I. A Small Shop
Before Granny left, she handed her little shop to me.
Granny could cook a wide variety of dishes, but her specialty was the famous Mapo Tofu. She would often reiterate that the trick to preparing Mapo Tofu is to ensure it is 'spicy and tender, hot and crisp, and bursting with color so that it will appear appetizing to those who have toiled for the entire day.'
The colorful image of freshly served Mapo Tofu on a bowl of steaming white rice is bound to stimulate one's appetite.
A bowl of Mapo Tofu in this shop costs less than half of what is usually charged in a restaurant and we offer free refills for the rice as well. Throughout the years, our shop has never increased the price of our food, causing Mapo Tofu's fame and reputation to spread to the far corners of the harbor.
Many lowly-paid workers love to patronize Granny's little shop at the end of their work shift to enjoy the piping hot Mapo Tofu. With a smile on her face, Granny would always serve them a big bowl of white rice to go with it too.
Anyone who has tasted Granny's Mapo Tofu had voiced their approval of its taste; and many have traveled from far and wide just to get their hands on this bowl of Mapo Tofu.
Whenever folks questioned Granny on her reluctance to raise the prices after all these years, she would always reply with a smile, "When he returns, I would like him to have the exact same bowl of Mapo Tofu as he did in the past."
Granny's lover was a sailor who worked in the harbor and they got to know each other over a bowl of Mapo Tofu. However, they never came back after a sea expedition.
Some guessed that they've encountered a storm at sea; Others said that they've went to a place of paradise and forgotten their way home. And then there are those who speculated that their fates were sealed by the fallen angels roaming the seas.
Yet, Granny continued to wait in her little shop...
Even as her hair had turned white, she was still unable to see her lover.
Granny laid in bed and looked at her sobbing employees. She patted my hand and smiled gently, "Mapo Tofu, I'm handing the shop over to you. If he ever returns, please help me to prepare the best Mapo Tofu for him..."
This time, I could no longer hold back my tears.
I watched Granny's hand slowly slipped away from mine. Bending down, I buried my face into her palm which still held some degree of warmth. My shoulders trembled as I silently agreed to her request.
"For you, I will definitely wait for his return... I promise."
Spring went and winter came. Just like that, I continued waiting in the shop on behalf of Granny, for a man who might never appear.
"Lady boss! One more bowl of Mapo Tofu please!"
I carried the serving tray and maneuvered through the crowded shop, serving bowls of Mapo Tofu to everyone.
One of the customers was having Mapo Tofu for the first time. The spiciness of it caused his face to be flushed red and gave him a burning tongue. Waiters hurried over to serve him some tea, but he got scalded by it instead.
The other customers in the shop couldn't help but laugh at the scene before them.
It was just another normal day in Mapo Tofu's shop. There was never a quiet moment in this corner of the harbor.
II. Messing Up the Shop
Our Mapo Tofu became popular among the workers at the harbor due to its good value for money. Villagers living nearby would even drop by to order takeaway Mapo Tofu to complete their meals at home.
Although the profits gained from each plate of Mapo Tofu were meager, the booming business attracted displeasure from others.
With the arrival of the new Chamber of Commerce, the wharf grew to become more prosperous each day. Businessmen who were interested in building up the economy around the area started to view Granny's shop as an eyesore.
Villagers mentioned of a fancy restaurant that was constructed nearby, but the exorbitant price tag and bland taste could not win over the hearts of those who have been frequenting Granny's shop for our Mapo Tofu.
The restaurant owners failed to realize that the problem lies within themselves. Instead, they had the misconception that Granny's shop was the main hindrance to their business and began seeking ways to get rid of me.
Several thugs swaggered into our shop with bats swinging in their hands. When the waiters approached them to take their orders, chaos broke out.
Amid shouts from the crowd, Scallion got startled by a sudden loud noise and rushed headlong into my arms.
The thugs vented their anger at a waiter who was standing nearest to them, kicking him before overturning the tables and chairs in the shop.
Some of the frightened customers tried to flee the scene while others attempted to find a place to hide.
I patted Scallion's little bottom and placed him in another waiter's arms. Drying my wet hands on my clothes, I walked out of the kitchen.
The shop was in a mess. I frowned at the arrogant thugs and narrowed my eyes, "Looks like we're past the point of having a peaceful discussion about this."
The two swollen-faced hooligans stumbled out of the shop after being beaten into a pulp by me. Their broken bats and bleeding noses made them look pathetic. While the crowd cheered and laughed at them, the hooligans threatened me with the usual line uttered by all villains, "You will pay for this! Just wait and see!"
I waved to them and shouted back my reply with a hint of amusement.
"Do tell your boss to send someone who can withstand more punches in future! Not some weakling like you guys!"
As the villagers applauded and laughed, I cupped my fist into the palm of the other and thanked everyone. I headed back into the shop and ordered the waiters to clean up the mess and prepare for the shop's reopening.
While cleaning up the shop, I noticed one of the workers looking a little uneasy. He had been working with the shop ever since Granny was still alive. I couldn't help but feel a little concerned.
