Excerpt from Southern Rain: Chinese New Year’s Day

An earlier posting describes my first Chinese New Year’s celebration in Taiwan, in which I saw the streets of Taipei transformed into a veritable shooting gallery of bottle rockets. That memorable experience was one of the many inspirations for my novel, Southern Rain, which opens with this pyrotechnic description of the first day of the year. The time corresponds to February 1644 on the Western calendar. 

It is the seventeenth year of the Chongzhen Emperor’s reign, the first day of the first month – Spring Festival – and smoke is rising over Nanjing, as its people celebrate the New Year by lighting things on fire.

Half the city’s population are setting off firecrackers, to the delight of the other half. In groups of young and old, they hang clusters of the paper-wrapped cylinders like bunches of red bananas from the eaves of temples and taverns. With the touch of an incense stick, the fuse commences to hiss and everybody scatters. If someone chances to round the corner unawares, on his way to visit relatives, he comes abreast of the little bombs the moment they begin to explode and finds himself engulfed in a thundering maelstrom. His chest thumps like a kettle drum hammered by madmen. He flails his arms about his head and staggers away as the crescendo continues, a blur of incandescence hanging in the air near which he passed, casting billows of smoke heavenward. Then, as the last charge on the string gives up its ghost and the echo rolls over the city and disappears into the hills, the celebrants clap and jump for joy, and even the rattled pedestrian grins and waves, signifying no hard feelings. He too is enjoying himself.

In addition to the hanging clusters, some firecrackers can be thrown, and some are miniature rockets. Explosives of these sorts transform Nanjing’s streets and alleys into gauntlets of spark-trailing missiles, air bursts, and ground bursts. Young boys in particular are fond of launching pocket rockets from their hands, to watch them ricochet off buildings and passersby. Their favorite targets are peddlers on donkey carts, because they pretend nothing is happening. They go right on hawking their snacks – “Steamed buns! Dumplings!” – while projectiles bounce off their bellies or lodge in the folds of their robes, sending sparks cascading from their torsos. The pinnacle of fun is to toss a cherry-bomb into the street, timed to explode when a cart passes over it. There it lies, its fuse sizzling, while, say, the noodle-man approaches, crooning “Thick noodles! Thin noodles! Sesame paste! Black bean paste!” and just as his cart reaches it, Bang! off it goes in a cloud of sulfur. Both man and beast jolt from the concussion but emerge unfazed, the peddler resuming his hawking, the donkey his hauling, showing no sign of distress. Onlookers beam and the young pyrotechnicians make ready the next barrage.

Not all that is set alight that day contains gunpowder. Nanjing’s denizens also burn joss paper – play money – as offerings to the gods or to their deceased ancestors. Clan after clan of them, Chens, Wangs, and Zhangs, gather in their kitchens or courtyards to burn wad after wad of the heavenly currency, which takes to the air in particulate form. The offering of joss paper is less likely than fireworks to involve the occasional victim, unless it takes place on the ground floor of a storied building and some poor soul is caught upstairs. In such a case, the unfortunate one, as soon as he realizes he is suffocating, makes a desperate dash to the nearest window and thrusts his head outside. Gasping for oxygen, not even this man complains but rejoices in the good cheer and bonhomie of festival time.

Thus does Nanjing exude mirth and merriment, acrid, dark, and thick. Smoke rises over Cock-Crow Temple, a nunnery on a hill. Smoke curls about the Drum Tower, whose beating of the time that day is drowned out in the din. Smoke mushrooms over Three Mountain Street, Nanjing’s always-bustling bazaar. Smoke hangs above the Qinhuai River, its famous pleasure quarter. Every tiled roof, every bridge and pagoda, every curvy street and winding canal is enveloped in haze. To the gigantic Peng bird of legend, soaring far above town on this New Year’s Day, Nanjing might appear as an exquisite incense censer made to resemble a fairyland. To Nanjing’s human residents, the column of smoke dwarfing their city is yet another of its many superlatives; Nanjing wears it like a plumed crown. The vast metropolis, ringed by a wall of eighteen gates, is the pearl of the Yangtze River valley and original capital of the Current Dynasty. It is opulent and lively and crammed with attractions, the subject of rhapsodies by songsters and poets who call it a paradise. If Nanjing’s celebrated “kingly air” is now tinged with ash, its people breathe it in even more deeply and feel all the more regal for it. They are as proud and prosperous as any people have dared to be. In a consuming exuberance, they revel and roister, until their city is choking with smoke.

Tales of Old Taipei: The Fake Rolex Man

My Taiwanese employer would frequently open its doors to a variety of hustling salesmen and invite them to peddle their wares to the staff. By far the most popular of these characters was the fake Rolex man, who graced our workplace every couple of months.

The rapturous tidings “The fake Rolex man is here! The fake Rolex man is here!” accompanied by eager foot beats, would herald his arrival. The honored huckster would set up shop in the conference room next to my boss’s office, and I was able to observe the stream of breathless coworkers, arriving singly or in groups, carefully appreciating the counterfeit treasures and, more often than not, emerging with small handfuls of them, grinning proudly. Returned to their desks, they enjoyed much celebrity, as others of their departments gathered around to marvel at the loot before succumbing to envy and hurrying over to see what bargains remained. It was all very amusing to me and broke the monotony of long afternoons poring over telexes.

Once during the lunch hour, on the day after a visit from the fake Rolex man, my boss, whose English name was William, took me aside.  He put his arm around my shoulder.

“You know, ah, we’re very concerned about you,” he said.

“Oh?”

“Is everything all right?”

“Yes, William. Everything’s fine.”

