Chinese Stories in English
Visitor to Paradise
No one could clearly say which family in the compound the big white cat belonged to. People in the city didn’t use the word "pet" at that time. Even one’s own children were allowed to run wild and free, and weren’t pampered at home like a pet would be.
The multi-family compound was situated in Paradise Lane in the southeast corner of Tianjin, adjacent to the sluice gate in the old Japanese concession. It was considered a historic place.
As for who the big white cat belonged to, it had eaten the Zhang family’s food the day before yesterday and wormed its way into the Li family’s home the next. Today the Zhao family was having a spat and the cat naturally became a “punching bag”. Old Zhao’s wife chased it out and around the compound like it had stolen her private stash and used the money to buy booze.
People weren’t allowed to wander around like tramps back then. Naturally, there was no term like "stray cat", either. You might say the big white cat had become a "community pet" in the compound.
The big white cat had no sense of belonging in Paradise Lane, but it still admired the place and seldom left it. The compound’s residents didn’t care about its devoted loyalty but recognized that it didn’t care to leave.
The compound of course had a Chinese toon tree in the courtyard, planted by a person or persons unknown. It had grown higher than the peak of the buildings' roofs and the trunk was as thick as the mouth of a bowl. It stood alone, like an orphan waiting for its master to return.
The compound was unchanging, but the people flowed through. As residents moved in and out, the look of the place got fuzzier. It seemed that every household was its own historical epoch: the Five Dynasties and the Ten Kingdoms, the Southern and Northern Dynasties, the two Han Dynasties, the Tang and the Sui and the Yuan, and never could any of them meet. No two families shared either common historical experiences or witnesses to the following generations. The compound seemed like a pile of the odds and ends of time, difficult for people to gather together.
Old Tune’s status was very much like the big white cat’s. No one could clearly say which family in the compound he came to visit. This didn’t prevent him from coming around, however, and he’d turned out to be a frequent visitor.
Since he was a frequent visitor but not visiting any one family, his status was obviously rather vague. It led people to connect him in their minds with the big white cat, which had nowhere else to go.
Summer is the most colorful season in Tianjin, and especially the late summer evenings. Old Tune would come along pushing his “Deer’s Head” brand bicycle, a product of Holland. You could hear him coming before you could see him.
"Open – mountain!" A long, dragged-out cry, and only after the word "mountain" hit the ground would Old Tune step into the courtyard. The scene was very similar to the appearance of a famous character in Beijing Opera coming onstage, so the compound naturally became a big stage.
Sporting an authentic Tianjin accent, Old Tune was optimistic and cheerful, with a vivid manner of expressing himself. His slicked-back hairstyle was combed until it shone. He had several kinds of plaid shirts, some with black and red checks, some blue and yellow, some purple and white.
He wore western-style trousers all year round, black, blue, gray, camel, beige, a variety of colors. Of course he wore a belt where his trousers met his shirt, a brown leather one, and he was never seen to replace it with another. He often pointed to the belt and said, "Scratch the competition! Scratch the competition!"
That must have been a foreign expression, maybe English, Japanese, Mongolian or Manchurian, but anyway not Chinese. What did it mean? The guy didn't offer an explanation. Over time, people stopped asking and basically recognized that he was just talking up his belt.
He didn’t change his shoes, either. All three bronze-colored sections were polished to a sheen the year around. This made people think he spent all his money on western-style shirts and trousers, leather shoes and belts. He was like the imperial advisor in the book Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio who stayed in power through three regimes.
Old Tune had a square face and regular features. His nose was straight with wide nostrils, and his eyes had a spirited look. He was rather short, though. It’s common for tall men to become hump-backed, but Old Tune, while short, was getting a bit of one, too, which is obviously counter to the rule for humans. When he walked into the compound, his slightly hunched back and somewhat stooped shoulders did make him appear appropriately humble, which didn’t turn people off and, indeed, caused many people to feel good about themselves – “Look, this guy is neatly dressed and pushing an imported bike, but there’s no sign he’s pretending to be better than us.” Because of this, Old Tune at first didn’t suffer any obvious conflict with the people in the compound.
