A Day to Be REMEMBERED

Today is June 7th, 2017. Three days ago, there was a vigil, the 28th in Victoria Park, HK.  If things had happened differently 28 years ago in China, this vigil might not have been necessary. If you don’t know what I am talking about, do the math, and dig out what happened 28 years ago.
 


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Temple Street at Night

Sick, I don’t want to read or write or work serious jobs. Sick, yet not sick enough to stay in bed. So I go to the famous Temple Street Night Market, roaming through an Indian girl’s dreams, Cantonese dirty jokes, delightful bargains,  and a fortune teller’s suspicious look.

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Re-Experience China: A Migrant Mother

 

A slide door. An iron slide door. The kind that may remind you of a prison gate. She opens the door, we follow her in. A tiny studio with a kitchen and a bathroom, a bed and two bunk beds that make a letter L. Packed, dingy, messy. She unstacks three stools. We sit. She offers us tea, then sits on a stool against a filthy curtain serving as a kitchen door, with lots of teddy bears, folded at the bottom.

“How did you come to Hong Kong?” we ask.

She details her life starting from her village in Hunan Province, China. “All hardships. They are my fate,” she says, in Cantonese,  with a strong accent, barely understandable. She has been hardworking, despite everything – like her aching hands. She shows her hands. A peasant’s hands, injured from over-working. They are swollen and aching. She couldn’t do much now. She lives on social welfare. She did some cleaning work when they were not too bad, but she hurt them more and what she made from the job was not enough to cover the hospital fee. “I have been working so hard,” she complains, “but she (her daughter) is so lazy, always misbehaves. She doesn’t help. Doesn’t care.” She completely forgets the question. How did she end up in Hong Kong? The social worker has to remind her of the question. She has to remind her of each question we ask.

“Oh, a colleague of mine introduced him (her late husband, a Hong Kong citizen) to me when I was working in Shenzhen,” she says, “I didn’t want to marry him, but he really liked me. I didn’t want to marry him. But he really liked me. He was too old. Too old. Twenty years older than me. Too old. He really liked me.” I examine her. She looks older than her age – fifty-one, weathered, short and chubby. But she must have felt superior to her late husband. When I point to a line of photos of her hanging from one of the bunk beds, she chuckles. I hear her pride and dignity. “When I was young, I had good skin,” she is all smiles, “people even said I should be a model for skincare products.  They said I was born a beauty.” She laughs more.

Those are studio photos of her dressed up and heavily made up. They are flatly lighted and over-exposed to make the skin look whiter. Dramatically whiter. Typical studio photo shots popular with women in mainland China from the 1990s till recently. In these photos, women have glaring, unreal white skin.

I wonder if her late husband admired her. He died in 2015. She took care of him. It was hard. She details how she took good care of him before he died. She forgets to tell us why she married him even though she saw him as too old to match her youth and pretty look. Again the social worker has to remind her of the question.

That was because her friend said this old man could take care of her daughter while she went to work. So she married him. That was it. He turned out to be a very poor man, one from the lower class, at the bottom of the social ladder.  She worked and worked hard to support the family. He was old and sick. She took care of him. Then he died. But She got her Hong Kong ID card and her daughter got to  join her in Hong Kong, finally, after living with different aunts for some years.

The daughter, a fourteen-year-old, over weighty,  sleepy, her hair messy like a bird nest, keeps her head down most of the time.  She sniggers when I take her photos, and from time to time snaps a few shots of me taking photos of her. She is shy but she seems flattered when I take her photos. I take quite a few photos of her.  We can’t publish photos with her face identifiable, though. Nor their names. She sits at one of the bunk beds, plays her phone, buries her head in her chest as her mother complains about her, turns to the social worker when asked questions.  She has a clearer mind than her mother, throwing out insightful quotes sometimes.

“Are you happy?” We ask her.

“I am happy,” she says, casually.

But she bursts into tears when the questions become specific. “I was happy when I first came to Hong Kong (five years ago). I thought I could finally live with mom,” She sobs, “Yes, I like sleeping, but I simply can’t help it. I feel tired all the time. I don’t eat out a lot. I just don’t feel like to eat sometimes…(Her mother’s biggest complaint is the daughter doesn’t eat the food she cooks. She worries about her health.) I don’t shower for an hour! That’s exaggeration. Only half an hour.”

“Even half an hour is way too long,” the mother scolds her.

It goes round and round and on and on.

“She behaves at school. She just doesn’t listen to me. Doesn’t care about a thing at home. We are not meant to be mother and daughter,”the mother sighs.

