Part One: A Fly Caught In Honey
"There’s a problem here on this stamp," said Aldous, pointing to a small crease just between Mao and Lin Biao.
"Where?" asked the stamp hustler. Aldous pointed to the spot and the stamp seller got out a magnifying glass and examined the stamp in question. Aldous gazed idly past a crowd of onlookers towards the few stamp hustlers in the small park who weren’t intent on witnessing his transaction. None of the others seemed to have any serious stamps. Nothing that would interest the Man Who Never Leaves the Youyi.
"It’s nothing," said the stamp seller.
"It’s a problem," said Aldous, shaking his head. "Foreigners are very picky about stamp flaws." It wasn’t a problem though. He had already decided it was good enough. The Man Who Never Leaves the Youyi would be overjoyed with the purchase.
One of the other stamp hustlers looked at the stamp under the magnifying glass and said something Aldous couldn’t catch to the man he was dealing with. Aldous walked off a bit while they conferred. He watched a queue forming at a post office branch across the street. The only place to buy serious stamps in Beijing was in parks across the street from post office branches. There were only a few authorized stamp dealers in Beijing so all of the people in the park were technically breaking the law.
Looking back, Aldous saw several of the stamp hustlers huddled around the man Aldous was negotiating with. Eventually, this man emerged from the crowd with another stamp. Aldous figured he must have offered to trade with one of the other dealers, probably one who did not have a complete set of this particular series. Aldous examined the new stamp. It was without crease, but was dirty and one edge was a bit worn. The other one was better. He shook his head.
The seller returned to the huddle for another conference. Finally, the entire group of stamp hustlers approached Aldous. The stamp seller shrugged his shoulders and held out the original set before Aldous as a hopeful offering. After enduring a full minute of Aldous’s indifference he asked: "Do you have renminbi or American dollars today?" Having dealt with Aldous before, he knew either was possible.
"Which do you want?" Aldous replied.
"I could use some American dollars," said the stamp seller. He was a regular guy, without connections, who would normally have to deal in the black market to get American money. He probably wanted it for some relative going abroad. Or perhaps he felt it was better to have hard currency during these inflationary times—it was 1989 and prices were only going up. He didn’t spend his time sitting in parks across the street from post offices just out of love for his hobby.
"I’ll give you fifty American dollars for the set," said Aldous.
The seller carefully considered. Aldous helpfully offered him the use of his solar calculator. He punched in some numbers and considered some more. His stamp collection was almost as good as hard currency; stamp prices has more than kept pace with inflation. Aldous knew he was a shrewd and careful man.
After a time Aldous could tell the man was struggling to come up with a counter-offer. He also needed to choose his words carefully because his English and Aldous’s Chinese were both limited. All the stamp sellers in the park knew what a tough negotiator Aldous was. He would often abruptly leave the park in the middle of a deal if he didn’t like what he was hearing, deaf to all pleas to reconsider. Aldous considered the language barrier to be to his advantage.
"Fifty American dollars and twenty renminbi," offered Aldous. He waited for two seconds and then turned away as if he’d had enough.
"Fifty American dollars and twenty renminbi?" repeated the seller quickly, trying to buy some more time.
"Correct," said Aldous.
"Twenty-five renminbi?" asked the man apologetically.
Aldous laughed and smiled good-naturedly. "OK", he said. The difference wasn’t very much. Aldous knew the man’s last offer was probably just bargaining for status. At this point in the negotiation it was more important for this man to have his offer accepted last than to get the best price for his stamps. The seller smiled back at Aldous and immediately looked around at the other stamp hustlers, who nodded in approval. It was a very big deal from their perspective.
Aldous walked over to Tian’anmen Square and wandered into its vast concrete interior. Thousands of smaller cement squares neatly divided the immense area. Each square block contained painted numbers to facilitate organization of large crowds during parades and special events. During festivals Tian’anmen turned into paint-by-number frescos made up of brightly clothed celebrants standing in their assigned squares in order to form a larger picture or pattern for the bigwigs up in the bleachers to view. The ordered symmetry pleased Aldous.
The late morning line for Mao’s Mausoleum snaked off to his right. The line was perhaps shorter than usual, but the mausoleum would soon close for the day. Mao’s decaying corpse needed to be put into cold storage by early afternoon, a procedure initiated after one of the ears fell off the poorly embalmed body and had to be sewn back on.
Some students boisterously demonstrated near the south end of the Monument to the People’s Heroes. Tourists lined up to take the same photograph of the entrance to the Forbidden City to the north. Several hundred school children played to the northwest of the monument. Aldous often saw large crowds of Chinese children in the parks on school days. He liked the fact that they seemed to spend so little time in school.
He squatted atop square number _642 (the first number was worn away) and took a plastic container of water, a tangerine, and a bag of pumpkin seeds from the small backpack he always carried. He ate and drank as he watched the children play, sing, and march under the careful organization of their teachers. Eventually, they lined up in neat rows and tramped off to their buses, the smaller ones with an arm cleverly tied to a rope to keep them in tow. As they marched off they left a sea of dropped bingoirs (resembling a Popsicle but never seems to completely melt) and dozens of little puddles produced by the little tots, who squatted down and piddled through slits in their pants designed for this purpose. Aldous considered the square he presently hunkered over and wondered if toxic combinations of bingoirs and urine had dissolved that first missing number.
