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Photograph by Fan Ho (何藩)

The Ventriloquist

IN THE YEAR of Keng Shen, I happened to visit Yangchow. One evening a friend introduced me to a famous ventriloquist named Kuo Mao-erh. I invited Kuo and my friend to my quarters at the inn, where we dined and drank together until a late hour. After the meal, Kuo agreed to favour us with a display of his talents. A large silk screen was placed to the right of our table. Kuo took his position in the shadows behind the screen, while my friend and I sat in pleasant anticipation…

A long silence is broken suddenly by voices; two men are meeting on the road. The greetings are loud and boisterous. One of the men, older than the other, invites the young man to his house. They walk down a rough road, enter a gate and cross a small courtyard to a house. A door slams shut. Wine is poured. The two men talk and joke.

The young men protests. “Too much drink,” he pleads. The other laughs. More wine is poured. Cups clink. The wine is sipped and guzzled. The guest gets to his feet. He moves unsteadily and his host assists him to the gate. Laughter. Goodbyes. The young man staggers down the road. The gate is closed. The bolt slips into place.

The young man stumbles along. He slips, sprawling to the ground. Silence. A second set of footsteps approaches. The newcomer’s foot strikes something soft. A curse. A drunken groan. The newcomer reaches down, assisting the drunken man to his feet. He helps the man walk down the road.

They halt. The drunken man is half-dragged forward, then propped against a wall. The other steps back. “Ho! Watchman! Open the city gates!” No reply. Somewhere in the distance a dog barks. Others join in. Still more dogs add to the chorus – some young, others old; some close by, others a long way off.

The watchman shuffles along the wall. He climbs down. A large gate swings open. The newcomer assists the drunken man along. At a house, they pause. The newcomer pounds on the gate. Nothing stirs. He pounds again. Louder. The gate creaks open. A man curses. Wrong house. More dogs join in the barking.

The drunken man is helped to a second house. The newcomer pounds again. The gate opens. A young woman thanks the man for helping her husband home. The man chides the drunkard and then he takes his leave. The gate closes. The bolt slides into place.

The young woman, panting, struggles with her drunken husband. She drags, pushes, cajoles him across the courtyard and on into the house. She helps him into bed.

“Tea!” he moans.

The woman goes into the kitchen. A fire crackles; the tea hisses and it steams. It is poured into a cup. The woman returns to the bedroom. The drunken man has passed out. He snores. His snores rise and fall with a thunderous din. The woman sighs. She grumbles. She returns to the kitchen where she pours the tea back into the pot. Back to the bedroom. She blows out the lamp. She slips off her clothes. Now there are two sets of snores.

A temple gong breaks up the serenade of snores. The hour of the Rat. A cow moos. The bed creaks. The young man groans. He vomits, groans again, then he vomits again. “Tea!” he wails. The woman snores on. He mutters. Curses. The bed creaks a second time. Once again – two sets of snores rise up.

The cocks crow. First one, and then another, and finally many others, each one crowing in a different key. The bed creaks. The woman yawns. She pulls her slippers from next to the bed. They squish. She shakes them and a slippery, watery bile plops onto the stone floor. An angry cry. Curses. The woman reaches over; finds a second pair. She gets up, dresses and goes into the kitchen. Kettles clack, fire crackles and food is sliced and chopped.

Outside a pounding, on the gate. “Almost dawn,” a voice shouts out. “Get that lazy son of mine up. It’s time to slaughter the pigs.”

The woman shakes her husband. He grumbles, dresses and leaves the house to accompany his father to the pig pens. Food is thrown in for the swine. Grunting and squabbling, they fight over the slops. Sounds of slurping and of gulping. Water being drawn up from a well. Water being poured into a kettle. A fire crackles. Later, water boils.

A pig now squeals. The young man grunts and curses. The squeals grow louder. “Tie him good!” the old man warns. A knife is being sharpened on a whetstone. Now an axe. A desperate final squeal – cut off midway. Silence. The soft sound of blood flowing. Now an axe chopping bones. Now a knife slicing meat. Finally, meat being washed.

“Dawn,” the old man announces, “Time to set up the counter.”

Silence.

In time, there are sounds, distant at first, then growing nearer. The shuffling of feet. Loud voices rise. “I’ll have the ribs.” “How much?” “Did you save the feet?” “No, too much!” “Where’s the kidney and the liver?” “No, not that cut.” “When was the pig slaughtered? Last week?”

Coins clatter on the wooden counter. “Where is the head?” More coins clatter. “Some pork for a roast?” Fresh meat slaps against the wood. “Yes! That’s the piece.”

