I’m awake. The night, right now, is silent; even the ticking of the clock has subsided. The hour hand stands squarely on the figure 5, while the second hand is motionless, refusing to take any further steps. It’s tired, or maybe asleep. I don’t mean to disturb it, because I know it’s dreaming.
Huang Feilong walks into the bathroom, turns on the fan, and lights a cigarette. Smoking is prohibited during quarantine at the Meihua Hotel. The only way to get cigarettes is to use the courier, contacting and paying him in advance. And it is safe to smoke in the bathroom at 5 o’clock every morning when the staff are all asleep.
He doesn’t turn on the light. He feels comfortable in the dark. Curling up in the corner, he can look back on the past. When he was a child, he could become engrossed in books, regardless of trivial distractions. The hard work he put into studying paid off, and he was admitted to an elite university. Naive as he was then, by learning to smoke and pretending to be an adult, he tried to prove that he had grown up. He did everything that he couldn’t do before, and enjoyed provoking strangers on the street by smoking a cigarette, which he thought was pretty cool. Once, in junior year, he became involved in trouble, owing to some minor disagreement. He raised his fists but was punched to the ground. The attacker choked him with his leg, hit his face savagely, and dug into his eyeballs. He was covered with blood from his eyes, but no fear surfaced in his mind.
Sleek wisps of smoke waft in front of the mirror, obscuring his vision. In the mirror, his body is as a shadow, unrecognisable apart from its outline.
A few years later, he discovered that life as an adult was not that easy. After graduating from university, he became a husband and a father. For the sake of stability, he chose to work in a state-owned construction company. To his surprise, he was sent to Serbia last year to supervise infrastructure projects for the Belt and Road Initiative. But while China may have wiped out active cases of Covid-19, the pandemic overseas was gradually reaching its peak. Taking the opportunity of official evacuation, he finally boarded the chartered plane home.
Today he learned that his former classmate’s start-up company has been listed on the stock exchange. He is upset, even sick with jealousy, but still refuses their invitation to collaborate. He lives in a state of indecision. He used to be ambitious, but now he is wary. He will no longer work in another city; he wants to be with his son as he grows up.
The sound of running water disturbs his thoughts. He leans against the wall and looks towards the ceiling. He faintly hears the sound of coughing, which is surely from the room upstairs, but he has no idea who lives in it.
He used to love his wife, who helped him let go of his naivety and become a real adult. He felt that she would bring him hope in his life, so they got married at a young age. But now he regrets it. He doesn’t love her anymore. If they had not had a child, he would find a way to get divorced. He cannot figure out why things have gone that way, especially why his love faded. The only thing that he can blame is his snap marriage, as well as the quick arrival of their son. Looking back, his wife’s only asset is her ability to put him at ease, through loving him unconditionally.
He has nothing more to do as the cigarette burns out. There’s a six-hour time difference with Serbia. It’s not yet time for him to feel sleepy. He is once again interrupted by the sound of water. When it stops, the thread of his thoughts is lost. He gets frustrated.
He takes out his phone and opens the WeChat group for the quarantined residents of Meihua; he never usually says anything in it, except to confirm his ordered food and express deliveries. But now, he tries to find out the identity of the person upstairs through the chat log.
At 05:01 a.m., with pent-up anger, he types a line to the group: “Who’s still in the toilet at this late hour, not taking a shower but leaving the water running? Don’t they let people rest?”
But it’s futile. He gives up.
Huang is my only friend here; he was ahead of me in line for check-in. After learning that the quarantine hotel was non-smoking, he took his last chance to sneak out and smoke, and because of this, we met again at the corner of the hotel parking lot.
Despite his maturity, his words are needlessly offensive, making him sound a little childish. What happened from the age of 18 to 35, transforming him from fighting with strangers to longing to accompany his son through his life? This is something I don’t know. I guess that he became dissatisfied at work, and that reality didn’t match his dreams. But can parental love truly be compensated for? He often examines what he has lost, and then thinks about the things that are still there, such as his son (his own product) and his wife (his own choice). He hasn’t changed, always regretting first, and comforting himself later.
