Thank you for returning to my webpage to read the fifth installment of DOUBLE THUNDER. In this excerpt, Bittersweet learns about Hardu’s infatuation with the beautiful aspiring actress Mei-Mei Loy. She also meets Dr. Hwang, the physician in charge of her health care, who shares another—and deeply personal—connection with her.
Image: Hanging scroll of Bamboo. Courtesy of Leslie Li
THE SIMING BLANKET (continued)—Installment #5
Bittersweet took a deep breath—like breathing in fire—and exhaled slowly, shudderingly. There. That was better. The knot in her heart had loosened. The constriction in her throat and chest was loosening, too. She knelt down and touched her siming blanket cover, then the silk floss—minus its precious cargo—that had filled it. Both of them were warm and completely dry. Carefully, she slid the batting back inside the quilt, threaded a needle, and sitting on a cushion on the back porch step, restitched the quilt here and there to hold the batting in place. Then she stitched closed the side seam that she’d ripped open to release the silk floss and the secret book within. No wonder the quilt has lost much of its color, she mused. It’s missing its most colorful contents.
“What are you doing out there?” Tanmin called through the open back doorway. “I thought you were in your room taking a nap.”
It was their shared custom to take a xiuxi after lunch.
“I thought I’d finish what I started.” Bittersweet rose to her feet and held out a corner of the quilt. “It’s completely dry.”
“Of course,” Tanmin replied, crossing her arms over her chest. “It’s thin as a bed sheet. The others will take the whole afternoon to dry. Xiuxi, xiuxi,” she prodded.
But once behind the door of her room, sleep eluded Bittersweet, and she lay rigid in bed. Who was this woman Hardu had recognized at Lu Xun’s lecture? Why was Hardu telling Bittersweet his story that he’d secreted inside a quilt, carried all the way from Shanghai, and personally delivered into her hands? What did his story have to do with her? Through the open bedroom window, she could hear Tanmin humming as she flipped the quilt covers and batting onto their other side to dry. Bittersweet rose from her bed, retrieved the miniature book from her dressing table drawer, set her desk chair in the parallelogram of sunlight on the floor near the door, and began to read where she had left off.
At the end of the lecture, the few Guomindang spies in the audience who were posing as students left the bookshop. The Communist factory workers, the leftist teachers, and the students remained, arguing or discussing certain points, or bending Lu Xun’s ear as they tried to impress him with their knowledge or fervor. The young woman lost in thought in front of me hadn’t moved. Not much of a movie-goer, I nonetheless recognized her from one of the films I’d seen. She’d had a walk-on part in the kind of film that was losing popularity at the time—the “eye candy” of light comedy and frivolous romance that was giving way to social and political commentary. In that film whose name and plot I’ve forgotten, she’d spoken a few words and then disappeared, to be seen no more. She was very beautiful, with a melodic, melancholy voice. Her screen image had stayed with me so that now, seeing her in the flesh in Uchiyama’s bookshop, she struck me with the full force of her presence. She continued to weep but not, as I had thought, because of the plight of the people trapped in the iron house but because, as I would soon learn, her rich university student boyfriend had stood her up. Apparently, he had deduced that her acting days were numbered. The Mingxing and the Lianhua movie studios were no longer churning out “eye-candy” but left-wing films about deprivation, social inequality, and injustice. The actresses they hired were women like ribald Li Lili, “the Chinese Marlene Dietrich” or Ruan Lingyu, my personal favorite, who excelled in tragic, passionate roles, like The Goddess. To her student lover, she had been a fling; he could never become serious about a le hu—someone just one step up from a prostitute according to the mores of the times.
After our initial encounter at Uchiyama’s bookshop, Mei-mei—an unemployed actress—and I—a ricksha boy and petty thief—began to keep each other frequent, if chaste, company. I introduced her to the Great World, that house of multiple joys at the corner of Thibet Road and Edward VII Avenue, floor by floor. The first floor offered gaming tables, dollar-a-dance girls wearing chi-paos slit to the knee, magicians, slot machines, acrobats, and bird cages. On the second floor there were restaurants, a dozen theatre groups, half-dollar-a-dance girls, their chipaos slit to the thigh, pimps, and midwives. The third floor boasted jugglers, ice cream parlors, photographers, and dime-a-dance girls wearing chi-paos slit to the hips. Shooting galleries, fan-tan tables, massage tables, and girls wearing chi-paos slit to the waist filled the fourth floor, while on the fifth floor there were scribes specializing in love letters, a hall of mirrors, story-tellers, and girls wearing chi-paos slit to the armpits. Tightrope walkers and marriage brokers occupied the final floor and roof of the Great World.