The snack and the warm sun made Aldous sleepy. He sat cross-legged on his backpack and dazedly watched a crowd gather around the demonstrating students. Students had been marching to Tian’anmen on and off for the past few weeks, since April 15, when former Party Secretary, and perceived student ally, Hu Yaobang died. Although Hu had once been hand picked by Senior Leader Deng Xiaoping to be his successor, Deng ousted him after student demonstrations in 1986 because he was seen as too lenient with the students. The holidays of May Day and May 4th (a date commemorating the student protest movement of 1919 that called for a Chinese government guided by "Science and Democracy") closely followed Hu’s death, conveniently helping student leaders rally crowds in the tens of thousands.
The huge May 4th demonstration had been almost polite, with protestors claiming to be patriotic and loyal to the Communist Party. They clamored support for the government’s never-ending battle against general, widespread corruption. People went home with the steam blown out of them, the students returned to classes, and it seemed like the climax to the discontent. Aldous thought the government cleared the air when Party Secretary Zhao Ziyang publicly criticized the April 26th People’s Daily editorial, which had enraged students by a harsh portrayal of their demonstrations. In a conciliatory gesture, Zhao Ziyang admitted some of the students’ demands were reasonable.
The fact that the protests hadn’t completely evaporated yet surprised Aldous. Surely the momentum was gone and people were growing tired of the squawking students. He wasn’t too interested though. His head nodded down and he soon drifted off to sleep.
His dreams took him back to memories last year’s National Day. He saw Tian’anmen packed with people on a warm, flowery, autumn day. Throngs of sightseers gathered around the displays, trying hopelessly to get pictures of themselves in front of the flowers. The festive crowd enjoyed the day despite the jostling and close quarters. In his dream, Aldous rose and floated above them.
The traditional giant portraits loomed over the north: Sun Yat Sen in the center, with Stalin and Lenin minding the western end, and Marx and Engels keeping watch at the east. Mao faced them from his usual spot above the entrance to the Palace Museum and seemed a bit envious of Sun Yat Sen’s central position. Stalin too appeared to be a bit uncomfortable, as if wondering whether his invitation would be extended to the next party.
A bright sun scintillated above workers putting the finishing touches to giant flower arrangements standing proudly above a sea of people. The motif for the floral displays was the upcoming 1990 Asian Games to be held in Beijing. A happy panda gave a confident thumb’s up sign to the workers watering him. Two tremendous dragons paired off at the north end of the Square, each looking for an opening to spring an attack. A third arrangement was . . . a bull maybe? Aldous remembered the ambiguous Year of the Dragon symbol created for tourists that resembled a cross between a goat and a lion, or perhaps even a catfish. He wondered if the Chinese had some secret animals that only they knew about.
Aldous floated over to the entrance to the Forbidden City. The giant portrait of Mao—the one with a Mona Lisa smile—loomed ahead over an archway. A moat blocked passage to the entrance, just as in the real life Palace Museum. Only this moat was blood red and no bridges crossed over it.
Various treasures floated in the red moat: jeweled clocks, ancient porcelain, bronze sculptures. Aldous remembered reading a story in the paper about some museum workers who stole precious items and threw them into the moat to avoid capture. Their crime was discovered and they were sentenced to death.
Aldous took a running leap over the moat. (Hadn’t he been floating?) As he flew over, a head bobbed up from the murky depths, a head with a bullet hole through the top. A hand emerged clutching a one yuan note—the one used to pay the bill the government sent to the dead man’s family for the bullet used to kill him. Aldous’s momentum carried him through the archway underneath Mao.
He traveled down a corridor painted with the same dusty red paint as the walls outside the Forbidden City and Zhongnanhai (the Communist Party Headquarters). A series of moldy portraits depicting utopian visionaries: Charles Fourier, Robert Owen, and Louis Blanc, among others, gloomily spied on Aldous from behind cobwebs. Somewhere beyond the walls he could hear the students’ chants from Tian’anmen.
Instead of finding himself amid the souvenir vendors on the southern edge of the Forbidden City, Aldous saw a verdant countryside. Ruddy-faced peasants chugged about on small, efficient tractors. Muscular farmers expanded an irrigation ditch that led to a sea of gently swaying amber wheat. Strong, clean, young women tossed feed out to streams of fat white ducks. Straight-backed soldiers drilled in a nearby grass field. Mountains of grain could be seen stacked up in the distance; they seemed to grow larger with each passing second.
A group of school children skipped by. They all wore lipstick and mascara. Their rouged cheeks resembled apples. They wore the red neckerchief of the Young Pioneers and sang patriotic songs in high-pitched voices, keeping perfectly in tune. They broke into "The East Is Red," the Chinese national anthem and one of Aldous’s favorite songs. He listened to the martial strains fade away as the children bounced out of sight.
