Chengdu - Now and Then

Chapter 3: Dark Clouds and Silver Linings – Part 2

<= |Chengdu: Now and Then|=>

In 1994, a Dragon Ball cards collection frenzy hit Chengdu’s youth. Red vending boxes popped up everywhere in front of little shops around the city. Inserting in a 1 RMB coin allowed you to turn the black dial on the vending box one full cycle in the clockwise direction. At the end of the dial rotation, you would find one of three types of cards from a slit at the bottom of vending box: a plain card, a sticker card or a double layered sticker card. A plain card had a Dragon Ball character drawn on the front side and a dragonball with various number of stars on the back. A sticker card, rarely appeared out of a vending box, had a full size sticker covering the card. A double sticker cards, with two layers of stickers, were so rare that I have never seen or heard anyone finding one from a vending box.

We called the double sticker cards Reincarnation cards because of their graphic depictions of a major character reincarnating. There were two types of Reincarnation cards as far as I remember. We distinguished the two Reincarnation cards by calling them the Little and the Big Reincarnation cards. At the height of the Dragon Ball cards frenzy, the Little Reincarnation card, in a pristine condition, was worth upwards of 200 RMB. The Big Reincarnation card was rumored to worth over 1000 RMB, which was several months of salary for a dual income family working in Seamless Steel Pipe Mill in Chengdu, one of the largest city employers. The card collection frenzy continued to heat up towards to the end of 1994. By that winter, two boys from a different class bid against each other for my card collection book. I eventually sold it for 400 RMB. I had never held that much money in my hands in my life.

1994-10-22 Fall Field Trip.jpg
5th grade field trip, fall 1994.

Tsu’ahnYan, with his generous allowances, was the biggest collector of rare sticker cards in school. We traded cards occasionally and traded intelligence often on which vending boxes had the best sticker to plain card ratio. One day in the spring of 1995, I came back from lunch with MulFey and found one of my collection books disappeared along with my pencil box from my backpack. I was immediately alarmed, thinking that a Gai Wer had slipped into our dormitory quarters and stolen my stuff. I started asking around to see if anyone had seen anybody suspicious. The boys all responded negatively, but with an unusual sense of aloofness. I was agitated by the strange way they looked at me. Eventually, one of the boys told me that I should go ask Tsu’ahnYan who was playing soccer in the back alley behind the school.

I found Tsu’ahnYan with a bunch of boys kicking a ball under a Ginkgo tree, which had been a fixture to the neighborhood for hundreds of years. He immediately denied having ever seen my collection book. As he was saying that his eyes glanced towards the Ginkgo tree, I followed his eyes and found a corner of my pencil box sticking out from behind the tree. I ran over to pick it up: half of the pencil box was crushed by repeated pounding of a rock. I was furious. “Where is my collection book!” I charged at Tsu’ahnYan. Before I knew it, five boys stood in a half circle around me with Tsu’ahnYan in the middle. A small crowd of kids started to gather in the alley watching the altercation develop. “Lay off, Shunwer, you took his cards first. We found his cards in your pencil box. Your collection book is the payment of your theft!” Said a boy in the row of five. “You idiot! That doesn’t even make any sense.” I quipped. Then I saw a friendly face in the crowd a few steps away. “Funzer, tell them what kind nonsense this is! Why would I take the cards and leave it in my pencil box for everyone to see?” Funzer had no responses: he clenched his jaw and avoided my gaze. There was a moment of silence; time seemed to have stopped. Then Funzer moved. He turned to look at Tsu’ahnYan whom started smiling. It was a menacing smile that chiseled into my memory and haunted me for an interpretation for years to come.

Then I felt two boys shoveling me at the same time. I turned and punched the boy on the left. He was my lab partner in my science class, son of a factory worker couple in the local steel pipe mill facing imminent layoff as major industries in Chengdu were privatizing in the mid-90s. Then I felt a sharp pang to my left cheek: the boy to Tsu’ahnYan’s right, son of two lecturers at the University of Electronic Science and Technology of China, had punched me in the face. He was a friend of mine, too. His parents invited me to dinners at their house many times in the prior years. Their food was really salty. I hit the ground hard.

I closed my eyes and held my arms over my head in a fetal position on the ground; I was expecting a beating but it didn’t come. Instead, I heard Mulfey’s voice, “Tzua’tzi Tzua’tzi (What the hell is happening?). ShunTzai was with me all day. I’m going to tell on all of you to the headmaster!” I wasn’t with him all day but I was glad to have an ally. I stood up with Mulfey’s help. Knowing that I couldn’t possibly win this fight even with Mulfey on my side. I had no interest to snitch on these guys; I only wanted to walk away and move on.