The men who lived in the compound, without regard to their profession, acted like masters of their domain and looked down on one another more often than not – “Look, my pupils are green to the max. I think your eyes are all gummed up.” The twelve families in the compound had a great many more conflicts than the states in the classic novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms.
Having a man of unknown origins regularly visit this kind of compound was bound to raise people’s suspicions. There’s a saying in Tianjin: "The early bird gets the worm." Although Old Tune often made his appearance there in the evening, people couldn't escape the suspicion that the saying applied to him, that he was looking to get something from his visits.
Old Tune's watch was a Sandoz, not as famous as an Enicar, but still made in Switzerland by Breguet’s. Others wore their watches on their left wrist, but he wore his on the right.
One summer’s day, Old Tune, preceded by his loud yell, walked into the compound wearing a black- and red-checked shirt and beige trousers. He plopped his bicycle down and steadied it, then pulled out a handkerchief and brushed the dust off his trouser cuffs. This was quite a unique thing to do in that messy compound.
The compound’s children circled around for a look at this brightly polished bicycle. The brass "Deer’s Head" emblem was far from those of the Chinese brands "Flying Pigeon" and "Forever".
Since Old Tune wasn’t a guest of any family, no one came out to greet him. He used the compound’s courtyard as a small commons and made a gesture like he was visiting them all. He took a pack of pre-rolled cigarettes from his pocket.
The cigarettes were the high-end "Great Front Gate" brand. The package was lined with tin foil and they were three cents more expensive than the more simply packaged ones, which reflected Old Tune’s worth as a person. No one in the compound could afford to smoke that brand.
When anyone stepped out of his house, as long as it was a man, Old Tune generously handed him a cigarette. "T’backy!” he said “T’backy!" This was another foreign expression, maybe English, Japanese, Mongolian, or Manchurian, but anyway not Chinese.
"You’re Chinese, so how come you’re speaking a foreign language?" Old Edge, who lived in South Building, asked him. Old Edge spoke with a heavy Henan accent and didn't understand the humor in the port-of-call jargon spoken on the Tianjin docks. For that reason, he refused to accept Old Tune’s “t’backy" and stuck with his own pipe tobacco. Old Edge had poor peasant status and a high level of ideological consciousness, which was important during the ongoing Cultural Revolution. He worked as a security guard in the Tianjin Hemp Fabric Factory and loved to drink.
"You come to our compound when you have nothing to do. May I ask, exactly which family is it that you come to visit?" Old Edge put into words the question that everyone had been asking.
"I don't come to visit anyone. I just come to see all you guys." Old Tune lit his cigarette lighter with a flick of his finger, puffed on a “Great Front Gate” to get it going and then closed the lighter. His movements were nonchalant and reminiscent of the movie actor Lan Ma.
"You come to see all of us? As if we were a single unit! You must be going to give us training like a military unit." No one in this world loves without a reason, and no one hates without reason, either. Old Edge, a security guard in the hemp factory, thought to himself that a man like Old Tune was after something, maybe money or maybe sex. There must be something in the poverty-stricken, dilapidated compound to draw him to the place.
Sitting in his home compound, Old Edge took the measure of the man. "What’re you doing, Old Tune? Drinking soup in the dark – so you can’t even tell if it’s hot or cold?" This was a prevalent saying in Tianjin, a quite caustic one.
Thus was Old Tune on a summer’s evening. He smoked his “Great Front Gate” casually and talked to the compound’s residents without a care in the world. He said that the "Sunny Springtime" was selling duck livers for twenty cents a bowl; that the "Awesome Virtue Room" was selling left-over dim sum without requiring a ration card; that bottles of “Glorious” brand soy sauce could be purchased on West Horse Street without proof of residency in the area.... This kind of news of course got the women interested.
He also said that the storyteller Connected Zhang was returning to Prosperous Farmers Market, and they should attend the evening performance if they wanted to hear him. He also told them they’d have to get up early and stand in line if they wanted to buy baijiu without a ration card…. This kind of news was naturally of interest to the men.
