Peter Tieryas Liu
Eight months into my stay in Beijing, I woke with a gasp. It was 3:22 AM and I reached for my girlfriend. "Sarah," I called, but she wasn’t there. I checked the restroom, the hallways, realized she was probably writing poetry on the roof of our apartment. It was -5° C upstairs, the freezer in our fridge warmer than the night air.
"Hey," I said when I saw her.
She was staring into space. "There’s no stars tonight."
I looked upwards into a sea of black.
"In my hometown," she continued, "we had a story about a fat bull god who was always hungry. At night, he’d eat a little piece of the moon. But one day, he got so hungry, he finished it off and devoured all the stars too. The world went three whole years without stars back then."
"Is that why restaurants are open so late in Beijing?"
Sarah Chao was the prude poet who wrote lewd poetry for the underground literary scene in Beijing. I’d met her through a friend from Shanghai after moving here to replicate expensive toys for cheap. I was a mixed Korean-Chinese guy, raised in America, migrating to China to put my specialty to work- recreating famous toys so they’d be affordable for kids all over the world. When it came to male sculpts, I replicated them perfectly. But when it came to females, all of them had a problem. Barbie, Snow White, even the female action heroes, had Sarah’s face.
There was a fierce savagery hard to mistake in the sculpt of her jaw, reinforced by her bites into my flesh, not just snaps of affection, but ravenous clenches that left bruises. Her brows were like quartets skipping to the rhythm of her meandering brown eyes, her hair, an allegory on the indispensable ode to hazel lust.
"You miss your uncle?" she asked.
"He used to buy me fancy toys when I was a kid," I said.
"How long was he locked away?"
"Two years. He got off easy after all the money he scammed in Seoul."
"Didn’t you say he used to be a juggler?" she asked.
"For a country-side circus. When I turned eight, he juggled five knives at my birthday party and scared all my friends."
"Maybe he can juggle for you tomorrow."
I laughed. "He says he’s here securing a deal to supply toilet plungers for all of Bolivia. But I know him- there’s probably something illegal going on."
"Why are you seeing him then?" she asked.
"So I can give him a piece of my mind… after what he did to my mom, someone should set him straight."
We stared quietly at the city, little drips of light blinking in the shadowed outline of towering skyscrapers.
My uncle, Jang, arrived in the early evening via taxi. He was my mother’s brother, making him full-blooded Korean. He’d aged, furry grizzled hair, old welts molded over his turgid skin like it’d been roasted too long. Thick black glasses covered his eyes and he had abnormally sized teeth stained a crusty yellow. He was part of the post-Korean War generation, reverent of his past but disdainful over the shadow it cast. Their parents had suffered through the tribulations of war. His generation had nothing so dramatic to anchor them, instead, they floated adrift without creed or purpose. "Seoul was being bombarded by the North Koreans when your grandma had me," he said. "Right before I was born, she dreamt of a dragon bursting into flames. The first king of Korea was born from a dragon- it’s supposed to be the most propitious dream of all."
I always thought it odd he found so much pride in the idea that an over-grown lizard had played some role in his conception.
"You wanna see my place?" I asked.
He shook his head. "We’re late, let’s get going."
"I have to grab my wallet."
"Don’t worry, my business meetings went great and we’re celebrating- I’ll cover everything tonight."
"Of course. Get in."
I hopped in.
"Where we going?" I asked.
"We’ll eat at KTV." KTV were a chain of karaoke bars that also served food. "We’re gonna meet some friends."
"I was hoping we could talk privately."
"Of- hold on a sec," he said as his cell phone rang. "I’m coming," he said in Korean with a bubbly soft voice. "It’ll be about twenty minutes… I know baby-" And he continued until we reached our destination.
