March on Beijing - The Picun Writers' Group Part 2

China Dispatches 2

More true stories from the Picun Writers Group, a migrant workers’ writing collective based in Beijing. Read Part 1, including an introduction by Wu Qi, editor of One-Way Street Magazine, for free online here.

The Workshop Mouse by Guo Fulai

I’ve been working in Picun, Beijing for almost half a year now, and my most vivid memory is of the mice we share our workspace with.

Our main task was making counters and metal racks for an events company. On a regular day, more than ten of us were squashed into a not-particularly-large workroom. Outside stood two rows of tall, broad poplars. Each time a breeze blew, every single leaf seemed to wave at passers-by, but everyone just hurried by, too busy to look. They didn’t pay any attention to us in our workroom either.

The factory provided free accommodation, which was cozy enough—we had our dinner and went to sleep, grateful to be sheltered from the elements. Although the door was cracked, the walls pockmarked and the ground riddled with mouseholes, it still felt like a better deal than a rented apartment.

Our rest time was invariably dull and arid. We came from different places and hadn’t known each other long, so didn’t have much say to each other. There was no television or computer in the dorm, and we were too shy to go out on the town, so we just sat there, not doing anything.

One evening in March, we were lounging around as usual after dinner, each on his own bed, exchanging the odd bit of conversation. All of a sudden, Bianchen shushed us and pointed at the bucket by the doorway. A mouse about six centimeters long had crept halfway around the circumference, and was now hauling itself up to the rim so it could lower its head to drink.

Its gray fur gleamed glossily in the twilight, and its slender tail pointed straight up, quivering like a whip about to lash out. After a few mouthfuls, it looked up and swept its beady black eyes across us. Seeing that we were still, it went back to its guzzling. Li Bingqian seemed offended by the sight, or maybe resented losing that bucket of water. He raised his leg, but before he could call out “scram,” the mouse had nimbly scrambled down and burrowed beneath our beds.

All of a sudden, we had something to talk about. Discussing the mouse led to us recounting other experiences we’d had or interesting stories we’d heard. When it was my turn, I told them about a mouse performance I’d seen in my hometown of Wuqiao.

The showman gestured rhythmically with a tiny wooden baton, directing the snow-white mice as they snuffled here and there, obediently going where they were told—up a gangway, through a bamboo curtain, along a twisty passageway, then a leap onto a running wheel. A few rounds on that, and they’d raised a little pail of water high enough to drink from, but it fell again when they jumped across. So they raised the bucket again, but once more it plummeted before they could take a sip. These antics brought non-stop gales of laughter from the audience.

As soon as I was done with my story, Bianchen said longingly, “Why don’t we catch the mouse and train it? We can do it after work, it’ll be fun. What do you all think?” Li Bingqian was the first to shout, “No way, mice are filthy. We’d lose our appetites looking at that thing day after day.” Liu Yuanzhong chimed in, “It’s not a bad idea. I’ll make a trap and lure it in! I can definitely catch it alive.” There were eight more votes for, one against, and two abstentions. We decided to go ahead.

We made a cage out of steel wire, and actually managed to catch a mouse, albeit not a particularly large one.

Its scrawny body jumped around the cage, now and then gnawing at the bars. Bianchen sighed in admiration, “Beijing mice are so pretty!” Li Bingqian sneered, “How do you know that’s a Beijing mouse? They don’t have IDs, you know.”

Trying to smooth things over, Liu Yuanzhong said, “That’s true. These days we get termites from America and HIV from Africa, right here in Beijing. Mice are agile and put holes through walls, so I’m sure they could manage this journey. They take trains and boats, or walk along underground tunnels. Much more resilient than us, coming here to work from our villages.”

Bianchen called out, “No matter what, I like this little mouse. I’m going to hang the cage by my bed so it can keep me company.” Liu Yuanzhong said, “Go ahead, but what if it’s an unmarried female mouse? You have to be careful with the opposite sex, they keep you up at night.” Li Bingqian quipped. “Opposite sex? More like opposite species. You like anything that comes along. All of you have weird taste.” I had to step in to defuse the tension. “Haven’t you read the Liaozhai Tales? They’re full of foxes falling in love with scholars. Plenty of matches like that.”