The mother and the daughter don’t get along. They fight often. Physical fights.

I  imagine their fights in this tiny, dingy, messy studio. I frown. Better not imagine the fighting scenes. I turn to look at the mother again. Her lips moving. Her eyebrows knitted.  It is depressing to hear her long-winded complaints about life and her daughter. She forgets what she says. She repeats herself. She is illogical. The social worker has to stop her from ranting, steer her back to the topic, then finally finishes the interview. I am sorry for her, and her daughter. I admire the social worker’s patience with them. I feel relieved when we finally stand up to leave. The mother offers us sodas as we turn to the door. They must be precious in her eyes. The sodas. We decline the precious gifts. She offers them again, and again. We say no thanks. Again and again. Finally she walks us to the lift and keeps talking till we enter the lift. She waves her hand and smiles at us when the lift door closes.

The lift door frames her as she smiles and waves us goodbye, but it is closing, like a movie screen sliding into pitch dark. End of story.

But her life continues. So does her suffering.

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Mong Kok in the Afternoon

The sun pours down between high rise buildings on Argyle Street in Mong Kok, Hong Kong, hitting the street crowds, highlighting the emotions in their faces as they stream toward me.  Inch by inch the sun crawls west. Inch by inch I follow its track, pointing a bulky 200 mm lens at the intriguing looks. Look of agony. Look of suffering. Look of confusion. Look of joy. Look of impatience. Look of bitterness. Look of determination. Look of doubt. Look of disdain. Look of boredom. Look of emptiness. Look of satisfaction. Look of joy. Look of hope.

Inch by inch, I follow the sun, hunting all kinds of looks, all kinds of emotions. And I wonder who they are, what they are, what make them look the way they look. What lies behind all those looks?

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I am an editor, too

While most friends and colleagues remember me as a photographer, I am actually also an editor – and a writer. After I moved back to China, I worked for Modern Weekly for three and a half years as an editor, taking care of both its visuals and reporting. I upgraded their Special Report section,  created VISION, a section dedicated to photo stories and photo essays. Here are  a few VISION layouts, and a few from special reports and cover stories.

Next Stop: Home (Migrant workers traveling home for Chinese New Year. Photos by anonymous photographer through an agency. )

 

Foreign Models in China’s Shop Windows. Photos by Xiaomei Chen.

 

China by Christopher Brown, showing conflicting elements in developing China.

China mimicking European style architecture, photos by Qian Dongsheng.

 

Disappearing Historic Buildings in Qingdao, China. Photos by Wu Zhengzhong.

 

Chinese in Africa (Photos by Paolo Woods, licensed from Redux.)

 

Chinese Shoppers in Paris, photos by Johann Rousselot

 

A cover story about Dilma Rousseff. Photos by various photographers. Text by Jonathan Watts.

 

 

A special report about Deep Springs College. Photos by various photographers, text by Xiaomei Chen

 

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so tricky, yet so intriguing, surreal, and yet real.

I touched her arm timidly. She turned. I saw the deep sadness in her eyes and I felt the frailty in her thin body. She leaned toward me, about to cry. I grabbed her in my arms and held her tight. She cried like a helpless baby in my arms. I held her tight, let her cry and wished I wouldn’t have to photograph her. But I heard a volley of shutter sounds behind me.  Another photojournalist was capturing this moment of this poor woman breaking down in a stranger’s arms. A shame. But later I would have to photograph this woman, too. I couldn’t blame my fellow photographer. And as a professional photojournalist, I was not supposed to hug this woman so I could be neutral in the story. But damn, let that rule go to hell tonight. I wanted to be a human being with a heart only. And yet, I still had to photograph her. I felt a thief.

When she calmed down, I asked, “is it ok I take a few photos of you?” She nodded and thanked me for helping her get the story out. “Let’s hope someone will donate a liver to your husband soon,” I said. She nodded again, her lips clamped tight. She was holding herself from crying again. We all knew the hope was, well, in Bob Dylan’ words, “blowing in the wind.”

