Luck Girl; Benign City: Fiction by Herbert Chang

“Subtle, restrained, elegant. A moving, poignant reflection of youth, friendship and first love.”Judges’ Remarks

Grand Prize Winner, Adult Category – 2024 Betty L. Yu and Jin C. Yu Creative Writing Prizes

Luck Girl; Benign City 

Summer 1989, I met Claire in my hometown Bei-Liao. But it also doesn’t matter, because I almost never tell anyone. 

Memories of that day always unwind like a roll film, in third person present. I walk between rice fields. My sweaty school uniform clings to my chest. The paddies are at their greenest, though I pass by only when they are sun-stitched into a patchwork of lush yellow at dusk. It’s the summer but I have remedial classes. My classmates and I are members of the Fang Niu Ban—the Cattle Class. We are the disappointments who want to study art, to sing, who have terrible grades. The misfits lacking the ambition to become doctors and lawyers. Being a disappointment is perfectly fine, as is the freedom that came with my acceptance. 

So I tug Ah-Gong’s rusted old bike carefree along the seams of the field, on the tarmac too narrow to ride on. Cicadas cry, my bike chains squeak, and a breeze brings the faint scent of diesel. Simple times. High school is just around the corner. 

Bei-Liao means cottage of the North. With twenty-thousand residents, it’s the third largest town in rural Kaohsiung, the place where I live with Ah-Gong. When the path widensinto a sloping bridge, I mount my bike, then with a stiff, downward pedal roll forward into the greater streets of Bei-Liao. I zoom through brick alleyways, to the miracle clinic that sells the cure to heat stroke— 

Grandma Ah-Gui’s Shaved Ice Shop.

The shop mushrooms from a squat residential building. Plastic chairs once white and particle-board tables spill illegally onto the sidewalk. Already, a long line snakes through these obstacles; at its head stands Grandma Ah-Gui herself, a cabinet of ingredients, and a steel counter. She wears her hair in a thick, grey puff. Her face bears deep lines but her eyes are ever so keen. The local kids find her menacing. I always thought of her as majestic. 

Orders of sweet beans and tapioca fly out her mouth. When she recognizes familiar faces she calls out their usuals, leaving them no chance to speak. Behind her, two high school students shave slabs of ice into fine powdery heaps. Her son used to work the machines, but he had since left for the city. The shop was surprisingly clean. People leave used tissue in respectable piles and spilled sugar didn’t get too sticky. Tables are packed but they are always packed, so most people are like me who never stays. We are all part of a longer line, enjoying icy respite before being claimed by the rest of our day. 

I prop Ah-Gong’s bike carefully against a brick wall then enter the queue. A small gust escapes into the alley, bringing the conversation from ahead. I tune in but I have trouble understanding the elderly couple’s Taiwanese, the language banned at school. The tongue I grew up with but could not speak. 

I ask in Mandarin and the husband points forward to Claire. 

She stands near the front in line, left arm holding her right behind her back. Her hair, a chestnut almost red, ends at her shoulders. Amongst everyone dressed from the clothesline, her carefully paired tank tops, button-ups, and shorts revealed too much deliberation. I glimpse an angular nose and chin. In those years, the only foreigners you see are on Hollywood movies on satellite TV. She is either oblivious to the hushed whispers around her or, as I later suspected, was used to feigning ignorance. 

The line advances. Too late she realizes she is seeing the ingredients for the first time. The unlabeled collection of reds and blues, cubes and orbs are unforgiving and secret, as were their prices. The countryside efficiency moves faster than her mind and it was her turn. Grandma Ah Gui’s gnarled fingers drums the counter, the eyes that peering from beneath her hair seem unfazed by the novelty of Claire’s foreignness. In those years, English was taught but not learned. No one could help her even if they wanted to. 

I look back and find fifteen new faces in line. With a sigh of resignation, I give up my spot and walk forward. 

“Do you need help?” The English jumble in my mouth, conjunctions metallic on my tongue. Startled, she turns toward me. Her shoulders loosened. 

