Shanghai, August 1937
In the morning light, Shanghai, modern and bright, a European city, arises on the River Whangpoo, off the South China Sea. On the yellow water, picked clean by scavenger boats, junks, steam ships and yachts drift past, and unload their passengers and wares. Chinese coolies, stripped to the waist, work the docks and haul great loads from daybreak to dusk.
On the Bund, where the British have built their hotels and their palaces dedicated to business and banking, and in the International Settlement where they live in enormous houses, and in their smoky, whiskey and cigar filled clubs, on their cricket lawns, racecourse and tennis courts, life moves at a slow privileged pace.
In the French Concession, which is not inhabited by the French but by Russians, stores open, bakeries display their wares, and dance hall girls and musicians crawl into bed in the early morning after long nights playing the clubs.
And there are things which are unspeakable, animals and people who have died on the streets at night, child prostitutes, boys, girls, and women, Chinese, Korean and white, who cater to any taste, any depravity imagined by the human race.
The gangs run the city and control the drug trade, and people come from all over the world seeking adventure and escape.
Everywhere the odor is rank and unmistakable. It is of the unwashed bodies of the poor, the stench of cooking oil that lingers in the air, the pervasive and revolting smell of shit that is inescapable; and always the damp, which crawls into each and every corner.
The day was promising to be hot and sticky as Tatiana Alexeyevna Zhukova walked down the Bund. She was a slight, dark woman of twenty-five. She had designed her own costume, an asymmetrical bone colored gabardine that recalled the silhouette of the city itself. The skirt was pencil thin, hindering her stride, which was further hobbled by high heels. Her hat, a glazed straw concoction, recalled the hats of coolies who worked in the fields under the blazing sun. She was easily more stylish than any of the white women, or many of the rich Chinese in the city, yet despite her attention to design, she was a mix of bravado, shyness, self-criticism and ambition, yet was oblivious to the effect her manner and beauty had on other people since she could not see it in herself.
She was in a rush that morning after an early office meeting with her employer, the architect, Ladislav Hrbek. She had to get to the villa of their new client which was also in the International Settlement. The trouble was that Tanya had known him before and recognized the ball of tension welling up inside her, but that was how it had always been with him. Hellyer. George Richard Arthur Hellyer; she repeated his name.
It was not the first time she would be seeing the villa. Ladislav had taken her to see the site and the building in progress many times. Unaware of their past, he had sent her to see Hellyer, who was waiting, seated in a planter’s chair with his legs crossed, a superior smile on his lips, amused at her discomfort, though anyone who did not know her well would not have recognized it. She had fumbled with her portfolio, but then they had sat side by side, and he had grown quiet once he had seen what she intended to do with the interior of his new house. Hellyer was decidedly coming up in the world, but she was not sure she liked it.
They had been equals in the beginning, she thought. Well, not quite equals, never that, but his status had not been as high then, and he had been somehow more approachable. I work for him now, she reasoned. I am employed by him. It put them on a different footing, and her skin began to prickle at the thought of it.
It’s the heat, she said to herself, but knew it was a sense of anxiety, the same anxiety which drove her forward; the anxiety that she felt when she thought about herself and her future, and the past. The feeling followed her because she knew she had no real place in Shanghai, that her position was precarious and depended not as much on her talent as her ability to please and get along.
Ladislav had hired her for her looks, though she did not know it and thought it was because she came cheap and was willing to put in endless hours, toiling away on ideas he would throw her way, expecting her to refine and finish them. All the credit went to him, of course. She was considered merely a pretty appendage by male clients, and perhaps they even thought Ladislav brought her along to meetings as an incentive, and that they would be able to prevail upon her after kissing her hand and saying what a charming young lady she was.
All the while she knew what they were thinking. To them, she was another impoverished Russian, not really all that white, not European in any sense, one step up from the Chinese, one step up from being a woman they could hire.
It had been different when she was young. She still believed something would happen, or someone would come along and restore her to a respectable life, a safe life, where things that were too frightening wouldn’t touch her. And then she had realized that she had never had a rightful position of any sort, that her father had died soon after she was born, and that her family was ruined even before the revolution – before all their friends were, before she had had chance to taste life.
Hellyer had never promised her anything, and eventually she had stopped expecting anything from him. He wasn’t like the other Englishmen who had come out to the big trading houses as griffons and aspired to become tai-pans. He had been different.