The sounds grow in intensity. Many voices join in. The voices and the sounds all blend – cutting, chopping, the clatter of coins, questions, answers, laughter, cries, insults – until they are all running together in a great, unintelligible jumble. Then…

Nothing.

Silence.

At last the act of the ventriloquist is finished.

Master of the East Pavilion

Translated by Gene Z. Hanrahan

50 Great Oriental Stories, Bantam, 1965

‘Master of the East Pavilion’ is a nom de plume, which has successfully cloaked the identity of the author ever since this tale was written; shortly before the end of the nineteenth century.

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Burma_5c_revenue_stamp_from_Japanese_occupation

It was during the dark days of the Japanese occupation in Burma. We had been married only two years and we were beginning to settle down. Ko Latt had a nice job, but our dreams of a bright and happy future were shattered by the war. We found ourselves without a home, without jobs, in fact without anything except a mischievous toddler who was always hungry-. We were lost in the great maze of wartime life.

At that time many people who had never been in business before turned petty traders and seemed to do well. Some kind friends tried to help us by giving us goods to be sold on a commission basis. Easy money, no doubt. It seemed like child’s play. But look what happened. A customer would come to our roadside stall and go over our wares with critical eye as if she would not take them even if we gave them away for nothing. With a look of contempt she would ask, “How much are you asking for this laundry soap?”

“Five cakes for one kyat.”

“What a price! Let’s see, how about giving me six for one kyat, ten pyas?”

It made my head swim. I pressed the mental accelerator but it refused to budge. I blushed and stammered, “Yes.” If I sold at a loss, I couldn’t help it. Even then my troubles were not over. The customer went on bargaining.

“What about five for eighty pyas?”

“Yes, yes, take them, take as many as you like!” and I added a few strong words under my breath.

Our business career seemed to be made up entirely of similar scenes. Let me not go into humiliating details. Suffice it to say that we got into all sorts of scrapes. Our wares were pinched. The day’s figures would not add up right. Only our son enjoyed the fun. He took the rags used for packing, wrapped himself up in them and ran along the pavement dancing with glee. We had to laugh at the little rascal in spite of ourselves.

It is easy enough for people who are well off to sing of poverty, love in a hut, and so on. We who have gone through it have no sentimental illusions. “The worm in the ground knows every tooth of the harrow. The butterfly above preaches patience.” Poverty, to say the least, is very uncomfortable.

After a while we managed to get employment in one of the government offices. By that time Allied air raids had begun and we had to shift from one place to another, losing some of our few belongings with every move. At last we settled down in a ramshackle shed in the suburbs. It was close to our office building so I could work and still keep tabs on our son at home. When the air-raid sirens sounded, I would rush home and take him to a safe shelter.

In spite of the raids, we were happier because we were no longer unemployed. We had the dignity of being government servants although our joint salaries barely paid for the daily necessities. It was difficult to believe that we had to live on the edge of starvation. Could such things really happen in Burma, a land flowing with milk and honey?

We had rice, but cooking oil, a product of Upper Burma, could not be secured. It became so scarce that we had to be content with animal fat. How I hated that abominable grease floating on my curries! After passing through stages of impotent fury, rebellion, and frustration, I resigned myself and invented various ways of cooking eatable dishes with leaves of sweet potato and roselle. Ko Latt was wonderful. He took things like a philosopher. When we sat down to meals, he would look at the steaming dishes and say, “Yum yum, it smells delicious.” He always had something nice to say about my cooking. This braced me up and I went on creating masterpieces.

As for clothes—bed sheets, tablecloths, and even curtains had to be made into something to wear. Our son had his shirts made from old napkins.

The war raged on and things went from bad to worse. Japanese paper money flew like dead leaves–only it did not fly our way. Yet petty traders, merchants, commission agents were flourishing. I saw them with stacks of money, spending like mad.

One day I ran into a woman who had once been my servant sitting at a little stall. She looked prosperous, much fatter and darker than when I had known her before. She did not see me at first as she was busy with her customers. When she recognized me, she could hardly hide her surprise at my shabby appearance. I writhed under her stare and mumbled something about dried fish which I had no intention of buying. Too late I realized I could not afford it and I blushed as I fumbled with my purse. The woman composed herself quickly and asked me where we had been all the time, and how was our little son. Before I knew what was happening she had made me a present of a package of dried fish. I was too embarrassed to say anything. I just handed the bundle back to her, but she laughingly pushed it into my basket. On the way home, I shed tears enough for those dried fish to swim in.