“What’s your favorite?” she asks. 

“Red bean, sweet milk. Their best. Logo food,” I meant specialty. 

“Sweet milk?” she asks. I point to a white tube in the ingredients display. 

“Oh, condensed milk? I love it. Can I get it to go?” Seeing my confusion, she pointed to the street and clarified, “Eat somewhere else?” 

I nod. There are no seats anyways. I gave Grandma Ah-Gui the order, then stay up front to keep her company.

Luck Girl; Benign City 4 

“I’m Claire,” she says. She stands close to my height. 

‘I’m Ming-Feng, but just call me Mike,” I introduce myself the way I had, long ago. 

She startles at my sudden fluidity. But after a brief pause, she says with conviction, “I’ll call you Ming-Feng. What year are you in?” 

It takes me a moment to convert the national calendar to the western one. “1989.” 

She laughs. “I mean at school.” 

Embarrassed, I say, “Guo-san, third year of junior high. I’m thirteen.” 

“I’m a year older than you, I’m fourteen.” 

“You come for vacation?” I ask. 

“My father manages an insurance branch here. I live in Kaohsiung city.” Uncertain about what she meant by insurance, I simply bob my head up and down. The ice-shaving blades whirled in the shop. It makes sense she wouldn’t live in a rural town. At the counter, Grandma Ah-Gui shovels a generous pile of red beans into an ice-filled plastic bowl, slaps on a lid, then bags it. I pay and to my surprise, there are two inside. Perhaps she isn’t so immune to Claire after all. 

I hand Claire her shaved ice. Already, Grandma Ah-Gui is counting coins for the next customer. I yell my thanks to the part-timers, to Grandma Ah-Gui, then we leave the shop together.

Fall 1989, Bei-Liao 

We never plan our next meetings, but during the next three months we find each other at Grandma Ah-Gui’s. She now knows all the different flavors: red beans, green beans, black beans, red tapioca, blue tapioca, sugar cane, black sugar, coconut and her favorite— Matcha and condensed milk. 

Our conversations in Ah-Gui’s line mirror our parallel lives. Waiting gives us chance to update each other but also scopes our conversation. Like shallow records. I learned a few things. Claire lives in the city. Her father’s work brought her to many places—Switzerland, Singapore, now Taiwan. Bei-Liao is her favorite town, though she’s never said why. On the other hand she only asks me basic questions. Perhaps, she feared she’d push beyond the bounds of my English, 

but I hope she’d ask more. Answering is easier than asking, and could always be deflected with a simple, how about you

Before the books and equations of midterms claim my time, I skip school. The day is muggy and I have a feeling Claire would appear. She is waiting in the alley when I arrive and, more miraculously, we find an empty table tucked in the corner. She saves the table, while I order. 

“Do you want to cut in?” A man asks in front. 

I decline. Frequent customers now know Claire and encourage her to cut in line. Claire tries to fit in (not that she could ever), I was determined to treat Claire as a local and walk to the end. At our table, Claire leafs through a magazine. She wears shorts perfect for the sweltering heat, but would have been caned by my homeroom teacher. Beside her, two obasan gosisp. One wears a T-shirt with a nonsensical English translation Luck Girl Benign City printed in bold letters. 

“Ming-Feng, what do you and Cu-lai want?” Grandma Ah-Gui asks. Her name has too many consonants to fit a Mandarin syllable. The usual, I reply. The sound of an electric motor and flying ice, and soon Ah-Gui hands me our orders. 

I set our shaved ice on the particle board table, and Claire eagerly rolls up the magazine. 

“You took a long time,” she pouts. She vigorously wipes our metal spoons with tissue. Ah Gong warned me that restaurants don’t clean utensils thoroughly. His habit became mine, now Claire’s. 

“I didn’t want to cut in line,” I say, raising my eyebrows pointedly. She grins. I am struck by the number of ways a 14-year-old could smile. We carve into the ice. You don’t really eat shaved ice as allow it to melt in your mouth. Across from me, Claire shovels a mouthful of ice, then scrunches her eyebrows with brain freeze. I realize then this is the first time we’ve ever sat down, leisurely, together. I wonder briefly if we’d see each other, come winter, without a need for shaved ice. 

