I’ve discovered that a serialized blog on a webpage is not the best way to read chapters of DOUBLE THUNDER because, unlike with an actual book, it allows me only a few formatting possibilities. So in this ninth Installment, I’ve tried to remedy any confusion or lack of clarity by placing three asterisks (***) between paragraphs to indicate a change of point of view (for example, Hardu’s to Bittersweet’s) or a change of year (1949 to 1974) or a change of scene (Bittersweet’s house to Dr. Hwang’s hospital). Please also note that Hardu’s letter is always written in italics while the rest of the text is (almost always) written in roman font. I hope this helps make your reading experience of DOUBLE THUNDER more enjoyable. If you’d like to refresh your memory, a list of the characters with their thumbnail descriptions introduces Installment #7.
And now, Installment #9!
So it was settled. Lisa—that is, the little girl who had once been Lisa—and I hid out in the home of Thousand Faces while her macerated neck and surgically altered face healed. Our host went to the black marketeer and traded the locket for the necessary drugs and implements so we could feed Lisa intravenously and keep her sedated or asleep. It was too dangerous, even though she was mute, for her to be fully conscious. Even I made as little noise as possible so that no one would suspect that anyone other than Thousand Faces occupied his three-room flat. When we spoke, it was in low whispers, and even then we turned up the radio. We interrupted our conversations to listen for any news about the girl’s disappearance: the manhunt continued, without success or even a single clue except for her red cardigan that had been found on the dock.
Bittersweet smoothed the page she’d been reading. She remembered holding the tiny cardigan, trampled and mangled, that her manservant had brought to her once the police had cleared the dock and begun dismantling their human barricade. She had rushed through their broken line to look for her granddaughter. Four adults had been trampled to death in the riot, their bodies carried away on stretchers. Another six adults and one child—a boy—injured in the mélée were placed on stretchers and carried to awaiting ambulances. Three adults had been shot and lay on the ground, two of the bodies covered with a sheet. The third writhed in agony, clutching his stomach. Bittersweet removed her fingers from the page, releasing the visceral memory of the texture of the soft sweater, the smooth coolness of its pearlized buttons, one of which had dangled by a thread.
Since the ship had nearly been swamped by people trying to fight their way onto it, to avoid a second riot—this time on board—the captain ordered his crew to cast off to avoid a potential capsizing. Your husband was in Nanking trying to negotiate a peace settlement with the Communists. And so you, describing yourself as not at all a public figure but simply a private person and a grandmother, went on the radio to plead for any information about Lisa, last seen just before boarding the ship that was to take her and her family to Hong Kong. You promised that there would be no reprisals, no questions asked, and a substantial reward if Lisa was returned to you safe and sound. Every day for a week you spoke over the airwaves; every day for a week I listened to your appeal. To this day, I remember your words, the tone of your voice, the gravity and dignity of it, the profound sadness: “I believe, deep in my heart, that my granddaughter is alive and well. I believe, deep in my heart, that someone—someone with a good and generous heart—has found her and will take good care of her until my granddaughter is returned to her family.”
You didn’t make your radio appeal on the eighth day of Lisa’s disappearance. Nor the ninth. On the tenth day after her kidnapping, on May 26, 1949, the People’s Liberation Army that had been steadily, inexorably encircling Shanghai entered the nearly deserted city without firing a shot.
After that, it was a matter of months before all of China was in Communist hands. I no longer feared being caught and executed for abducting the granddaughter of the acting president, who soon would no longer be acting president. A different but similar fear had taken its place: that your granddaughter would be unmasked for who she was and made to suffer the consequences. Whether the war was won by Nationalist or Communist forces, I had to conceal her identity.
We lived with Thousand Faces for nearly five months, the amount of time it took for the child to heal, and not just physically. She was now a feral child, faced with two men she had never seen before, living in a lane house she had never set foot in, bereft of her family and everything she had ever known. It was all we could do to keep her fed, clean, and tethered so that she couldn’t wreak havoc on the house, or herself. We were spared screaming or crying fits since she had lost the ability to speak. (As Thousand Faces surmised, I had damaged her larynx during her kidnapping.) We had to strap her to her bed at night, and for good portions of the day. We no longer feared that Thousand Faces’s neighbors might discover that he harbored the two of us. So many children had been left behind in the mass exodus to escape the Communists—either abandoned or left with friends or relatives until their parents could send for them.