He must think that I am like he was back then. No doubt, we have some things in common, such as our feelings about leaving university; some people cherish the ‘beauty’ of youth, but we agree that those years were brimming with a sort of stupidity. When I spoke of this, he responded with cruel words, as if denying me, or more likely denying his past self.
I did him a big favour: I taught him the way to bring in cigarettes. But what he couldn’t know was that the person who left the shower on was also me; I wanted to smoke, like him, but I was afraid of complete silence, the flowing water reassured me. Of course, I won’t tell him all this. His line in the group chat, on the contrary, has triggered my curiosity; I wonder what will happen next.
Zhuang Shuying has no intention of sleeping; she has adapted to a life of wandering, accustomed to the upside-down days and nights, and moment-by-moment anxiety. She works in an investment bank, and her career is on the rise. She is brave enough to take on responsibility, spending time on projects away from home. During the Chinese New Year, she was supposed to go back and rest, but the sudden outbreak of Covid-19 in China kept her in the US for another three months. Now, a new project has brought her to Shanghai where the pandemic has just been contained. She accepts such sacrifices as necessary in the workplace.
She likes to communicate, daring to express her opinions about things. She speaks honestly, sometimes even tipping over into arrogance. She is active among the quarantine residents, but unfortunately, everyone in the WeChat group seems to dislike her, which makes her confused.
When she first checked in, she expressed her demands to the hotel in her own way, “@Meihua Service The call I made was cut off by the front desk. I came back from abroad without a domestic sim card. Why did you do that? Freedom of correspondence is the baseline!”
Five minutes passed and no one responded.
A message from another guest appeared: “@Meihua Service Could I ask the customer service to come when convenient? My toilet is clogged. The message I sent before was obstructed by hers.”
Meihua Service replied: “We’ll deal with it at once.”
Zhuang became anxious and said: “@Meihua Service I hope you can have my issue resolved, otherwise I will report to the Shanghai government as soon as I get out. I’m staying in Shanghai for half a year. If I don’t receive your feedback, just wait for the closure of your hotel.”
She was ignored again, but when another guest said: “The soundproofing of the hotel is poor. Please lower your voice when you are making phone calls. Some people need to sleep because of their jetlag. In addition, although the hotel facilities are a bit old, the staff are patient and responsible. As a veteran who has been in quarantine for two weeks, I would like to say, please be considerate.” Meihua Service replied: “If you have any problem, please allow us some time to solve it. Thank you.”
The other residents agreed with this: “In such times of emergency, thanks for your hard work. Cheer up!”
A few minutes later, Meihua Service sent: “Dear guests, please reply 1 if you’d like a lunch box tomorrow and 2 for a dinner box. If you prefer to order a delivery yourself, please reply 3 and send me a note of the delivery time. Thank you.”
With a screen full of numbers, Zhuang’s messages were drowned out again, but she was not discouraged, “Thanks for your hard work. I am truly grateful for your staff’s dedication. But let’s stick to the matters. I have to question the hotel in many ways, including human rights! Why is there not even a hairdryer? How can I sleep when I already have a migraine? As far as I know, there’s no such issue in other quarantine hotels.”
Waiting for her were the attacks from other residents. Some expressed themselves euphemistically: “It might be better if you’d prepared your personal demands in advance before you checked in?” Some were more straightforward: “You’re making a big deal over a hairdryer. The nature of this quarantine hotel is different from that of ordinary ones. And they already said you could use express delivery. What else do you want?”
Zhuang didn’t reply any further. She understood how hard it was for the staff, and it seemed inappropriate to be so assertive on her first day staying there, without knowing the context of the resident group. Such awkwardness made her feel uncomfortable.
