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Authors: Mingmei Yip

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BOOK: Skeleton Women
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Bright Moon Nightclub
our times a week at six in the evening, a limo would take me to the Bright Moon Nightclub. This was Shanghai’s most fashionable—and expensive—entertainment establishment. It was located in the International Concession between Yuyuan Road—the Fool’s Garden—and Fanhuangdu Road—the Emperor’s Crossing. These roads were fittingly named, because, although there were no more emperors, there were still plenty of fools.
The nightclub had a gaudily lit circular façade topped with a torchlike, cylindrical tower. If you were allowed in, you would see a huge hall with many tables surrounding a polished dance floor. Above was a mezzanine from which the VIPs could watch those equally rich but less important. On its all-glass dance floor, powerful men became addicted to pirouetting with their seductive, hired partners in rhythm to waltzes, fox-trots, rumbas, sambas, tangos, even marches played by the impeccable Filipino band. Under the chandeliers, diamonds and pearls glittered as young bodies swayed beside their tuxedoed partners, fueling the clients’ urge to splurge yet more on an evening’s decadence.
But Bright Moon was not always a paradise; in seconds it could descend into hell. Shots were often heard, and stabbings might spray blood onto an expensive gown. Even the private rooms and restrooms were not safe havens from scores being settled. Targets of assassination could be almost anyone, from celebrities to politicians, black-society members, even suspected
traitors who spied for the Japanese.
The most talked-about assassination was of a gangster head a few years back. Late one evening as he was gleefully swirling, lifting, and dipping his girl on the dance floor, four men approached. Sensing trouble, he shoved his girl hard against them and tried to run. Their long knives were quickly stained with the freshly minced flesh of the poor girl as they flung her back at him.
But he was a gangster head, after all, not a sniveling coward. So he pulled out his gun, shot down two of his assailants, then collapsed only after both of his arms had been chopped off. Under the astonished scrutiny of the other customers, he bled quickly and heroically to death. His lifeless body had found its final rest on his favorite glass floor, this time flooded not with his rivals’ but with his own precious blood.
People saw only the glamour in my job, but few thought of how the money I made had been recycled in blood. Anyway, only the rich and powerful in Shanghai could afford to come to Bright Moon to be entertained—or murdered.
I was proud to say that, together with seeing and being seen, I was the nightclub’s biggest attraction, but that had not happened overnight. Though only nineteen, I’d already come a long way.
I lost my parents at four and had been sent to the Compassionate Grace Orphanage. Unfortunately I didn’t have much memory of my parents except for a few blurry images of their faces. Worse, I had no siblings, relatives, or friends I could ask about them.
At the orphanage, outside volunteers would come to teach the children to sing and dance so they could perform on holidays like the Mid-Autumn Festival, Dragon Boat Races, and Chinese New Year. Even before I became the most popular songstress in Shanghai, I’d already had to learn to charm audiences.
However, these free lessons were not given out of compassion but to discover beauty and talent so that the gifted children could be sold to work as cheap labor at nightclubs, dance halls, and, of course, prostitution houses. While hard work—most of the time forced—was abundant inside the orphanage, talent was unusual and beauty, rare. Since visitors seemed to find me attractive, I always wondered why had I not been adopted much earlier. I’d heard from the girls who came back to visit that it was a better life than inside the orphanage. Many times I would watch with bitterness as other girls—less pretty and talented than I—were led away to waiting rickshaws and cars.
Then Mr. Ho, owner of the Bright Moon Nightclub, began his visits to the orphanage, bringing the children toys, candies, food, and clothes. When I was fourteen, Ho decided to rescue me from this institution notorious for cruelty and neglect. He immediately put me to work with the other singing and dancing girls at the nightclub. Though living and training together, we were not allowed to be friends, nor even talk to one another too much. If we did so, we’d be sent to a closet to reflect on our misbehavior on an empty stomach.