She hadn’t been able to place him at first, and then after she had heard his story, that he had been born in St. Petersberg where his father had been working at the time, and that they had only been back to England for a short time only before his father had gotten ill and had to move ever southward to France and Italy for his health, had she understood that he was as rootless as she was.
But they had not been alike. He was wild and where she was afraid of things touching her, he had wanted to experience everything, to see everything in all the raw ugliness that was so terrifying to her, and it was that was what stimulated him and made him feel alive.
It was all those things which had attracted and intrigued her, that and his tales of places she had dreamed of in her imaginings, not just France and Italy, but Oxford where he had been educated, and Greece, and Turkey, and Arabia where he had traveled. He had lived in Africa before he had shipped out to India, before transferring to Shanghai, where there was a place for promising men with his talents and languages. She had loved those stories, and his rooms with all their collections, the African masks and Turkish carpets, the Persian tiles, the carved ivory, and Mogul miniatures.
‘That kind of man is dangerous,’ her landlady Natalia Ivanovna had said, eyeing him up and down once when he had stopped for a moment to collect her. But later that evening when Tanya had insisted she knew how to take care of herself, Natalia Ivanovna had lit a cigar, and letting her eternally present robe carelessly fall open to expose her soiled slip, replied, ‘I’m speaking of the danger to your heart, my dear.’
And she had replied that she expected nothing, that she had had such a pinched little life, and that she liked his stories, and Natalia had just laughed, opening her mouth to reveal red lipstick smeared over her yellowed teeth.
Eventually, there had come a time in those rooms when she did come to expect something, not a declaration, nor a proposal, but some show of feeling which she suspected he might have for her. When it didn’t come, when he started to change, becoming more serious about his work and how he appeared to others, she had withdrawn from his life.
Stop thinking about that, Tanya commanded herself, and she did. It’s just business. You will meet him once more and you will be on your way, leaving him to his own fate. She knew it was impossible to make her appointment on time and remain cool and crisp, and so she hailed a cab which dropped her off in front of the white villa with its curving facade and linear overhangs. It was a lovely house, she thought, but she refused to speculate what might have been, though her heart had begun beating in an irregular way.
She paid the driver and walked down the drive, up two steps to the front door. She saw the door was ajar, and she opened it and stepped into the house, knowing that she shouldn’t.
The new furniture hadn’t yet arrived. His rugs were still rolled up, his collections were in crates, half unpacked, not yet displayed, and everything was eerie and still. She called for the servants, and when no one came she called for him by name. She went to the back of the house, stepping down into the kitchen and saw a pot of water on the stove, and fresh vegetables, and a whole fish on the chopping block. The work had been interrupted, though the stove was cold and the rear entrance closed. For a moment she thought to run out of the house and call for help, but something propelled her up the stairs to the second floor bedrooms. Now, the only thing she heard in the stillness of the afternoon was the sound of her own blood coursing through her veins. The street was silent despite the open windows where the curtains had been pushed aside. No breeze came through, just the oppressive afternoon heat, though the fan swirling overhead made a soft whirring sound.
The unmade bed was rumpled and reminded her of a long afternoon of love making, though she couldn’t be sure why she would have that impression. Perhaps it was envy, she thought. She walked through the entire second floor, but there was nothing and no one to be seen. The open door was reason enough to be suspicious but what could it possibly mean? A crime, a robbery? She wouldn’t know if anything was missing, in any case.
She thought about calling the police but then reconsidered. Corruption was rife among the department, and who knew how they would deal with her. No, she would telephone Ladislav and ask for his advice. It would be better to let him handle it the way he saw fit. He was a rational man, and she was certain he would have a reasonable explanation. But the whole time, she knew something was terribly amiss and she was doing the wrong thing. She tried the telephone but the line was dead. It was only then that she heard the explosions. It could only mean one thing. The Japanese had arrived in Shanghai.
Shanghai, August 1966
Li Kong entered the shabby courtyard where he lived with his old aunt. His heart was pounding, and although he could hear the chanting and shouts of the students he had been with earlier that evening receding in the distance, he was still afraid. He didn’t understand what had compelled him to retrieve the notebooks that were slated for the bonfire they had made that evening.