The KTV was located at the bottom floor of a hotel. Though most were straightforward karaoke bars, many were fronts for escort services and brothels. This was one of them. Upon entering, a line of young beautiful Chinese girls stood on either side, bowing with a synchronous, "Huan ying guang lin!" welcome. They were clad in Mandarin dresses, some buxom, others lanky and tall. Every type of girl imaginable was present: Russian vixens, Brazilian dancers, Japanese geishas, and of course, the preponderance of Chinese ‘xiaojie.’ The hostess approached, my uncle confirmed his RSVP and mentioned a name in Korean. We were escorted to the elevator and taken up to the fifth floor. On either side, I could hear accented voices blaring Journey and Celine Dion. Our private room was spacious with a leather sofa and three wide-screen TVs attached to the wall. There was a strobe light, a mahjong table, a computer displaying thousands of songs, even a queen-sized bed.
A tall girl with a skirt that clung to her lean hips like saran wrap awaited us. She was very fit with the Eurasian hue of a girl who was both Occidental and European, streaming brown hair, glittering eyes and thin lips enunciating words with the fluttery abandon of someone used to admiration. "Oppa!!!" she yelled, meaning older brother- she spoke perfect Korean. "You said you’d only be gone for a few hours." They hugged, kissed.
"This is my nephew, Thomas." She bowed respectfully to me. "Thomas, this is Gong Ju," or ‘Princess.’ Princess put ice into our cups and filled our shot glasses with whiskey. "Kyunbae!" we cheered as we downed our drinks.
"Where’s his girl?" my uncle asked.
"Wait wait, I don’t-"
But that’s when another girl entered. Now I’d seen prostitutes from all over the world; the beauties in the Red-light district in Amsterdam peering eerily through their glass walls, the hordes of hookers swarming through the underground malls of Macau. In Bangkok with Sarah, all the Thai girls thought I was Japanese and called, "Konichiwa!" promising ‘pussy shows’ that would awe us. This woman coming in was by far the prettiest I’d seen, carrying an air of gentility and class as well. She wore arm socks with alternating red black stripes, crimson earrings, red top with black laced jacket. Her face was a pleasant combination of a coy smile, dapper nose, long lashes curled affectionately.
She bowed, introduced herself as ‘Renee.’ Renee was Korean as well, serving drinks which I politely refused.
"What’s wrong?" my uncle asked. "You want another girl?"
"I don’t want a girl. I already have my girlfriend."
"Eh," he waved it off. "I won’t tell anyone."
"You don’t think I’m pretty?" Renee asked.
I was shocked by her suggestion. "It’s not that- just, I have a girlfriend."
"We’ll just be friends, okay?" she promised.
My uncle picked a song and Princess sang in her falsetto voice. Iridescent lights glittered in serpentine shapes that undulated into hearts and waves. The screen showed off flashy Korean music videos. Renee distributed our fruit platter and any time we ran short of alcohol, she replenished it, my uncle imbibing shot after shot.
"Tell me about your girlfriend."
"What do you wanna know?"
I told her how we spent our evenings strolling through the streets of the insomniac city that was never asleep. Sarah wielded her rainbow parasol at night and rubbed sun tan on her skin during rainstorms, convinced of the volatility of both climate and emotions. She always ran, skipped, or limped, hating the tepidity of a regular gait. Beijing was the exotically unexotic mishmash of stenches and grandeur, neon spit for the senses lambasting us with revolting crimson and piercing orange splotches of indecipherable characters.
"What about you?" I asked. "You have a boyfriend?"
She smiled abashedly. "It’s hard for girls like me to have boyfriends."
"Boys don’t like the work I do- most get very jealous."
Our entertainment for the night had several stages. A band of Chinese girls who’d dyed their hair blond sang Britney Spears and performed sensuous dances. Another woman with lingerie underneath a magician’s overcoat did magic tricks with playing cards.
A few hours passed. My uncle was drunk, dancing in swirls, his face ruddy with alcohol. He stumbled my way and pressed Renee against me. "If you don’t TakE gOOd care of nephew, I PAY NOTHING!!!" he shouted. And he pushed us together again.