“Why do you come to the town?” I ask. 

She squints at my tapioca, a hint of a sarcastic smile. I’ve asked this before, but she senses I wanted a more serious answer, as demanded by the leisurely context.

“In the city, people try to speak English to me. Here, I need to force myself to be part of town, to get around. And, maybe to see you of course,” she says with amusement. Melting ice crinkles. She asks, “Ming-Feng, you never told me where your school was.” 

“Public school down the road. I’m a proud member of the Cattle Class—the class for the good-for-nothing kids,” I say proudly. 

“I’m the same then. My father hired a few university students to tutor me at home, about subjects I like.” 

“That’s not good-for-nothing. In Taiwan, your path is set. You memorize facts in elementary school, more facts in middle school, take tests for high school, decide on your specialty. It’s called the waiting line. It is what the… good kids do,” I stumble, not knowing the English for sycophant

“Your English is great. You’d do great in the States.” 

“I only have good pronunciation. My father studied medicine in Oregon. He brought my mother and me, so I grew up with English. I was three. It was a lot colder.” 

“You must have seen snow?” she holds up a spoonful of shaved ice. 

“It snowed once or twice. Oregon rains more than it snows. But I remember my dad wrapping a heavy jacket around me. It’s funny, I remember the excitement but not the snow.” 

She considers what I said, imagining her own experiences. Then she laughs bitterly. “I’m from Boston, and the snow gets unbearable. After a light snow though, the puffy kind, you can pour Vermont maple syrup and eat it like shaved ice. Maybe you’ll visit someday.” 

“Is that your home?” 

“I guess.” 

She puts her last spoonful of Matcha-drenched ice into her mouth. 

“Hey, I’d love to see your house, would your parents mind?” she says, out of the blue. 

“I live with my grandfather, my father works in the city, so anytime,” my heart drops, suspecting the questions that come next. 

“And your mom?” 

“She passed away. So my dad can’t live here, and I can’t live with just him in the city,” I would eventually learn the right word for how I felt—spite

I find her eyes, she glances away, then flicks back to meet mine again. 

“I’m sorry.” 

“No, no. It’s the way things are. Don’t worry.” I give her a thumbs up, smile reassuringly, unintentionally stiff. She smiles with morose.

If my English was more advanced, I would have qualified everything I said to make her feel at ease. But I also appreciate my simple words, for simple words are honest words. Sophistication, like politics, is where what is said isn’t what is meant. 

With the conversation coming to a dead-end, it was time to leave. We mount our bikes— Claire on her red Giant, and me on Ah-Gong’s. Half a pedal sends her speeding along, her hair stretched behind her. I pump hard to keep up on my rusted one-speed. Still, I love my bike. Grandfather rode it for more than forty years, until he succumbed to gout (due to his nightly can of beer). He eventually told me in junior high I could have the bike, so long as I take care of it. I grease the chains every Friday. 

We lock our bikes at a playground, to free our hands and slow our pace as we walk around Bei-Liao. She did tell me one reason she returned. She had fallen in love with Bei-Liao’s colorful murals and came frequently to admire them. As youngsters leave the town for big cities, the farmers and townsfolk, who did not have the heart to force their children to stay, thought of a plan to revitalize the town as a tourist attraction. On almost every wall, scenes of Bei-Liao lives in permanent acrylic. 

Painted on the concrete wall of the dentist’s clinic, a grey water buffalo smiles widely and pulls a heavy metal plow through the rice fields. 

On the broken wall where a tractor had crashed, three farmers speak of the harvest, drinking jasmine tea out of a kettle in the midday heat.

On the brick outside my house, Ah-Gong plays Chinese Chess with me while our dog Blackie chases butterflies in the warm, afternoon sun. 

It feels as if the murals, stretching from street to street, were just for Claire and myself. As we walk, Claire takes pictures with her disposable yellow Kodak. 