“Are you homesick? You’ve been away from your own country for a long time.”

“I’m not homesick…  Have I made some kind of mistake on the job?”

“No, that’s not it. You just don’t seem to be fitting in very well.”

“I don’t?”

“No,” William said, and then he grew even more serious. “For example: Yesterday, the fake Rolex man was here, and you didn’t buy anything. You didn’t even take a look.”

“Well, I don’t need a watch. I already have one.”

William tisk-tisked. “But surely you sometimes need to give presents. Don’t you have a friend who would like a nice fake Rolex?”

“Why would I give a friend a fake Rolex?”

“Harry, Harry.” He looked around to ensure that no one had overheard my sacrilege. “The fake Rolex man is here to help,” he said. “You should take advantage of every opportunity to obtain good fake merchandise. If you don’t, you’re just… It’s just not healthy.”

I didn’t know what to say.

“Promise me you’ll take a look next time,” he implored. “You really owe it to yourself.”

I promised, but I was bummed. The watch I wore every day was an art-deco knockoff I’d picked up in Gongguan for twenty-five cents, and it kept perfect time; but did anyone notice? Did anyone give me any credit?

Everyone always assumed I was the maladjusted foreigner. I was tired of it.

 

Taiwan Journal: Youth in the Rain

August 23, 1989                                Taipei, Taiwan, ROC

An interesting set of people at the bus stop shared the thirty minute wait for the 0-East. One, of course, was a very poised woman. She smoked a cigarette, and once, when our eyes met, she smiled naturally and pleasantly. There was also this guy who I’d seen before. He had thick glasses and was kind of fish-eyed and muckle-mouthed, probably not very popular at school. I found myself trying to avoid looking in his direction, for some reason, until I noticed something unusual about his t-shirt. It was a political shirt, bearing the slogan, “You have the right to reject this Taipei.” Suddenly, I seemed to understand him, as though I recognized the same pattern in his life that I’ve seen in the States: Cast out of the crowd by forces not in anyone’s control, the outcast studies alienation itself, turning inward and moving out, trying to return to the scene armed with the ideas of exile. I lent him my umbrella.

The ensuing rain blossomed into a true thunderstorm while I sat in the front of the bus watching. It was a heaven-sent washing. Raindrops on the puddles in the street seemed to suggest a soft meadow. There was a mellowing of light and sound, under the auspices of a friendly patter of droplets, the splashing of tires, and the creaking of wipers. The rain tames us.

 

August 28, 1989                                Taipei, Taiwan, ROC

I had an interesting experience today worthy of a French movie. As I hopped off the 0-East at the Nanchang Street stop, I noticed a high school girl in the green blouse of the elite First Northern Girls School, braving the first drops of a downpour. After the usual hesitation, I offered her my umbrella, and I found her to be both easygoing and serious. She said right away that she too had not eaten, and we soon found ourselves in a noodle shop, under the leering gazes of the cheap girlie posters that papered the walls, discussing history, Taipei, the USA, the mainland. There wasn’t any tension at all. I didn’t get her name.

Taiwan Journal: Taipei Dog and Fountain Girl

July 19, 1989 – Taipei, Taiwan, ROC

Today, I witnessed two events of the first importance. Both were viewed from public buses. The first was religious in nature, the second more artistic.

Sometime after noon, I was riding in the left rearmost seat of the 0-East. After crossing the Fudan Bridge, I noticed a medium-sized, white Taipei dog in the middle of Dunhua South Road, stealthily negotiating its way across the street by edging up on left-turning traffic. It seemed to advance with the same stamina and alertness as most human pedestrians, but alas it ignored the possibility (as we all do) of an unexpected minor pulse in the metallic river of traffic. A taxicab swung out to the left a little bit farther than the other cars. It sideswiped the dog, which shrieked as though it were going to be for the last time.

Actually, I cannot say for certain, but it seemed as though the scream of despair, coming so suddenly and unexpectedly during the course of the dog’s intrepid crossing, filled the entire amphitheater of the intersection, echoing off the steel walls of the surrounding office buildings, penetrating to me in my mobile box seat. As I remember it now, I sensed a death cry but did not necessarily hear the dog itself; either the dog cried loud enough for everyone in the intersection to hear, or everyone in the intersection cried loud enough for me to feel.

At any rate, the dog was brushed aside from its destiny by the hubcaps and body of the taxicab. So with the scream still hanging in the air, the cab had passed; the dog regained its footing and went on about its business as though absolutely nothing had happened.

 

July 20, 1989 – Neil Armstrong

Later in the day, I found myself looking out the window of the 15 as it crawled eastbound on Heping Rd. I glanced up to see a 10 year old girl throwing up in the shade of the Science Exhibition Building. A fine, consistent arc of liquid, yellow as desert sand, took an astonishingly long amount of time to span its way to the ground. The flow remained constant for at least five seconds. It was like a fountain: the stream of vomitus, if stretched into a straight line, would have been taller than the girl.

She was standing, as I said, under the eaves of the Science Exhibition Building, throwing up on the marble tile that covers that part of the ground. She might just as easily have stepped one yard out and onto the common red square brick of the Taipei sidewalk (but then again, that option might have inconvenienced pedestrian movement). Her younger brother, standing beside her, seemed indifferent to the display. He absently looked toward the entrance of the building, apparently seeking for someone (perhaps the individual charged with cleaning the abovementioned and well-chosen tile) to arrive on the scene and assume responsibility.

A few fellow spectators on the bus appeared also to be silently appreciating the vignette. They watched with a certain detachment , the realization that they weren’t embarrassed yielding a type of childlike wonder, a relief that such marvels still exist to chase away the tedium of a long day.