Art and culture

Geek Girl and the Digital Planet

Nury Vittachi contributes a travel-inspiring short story to our special fiction anthology

Someone showed me a video in which people put cucumbers near cats, and the pets sprang away in horror, sometimes leaping out of windows.

Most people saw a funny video.

I saw my love life.

To be fair, the guys I approached didn’t always throw themselves out of windows. But they did jump backwards with such alarm that they often hurt themselves or damaged furniture.

It’s not that I’m ugly or anything. I’m just… distinctive.

Anyway, that’s not what I’m here to talk about. I’m here to tell you the story of how I came to live in Hong Kong.

But first let me introduce myself. My name is Princess Delilah Geek Girl of Tau Epsilon 7. Or at least that’s my name in Cyberspace, which is the place that really counts, as far as I am concerned.

My legal name is Michelle Tong Vatsiliev, and for two years after I finished education I was a freelancer, ie unemployed.

I was raised in a rural part of Texas and never really achieved much in my short life, except for becoming an expert in stealing Wi-Fi from neighbours, since my parents were cheapskates and claimed we could not afford a decent broadband connection.

After a disastrously unsuccessful spring spent failing to find work, I was told by my mother that she wanted to send me to her ancestral home, Hong Kong, since ‘it’s a techie place, and they’ll probably have work for a geek like you’.

Hong Kong? Whatever. Anything was better than the outskirts of Lago Vista, Texas. I had seen the movie Pacific Rim, and I loved char siu bao, so what was there to lose?

And so I went to Hong Kong.


WEEK ONE, DAY ONE: The flight was comfy, the views were breathtaking, and the glittery night landing was A-MAZ-ING, a kazillion lights dancing in the blackness. Very sci-fi. The ultra-modern airport was itself an island, only narrowly connected to the land.

Then I took a train to my uncle’s house, an isolated place in a remote part of the New Territories, and, the next morning, stepped out and looked around.

Good? Bad? At first, I loved it. Bright sunshine, cool water, warm air, exotic islands, distant skyscrapers, a backdrop of dramatic mountains – what’s not to love?


WEEK ONE, DAY SIX: I soon found something not to love. Hong Kong people worked hard. They were really serious people. OMG they worked hard.

Especially my rellies. They were hardly ever at home.

Scanning the classifieds, I found that there were plenty of job ads, but not a single one that said ‘unfriendly, unpresentable geek girl needed for high-paying post, no work required’.


WEEK TWO, DAY FOUR: Eventually a cousin once removed (whatever that means) asked me to house-sit her home, an apartment in a nondescript block in a crowded area called North Point on Hong Kong Island. I packed my suitcase again.


WEEK TWO, DAY SIX: I let myself into my new digs. As a true nerd, I set up my computer and started to look for free
Wi-Fi before unpacking a single thing.

And that was the moment my life changed.

You see, the crowded bits of Hong Kong are among the most densely populated places in the world. Everyone is packed into small apartments, up to 70 storeys high. The buildings all stand shoulder-to-shoulder, jostling for space.

And all the people in all the buildings love gadgets. They have like a kazillion gadgets EACH.

You can imagine what that means. From my little pad, I could detect more than a hundred Wi-Fi signals. I also found Bluetooth signals leading to a range of items, from printers to kitchen appliances to music speakers.

I realised there were two Hong Kongs – the physical one that you could see, full of buildings and people and shops – and then the digital one. There were signals everywhere. And people using them for all sorts of activities. Outside, no one used cash any more. People did everything using cards and phones.

And the block I lived in? It was a self-contained digital planet. I decided Hong Kong might be my kind of place after all.


WEEK THREE, DAY ONE:  Now I’m not going to lie to you: I’m a geek and a nerd and a hacker. We are naughty people. We’re not great ones for following the rules or doing as we are told. We like to play.

But I’m (mostly) what’s known as a white-hat hacker, which means that I take my ethics seriously. Generally.

So I decided to explore the digital planet of this particular apartment block with no negative intentions.

The apartment above me was full of children. I like children.

Just to be playful, I hacked their printer and made it emit a sheet of paper saying: ‘Hello. I am your printer. I have become self-aware. Please play with me.’

That night I heard their parents laugh about it when we shared the elevator down to ground level.


WEEK THREE, DAY TWO: I noticed that an apartment somewhere in the building, I couldn’t tell where, had a net-linked fridge.

Just for fun, I sent a message to display on its little screen. ‘I detect that you have placed many highly calorific foods on my shelves! Remember to eat fruit and vegetables.’ Whoever owned it responded with a ‘like’ signal, so I seem to have sent the right message at the right time.


WEEK THREE, DAY THREE: Because I am being honest, I have to own up to the fact that I did one thing that was very naughty.

Next door was a creepy man who sneakily took pictures of me through his living room window. He had superstitious stuff all around his front door, and unsecured Bluetooth music speakers inside.

So in the middle of the night, I beamed low-pitched ghostly howling noises into his speakers (I lifted them from scary movies).

At the end of the week, removal men arrived and he moved out of the building. I considered this an act of service to all the nice people in the block. But yes, it was naughty.


WEEK FOUR, DAY ONE: Now some of you who are on the judgmental side may think that the fact that I used my tech skills to play games with the people in my block is probably illegal and my actions could be argued to be as bad as the creepy guy who used to live next door.

Well, maybe you’re right: I did feel a bit guilty sometimes about prowling the digital passages, especially after that guy left.

So you know what? At the beginning of my fourth week in Hong Kong, I rededicated myself to being an ethical hacker and took a solemn vow in the presence of my MacBook Pro that I would henceforth Only Use My Superpowers For Good.

But how?