I was annoyed. "Look uncle," or samchoon in Korean. "I came here cause I wanted to talk to you."
"You can speak freely in front of the girls," he said.
"I don’t know if that’s appropriate."
"You think I care about what’s appropriate? Speak your mind."
I sighed. "After everything you scammed from us, at the least, you owe me an ex-"
"Blah blah!" my uncle cut me off. "I’ve already paid my dues kid. I didn’t come here for a lecture."
"I wasn’t trying to lecture you. I wanted to talk with you about it, see why you did it."
"You mean you want me to beg forgiveness?"
"That’s not what I said."
"What are you saying then?" he demanded.
"Don’t you care about what you did? You need to take some responsibility and-"
But he turned to Princess and said, "He’s just a kid and he’s questioning me. Can you believe it?"
She smiled awkwardly, said words to placate him.
"You wanna know why he does this?" my uncle asked. "It’s cause he thinks he’s smarter than me, TOO smart, I’m stupid, YES SIR. You think I got any respect in PRISON? They beat us eveRYday, everyday! Wake 4AM, strip us naked and hose us, stick a prod up our ass to make sure we weren’t hiding anything." He stumbled. "I love you Princess. You’re the only thing that kept me going in there." About to break into tears.
"Cheer up. Let’s play a drinking game!" Princess shouted.
"OKAY!" my uncle replied.
"We all take a shot, spin the bottle, and whoever it picks, choose a question and we all have to answer."
Princess spun the bottle, it pointed at Renee. Renee’s question was, "If you could have any dream come true, what would it be?"
"Start with you!" Princess said to Renee.
"I would make the world into a big toilet, and then I’d piss all over it," she said with a bitterness that surprised me.
Princess and my uncle burst into laughter.
"I’d abolish clothes so we can all laugh at each other’s frailties," my uncle said. "Let’s abolish clothes in this room! You first!"
Princess stripped as did Renee.
"Hold on!" I shouted. "No stripping, please."
"You’re such a prude!" my uncle said. "That’s what I like about you kid. C’mon Princess, let’s go upstairs." Looking at me. "Bitch and complain to her, not me. And make good use of that bed or I’ll be angry." They left.
"What would your dream be?" Renee asked.
I looked at her. "I would make it so every kid in the world can play with any toy they want."
She smiled. "Do you wanna sing?"
I shook my head, did my best not to stare before I did something I’d regret. "I’d like to be by myself."
"Oh… I’m sorry if I wasn’t of satisfaction."
"It’s not you- really. If I didn’t have a girlfriend..."
She nodded, got herself ready. Stared at me as she was about to exit. "I wish my ex-husband had been like you…"
There was a strong tremor and a shaking. I was dreaming of a young boy that declared he was going to change the world with a peanut. I snapped up, realizing I’d dozed off.
Princess was standing above me. "Where’s uncle?" I asked.
She pointed at the corner. He was passed out with pink leather strapped to his belly. I didn’t want to know details.
"Your uncle’s lived a hard life," Princess said.
"A hard life isn’t an excuse to hurt those around you."
"He just got out of prison."
"And he’s going to make millions of dollars so he’ll be well compensated."
"Millions?" she said, confused.
"He hasn’t told you about his big business deal here?"
"He had a big meeting today with some Chinese factories," I said.
"Are you sure?"
"He was with me since last night. The only time he left was to pick you up."
I stared incredulously. "You’re joking?"
"I should have known," I said in disgust. "Did he tell you why he went to prison?"
"He doesn’t like talking about it."
I paused, thinking back.
"In my mid-20s, I’d saved up a bunch of money," I explained. "Doesn’t sound like much now- about fifteen grand, a fortune to me then. He needed money for an investment."
"What was it?"
It seemed so absurd in reflection. "He said he was building a flying car that could go underwater. Literally, all-terrain. He had deals with factories in Korea and they were on the last leg for the prototype. It appealed to my sense of adventure and I was really excited. My mom contributed and we were ‘partners’ which was a big change. The two of us have never been close."
