In a small fishing town like Buckie, this should have been a typical midweek evening at the Chinese takeaway, but it wasn’t. Every Wednesday night for over fifteen years, the family opens for business at 5pm serving the rush hour of family meals till 7.30pm. To finish, the 10pm drunken crowd drifts in, always edging the closing time further away from the official 11pm. After the last customer exits, the family cleans up the traces of their evening’s work before heading upstairs above the shop to their home to rest. Not tonight. Something would disrupt their usual rhythm and catapult them on the news the next day.
Things start off well. As soon as they open the telephone sounds with its first hungry customer. With pad and pen at hand the daughter answers on its third ring.
‘Hello Jade Garden, may I take your order, please?’
‘Fit like Mei-Lin, Jamie here.’
‘Oh hiya Jamie fit can I get ye?’ The daughter switches into Doric with Regular №1.
‘Can I hae one lemon checken, a hoose speshal chow mein, a sweet an soor pork, a portion a fried rice, an a portion a cheps please?’
Even though that’s his family’s usual order, Mei-Lin repeats it anyway and informs him it will take 15–20 minutes. Jamie asks for delivery so she notes his address: 15 Douglas Crescent. Next, she phones their taxi driver Davey, who should have retired years ago but still offers his services. The Chans appreciate that customers give Davey generous tips to top-up his and his wife’s weekly budget. Mei-Lin catches sight of Pharmacy Lady approaching the shop with her daughter as she hangs up the phone.
‘Hello Mrs Smith. Heya Maggie!’
The toddler smiles back as her mum casts her eyes towards the menu displayed on the wall weighing up her family’s choices. Mei-Lin knows through studying customers’ faces how many times they change their minds and when they’re ready to order. Mrs Smith picks up and sets her daughter upon the counter, the girl’s favourite spot. Contented, Maggie outstretches her hand for her usual lollipop.
‘Weel hae a 42 — prawn fried rice, a 27 — shredded chilli beef, an a portion a barbecue spare rebs please.’
The price comes to £11.50. After paying they take a seat: the mother skimming through Baba’s holiday brochures and Daughter’s old editions of Cosmo; the toddler twiddling the unopened lollipop in her hands. Often customers stay at the counter to watch whatever’s on TV, but most prefer to chat with Mei-Lin when time permits between food orders and her homework. It makes the waiting time pass quicker. She hands the order to her parents, who had finished Jamie and other customers’ meals now ready for packing and delivery or collection.
Similar to an orchestra tempo and observation are essential to working at Chinese takeaways. Daughter acts as the conductor, controlling the pace and the parts of orders, crosschecking the completed dishes and notifying her parents the upcoming ones for preparation. First chair goes to Mammi who opens with rice dishes before cooking the main dishes, accompanied by Baba the percussionist for the deep-fried food and sides. Husband and wife play in philharmonic harmony, never missing a beat as they complete every fare with speed and care.
‘Mammi,’ Mei-Lin commands, ‘when you’ve finished this order please do three portions of fried rice followed by one beef curry and two king prawn egg foo yungs. Baba, one extra packet of prawn crackers to finish this delivery before doing one Maryland chicken, two banana fritters, and four portions of chips.’
The Chans cater a hungry audience spanning over 9 miles from Portgordon to Cullen, and an occasional order from Lintmill and Drybridge. Beset with delivery fees ranging £10 — £15, those farthest residents prefer to collect their own meals. During busy times, Mei-Lin often catches the beep-beep during phone calls as another customer does not get through realising someone else had out-dialled them. Dropping curse bombs no doubt. With no other alternative they hang up and try again.
At the end of rush hour when the shop front empties and the phone stays silent, it signals it’s the family’s own turn to eat. Baba serves the rice as Mei-Lin lays out each member’s engraved chopsticks on their small round dining table. Mammi ladles up each dish: steamed lemon sole with ginger, spring onions and soy sauce; steamed Chinese sausages (Lap Cheong) and salted duck eggs, and stir-fried green bok choy in oyster sauce. You’d find none of these on the takeaway menu. Before they sit down, the daughter runs upstairs to collect her grandmother.