It was on the first floor that Mei-mei Loy (her surname was Lei, but she pronounced it “Loy,” as in Myrna Loy, the American actress she idolized) found employment and her subsequent paramour—a tango instructor with brilliantined hair who promised her a lucrative career as his partner, both onstage and off. For a while, both relationships flourished. Then that twirling oilcan of a Lothario found another partner who, though not as beautiful, was younger, very accommodating, and more accomplished. So Mei-mei returned to the Great World, where she was offered her old job, but this time on the second floor. And so it continued: the higher the floor, the higher the slit in her chi-pao, the lower her prospects and hopes for the future, and the more venal and opportunistic the men she attracted.
All this time, I continued to see her. She knew me as a platonic friend and a trusted confidante. I vowed that she would never learn the true nature of my feelings. Were she to know them, she would reject me outright as a lover and distance herself from me as a friend. I would lose her for good. Even if she accepted me as a short-term lover, what I valued more than the satiation of my carnal desire for her was her emotional intimacy with me, precisely what I could not return. The higher she ascended at the Great World, the fewer and less frequent her lovers became, and the more often she required the pretty pink pill, which I supplied whenever I could. I managed to find a few odd jobs — painting signs, building movie sets — for the Mingxing and the Lianhua film studios to support her habit.
But I was older too, my fingers less nimble at picking pockets, my reflexes less agile for making my escape, my body less able to pull a ricksha stuffed with a plump guailou behind me. Shanghai was changing too. China’s new nationalism and patriotic fervor, the end of warlordism, the country’s uncertain reunification—they all came at Shanghai’s expense. A stronger China meant a weaker Shanghai. But the declaration of war between China and Japan in 1937 and the bombings and carnage that followed it dealt blow upon cumulative blow to the city. By 1941, when all of Shanghai was in Japanese hands, the city’s demise was assured, simply a matter of time.
Mei-mei’s personal trajectory seemed to follow Shanghai’s. She had ascended as high as she could, as high as she dared: to the fifth floor of the Great World. There remained only the roof where those who had lost all reason and will to live leapt to the street below. But like her city—done for but not yet done in—she would survive, if not at the Great World on Thibet Road, then in one or more of the maisons tolerées on Fuchow Road, commonly known as Fourth Street. Still beautiful and, to me, more beautiful than ever, her sadness and suffering having deepened and illuminated that beauty in ways that happiness never could, she started her new career at Madam Claude’s, a French establishment where her clients were wealthy foreign businessmen or high-ranking Chinese officials. From Madam Claude’s, she steadily worked her way down to Madam Tan’s, a brothel located at the far end of Fourth Street which served the common man, both Shanghainese and Shanghailander alike.
By this time, Mei-mei’s dependency on dream medicine had become a daily habit—one that her earnings at Madam Tan’s could no longer sustain and that my supply, practically dried up now that the civil war was raging, couldn’t fulfill. As opium took its toll on her finances, her health, and her beauty, fewer men demanded her services. She told me that her IOUs began to mount, that one day, Madam Tan called her into her office, her account books stacked in front of her like an impenetrable fortress. The procuress ran a lacquered fingernail along a few lines in her ledger, then thrust the book under Mei-mei’s nose.
“I do not run a charitable institution. I’ve accepted your IOUs based on your promise to increase your business by half. You haven’t done that. I want to be paid in full by the end of the month. I can’t wait forever. Inflation is making paper money next to worthless, and it’s only getting worse.”
“You’ll have your money. In the meantime, you have the jade pendant I gave you to hold as collateral.”
