Small Town, by Li Jingrui
Li Jingrui reflects on life in Zigong, Sichuan, in the last in our series of creative non-fiction essays, first published in Chinese in OWMagazine (单读) and presented in English in collaboration with the LARB China Channel.
You can find the same kind of park in every small town. They’re all identical: a park with a small lake covered in water lilies, a few wooden boats that nobody rows tied to the so-called jetty, bright yellow duck-shaped motorised boats puttering around in the middle of the water. The weeping willows trail their branches as they do in poems, though their leaves are grey with dust, except in late March, when the new growth slowly unfurls, and every living thing seems to come back to life.
In the shabby yet gaudy playpark, there’s only one bar left on the swing, but the bold kids swing high as the trees. There are none of the wooden carousel horses found only on TV and in Faye Wong’s song, but there’s a roundabout with a circle of metal seats, where if you sit for too long the black-green paint flakes off on you. Sometimes it spins so fast that someone throws up, and it takes ages for a person to come and clean up the mess. The smell lingers in the air, but the kids aren’t put off, they line up waiting for a turn, the empty seat like a missing tooth.
At the back of the park is a zoo, where animals do their best to survive. A monkey pokes its gnarled hand through the railings and tries to grab the guokui from my hand. I tease it for a while, then toss it a flat-noodle covered in red chilli oil, which it eats, grimacing with pain, then eyes up the next person’s chilli potato chips. These monkeys have been here a long time, and can all eat chilli – I can imagine them going to a hotpot restaurant, ordering an extra spicy one, scooping out the goose giblets, and breaking up a three-and-a-half-jin carp head with one hand.
I could go on reminiscing, but my memories are ordinary, nothing special. That’s what it is, an ordinary small town, my memory like an over-edited photo, that will always be garish, no matter which filters I use. The ugly buildings, the polluted river, teeth stained brown by all those bowls of chilli noodles, people avidly, hopelessly, wanting to get rich, squeezing excitedly into the photo – this is my hometown.
The park in this small town was originally called Fuxi Park, after the Fuxi River which flows nearby. It’s a branch of the Tuojiang River – it’s not every small town in Sichuan that has a direct link with the Yangtze – in fact, many people in this town have never seen the Yangtze, and their concept of a river is based on the narrow Fuxi River.
And yet, on the outskirts of town live the migrants from the Three Gorges Reservoir, in housing that rises from bald, bare rock, dozens of white-tiled blocks, which, from the bus, in the distance, look like giant public toilets. No one has ever engaged with these migrants. Where do they shop for food? How do they sweep tombs at Qingming? Do they just stay in their blocks playing mahjong and Fight-the-Landlord? Everything about them is a mystery – no one knows and no one cares. There’s no discussing with small town people whether the situation with migrants is fair, because there’s never an appropriate situation in which the subject can be raised without people sneering in response. Hasn’t “the country” already given each family an apartment? To replace their old homes, which were no doubt ramshackle, and not apartment blocks like these. And what about the people who kicked up a fuss and got tens of thousands? Fucking douchebags. The mahjong hall seethes with resentment, the players make “one of a suit” and rail about “the country” being sucked dry.
The Fuxi River might once have been a clear flowing little river, but by the time I first saw it, it was dark and dirty, covered in toilet paper and water bottles – the effluence of life carried downstream – like the pair of broken red flip-flops, thrown in by some household higher up, that floated down to the centre of town. Yet, as with similar rivers in similar towns, it had been forcibly landmarked with hollow bland labels: “Eternally Flowing Ancient Well”, “People of the River Town”, “Legacy of the Salt Road”, “Dragon Pool Calling Fish”, “Dawn Ferry Across the River”, “Fuxi Madrigal”, and at each of these landmarks stood an identical teahouse, selling Maofeng Tea at three yuan a cup, and for non-tea-drinkers, a chrysanthemum tea, to which, connoisseurs would remind you, one should not add rock sugar, or pick out the jujubes. No one drank the Superior Maofeng Tea, listed on the laminated menu at 20 yuan a cup, but which I suspect existed only in legend. If the sky cleared a little, everyone would rush out after lunch to play cards or mahjong, wanting a river-side seat, despite the faint odour that hung over the water, and it took forever for the layers of sunflower seed husks and peanut shells to sink.
Fuxi Park opened in 1930, and soon after that a restaurant opened, the “Beautiful Park”, in the pavilion in the middle of the lake, thanks to the local salt merchants – renowned men of substance and extravagance – who financed Wang Xizhi and Wang Gangquan, father-and-son chefs who had been in Nanjing, to open this high-class establishment in the small town. The international menu offered jambon, brioche and confiture, but only two fish dishes: salted-bean fish, and crispy-skin fish. These days we only eat crispy-skin fish at New Year, a whole carp, deep-fried in a thick batter, staring blankly from the plate, garnished by those who know about these things with a couple of flowers carved in radish or carrot, and almost-white celery tips sprinkled over the sauce. It tastes far too sweet, this town so rarely cooking fish with sugar that people wonder if it’s supposed to taste this way, but we only eat it one day of the year, this fish so sweet that it catches your throat, and it all gets eaten, leaving only a messy skeleton and radish flowers dirty with sauce.
In 1939 the “Beautiful Park” restaurant was bombed by the Japanese. It relocated to the crossroads on the main street, its name changed to “Salt City Food Hall”, but it still sold the same food; beef tripe, ribbons of squid, and finely sliced boiled beef were popular. In the fifties it became state-owned, of course, the neatly standardized history of the town epitomized in the neatly standardized twice-cooked pork, the streaky chunks of meat, consistently, successfully, transformed into “lanterns”, the curved edges slightly burned, like the chunks of history that had been tossed about.