I made her stand in front of her husband’s hospital room door and asked her to look into my lens. I wanted to show the solemn sadness and helplessness in her eyes. Then I apologized that I took so many photos of her. Yet she thanked me instead of forgiving me. She knew it was better to get the story out as soon as possible so potential donors could save her husband’s life. She thanked me again and again. But I felt terribly guilty as if I were a thief stealing her soul. And yet  I had to wait for candid emotional moments to be captured, too. This was my last assignment of the week.  (Please spread the word and help her out: http://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/health-environment/article/2028408/hong-kong-woman-begs-liver-donor-save-husband-who)

Before this sad assignment, I photographed an architect, Paola Navone. A great character. She was impatient with me at first. The PR said I would have 15 minutes to photograph her. She grunted, “ten!” I asked her, “When you design, how many drafts do you sketch?” She laughed, “I like you.” She became very cooperative, funny and full of vibes. We both had great fun during the photo shoot. I think I got at least 15 minutes.

When I got home and looked at the photos of the sad woman who would probably lose her husband soon and those of Paola Navone, I felt…well… Life is so tricky, yet so intriguing, surreal, and yet real. I also felt grateful.  This job allows me to enter all walks of lives, good or bad, happy or sad. They all humble me.

Photocopy rights: Xiaomei Chen/SCMP

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Sunlight swims in from northwest, lands on her left.

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Re-Experience China: Are We Double Blessed Now?

                                   The Choir at Heyuan Gospel Church sings in Mandarin during a service on May 29, 2016.

                                    My mother’s neighbor, Mrs. Chen, prays at Heyuan Gospel Church on May 29, 2016. She introduced my mother to the Church.

My mother, Wen Meirong (right),  and Mrs. Chen Zhuoxiang at Heyuan Gospel Church on May 29, 2016.

My mother, Wen Meirong, looks for familiar faces while others pray at Heyuan Gospel Church on May 29, 2016.

Heyuan Gospel Church photographed on May 29, 2016.

“My mother did the math and decided against the church,”Lv reclined in a plastic chair outside 21K, a coffee shop in Zhujiang New Town, Guangzhou. He was an editor with Tencent and spoke with an uninterested tone indicating that nothing in China would surprise or excite him.

“Math? How is math related to Christianity?”I asked.

“She did a calculation and decided the time she was to spend at the church and learning the Bible equaled a loss because during the time she couldn’t work on the farm or in the house. Loss of income. A lot of peasant women in my hometown (Yunnan Province) think this way.”Lv explained matter-of-factly.

“Wow…”I was too surprised to say more than a wow.

“She did the same math when the Village Communist Party Committee approached her,” Lv continued as he sipped his coffee.

“Hmm?” I was confused.

“Even though the Party does sometimes give away gifts like a towel or a quilt or a kettle, my mother finds that the gifts she would receive are not worth her time to go to the Party meetings and the required political studies. She prefers to work in the field and do house chores. So she rejected the Party like she rejected the Church,” Lv looked at me with an expression as uninterested as his tone.

But uninterested Lv got me interested in average Chinese people’s attitude toward Christianity. Christianity intertwined with Chinese practicality. This is something I haven’t read about in reports of China’s religion by Western media, which usually focus on the lack of religion freedom in China. It is a fact that over 1000 churches have been decapitated over the past two years. But it is only part of the religion story in China. The political side of it. I am more interested in the cultural side of it and  the everyday life perspective.

Six months after my meeting with Lv, I was surprised again, this time, by my own mother, who suddenly announced that she now believed in Jesus, in a tone a three-year-old announced that she was now a grownup.

Amused, my sister said, “so from now on we won’t worship our ancestors on Chinese New Year?”

Before my confused mother found an answer, my 85-year-old father, a reticent man of few words,  jumped to make his statement, “I don’t believe in Jesus yet!”

However, when I asked my mother how she became a Christian, I was surprised, a third time, to hear that it was my father’s suggestion!

My father got the idea that it might do the whole family good if my mother went to church after hearing my neighbor, Mrs. Chen Zhuoxiang’s story.

Mrs. Chen is my father’s age and has been a Christian for over ten years. She told my father that Jesus visited her in a dream when she was very sick several years ago, “He asked me, are you feeling better today? The next day, I felt much better. Not long after that, I got out of hospital. Jesus blesses me.”

My father told the story to my mother and suggested that she try going to church, too.

So my mother, who rarely reads, not to say understands, the Bible, started going to church.

I followed her to a Bible study group one Friday afternoon at the end of April, when the weather started to get very warm in south China. It was at the home of a church member, 500 meters from my parents’ house.

Hardly had I entered the wide-open gate, when an old woman in her late seventies or early eighties shot her hand in front of me and shouted, “sister, for you!”

She was giving me two small packets of wafer biscuits. I was confused, not knowing if I should accept the gift from a stranger, when another old woman, also in her seventies, explained to me, “her great-grandson was born today.”

