, it hurt but she didn’t get up. Mrs. Fa rushed into the room, poured two cups of tea and returned.

A gentle weep, a hearty laughter, a merry cheer, clings of china cups, the master and his student, “Xiaoxiao, from now on you have to call me…”

“Si Fu.”

Jasmine kowtowed once after her cup was collected by the woman. The couple helped her up and they slowly guided her through the door, Mr. Fa sat down on the chair again, laughing as he rubbed the white paint off his face, happy to have his apprentice returned to him.

Jasmine laught along and caught her reflection in the mirror. There, she had walked through another Tiger Gate; there, she had a new role to play.