For a short period in 1941, Fuxi Park was renamed as Huisheng Park. Xie Huisheng was Head of the Fushun Section of the Tongmenghui, the Revolutionary Alliance in Sichuan, and, after the Railway Protection Movement, Head of the General Affairs Department of the Sichuan Military Government. The most glorious event of his life was probably when Sun Yat-sen conferred on him the seal inscribed Sun Wen, and sent a telegraph saying, “I appoint Xie Huisheng as a representative with full plenary powers to carry out matters relating to the party work of the Kuomintang. President Sun Wen.” He later turned against Sun and against Communism, and in 1939 died quietly in this town, after being half-paralysed for years. No one knew about him, save for a single article in the Zigong Daily, which summed up his life in a thousand words. People working in government departments read it in the morning while waiting for their Zhuyeqing Tea to steep, put their 6.5 yuan meat-and-two-veg box-lunches on top of it at midday, and then threw the grease-marked paper in the bin. And people on the move would stop and stand under the willows in the park, to enjoy the shade, eat a sponge cake, peel a tangerine, and pull out a flask for a sip of tea, the park’s former name like a cake crumb blown into the lake – a lake that held all kinds of scraps.
Nine years later, it received the “People’s” appellation, when this city, the whole country at once, was being Peopled – the People’s Park, the People’s Road, the People’s Canteen. The people thus honoured continued to play mahjong on the quiet: at first still playing at the complex level, with a full set of tiles, including the four winds and the dragons, until this was no longer possible, the pressure increasing on mahjong as on life. The tiles with the single characters were the first to go, then the tiles with the numbers, then the game was reduced to three-players with only the bamboos and stones, which took all of five minutes, and on automatic mahjong tables – which had two sets of tiles, shuffling one while the other was in use, the newly shuffled tiles rising slowly, as if by magic – the game was sometimes over before the next tiles were ready, and the three players would sit there waiting, their interest in discussing the last game soon waned, not like in the past, when it took ages before one could call “ting pai”.
My grandfather never forgot the time he played a blank tile badly, and lost a jade bracelet that was almost as translucent as water. When Mama went into labour with me, she put up with the pain, played a final four games with Nainai – several times almost managing to make a set of seven pairs – before being taken off to the People’s Mother and Child Health Centre. She was soon back at the mahjong table, the one at my grandparents’ old place was never tidied away, and when I was two-three years old, and the grown-ups were playing, I’d be tethered to the table leg with a length of rope, like a small animal, restricted to two square metres, with that other world clattering above my head. A couple of years later, I was sitting at the table, having learned how to be part of that world, four of us children around the table, the oldest only twelve-thirteen. At first, we played a simple game, making sets with twelve tiles, and when the adults walked past, they’d delight in giving us instructions – get rid of that chicken!
By the time I was six, I was a seasoned mahjong player, even if my arms were too short to reach my opponent’s tiles across the table, and I cried sometimes when I managed to score a “sanfan”. I had only been to the People’s Park a few times when its name changed again, this time to Lantern Park, the idea being to hold an annual festival here. It started with a festival every four years, then every two years, and, finally, every year. The small town still relied on electricity from the Neijiang Baima Power Plant, and when the Lantern Festival was on, the entire town had power cuts in turn, often from first thing in the morning to five-six o’clock in the evening, to maintain the façade of the lanterns lighting up the city at night. But during the long slow days, middle-aged women, unable to watch TV, or play mahjong, or turn on their electric blankets to take a nap, had nothing to do but meet in the garden of their compound for a chat, and when they’d been through every permutation of gossip, and there was no one new caught with their pants down, they had nothing to do but gaze silently at the fragrant yellow flowers that had just opened on some wintersweet shrubs, perhaps wondering if they could take a few home to put in a vase.
In 2008, during the terrible snow, there was an article in Guangzhou’s Southern City News: “Objections to Zigong, Sichuan, cutting citizens’ electricity in order to hold lantern festival”. No one in Zigong knew this newspaper, but Sina featured the article on their homepage, and within a day, it reached Chengdu, and word went round that the head of a department had lodged a criticism, and that the city’s Deputy Head of Propaganda had to rush off to Guangzhou, three days before Chinese New Year. I knew the Deputy Head – when I was little, we’d lived in the same red brick apartment block, with four families on each floor, sharing a toilet that didn’t flush. Of course, he’d moved out as soon as he could, and had the first place in town with its own bathroom – no more emptying piss-pots, no more boiling pans of water to take a bath. I didn’t escape the nightmare of emptying the piss-pot until I went to university. His son was the spitting image of him, well-groomed and well-mannered, and you could just imagine him going from brigade leader to branch secretary of the Communist Youth League to President of the Students’ Association, then joining a certain government organ, always identified as a “leader”. It was just that I found it difficult to imagine that a “leader” had lived in the same shabby little block as us, with the stench of that shared toilet, and the enormous waste water tank in the yard that smelled so badly when the collection people were late that no one dared go outside.
The Deputy Head probably had a tough time that New Year, although nothing happened as a result of that article, nothing ever did in this small town, where time slowly wore everything down. Two years later, there was a project to “Send Power from Sichuan to the East”, and a lot of sub-stations were built, and we stopped having power cuts during the Lantern Festival, more irrefutable evidence of “progress”. We were incarcerated by examples of irrefutable evidence: pensions increasing 10% each year, villagers now had medical insurance for serious illness, 90% of cancer treatment was covered, there were pay rises for public servants and service personnel, including two years’ back pay, the massive loans in the tens of thousands were at last being settled. We could no sooner gripe about these things than we could discuss the Three Gorges migrants – it was inappropriate, and, frankly, ungrateful, except that no one knew exactly to whom they were supposed to be grateful.
It was hard to sell tickets for the Lantern Festival, and the harder they were to sell, the more expensive they became, and by 2013 a ticket cost 100 yuan, enough to cover twenty losses at the mahjong table, not that anyone would spend that amount on the Lantern Festival that everyone had seen. For a few years, government organs and private businesses were obliged to buy a quota of tickets, a scheme that was called “Employer of the Day”. These tickets were distributed as New Year gifts, several tickets per person, and eventually it came about that everyone had tickets, without having to buy them, and the ticket touts at the entrance could not get even 5 yuan for a 15 yuan ticket. Those tickets were allocated to a particular part of town for a particular time, and so the tickets for residents of Gongjing being all on the same day, the no. 11 bus to Lantern Park was crowded like never before. As to whether the big groups paid the right fares into the automatic ticket machines, well, that was a matter of “Renmin suzhi” (People’s quality). I knew what that meant, sometimes we’d be a group of fifteen-sixteen, and would drop in twelve-thirteen yuan, and all feel very virtuous.