The next day, she tried to pick up some of the conversation, and enthusiastically recommended the fun and cool places she had learned about in Shanghai. She wanted to be liked by the group, but once an initial impression had been established, it was hard to break.
Right now, she is lying in bed watching a dating show, although she knows it’s shallow and empty, nothing more than those with good looks and fine professional backgrounds who appear on stage and pretend to be in love. She never knows how to spend her leisure time more meaningfully. It’s 05:01 a.m.. She hears the vibration of the phone and pauses the TV.
She’s considering whether to say something to the man who has been disturbed by the unknown stream of water. At 05:02 a.m., the screen shows the line she has just sent: “It’s me who leaves the water on. I don’t want a shower. I just want to play.”
She doesn’t know why she sent this message, perhaps just to test her own courage for a moment. She didn’t want to disturb others. She is regretful.
By 05:04, no one has responded. It seems that Huang did not expect these characters to appear. They just lay there on the screen, saying “I exist. I, Zhuang Shuying, do exist.”
When a person gets used to a certain way of speaking, she can forget how to communicate with distinct individuals. I’m currently working as an intern in an investment bank, moving back to Shanghai to report for duty after my graduation in the UK. In front of my research mentor, I know what I should say and what I can ask, such as enquiring about the main business and future prospects of a certain company, and requesting investment advice. Apparently, he knows how to respond to me in a professional manner, as he has instructed numerous interns like me. But talking to him off duty is incredibly difficult. I struck up a conversation the way I used to with my friends, but it didn’t work, and I felt the embarrassment between us over the phone.
When I was young, I became friends with some people simply by chance. For example, we happened to play basketball together on a court or we were both fans of a team. But in high school, I would choose classmates whose grades were similar to mine and who were complementary to me. And in college, it was even harder, as it might require similar aspirations and common interests. Now at work, I can’t even imagine making friends.
Zhuang may have followed the usual path from an intern to a researcher. She started out by posting these requests in the group in the same way she pointed out problems with their work to the interns group. It was a work process, just like in an assembly line where problems were thrown to those who could solve them. Even when some personal emotions were brought to the table, nobody would contradict her in person. But in this group chat they were all social, lively people who would see her as picky, unreasonable, and selfish. For a moment, she went into a trance.
However, in this story I encountered something cute in her. She seemed to have found her emotional self from the past, which drove her to say what she had said with a hint of excitement. She was like a child, full of novelty, even waiting for Huang’s reply with a kind of expectation. But in such cases, others are often at a loss.
Wang Lin felt some vague discomfort. She took a pill and sat still. She didn’t really get sick. It was just her mental anxiety that caused her physical discomfort. Everything was fine.
No. In her life, what she hates most is to deceive herself.
She can’t be happy. She feels that she and her husband shouldn’t have been in love. Their first meeting was during summer vacation in college, when a dozen people went on a field trip in a rural area in Yunnan province. After the team finished the research, they didn’t want to leave. They came together to chat and walked slowly, but she was tired in that hot weather and wanted to go back to rest. She never took the initiative to express herself in front of others and just kept moving forward. But a boy walked with her, without saying a word. Back in those days, everyone was conservative in their thinking. She didn’t know why he followed her, or it was simply a coincidence, but she felt so good, as at that moment she was not so lonely.
She thought that she did not love him, and married him only for a lingering memory of that wonderful moment, coupled with a touch of curiosity about love. She never considered whether they were right for each other. She just got married in a daze at an age when being urged to do so by her parents. After that, she thought love might be just that, boring, and founded on dependence. Two people must live together for unknown reasons and, absurdly, everyone around them took this for granted.
She missed the days when she was still working, when she had her own circle of friends outside her marriage, when she left early and came home late, and when she and he just shared a meal and a bed. After her retirement, she came to hate the thought of long days looking at each other constantly stretching before her. They slept in separate beds at first, and then lived apart. But there was always a glimmer of hope in her that they could go on.