PoPo, who measured 5ft6 in her youth has since shrunk to 4ft4 at 80. Her new height combined with her round face and stubby nose imitate a dainty Asian doll, but hidden within this woman are her sharp observation and quick wit from winning plenty mahjong matches. Everyone thanks Mammi for the dishes and once PoPo has taken her first bite, the whole family can eat. After dinner Baba and daughter wash up; it’s their brief daily quality time, sharing jokes and laughter as the latter recount her classmates’ mischiefs at school. Mammi accompanies her mother back upstairs and unpauses the current episode of the Hong Kong drama series that PoPo was watching. She pats her mother’s arm and returns to the kitchen.
At 9.30pm, there are only two customers in the takeaway and soon Mei-Lin will need to get ready for bed. Just as Baba comes through to relieve her of her duty early, a pair of lads locked in a weird entanglement bang open the front door and topple to the ground, wrestling and shouting profanities at each other. Recovered from the initial shock, Baba instructs his daughter to call the police before unlocking the counter top and rushes towards the scene to separate the troublemakers.
As if Buckie folks had a sixth sense for a brawl, the High Street that was otherwise empty a few minutes ago, attracted a crowd of spectators. Many of them — no doubt spilled out from the Pub in the Square down the road — are holding pints in one hand and mobile phones in the other to record the full incident. Thunderous shouts and cheers in reaction to each punch and kick reverberate across the centre of town as people enjoy the free live fight. Mei-Lin tries to make herself audible over the phone with law enforcement, even though the atmosphere sounds more of a festive shindig. Here’s hoping they got the message.
Before anyone noticed, warrior PoPo barges through the crowd armed with the ultimate weapon: a bamboo feather duster. She yells ‘打交啦?! 打交啦?!’ (You dare to fight here?) as she unleashes lightning-quick strikes upon the rivals. Whack! Scottish people have their belt. The Chinese, a furniture cleaner. Whack! Whack! This invention from the Xia Dynasty (c. 2070–c. 1600 BC) has doubled up as an instrument for corporal punishment for many Chinese generations. Whack! Whack! Whack! Now, this young Scottish duo have the misfortune to taste the same fear and pain inflicted on every misbehaved Chinese child. The lashes dealt by this venerable skilled swordswoman were so swift and deadly that plenty of feathers had flown off and landed around the floor.
‘Mak her stop! Plaise, we’re beggin ye!’
The granddaughter is their only hope for interpretation and mercy from the bamboo rod.
‘好啦 婆婆, 夠啦. (Ok PoPo, that’s enough.)’ Mei-Lin soothes, reaching out towards her grandma’s arm to stop her mid-strike, as police officers, who had arrived on the scene minutes before, take hold of the battered lads to prevent them from escaping.
People groan in disappointment that the match stopped, but they’re sure the drama is far from over. Although the policemen could have escorted both individuals to the station, they know better than to spoil the party. Instead, they’ve tacitly nominated PoPo as Chief PO tonight. PoPo points the feather duster at the culprits and continues her lecture in Cantonese. Everyone casts their eyes at Mei-Lin: unlike the digital screen, there are no live subtitles available in real life. She inhales a breath of courage before explaining.
‘Err.. ma gran ses aat cus o aa the racket you loons were um… mak’in, she couldna hear the tellae upstairs.’ To highlight just how much trouble they were in, she adds, ‘It’s her favourite Chinese soap opera ye ken. And it’s nae… nae respectful o ye’s tae… um… mak a scene en oor shop cus… cus… we’re tryin tae work.’ She wished she had the boldness to add her own complaint of missing her bedtime.
Both protest and blame each other for starting the fight but they dare not move too much as the peril of another beating — rather than the risk of arrest — keeps them fixed in their places. The noise volume rises again as people argue and comment in disparate directions until a loud crack from PoPo’s baton suppresses everyone back into respectful silence. No one wants to be the new target of this octogenarian and her feather duster. PoPo reprises her complaint and the wild gesticulations of her weapon make everyone even more nervous. She pauses for her granddaughter to interpret.