The park was soon over-run with free ticket holders, it was impossible to see the lantern installations properly, and there were people clearing their throats and shouting all the way round. Before we went in we arranged, if we were split up, to wait by the Nine Dragon Wall lantern on the hill, but it was a squeeze there too, if you could get to within fifty metres of it. On the lake were installations showing the Eight Immortals Crossing the Sea and the Beautiful Jade Building, and it took ages to squeeze through the crowd to see He Xiangu’s blue silk skirt, only to realize it looked better from a distance. In the sky above, someone was riding a bicycle along a steel wire, doing some daring moves that we couldn’t quite see, the only person in the world with any space, albeit no more than a wire beneath his feet.
In 2004, on Lantern Festival Day, there was a stampede at the Zigong Lantern Festival at Miyun, just outside Beijing, with 37 reported dead. The news, relayed to Zigong by CCTV’s female news-host in a sombre professional tone, brought an unexpected sense of success: the Zigong Lantern Festival had made it all the way to the capital city! No one wanted to hear that Miyun was not the same as Beijing, and that the Lantern Festival there was probably similar to something we’d find in a nearby village, where you pay 5 yuan to see a titillating performance by the travelling circus, the women showing their dedication by wearing a bikini in the bitterest month, their thighs blotchy from the cold. To be honest, if Zigong, a poor, remote small town, felt such a strong need to affirm its existence, it was an ill-mannered and inappropriate way of going about it.
At Chinese New Year 2010, I was newly married, and my parents and I took my husband, who was visiting Zigong for the first time, to see the Lantern Festival. He took it very seriously, and wore the Canon camera that he’d paid over 4,000 yuan for. By this time, workplaces were no longer sponsoring and distributing tickets, but my father still found a way to get four tickets. “Getting tickets” required skill and status, and a kind of subconscious attitude, and when we reached the entrance to the park, we discovered that ticket touts were selling tickets for 20 yuan each. They didn’t look like touts, but stood sheepishly at the side of the road, repeating mechanically, “Lantern Festival! Lantern Festival! Twenty! Twenty!” – I’m being generous with the exclamation marks here, because their fate was written in their voices. The tickets had probably slipped from leaders into the hands of relatives who needed some strings pulled – poor relatives who were migrant workers in town, or laid-off workers, or trike-drivers, though of course the trike-drivers were mostly one or the other of those.
Selling ten tickets would raise New Year money for two children. After all these years, the standard amount of money given to children at New Year in this small town hadn’t gone up – it was still 100 yuan per person. When the generation below you starts having babies, you have to start giving New Year money, and if you don’t have a child of your own to recoup some of it, you can end up shelling out thousands at New Year. Not impossible, but still painful. There were some very brave people who didn’t follow convention, my father’s oldest brother – I called him “Grandpa” – always gave me twenty; before we had 20-yuan notes, he would give me two dark grey tenners. When the time came to hand over the New Year money, I was allowed to keep the 20 yuan, which wasn’t enough to buy anything more than some snaps and magic shells. Grandpa died years ago, I suddenly thought about him one New Year, but I still give out red 100-yuan bills like everyone else, I’m not brave enough to give out two tenners.
My husband was delighted by the Lantern Festival, which was unexpected, as I’d thought he’d endure it politely, just walk around and come out again, but we were there a full three hours, and in the end I had fun too, we put on velour rabbit ears at five yuan a pair and squeezed through the crowd, taking photographs with blurry faces. We took one photo by the lake, one on the hill, and another one of me at the entrance even though the big red lanterns there were nothing remotely special. It was drizzling that day, and as we walked around Lantern Park, people kept catching their shoes on other people’s trousers, and every so often we had to find a quiet place and brush the mud from the bottom of my husband’s trousers. My black suede over-the-knee boots got covered in mud, but for once I didn’t hate this small town’s filthy winters. We took photos constantly, of the Porcelain Dragon, made of exquisite blue and white bowls, with openwork vases for its horns, and tiny drinking cups for its whiskers, and of the phoenix in the Dragon and Phoenix Roundel, which was made from the commonest kind of white ashtray, and was perching in a wutong tree. All the teahouses used this kind of ashtray, and if they got broken, customers were never asked to pay. The Dragon and Phoenix Flying combination was made of silkworm cocoons, and the Peacock Spreading its Tail was made of tiny penicillin vials, which set me looking for the installation made of transfusion bottles, but it wasn’t there any more. When I was little I believed the penicillin vials were all used ones, and it was comforting, after an injection, to think the vial was going to such a good place.
Not long after the Lantern Festival became a fixture, the zoo was closed down and the animals must have died. I suspect that the bones of the thin tiger ended up steeped in alcohol, but I don’t know what they did with the lions, wolves, camels and giraffes, just the thought of those huge bodies being buried somewhere gives me goosebumps. They’d need such big pits. You couldn’t take them to be cremated, and no one would eat them. The monkeys could have been sold to street performers, who’d put a chain around their necks and get them to do somersaults, then have them walk around shaking a little bowl asking for money. A few years later someone from out of town took the lease on the hill at the back, and rebuilt the zoo, charging an extra 10 yuan on top of the admission for the park. Once again, there was a Siberian tiger, and a few big grey wolves, but they still didn’t get enough to eat, and were almost on their last legs, though it didn’t look as though there’d be tiger bone liquor any time soon. What baffled people were the chickens, all roosters, of the commonest type, and why they deserved to be on show like that. And the roosters probably felt a bit awkward themselves, with nothing to do but squawk all day long. The old monkey mountain was now another paying attraction, a ghost town, with a big banner at the entrance: “Welcome to the Eighteen Layers of Hell”. The Lantern Festival lasted almost six months, including preparation, during which time the zoo couldn’t open for business, and the boss kept losing money, I don’t know how he’s managed to stagger on and keep going with those animals. Did he never ask why he couldn’t open for business when the Lantern Festival was on? Couldn’t the visitors who came to see the Lantern Festival go to see the Siberian tiger and the American jaguar first? In any case, the answer would have been “government regulation”, which, in the local dialect was said with a drawl, as if to make it seem more convincing.
