Michaela is an Australian primary school teacher currently based in Singapore. In her free time she writes and reads, cooks and eats! She’s making the most of the balmy tropical climate and all that this tiny island country has to offer whilst borders remain closed!
The Great Koi Heist of 2002
The year I turned eleven was the year I met my best friend. Julia Wong moved from the big smoke of Sydney to my lowly part of the world. A misfit like myself, I was drawn to her immediately, and to my delight she chose to ignore the grommet gang and instead made a beeline to my abandoned picnic table on her first day at Caloundra State School.
We didn’t speak a lot that first day, I didn’t have much practice conversing with people my own age. But we did make a snack trade, the highest of primary school currencies, two homemade dumplings for my chocolate flavoured dunkaroos.
“Want to swap?” Julia asked in a quiet but confident voice.
I hesitated before responding. I didn’t like parting with the sugary treat, but I did have another stashed in my lunchbox, so I figured the potential friendship was worth it.
“Sure,” I smiled, a true smile that reached the crinkles of my young eyes. “I’m Lucy.”
At the time, I thought Julia was a genius. Year 6 maths lessons were a breeze for her, and she mastered long division with an ease I couldn’t help but be jealous of. She worked diligently through lessons, focusing so hard on Mrs. Jones’ monotonous drawl, when I could hardly keep my eyes open. I was in awe of her academic sophistication but also her independence.
Julia rode her bike to and from school, seven blocks every day by herself. By contrast, I was escorted by my mother and my snotty twin brothers, forced to hold a tiny dirty hand when crossing the four roads between home and school. After school, Julia had a key to her front door and let herself in before whipping up an afternoon tea of Nissin instant noodles topped with a poached egg. My mum cut up apple slices with cheese and celery sticks garnished with peanut butter, but I, as always, remained hungry. Julia started and finished her homework without any parental prodding or reminding. I tried to sneak away to my bedroom to avoid Mum’s distracted eye, but it rarely worked for long.
On the weekends, Julia helped out at her family restaurant, the newly opened local Chinese. Mr. Wong saw an opportunity begging to be taken when the Indian place that had occupied the corner shop on The Esplanade fell into voluntary administration. So, the whole family moved interstate and Caloundra was blessed with its second Chinese restaurant, The Golden Koi, which greatly surpassed the original, in my most humble opinion.
As our friendship flourished, I joined Julia at the restaurant on Sundays. We polished the silverware, constructed chopstick aides out of cork, laid crisp white tablecloths on round tables and wiped down the glass lazy Susans. Mr. Wong taught us to fold napkins into lotus flowers, rosebud shapes, fans and even a peacock. I loved those Sundays, not just because I was so well-fed but because I was wholly welcomed into the life of this enchanting family.
Mrs. Wong was a walking oxymoron. She was caring but strict, stern but kind. She rarely laughed but made oddly sarcastic jokes. She was blunt but always purposeful. She had the innate ability to make me feel both comforted and reprimanded in the same sentence. Mrs. Wong was in charge of the accounts, she ran a very tight ship and only agreed to spend money after finding a great bargain.
Mr. Wong was an enigmatic man, small in stature but big in personality. He turned every story into a performance, every performance into a lesson. I learnt more from him on Sundays than I had in the six months of Mrs. Jones’ drawl. He took us on whimsical adventures, from the story of Pangu and the world’s creation, to the exploits of the rebellious Monkey King. He told us tales of his own childhood mischief, deeply embellished adventures of thievery and wrongdoing in China. But more than any other topic, Mr. Wong was passionate about koi.
Koi, I quickly learned, symbolised abundance and good fortune in Chinese culture. Mr. Wong attributed a lot of his success to the symbol of the Koi, a type of carp.
After first hearing him speak of Koi, I asked quite simply what on earth he was talking about. I distinctly remember Julia’s exasperated eye roll and her mumbled excuse to head to the kitchen.
Quite suddenly, Mr. Wong launched into storytelling mode. Stroking an imaginary beard and affecting a booming voice, he cried, “The Legend of the Koi and the Dragon!” He’d wrapped a napkin around his head for effect and I couldn’t help but giggle. Sternly, he continued.