It had all started with a march and a raid on the house of a class enemy. He had been consumed with anger when the speeches were being made, but when they reached their destination he had been shocked. Another group of Red Guards was already present. They had overturned the entire contents of the house, piling books, clothing, and household items into the middle of rooms. One of the boys was shattering vases and screaming they were remnants of bourgeois culture.
‘Out with the old, in with the new,’ he shouted.
Li Kong had seen a girl pocket a gold watch she found when she was shaking out the bedroom drawers and had said nothing, turning his head away. By the time the two groups were finished, the house, which had been lovely, was in shambles, and feathers from torn mattresses floated about and settled all over it like dirty snow.
The whole time, the woman who lived there stood on the side, guarded by a boy and a girl, saying nothing, not even when they had shattered her vases, not even when they had confiscated her photographs.
The woman was older, though of indeterminate age, and Li Kong thought her still quite lovely. She had removed herself emotionally from the scene and looked on as if it was happening to someone else. When an angry girl shouted that the woman was living in a house that could be occupied by several families, she lowered her head and looked at the floor. She couldn’t be aroused in any way, though she winced when they twisted her arm and forced her to kneel.
Li Kong had wondered what would happen to her, but none of them knew. They would leave it to the authorities to decide. They had made their point. They had shown her what was expected in the new society they were building. There would be no room for the luxury she was used to. No place for her collections or her scrolls. All that was obsolete was going to be swept away. And so he had followed a group into the garden where they had piled her books and recordings together and made a bonfire, and he had stood there looking at it, wondering if he should throw the notebooks he had found into the fire, but he hadn’t. Now he was afraid they would find him out before he got a chance to look at them thoroughly. I shouldn’t have done it, he berated himself. But what harm could it do, he wondered. None, unless someone found out. I’ll burn them afterward, he told himself.
Li Kong had come from a provincial town to live with his aunt in Shanghai after his parents had died. He didn’t remember them very well, but his aunt was a kind and generous person, who loved him. Sometimes he was happy to have had the opportunity to be in the city and felt guilty for thinking so, because he knew had his parents lived, he would have ended life where he had begun it.
He was a brilliant student, and knew he would have more opportunities in Shanghai. He would go to university, study medicine, and perhaps become a specialist. Sometimes he daydreamed of becoming a pure researcher and finding cures for the terrible diseases that afflicted mankind. In all likelihood, he would be sent to a drab and provincial town, or even worse, to a village, to administer to the people there. Perhaps he would be fortunate enough to be able to remain in Shanghai. Still, that was many years away.
His aunt was asleep, but she had left food for him in a pot. He lifted the lid, but remembering the notebooks, went up the ladder to the loft where he slept and slipped them under the bed. Looking around, he thought he would have to find a better hiding place after he had the chance to look through them. Then I’ll throw them away, he promised himself.
He climbed down and ate quietly by the dim light of a single bulb. His aunt stirred and in a half sleep murmured his name.
‘I am home. All is well,’ he assured her.
He glanced out the window and saw a light was on in the room opposite their courtyard. The Director lived there, alone. Li Kong had often wondered why this tall man with patrician bearing was living in their part of town, and after he had first come to live with his aunt he had screwed up enough courage to ask, only to be hushed. It was only after some time, overhearing the gossip of the old women, that he discovered the Director had once been a famous figure in the Shanghai film industry and that his career had ended during the purges of the late nineteen- fifties when he had been accused of being a Rightist, which was compounded by the fact that he had been educated in Paris and gone to film school in the Soviet Union.
He had for a moment wondered if it could be true, that such man was still living among them, but his aunt had discouraged all conversation on the topic. Once he had overheard her saying, poor man, when speaking to her neighbor, another old woman, who sometimes brought food to the Director when she could spare it.
The Director, he knew, made his living as a cleaner now, but it was not nearly enough to sustain him. Still, Li Kong thought, the state was benevolent, and even provided for those who were its enemies. He finished his meal and set the dishes and utensils to the side. His aunt would wash up in the morning. He climbed back into the loft, and lighting a candle, took off his jacket and trousers. Lying down, he reached for the notebooks.
