Authors: Tash Aw
Tags: #Literary, #Urban, #Cultural Heritage, #Fiction
He rounded the corner of where he thought the lane was, but all he saw was a wide empty square of dirt dotted with small pyramid-shaped piles of rubble. The shops had disappeared, and the lane with it. He looked around and checked for things he remembered—an old barbershop, a strange Bavarian pebble-dashed house on the corner: This was definitely the place. All that was left of the houses was the faintest imprint of where the foundations had been—shallow, barely discernible. He had his camera in his bag and wanted to take a photo, but he had the big bag of oranges in his hand and didn’t know what to do with it; all at once, it seemed redundant. He looked around, hoping to give it to someone, but for the first time he could remember since arriving in Shanghai, the streets were almost empty—no bored young woman leaning out of a shop entrance, no
street vendor watching him suspiciously, not even a child on a tricycle. After a while an old man cycled past, his face creased and leathery; in the basket between his handlebars was a small poodle wearing a pink quilted coat. It looked at Justin as it went past, its mouth drawn wide as if in a smile, but there were streaks running down from its eyes, like black tears. Justin stood in the brilliant winter sunshine looking at the patch of earth, the bag of oranges cutting into his hand. He had forgotten to wear gloves, and his fingers were getting numb.
He left the oranges by a pile of building rubble and walked into the middle of the cleared space. It wasn’t very large, bounded on three sides by other old houses; it would have made a lousy building site. He was glad he wasn’t the one developing it. It had appeared larger when those few houses and shops were still on it, so full of life and potential. Maybe he wasn’t a property genius after all. He looked around one last time, hoping to see the old woman he had photographed—it was stupid, he knew, for she had gone.
Just before he left, he took some photos of the empty plot of land. In the pale winter light, the earth looked so dry it could have been in a desert. The only patch of color was the electric blue of the plastic bag that had fallen open, revealing a few plump oranges. He walked around a little bit more, coming across more and more pieces of land that looked to him to have been recently cleared—some tiny and compact, some vast and unbounded, hollowed out by bulldozers. He took pictures of each one and walked until it began to get dark. The winter air felt raw in his chest, as if he were inhaling tiny shards of glass.
The following week, his cough got worse again; the long walk in the damp winter air seemed to have weakened his lungs, and he found the mere act of breathing an effort. In a meeting with potential bankers, he was unable to finish his sentences because of a tickling in his throat. It rose as he spoke, swiftly triggering a rasping cough that left his chest and rib cage feeling hollow and achy. The doctor prescribed another course of antibiotics—his third since the New Year—and ordered some X-rays, which came back clear. He just needed rest, the doctor said; he was run-down. But his days and nights did not get any shorter; the grueling meetings lasted all day, bleeding into the evening’s social round of banquets and bars. Once he got over the initial few days of feeling ill, the exhaustion became familiar, almost reassuring. It was always like this: Whenever a big
project was on the table, he would slip easily into the grinding nature of this routine, finding comfort in the constancy of his fatigue. When he woke up each morning, he could feel the puffiness of his eyes, knew that they would be bloodshot; his breathing would already be desperate, the air feeling thin in his lungs. His limbs would be heavy, but after a shower and a double espresso he would feel better, though he would never satisfactorily shake the mild headache that was already descending on his skull, already escalating into a migraine. He would work through it; it wasn’t a problem.
Besides, he didn’t have a choice. There was a problem with the deal. All the arrangements that had been slotting obediently into place just before Christmas were now looking shaky. Someone was refusing to take a bribe—an official in the municipal urban-planning department, a mid-ranking engineer who had found an irregularity in the paperwork, a discrepancy, it seemed, between the proposed project and the preliminary drawings. More buildings would have to be demolished than had been declared in the proposal, and this was a problem because many of those buildings were of the local vernacular style. This engineer—a glorified technical clerk—was resisting the pressure placed on her by her superiors, most of whom were sympathetic to the Lim family venture. It was awkward when someone acted out of principle; it would take more than money to solve the impasse. And now the delay was leading to further complications: Another party was interested in the piece of land, and there was talk of an imminent bid to rival theirs.