“Jade!” Madam Tan threw back her large head and laughed. “Who told you it was jade? That half-breed who comes here filling your pipe with opium and your head with lies about releasing you from bondage? I sold it. Green glass. Polished green glass that didn’t fetch me more than a dozen Shanghai dollars.”
Mei-mei stiffened; her nostrils flared in anger. “How dare you sell it.” She slapped the flat of her hand on the procuress’s desk. “You had no right! You were supposed to keep it until I earned the money to pay my debt. And it was jade. Not from him. From another. Someone who could afford jade. The gold chain was worth at least a hundred Shanghai dollars.”
“I don’t believe you.” Mei-mei shook with anger. “I demand to see the sales receipt.”
Madam Tan’s eyes narrowed into slits, and she leaned towards Mei-Mei. “You demand? You?” She smiled, too broadly, her gold-rimmed front teeth glinting in the light of the banker’s lamp on her desk. “All right.” Her voice and her manner were suddenly calm. “I’ll find the receipt. It might take a few minutes before I can put my hands on it. You go to your room. I’ll bring it up to you.”
Mei-mei blinked and wavered in place. Her legs felt unsteady, as though the bones had turned to rubber. She made her way to the door and opened it.
“You have nice legs,” Madam Tan said in a saccharine voice. “You have every right to be proud of them, so proud that you wear your chi-paos slit up to…”
Mei-mei turned her head. The procuress rose from her chair and, with the long lacquered nail of her forefinger, traced a line across her own ample hips.
“…here. Yes, you always did have very nice legs.”
Mei-Mei raced up the stairs, stumbled into her room, and locked the door behind her. She stuck her little finger into the tiny bowl of her opium pipe on her dressing table. Clean as a whistle. Where had she hidden the last of her pretty pink pills? She always saved one or two for a rainy day such as this—somewhere she’d remember to look only if she was desperate, as she was now. She racked her brain. Anxiety and desperation only paralyzed it. She began to rummage through her drawers, throwing their contents by the handful onto the floor. She ransacked her armoire, thrusting her hands into her kimono pockets, into the toes of her shoes. Then she remembered. She’d pressed her two remaining pills into the bottom of her box of face powder. When she couldn’t feel them, she spilled the fine dust onto her dressing room table and ran her trembling fingers through it. Nothing. That rainy day she’d been saving them for had passed. When? Days ago? Weeks ago? Time didn’t just disappear into thin air like smoke. She pounced on one of the pillows on her unmade bed and tore off the pillowcase. She ripped open the seam and began flinging fistfuls of goose down into the air, her heart beating as fast as the feathers flew and thudding against her breastbone so that it almost drowned out the knocking at her door: three sharp raps.
Bittersweet looked up. Instinctively she covered her book with both hands. She cleared her throat. “What is it, Tanmin?”
“Dr. Hwang has come to visit,” came the muffled reply.
“Dr. Hwang?” Bittersweet repeated to bide time while she returned the book to its box and dressing table drawer. Before she unlocked and opened the door, she rumpled her bed sheets and pulled a few wisps of hair from her bun.
“The director of the hospital across the street,” Tanmin said, importantly. “The man in charge of your health care and of the doctors who come here to give you your check-ups.”
“I’ll be right down. Please see to it that Dr. Hwang is comfortable.”
Life had been very different in the United States, she remembered. There, you went to the doctor if you wanted to see him. In Guilin, a team of doctors came to see you—that is, if you were the widow of Li Zongren. In the United States, people had to write or phone before coming to visit, even the closest of relatives. It was considered impolite to drop in without advance notice, whereas here in Guilin, peopled dropped in whenever they liked. It was inconsiderate not to stop whatever you were doing to receive them. How many times had Bittersweet been roused from her afternoon nap, or in the middle of whatever activity she was doing, to welcome a city or county or provincial official, or a neighbor, or an acquaintance? Usually, she was happy to accommodate them. But this time she’d been absorbed by Hardu’s story—absorbed into his story as though she were a witness, even a participant. This time she felt irritated to be pulled away.
When Bittersweet entered the living room, Tanmin was setting a tray on the low rosewood table: a pot of osmanthus tea (she could smell its distinctive fragrance), three tea glasses, three small plates, and two small celadon bowls—one filled with shelled peanuts, the other with candied ginger. A larger celadon bowl was filled with mandarin oranges.
