Fly to the Weightless Island
By Cheng Jiaoyang
Mia had never heard of the Weightless Island in Hong Kong. That was until she scrolled through her Facebook feed one day and saw a post from Alice, a college acquaintance:
"Flowers were singing, grass was dancing, trees were handstand-walking, and animals were floating around the air and sipping on raindrops. Once I entered the Weightless Island, I became weightless and flew up like a light feather. Within one week after being there, I was only fed by sunshine and rainwater but still felt energetic every day."
What the hell? Mia was puzzled, but still gave a 'like' for Alice's post.
Soon after, Mia saw other friends sharing similar posts about the Weightless Island:
"OMG I am so obsessed with the Weightless Island! No need to eat, no need to walk, no need to make money, no need to suffer the expensive rent which costs me over 10,000 a month! What a pressure-free life."
"I am thinking about moving to the Weightless Island, I mean it. Compared to it, other areas of Hong Kong are worse than hell to live in."
"Protect the Weightless Island! It is the last peaceful, priceless land of Hong Kong!"
As a social-media copywriter, Mia was familiar with the creative strategies for viral content. If those Weightless Island posts were shared by key opinion leaders, or KOLs, she would have dismissed the whole thing as an attention-grabbing gimmick. However, all the posts were by Mia's old friends from primary school or high school, and the children of her mother's colleagues.
They weren't rich. They lived in small flats, graduated from community colleges, and were stuck in shitty jobs – in other words, they were losers. And no company would spend money on losers doing a marketing campaign. Perhaps the Weightless Island does exist after all, Mia wondered. There is no other reason why her Facebook friends would suddenly talk about it. To find out more, she got connected with Nan, one of those Weightless Island fans (and, as it happened, he was her high-school sweetheart), and asked him out.
"How are you?" Mia started with an ice breaker.
"Not bad. You?" Nan replied, smiling.
"Not bad too." Mia smiled back.
They stood on opposite sides of the exit gate at a subway station – Mia outside and Nan inside, the stainless-steel railing keeping them apart. Aside from them, many people were also there to chit-chat, hand over packages, or have a brief date across the divider – without having to cross the gate and pay for a riding fee.
"Is the Weightless Island for real?" Mia asked, deciding not to waste time on pleasantries.
"I have never lied in my life, you know that," Nan said, fishing out a photo from his pocket and handing it to Mia.
In the picture, Heaven and Earth were blended into one. The sea was blue and luminous, flowers and trees were flying above it, and castle-like huts hang in mid-air. Shiba Inus, domesticated cats, rabbits, and hamsters, they were all tumbling around a castle.
"That's me." Nan pointed at the man of the photo, who was floating upside down next to a Shiba Inu.
"Did you go there with your friends?"
"No, I went there alone."
"Who took this photo for you?"
"A local resident there."
Mia was staring at the photo and checking every detail, while Nan kept murmuring: "This place seems too fantastic to be real, but it does exist. When I was floating in the air, my body could change direction according to what I wish. I could sleep on the surface of the sea, or dance among the trees. In that island, I forgot all the problems in my life. My brain was suddenly empty, and my heart was full of passion. I became the wind, free and happy, and I was the main character of a fairy tale…"
"Then why did you come back?" Mia interrupted Nan.
Nan sighed and said: "I have a son. If I leave, who will take care of him?"
Mia didn't reply. Instead, she just stared at Nan's sharp jawline. In that moment, an image of herself and Nan from years ago came to her. They had hidden in a corner of the school's storeroom to read some forbidden magazines, smoke cigarettes, drink beer… just the two of them. What did they talk about? She couldn't recall. She remembered lying in his arms, listening to him read sappy, romantic poems, and leaning in so her forehead kissed his jaw. Sure, everything in the Weightless Island sounded absurd, but Mia was sure that her first lover would never lie to her.
"So, how can I go there?" Mia finally asked.
Nan put away the photo, looked around, bowed his head slightly until his goatee touched Mia's forehead, and he whispered: "Fly there."
"Yes, go to the Central Pier, between Piers 5 and 6. You'll see a small-sized granny with a clown's red nose. She'd take you to the Weightless Island. My photo was taken by her."
At 7.30pm, Mia promptly finished her work, turned down her colleague's invitation for a dinner date, followed the stream of people into the subway, and jostled with other tired bodies in a carriage. She stared at the electronic map above the window, as the station names lit up one by one, from the easternmost station to the one in the far west, the Central Station. She got off at the last station, and took the elevator to the ground floor.