I have an uncle who used to work in the Municipal Glass Factory, later renamed as the Sichuan Glass Group, which sounded more Western. His handwork was superb, he could make full sets of knives in best quality steel, and he once gave us a few kebab skewers, made, of course, of free steel from his work unit. People at the printing works took paper home; people at the salt works never had to buy table salt, bath salts and footbath salts; office workers used the work phone freely – this was the rule in the small town, and you know the saying that only fools and horses work for a living. But steel kebab skewers in Sichuan? People would laugh at them! They look like imported goods, and I’ve never used them, but they’ve shown up again when I’ve moved house, still sharp and shiny, but people in the small town use bamboo skewers, one for veg, and two for ribs and chicken wings.
In the early nineties, this uncle was transferred to making lanterns. He travelled to lantern festivals all over the place, in the days when people who travelled for work were held in awe, and the farthest most people had been was Chengdu, which in itself took eight hours by train. Thinking about it now, they were like migrant workers moving wherever the work was, probably living in ten-person rooms, sleeping on sticky sheets under grubby covers, not daring to take their coats off when they went to bed. They still got their salaries, but people who travelled for work got a supplement, paid by the day, again not so different from migrant workers. But the term “migrant worker” is such a deep-rooted pejorative in the small town, that if a man’s clothes show even the slightest wear, people say he’s “just like a migrant worker”. In the same way, you mustn’t call out “Xiaojie” [Miss] when you want to ask the waitress for the bill – and the more attractive she is the worse the offence – because everyone knows of the other service industry that flourishes in town, the more lucrative one that’s taboo.
Anyway, this skill he had at making lanterns safeguarded him. He was one of the first to be allocated an apartment in a private development outside the factory compound, where he kept two hefty white cats, and at weekends he went fishing in the reservoir, using a rod he’d made himself, and even managed to hook up a black mullet now and then. At the time when almost all middle-aged workers were being laid off, he still had a job, and after moving securely into retirement, the money he’d accumulated plus his parents’ life savings were enough to buy a two-storey apartment in the small town’s famous “Salt City Garden” development. He gradually moved into old age, the most typical small town retired worker you can imagine, and I still hold him in the same awe as I did all those years ago, because never once in his life was he laid off.
After 1995, almost every worker in the small town was laid off. The Gongjing Salt Factory, the Xinhua Printing Factory, the Galvanised Iron Wire Factory, the Floor Tile Factory, the Dried Noodle Factory – none of the work units were “viable”, they said. I was very suspicious about this expression – salt’s renowned for bringing out the flavors in food, it was sprinkled on the little dipping dishes that went with Sichuanese hotpot, there were never any seats first thing in the morning at the row of stalls selling fat-n-tripe noodles and chicken noodles on the street by the cinema, and the noodle-eating went on from breakfast through to the middle of the night, and although I could only manage one two-liang bowl of noodles, those doing manual work could eat two three-liang bowls, so why weren’t the Gongjing Salt Factory and the Dried Noodle Factory by the bridge “viable”?
The reason never became clear, meanwhile I was living in the middle of a sea of laid-off workers that included my mother, my aunts on both sides of the family, and not just my mother’s sister, but her husband and daughter, my best friend’s parents... a sea of sadness, in which every drop of water was a worry. In 1995, my cousin had just turned twenty, she’d graduated from technical college two years earlier – she could have gone to Senior High, but she was in the top three for exam results and the technical college said they’d waive the three years’ tuition, and guarantee her a job at the Galvanized Iron Wire Factory, where her parents had worked all their lives, and they were very grateful, so she went, changing from a young girl who combed and braided her hair to a lathe worker who coiled up her braid and tucked it inside her blue worker’s cap. She used to give me things she’d made on the lathe, a little gourd, or a couple of bullets, in shiny steel that would never rust. Back in the days when no one had hot water at home, she took me to the showers in the factory, where all the women washed their clothes, naked, and I got to recognize their sagging breasts and brown nipples. They brought their wash-boards with them specially, and never turned off the taps, “the state’s paying”, they all said. To take full advantage of the free water, we stayed in the shower till our skin turned white and wrinkly, and stepped out of the shower feeling light-headed, which was wasn’t a problem because we always took a couple of sweets with us. Taking advantage of the state became an essential life-skill, although no one quite knew to what extent we were being taken advantage of ourselves.
When my cousin had been laid off for two full years, this twenty-year-old woman who seldom went out would occasionally come to our place to borrow a book, and leave with an armload of Selected Novellas and Selected Fiction. She loved to read, but had probably never bought a book with her own money – it was probably unheard of in her world to spend money on reading. We both liked Chi Li’s To the End of Time, though I preferred Fang Fang, and after reading Tie Ning’s How Far is Forever?, I worried that she might become as stupid as Bai Daxing and be used by every man she met.
In 1997 my father found a job for her, as a book-keeper in his friend’s computer company. That kind of job had no status in the small town, and was called “helping a private boss”. She had this no-status status for seventeen years, moving from one private boss to another, just about getting by in Zigong Computer City, where her lathe-turning skills were completely irrelevant, eating her box-lunch amid the sprawling guts of computer equipment, and at one point opening an internet café, unable to earn more than 20,000 even though she was taking turns with her parents to man the place all night. Last year it was my father again who found a way of getting her into the Zigong government as a cashier, which was temporary work, with a net salary of less than a thousand a month, and she still had to do the accounts for a few small companies in order to be able to raise her son, but every morning she put on her high heels and walked twenty minutes to the commuter bus stop; having gone round and round in circles for seventeen years, she could feel the glow of having a proper status again. She was no longer that twenty-year-old laid-off worker, she was working for the city government now, and at New Year and festivals there’d be shopping vouchers and twenty pig’s trotters.