That night it rained heavily but we were glad that we did not have to worry about air raids. Our roof leaked but we managed to find a dry corner for the child. He slept soundly, surrounded by tin cans into which the rain leaked in musical drops. I lighted our ancient kerosene lamp and Ko Latt lit up a cheroot. After taking a few luxurious puffs he opened an old book of humorous stories and began to read aloud. But I hardly heard; I was brooding over the morning’s incident and a wave of self-pity came over me.

Ko Latt read on, but he must have sensed what was going on in my mind, because I listened silently without comment, without chuckling. As he shut the book, I broke out, “Why don’t they ever come our way? I mean the Jap banknotes. This morning I saw our old servant woman. She’s making lots of money. She’s now fat and covered with jewels. You would hardly know her—you’d take her for a maharaja’s elephant.”

Ko Latt laughed. “Well, thanks for warning me. I might have tried to ride on her back.”

But his joke fell flat. I was too depressed. Ko Latt peered at me through his horn-rimmed spectacles, with one lens cracked. “I know how you feel, dear, but remember this can’t go on forever. We have to do without many things but we still have each other and we have that little rascal,” he said, pointing at our sleeping son.

I felt ashamed. “I’m sorry I can’t take things as bravely as you do. It just seems heartbreaking to live like this when other people are rolling in money. Look at those brokers and agents. Most of them can’t even write their own names. They don’t have any capital either. A broker just goes around asking people if they want anything and if he, the broker that is, gets it, whatever it is, for them, that is the ones who want something, then he, that is the broker, gets a commission.”

Ko Latt laughed. “You’re talking like a character in that book.”

“Can’t help it. I’m such a goof about business. What I mean is some people make piles of money that way. And the ones who get it know that the Jap notes are mere scraps of paper, so they are buying gold and diamonds at any price.”

He looked puzzled. “What has that got to do with us? We have no diamonds or gold to sell.”

Sometimes Ko Latt is a bigger goof than I. I explained to him patiently, “If we can find someone who wants to sell gold or diamonds and someone, I mean another person, who wants to buy, we might get a commission that would be five or six times our joint salaries. We could get a good tin of sesamum oil with the money.”

My good man smacked his lips. “Oh, for a taste of real sesamum oil! I’m so sick of the smell of lard. But where can we find someone who wants to buy diamonds and another who wants to sell?”

I was glad I had driven home my point. I just smiled, and said: “Leave that to me.”

I shall always remember the look in his eyes as he said, “I know I can always rely on you.”

Yangon 1948

So it began. I discussed the matter with my office mates, who were as hard up as we were. Ko Ba Than, who worked at the next desk, encouraged me. “Don’t lose heart. You have only one child and I have three. My family couldn’t possibly live on my pay. It’s my wife who does it. You know her. She hasn’t had a college education like you—she just writes enough to sign her name—but she’s amazing. The other day that neighbor of ours, the fishwoman, wanted to buy a pair of diamond bracelets. She told my wife she would give up to one lakh for them. My wife found someone who wanted to sell jewelry and made a bargain for ninety thousand. She took the bracelets to the fishwoman who gave her the whole lakh.”

“So your wife made ten thousand out of it!” I cried. Ko Ba Than smiled. “More than that! She also got a 25 percent commission from the seller. Just a day’s work. Child’s play.” I’m no good at figures. 10,000 + 25/100 X 100,000 . . . . I struggled and gave it up. If I was to do this kind of business, I must have pencil and paper.

Ko Ba Than continued, “You can do this sort of thing, too. If my wife can do it, why can’t you? You are much cleverer. With an intellect like yours . . . there is nothing you cannot do.”

I was flattered. Ko Ba Than was a wise man, a good judge of Homo sapiens. Next day I called on his wife. She was a simple, unassuming little woman, whom I liked very much, partly because she gave me a feeling of superiority. She seemed to be very glad that I, who belonged to a higher intellectual level, had condescended to take an interest in such mundane matters. She gave me all the information. “It is very easy, Ma Ma, not so difficult as working in an office. Many people have asked me to get things for them. One wants a 13-carat diamond. He will give one lakh per carat with 25 percent commission. If you can strike a bargain with the seller for less, you can keep the difference.” I reeled. Even without the extra money the commission would come to 25/100 X 100,000 X 13!!!

Ba Than’s wife was as cool as a cucumber. She was used to this kind of thing. “Just try to get a 13-carat diamond, Ma Ma. If you get it, please contact Mr. Ebrahim.”

That night I discussed the matter with Ko Latt and we were full of hope. We planned the campaign. First we would go to Thingangyun to see a lady who dealt in jewelry. There was no bus service and Thingangyun was five or six miles away. This did not matter, for we owned a two-wheeled mechanism—a bicycle by courtesy. Its forebears were distinguished. We could trace their genealogy as far as an auspicious alliance between a kingly Raleigh frame and aristocratic Humber wheels . . . but decadence had set in with intermarriage with mongrel spokes.