In the following months, I slowly learned Tsu’ahnYan’s capacity to influence everyone around me. It seemed that I no longer had any friends in my class except Mulfey, who was fearless but also isolated. I stopped playing soccer or basketball with the boys during recess that year. Everywhere I went I had to make sure that I stayed away from some of the boys in my class or a fight would surely ensue. I was sad to have lost my friends, especially Funzer with whom I spent most of my free time growing up. On the other hand, I made friends with many girls in my class. It didn’t seem optimal at the time, but it wasn’t so bad in hindsight.

Coming back to Chengdu always brought me back the memories of sunny days in the early years of elementary school but even more memorable were the dark days in fifth grade. I stayed in touch with some of the boys in my class, mostly the ones who weren’t involved in the confrontations. A couple of them in the core group with Tsu’ahnYan reached out to me a few years later. We chatted about the good days in the 90s: the football games we played and classes we ditched together. We never talked about the fights we had. Whenever the name Tsu’ahnYan came up in a conversation, there was always a prolonged silence.

My phone is buzzing on the bedside stand waking me up from my last few minutes of nap before Erba, my uncle, chases me out of my bed. I reach over expecting a text from my wife who is on the US Pacific Time. Instead, I find a WeChat message. “Are you back, ShunTzai?” It’s Mulfey. I type a quick response, “Want to meet up?” “Of course, my brother. Welcome home.”

His next texts include his current location and the location where we are to meet. I pull up a navigation app to figure out how to get to him by subway. When I was traveling in China in 2007 before starting medical school in Chicago, I remember hearing a rumor that Chengdu was planning a subway but the construction was difficult due to Chengdu’s geological constructs underground. Chengdu started its construction of a subway in 2010. By the spring of 2018, Chengdu had already completed the seventh line of its subway system, which encircles the city between Second and Third Ring Road, connecting all the previously built straight lines to make a spider web on the map. One of the stations of line #7 is a block away from my Erba’s condo, which makes traveling around the city very convenient.

Walking down the spotless sidewalk among rows of high rises makes me wonder if this is truly Chengdu. I remember Chengdu being a lot more chaotic and a lot less clean. The newly constructed subway station is pristine. A young girl in front of the vending machine next me gives me a smirk as I pull out a couple bills to stuff into the machine to buy a ticket with implanted chip. People in China seem to be moving on to a cashless lifestyle quickly. While Apple pay is flopping in the US, mobile pay technology is taking off everywhere in China. I get the feeling that cash may not be accepted next time I visit Chengdu. Even my eighty year old nainai is pulling out her cell phone to pay for groceries at open air markets. I shrug my shoulders and respond the girl with a grimace. I roamed this city before you were born, young lady. I am a Chengduren fossil.

The platform in the subway station is enclosed by glass screen doors, which only open when the trains arrive, to maintain temperature control in the station and to prevent gruesome suicides. The trains come frequently. By the time I step out of Gao Sheng Qiao Station in the southwest part of Chengdu, Mulfey’s smiling face is already waiting for me.

成都茶馆.jpg
A common tea house setup in Chengdu: bamboo chairs and tables set under a pavilion covered by massive trees and vines. These tea houses get packed on weekends and holidays. My family used to bring bags of sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, spicy beef jerky and roasted peanuts to a local tea house and spend an entire day chatting and sitting in a sunny courtyard.

We sit down at small tea house with old school bamboo chairs and chat about his life and my life. He is married and has a daughter who is turning five this year. He is debating whether he wants to have a second child which is encouraged by the government. “Yang Ge Wa’er Tai Chi’o Ji Ba Gu’ei Lo. (Having a child is too f**king expensive).” He says, “It’s far cheaper to have an affair.” I am taken aback by his candid admittance of unfaithfulness. We hadn’t seen each other for over a decade. I hesitate to make a response to that statement. There is a moment of silence.
“Have you heard any about Tsu’ahnYan?” I gingerly poke at a sensitive spot switching the conversation topic. His motion freezes for a second. As if not hearing the question, he turns his head to an open window that looks out to a courtyard. There, catkins of a willow tree are quietly releasing cotton-like seeds in a breeze, filling the air with a spring snow storm. I keep my gaze on his face hoping to read his thoughts. He turns his eyes back to me and then looks down on the GaiWan tea (a unique Chengdu style tea set of three pieces: bottom saucer is called earth, lid is heaven and the bowl which contains tea and water is a man. It symbolizes an upright person living between heaven and earth). He picks up the lid of his Gaiwan clinking the tea bowl intentionally and rhythmically. “Tzen Tzoo Si, Ti’an Tzai Kan. Neh Wa’er Gai’i Tsi’ao. (People do their deeds on earth, and heaven is watching. That kid got what he deserved.) Evil eventually perishes.” I nod slowly in agreement while mentally dissecting what he meant by the word perish. “He was not evil but he was a bully.” I whisper under my breath.

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