The Shortwave Radio
On Friday morning, I got another call from my sister, this time inviting me over for dinner at the Mahogany Street house. She would make pork-and-fennel dumplings for me. Although I’m a native Beijinger, I don’t really like dumplings, especially not ones with fennel in them. My sister said that Chang Baoguo had been in a good mood ever since he heard that I’d agreed to move out. He hadn’t kicked her again, and he wanted to sit down and have a few drinks with me. I bought some fruit and also brought along the two Tommy Hilfiger shirts as gifts for the hosts. I didn’t dare tell them where the shirts came from. The name Jiang Songping was taboo in our house and had been for many years, repressed along with a certain story from our childhood.
Whether or not Chang Baoguo knew the story I wouldn’t presume.
I hadn’t been back to the family home since my mother’s death. I passed right by it once, on my way to the open market by Red Gate Bridge to buy KR amplifier tubes from a Fujianese guy. From a ways off I could see that the courtyard door was shut, so I decided not to bother them. Their son lives in the south, in Shenzhen, and apparently can’t be bothered to keep in touch with his parents. They made the long journey there to visit him once, but this nephew of mine, who apparently married a Malaysian woman and works as a top executive at some corporation, refused to see them. So they went to the Window of the World theme park, snapped some bad pictures in front of miniature replicas of the Arc de Triomphe and Dutch windmills, then hastened back to Beijing with their tails between their legs.
Yet that never discouraged my sister from bragging about her successful son to everyone she met.
Mahogany Street is just like every other narrow hutong alley in the south part of Beijing. Some people call it Mahogany Lane, others the Armory, most likely referring to a time when the area was known for its foundries that manufactured armor for Manchu soldiers. It’s a historic neighborhood, at any rate. Our house originally consisted of two cramped brick rooms. We built an additional room when my father was still alive. Later, the district development committee started to come around regularly, trying to enforce a removal order for redevelopment. My father never gave them a word of response. Even when pressed hard, he would simply express his opinion with one long sigh: “Ah!”
But no one could ever figure out what the hell he meant by “Ah!”
After a while, my mother started to crack under the pressure; my father, however, decided to push back even harder. He used the bricks left over from the renovation to wall off a courtyard in front of the house at least thirty square meters wide. Shockingly, after he did it, the development committee stopped showing up. They expressed their tacit acceptance, perhaps afraid of my father’s reticence.
My father was tall, pale-skinned, and a little stooped. He was indifferent to almost everything. He used to work fulltime at a state-owned factory near Jiuxian Bridge that made radio tubes, but somehow managed to get laid off. After that he spent his days in a white apron and blue canvas sleeve protectors, fixing radios in a workshop one street down from our house. I was still a kid then. One day I asked my mother why my father never talked to us. Because he’s sad, my mother replied, and it’s changed him. She told me that when I was still a baby, the first thing he would do when he came home from work every day was to run inside without even taking his boots off and kiss me all over my face. When my mother said this, Cui Lihua looked up at her with an uncertain expression.
“Did he kiss me too?” my timid older sister asked, unable to keep it in any longer.
My mother thought for a moment, then smiled and mussed my sister’s hair. “You too,” she said. “He kissed you, too.”
A day finally arrived when, in that dark little shop, my father lay down at his workstation amid a pile of semiconductors and died, still clutching a small green screwdriver in one hand.
They said he had a coronary.
* * * *
That evening I arrived early. Chang Baoguo was out playing cards at a neighbor’s place. My sister stood at the kitchen counter, chopping meat. She had some ground pork in the fridge she could have cooked but said that machine-ground meat tasted of metal. Though only two years older than me, she showed her age more severely. It was the first time in many years that I’d looked at her closely. There was something ingratiating about her expression whenever she smiled. It had always been there, but now, staring at her face inspired a twinge of loathing. She asked me if I had met anyone I liked recently, then followed up immediately with the announcement that she had a colleague in the office who was divorced, in her forties, had a boy of about thirteen, you know, a nice, straightforward person, “pretty and well-proportioned,” with just a slight lisp when she talked, did I want to meet her?
I told her that a couple days ago I had run into a fortune teller, and from his pronouncement it seemed I should forget about getting married in this life. Of course I didn’t mention where I had bumped into him; she would still have no desire to hear the name “Jiang Songping.”
