Tom Bradley

Part I.

The bourgeoisie has, historically, played a most revolutionary role.

---Karl Marx

In the years leading up to the most recent massacre in Tiananmen Square, I lived in a seedy provincial city of southern China. I spent a lot of time at this town's only joint-venture hotel, a forlorn affair, which rose up from among the sooty prole hovels on all four sides like a cathedral to the god of reflective windows.

On the lower floors, where the view through this wobbly glass offered something less than a lordly condescension over the squalor, the rich American and Japanese guests (who never showed up) would've been able to look directly into standard Chinese lives. They would have seen the natives hauling drinking water and sewage to and from a central pit, and slaughtering little black dogs for a month of soups. But these lower windows were discreetly covered on the inside with a kind of plasticky pre-fab tapestry depicting hybrid Buddhist/pop goddesses dancing flat-chested among pastel mountain streams.

My wife suspected me of taking advantage of the various half-hearted pleasure chambers concealed behind that slick tapestry. But, no, my goal always lay deeper: straight through the kitchen and into the lower intestine of this institution.

I would palm a steamed bun or something off a bamboo rack as I hunched past, to ballast my stomach for the secret greeting ritual with the weird homunculi who hung around the loading dock. Before I could begin to exchange words with these guys --- who looked more pussy-whipped than anybody I've ever seen outside an English department --- I had to re-impress them with my unsqueamishness, my lack of citified pride.

We shared the spit-off challenge: I voided mucus on their feet, and they did the same for me, like Tom Sawyer or Gilgamesh assaulting the senses of a potential buddy before the all-important male bonding process could begin.

These were model peasants from the only "closed" quadrant of jungle in the province. They produced model tree fruits: lichees, longans, but especially loquats --- enormous, aphrodisiac, purgative, deemed worthy of inclusion on the menu of the hotel's hard currency restaurant.

After the spit-off, my pals would wipe their lips and shoes. They would express their customary amazement that, number one, I was still not black-haired or short and, number two, that such a person would deign to speak the Chi-coms' lingo, which they'd only learned in order to do business. They even tried, now and then, to give me a whole crate of their medicinal loquats, gratis.

They had become rich off the new Shanghai Stock Exchange. Further investments of their collective wealth in the even more corrupt bond market hadn't hurt their bank balance, either. They were embodiments of the normally preposterous myth which most urban Chinese, prole and bourgeois alike, have convinced themselves is true: that the post-Cultural Revolution peasant is a millionaire.

These pals of mine drove brand new 2500-kuai Zhonghua sedans. The only private cars manufactured in the People's Republic and the first privately owned in this entire province, the Zhonghuas were made almost entirely of plastic; only the engine, transmission and suspension were adulterated with a little metallic content. They parked these treasures on a rice commune outside town and delivered their loquats on borrowed hand carts, because they got better prices if the manager of the hotel had reason to suspect they weren't quite so fabulously wealthy.

They always came in groups of ten, all men; and no group ever returned until about the thirtieth or fortieth time around. I hadn't hung around long enough to see more than a couple of tens twice, but that didn't prevent me from developing close friendships with the others; for they were one man, in a sense, and all knew everything that had transpired between their brothers-in-law and the big lovable foreign devil, me.

They were honest-to-god aboriginals, and they practiced certain more or less bizarre rituals that gave headaches to local political theorists, who had to reconcile these people's behavior with the Marxist dogma that the first humans around here had practiced a basic form of communism.

The Lolos (as they called themselves) liked me inordinately, mysteriously, and kept asking me to defy the provincial authorities and come visit them on their closed mountainside. And I was sorely tempted. Judging from the rumors I'd heard about their home life, a visit was something not to be missed.

The men looked like any other millionaire peasants, but their women, an amazon class or something, reputedly went around half-naked and wore extravagant pagan headdresses fashioned from dish towels. But if you wanted to see these exotica, you had to go there --- a legal impossibility for a foreigner. According to a strict reactionary reading of the regulations, I could be sent home tomorrow as a spy just for thinking about visiting this forbidden zone.

It was said, though, that even a Maoist couldn't blame a person for stumbling up there and innocently mistaking it for a tourist trap. With its tidy paved footpath winding between the men's idealized hovels, this place apparently looked for all the world like the flawlessly spiffy versions of native villages contrived from cardboard and televised everywhere on National Minority Day.

Of course, the modernization of their homes would be the work of the prosperous aboriginals themselves. They'd maintained their own immemorial basic design, but had festooned everything with solar panels, television antennae, washing machine hoses and so on, and had even added lean-to style carports for their plastic Zhonghua sedans to nestle in. Every structure sported at least one window air conditioner unit.

But the preponderance of domestic goods, as opposed to the flawed but superior Japanese appliances dumped on other rich people and work units, served as a reminder that these people were, after all, not of the "Han" majority, and therefore would forever lack the connections to get their hands on the best.

There was talk of the Lolomen chartering one of the new private Shanghai based turbojets and going shopping in California after the next loquat harvest. The queen, though eager as anybody else to get her hands on a Frigidaire, was having trouble finding a precedent in their supposedly 15,000 year-long history for such a radical move. But it looked as though she was about ready to loosen up and allocate the funds --- which had been earned and nurtured through the burgeoning capitalistic practices of the men, of course, and turned over to Mommy.

In this socialist paradise, these members of "the Great family of the Chinese Nation" had been compelled to pay for and even install their own power lines. No government agency was about to drag giant spools up jagged cliffs for the mere sake of a minority with revolting stone-age customs, whose women showed an unpleasant tendency to roll boulders on top of intruders' vehicles. But electricity these enterprising folks had, and plenty of things to shoot it through.

Nevertheless, my Han friends assured me that the single visual element in the scene that distinguished it from other peasant villages (they were all at least this well-appointed, according to the urbanites) was the conspicuous absence of an infant girl graveyard. This alone set the Lolos off from their mainstream country colleagues as one of the fifty-six national minorities with no birth restrictions.

Even the dynastic tax collectors had seen only the men's quarters. The women ostensibly had magnificent secret caves in the igneous side of the mountain, one huge, heartbreaking ballroom per woman, free of metal and plastic, and illuminated, as they'd been for more than a dozen millennia, by lit castor beans, strung fragrantly from bamboo rods. I had been privileged enough to see these mansions sketched with loquat stems in crankcase drippings under the hotel's loading docks. That's as close as any barbarian devil had ever gotten to these high-tone jungle-marchionesses.

Go on to Part II


Go Home     Go Up