Winter 1990 Bei-Liao 

As branches stiffen and their dead leaves shiver, we swap shaved ice for ginger tea with black sugar. After six months, encounters are still a game of chance. The sense of disappointment deepens, though, when the red mountain bike is absent against the brick wall. 

It was a promise of sorts, to show up without being expected. 

Once, we did plan ahead, after she asked about the gilded paper resting on altars and the rich musk of incense circulating endlessly through the narrow alleys. I tell her superstition grips us Taiwanese deeply, be you physician, lawyer, politician, or scientist. The town comes to life under hundreds of lanterns. Daughters return to their fathers, no meal is served without whiskey, and mahjong is played well into the mornings. I tell her under the lunar calendar, 1989 is not yet over, and we spend all of it together. 

I meet her at the train station early afternoon, after her forty-minute train ride. I hand her a bottle of water, then we walk to the annual parade. The transition is sudden—one street empty then shoulders against shoulders in the next. Taoist idols sit on blue delivery trucks, their brows in proud arches. The trucks roll slowly down the street, dragging a tail of firecrackers. A brother hops off the truck to light them. Tongues of sparks char the tarmac, and Claire claps her ears. I tell her that this happens every year. Unable to hear, she shakes her head, so I point towards the night market, the same way I sign when I struggle to find the right English words. She smiles in agreement. 

The crowd takes us in. We drift from stall to stall, game to game, constantly swapping the food in our hands, between squid, pigeon eggs and black-pepper tenders. Claire tries fried frog legs for the first time, then buys three more. Sizzling anise and meat overwhelm the scent of fish guts and garbage. We avoid the basil snake soup to watch children fail at catching goldfish in plastic tubs, then sit with an elder man playing his erhu. We waste money on airsoft guns and pachingo, games Ah-Gong warned me not to waste money on. 

Even in the afternoon, the red lanterns swaying under the eaves cast a crimson glow on Claire’s smile. Her Kodak remains untouched, dangling around her pale neck. 

From the pictures in her magazines, one of Claire’s obsessions is the sky lanterns. Ah Gong and I traditionally made our own—one store-bought lantern equals six shaved ice specials; it just didn’t make sense to buy one. Before going home, I walk to the nearby seafood restaurant to pick up garbage bags. Specially made to hold shrimp shells, they are thick, semi-transparent, and in-flight glow with a pleasant hue of pink. The owner was my mother’s middle school classmate, and according to Ah-Gong, he walked her home often. Giving me bags each year was his way of remembering her.

Tradition dictates on the second day of New Year that I return to my mother’s home. But since I already live here, my dad drives in from the city. He is lounging on the sofa when I returned, watching a political talk show. His head rests on a mesh of bamboo beads and I tell Claire the pockets of space keep your back from sweating. On the table were unfamiliar packets of artisan lanterns. 

He sees me, and I give a small salute. He gets up, hugs me from behind. I kept my arms to my side. It wasn’t that I disliked his affection, but a vestigial habit. 

“Claire, this is my dad. Dad, Claire.” 

“Nice to meet you, Dr. Huang,” she said with a bow. 

“I heard from Mikey’s grandfather you spend a lot of time together.” His English carries an accent, but his words are clear. She nods. 

“We’re going to make sky lanterns later,” I say. His eyes flick to the packets on the table, then to the roll of plastic bags in my hand. He leaves to set the ginger tea on a slow boil and collects the lanterns as he did so. 

Ah-Gong returns with food from our neighbors. They always make extra for us, knowing Ah-gong and Father are without a wife, and the meal at New Year’s Eve is supposed to be the grandest. I secretly look forward to this since it beats anything Ah-Gong or I make. As we eat, Ah Gong and father discuss politics, while I translated quietly for Claire. The president has passed away, which signaled the birth of Taiwanese democracy. She notices I struggle when translating. I tell her they are speaking in Taiwanese, a language banned during the martial law era. With my chopsticks, I pluck a pork rib for myself, then one for Claire. She reciprocates, scissoring softer, flaky meats like fish with chopsticks that she brings around for practice. I drop bones on the floor for Blackie, who wags her tail. 

