Fiction / June 2014 (Issue 24)

The Whole Story of a Tugboat Driver On Suzhou River

by Michael X. Wang

Why was he a hero?

After fishing a woman's hand out of Suzhou River, he helped to solve a murder case.


Wait. How did he find the hand?

He was driving his tugboat upriver, pulling a barge full of garbage. It was raining that day, and he was playing with his Captain America, Wolverine and Spiderman toys. He didn't know who or what they were, but he liked them; he imagined that anything American boys had must be of the highest quality. He tied them to a ball of Styrofoam and pretended that they were his crew and that his tugboat was sinking. "Abandon ship!" he called out, but his crew didn't listen. So he tossed them overboard. Then he took out his long fisherman's net and fished them out of the oily water.

Fishing out Wolverine, he saw the woman's hand. It was bobbing on the surface, like the top of an iceberg, as if the rest of the body was hiding below. He fished it out and placed it next to the steering wheel. For the next week, he examined it thoroughly. From the smooth nails and skinny fingers, he could tell it once belonged to a girl. One day, as he was looking at Wolverine and Captain American, he wondered if Old Man in the Sky, sending him the hand, was giving him a sign. Like his shipwrecked crew, anyone missing a hand was also in need of saving. And so he couldn't stop dreaming about the girl. He drew pictures of her face and body to match the hand. She was a small girl, he was sure, with a skinny waist and a long neck. At the end of the week, he wrapped the hand in newspaper and turned it over to the police. The following month, they found the body.

The other tugboat drivers had made fun him—playing with toys. Now he was a hero.


Why did he like toys so much?

When he was a boy in the countryside, he couldn't get enough of toys, but his family were farmers and didn't have much money. His father had served under the Communist Liberation Army and was a veteran of Korea and Vietnam. He wanted his son to join the army too and make a name for the Yang family. As soon as Yang turned seventeen, his father put him on a bus heading for a military barrack. But Yang was too much of a prankster. He didn't take anything seriously. When the bus stopped at Shanghai, he got off and since then had never spoken to his parents.

Thinking back to those times, he always thought about how lucky he was now. Every day, he drove with Captain America, Wolverine and Spiderman taped to his deck. The kids around Shanghai all knew and liked him because he gave them toys. He saved the best toys for the holidays and during the Spring Festival he'd carry a sack over his shoulders, dump the toys on the deck of his boat and give the kids anything they wanted.

It made him happy, seeing the children so excited. And the toys didn't cost him a fen.


What else did he see, driving his tugboat?

He saw everything along the river. Every evening, he returned to port and passed under some twenty or thirty bridges. Their shadow fell on his tugboat and slowly crawled up his deck and everything became dark for a few seconds, then it was light again. And then he passed under another bridge, and then another, the sun going down, the sky turning from blue to orange to red, until there was no longer any difference between bridge and sky.


Let's go back to the free toys. Where did he get them?

On Wednesdays, he stopped by a toy factory on the far west side of Shanghai, and there he found large quantities of discarded action figures and toy guns and dolls. He couldn't understand why the factory had thrown them out. They all seemed fine to him. Why couldn't they have saved the toys and given them to the children in the city? There were many orphanages in Shanghai and a lot of children had nothing—no relatives, no possessions, no future.

On Wednesdays, he lugged the toys all the way back to the other side of Shanghai. At night, he spent his time separating the ones he liked from the ones he'd throw away. The other tugboat drivers saw him on his boat digging through blacks bags and laughed at him. They told him that he was a child. He didn't pay them any attention. The look on the children's faces during the holidays made up for their ridicule.

Eventually, the parents heard about what he was doing. He had not yet become a hero, so the more well-to-do parents thought he was dangerous and forbade their children from going to a garbage boat and accepting gifts from a strange man. The poorer parents sometimes came along with their children, and, out of gratitude, gave Yang dumplings and noodles and moon cakes. In return, he gave them toys as well.


So he collected garbage?

Every day, he picked up garbage from the ceramics factory, the fish shops, the pharmaceuticals and the wealthy residential apartments. He put the garbage on his barge and pulled it from one side of Shanghai to the other. At the end of each day, he smelt like some combination of rotten eggs, feces, soda pop and fresh plastic. It wasn't a glorious job, and he had difficulty finding a girl.