Most of the laid-off workers had been at the salt factories: Gongjing Salt Factory, Ziliujing Salt Factory, Da’an Salt Factory and Dengguan Salt Factory. There are three reasons why people know about Zigong: dinosaur fossils, lanterns, and salt wells. Very few famous people have visited the small town, and hardly any of them left any famous quotes, with the exception of Lu You’s description, written while he “temporarily held office” in Rong county: “Long pipes suck brine from the wells, then it’s boiled till it looks like snow, well-pulleys creaking and squeaking close to the road”. It’s a terrible poem, but appears over and over again in all kinds of material relating to Zigong, as though this poor little town daren’t forget even the tiniest bit of its history. Except that’s not really the case, because the city annals don’t say how many people died in the three years of the Great Famine, and there are only fleeting references to the “Cultural Revolution” in accounts of a few notable people, and yet this poem of Lu You’s is a fixture. He wrote it in 1174, seven hundred years before the Shenhai Well at the foot of the Ruanjiaba Mountains. It’s the most famous salt well in Zigong, and is still in operation, and I hear that it’s still using oxen to draw out the salt, then boiling the salt with low pressure natural gas produced in the well, and that visiting leaders always want to see it. Hu Jintao went in 2003, by which time the laid-off employees from the salt factories had more or less been relieved, which meant the leaders could come and marvel at history without seeming hypocritical, and there’s no denying it really is a beautiful salt well. It’s been in operation a hundred and fifty years, since the Daoguang era, yet my grandfather’s big ceramic goldfish bowl that was removed and taken to the police station in the “Cultural Revolution” still hasn’t been returned, and every time my father passes the police station he says resentfully, “that’s ours!” But everything that was “ours” has been lost, and what use is there in harking after a goldfish bowl? And is it right, when other families have lost everything that was “theirs”, to hark on about “our” goldfish bowl? However, when everything was being plundered and ripped apart, this salt well was preserved in perfect condition, which in itself is a miracle worth marveling at.
When we went home this summer, we went to the Shenhai Well, and paid 20 yuan each for a ticket. It was drizzling and overcast, and the photos taken with the newly purchased Leica have a twilight tone to them. The towering coniferous frame, the clouds of steam rolling above the boiling salt in the round pans, fired by natural gas, two salt-boilers in vests, shorts and slippers sitting in wicker chairs, scrolling through their phones, an enamel mug of tea by their side. It was reassuring to see some salt factory workers who hadn’t been laid off.
People in the small town didn’t talk about being “relieved”, we talked about being “bought out”, because “relieved” seemed to imply something positive, whereas “bought out” was just about money. The salt factory workers could all tell you the cost of being bought out: it was the same for all of them, 13,950 yuan. Taking this money meant that you formally agreed that officialdom could delete you from their books: your position, your length of service, your future. Fifth Auntie came to discuss this with family members, should she or shouldn’t she take the “buy out” money? Before being laid off, she’d never earned more than 200, and to have six years of wages in her hand all at once seemed to offer a rare sense of security. But her sisters urged her not to, because they had all been laid off, and it was much easier if you could blame everything on a common enemy. People weren’t taking the money, they didn’t want to be bought out.
In fits and starts, people organized groups of laid-off workers to do sit-ins in front of the local government, everyone had time on their hands, and merrily went along, women sat in front of the entrance and knitted, and some took home-roasted pumpkin seeds, and left a trail of sticky shells wherever they walked. It’s not easy to crack pumpkin seeds, so mostly people chewed them and spat them out, which made a mess on the ground. No one really thought these sit-ins were any use, but they were only about forty years old, their days were dragging on, and they needed to do something to while away the time. In the end, most people opted to be bought out, because they couldn’t relax without something tangible to hold on to. More than six thousand people were “relieved” after the Zigong Salt Factory went bankrupt, they took their 13,950 and went away, and whether they were doing a little business of their own, or some kind of manual labour, everyone went to “help a private boss”, because they couldn’t help the state boss any more.
For over a decade there was not a cent of regular income, no one knows how they got through it, but somehow they did, and at New Year the table was still covered in food, and strings of preserved sausage hung from the walls. Everyone played mahjong, it was just that it went from ten yuan per table to 1 yuan with a cap on “sanfan” wins, and the same money, lost and won, went round and round the group, and in the end no one really lost or won, and another day was successfully passed. Not long after being laid off, Fifth Auntie got divorced, and rented a place out of town on her own. It was a simple place with no upstairs, and as a girl I loved the romanticism of it, with oleanders by the door, and the squat stone table and seats in the garden, and at Qingming after sweeping the tombs, we’d gather there and eat wormwood buns with a tofu, bamboo shoot and chopped meat filling. I didn’t know that when it rained, she had to cover the floor in wash-basins to catch the water, and that the nearest public toilet was a seven-eight minute walk away, that she had frequent power-cuts, and that to save money on candles she went to bed at seven.
Later, when we bought our new place, we cleared out our old one so she could have it, the one in the block that the Deputy Head of Propaganda had lived in. Eventually, she moved back into town, and after several attempts, found a new man, a migrant worker who was “helping a private boss”. They didn’t get a certificate though, just moved in together in our 30 square metre one-reception-one-bedroom, then knocked through the reception to the balcony, which let in a lot of light, though she seldom dared to open the door because the cess-pit was always leaking, and it took a few days for the worker to come and fix it. There were a lot of people in the small town who didn’t get certificates, and everyone assumed they were married, except that it was no more difficult for them to split up than it was for them to start calling each other husband and wife. My cousin had divorced several times before he was thirty, exactly how many times, I’m not sure, because after a while people stopped asking, it happened so often that people stopped being curious.
Fifth Auntie and her man sold vegetables for a while, getting up at four every morning to hit the wholesalers. Then, two women helped her shell peas, which they could sell for three yuan a jin, shelling them until their fingernails split, on a good day she could earn ten to twenty yuan, but less than ten and she’d start to wipe away tears, the pressure too much for her. Then, they stopped selling veg, and she went to wash dishes in a restaurant, but she was back within a few days, unable to take the strain of standing on her feet for over ten hours a day. Having always been the baby of the family, she’d known hunger as a child, but never exhaustion like this.
After 2005, this cohort of laid-off workers started to draw their pensions, and after handing over 10,000 in retirement insurance, they could start checking the money on their card every month. At first, they got six-seven hundred a month, which was way more than the last salary payment they’d had, and finally they changed from laid-off workers to retired workers. This was a status they could be proud of, because if both sets of parents were retired workers, it would be easier for their offspring to find a partner, knowing that they could look after themselves, and not be a “burden”.