The fantastical drawings which had caught his eye initially now sprang to life. In the first, a woman wearing a green ball gown floated amid beds of seaweed filled with cockleshells and starfish. She seemed to have the body of a jellyfish, and yet her face and hair were those of a lovely maiden. Carp, bug-eyed and curious, swam about her. In the next drawing, she floated among the stars, a winged fairy, surrounded by white moths and creatures of the night. This time her dress was flounced and littered with stars. In another, she rode a seahorse, a trident in her hand, a helmet of coral on her head. In the following, she danced with butterfly wings, partnered by a dove; then floated like a swan on a glistening pond set in a park with waterfalls and willows. These fantasies were soft and lovely, as if the dark haired creature could not bear the world and wanted to escape far above it, dancing, floating in realms of inner space that were completely of her own making. Li Kong couldn’t help but smile. He had not opened the other notebooks, and now he did so. The one he held in his hand was filled with marvelous drawings of gems that were set in clever arrangements echoing the architecture of the nineteen thirties which was prevalent throughout the city. He had never seen anything quite like them. Each finished drawing was accompanied by tiny notes in a sharp slanting script he could not make out but knew was western.
The third and fourth notebooks were written in the same hand with scratched out portions, as if the writer had gone back to revise them. On the leaf of the first book, a photographic portrait of the girl in the drawings was pasted in. She was Caucasian, dark, and very pretty. She was also holding up a starfish which was irreverently threaded through her hair. She looked at the viewer enigmatically as if to say, well, what do you think of that?
What sort of girl could she have been? Li Kong wondered, still smiling. Frivolous, no doubt, but lovely and strange. He flipped through the pages, and those of the other notebooks, hoping to see other photographs of her but there were none. He shook the books out, hoping he had missed something, and he had, because a small photograph of a man fell out. Li Kong brought it closer in order to make out the features. He was a wild looking barbarian, with short cropped hair and high cheekbones, who looked at the camera and at the world with a supercilious expression. Li Kong tucked the photo back into the book. He looked around for a hiding place, but finding none, placed the notebooks between the wall and the bed, with the intention of borrowing some tools and loosening the floorboards the next day to create a nook for them. He knew that he should throw them away, but he just wanted to look at the enchanted drawings a few more times.
He had unsettling dreams all night long but could not recall them in the morning, though he knew that they had something to do with water and finding a way to get to it. The first thing he did was to pull out the second notebook and have a look at the photograph of the man again. In the morning light, the man’s expression seemed more mocking than superior, a bit amused, intelligent and questioning. He put it up next to the portrait of the girl. She was much softer, of course, but it Li Kong thought, they are so alike it is almost as if they are of one mind. His aunt was calling him, and he rushed downstairs to wash and eat before going to school.
There was a great commotion when he arrived at the schoolyard and banners painted in huge red characters had been hung from the gates of the building. Students were in disarray and shouting. He pushed his way through the crowd, only to see one of his teachers, Mr. Po, being hauled out with a rope about his neck. A girl Red Guard had taken off her belt and was screaming in a shrill voice that Po was a reactionary before proceeding to beat him. Students formed in a circle around the teacher and forced him to kneel. Li Kong was pushed to the back of the crowd, but could hear them calling Po an imperialist dog and an enemy of the state. Could it be possible? Li Kong wondered. Po was one of the best and most popular teachers in his school.
‘You are making a mistake,’ he heard Po saying.
‘Shut up, stupid shit. You have no right to speak unless we give you permission,’ a husky voice that belonged to one of the worst students there, Zhang Bojing, commanded. Li Kong knew that Zhang’s father was an important party functionary, and that was how Zhang was able to get through school.
‘The State does not make errors,’ a cold shrill voice that belonged to the school’s Party Secretary, Chen Aiguo, a man who had been seconded from a Shanghai shoe factory, resounded. Chen then proceeded to check off a litany of accusations against the teacher, amid the taunts and curses of the students. Po was finally given a chance to refute them, but each time he would begin to point out the logical fallacies in Chen’s arguments, Chen would twist his words against him. Po was dragged away and locked in a class room, until it was decided what to do with him.
Students were chanting party slogans and raising their fists in defiance. Li Kong overheard that classes were canceled indefinitely but that he was expected to report each day for discussions. He also saw on a list on the wall that he, along with a few other good students, was assigned to write slogans.
‘How long will this last?’ he asked a tall gangling boy, who he knew had won the top prize for high school mathematics in Shanghai the previous spring. Before the boy could answer, Chen was standing next to them.
