I was born on 9th September 1966.
My mother cut the placenta off me and said “You’re the fatal blow at the arse end of the revolution.” Mao Tse Tung had died an hour ago. I was missing my left eardrum.
When I turned three, my father died too and the “one-child” policy came into force; suddenly, there were no brothers or sisters around, we were little emperors to be maintained and my mother said “If you were later, I would have aborted you for a boy.” She wanted a man to help her and instead she had me; so the number of little boys started to grow, twenty three million of them, with no hope of a woman, future sexual orphans, the fruit of Deng’s policy and Chinese copulation.
Meanwhile, my mother was rediscovering the teachings of Confucius. It was too late for Family – the revolution had done away with it like hair on a woman’s upper lip. But Morals were resurfacing, like weeds on my rebel father’s memory. Conduct. Obedience. Sovereign and subject, husband and wife, old and young. Mother and daughter.
At sixteen, I was doing everything for her. I would brush her hair, which, when wet, was like a squawking bird caught in an oil spill. I’d massage her temples, her perfect cheekbones, the vulnerable notch in the back of her neck. I would wash her body, the salty sweat from her clothes, the floors, her hardened feet.
I’d wash away her cares.
When I reached eighteen, she fell ill. She stayed in bed for four weeks. Then, one night, she asked me to come closer. Despite the weak, yellow light of the oil lamp, her face was that of a dying woman. She was sobbing but she wasn’t crying. I held on tight to the nail on her ring finger, as she had taught me to do. I managed to get her to stop. “Come here, Mai Mai.” I moved my right ear in towards her.
“If you didn’t have that verruca on your chin, you’d be a beautiful girl.”
“It’s a mole, mother.”
“The same verruca as Mao Tse Tung. And your left eardrum… I think you were an omen, Mai Mai; an omen of his death, of the end of a world. But you were born late. You’ve never understood the importance of punctuality.”
Her lips stayed on that letter, forming a bloodless circle, like a slackened elastic band. I put my hand in front of her mouth but there was no breath coming out. So I closed her eyes, brushing her eyelids, letting her long eyelashes tickle the tips of my fingers.
Hard, isolated, impotent, no!, imposing: Shanghai’s skyscrapers are the single men of the Chinese People’s Republic. Now I know. But the day I arrived in the city, I stood looking at them in silence, worshipping them. I didn’t move until the sky turned black and they lit up, outshining the moon.
I found a job in the highest one of all: shelling hairy crabs by the thirty-ninth floor window of the Grand Hyatt Hotel. A Japanese restaurant in Shanghai – my mother wouldn’t have believed it. “South is sweet, north is salty, east is spicy and west is bitter,” she would say and I don’t know where she’d heard it from. The smell of fish got under my skin and I would repeat her words. They’d echo in the right side of my brain, isolating me, as I split pincers and legs. I was in an aquarium, as empty as the shells I was scooping out. From there, I would watch the unstoppable flow of cars that snaked around the skyscrapers, taking up every inch of tarmac. Higher up, the smog would evaporate on the top of these beasts, like charred logs after a forest fire.
One day, the cement across the street was divided into blocks: the foundations. A perimeter was outlined: the underground floors. Plywood constructions filled with little blue jackets, braces, worn old shoes. The cranes arrived.
The Communist government was bending over to keep an arrogant and self-centred capitalism alive. And it was building. Day and night, the midgets in blue worked with no safety harnesses. I would watch them, floor by floor, moving closer to me. They were exciting as they planed, welded, climbed and smoked away, thinking that no one was watching. The men were heroic – Deng’s twenty three million single men.
As the construction grew, a desire for something more was growing in me along with it. I started noticing my reflection on the glass when evening fell. The welders’ bluish lights from across the street would swallow it up in their glare, then it would reappear. My fingers shelled crustaceans as my eyes observed the perfect symmetry of my face, like a hibernating animal. Every shift, I would wait impatiently for the western women to arrive. They’d walk into the restaurant like they owned it, intolerant of our incomprehension. Their jeans that lined up perfectly with the heels of their boots, the narrow pockets on their buttocks, their make-up shimmering like the skin on a Peking duck. Their lack of naivety.
In Shanghai, there are more shopping centres than there are stars in the sky. And inside, there’s Zara, Sisley, Benetton. There’s Sephora, Yamamay, Adidas. Western women even wink from billboards, through the crowds of tiny Chinese people. It’s power, money; it’s a performance, a whole.
“Tidy yourself up and stand to attention. He’s coming!”
I put down a lobster shell and looked around, confused. My colleague was smiling, with excitement in her eyes.