Central was bright as day, with all the kaleidoscopic lights. So much so that there was nowhere to hide the gloomy faces of passers-by. Mia's countenance, however, was not sad; it was determined. Undistracted, she walked onto the footbridge leading towards the Central Ferries Pier. Straight, turned left, walked some distance, and hurried down the staircase.
Under the bridge were Pier 1, Pier 2, and so forth. Mia walked past them. And then there it was, the yellow plaque with Pier 5 printed in white. Mia's eyes lit up. She quickened and finally stood between Pier 5 and 6.
But there was nothing. No Red-Nose Granny, no Weightless Island. Only several people sitting and standing around, waiting for the next ferry.
She had made a fool of herself.
Mia retraced the way she came, entered the subway, got into a crowded carriage, tried to complete her social-media assignments on her mobile phone, all the way from the most southwestern end back to the most northeastern part of Hong Kong, switched four subway lines, got off and took a minibus which passed three stops, then walked home.
When Mia arrived at the Happy Garden, a public housing estate she had lived in for more than 20 years, she ran into several neighbours who were her mother's friends. They looked like they had something to tell her, but didn't say anything. Mia felt unease. When she he reached Tower 23, the security guard, Uncle Ma, opened the gate door and shouted: "Come home quickly! Your brother is drunk as hell again!"
Emerging out of the elevator, Mia saw her big brother lying in the hallway. He was thrashing around, like a fish on a chopping board. Cursing, he stank of alcohol. Next to him was Mia's desperate mother. Leaning against the wall with a cane, she was bent over, trying to get him up. Mia hurried over to her mum but she was rebuffed.
"Why are you back home so late? Help your brother first!" Mia's mum pointed at the drunk body. "Hurry up!"
Mia tried to pull her brother up but failed – he weighed more than 180 pounds. She had to call Uncle Ma to come lend a hand. One hour later, they managed to place Mia's brother on the lower bunk-bed in the bedroom.
"Why didn't you help?" Mia glared at her little sister who lay on the top bunk playing with her cellphone.
Without uttering a word, Little Sister turned around, presenting Mia with the back of her head with its short, pinkish hair.
Late at night, Mia could hear her brother snore thunderously, and, occasionally, her unwell mother moan. Draught was coming through the window. She lay on the sofa bed in the living room but could not sleep. She picked up the phone under her pillow, and sent a message to Nan: "I went to Central Pier today but didn't see the granny with the red nose."
The Facebook app showed that Nan was last online one hour ago. Maybe he's asleep, Mia thought. She looked at the ceiling, and imagined the Weightless Island. What would it be like? She remembered the lightness she felt as a child when she returned from school and relieved herself of her heavy school bag. "Suddenly, I could fly away," she told her mum. "Don't be silly, humans don't fly" was her mum's wake-up call.
Mia learned later that the sense of light was an illusion one experienced as a heavy burden was lifted after a long time. So, could the Weightless Island be one too, as people jet to an outlying island and temporarily forget their stressful existence?
Forget it, Mia talked to herself, don't be delusional, there is no such place in this world. If a snail doesn't have a shell, it won't be able to live, right? People still need a little pressure to survive, to work harder, receive higher salaries, become better versions of themselves.
Mia was about to fall asleep when she heard a "ding." She read the message. It was from Nan: "That's because you didn't get an advance booking to the Weightless Island. No worries, I've called the granny. She'll be waiting for you there at nine o'clock tomorrow morning."
The following day, Mia woke up early. She sent over her social-media deliverables to her client, applied for sick leave through the company's online system, and cooked and put in the fridge three days' worth of meals for her family.
After that, she packed her bags.
No office-lady outfits. Mia stuffed sporty clothes and shoes into her backpack instead. No laptop, no iPhone, no earphones… no need for them at all. She chose a sketchbook and a box of pencils that hadn't been used for a while. I have to draw every view of the Weightless Island, Mia promised herself.
This was 8am on a working day in Hong Kong. The sky was clear and sunny, people hurried by, and Mia was in a surprisingly good mood. She didn't think twice about forking out so much money for the expensive fare when she grabbed a taxi on her way to the Central.
Once she alighted, she saw a figure between Pier 5 and Pier 6. It was, yup, the granny as mentioned by Nan. She was as petite as a six-year-old kid. Cropped, grey hair, short arms and legs. She wore a red dress and a red clown nose.
"Hi!" Mia waved her hands towards Granny.
"Mia?" Granny's voice was clear yet sounded like a child's.
"Yes. My friend Nan told me to meet you here."
Granny nodded, and fished out a transparent contraption from her bag: "Put this on."
It looked like a pair of diving goggles, but slightly bigger and more squarish. The frame of the glasses was also attached to a pair of headphones.
