I never bring up the subject of my birthday, not with my family and not with my closest friends. At first an intentional omission, eventually I truly forgot. No one remembered my birthday for my first eighteen years, and after that I simply avoided the issue. No mistake about it, it all happened in my eighteenth year.
The potholed street outside the school gate sloped to one side.As I crossed the street a shiver ran down my spine; someone was staring at me again, I could feel it.
Not daring to turn around, I glanced to the left and right,but saw nothing out of the ordinary. I forced myself to keep walking until I was standing next to an old lady who sold ice lollies, then took a quick look behind me, just as a Liberation-model truck whizzed past, splattering mud in its wake. A couple of youngsters buying ice lollies stamped their feet and hurled curses at the speeding truck for muddying their short sand bare legs. The old lady dragged her box of ice lollies over to the base of the wall. Who the hell drives like that? she grumbled. Scurvy people like you would be turned away by the Four-Mile Crematorium.
Once the disturbance was past, quiet returned, and I stood in the middle of the muddy, rutted street wondering if I was imagining things because I'd talked so much today.
At some point as I was growing up, these shivers became a regular occurrence in my life, always caused by a pair of staring eyes. More than once I nearly spotted whoever was behind those eyes, but only for a fleeting moment. The man with nondescript features and messy hair never came close enough for me to get a good look at him, which was probably how he planned it. He only appeared near the schoolyard before and after school, and never actually followed me, as if he knew where I'd be from one minute to the next. All he had to do was wait.
We heard all sorts of frightening rumours about rapes, but I was never afraid that was what the man had in mind.
I never told my father or mother. What was there to tell?They might think I'd done something shameful and give me hell. So I kept this a secret for years, until eventually my fears vanished and there was no more mystery. Perhaps being stared at is a normal part of life that everyone experiences at sometime or other, and shouldn't be seen as frightening or loathsome. It would be difficult to get through life without ever suffering irksome looks, and I could easily have pretended I wasn't bothered by them, particularly since so few people back then were willing even to look my way.
Every time I tried to capture that stare, it escaped somehow,and so, to prove to myself I wasn't imagining things, I moved as cautiously as if I were stalking a bright green dragonfly. But sometimes, when one strains to bring something hazy into focus, success only invites disaster.
But I tried not to think about this, since that was the year my world turned upside-down. So much happened to me that I felt tied up in knots, like the green moss hanging from the stone wall beside the street, which resembled tangled locks of devil's hair.
My house was on the southern bank of the Yangtze.
The South Bank District of Chongqing consists of low rolling hills that form a series of gullies. In the event of a thousand-year flood, should the entire city be swallowed up,our hillside would stand stubbornly, the last island to go under. From early childhood, this was a strangely comforting thought for me.
If you ferried over from the Dock on the opposite bank,Heaven's Gate, you could reach either of the two landings nearest my house: Alley Cat Stream and Slingshot Pellet. Both required a climb up the bank and a twenty-minute walk along a rutted street to reach my house halfway up the hill.
By standing on the ridge in front of my house, I could see where the Yangtze and Jialing Rivers merge at Heaven's Gate, the gateway to the city. The peninsula created by the two rivers is the heart of Chongqing. A motley assortment of buildings on the surrounding hills looks like a jumble of children's building blocks. Pontoon quays dot the riverbanks,steamships tie up beside the quays, and cable cars, dripping rust, crawl slowly up and down the slopes. Dark clouds blanket the rivers at dawn, raising scaly red ripples; at dusk, when the sun's rays slant down on the water before settling behind the hills to the north, a few bursts of sunlight emerge from the dark mist. That is when lamps lighting up the hills are reflected on the surface of the water, pushing the darkness along. And when sheets of fine rain cover the rivers,you can hear riverboat horns wail like grieving widows; the city, caught day and night between two fast-flowing rivers,with its myriad scenic changes, is always sad and enigmatic.
The hills in South Bank teem with simple wooden thatched sheds made of asphalt felt and asbestos board. Rickety and darkened by weather, they have something sinister about them. When you enter the dark, misshapen courtyards off twisting little lanes, it is all but impossible to find your way back out; these are home to millions of people engaged inc oolie labour. Along the meandering lanes of South Bank there are hardly any sewers or garbage-collecting facilities, so the accumulated filth spills out into roadside ditches and runs down the hills. The ground is invariably littered with refuse,to be carried into the Yangtze by the next rainfall or turned into rotting mud under the blazing sun.