Off in the distance he could hear the deep rumble of men chanting as they worked:
Ten thousand years for Chairman Mao!
Ten thousand years for Deng Xiaoping!
Ten thousand years for the Communist Party!
He could pick out brawny men harvesting cabbages in a distant field. They tossed the plump vegetables into impossibly high stacks on the backs of waiting trucks.
Aldous found himself talking to one of the healthy young women who fed the ducks.
"You’re from Beijing?" she asked.
Aldous nodded. This girl was attractive, with round rosy cheeks and a beaming smile, but she had a vacant look to her eyes. Her unblinking eyes reminded Aldous of religious fundamentalists he’d seen in the United States.
"I used to live there too," the girl continued, "but I much prefer living in the People’s Commune. We’ve over-achieved on every output quota for the present five-year plan. Our grain production has increased by 224 percent each year." She proudly looked off in the distance, eyes wide with the wonderment of the Commune’s accomplishments.
Aldous thought he recognized a man from one of the stamps he’d recently purchased for The Man Who Never Leaves the Youyi. "Isn’t that Iron Man Wang over there?" he asked, pointing to a huge man who carried a metal beam the size of an oak tree towards a futuristic building. Aldous figured this must be some sort of model community, like the now defunct Dazhai or Daqing.
"Yes," replied the girl. "And that’s our steel factory. Steel production has risen by 440 percent since last year and by 2,112 percent since the founding of New China. With the new economic reforms and drive towards modernization, we hope to surpass our current output by 320 percent within two years."
"That’s very nice," said Aldous.
A bell rang and people started moving towards an outdoor stage. "The Red Guards have rounded up some counter-revolutionaries and paper tiger capitalists," the girl explained, clapping her hands in excited joy.
Aldous flowed along towards the meeting place. Several Red Guards stalked about the stage, shouting and waving Mao’s "Little Red Book." Then some soldiers led in prisoners, dressed in gray and with their heads forced down. It reminded Aldous of the sentencing of criminals shown on Chinese TV. In fact, he could now make out a man holding a TV camera pointed at the scene.
One by one the prisoners were led to the front of the stage where Red Guards placed tall dunce caps on their heads and hung placards describing crimes around their necks: showing bourgeois tendencies, spying, profiteering, selling pornography, smuggling cigarettes, riotous hooliganism, and conspiring against the Communist Party. An official pronounced sentences ranging from re-education to exile, or even death. The crowd nodded as one in silent approval.
The Red Guards kicked prisoners to the ground as an official described their crimes. "Counter-revolutionary revisionist monster!" they screamed at one. "Individualist pig!" "Reactionary running dog!" The taunts gave Aldous a vague sense of inconsistency.
The smash of breaking glass woke Aldous. He looked over to see a demonstrating student hurl another bottle onto the ground. Things were heating up over there. This was just the sort of thing that would interest Amelia.
Aldous walked over to the tall, rectangular monument near the center of the square and pushed his way through the growing crowd to get a closer look at the students. He now noticed several of them wore broken bottles about their necks. A few passionately threw their bottles to the ground.
Aldous asked a man next to him about the bottles. He couldn’t understand his entire explanation, but comprehended that the bottles were a protest against Chinese senior leader Deng Xiaoping (whose given name is a homonym for "little bottle").
A student overheard the man’s explanation and came over to speak to Aldous in English. "In the days of the Democracy Wall, students used to wear little bottles about their necks to show their support for Deng Xiaoping," said the student. "He has forgotten his promises to make our country modern and progressive."
Aldous pointed at the students’ banners and asked the English-speaking student for a translation.
The banners too were protests against Deng:
Deng Xiaoping—Thank You and Good-bye,
A Good Cat Knows When to Retire,
Old Men Make Poor Leaders,
Deng Xiaoping—Retire and Go Play Bridge,
For Democracy, Against Corruption.
The last one seemed like a holdover from the May 4th demonstrations, when everybody seemed to be protesting for or against some vague issue. They’d shouted for democracy while upholding the Communist Party and blamed their malaise on the rampant corruption of government officials. The people’s real bugbears were inflation, overcrowded transportation systems, and others making lots of money while they lost pace to rising prices. Normally, they didn’t much mind the corruption or the black market—these had been an appendage of Chinese society for a long time. Aldous knew that when things change for the worse, people (the Chinese people in particular) needed something to pin their troubles on.
Presented almost as an afterthought, some students voiced opposition to the lies habitually told by the government-controlled press and to the lack of freedom in their daily lives. These few students were a minority, but their protests sparked support from the disgruntled Beijing residents. Nobody really wanted democracy; they just weren’t happy with the current system.
Aldous liked the nasty, personal tone of the banners. He recognized the daring of these bold students and took a liking to them. They were among the very few people in Beijing willing to stick their necks out for a cause.
"What country are you from?" asked the English speaking student.
"Madagascar," replied Aldous. He left them to their bottles and banners. Of course, he thought, they were also fools.