The other girls were either orphans like me or had parents so poor that they were forced to sell their daughters to the nightclub, so that they would have a roof over their heads and soup to warm their stomachs.
But sometimes fate was in a good mood, and a girl would become famous and, like a hurricane, lift her whole family out of poverty. The rest of us, who were not famous, lived together in one big room and were not paid.
My sense of freedom from escaping the orphanage hadn’t lasted long. One day Ho took me aside and informed me that my real boss was not he but Big Brother Wang, head of the Red Demons Gang. He introduced me to Wang, who told me he was an old friend of my parents. They had been killed in a car accident, and he and his underling Ho had been trying to find me for years. Smiling, he told me that in rescuing me from the orphanage he had fulfilled his duty to his deceased best friend. But next, his smile gone, he told me that finding me had been expensive and how I had to repay him. I was to continue being a singer, but now it was a cover for my real job—to spy on Master Lung of the Flying Dragons.
Before I even had time to think or protest, my training with Big Brother Wang had begun. I realized once again that beggars cannot be choosers, and that to continue to keep a roof over my head, rice soup in my stomach, and, most important, my head on my shoulders, I had to do what I was told.
Much of my training was concerned with perfecting my ability to charm men. I was taught ballroom dancing, which was now all the rage in Shanghai. Dancing with a patron, I would put my arms around his neck and exhale my fragranced breath onto his face. And I would press my equally fragranced body against him and feel the heat shooting out from his groin. He might wrap his arms around my much-coveted twenty-one-inch waist, move his hand between my neck and bottom like an elevator, or lift me up toward heaven, then dip me back toward hell. I learned early on that I should cling only to the important ones, such as Master Lung, and steer clear of the insignificant losers. Did I enjoy doing this? I can only say that it kept me alive while I watched other people’s lives.
I knew well that I was but a shadow of someone else’s existence.
I took singing lessons from a fiftyish Russian woman, Madame Lewinsky. Mr. Ho picked her because she was a famous teacher who’d turned a few nobodies into somebodies. And she was too busy to be nosy. Also, as a foreigner, she was safe because too ignorant to perceive the complexities of Chinese society, especially the black ones.
Madame Lewinsky put a lot of effort and time into teaching me. But I heeded Big Brother Wang’s warnings and so told her nothing about myself. She probably assumed that I came from a rich family or had a wealthy patron, since I could afford her exorbitant fees.
Lewinsky had come from Russia with her husband to escape the revolution. But he’d died in a freak construction accident before they had a chance to have children. So now she was all by herself in this dusty world. Perhaps because of her loneliness, she often tried to act like she was my mother, which, of course, she was not.
Her face was distinctively Russian, with high cheekbones and a strong jaw, but her figure was voluptuous, like that of a Greek goddess. When she opened her mouth to sing, it was like a lark spreading its wings to soar above the clouds.
Was I fond of her? No. But I did appreciate the way she taught.
She also taught me how to feel—something absolutely forbidden in my training to be a spy.
However, all the songs Lewinsky chose for me had sad overtones. She told me that my voice—high-pitched, tender, innocent—was perfect for this bittersweet sentiment. And, contrary to my training, sometimes I just couldn’t help but feel the music tugging at my heart. Whether my emotions were genuine or pretended, the audience at Bright Moon was crazy about the “feelings” in my voice.
It was not exactly right to say that I had no feelings, although it had been my training to stifle them. However, as I was not supposed to have feelings for people, I’d secretly developed feelings for my singing. I wondered if my boss, Big Brother Wang, understood the irony that, if I was trained not to feel, how could I become a great singer? Maybe he didn’t think that far, or maybe he thought this was just life’s inevitable dilemma. Or maybe my vigorous training had enabled me to perform anything, like a magician, from putting great feelings into my singing to hurting people without a twinge of guilt.