He pressed for emergency meetings with high-ranking officials for whom he had bought Cartier cigarette lighters and weekend trips to the Peninsula Hotel in Hong Kong. There was nothing they could do for the moment, they claimed: His project had to work its way through the system; there was a formal procedure, which they couldn’t alter, it would just take a bit of time. Each official he spoke to reassured him gently without committing; they were all sure the other bid would come to nothing. They said this in a way to suggest that they would do something to prevent it, but now he was not so sure. He was not sure about anything in Shanghai anymore.
In the meantime, his secretaries began to speak of an Internet campaign—a blog site entitled “Defenders of Old Shanghai.” They showed him pages and pages of angry commentary under the discussion thread:
Save 969 Weihai Lu from destruction by foreign companies!!
It was full of accusations that wildly exaggerated the effect of the project on the existing buildings, so, using the pseudonym “FairPreserver,” he personally wrote replies to the most outlandish claims. It was not true that the Lim family company was made up of uncaring capitalists wanting to take advantage of China, he said; he had heard from insiders that they cared greatly about history and would do everything they could to preserve what they could. They had a long record of restoring heritage buildings and would never dream of destroying anything the city deemed to be important. They were concerned about the lives of the common people and always sought to be considerate and fair when dealing with property belonging to people of modest means, never forcing anyone to move against their will and always providing compensation where necessary.
, came the first reply, within minutes of his post.
What a joke, are you paid by the Lim family to say these things???
Everything he argued was met with contempt, but still he battled on. No, it was not true that the Lim family had made their money by kicking people off their land in Malaysia; no, they were not going to do the same here. He began to spend hours each day posting replies on the blog site, rushing back from meetings to check what had been said in response to his posts and to write something himself. But then, one day, all of his replies vanished—he could find no trace of any of them. Every single one had disappeared in the space of an hour, and he was forced to read from the sidelines, marginalized, silenced. He tried inventing a new pseudonym, but every time he posted something it would last less than a day before disappearing. He felt powerless and often felt like screaming as he read what was being said about him. He did not know who these people were and had no way of getting in touch with them. He could only watch helplessly as the blog pages grew longer and more animated with each day; soon it would be in the newspapers. Once it became public, the project would be doomed—none of the officials who had been expensively recruited to help facilitate matters would be willing to support the project openly.
Frustrated by the lack of news, his father rang him on his mobile one evening, catching him by surprise. Justin tried to explain that it was not his fault, that things in China moved so quickly that it was impossible to anticipate every development in advance. It wasn’t like Indonesia or
Singapore; China was at once lawless and unbending in its rules. He talked and talked, his speech cut to ribbons by his cough; he felt the dryness of his throat and mouth and realized he hadn’t drunk anything for hours. His father listened patiently and then said, “I see. But I know you will make a success of this deal.”
Soon he was spending all night monitoring the blog site. Sleep evaded him; it seemed superfluous to his current state. All that was relevant to his life was this torrent of words written by unseen, unknown people. He felt he knew them now, felt he was somehow linked to them, and just before the first of the comments citing him by name appeared, he had a strange presentiment in his stomach, a sensation of exhilaration mixed with nausea, as if he knew what was to come.