They met up for a trip to Jeju Island together, a trip she hoped would redeem their relationship, and allow a suitable time to have a heart-to-heart talk. However, they didn’t expect the outbreak of Covid-19 in South Korea. As the number of confirmed cases was on the rise, they could not return home. Unable to see either the beach or the forest, they instead had to stay in the same room for a long time, for fear of being infected.
Afterwards, the nightmarish times would recur in her memory.
The two slept at different times, and when she felt tired at night, he was still in high spirits listening to opera. He would start snoring as he listened, while she would get more awake, and sombre. He became obsessed with browsing TikTok and laughed at the screen every day. It was a great way for him to kill time, but she could never understand the fun. She knew it wasn’t the reason why the two of them couldn’t get along, but the point was that he couldn’t notice the changes in her feelings. Everything was normal in his eyes. It had been decades, and she couldn’t tell if he was being too innocent and straightforward, or hiding his emotions. When she tried to talk about these issues, he became angry, out of nowhere; he thought she was making unreasonable accusations and started ranting at her. She was afraid. She resisted. But she wanted to try again. She has sacrificed half a lifetime just for that momentary match in their first meeting.
When checking into the Meihua Hotel, her husband insisted on separate rooms, on the grounds of compliance with quarantine regulations. He would rather pay the extra fees and move upstairs. He wanted to be as far away from her as possible.
Now she’s breathless. Her panic is still not relieved. But she doesn’t want to contact her husband, for he must still be asleep. She doesn’t want to be the silence-breaker of that group chat either, for she feels uneasy being the first one to initiate a conversation. She feels embarrassed if she disturbs someone. She holds back. But she is running out of energy. It happens that two people just sent messages in the group. It’s 05:05 a.m. The opportunity has come. She knows it. After some brief hesitation, she messages: “I live in 1401. I’m not feeling well, it’s my heart. I have taken the medicine but still not relieved. I’m afraid. Please ask the doctor to come. Immediately.”
She doesn’t love her husband and never has, but she hopes that he can see her.
Although this woman is forbearing, there is a dark tide surging behind her. She looks gentle on the surface and seems to be obedient to her husband, but deep down she has a lot to say about her experiences and expectations for the future. I can imagine that it was her idea to go to Jeju Island, and that it was even her idea to get married, her husband being completely passive. But when the marriage – or the journey – became a reality, she felt panic. She loves fantasies which drive her to do things like simply fall in love and get married to the person who just kept up with her step after the field research. Later, her husband’s silence further fuelled her fantasies, but this gulf between ideal and reality could only cause her pain, which built in her mind as time passed. His husband is just a simple-minded man, like the husband in Madame Bovary, and he may think that she too is just simple-minded.
In fact, this is not the case. The couple also has two children with them, who look about 4 or 5 years old. The husband did move upstairs alone, while Wang stays with the children. I have no idea how to place them in this story. I know nothing about that family. I can’t figure out why the husband insisted on living alone when the woman was obviously unwell and wanted to stay with him. I don’t have much information about this group of residents, but they do pique my curiosity. The current plot is the most plausible scenario I can think of, but what are the kids doing now? Are they sleeping?
In the first half of the story, the couples happen to be unhappy. Maybe the real problem is the common puzzle: what exactly keeps two people together in this world? Perhaps Zhuang made the right choice. It’s good to be self-reliant. But I don’t think one can escape the expectation of intimacy either. It’s such an embedded psychological tendency that people even like to watch blind date shows.
At this point of the text, I think a single male should appear.
Gong Xian, a doctor, received a call from his hospital leader at the end of March, saying that he would be working in an entry quarantine hotel for three months. He hesitated at first, envisaging the greatest danger; some of the incoming passengers he would encounter were bound to be virus carriers. He knew the leader had in mind that a single male was the best choice because they had no partner or children to worry about. Choosing someone with a family burden would only affect the work that would follow. He held the phone for two minutes, thinking “forget it”, and silently organising his words. He tried to say “no”, but what came out was: “OK. I’ll go since I’ve been selected”. The person on the other end replied, “Alright. One day to prepare and set off the next day.”