Aldous left the Square and walked west on Chang’an Avenue, happy with the success of his day. The stamps would garner him precious guanxi (connections or influence) with the Man Who Never Leaves the Youyi and Amelia would be happy to get the latest news on the student demonstrations.
"Aldous!" he heard his name shouted and looked down a small side street. Chi and Xiaoyong sat on a cement ledge surrounding an empty flowerbed. They wore some type of military uniform (PLA? police?) and looked up at Aldous expectantly.
These two were up to something—they looked ridiculously guilty.
"You’re late!" said Xiaoyong in a near panic. "Two are around the corner," he said, indicating a side street near one of the large hotels for foreigners.
"We have the armbands," whispered Chi, pointing to a small gray sack and glancing around suspiciously.
Baffled, Aldous decided he would learn more from an examination of the side street than questioning Chi and Xiaoyong. He looked around the corner, but there was little to see—an exit from the hotel, a shop and a restaurant, both probably associated with the hotel since signs with the English words "SHOP" and "RESTAURANT" hung above them. An occasional bicyclist passed through the nearly deserted street, using it as a shortcut entrance to a narrow hutong just beyond.
He cast a questioning glance back towards Chi and Xiaoyong but they motioned for him to go ahead. Aldous walked down the side street, thinking he could then continue through the hutong and go home. He’d already lost interest in Chi and Xiaoyong.
Halfway down the street, two young moneychangers, dressed in trademark pinstripe suits, lurked out from an inconspicuous corner and asked Aldous to "Change-a-money."
China’s ludicrous two-currency system bred moneychangers faster than mosquitoes. Tourists had to use foreign exchange certificates (FECs) for most things. Chinese who wanted to buy imported and luxury items also needed to pay in FEC. The government declared the FECs equal in value to the regular non-convertible renminbi, or "people’s money," but the black market rate hovered near two to one.
Aldous recognized one of these moneychangers. When he and Amelia had first come to China, this tough had cheated Amelia during an early attempt to change money. Aldous had tagged along, but since he didn’t know a word of Chinese yet, Amelia instructed him to watch out for police. She had been very nervous about changing money on the black market, and only later did she realize she’d been severely shortchanged.
The taller of the moneychangers had been the leader of the small group who fleeced Amelia. Now he was down to one partner, probably to increase his profit. There was little risk involved for a tough, bold moneychanger. The authorities made some token arrests, but the moneychangers often operated unhampered within a stone’s throw of police.
Since their trade operated outside the law, the moneychangers rarely dealt fairly with a customer. Aldous knew of a crazy Iranian guy who went beyond foolishness by going to the police to complain about being cheated by a moneychanger. The police politely ignored the Iranian, despite his returning to see them twice. Then the fool brought his protest to a police supervisor. He was promptly arrested, fined for dealing with the black market, and thrown out of the country.
Most of the foreign experts at the Youyi (or Friendship Hotel where many of them lived) knew the futility of going to the police for anything, as they tended to spend more time grilling the victim rather than looking for the criminal. One couple who reported a crime noticed Public Security Bureau men following them around for days. The PSB men terrorized the couple’s Chinese tutor and even went so far as to sneak into their room at night, just to see if they would notice the break-in.
A vague memory of a night spent drinking beer with Chi and Xiaoyong crept into Aldous’s mind along with an amorphous plan to steal money from moneychangers. They would masquerade as policemen and scare away the moneychangers while Aldous pretended to make a deal.
Aldous remembered the armbands and realized Chi and Xiaoyong were about to get into serious trouble.
"What’s the rate?" he asked the moneychanger, just to give himself time to think.
"One to one point seven," said the moneychanger Aldous recognized. He gave an arrogant sneer and cockily lit a "Good Companion" brand cigarette, made with expensive American tobacco. Aldous knew that wasn’t too good a rate.
"American money," said Aldous.
"American money?" he asked aggressively.
"Yes," said Aldous. The moneychanger was playing dumb. American money could be used in the duty free stores. People with relatives in Hong Kong or abroad could use it to get highly coveted items like refrigerators and VCRs. A black market dealt in custom’s receipts, so anyone with dollars could buy the special items. Students going abroad for studies also needed them. The rate for US dollars was usually slightly more than the black market FEC rate multiplied by the official exchange rate for FECs.
The moneychanger took a long drag on his cigarette and flicked some ash on the ground. "One to six point six," he said.
"One to six point eight," said Aldous.
"OK, how much?" the tall moneychanger asked hurriedly.
"What a joke," thought Aldous. No "honest" moneychanger agreed to a rate so readily, and without even first asking the amount! After Amelia was cheated, Aldous spent a lot of time watching moneychangers. He knew all their tricks and habits.
"Wait a bit," said Aldous, and he saw the impatient moneychangers wince with anger.
As Aldous walked back to the corner he caught a glimpse of Chi peeking around a bush. He wanted to dupe these punks and bring the money to Amelia, but he knew Chi and Xiaoyong were bound to screw up. Those two tough moneychangers would take one look at them and laugh.