"Lao Hong? What's wrong? If anything is troubling you, remember you can always come to us."
Lao Hong appeared startled for a moment, as if he was jolted awake from a nightmare. He tried to hide it with a smile though it looked kind of forced.
"No, it's nothing..."
I frowned and stared after Lao Hong's back as he walked away.
Lao Hong's actions were becoming increasingly out of character with each day's passing. He is usually an honest man who hardly lies but recently, I've caught him looking suspiciously at the counter area. What was he trying to do?
One day, when I was rearranging the drawers after coming back from the market, I realized that the seals which were normally kept deep inside the compartment had been moved.
At that moment, I didn't pay much attention to it. Perhaps I had accidentally shifted it while taking the money from the drawers.
The trouble-makers have been dropping by more and more often. I was slowly getting used to driving them away every morning before opening the shop. But one day, they didn't show up on time.
"Lady Boss! Are they finally scared of you and won't come anymore?"
Before I had the chance to answer, one of the peddlers from the streets came rushing into the shop.
"Lady Boss! You have to hide!"
"The owner of that restaurant is heading over here with a large group of people! It's scary! You can't beat them alone! You have to hide!"
Hearing the news, the customers and waiters glanced at me worriedly and advised me to offer those thugs some expensive gifts as a means to appease them.
I looked around at the shop which had managed to survive all these years and decided to reject their ideas.
"If you're afraid, find a place to hide. Let me deal with this."
Surprisingly, none of the guys backed out. Some of the villagers even brought along their broomsticks and bats to show their support.
Before I could express my gratitude to everyone, the thugs were already standing in front of my shop. I glanced at the boss of the restaurant who stood before me, clad in luxurious clothing. The smile on his face made me feel like I was missing out on something...
"Lady Boss, I'm not here to fight with you today. I'm here to discuss about the debt that you owe us."
"Debt? What are you talking about?"
"You should ask yourself."
He withdrew a piece of paper and I could clearly see our seal being stamped at the bottom of it.
"Look, isn't this your shop's seal?"
His sinister smile silently mocked me as I had a flashback to a misplaced seal in the drawer.
Could it be...
I glared at the restaurant boss whose smile was growing wider with each passing minute.
"Ha Ha.. so you do know what happened? But it's too late, we have the proof of your debt over here. Seems like you might even have to mortgage your shop over to me! I'll give you three days. You could choose to close the shop and leave with dignity or we could just confiscate the shop by force!"
"How dare you! This is obviously a fake!"
"But the seal on it is real! Lady Boss, surely you would recognize this seal? Ha Ha Ha..."
"I don't recognize the seal."
An unfamiliar voice interrupted our argument. Everyone turned to look at a man dressed smartly in a suit. Recognizing that he finally had our full attention, the man raised an eyebrow and greeted us with a smile.
"With regards to the problem of the seal, I think I can provide you with an answer."
The man seemed accustomed to being the center of attention. He easily removed the piece of paper from the restaurant boss's hands and carefully examined it. After which, he began walking slowly towards Lao Hong and slung an arm over the latter's shoulder.
"This looks like it was only written recently and the handwriting doesn't even belong to the lady boss. Sir, hadn't it occurred to you that you might be attracting trouble by asking such a timid fellow to run errands for you? Now, brother, could you tell us what were you discussing with the restaurant boss while the lady boss was out? Did you give him something too?"
"Brother, you'd better not leave out any details. My friend had overheard the entire conversation in the alley..."
Lao Hong's face grew pale upon hearing the man's words. He immediately knelt on the ground and prostrated himself in front of me.
"Lady Boss, I was left with no choice... I didn't even know what that piece of paper meant... Lao Hong is illiterate..."
A sense of helplessness came over me as I watched Lao Hong's forehead turn redder with every bow that he made.
"Lao Hong, why didn't you tell us..."
"Lady Boss, I know that you're not earning much too... My mother is sick... How many bowls of Mapo Tofu can we sell to raise that amount of money needed for her treatment?"
I clenched my fist as Lao Hong cried uncontrollably on the ground.
Realizing that his plan had failed, the restaurant owner became overwhelmed with anger and started shouting, "Do it! Tear down this shop! It shall not rob my business anymore!"
The man, who had turned the entire situation around with merely a few words, smiled coldly as he stood in front of us.
"I'm not done yet and you're already angry? This wharf belongs to us, the Chamber of Commerce. It's hardly your turn to instruct things around here, is it?"
The hooligans that came along with the restaurant owner were given a good beating by members of the Chamber of Commerce. Their swollen faces and missing teeth gave the villagers something to laugh at.
After the onlookers and workers had went home, Lao Hong remained kneeling on the ground and refused to leave.
I glanced at the man who was rolling his sleeves back down after the fight while his subordinate handed him his suit coat.
"Why did you help me?"
"I couldn't stand having someone causing trouble on my turf. Is that a good enough reason for you?"
I frowned, "Do I look that gullible?"
He studied me for a moment and finally wiped away the smiling facade from his face.
"To be honest, I'm looking for the elusive gentleman, Peking Duck. It's nice to finally meet you in person."
