“The Body”

May-lee Chai

October 25, 2018 
The following is from May-lee Chai's collection, Useful Phrases for Immigrants. The collection spans cultures, ranging from China to the Chinese diaspora in America, and explores its characters' hopes, fears, grudges, and traditions. May-lee Chai is the author of ten books. Her honors include the Bakwin Award, an NEA Fellowship in Prose and the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature. She teaches in the Creative Writing department at San Francisco State University.

The Crane Operator

A gray mist like a shroud hung over the construction site of the future Happy Prosperity Shopping Center as the morning crew set to work. The crane operator rode the elevator to his position in the top of the crane, then waited while he watched the line of migrants filing in. They would clear the rubble by hand with shovels and buckets and wheelbarrows. They were skinny and filthy and were brought in by truck from whatever wretched dormitory the company housed them in. At least the crane operator had that much to be grateful for: he wasn’t fresh out of the countryside, he’d been able to buy an apartment after fifteen years of construction jobs, he had a wife, they were having a baby. He’d been lucky to come when he did. Not that he didn’t like to complain. Complaining meant he had something to lose.

“This smog will kill us all,” Lao Bing complained to his partner over the mic. He pulled the loops of his hospital-grade face mask up tighter over his ears. “My wife wants me to buy a new air filter. Her friends have something fancy from Korea. Cost more than two thousand yuan. I said, ‘What do the Koreans know about air pollution? Hai’er’s good enough for me.’ You know what she said? ‘If you’re a man, you’d be willing to buy this for our daughter.’ She’s pulling that trick.”

A voice buzzed in his ear. “You should tell her, ‘If I’m not a man, how did you get pregnant?’”

“I told her I’ve already worked sixty hours overtime this month. Why doesn’t she get her parents to give her the money for their precious granddaughter?”

“If it’s not the smog, it’s the overtime. One way or the other, we’re all dead men,” his partner concurred genially.

“Shut up and get to work,” their boss shouted over the mic, but good-naturedly. They laughed. The routine, day after day, was the same.

He turned on the ignition and began the code sequence for the giant crane. It let out a loud beep-beep-beep as he backed the machine over the bumpy, uneven ground.

If only the wind would pick up, he thought. Blow some of this smog away. When he was a child, he remembered waking up to his mother blowing gently across his face, trying to dislodge the flakes of coal that had settled there overnight. Henan was a coal-producing province, and his mother had always said they were lucky to have the fuel to make it through the winter. She still remembered the shortages of her youth, when one winter they’d had to burn the furniture—meaning the family’s wooden kitchen table, their stools, the frame to their lone, shared bed—to keep from freezing. And still her hands had bled every day from the cold.

“He wasn’t fresh out of the countryside, he’d been able to buy an apartment after fifteen years of construction jobs, he had a wife, they were having a baby. He’d been lucky to come when he did. Not that he didn’t like to complain. Complaining meant he had something to lose.”

It was March. Soon enough the weather would be warmer, and people would stop burning so much coal.

Although with the factories these days and their crazy production schedules, it was hard to tell. Spring used to be a time of clearing air. But the crane operator remembered how smoggy it had been in August. In his youth August had been a dry, dusty month of clear blue skies, a time when the old men played the erhu on the edge of the paddies, the notes slipping over the green fields of rice, sorghum, and corn. All the mothers and fathers walked on dirt paths carrying giant dippers of water to their crops, praying no sudden freak storm would arise and crush their fields with hail before the September harvest. As a child, it had been a time of complete freedom, running barefoot through the village, chasing his friends or hunting gophers with a slingshot. It had been his favorite time of the year, better even than the New Year with its fireworks, gifts of candy, and red envelopes of lucky cash.

Now every month was gray, choked with gray clouds that made his eyes and throat burn, his chest tightening with every breath.

“All clear.”

The crane operator flicked the switch for the wrecking ball. His muscles tensed, his jaw tightened. Fifteen years on construction and he still imagined he could feel it in his body the moment the giant iron ball struck concrete.