The tires had been worn through so we had had to put pieces of raw rubber round the rims. These were called “solid tires,” good in their own way—no need to pump them up, no punctures, and they last a long time. They also got stretched now and then so that we had to cut them shorter and fasten the ends with a piece of wire. This was easy for a handyman like Ko Latt. He can fix anything with a pair of pliers, a hammer, and an interesting oration in strong language. I play an insignificant role in such great undertakings, standing by with absorbent cotton and iodine, at the same time improving my vocabulary.

On Sunday morning we got up at dawn and began our journey. I sat on the rusty rear-fender rack with my son on my lap. Ko Latt pedaled along on the bumpy road with a song on his lips. I hummed the time and the child was agog with excitement. “The lark’s on the wing; the snail’s on the thorn; God’s in His Heaven—all’s right with the world!” It was a nice ride.

Fortunately, the lady—let’s call her “Auntie” – was at home. We explained our quest, promising her a share of the commission if she could find us the jewel. Auntie seemed to be interested at once. She could certainly get it, she said, and told us to come again the next Sunday. She gave us a disquisition which might easily have been entitled, “How to get rich quick.” She emphasized her points by waving her big hands and shaking her head a great deal. Her bracelets jingled and her diamond earrings sparkled. I watched her fascinated, although the child was bored to tears. Ko Latt had to take him outside and try to interest him in the marching Japanese soldiers. At last neither father nor son could stand the boredom any longer; they came in and cut short the juiciest pep talk I had ever heard.

Business being over, we hurried home; because it was an unusually fine day, an ideal day—for bombers. We were only a few blocks from home when the air-raid siren wailed. Ko Latt pulled the brakes suddenly and the three of us rolled into the roadside ditch. Luckily, we were not seriously hurt. My son, used to this kind of thing, did not even cry. As it happened to be only a reconnoitering plane, we had time to get into the shelter before a big formation of bombers followed.

Japanese forces entering Burma (Myanmar)

The week wore on with the usual air raids and meatless meals. I went about in an arithmetical haze, working out sums. Even when I shut my eyes, multiplication signs flew to and fro.

We sallied forth again the following Sunday. Auntie was smiling happily. She had found it. She knew a person who had a 13-carat diamond to sell. She told us to bring Mr. Ebrahim the Sunday after that. This was all we wanted that day, but I would have liked to listen to Auntie’s how-to-get-rich-quick talk. Ko Latt gave me his you-do-no-such-nonsense look and led me firmly away.

We came home full of high spirits. How nice it was to have such a lucrative job to do on Sundays. Each week end brought us nearer to fabulous wealth. If everything went well, we could even resign from our jobs and devote all our time to big business. We were rudely shaken from these rosy dreams by a distress signal from the bike. The next moment, we found to our dismay that the bare rim of the wheel had parted company with the solid tire. Ko Latt got off the bike, and I ran and picked up the poor tire, scorned and despised, yet so useful! I held it in my hands like a snake and cried, “Look, it has stretched! What are we going to do?” Ko Latt examined it, and like an expert pronounced the verdict. It was a hopeless case, since we had no tools, not even a knife to shorten it. We did not want to risk our teeth for they must be preserved for the plentiful days to come. There was no time to waste since bombers might come any minute. We put the child on the bike and pushed along the road. He at least enjoyed the ride, playing snake charmer with the tire.

This incident had a bad effect on Ko Latt’s morale. His temper did not improve even when we got home. He was fed up with the whole thing. I tried to brace him up as best I could.

“Next Sunday will be the last day of our quest. We shall do business with Mr. Ebrahim and come home with bags full of money. Of course, Ba Than’s wife must get a share. She is the informant, a sleeping partner. Oh, everyone will be on velvet. I know we shall succeed . . .”  I would have gone on with my talk, shaking my head, waving my hands like Auntie, if Ko Latt had not curtly told me to get the tools so he could repair the tire.  Since no bracelets jingled and no diamond earrings sparkled, my words did not carry much weight.  Once the bicycle was repaired Ko Latt was his amiable self again. We sent word to Mr. Ebrahim to come to us the next Sunday.

Somewhat to our surprise, Mr. Ebrahim arrived at the duly appointed time, also on a bike. Ko Latt happily told him how we had managed to locate the diamond and Mr. Ebrahim looked impressed. He listened silently, stroking a beard so luxuriant that no one would have suspected the presence of a mouth had not a cigar stuck out of the foliage.