His subconscious worked against him, and it was the failure of reason in this little battle that brought him to this tedious post, but now he seems to relish it.
Yesterday, he got up at 6 a.m. and went to each room of the Meihua Hotel to take the temperature of all the residents, and contacted an ambulance to send the patients with high temperatures to a designated hospital for further testing. The work should have been completed by 8 o’clock, but due to the malfunctioning lift, he had to climb from the 9th floor to the 15th floor, and only finished the work in his area at 9 a.m. Having no time to rest, he immediately ran back to the 9th floor with tools to disinfect the working areas, stairwells and corridors on each floor, and cleaned the frequently touched points such as door handles with alcohol wipes. After a quick lunch, he rushed to the reception desk to conduct nucleic acid samples and draw blood from all incoming quarantined passengers until midnight.
In between his busy schedule, he regularly distributed the daily health instructions among the group of residents, familiarising new guests with daily temperature measurement times, room hygiene advice and communication procedures on poor health conditions, while simultaneously keeping an eye on the information reported in the group, so that he would be prepared to visit them for medical treatment.
He was exhausted, and the breakdown of the lift deprived him of what would have been his rest time, but he still felt content, because he had gained more respect here than he had in his last ten years of practice combined.
At 05:05 a.m., he is asleep. There’s just one hour left before another day at work. Perhaps, in his dream, he has reviewed his life and felt nothing remarkable about it, just that everything was so normal and homely. Although no one shares his life, there are also fewer hassles. The past seems to have nothing worth remembering, and he prefers to enjoy the present.
He dreams of this hotel, of everyone, and of different faces. But vaguely, he feels a woman begging for help, and she says that she’s afraid. I know Gong is struggling to wake, but it’s just a dream, clearly. He fails, because he’s really tired at the end of the day.
He is a nice guy. Once in the group chat, I said my toilet was clogged, and he came to take my temperature the next day, with a bottle of probiotic yoghurt, instructing me to order less spicy food. He is also a dull person. Once I said my neck and back hurt from lying in bed for so long, and he asked me to search for prisoner fitness on the internet. I joked that I was nothing more than a prisoner right now, and he didn’t respond. Maybe he was deliberately holding back a smile, or his protective gear was obscuring the details of his face so I couldn’t tell.
This man brings me a unique feeling that only exists in China. Every time I see him, I know that the concept of home is getting closer. During my time in the UK, I felt that I was a completely independent individual, with individual joys and sorrows that had nothing to do with others. Yet in this land, like Gong, I belong to a large collective that shares both warmth and indifference.
He may feel it is a blessing, the kind of happiness that comes from being respected and relied upon by others. But perhaps after a while he will feel worried because this reliance implies an expectation that people have towards him outside the scope of his ability. He has to offer everything to maintain this exalted position, which, in a sense, is again pathetic.
We were taught to believe that this country was great when we were young. For a moment it seems a bit authoritarian, yet it also repays one’s unspoken love, like a father. When my old friends back home talked to me about the results of China’s fight against the pandemic, their words carry a sense of pride, even if they did not make any personal contribution. They see themselves as part of the zeitgeist, and that greatness should belong to everyone in this time, and perhaps this adds a glimmer of light to their humble lives.
I’m homesick. Yet the closer I get to home, the more I feel I’m nobody in the face of it.
Yang Xin will reply to the distress message in two minutes.
Perhaps because she was bored during the quarantine, Yang would appear in the group chat every few minutes during the day, sometimes answering questions from some of the residents who had just joined the group, and sometimes chatting with the staff about family matters. She brings up one or two topics every day, such as good TV series and new anime figures, and the conversation often lasts for more than half an hour.