“You believe blind scam artists, too? I’ve introduced you to a number of women over the years, and no one interests you. You know what, I think you haven’t gotten over that vixen Yufen.”
I chuckled and replied, “Maybe you’re right,” to appease her. I didn’t feel like arguing about it.
“Do you want to go in and watch TV? Baoguo will be back soon.”
I continued to stare at her blankly without speaking. Observing her hair, dyed black but still graying, I felt a sudden sense of grief and déjà-vu—for a second I could have sworn the woman standing before me was my mother. She seemed just as thin, and was shrinking as she aged. A cold draft blew through the kitchen; the old locust tree outside shook off a few gold leaves; I felt a stinging in my nose. I felt like . . . like standing up and hugging her.
“Do you . . . want to take a walk outside?” My sister became alarmed by my spaced out mental state.
I got up, went out alone, and sat down on the courtyard stoop to have a smoke.
The hutong was packed with parked cars, motor dollies, and those tricycles with metal cabins the handicapped use. My father’s old workshop was long gone, replaced by an open-fire Peking duck restaurant. The old state-owned barber shop and the tailor shop run by a family from Zhejiang were also nowhere to be seen. Only the public toilet remained, still as foul as ever, though now its façade displayed a blue and white checkerboard pattern of ceramic tile. And of course no familiar faces passed down the lane.
Human memory really is unreliable. I could clearly remember this alley being long, wide, submerged in green shade or sprinkled with white locust flowers, and nowhere near as cramped and seedy as it looked that day. Street vendors used to lay their wares on blankets at the intersection on the east end. In the summers, the same group of old men sat with their straw hats, waving bamboo fans over their wrinkled stomachs as they eyed the emerald watermelons. In the winter, that corner was occupied either by a man from Shandong who cooked popcorn, or by others who sold caramel haw berries and cotton candy.
As I sat on the stoop and surveyed the cluttered street under the setting sun, I felt vaguely alienated from everything. Sacred fragments of my past life stirred my sluggish memory like echoes of a dying voice. I’m certainly not a nostalgic man; maybe my heart was heavy because this place used to be called “home.” The scraping of tree branches against the roof; the moon in the leaves; the whirr of cicadas and the crash of rain; the smell of coal dust brushed from the furnace on an early morning—all used to accompany me to bed night after night and gently touch my soul in the darkness. But once that unique sort of loneliness settles in your chest, you feel afraid of time and life extinguished, as if your best years had been squandered completely.
Our place abutted the eastern end of the hutong; Jiang Songping lived on the western end. Our houses were separated by a private courtyard and a large compound for factory workers and their families. Residents rarely appeared in the clean little courtyard; on rare occasions you would see a black luxury sedan parked in front of the stone lion at its gate, and at night, a muted light would come on in one of the windows behind the courtyard trees and stay lit until morning. To this day I have no idea who lived there.
During our childhood, I often would watch Jiang Songping kick a filthy pig’s bladder or push an iron hoop from the west end of the hutong to the east, turn just before the intersection, and go back. Our house sat right at the terminus of his mysterious, solitary route. Sometimes it wasn’t a pig’s bladder, iron hoop, or a slingshot he brought with him, but a date seed, which he’d drag along the wall as he walked. He scratched white line after white line on those dirty concrete walls, already scrawled with “FUCK” and “DESTROY,” until he’d worn two little eyes and a mouth onto the pit’s surface. No one paid any attention to him.
Every time he passed close by our door, my mother would peer surreptitiously out the window, sigh, and say that little shrimp from Pimply Jiang’s household must be the loneliest kid she had ever seen. I never heard anybody say who Pimply Jiang was or what his family did for a living, nor did I ever meet him. It was like they never existed.
Jiang Songping eventually became friends with my sister and started playing games with the local girls. He turned out to be very good at all kinds of them—shuttlecock, jump rope, jacks. As for what moved him to hang out with girls, I expect it was loneliness.
