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Authors: Mingmei Yip

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BOOK: Skeleton Women
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Every evening I began with “Nighttime Shanghai,” a syrupy tune favored by the rich and decadent. The small orchestra—consisting of a pianist, violinist, drummer, and trumpet, trombone and double bass players—watched me, ready to strike the first note.
I always held a prop—an embroidered handkerchief, a painted fan, or simply my long, red-nailed fingers imitating an orchid swaying in a gentle breeze. Tonight the prop was a golden fan adorned by a red camellia, a gift from Master Lung. Holding the fan to hide my lips, I meditated a bit more, then dropped the fan to breathe out my first note, trying to make it as tender as a baby’s breath.
Nighttime Shanghai, nighttime Shanghai,
A city of sleepless nights,
Lights dazzling, cars hustling,
Crooning songs and flirtatious dances filling up the night... .
 
I half closed my eyes to let the tune, the dreamy air, and the audience’s hushed attention wrap me like a silk cocoon. I didn’t know what I was thinking, if anything. But I did feel, maybe a little nostalgic, even melancholy. About what, I had no notion.
I continued to croon as I swayed my waist in synchronicity with my fan, on which the painted flower seemed to be shyly nodding in approval.
They only see my smiling face
But will never guess my heart’s pain.
Singing for my living,
Intoxicated not by wine but by this lush nightlife.
My years are spent in dissipation.
When someday I finally awaken,
I will still love Shanghai at night.
I could identify with the sentiments of the song. But had I been spending my life in debauchery? Did I still love Shanghai at night? Thinking, I let the last note end its decadent incarnation in the air.
The audience, as if awakened from a dormant past life, burst into thunderous applause.
“Wonderful!”
“What a heavenly voice!”
“Wah, melts my ear wax!”
Again, my eyes made my obligatory rounds, right, left, middle, back. But then they stopped at a new face among a group of richly attired, refined-looking young men. He looked shy, seemingly ill at ease, as if he had been raised in a different environment and was thrust into a nightclub for the first time. Since the people with whom I had grown up all lived by cunning and cruelty, innocence always surprised me.
I threw this youth a nonchalant glance, bowed deeply, then threw the fan in his direction before I sashayed backstage in my golden stiletto heels.
Ten minutes later, after the crowd had quieted down, I left my dressing room and headed straight to Lung’s table under the audience’s intense scrutiny. Because of my popularity, I was usually expected to make my rounds, stopping at different tables and pleasing the patrons by making sexy small talk. But for the past few weeks, I could sit only with Lung. Once the other men realized I was Lung’s favorite and might be his concubine someday, they quietly backed away. Because Lung or his thugs would not hesitate to strangle anyone—not only men but even a crippled oldster, a pregnant woman, or a newborn baby.
 