The air shook around him as the ball hit the wall. Dust rose up, thicker even than the fog, like an avalanche of concrete. His crane beeped as he backed up to wait while the dust cleared before he struck again.

Beep. Beep. Beep.

“Good hit,” his partner’s voice crackled in his earpiece. “One more fifteen degrees west and this next one’s coming down.”

“Got it.” He squinted at his control panel. If anything, the day was getting darker as the morning progressed. He reset the coordinates and hit the gas pedal.

“What the—?” his partner’s voice was in his ear. “Idiot farmers are running toward the building again. Hold on. Can’t tell what’s happening. It’s all luan qi ba zao.”

“Tell them you’ll fire them! I can’t waste time—”

There was a crackle of static. The crane operator looked over his shoulder, trying to see through the haze. It seemed that the migrants were indeed approaching again but this time at a run, and one of the crazies was waving his shovel over his head.

“What’s the matter?”

“STOP! CUT YOUR ENGINE! There’s a body!”

“Where, where?”

The crane operator hit the emergency brake. His heart pounded in his chest. He hoped one of the bumpkin idiots hadn’t got in the way after all. He’d be blamed. He’d lose his job. Like that, his luck would evaporate. Nothing. Gone. Now this. Now something.

“What’s happened?”

“It’s a woman,” his partner’s voice crackled in his ear. “You’d better come down and look at this.”

Like that, he felt a stab of ice shoot through his body. He knew in an instant, less than a heartbeat, his luck could change.


The Reporter

The woman’s body was covered with a tarp by the time the reporter arrived at the construction site, but at least the corpse hadn’t been removed. Her editor was adamant that she see the body with her own eyes.

There were police cars parked in clumps along the street leading up to the site and several unmarked passenger cars, which she assumed had to be undercover security officials. Li Ming had to show her press association card and work ID to the officers guarding the entrance to the site. Then she had to show them again to the site foreman inside. He was sweating profusely, perspiration beading across his forehead underneath his hard, yellow helmet, despite the fact it was a cool day for March, the smog blocking the sun almost entirely. As she walked behind the foreman to the site where the body had been found, she couldn’t help but feel sorry for him. A bad luck thing like this happening on his watch. Even though it wasn’t his fault, his bosses might find a way to blame him.

“We follow all safety regulations carefully,” the foreman chattered as he stepped over the furrows in the ground. “We use every known official precaution before all demolitions.”

Li followed him across the uneven ground littered with broken cinder blocks, bricks, dirt, empty soda cans, and ramen and snack wrappers. Through the gloom, she could make out a cluster of men hunched on the edge of a half-demolished apartment building. A green tarpaulin had been placed over what she assumed must be the body.

Three cops were typing into computer tablets. A fourth stood watch by the tarp. He was smoking and looking off into the distance, or at least into the thick fog.

The foreman called out to the cops. “There’s another reporter wants to see the body.”

Her heart sunk. One of her competitors had beaten her here.

But the cop didn’t even glance her way. He gestured for one of his underlings to pull back the tarp, and sure enough one of the younger cops immediately broke from the cluster and dutifully trotted over. Li Ming guessed from their casual attitude the cops didn’t consider the case politically sensitive. Or even that important.

She figured that meant the victim was poor.

Then the cop pulled back the tarp, and despite wanting to seem tough and seasoned and competent, she couldn’t help but gasp.

“Yeah, get a load of her,” the first cop said. “What a shame.”

Li pulled her notebook out of her purse and began writing.

The body was naked, female, less bruised than one would imagine for someone who was found amidst rubble. (Note: The dead woman was not killed by a falling building. But then how had she died? Perhaps she had already been dead.) She appeared young, in her late teens or early twenties. The corpse’s skin tone was ashen, bluish almost, and not a color Li was used to seeing on an actual person. Her stomach flipped and tightened, and she could taste her breakfast, rice congee, a fried egg.

