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Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweetby Jamie Ford
• • •
The years before the war forced everyone in Shanghai to choose: Nationalists or Communists? Resist the Japanese invaders or collaborate with them? Even passivity became a choice, a gamble, a hand consciously played. As for me, Song Yuhua, my hand was forced—I belonged to Du Yuesheng, and though I served him in public, through my education, rather than in private, as did other women, I was his indentured property, to do with as he pleased until my thirty-third birthday. Only in my secret mind was I free, so it was there, naturally, that I staked everything of my life that mattered.
It was 1936; war was coming. Conflict with foreign powers had been eating at China for a century, since the Opium Wars first partitioned port cities such as Shanghai into foreign-controlled districts. We had already grown accustomed to being colonized, but then Japans southward expansion from its base in Manchuria turned into an all-out invasion. The Japanese ate up more and more of the northeast, and drew dangerously close to Peking, yet still Chiang Kai-shek did not fight them. His Nationalist armies fought only the Communists, who he believed posed the greater threat. When the Imperial Army pushed hard enough, he simply withdrew and conceded territory to Japan. The wrath of heaven and the resentment of men could be felt everywhere. To so many of us, Chiangs policy, “first internal pacification, then external resistance,” seemed like treason.
What choice did I have? I joined his enemies on the left, so secretly it was ren bu zhi, gui bu jue, neither known by man nor felt by ghosts. At last I was living for something, and by then I didnt care if it led to punishment or even death. I knew I was going to die anyway, maybe in the war that was about to engulf me and Lin Ming and Thomas Greene, or maybe, if my secret was betrayed, at the wrong end of a gun in some Shanghai alley. For all the glitter of its golden era, the city during those years dealt death and life in equal measure.
Ye Shanghai was what everyone called that time and place—Night in Shanghai, after the popular song by Zhou Xuan. It was a world of pleasure, permission, and nightlife, which was destined to evaporate the moment Shanghai fell to Japan. Jazz was the sun around which this paradise revolved, the rhythm that drove its nights, and agents like my brother Lin Ming made it possible by recruiting jazz men from across the sea and managing their lives in Shanghai. Those were the years of the great black orchestras from America who filled the ballrooms, bringing a marvelous sound that had never been heard in China before. For years after the Americans were gone, people remembered them, especially Thomas Greene. I used to hear people say theyd heard him play, or theyd danced to his orchestra, or they had it on good authority that he had been born in a cotton field. I knew all this was nonsense, and kept quiet, for almost no one really knew him. I did, knew him and loved him, more than this life would ever allow me to love any other. This was the one secret I never gave up.
Thomas greene awakened on his first morning in Shanghai to the creaking wheels of a cart and a mans low-pitched singing call. For a long and dearly held moment he thought he was young again, back in Baltimore, with his mother still alive, hearing the cry of the strawberry man who brought his mule-clopping cart up Creel Street in the summer. But then he felt the snap of winter air against his face, and he remembered he was under silk quilts, in China.
The cry sounded again, this time answered by the crowing of neighborhood chickens. He slid out, shivered over to the French doors, and parted the curtains to look down. It was a night soil collector, his musical cry opening doors up and down the lane as housewives set out their night stools. Thomass house had modern plumbing and pull-chain lavatories and many other extravagances since, as Lin Ming had put it the day before when theyd pulled up to the place in a motorcar, the Kings were one of the most popular orchestras in Shanghai, and he was their bandleader.
A forest of pops sounded from the south, over the rooftops. Later he would learn it was Japanese soldiers at firing drills on the proving ground below the Hangzhou-Shanghai railhead, but on that first morning, since Lin Ming had told him all about the Japanese invading China, he thought for a chaotic and dreamlike moment that the time had come.
But then it grew quiet again, and he saw the night soil man continuing up the lane unhurried, and the women still opening and closing their doors. No war today. Just his first rehearsal at nine oclock, when within eight bars, the rest of the orchestra would know he was a fraud.
Not that he was unskilled; on the contrary. He started classical training young, with his mother, then other teachers, and finally in the classrooms at Peabody, where colored students who had shown exceptional promise on their instruments could sit in the back and learn harmony, notation, theory, and composition, so long as they kept quiet. The piano was what people aspired to in his family, a line of ambition that ran through his mother, his grandmother, and now him. When he was small, before his father died in the Great War, his mother used to take him to private salons over in Washington, D.C., to hear polished black musicians play chamber music for hushed audiences. By the time he was nineteen, he himself was performing in starched evening wear. But just a couple of years later, the stock market crashed, and it seemed like no oned had a nickel to spare since. Teaching dried up, and accompanist work, and playing for church choirs. For a time he got by playing piano for the movies in the theater, but then the talkies came in, and that was that. No one was up in the money, except them that were already rich.
But finally, luck got him work sight-reading the classics at a rich mans party in Guilford, and word of mouth got him some more. He did not land many jobs, just enough to give his mother a respectable sum toward their rent and food. He should have been happy with that, times being so hard, yet he was always on eggshells because some of these engagements came his way on account of the fact that his looks were light enough to confuse people. He may have been caramel-toned, with eyes as dark as ink, but his features were fine-drawn enough to attract second looks on the street. If he shaved his hair close, he had people asking his nationality. It didnt hurt that he was a classical player, whom everyone expected to be vaguely foreign, possibly European, though surely from one of the southern countries. When asked his background, he always weighed his answer, since as colored, he got two dollars, but it was five when he performed as a Turk, or a Portuguese—which he did, whenever he thought he could get away with it.
He cracked the wooden wardrobe painted with Chinese scenes to find his meager stack of folded clothes, which seemed to have been arranged on the shelf yesterday before he even made it up the stairs. At home he had been proud of these suits, no, depended on them; they were his badge, the uniform that showed him to be a man of gentle education, fluent in the music of Europe. He had spent his whole life mastering the role, and now—he was here. He knotted his tie and buttoned his threadbare jacket like he was going to a funeral. In a way, he was.
Downstairs, he came upon the servants eating at a round table in the kitchen, but they waved him insistently into the dining room, where he found a table set for one, with china on white damask, all because he was the bandleader. Chen Ma bustled in to serve him some of the rice gruel they were eating in the kitchen along with buttered bread and enough eggs for six men. Hunger overwhelmed him, and when he had satisfied himself and started to slow down, Uncle Hua came in from the kitchen to stand over him.
“Master clothes blong low class,” Hua sniffed.
“No kidding.” Thomas lifted a shoulder in response, and went on eating with real silver that felt heavy as liquid in his hand. He had seen silverware, of course he had, in rich houses where he had played at parties, but this was the first time he had eaten with it. His mother would be proud; she had made their little place an island of manners and gentility, with her fringed lampshades and her handmade antimacassars, and the exquisite sonatas that trilled out from her parlor every evening. She played the organ and taught piano at the church, and between the two of them, they made do, at least until she got sick.
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