Aldous thought about beating up the moneychangers and taking their cash. He was sure he could do it—a kick to a groin, a poke to some eyes—but he didn’t think he could be quick enough not to attract attention.
When he reached Chi and Xiaoyong he ignored their questions, took their sack with the armbands away from them, and threw it in a garbage bin. He made Xiaoyong take off his police shirt, which looked too official, and left him in an undershirt. At least now they couldn’t be accused of pretending to be police. He told them to come over quietly as soon as he got the money in hand. He ordered them to act like concerned citizens and to stick to this story if anything went wrong.
Aldous still had no fully developed plan, but he walked back to the moneychangers with a good feeling. He’d been a cautious thief in the States who rarely took chances. In China he seldom needed to resort to crime—it was too easy to make a living by simply doing people favors—but Aldous believed there were times to trust instinct.
His determination to cheat the moneychangers, despite the handicap of Chi and Xiaoyong, was not based on need or want of money. In an odd way he believed this would make Amelia happy. She had been so upset over being cheated.
"Four hundred," said Aldous when he returned to the moneychangers. Might as well get their whole stash. Besides, he wanted to distract them from their suspicions about why he had to walk around the corner.
Their eyes widened with surprise and greed. They went off to confer and came back with an enormous roll of bills. They asked Aldous to hand over his money first—if he did they would probably try to run off—but when he refused they shrugged and handed over the wad of renminbi for him to count.
Aldous pretended to diligently count through the bills, mostly tens and fifties, with an occasional hundred, no doubt thrown in only because the moneychangers were stretched to make the amount close to the agreed upon rate. He knew without counting that it was between 20 to 40 yuan short. If he protested, the moneychangers would look at him with disbelief and quickly pretend to do their own count of the money. As they flipped through the bills they would surreptitiously knife off about a fourth of them. Then they would apologize to Aldous, hand him the now smaller, but not noticeably smaller, original wad, and slap out the additional 20 to 40 yuan. They might also pretend to see some police, just to make sure the nervous foreigner wouldn’t recount the bills.
Aldous had watched moneychangers cheat many foreigners in this manner. For the most part he believed the stupid foreigners deserved to lose their money. He felt slighted that these two would take him for an ignorant tourist.
Of course Chi and Xiaoyong missed their cue, so Aldous pretended to miscount and start again. He decided Chi and Xiaoyong could be used as a distraction. The moneychangers stamped their feet with antagonistic impatience and snarled at him to hurry up. The tall one was red with fury and demanded that Aldous let him recount it. Aldous ignored him.
Perhaps when Chi and Xiaoyong came around the corner he could claim to be working with the police and have the moneychangers put their hands against the wall. He liked the plan; Chinese tend to do what they are told when it is put to them in a forceful authoritative manner. The moneychangers would realize he had gone around the corner to confer with the police. He tried to form a sentence in his head.
"Hurry, hurry," hissed the now livid moneychanger, "there are police around here."
A weak shout filtered over from the corner. "Hey, what’s going on over there?" Chi and Xiaoyong timidly walked towards them.
Amazingly, the moneychangers froze for an instant. Perhaps they watched too many TV news reports of criminals being led away with bowed heads as the cameras panned on tables full of thinly spread cash, TVs and VCRs, and perhaps a knife or two.
Aldous knew this was the instant to give them orders to surrender, but he didn’t have a sentence ready. Besides, Chi and Xiaoyong were obviously too scared to come any closer. Any second the moneychangers would tell them the Chinese equivalent of where they could stick it.
So Aldous ran.
He tore down the little side street and darted into the hutong, stuffing the renminbi into his backpack as he went. The hutong twisted through a small residential area. There was no sign of the citizen monitor, a hutong resident given a red armband and told to question anyone unknown. Most people were slack about doing their duty, so the designated guard for this hutong probably napped or was out eating lunch.
A few kids played in the otherwise empty hutong but they missed Aldous whizzing past. No doubt the insides of the low, one-story buildings contained plenty of older people who didn’t work, but few windows for elderly witnesses looked out onto the street. The dwellings shared tiny enclosed courtyards between residences. People were always watching but they mostly watched their neighbors.
Aldous risked a glimpse behind him after the lane straightened and saw the two moneychangers on his tail. He exhaled in relief as it meant they weren’t mixing it up with Chi and Xiaoyong. Red-faced and already huffing, the moneychangers furiously followed with awkward heavy-footed strides. They had a lifetime of Beijing air pollution and chain-smoking since early adolescence to overcome. Aldous had a lifetime of running away from people.
At the next bend in the road Aldous doubled his pace. Soon he spotted an alley to his left, leading out to a main street. A "honey-truck" partially blocked the entrance. Men lumbered out of a house struggling with large containers of excrement to pour into a hole in the truck. "Honey" streamed and dribbled along behind them. Aldous figured his lead was large enough to chance popping out to a larger street. Pretending to be bothered by the smell and the nightsoil on the ground, he hurried past the truck. Two of the workers chuckled at him.