Mei-Lin summarises, ‘Granny ses aat afta aa these years she’s bin en this toon, there’s niver bin ony fash in oor shop. An she couldna believe it fan she saw ye’s brawlin.’ She lingers to meet both fighters’ gazes, which unnerved them further. ‘Gran kens baith of ye’s.’ Huge gasps erupt in the crowd as if she revealed the biggest scandal of the century although no one understands why.
‘Fit d’ye mean?’ One of them says in response, ‘It’s nae like we chose tae come en here.’ Mei-Lin whispers the translation to PoPo.
‘It’s nae aat. You — ‘ she says pointing back to the rebel who dared to speak, ‘Gran ses ye affen treat her tae a cuppa tea at the chipper CodFaither fan she gets her denner. And you — ,’ pointing to the other, ‘she kens ye fae the bus stop fan she goes tae Elgin. Ye a’wyes help her up the stairs on the bus. She considers ye baith guid lads but ye’s hiv really let her doon noo.’
Their cheeks inflame with crimson shame as their tough guy exteriors evaporate only to unveil their usual good citizenship in front of everyone. They have disappointed their foster granny and now the spectators shake their heads at them for this reckless behaviour. PoPo spots the contrition on their faces and her stern demeanour softens but this matriarch will not liberate them yet.
Mei-Lin baulks at what PoPo said next. There’s no way she can interpret that yet her grandmother’s fierce gaze advises her to comply.
‘So… ma granny ses aat… erm… cus o ye’s fechtin, she canna let ye’s aff just like aat. So… um… ye baith…’ She hesitates, not sure how to express what she needs to say next.
‘Fit? Fit es et?’ The second fighter asks with furrowed brows. Mei-Lin poises herself to speak only to stutter.
‘Fitya say?’ one person shouts from the crowd.
‘We canna hear ye quine.’ Another pipes up.
‘Aye, speak up,’ a third remarks, followed by bubbling murmurs of agreement putting pressure on Mei-Lin, who not only sees it’s getting late but knows that tonight’s events will dominate school gossip tomorrow. It was Mei-Lin’s cheeks that turned crimson this time.
Like a rice cooker whistling it is ready, she lets out a shrill, ‘Ma gran ses ye baith hivtae be — .’ Everyone stares in anticipation for the remaining morsel of information.
‘PUNISHED!’ She blurts out. Surprised at the boom of her own voice, Mei-Lin slaps her hand over her mouth, stopping any more words from coming out.
‘Fit daes she mean, punished?’ someone asks. Mei-Lin translates back to PoPo in response to the crowd of curious heads.
PoPo smiles.Everyone agrees this is not a reassuring sign. Next, everybody listens in wonder to the richness and mystifying tones of this peculiar dialect, which they’re observing so intently for the first time. This must be how Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan sound without the terrible dubbing. Once PoPo finished her explanation, everyone dreamily look at Mei-Lin only to find a white-ashen face. They notice that Mammi and Baba’s faces, too, have drained of colour. Everyone turns back to Mei- Lin, confused and worried. What on earth did the granny say? As soon as they hear what PoPo wants, every spectator breaks into giggles and guffaws, many even rub their hands together in wicked glee.
‘Ye hivtae be kiddin meh. Ah’hin but aat,’ the first offender whines as he struggles against the tight grasp of the constables.
‘Ye’s canna mak us.’ The other fighter adds.
The three family members turn to PoPo to check if she understood the rebels’ defiance, and she did. She emits a weary sigh. Everyone recognises the sorrow and disappointment that should never appear on an elderly person’s face. Even the bystanders felt guilty.
‘C’mon lads, ye hivtae admit ye’s messed up their shop, so we canna let ye’s get awa wi this ye ken.’ One officer says, enjoying every minute. No need to threaten them with the prison cell since that is preferable to what PoPo has in store for them. Surveying the scene of the toppled chairs and the table with magazines and brochures strewn everywhere on the floor, everyone concurs.
‘Dinna be such bairns, jist dae fit the auld wifey wants an show the faimli yer sorry.’ Another bystander says in between laughter.