Pale body but darker face and neck, which suggested the dead woman had worked outdoors or was from the countryside. She had shoulder-length hair, black roots but lighter brown halfway down, as though she’d been lightening her hair for a while then gave up. Her face was without makeup, her eyebrows bushy, full lips, wide-ish nose with a very low bridge. There was something about her that said “countryside.” Maybe a stockiness to the body, thick legs, strong arms. Someone who was used to working. Not a thin, delicate city girl. But perhaps Li was prejudiced, having grown up in a village. She had the same type of body as this woman, was stronger than she looked, and it was a point of pride. But who knew? It was possible for a city girl to be strong as well, Li supposed. The dead woman was taller than Li, maybe 1.75 meters. She had dirt on her arms and legs in thick swathes; then Li realized, no, it wasn’t dirt. She had dark bruises, almost black, and then discoloration, a reddish-purple so dark it only seemed like bruises, around both wrists and both ankles.

Li looked at the rest of the body. The dead woman’s breasts lay flattened against her ribs. Li tried to lean closer to see if the she had any distinguishing marks, moles or freckles or scars, but there was nothing visible along the torso.

“Are you allowed to turn her over? May I see her back?”

“Why you want to do that for? Her face not good enough for you?” the young police officer snickered.

“In case she has a scar or a birthmark or something unusual on her back. Something her family might recognize if I describe it in the paper.”

“Good idea,” said the foreman. “You see, we are fully cooperating with the authorities. Can you have your assistants turn over the body?”

“Oh.” The officer gestured for two of his underlings to come forward. “Turn her over. The reporter needs to see the back of the body.”

The men raised their eyebrows, and then they pulled gloves out of their pockets and put them on. They gingerly took hold of the body by the hands and feet and turned her over.

“Li Ming guessed from their casual attitude the cops didn’t consider the case politically sensitive. Or even that important. She figured that meant the victim was poor.”

There on the upper left shoulder blade was a strange black symbol, a tattoo that appeared to have been crudely cut into the skin: not an actual character, but a strange, uneven rectangle about four centimeters long and three centimeters high with a triangle inside and three slanted lines radiating from the top and sides of the rectangle.

Was that some kind of Falun Gong or other cult symbol? Li wondered. She sketched the design carefully in her notebook.

Was she a suicide? Some kind of doomsday thing? Or a gesture of protest?

This was the kind of detail that could make a story a sensation, especially if her competitor had not noticed. Something a family might recognize, something a crime ring might be using to identify its members (usually tattoos were for men, but exciting if women were joining in the trend), or something that could be used to rally the public against a dangerous cult. Li briefly imagined a promotion, an offer to work for CCTV, an exciting turn of good fortune that would please her parents after what had otherwise been a lackluster career in a seemingly dead-end job at one of the lesser provincial papers.

Apart from the crude tattoo, there were no other distinguishing marks, nor anything that suggested how the woman had died. She clearly had not been crushed to death by anything falling on her. Instead her body had merely been revealed when part of the building was destroyed.

There were no cuts or other wounds on her. Her face was not contorted.  She lay almost peacefully, the body in relatively good shape, apart from being dead.

Her body appeared, Li didn’t know how else to describe it, but almost too clean.

“May I take a picture? Not for the paper, but for my notes?” Li asked the officer in charge and pulled out her small digital camera from her purse.

“No way,” he said. And waved a white-gloved hand in her face.

“I promise we won’t print it. I just want to make sure I get all the details right—”

“If your eyes aren’t good enough . . . ,” and he pushed her camera away.

“But Older Brother, my boss will want me to write a very detailed account. Even a small thing that my eyes can’t notice might help a family identify this girl.”

“Her family will hide their heads in shame,” the cop said. “Look at her! Naked and dead. What kind of family would want to claim her? She’s probably a prostitute and she’s been killed by her pimp because she tried to hide her money or else run away.”

“We can’t know that—”

“Why else is she naked?”

