The setting sun has buried itself underneath burning earth of 1915’s Beiping and leaves a trace of redness in the sky. The yellow dust rolls on, across what was once called The Grand Mansion Gate. The Bai Family was considered the center of the private security system in Northern China, which is now surrounded by barbarians.
The Bai Family in the summer is no more than a bundle of dead fish — quiet, stuffy, and stinks up the borough. Ever since the Empress Dowager was forced to flee the city with the child emperor, Beiping has already marched to its breaking point. Rich people are too busy with their opium dens, mistresses, and shopping around brothels, pretending that the sinking of Beiping has nothing to do with them and that women are the cure for every inch of pain in the city. Thereafter, Master Bai harmed his lungs and hasn’t been able to support this three-generation family.
Ting Lan’s birth father was Bai’s godbrother, short-lived. Therefore, Ting Lan was passed onto the Bai family long before her coveted years. Although Bai has been in the martial world decades of his life, he has always despised men and says, “Men are filthier than a dog’s turd.” Because all three of Bai’s concubines didn’t have a life of bearing daughters, Ting Lan is very precious to the Bai family. Even the maids are envious of her charmed life.
If there’s one thing to blame, it’s her natural beauty. Before her little plump and round face turned thin and delicate, there were already very many rich families wanting her as their daughter-in-law; even Bai’s oldest son, Zhan, has set his eyes on her since childhood.
This young master Zhan is notoriously known for never running out of money on prostitutes and bending every rule there is in the Bai family. There’s a saying: “What kind of mother bears what kind of son.” His mother was once the jade of the underworld and has been with countless rich, powerful men; but women who are from that kind of world can never gain status in a family like Bai’s. Being an untitled concubine is their best luck.
But Bai has always been a man of kindness, watching this weak woman carrying his own flesh and blood, he didn’t have the heart but to take her in as his third mistress. This unworthy son of Bai’s is only good for three things: opium, women and stirring up fights because of women. Although Bai is a shrewd businessman, there is nothing he can do about his idiot son.
Having said that, Ting Lan grew up in an extremely wealthy family like Bai’s and naturally has learned some words and read some truths. However, in a society like 1915’s Beiping, a woman’s incompetence is considered a virtue, so Ting Lan often laughs at herself for being too wicked
During last month’s Dragon Boat Festival, when the moonlight reached the side of Ting Lan’s pillow, she was kept awake by her thoughts and the veteran mosquitoes of late summer.
Young master Zhan was seen drunk again in Yichun Alley, cursing at every guest he came across and battering the prostitutes who were there to serve the wine. Fortunately, he was a regular at the Alley and had a very close relationship with the mamasan, which afforded him such privileges as being carried back by servants to the Bai Mansion.
Although the night was not cold, the whiz of the wind was still biting. After a shivering sneeze, Zhan tightened his long, greyish summer gown.
Not long after, Bai Mansion was reached.
“Young master, your house is here!” the palanquin driver shouted, twisting around to look back with a timid grin.
“Are you sons of bitches fuckin blind? Just dump me on the stairs!” Zhan’s oval-shaped Mongolian face went red and blotchy with rage, felt bile rising in his throat and had to close his mouth from throwing up. Just as quickly, he shook his head and sighed, waved his fist, drunkenly trying to buoy his authority and throwing some golden-copper coins to the ground. “You low life bastards are going to take your stupidity to your graves.”
“Ah-Ya.” The driver nodded quickly with a hippie smile.” This really is the young master of a rich family, the future of our nation. Young master, take care!”
Before Zhan could set his foot inside the gate, a loud bang — the broken sound of porcelain — followed with a chaotic and noisy quarrel knocked the drunkenness out of him.” Shit! Are the debt collectors already in the house, looking for me?” He quickly buried his head into his shoulders, taking care not to be seen by the servants.