Once on the main street Aldous ran at a good clip in the bike lane. He wove his way past a river of tortoise-like cyclists—giving a wide berth to those who emitted the trademark Beijing hawking sound (resembling eggshells grinding in a garbage disposal) preceding a drooling spit to one side.
He kicked into a 100-meter sprint and passed bicyclists with a blur. As he accelerated around one bike an imbecile pedaling the wrong way down the bike path forced him into a wild leap to one side. He nearly collided with a soda pop vendor and stepped in a puddle of dirty water produced by the ice block used to cool the vendor’s soda. Running in Beijing was unusual enough but if he started knocking people over he’d certainly create too much attention.
Pausing to scrape the slimy water from the bottom of his shoes, he looked for, and failed to spot, any buses in sight to hop onto. He saw no sign of pursuit in the throng behind him though. Help arrived in a rapidly moving farmer who drove a large cart full of live chickens and dead pigs’ heads through waves of bicycles by putting his head down and constantly ringing his bell. Aldous jumped back into the bike lane and followed in his wake.
They made great time until two bicyclists collided in slow motion ahead of them and started a halfhearted pushing and shouting fight for form’s sake. The river of bicycles froze into a crowd of onlookers. His blocker stymied, Aldous slackened his pace and squeezed past the gapers on the sidewalk until he was ahead of the epicenter of the standstill.
Just in front, two farmers rode horse drawn carts piled high with smashed cardboard, paper, and boxes of beer bottles. Aldous streaked ahead of them and knew he would be very hard to spot. He slowed his pace and covered his mouth with his shirt as he went through a cloud of dust, swept up in the air by two streetsweepers—bulky, middle-aged women who wore surgical masks and too many clothes for the season.
Aldous turned onto another main street and relaxed. Assuming he gave a portion of the money to Chi and Xiaoyong, he would still have enough renminbi to last several months. Aldous seldom needed to spend more than three yuan a day.
Better to give most of his share to Amelia, who was always short of cash despite a net income of over 3500-yuan a month. She would chastise him for stealing, but when she learned he’d taken revenge upon her favorite moneychanger he felt she would be secretly elated. He really should have given her a chunk of renminbi long ago. "I could have just made up the story of vengeance against the hated moneychangers," he thought. "Would have been a lot easier than going through this hassle."
Aldous got off at Sanlihe Street to transfer buses, but he got caught up in watching a pool game out on the sidewalk. Seems like he was always coming across pool tables, even in the tiniest Chinese towns. Just as in America, they sometimes attracted a bad crowd. Joining the large group congregated around a table infamous for gambling, he enjoyed watching the balls deflect off the sides and crash into each other before disappearing down the pockets. The mesmerizing motion of the balls, the complexity of the arrangements, and violence of the collisions attracted him. He contemplated the game as a microcosm of life.
The two players were young and mean. Wearing T-shirts and khaki pants, they resembled badly dressed moneychangers. They studied each shot with long, thoughtful pulls at their cigarettes. Sweat formed on their brows as they took aim over a nearly level table. "A lot of money must be placed on the outcome," thought Aldous.
A thriving free market bustled about them. The primary goods were clothing and produce, but one could find items such as live chickens and fish, toys, grains, and bean curd. There was even a stall down the street where a man slinked up to foreigners and asked them to "change-a-hashish?" However, the hashish man was an exception. In the downtown markets you could buy anything from illegal pet dogs and cats to bear claws, antlers, and other unidentifiable rare animal parts, but the Sanlihe market was almost exclusively for ordinary shopping.
One of the pool players missed an easy shot and the groans from around the table revealed where the money was bet. Aldous couldn’t understand the attraction of gambling, despite witnessing its universal popularity. He tried to find some advantage in the situation but couldn’t think of anything.
Across the street, a vendor known to Aldous arranged the produce on display at his stall. This vendor made all his income from the free market and often needed rice and oil ration tickets, normally supplied by a work unit. Ration tickets were a holdover from the past, when chronic food shortages plagued the country. They held trading value because the government stores that accepted them sold their smaller selection of goods at a cheaper price than the free market. People without work units supplying tickets could either pay the high free market price, or trade for the tickets. Government prices were rising slower than at the free market, so ration tickets increased in trading value.
Aldous had a few rice ration tickets in his pocket, obtained for The Man Who Never Leaves The Youyi, who collected the silly things. He decided to exchange a few for some fruit. He left the pool table and crossed the street.
"Hello, comrade," said Aldous, "do you want some rice ration tickets?"
"Yes, yes, I could use them," said the vendor, looking up. His surprise at hearing a foreigner ask such a question turned into vague recognition.
Much of the fruit sold by the free market vendor arrived by train from the South. The vendor made arrangements with a man who worked for the railway to bring him the fruit. The free market man earned a much higher income than an ordinary worker, so he didn’t mind having to bargain for things like ration coupons, which most workers received gratis.
"I want five large bananas and three persimmons," said Aldous.
"How many jin?" asked the man.
"Don’t want a jin. I want five of these and three of those." Aldous put the fruit into the basket of the vendor’s scale. Aldous never bothered with figuring out prices per weight, but he knew exactly how much the fruit should cost.
