By Karry Lu
Once, five years ago, Charlie thought he was dying. He had just left the Shanghai Library after a morning of article research when he felt a dagger in his gut. Five minutes of panicked stumbling led him to the restroom of the nearest bar, where he dutifully spent the next half hour draining his roiling bowels of whatever tainted street food he had eaten earlier. When he emerged, he found a lone woman in her mid-fifties manning the counter, absentmindedly drying a pint glass. Charlie smiled sheepishly.
She pointed to a handwritten sign taped on the wall. At the time he hadn’t yet mastered the intricacies of hanyu, but he had an inkling of what she was trying to communicate. He pulled a chair up to the counter and nodded pointedly at the cooler full of Yanjing. It was just past noon but the lights inside were already dim. Later that night, he asked her name, and she replied, Ivy, like the name of the flower, and also the name of the bar.
That was Charlie’s first time at Ivy Bar. Today was his last. Tomorrow, another country, another life, he told himself, but it was just Singapore, just five hours away on a discount flight on Cathay Pacific, and it was just more quasi-freelancing, white-guy-wandering, more late nights eating cheap noodles and fried mystery animals in roadside stalls, the hot tears from bitter smoke and burnt spice rolling down his cheeks. His apartment was empty now, his bed and furniture sold, his few personal items already packed and shipped off. Tomorrow he’d be 34.
He’d landed in these parts nearly a decade ago, well before the recession, before the global economy had forced the lit majors of the West to seek a lifeline abroad. Back then there wasn’t much competition. He had a journalism degree, did a summer at the Cleveland Plain Dealer. He met his first editor in Hong Kong, in the cramped offices of Asia Weekly. He was British, handsome in a poor man’s Jude Law kind of way, and maybe only four years older.
“So. Why Hong Kong?” the man asked. He lit a Double Happiness smuggled in from the mainland and exhaled slowly.
“You ever watch Chungking Express?” Charlie replied. There was a pause.
“The one with those two cops and Faye Wong?”
“Yeah. The blonde mystery women. The chef’s salad.” The neon underbelly of a city charged with inchoate longing, the ragged blurs of motion, the promise of lust and danger.
“I’m a bigger fan of In the Mood for Love, myself,” Jude Law replied.
In HK, Charlie scraped together a piecemeal existence copyediting nightlife briefs and writing concert reviews for short-lived alt-weeklies. After his shift ended he’d walk around the food courts and shopping plazas, dodge motorbikes and old ladies laden with off-brand merchandise, peek into private mahjong rooms, and overhear snatches of karaoke from the Indians who ran a barbershop-cum-smoking-den next door. At his flat he’d brainstorm new feature articles, count his money, and fall asleep to the rumbling of the night train that ran nearby.
A couple days a week he’d go with Jude to the snack bar across the street, to talk about new movies, new girls, and the trips they wanted to take to Macau or Taipei, the night pungent with steam and vinegar and weak lager, card tables heavy with noodles and chili crab, and all the feverish colors and fumes of the crown jewel of the British Empire. Those were the nights he’d never felt further from home.
A boy and a girl with matching cellphone straps stood close, almost touching, waiting for their order of fish balls. They spoke to each other in English and Hakka and giggled. Charlie watched his editor as he gnawed on a piece of fried pork skin.
“You know that first scene in Millennium Mambo? When Vicky’s walking across the bridge and there’s this voiceover from the invisible narrator that goes, once she spends all the money she has left, she’ll leave her loser boyfriend? Just fuck right off, to anywhere, for good.” Jude asked, to no one in particular. Peanut shells littered the ground next to rivulets of spilled Heineken. Distant lights shimmered on the water across Kowloon Bay.
Charlie nodded. “That was in 2001. The world was greeting the 21st century and celebrating the new millennium,” he recited.
“I love that fucking scene,” Jude replied.
Some time later, Jude Law left to take another editor job in Manila, Asia Weekly fired half its staff, and Charlie found himself in Shanghai doing the freelance thing, hoping to graduate to hard-hitting features on endemic corruption and local politics and environmental malfeasance but more often sitting in bars with other expats getting slowly blotto, and eventually gravitating only to Ivy Bar, getting slowly blotto.
