The city lost to heaven - Page 2
From Griffith REVIEW Edition 18: In the Neighbourhood
© Copyright Griffith University & the author.
Written by Patrick Holland
HAO XUE TOOK EVERY OPPORTUNITY TO RETURN to Beijing's old districts. She never tired of exploring them. She delighted in teasing me, escaping suddenly into alleys and deliberately wandering off if I was distracted by a vendor or musician. Without her I was soon lost. She would follow me at a distance, obscured in a crowd, to laugh at my helplessness. She would take a path of her own intuition through bustling Donghua market, through courtyards and narrow lanes to appear as if by magic on my path, sitting next to a sweet potato vendor, or turn from a group of flag-waving tourists at the windswept edge of Tiananmen Square.
One evening found us playing this game beneath a choked red sunset. A current of bicycles, taxis and dilapidated buses flowed in the drizzling light. The city stank with summer heat and night came as a relief. Hao Xue led me up a flight of stone stairs, through a series of short turns, across a stone bridge, and we stumbled into a brothel street.
The girls did not lean rakishly against walls in silky red qipaos as they do in films. They stayed hidden indoors (regrettably I knew) in cheap blue jeans and t-shirts. Red lanterns hanging from winged eaves and the madams beneath them said the place was what it was. The dusty orange sky silhouetted a row of silver poplars that lined the canal. The madams stepped discretely into the lane, if a well-dressed man, and certainly if a young unaccompanied foreigner walked by. With a single sharp word, Hao Xue dissuaded the old woman who had latched onto me.
A tall, middle-aged European walked out of a grubby boudoir. The madam of the house followed, perhaps to invite him back tomorrow, or tell him of a younger girl who might please him more, perhaps a girl brought on false pretences from the south-west of Hao Xue's blood. Hao Xue was indignant. I sighed and turned away. I followed the lambency along the water to a curled up man whose stillness had made him invisible. Had he come to the only place he knew that was frequented by foreigners and where there were no police? But I realised he was not begging, nor facing the houses of commerce. Perhaps he knew someone across the road, a sister. He was shirtless in the heat and I saw the infected abscesses that covered his body.
All Hao Xue's anger turned to compassion. I turned and saw a tear describe Hao Xue's cheek. I followed her steps toward the man. An interval of quiet arrived. The man's troubled breath told that every moment of existence was a torment. Then the sound of his breathing was drowned by a pack of blonde revellers. When they saw the man at their feet they leapt away and cursed. I took a hundred yuan note from my wallet, but before I could hand it to Hao Xue she had the man in her arms. And that is when it happened. How can I expect you, my reader, to believe what I can hardly believe myself?; I who saw a girl touch the face of a stricken thing, go to her knees and in Chinese syllables speak the two thousand-year-old name of a Palestinian carpenter's son and rise then with a man whose eyes were as clear of pain as his body was of blemish. Why did I look to the wall of madams and wealthy men, for one of those citizens of the world to cry out miracle? I alone was witness.
I dropped my money on the paving stones. I remember the healed man's eyes meeting mine, Hao Xue's hand, and we two moving through the light and dark of the hutongs; her broken voice repeating that I must tell no one. And I promised. A promise I have kept until now, when I believe I am freed from it.
THE AFTERNOON OF MY SECOND DAY in Beijing found me on a street in Haidian with three government men: an advisor whose capacity I never discovered, a man from the Beijing Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau, and one from the Lighting and Advertising Department. We examined a street of contesting residences and commerce cut by a main thoroughfare. I pointed out an unnecessary cluster of lamps that at a dip and rise in the road exposed motorists to unshielded light. I mentioned the lesser known effects of continued exposure to the seventy-five decibels of noise my meter read on the street: increased incidence of neural and cardiovascular disease and even the strange, as yet inexplicable, insistence of bad memories. Hopelessly I suggested city planners and a team of acoustic engineers and designers I was acquainted with in Berlin, and I wondered in what obscure file in which one of the thousands of government buildings the report I made to the Committee would shortly rest.