‘You think a revolution can be made from inside a class room?’ he demanded.
Li Kong shook his head, not certain what to respond.
‘You boys are so soft and spoiled. A revolution is made from the blood of its martyrs,’ Chen said. ‘And we will be watching all of you to see how well you fulfill your duty to the Party.’
It was only in the days that followed as Li Kong and the other boy toiled side by side painting huge banners and trying to come up with slogans such as, ‘Scatter the old world, bring in the new!’, ‘Smash the Four Olds!’, ‘To Rebel is Justified!’, that they realized Chen was illiterate and seemed to approve their banners by their size and color.
Lao Shaoqiang, the thin boy, pressed his lips together and murmured something about Chen having had a difficult life. Then he suggested that since it was not known when classes would resume, he and Li Kong might study together so as to not fall behind when it came to taking the entrance exams for university. Li Kong was honored. Lao had mentioned his father was a physicist and his mother taught languages at the university.
They were both satisfied and set about painting another sign, when several breathless girls rushed into the room.
‘Have you heard the news?’ they inquired.
The boys shook their heads.
‘Teacher Po has hung himself.’
‘This proves he was a class enemy,’ Lao said. The girls seemed satisfied with his response and went on their way. Li Kong resumed writing a character poster without looking up or commenting. Teacher Po had been his favorite.
On the way home, Li Kong was silent. Lao sensed his mood. ‘I heard he was taken to a cow shed. The Red Guards beat him almost every day. They say he finally confessed.’
Li Kong looked toward the sky. The day was sunny and cool.
‘You say nothing?’ Lao asked. After a while he said, ‘It’s better that way.’ Regretting he had said too much, he swerved off to walk on his own. Li Kong was left behind, gawping after him.
When he came home, he went to the loft and took out the notebooks from under the floorboards where he had hidden them. It had become a habit, a guilty pleasure, to look at the man and the woman and the delightful drawings. I am also reactionary for finding pleasure in such frivolous and foreign things, he thought.
He knew what the foreigners had done to China, exploiting her people to open markets in Asia. I need to be rid of these, he thought, but did nothing. He knew he would do nothing until he was able to decipher the script and find out what the entries were about.
‘What are you doing?’ Li Kong asked. He had arrived at Lao’s house to study chemistry at the agreed upon time.
‘Nothing.’ Lao had his back to Li Kong but was packing something into a suitcase. Li Kong stepped closer.
‘My mother has been detained. I’m getting rid of her books in case the Red Guards come here.’
‘What sort of books?’ He asked.
‘Mostly Russian language books.’
Li Kong put his hand out and picked up one of the books, ‘Russian?’ He asked.
‘No, this one is Russian,’ Lao said, handing over a thick volume.
Li Kong grew excited. In the margins notes were written a hand that resembled the one in his notebooks. He tried to conceal his pleasure at this discovery. ‘What’s it about?’ he asked.
‘It’s about a student who kills an old pawnbroker and then feels guilty afterward.’
‘It sounds revolutionary.’
‘Well, it’s far from that.’
‘Have you read it?’
‘Of course not. It is reactionary.’
‘Can you read it?’
‘No,’ Lao said. ‘Are you going to help me get rid of these?’
The boys hauled the books in the suitcase until they reached a dump. Lao looked through them once again, tearing out any pages which could link the books to his mother. While he was occupied, Li Kong pocketed the thick book about the student. He hoped that Lao would not notice the bulge in his pocket, but Lao was more concerned with ripping up the incriminating loose pages and tearing them to shreds.
They were gone most of the day, but Lao said they would resume their studies tomorrow. Li Kong wondered what he was going to do with the book, since he could not read it. By the time he got home, he had decided to ask the Director for Russian lessons in exchange for food. It was dangerous for them both, but if anyone discovered them, he would say that he only wanted to keep his mind occupied while the schools were closed. He wouldn’t mention the notebooks to the Director, of course.
Sun Mu gazed out through the dirty windowpane across the courtyard to where that boy lived with his aunt. What had he really been after, and what could he be thinking asking for lessons in Russian in order to read a forbidden book in this highly charged political atmosphere? Sun Mu wondered. He had turned him away, and rightly so. Perhaps he was merely a gauche boy whose naivety would soon get him into trouble, but perhaps he was one of those terrible young people who ran through the streets creating chaos without moral compunction and without compassion for the lives they were destroying. Perhaps he had been sent to root out those who had fallen under suspicion, those who like himself had been purged and lost their place in the world, to see whether their ideas had changed or not, because as everyone knew all the vestiges of the old must be wiped away, and the old still harbored recalcitrant ways, even if those views were hidden somewhere deep down inside of themselves.
