Mr Ong the Noodle Seller

June 13, 2016/ Begin, Character Sketches, Stories/ 0 comments

Mr Ong awoke as the cropship entered its daytime phase and the lighting systems powered up. In the back of his rickshaw, he sat up and drew the blanket around him. He had always been an early riser; he enjoyed that sense of being the only one present, the sole witness to events. He enjoyed the silence. But once the light grew brighter and the air began to warm, the silence faded as the first traders arrived and began to set up. Soon the docks would come alive; it was time for Mr Ong to go to work.

He’d taken a bit of a chance yesterday, but the girl’s offer had been too good to refuse. Forty kuai, she’d paid him! Forty kuai for a few dried noodles and a bit of protein concentrate! Plus a couple of mouldy cabbages, he remembered. And an onion. Forty kuai! For a moment, Mr Ong felt almost guilty. But then, he reflected, it wasn’t his fault if people didn’t know the value of money. If people were rich and wanted to pay over the odds for a cabbage, why not let them? It was good luck to make rich people happy.

But it was true he’d been taking a risk, though a small one. He’d sold the girl all his stock yesterday – which left him with nothing today. He needed concentrate, and he needed veg. But Mr Ong was a noodle-seller; what he needed most of all was noodles. It had been years since the last shortage, but the memory of that time was still fresh in Ong’s mind. He’d been reduced to working instead with a kind of dumpling made from fermented millet; even now, he shuddered to remember the taste. It had almost ruined him.

Mr Ong threw off the blanket, put on his sandals, and clambered out of the rickshaw. He reached back in to grab an old hessian bag, frayed at the edges and stained with mud, then set off to find ingredients.

An hour later, he had set up his stall in the back of the rickshaw and was busy chopping vegetables. Four cauldrons simmered in front of him; a big one full of water, and three smaller ones for different kinds of broth. Clouds of fragrant steam arose to scent the air.

Mr Ong was cheerful; so far, the day was going well. He’d obtained plenty of noodles and concentrate, and got a great deal on a sack of turnips. There was shrimp paste, too – it was on the turn and had to be used up today, but it was still good stuff. Best of all was a record yield from the traps of fourteen rats, young adults with fine soft coats and a naughty twinkle in the eye.  He would never sell them all today. Whatever was left over could stay in cages for a day or two, but if tomorrow’s harvest was as bountiful he would need to pay a visit to the dojo. Old Master Kuo had plenty of applewood, and was always happy to fire up the smoker in exchange for a nice bit of meat.

Ong dropped his first batch of noodles into the water, stirring them with a long stick. He kept an eye out for potential customers as he worked. Even this early there was good business to be had – hundreds of people worked at the docks, and every one of them had to be fed. And you never knew when a starship might arrive bearing hungry travellers in search of authentic local cuisine. Ong’s noodles were cheap, and they were fast. And according to Mr Ong the verdict was unanimous: his noodles were the best.

First to arrive were the children. Running and skipping, laughing and fighting, swearing and kicking and screaming they came, first in ones and twos and small groups like the first raindrops in some terrible storm. Soon the docks were overwhelmed by a rushing torrent of sound and colour and youthful chaos; it was, thought Ong, a natural phenomenon of tremendous power. Every weekday morning, he felt privileged to witness it.

“Hello, young sir!” he cried, picking out a likely customer. “You big scholar, yes? Need brain food! Special shrimp noodle, only two kuai! Friend price. You learn school, become important man – fine robes, big hat! Then you remember, it was Ong’s noodle make you so clever. You tell friends – then Mr Ong prosper! Two kuai – it is deal, yes?”

The child stared at him for a moment. “Two kuai?”

“Oh,” Ong chuckled. “It is hard bargain – too clever for Mr Ong! Very well. One kuai only. I make fresh for you.”

The boy nodded, then reached into his pocket.

“Ah, yes!” Ong nodded vigorously as the kid handed him a coin. “You have good education.”

He switched on the gas under the wok; within seconds it was smoking hot. He added a splash of oil and a handful of onions, then grunted in satisfaction – he had got the sizzle just right. He threw in a little garlic and chilli before giving the wok a good shake; blue flame licked through its contents, infusing them with the breath of the wok.

He added a spoonful of bean paste. “You like turnip, yes?”

The child shrugged. “They’re alright.”

“Turnip good,” said Ong. “Make healthy bones.” He added the chopped turnips with a pinch of his special spice mix and a ladleful of shrimp broth. The wok hissed, throwing up a rich and complex aroma. Ong breathed in deeply and smiled. He turned down the heat and added a little more broth, then covered the wok while he measured out a child-sized portion of noodles. “You want dragon sauce?”

The boy stopped picking his nose for a moment and nodded.

Mr Ong threw in the noodles, then picked up a large earthenware jar and ladled out a small quantity of black liquid, sprinkling it on top. He gave the wok a good toss to mix it all together, then finally tipped the food into a cardboard container and handed it over. “Special shrimp, sir!”