“How would I know? Maybe she was robbed!”

The cop snorted, a loud pig-like grunt. “Maybe she was. But who wants to steal clothes? You know what I think, it was some kind of pervert. Followed her from work, then forced her to come here to this abandoned site and raped her, took all her clothes, and killed her. All the same, her family will still be ashamed. We’ll be lucky if we can ever identify her. And the only way her family will come forward is if we can find them first before they go into hiding and force them to pay for the disposal of the body. Mark my words.”

As the man argued, Li was able to take a quick shot of the body. It would appear in tomorrow’s paper, along with the headline: Mysterious Beauty Found Dead. The photo, cropped to reveal only the woman’s face and shoulders, would appear above the fold. The issue would sell out within an hour.

Li would not get a promotion. She would not get a call from any better-paid news organizations. However, her editor was indeed pleased, and she would be assigned to re-write every sordid crime story that crossed his desk. She had a great eye for detail, he said.


The Itinerant Priest

Itinerant Priest Mo Xugui rummaged through the fruit on the corner of Jiefang Road and Geming Boulevard, his favorite stand in the city. Let the pretentious shop at the new markets with their waxed produce, polished into a fine gloss like plastic toys, but he preferred to buy from the farmers who still made it into the city, their produce piled in the backs of their carts. He wanted to smell the dirt, see it flake off the skin of the carrots and turnips and giant heads of bai cai cabbage before he bought his produce. He was a wood sign, creative, and soil gave him strength.

Fruit bought on the street was also cheaper. He tried to hit the stands late in the afternoon, when the poor farmers were beginning to lose hope and might start to pack up, head to whatever hovel they rented for cheap until they could go back to their village again. At night the sidewalk stands catered to the savory crowd, the drunks coming out of karaoke bars, the young workers with time on their hands, people who wanted hot bowls of noodles or fried pig ears and peppers. Mo timed his shopping to coincide with the long shadows that slid down the sidewalks like an evening tide, when the air grew cooler, when the farmers were most likely to bargain, the long day weighing on their already weary bones. He had a good eye for fatigue. He swept up to the old man seated on a wooden stool, kumquats and pomelos in hand-made baskets on a red-and-blue plastic tarp. The old man’s eyes were rheumy, half-closed, and he’d put his hands into his sleeves to keep them warm. Just the kind of man who’d agree to half price, maybe 75 percent off to get rid of his merchandise and head inside for the evening.

“Long day,” Mo called out to the farmer. “A blessing for you who labors so hard.”

Mo placed his hands together and recited rapidly a few lines of Daoist text in their classical form.

The farmer looked up.

“How about a good price, and I’ll take your fruit so you can go rest?”

The old man rubbed his back, and Mo knew he’d agree to his price.

Mo watched as the weary farmer weighed his kumquats, then slid the orange fruit into a cone made from the daily newspaper. Mo took the cone, rubbed a kumquat against his black robe, and then popped it into his mouth.

He was halfway through the fruit when his eye caught sight of the lurid crime story: “Mysterious Beauty Found Dead.”

He read the article carefully and discovered the description of the tattoo. A sign of a black tantric Buddhist sect popular in some of the poorer mountain villages. Well, that meant there would be no money forthcoming from the family if they even knew their daughter/sister/wife had been killed. Poor people would keep to themselves. It was almost enough to make him toss the paper.

Then he recognized the address.

A rapidly changing neighborhood. Many older buildings that had housed families for generations were being torn down, which meant undoubtedly bribes had changed hands. Someone important was spending and receiving money to displace so many families. Such people were richer than a god. He tried to remember what was being built. An office building? Something for foreigners? Then he remembered. A shopping center. What bad luck for a property for a dead body to be found now. And naked. The worst kind of crime. The most unhappy of spirits. The kind that would likely haunt a place, bringing misfortune to all the shoppers who might tread on the site of its body’s last breath.

Mo immediately understood the nature of the headaches that had been plaguing him for weeks. A new soul lost in the city calling to him.