I remember there was a spell when my sister was obsessed with playing jacks—not the modern metal ones, but the old ones made from sheep knuckles. She would take the Sshaped talus bones and polish them until they shone like jade, then dye them with red ink. She sewed her own neat little beanbags, filling them with expensive green mung beans—who knows how many times Ma slapped her for that. I never played the game myself, so I don’t know much about the rules, but I’ve heard that you need at least four bones to play. Those weren’t easy to get ahold of, back in those days. But somehow Jiang Songping possessed a magic pocket that could produce whatever my sister wanted. Whenever he presented the fruits of his labor to my sister, dropping the greasy black objects into her hand, she would laugh and ask, “Jiang Songping, do your parents own a butcher shop or something?”
For a period of time after the heart attack took my father away, I would go to his wireless repair shop almost every day. Somehow, sitting quietly at his workstation made me feel a little better. The other two repairmen in the shop pretended not to notice me; they neither engaged me, nor attended to what I did. Not even in the days immediately following my father’s death did they ever offer a single word of comfort. My young heart couldn’t handle such indifference, and retaliated with hate. I would stomp into the repair shop, sit down at my father’s workstation, and stare at the half-repaired radio and the green screwdrivers. It was my privilege.
When it got dark, my mother would show up with tears in her eyes and quietly take me home. That was how it went most days.
Until one day one of the repairmen, whom we called Horsewhip Xu, walked over and sat quietly with me for a long while. He smoked two cigarettes in a row, and then his expression became serious. He put a large hand on my shoulder, sighed heavily, and said, “I’ll make you a deal, okay? If you can get that old semiconductor radio your father left behind to make noise again, you can take it home. How’s that sound?”
At that age, having a radio of my very own was beyond my wildest dreams. So I started to play around with the dust-covered mess. Horsewhip Xu taught me some basic skills: how to re-coil tangled magnet wire evenly around a spool; how to scrape rust off the spring poles of a battery with a razor’s edge; how to find a short circuit and reconnect it with a bead of hot solder; how to upgrade a system for a larger battery; how to install capacitors and resistors. . . .
Two weeks or so later, my father’s half-gutted radio finally made a sound. I still remember the first song I heard on it: the revolutionary opera Night Assault on the White Tigers, with Song Yuqing singing the lead.
If it could be said that I had an idol during those long years of my childhood, it would have been Song Yuqing. His presence, the way he carried himself, displayed a strength no Jay Chou or other such celebrity could even dream of imitating. Not even Wang Xiaogang, the movie heartthrob that Yufen’s generation all fell in love with, could equal Song Yuqing’s magnificence. To this day, the only Peking opera I ever learned was the part he sang from Overthrow the American Imperialist Wolves:
Debate has cleared our comrades’ hearts and minds
To see beyond the enemies’ evil scheme.
America’s hunger for power knows no bounds;
To conquer the world is their undying dream.
When they fail, they hide the sword and talk of peace,
But soon, they wave their claws with avarice.
Listening to this song that sunny afternoon, I thought of my father and how great it would be if he were still alive, if he could listen to this music, if he could know that I learned how to fix a radio. As I fantasized, I started to cry. A gust of cold wind hit my face, my chest relaxed, and the stone that had been blocking my throat and pressing down on my heart suddenly disappeared.
I finally accepted the fact that my father was gone.
Horsewhip Xu sewed a black leather case for my radio. When my mother came to get me that evening, I heard him say to her, “This kid has talent, even more than Liankun (my father).”
“When he’s older, you should take him as an apprentice,” my mother replied.
“No, no.” Horsewhip Xu put my radio into its case, snapped it shut, and placed it ceremoniously in my hands. “If he got into this business, what would we do for work?”
Hearing him say that tickled my mother. She held my hand as we walked home along the empty streets, our shoes squeaking in the fresh snow. My radio played an old army show tune, “The Old Landlord Checks the Barracks.” At the start of our street, I caught sight of Jiang Songping standing in the darkness with a top in his hand, his mouth gaping in astonishment. He wore a leather cap with ear flaps, and his eyes opened wide. I can still remember the look of surprise mixed with envy apparent on his face.
The next morning, he promptly abandoned the gang of girls he’d been hanging out with and latched on to me. Our friendship began with him bugging me to borrow my radio.
* * * *
In August of 1976, talk of earthquakes began swirling through the hutong alleys. Aftershocks from the later officially recognized July 28th Tangshan earthquake had shaken the boiler-room smokestack of the factory workers’ compound off-center, its precipitous tilt alarming everyone who saw it and intensifying the fear in the hearts of local residents. An earthquake tent immediately appeared inside the compound, and soon everyone on Mahogany Street was making their own tent. Crude shelters multiplied among the trees next to the barbershop and on the open land along the old city moat. Some even made hammocks out of bedsheets and twine, stringing them up between two trees.