Sometimes he also talked about international events, such as the continuing mystery of the American President Kennedy’s death by assassination, or how the detonation of China’s first atomic bomb had scared the Soviet Revisionists and the American Imperialists, as well as the anti-China forces in Indonesia....
In this way, the compound was like a pond and Old Tune was like duckweed floating in it. He wandered around, talking and chatting, blowing in the wind and settling down when the wind stopped. When it started to get dark, some neighbor would ask him to stay for dinner. He invariably bowed and declined, even if meat pie or stew was on the menu, and pushed his "Deer’s Head" out of the courtyard and rode off down the broad Paradise Lane.
Old Edge firmly believed in the Tianjin adage that "No one gets up early unless there’s something in it for them”, so he seized every opportunity to question the guy. "Old Tune, you say you come here to see all of us now, but who did you come to see at first?"
"I was still young at that time..." Old Tune said, thinking about it.
"You’re not old now. Still under forty? Maybe thirty-seven, thirty-eight."
"I came here the first time to see Loyal, the guy who raised pigeons, and I knew Young Brave from East Building when he was training to be a wrestler. Loyal and Young Brave have both moved away now. I met Third Leather from North Building, the younger brother of Second Leather. He could do carpentry, but later he moved away, too...."
Old Edge was an excitable sort. "Can you finish telling the story before the fifteenth of January? I’m afraid I won’t live that long."
“Don’t be pessimistic, Old Edge,” Old Tune replied with a serious expression on his face. “Socialism is a bridge, and communism is paradise. Just stay alive and you’ll get there.”
Old Tune was telling how he’d come to be there, after all, even if the course of events from Loyal to Young Brave to Third Leather was rather tortuous. Nevertheless, Old Edge was still of a mind to press for further information. "And who in the compound is a friend of yours now? Like Loyal and Young Brave and Third Leather were."
"You all are. You all are." Old Tune looked up at the toon tree.
In his hometown dialect, Old Edge said, "I never saw a flower-faced bear like you when I went hunting in the mountains, or a three-legged frog like you when I went fishing in the river. You’re such an oddball, you’ve really opened my eyes."
Old Tune knew the guy was being sarcastic, but he didn’t get anxious or angry. Rather, he narrowed his eyes and recalled past events. "Man, it’s really too bad about Loyal. He shouldn’t have moved so far away. And Young Brave trained too hard. If he couldn’t make it as a wrestler, so be it. There’s a ton of professions and you can make it big in any of them. And if Third Leather hadn’t joined the army, he might’ve been a carpenter...."
With this initial grasp of the man’s history, Old Edge decided to secretly follow the trails of Loyal, Young Brave and Third Leather so as to get the full lowdown on this guy Old Tune. Sometimes, however, finding people is like looking for stones that have sunk to the bottom of a lake. Even becoming a scuba diver wouldn't do you any good.
Old Tune kept frequenting the compound. The big white cat would circle around his trouser cuffs as soon as he entered the courtyard. Old Tune let it rub his legs and never shooed it away. Old Edge thought he was just coming around to see the cat, not to visit anyone.
So, who was this guy? Old Edge found it difficult to locate even a clue and knocked his brains out even more thinking about the problem. Was he looking to get money? Old Tune passed out cigarettes when he came in the courtyard, and that was all outgo with nothing coming in, so that probably wasn’t it. Was it sex? Jade Qi was the only old girl in the compound. She was tall and had a fair complexion, but he’d never seen Old Tune strike up much of a conversation with her. Old Edge got a headache from thinking about it, and he couldn't get to sleep until the middle of the night.
But hard work doesn’t defeat someone who’s dedicated. After a few trips visiting people around the area, Old Edge had made a good start at getting a grip on Old Tune’s basic circumstances.
People called him Old Tune, but in fact he wasn’t old. The thirty-six-year-old bachelor’s full name was True Talent Tune. He was a grade-four tile layer with the Southern Development District Residential Renovation Company, with a salary of 57.85 yuan per month. That was enough to feed a family of five, but as a bachelor, Old Tune had no responsibilities, so he was quite well off.