The merchant fastidiously weighed the fruit; he preferred customers who ordered in increments of a jin, which was equal to 600 grams. They bargained over the price, and Aldous gave him the equivalent amount in ration tickets, minus 30 percent. Aldous absent-mindedly slipped a tangerine into his backpack when the peddler wasn’t looking.
"Aldous, how nice to see you." A foreign woman pushing a bicycle loaded with fruit touched his shoulder. He couldn’t remember her name but recognized her as a foreign expert at the Youyi. She therefore deserved consideration as guanxi was at stake.
"Out shopping for fruit," Aldous noted. He automatically tried to think of a way to help this woman. "Why do you shop at Sanlihe when the Haidian and Xinjiekou are both closer to the Youyi?" he asked. She probably already knew the market directly across the street from the Youyi was no good for foreigners. They were too used to overcharging tourists there.
"Oh, I rarely shop at the free markets," said the woman. "I work a block away at The Beijing Review and thought I’d pick up a few things on my way home."
Aldous made a quick estimate of her purchases—apples, tangerines, bananas, pears—about ten yuan worth. "This fruit looks good," he said. "How much did you pay for it."
"Oh, I had to shop around before I found someone who would accept renminbi. I got these from a man around the corner for 25 kwai." (A kwai is equal to a yuan.)
"I think you paid too much," said Aldous. "Next time you come to this market, look for this man here. He won’t cheat you."
Aldous turned to the peddler he purchased his fruit from and switched back to Chinese. "Old uncle, I’ve told this foreign woman to buy from you the next time she comes to the market. I’ve told her you will give her a good price."
"Yes, yes," nodded the man. "I will give her a very fair price, very cheap."
"So you think the man raised the price because I’m a foreigner, huh?" asked the woman. "I had a feeling they were doing that. One time I bought about the same amount from a different merchant and the price was much less, but then I thought maybe prices changed from week to week...." The woman prattled on for a few moments while Aldous waited patiently. He nodded thoughtfully, pretending to listen while looking across the street at an outdoor barber cutting a man’s hair.
"Do you have a moment?" he asked when she finished. "I’m sure we can get the peddler to deal fairly once we show him you realize you’ve been cheated."
The woman thought for a moment. "No, I don’t want to cause a scene. The man is sure to argue and a thousand people will gather around. I’ll just remember to shop with this man next time. I appreciate your help."
Before the woman left, Aldous got her to point out the vendor who had cheated her. Pretending to shop at the man’s stall, he asked, in his worst Chinese, how much he wanted for some bananas. The vendor quoted a price three times the norm.
"How much!" shouted Aldous. "You just overcharged a foreign woman for her fruit and now you’re trying to cheat me. You greedy pig! You give all Chinese a bad name with foreigners. You are a disgrace to your country." A large crowd gathered to hear Aldous berate the vendor. He repeated the price he had been quoted and a few people joined him in calling the merchant names. The peddler tried to argue at first, but quickly saw it was only making things worse for him.
"Police!" yelled Aldous. "Call for the police to take this jackal away."
"No!" cried the man. His face turned white with the thought. The police would only detain him and at worst would let him go with a token fine, but people at the market would steal all his produce while he was away. "No! Wait! Take this bunch of bananas for free. I didn’t mean to cheat the foreign woman. It won’t happen again."
Aldous tossed a few more insults at the vendor, mostly just to practice saying them. Then he took the bananas and bowed respectfully to the crowd for their aid. He couldn’t do this in America.
A No. 320 bus came up and Aldous pushed his way onto the back. As with most Beijing buses, this one was packed solid. Aldous ignored the ticket seller’s monotonous drone of: "Buy ticket, buy ticket, buy ticket . . .." He never bought bus tickets and never got more than a handful of muttered curses for it.
Like most workers in China, particularly those who dealt with the public on a daily basis, this ticket seller used extreme lethargy as a way of striking back at a job she hated. She didn’t try very hard to sell tickets and didn’t check bus passes. She marked tickets with contemptuous sluggishness for the few people who bothered to squeeze their way over to her to pay the fare.
Two young homosexuals standing near Aldous used the crowded bus as an excuse to playfully nuzzle each other. One rubbed his groin against the other’s thigh, and put his face in his neck at every bump and jolt. It is common in China for members of the same sex to walk arm in arm or hold hands, so this pair was somewhat less conspicuous than they would be on a Western bus.
Aldous remembered Amelia’s surprise at seeing homosexuals in China. He’d heard her ask a work colleague his opinion about them. "Homosexuality," replied the young reporter, "is a new phenomena in China, brought about by a combination of Western influence and an increase of leisure time. Only very recently have Chinese people had the time to think about sex." Amelia had dryly commented it was amazing China had managed to accumulate so many people, but the joke went past the colleague.