Before I got a chance to congratulate her, the new great grandmother shot her hand to my mother, “sister, for you!”

So both my mother and I are her sisters? It felt rather weird and awkward.

My mother took the wafer biscuits from the old woman with a take-it-for-granted smile as she glanced around the room, looking for empty seats. Then she took my hand and walked to two empty plastic stools against the east wall of the room. By then, the 20-square-meter rectangular room was almost full – full of grey hair, bleary eyes, withered cheeks, toothless mouths and callused hands. There were 30 people, all of whom except one were women and  three quarters of them over 60 years old. The group leader was a middle-aged woman who had the look of a strict elementary school teacher.  As she sat on a stool higher than ours at the front of the room glancing around, another woman in her forties sitting five people ahead of me announced in Hakka, “open your books and turn to song 312.”

Most women looked around confused. Several repeated “312” loudly. Sounds of fumbling books filled the room and was soon replaced by a medley of Hakka voices singing out of tune.

I looked around and was almost shocked to see thirty toothless and semi-toothless mouths gaping open and closed, thirty round black holes spitting a volley of untuned music notes in Hakka. A volley of wishes for health, fortune, peace and grandsons.  I turned to look at my mother. She was looking down at the book, singing like a mosquito. Born a shy person and still new to Christianity, she was probably feeling uncomfortable to sing out loud with a group of strangers. But most other women were singing at the top of their lungs like a group of elementary school kids singing after their favorite teacher.

After three songs came the prayer. A woman prayed loudly in Hakka with such passion that it sounded like a broken piano being hit by many stones at the same time. The voice at least kept the women awake, who ended the prayer with “Amen! As wished and with loyalty!”

With that, the group leader started the preach of the day and talked about forgiving. In less than fifteen minutes, a third of the women started dozing off, including my mother. I poked my mother slightly. She turned to me and smiled guiltily. She needn’t have felt guilty at all. The monotonous preaching was nothing new and it was what my parents had taught me when I was a kid. I myself would have dozed off if I had not been interested in observing my mother’s fellow Christians. Both my mother and I were relieved when the sermon was over after almost two hours sitting on a plastic stool.

“Do you agree with what the preacher said?” I asked my mother right after we left the gathering.

“I agree,” my mother said earnestly, “we should forgive.”

“So are you going to forgive Mrs Miao?” Mrs. Miao was our next door neighbor for decades, a very difficult woman who hated my mother for no reason and had created quite some dramatic troubles for my mother over the years. She died the day before unexpectedly.

My mother was taken by surprise, then laughed embarrassedly, “oh, dear, I can’t forgive Miao. No, I really can’t forgive her!”

I laughed, too. I laughed because I found my mother’s honesty very lovely, and her embarrassed laughter revealed a childlike and pure character.

“Will you continue to go to church?”

“I guess I will.”

“Why?”

“Do you remember Chong?”

“Who?”

“Miao’s niece.” By the way, my mother got along well with Mrs Miao’s family despite Mrs. Miao.

“Is she a Christian, too?”

“Yes. I saw her not long ago. She joined the church about ten years ago. She is a happy person now. She sings (Bible songs) all the time. She sings when cleaning. She sings when cooking. She sings when walking. She would sing even when eating if she had two mouths. She is a very happy person now. She used to be grumpy. Jesus makes her happy.” My mother said both admiringly and amusedly as she described how Jesus had changed once grumpy Chong. But I doubt Jesus would make my mother as happy as Chong easily because she wouldn’t be satisfied until all her children were happily married and all her children, particularly her son, have their own children – sons preferred.

A month later, I went to Heyuan Gospel Church with my mother in downtown Heyuan City. It was a bigger version of her Bible study group. A church with 3000 members. Over three quarters of the members were women older than 60, with grey hair, bleary eyes, withered cheeks, toothless or semi-toothless mouths, and callused hands. The preaching (about husband-wife relationship this time) was again monotonous and long. A few women chitchatted in a low voice. Some dozed off. The only difference, besides the size of the crowd, was the choir sang in Mandarin while the members sang in Hakka. My mother was obviously bored and from time to time looked around the church searching for familiar faces. After three months, she had not made new friends from the church, only found a few faces she had known before, including a cousin of mine, a cousin of hers and a few former neighbors.

“What do you think?” I asked my mother when we walked out of the church.

“I agree with him (the preacher). But he is too long winded. He circles round and round, saying the same thing over and over again.” Then she added with an amused look, “it is amazing those illiterate women follow the Bible better than me. They don’t read, but they sing quite well as if they could read.”