The second time he went, he ordered a scotch and soda, sipping slowly as he peeled an orange. Ivy wasn’t on duty yet; it was her twenty-something son who, when not studying for his international finance courses, went by Justin and routinely gave the heaviest pours in the city. A blond woman in faded jeans and boots leaned over a jukebox, intently studying the selections. Even against the dim light and the muted red leather booths, he could still make out the words ‘London Calling’ printed down the sides of her shirt.
“That’s broken,” Justin called out helpfully, not even glancing up from the economics textbook he kept stashed for slow afternoons.
She gave one last disapproving look at the machine, and disappeared into the bathroom. Later that night Ivy showed up, and he learned that the girl’s name was Katyusha. Katyusha was the name of a Soviet missile launcher and also her nickname, but Ivy wasn’t even sure she was Russian. She used to come by with a man, a Japanese fellow with asymmetric hair and who worked in new media. Lately she’d been coming alone. Charlie nodded and closed out.
A week later he saw her again, in another black shirt with a band name he’d never heard of, and a copy of Fathers and Sons tucked into her back pocket. This time he introduced himself.
“Hey, I’m a journalist and I’m writing an article on white girls in China.”
That was a lie. She seemed nonplussed.
“My name’s Charlie. Do you mind if I ask you a few questions?” He grinned and hoped she hadn’t already gotten tired of dorky Americans in a new, strange country. “I love that book, by the way,” he motioned towards her pocket.
That’s how it started. There were others too, others that eventually hung around long enough so that he got used to their presence. The other freelancers, the foreign editors, the English teachers, the Chinese hipsters, the one white guy who started a failed internet company but sometimes got hired out by local firms to wear a suit and impress clients. Most of them male, all of them affecting an air of world-weariness that never quite crossed the line into grating.
Justin was there most of the time; he never imbibed much or even bothered to intervene when things got rowdy, but he was extremely good at making drinks while memorizing accounting rules and appearing to be nonjudgmental. His mother poked in every now and then to practice her English and bring in more cases of beer and smuggled Marlboro Reds, which were sold under the counter. Charlie saw no reason to go anywhere else. There were stories swapped and tips traded, birthday parties and going away parties. People came and went with the seasons, with the settling of contracts and the repayment of loans and the aftermath of relationships. Every year another group of exiles took their place, sat in the same chairs as their predecessors, paid the same five kuai for Yanjing. There was a fruit lady who came by every other day; a sidewalk kiosk for dried squid and shrimp chips; bored cops who remained indifferent to the stumbling and off-key carousing of foreigners; a perfect life in a perfect twenty-meter radius.
“Hey, Kat,” Charlie said to Katyusha one night at Ivy. “Come with me for an assignment.”
It turned out Katyusha was a Russian teacher who also dabbled in hand modeling. More importantly she owned a quality camera and the competency to operate it. “It’s at this art gallery about half a k from Zhongshan Park. I’m writing an honest-to-God feature for Time Out. Noah quit the other day, so he hooked me up.”
“I didn’t know you were into that stuff,” she replied.
“Apparently I’m on the ‘Stuff Laowai Like’ beat now.”
“What if I just show you a good time?”
The gallery turned out to be an old factory dorm converted into a contiguous series of studio space. At the entrance Charlie could spot a lounge area lined with plush leather armchairs and a Dior logo prominently displayed on the wall, its company manifesto following underneath in Mandarin, Japanese, and French. Slim twenty-somethings roamed about the studios, glancing at paintings, loitering by installations, their stifled giggles echoing off the metallic A-frame roof, Maoist slogans emblazoned on the arches, still as red and reverberant as ever.
Outside was an empty courtyard that led into an alleyway of back doors. A rusted, six-foot tall fist punched the concrete in front of another warehouse entitled “La Case”, while hanging prominently from the roof was a banner for Beijing’s preeminent artist collective and/or teenage pop group. Beyond that, most of the galleries were clustered together and seemed like decidedly low-key affairs, workshops and residences sporting faded brick facades and Chinglish graffiti. Air conditioners jutted out of the windows above the doors. Drainage pipes ran down the lengths of the walls. A calico cat sat behind a trash bin impassively observing the newcomers.