“What is it?”
“Don’t you know who’s in the hotel?!”
It was like an electric shock was going through the restaurant. The Chinese clients, swollen with pride and money, were now whispering and starting to laugh like schoolchildren. Someone dared to leave their table to move closer to the entrance. Immediately, they disappeared, pretending to be looking for the bathroom.
Four “long noses” were coming down the corridor, pretending not to notice what was going on around them. One had cropped white hair; the others wore it long, framing the furrows of geological eras on their old faces. They were dressed in purple, red and black, their bodies as dry as fruit in the desert. The manager of the Grand Hyatt came before them deferentially, backing away like a crab.
“But who are they?”
“Shhhhh! You’re hopeless, Mai Mai.”
After a moment of doubt, they headed in our direction. I smoothed down my uniform and stood to attention. “Sushi bar,” said one of them, with the fleshy lips of a western woman. The four sat down at the bar. The manager gave me a nod of understanding, as if he knew me. Then he stood behind them, keeping an eye on us. He was like a Red Guard. I set up hurriedly, along with my colleague, whose hands were shaking, as the cooks sharpened the knives and the waiters closed the restaurant.
The foreigners spoke English in the relaxed tone of people used to each other’s company. Keeping their glasses full was quite a job. They emptied them every time there was a moment of silence. But the one with the woman’s lips took little sips and always set the glass down half-full. I hesitated, not knowing whether to refill it. He said something to me. I didn’t hear or understand, but I felt a shiver down my spine. To work at the Grand Hyatt, I had to speak English fluently and the manager was looking at me.
He said something else.
I smiled, offering him my right ear. I couldn’t decipher what he was saying. The manager stepped in. “Do you understand what he’s saying to you?! Our guest would have preferred to find flowers like you in the Imperial Suite, instead of the pineapples in the welcome basket.”
The manager was waiting for me in front of the service door. “I was afraid you’d gone, Mai Mai.”
Since he knew my name, I imagined that he had read on my CV that I was an orphan, I came from Sichuan province and spoke fluent English. He also knew that I would do what he was asking because he didn’t ask. In the guest lift, he pressed the eighteenth floor. Spa. It was said to be the best in Shanghai and the foreign women were queuing up to book themselves in, even just for an hour. They came out soft and gentle. I had imagined the place like a “yuque”.
“You are very lucky, Mai Mai. Any number of girls would love to be in your position.”
The lift doors opened. The yellow lights reflected off the bamboo canes lining the walls. Banana leaves fluttered under the air conditioning; water trickled gently down sloped channels, like mountain streams.
The women were waiting, standing to attention. “Come here, sweetness.” “It’ll take a century, sir!” “I’ll help you. Take off your coat.”
Suddenly, I was naked on a table. A dozen hands seemed to keep time to a ballad for violin as they filed my finger and toenails, washed my hair, shot a jet of steam in my face, spread boiling wax over my smooth thighs.
“If you don’t relax, it’s no use! You have no idea what I would give. He’s so sexy. Hold your legs up. Liu, spread her cheeks apart… good, like that.”
A boiling lava was poured onto my anus, puckered up in pain. It was only the beginning. As the wax was ripped off, my eyes filled with tears, which immediately evaporated into the steam. I didn’t say a word. If I passed this test, I would be like them. Those fascinating pale creatures who paid to be tortured.
“Aren’t you proud, Mai Mai? He’s the sexiest man in the world!”
I whispered “Who is?”
“Have you heard her? She’s got a country-girl accent.”
“Of course, she doesn’t realise.”
“Eh, Naiyue, how do I wax her here?”
“Cut it all off. Just leave a little strip above the slit.”
“Like a motorway barrier?”
“Exactly. They like it that way. They’re so strange. You have to tell us about it, Mai Mai. I’ve heard they’ve got enormous privates.”
She laughs. “And who told you that?”
“Stop it, Liu. More importantly, I wonder if it’ll fit in this little new potato.”
“Are you really still a virgin, Mai Mai?”
I tried to answer and inhaled steam.
“Better late than never,” concluded Naiyue.
To me, it sounded like my mother’s voice.
On the eighty sixth floor, standing in front of the red varnished door of the Imperial Suite, my stomach was churning.
The denim miniskirt was squeezing my bum, which was still red from the waxing. My nipples half poked through the silver mesh vest, irritating them. My walk in those high heels was as unsteady as a lotus after a ripple in the pond. Later, I understood that true fear is being completely in the dark and my mother had told me nothing about sex.