But that wasn't even the whole story. Sometimes, his barge would become too full, and he was forced to dump garbage on the deck of his tugboat. When he first became a tugboat driver, he didn't know how to pack the garbage on his deck, and sometimes it would seep through the bridge and into his living quarters. In the morning, he occasionally found himself drenched in watermelon juices, pork blood and urine.

There was a lot more to running a tugboat, he found out, than just picking up and hauling trash. The subtleties took him years to learn.


Where did he get the tugboat in the first place?

When he first arrived in Shanghai, Yang sold imported Russian vodka on the streets. He rode a motorcycle and carried a gun. He was young.

One day, a business partner sold him out to the cops. He got two years for possessing and soliciting illegal imported items. When he got out, he became a beggar and slept on the streets. He was nothing more than garbage. One winter day, hungry and frostbitten, Yang found himself sleeping in a trashcan. The next morning, he awoke on a tugboat with an old man by his side feeding him medicine. He and the old man became friends, and then he became the old man's apprentice. When the old man died two years later, he bequeathed to Yang his boat and his livelihood. From then on, Yang lived the life the old man had lived.

One of his former business partners, seeing that Yang now had a boat, offered to join forces again. When Yang refused, the man sent his gang at night to teach him a lesson. The man beat Yang and set his boat on fire. In the morning, the other tugboat drivers helped him to extinguish the fire. After the incident, the tugboat drivers made a vow to help each other.

He was not a hero yet, so the tugboat drivers gave him the least desirable territory on the river, from Xuhui District where the river was shallow, to Songjiang District where the river ended. Yang didn't mind. He was grateful that they had saved his life and accepted him into their community. He hadn't felt so lucky since he had left the countryside. Now he had a legal occupation in the city.


So what was driving a tugboat like?

At first, he found the tugboat noisy. The engine's churning never ceased, and he almost felt his eardrums were growing numb. But as he got used to the noise, he started finding the daily journey back and forth across the river solemn. You had to know where to pay your attention. You had to stop listening to the engine and pay attention to the scenery. The bridges, for example.

The bridges hung low towards the river, and, at first, Yang was afraid they'd hit the top of his boat. They were the spots during the day where vendors sold vases and T-shirts and lighters on top of picnic mats, and also the spots during the night where beggars slept. It was where the old tugboat driver had found him, frostbitten inside a garbage can.

Now every time he passed under a bridge, he would look up and see what the old man once saw: people buying gifts from the picnic merchants during the day, their bags swaying between the iron girdles or beggars sleeping on the same mats during the night, their slippers protruding between the stone handlebars.

He saw the beggars on the bridges, especially during winter, and often wondered why the old tugboat driver had chosen him. There were so many people he could have saved—so many in need of saving—that he sometimes felt at once lucky and undeserving that so generous a man had chosen him instead of the other, and probably more worthy, beggars. Most of them were natives of the city—had birth certificates to prove it—and it didn't feel right to Yang that he, someone from the countryside, took away one of their rightful jobs.


Did he always drive his tugboat alone? Did he ever marry?

Before putting him on the bus to the barrack, his parents had engaged him to a girl. They were to get married after he had seen the world. She was the butcher's daughter, light with an airy kind of beauty. When he grew older and had long given up on finding a wife, he could still remember tugging on her two black braids and the way she had giggled afterwards. He remembered stealing slabs of pork and beef from her father's butcher shop and letting her father catch him because she was one of the prettiest girls in the village. The old butcher punished anybody who stole from him by making the youngster work in his butcher shop chopping meat for the entire weekend. He thought his punishment was harsh enough, but he kept wondering why so many boys still kept stealing. His daughter was picky and only brought water and food for a few of the boys that were caught. Yang thought he was one of the few, if not the only boy, who the old butcher's daughter liked. Other kids bragged that they had their way with her, too, but he knew they were lying.

After coming to the city and becoming a tugboat driver, he found out that no woman in Shanghai would talk to him. They told him he looked and smellt like a cow carcass. He wondered how the other tugboat drivers found wives. So he asked them if they could introduce him to some women. The other tugboat driver's wives introduced him to their sisters and cousins, and he went out with them a couple of times, but they were ugly, and he considered himself above them.

Then one day he had to pick up one of the tugboat driver's daughters from school. Her name was Dai Dai. She walked around the dock like she owned the place. She was a young girl, but had already developed into a woman, and she didn't mind the stench of his tugboat, since she was used to her father's. She thought he was handsome. When he picked her up from school that day, the other kids were making fun of her because she was the daughter of a tugboat driver. He comforted her, held her in his arms and told her not to listen to her friends, that she was actually very lucky. They kissed, and then made love. This went on for a few weeks. Then Dai Dai started wearing perfume and short skirts, and soon after decided to leave him. He was heartbroken and couldn't sleep and thought about her everyday. He drove as close to land as possible, so that he could wave to her when she walked to school. She ignored him, but he caught the attention of some of her friends.