Still, as he looked at the courtyard, he remembered the sudden thrill he had experienced at the sight of that book, which he had read when he had not been much younger than the boy. It had been years since he had spoken Russian and even longer since he had spoken French. He glanced at the callouses on his hands and the deep cracks that gave him so much pain during the cooler months. It had been years since he had used his mind at all, that he had even thought about anything other than getting through another day.
He had believed, truly believed, in the New China, and he had not run away to Taiwan or Hong Kong like many of his contemporaries had. He had stayed, been purged in 1958, and his films had been banned and his name blacklisted. That was his life. That was all there was. Now there would be the winter to get through, and the cold wind coupled with the humidity always gave him arthritic pains. He would have to scrape together enough money to buy ointment and perhaps that would help a bit, at least with the cracks in his skin.
At least I lived my life, he said to himself, thinking of the boy and his prospects. He momentarily felt sad, and sad that he had turned the boy away, for what would he learn now in his young life, to march and write slogans on posters? There would be nothing of the beauty and refinement that had so inspired Sun Mu in his formative years. He thought back to himself as he had been then, at seventeen, at eighteen, at twenty and remembered the things he had surrounded himself with, the ideas he had had, and the money he had squandered. All that has passed, and there is nothing more to think about, he said to himself. But for the rest of the day he could not help but recall his days in Paris and his film training in Moscow, afterward. He had been adept at languages and had picked them up quite easily, like a collector, from his Russian friends in Paris and Shanghai, and from the lessons which his father had caved in and paid for, after he, the adored brilliant only son, had exhibited his temper.
Ah, he had been quite the dandy then, a friend of Cocteau and his circle, and so many others who were not quite friends but whom he had met, Picasso, and the strange Americans who were drinking themselves to death in Paris at the time. What did that boy have to look forward to? he asked once again before unscrewing the single bulb that illuminated his barren room so he would not waste it. And then he sat in the darkness until his mind was at rest and he could fall asleep.
Li Kong was thoroughly shaken. He had never seen anyone murdered before. But it had happened, the thing he had dreaded most and was afraid he would one day witness. An older woman had intervened when the Red Guards had dragged her husband, an oil engineer, out of his house. He had worked for the British, and the British were class enemies and had exploited his people. The man had been pulled along the streets, half stumbling, unable to use his legs, as the Red Guards beat him, forcing him to keep moving. The woman had come running after them, begging them to stop, saying he was ill, that his heart would give out, that he needed his medicine. They had not listened, and he had fallen, unable to get up, like an old cart horse, but they had kept whipping him with their thick belts. And then they had stopped. He was already dead, and the woman had fallen on her knees next to his body and rocked back and forth, and then he heard her wail, a sound that was inhuman, that had come from a terrible and far older place that was wild and uncivilized, as uncivilized as they themselves had been that day.
He had hung back as he always did, but he had seen, and the sight was terrible to him. Afterward when they had dispersed, on the empty street, empty save for the woman who was still weeping, a cold rain had fallen down in sheets, and he had been soaked through his padded jacket, through his clothes, down to his skin.
He was still shivering in his room, and he could not stop, even after his aunt had seen him looking so wild and frightened and had made him tea and forced him to drink it down. She had surmised what had happened but did not ask and turned away from him, until, not knowing what to do, he had climbed up into his loft, and seeking comfort and the obliteration of the images that were still in his mind, that threatened to engulf him, pulled out the notebooks and looked at the pictures of the enchanted girl. Each day, he thought about her more and more, and sometimes he longed to step into her world, and be done with everything that was happening within his. He had managed to acquire a Russian language primer by meticulously searching through the piles of materials they had confiscated from the houses they had raided, but it was no good, he had no facility and could not learn on his own.
The Director had turned him away, and Li Kong knew it was because of his fear and did not blame him, but he vowed not to give in so easily, and to try again. Perhaps if the Director saw the drawings in the books he would relent, he reasoned.
