Chief Inspector Chen Cao, of the Shanghai Police Bureau, was invited to a mega bathhouse, Birds Flying, Fishes Jumping, on a May afternoon.
According to Lei Zhenren, editor of Shanghai Morning, they would have all their worries luxuriously washed away there. "How much concern do you have? / It is like spring flood / of a long river flowing east. This ultramodern bathhouse is really unique. Characteristics of the Chinese brand of socialism. You won't see anything else like it in the world."
Lei knew how to persuade, having quoted for the poetry-liking chief inspector three lines from Li Yu, the Southern Tang emperor poet. "Characteristics of the Chinese brand of socialism" was a political catchphrase, which carried a discordant connotation, especially in the context of the unprecedented materialistic transformation sweeping over the city of Shanghai. As it happened, Chen had just read about the bathhouse in an English publication:
Every weekend night, about two thousand Chinese and several dozen foreigners gather together naked at Niaofei Yuyao—a gigantic bathhouse, where the masses soak in tubs of milk, sweat in the "fire jade heat room," watch movies, and swim in the pool. It's public and legal. After a round of miniature golf (clothing required), you can get a massage (clothing removed) and watch a Vegas-style show (the audience in pajamas, the performers in less than pajamas) . . .
It took Chen two or three minutes to figure out the exact wording from the Chinese phonetics niaofei yuyao—"birds flying and fishes jumping." The name of the bathhouse actually came from an ancient proverb: The sea so wide for fishes to jump, the sky so high for birds to fly, which meant figuratively "infinite possibilities." Perhaps too pompous a name for a bathhouse, yet a plausible allusion to its size and service. So he responded, "Such a bath may be too luxurious, Lei. I now have a hot shower in my own apartment, you know."
"Come on, Comrade Chief Inspector Chen. If you flash your business card, the owner of the bathhouse will come rushing over, barefoot, to welcome you in. A high-flying Party cadre, and a well-published poet to boot, you deserve a good break. Health is the capital for making socialist revolution, as Chairman Mao said long ago."
Chen had known Lei for years, first through the Writers' Association, to which both had belonged. Lei had majored in Chinese literature, and Chen, in Western literature. But early on, they had both been state-assigned to their respective jobs, regardless of their own interests. Starting out as an entry-level business reporter, Lei had since enjoyed a steady rise. When Shanghai Morning was founded the previous year, he was appointed the editor-in-chief. Like other newspapers, Shaghai Morning was still under the ideological control of the government but responsible for its own financial welfare. So Lei made every effort to turn the newspaper into a more readable one, instead of one simply full of polished political clichés. The efforts had paid off, and the newspaper grew rapidly popular, almost catching up with the Wenhui Daily in its circulation.
Lei talked about treating Chen—in celebration of the newspaper's success. It was an invitation Chen found difficult to decline. For all these years, Lei had made a point of publishing Chen's poems in his newspapers.
But he could not be too cautious, Chen thought, in his position, in the days of guanxi—connections spreading all over the city like a gigantic web. "My treat, Lei," he said. "Last time you bought me a great lunch at Xinya. It should be my turn now."
"Tell you what, Chen. I'm writing about the latest Shanghai entertainments. No fun for me to go there alone. So you're doing me a favor. Business expense, of course."
"Well, no private room or private service, then."
"You don't have to tell me that. It's not a good idea for people like you or me to be seen in those private rooms. Particularly in the heat of another anticorruption campaign."
"Yes, it's the headlines again," Chen said, "in your newspaper."
Niaofei Yuyao turned out to be a six-story sprawling building on Jumen Road. The dazzling lobby, lit with crystal chandeliers, struck Chen more like a five-star American hotel. The entrance fee was two hundred yuan per person, with additional charges for services requested inside, a stolid manager explained, giving each of them a shining silver bracelet with a number attached to it.
"Like dim sum," Lei said, "you'll pay at the end of it, with all the services added to your number."
A reporterlike young man sidled over, carrying a camera with a long zoom sticking out like a gun. The manager rose to wave his hand in a flurry: "Pictures are not allowed here."
Chen was surprised. "If the picture is going to appear in a newspaper, like yours," he said in a whisper, "it may bring in more business."
"Well, a large tree brings in a gusty wind against itself," Lei commented, changing into plastic slippers. "This bathhouse doesn't need any more free advertisement, or the city government may feel obliged to check into its incredible business."
The pool area was the size of three or four soccer fields, not including the area for women. The water of three large pools shimmered green in the soft light. Majestic marble statues and fountains stood in each of them, imitations of ancient Roman palaces, except for an impressive array of modern water massage appliances along the poolsides. There were also special tubs with signs such as Beer, Ginseng, Milk, and Herbs. The brownish froth in the beer tub formed a sharp contrast to the white ripples over the milk tub. Chen looked into a gauze bag floating in the ginseng tub—expensive if the thick roots it contained were genuine, though he was not so sure of its medical benefit in the hot bathwater.
