Chinese Stories in English
The Down-Home Baozi Shop
by Tong Chengdong
It wasn't planned that way, but the residents of the recently built New Countryside development rented out the bottom floors of their three-story buildings. They could make a considerable income by doing that, you know. Wang Gaosheng, a shrewd fellow, took advantage of his building's strategic location near a section of the road and turned the bottom floor into shops equipped with roll-up doors. There were four store-fronts: a grocery, a hairdresser, a fruit store and a snack shop.
A barefoot farmer turned landlord, the 57-year-old Wang took on a new roll in life. He started to be referred to as "the boss" by the young men who moved to the area looking for work, and it goes without saying that he felt a certain self-satisfaction. He spent his days strolling around the neighborhood with his hands clasped behind his back and a cigarette dangling from his mouth.
More recently, however, his happy mood had abruptly drained away. It seems that business was booming in the first-floor snack shop. People were lined up all day long to buy baozi, steamed buns stuffed with vegetables or pork. Seeing that that migrant, Zhang Shifeng, was so busy, Wang started to calculate: "I'm losing out here. That punk is taking advantage of my building's good location, isn't he? I'll have to have a talk with him about this."
That evening, Wang stepped over the threshold and into the shop right at closing time. Zhang's heart skipped a beat when he saw his landlord come in, and he hurried over to greet him with a smile: "Have a seat, Boss, have a seat!" Wang lit a cigarette and, with a chuckle, began to chat idly. "Zhang, my man, your business is doing pretty good," he said. "Exactly what kind of baozi are you selling? Can I try one?"
Zhang carefully poured water to brew a cup of tea. "We've got some buns left, Boss," he said. "It's just that, I'm afraid they might be... different from what you're used to!"
Wang wasn't very happy with that. "What's that you say? So many people like your baozi, why wouldn't I like them?"
Feeling helpless, Zhang hurried to get a plate of baozi. When Wang saw them, he felt they were the same as ordinary baozi. He grabbed one, brought it up to his mouth and took a bite. Whatever the filling was, it had a pleasingly smooth texture, but it was so spicy it was like his stomach was on fire. He had to sneeze a couple of times, and the stuffy nose he'd had for the last few days suddenly cleared up a bit. He felt better all over.
Wang rubbed his mouth. "The taste is kind of strange," he said. Must be some local specialty from your home town.... Well, I came to tell you that your rent has to go up."
Zhang was taken aback. "How much are you going to raise it?" he asked, his eyes open wide.
Wang seemed quite embarrassed. He shook his head and said, "My place here, it's a prime location. Your business is so good, I'm thinking around 3,000 bucks a month."
Zhang was stunned. "Boss, we're just a small business," he said. "If you think you can be a little flexible, we can talk it over."
Wang didn't wait for him to finish speaking before he stood up and walked out, his hands clasped behind his back....
Next month, Zhang moved out of Wang's building. He couldn't afford such a high rent. On the surface, Wang acted like he was sorry to see him go, but inside he was overjoyed. As soon as he was gone Wang redecorated the shop, hired some dim sum chefs and set about opening his own baozi shop. He already had it all worked out in his mind: most of the tenants in the New Countryside development weren't local people and they liked spicy food. As long as he spiced up the filling for the baozi, his business was guaranteed to boom.
When the new baozi shop opened, Wang became a boss in fact as well as in name. The old customers rushed over early that morning to buy baozi, and they bought them by the dozen. Wang watched them with joy in his heart. But after a few days, business unexpectedly began to cool off. A mound of hundreds of baozi piled up, and nobody showed any interest.
Some customers came to the door and asked, "Where did Boss Zhang go?"
Wang put on a happy face. "Boss Zhang had something to do and let me take over for a few days," he said. "You want to buy some baozi? Come on in, I'll wrap them up for you."
"Uh, no, no. No thanks." They left in a hurry.
Wang noticed that his master chefs were discouraged. He couldn't figure out what had gone wrong. "My baozi have a delicate bread wrapper stuffed with plenty of thick spicy filling, and the price is reasonable," he thought to himself. "How come nobody wants them? Ach, I wonder where Zhang is." He pulled out his cell phone and cheekily pressed Zhang's number over and over, but got a busy signal every time.
Since no one was buying his baozi, Wang had to lay off the chefs and close the shop. This time he'd gone for the gold but come a cropper, and now he was depressed as he strolled around the neighborhood.
One morning Wang came to the avenue on the south side of the development and saw a bunch of people surrounding a street vendor selling breakfast. He strolled past and discovered that Zhang Shifeng had started selling baozi again. The people around him were talking and laughing with him, and the baozi were selling fast. Wang learned something about himself by seeing how good Zhang's business was going, but for the moment he couldn't conveniently interrupt. When the crowd thinned out he went over and said, with some embarrassment, "Ah, there you are, Zhang."