Charlie and Katyusha followed a young, hip-looking couple in matching purple sneakers through a black door marked 4A. Plastic cutouts of androgynous silhouettes dangled from yarn strung down from the rafters; acrylic, wool, sand bags, boat fenders, umbrellas, gear shift boot, Styrofoam, dimensions variable. A few yards away a clutch of black Chinese lanterns blown up to unwieldy proportions hung in space from exposed pipes; wool, wood, balloons, bamboo, size variable. Charlie looked at the installations for a long time, trying different angles and distances. At the reception desk, next to a clutch of miniature terracotta Buddhas, a bored intern in tight jeans and red highlights flipped through a magazine and texted furiously. The young couple exchanged hushed commentary and held their hands even tighter. Katyusha raised an eyebrow. Charlie had to suppress a snicker.
A young woman in a shirt that read “Everything is Shit” emblazoned in Saturday morning cartoon block letters stood absentmindedly next to a chalked-off section littered with chunks of smashed watermelon and red glitter paint. Charlie bent to read the sign taped to the floor; he could make out the Mandarin slang for vagina, but not much else. He looked back at the woman; she smiled and offered by way of explanation, “Everything is permitted.”
On the bus ride back, Charlie counted the number of new cafes and clubs that had sprouted up along Yuyuan Road. Alfa Romeos and Beemers loitered at stop lights standing guard under the shadows of gleaming condos. Construction workers took swigs of yogurt milk and scarfed down pork and cabbage dumplings from takeout boxes by the side of the road, blankly gazing at the passing traffic. Katyusha laid her head on Charlie’s shoulder and sighed.
“To tell the truth / This could be the last time / So here we go / Like a sales force into the night.”
That night at Ivy, Charlie and the rest took the opportunity to commandeer its newly-repaired jukebox. The occasion was Noah’s going-away party. The soundtrack was early-aughts American dance-punk. The man of the hour sat perched on the bar counter, sipping a Tiger beer and liberally dispensing shots of baijiu to the assembled guests. Noah had briefly roomed with Charlie when he first arrived from Penang, but after eight years in the backwaters and big cities of Asia, he was finally headed home to Adelaide, with a wife and a new baby in tow.
“A gin and tonic, please. Can’t handle more of that rotgut,” Charlie called to Justin. The bartender nodded and grabbed two bottles of Seagram’s and Schweppes.
“Still insisting on sobriety tonight?” Charlie asked.
“Tomorrow I have a flight.”
“No shit? Where to?”
“UK. Getting my MBA at UCL.”
Charlie put down his drink. “Going to school? What the fuck?” He paused, then took a large swallow. “So you’re leaving forever?”
“I don’t know. The economy here isn’t good anymore,” Justin shrugged.
“MBA, huh? How old are you?”
“Fuck. I always thought you were like, 23. You’re always studying.”
Justin smiled. “I also have a daughter.” A pair of Irishmen half-consciously reached over the counter to snag a couple of Coronas. Justin rolled his eyes and moved to cut them off.
Charlie finished his drink. “Goddamn.”
On his last night, Charlie went to a rock concert at Yuyintang with McNulty, an affable Californian who arrived on a Fulbright some years ago but stayed to found a yet-to-be-named “underground culture magazine.” Every so often Charlie was struck by how much the crowd resembled any basement show he had frequented in Chicago and Minneapolis. The indie scene, while not nearly as developed as Beijing’s, still had its share of adequately loud alt-rock bands with the standard retinue of cute-quirky hipster fangirls, stony-faced Chinese punks, and skinny American dudes interning for City Weekend. He knew they’d be hovering around the fringes of the crowd, some at the back, knocking back cans of Snow beer and trying to figure out which Brooklyn noise-pop band to use as a point of reference while checking out the mei nu’s rocking out in front. He had been there, once. He wondered where they all came from, where’d they’d been before, and what brought them all here, tonight, to this cramped-ass bar out of untold thousands like it in the most populous country in the world.
The last band finished with a flurry of feedback, cigarettes and stray pieces of paper flung up on the stage creating a sort of grungy confetti effect. Charlie saw McNulty engaged in animated banter with two girls in bangs and technicolor Chucks. He stepped outside for a smoke.