“What bad luck for a property for a dead body to be found now. And naked. The worst kind of crime. The most unhappy of spirits. The kind that would likely haunt a place, bringing misfortune to all the shoppers who might tread on the site of its body’s last breath.”

He’d go to the site tomorrow morning. Bring his drum and his incense and start praying for the girl’s lost soul. He’d shout loudly so that she could hear him above the howling winds and weeping ghosts on the other side.

And if the construction foreman tried to stop him, he’d explain his premonitions and his headaches and the long-term cost of a wandering soul who has died a violent death and how terrible this would be for business. Then he’d name his price for performing a full Daoist ceremony to make sure the girl’s soul would leave for good.

Mo rubbed his hands together to dry the sticky juices from the kumquats. Already he could sense his vitality returning. An unfortunate death on a prosperous property. Exactly what he needed.


The Migrant Worker

At night in the room he shared with eleven other men, Xiao Jun no longer dreamed of his village tucked into the side of Song Mountain surrounded by pines, including one ancient tree that hung off the side of the mountain, its claw-like branches extended into the mist or sunlight or clouds so that the tree seemed like a dragon, coiled around the precipice. He did not dream of the sound of the ducks in Old Mrs. Meng’s pond or the crowing of his grandfather’s roosters or the snorting of the hogs the entire village used to raise for cash until there were no young people left to manage the work and the old heads left behind were too weak, bones too brittle to do it themselves. The last hog had been sold the year before. He had returned briefly for three days for Lunar New Year to bring presents and cash, for his grandparents and his young sisters. His parents had not returned that year; they had left when he was eight to work in the biggest factories in southern China, and they’d returned at first every year but then only occasionally. They said their bosses wouldn’t pay them, wouldn’t give the time off, but other parents returned to check on their left-behind children. Xiao Jun wasn’t sure if his parents were telling the truth. He used to study hard so that his grandparents could brag about his marks and make his parents feel guilty about leaving such a diligent child, but after they stopped coming home at all and he took on more chores for his grandparents, it was harder to make top marks, and then the teacher left, and Xiao Jun stopped bothering to study.

He stopped dreaming of his grandmother’s cooking, of the steaming bowls of hand-pulled noodles and patiently wrapped half-moon dumplings, the freshly pickled cabbage in the smooth rice porridge, the fried pig ears and peppers, the velvety spinach, the slivered carrots, the long dried green beans with cubes of tender doufu.

Instead for a long time, more than a year and three months, he dreamed the sleep of the dead, coming back from the construction crews where he picked up broken concrete and copper wires and lead pipes and chunks of other debris and loaded it into wheelbarrows. Sometimes he pushed the wheelbarrow from one end of a dirt field to deposit its contents on the other end in a new growing mountain of debris, and sometimes he broke the chunks of broken buildings further with a pick ax or a shovel or a strong piece of pipe. On some sites he’d been made to climb up the sides of buildings to wash windows of newly built skyscrapers, sitting on the edge of a rocking wood plank while the wind whistled in his ears, his legs wet from the squeegee dripping in his hand and the bucket of soapy water at his side. In the beginning he’d been afraid of falling; there were no nets, spider workers like him didn’t need nets. He knew if he fell, it would be considered his fault and the bosses would be more pleased to be rid of him outright than forced to pay for nets that might catch his body before it hit the pavement below. But later he learned to watch the clouds float by on the glass in front of him. Sometimes he could imagine he was flying, and sometimes he could imagine that instead he was swimming in the vast bowl of the sky, the clouds reflected before him, the noise and filth of the city lost below.

But now on this job, he was back to picking up debris, and his body hurt in both new and familiar ways.

For months he’d slept with no dreams at all, his body so tired he fell into a black pool of nothingness the moment his body hit his cot, oblivious to the snores and farts and honking wheezing noises of the men sleeping in the bunks around him.

Then he’d found the girl’s body.