In time her tantrums became less violent and more infrequent. She was no longer wild and unmanageable. In fact she had become the diametrical opposite—withdrawn and unresponsive. In the fall of 1949, we left Thousand Faces’s lane house. The day I chose to move us into our new home coincided with the Mid-Autumn, or Full Brightness, Festival. I had been referring to my charge as the “wild child” or the “silent girl.” Now it was time to give her a name that would conceal her former identity and at the same time create a new and different one. Because we celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival by gazing at the full moon and eating moon cakes, that was the name I gave her: Yuebing. Mooncake. It suited her. Her face had been as flat and round as a mooncake for weeks until the swelling went down, and her features—transformed enough to make her unrecognizable as who she once had been—reappeared.
The day she had left Shanghai, Bittersweet recalled, should also have been a cause for celebration, or at least relief. May 18, 1949. But precisely because it was her birthday as well as the day of her departure, the happiness she should have experienced only exacerbated the pain and anguish she actually felt. With the People’s Liberation Army’s encroachment and the certainty that the city’s fall was imminent, she was forced to flee, abandoning what had been up to then a fruitless search for Lisa. Youlin had wired her from Hong Kong urging her to come quickly:
Besides the danger you’re in, we need you here—especially Madeleine. She’s hysterical about Lisa. Thankfully, her own health is improving. Her punctured lung is mending, as is her broken rib, and the concussion was a very mild one. Thank god Andrew requires almost all of her time and attention. We’re doing all we can to find Lisa. Your remaining in Shanghai won’t improve our chances. It only keeps you far away from us. Come. Come soon.
And so she had left Shanghai—and not a moment too soon. But her first destination had not been Hong Kong but Guilin, still in free China, where she had to take care of family and business matters. After a brief stay there, her reunion with her family in Hong Kong was as bittersweet as her leave-taking from Shanghai had been: due in part to Lisa’s disappearance; in part to Delin’s health.
“Duodenitis. Bleeding ulcers,” her husband told her when she visited him in Hong Kong’s Yanghuo Hospital. “The doctors here tell me that I need an operation, that I must go to the United States. They have the best hospitals and medical facilities there.”
To disentangle herself from the web of long dormant, now resurrected, memories, Bittersweet resumed reading Hardu’s memoir.
Li Tai-tai, my recounting of this part of Lisa’s story is just about over. The next several chapters will be told by my former wife, Vera Loy (née Polsky), Lisa’s surrogate mother from the time we left Thousand Faces’s lane house to this day. You wonder perhaps about Vera’s married name. Having none, I took Mei-mei’s surname, Loy, spelling it in English as she had, after that of her favorite American actress. Loy is also Lisa/Yuebing’s surname as our adopted daughter. The Chinese character for Loy—that is, Louie in Cantonese, or Lei in Mandarin—is the character for thunder. A coincidence, perhaps, that lei is also the first character of Lisa’s Chinese name Leishi, that is, Thunder Poem.
A surge of heat rushed into Bittersweet’s cheeks, which she cupped with both hands. Leishi was indeed Lisa’s name in Chinese. Lei meant thunder. Shi meant Poem. Thunder Poem was the English translation of Lisa’s name. Now she understood the symbolism and the significance of the thunderclouds embroidered into the siming blanket, and why there were two of them. The word thunder, the character thunder, the first ideogram of Lisa’s given name, was repeated in her adoptive surname. Double Thunder.
After we left Thousand Faces, Lisa and I went to Vera—the only person other than Thousand Faces I could trust. Even though I had not seen her in four years, since she saved my life in a prison camp during the war, she accepted my proposal of marriage. It was a double expedient: Lisa needed a mother, and I could no longer assume a fatherly role: I would soon be charged with counterrevolution and sent away to the Great Northern Wilderness. As you will see, Vera is an exceptional woman. I’m honored to know her as both friend and former wife, and if I am permitted to say so, she has been exemplary as Lisa’s guardian and Mooncake’s adoptive mother. All this you will read for yourself.