She looks optimistic, generous, enthusiastic and cheerful, but she is actually not that happy. She rarely feels love from her parents who are busy at work and don’t even call her often. They transfer her some pocket money every other month like a boss paying their employees, naively believing that they’ve done their duty if they satisfy her material needs. In this world, that is common; such parents have also failed to gain the love they deserved from their own parents. But fortunately, the previous generation have decided to dedicate their love to her.
She was sent away to nursery as a child and only allowed home once every fortnight, but each time she returned she saw her grandma waiting for her at the gate as she wished, and was never disappointed. In fact, she can’t remember the details of the past. All she knows is that her grandmother let her ride on shoulders on the way home, and once, she peed on her head. That day, while grandma was walking, she felt a hot flush on her neck and realised something was wrong when the little one laughed on her shoulders. Yang is not sure if she had done it unintentionally or on purpose. If it was deliberate, what was her motivation then? Grandmother had a bad memory, but her subconsciousness selected this incident to hold on to. She then recounted it to Yang over and over again, as though to convince her of the happiness of her childhood.
She was studying in France. Due to the rising cases of Covid-19, the school moved all classes online. She took this opportunity to go home and spend more time with her grandma. While she waits in quarantine, her grandma sends a box of fish maws to the hotel front desk every day, which would then be handed over to Yang by Du Yawen, one of the hotel’s staff. Yang would symbolically eat one and then discard the rest. In fact, she has never liked fish maws, but never admitted this, in order not to disappoint her grandma. Once during a meal when Yang was a child, she thought of something funny and smiled in a way that her grandma had never seen before, and grandma mistook the fish maw that she was eating as the reason for her happiness, thinking it was her favourite food. Everyone in the group is envious to see her loved ones caring for her, but only Du knows the truth.
She has many friends. She never minds where her friends come from or what their professions are. She can get on well with each and every one of them. But despite this, she has never befriended anyone very deeply, and when something is really on her mind, she is afraid to talk to people, because she’s unsure how they will respond to the things she cares about. Du happens to be the one she can speak to at night, and they both gain a sense of satisfaction from the talk. She has felt something which she thought must be the feeling of being in love.
It is exactly 05:07 a.m. when she sees the message sent by Wang. Du was on the phone telling her a story about a Kung Fu legend, and she was caught up in it. When she happened to swipe to the screen of the group chat, she was surprised to find that someone was asking for help, but no one responded. It is so pressing that she immediately sends a message, “Hold on! I’ll find someone to help!” She then informs Du of the matter on the phone.
Like Yang, I am awake, but I won’t help Wang as she did. I’m sure there are many others awake now, like me, all bystanders, silent, watching those four people and four lines of text. That’s me, and most people. We will console ourselves by saying that it was not indifference later on.
When I was young, my grandmother was the only one by my side. As for relatives, I think that as long as we are in touch, I will choose to act even if I don’t feel good with the way we’re getting along; I was unhappy most of the time, but I tried to enjoy it. I take unconditional acceptance as a way to get rid of that panicky feeling of craving for love. Just like that misunderstanding about the fish maws, I think that moment of tenderness from my grandma was also something to be grateful for.
Many things happened that year, which is also the only year I remember from my childhood. I used to wet the bed, and the first thing my grandma would do when I woke up in the morning was to lift the covers and look at my sheets. It was that inadvertent incident while riding on my grandma’s shoulders after school that made me change that bad habit. I remember I was awakened by holding in the urine that night, and that was the moment when I stopped wetting the bed.
One view I particularly reject is that a lack of parental presence from a young age leads to a desire for love, even though this is a commonly held conception. Sometimes the lack of love can create a backlash that resists intimacy. No one can know that exactly because desires, and behaviours can never be guessed.