“Li Tai-tai,” Dr. Hwang said, rising from the couch behind the low table. “It is an honor to finally meet you. I would have called on you when you first arrived in Guilin, but I’ve been away.”
She gestured for him to sit back down, which he did but only after both women were settled in their armchairs. The physician was about the same age as Youlin, in his mid-fifties but taller and with more salt than pepper in his full head of hair. There was something familiar about her visitor, though Bittersweet couldn’t put her finger on just what it was. She waved her hand towards the glass of osmanthus tea that Tanmin had just poured for him and to the bowls of sweetmeats, encouraging him to eat and drink before they exchanged the introductory pleasantries of a first meeting, which would inevitably progress to discussing her health. The formalities terminated, the physician informed her that she was remarkably robust for a woman of eighty-plus. He then asked if she was satisfied with the medical care she was receiving. As he spoke, she grew more and more convinced that there was something about him that was familiar to her: the tone of his voice, the curve of his smile, the angle of his eyebrows as he listened to her patiently, intently.
“Dr. Hwang,” she said finally, “we’ve never met until now, and yet I have the distinct impression that I know you.”
He put down his glass of tea and smiled. “Li Tai-tai, now that you mention it, you do know me. Indirectly. You knew my mother, and very well.”
Bittersweet raised a hand to her lips. “Is it possible? You’re the son of Governor Hwang and his wife?”
“Their adopted son.”
Hwang Tai-tai was the first wife of Hwang Hsiao-hsiung, governor of Guangxi Province. It was largely due to Hwang Tai-tai that during the 1930s Bittersweet found herself the proprietor of two houses, a hotel, and a silk filature. Every property or enterprise that the governor’s wife touched seemed to turn into gold, and as Bittersweet’s closest confidante, she wanted her best friend to learn and profit from her uncanny business acumen.
Bittersweet took another sip of osmanthus tea. “And your mother? Is she in good health?”
“My mother passed away two years ago. Painlessly, thankfully, in her sleep. My father preceded her by four years.”
“I’m sorry to hear of your loss.”
Tanmin nodded in agreement and acknowledgment.
“In fact, that’s why I haven’t come to visit you until now. I’ve been in Shanghai, where my mother wanted her ashes to be kept.”
“Not in Guilin? Where she was born?” Bittersweet said.
“My mother owned properties in Shanghai as well as Guilin. She wanted her ashes kept in the family hall of her principal home in Shanghai. Her parents were both Guilinese, but she was closer to relatives on her mother’s side who had moved to Shanghai and done quite well there. It was they who raised me. My mother, and my father as well, wanted a more cosmopolitan upbringing for me. My schooling was uppermost in their minds, and they made sure I attended Shanghai’s best—from grammar school through university and medical school. In fact, I returned to Guilin only seven years ago, at the beginning of our Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. I was able to return to Shanghai only recently, to carry out my mother’s last wishes.”
“You’re a filial son,” Bittersweet commended him. “I wish that life hadn’t separated your mother and me, or that at very least we remained in touch, if only by letter. For a while, we were in contact with each other and then… And then so many things intervened. So many things we had no control over.”
“‘The sea effaces from the sand the footprints of friends who’ve been separated.’ Do you know the song?”
“I don’t believe I do.”
“I’ve changed one word: ‘lovers’ to ‘friends.’ For a time I loved going to Shanghai’s nightclubs. At the Cathay Hotel, I’d always request the orchestra to play ‘Les Feuilles Mortes.’”
“The rooftop of the Cathay Hotel!” Bittersweet clasped her hands together. “My favorite—especially for the view.”
The fact that they had both lived in Shanghai in the forties, and especially that Dr. Hwang was the adopted son of Hwang Tai-tai, had added a personal, almost familial, dimension to their relationship as doctor and patient, so Bittersweet said while seeing him to the front gate: “I know you’re a very busy man, Dr. Hwang, with many obligations, but I hope you’ll stop by for tea when you have some free time.”
When he replied that it would be his pleasure, Bittersweet could see the anticipation in his eyes and hear the sincerity in his voice.