by Diana Louise Kwok
Mama had made fresh bamboo soup for our late night supper and the customers had already left the flowerhouse. Outside rain was falling, the kind of rain that only falls in Shanghai—raging, slashing down. We had no electricity in the old town; the only light came from an oil lamp standing on an unpainted wooden table. Tiny green insects played around it in droves, and my eyes followed them whilst I counted in my head how much money I had. I'd won twelve dollars that night, plus the twenty from last week, added to the ninety dollars I already had, that made one hundred and twenty-two dollars altogether.
'Why do you look so happy tonight, Mei Lin?' Qi Qi snapped at me.
At nineteen Qi Qi was one of the oldest girls there. She was also the most popular with the men, so she treated the rest of us like servants.
'The soup is delicious,' I said.
I could feel her glare, but didn't meet her eye. We both knew the soup was watery and tasteless with only a few stringy shoots of overcooked bamboo floating amongst the chicken fat on the surface.
'You've been with the white Russians this evening,' she said.
I shrugged and put my bowl to my mouth supping down the rest of the hot soup.
'Don't mind Qi Qi,' said another girl, leaning over to me. 'She's had her darling Fat Wang all evening.'
Everyone giggled and Qi Qi slammed her bowl down. 'That stinking, ulcerous pig!' she said. 'I wish he would die from a thousand knife cuts.' She got up from the table without finishing her soup and swept out of the room.
Qi Qi was right though. I had been with the Russians. Even worse, I'd been playing cards with them. We weren't allowed to gamble with the customers; Mama would take my money away if she found out about it. But Qi Qi knew what the foreign devils were like. They loved to play cards with us girls, and unlike the Chinese men, they never minded when I won. They just laughed and drank more wine and said I was too clever for them.
One hundred and twenty-two dollars, I repeated the number over in my head as I went upstairs. In a few more months I'd have enough to get out of that hellhole and out of Shanghai forever. No wonder Qi Qi had seen a smile on my face. Alone in my room I turned over my mattress and slipped my hand inside the tear where I kept my embroidered silk purse. I couldn't feel it, so I pushed my hand in further and groped from side to side. Then I forced apart the tear and pulled out the stuffing. There was nothing there. My purse with all my money in it was gone.
I lay awake that night, thinking about the older prostitutes who still lived with us. Some of them were barely twenty years old, but their skin was yellow from opium addiction and their insides destroyed by butchered abortions. They did housework or were given to only the cheapest customers. When they were no use for even that Mama kicked them out. That would be my fate too if I didn't get out soon. I'd already come so close to freedom, and now it had been stolen from me. I was afraid it might be too late to start saving again.
I knew Qi Qi had taken my money, who else would it be? But I didn't dare tell Mama, because she would take Qi Qi's side regardless.
If there was doubt in my mind, the proof I needed came soon enough. A few nights later Qi Qi came down to dinner with her dainty nose in the air and a red fox fur stole around her neck. The other girls rushed round her and stroked it saying they'd never seen anything so beautiful. The next evening she was wearing tiny jade earrings, which glittered at the sides of her golden face, and a few days later a silver bracelet sparkled from her wrist.
I swore to myself I would get my money back, but I had to use my head and bide my time. My chance came soon enough.
It was the night of the full moon and Mama was putting on her best dinner. She'd had the kitchen prepare steamed crab, twice-cooked pork, river snails, sliced jelly-fish, pigeon-egg dumplings and a huge pot of bean and potherb mustard soup. In the centre of the table was a bottle of French brandy.
The first customer to arrive was Fat Wang, who came bursting in, his round face already red with alcohol and a basket full of mangoes in his arms.
'I've decided to take a wife number four,' he announced. 'Which one of these beautiful flowers will be the lucky one?'
He beamed round the room weighing up each one of us. His eyes rested on Qi Qi, but she wouldn't look at him, disgusted no doubt by his big shaven head and ears that stuck out like the handles of jugs.
'Oh sit down and eat first,' said Mama. She filled his rice bowl, patting down the rice so that it stood out in a high mound at the top, then she took another bowl and placed a large helping from each of her dishes into it. She placed them both in front of him with a glass of brandy.
Fat Wang turned back the wide sleeves of his blue silk gown and tucked his white silk undergown over the cuff. 'Delicious!' he cried out putting two snails in his mouth at once.
I slipped through to the kitchen and filled a red-painted wooden basin with water and brought it through to the dining room.