He didn't force the girls to do anything, and they sometimes brought their friends. Some of the boys even came on his boat to smoke cigarettes and drink beer. They had parties after school. At these parties, Yang felt like a kid again, like he was back in the countryside. Later on, the older kids brought along their younger brothers and sisters, and Yang stockpiled water pistols and dolls and other expensive American toys.


If he couldn't find love in the city, why didn't he go back to the countryside?

More than once he thought about going back, but his parents would have passed away long ago. And although curious, he also wanted to keep that same image of her in his head. He knew he'd be disappointed if he ever went back. Anyway, he was well-liked on Suzhou River after he had helped to solve the murder case. He was a hero.


Was he happy?

He spent most of his nights alone on his tugboat fishing the Suzhou River. He never caught anything, though. The river was man-made, dank and greasy, and had long ago lost its ability to support life. Sometimes, Yang thought about committing suicide. He didn't want to drown himself, though, because he remembered how terrible it had all been: the police dragging the body out of the river with the tall forklift stationed on the nearby bridge, the beggars watching, the pedestrians, occasionally glancing over, continuing to buy their T-shirts and lighters as if nothing happened.


Why did he feel so bad?

After Yang had fished the severed hand out of the water and the police had found the rest of the body, he asked if he could see it. He went to the morgue and saw the rest of the girl. It was a young woman, small and lithe. But the face resembled something he had almost forgotten: Dai Dai. The severed hand, lying next to the arm, didn't quite match. It was white, whereas the body was more green and black because of the river's toxins seeping deep into the skin. Yang slid the hand next to the arm, checking to make sure they matched. He saw that the width of the wrist was identical to that of the forearm. Still, the hand looked too fresh for the rest of the body. He wondered how long the hand and the body had been apart, and why the killer thought it necessary to remove it, since he left the other arms and legs attached. And why did the hand retain its whiteness when the rest of the body turned green? They had both been soaking in the polluted waters of the Suzhou River. Why did the colour of the hand differ from the colour of the body?

The authorities had assured him the girl was not from Shanghai, that she was a party leader's daughter from Beijing who had run away from home and ended up with a gang on Suzhou River, but he felt responsible for her death. He thought it was Old Man in the Sky's justice. The tugboat drivers looked up to him, but he was overcome with guilt. Besides making him a hero, the hand, he believed, was returning for revenge, wanting to make him suffer.


Did he tell anybody about what the hand meant to him?

Nobody knew. At his funeral, the children all remembered him as Mr Yang, the lonely tugboat man who gave them toys. The other tugboat drivers had no idea either. They pitched in and gave him a large funeral in the traditional manner. They invited the grade school children to come, and the children each placed a toy he had given them around his body. Circled by superheroes and dolls, he travelled the length of the river one last time, his body in shadow each time it passed under a bridge.


If the kids called him Mr Yang, then Yang was his last name. What was his first name?

He was from the countryside, where everybody believed if Old Man in the Sky found out your newborn's full name within the first few years of its life, he could claim its soul. The deaths of babies were common in the countryside, and parents gave them ugly nicknames like Pig Feces and Foot Fungus and Rotten Rice. Old Man in the Sky, unwilling to admit into heaven such horrid names, would leave their children alone.

When Yang turned six, his parents brought in the village sage to help them pick out a real name for Yang. Until that point, they had called him "Dirty Bowl." They must choose Yang's real name carefully. If your name doesn't suit your own destiny, Old Man in the Sky would become confused and set you on a crooked path.

It was the sage's job to predict the boy's future. The sage studied Yang's teeth and feet and the swirls in his hair and told his parents. He did not predict that Yang was going to become a hero. He said, "Your son is going to live a plain life. He will be a traditional man, simple and kind." He predicted good harvests but heavy rains. "Very heavy rains," he repeated. "Perhaps even floods."

"What should his name be?"

The sage stroked his beard and looked away. Then he shook his head.

"What?" his parents asked. "What do you see? Is he going to be fortunate, sorrowful, gentle, mean, hardworking or lazy? Please, give us a word."

The sage turned around.

"Yes," he said, which told them everything.


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