After dinner, the ginger tea is strong and mellow. I pour two cups, tell Claire to grab a stack of yellowed newspaper, then follow me to our workbench—the open tarmac. I spread the newspaper on the rough ground then hold it down with bricks. I show Claire how to bend the metal wire into a frame, to leverage her weight to make clean angles. The wire soon loops into a base, then spirals inward to brace a fuel harness. The cold copper warms quickly between our fingers. 

I ask Ah-Gong for the lighter, but he tells us to wait. He crouches into the bike shed beside our house. He built it by stacking sheets and sheet metal, so when typhoons tear up the roof every summer, the shed was easily rebuilt. Never aim for permanence, Ah-gong told me, as there would always be scrap metal. 

Ah-gong emerges cradling a sky lantern wrapped in rice paper. He says proudly, which I translated, he spent the past five days gluing the delicate paper to the frame. In black ink, he had written on opposite sides Hsing-Fu, Ping-an: good fortune and peace. Ah-Gong writes his name then passes the brush to Father, who does the same, then passes it to me. 

“You should write your mother’s name, Ming-Feng,” he says. I take the brush. In careful strokes, I paint Mother’s name, with the same care as repainting the scenes on our walls. I write my name beneath her’s, then hand the brush to Claire. She removes her Kodak from around her neck. Ah-Gong takes it.


Somewhere, on a roll of film, I help Claire wet the brush in the inkwell. Somewhere, she sits on the tarmac tracing Latin letters while I kneel on the headlines. 

We light the fuel. The surface swells, and we hold the lanterns down. Ah-Gong reaches in to light a cigarette. I look at him disapprovingly and he tells me that old people always die before their habits do. 

Once released the lanterns drift up, staying close as if anchored. Then, the wind picks up and sends them past the rice fields, towards the central mountains. In the dark expanse, they seem no longer tethered to this world. Father walks back into the house, and Ah-Gong follows. He returns to refill our mugs with steaming ginger tea then leaves us alone. By then, the lanterns were flickering beacons, chasing each other in the distance. We watch them in silence. 

“In Oregon, she told me about this lantern festival by the river,” I say as the lanterns dip. “She brought me by scooter. I stood on the deck between her legs. The wind was strong against my face and the lanterns were beautiful. When Father found out, he hit her. The only time he did. Rou-bao-tie—flesh over metal—riding scooters is dangerous and he was right. A week later when she died riding one.” 

A pipe had dislodged from a truck. Lanced her chest. The lanterns split and in the breeze I realize my cheeks are wet. Claire brings her thumb to my face, tracing the vertical rivets upwards, then leans in to press her lips against mine. We hold each other until the lanterns disappear. Next time, she says, she’d tell me about her mother.

I look behind her. The moonlight and sunken sun strip the mural depicting Ah-gong, me, and Blackie of color. It mirrors how I feel, a mixture of cold and warm, but it would get only colder. I push her back gently, kiss her again, then walk towards the house. Behind me, I hear the plastic click of a shutter. 

“Do you think you’ll ever come to the States?” she asks me, as we wait for her train. 

“My English is not good enough,” I say. The night market’s music echoes through the evening sky. 

“Surely you could practice,” she said playfully, also probing. 

“I promise to try,” I say, scratching the side of my head. She looks down at the tracks. Of course I will, I want to say, but as simple as the sentiment, the words would not come. As my mastery of English caught up with the complexity of my thoughts, so too came hesitation, uncertainty, doubt. Language is never the barrier, only fear. 

The train arrives along the banks of concrete. She steps on, and seeing no one else was on the platform, the conductor slides the doors shut. The wheels roll with a creak, and she waves at me through the open windows, her face disappearing into light as the train recedes into the distance. 