WEEK FIVE, DAY TWO: On this day, I undertook my first ‘good hacker’ mission, and it was super-easy and not illegal at all.

Any kid could do this.

I used my search Wi-Fi function to look at the names of the Wi-Fi signals in the building. I noticed that there were no less than eight families in the 160 apartments who used words from Star Wars for them (‘Rebel Base Wi Fi Centre’ and so on).

So I stuck a sheet of paper on the wall of the lift. ‘Are you a Star Wars fan? Let’s meet at the building’s function room at 2pm on Saturday.’

At 2.30 on that day I sneaked past and noticed there were 27 people in the room making friends and having a very social time. Mission accomplished.


WEEK FIVE, DAY FOUR: My second mission was a bit more complex. There was a lovely family two floors down, a single mum with twins, a boy and a girl, and a dog.

They were adorable but also rather quiet and sad. I wondered if they had lost their father quite recently and were still in recovery mode.

Anyway, I didn’t want to pry, but I did get friendly with the mum in the playground that day.


WEEK FIVE, DAY SIX: On the Saturday of that week, I got the mother’s permission to put a small Bluetooth speaker onto the dog’s collar.

I told the children that it would translate the dog’s thoughts into English. (The beast was called Dai Fen, which means ‘big fragrance’, a pretty accurate name, as it was pretty stinky.)

Mum, the two little ones, doggy and I all went for a walk.

Like most new visitors, I assumed Hong Kong was all skyscrapers and islands, but there are amazing mountains on the edges of the built-up area. We strolled up an archetypically perfect trail called Sir Cecil’s Ride. With deep forest paths and misty mountains, it was like something from The Hobbit.

The children walked ahead with Big Fragrance, and the mom and I followed a few metres behind.

I sneakily broadcast suitable phrases out of the dog’s collar with a gruff, doggy accent: ‘I love this spot! I will express my enthusiasm for it by urinating on it! How greatly enjoyable!’

The children were amazed and delighted.

They asked the dog many questions, some of which I tried to answer. ‘Why do you like to lick my face?’ the little girl asked.

‘Because there’s often bits of ice cream on it,’ I made the dog reply. ‘And because you are adorable. I hope you will marry me one day.’

‘I don’t think so,’ the little girl said in a very serious tone of voice. ‘But I will if I can’t find anyone else.’

Pretty soon the mum and I were laughing so hard that I couldn’t speak and we had to pretend the translator was broken.


WEEK SIX, DAY FOUR: Now I have to make a difficult admission. You are probably finding it hard to believe that an accomplished hacker like me was spending her time as a do-gooder enhancing the lives of families.

You’re right to be sceptical. Because the truth was, I could not keep up the goodie-goodie thing.

One day I had an irresistible temptation to do something just a little bit wicked. And the next day I gave in to it.


WEEK SIX, DAY FIVE: I woke early. You see, there was a scarily good-looking guy living three floors below me – the sort of person who would almost certainly have a glamorous, expensively dressed girlfriend, and never in a million years even glance at someone like me.

His Wi-Fi signal was called ‘Wong Chi Keung’s Wi Fi Signal’, so I guessed his personal name was Chi-keung, and people probably called him CK.

I’d only ever seen him from a distance. But I hated him anyway. You know how some people are just SO gorgeous that you feel instantly hostile to them? That was him.

I decided he had to be punished.

(I know! It makes no sense! It’s unfair! But only an idiot expects humans to behave rationally.)

That morning, I changed his ringtone to the James Bond theme.

When he stepped into the lift, I made it play. He looked surprised and quickly switched it off, but everyone else in the elevator laughed. Standing at the back of the lift, I kept my face straight.


WEEK SIX, DAY SIX: The next morning, a Saturday, I woke up and turned on my computer. And my eyes widened.

I noticed that Chi-keung had changed the name of the Wi-Fi signal from his apartment. The new name was ‘Hi Michelle’.

OMG. He was ALSO a hacker.

Then my mobile phone rang. It had been given a new ringtone, a song called Who Are You?

And then the doorbell rang.


TWO MONTHS LATER: You can probably guess the rest of the story. Chi-keung was a mega-geek just like me. He ran his own computer company at a special incubation hub for start-up companies at Hong Kong’s Science Park.

He gave me a job as a programmer, but soon we became partners. And not just business partners, if you know what I mean.

Our first joint product was the dog-thought-translator for parents to use to amuse their children. He took my idea and we turned it into a real product that we can sell. It’ll be launched in a few months.

We are using a picture of Big Fragrance on the box.


ONE MONTH AFTER THAT: I’m writing this (well, technically, I’m dictating it) on a phone app that my boyfriend CK has made.

We’re sitting on a mountain top with an amazing sunset view over Hong Kong island, the harbour, and Kowloon – and we can even see right out to the distant islands. The spot was just a little farther along that trail called Sir Cecil’s Ride.

CK and I have taken Big Fragrance for a walk, and he’s still stinky, but we don’t mind. Below us is a bush of white jasmine, a flower that releases its scent at dusk, and to our right is a clump of gardenia, which I think is the nicest-smelling flower in the world, especially in the evening mist.

The dog went off to sniff around, and then ran back to us.

I used the device to make the dog speak to me. ‘I think you are adorable. I hope you will marry me one day,’ I made Big Fragrance say out of his collar speaker.

‘I don’t think so,’ I replied to the dog in a very serious tone of voice. ‘But I will if I can’t find anyone else.’

CK laughed.

Nury Vittachi is a prominent Hong Kong author and columnist known for his humour writing. A self-described nerd, Vittachi has spent time trying to figure out what kinds of digital signals are crossing his high-rise apartment space.

Read our interview with Nury Vittachi here 

Click here for more stories from our 2017 fiction anthology.

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