"A lot of things she did, I didn’t like- one of her last relationships was with a married guy with four kids. Broke up their family. I hated to think of my mom as a ‘bad’ person. Who does, right? Business brought us together cause we didn’t have to focus on real issues."
"The car didn’t work?"
"The truth is, even if it failed, this was something I wanted to be part of. But the whole thing was a lie. There was no factory, no prototype. He took all our money and spent it on women and booze. From the trial, I learned there were other scams too. When we found out we’d been conned, we all kind of shriveled away."
"I haven’t spoken to her in years."
"You hate your uncle?"
"I don’t hate him. I just- I don’t know…"
I thought back on my childhood. I’d always felt a pang of envy when my neighbors got the latest toys- Optimus Prime, the new TIE fighter. I was too poor to afford them, so I had to make my own toys, taking garbage scraps and broken radios, taping them together into chimeras of childhood fantasies. Jumbled trash heaps became super jets and a bastardized set of Siamese skates became monstrous tanks in my fictitious battles to save the planet.
"Uncle was the closest thing to family I had," I said. "He traveled a lot, and whenever he showed up, he brought new toys. I loved him for that."
"I can’t help but feel responsible," Princess said.
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"My mother was in a relationship with an American soldier at Inchon. I was born out of wedlock cause he was re-stationed to Germany. He promised he’d come back but he never did. We weren’t wealthy, but after that, pretty much all of society turned their back on us. I was treated like an outcast since I was a half-breed. My mom became really ill when I was about fifteen. I turned to the escort business to make money. Did your uncle ever tell you about his fiancé?"
"I didn’t know he had one."
"I shouldn’t say anything then. But when he met me, he said I reminded him of her. After he found out about my situation, he offered to support me. He paid for all my mom’s hospital bills. It was expensive, especially with all the experimental treatments we tried. In the end, none of them worked and she died in her sleep."
"I never questioned where he brought the money from. But now I know." Looking up at me. "Those toys he bought you- you never wondered how he got them?"
"What do you mean?"
"He probably scammed someone to get them for you."
The suggestion irked me. "I think getting a few bucks to buy toys is different from scamming millions from people."
"Only in degree, but the motives are the same. Don’t be angry with your uncle. I’m the one you should be mad at."
My uncle suddenly let out a loud snore, his belly swelling as he scratched his nose. I looked at him, the balding in his scalp, the coarseness in his hands.
"After he went to prison, I moved around from club to club," she said. "But I’m almost twenty-five now. Guys want younger girls. I couldn’t compete so I came to Beijing- lots of Chinese men want Korean girls."
I nodded, not sure what to say. Noticed the time. "We should probably get going."
"I’ll get the check."
Uncle was out cold so I grabbed his wallet, saw multiple credit cards. I picked one with Chinese characters and gave it to Princess. Princess returned a minute later. "Sorry, declined."
I gave her another, and another. All were rejected. Two butch body guards accompanied Princess when she returned.
"They’re security," Princess said. "Can you cover your uncle for now?"
"He told me not to bring my wallet."
The guards glowering menacingly and I tried to wake my uncle, but all he did was snore at the top of his lungs.
"I guess washing dishes is out of the question… Can we pay tomorrow?" I asked.
"I don’t think so," she answered.
I flipped through his wallet again. "One of these stupid cards has to work."
None of them did and finally, one of the guards came near.
"Don’t touch me," I said, picking up a mic.
When he tried to grab me, I swung at him. The other came from the side and knocked me on my chest, the blow feeling like a hammer. I stumbled into the sofa and tried to attack with my mic, but he slapped it out of my hand. A flurry of punches followed in a successive stream, the waft of blood swelling into my nostrils. The senselessness of their violence was revolting and its terrifying vapidity hurt more than the actual pain. One grabbed me, elbowed my face. Princess shrieked, "Put him down! I’ll talk with the manager!"