Spring 2012, Boston 

Fifteen years have passed since I last saw Claire, and I struggled to reconcile if meeting her mattered at all. For the very least, I had kept my promise and continued the process she began. I studied a little harder. I got back in line. I left the Cattle Class, memorized facts, and when I turned eighteen, moved back to the city to live with Father. I attended university in Kaohsiung for a year before transferring to Boston University, double majoring in accounting and political science. I wrote an un-original thesis regurgitating Ah-Gong—the Japanese wanted our voice, the mainlanders, and now that we had earned our freedom China wanted it too. In college, I met dozens of girls like Claire. Yet it was her and her alone, for whom I gave up my place in line, that I found myself in this freezing American city. Perhaps we had grown close so quickly, the same way passengers on planes do, not expecting to meet again. 

I saw Claire exactly two more times after that day. Once at Grandma Ah-Gui’s, once at the train station. She said she could not stay for long. But she was learning Chinese, since I was practicing English. Chinese was hard as it lacked tenses. I later learned from her neighbors, after she left, that she was busy packing. 

In the mail, I received two photos, the one she took as I entered my house and us working on the ground. I was surprised by my expression, worn but relieved. I cursed her for not leaving me any more photos, for I knew my memories would fail me. Or perhaps this was all that was left, and she rid herself of the rest. For the remainder of high school, I kept them in my drawer, always there but never in sight. Before leaving for the States I did the only thing that made sense—I took the train to Bei-Liao and gave the photos to Ah-Gong. Only then did I chase after the mirage of Claire in Boston, not because I believed we would meet again, but because waiting in line was what we had always done, and all we could do, just for a chance to see each other again. Only by meeting this way, could our year together mean anything. 

We never did. After graduating, while working at an accounting firm in Boston, I resisted the pull of Bei-Liao for as long as I could. The city’s graffiti reminded me of murals. Come winter I pour maple syrup over powdery snow. If I were to return my hope to meet Claire would disappear with it. Yet as I waited for the T, a deep realization welled up within me—that if I waited any longer, I might never return to Bei-Liao. So before the feeling could desert me, I packed my bags, booked a ticket, then flew home. 

It’s a few weeks after Chinese New Year, already 2012, and the fields seem less green. Grandma Ah-Gui’s Shaved Ice has long been replaced by a 7-11 and the train runs through a modern station, sleek and unfamiliar. 

Ah-Gong greets me at our house. I sit down on the sofa, beads of the bamboo familiar against my back. He pours himself a whiskey and I ask how he is. Well, he says. Father visits more. He drinks less, smokes less, and my bike is ready for me in the shed. All my old things are also there, including my photo, so when the summer typhoons come he brings my things indoors. Cataloging each year helps with his memory. 

And the town? I ask. He launches into a rant. More townsfolk have left. The older generation is weary and the younger one is spineless. The town struggles to maintain its walls, and the colors are fading. I realize he no longer considers me as Taiwanese youth. We watch dust fall in the sunlight. 

“You want to see them? Your photos?” he asks. 

I nod yes. Remembering with my mind was too tall an order and through time, the contours of Claire bleed away like smoke. I wonder if the photo was as vibrant as the day I slipped it into the envelope, its edges just as sharp. But as he stood, I tell him to wait. Even though I struggle to recall my mother’s face I love her just the same. Every Chinese New Year, when I write her name on the lanterns, I remember with my brush. I live so much of the present in the past, that at least I should remember the past in the present. 

I tell Ah-Gong to get my acrylic instead because there is still sunlight outside. I tell him the photo can wait a little longer, because I want to remember in the present. I tell him, just like you said. The scenes fade faster than they are repainted.


Herbert Chang is an assistant professor at Dartmouth College who studies social networks, politics, and how technology shapes human behavior. His research covered the 2020 and 2024 Taiwanese and United States Presidential Elections, the George Floyd protests, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. His work has been featured in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Scientific American, and Forbes 30 Under 30. His group combines computational, investigative, and journalistic approaches to tell compelling human stories. He writes about Taiwan and designs music systems.
He can be found at:
Twitter: @herbschang
Instagram: @herbert.chang

Leave a Reply