So the two bikes rolled out along the road. When we got to Auntie’s place, she had two young men with her. One was her Cousin Sonny, a youth in the early twenties, with a long Valentino crop of hair. His face was conspicuously powdered and he wore a pink shirt with gold studs and an imitation silk longyi—a gaudy affair, also pink. He sat smoking a cheap Japanese cigarette, talking only a little, as if we were all not worth the bother. So much for Exhibit A. The other was a Sino-Burman with a pale, dissipated appearance. His name was Ko Set Khwan. He wore a Hawaiian shirt and long pants. On his nose was a pair of rimless spectacles. He looked prosperous with his diamond studs, rings, and a heavy gold watch chain. He was standing beside his bicycle which was properly fitted with real tires. He must be the owner of the diamond.

After the introduction, Mr. Ebrahim asked Ko Set Khwan to exhibit the diamond. But Ko Set Khwan asked him explicitly if he were the buyer. I cannot remember the details of Ebrahim’s answer, which was of a lengthy nature. I was filled with admiration as I listened to him and wondered why he was not a leading diplomat. But Ko Set Khwan was not at all impressed; he just kept demanding if Mr. Ebrahim himself were going to buy it. I was awed by the man’s strength of character—a strong silent type, this Ko Set Khwan.

Mr. Ebrahim’s diplomacy gave way to unconcealed annoyance and he moved his head so vigorously that his beard rose and fell like a cataract on his chest. At last he could not avoid the issue; he had to admit that he was not the buyer. It was a friend who wanted to buy the diamond. Ko Set Khwan firmly asked to be taken to the said friend. Mr. Ebrahim tried to evade this request but at last he had to give in.

Auntie’s face was a study. She must know the details of this business. As she could not come along, her Cousin Sonny would accompany them. It became clear to us that we must also go along with them or we would be left out. The four bicycles – Mr. Ebrahim, Sonny, representing Auntie, Ko Set Khwan, and Ko Latt with me and the child on the rack—made a fine procession as we rolled along the road studded with bomb craters.

As we passed a teashop where four or five men were talking rather loudly, we heard one of them say, “Can’t you get business done without these damned brokers? To hell with them! One is bad enough and now you have half a dozen of them . . . ”  That was it, but I didn’t care. I was set on the royal road to Xanadu.

We reached an imposing house and Mr. Ebrahim alighted. We all followed his example. They all went up, but my son and I stayed downstairs to watch over the bicycles.

A few minutes later, they all came down again, muttering in consternation. My eyes eagerly sought Ko Latt’s but he looked away. My heart was heavy. I dared not ask, because as in ancient Greek dramas, scenes of tragic intensity should be suggested rather than represented. Our friends were speaking loudly and wildly, each of them talking at the same time, so I could not make out what they said.

As we prepared to get on our bikes, Ko Latt muttered something about the mistress of the house still not being the buyer. She knew someone else who . . . Our eyes met and saw in each other’s depths the long trail leaching into the bottomless stomach. Then Ko Latt shrugged his shoulders.

We gave up the trail and, somehow, we have lived to tell the story. Still, I feel sorry that I never held in my palm a 13-carat diamond in flesh and blood—or rather, carbon and whatever it is.

Translated by H. Conar

50 Great Oriental Stories

Bantam Books, 1965

Daw Khin Myo ChitDaw Khin Myo Chit  (ခင်မျိုးချစ်) 

Further Reading:

Cigars and Cheroots – An extract from ‘Colourful Burma’ by Daw Khin Myo Chit

Khin Myo Chit – Articles about her writing and work by her granddaughter Junior Win

The Women of Burma – Daw Mya Sein (The Atlantic, 1958)

Shadow Signatures (A Legacy of Burmese Literary Pen Names) – Lucas Stewart

Modern Burmese Literature – U On Pe (The Atlantic, 1958)

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Liu Hai

The Silver Ingot

When Chin saw that two of his sons did not believe him, he was all the more eager to get at the truth. So he asked his way to the village he had been told of in the dream, and there sure enough lived a Mr Wang. Knocking at the door and entering, Chin saw that bright candles were lit in the hall and sacrifices had been set out for the gods. When he asked the reason for this, the servants went to find their master; and presently Mr Wang appeared, greeted the old man and invited him to be seated. Then he asked Chin what had brought him here.

“Something is puzzling me,” said Chin, “and I have come to see if you can shed any light on it. But I notice that you are offering sacrifices today. May I ask the reason?”