Back home, I asked my father why he didn’t go to church with my mother, he replied, “gee, most church goers are older women. Besides, the Bible contradicts Marxism and evolutionism I was taught as a Communist Party member. It is hard to change a belief you learn at a young age. And the Christians at the church are not that different from the red guards worshipping Mao during the Cultural Revolution.”

My mother gave me a different answer, “one goes to church, Jesus blesses the whole family. Your father needn’t go.”

I believe my parents were both honest with their answers. They were both born before communism took over China, taught by the school and then Communist Party government to believe in Marxism (China version) and evolutionism and to expect progress only to witness regress in both the society and their personal lives: corruption and social injustice in the big world; aging and ailing in their small world. What bothers them the most, however, is they still don’t have a grandson while some of their cousins are now great-grandparents. By the way, my sisters’ children are not counted as their grandchildren and only my brother’s son could carry on the family line according to Chinese Hakka tradition.

Sometimes they blame our family’s Fengshui. They invited several Fengshui masters to inspect our home over the years. They followed a couple Fengshui masters’ advices and moved our house gate twice. This didn’t bring luck to the family as wished. Last year, another Fengshui master suggested our gate be moved (again!) to where my mother’s bedroom was. Fortunately, my parents didn’t follow the advice this time.

My mother also sought blessings from a local Taoist temple as well as from a sorceress. So far, nothing fantastic has happened as my parents wish. They continue to age and ail. My mother hurt her back two years ago. My father got lung cancer last year. They still have no grandson. Two of their children, particularly their son, are still single…

They must feel helpless sometimes. So when my father heard my neighbor was being blessed by Jesus, he made my mother go to church while refraining himself from the church so that he could still worship our ancestors. This way, we might be double blessed. This is how my parents do their math, different from Lv’s mother’s calculation, but with the same practicality.

But are we double blessed now? Are we?

Portrait of my parents, Wen Meirong, 74, and Chen Guixiu, 85, taken on Dec. 11, 2015.

My parents with my sisters’ children on 2016 New Year’s Day.

                                    My father worships our ancestors on 2016 Chinese New Year’s Eve.

Incense is a symbol of family line. Only a son can carry on the family according to Chinese Hakka tradition.

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Re-Experience China – He Married His Pregnant Wife to a Stranger

Mr. Yang called to confirm my time to leave for Baiyun International Airport in north Guangzhou right after I booked his car via DD car service, Uber’s rival in China. He spoke Cantonese and sounded warm and professional, “I will arrive ten minutes before 8:40 tomorrow (Sunday, May 15, the time I needed his car service).” The next day, at 8:25, he called again, “I have arrived. But no hurry, take your time. Just give me a ring when you are ready.”

I was impressed. I mean, I don’t often meet drivers as professional and considerate as Mr. Yang. I took the front passenger seat instead of sitting at the back.  As a result, during the 90-minute journey to the airport, I got to hear a streetwise man’s strong opinions on all kinds of things happening in China and a shocking incident that happened to him and his wife.

“Oh, those ‘black ghosts’ (African migrants) in Guangzhou! They are the worst. Bastards! They don’t pay for Taxi service! I’ve met many of them.” Mr. Yang started rapping and gabbing when I asked him about his job as a driver, “those ‘black ghosts’ are violent and dumb. I tell you, their IQ is very low! And those Chinese women who marry the ‘black ghosts!’ They are…they are…What can I say about them! If my daughter dares to marry a ‘black ghost,’ she is not my daughter! Can’t call me dad!’

“But Obama, the US president, is a black man,” I reminded him.

“Obama is different. He is American. The black people in America have lived in a civilized society for hundreds of years. They are better educated. Brainwashed by the whites. But those African ‘black ghosts’ are dumb barbarians.”

“Would you allow your daughter to marry an American black man then?”

“I wouldn’t let my daughter go abroad.”

“Why?”

“Women shouldn’t go that far. Women are women. Men are different. I would let my son study abroad, though.”

“Oh, you have a son, too! How come you have two children?” I was surprised, as from his accent, I could tell he was a Cantonese native and city residents his age (mid forties) were not allowed to have two children due to China’s one-child policy that began in 1979 and was only canceled in October, 2015. Certainly some families would pay a heavy fine for a second, even a third child, but a driver like him wouldn’t be able to afford it.

“Fake divorce,” he chuckled.

“Wow!”