I followed the man's gaze and was surprised to find Peking Duck standing in front of my shop with his pipe.
"President of the Chamber of Commerce, or should I say, Buddha's Temptation. Glad to finally meet you too."
As the two men exchanged courtesies, I decided to let them be by themselves for a while. It didn't seem like they were going to include me in their conversation anyway. They headed towards the shop for the rest of their discussion.
A familiar sense of helplessness washed over me when I noticed that Lao Hong was still kneeling on the ground. I went over to help him up, "Lao Hong, why must you be like this?"
"I know I have let you and Granny down... But I really need the money... I'm so sorry..."
"...wait here for a minute."
I made my way towards the shop. Peking Duck and Buddha's Temptation seemed to have developed some form of friendship within that short period of time. They eyed me curiously as I walked in.
"Mapo Tofu? What's wrong?"
"Hand over the information fee."
"Huh? Why are you suddenly willing to accept it again?"
Although Peking Duck was slightly taken aback by my request, he proceeded to retrieve the money bag and handed it over to me, "Help yourself."
I took some of the money out and swiftly tossed it back to Peking Duck.
"Just that little amount?" He asked.
"It's enough. Continue with whatever you guys are discussing about and remember to fill me in later!"
Lao Hong was still there when I left the shop. I approached him and placed the money in his hands.
His eyes widened in surprise, "Lady Boss?!"
"Don't look at me like that. I promised Granny to take care of the shop, that includes you as well."
"Thank you, thank you..."
"But that doesn't mean you are forgiven. You have to pay for the mistakes you've made. From tomorrow onward, you are to work an additional of two hours everyday and your wages will be halved, until your debt is fully paid off. Also, you are to help clean the restrooms."
"Yes... Yes, Lady Boss..."
"Why are you crying?!"
".... Lady Boss..."
V. Mapo Tofu
Mapo Tofu is a straightforward, righteous and bold person. If any of the villagers faced any difficulties, she was the one whom they approach for help.
Her Master Attendant was also a gentle elderly lady who was well-liked by her fellow villagers.
Granny was without any descendants so she left her shop to Mapo Tofu who managed to outperform her Master Attendant in preparing the best bowl of Mapo Tofu.
Many have queried her on her reluctance to raise the selling price of the dish, but Mapo Tofu would only smile and shake her head without answering.
Her booming business attracted the jealousy of neighboring restaurant owners who devised evil plans to drive away Mapo Tofu. However, their plans were thwarted with the help of Buddha's Temptation.
Mapo Tofu didn't fire the worker whose desperation pushed him to commit a mistake. He had worked in Granny's shop for many years ever since Granny was alive. Mapo Tofu knew that he was a loyal man who treated Granny as if she were his mother and understood why he had not approached her for help since they did not earn much profits.
Hence, Mapo Tofu went to the wealthy man, Peking Duck.
Peking Duck has been pursuing news about a cult and Mapo Tofu, who lives near the harbor, was recruited by him.
Once she understood that the cult had been performing evil deeds, Mapo Tofu agreed to his request unconditionally and started to collect information on the cult and shared the intelligence with him.
Nonetheless, Mapo Tofu never once accepted the information fee even though it was promised to her from the beginning. Whenever Peking Duck handed the money over to her, she would always return it back into his luggage when he was unaware. This explains Peking Duck's surprise when Mapo Tofu requested for the information fee for the first time.
What had caused this stubborn person to blush while asking him for payment?
Peking Duck rubbed his chin in amusement. Soon, he got to know about the incident of the shop's worker from Buddha's Temptation.
After Buddha's Temptation had left, Mapo Tofu returned to the shop to find Peking Duck with a teasing smile on his face.
"If you need any help in future, just let me know. You don't have to carry everything on your shoulders. After all, we are comrades, aren't we?"
Mapo Tofu gave him a look. "Let's not talk about me. How did Buddha's Temptation know that you'll be here? What does he want?"
Peking Duck squinted at Mapo Tofu as she tried to change the subject and decided to answer her question before she lost her temper.
"He is the president of the Chamber of Commerce and wants to expand the commercial trading across this land. Naturally, intelligence is the most important thing to a businessman."
"So you just ripped him off?"
"How is that ripping him off? It's called cooperation between like-minded people~ A cooperation~"
"A bunch of profiteers..."
"Oh, I'm no businessman. Just a little pawnshop owner... Still, it's fun being able to chat with intelligent people."
Mapo Tofu glanced at Peking Duck who was blowing clouds of smoke from his pipe. Despite his calm demeanor, he could not hide his pleasure at successfully sealing a deal.
"Scallion, let's go. We shall not trouble ourselves with rich people's matters." Mapo Tofu bent down to scoop the panda who had been following at her feet.
"Oh, come on. I'm craving for a bowl of your Mapo Tofu."
"You're not going to have it."
"Can I have a hug from Scallion then?"
While Mapo Tofu and Peking Duck were fighting over Scallion, an elderly man hobbled slowly to the storefront with the help of a younger lad.
"I'm back... I've finally found you... I'm finally back."