“A school of koi went swimming upstream in the Yellow River. The fish fought long and hard, resilient to the end. But the end was a waterfall,” He paused here for dramatic effect, his hands working as puppets, swimming upstream. “At this time, most turned away, exhausted and feeble from exertion, they turned and allowed the current to pull them downstream. But several fish remained. They jumped and jumped, hoping to make it to the top. Most were unsuccessful, but they did not give up, determined to succeed. The local demons watched on, teasing them and laughing at the fish behaving so strangely. And then, one koi, stronger than the rest, jumped so high, it landed at the top of the waterfall. The gods celebrated this koi for its perseverance, and it was rewarded and transformed into a dragon.”
I sat still, wide eyed and impressed.
“And that is why, little fish, you should never give up,” He winked at me and warmly mussed my hair. Julia had re-emerged by this point and she laughed at my wonder.
“But Mr. Wong,” I said, stirred from my reverie. “If you think so highly of koi, why don’t you buy some?” Mr. Wong’s eyes widened at the question, his face paled slightly, hesitation gripping him.
But it was Julia who answered, shrugging, “We did have them in Sydney, but you can’t bring them over the border into Queensland. So, Dad had to sell them.” He nodded unconvincingly and abruptly went into the kitchen. I thought nothing of it at the time.
One Friday, deep into the school year, we were blessed with our very first sleepover. My family were off to Brisbane to watch the footy, (Dad’s a die-hard Broncos fan). Eleven-year-old me was far too sophisticated for family outings, so after much begging, Mum finally agreed I could stay the night at the Wong’s.
Mum loved Julia. She thought she was such a good influence on me and told people she’d seen a marked improvement in my academics. “Such a polite girl, so considerate. Very well-spoken. She always offers to do the dishes and even plays happily with the boys,” she’d gush to her friends who weren’t fortunate enough to have an Australian-born Chinese best friend for their own kids.
We rode our bikes home after school, giddy with the excitement that can only be experienced by tween girls at the prospect of a sleepover. We had grand plans aplenty; fort building, poisonous soup making and card playing, just to name a few. Although I’d spent some time in their family home prior to this, the first sleepover held a different kind of reverence. Stepping over the threshold, I breathed in deeply, relishing the freedom with exhilaration.
After reheating some fried rice with spam, we settled in to eat afternoon tea.
“What should we do first?” Julia asked me, eyes as bright as my own, munching happily. The possibilities were endless, and I smiled gleefully. Looking past her, I noticed a closed door. I thought I’d seen all of the rooms in the house after one of Julia’s very detailed tours, but I’d never even noticed the dark teak doorway next to the dining room.
Puzzled, I asked, “What’s in there?”
Julia shrugged, “I have no idea. Dad locks it! He gets very dramatic and says there’s a fire-breathing dragon inside whenever I’ve asked. Why do you ask?”
I grinned at her mischievously.
“We should break in,” I laughed maniacally, imitating Doctor Evil.
Julia was on board and we ended up dressed up all in black with stockings covering our faces. Hooting with laughter, I pulled a bobby pin from my hair and attempted to pick the lock with absolutely no lock-picking experience. We were soon forced to abandon the bobby pin as it quickly bent out of shape. Julia then had a brain wave, retrieving her library card, we tried to swipe it through the door jam, hoping to dislodge the latch.
We were mid-library card swiping when Mrs. Wong returned home. She came upon us as quiet as a leopard, neither of us with any inkling that she was behind us, watching, waiting.
“What do you think you are doing?” She asked, her voice calm but firm. We both jumped out of our skins. I think I actually squealed. I glanced over at Julia, her face drained of colour.
“Come,” Mrs. Wong gestured for us to follow her and we were led to the living room.
“Sit,” she said next, “No talking.” And then she left the room, seemingly to make a phone call.
We sat poised on the edge of the couch, suspended in fear. The disappointment oozed out of Mrs. Wong, even from the next room. I thought for certain my parents were being called to come and pick me up. I even thought for a moment that she may have been calling the police. The severity of our situation seemed immense and my stomach was clenched in shame.
It felt like hours passed, but in reality, it was probably mere minutes before Mr. Wong returned home. Both Mr. and Mrs. Wong approached the two of us in the living room, I looked down at my hands, unable to meet the eyes of the trustworthy Mr. Wong.