Fifth Auntie hadn’t reached that age, but like everyone else, she got someone to put together some false papers saying that she used to be a salt-boiler at a salt factory, that it was very difficult work and that she could retire five years early. She was still the last laid-off worker in the family to draw her pension, and she made a big fuss about it. As for the false papers, two years later, we heard that the Head of Retirement in the Bureau of Works had been arrested, and sentenced to six years. I admire how, after losing everything, Fifth Auntie finally managed to get one up on the state, as if she’d been mugged on the street, chased after the mugger, and managed to snatch back a sponge cake that had been in her bag.
Last year when I went home, she’d done some work on our old place, so that when you opened the back door on to the balcony, there were a couple of steps covered in white tiles, and a concrete table and stools, also covered in white tiles, all well thought through, where guests could sit and play Fight-the-Landlord. After dinner, we sat on the steps chatting, the evening breeze blowing through the loofah-plants and string beans that our neighbours had planted, into a room full of formerly laid-off, but now retired, workers, all feeling comfortably cool, having been through the worst and emerged the other side, as though they’d all snatched back their own sponge cakes.
Of course, that first tide of laid-off workers also affected the Third Front industries. The Third Front industries were one of the mysteries of this small town, the locals couldn’t really explain them, other than to make vague generalizations about those people from Beijing, and those people from Shanghai. Although it had been more than forty years since they moved to the small town, the Third Front workers were still defined as those people from Shanghai, those people from Beijing. It wasn’t that the town didn’t accept them, rather that they cherished the exclusivity, they didn’t want to join us, they didn’t want to be known as those people from Zigong.
Years ago, when I was still working in Guangzhou, I went with my then boyfriend to see Wang Xiaoshuai’s film Shanghai Dreams, about Third Front workers. Before the film started, we saw Gao Yuanyuan – the lead actress, who plays Qinghong – in the distance, wearing a very plain white mini-skirt, and Converses, and my boyfriend, once he could speak again, said “Just look at her legs.” Wang Xiaoshuai was standing beside her, like the sad fat guy. I remember him, before the screening, saying with a big wave of his hand: “The film’s a tragedy. It’s very powerful.” After watching the film, which turned out to have nothing to do with the Third Front Movement, I felt I had seen a tragedy, but no power at all. It was as though he’d been so intent on telling everyone it was a tragedy that he’d made it soft and mushy.
On August 2nd 1964, the USS Maddox opened fire on Vietnamese submarines, and the impact was felt along the south China coast. Two weeks later, at a meeting of the Secretariat of the Central Committee, Mao Zedong said in his uniquely paranoid way: Imperialism will generate invasion and war, we must immediately prepare for war, immediately move all the industries that are concentrated in the big cities and coastal regions to the interior. Of course, everyone did exactly what Mao said, and Zigong got its first Third Front industry: the Pressure Valve Factory testing centre, and in no time at all, there was a long list of names: the Hard Alloy Factory, the Malleable Iron Factory, the Eastern Boiler Factory, the Wire Nail Factory, the Asphalt Felt Factory... at the time, it took an average of six minutes to persuade someone from Beijing to move to Zigong, they packed the next day, and set off the day after that, wearing a little red badge, and after tens of hours on the train arrived in the small town. Their daughters, young Qinghongs with lovely legs, went with them, and even chefs, as if the small town they were going to couldn’t make a decent tray of steamed buns already. Though admittedly, people still talk about the quality of the bread in the Third Front factories to this day. Zigong is a merger of two towns – Ziliujing and Gongjing – and in winter, some of them walked all the way from Gongjing to Ziliujing just to buy a few heads of cabbage at the Yuan Yuan Jing Market. It was a long and winding road, uphill and downhill, and every time they came across a heap of rubbish left by the side of the road they thought they’d finally reached the countryside. I could imagine them walking through the small town in the dark of winter, hugging cabbages to their chests, the cabbages probably glowing in the dark. But I had my concerns about the cabbages, the small town was so damp that their hearts would soon rot, a northern cabbage doesn’t get on with the southern winter.
When I went up to Senior High, those mysterious Third Front kids started appearing in class, because the schools for Third Front factory workers’ kids only went up to middle school, and like little streams that are determined to make their own way to the sea, but are eventually forced by the terrain, or in this case, the university entrance exam policy, they had to join us local dialect-speakers in the mainstream whether they liked it or not. I suspect they could speak the dialect, but didn’t want to. When people from Beijing speak Beijing dialect, they stretch out the words; we want to laugh but we daren’t, because at the end of the day, we’re no better when we read chlorine as “cluorin”. When Shanghai people talk to each other in Shanghainese, those soft sounds seem to come from the heart. And when they talk to us, in Mandarin, they end every sentence with that soft “mmm”, so that even asking where to add an auxiliary line in solid geometry sounds like a come-on.
In the third year of Senior High, we were all worrying about our choice of direction, deliberating over which city to go to. Even those who were planning to stay in Sichuan had to decide between Chengdu or Chongqing. I was only interested in three places: Nanjing University, Wuhan University and Chongqing University, because I had set my mind on going to a city on the Yangtse. But, for the Qinghongs, those daughters of the Third Front workers, the future was very clearly mapped out: those from Beijing would go back to Beijing, those from Shanghai would go back to Shanghai, the university being less important than the city, and nothing being more important than going home. Though I didn’t know how they could go home, if they didn’t have places to go in Beijing or Shanghai, would they really be squeezing in with grandparents, aunties and uncles?
There was one girl in our class who went back to Shanghai in the third year of Senior High to sit the exam, her family having gone through some complicated hoops to get her residency reassigned, the plan being that she would live at a relative’s place for a few months, then sit the exam, go to university, graduate, find a job, and after her parents had retired and returned to Shanghai, they’d pool their money and buy a place. They had a long road ahead, but their patience was astonishing, they’d been waiting almost forty years, another ten was neither here nor there.
