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.

From the Black Creek River to the Grand Canal

The episode with the Mississippi egrets described in my last posting was incorporated into my novel, Southern Rain, now available via Kindle and at selected bookshops in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore; it is also available for pre-order, in advance of the general release of the print version in January.

The appearance of the Mississippi egrets, transposed into Chinese cranes, foreshadows the meeting of the hero, Ouyang Nanyu, and the heroine, Ouyang Daosheng.

Just beyond a tributary called Witch Mountain Spring, Nanyu noticed two white cranes flying upstream and then perching on the embankment. When the boat drew close to them, they took off again, swooping on ahead, before coming to a new resting place at the side of the Canal. Nanyu reckoned that the cranes moved ten times this way over the course of an hour—leading and waiting, leading and waiting—as though luring him ever onward. They didn’t seem to be feeding, and if they were migrating north, Nanyu wondered why they didn’t just get on with it, without waiting for him to catch up. If they wanted to stay on the Canal but were afraid of the boat, then why didn’t they fly to the side, to allow it to pass? For the rest of the day, Nanyu was sometimes invited to share food, sometimes asked for help maneuvering through a lock, and then, he would forget about the cranes; but whenever his activities were finished, he’d look up and there they would be, still scouting out the route.

Nanyu continued to see them after he closed his eyes that night, but in the morning, they were gone.

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Hammered by Kindness

Sharing my diary entries detailing my “long way home” return from Taiwan via Europe in 1992, and reliving my decision to switch from flophouses to luxury hotels, I’m reminded also of how my sudden reintroduction to attentive restaurant service, after weeks of Chinese and Russian shabbiness, produced literally intoxicating results.

It was in the Xx Restaurant in Budapest (or was it Munich?) that the waiter, on bringing me my menu, asked if I would like to have an aperitif, while I looked it over. What a considerate question! This was more like it, I enthused, someone who knows how to treat a guest. Not wishing to profane the moment with a “No, thank you,” I asked the nice man to bring me a gin and tonic, which I remembered was customary for summer, even though I wasn’t really thirsty.

I sipped at the fizzy drink while perusing the bill of fare, and when the tuxedoed veteran returned to take my order for dinner, he asked me what sort of wine I would like with it. Of course! I remembered. One drinks wine with dinner at civilized establishments such as this one. I told my man that I would rely on him to provide the most appropriate ambrosia to match the veal I’d selected; and he brought the excellent white Burgundy for me to begin enjoying well in advance of my entrée. Naturally, I was careful also to finish off the gin and tonic, to avoid being rude.

The veal, balanced perfectly with the wine, melted in my mouth, and I leaned back in bliss, recalling how one week prior, I had considered myself lucky to be given a cold bowl of borscht, assuming I found the dining car of the Trans-Siberian open. When my hovering host cleared away my plate and asked me what I wanted for dessert, I started to cry, it had been so long since I’d been so well taken care of. I requested the chocolate mousse, and when he inquired, off-handedly, as to what sort of cordial I should like to go with it, accepted his recommendation of cherry liqueur.

A good half hour later, at the close of my repast, I wiped my mouth with the cloth napkin, paid the bill, took a deep breath of the fullest contentment and gratitude, rose to leave, and found that I could not walk.

Travel Journal: No More Roughing It; Arrival in Budapest (1992)

After the two [Ukrainian oil field workers] had both detrained, I had a very sublime conversation with my remaining compartment-mate. He was a Hungarian physicist who was “hanging up” whatever job he had in Moscow and returning home with his cat. For most of the conversation, it was this reserved gentleman who was asking me questions about Taiwan and other aspects of my life. Much as it happened during the Trans-Siberian conversation with the Australian woman, the relating of my exploits was quite therapeutic, but on this second train, this gentleman was the older-generation figure whose occasional encouragement and understanding I greatly appreciate, nay, crave. His questions also were aimed right at the point, the main idea, of each aspect we were talking about; he was [always] asking, “What was your purpose” for doing such-and-such? I was happy to have a purpose that guided me [and] that I could tell him. I think I meant that he was one of the few people who could understand my lofty life goals, as I expressed them; most folks simply smirked at how impractically I’d lived, “wasting” all that time in Taiwan, with little to show for it but weird experiences.

He also confirmed my observations re the Trans-Siberian, i.e., that trains in this part of the world were dangerous. Furthermore, it might have been a self-aggrandizing remark I’d made in Taiwan, that now was the last opportunity I had to adventure in Eurasia (before disunity and war, etc.) ; but my Hungarian companion seconded the emotion, explaining that the trains were daily witness to robbery and murder, and that he was leaving Moscow, in fact, on the strength of the sense of growing instability there.

True enough, our conversation had been initiated by the abrupt, uninvited entrance of two Ukrainian youths who had barged in for shock value (it sure shocked me as I looked and saw one of them sitting next to me and the other one blocking the door) but who finally didn’t seem to want anything other than to whine at the Hungarian before they got off. My companion later said that they were generally confused and specifically a bit drunk but at heart nice boys.