A few tears fell when Bittersweet closed her eyes. They’re simply tired, she told herself, from so much reading, from the characters being so small. The tears slid down her cheeks onto the silk page, blurring some of the tiny Chinese characters and bleeding them together. She opened her eyes and looked up at the siming blanket on her bedroom wall. Cleansed of the tears, her vision had changed. That, or the blanket had. One of the two thunderclouds was more sharply delineated, as was the lightning bolt emerging from it—previously just a faint image. But what the thunderhead had gained in clarity and definition, the plum tree had lost in equal measure. The trunk and branches were barely visible. Bittersweet shut her eyes. When she opened them, the white forking trail of electricity was still there, hard-edged, incisive, poised to strike.
“You’re right. Your eyesight has changed,” the young doctor told her when she went to Guilin Hospital #2 the following day to have her eyes examined. Dr. Hwang had recommended this particular ophthalmologist and offered to join the consultation.
“So my suspicions are confirmed,” she said to the younger man. “My eyesight has deteriorated. At my age, I suppose that’s to be expected.”
“On the contrary,” he said. “Your eyesight has actually improved, more so in your distance vision and to a lesser degree in your ability to read or to see things up close.”
“That’s good news, isn’t it,” she murmured.
“You seem almost disappointed,” Dr. Hwang said.
“Oh, no. Not disappointed. Not disappointed at all.”
Rather, she felt more convinced that Hardu’s letter, its words, its secrets contained the truth, especially after the dreams she’d been having recently. Added to that was the incident of a few days ago, when she had invited little Liqi into her bedroom, ostensibly to admire her new wall hanging.
“What do you see?” she had asked him.
“A tree,” he answered. “A plum tree, with lots of leaves and branches reaching up to the sky.”
“No. Oh, wait.” He ran up to the siming blanket and studied it more closely. “There’s something on top of the highest branches. It looks kinda like a cloud, but I can’t be sure. A rain cloud.”
“Just one rain cloud?” Bittersweet asked.
“Yes,” he said decisively. “One.”
“Anything else? Anything coming out of the cloud? Like…a bird, maybe?”
“Great-Great Auntie,” the little boy said, turning around to face her. “You’re trying to trick me, aren’t you? There’s nothing coming out of the cloud, because the cloud itself is barely there! It’s fading away, just like dark clouds do after it’s rained and the sun comes back out and melts them.”
“What a smart boy you are, Liqi,” Bittersweet laughed. “And because you’re smart…” She gave him a coconut candy from the porcelain jar on her dresser.
“And what a good Great-Great Auntie you are!” he cried, as he ran out of her room to enjoy his treat in private.
“We’ll have a pair of new distance and reading glasses made up for you,” the ophthalmologist told her, “now that we have the correct prescriptions.”
She accepted Dr. Hwang’s invitation to “have a chat with my favorite patient,” in his office. On his desk, along with numerous folders, was a copy of the I Ching. She was familiar with the ancient book of divination, though she had little practice with it. It was a book she remembered Hwang Tai-tai consulting before she made any important decision, even a minor one.
“How are you feeling, Li Tai-tai?” he asked, less with the formality of a doctor than the interest of a friend. “Any aches or pains? Any complaints? Any changes you want to tell me about?”
“Few complaints, I’m happy to say, for a woman my age. There is one change, though. Lately I’ve been having dreams. Usually I don’t remember my dreams, or they’re in bits and pieces, and they don’t make any sense. But these recent ones are clear and continuous—like chapters of a book. What’s more, they all take place in Shanghai.”
“Shanghai,” Dr. Hwang murmured, sinking deeper into his chair.