"These tubs are supposed to be effective," Lei said with a grin.
"And very expensive too."
"The pools alone could have cost millions. A gamble on the boost the WTO accession will deliver to Shanghai—an economic restructuring with waves of overseas capital inflows. China is currently the second-largest destination for foreign investment after the U.S. Soon it will be the largest."
Lei was taking an MBA class in the evening. For the new newspaper, he had to know things beyond his major in Chinese literature years earlier.
"So you're writing an article about the bathhouse?"
"Not just about this place, but the latest entertainment trends in general. Eat, drink, bathe, sleep, and whatnot. A middle class is rising up fast in China. They have money, and they need to know how to spend money. As an editor, I have to write what they want to read."
"Indeed, pools of wine, woods of flesh," Chen said, echoing a classical description about the decaying Shang dynasty palace, as he stepped into a steaming hot pool.
"Oh, much, much more," Lei chuckled in high spirits, "like the Winter Palace in Russia, except it's so warm here, like the spring water. Or like in the late Roman empire."
Chen reclined against the poolside, the water massaging his back and purring as if with a collective contentment, including his. He tried to recall the name of the poet Lei had quoted, but without success.
"What are you thinking, Chen?"
"Nothing—my mind is relaxing in a total blank, as you suggested."
"Take it easy, Chen, with your new position in the city congress, and with your name as a best-selling poet."
To all appearances, Chen had been moving up steadily. His new membership in the Shanghai People's Congress was seen as another step toward his succeeding Party Secretary Li Guohua in the police bureau. But Chen was not so sure about it. The congress was known as a political rubber stamp, and thus city congressman was more of an honorary title. Possibly a compromise more than anything else, Chen knew, for quite a few hard-liners in the Party opposed his further promotion in the bureau, on the ground of his being too liberal.
It was true, however, that his poetry collection had enjoyed unexpected success. Poetry makes no money and, in a money-oriented age, its publication was nothing short of a miracle. And it was actually selling well.
His thoughts were interrupted by two new bathers flopping down into the water, one short with gray hair and beady eyes, one tall with an aquiline nose and beer-bottle-thick glasses. Apparently, they were continuing an earlier argument.
"Socialism is going to the dogs. These greedy, unscrupulous dogs of the Party officials! They're crunching everything to pieces, and devouring all the bones," the short one declared in indignation. "Our state-run company is like a gigantic fat goose, and everyone must take a bite or pluck a feather or two from it. Did you know that the head of the City Export Office demands a five percent bonus in exchange for his export quota approval?"
"What can you do, man?" the tall one said sarcastically. "Communism echoes only in nostalgia songs. It's capitalism that's practiced here—with the Communist Party sitting on the top, sucking a red lollipop. So what can you expect of these Party cadres?"
"Corrupt throughout. They don't believe in anything except doing everything in their own interest—in the name of China's brand of socialism."
"What is capitalism? Everybody grabs for his or her money—in spite of all the communist propaganda in our newspapers. They're just like the beer froth in the tub."
"The cops should have bang-banged a few of those rotten eggs!"
"Cops?" the tall one said, splashing the water with his big feet. "They're jackals out of one and the same den as those wolves."
Chen frowned. Complaints about the widespread corruption were not surprising, but some of the specifics did not sound too pleasant to a naked cop, or to a naked editor either.
"Chinese is still an evolving language. Corruption—fubai—literally means 'rotten,' " Chen said in a quiet voice to Lei, "in reference to bad meat or fish. Now it refers exclusively to the abuse of power by the Party cadres."
"Yes, things go bad easily," Lei said. "You can put Yellow River carps into the refrigerator, but you can't put in the Party cadres."
It was intriguing to think about the linguistic evolution. In the sixties, corruption meant the rotten bourgeois way of life, in reference to something like extramarital sex. A young "corrupt" teacher in Chen's school was fired for engaging in prenuptial sex. In a more general sense, the word could also have referred to bourgeois extravagancy—even to such a bath, whose entrance fee alone cost more than the monthly income for an ordinary worker. In the last few years, however, the word took on an exclusive target—the Party officials.
"In Mao's time, corruption was hardly a serious issue in that sense," Lei said nodding. "In the stagnant state economy, everybody earned about the same, in accordance to the old Marxist principle: to each according to his need, from each according to his capability. But after the Cultural Revolution, people have become disillusioned with all the ideological propaganda."
"A spiritual vacuum. That worries me."