Most of the riders who had succeeded in grabbing seats on the bus slept, gazed out the window, or picked their noses. One woman even fell asleep with a little finger inserted into her nostril. A woman tried to find enough room to work on her knitting. A man with a cold periodically exploded in a rasping cough. He hacked and spit green lumps of mucous onto the wooden floor. The standing people tried not to jostle each other as the bus bounced and swerved its way up the busy street. One standing woman held a baby in her arms. She gave a cross look to another woman who allowed her five-year-old to occupy an entire seat.
The smell of gasoline tinged exhaust pervaded the bus, which consisted of two compartments connected by a rotating extender. The sides of the extender were made of accordion-like tarp over a metal frame. Large holes in the sides and floor allowed fumes from the exhaust pipes protruding from the middle of the bus to seep inside. Aldous knew from experience that the fumes were worst just beyond the middle extender and at the front, where the engine was located and he always avoided these sections. Most of the people sitting in these two areas were asleep or groggy.
One old man next to Aldous was having a hard time keeping his bony shoulder from digging painfully into Aldous’ back. On the next turn Aldous gave him a vicious jab in the side with his elbow. The old man cried out in pain and surprise, but no one paid any attention to him. The old man moved away from Aldous, switching places with a young woman.
The young woman, who wore long, black lace gloves up to her elbows and a red veil over her head in a brave attempt to keep the copious Beijing dust and dirt away from her skin, also couldn’t help pressing close to Aldous. She was much softer and Aldous started to enjoy the contact. She probably wouldn’t have given a second thought to close quarters with a Chinese rider but being next to a foreigner seemed to make her more aware of the physical intimacy.
Aldous glanced over at her and saw she was determined not to look directly at him and even more determined not to blush. She didn’t move away though. Aldous was considering this when his Nongkeyuan stop suddenly came up.
He quickly shoved his way off the bus and walked north on Baishiqiao Road until he came to the west gate of the Youyi Binguar (Friendship Hotel). This was the main entrance to the huge complex built by the Soviets for their experts in the 1950s. When the Soviets pulled out, it was first used for office space and finally converted into living quarters for foreign experts and Chinese workers, with large sections used as a hotel for foreigners.
The west gate was closest to Aldous’s apartment in Building No. 8, but this entrance had been closed for some time because of repairs to Building No. 1. Aldous didn’t want to walk around the block to the north entrance since he lived at the southwest tip of the compound.
Four or five guards loafed near the west gate, smoking and talking. Almost every entranceway in China had security guards, but Aldous knew one rarely needed to pay them any attention. The makeshift barricade used to block the front of the west entrance had been moved aside to allow trucks access to Building No. 1. Likewise, the metal doors were open on the south side of a makeshift wall, built around the construction site to keep down the number of building material thefts.
Construction site theft was a huge problem in China. Repeated pilfering by farmers in the countryside recently caused the cancellation of a national geological survey project. In Beijing, "tent towns" sprung up around the major construction sites for the Asian Games Village, inhabited by people who spent their nights stealing construction materials and their days melting them down for resale. In one raid public security officers recovered 213 tons of material. This did little to slacken the filching.
Of course there was no real reason to keep Youyi residents from cutting through the site when the gates were open. It seemed to Aldous that the residents were the only people successfully kept out of the construction site—himself excepted.
Three of the men shouted at him as he walked past, deaf to their demands not to enter. One even jumped off his seat and made a weak, futile attempt to block Aldous’s way. After Aldous ignored him, he laughed at the foreigner’s ignorance and audacity.
Two more guards waited at the southern opening of the construction site wall. They heard the shouts and quickly pulled shut the metal door as Aldous approached. Aldous simply shoved them out of the way and opened the door.
They too gave off the nervous laughter many Chinese emit when somebody pushes them around. To Aldous this laugh meant: "Ha, we’ve just been screwed again." He’d heard it often enough from people suffering minor annoyances—like when a tightly packed subway train stalled interminably on a hot day or a wait in a long line to buy something resulted in nothing.
Aldous was continually amazed at what ignoring the rules could reap in China. He had read in the paper about a clever Beijing thief who dressed smartly and walked past guards into restricted office buildings. Once inside he simply rifled through drawers until he found money (every Chinese office has a drawer full of money) and calmly strolled off in broad daylight. He did this for nine months before the police caught him.
One day, Aldous figured that all Chinese people would realize they didn’t have to mind the guards. Increasingly, he saw people openly defy railway station guards, traffic police, neighborhood monitors, and other authority figures. He also read reports in the papers calling for drastic remedies to this problem.
Aldous loved living in China. In the States he’d been an anonymous vagabond and a petty thief. Life had sometimes been difficult. In China he was somebody; he was a waiguoren (foreigner) who stood out and received special privileges when he traveled aimlessly about. Here at the Youyi Binguar, Aldous had assiduously built up a series of connections, accumulating vital guanxi. His connections had not only netted him an apartment he didn’t pay for, or even have any right to, but also made him a somewhat powerful and important man in the eyes of both the Chinese and the foreigners who worked or lived there.
Aldous preferred Beijing to anywhere else in the world. However, he had the feeling that the good times here couldn’t last. He couldn’t quite put his finger on it, but it seemed like things in Beijing were heading a bit out of control.