Behind his back Lung was nicknamed “Half-Brow,” because, it was said, years ago his right eyebrow had been slashed into two by a would-be assassin using a sharp razor. The assassin had probably meant to slash his carotid artery, but during the struggle Lung must have dipped his head to protect his neck, so his brow was slashed instead. While a non-Chinese might have borne this as a sign of bravery, for Lung it was a mark of shame, to the point that no one would risk asking him how he had gotten it.
For the Chinese, to “shave off the eyebrow” is to inflict the most extreme insult, even worse than calling his mother a dog-fucked whore or his father a shit-chomping tortoise head. Splitting a person’s eyebrow is believed to cut off his vital energy, life breath, and good fortune.
Like all Chinese gangsters, Lung was terrified of bad luck, so after his eyebrow was split, he had become extremely superstitious. Now he would never take off his amulets, not even when he bathed. From his thick golden neck chain were suspended Guan Yin, the Goddess of Compassion; General Guan, both loyal protector and relentless killer; the ubiquitous money god; and a new addition—a soaring dragon, his zodiac animal carved from translucent jade. A gift from me for his recent fifty-fifth birthday.
In less than twenty years, Lung had risen from a spat-upon shoe-shine boy to being respected and feared by Shanghai’s most powerful people, even the police chief. The gangster head had begun his ascent shining shoes for celebrities, wealthy businessmen, powerful gangsters, influential politicians. His shoe-shining was rumored to be so painstaking and immaculate that with it he softened the hearts of some of his influential customers. He’d rub harder, longer, and use more cream than the others. He ran errands faster than anyone else and somehow knew whom to ingratiate himself with by not charging them for his services. If the right situation arose, he would chat briefly with these dignitaries but always remain respectful, never crossing boundaries.
Soon he was invited into the Flying Dragons. Though he was no more than a gofer, rumor had it that once he took a bullet for a powerful gang member. The gangster he saved was an important politician, and so Lung was catapulted to fame, fortune, and power. His generosity also greased his way to the top. Unlike many warlords, Lung was free in passing out red envelopes stuffed with lucky money. His beneficiaries were not only his underlings and his favorite women of the moment but also police and politicians. Whether to ease his conscience or simply to ease his way into Shanghai society, he held lavish banquets and donated millions to charities, especially if they were run by influential people. On his way up, he somehow managed to shed most of his shoe-shine boy speech and mannerisms. Though his speech was still not refined, his money and violent reputation more than compensated for that.
Of course, most of what I knew about Lung was based on rumor. He never told me anything about himself, and asking a too-personal question was possible suicide.
 
Looking at Lung as I approached his table, I was, as usual, reminded of a monkey. Not only his face but also his limbs that seemed always to be moving like those of a monkey leaping between branches. During his shoe-shining days, he could steal almost anything from anyone without them noticing. Usually he sold his booty, but if the victim might benefit him in some way, he would return the item, pretending that he had found it.
All the other gentlemen—or gangsters—stood up to greet me, except Master Lung and his right hand man, Mr. Zhu.
The boss stared at me with his big, protruding eyes, rumored to be the result of a near-strangling by a rival.
“Camilla, you smell really good. Your singing is also getting better. Do you drink special herb soup for your body and your throat?” Lung’s own voice was hoarse from years of smoking, drinking, and screaming.
I smiled, sitting down in a chair automatically pushed under my bottom. Crossing my legs and feeling the squeeze between them, I said in my innocently sexy voice, “Master Lung, what else is so ‘special’ besides you?”
I had been trained to say whatever was beneficial to a situation. As the Chinese saying goes, “When you run into a human, speak the human language; when you run into a ghost, speak a ghost’s.”
He laughed, his belly making waves. “Ha-ha! My Camilla, your tongue is getting more glib, too.”
Of course I never told him, or anyone, how hard I’d been working to improve my voice. I’d rather that they thought it was all natural talent. Nobody wants to hear about the painful years of tedious, bitter practice, only their pleasurable result.
What no one knew was that when my act finished, I would sleep for a while if I was allowed to evade Master Lung’s clammy hands, then walk to the Bund and sing to the sun as it rose, then to its reflection on the Huangpu River. This way my voice would absorb the powerful
yang
energy from the rising sun and the
yin
from the softly flowing river. I hoped to expand my range up to heaven and down to earth, so that when it reached the highest register, instead of cracking it would be as soothing as the morning light. And when it reached the lowest register, it wouldn’t disappear but would be as deep and fathomless as the sea.
I knew the truth of the Chinese sayings: “One minute onstage is worth ten years’ cultivation offstage,” and, “You plant a melon, you harvest a melon; you plant a bean, you harvest a bean.” Success will not arrive at your doorstep if you just mope around the house instead of getting out and taking action.
But I doubted anyone in the audience tonight cared about the long, arduous hours I’d spent to perfect my four minutes of singing “Nighttime Shanghai.” However, that innocent but intelligent-looking youth I’d noticed earlier at the adjacent table, maybe he could understand.
“Thank you, Master Lung.” I smiled, taking a delicate sip of his whiskey as if swallowing all the bitterness that came with my practice. As I felt my tongue pricked by the rough-tasting liquid, in my peripheral vision I spied a pair of eyes fixed on me like a mistress’s on her patron. Just then Lung signaled to the next table, and the shy, fresh-faced young man hurried over. His tall, slim frame was covered in a gray pin-striped suit set off by a silver tie with a pearl stickpin.
I wondered, what did this refined-looking young man have to do with the uncouth Lung?
Gao, Master Lung’s most trusted bodyguard, stood up to pull a seat out next to Lung. “Young Master, please.”
Lung smiled till his eyes became two slits. “Camilla, meet my son, Jinying.”
Could he really be Lung’s son? Maybe he was adopted, or a
guoji,
a child given to a childless man by a male relative—a gift to maintain the family tree.
 