In Jade Qi’s eyes, Old Edge’s behavior was worth a deprecating smile. "Old Tune is neither a Soviet spy nor a Taiwanese agent. You got nothing better to do in your spare time than keep an eye on him?”
"Has he taken a fancy to you?” Old Edge responded immediately. “He comes running over here at the drop of a hat."
Jade blushed. "Your thinking is all screwed up, and so is what you’re saying.”
Old Edge just wouldn’t give up. He insisted on keeping a record of every little detail about Old Tune in a small notebook. His writing improved so much from the practice that he seemed to be a cultured person. In time the leaders of the Janitorial Division of the Tianjin Hemp Fabric Factory discovered his talents and selected him as the leader of Team A. This was a promotion up the ranks and Old Edge was pleasantly surprised at the unexpected bounty. For a time he found it difficult to say whether Old Tune was a benefactor or an adversary in his life.
And that, in fact, was the way it was. Whenever Old Tune was around, the oppressive atmosphere of the compound got better. Because of that, the time around twilight became more like a pleasant morning.
One summer evening the drizzle took an early break. Old Edge was drinking and was disturbed when his young son, Little Strong, farted and ruined his mellow reverie. He picked up a broom and chased after the boy to beat him. Little Strong flew up the toon tree faster than an orangutan.
Just then the cry "Horse – comes" rang out, and people knew that Old Tune was there. Old Tune would yell "Open – mountain" sometimes and "Horse – comes" other times. These were both drawn-out cries of the Monkey King character when he appeared on stage in Beijing Opera. Old Tune said that Little Building Yang played the role best, but Eternal Spring Li was pretty good, too. He’d heard them both on vinyl records.
When Old Edge heard Old Tune cry out "Horse – comes", he dropped the broom he’d been going to use to beat his son and returned home with his hands behind his back. He wasn’t willing to let Old Tune see that he’d lost his self-control. He needed to maintain the dignity befitting Team A’s Leader in the Janitorial Division of the Tianjin Hemp Fabric Factory.
Old Tune’s arrival was an incorporeal hindrance for Old Edge, and inadvertently saved Little Strong's butt. The boy slid down the toon tree, said thank you to his benefactor and ran off. Old Tune’s giddy laughter in the summer was like mint candy, bringing a little coolness to the courtyard.
One early autumn morning, Old Edge and his wife went off to work. (They were what was called a "double staff" family.) Their son Little Strong came down with a sudden fever and, when he walked out the door with his book bag on his back, he fainted under the toon tree. For a moment no sound came from him. The big white cat kept meowing, as if crying for him to wake up.
Jade Qi, a female shift worker at the National Cotton Number Two plant, was on her way home after the night shift. When this “older girl” walked into the courtyard, she saw Little Strong fainted away on the ground. She picked him up and ran to the Number Six Hospital. They transferred him to the Infectious Disease Hospital on Gansu Road, where he was immediately diagnosed with meningitis.
The boy’s life was saved, but unfortunately the fever had attacked his brain. He became a mentally impaired child: When he saw someone, he could only blink and couldn’t speak. His mother cried through the pitch-dark nights, repeatedly slapping herself and complaining that she’d given her all to society and not enough to her own family. The security worker Old Edge thought first of the motherland, the Land of Rivers and Mountains, and its revolutionary cause. He said Little Strong wouldn’t be able to take on the job of the working class and would instead add to the State’s burdens from now on.
Sometime the next evening, Old Tune, who hadn’t been seen for many days, put in an appearance. A hard-cardboard carton was tied on the back frame of his "Deer’s Head". He set the bicycle steadily in place, opened the carton unhurriedly, and lifted an old-style Japanese radio from it with both hands. He said, with a good deal of satisfaction, "I finally got it repaired this time. It’ll get three stations."
Jade Qi heard him and came outside. She held out her hands to take the ancient radio and said “Thank you” at the same time. She also whispered to him that Little Strong had contracted meningitis and was suffering the aftereffects.
When he heard that, Old Tune said anxiously, "He has to see a doctor of traditional Chinese medicine! He can only see a traditional Chinese doctor!"
