The mistress. A short story

The joys of commanding more than one woman

A BMW pulled up to the front gate of Beijing’s Xiehe Hospital. Standing by the curb was a young woman in high-heeled boots, pleated miniskirt, and white suede moto jacket with a fat fox-fur collar like an Elizabethan ruff. She got in.

“You’re late,” she said, tossing some papers on the dashboard. “The receipts.”

“When is the car ready?”

“Not till next Monday. They have to get the part from a different distributor. They told me I could take a chance on one of theirs but they couldn’t guarantee the quality, and I don’t want to go through that again.”

“That’s odd. I was told this new dealer had reliable parts.”

“None of this would be happening if you had bought me a foreign car.”

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Philip Glass and Tan Dun

Death Valley National Park, USA

Philip Glass

You know, there’s a lot of music in the world. You don’t have to listen to mine. There’s Mozart, there’s the Beatles. Listen to something else. You have my blessings. Go out and listen to something else. I don’t care.
  Philip Glass

Glass is really a composer in the spirit of the Baroque, producing music on demand, tailoring each piece to the occasion. He is the determined antithesis of the Romantic artist, the one who writes in suffering secret for a posthumous public.
  Alex Ross

Early on in the documentary, Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts (2007, dir. Scott Hicks), we visit Philip Glass’s summer home in Nova Scotia, on the east Canadian coast, where he’s making pizza for guests. Present is his wife Holly and his two children by her, his sister, the renowned conductor Dennis Russell Davies, a few other friends, and a mysterious Japanese woman the caption identifies as “Maki Namekawa, concert pianist.” The fleeting images of the latter helping out around this wealthy man’s homespun kitchen (a bottle of cheap Two Oceans wine sits on the counter, I guess, I hope, only for cooking use) and generally getting in the way, initially pass unnoticed but seem incongruous in light of later revelations. Davies is off in another room perusing the score of Glass’s Eighth Symphony. Glass himself is chatting with Hicks in the kitchen. One senses Namekawa wouldn’t speak if invited to, given the typical modesty and low English proficiency of the Japanese, but she seems to like being where the action is. Later the camera swings to the living room and we catch sight of her there. Now her black sweater is off her shoulders, revealing a sexy low-cut sleeveless dress. We don’t know whom or what this luscious woman is staring at, as if at a loss for something to do. It’s an inadvertent erotic gaze, haplessly bearing the force of a femme fatale, threatening even when askew. Glass’s wife is busy with the kids in the living room as well (why is she always avoiding the camera?). Next to Holly’s hard, humorless mien, the exotic Oriental girl looks out of place. Or is it the wife who is out of place?

The Chinese art of noise

china

Turning to the subject of noise, Chinese people’s voices must be the loudest on earth, with the Cantonese taking the gold medal. I heard a joke about this: Two Cantonese men in the United States are having a conversation in the street. An American walks by and thinks they are having a fight, so he calls the police. When the police arrive and ask them what they are fighting about, they say, “We’re just whispering.” — Bo Yang, The Ugly Chinaman

The December pre-dawn Beijing smog is so thick it seems to block out noise, until the one-man band following behind me rends the silence with his hawking, spitting and throat-clearing symphony; he plays all the repeats in the atonal musical score. I find a Starbucks that opens early and sit down with a coffee and George Prochnik’s In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise, a book I’ve had on my shelf for some time, waiting for just the right moment of stillness to ease into it such as this early morning.

But the day is not off to a good start. The shop’s music is melodious but unrelenting: the brassy clamor of Ella Fitzgerald singing “Jingle Bells,” followed by “Rudolf, The Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “Frosty the Snowman,” and every other awful carol you forgot existed. Give me Julie Andrews singing Christmas carols, or give me Ella singing anything but Christmas carols, but please don’t combine the two.

I can thank Starbucks at least for eliminating the more egregious forms of indoor environmental pollution: smoking and Chinese pop. I put on my state-of-the-art noise isolation earphones, which I use just as often without as with music since they are reasonably good at blocking out sound. Today, though, they aren’t up to the task and the shrill music penetrates like a dentist’s drill.