Bit by bit, we only had one thing on our minds after work. We no longer made a big racket clomping into the apartment, but practically tiptoed in, and the first thing we did was see how things were going in the mouse cage.

We noticed another mouse, about the same size, came and kept the caged one company while we were out. Some of us suggested catching it too, and keeping them together. Others thought we ought to let our captive go, so it could go back to the natural world.

Finally, Liu Yuanzhong said, “Have you guys realized how far this mouse has to come to see the other one? Look, the starting point is over in the dirt by Gansu Zhu’s bed over in the west corner, then it has to pass through Henan Zhou’s patch, double back around Hebei Guo’s bed, and finally get to Shijiazhuang Bianchen’s spot. I guess that makes the wire cage Beijing Station! That really can’t be easy for it, trekking all that distance every day to be with the one it loves. I say we let it go.”

Bianchen hollered back, “No! I haven’t had enough of it yet!”

Soon after that, the firm sent us to Suzhou for a few days’ work. When we got back, the caged mouse was dead. We spent a long time staring at the corpse, but couldn’t work out how it happened. Everyone was sad. Finally, Bianchen quietly took the cage to a grassy patch by Picun North Road, and carefully buried the little mouse who’d kept us company for so long, and brought a little joy into our arid working lives.

The sultry heat of summer soon shrouded our workroom, and everyone felt too lethargic to talk. None of us brought up the mouse again.

Eating in Picun by Ma Dayong

When you live away from home, food becomes something you have to deal with every day. Each person’s stomach has its own set of regulations and signals for hunger. Your body slackens and you have no energy, until you fill your belly. Food is the god of the masses.

Eating seems simple. Step out of my rented apartment and walk a few paces, and you’re right in the center of Picun’s main street.

Picun is a big village with tens of thousands of people, not far from the city center. It’s also near the international airport; planes regularly roar overhead, making it impossible to build skyscrapers around here. Instead, the area consists of low tenements and even lower tiled-roof houses, with narrow alleyways squeezed in between, and a slightly wider main street. By the roadside are rows and rows of shops: cellphones, five-yuan joints, computer repairs, clothing, make-up, pharmacy, fruit and veg stalls, barbecue, small restaurants and so on, stretched out over a couple of kilometers. Only a few thousand of this village’s inhabitants are actually from here; the migrant workers who make up the vast majority of the population leave early and come back late, and are perpetually in need of food and other daily necessities. Each evening, the shopfronts on either side of the road light up with flashing neon advertisements, and the street fills with people. They get off the buses and drift along like a magic lantern show, wave after wave chatting and laughing, wandering into one shop after another. The street is bustling for a good few hours.

Naturally, this is the busiest time for the restaurants. There are all kinds of eating places, but if you look closely, they’re divided into three main varieties: dumplings, noodles and rice dishes. The signboards change frequently, and sometimes a place opens today only to shut its doors tomorrow, and gets replaced by yet another restaurant a few days later. There’ve been times when I find a place I like, and happily become a regular. I eat alone, so there aren’t many dishes I can order, and I lean towards the cheaper end of the menu. Time goes by, and the waiters begin to recognize me. When they see me ordering the same old items, they burst into laughter. “The usual again, huh?” I don’t like it when they laugh at me, and start going somewhere else.

There was this one place that served stir-fries, rice and soup. It all tasted good, and their prices were reasonable, so I became a frequent visitor. The place was owned by a couple in their forties, always neatly dressed. I never saw anyone but them cooking, getting ingredients or serving food. They opened in the morning, and kept working till ten or eleven at night.

They gave every single customer a warm welcome, and were easy-going as anything. Once I forgot my wallet, and didn’t realize till the food arrived. I was just saying, “I have to go get my…” when the wife interrupted, “No need, no need, eat first! You can pay us tomorrow.” Now and then, I chatted a little with them. They were northeners, and had a strong work ethic. The husband said, “We had a restaurant back home too. We came to this village because it’s booming. Gritted our teeth and got some money together for the rent, and opened this place. It’s hard work, but that doesn’t matter. Our kid’s still in senior high, so we have to keep earning money!”