‘We aa ken yer baith guid loons.’ The second policeman adds, ‘The quine’s gran widna hud said aa these guid things aboot ye’s if they werna true. Go on. Sooner ye’s dae it, sooner it’ll aa be o‘er.’
Energised, the entire shop congregation erupts in loud aye’s pressurising both offenders to accept their fate: some for retribution for the Chinese family, some for the pure entertainment value, and some for an excuse to stay out late. Carried away by the frenzy people chant, “Dae it! Dae it! Dae it!” Amidst the din, Mei-Lin peers at the clock, she should be asleep by now but she can’t leave the two men, her parents, and PoPo at the mercy of the rowdy crowd. Or maybe PoPo has everything under control tonight from the ways things are going. She hopes her teachers will have compassion for her panda-tired eyes tomorrow.
Just give in misters. She prays. She glimpses over to her parents whose faces show they, too, are saying the same prayer.
20 hours later.
It is Thursday and today’s rush hour seems busier than usual ever since last night’s commotion. In between calling orders to her parents and serving customers, someone yells in excitement, ‘Check aat oot! Yer on the news! Turn the tellae up quine!’ Without question the fuzzy image of their shop front is being broadcasted on the BBC News at Six. Mei-Lin calls for Mammi and Baba and raises the volume as the female newsreader presents yesterday’s events.
‘Time-out. Grounded. No pocket money. These are classic punishments for naughty children. But how should we penalise bad behaviour when it’s committed by adults? 80-year-old Mrs Ling Yu Chan had an unconventional way when two residents, James Duncan aged 19 and Grant Cowie aged 22, broke out in a fight yesterday at her daughter, and son-in-law’s takeaway in Buckie in the North East of Scotland. From this video, which has already garnered over 12 million views let’s watch how this tough grandmother disciplined them.’
Embarrassed, Mei-Lin recognises herself in the video dressed in her greasy, baggy takeaway clothes with her loosely tied hair as she’s about to humiliate James and Grant. Someone had zoomed in towards her as she visibly gathers the guts to announce, ‘Ye baith hivtae hud yer lugs, squattin in opposite corners in oor shop. Aen here,’ she pointed to the corner facing the window, ‘an aen there.’ She pointed to the other corner next to the counter area. The news broadcaster had put Standard English subtitles for the world to understand.
After watching yesterday’s crowd compel the guilty men to relent, the customers whoop in rapturous joy when they witness Grant’s swollen lips sound, ‘A’richt! A’richt! Ah’ll dae it. But he histae ana. There’s nae wye ah’m daein it ma’sel.’
The video pans over to James and his belter of a bruised eye. Suspense mounts as the pressure continued to pile on him. Mei-Lin senses the exhilaration of the twenty-ish customers in front of the telly; everyone knows what happened next but they wait with hungry fervour, anyway. Fixing on James’s face, the amateur filmmaker captured the subject’s internal struggle in full cinematic glory as he contemplated between dignity or repentance. At last, the moment comes. He yields. Cheers erupt on the TV and in the establishment. Proof that public humiliation and punishment are back in vogue from the Middle Ages.
‘Can ye’s believe it? Aabdy aroon tha wurld kens Buckie noo! Yer granmither put us on the map!’ exclaims Mr Drycleaners.
‘Fit you mean Malcolm?’ Baba asks in his broken Doric, ‘She no start fight.’
‘He means yer mither-in-law pit a stop tae it,’ answers his wife Clair, ‘In the maist funny wye ana.’
Everyone laughs at the memory of the hooligans struggling to hold their ears and squat in their naughty corners. Each time they attempted to stand up to relieve their aching muscles, PoPo was by their side tapping their thighs with the tip of the feather duster to lower them again. The torture lasted ten minutes after which both lost all sensation in their legs and the police had to take them away. One thing Mei-Lin and her parents are certain of is that no one will dare fight in their premises ever again. Or in any business in Buckie because the owners will just phone the new police number: the Jade Garden for Chief POPO and her feather duster.
2019 winner of the Toulmin Prize by The Elphinstone Institute, University of Aberdeen.
Originally published on Scottish Fields