The manager was watching me from the end of the corridor. Circles of light illuminated the grey marble floor all the way to his impatient form. He poked out amongst the leaves of a vase of calla lilies, convinced that he was hidden behind them. His hands fidgeted nervously, pushing me on from a distance. Then he adopted a serious expression to remind me of the “three submissions and the four virtues.” What I was about to do was my duty.
The second the door opened, I said “With the compliments of the manager, who is a great admirer of yours.”
The guy’s legs were sheathed in dark jeans and were so long and thin he looked like a cartoon. He looked at me, uncomprehending. I repeated the phrase I’d memorised. He said “Is the gift you?” He smiled, making the diamond stuck on his incisor glint, and pulled me inside. The air was thick with smoke. From the living room of the suite, the lights of Shanghai twinkled from afar; it was another planet. I had never been up so high. I was overcome with a feeling of vertigo. I placed one hand against the varnished wall of the hall, amongst the bright red, green and blue geometric designs. I tried to keep my balance on the thin heels as my knees shook, making my ankles wobble. “She’s a gift from the hotel!” the guy cried. The suite was full of people. Someone started laughing. A dark-haired woman with a gaunt, pale face was sitting singing at the piano. Her soul seemed to be falling apart with every word she sang. Notes of Chinese melancholy with the energetic rhythm of “long noses”. Two girls dressed in white were dancing. They arched their bare backs, slowly grinding their pelvises together, one with her hands in the other’s tangle of curls. The guy with the diamond on his tooth was asking me a question. “Toilet?” I said. He pointed to a door behind a wardrobe. I took refuge in there, locking it behind me. I pressed my palm down onto my sex, which was pulsing, burned by the wax. I wet a small towel. I lifted the miniskirt up to my waist and put it into the voile panties Naiyue had slipped me into. Sighing in relief, I turned towards the mirror to look at myself under the blinding spotlights. My legs were awkwardly splayed to make room for the towel, which was starting to drip. I slipped my hand in and heard a little cry. I don’t trust sounds. They vary depending on how I tilt my head. So, for a second, I thought that sigh was mine too. I moved closer to the mirror, curious about the make-up they had put on me at the spa. And, slowly, it opened. I took a step back. In the shower, the “long nose” with the cropped white hair was smiling.
A blonde with skin the colour of marble was leaning against him, as he held her by the waist and squeezed her breast like a puffer fish. Her buttery thighs and black silk wrap skirt were open. Crouched at her feet, there was a slight boy, his shoulder blades jutting out under his cotton vest. He didn’t turn around but grabbed the light hair between her legs and pulled it upwards. The flesh opened like a flower. The boy’s little pointy tongue slipped into the slit of her light pink sex, parting her lips. Then his mouth plunged into her, biting and sucking as if he was devouring a fruit.
I tried not to look but the inside of the shower was covered with mirrors and that image was reflected all around. The beautiful, naked western woman, used by old men and children alike.
The blonde held her breath. She puckered her scarlet lips and her teeth, marked by lipstick, came out to nibble them. She spread her knees, letting the man behind her hold her up, as she slid one hand into the boy’s hair to pull him towards her. She was rubbing her sex into his face, not letting him breathe. She was moaning loudly, gasping without holding back. That foreigner was enjoying herself and the men were accessories, like the steel stilettos which wound up her ankles in a spiral or the large diamond shining at the base of her throat. Maybe I smiled; I know I felt a warmth in my insides. Then I realised that I still had one hand in my panties. I felt ashamed and threw the wet towel into the basket. I wanted to leave, but lost my balance and crouched on the floor. The “long nose” made a funny face, raised his head and began to laugh loudly, showing all his teeth. The young boy turned to look at me. It was a woman. Her eyes were so sweet. We stared at each other, so close that I could smell the acidic smell of the blonde’s sex on her face. I didn’t understand and, unable to drag my eyes away from hers, I got up. A second later, I was out of the bathroom.
