Welcome to the fourth installment of DOUBLE THUNDER! It picks up where the third installment left off. Bittersweet continues to read Hardu’s letter where she learns more about the petty criminal who gave her the siming blanket—a man with a penchant for pretty university girls, aspiring actresses, and serious books, especially those by the famous writer Lu Xun. We’re also introduced to Bittersweet’s two families, one of them in retrospect: the one in Guilin with whom she currently lives, and the one with whom she lived in suburban New York for 15 years before returning to her natal city.
Image: Guilin, China. Photo by Amy Middleton.
THE SIMING BLANKET (continued) — 1974
The barrister who pleaded my case in Mixed Court was, like me, Eurasian. Unlike me, he was recognized by his well-to-do English father and was registered in Shanghai as a British subject. He’d also graduated from Oxford with a law degree. A brilliant, if highly emotional, speaker, he turned the tables on the proceedings not by defending my actions but by shining a glaring light on the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank. What I had tried and failed to do by exchanging counterfeit taels of silver for real ones, he told the court, the bank was doing successfully, legally, and profitably on a daily basis by engaging in currency speculation. At that time, two currency systems existed in Shanghai: the Shanghai dollar, worth one shilling and sixpence, and the tael, a weight of silver shaped like a tiny shoe. Salaries were paid in taels, which had to be exchanged for Shanghai dollars in order to purchase goods or pay rent. All bank transactions were in taels. If people wanted British sterling, American dollars, or French francs, their Shanghai dollars would have to be changed back into taels first. This financial musical chairs spelled huge and illicit profits for the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank. I was found guilty, but thanks to his rhetorical skills and impassioned plea, I received no sentence other than the nine days I’d already spent in jail awaiting my trial. I was free to go.
And so I returned to my former life as a ricksha puller, drug runner, and pickpocket. But while in jail, I’d heard of a bookshop on North Szechuan Road owned by a Japanese named Kanzo Uchiyama whose wife set out ten bags of free hot tea daily to slake the thirst of passing rickshaw pullers. I went for the tea, but I stayed for the pretty university students and aspiring actresses who frequented the place. At some point, my eyes fell upon the titles lining the shelves: books on Marxism and medicine, the latest translations, literary and leftist works. Though I could easily have stolen it, I bought one of the books, since Uchiyama extended credit to everyone, especially the students. Encouraged, I bought a few more. One book that particularly impressed me, and irked me as well, was The True Story of Ah Q by Lu Xun. In the simplest yet strongest language, the author was describing me. He was describing every “Chinaman”—weak, spineless, and backward. Once the center of the world, China was now “the sick man of Asia.” One evening I attended a talk by Lu Xun which was held in the backroom of Uchiyama’s bookshop. When I arrived, it was already packed: students, intellectuals, workers, and no doubt a Guomindang spy or two. A slight man with unruly hair and dressed in traditional Chinese garb, he read from a letter he’d written some years earlier to the editors of New Youth magazine:
“Imagine an iron house having not a single window and virtually indestructible, with all its inmates sound asleep and about to die of suffocation. Dying in their sleep, they won’t feel the pain of death. Now if you raise a shout to wake a few of the lighter sleepers, making these unfortunate few suffer the agony of irrevocable death, do you really think you are doing them a good turn?”
He stopped reading and looked at the audience: it was a question that required an answer. A man in the second row decided that since everyone in the iron house was bound to die anyway, why not let them die in peaceful ignorance rather than in the excruciating fear and pain of knowing that death was imminent. Another man countered by saying that, since one would die anyway, one’s final act in life was important: better to die awake, with free will, and make one’s final peace with life. A middle-aged woman disagreed, arguing that no one should wake the others in the iron house, not knowing how they would choose to die—asleep or awake—and therefore having no right to make the choice for them. In her mind it was the utmost cruelty to force a painful death upon someone whose demise would otherwise be unconscious and thus painless.
There was a young woman sitting directly in front of me who had begun to weep silently. “What you are saying, then,” she addressed Lu Xun through her tears, “is that the iron house is China. Most of us are asleep inside, ignorant or passive about out country’s plight. And the few who are awake are helpless to change anything. What you are saying is that it is too late. China is doomed. We are doomed. Is that what you’re saying?”