She was young, maybe his age, seventeen, or maybe a few years older, but beautiful, even in death. Not bruised and damaged, not broken the way he would have expected a body to be amidst the rubble. Her skin was pale. Her hair long and black like a crow. Her lips full, the nose straight. She had sharp clavicles. And full breasts. He hadn’t meant to see them, but she was naked, lying there.

At first, he thought she was asleep. He’d imagined she was homeless, a poor migrant girl, someone like himself, a girl from a village who was lost in the city, and she’d gone to sleep in the empty building, a deep tired sleep, and she hadn’t heard the noise, and the wrecking ball had struck the old apartment building, and she’d died before she could even wake, lost in her dreams of her village.

But one of the men who’d almost graduated from high school before he’d left his village had seen a newspaper, and he claimed the reporter said the girl had not been killed by the crane. She’d already been dead. The crane had merely opened up the floor of the building where her body had been stashed. Fresh. Recently killed.

The other men had laughed salaciously. A wild chicken, they claimed. A prostitute no doubt. Why else was she naked?

Xiao Jun had blushed when he heard them, not out of shame, but out of anger. He felt protective of the girl whose body he’d found, his sharp eyes catching sight of the pallor of her flesh against the jumble of broken walls.

Other men had scaled the building, pulled her body out, brought it to the field, laid it there until the police could come, but he’d been the first to see her. Even though he’d never touched her flesh, it was to him that her ghost returned every night.

He was not asleep.

The first time she had arrived, he had not worked for three days. First the police had closed down the construction site to conduct their investigation, which the other men understood to be a ruse to force the owner of the construction company and the owner of the shopping center that they were building to come up with enough bribe money to make the investigation go in their favor. And then the Daoist priest arrived with his gongs and drums and incense and firecrackers and wails that let every passing pedestrian know that someone had died and now this was an unlucky site and they might catch the spirit’s unhappiness, too. This continued on and off for two days until the police came and roughed up the priest. On the third day, the priest returned, but the foreman paid him off himself rather than call the police. Maybe paying the priest was cheaper than paying the police. Xiao Jun didn’t know. At any rate, he knew the priest was a fraud. He was no one who could help the girl’s unhappy ghost. He knew because the ghost was still there despite the man’s gongs and drums and firecrackers and loud wails.

During those three days that he did not work but merely stood around or squatted with the other men, waiting to be told when to go back to work, he also did not sleep.

He lay in the dark of the crowded noisy room, and as much as he wanted to fall asleep and try to dream of his village or his grandparents or his younger sisters’ faces, or even to fall into the deep dark black pit of nothingness and awake the next morning feeling that he’d not slept at all with only the cold and weight of work on his bones, he could not sleep.

He stared into the darkness and then suddenly she was there.

She stood before his bed.

She was naked just as he’d found her, but he could barely make out the contours of her body. She shimmered, her mouth opening and closing, but he could not hear her voice, he could not understand what she said. He lay in terror, rigid, afraid to move a muscle, a finger, a toe, until at last she disappeared without a sound, and all that was left of her visit was his erect penis to remind him that she had been there at all.

The next night she spoke again, or at least she opened and closed her mouth, but he still couldn’t make out any sound. Her face was neutral, no sign of distress, neither fear nor anger nor sadness. Her eyes were open and seemed to stare directly at him.

“What do you want?” he called out. He hoped the other men would hear, would awaken and see her too and cry out and make her go away.

The moment he shouted, she disappeared. The other men did not wake up.

The third night, she appeared at the end of his bunk, the same as the previous two nights, and he sat up, less afraid now that she was more familiar. He’d been waiting, hoping she’d come. He leaned closer so that he could see better, try to understand what she was trying to say. But this night the ghost didn’t stop at the end of his bed. She climbed onto his thin cotton mattress, and he pulled the sheets open for her instinctively, not because she was naked, but because she seemed as though she might be cold. And she was cold. Not like the draft from the window that never quite closed, but cold like water, like the lake outside his village where he used to swim with his classmates late at night after his grandparents had gone to sleep, and he and his friends would run in the dark, giggling, past the rice paddies and the sleeping ducks and the water buffalo that stood sleepily in the ditches alongside the dirt roads, through the reeds and the mud until splash, they were screaming with delight in the cold water that sucked the air out of his lungs, and his legs pumped in the water, kicking, his arms splashing, as he dove up and down in the lake like a boy turned fish, feeling free for the only time in his seventeen years of life.