When Zhang looked up and saw Wang he broke into a simple and honest smile. He wasn't angry at all. He picked up a baozi and held it out, saying "Here, Boss, have one."
Wang's face turned red. "Shifeng, I've been looking for you for days. I'd like you.... I'd like you to come back!" Then he told Zhang the whole story of how he'd tried to start a baozi shop.
"Boss," Zhang said with some trepidation, "I can't afford to rent your place."
"The rent will be the same as before, a thousand bucks a month, on one condition...."
"I want to go to work for you. The bottom line is, being at leisure just means having nothing to do."
The baozi shop reopened, and the news that Zhang Shifeng had returned flew around the New Countryside development like it had wings. In less than three days, the shop was as busy as it had ever been.
Wang was curious about something. He asked Zhang about it several times, but Zhang always just laughed and didn't answer.
One day Zhang got an order from a construction site. He asked everyone to work overtime that night to ensure that he could deliver the baozi the next morning. Even Wang volunteered to work the extra shift, though his question had still to be answered.
As the lights shone brightly in the baozi shop that evening, Zhang himself blended the filling. He had the soybean products store send over hundreds of pounds of toufu, into which he mixed chili oil and pieces of fatty pork. Then he steamed it until it was done and allowed it to dry thoroughly. After that, he and the others all kneaded dough for the wrappers.... It was four a.m. before they took the finished baozi out of the steamers.
Zhang told everyone to take a break as he climbed onto his three-wheeled motorcycle to deliver the baozi. Wang saw him and immediately asked to go along to help. Zhang didn't say no, so the two of them rushed off into the morning fog carrying the piping hot baozi.
When they got to the site, Zhang and Wang moved quickly and efficiently to take the baozi inside. The workers had just woken up. They grabbed the hot baozi and downed them, one gulp for each baozi, starting to sweat as they ate. Delighted and unrestrained, they kept waving to Zhang and joking with him. They clearly thought of him as their best friend.
"Boss, there's a little trick to those baozi of mine," Zhang told Wang on the way back. "They're called spicy tofu baozi. The important thing is an aromatic, spicy oil. Think about it. It's very muggy at the construction site and guys get tired working. In the morning, they eat a few baozi and start to sweat. They sweat out the vapors, replace some body fat and fill their stomachs, and it doesn't cost very much. You think they wouldn't be happy with that? That's why all the baozi that get delivered to the construction sites in this area are mine. They don't like anyone else's."
"Oh, so that's it!" Suddenly it all became clear to Wang.
A few days later, Zhang asked his workers to make baozi stuffed with green beans and honeysuckle. The baozi came out fine, and when they were fresh out of the steamer, he and Wang set off to deliver them. Zhang drove the three-wheeler onto a bumpy little road, and they wobbled along it for over half an hour. Eventually they arrived at their destination – a school for children of migrant workers. Zhang got off the motorcycle and made a phone call, and soon an old man with snow-white hair came running out from the school. "Zhang, my friend," he started to greet them while he was still some distance away, "you've brought us some more baozi!"
Zhang laughed. "Mr. Li, you've got a few more kids now, hmm?"
"Let 'em come," the teacher said as he opened the gate for them. "We're happy!"
"Mr. Li," Zhang said, "these green bean baozi are antipyretic. When your throat gets sore from lecturing every day, just relax and eat a few...."
One day Zhang fell into a funk after receiving a phone call. When evening came he went to the market and bought some dumpling wrappers and fish. Then he ground the fish slowly and carefully. When Wang asked him what was going on, Zhang looked at him with red eyes and said, "Little Honeybee got leukemia three years ago. Now she's dying and she wants to have some of my fish dumplings...." Wang was overwhelmed when he heard that.
For the next few days Zhang made a different filling for his baozi every day, and business at the shop boomed. He kept saying that the filling is a baozi's heart, and like people, they all have different hearts. We need to understand the hearts of the people from our home towns.
One day after the shop closed, Wang told him, "You're a good man, Shifeng, and I was really small-minded before. I think this place should be called the 'Down-Home Baozi Shop'. Life isn't easy for you migrants, and when they can get a baozi that's really fulfilling, it's just like a trip back home!"
今古传奇故事, All-Time Legends and Stories, Sept. 2013, 2nd semimonthly Issue, p. 5
Edited Version at http://hnrb.zjol.com.cn/hnrb/html/2013-06/01/content_228904.htm
To get Chinese text by return email, send name of story to email@example.com