“My wife got pregnant by accident. What can I do? I can’t lose my permanent job with a state company. I only make 3000 RMB per month from this job, but I will have pension and other benefits from the government when I retire. It is an easy job, too. I get off work at three in the afternoon and can drive part time for DD after that on week days and whole day on weekends. I can’t afford the fine – 200,000 RMB per person! For a couple, that would be 400,000 RMB!”

“You wife works for the same company?”

“No. But all women employees and wives of the men employees have to go to a pregnancy check every three months.”

“Oh, they would have certainly found out her pregnancy.”

“So we got divorced.”

“But she still couldn’t get a pregnancy certificate as a divorced woman.”

“I married her to someone in Henan Province (a province south of Beijing and Hebei Province). Each new couple can get a pregnancy certificate after marriage, you know.”

“You married your pregnant wife to a Henan man, a stranger?!” I couldn’t hide my shocked tone.

“It is not for real. I mean the papers for our divorce and her marriage to the Henan man are all real, but we still live together as a couple.”

“But how did you manage to marry your wife to someone in Henan?”

“I have a colleague from Henan. He introduced us to one of his fellow villagers.”

“Do you have to pay the man?”

“Of course. Altogether we spent 60,000 RMB, 20,000 RMB pre-payment to the fake groom when we were introduced to him, 20,000 RMB after we get the pregnancy certificate, plus 20,000 RMB travel expenses between Guangzhou and Henan. It is a lot of money, but nothing compared to the 400,000 RMB fine – plus I would have been fired.”

“Reasonable,” I said.

“But I think my colleague, not the fake groom, got most of the money I paid, because he bought an Isuzu soon after we paid off for the pregnancy certificate.”

“Oh, well, this is China,” I said, not surprised, “but you get what you want.”

“No easy, though. They put the wrong time in the pregnancy certificate. My wife and I filed a divorce in 2014, but the date in the pregnancy certificate was 2013!”

“Your wife got pregnant in 2014! Bad timing, a year before the one-child policy was canceled! How unlucky!” I felt really sorry for him.

“Yep, bad luck. My son still hasn’t been registered as a legal citizen.”

“What do you do then?”

“We are waiting for them to correct the mistake in the pregnancy certificate.”

“So your wife is till married to the Henan man?”

“No. They filed a divorce a year later.”

“Are you remarried to your wife?”

“No. Even though the one-child policy has been canceled, my wife got pregnant before that. We could still be fined and I could still be fired if they find out. We can’t remarry now. Too risky.”

“Doesn’t your wife worry a little? I mean, middle aged women in China often worry their husbands would desert them for younger women…I read about couples filing divorces so they could buy more apartments than allowed, and many ended up being divorced for real.”

“When we filed the divorce, I put everything, our apartment and savings, under her name. I only own this car I am driving because I need it to make a living. And we have always lived under the same roof. Not much difference, really.”

“So you keep your job and you have a son.”

“Can’t complain. I am a happy man.”

“What about your daughter? Is she happy about having a younger brother? I read that a lot of kids loathe their parents getting a second child after the one-child policy was canceled last year. Earlier this year, a young boy forced his mother to do an abortion because he said his parents would love him less if he were to have a younger sibling.”

“My daughter (14 years old) was not too happy about the pregnancy at first because one of her classmates lost her parents’ favor after her brother was born. I heard this classmate of hers was sometimes abused by her parents after her brother was born. So my daughter was really upset at first. But we care about how she feels. We always satisfy her needs before her brother’s. She is now happy to have a brother.” Mr. Yang chuckled.

“So as long as she is not to marry a black man, you love her,” I said jokingly.

“Of course I love her. I teach her a lot of tricks to protect herself in case she is attacked by a man. Things like, if a man holds her from the front, I tell her to pretend to be frightened, and when the attacker is not too alert, step on his toe real hard, or hit his dick with the knee – that hurt like hell, he would automatically let go, then she could run away quickly. Or if someone tries to kidnap her on the street, I tell her to turn to any adult man on the street and call him dad. The kidnapper would usually panic and let go of her. Things like that, you know.” He laughed, “I was very naughty when I was young and I only had elementary school education. But I can teach my daughter all the tricks against the bad things I used to do, ha!”

