All the Flowers in Shanghai

BOOK: All the Flowers in Shanghai
12.71Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

All the Flowers
in Shanghai



For all the daughters,

forgotten and unloved



Title Page



Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26




Discussion Questions

On My Mother By Duncan Jepson

Further Reading

About the Author



About the Publisher

Chapter 1

still know your face. I see it clearly as it was at the very beginning, not how it was left after I had hurt you.

I did not see the brightness of new life in your eyes when you were born or cradle your warm fleshy body to my breast, and wish now that I had. I wish I had just looked . . . but I did not let myself because to me you were stillborn. You were not a living person to me then, but an object of hatred, created merely to be beaten and scarred.

When I think back through the tiredness and hunger we have endured for years now, searching through the pages of my memory that still serve me faithfully, I know I saw your lovely face when I was a young girl. It was in 1932, while I was out walking with Grandfather in those public gardens adjacent to our house, now forgotten and laid waste to, like the rest of Shanghai. I am certain now that I have always known and loved your face; it was only terror and pain that held me back from you. But all that I suffered then seems nothing compared to the suffering now being inflicted across this country and I know that I should never have let anything stop me from loving you. I wish that all those years ago I’d had the courage just to look at you, to feel the need and unconditional love in your fragile little body.

This simple gift for your wedding and the two books I have written for you are all that will be left of me, perhaps all that is best. Sitting in front of the weak and pale flames of our stove, so far away from home, I have dreamt of you and wish the madness of the country would subside just for one day so I might travel back to see your wedding. But it is impossible to make even a short journey, we have nothing, we cannot even feed ourselves. Every day we silence our stomachs with grass and straw and live off worms and seeds but soon the frozen ground will put even these beyond our reach. They say that no one is hungry in the People’s Republic.

I hope that what I have written in these rough pages of cloth will show you how we were so bound to tradition and history that we could not see what was so obvious and that though I have always loved you, I never understood that love is nothing unless it is expressed.

Chapter 2

t was a long time ago but you may remember those public gardens. The side of our house ran next to the wall surrounding them but Grandfather had made a passageway for us to enter directly. The gardens by the main gate were beautifully designed but our private entrance was toward the center where the landscape was more wild and uncultivated and fewer people ventured. At this point, the gardens were nearly a half a mile across and tall trees populated a large area on the side opposite our house. Between was a wide expanse of grass, and in the spring and summer gorgeous flowers would create a colorful mosaic across the wild pale green. A river ran through the middle and there were small bridges and muddy banks where a few fishermen would sit all day trying to catch ugly catfish. Willows and bushes lining its banks occasionally joined to form a canopy, providing shade for birds. Many years ago, Grandfather had been the head gardener for the old Imperial Gardens near Nanjing, and during our long walks together would tell me the names of each tree and flower in an awkward-sounding language that he said was as old as Chinese.

Once, in the summer of 1932, we stopped at the edge of the treeline and Grandfather pulled down the branches of a tree to show me its leaves.

“Xiao Feng, see this.” He held down the branch, which strained under his grip. “This is the leaf of the Empress tree which is also called
Paulownia tomentosa
. It is a fine tree. Notice that its huge leaf is smooth on the upper surface and rough underneath. This is to protect it and let the water run off more easily when it rains.”

He released the branch from his hold and we watched it spring into the air, quivering wildly until it came to rest. The noise it made alarmed two birds who flew up and past us. He put his hands on my shoulders and guided me to the tree trunk.

“Now look up. What do you see?”

I looked but saw nothing. I shrugged.

“Xiao Feng, look hard. What do you see?” He looked at me and smiled then glanced up again into the tree’s branches. “Just leaves, heh? This is called the mosaic. The branches overlap and then the leaves so there is no path for the light to reach the ground. So in spring and summer all the light is captured by the tree and it stores as much food as it can from sunrise to sunset. Then in the autumn and winter, when there is little light for it, the leaves fall and the tree sleeps. But though the tree will leave us we can trust it, we can rely on it and believe in it, because it always returns.” He paused, looking from me back up into the mosaic of the leaves and branches. Then he said softly to himself, “They are not like people who do not return to you. We must wait to join our loved ones, mustn’t we, Xiao Feng?”

“But why do I need to know this, Grandfather?” I asked.

He was looking away from me and my question caused him to look back suddenly as if I had caught him entranced in some potent dream.

“Because . . . I can only tell you what I know.” He laughed. “One day there may be nothing left for me to tell you and we will walk in silence then.”

I looked up at him and felt like crying.

“Are you going to stop talking to me?”

“No, silly girl, it may be that I cannot tell you anything more about the world,” again he laughed to himself, “and it may be that you don’t want to listen and will want to leave these gardens and find some of your own.”

He looked down at me and smiled, and in the warmth of his smile the tears on my face dried.

“I don’t think I will ever leave these gardens and walking with you. I’ll always come back.”