Justin Lim has been trained by his family to be uncaring and ruthless. From a young age he was already displaying these tendencies. Justin Lim is a wolf in sheep’s clothing; he smiles to your face but is ready to eat you up whole. Justin Lim is handsome but, like all handsome men, cannot be trusted one inch. Justin Lim is a man with absolutely no feelings whatsoever; he does not possess a beating heart. Justin Lim is not human. Justin Lim has committed some terrible acts in the past. Justin Lim will stop at nothing to fulfill his aims; he will crush you like he crushes insects
His father began to ring him more frequently—every other day, then every day, then several times a day. Every time the phone rang, he could sense his father’s anxiety in the ringtone, swelling with every beat. At first he made excuses—he was about to go into a meeting, he couldn’t speak. But then he stopped answering the calls altogether, letting the phone ring on to the voice mail. He never checked his messages. He stopped going to the office, for there was nothing left to do now except look at the things people said about him on the blog site. He never strayed far from his laptop, and even if he had to go to the toilet he hurried back as quickly as possible. Taking showers made him anxious, made him fear that he was missing a new comment on the blog.
One night he managed two hours’ sleep. It made him groggy but strangely lucid, and his head filled for a moment or two with a painful awareness of the weakness of his body. He went into the bathroom and stepped onto the scale out of curiosity: He had lost even more weight. He splashed his face with water and looked into the mirror. His eyes were sunken and dark, his eyes glassy and staring, like a fish at the market, his lips
chapped and sore: a verisimilitude of a life. When dawn broke, he packed a few things into a suitcase and the next morning checked in to a hotel. From there he rang a friend of a friend of a friend, who referred him to an estate agent who found him an apartment within three days. It was just off the Bund, on the edge of Suzhou Creek, in an Art Deco building that seemed semiderelict. The rooms were large, somber, and quiet, the furniture sparse and nondescript; outside, the corridors were badly lit and deserted. He moved in at the end of the afternoon, and when night fell he discovered that he had a view of the skyscrapers of Lujiazui, framed by the sweep of old windows that ran along the apartment. From this side of the river, the opposite of where he had previously lived, the towers of Pudong seemed beautiful and untouchable. Before, they had been functional and dull, filled with ballrooms and boardrooms, each one indistinguishable from the other; now they trembled with life, intimate yet unknowable.
That night, his first in the apartment, he slept almost all the way through to the morning. His new bedroom was cavelike in its darkness, and he could hear nothing except the vague metallic creaking of pipes in the night, a comforting faraway echo. It was the first proper sleep he had had in more than two months. When he woke up, he looked at the mounting number of messages and emails on his BlackBerry. He turned it off without looking at any of them and went back to bed.
In the days that followed, he spent much of his time in bed. Often he would not be able to sleep, his mind completely empty, his body alternating between aching and numb. Sometimes he thought he was going mad. He had never felt like this before, and the thought of madness panicked him. Yet he could do nothing about it. He lay in bed with the curtains drawn during the day, feeling the dampness of his sheets. At night he would open the curtains and watch the lights of the skyscrapers glinting until he began to recognize their rhythms, the exact hour they would come on or off, when they became brighter and how long it took for each sequence to repeat. When he had stared at these repeating patterns long enough, they became abstract, divorced from the real world. Once or twice he felt strong enough to venture out for a stroll along the creek, and sometimes he was compelled to go out to buy drinking water from the convenience store down the road, but the slightest effort weakened him, filling him with a sickening anxiety. He longed for the safety of his bed and decided not to leave the apartment again. He had his meals delivered to him
once a day, deposited at the door. He would sometimes hear the doorbell at lunchtime but could not summon the energy to go out until the evening, when it was dark. The bag of food would still be on the doormat, cold and unappealing. Twice a week his
would come to clean the apartment, and from behind his closed bedroom door he would hear her gently moving the furniture and washing the dishes. He told her he was sick. She said, “I guessed that.” One day he emerged from his bedroom to find that she had double-boiled a chicken with medicinal herbs to make soup for him. He sat before it at the kitchen counter, unable to eat. He found himself crying—hot streams of tears flowed down his cheeks. He hated crying and didn’t know why he was doing so. The strangest thing was that he felt nothing—no sadness or bitterness or loneliness. And yet he was unable to stem the tears.
He felt the walls of the apartment draw in on him, encircling him, making everything beyond its confines seem irrelevant, reducing the city to a mere idea, a vague memory.