The eel was courageous. I studied him swimming with his brothers ten to a tank, curving around corners, bodies like thick slithery ropes making a plait. I singled him out for the butcher. I'm sure he understood what was going to happen next. I didn't apologize.
For five years, I thought that having a handsome Nationalist soldier, a protector of the old society, for a lover was unbearably romantic. I had dreamed that our relationship would be that of young hawks in spring: soaked with scandals, selfish fights and much lovemaking unpredictable times of the day. Instead the romance grew stale, and the politics old and he was shot in the head by the Communists for wearing his handsome uniform. His family begged me to attend his funeral but it wasn't worth the risk to be caught mourning during the victory celebrations of the new government and instead went to work at the teahouse dressed in my best clothes and jewellery. To compensate for losing face, his relative took away my luxurious apartment on the fashionable Jiangning Lu Street, a decadent New Year bonus from the old government, ridiculously claiming that it had been bought by my lover's meagre soldier salary. I did not feel angry. They had erased one of my connections to the Nationalists and the apartment would eventually be seized anyways .
I worked at the Maiyun Teahouse on Chang Shou Lu street. Not a bad job in not a bad neighbourhood. It was within walking distance from my home and the roads were safely crowded with shrill children and peddlers on bicycles. I was not in danger from the dangerous homeless even with arms full of jade bracelets and Western trinkets from my admirers. My only worry was that Maiyun was too close to the old offices. Even after the Nationalist's defeat, the restless still protested, causing all sorts of bale. Nobody read from the protesters' scarlet and yellow banners: the new police arrested anyone who gave the impression that they supported the old system. Sometimes, I woke in the night to the sounds of gunfire but I did not gamble to look outside. I could be penalized for being inquisitive. I heard that other places, like the capital, were worse off, and that those who hide receive deadly punishments, but I do not like the imminent threat of police bullets and often contemplate fleeing to the mountains.
I do not have the ability to act the full-scale operas that Shanghai is more celebrated for 9though not as famous as Beijing's), nor do I bother to dream to-- such important roles can only be filled by men and I know my place. A theatre always has rigid high officials and their snooty wives in their audience and the actors must always push himself to perform the best he can to earn a good reputation for his troupe. The teahouse is frequented by tired men who are too poor to visit a real opera, or prefers to hear and see a real woman before them instead of effeminate male actor in women's clothing. They are often so drunk on the fine alcohol the teahouse serves that they do not care if I sing off-key or even if I clapped my hands and recited a children's rhyme.
I performed operettas, a lighter version of a real opera, at the teahouse. My job, other than to encourage patrons to buy drinks and forget their obligations to their families, country and principles, was to sing the more popular and catchy songs of the operas to men and keep the audience interested by making suggestive hip motions and mimicking melodramatic emotions to suggest context. My specialty is "happiness". I had a delightful smile which made the men smile also, mostly thinking of naughty deeds. These were days that even laughter was seen as a cry for help. They tugged on my cheong sams like five-year-old boys wanting mother's attention and told me that I was the most beautiful woman they have ever seen, but they tell that to all the singers.
Then the government decided that teahouses and theatres were devils of the bourgeois and closed them down. I was tipped off my a drunk Communist and collected all the jewellery and costumes I could find and stuffed them into a plaited sac. I sold whatever wasn't mine to young men who wished to impress their girlfriends.
The owner of Maiyun and his wife were arrested and paraded, hands cuffed, up and down city streets until they fainted from exhaustion. I did not stand on the streets to watch their public humiliation.
I tried looking for work as a model for Communist propaganda paintings. Those who examined my face scorned me for looking too much of the bourgeois old world. The peasants were now the height of beauty. I found this to be mordantly humorous because I was sold when I was a toddler—for a good price because I was considered attractive even as a child-- by my farming family as a servant to a small teahouse on the outskirts of Shanghai. At the time, my family thought that my fortune would fare better in the city.
I thought of surgically widening my face to a broad, healthy farmer-daughter's circle but such procedures could only be performed by Japanese doctors who charged absurd fees. There was nothing I could depend on other than my too-refined features.
So I became a mistress.
He was a lofty man who worked as a translator of propaganda texts. He was educated in Russia, China's new brother, and was a fervent believer of Marx and all sorts of poetic philosophical nonsense. He used his influence to purchase a small flat that had enough room for a bed and a wardrobe, good enough for my purpose. The first night I was with him I wore a cheong sam embroidered with dainty filament eels that I had worn for my first performance at Maiyun. I had sang an old Zhou love song about a cunning mermaid who lusted for a fisherman. My impression of a swimming fish had made the men whine with yearning and I expected the same results with my new lover.
He asked me where I got such an extravagant dress. I told him I could not tell him. He grew angry and chided me for being self-indulgent. Then he blew out the candles and shredded my indulgence apart. I stayed still for him and kissed him when he wanted to be kissed. He got dressed in the dark. He placed neatly bundled bills on the bed and told me to use them get "something humble". He quietly said that I looked lovely in the unfortunate dress and left. I counted the bills and, not trusting any bank, hid them inside my mattress.