There were people in front of the door and I couldn’t summon up the courage to leave. But perhaps I was trying to find the courage to stay. At one end of the living room, I recognised another “long nose” from the sushi bar. He was wearing a skin-tight leopard-print shirt and a black bandana on his head; a cigarette hung from the lower lip that looked like my mother’s, slackened by death. He passed by me like a cloud. He gave me his glass of champagne, whispering: “Lips, tongue, breast, clitoris, glans, anus, testicles.” Then he laughed. He asked me if he was pronouncing Chinese properly. I nodded, drinking. A warm sensation in my stomach made me feel nauseous. He asked me to repeat “I want your enormous dick inside my little girl pussy” to the third “long nose” from the sushi bar, who was playing guitar on the sofa. He had a naive, almost senile, expression and wore a long gold and ruby chain which mingled with the hair on his chest. He listened politely, laughed loudly and asked me to sit down. He put the guitar to one side and started to divide up lines of white powder on the cover of a book about butterflies. His fingers, bedecked with jewels, moved over the insects’ multi-coloured wings, as if they were mating. He handed me a metal straw, miming what I should do. I obeyed. My brain filled with convictions and false certainties. I looked around, elated. Even the old man with the cigarette was gone. Propped up on the piano, he was keeping time to the dark-haired woman’s music, with a smile as wide as a Mongolian tent plastered on his face. I went over; I stared at the pianist’s hands, running over the keys like millipedes. She raised her sad, foreign eyes, looked at me and smiled. By now, the old man’s cigarette was just ash. It kept hanging from his lip for a second, before it fell. Then I smelled burning. But he didn’t notice. He was laughing. At that moment, the door at the end of the living room opened. For a beat, everyone stopped. So I looked towards the Imperial Suite. A few seconds later, a young Chinese girl came out, looking flustered. On impulse, I crossed the room and went up to her. She was licking her thin lips, the skin on her chin scratched and red. She smiled, surprised. “I’ve spent two hours with the most famous man in the world.”
“And he wanted to make me come too. Like I mattered.”
The dark-haired woman kept singing. A guy with black hair was accompanying her on a drum. The rhythm picked up. In a second room, the old man with the cigarette and the one with the cocaine were challenging each other to billiards. They were chalking the cues, giggling like kids. The Chinese girl kept talking to me. I looked towards the exit. I hesitated. I backed towards the door. Gently, I turned the handle. Just as I was opening it, someone grabbed me by the arm. “I’d forgotten about the prize tribute,” he said. The guy with the diamond on his tooth took me back to outside the suite. He knocked. After a few seconds, the man with the lips appeared. The other pushed me into the room, lit up by the lights of Shanghai’s skyscrapers. I stood in silence. A piano concerto was playing softly on the radio. In a corner, there was a table full of silver cloches. A bottle of mineral water was sticking out of an ice bucket. He, wearing the hotel’s bathrobe, was rubbing down his wet hair. He checked his messages on the flashing telephone, as if he were alone. He dropped the towel on the floor, then the robe. Despite his age, he had a body made of skin, tendons and nerves, every inch of which seemed to be functional. He was looking for something amongst the sheets, ignoring me. Instinctively, I took a step towards him. I wouldn’t go back to cleaning shellfish. I slipped off the silver vest; I would stay in the Imperial Suite. I unbuttoned the denim miniskirt, letting it fall; I was destined for him. The voile panties touched the ground just as he found his briefs and slipped them on. He took two spring rolls, bit into one and gave me the other. His eyes were shining with light and different colours. He gathered up my clothes and handed them to me. Then he smiled, slipped on a purple silk nightgown and disappeared through a door.
I knew that he wouldn’t come back but I waited. I was disappointed, humiliated and my anger was building up. I felt like a sperm whale, washed ashore by the receding tide. I mashed the spring roll into his underwear drawer. Then I left the Imperial Suite, walking through all those people with tears in my eyes. I counted the steps to the lift and shut myself inside. People flowed in and out; I stood immobile. On the way up, the floors sprung towards the sky and I grew short of breath. On the way down, I plunged into the darkness of what would become of me.
Finally, he came in. He was wearing a grey suit and tie. He pushed number twenty. I was small compared to him; I’m small compared to all “long noses”. I brushed against him: he smelled like soap, like starched shirt. On the second floor, we were left alone. His gaze followed my bare legs up to the curve of my thighs, barely covered by the skirt, the points of my tiny breasts under the vest. Then he looked me in the eye. I held his gaze until the seventh floor, with my heart beating fast; by the eighth floor, it was too late to turn back. I licked my dry lips; I kept swallowing. I was scared. I was aroused. By the tenth floor, his sex had swollen up under the light fabric of his trousers. I took a step back. On a whim, he took my little hand and closed it around it; he was pressing down on it, making it move almost imperceptibly. I could feel the skin sliding on his hard member, feel its heat.
On the fifteenth floor, a wrinkled lady wearing make-up got in. We moved apart. The woman was going to the spa on the eighteenth floor. I had a moment of panic, scared of being seen by Naiyue, and hid behind him, moving closer still. When the door closed again, my hand sought him out once more. He smiled, shaking his head, and raised his left arm to show me his wedding ring. I don’t think he wanted to. Over time, I’ve learned not to pay any attention to what men think they don’t want. But I still carry with me that foreigner’s expression, with his eyes of ice. He was trying to resist, knowing that I wouldn’t give up. I fell into his arms, forcing him to take me. We were on the twentieth floor. He lifted me up – I was so light that it didn’t seem to take any effort.