Before she left, the whole class went for a day out in Suoluo Valley to wish this chubby girl with glasses well, we cooked on an open fire in the mountain valley, and played mahjong by the river, each of us putting 10 cents on the table, and finally everyone cried, real or fake tears, and gave her a few gifts that we’d bought at the nice shop by the bridge – a musical box and a notebook, I think – with the 20 yuan we’d each chipped in for her, which was two weeks’ spending money for me. After that, I never heard from her, but after graduation I thought about her a few times when I saw the price of Shanghai property on the news, and was worried for her. It had gone up to 20,000 a square metre even in the suburbs, would she be able to afford a place? But they could always live further out, as long as it was still Shanghai, and in any case it would never be as far as the small town. Many years later, I came across her again on my middle school friends’ Wechat group, and she was always posting photos of herself having a jolly time. She wore contact lenses now, and still had that round face, but her chin had thinned down to a stubborn point. She did her make-up like all the Shanghai girls do, and plucked her eyebrows to a slim line. I’d press “like” now and then, but most of the time I felt I didn’t know her at all.
One of “them” had a crush on me, and was forever giving me Shanghai zongzi, lotus-wrapped snacks, that his grandmother made, big ones, weighing about half-a-jin, and with a chunk of streaky pork inside, and when the fat melted, it seeped into every grain of rice. Whenever I ate one of these I felt sick for the rest of the day, but I still wanted to eat them, because everyone said that was what people in Shanghai ate. Sometimes I’d go to his place, in the accommodation block belonging to the Vacuum Pressure Factory, which at the time was a smart-looking two-bedrooms-and-a-reception. In his room were various sequels to Dream of the Red Chamber, which I borrowed, one at a time. Each sequel would end with Baoyu marrying Daiyu, and I would read a book with almost five hundred pages, just to read the tacky ending.
His family must have had some money, because even before the university exam, they had already bought a place in Shanghai, and moved back there. His grades were good, and he got into the chemistry department at Tongji University. He wrote me a couple of letters, but I never saw him again, because he never had any reason to come back to this small town. I couldn’t help thinking they were like the trashy Dream of the Red Chamber sequels – you wade through five hundred long slow pages, knowing that eventually you’re going to get that happy ending.
This essay first appeared in my book Tales from a Small Town, and when it was published, he left a message on my blog, saying he recognized himself in the book. Details that I thought had been forgotten came flooding back: for example, I vaguely knew that he and one of our classmates had started (and ended) a relationship, but, like most people, he had vanished from my world, just as I had vanished from theirs. I tried sometimes to remember what he had written in those two letters, but no matter how hard I tried I couldn’t remember a single word. My memories went back further than that: for example, when I was fifteen-sixteen, I didn’t like to sleep after lunch, and would go back to school early; he ate lunch at school, and although we weren’t in the same class, I would always go and talk with him, he’d explain a couple of chemistry subjects that I wasn’t exactly unable to work out for myself, and I would tell him about the story I was writing, and the TV dramas I was watching. One year, on my birthday, he gave me a big bunch of red roses, and as I took them I kept wondering how much they must have cost, and if his mother would tell him off if she knew.
I thought about him when I was writing the book, of course, and looked up his unusual name, and found an article titled “Research on the Synthesis of Biapenem”. What’s more, it was a signed copy, and as I looked at that very familiar signature that ended with an exquisite flourish, I suddenly burst out laughing, by myself that afternoon in New York, because it seemed, through the benzene rings in that article, rings that I couldn’t begin to understand, that I had finally reconnected with a past I had never meant to drop, but hadn’t been able to pick up again, because we had all left the small town, and our lives would never cross again.
Leaving the small town meant coming out of exile for some, and going into exile for others. My classmates from middle school went off to cities of all different sizes, Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Chicago, Paris, at the very least to Chengdu and Chongqing, with fewer than 10 percent staying in the small town, as though staying behind implied some predisposition to failure.
The day I went to get my marriage certificate, because of a little issue with my residency papers, I went through a few friends of friends, and got help from the deputy head of the municipal government – it’s one of the most comforting aspects of living in a small town, that no matter what the issue, you can always find people who can open up links to other people. It might turn out that the doctor treating my mother’s father lived in the same township as us when he was a boy, that the mother of my last-but-one’s boyfriend might be Deputy Secretary in the hospital, that her sister might be talking to her son’s boss and discover that the boss’s husband had been my father’s student, and that even when I was bitten by a dog and went for rabies shots, the head of the epidemic prevention station was someone I knew from years ago. It’s not like being in Beijing, where we’ve lived for all these years, paying so much in tax, and not having any connections to speak of. I’ve been away from the small town so long that the word “connection” actually carries some warmth.
The marriage registration office was dark and cramped, and the formally dressed deputy head of the municipal government and I spent five minutes staring at each other before we worked out that we’d been middle school classmates, not just classmates but in the same group of friends. There were four of us in the group, and we’d all gone to university in different cities, and then worked in different cities: I’d spent three years in Guangzhou before moving to Beijing. One girl had done her degree in Chengdu, then her masters in Chongqing, and had been in Shenzhen ever since as a legal consultant – the last time we met was in 2010, when I went to Shenzhen for work, and she took me and her then boyfriend to eat Taiwanese food, then saw me back to my hotel on her own, and we sat in the run-down Home Inn and chatted for an hour about boyfriends, as women do when we get together. Afterwards we both split up with those boyfriends, I married soon after, she carried on meeting new people, and after a while we fell out of touch. Another girl had been in Beijing all along, and after her masters at Peking University had become a court official, but we lived on opposite sides of the city, separated east-west at either end of the eternally long Chang’an Avenue, and didn’t have time to meet. The four of us hadn’t met up in the small town for a long time, because the three who’d left slipped in and out like shadows, and I had no idea that one of us had become the deputy head of the municipal government.
After we’d done the certificate, I asked “How’ve you been?” which is the blandest way of asking after someone, but I really couldn’t come up with a better alternative for a forced back-and-forth, and, fortunately, her response was equally bland: she’d married, her husband was a public servant, they’d bought an apartment with a lift in a new compound in Huidong (an apartment with a lift implying a certain quality of life), she had a son, who was very good, but raising him was tiring. It took us five minutes to cover the time that lay between us, but what really lay between us were the cracks in the city.
To call ourselves exiles may seem rather contentious, an abuse of such a loaded word, when there are so many people in the small town who genuinely match this description. Let’s not forget how Fifth Auntie, after being laid off, took the train to Shanxi, more than twenty hours on a hard seat, because a relative in her man’s village had come back from Shanxi, saying there were mines there, and money, and she and her husband, a middle-aged couple who couldn’t make any money in the small town, found a labour contractor to take them there. They phoned us a few times during those two-three months, but didn’t elaborate, then we wired them some money, and as soon as they had enough to buy tickets they came back. They still didn’t elaborate, but the odd word slipped out at the mahjong table or at meal times: how it was impossible to clean the coal from their fingernails, how they had to sleep on the ground, told in the most unexciting way.