I laughed with him and turned to look at him. He was of medium height and weight, had dark brown skin and was gentle as a driver. His laughter was cheery and his baritone Cantonese sounded warm and sincere. I didn’t feel nervous or worried even though he said he used to do bad things as a teenager. He continued to tell me his life stories – his mother left his father to marry a Hong Kong man in the 1980s, resulting in his becoming a bad student; he stole his neighbor’s potted plants and gave them to his teacher as gifts so that this teacher never punished him for his bad grades; he desired to join the army to fight the Vietnamese because he loved China, but couldn’t because he didn’t have a high school diploma; he lamented the fact that his half sister in Hong Kong was too well educated to marry early and he didn’t like her Singapore boyfriend who never bought her anything, “how can you trust a man like this? Go Dutch? Bullshit! A man should pay for his woman because once they get married, the woman belongs to him!”

When we arrived at the airport, he unloaded my suitcase the way a New York cab driver would do and wished me a safe trip. Professional. And I must say he is the most sincere taxi driver I’ve met in China since I moved back in 2011. Despite his sexism and his racism, I rated him a five-star when I paid the fee via my DD app.

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My Landlord

My landlord wants me out again. I love my apartment, but my landlord has been a nightmare. Till last spring, he had been harassing me. I managed to block him with the help of his wife. A few days ago, he used a new cell number to message me asking me to move out by July because he wanted to move back. I called his wife. She confirmed it. So I guess I have to move out…And here is an article I wrote about my landlord last spring…

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I was reading Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises” at the hotel lounge in Siem Reap, Cambodia when my cell phone rang. It was my landlord, Zeng. I frowned and felt a twitch in my stomach. Each time he called, I felt this twitch. I tried to ignore it, but it kept ringing stubbornly till I picked it up.

“I am going to check on my apartment at 2 o’clock this afternoon,” he shouted from China. His bossy tone dumfounded me as always.

“But we agreed that you check on the apartment after I am back to Guangzhou on April 4th. It is still March.” I tried to curb my annoyance. I’ve had many landlords in the past 12 years, Zeng was the only one who liked to check on the apartment whenever he felt like to, because, according to him, he was the home owner. There was really no need for him to waste his time checking on the apartment because I had made this place much cleaner and cozier than when he lived in it,  I am a quiet tenant maintaining a friendly relationship with my neighbors, fix whatever broke in the apartment, and pay rent on time.

Unpleasant as it was, I didn’t mind too much his checking on the apartment until one morning he came over to tell me he was divorced. As usual, he showed up without notice. He knocked on the door, came in, made himself comfortable in the couch, gulped a cup of coffee I handed him, and started raving about his success – a man with a master’s degree and with a lot of theories. I was polite but hoping he would leave soon so I could finish my routine morning reading and go in the office after lunch. But he wouldn’t stop bragging about himself.

I finally suggested, “I need to go in the office soon.”

“Oh, I should leave,” he said, but continued to sit in the couch comfortably, his hand still holding the coffee cup, his eyes looking around.

“I’ve been really busy recently.” I made it obvious that he was not welcome.

He totally ignored my hint, “You’ve made this place much nicer. My wife was too messy. She doesn’t clean. Oh, just between you and me, I am actually divorced. ”

“Eh, sorry to hear that. Well, it’s getting late. I have to go in the office now.” I felt awkward. I never wanted to befriend a landlord, not to say share his secret. At least not an ignorant and pretentious one like Zeng.

He left with an upset look, finally.

The next evening, he sent a phone message to me: “Do you have time to chat in the evening?”

Since then, I have found all kinds of excuses to prevent him from coming to the apartment, thus become “a very difficult woman.” One time, I suggested he didn’t need to waste his time checking on the apartment, he replied, “This is my property! I can come whenever I want. ” Another time I suggested he come with his wife, he replied, “she doesn’t have time,” forgetting his telling me he was divorced.

While I was trying to rejuvenate myself in Siem Reap, he demanded from a thousand miles away, “I have time this afternoon. Two o’clock.”

“I am sorry. But I am not home till April 3rd. That’s why I told you to come either before I left Guangzhou on March 20th or after I return on April 3rd. You said you’d come on April 4th.” I reminded him of our agreement and didn’t hide my scorn and irritation in my voice.

“I’ve never met a difficult woman like you!” He howled and hung up.

I put down my cell phone and curled up in the couch, lackluster. He had spoilt my time with Hemingway, my vacation. “At least I am glad I changed the lock,” I thought to myself. After I returned home, my neighbor told me he did try to break in the apartment after he put down the phone. He asked my neighbor to let him jump over their rooftop garden to mine. When my neighbor asked him who would take the responsibility should anything happen,  he replied, “I am just going to my own home.”