The next day, he brought his own dinner to the Director, rapping lightly on his door, until he was admitted. The room was even poorer than theirs, shabby and moldering, dark and close. He had sat silently watching the Director eat, refusing to take anything for himself. And then he had pulled out the book with the pictures and slid it over the broken down table, over to the Director, who looked at it blankly.
‘Open it, please,’ Li Kong said.
The Director did as he was asked, and Li Kong saw something change in his expression, but he could not read what it was.
‘Where did you get this?’ the Director asked after a few moments.
Li Kong watched him finger the pages delicately as if he was stroking a live thing. He thought for a moment to lie to the old man, but something inside him broke and he said, ‘On a raid. We came into the house of a woman. It was a beautiful house. She had so many priceless things, vases and scrolls. They were beautiful, but we shattered and slashed everything we could find. I picked this off a pile that was going into a bonfire.’
The Director stared into space, and Li Kong could not tell what he was thinking. He had been too frank, too direct and now he was afraid of the things he had said.
‘Do you know who the woman was?’ the Director asked.
‘No. I remember what she looked like, but who she was or what happened to her, that I don’t know.’
‘And the street she lived on?’
Li Kong tried to remember, but it was no use. They had marched through streets he had never seen before and it had been dark and he had not been paying attention, swept up as he was by the speeches that had gone on beforehand. ‘I can’t recall it.’
‘Who else knows about this?’
‘No one. No one knows,’ Li Kong assured him.
The Director looked straight at him, ‘Are you sure about that?’
‘Tell me something, then. Of all the priceless objects you found so lovely, why would you save this, an old Russian notebook?’
Li Kong reached over for the book and flipped to the page where the girl was holding a starfish up to her hair. He showed it to the Director, and said, ‘There’s something about the girl…’ but he could not finish his thought.
Oh yes, the Director thought to himself, there is something about the girl, but said nothing.
‘Please, I must know what it says. Won’t you read it to me?’
And so the Director began to read, curious about what the girl had written, all the while knowing that there were things that he would need to explain to the boy along with the reading, all the while knowing there would be things he would conceal.
Shanghai, April 1932
Some days that begin badly, through fortuitous circumstances, can end up happily and well, and I must always remember that and never let myself despair.
Anya had been at me for some time. Sometimes I think she genuinely wants to help and other times when I see the look she gives me, a mix of exasperation and disbelief, I really wonder if she doesn’t resent me. She has taken me on, nevertheless. I am her burden, and she bears it. I can’t help the way I am I want to tell her, but she’d just say that my aunt had prepared me for nothing, and that I was not capable of dealing with real life.
This real life of Anya’s is coarse and brutal, and it’s filled with pettiness and grubbing for every bit of cash she can get her hands on. It’s competitive and rough, and she is always ready to take it on. What value is there in a life lived like that? We are all living in reduced circumstances here, but there is still beauty, and kindness, and the good things we have in ourselves that can bring joy to our fellow creatures on earth.
‘She’s nice,’ Li Kong interrupted, ‘and thoughtful.’
‘Hmmm,’ The Director mused. ‘We’ll see. Save your own thoughts for later and don’t interrupt me, please. It’s hard for me to translate directly. I haven’t done it for a long, long time.’
‘Of course. Very sorry,’ Li Kong apologized. In truth, he could hardly wait to hear the rest.
Anya says I can still afford to think like that because I haven’t been on the edge, that I have been cushioned, that I haven’t come to the end of the line. She mocked my aunt, even on the day of her funeral, saying she was the one who put all those airy ideas into my head. I knew they weren’t true, I want to tell Anya. I just didn’t have the heart to point out the obvious facts to my aunt.
‘No one will save you, Tanya,’ Anya says, ‘so look out for yourself.’
Later, Anya bought over some crepe de Chine that a man had given her, and I was able to cut two evening dresses from it.
‘Is this how they pay you, nowadays?’ Natalia Ivanovna, our landlady, sneered at Anya.
Natalia can’t get over the fact that Anya sometimes goes with Chinese men. Natalia has a house and rents out rooms, but Anya has never had advantages.
‘Mind your own business, old woman,’ Anya says, and just being called old puts Natalia in a huff, so she uses a few choice words before slamming her door.
‘Take one for yourself and come down to the club,’ Anya says.