But that’s not to say all migrant workers are like that. Take, for example, Zheng Xiaoqiong, from Nanchong, who was a migrant worker in Dongguan. For five years no one called her by her name; she was “Hey, 245”, one of the thousands upon thousands who were trying to find their identity, only her way was to write poetry, at night after work, overcome with exhaustion, at the metal table in the eight-person dorm. She continued to write until she won the People’s Literature Prize, with her poems about machines, iron, nails, assembly lines and rent: “the black lock, the golden instant noodles, bowl, and plate, a washed spring onion stem – the only hint of green left in this life.” Fifth Auntie couldn’t write poetry; all she could say was how it took ages to clean the coal from their fingernails. I think her not saying much was because she didn’t want to talk about even harder times when life was already hard enough, having been branded a “laid-off worker” all those years, she didn’t want, on account on those three months, to be branded again, this time as a migrant worker.
Among our distant relatives there was a young girl who’d been brought up by her mother’s parents. No one knew who her father was, and I’ve never actually seen her mother. On the rare occasions when the family could get together, and she wasn’t there, everyone said vaguely that she was “working in Guangzhou”. No one asked what kind of work she was doing, because they all knew the answer. She was an attractive young girl, and I could imagine her mother having the same big round eyes, long lashes and white skin. I longed to see her at one of the ever-dwindling family gatherings, both out of curiosity and a kindness I’m embarrassed to admit. I wanted to meet her, this girl who’d lived in exile for years, this girl who probably couldn’t be called a girl any more, this girl whom everyone secretly called “Xiaojie”.
My small town seems, after being shaken about for so many years, to have settled down, and everyone around me has a regular income, not too big, not too small, but enough to get by on. This income has settled the waters of the Fuxi River that had been stirred up by all sorts of poverty, and no one can bear the thought of being stuck in the mud, or of taking a scoop of the river and examining the past. A few years before, my cousin had been driving an unlicensed car, for which he kept being arrested and fined 6,000 each time, which meant the whole family being on tenterhooks for months. He’d spend more than ten hours a day running around, earning back that 6,000, until the next time he was fined, and had to pay out another 6,000. He’s stopped that now, and is doing odd jobs helping Third Auntie who sells health products: doing deliveries, and occasionally, having the gift of the gab, encouraging old men and women to spend over 7,000 on a hydrotherapy mattress, for which Third Auntie pays him 2,000 a month. He’s divorced again, and this time kept the daughter, whom he adores and treasures, now that he’s able to love a daughter, and is no longer the driver of an unlicensed car, who might at any moment be detained for a couple of weeks. It was a nice surprise when the little girl’s talent for sport was spotted, she did gymnastics first, then joined the city’s youth diving team, earning herself a free place at the best primary school in the small town. She’s lost three teeth, and is black from the sun, and I worry that she’ll be tossed out by the inhuman system, like the majority of sports people, and yet I don’t want to give up any hope that she might become the next Gao Min, the next Diving Queen.
The cousin who sold magnolia essence in the market has become a retail assistant selling real leather ladies’ handbags. She’s divorced too, her son stayed with her, and she’s found another man in small business, they don’t have much money, but they can manage. They lived at home to start with, but were thrown out because they kept coming home late. When I went back last summer, I saw her one evening at a kebab stall, with a chubby friend, who only had a few skewers of vegetables in front of her, but ordered a bottle of beer. It was a hot, dry evening, and I watched as she slowly finished the whole bottle.
It looks as though everyone is tending a new life full of hope, whether that new life is an apartment or a new job. Property prices in the small town have gone up several times in a few years, and everyone moans about it over tea or dinner, though not as plaintively as the people in Beijing, because after all everyone has a place. In 2010 I sold my small place in Beijing, and bought an apartment with a lift in the small town. I bought it having only seen the floorplan, and only visited it once after buying it. There was not much natural light, and some worker had taken a dump on the black concrete floor – my parents tried to comfort me by saying it was a good omen, that I was going to be rich. I didn’t get rich, but I kept the apartment, I didn’t want to rent it out, and even when the price shot up by almost 100,000, I didn’t sell. In the last two years I’ve even moved my residency from Guangzhou back to my parents’ house, because I’ve always imagined coming back to this small town one day. I’m taking all these little steps, and maybe one day I’ll have taken so many that I actually get there.
The streets in the small town are as cramped and dirty as ever, but the people who walk them are truly blessed, they have regular incomes, they have insurance, they have property, and no one can imagine life any other way. They might say the more money the better, but it seems no one really has the motivation or energy to go and make money. In the past, they used to speculate, and over a decade ago when there were limits on entering the market, a few people would set up a joint account, each putting in a few thousand, and when they had time they’d go and watch the shares, just like all those years ago when they did the sit-ins at the entrance to the government, the knitters knitting, the seed crackers cracking seeds, the flashing numerals on the screen giving them unlimited hope. The shares went up, of course, but they didn’t take the money out, just rolled it back into the market, celebrating with a lot more mutton broth. Then shares dropped from 6,000 to 2,000 without causing great waves in the town, and they still go to the stock market, in the same way people take a walk by the river after dinner. Anyway, they’ve forgotten about the money, and as long as they don’t sell, they don’t consider it lost. I know that one day if the price goes back up, the people in the small town will celebrate with a mutton broth dinner, but in the meantime no one is tracking how much time has been lost, or the rate of inflation, and whenever the numbers do go down, they will find a way to reassure themselves – they can always find a way to comfort themselves in any story of humiliation or harm.
I wanted to tell some stories that can offer no comfort, but this small town readily accepts false comfort, like a mahjong player who loses round after round but still believes a change of luck will produce a “sanfan”, even after the game has already been decided. The chips they lost have been cashed in, and can never be played again.
This piece first appeared in Chinese in Dandu (单读) Magazine and is published in collaboration with the LARB China Channel.