Terror quietly spread throughout the neighborhood.
The summer months of July and August are Beijing’s rainiest season. One of the most surreal scenes I witnessed that year unfolded on a stormy night in mid-August. Under cover of darkness, my mother took my sister and me out to the old city moat to burn spirit money for my father. On the way home, we were suddenly caught in a torrential downpour. Midnight, the street completely empty, we got as far as the Sunward Photo Parlor when we discovered, right in the middle of the brick-lined road, an occupied, solitary army cot. On it lay a man well over six feet tall; he had wrapped himself up in plastic, and even held a proppedopen umbrella in his hand. He slept, snoring loudly. Ma pointed at him and laughed, surprised that there were people in this world who feared death so much. Cui Lihua, whose teeth were chattering, chimed in, “You know, I think my brother’s a little . . . a little afraid too.”
* * * *
My mother often assured us that even if an earthquake knocked the house down, there weren’t enough tiles left on our dilapidated roof to do us any harm. And besides, according to her, even if the damage were total and it flattened the whole city, it wouldn’t be a big deal. Those people with government jobs and lots of money had something to live for, but the lives of people like us weren’t really worth anything to begin with. If we died, we died. My sister and I found this ridiculous, and we resolved to address her pessimistic, confused thinking with barrage after barrage of complaints. Eventually, we drove her past her limit, and she hired someone to set up a small tent in the yard, with bunks made of stacked bricks. My sister and I slept in the tent, but my mother, determined as ever to tempt fate, continued to sleep in the house.
By then, Jiang Songping and I had become inseparable. His family lived on the fifth floor of an apartment building—earthquakes are no joke for those residents. It made perfect sense for him to ask to stay in our tent. My mother agreed to it without a second thought.
Although Jiang Songping was a solitary, pitiful-looking character, he was a natural politician. The things stuffed inside his head that he had seen and heard on his wanderings through the hutongs poured out spontaneously, making him quite likeable. He not only knew that Antonioni was posing as a movie director in order to infiltrate our country’s borders and assassinate the Great Leader, Chairman Mao, he also knew that every pomegranate contained the same number of seeds: no matter how many different pomegranates you opened up, the number would always come to three hundred and sixty-five.
While he lived with us, my mother used to joke that he might as well just move in permanently and call her “Ma.”
There was something else she used to say about him: “That kid is too smart. If there ever comes a day when capitalism really does return, I’m afraid the two of you will end up working for him.”
We didn’t pay attention to her; deep in our hearts, we were absolutely certain that, no matter what happened on this earth, capitalism would never return.
I never found out anything about Jiang Songping’s parents or extended family—even the dangers of more earthquakes never drove them out into the open. I asked my mother if she knew anything, but she wouldn’t say. She only quietly replied, “A horrible situation.”
Even as terror spread out of control, it also filled us with irrepressible excitement. Schools closed; children with nothing to do ran around outside all day. Jiang Songping used to take me out past the city limits to go swimming in the river. We’d walk south from the east end of our alley, continue around a coal briquette factory and a Ming-dynasty walled outpost overgrown with weeds, then pass under a railway line to the river’s edge. When we finished swimming, we’d lie in the peasants’ watermelon fields, eat watermelon to our hearts’ content, and take a nice, long nap. If we were hungry when we woke, there was always more watermelon.
When we were really bored, we’d sometimes go down to Horsewhip Xu’s repair shop. The shop had hired a new repairman to take over my father’s old workstation. It had also expanded its services, and now fixed tape recorders and black-and-white TVs, among other electronics. Horsewhip claimed that no man faced death as boldly as he did. He certainly wasn’t about to waste his time messing with an earthquake tent! Cholera? US-Soviet nuclear war? Fatal earthquake? None of these things scared him. His outlook on life proved to be exactly the same as my mother’s: “All men die only once. If somebody else dies, I can die, too. If they don’t die, I might as well die anyway.”