He reluctantly complied. She left, the guards furiously eyeing me while uncle lay there oblivious.
Princess returned a few minutes later. "You can leave, but you need to pay them back tomorrow."
"I told them I’d be responsible for the debt," she answered. "I owe your uncle. And this was the only way to let you go. I can’t let them beat you to death and dump you in a garbage bin." I gulped, thinking, that would have been my fate?
"I’ll make sure he pays," I said.
I heaved him onto my back. Even though he’d lost weight in jail, he was still heavy and I wasn’t feeling good.
Princess escorted us out. "You don’t know what hotel he’s staying at, do you?" I asked.
I sighed inwardly. "I’m sorry to ask, but do you have spare change for a taxi?"
"You don’t have any money?"
I shook my head.
Thirty minutes in the cold, catching my breath and looking at the starless sky.
Princess came out wearing a thick coat.
"C’mon," she said.
"To my place. It’s just down the block. You guys can crash there."
"You don’t know how much this means."
She shrugged it off.
I tugged along, my uncle’s breath reeking of alcohol. Stumbled twice cause he was so heavy.
"Are you okay?"
"I’m fine," I grunted.
After ten rest stops, we arrived at her apartment building. Lights were triggered by motion and the graffiti of phone numbers marred the walls. It smelled of oil and dusty concrete. Her apartment was on the eighth floor. We went in and I was surprised to find a small living room with six mattresses squeezed next to one another. Four were occupied by girls who were already asleep. There were no additional rooms, just a bathroom that was a prehistoric pit of stenches and algae, a thousand roaches scattering at the explosion of light. Clothes were spread along the floor, plastic bins holding inner garments and laundry. I tossed my shoes next to the hundred heels garrisoned by the door. "Soo Shin doesn’t get off her shift until 9 so he can sleep there," Princess said.
I carried my uncle to the empty mattress and dropped him. Next to Princess’ mattress, I spotted a shelf filled with toy figures.
"These yours?" I asked, surprised by their presence.
She gleamed. "Cool, huh?"
She picked up some marines and female amazons, showed them to me proudly. "One of my customers bought these for me, said they’re special versions from America."
"You like toys?"
"I love them."
I saw one of my own sculpts, Kaira from the series MR. She had Sarah’s face albeit with blue hair. "I built this," I said.
"What do you mean?"
I explained my job.
"Are you serious?!! That’s so amazing! How do you do it?" And her childish enthusiasm reminded me that beneath the layers of makeup, she was still a young girl. I tried answering her the best I could. "You have the coolest job, you know that? You think I’d make a good model?" And she did an exaggerated pose, arms straight ahead of her with imaginary pistols in her hands.
"You’d be wonderful," I replied.
Princess went to her mattress, took off her clothes, jumped in her blanket. "C’mon," she said. "Time to sleep." Seeing my hesitation "Don’t worry, I don’t bite."
I lay down next to her, felt terribly uncomfortable. Heard one of the girls coughing repeatedly, phlegm welling up her throat.
"Is she okay?" I whispered.
"Not H1N1 or anything?"
"She’s too sick to work so we pitch in to take care of her. Don’t worry, you can’t get HIV from a cough."
A minute later, I heard Princess breathing deeply, calling the name of some guy I didn’t recognize. I lay there and couldn’t sleep. Tried to count sheep. All I could count were the minutes before daylight.
A loud knocking woke me and it took me a second to orient myself.
"Shinjee!" I heard a male voice call. "Shinjee! I know you’re here! Open up."
Princess got up.
"Your roommate?" I asked.
"My boyfriend," she replied. "You guys gotta get going," she said.
"What time is it?"
She checked the time. "It’s 6. The subways should be open."
I woke my uncle. He was groggy, shaking his head.
"We gotta go," I said.
"Shinjeee!!!" her boyfriend shouted through the door.
"Who’s Shinjee?" I asked.
"That’s my real name." She pulled my uncle up. "You have to go now. Call me later oppa, kay?"