"Let's see things in a different perspective," Lei said, stepping out of the pool. "After all, China's been making great progress. Those two big-mouthed bathers, for instance, could have talked themselves into prison during the Cultural Revolution."
"You can say that again," Chen said, aware of something he and Lei had in common. They, too, could be cynical about or critical of the system, but in the last analysis, they were rather defensive of it.
Lei called his attention to the shower rooms lined along one side, each with an outlandish name: Pistol, Needle, Five-Element, Yin/Yang, Chain, Mist . . .
"I'm like Granny Liu walking into the Grand View Garden," Chen said. In the classic Chinese novel, The Dream of the Red Chamber, Granny Liu was a country bumpkin, totally awestruck by the splendor of the garden. "Look at the Jade and Fire Sauna Room."
"Today you can do everything with money."
"We cops are really in trouble, then."
Lei did not answer, perhaps too busy experimenting something called Zhou-Heaven-Circulation: he sat on a steel stool with an iron bar cage hanging overhead. The showerhead jerked out a spray of water, and he jumped out like a monkey in the Pilgrim to the West.
They then filed through a "dry up room," where they were wiped by attendants with large towels and invited to change into the special red-and-white-striped pajamas before taking the elevator.
"The fourth floor is the recreation area—billiards, Ping-Pong, basketball, and a fishing pool, too, with a lot of golden carps—"
"Let's skip that, Lei."
"Fine. I'm hungry today. Let's eat first."
The third floor entrance led into a marketlike place, where stood rows of large water tanks with swimming fishes and jumping shrimps. Large shelves displayed a variety of dishes and pots wrapped in plastic, vivid in color and shape. A sort of live menu. A waitress, also in red-and-white-striped pajamas, came over. At her recommendation, they ordered pork rib soup with tulips in a stainless-steel pot over a liquid gas stove, steamed live bass with ginger and green onion scattered over a blue and white platter, water-immersed beef covered with red pepper in a large bowl, tomato cups with peeled shrimp, and chunks of fried rice-paddy eel on bamboo sticks. They also requested two bottles of ice beer.
The waitress led them to a table, her wooden slippers clacking pleasant notes on the hardwood floor. The dining hall had a uniform atmosphere, probably the result of the identical red-and-white-striped pajamas worn by everyone there.
"We have realized communism here, or the appearance of it. Everybody looks the same—at least in clothing," Lei said, raising his chopsticks. "But look at that large table, the so-called Complete Manchurian and Han Banquet. The name, if you were wondering, originated from the need for a united front during the Qing dynasty. To demonstrate his solidarity, the Manchurian emperor had delicacies from various ethnic cuisines served on one table in the Forbidden City. Camel dome, bear paw, swallow's nest, monkey brains . . ."
"Every rare and expensive item imaginable under the sun," Chen said, glancing toward the impressive table. "Those upstarts show off like anything."
"Well, it's no longer an age of showing off just for the sake of doing so. It's a banquet for guanxi. Big bucks in the business for big bugs in the government," Lei said, putting a chunk of beef onto Chen's plate.
"As Old Master Du said," Chen replied, "The meat and wine go bad behind the vermilion door; / by the roadside lie the bodies starved to death."
"Life is short," Lei said. "Let's eat and drink."
Across the aisle, a young girl was putting her bare foot on an old man's thigh, her red toenails like rose petals blossoming out of his carrot-thick fingers.
After the meal, they moved down to the rest area on the second floor. It consisted of large halls and small private rooms. The halls were for common customers, where men and women kept coming and going in their striped pajamas. Private rooms came in different sizes, providing privacy and special service at varying prices.
"Look, it's Tong Tian, the head of Zhabei District," Lei whispered, casting a suggestive look toward a man stepping into the private room across the aisle.
"Yes, Secretary Tong. I recognize him too."
"He has sent his wife and daughter abroad. Vancouver. His daughter studies in a private school. They have a mansion there."
"Well—" Chen understood the implication. Tong's government salary was perhaps about the same as Chen's. It took no brains to figure out Tong's means of supporting his family abroad.
"With the door closed, a couple of pretty young girls at your service, a few thousand yuan could go in a snap of fingers. The room fee alone costs five hundred yuan an hour." Lei concluded with an unexpected twist: "If our Party cadres were all like you, China would have realized communism."
The hall appeared cozy, comfortable. Each customer had a soft recliner and a side table for drinks and snacks, and two large projection TVs showed an American movie. In front of them, massage girls kept walking back and forth, like bats flitting in the dusk.
"We've talked enough corruption for an evening," Chen said. "Not a pleasant topic after a rich meal."
Copyright © 2006 by Qiu Xiaolong. All rights reserved.