However, the sight of a dozen of Jinbang Gambling House thugs standing motionlessly in the front hall made Zhan jump, and he tentatively ducked underneath a wutong tree. At last he spotted their boss, Longevity Chen, a meaty fellow in his forties, with a heavy black beard and hair growing out of his ears, which made him look like those intimidating door guardians posted outside Buddhist temples.
Chen put the debts on the table, his gloomy face, had enough meat to squash a cockroach, “A man with good moral standard shall pay back what he owes. The eight hundred silver dollars cannot be taken for granted. I respect your Bai family’s reputation, so I will waive the interests for this time.”
After all, Bai had seen the world, kept his eyes shut, with no hint of expression, but inscrutability of that sort did impact the harsh sincerity that one associates with old China. In the old days,
Master Bai and Ting Lan’s father had repute for “their way” of sorting things out in the underworld of Northern China. These Jinbang hooligans were known for bluffing.
It was a stifling summer evening, even the cicadas could no longer bear the humid silence, bursting out a painful cry.
“I’ve picked the wrong date to come,” Chen thought, paralyzed with the embarrassment of Bai not having the slightest fear of him. He flushed bright red and then grew pale, still wearing his forced smile.
Bai had taken his shoes off and now sat cross-legged on the cushions of fine crimson silk, next to a gold-lacquered table. He picked up a tiny teapot and took a sip. “I’ve been putting chrysanthemums in my tea lately; they give it a delicate flavor.”
Just as the curses were already boiling up onto his tongue, Chen swallowed them back, bit his lip, and thought for a few seconds. “Treasurer Bai, we didn’t…”
“…Master! Master!” A bleary-eyed boy, shouted out in ecstasy from outside. He paused to catch his breath before continuing. “Congratulations, Master Chen, seventh mistress just delivered you a boy!”
As soon as the word “boy” was heard, Chen let out a laugh. His eyes disappeared into two squinty lines, the grease on his bulky cheeks reflecting the dim kerosene light on the table.
Almost in one burst, the row of his twelve loyal minions turned and hollered in unison, “Congratulations, Master! For getting a young master!”
The housekeeper, who had been with the family for many years, wreathed in knowing smiles, leaned over and whispered in Bai’s ear.
Bai was in deep thought, silently sipping his pipe, reeling from the effect of opium lungs, he gave a little gasp.
“That’s such a good omen! Treasurer Chen!” The housekeeper broke in, nodding at a maid. “Go fetch two golden longevity locks and some of that foreign tea.”
There was a moment of silence before Chen started to feel that peculiar, light-headed happiness again. Just as suddenly, he screamed, “Ai-ya! Mosquito!” He twisted around and slapped his own bare back.
The maid walked into the room with a pair of longevity locks in traditional Chinese style and a tray of roasted coffee.
The housekeeper looked up sharply, knocking Chen’s hand aside with just enough force to make everyone stare. “Master Chen, this is the foreign tea sent by Grand Secretariat when our master turned sixty this year. The foreign devils call it ‘Ka-Faye’, and please take it back to supplement Seventh Mistress’s body.”
Chen’s expression did not change, seeing that Bai refused to budge, he decided it was time to leave. He avoided looking directly at the housekeeper any longer, shouting out, “Prepare sedan!”
One of his minions cried out, “Prepare sedan!”
When Bai and the housekeeper walked into the moonlit courtyard, the doorway was blocked by the servants swarming in with their lanterns. The first thing they saw was Zhan, on his knees, holding the same old bamboo stick above his head, looking sheepishly at the ground.
By this point, Bai had grown tired of punishing this up-to-no-good son. He pointed his pipe at the old housekeeper with a knowing nod.
“Same old rule, young master,” the housekeeper said, letting out a sigh of relief. “Thank you, father!” Zhan replied in a low voice.
Under the stern gaze of the portraits of eight generations of Bai family, our young master kneeled down in front of the stark, empty mourning hall and howled out the Thousand Character Classic aloud.