Actually, I don’t know Yang at all. I haven’t been in contact with her kind of people. When I saw her appearing in the group chat, I felt curious. There was a moment when I would envy these people who were extra popular in a group. I’m not good at courting popularity myself; I tried, and I failed. I like to go to bars, but I don’t drink. I just like being in a group and listening to others talking about tedious things to kill time. This is also a kind of satisfaction, a feeling as nonsensical as that Zhuang achieves from watching date shows.
The first moment Yang met Du was fascinating, but could her family accept that her daughter, a high-achieving student studying abroad, fell in love with a hotel waiter who dropped out of high school? If we know it can only lead to tragedy and doom, why do we start in the first place? Because of loneliness, the loneliness that we are all born with as human beings.
Unfortunately, I happened to fall into such a vortex. One day, I went to visit a group of friends of mine in Edinburgh. They took me and some new friends up Calton Hill. The descent was steep, and everyone was terrified. I thought it was nothing at all. I was just tired and wanted to get back to the hotel to rest, so I walked all the way down. And when I looked up, I saw a woman beside me. We kept the same pace and walked together without a word.
The next day, we had sex. I knew that she had a boyfriend she had been in a relationship with for five years. He was in China, and she would go back to see him next year. But what I didn’t tell her was that I’d also had a girlfriend of five years back in China, and I would go to see her immediately after the quarantine. We’d get married if everything went well. The woman was luckier than me because her memory was poorer. It’s like dropping a handful of sand on a strainer—everything falls out through the air. She had been through so much, but remembered so little, while I had experienced little, but remembered a lot.
I am awake, while time is still asleep. The hour hand stands solidly in the centre of the 5, but in Edinburgh it’s now 22:07 p.m., when she is just as awake as I am.
As I’ve said, Du is an employee of Meihua Hotel. He didn’t like this job at first, because every day brought inevitable arguments with the residents. The hotel has put “convenient parking” in the booking app, but there are in fact only 18 parking spaces downstairs. The owner kept the promotional label in order to ensure the reservation amount, leaving the staff to deal with the dissatisfaction of the guests. As a result, many passengers who came for parking flooded to the reception to make a fuss when they saw there were no more available spaces. And it is Du’s job to argue with them, and persuade them not to cancel their reservations. However, because of the pandemic, the hotel has been allocated as an incoming quarantine site, and finally he no longer has to deal with the hassle. The only problem is the tremendous amount of work involved in food delivery and garbage collection, but it’s acceptable to think of this as a form of exercise. Interestingly, the sound of his hurried footsteps in the corridors has become the hallmark of this quarantine hotel. Every day at mealtimes, Yang waits with excitement for this sound and enjoys the moment of the door opening.
Du wanted to be a Kung Fu hero from a young age, but he knew neither martial arts nor any other skills. It doesn’t matter. As long as he has enthusiasm, he can make his way in the world.
He left school at 16 and went to Shanghai alone to work. He found a job in a foot massage parlour. Prior to the first day of getting on board, he wanted to have a good haircut. He rushed to a barber shop, looking forward to his makeover. The barber said that his hair was dry and needed a nutrient solution. He thought it was time to take care of himself. The price was only 30 yuan, so he readily accepted it. But when he checked out, he found that he had been charged 900 yuan. It turned out that he had fallen for a scam. In fact, each clip for doing nutrition on his head were 30 yuan, and the barber had used a total of 30 clips. He paid out all the money he had with him but was still 400 yuan short. In desperation, he thought of the parlour where he worked; he handed over his phone in a pledge and, accompanied by two men from the barbershop, went to the parlour, asking his colleagues to lend him some money. Fortunately, they helped him out. Nevertheless, he felt bad about it. Because of that embarrassing incident, he could not hold his head up in front of them and always felt someone laughing at him behind his back. After working for a month and saving a few hundred yuan, he left his job.