When the earthquake terror reached its zenith, and the old ladies from the local Residents Committee were patrolling the streets every day with their red bands tied to one arm, shouting through metal bullhorns at the locals to remind them that no matter what, they must not remove their socks before bed, Horsewhip Xu seemed to be the only man on Mahogany Street whose calm endured undisturbed. But Jiang Songping didn’t believe any of it. He thought Horsewhip was deceiving everyone, and said to me, “You’re crazy! Who doesn’t fear death?! Horsewhip Xu looks like he doesn’t care about an earthquake, like he’s not afraid of anything. Have you seen that spring in the corner next to his desk, with an upside-down soda bottle on top? That’s a homemade earthquake detector! If an earthquake hit, Horsewhip Xu would be the first one on the whole street to know. You don’t believe me, let’s do an experiment.”
Jiang Songping pulled his slingshot out of his pocket and aimed through the window. He pulled the pink inner tube as far back as he could and released it. We heard a sharp ting, and the bottle toppled to the floor with a shattering crash.
Horsewhip Xu, who was immersed in the repair of a broken radio, broke into a sudden fit of shivering, as if he’d been plugged into a socket. He looked confusedly around him, then bent down and inspected the broken glass on the floor. In a flash, he ripped off his old bifocals, threw them on the desk, and started to jump up and down, slapping his backside like a possessed man, and yelling, “Earthquake! Earthquake! Qiangui, Cabbage, let’s go! Get out, you two, quick! Hurry, good God, it’s an earthquake. . . . !”
Jiang Songping dragged me under the windowsill, succumbing to a burst of laughter. “You fucking geezer! If it were an earthquake, you should be running your ass outside, not jumping around!” he sniggered with derision.
Of course, the myth of Horsewhip’s fearlessness popped like a soap bubble. But I never laughed. I’m not sure why, but Songping’s joke felt a little too cruel to me. I’m the kind of person who likes to let my perceptions float on the surface of things. I felt bad for Horsewhip, because even at that young age I had come to a personal realization: the best attributes of anyone or anything usually reside on the surface, which is where, in fact, all of us live out our lives. Everyone has an inner life, but it’s best if we leave it alone. For as soon as you poke a hole through that paper window, most of what’s inside simply won’t stand up to scrutiny.
Even before the last ripples of the earthquake crisis had smoothed over, our lives had quietly changed. One day, Jiang Songping stopped showing up. He just vanished without giving me any explanation.
When I asked my mother, her face darkened and she snapped back, “What do you care? Someone like that. I don’t want you around him any more. Pretend he’s dead. The quicker he dies, the quicker he’ll be reborn!”
I went to find my sister. Her eyes were red and she looked distracted. A long stretch of silence passed before she could say to me, sobbing, “Please don’t say his name in front of me again, all right?”
Like I said, I’m not the kind of guy who likes digging for answers, so I stopped bothering them. I didn’t know what had occurred between Jiang Songping and my sister, nor was I interested in knowing—it would only become another weight on my mind. Bumping into him on the street became awkward. Either he would sidestep quickly into the trees along the road, or he’d hug the wall, pretend not to see me, and keep on walking. I frequently felt like stopping him to ask what had happened. But in the end, I suppressed the squirming feeling in my chest. If I made up with him on my own, I felt like I’d be wronging my mother and sister. So I started to ignore him to save him from embarrassment.
As time passed, I gradually pushed his memory to the back of my mind.
In October of that year, I came home from school one day and walked straight into my sister’s room. We both jumped. I could see that she had been sitting at the edge of her bed, counting pomegranate seeds in a porcelain basin. She reflexively put a hand over the mouth of the basin, then her face turned red and she pushed it aside, muttering, “Liar. What a liar!” Finally she stood up, tossed her braids, and stomped out.
Perhaps out of boredom, I picked up the bowl after she left and counted the seeds twice. It came out to three hundred and seventy-one both times. Six more seeds than Jiang Songping’s eternal three hundred and sixty-five.
Four years later, in 1980, Jiang Songping and I started to hang out again. He had been taking remedial classes and was accepted into Beijing Communications College. After graduating from high school the year before, I had started to work at Red Capital Apparel to learn how to tailor. It turned out that his extended family really wasn’t large at all: upon his acceptance into college, he held a banquet at Crane Garden Restaurant on Marco Polo Road to thank his previous teachers, and only his aunt showed up. Riding my bike home through Dashilar Market after work one day, I randomly bumped into him. Neither of us knew what to say. Perhaps this awkwardness prompted Jiang Songping to ask if I wanted to come to the banquet.