Irreducible, like the country itself: China books I have reviewed in 2012

Foreign Devils in the Flowery Kingdom By Carl Crow (China Economic Review Publishing, orig. pub. 1940)

Foreign Devils in the Flowery Kingdom by Carl Crow (Earnshaw Books, orig. pub. 1940). We have a paradox of a book here, a compelling 300-page account of China with virtually nothing to tell us about life in China or the Chinese. How does Carl Crow, the famous Shanghai newspaper editor and American China hand of 25 years, pull it off? We are given the bigger historical picture, a sweeping discussion of the centuries of maritime trade up through the opium wars, the occupation by the Western powers and the collapse of the Qing Dynasty, before the narrative circles inward to give us a close-up of life in foreign-occupied Shanghai over the early decades of the 20th century – right up to the day the author is forced out of the country upon the Japanese invasion in 1937. It is a fine historical introduction written by the sure hand and balanced objectivity of the experienced journalist.

But we soon realize that despite being less than a hundred years ago we are encountering an era as strange as that of Marco Polo’s, or the US antebellum south, or the world of “gay cocktail parties” that a China-bound F. Scott Fitzgerald might have penned (when “gay” had a different meaning from what it does today), and Crow is not entirely able to extricate himself from the biases of his age – this was a time after all when it was still fashionable to be racist. It is a China peopled entirely by expat bachelors and families, bored bridge-playing wives, their China “boy” servants, amahs, and anonymous kitchen hands. Not a single fleshed-out Chinese person is described in the entire book, nor a single one even named, apart from the brief, touching mention in the final pages of one “Ching,” a servant of Crow’s hastily delivering some food as he and his family flee the Japanese attack. The remaining cast of hazy Chinese occupy the narrative background as ciphers, as so many shadowy and inscrutable Fu Manchus.

There she blows! A short story

A seductress accumulates victims in the cafés of Beijing and Shanghai

A burst of energy reverberated. My wife stiffened and leaned close. Others in the café did the same. There she blows! She who had entered dropped her coat at a table across from us and went to buy a drink. An eternity of waiting before she came back and got settled in her seat.

“Look at that fat pig,” my wife whispered. “Don’t look at her!”

“How can I not look at her when she’s sitting right in front of us?”

The woman might as well have carelessly splashed some coffee on my wife; such was the glare she received. She stared back with blank nonchalance, as if to say, Your husband is a flaming red pimple. Every minute you’re with him is preventing me from popping it. Go on, off with you two, beat a hasty retreat, so that he can find an excuse to sneak back alone to see if I’m still here, and I will be. I’ve got the whole afternoon.

Incident at Dongwuyuan Fuzhuang Shichang. A short story

The nuisance of the uncooperative customer

“How much is that?”

“That’s for post-pregnant women. Were you pregnant?”

“Oh.”

“You want one of those instead. Why do you need it? You’re not fat.”

“She thinks she is.”

“I want it anyway. Does it work?”

“Sure. What size are you?”

“I don’t know. I can’t try it on here?”

“You’re probably medium. Come inside the booth and duck down.”

“Duck down?”

“There are hardly any men around. Or let me hold up a sheet in front of you.”

“How much is it?”

“Try it on first.”

The wholesale clothing market across from the Beijing Zoo, popularly known as the “Zoo” for short, the market not the zoo that is, is the haunt of women of every persuasion for its variety and cheap prices. The place is mindboggling in its scale, a jumble of huge buildings each with hundreds of tiny rented stalls on every floor, bursting with heaps and piles of garish clothes, an enormous honeycomb of cells oozing cotton and synthetics. The heat from the torrent of bargain hunters requires many of the sellers to strip down to spaghetti tank tops and black bras, a delightful sight for the odd male visitor. But although there’s a party atmosphere to this female jungle gym, it’s not all fun and games.