It can’t have been easy for them. A shop here costs about the same to rent as in the city’s busier districts, but prices are lower because people have less to spend. The wife lamented, “We’re completely dependent on repeat business. If customers don’t come back, it’s slim pickings.”

I was there for lunch one day. This guy in a suit was sitting in front of me – clear, pale skin and medium-length hair. He ordered quite a few dishes and two bottles of beer, and was feasting away when he suddenly stopped and let out a yelp, “Hey! Come over here, you two! How the hell do you run your business?”

The couple looked confused, unsure what was going on. He lifted a plate and banged it down on the table. “Look! There’s a hair in this.” He’d eaten half the food, and in the remains was a single medium-length hair. Who knows how it got there? The guy stood up in a rage, and started to walk out. “How could you put dirty food in front of me! I’m not giving you a cent!”

“Oh no, you still have to pay for this,” the wife cried out anxiously. The husband chimed in, “We’ll only charge you half-price, sir.”

“How dare you ask me for money! With food like this, I could take you to court. It’s disgusting. You tried to hurt me. Any judge would award me damages for mental distress!” the man screamed, storming out. I wasn’t going to just sit there, so I jumped to my feet, but before I could say anything, the husband had grabbed me and was saying, “Forget it, forget it!” They didn’t dare cause any trouble beyond the doors of their restaurant.

Summer arrived in the blink of an eye. As the weather warmed up, that restaurant got too sweaty to be in, so I started going elsewhere. One afternoon, the couple were standing at the doorway, and our eyes met. I instinctively walked right past without even slowing down, but couldn’t help feeling a little bad about that.

For the next little while, I was working overtime in the city. When I got back, I visited the restaurant, and once again found myself breaking out in a sweat. As I paid, I said to them, “Why don’t you install air-conditioning?”

“Oh, we earn so little, we can’t afford that,” the husband sighed. His wife came over and handed me a box of food. “Here, take this with you. We’re closing tomorrow.”

Sure enough, the little restaurant’s doors remained firmly shut the next day. Not long after that, builders were busy transforming the space. Yet another eating place would open there soon.

A Date by Li Ruo

Garment factories are a woman’s world—men are thin on the ground, which makes it hard to find boyfriends. It’s the other way round on building sites, where it’s girlfriends who are scarce.

Time speeds by. Before I knew it, I was pushing thirty—a bona fide leftover woman. Every auntie in town was worried for me. My big sister called to summon me back home for a date—her dear friend Ling had someone to introduce to me. Not a bad catch, she said, three years older than you, employed, owns a couple of apartments in the county town, and his father’s in business.

I asked for a photo or video chat. Ling said thanks to photoshop, pictures couldn’t be trusted, and insisted I come back in person.

It seemed I had no choice. I took a few days’ leave. The way they were pressing me, you’d have thought someone else would snap him up unless I came at once.

Only when I got back and spoke to Ling did I realize the boy, Jiawei, was Ling’s husband’s uncle’s son. He worked at some construction firm in Shanghai. His mother had died a few years back in a car accident, and the driver paid more than six hundred thousand yuan in compensation. He also had a little sister, who was married. There’d been a brief episode of matrimony in his past: they hadn’t done a medical examination before the wedding, but when they were trying for a child it turned out the woman had Hepatitis B, so he divorced her.

The day of our date arrived. Ling dragged me to the beauty parlor and said I needed a makeover. I sat there like a puppet and let them do what had to be done: a facial cleanse, then a mask, and finally some subtle make-up. It cost more than a hundred yuan, but whichever bits you spend money on do tend to look better. I glanced at myself in the mirror, and sure enough, I was definitely more attractive. Back at the house, Ling and my sister brought out a bunch of outfits and had me try them on, like I was a model or something. By the time I was ready, it was past ten. Ling’s husband gave us a lift to the guy’s house.