Then one of his friends told him that promoting alcohol in bars was a good way to make some quick money; there was no base salary, but the commission was considerable. He was introduced to a bar; when he was interviewed, the manager asked him to pay a training fee of 800 yuan. Although it was expensive, he thought he would earn it back in no time after becoming a full-time employee, so he handed over the money he had saved in the massage parlour. But to his disappointment, during the training, the manager taught him nothing, just letting him wander around the bar. When he finally started working, he couldn’t sell a single bottle of alcohol. The manager asked him to think of a way out, no matter what; as long as he could make money, he would prove himself capable. His mind turned to the barber’s scam. But on second thoughts, he rejected the idea: “Even though I can’t be a hero, how can I steal and cheat?” He left the bar resolutely.
He came across a Western-style restaurant that was looking for staff. The chef saw him as a good potential talent, and took him on as an apprentice. He was loyal, honest, willing to learn and obedient, well-liked by his boss. He stayed there for nearly two years. Although his salary did not increase, he was able to make ends meet. One day, however, he felt that he could not be satisfied with having just enough food and clothing to subsist. He wanted to see the outside world, but travelling was a big expense. He told his kitchen colleagues about the idea, and they took him to a casino to try his luck.
The first time he won a lot. He thought earning money through this was not difficult, so he ran to the casino as soon as he got off work. However, against his expectations, he kept losing thousands, time after time. The more he tried to win back, the more he lost, and the more he became addicted. Even his monthly salary could not fill the pit of debt. When his boss discovered that his attention was no longer on his job, Du was ‘persuaded’ to leave. Then he came here.
After several years of trials and tribulations in society, Du has gained some worldly wisdom. He is now able to control his emotions well and manages to plan his life. He knows that everything in martial arts novels is not practical for the current era, and that passion alone is not enough. Nonetheless, he is still keen to tell those exciting stories to Yang.
People always like to turn into a story what they yearn for but cannot achieve, being nostalgic for their initial passion in something fictional. So, in the end, such things are still tinged with melancholy, but the listeners have the fortune of creating a sweet dream for themselves.
When Yang tells him on the phone that Wang is calling for help, Du immediately verifies the information, as well as the room number, and rushes to the lobby. But once he reaches the entrance, he remembers that the lift broke down yesterday, and the repair man hasn’t come to fix it. He runs back to the stairwell, climbing up from the ground floor without hesitation, despite the darkness. Ground floor, first floor, third floor, fourth floor… His legs are a little too weak to move. But then he recalls the moment in his childhood when he took a crabstick, practicing ‘Kungfu’ in the face of a tree and imagining himself as a hero. It seems that he has learnt the great Qinggong1, his body becomes lighter, and he steps forward as if he is flying.
It’s 05:08 a.m. I’m lying in bed, quiet, staring at the screen of my phone, listening to the sounds outside. I hear the familiar footsteps, hasty and pleasant. I wait patiently, expecting something to happen. The world, however, gradually becomes silent, leaving only the still flowing water.
I know. Nothing will happen again.
I close my eyes slowly, and the long-lost “ticking” echoes in my mind.
Narrated by: Dengliang Zhang
Supplemented by: Feilong Huang, Shuying Zhuang, Lin Wang, Xian Gong, Xin Yang, Yawen Du
Adapted by: Yichun Jiang2
1 Qinggong is a training technique for jumping off vertical surfaces from the Chinese martial art. The use of Qinggong has been exaggerated in martial arts fiction, in which artists have the ability to move swiftly and lightly at superhuman speed.
2 This story is from the short collection entitled Speaker’s Land, which attempts to unveil the peculiar lives of ordinary people in China during the uncertainties of the age of Covid. Each adapted story relies on the testimony of an interviewee who narrates their personal story from Jan to May 2020, and some of the interviewees’ testimonies have inspired these characters and fictions.
Yichun Jiang is an independent filmmaker and fiction writer who has made three shorts and a feature film before shifting the focus of artistic creation from filmmaking to fiction writing. The debut short collection, Speaker’s Land, includes both fiction and nonfiction and attempts to unveil the peculiar lives of ordinary people in China during the uncertainties of the age of Covid.