After a few seconds, I could see the platform of the skyscraper under construction from his bed. I had come down to the twentieth floor and the midgets had become men: I could make out their faces, the curves of their shoulders, their muscular arms. The foreigner’s words sounded mysterious and full of a vulgar fascination: I didn’t know what language he was speaking but I was sure he was saying all that he’d never had the courage to say to a woman. The vest was on the floor. The miniskirt balled up in a corner. He circled my waist in his hands, managing to make his hands meet; he slid his tongue over my nipple which hardened into a stiff flower; he pushed it between my teeth, intertwining it with mine. It was smooth and very wet. It reminded me of a lychee, without the freshness.
In westerners’ eyes, you can read the secrets guarded by our slanted eyelids. In his, there was an aggressive light. I tried to convey my confusion, my heat. In a decisive move, he ripped off my underwear. Instinctively, I screamed and his hand covered my mouth, his eyes on mine once more; he was pressing between my legs and I was scared. I thought “Maybe different races can’t do it”. Like trying to fit a banana into a baby chick’s bottom. His hard member like the skyscrapers of Shanghai, he would tear my flesh and I’d be dead in his hairy, blond arms.
His hand was tucked between my legs; his fingers sliding between my labia, stopping under my clitoris, making it tremble; I was leaking a hot liquid which made my sex swell, to the beat of some mysterious heart in my groin. He collected it on his fingers and pushed them down my throat. I was suffocating, trying to close my mouth around his freckled knuckles. Nothing in my life had been as liberating as my desire against that westerner’s roughness.
Then he rubbed his member against my slit and, with an emphatic lunge, he penetrated me. A dagger plunged into me. I felt a pain in my guts. Deadly, sharp, pushing out the tears. He was crushing me and I couldn’t move; he was rubbing against me and his hair was scratchy. His breathing grew faster – an acidic puff of whisky which was suffocating. The jolts pushed me against the headboard, banging my head. I stretched out my arms to prop myself up. Then I closed my eyes, turning my head on the pillow, placing my right ear downwards. In the silence, in the crook of his arm, I caught his western smell. Then I spread my legs, lifting them. Until my sweat mixed with his, until we were sliding against one another. He grabbed me by the hair, forcing me to look at him. He bit my lip. I tasted the tang of blood and turned once again towards the window. When you’re deaf, everything becomes intense. I was looking at the welder’s flames in the night, as the pain intensified and became something equally penetrating. My breasts were stretched, my stomach full, my lips swollen from his bites. It was my game I was learning, the game where I would become sparks and fireworks. I focused on the workers and devoted my body to the men, through the thrusts that the foreigner was landing in my tiny pelvis. I counted nine gentle thrusts and one deep one… Suddenly, he pulled out of me and squirted semen over my breasts, lips, eyes. “The Yellow Emperor made love to 1200 women without spilling a drop of his sperm and that is how he became immortal.” The words from my father’s Tao of Sex came to mind. “Coitus is a sexual battle in which one fights to receive the other’s vital fluid, whilst avoiding releasing one’s own.” I imagined a point of crossover between Taoism’s laissez faire and Confucius’ hard work, between poetry and determination, between my father and my mother.
“Sexual satisfaction lies in mastering your own emotions, whilst stirring up those of others.” Moving upwards, in the lift of the highest skyscraper, towards the Imperial Suite of this new world. Gaining power, becoming “western” by shagging Chinese men.
The foreigner lowered his gaze, eyes wide with astonishment. Now he was confused. In that strange tongue, he was telling me that he didn’t know I was a virgin. I nodded. I poured him a whisky, then wet a towel and washed his genitals. I pressed his temples between the tips of my fingers; I massaged his cheekbones, the softness at the back of his neck. He seemed satisfied, at peace. The blood on the bedspread had lost its power to shock him, he was buying another.
On the nightstand lay the hotel notepad, with a new, sharp pencil. I moved it delicately over the paper. With a calligrapher’s swish, I asked for $1000 for my first night of love.
Today, I have twenty three million sexual orphans to keep me busy and, based on my turnover, I can say that I have been a fatal blow at the arse end of the revolution.
From the author’s collection of short stories: L’Idée Fixe (French), published by Editions Naïve 2013.
Photograph of Shanghai by Wechselberger