“I lived in Shanghai once, but only briefly,” Bittersweet continued, “for several months, but many years ago. In 1948 and 1949. Of course, I have memories of the city. Memories I can recall. But these dreams clearly take place decades earlier. In the 1920s and 1930s. They’re nothing like my memories, yet the images are so vivid. It’s as though I’m remembering rather than dreaming, which is of course impossible: I never lived in Shanghai in the ’20s and ’30s….”
…though Hardu did, she thought to herself. His words are coloring my dreams.
“Ah, but I did,” Dr. Hwang said, gazing out his office window. “It was the most cosmopolitan city in the Far East…perhaps in the world. How well it deserved the name Pearl of the Orient! A far cry from what it is now.”
For the next hour, the director of Guilin Hospital #2 and his “favorite patient” traded stories about their experiences in that fabled city. Because Bittersweet’s sojourn had been far shorter than the decades Dr. Hwang had lived in the Paris of the East, she was perfectly satisfied just to listen to him and in the process get to know the son of the woman who had been her best friend.
He had attended the Shanghai Public School, the best in the city. His fellow pupils, besides the majority who were English, included Chinese, Eurasians, and Jews—a rich mix that in and of itself afforded him a second education. Because of his father’s position as Governor of Guangxi, and his mother’s talent for making and managing money, he’d moved in the wealthiest, most influential circles of Shanghai society.
“Shanghai would never have become Shanghai if it hadn’t been for the Treaty of Nanjing,” he told Bittersweet, “which ended the Opium War between China and England in 1842 and forcibly opened Shanghai to international trade and extraterritoriality. France and the United States soon rushed in to share in the spoils. As a consequence, the city of Shanghai was divided into three sections, or settlements, each with its own separate political unit with its own municipal council, police force, and frontage on the Whangpoo River: the International Settlement, ruled by the British and, later, the Americans and, still later again, the Japanese in the industrial area they helped establish known as Hongkew; the French Concession, with its huge houses and tree-lined boulevards; and the walled Chinese City, a maze of dark, pestilent alleyways where no Shanghailander dared enter.”
Bittersweet nodded every so often, acknowledging not only what the physician said but that it also corroborated what Hardu had written.
An offshoot of extraterritoriality, the physician continued, was the racism that took root in Shanghai, whose polyglot population lived in close yet segregated quarters. As a Chinese national, he was barred—as were women of any nationality—from entering the Shanghai Club, “that English bastion of pride, pretentiousness, and privilege on the Bund.” Membership at the Shanghai Race Club was denied him as well, but his wealth and status opened other doors. After finishing his university and medical studies at Shanghai’s prestigious St. John’s University, he lived the ultimate bachelor’s life in a furnished suite at Cathay Mansions, an apartment complex in the French Concession that offered a mesmerizing view of the Whangpoo from its roof garden, central heating, and Irish linen sheets monogrammed by hand. He then moved to a suite of rooms at the Cathay Hotel located on the Bund that offered a room-sized built-in wardrobe, a marble bathroom with silver spigots spouting purified water, and the rooftop Tower Restaurant where le tout Shanghai met and mingled.
“The Cathay Hotel still exists,” he said, “but today it’s the Peace Hotel.” He sighed. “Every morning the valet assigned to my suite used to lay out my clothes, and the chambermaid ironed out the creases of my copy of the North China Daily News before breakfast. The valets, the chambermaids, they’re all gone now. The lobby is gloomy, and the carpets are worn. And the Shanghai Club? It’s currently the Dongfeng Hotel, where Chinese workers in blue overalls sip lemonade, not martinis, at the Long Bar. As for Cathay Mansions, it’s now the Jinjiang Hotel. The grounds are still beautifully manicured, and the elevator operators still wear white gloves. Nothing else about the hotel, or about the city for that matter, is the same as when I lived there,” he said, ruefully.
His face brightened, and he chuckled.
“The Shanghai Racetrack that denied Chinese and women entry? It’s now People’s Park and People’s Square, and it’s open to all and sundry—even mad dogs and Englishmen,” he teased, referring to a line from a Noel Coward song, a line that was lost on Bittersweet. “And today the Shanghai Race Club deals not in bets and wagers but in books. It’s the municipal library.”