When the men were gone I sat in a cafe and watched dilapidated buses peeling from ranks, packed tight with passengers. Being in those human cans was not so unpleasant now in winter. The passengers were mostly labourers, some students, and women shopping for the evening meal. The workers stood with their tools: shovels, picks and sledgehammers. They wore blue flannel or the cheap business suits they laboured in day after day. The buses threw cold dust over them and each waited for the one that would take him to his nook of the labyrinth. Some of the students standing beside the workers were immaculately dressed, and some of the girls, I knew, were very beautiful, though I could not see their faces from here. The city echoed the awful redundancy of the Classic of Mountains and Seas: where entry after entry, page after page, landscapes, men, gods and animals are catalogued and distinguished by a mere shuffling of physical attributes. It is the book no one man could ever have written, or read, let alone understood. Laying its unmeaning map upon the city I felt, for the first time, a sense of hopelessness.
The weather had turned bitterly cold. I thought it would snow tonight, or one night soon. I took a bus to Tiananmen and walked to the east city hutongs where she was from. I cannot be alone in remembering a place so fondly one fears to enter it. I feared change: particularly, a stone wall bearing the white painted character that meant ‘demolish', or worse, her hutong might already be gone. But the place I remembered had survived, albeit shabbier and lonely with desertion. I wandered aimlessly beside lamp-lit games of mahjong and checkers, avoiding those dark threads where the hutongs were abandoned to ghosts. I entered lanes so narrow they barely admitted my frame. Smells of fish, raw sewage, and wood and coal smoke commingled. Women roasted sweet potatoes in fire-drums and children and old men came to warm their hands. I mentioned Hao Xue's name at the fire-drums but the people shook their heads. I spoke to the black-faced coal carrying boys who had probably not seen more than a few days school in their lives and who laughed at the novelty of a foreigner. I became disoriented. Instead of asking after Hao Xue I found myself asking an old cobbler the way back to one of the places I knew. A few guttural words of Mandarin and contradictory hand gestures made the way no clearer.
I was at the frayed edge of the hutongs, where concrete and ill laid bricks replaced cobblestones and the sounds of people were drowned by those of machines. The light of incandescent lamps lay like stagnant water, making banks of shadow. A crowd of people came flushing through from a modern avenue and a bicycle crashed into me and sent me sprawling to the ground. I picked myself up and was face to face with a deeply apologetic middle-aged man who had flung his bicycle aside. He took hold of my arm. Apparently I had come down on a jagged brick. Blood seeped through my shirt. The man took me to a tap to wash out the grit. I assured him I would be fine. Nonetheless he invited me to his home, to have my wound tended by his daughter. He said his name was Lu Yaodong. He straightened his coat and collected his bicycle and pointed to the bag support where I should sit. I asked where we were going.
‘Jinyu hutong,' he said. ‘Golden Fish.'
The classic circular entranceways appeared. Lanterns hung from the branches of sycamore and gingko trees. We entered a lane, then a narrow brick archway crested with a blue-stained fanlight. Finches fluttered against the withes of a hanging cage before a wooden door. Behind the door was a steam-filled room and a girl I supposed was Lu Yaodong's daughter. She smiled bashfully at me from across a low table where she knelt laying out the evening meal: dumplings and a fragrant soup. When she stood up from the table I saw that she was lame; her left shin was as curved as a rugby ball. She took a wooden crutch from where it rested on a lattice sill and led me to a basin. She washed my arm and dabbed it with iodine and laughed when I flinched.
Lu Yaodong invited me to eat with them. His daughter, he said, was a fine cook. ‘Xiao Lu', Lu Yaodong called her plainly, ‘Little Lu', for in China at least a million girls are called ‘Little Lu' one hundred times a day. He told me they lived alone. His wife had been dead six years. Xiao Lu was of marrying age and her deformity troubled her father. ‘Only a wealthy man can afford a lame wife,' he said. ‘But how she can cook! I'm trying to find her a little restaurateur. She would be very useful to such a man.'
Lu Yaodong regretted he was more than forty-five years older than his daughter. He had only a low-level hospital administrator's wage. His lungs were not good. If he became sick what would become of her?