"What's this?" Mia asked.
"It was for your flight later. Put it on to protect your eyes."
Mia got excited as soon as she heard the word "flight." She put on the goggles and the headphones. Soon, she was in the dark.
"Don't be afraid, I'm holding you. You will be able to see things soon. Just wait a moment," Granny's voice could be heard in Mia's headphones. Her hands were also held.
"Sep forward. Yes, walk, walk, and walk. Good. There is a small step in front of you, just need to slightly lift your foot to cross it. Yes, that's right. Good, keep walking."
In the darkness, Mia held Granny's hand tightly with one hand and squeezed the shoulder strap of her backpack with the other. She was afraid her bag would drop into the sea.
"We're entering the flight path," Granny announced.
Mia felt weightlessness, as if boarding a space ship in an amusement park, and soared into the sky. During the high-speed flight, the wind brushed her face and bright light seared her eyes. Suddenly, she dropped, turning 360 degrees a few times.
Before she knew it, she was presented with a new world where everything was more beautiful than anything she had imagined before.
She entered a clear, blue sea illuminated by diamond-like sunlight, and surrounded by all kinds of flowers and plants which appeared to be murmuring to one another. Mia floated around the flowers. She reached out to touch them. They felt warm and soft. Various animals appeared around her. They were backstroking in the sky, slowly and freely.
Beyond the so-called animal sky was a huge castle where the walls were iridescent. Mia flew towards the castle. The gates opened, welcoming her. Beautiful classical music can be heard wafting out from the building. An assembly of flying dwarves was playing instruments. They were too immersed in their music-making to notice Mia.
In this heavenly realm, Mia couldn't help but think about her tiny, 300-ft sq apartment filled with old, cheap furniture. Her mother looked perpetually sad. Her brother and her sister looked cold and distant. What if she took her family to this beautiful castle where they could live a pressure-free life?
Then Mia began to worry that this paradisial island would be unaffordable once too many people discovered it and moved here. It will probably be snapped up by property companies.
I have to take action quickly, Mia told herself. So, how to convince her family about this magical place? Ah, she got it: Take a picture to prove the existence of the Weightless Island.
"Granny?" Mia called out.
"I'm here." Granny's voice was in the headset.
"Can you take a photo for me?"
Granny held Mia's hands and manoeuvred them into V signs, and then said: "Be happy, Smile. Okay, three, two, one, cheers!"
After a camera click, Mia started to lose her buoyancy and her feet landed on the ground steadily.
Someone removed her glasses and headset. A flood of light blinded Mia temporarily. She heard people applaud and chatter. Her sight returned to normal. She found herself in a small room, surrounded by several woman smiling at her. Through a glass door, she could see people flit past, some looking inside. On the wall hung a signboard which read: "New Pier Technology Workshop."
"Congratulations, Mia ! You are the 99th tourist to our virtual island! Here are your coupons." Two cards were shoved into Mia's hands.
"The one-time experience costs HK$9,999 only. The photography service costs HK$1,000. As you are recommended to us by Mr Nan, we can give you a 20 percent discount!" A promotion lady chirped.
Mia stared at the woman and could not believe what she had heard. "Are you saying that the Weightless Island is fake?"
"No, no! It is not fake. It's an island in the metaverse. Users can be connected to it via our latest VR headsets and glasses, which will give you an immersive, 360-degree, weightless sensation. We are so thrilled that the service will be officially launched at the end of this month. And we believe it will become a journey for Hong Kong people to relax."
The lady paused and waited for Mia's reply. Unperturbed by the lack of response, she continued her spiel breezily.
"Miss Mia, could you please post a review about the Weightless Island experiences on your personal social-media platform? If so, we can give you more discounts." She tapped on her calculator and showed a new number to Mia.
Mia could no longer communicate with the lady normally. Her face turned pale.
"Does Nan work for your company?" Mia asked finally.
"Certainly not. Mr Nan is a VIP member of our peer programme."
"The peer programme?"
"Yes. This is an exclusive group for our virtual journey. Do you want to join? If you successfully invite a friend to participate in our trial experiences, you will get a 10 percent commission! The more friends you attract, the more you earn. If you are interested, let me show you more information…"
The lady kept talking but Mia was too dizzy to focus. More and more passers-by peer through the glass door, as if witnessing a clumsy animal in a cage. Mia felt ashamed. She could do nothing but grip the shoulder strap of her backpack. In that instant, she remembered the contents in her bag: sporty clothes, a sketch book, a box of pencils… and a long string of daydreams she would never dare mention again.QLRS Vol. 22 No. 2 Apr 2023