The effect of this gentleman’s descriptions of train-borne chaos was to put me on my guard during the crossing of the Hungarian border, in the early morning after my friend left, during a sunrise trip to the w.c., and upon arrival in Budapest, but after reaching that place, I saw that I’d definitely arrived in affluent, touristy, Europe and soon turned my thoughts from flight to food and other indulgences.

The first need-turned-indulgence, that of lodging, achieved its more luxurious state by the following means: The [homestay] hostess recommended by the [Moscow travel agency] turned out (after begging for change to use the pay phone) to be in Italy on holiday. I next was compelled by residual greenhorn desperation to book a guest room at a hostel through the services of a travel agency. Said travel agency gave me an address and a trolley number, but after riding the trolley all the way out to the burbs to where the room chanced to be, I found the host not at home. His absence was actually a blessing in disguise, for I opted on the spot to return to the center of town (before the host came back) and try my luck with a hotel.

I was not the only backpacker wandering the streets that morning, and after a while, I found the experience degrading. The prospect of carrying my belongings through city streets, looking for a room, I mean looking for a cheap room, was not inspiring. I therefore resolved to inquire for rooms at the first hotel I came across, which chanced to be the Astoria Hotel.

Rooms were US$100 a night, and I humiliated myself one last time by asking after cheaper flops in the area before I decided to reward myself for surviving a month on trains in the PRC and Russia. “You know what? Just put me up,” I said. My backpack and I were very happy for the pampering.

Taiwan Journal: Inner vs. Outer Peace?

Yonghe, Taiwan, ROC                         October 25, 1990

It’s been several weeks since I’ve had the occasion to awaken to the sounds of a pleasant morning shower. The patter of the rain greeted my waking ears like the voice of some old friend, missed but not forgotten, and now that nature has returned to her friendly post and benignly discouraged us from our desperate enterprises, I can once more be sated with my own place, this little room, with only a gentle heartbeat audible outside, and the clamorous exertions of the organism thus muted.

Perhaps it is necessary to be reminded that we can be serene. I’ve always loved the heaven-sent power outage or even the tropical storm; it keeps one’s perspective natural, manageable, under one’s own roof. I know I can trust myself in that shelter to keep myself dry, safe, and enheartened.

But hark, across the airway, not far at all, even in the rain, I can still hear the unpacified and oblivious father, coarsely ordering things about in his own little world, just as on any other day. For him, I imagine, there is not even the briefest repose from his contrived vicissitudes — or relationships. Owing to this man’s command or frown, the child’s forced piano playing now comes plodding across, right on schedule. Venomous parental commentary forms the background score.

And alas, there are a few crying babies, families who bring the street noise in with them, and motorcyclists keeping their dates. Yet as for me, the clouds suffice to block out the illusion of time, and, liberated from the unnatural schedule of the sun, my heart beats in relaxed tempo with the patter of the rain, constant, though often picking up and tapering off, following the currents of my interest.

Taiwan Journal: Typhoon Day

Taipei, Taiwan, ROC                                    August 30, 1990

Hearkening back to the treasured, yearned-for “snow days” of grade school, today’s typhoon day seems now to be even a greater surprise and pleasure, simply because it was so unexpected as to be not yearned for at all. The day has been passed amiably here in Yonghe, with the first house meal cooked by housers from the ground up, as well as a great deal of newspaper reading and a three hour nap.

Looking out the window, I’m amazed that there can be so much water anywhere in the world, let alone falling out of the sky. Scores of aerial funnels run off of the corrugated fiberglass roofs and window-covers of the buildings across the alley, as though the apartments were sweating profusely or otherwise manufacturing the unbelievable quantities of the stuff in some interior factory or workshop.The rain is as a curtain, or rather an endless series of curtains (hanging across, parallel, perpendicular, at every conceivable angle to me) when in the atmosphere, before it touches or piles up against anything. In contact with the earth (or under the circumstances, itself), it is a pulsating, translucent force that laps and spits through gutters and drains, or slides off rocks. Reclining in bed after my 3-hour nap, I wondered about the one (or two or three) drops in this vast world of rain that would somehow be blown horizontally by the occasional gust of wind, blown through my window garden, penetrating my screen and flying underneath the billowing curtain, to land, or to touch, as a soft waft of moisture, my legs, arms, and face.

I was stirred to attempt a poem, following the above line of verbal reasoning. My thoughts turned to a sonnet tempo and then began to examine different questions of perspective: Should I be lying down, feeling the moisture coming through the window under the billowing curtain, or should I be kneeling at the window, observing the deluge outside. Although I’d been doing both all day (as well as walking in it and ignoring it), it seemed too dynamic to include both postures in a poem that would have best been a static vignette. Fumbling with the moral of the poem (one referring to poetry itself, preferably) proved to be my ultimate undoing.

I suppose poetic states of mind should accommodate the flow of words and feelings, though not necessarily of stimuli. It seems I’m better at describing natural events with a natural [illegible].

Taiwan Journal: How Not To Flirt

Taipei, Taiwan, ROC                                                    Nov. 3, 1989

A flirting accomplice at the office — everyone knows her as Nancy — shared a few moments with me in the copy room. She suggested the two of us save up some bread and then go to South Africa together. When I proposed a mere movie instead, she laughed with embarrassment and was unable to say another word.