There was such sadness and despair in her voice that I found myself addressing Lu Xun not knowing what I was going to say.
“What about those people outside the iron house?”
The young woman sitting in front of me turned to look at me. I recognized her immediately.
“The people outside the iron house,” I continued, now even more eager to speak, “they know that those inside are doomed to die. It is too late for them. But when the fire burns itself out, those outside will tear down the iron house. Inside, they find the ashes of the victims. They won’t know the ashes of those who died peacefully in their sleep from those who died awake, in agony. Ashes are ashes.”
“Who are these people who will tear down the iron house,” she asked me, “to find only ashes?”
“Our descendants,” I said. “Future generations of Chinese who won’t have to live in an iron house.”
The thud of the heavy wooden door at the back of house and the jangle of keys startled Bittersweet. Tanmin was home. Gathering the tiny silk pages together in a neat pile, she was stunned to realize that she had read fifty-six of them. She hadn’t remembered snipping the single thread that bound each of the seven sets of eight pages together except for the first. Nor had she resumed moving her chair into the shifting patch of sunlight crawling across her bedroom floor, so engrossed was she in her reading material. Quickly she placed the miniature book inside the playing card box, returned it to her dressing table drawer, and set her chair in its rightful place in front of her writing desk. Tucking any stray wisps of hair that might have escaped her bun, she walked onto her terrace that gave onto the backyard. Tanmin was standing over the eviscerated quilt, her basket of groceries at her feet, her hands on her hips.
“What did I tell you? A quilt so poorly made that it’s already faded after less than two hours in the sun. You should have given it away. Better yet, you should never have accepted it in the first place.”
It was true. The siming blanket had faded from a royal to a sky blue. The colors of the embroidered plum tree had faded even more dramatically. Its very outline had bled into the background: the boundary, once distinct, was now blurry. Yet, stranger still, one of the two thunder clouds had become not lighter but darker, more ominous.
“Coarse silk. Clumsy embroidery. Cheap dyes. A siming blanket not even worth airing.”
“It was a gift,” Bittersweet reminded her.
“You should’ve let me air it,” Tanmin replied. “You shouldn’t be doing such hard work.” She picked up her basket of groceries. “I’d better air the other quilts before I begin preparing lunch. At least they’re worth the effort.” She lifted her head and shaded her eyes against the sun with the flat of her hand. A few cirrus clouds floated in the formerly clear blue sky. “Who knows what tomorrow’s weather will bring?”
“Who knows?” Bittersweet concurred.
“You’re not very hungry,” Tanmin half-asked, half-accused. She stretched her arm across the dining room table, dislodged the cheek of the steamed sea bass—the tenderest morsel—with her chopsticks, and placed it into Bittersweet’s rice bowl.
“I’ll have your fish if you don’t want it,” Liqi garbled, his mouth full.
“Liqi,” Nannan reprimanded her son gently. “That’s your great-great auntie’s fish. You have your own.” She glared at Lizi, who was filling his rice bowl for the third time. “Daddy’s very hungry. If he’s not careful, he’ll get a belly big as Buddha’s.”
“The way they work me at the electrical plant?” Lizi replied, helping himself to more slivered pork and bok choy. “Fat chance. Baba?” he offered his father.
Jiaqiu declined by burping—proof that he’d eaten his fill.
Bittersweet said, “I’d rather enjoy watching all of you eat—and with such gusto.”
To placate Tanmin, she placed the fish’s cheek in her mouth, but her eyes strayed to the open window and the backyard covered with six siming blankets, emptied of their silk floss, airing in the midday sun. They made the backyard resemble contiguous geometrical paddy fields, each a different vibrant color.
“It’s part gusto, Great Auntie, part lack of time,” Nannan said. “Forty-five minutes for lunch, then I have to be back at my curio shop. I can’t keep customers waiting.”
“Speaking of getting back to work,” Lizi mumbled after slurping the last of the bitter melon soup. He pushed his chair back with a satisfied sigh. “Liqi, it’s time for me to drop you off at school. Finish your rice. ‘Every grain of rice is a drop of sweat from a farmer’s brow.’”
When Liqi grimaced, everyone laughed, which emboldened the six-year-old.
“Wanna see what I can do? Great-Great Auntie, look at me! Look at me!”
