Somewhere in the labyrinth of shikumen lanes between Jinan Lu (济南路) and Hefei Lu (合肥路), the soundtrack of longtang living was underway: the clanging of spatulas against sizzling woks, screaming children sprinting down alleys, the clattering of mahjong tiles behind closed windows, loud conversations between elderly neighbors and blaring television sets echoing down darkened hallways.
Not to mention the incessant thuds of hard stone crashing through wood and concrete.
Residents were slowly bracing for the demise of one particular lane. Individual families – upon finalizing an agreed settlement – would move out, and contracted companies, often from Chongqing province, would lock up and later brick up the entrance to prevent squatters. Eventually, when approval papers trickled down from the relevant authorities, the workers would begin to tear apart the structures, knocking down walls and ripping up flooring to recycle wood, tiles and brick.
Standing outside a left-behind home, I watched a trio of middle-aged workers tidying up long planks of sturdy cherry-stained wood (“They don’t make these like they use to!” remarked a passing resident) and bundled them up to be transported for sale. By the entrance, a young boss bellowed into a mobile phone while angrily stabbing the air with his leather man-purse.
“Don’t you dare bullshit me! We agreed to deliver the goods tonight. What? What? How am I going to explain to my boss? Now you listen to me…”
Tense minutes ticked by as negotiations wound down to a reluctant compromise, after which the young man stormed off in a haze of cigarette smoke. I slipped through the doors into a noisy hive of sawing and heavy lifting. Debris covered every inch of the space. The interior was punctuated by a gaping hole in the wall, knocked through to facilitate the conveyance of the planks from the back of the house.
“Your boss sounds quite fierce.” I joked to a worker diligently sanding down the planks. His crinkly face broke into nervous laughter. I offered up some Double Happiness cigarettes I often carried with me to break the ice (I don’t smoke), which he politely refused.
Behind him, the pale green walls were covered in writing. On the right was a note by an anonymous Mr Li, “50 years old and an assistant professor seeking a suitable woman for marriage.” It was written carelessly, almost poorly but definitely lewd. “Enjoy drinking heartily. Ladies skilled in bed can call xxx-xxx-xxxx.”
As if emerging from his split personality, the writer subsequently graced the corresponding walls with two poems that I later discover were by prominent Tang poets, painted in practiced and smooth calligraphy strokes. He extracted two lines from a languorous poem in five-character sets, 山居秋暝 (“Living in the Mountain on an Autumn Night”) composed by Tang poet Wang Wei (王维) (699-759).
After the new rain in the secluded mountains,
It is getting cool, with an autumn message arriving at dusk.
The bright moon shines through the pines,
The clear stream flows over the rocks.
A stir in the bamboo groves — the washing women come home
as the swaying lotus leaves usher in fishing boats down the stream.
The spring splendor fading,
the mountains remain as an appealing abode to me.
(translated by Qu Xiaolong, 1953-)
The worker saw how mesmerized I was by the calligraphy, and said, quite pleased, “Very nice, isn’t it? I like this one about Chinese nature and scenery.”
Surprised (and feeling guilty for such bourgeois thoughts), I stared back, “You wrote these?”
He shook his head, “I notice them in a few houses we’ve worked in around here. In fact, they run all the way to the back rooms. I may not have studied much but the writing is very nice.”
Behind him was another poem in seven character sets, 枫桥夜泊 (“A Night-Mooring Near Maple Bridge”) referencing said bridge near Suzhou’s Hanshan (or Cold Mountain) Temple where a bell tolls, penned by the prominent Tang poet Zhang Ji (张继) (715-779). The words were faded from dust and wear, and upon my post-discovery research, the words haunted me.
While I watch the moon go down, a crow caws through the frost;
Under the shadows of maple-trees a fisherman moves with his torch;
And I hear, from beyond Su-chou, from the temple on Cold Mountain,
Ringing for me, here in my boat, the midnight bell.
(translated by Witter Bynner, 1881-1968)
The poem painted a dark and chilly night where a melancholic traveler’s boat pulls into the banks outside of Suzhou and is struck by the cry of crows, a glimmer of a fisherman’s light and stirred by the temple’s ringing bell. A desolate scene, a friend remarked later. Just like the darkened room we were standing in, strewn with stone, wood and memories of a family we never met.
I wondered if the worker I met understood the significance of the poignant words (I certainly didn’t then). One could say it was poetic, almost ironic, that the calligrapher’s only audience was the wreckers and movers in a house with an expiration date.
Just then, the young boss returned. Annoyed at my presence, he walked aggressively towards me and barked, “What you doing here?” I reeled back, repulsed by the sourness of his harsh cigarette breath.
From the corner of my eye, I saw the worker quickly bow down his head and resumed sanding wood. I exited quickly, leaving behind the clamor and calligraphy swirling in my head.