Jade Qi whispered: "Too bad, it’s already too late...."
"There’s no such thing as too early or too late. Just watch a miracle happen...." Old Tune drummed up his confidence and took it on himself to go to the front door of Old Edge’s house.
Old Edge didn’t buy it. He stepped outside gallantly and said, Western medicine is better at saving lives. Chinese medicine is useless bullshit!"
"Then let's do this for now. I’ll use five yuan a month to give Little Strong good things to eat and drink, to improve his diet."
Five yuan a month? That was more than enough to cover all of a person's food expenses for half a month. The neighbors in the compound were shocked.
"The child is already mentally impaired. Good or bad, he won't know what he’s eating." Jade Qi announced her disagreement in a loud voice. The cotton mill was a noisy place, and the female shift worker had gotten into the habit of speaking loudly.
Old Toon responded in a low-key voice. “Then I’ll buy him some toys, a new one every month. It’s no big deal."
Jade Qi continued expressing her opinion. "The child’s mind is gone. New toys or not, it’s all the same to him."
"Do you plan to stop me? I’ll just give the money to his parents to take a load off their minds!" Old Tune would brook no disagreement.
Old Toon’s generosity obviously jabbed at Old Edge’s self-respect, but the Leader of Team A in the Janitorial Division at the Tianjin Hemp Fabric Factory kept a stiff upper lip. "Do you think you’re the Party or the Government?” he asked. “It’s the People’s duty take care of their own, and they haven’t turned that duty over to you."
His wife took him aside and said, "He’s not cutting you down. Don't look a gift horse in the mouth."
"Shut up!" Old Edge pushed his wife away. "Unless good old Chairman Mao orders it, I won’t accept any help from anyone!”
This offended Jade Qi’s principles. "That’s too much, Old Edge,” she said. “Good old Chairman Mao is very busy. I think you talk like a dung beetle yawning – How dare you open your stinky mouth?"
"Yeah, don't add problems to the good things going on in the country...." Old Edge’s wife pulled her husband back into the house.
Old Tune stood stubbornly in front of Old Edge’s door. "You should be optimistic, Old Edge. As the saying goes, things can take a turn for the good. The Chinese doctor who cured my encephalitis has been called a rightist and send down to the countryside. I’ll ask around and find out where he is...."
Old Edge’s voice came from inside the house: "I won't want your five yuan a month!"
"If you don't want five yuan, I’ll give you four-ninety." Old Tune was trying to improve the hostile atmosphere with some Tianjin male-style humor.
No more sound came from inside. Old Edge wasn’t from Tianjin and maybe couldn’t understand this sort of turn-the-table humor.
Old Tune cleared his throat mightily and stood outside Old Edge’s door telling his story.
"It was ten years ago. Meningitis was called encephalitis back then. The virus grabbed me and I was covered in a red rash. My neck was stiff and the fever wouldn’t stop. My friend Loyal took me to the Number Two Hospital and the Doctor of Western medicine said that even if he saved my life, I’d be mentally impaired. I had Loyal go to the Iron Bridge Hospital to get a Doctor of Chinese medicine. Well, the venerable doctor wrote out a prescription. Each dose of the stuff was to be boiled in a hand basin!"
The people in compound listened with great interest. They thought they wouldn’t need to go to “no man’s land” in the South Market and pay money to hear Connected Zhang tell stories. Even Old Edge stepped out of his house with his head down, pretending to smoke his pipe, with his big rabbit’s ears perked up and listening.
Old Tune lit a “Great Front Gate” and continued to tell his story. "I drank that medicinal soup for thirty days, a whole basinful every day. And the residue in the bottom of the basin? I refused to throw it away! I mixed it with white sugar and gulped it down. I did that straight for a month and got a hundred percent use out of the medicine. Look at me! I have no residual effects of the disease. I’m not mentally impaired or retarded or imbecilic or even slow. Now I’m a grade-four tiler with the Residential Renovation Company, and it was Chinese medicine that saved me.”