“That is nice to hear and I wouldn’t let you go anyway. What do you think, heh?”

I looked up at him and smiled and he winked back at me. His skin was weather-beaten and his hair was white, but his eyes still moved carefully and thoughtfully, particularly when he studied plants and trees or talked with the gardeners here.

“Now that we have agreed we will live here forever, I should tell my friend. We can also look at the fish he has bred to stock the river.”

Sometimes I think I wasted too much of my childhood listening to Grandfather, having the same beautiful and sad conversation repeated, step by step, walking through each year. I should have been learning how to live, how to survive. He should have taught me how to avoid the traps and obstacles in life, not contented himself with pointing out new leaves as they unfurled or the delicate buds of the flowers with names in an ancient language from a distant land. Grandfather should have told me about people—about men in particular—what they need and must have; he should have warned me to be aware of the terrible pride of the human heart.

But I realize now he did not know how to survive himself; like the trees and the plants he loved so much, who were at the mercy of the seasons, he could reach no deeper into himself than his pride would allow. And yet, unlike his beloveds, he would not hibernate in order to bloom and grow stronger in spring, but would emerge a little weaker and little more afraid as each year ended. As I sit here alone writing these words in this little house, free from all the gilt and riches of my marriage, with only a mannequin for company, I think of his kind face and its lines that never ended in anything but the warmth of a smile. I feel guilty for betraying my memories of happier times, spent wearing a path through the flowers and grass, because although those moments are painted in colors now dead to me, these are the memories I cherish most.

It was a time when all the clothes I wore were hand-me-downs from Sister. She had slightly shorter legs than I did, and my shoulders were broader: she would never admit it but my body was more elegantly formed than hers. Your body is the same. Mine had height and poise, but Sister’s had a swing and a way of moving. Her walk would turn heads and, when her face was made up and her hair was done, bodies would turn around, too. Several times I saw men turn to follow her, just to get another look.

Her appearance was most important to her. She would ask Ba to buy her lipstick and skin creams, some even imported from the West, to make her look like the beautiful Western ladies, and if he refused then Ma would pretend to buy it for herself and give it to Sister. Occasionally, as she dressed for the evening, I would stand just inside the doorway to her room, shyly watching her apply her lipstick while the maids combed her hair and dressed her.

“Why is it that you come here to watch me?” she would ask me. “No matter how long you watch, you never dress any better than those peasants who come into town selling sugarcane or offering to sharpen our scissors and knives.”

She paused to direct one of the maids to brush her hair harder.

“You play in the gardens and you get so dirty. You’re the same as those poor people who walk down the streets, banging pots and ringing bicycle bells, trying to attract us to buy their horrible wares.” She started to imitate their loud rasping offers of cheap sugarcane snakes or sweet pastries and cakes. “Feng, you must take pride in yourself, you must be better than they are or you will end up like them—dirty and shameful.”

“Grandfather likes my clothes. He says that they’re the proper clothes for a child,” I replied quietly, hoping that my speaking softly wouldn’t make her angry with me.

“But you aren’t a child, Feng. You are now seventeen and a young woman. Come here.”

I remember walking toward her and standing behind the maids while they worked on her hair. I saw her face in the mirror but now I was so close I dared not look directly at her. My nostrils filled with powerful scents, not natural and subtle like those of the flowers in the garden but overwhelming and threatening. Sister swung around on her stool and looked at me; the maids shifted position to continue their work.

“Look how plain these are.” She fingered the short collar of my cotton blouse and pinched the material of my trousers. “When I find a husband, there will be a grand wedding and you can’t come dressed like this, Feng Feng. What shall we do with you?” She looked at me, pouted a reproof, and rolled her eyes. But instead of looking back at me she looked askance, pausing as if to acknowledge a concealed audience, and then she smiled and turned back to her maids.

She looked over the things laid chaotically across the surface of her dressing table and snatched up a small pot of rouge. Snapping back to face me, she scrutinized my cheeks and mouth. She reached out with her right hand to hold my chin. I flinched but already she had me between her fingers. I quickly stopped struggling as with her long middle finger she dabbed a little of the red from the pot, waited for the rouge to soften, and then gently caressed it onto my lips and cheeks.

“There, you see . . . nearly a woman.” She started to laugh. “Feng Feng, you will break many hearts with your elegant face and farmer’s clothes!” She went back to directing the maids and selecting her jewelry then, forgetting all about me.

I continued to stand behind her, looking at my reflection. I looked deformed and unreal, my face no longer mine. With a few quick strokes of her finger, she had created a mask that immediately propelled me into adulthood, and had laughed at the grotesque effect. I stared for a few moments longer and then wiped off the rouge with my sleeve. I heard her directing the maids curtly and looked down to examine the red that now stained the white cotton of my blouse. I looked at myself in the mirror. I was once again like a peasant.

BOOK: All the Flowers in Shanghai
12.71Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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