Later that night, I woke up at 3 a.m. screaming at a nightmare image, where a huge rat was gnawing at a kitten in blue moonlight.

The day I returned home from Cambodia, I got a message from Zeng: “I have put the apartment back to the market for new tenants. You can continue to rent it if you pay 25% more.”

A day later, he messaged me again, “I am going to my apartment this afternoon. Two o’clock.”

He came with two women, one in her forties, the other in her twenties. Without asking for my permission, he let the women in and showed them around as if I didn’t exist.

“Excuse me!” I was pissed off that these people showed no respect for my privacy and my tenant’s right, “I have paid rent, and I still live here. Without my permission, you don’t have the right to come in! Don’t you know the law?”

“Ha! Law! She is talking about law! Funny.” The younger woman scoffed.

“What law? This is NOT your apartment!”  The mid-aged woman sneered, “And I am moving in. When are you moving out? When?”

I wanted to shout “get out” at them, but I was too furious to utter a word.

“You are such a difficult tenant.” Zeng said with a smile. A cunning smile of stupidity.

“What do you mean I am a difficult tenant! I pay rent on time, I fix whatever breaks and never bother you, I have the leaking ceiling repaired with my own money, I make this place much cleaner and tidier than when you lived here. I am quiet and my neighbors like me…” I started raving, enraged.

“But each time I want to check on my apartment, you are so reluctant and find all kinds of excuses.”

“Don’t you understand law? Don’t you know tenants have their rights to the property, too? And you claim to have a master’s degree and from a so-called ‘family of intellectuals’!” I was furious and he was taken aback.

“A master’s degree! ‘Family of intellectuals’! ” I repeated  scornfully.

He blushed. He must have remembered the plaque he once hung above the dinner table before I moved in. On it carved “Family of Intellectuals.” It looked surreal and ridiculous on a dirty wall  of a messy apartment. I told him to take it with him, “You shouldn’t leave it here. My family is not intellectual. ”

He blushed, then replied, “I have a master’s degree, you know.”

Here he was, blushing again. He had wanted to intimidate me by bringing two women pretending to be his potential tenants, but found himself blushing. “At least he still has a little sense of shame,” I thought to myself, when the younger woman cried, “wow, what a tenant! Don’t you know this is not your home?”

“Who are you? I rent the place. You don’t have any right to be here at MY HOME!”

“This is not your home! We are invited by the property owner!”

“Get out!” I shouted at top of my lung.

My landlord seemed surprised at my rage and asked the women to leave with him. I had been too polite with him before. Now I finally learned a lesson that politeness and reason didn’t work with people lack of common sense.

“Crazy woman!” The younger woman yelped as she walked out.

“We are moving in. I will pay more. Tell her to move out.” The mid-aged woman said.

“We will talk later.” Zeng turned to me and I saw a  smile in his face, satisfied, but ugly and greedy. All of a sudden, I understood it was an act he put on, with the help of two women.

I decided I’d had enough of this stupid landlord and that even the private rooftop garden that came with the apartment – which was the reason I rented the place – was not worth his harassment. I messaged him: “I will move out. Your friends can move in in two months. Take the deposit for my last two months.”

He immediately replied, “Oh. I was thinking we should talk. You know I would let you rent the place if you are still interested. But if you want to move, you must move by the end of this month. I will pay you back the deposit. You can trust me.”

I: “I don’t trust a man who doesn’t pay tax. I will live here till I use up the deposit.” I knew he didn’t pay tax for his rental business as he had told me not to tell others I rented his place so he could avoid tax.

He: “Nonsense! Who says I don’t pay tax?”

I: “Don’t forget I work in the news industry and I know a bunch of people in different fields. I can ask a friend working at the city revenue bureau to check.  Evidence can be easily obtained –  the paying record via my bank account to yours.”

Two hours later, his wife called, “What happened between you and my husband? Why are you reporting him to the revenue bureau?”

“Oh, you call finally. What’s your husband’s problem? Why does he always want to check on the apartment? Why did he bring two strangers to my place without noticing me and let them in without my permission?  Why did he keep telling me you are divorced?”

“Hold on. I call you back this evening.”

When she called again, she apologized for her husband and asked if I’d like to continue to rent the apartment. I told her if I didn’t need to deal with her husband again, I wouldn’t mind continuing to living here. We made a deal quickly.

When I hung up, I received a message from her husband: “Shameless!”

I replied: “You are the one who is shameless. Don’t ever bother me again. I only talk to your wife from now on.”

With that, I blocked his number in my cell phone.

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