“It is time,” Mrs. Wong said, imploring her husband with a stern gaze before leaving the room.
He took a deep breath before beginning.
“It is time I shared with you a most alarming story. It is a story of law-breaking and thieving ingenuity. In a time not too long ago, in a place not too far away, a handsome man was moving his family to another land,” He paused, breathing deeply, and resigned.
“The handsome man was an honest fellow, who enjoyed adventures and stories. He had moved to a new land a long time before and now, he was ready to move his family again for a chance of success and prosperity in another town.”
At this point, Julia and I looked at each other in utter astonishment. What was going on? Where were the police? Mr. Wong pointedly ignored us and continued on with his tale.
“The handsome man and his wife and daughter packed up their home and their lives. Everything they loved and owned was in boxes. Everything that is except, arguably, the most precious, the most loved of all his possessions. His koi.”
Julia gasped, opening her mouth to interrupt him. He just raised a hand, silencing her with a look.
“His wife and daughter left by plane earlier that day and he had finished loading everything into the hired truck. He had promised his wife he would sell the fish; he had even found a buyer. But sitting by his pond, watching the dazzling reds and oranges dash by, the man was struck with a sudden realisation. His koi had brought his good fortune, to abandon them now would be to abandon his fortune. He could not for any reason part with his fish.” A bittersweet tone gripped Mr. Wong’s voice.
“Alas, he cancelled the sale and instead drove promptly to three pet shops before he found what he was looking for, a tank large enough to house eight glorious koi. Using strength he did not know he possessed, the handsome man loaded the tank and set off on a journey northwards. The road was long and treacherous, and he was besieged with worries. There were many near misses with the authorities. At one point, the red and blue lights flashed behind him, forcing a pull-over. He was questioned and examined, asked why he was driving so slowly. But finally, he was near the end of the journey, a fog shrouded the land in front of him and he could barely see the sign up ahead welcoming travellers to Queensland. Instead, he felt a soulful release as he crossed the border. From Tweed Heads into Coolangatta. The fog drifted away and the concern hanging over him lifted immediately.” He looked at us both, eyes wide with wonder.
“And there you have it girls, ‘The Great Koi Heist of 2002’.”
Mrs. Wong entered the room at exactly that point, with spine-tingling accuracy. She held an ornate brass key in her hand.
“Come,” she ordered, motioning for us to follow and we did so in silence, entranced as we were by the tale.
Approaching the door solemnly, we all paused as Mrs. Wong unlocked the door and switched on the light.
The light in the room shone, like a spotlight, illuminating the large fish tank taking up most of the space inside the room. Eight brightly coloured koi swam in the clear, blue water. Orange, red, black and golden flecks decorated their remarkable scales. Mr. Wong followed us into the room, gazing at his koi like they were treasure.
Too soon, we were ushered out of the room by Mrs. Wong to the dining table. Mr. Wong followed distractedly, lost in his own thoughts.
“Sit,” Mrs. Wong ordered, gesturing to the empty seats and the paper on the table in front of each place.
“Your father is not a bad man. He is a good man. A good man who loves his koi. Loves his koi so much, he was willing to go to great lengths to transport them into Queensland. Now, he knows it was wrong and he has solemnly vowed to never break another law in his life.” Mr. Wong was nodding seriously at us. “His koi will remain hidden and secret.” At this we both nodded enthusiastically back.
“You will both sign this,” she gestured to the papers in front of us. We glanced at one another, quizzically.
“But Mum, what is it?” Julia asked.
“It is a contract, a legally binding contract, stating that you will never ever reveal this secret and that you will never ever share this story.”
We signed the contracts and vowed to never share the story of ‘The Great Koi Heist of 2002’.
Several months ago, I called Julia. She’s at uni in Sydney now, studying to be a doctor, so I was right all those years ago. She is a genius.
We never spoke of the koi again, not since the night of our first sleepover 15 years ago, as we were contractually obliged. But I thought it was time.
“So, Julia, what ever happened with your Dad’s koi?” I asked, almost hesitant.
On the other end of FaceTime, she burst out laughing.
“Oh my god. You’ll never guess what? After fifteen bloody years, he brought the tank to the restaurant. They’re on display in the front window for the entire world to see.”