“The sky is black and the earth is yellow; the universe is vast and rough. The sun is high or low and the moon is waxing or waning; stars are widely spread. Cold comes and heat goes; autumn is for harvest and winter is for….. Winter is for…?” Zhan leaned dazedly and banged his head on the floor, grumbled, “For my ass!” With one last curse under his breath, he passed out.
When a lantern was lifted and thrust close to his face, he jolted awake and saw a slender figure of a young girl. She wasn’t very tall, with jet-black hair and long, lovely eyes. He recognized instantly who this young lady was Ting Lan.
Holding a meat bun in one hand and a bowl of rice wine in the other, Zhan sat there cheerfully. As he bit into the steaming hot bun, he snorted in amusement. “You truly are a good little sister to me. I’ll let you be my first wife one day. I’m just fooling around with all the other whores out there. My heart only belongs to you.”
Ting Lan gave him a sharp pinch on the ear as he cried out, “What are you doing? What kind of flirting is this?”
She shook her head, took out a handkerchief and wiped the grease off the corner of his lower lip. “Sooner or later, that mouth of yours will get you into big trouble.”
Ting Lan lowered her head. “I have a favor to ask. Umm, I’ve heard Dingjun Mountain is playing at Daguan theater next month. Can you get me two tickets?” She blushed and hid her face.
“Two? Are you finally asking me out on a date?” Zhan’s face lit up.
“It’s for Daisy, that poor girl has been with me since I entered Bai mansion. She hasn’t set her foot outside the gate for eight years.”
Hearing this, he quickly put his smile away. “Bullshit! You can’t fool me, it’s for you and that literature tutor from Shanghai! I see you two have been flirting all along; those southerners cannot be trusted.”
Ting Lan raised her willow-thin brows, decided to flaunt her French. “Et si c’est vrai?”
“What kind of gibberish is that? You are CHINESE! Father doesn’t like you learning all that white devil’s crap. That Shanghainese clearly has some bad influence on you. See how I’ll teach him a lesson next time!”
Ting Lan yanked his collar, gave him a little hiss. “You…” she stuttered, “you… If you dare to touch a single hair of his, I will tell father about you and Suq…!”
Zhan quickly covered her mouth with one hand. “Shhh! Are you trying to get me in trouble?” His face blushed in fury and shame and grabbed her by the jaw. “Don’t mention that name.” A look of worry washed over Ting Lan’s pale face.
Just at that moment, a maid came, knocked at the window and cried shrilly for Zhan. “Young master! Come to old master’s room! He’s having a stroke again! Doctor says he probably won’t make it this time!”
The oil in the lamp was nearly all burned out. All three of Bai’s mistresses were called into the room.
First mistress looked as though she had just gotten languidly out of bed, sitting cross-legged in her amboyna chair, chanting the sutras, never once bothered by the madness.
Second mistress kept picking and tearing at the slits in her fan as if they were someone’s face. A cigarette was dangling in her clenched teeth as she smoked slowly with a vacant look in her eyes.
Third mistress had very carefully made herself up, penciling in dark eyebrows and applying a matte shade of a western brand lipstick. Despite the heat, she was holding an expensive fur wrap across her knees.
The strange thing was that neither of them spoke, as if they were three wutong trees standing lifeless in the wind.
“You little toad egg, not an ounce of decency in you, a laughing-stock of the whole city! Maybe you’re not ashamed, but I am,” the third mistress yelled in a quavering voice as she caught a glimpse of her son.
Zhan took a step back and didn’t dare to look up.
“What are you dozing off for? Go ask for your father’s forgiveness.” Third mistress barked a stern warning. “I will break your legs myself next time!”
Peering through the red gauze bed curtains in the dim light, Zhan could see his father feeling better now from the stroke. As he lay in the corner of his big redwood bed, smoking a water pipe, he broke out in a loud cackle. The bedroom was clouded with smoke, opium fumes had drifted into the air. Zhan lived in this air, had grown up in this air, but today for some reason, the smell gave him a bitter taste.
“Beiping can’t sink,” he muttered under his breath.
Zita Bai is an actress, filmmaker, and student living in Los Angeles.