'Good evening Mr Wang,' I said kneeling down beside him. 'I hope you are well tonight. Let me wash and massage your feet while you eat, you'll find it most pleasant.'
I slipped off his shoes and put his large feet into the basin soaking them with water and caressing them with oil. After I'd finished I patted them dry with a silk handkerchief.
When I got up to leave he pulled me onto his lap. 'This girl knows how to treat a man,' he roared. 'She's the kind of wife I need!' He took me by the hand and led me upstairs. 'Send up more brandy!' he called down to Mama.
Up in my room he lay down on the bed whilst I sat at my dressing table and filled an opium pipe.
'Ah, it's true that your face is rather plain Mei Lin,' he said. 'But you are the most kindhearted girl in the house. I'll send my carriage in the morning and you can marry me tomorrow.'
‘Your proposal is most flattering,' I said as I lit the pipe and put it to his lips, 'but it is not me you should be marrying, because it is not me who is in love with you, but one of my dear sisters.' I loosened my dress and lay down beside him. 'Now be still and listen, because I have something to tell you that will make you change your mind.'
The house was quiet by the time Fat Wang left, but I had already hatched my plan. I sat alone in my room, waiting.
Not long after, I heard Qi Qi stomping up the stairs. She burst into my room without knocking. She had unpinned her bun and her coil of shiny black hair slipped over her shoulder like an eel.
'You're behind this!' she hissed.
'What are you talking about?'
'Fat Wang!' She spat his name out. 'I have to marry him. Mama says she's sold me to him to be his fourth wife.'
'Congratulations,' I said.
Qi Qi picked up a comb from my table and threw it at me. 'Earlier this evening he was with you. You've put him up to this, I know you have.'
'Why are you so upset Qi Qi?' I said. 'He's a rich man.'
'Pah, he already has three wives.'
'Some have more,' I said.
'I'll bet his first wife is a wrinkled old hag, and his second is as fat as an ox, and his third stinks like a badger. Do you expect me to be a slave to three old witches forever?'
'He'd treat his newest wife well if she made him happy.'
'You marry him then!' she said. 'He's sweet on you too.'
I looked her in the eye. 'Well,' I said, 'we did talk about marriage, now that you mention it. I could persuade Mama to make him take me instead of you, if you were to make it worth my while.'
'What do you mean Mei Lin?' she said coming closer to me.
'I was most unfortunate to lose a large sum of money recently,' I said. 'If I could have it back I might feel more generous.'
'Come here,' she snarled, and led me through to her room. Her quarters were larger than anyone else's and this was the first time I'd been inside. Stained lace curtains hung across the windows and a red velvet bedspread lay on the bed. The scent of cassia oil wafted from her wardrobe.
She pulled open a drawer and took out her fur stole. 'I haven't got any money,' she said. 'Take this. Just make him leave me alone.'
I stroked the fur. 'It's beautiful,' I said, 'but to spend a lifetime with that sweaty pig, I need more.'
She pulled off her jade earrings and handed them to me.
I weighed them in my palm. 'Pretty,' I said. 'And didn't I see you wearing a silver bracelet last week?'
She rummaged in her drawer and pulled out the bracelet, at the same time my embroidered silk purse fell to the floor. She stared at me and I bent over and picked it up.
'I believe that belongs to me too,' I murmured.
'Just take it,' she whispered.
'Very well,' I said. 'Now let's wait for the morning and see what fate has in store for us.'
I shut the door behind me and went to my room.
As soon as it was quiet I fixed the fur stole round my waist and put the earrings and bracelet into my pocket. I tied together a few other possessions in a sheet, put a shawl round my shoulders and climbed out of my window, all the way from the fourth floor to the ground. It was still raining and several times I nearly slipped to my death. One of Mama's coolies saw me as I touched the ground and shouted after me, but I ran fast through the dark alley and he didn't give chase. I didn't know where I was going I just ran, away from Mama, away from Qi Qi, away from everything I'd ever known. When I had no more strength I crouched down in an empty doorway, leaned my head against a crumbling wall and slept off the few remaining hours of the night.
The smell of roasting coffee beans woke me up. It was still dark but the street was full of hawkers selling congee and steamed ginger. I asked one how to get to the docks and he told me to walk east across the city, following the sound of the ships' horns. I thanked him, pulled my shawl over my head and hurried off through the streets.
The sun never broke through that day, but as the sky turned from black to grey to white, and the rain splattered down on my head, I knew that freedom was within my grasp once again, and this time I wouldn't let anyone take it away.