“Recently my wife fell ill,” replied Wang, “and I consulted a fortune-teller, who declared that she would get better if her bed were moved. Yesterday, still ailing, she thought she saw eight big fellows in white gowns and red belts. ‘We used to be in the Chin family,’ they told her, ‘but we have done with them now and come to you.’ Having said this they crawled under the bed; and my wife broke into a cold sweat, after which she felt better. When we moved the bed, there in the dust we found eight great silver ingots bound round the middle with red cord. We have no idea where these have come from; but since Heaven has been so kind to us we have bought offerings to sacrifice. Now you have come to question me, perhaps you know something about this?”

Stamping his feet, Chin answered, “It took me a lifetime to save up that silver. Last night I had a dream too, and when I woke the silver had vanished. But in the dream my ingots mentioned your name and address; that’s how I found my way here. It is the will of Heaven; I can’t complain. But if I could see them once more I should feel better.”

“That is easy,” said Mr Wang.

He left the room, smiling, and returned with four serving boys each of whom was carrying a tray bearing two ingots fastened with red cord – the selfsame ingots Chin had treasured.

The old man’s eyes nearly started from his head, but there was nothing he could do. Big tears rolled down his cheeks as he stroked the silver.

“Fate must be against me,” he said, “if I am not allowed to keep these.”

Though Wang ordered the boys to put the ingots away again, he felt rather sorry for the old man. So he got out three taels of loose silver, put them in a packet and offered it to Chin as a parting gift. Chin, however, was unwilling to take it.

“I have been too luckless to keep my own,” protested the old man, “how can I take yours?”

He declined again and again, until Wang pushed the silver up his sleeve. Wanting to give it back, Chin fumbled for the packet but could not find it. He blushed with confusion. And finally since Wang insisted that he accept it, he bowed and left.

Upon reaching home he told his sons what had happened, and they sighed. He also mentioned Mr Wang’s kindness in giving him three taels as a parting gift; but when he searched in his sleeve he could not find the silver, and was forced to conclude that he must have dropped it on the way home.

In fact, while Chin was modestly refusing the silver Wang had thrust the packet through a hole in the lining of his sleeve; and by the time the old man felt for it to return it, it had already dropped out and rolled under the door sill. Later when the floor was swept, Wang got it back.

So it seems that each bite or sup we take is preordained. Chin, who was not destined to possess money, could not even keep three taels, let alone eight hundred. But Wang, who was destined to possess it, could not get rid of three taels. Thus, regardless of either man’s intention, a have became a have-not and a have-not became a have.

Translated by Yang Hsien-yi and Gladys Yang

50 Great Oriental Stories,  Bantam Books, 1965

The Silver Ingot, from The Tangerines and the Tortoise Shell, is part of the Feng and Lin collection of hua pen literature; written between the tenth and seventeenth centuries. During that period, professional storytellers improved upon traditional tales, later transcribing them and handing them down as hua pen or ‘storytellers scripts’.

Liu Haichan

Liu Hai (刘海), in the painting above, was a fabled 10th-century Chinese alchemist who learned the secret of immortality from the Chan Chu (蟾蜍) – the three legged money toad sitting upon his shoulder – and became an immortal.

According to Chinese legend, the Chan Chu, or, Jin Chan (金蟾), was the wife of one of the Eight Immortals. However, when she was caught stealing one of the peaches of immortality, she was punished and turned into a toad.

Greedy by nature, she has a constant craving for money, and whenever people see her in their dreams, there is always a bed of money surrounding her.

According to the Chinese philosophical system of Feng Shui, the Chan Chu helps to attract and protect wealth, and also guards against bad luck. Because the Chan Chu symbolizes the flow of money, a statue of the Chan Chu should never face the main door (“outward”), nor should it ever be kept “in the bathroom, bedroom, dining room or kitchen”.

Liu Hai and Jin Chan by a Waterfall

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LIFE in the quarter. Our bistro, for instance, at the foot of the Hôtel des Trois Moineaux. A tiny brick-floored room, half underground, with wine-sodden tables, and a photograph of a funeral inscribed ‘Crédit est mort’; and red-sashed workmen carving sausage with big jack-knives; and Madame F., a splendid Auvergnat peasant woman with the face of a strong-minded cow, drinking Malaga all day ‘for her stomach’; and games of dice for apéritifs; and songs about ‘Les Fraises et Les Framboises’, and about Madelon, who said, ‘Comment épouser un soldat, moi qui aime tout le régiment?’; and extraordinarily public love-making. Half the hotel used to meet in the bistro in the evenings. I wish one could find a pub in London a quarter as cheery.

One heard queer conversations in the bistro. As a sample I give you Charlie, one of the local curiosities, talking.