My uncle nodded. We put on our shoes, my bones feeling brittle from exhaustion. I had to hold up my uncle cause he kept on stumbling. We opened and exited. A skinny Chinese guy with thick pimples accosted us. "Who are you?" he demanded in Mandarin. "Shinjee, are these more of your customers?"
"Leave them alone Chen!" she retorted in Chinese.
"Did it feel good being with strangers? Did you guys have a good time?" he asked me.
"Where are we?" my uncle asked as we headed for the stairs.
The boyfriend followed and I felt something pelt me on my neck- a peanut. "You have no honor, you stupid foreigners, you come here and take advantage of our women and-"
"Dude, back off!" I shouted.
"You have no respect! I hope you get VD and your dicks fall off!" the guy yelled, throwing more peanuts until one hit me right in the back of my head.
I couldn’t take it anymore. I dropped my uncle and chased after him. He ran down the hallway, laughing. I chased him but he was too fast and I felt too sore to pursue.
"Stupid foreigner!" he taunted. "I should cut off your balls and sell them on the streets for a penny."
I grabbed my uncle, we went down the stairway to the elevator, walked out of the apartment to the sidewalk. People were everywhere.
"Do you have any cash?" I asked.
"I need to go to an ATM."
"None of your cards work."
"What do you mean?"
I explained what happened last night. He took out his wallet, guffawed heartily. "I brought the wrong wallet. We should borrow money from Princess."
"You wanna go back up, be my guest," I said.
"We can ask some people on the street. We only need 4RMB."
"You wanna beg?" I asked.
"Not beg. Exchange for services." He pointed to a corner filled with trash and garbage. "Let’s find a cup and some round objects."
"So I can juggle."
We trudged through the trash, the odors abhorrent. We gathered seven empty bottles and setup our mini-circus along the wall. My uncle started his act, bouncing back and forth.
Thousands passed by and every one had a different curve for the brush stroke of their spine. Every posture imaginable and unimaginable lurked, strutted, cankered forth.
I thought it was going to be easy gathering 4RMB. But my uncle, suffering a hangover, dropped more bottles than he juggled.
"I used to be better at this," he said.
He laughed. "Don’t be such a downer. This is what life is about."
"Begging for subway fare?"
"Enjoying every situation, taking joy even in the shit."
"I prefer to take joy from the warmth of my bed."
"Why are you always so negative?"
I took a deep breath. "Uncle."
"Don’t you ever get tired of cheating your way through life?"
He sidled next to me. "Never," he replied with a grin. "Now one of my biggest regrets is that I never taught you how to juggle. This is your chance to learn from a pro."
He gave up after several attempts and got back to juggling. Thirty minutes later, a young student generously donated 5RMB. "Learn how to juggle better grandpa," he said.
"Did he just call me grandpa?" my uncle asked. "I’m only fifty-eight kid. Don’t call me grandpa."
"He didn’t mean anything by it."
"I don’t want the money."
"Then I’ll take it."
"It’s outrageous, I’d run laps around him."
"What about taking joy in shit?"
"A man has to have his dignity."
We got to the subway. My uncle was complaining the whole way. As we went down the escalator, I heard bells tolling, not for me or anyone on the streets, instead, the miffed silence of roaches who felt wronged because everyone in the world wanted to exterminate them.
On the train, I reiterated his need to pay off what he owed or Princess would get into trouble.
"Don’t worry, I’ll take care of it."
"If you don’t, she’ll be in trouble."
"I’ll take care of it."
The train raced along, thousands getting on and off.
"Did you ever have a fiancé?" I asked.
"A long time ago. Why?"
"What happened to her?"
His eyes hardened. "She passed away," he said, and didn’t elaborate.
A marathon of electronic advertisements sprinted by the walls, a million and one couples scurried through the spiderweb of Beijing. When we reached my uncle’s subway exit, he gave me a wink. "See you next time kid," he said.
I realized I had absolutely no idea who he was.