The young man and I shook hands. Wrapped around mine, his palm felt warm and cozy, like a cocoon. If I was a
yin
type of person—remote, cool, calculating, meticulous—then he definitely was a
yang
type—warm, straightforward, impetuous.
Now Lung smiled a proud, open-mouthed smile, revealing a few sparkling gold teeth. It was the first time I had detected anything like tenderness or kindness in the underworld boss. “My son just came back a few days ago from studying in the US.”
I smiled. “That’s very impressive. May I know what subject the boss’s son studies?”
The young man smiled, blushing slightly. “Law—”
Lung interrupted. “At Ha Fuk.”
The son corrected his father. “Father, it’s Har
vard
University, not Ha Fuk.”
The father laughed, watching his son admiringly, as if now he were his son’s underling. “Yes, Harr ... Fud.”
“Father, you’re embarrassing me!”
“So-ri, so-ri, son,” Lung apologized in pidgin English. The most powerful gangster in Shanghai, who never hesitated to eliminate fools, now looked like a fool himself.
I suppressed a smile. Even this ruthless gangster chief had his soft spot. No one is invincible; it’s just a matter of finding his weakness and waiting for the right time to attack it.
The young master ignored his father and turned to me. “Miss Camilla, you have the most beautiful and intriguing voice I’ve ever heard.”
“Thank you,” I said, not really meaning it. I’d been taught not to fall for flattery, because to be distracted would ruin my mission. I never forgot that even though people might praise me, it was unlikely they cared for me beyond my beauty, celebrity, and talent to entertain.
Oblivious of my bitterness, Lung again cast his son an appreciative look. “I want Jinying to help me in my business, but maybe he won’t do a good job, because he only cares about music.” He paused to pinch the sleeve of his son’s suit. “See? I even have this suit made for him at Gray to suit his Hardfud- lawyer status.”
Gray was the most expensive tailor in Shanghai, even more outrageous than the famous Paramount. I heard that each suit would cost nearly three times what it would at the expensive Paramount, which meant a tael of gold.
The young man, red-faced, turned away from his father and said to me, “Miss Camilla, my father told me about you and your legendary voice, and it’s such a pleasure and honor to finally have the chance to hear you sing and then meet you tonight.”
I was astonished that the son of the most feared gangster in China would act and talk in such an elegant and courteous way. But with such a powerful father, no one would imagine that he spoke that way from weakness. However, his father might have taken it that way, because he cast his son a disapproving look.
Abruptly Lung stood up and held out his hand to me. I let him lead me to the glass dance floor amid the scraping of patent leather shoes and stiletto heels. Lung put his arm around my waist, and we began gliding to the dreamy tune of the “Blue Danube” waltz. Some of the men, when they waltzed near us with their partners, bowed their heads respectfully as they said, “Good Evening, Master Lung.” The boss returned these greetings with a simple nod.
As we swirled in circles, my eyes glanced alternately at the orchestra and the audience. I peeked toward the young master Jinying, who was intensely watching us. I found myself tightening my arm around Lung. I’d only just met this young man; I wondered, why should I want to arouse jealousy in him?
BOOK: Skeleton Women
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