The club is where Anya works most nights as a dancer. She comes home dead tired and sleeps half the day away, and that life is beginning to show on her face, in the dark circles around her eyes and the downward pull of her mouth.
‘No. It’s okay,’ I say, but she has other ideas.
‘Look, you don’t have to do what I do, but if you come down wearing that dress, the other girls will see what you can do and hire you to make dresses for them.’ Anya knows that I have been looking for work as a dressmaker, but that no one will hire me since Chinese are willing to work so cheaply.
‘All right,’ I agree, hoping something else will come up, but it doesn’t.
So when she comes to pick me up, I am ready, though I feel a fool in the dress, which I have cut for Anya who is tall and flat chested. Anya takes one look at me and tells me to stop tugging at the bodice, and that I look fantastic.
‘I feel naked,’ I say, as Natalia Ivanovna steps out on the landing to look me over. That’s how it begins, her look seems to suggest.
Li Kong was already squirming. He had questions to ask, but a sharp look from the Director put a stop to his agitation, and he stopped fidgeting and settled down.
At the club, the manager, a burly Russian named Yevgeny Borisovich, takes one look at me, and kissing my hand, whisks me to his table. All night long, people approach him with various business matters, but he won’t let me leave. And so I sit there and watch the program, and after that is over, Yevgeny Borisovich asks me to dance, and while we are dancing, he offers me a job. When I balk, he says it will be in the chorus, and I will not have to dance with customers at all.
‘Come tomorrow afternoon, and let me see what you can do,’ he says, kissing my hand again.
I don’t know what to do, but Anya is happy for me and says not to worry, Yevgeny Borisovich isn’t the kind of man who messes about with his employees. I was so nervous, I couldn’t wait until the appointed time, so I took my pad and went out to make some sketches. I was still debating what to do, until I decided that I might as well go and see him.
Yevgeny Borisovich was busy when I got there, and directed me to sit at a table and wait. When he was finished, he called a Chinese man over to the piano and put me in front and told me to show him what I could do.
The absurdity of this hit me. I was always the worst dancer in ballet class, always moving in the opposite direction of everyone else, but my aunt wanted me to have lessons to develop poise and a good silhouette so I stuck to it. The pianist, not looking up, began a jazzy piece, so I flapped my arms a bit and did the Charleston with my feet, and Yevgeny Borisovich laughed and shook his head.
I picked up my sketchpad and was about to leave when he called me over and asked me to sit.
‘What do you have there?’ he asked.
I thought he must have felt bad for making fun of me, but I was a bit angry at him as well, so I shrugged and didn’t say anything.
He reached over and started leafing through the pad. He paused at the portrait I had done of Anya.
‘Oh, you’ve caught our girl, all right. Tough as leather on the outside, pure mush on the inside.’
‘She has a good heart,’ I said mechanically, though I did not think that was particularly true.
‘I meant that if one more thing goes wrong in her life, she’ll go over the edge,’ he said. I was thinking about this when he stopped at my fanciful drawings. He whistled. ‘Now this is something,’ he said, tapping on the one with me walking through a field of flowers which were transforming into butterflies before soaring to the sky.
‘Can you do one like this, only large scale? I’d like it as a backdrop for a number we’re rehearsing.’
I said yes, though I had never done anything like that before, and he gave me the money for the materials and said I could use the back room for a studio.
‘Don’t let it go to your head. It’s just one job. He didn’t even say how much he was going to pay,’ Anya said.
But I didn’t care. It was a job! A real job doing something I was good at!
‘Oh, she’s funny. And nice!’ Li Kong exclaimed, when the Director paused. ‘And she’s not a prostitute like the other.’
‘Few of them were really,’ the Director said. ‘They were desperate to survive. They’d lost their homeland, and they had to fall back on what they had, and the only thing most of them had was their beauty, youth and charm.’
‘They could have stayed. They chose to leave Russia,’ Li Kong countered. He knew a bit about what had happened to White Russians after the Revolution.
‘You will have to learn that not everyone thinks alike, and besides these women would have been young girls when their parents made the decision to leave. They had nothing to do with it themselves.’
‘Oh, well, I’m certain the state would have taken much better care of them had they stayed,’ Li Kong said.
‘Possibly,’ The Director countered. ‘Shall I go on?’
‘Oh yes, please.’