"They call that 'taking your medicine because you have to'. But forget about mixing sugar with the dregs,” Jade Qi said pessimistically. “At this stage, it wouldn’t do any good even if you soaked Little Strong in the stuff."
Old Edge snorted and turned back into his house. He told his wife, "Old Tune said he ate the dregs of the medicine. I thought it was like sheep eating grass."
"You’re right! Old Tune was born in the Year of the Ram. He’s thirty-six, so he’s come full cycle again." His wife was pandering to him.
"How do you know what sign Old Tune was born under?" Old Edge was getting caustic, like he was from Shanxi instead of Henan.
"Someone wanted to fix him up with a date a few days ago,” his wife quickly explained. “That’s how I heard…."
"They weren’t going to set him up with Jade Qi, were they?" Old Edge sneered. "I heard that she used to go with a young guy named Loyal. They agreed to get married, but the guy got sent to a Reeducation through Labor farm in Swampy Lake in Qinghai Province…."
"Who was that guy Loyal?" Maybe Old Edge’s wife was concerned about Jade Qi, or maybe about Old Tune.
"Are you drinking noodle soup in the middle of the night, too?" Old Edge said gruffly. "How would I know who Loyal was! Anyway, I heard he got transferred to a farm in Ningxia Province later on, and no one got any message from him, not even Jade Qi."
The weather was getting colder, and the people in the compound stayed nestled in their houses. The big white cat was the only animal outdoors. It continued to wander around their homes, eroding whatever was left of its self-respect.
It was a colder than ever Sunday. In the evening, Old Tune strolled unhurriedly into the compound wearing a dark green parka, which the locals called a "monkey cape". No one knew it was a famous "American monkey cape" that he was wearing. In the fall of 1945, a division of US Marines landed in the Tanggu District of Tianjin. These allied forces were called "American soldier-ghosts" by the people. They drank, whored and spent money wantonly. When they ran out of money, they took off their military parkas and pawned them. Thus a lot of US military supplies were left in Tianjin. Twenty years later, the American soldier-ghosts from back then might no longer be alive, but their monkey capes were still around, and one of them had found its way onto Old Tune’s back.
"Where’s your Deer's Head? Where’s your Deer's Head?” The compound’s sharp-eyed children were the first to notice that Old Tune didn’t have his bicycle.
"The Deer’s Head made a mistake and I put it in jail." Old Tune was optimistic and cheerful, and comfortable being around children. He smiled, revealing his front teeth, and walked over to Old Edge’s front door. He coughed to announce his presence.
Old Edge’s wife came to the door. "Where’s Old Edge?” Old Tune immediately asked. “I want to see him about something."
"The factory’s working overtime today,” she answered quickly. “Old Edge didn’t get time off. You have something to talk to him about?" Then she looked over Old Tune’s "American monkey cape".
Old Tune was embarrassed by her looking him over. "I finally heard where the old rightist Chinese doctor is...." He fished out a thick wad of bills from a pocket in his “American monkey cape" as he spoke. "Here’s money for travel expenses. Take Little Strong to Sun City in Shanxi to get the residual effects of his encephalitis treated."
"Ah…." Her eyes opened wide in surprise and she stared blankly at Old Tune.
Little Strong came outside. There was no expression on his face. Old Tune stepped up to him and patted the boy’s head, at the same time putting the wad of cash into his pocket. He said, "The child has to be treated as soon as possible," and turned away.
Old Edge’s wife plopped her butt down on the ground and started to wail. "Old Tune, you’re a great benefactor to my family in this life…."
No one knew that Old Tune had gone to the consignment store* near the Flower Building in Tianjin South Market. He’d pawned the Deer’s Head brand bicycle for two hundred eighty yuan RMB in cash, paid on the spot.
For the typical person in Tianjin, two hundred eighty yuan RMB was undoubtedly a huge sum. The news passed quickly from mouth to mouth. From Paradise Lane to South Incline Street, and from there on to Horse Road South, everyone said that "The Ideal Communist Lei Feng has returned."
*[Consignment stores were operated by the government and were the only places where people were allowed to sell property. See https://www.chinese-stories-english.com/capitalist-roader.html]