“He pulled the sheets open for her instinctively, not because she was naked, but because she seemed as though she might be cold. And she was cold. Not like the draft from the window that never quite closed, but cold like water, like the lake outside his village where he used to swim with his classmates late at night”

That cold enveloped him now as the ghost straddled his body and his heart beatbeatbeat in his chest, and he rocked with the girl, her cold body over his warm one, she cooled the ache in his bones, the swollen purple bruises on his tan skin, back and forth, like waves they rocked together, until all the pain in his body had seeped into the ice and was gone.


The Developer

The next morning the body lay in the bunk, lifeless.

The rumors spread quickly. An illness. A plague. Bad luck. Ever since they found that woman’s body. Something contagious.

The men were restless, agitated.

The developer knew it could have been anything. Twenty years in the business, Zhang Xueke had seen it all. Heart attacks, brain aneurysms, drugs, suicide. Workers were unreliable, their bodies apt to fail in an infinite variety of ways.

When some of the men began to blame a ghost, evil spirits, drawn by the dead woman’s body, saying it was bad luck that wouldn’t go away, Zhang knew it was time to act.

The Daoist had disappeared out of the neighborhood, taken his money and run, and for all the men knew, maybe he’d conjured something to the site, something unholy, something vengeful.

The reporter had dug up something about a human trafficking ring that tattooed its victims so they could keep track of who owed what debts, young women lured from distant villages with promises of good-paying jobs in the city and then sold into brothels or mining towns or otherwise undesirable locations.

It was all sordid and bad for business.

Zhang closed the site down, moved the crew away, fired the most vocal of the men as well as the older men, the kind with aches and pains, slower, liabilities really. He told his foreman to keep the hardest workers, the men who learned to shut up quickly and get on with it. He paid to have them moved to a new dormitory, a new site. He’d have to take the loss.

But he didn’t give up. Zhang had paid dearly for the rights to develop the property; the thought of how many banquets he’d hosted, how many watches and cars and girls and promises had changed hands gave him migraines, exploding pain right behind his eyes, as though someone were drilling directly into his skull with sharp metal spikes. He had dependents, a wife, two spoiled children whose educations abroad were increasingly expensive, a mistress, but more importantly he had his reputation. If he lost face now, he could lose everything. Not just wealth, but liberty. Next time someone needed to take the fall for a deal gone bad, a new official rising through the ranks claiming to care about corruption, it could be Zhang who was charged, sentenced, imprisoned. There was only one way to survive in this world, and it was to succeed.

He hired a contingent of Buddhist monks to chant before the gates, no more of those tricky Daoists, found them in the government-subsidized monastery, realized he should have done this from the outset. Zhang paid men to set off firecrackers, more than one hundred strings to scare away the superstitious. He ordered that the lights be left on in the dormitories 24/7. If the men were afraid of the dark, let them sleep in the light.

Then when the exorcisms were performed and everyone who remembered where the body had been found had been moved away or fired, he brought a new crew to the old site.

And if there were men who still thought they saw on occasion a young naked woman running in the shadows of the cranes, peeking from behind a stack of concrete blocks, darting between steel girders, and once floating from floor to floor, he made sure the foreman tracked down and fired the rumormongers.

Workers who had time to gossip and indulge in storytelling were lazy and had no place in the new economy. Zhang had not been born yesterday. He understood well the price of doing business in the city these days.


From Useful Phrases for Immigrants. Used with permission of BLAIR. Copyright © 2018 by May-lee Chai.

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