Charlie was a youth of family and education who had run away from home and lived on occasional remittances. Picture him very pink and young, with the fresh cheeks and soft brown hair of a nice little boy, and lips excessively red and wet, like cherries. His feet are tiny, his arms abnormally short, his hands dimpled like a baby’s. He has a way of dancing and capering while he talks, as though he were too happy and too full of life to keep still for an instant. It is three in the afternoon, and there is no one in the bistro except Madame F. and one or two men who are out of work; but it is all the same to Charlie whom he talks to, so long as he can talk about himself. He declaims like an orator on a barricade, rolling the words on his tongue and gesticulating with his short arms. His small, rather piggy eyes glitter with enthusiasm. He is, somehow, profoundly disgusting to see.

He is talking of love, his favourite subject.

Ah, l’Amour, L’Amour! Ah, que les femmes m’ont tué! Alas, Messieurs et dames, women have been my ruin, beyond all hope my ruin. At twenty-two I am utterly worn out and finished. But what things I have learned, what abysses of wisdom have I not plumbed! How great a thing it is to have acquired the true wisdom, to have become in the highest sense of the word a civilized man, to have become raffiné, vicieux,’ etc. etc.

Messieurs et dames, I perceive that you are sad. Ah mais la vie est belle – you must not be sad. Be more gay, I beseech you!

Fill high ze bowl vid Samian vine,

Ve vill not sink of semes like zese!

Ah, que la vie est belle! Listen, messieurs et dames, out of the fullness of my experience I will discourse to you of love. I will explain to you what is the true meaning of love – what is the true sensibility, the higher, more refined pleasure which is known to civilized men alone. I will tell you of the happiest day of my life. Alas, but I am past the time when I could know such happiness as that. It is gone for ever – the very possibility, even the desire for it, are gone.

Listen, then. It was two years ago; my brother was in Paris – he is a lawyer – and my parents had told him to find me and take me out to dinner. We hate each other, my brother and I, but we preferred not to disobey my parents. We dined, and at dinner he grew very drunk upon three bottles of Bordeaux. I took him back to his hotel, and on the way I bought a bottle of brandy, and when we had arrived I made my brother drink a tumblerful of it – I told him it was something to make him sober. He drank it, and immediately he fell down like somebody in a fit, dead drunk. I lifted him up and propped his back against the bed; then I went through his pockets. I found eleven hundred francs, and with that I hurried down the stairs, jumped into a taxi, and escaped. My brother did not know my address – I was safe.

Where does a man go when he has money? To the bordels, naturally. But you do not suppose that I was going to waste my time on some vulgar debauchery fit only for navvies? Confound it, one is a civilized man! I was fastidious, exigeant, you understand, with a thousand francs in my pocket. It was midnight before I found what I was looking for. I had fallen in with a very smart youth of eighteen, dressed en smoking and with his hair cut a l’américaine, and we were talking in a quiet bistro away from the boulevards. We understood one another well, that youth and I. We talked of this and that, and discussed ways of diverting oneself. Presently we took a taxi together and were driven away.

The taxi stopped in a narrow, solitary street with a single gas-lamp flaring at the end. There were dark puddles among the stones. Down one side ran the high, blank wall of a convent. My guide led me to a tall, ruinous house with shuttered windows, and knocked several times at the door. Presently there was a sound of footsteps and a shooting of bolts, and the door opened a little. A hand came round the edge of it; it was a large, crooked hand, that held itself palm upwards under our noses, demanding money.

My guide put his foot between the door and the step. “How much do you want?” he said.

‘“A thousand francs,” said a woman’s voice. “Pay up at once or you don’t come in.”

I put a thousand francs into the hand and gave the remaining hundred to my guide: he said good night and left me. I could hear the voice inside counting the notes, and then a thin old crow of a woman in a black dress put her nose out and regarded me suspiciously before letting me in. It was very dark inside: I could see nothing except a flaring gas-jet that illuminated a patch of plaster wall, throwing everything else into deeper shadow. There was a smell of rats and dust. Without speaking, the old woman lighted a candle at the gas-jet, then hobbled in front of me down a stone passage to the top of a flight of stone steps.

‘“Voila!” she said; “go down into the cellar there and do what you like. I shall see nothing, hear nothing, know nothing. You are free, you understand – perfectly free.”

Ha, messieurs, need I describe to youforcément, you know it yourselves – that shiver, half of terror and half of joy, that goes through one at these moments? I crept down, feeling my way; I could hear my breathing and the scraping of my shoes on the stones, otherwise all was silence. At the bottom of the stairs my hand met an electric switch. I turned it, and a great electrolier of twelve red globes flooded the cellar with a red light. And behold, I was not in a cellar, but in a bedroom, a great, rich, garish bedroom, coloured blood red from top to bottom. Figure it to yourselves, messieurs et dames! Red carpet on the floor, red paper on the walls, red plush on the chairs, even the ceiling red; everywhere red, burning into the eyes. It was a heavy, stifling red, as though the light were shining through bowls of blood. At the far end stood a huge, square bed, with quilts red like the rest, and on it a girl was lying, dressed in a frock of red velvet. At the sight of me she shrank away and tried to hide her knees under the short dress.