We sped along the smooth paved road. There’s been a lot of development in my hometown these last few years, and all the surrounding villages have cement roads now. On either side were rows of trees and acres of lush crops: a picture of prosperity. My heart was thudding furiously. What kind of person was I about to meet?

Soon enough, the car pulled up by a compound gate, from which a man was stepping out to greet us. That’s Jiawei, Ling whispered. I took a careful look: maybe five foot five, gray striped sweatshirt tucked into his trousers, skin so dark it made his teeth pop, hair receding and thinning on top. He looked sturdy enough, on the whole, but also kind of old.

Just like that, I felt my heart cool down.

The man of my dreams was tall and elegant, a slender sapling swaying in the breeze, not this tree stump with his stubby limbs. He ought to be a refined scholar, and we would treat each other with the utmost respect, like honored guests. A lotus-leaf lamp emitting warm yellow light in the quiet late night, a man and a woman on opposite sides of a desk, each holding a book, cups of tea next to them. Now and then, one of them looks up and quietly murmurs a few words from their novel, and the other glances up too, eyes meeting with a smile. That’s true harmony. This guy looked like a butcher. Did he ever sit and read? What would he know of my affections and sorrows?

Dinner was at a nearby restaurant. Ling kept encouraging me to eat, but the sumptuous dishes covering the table all tasted like cardboard to me.

Still, you can’t judge a book by its cover, so I decided I should talk to the guy a bit more. We got through the meal, then Ling said we should check out the new houses in Moon Season Gardens. We grabbed a taxi there. On the way, I asked Jiawei, “How old are you?” After a pause, he said, “I’m 33.” “When were you born?” It took him a minute to reply, “1982.” This was weird. Why so much thought for a simple question? Slow reflexes? I asked what his zodiac animal was. Another long silence. “I don’t know.”

We never got to the condo. I claimed I had something urgent to take care of, and jumped out of the taxi. To think I’d spent over a hundred yuan at the beauty parlor. Money down the drain.

After my hasty retreat, I got a phone call from Ling. The man’s not an idiot, she said, he’s been working in Shanghai for more than ten years, and anyway plenty of people don’t know their zodiac animal. He has two apartments and six or seven hundred grand in the bank. As soon as you step across the threshold, you’ll be the one calling the shots. Maybe he’s a bit too earnest, but don’t worry, I’ll make sure he never lays a finger on you.

In the end, I told her we had incompatible temperaments: I was too fast, and he too slow. Half a year with this man would drive me mad.

Back in Beijing, I got a text message from Jiawei: “I was born in 1980. I’m 35. But as long as we’re truly in love, age doesn’t matter.”

So he’d shaved two years off. I burst out laughing. Truly in love? We’d only just met! I texted back: “Sorry, the sun must have set in the wrong place, and our hearts failed to blossom at the same moment…”

Beetles by Xu Liangyuan

Two days and nights, two days and nights
Twelve storeys down, in the fierce southern sun
In the scorching light, shirtless tanned bodies line up neatly
Gleaming black beetles in yellow safety hats
Charging their carts towards the churning metal
Play-acting at being armored charioteers

Two days and nights, two days and nights
On the cement rises a mountain of gravel, sand and sacks
The beetles push them all into the belly of the churning drum
Which gobbles and chews, then spits back into the carts
Steel cables pull this to the roof, where it’s laid flat

Time does not sweat nor eat, but it wears away at you
Sweat pours from the beetles, the machines turn like madmen
People are worked like machines, exhausted beyond bearing
Leaden legs must move, throbbing hands grip, and push

Two days and nights, two days and nights
The sky is tired too, its face darkens and rains
Tarp over the motor, so the drum rumbles dully
The beetles pull on scarred raincoats
Wrapping their final energy, down the slope of the pit
Charging at the metal skeleton of the red dragon
At the steel thing before them that no one can break through

Two days and nights, two days and nights
Tired beetles, flipped over, stumble upright and keep crawling
Continue up the metal bones of the chariot. The game’s not over yet

LARB + Dandu

This piece first appeared in Chinese in One-Way Street Magazine (单读) Magazine and is published in collaboration with the LARB China Channel.


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