For four years I worked as a singer at Bright Moon Nightclub while secretly being trained to be a spy. Then, the summer when I turned eighteen, I won the coveted title of Heavenly Songbird from the Recording Songstress Contest organized by the
Big Evening News,
a newspaper secretly sponsored by the Red Demons gang. Madame Lewinsky had thrown me a big celebration party and flooded me with gifts—candies, cake, clothes, small jewelry, sweet little somethings.
Privileges soon followed. I was assigned to sing solo and given my own apartment. I had more good luck in that Lung, though an extremely mistrustful person, never suspected my real standing. My background as an orphan was just too plain to arouse any doubt.
Then one night I was sitting inside my private dressing room, scrutinizing my illusory self in the big gilded mirror. Standing beside me was Old Aunt, whose job was to do my makeup and hair.
Old Aunt was now putting her finishing touches on my melon-seed-shaped face. “Miss Camilla, if you were not a performer, you would not need makeup. You must have heard the saying, ‘I lament using makeup that only mars my natural beauty.’ ”
“I never thought about it one way or the other. I only do what I’m supposed to.”
She nodded at me knowingly, then pinned a flower above my right ear to complete my Heavenly Songbird look. “Miss Camilla, you look perfect. Now go out to charm Shanghai.”
“Thank you, Old Aunt.”
I stood up and cast a last glance at the mirror. Tonight I was dressed in a turquoise body-hugging
with high slits up the sides. On the front were embroidered pale golden camellias, enhanced by matching elbow-length gloves and dangling gold earrings. During my training, I was constantly told, “People respect your clothes before they respect you.” And, “Women need beautiful clothes like the Buddha needs golden robes.” The message is obvious: If you want to be accepted into the high society, dress like a high-society lady. If you want respect, dress elegantly. If you want to lure a huge following, dress in gold.
But the main reason I dressed my best was to lure Master Lung to keep visiting my bed so I could fulfill my mission: learning all his secrets, then eliminating him.
I took a deep breath, smoothed my facial muscles, thrust out my chest, and pranced onto the stage in my shredded-golden-lotus steps. The sensuous silk rubbed against my thighs as the cool air caressed my alternately hidden and exposed legs.
As soon as the audience spotted me, thunderous cheers flooded the packed hall. I took my place at center stage, under a banner emblazoned with big gold characters against a crimson background:
Bright Moon Celebrates Heavenly Songbird Camilla’s Performance.
My eyes scanned the audience until they landed on a scrawny man in front with a crew-cut head and a monkey face—Master Lung. For the last few weeks, Lung had been coming here regularly to watch my performances, always accompanied by his underlings and a slew of bodyguards. Because of his famously infamous reputation, he and his entourage were constantly fussed over by nervous waiters and the fawning manager.
Lung alternated between chugging down his expensive wine and twiddling his fat cigar in his bony fingers as he stuck it between his thin lips. While his fingers and lips were engaged in these suicidal activities, his eyes molested me unrelentingly. To my satisfaction, I saw him rhythmically strike his fist against his thigh, showing how excited he was by me.
But something was different tonight, and at first I could not place what it was.
I decided to make this audience wait while I took time to study them. The usual crew: successful businessmen, influential politicians, high government officials, black-society members. Also poets, artists, writers, a few professors, all no doubt the indulged sons of rich families. And the women with them: older ones who were obviously wives, younger ones who were just as obviously concubines, mistresses, courtesans, or just prostitutes hired for the evening. But not everyone was what he or she seemed. A bomb-carrying revolutionary or two might be concealed in the crowd of revelers.
High-end nightclubs were miniatures of the greater Shanghai. I knew well that the expensive attire, polite speech, and elegant manners were but tools to hide the itch for blood and money. As if oblivious of the tension in the air, white-shirted and black-suited waiters busied themselves topping off wineglasses, warming teapots, proffering hot towels, extending trays laden with cigarettes, and depositing a variety of respect dishes—complimentary snacks.
BOOK: Skeleton Women
13.09Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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