He slid off his chair and began to sing and perform the Loyalty Dance in front of Bittersweet, wildly waving Mao’s Book of Quotations he’d pulled from his pocket. The sight of Mao’s little red book only made Bittersweet think of the tiny book in her vanity drawer. Nevertheless, she joined the others, laughing and clapping in time to Liqi’s performance, but unable to sing along. She’d heard songs sung with similar patriotic fervor when Chiang Kai-shek had been president, and when Delin had been acting president, but this particular song was new to her—as she was new to China after her long sojourn in the United States.
When everyone had returned to work or to school, and Tanmin was in the kitchen washing the lunch dishes, Bittersweet retrieved her sewing basket from her bedroom, walked out into the backyard, and surveyed the airing quilts. They filled the yard completely, right up to the chicken coop and her vegetable garden that would soon run riot with the round red globes of ripe tomatoes, the variegated green-to-white oblongs of bok choy, jade-green snow peas, Chinese string beans and bitter melon—the same vegetables she’d grown in suburban New York, usurping Madeleine’s flower garden in the front yard and Andrew’s sandbox in the backyard. Hyacinths, daffodils, tulips, and lily of the valley were all very good to smell and beautiful to look at, but you couldn’t eat them. They didn’t fill your stomach or nourish your body. The pink and white peonies she had a special fondness for, but they too had to go. As for the teeter-totter, swing, and slide that were the centerpiece of the sandbox, they were the rusted remnants of their former useful selves. Besides, Andrew had outgrown them by several years.
Unlike her house in Guilin, the house in New York boasted a fireplace. When cranes built a nest on the top of the chimney, Bittersweet was delighted: storks were a propitious sign: they signified good fortune and longevity. But Americans didn’t believe what Chinese believe, and Youlin, now an American citizen, destroyed the nest—for hygiene’s sake, he told her—after setting a blaze in the fireplace hadn’t succeeded in smoking them out. Could anything be more important than good fortune and longevity, she had wondered once the birds had departed. This American emphasis on hygiene was surely exaggerated. Still, she was glad that both houses had flush toilets, a feature that in all of Guilin only hers possessed—as had the house in Shanghai where they’d lived during the months of Delin’s vice presidential campaign. Youlin would have it no other way, since Madeleine and the children were American and used to such amenities. Fortunately, Shanghai was practically a Western city, with its polyglot population, its broad boulevards, its Western-style architecture. Their house off Avenue Haig, on the border of the International Settlement and the Outer Roads District, was Western too. The only thing “Eastern” about it, Bittersweet recalled, was its proximity to a Buddhist funeral parlor. The din caused by mourners wailing, monks chanting, drums beating, and cymbals crashing was, as Madeleine had once put it, “enough to wake the dead.” The racket was deafening, but Chinese loved renao—the heat and noise of social gatherings. Westerners were less appreciative. On days when a funeral was in progress, Madeleine would retire to her bedroom and shut the door and windows; the children would cover their ears with their hands, especially…
Bittersweet sucked in her breath. It was as though she’d received a sudden blow to her breastbone, a blow she hadn’t seen coming. She felt her heart contract, then thud in shocked protest. After more than twenty years, her granddaughter’s name still affected her. It didn’t even have to be spoken, merely recalled. And here she thought that time would banish, if not Lisa’s memory, at least the pain that accompanied it. But no. What Bittersweet had been able to banish was the frequency of such memories. Enough time had passed that she didn’t think of Lisa every day, or even every week. Every day, every week, she didn’t think about what had happened that day in 1949 on the dock in Shanghai where Lisa had vanished. Every day, every week, she didn’t think about what might have happened to her granddaughter after her disappearance. Every day, every week, she didn’t think of whether Lisa was dead or alive and, if she was alive, where she might be, what she might be doing. Every day, every week, she had ceased to wonder if Lisa had survived the Cultural Revolution and, if she had, what sort of woman she had become. Every day, every week, she didn’t entertain the hope that, if Lisa was alive, it was because someone—a family, a good family—had found her after the riot that had broken out on the dock and after the shooting that had dispersed it, a family who was kind and compassionate, who had taken her in and raised her as their own. Every day, every week, Bittersweet did not entertain the thought that if someone unkind had found her… No, she didn’t entertain such notions. Not every day. Not every week.