By this time the smell of Ong’s cooking had attracted several more youngsters; he served nine more portions in just seven minutes; four shrimp, three pork, and two chicken. He hadn’t bothered with rat; the children couldn’t afford it anyway. That sort of thing was for the gentry.

There’d be plenty of them along later. The White Crane was among the most prosperous of the Great Spheres; here on the First Cropship, Ong was at the very heart of the Empire. It was a long way from where his life started, in a shack at the edge of a bean plantation on the Third Cropship of the Giant Panda. Only at the age of ten had Ong obtained his first shoes, after his parents – somehow – had scraped together the funds to set up a small fermentation operation, and then over a period of years perfected a recipe for the sweet bean paste known as Tian mian jiang. Even now, he preferred to go barefoot – yet sandals, he feared, were a necessary evil.

At least now he could afford them. Back on the Giant Panda, Ong had dared to dream of a better life. Now he had found it, in this strange and faraway land. Of course, it was still the Empire; all the Great Spheres shared a common culture, a common language and history. Like the fingers of a hand, they were each part of the same whole – yet all were unique.

The people spoke differently here. Ong knew he had yet to master the local dialect – he still sounded like a foreigner, as though he lacked fluency. He didn’t, of course; he spoke the language like a native – but of the Giant Panda. He was a country bumpkin. Here on the White Crane, they were more sophisticated; even the beggars sounded posh to Ong’s ear. He didn’t mind this; he was a man of the world, and people were people. And in this world, no matter where you went, the people loved noodles.

After the children came the workers; first to arrive was Arkady Tsau Lin, a regular. He worked at a nearby shop dealing in high-tech bric-a-brac, and often nipped out just after opening time for a bite to eat and a crafty smoke. Mr Ong did not approve of this behaviour. To his mind, the boy was a self-centred, irresponsible layabout whose major occupation appeared to be boasting about his sex life. Ong’s was not a lifestyle reeking of sex and glamour – that much was true. But Ark was not the only regular customer from Bo’s Bits n’ Bobs. His colleagues laughed at him behind his back, and Ong had a strong suspicion the boy’s exploits were largely mythical. Was Arkady Tsau Lin really so different from him? He didn’t think so.

Mr Ong gave a broad smile. “Ark!” he cried. “It is good morning for noodles, yes?” And he sold Tsau Lin a large spicy pork with extra cabbage.

Next came Chun Su the greengrocer’s son, followed by renowned starship mechanic Timofy Ma Ryu and his young apprentice Marina. Customs Officer Yip stopped by for his usual breakfast of dragon chicken; he was particularly chirpy this morning and asked for extra turnips. Then the Distribution Office opened, and things got busy as a constant stream of visitors began ferrying packages and cargo pods in and out through the doors. There were barrowboys, merchants and smugglers; there were thieves, honest men, and all sorts of officials with fine robes and large complicated hats. Ong’s rickshaw was parked right by the entrance; to get in, you had first to get past him. He kept up his patter as the wok hissed and sizzled. The queue moved slowly, but business was brisk.

By mid-day Mr Ong had run out of shrimp broth and was hard at work on another batch. He’d just sold three whole rats to a group of wide-eyed young tinkers who spoke to one another almost wholly in technobabble. Apart from their food order, Ong understood very little, though he gathered they had barely slept in days, nor eaten. They attacked their food like animals, abandoning chopsticks entirely and just stuffing it in with their hands. Mr Ong was shocked at first; where he came from, this was not how ladies behaved. But tinkers were a strange breed at the best of times. And he did like a woman who enjoyed her food. Ong shrugged, and returned his attention to the broth.

Things slowed down after lunch, and Ong took the chance of grabbing a bite to eat himself, sneaking hurried mouthfuls between customers. It was not enough for Ong to take opportunities where he found them; he preferred to create his own. He did a special deal with a starship crew newly arrived from the Sphere of the Red Snake (“Oh, long journey! You are hungry – special mix noodle only ten kuai; shrimp, pork and rat! Three protein – very healthy. You want I put more turnip? No problem!”); he sold rat to a gangster, and pork to the undercover cop on his tail; he caught a travelling salesman on his way out the door with a loaded barrowdroid, and fed him with spicy shrimp.

Late afternoon he flagged down a passing chai-wallah, and paid five fen for a cup of sweet tea and a wafer of pressed lentils and fruit. It was unlike anything he had tasted before; strangely spiced and unmistakably foreign. Ong loved it, and demanded to know more.

The chai-wallah waggled his head and smiled, but gave little away. “Family recipe,” he said. “Big secret! Mother-in-law. Tasty, yes?”

“Oh, yes!” agreed Ong. “It is yum. You will come again tomorrow?”

“It is possible,” admitted the chai-wallah. He waggled his head noncommittally.

“Come early, my friend! Here is big opportunity; many people want sweet!”

The chai-wallah smiled.

Ong glanced away to check for customers – there were none.

“Hey!” he cried, turning back. “You want special noodle?”

But the chai-wallah was gone.


Also published on Medium.

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