I couldn’t think of any way to refuse, so I accepted.
As I didn’t have anything to bring to the celebration, I spent the following three weeks in Horsewhip Xu’s workshop building him a shortwave radio. By then, Horsewhip Xu, paralyzed from a stroke, lay on a ratty old sofa for most of the day. Still, he didn’t forget to remind me gently that it was illegal to listen to Deng Lijun or Voice of America on the radio.
Later on, Songping told me he had immediately thrown my gift into a runoff ditch by his school without ever listening to it once. Apparently, it brought back his nightmare from years ago, back in the earthquake tent. He said it would be impossible for him to forget what had happened, unless he went insane. Already, after so many years, his struggle with that memory had utterly exhausted him. He asked me not to be offended—he had no choice. It turned out that mysterious occurrence was even more serious than I had imagined. Not only did it weigh on his conscience, it remained an obstacle in our friendship. Every once in a while, he would cast a searching gaze toward me and the shadow of the unspeakable eventwould rise up and smother us both.
* * * *
Jiang Songping majored in telecommunications. In order to keep our friendship on equal footing, I signed up for classes at Red Flag Night College without telling my family. Red Flag Night College didn’t have a telecommunications major, so I picked Marxist Economics at random. Out of ten classes, the only one I could barely tolerate was College Language Arts. I sweated it out for over a year, then gave up.
In his junior year Songping contracted hepatitis; the school put him in quarantine at the Temple of the Earth Hospital. I visited him every weekend, spending whole afternoons with him sitting in that gloomy corridor. One day before I left, I finally mustered the courage to say something I had been meaning to say for many years: “No matter what happened back then between you and my sister, no matter how awful or filthy it might have been, I would forgive you completely. It’s been ancient history for years now, so can you please just forget about it? Like . . . like it never existed. Okay?”
Songping must not have expected that I would strike right at his soft spot. His face, turned a waxy yellow from both hepatitis and stress, glowed faintly pink. He stared at me in shock for a long while. Then he leaped up, grabbed my wrist, and with his thick lips quivering and tears in his eyes, said, “Brother, what the hell kind of good does it do for you to forgive me? I can’t even forgive myself!”
* * * *
My sister cooked dumplings for us that night, and Chang Baoguo and I got sloshed. My sister’s face, ravaged by time and covered with warts and liver spots, still retained enough composure to hide a measure of sunlit past along with a dark secret from her youth.
My brother-in-law toasted me again and again, slapping me unnecessarily on the shoulder. His unnatural affection made me nervous. He said that if it hadn’t been for the accident in Changping, if it hadn’t left him crippled and unable to look for work ever again, he’d never have been forced into such a hard decision as asking me to move. Then he said something that startled me: “Shit, society today even forces family members to go for each other’s throats.”
I recalled Jiang Songping’s warning from a few days ago. Though I knew it wouldn’t matter either way, I couldn’t help peeking under the table. My brother-in-law wore a pair of beaten-up old walking shoes.
As we got drunker, I let the impulse to reciprocate my brother-in-law’s earnestness get the best of me, and swore that I would immediately move out. I felt a profound regret the instant the words left my mouth, as if I actually had another place to go to after moving out of their hole-cursed home. I would never have thought that even Jiang Songping’s factory would be closed to me.
Throughout the evening, my sister interrupted our banter with her words of counsel, annoying me to no end. She repeatedly pushed me to meet this lisping co-worker of hers. How did she put it? That if I never got married and had a family, if I ended up floating through the world like a wandering ghost, I wouldn’t only be ignoring our mother’s last words, but father’s spirit would somehow know and he’d never find any peace. She went on and on, unable to control herself, and soon the waterworks erupted.
In my half-inebriated condition, I agreed to a date. We settled on next Saturday. A venomous flame instantly consumed my heart, spreading an incredible feeling of selfloathing.
Quietly I accelerated the pace of my drinking in order to pass out sooner.
From THE INVISIBILITY CLOAK by Gei Fei. Used with permission of NYRB Classics. Translation copyright © 2016 by Canaan Morse.