The garbage piles up, with fresh layers covering their fetid predecessors to produce an astonishing mixture of strange odours. A ten-minute walk on any mountain path in South Bank treats you to hundreds of different smells, a universe of olfactory creations. I've walked the streets of many cities with garbage heaps, but I've never been surrounded by so many smells. I sometimes wonder why the people of South Bank, living amid all that stench and walking among such filth, are punished by having noses on their faces.
People said that unexploded Japanese bombs from World War II lay buried in gullies on the hills, and that before the Kuomintang forces abandoned the city by the end of 1949,they buried thousands of tons of explosives. They also left behind, it was reported, over a hundred thousand underground agents — that is to say, every adult in the city was a potential spy, and even after the grand suppression movements and the mass executions of the Communist purges of the early 1950s, plenty of spies could have slipped through the net. That could even have included people who joined the Party after Liberation, but were plants who came out at night to do their dirty work — murder, arson, rape, you name it.You wouldn't find them among the tall buildings or wide avenues on the opposite bank, for they preferred to operate secretly amid the eternal foul odours of South Bank. A spot like this, so alien to the socialist image, is a perfect place for anti-socialist elements to come and go in secret.
If you walk out the compound gate, hugging the damp wall and listening carefully, you can hear the echoes of former night watchmen in the darkness. That cobweb-covered doorway might reveal quite mysteriously an old-style red-velvet embroidered shoe; that man disappearing around the corner, with a felt hat pulled down over his forehead, might have a knife hidden in his trouser leg. On dark, rainy days,every person walking on the narrow slope, where filthy water flows, looks like a secret agent. And on any given sliver of land, by digging down a couple of feet, you can unearth an unexploded bomb or some hidden explosives, or a secret code book with all sorts of strange symbols, or `restoration accounts' of items confiscated from landlords and recorded by them with writing brushes.
The other side of the river is as different as night from day.The centre of the city might as well be in another world, with red flags everywhere you look and rousing political songs filling the air. The people's lives are `getting better every day',with youngsters reading revolutionary books to prepare themselves for the life of a revolutionary cadre. South Bank, on the other hand, is the city's garbage dump, an unsalvageable slum; a curtain of mist above the river hides this dark corner, this rotting urban appendix, from sight.
After negotiating the wobbly gangplank of the river ferry and walking for ten or twenty minutes across cobblestones and garbage, you looked up and saw tiers of crumbling houses on stilts, wooden shacks and mud huts, a mind-boggling maze of indescribably ugly buildings. I alone could pick out one particular grey brick house with black roof tiles on a crag midway up the hill, stretching out over the river. The locals referred to this spot, located in one of Alley Cat Stream's side lanes, as Compound Eight Beak. Alley Cat Stream Street was a steep, hilly path paved roughly with stones and bordered on both sides by chinaberry trees, malus trees, some bushes that sometimes stank and sometimes smelled sweet, and some teetering, rickety shacks that should have crumbled long ago. The walls and gate of Compound Eight Beak were pitch black, with some random red and green bricks that added a bit of colour, which owed its existence to a lightning strike that had knocked half of the bricks to the ground; during repairs, the broken bricks were insufficient to complete the job,so red bricks gleaned from somewhere were added.
But this wasn't my house. To find that, you had to look further up, past an expanse of identical grey rooftops. I lived in Compound Six, uphill from the other two relatively decent,parallel compounds, a spot where moss and mildew stained the walls and rooftops. It had a small courtyard in the centre, a communal kitchen on each side — one large, one small — and four attics. A tiny passageway connected the larger kitchen to the back yard. There was also a dark, dank staircase that led to three rooms and two rear doors on the down slope.
I know it sounds like a landlord's home, and to tell the truth, I can't say what sort of family once lived there. But when the Communists came in the winter of 1949, the owners were smart enough to take off and cover their tracks. Their furniture and some locally made looms were confiscated. The families of sailors living in South Bank wooden shacks quickly moved in, some with a formal permit, others without. Terms like hall, corridor, backyard, side room, and attic were retained only for the sake of convenience. The hall led to six small rooms belonging to four families, and thus was shared by them all.
Thirteen families moved into a compound that had once been home to only one; each one or two rooms housed a separate family, most comprising three generations. With relatives or neighbours from back home visiting on a regular basis, I never did work out just how many people lived there — I would get lost in my counting after one hundred.
Excerpted from Daughter of the River by Hong Ying Copyright 2000 by Hong Ying. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.