I had halted by the door. “Come here, my chicken,” I called to her.

She gave a whimper of fright. With a bound I was beside the bed; she tried to elude me, but I seized her by the throat – like this, do you see? – tight! She struggled, she began to cry out for mercy, but I held her fast, forcing back her head and staring down into her face. She was twenty years old, perhaps; her face was the broad, dull face of a stupid child, but it was coated with paint and powder, and her blue, stupid eyes, shining in the red light, wore that shocked, distorted look that one sees nowhere save in the eyes of these women. She was some peasant girl, doubtless, whom her parents had sold into slavery.

Without another word I pulled her off the bed and threw her on to the floor. And then I fell upon her like a tiger! Ah, the joy, the incomparable rapture of that time! There, messieurs et dames, is what I would expound to you; voila l’amour! There is the true love, there is the only thing in the world worth striving for; there is the thing beside which all your arts and ideals, all your philosophies and creeds, all your fine words and high attitudes, are as pale and profitless as ashes. When one has experienced love – the true love – what is there in the world that seems more than a mere ghost of joy?

More and more savagely I renewed the attack. Again and again the girl tried to escape; she cried out for mercy anew, but I laughed at her.

‘“Mercy!” I said, “do you suppose I have come here to show mercy? Do you suppose I have paid a thousand francs for that?” I swear to you, messieurs et dames, that if it were not for that accursed law that robs us of our liberty, I would have murdered her at that moment.

Ah, how she screamed, with what bitter cries of agony. But there was no one to hear them; down there under the streets of Paris we were as secure as at the heart of a pyramid. Tears streamed down the girl’s face, washing away the powder in long, dirty smears. Ah, that irrecoverable time! You, messieurs et dames, you who have not cultivated the finer sensibilities of love, for you such pleasure is almost beyond conception. And I too, now that my youth is gone – ah, youth! – shall never again see life so beautiful as that. It is finished.

Ah yes, it is gone – gone for ever. Ah, the poverty, the shortness, the disappointment of human joy! For in reality – car en réalité, what is the duration of the supreme moment of love. It is nothing, an instant, a second perhaps. A second of ecstasy, and after that – dust, ashes, nothingness.

And so, just for one instant, I captured the supreme happiness, the highest and most refined emotion to which human beings can attain. And in the same moment it was finished, and I was left – to what? All my savagery, my passion, were scattered like the petals of a rose. I was left cold and languid, full of vain regrets; in my revulsion I even felt a kind of pity for the weeping girl on the floor. Is it not nauseous, that we should be the prey of such mean emotions? I did not look at the girl again; my sole thought was to get away. I hastened up the steps of the vault and out into the street. It was dark and bitterly cold, the streets were empty, the stones echoed under my heels with a hollow, lonely ring. All my money was gone, I had not even the price of a taxi fare. I walked back alone to my cold, solitary room.

But there, messieurs et dames, that is what I promised to expound to you. That is Love. That was the happiest day of my life.’

He was a curious specimen, Charlie. I describe him, just to show what diverse characters could be found flourishing in the Coq d’Or quarter.

 

An extract from

Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell,

Victor Gollancz, 1933

 


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Set in the Yunnan countryside in China, Chris Taylor’s debut novel Harvest Season has drawn favourable comparisons with The Beach, by Alex Garland.

More than a decade after first discovering an idyllic ancient walled town deep in the mountains of southwest China, Matt, a former guidebook writer, returns to find his modern-day vision of Shangrila threatened by a brash outsider intent on putting the town on the party circuit. Matt falls for the newcomer’s fiery girlfriend, and becomes entangled in a power struggle that pits the drug-addled Westerners against increasingly hostile locals. Harvest Season is a dark exploration of the disrupting effect of outsiders on China, and the violent repercussions.” – Earnshaw Books

The point of Harvest Season is to take the reader on a journey through the shattering of the very illusions that make clichés of the characters in the first place. These are people in a purgatory of inaction and forgetting, indulging themselves in self-congratulatory abandon. There are inevitably consequences and the consequences involve a shattering of  illusion.”  – Chris Taylor

Having spent a considerable amount of time in the region and having mixed with characters not dissimilar to those in the book, Harvest Season rings true in our ears and comes highly recommended.

The book is available from Earnshaw Books and you can read the first chapter here.



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