He came to my bed three times a week. His wife, a dull, obligatory countrywoman who cannot maintain a conversation about anything but the weather, was off in the countryside, organizing a commune. On special occasions, he mailed her tiny gifts, mostly bracelets or earrings, that she would reject as decadent and send back, blessed with the righteous status of a former peasant. He was in awe of her modesty and passion for the new regime and praised her every time she rejected his offerings. It was very easy to be jealous of an arrogant womanwhose her husband worships her like a virgin school boy. Many of her gifts were given to me by default. I thanked him for being his second choice and gratefully re-sold his presents for a good price. I felt sick if they lingered too long in my wardrobe.
I left him immediately after I had saved enough money for my surgery. The Japanese doctor examined my face, amused, but did what I wanted of him after I gave him money. He didn't bother to tell me the risks. He knew that I didn't want to hear it.
He gave the medicine that made me sleep. I dreamed that I was drowning. I was swept away, tailless, the blue and green and silver coming in from every orifice and flushing out of my eyes and mouth in a painful wave.
I woke, my face was numb. I noticed my clothes looked slightly dishevelled.
The doctor smiled at me and I shivered. He handed me a gilded mirror.
My face was in bandages. I picked at them. Needed to make sure it was the right shape.
He told me that it had not healed yet.
I wondered where I could stay. I looked at the doctor. He smiled at me again and gave me some medicine.
I closed my eyes and dreamt of water again.
One of the clearest memories of Grandmother was when she took me to the Hoi Yeung Ocean Park at the nosy, talkative age of four. It was there that I received my first (unintended) sex education class, but it was spring and who could have blamed the otherwise revolting eels? It wasn't so lewd, all they did was swim about hyperactively then let out clouds of pale liquid. Most of the other kid thought they had magically turned into inverted squids. And they did look like they were enjoying themselves, not like the lion trapped in a cage only twice his size or that panda that was stumbling as if drunk, dazed by the camera flashes from the tourists. No wonder those animals are nearly extinct. Anyhow, many of the parents were offended and thought that the handlers should have had the animals neutered or separated or somehow made less horny.
When I went home, the first thing I did was tell my parents how exciting being a voyeur was. Grandmother apologized a million times to them for putting a little spark of indecency in their precious only-daughter's mind. She tried to convince my parents I was joking and that it was really the lurid programming on television that was at fault but all she got in response was a dirty joke from my father. Something about men having supernatural eels. Grandmother blushed then surprised my dad by making a cruder joke. My mother covered my ears. My dad laughed and I joined in, but only because I understood that a joke had been told. Grandmother gave up and apologized again for being out of her place. She decided to punish herself by offering to help my mother cook dinner. Mother asked me what I wanted. That night we had salmon and jumbo scrimp and oysters and scallops and lobsters and eels.
Grandmother had been one of the few singers in Shanghai to survive the government's purge by reinventing her face for the propaganda artists. She was always smiling in her posters, cheeks flushed a so-healthy-that-it's-unhealthy red, her hair captured in a impractical long black braid, which I knew to be a lie--my grandmother had liked to follow Paris' fashion and had keep it in a dramatic wavy bob until it started to thin. The most powerful of the images were the ones that showed her living the lives of everyday people. My grandfather, a factory worker, had prints of her posters expensively framed and mounted on the industrial white walls; enjoyed pointing them out to visitors. He was so proud of her loveliness.
I was glad to having a legacy of beauty. Every time I visited her flat, I studied her handsome features invidiously, willing my own to mould into hers. Her images reassured me that some day, I would be gorgeous too, which was enormously important to me at that time. By the time I came to know her, she was a mother of eight (almost ten if it weren't for expensive herb, mixtures according to some of my aunts) and grandmother of five. Her breasts and hips that once fitted in glamorous cheong sams sagged from gravity and childbirth, and her wide cheekbones were jutted out at odd angles as if they were not hers. Unlike my classmate grandparents, she never told me stories about her history or how she met my grandfather. She said that she did not like to reminisce the past and instead, sang songs about love and dragons and mermaids and other things I did not understand. I thought she was the most fascinating person on earth until I discovered the joys of Western consumption.
I came back from Canada where I had been studying commerce during the summer of 1989. My grandfather had just passed away. The airplane tickets were cheerfully cheap. I had grown up to be the only remaining politically neutered grandchild. When I stepped into Grandmother's house, the first thing I noticed was that all the pictures that my grandfather had been so proud of had been taken down. I asked her about it. She didn't answer. I pried and pried. Grandmother grew angry and slapped my face. I grew angry and went back to my adopted home.
I ignored my parent's pleas to reunite with her.
I didn't invite her to my graduation or wedding.
Some time later, a large package was delivered to my door. I was confused; I had not ordered anything recently. I hesitantly opened it and found all of Grandmother's framed posters. I hung them up on my bedroom walls. She was the only thing I saw when I made love to my tedious, hardworking husband who was an immigrant like me, although not from the same place.
When Grandmother passed away, I was chosen to represent my family by cooking a dish to offer at her tombstone when we go to pay our respects. I did not understand why, we had broken off on bad terms. My parents said that I was always her favourite. I did not think it was fitting but I could not dishonour anybody. I cooked the meal and arranged it carefully on the funeral platter.
I unveiled my creation in front of Grandmother's white tombstone in Hong Kong's mountain graveyards. My parents grasped. On the plate was two overcooked, over-spiced eels assembled to look as if they were copulating, caviar everywhere. It was the last meal she would ever have on this life; I thought that she would have wanted some humour.
As my parents cursed me for being disrespectful, I imagined that Grandmother, young and red-cheeked, was singing, her ever-charming voice floating down the mountains, through the city and into the sea.