In the alley out back, Charlie watched two line cooks take out sacks of garbage and dump them along the wall of the Sichuan restaurant next door. One of them noticed Charlie and approached, pantomiming the universal hand gesture for “can I get a light?”
Charlie obliged. He watched as the cook fumbled with the lighter, once, twice, before finally snapping off a flame. He was gangly and slightly hunched over. Long strands of hair were matted to his forehead. He took three quick drags in succession, then turned to Charlie, sizing him up. Charlie stared back.
“Where you from?” he finally asked.
“America. A small town in Ohio,” Charlie answered, in Mandarin.
The man nodded in comprehension. “Zhang Zhaohui,” he replied in English, pointing at himself.
“Where are you from?” Charlie asked.
“Where are you from. Your laojia.”
“Luzhou. Sichuan province.”
“That’s far. You came a long way.”
Zhaohui shrugged. “Have to. No go university. Have to work,” he responded, gesturing at the restaurant behind him, the paint on the walls already more brown than white.
“What your job?” Zhaohui asked.
“My job?” A pause. “I write articles. For English-language papers.”
“Oh. Not so much money there.”
“Yeah. I don’t really know anyone who has money.”
Zhaohui laughed. “Some people have money. Their parents have money, so now they have it. Sometimes they come to the restaurant. Order a lot of food, expensive food, but they do not eat it all. Leave it there.”
“So then we finish it,” he said, with a knowing smirk.
“For sure. Can’t waste food. That stuff looks expensive.”
“Everything expensive now.”
“You don’t say.” Charlie lit another Turkish Gold.
“If I ever can buy my own apartment, I’ll be so happy,” Zhaohui proclaimed. He leaned his head against the wall and inhaled slowly, the flame almost burning down to the filter.
“You like China?” he asked, after a moment of silence.
The show had already ended but he could still hear bits of conversations in Mandarin and English, accents and dialects melding together, rapid-fire chatter undulating and escalating punctuated by sharp yelps and long, sustained laughter coming through the walls and seeping into the night. A trio of teenagers, giddy with the electric feel of youth, walked by and gave the two strangers in the alleyway pointed, curious looks. Charlie allowed himself a slight grin.
“I’ve been here a long time, you know. So long I can’t even remember it all. It’s been fun.”
He stamped out his cigarette and handed the rest of the pack to Zhaohui.
“But I’m leaving tomorrow.”
Zhaohui nodded. He didn’t ask why.
One more drink for the road. Charlie took his leave of McNulty with a hearty handshake and a couple hundred kuai stuffed in his pocket, a settling of accounts for some debt from back in the day, Charlie didn’t even know what anymore. McNulty went to join the company of some English-speaking art students at a dumpling shop. Charlie bought a beer and sat on a pile of newspaper on the sidewalk, blankly watching the cars and buses and scooters pass by, dust and sand kicked up and suspended in the humid air like particles in Brownian motion. He watched the boys and girls with their hot soft eyes shuttling between the center and the sprawl of the city, between their lives and their futures glimmering like a fata morgana on the horizon.
Eventually a cab pulled up in a cloud of exhaust. When Charlie opened the door two other Chinese people emerged. The woman was in a short black satin dress, while her date sported a pair of curious, almost invisible rimless glasses. The man brushed Charlie aside with barely a glance and stalked off towards a new high-rise building on the next block; his companion struggling to keep up in new four-inch heels, her hand clutched tightly in his.
Ten minutes later, Charlie found himself at Ivy.
The place seemed brighter and more well-lit than usual. A few youths in leather jackets huddled around a table and a liter of Tsingtao. A couple sat nearby, scrolling numbly through their phones. None of the usual crew. For a moment Charlie thought about calling his friends who lived nearby, but stopped himself. He took a seat next to the only other person at the bar.
Hey, Katyusha replied.
Good to see you. Charlie motioned for a beer and a shot. The bartender, a young woman with a reddish pixie cut, took her time pouring the glass. He thought he might’ve seen her before, here, on a night much like this one, maybe at the end of the bar nursing a rum and coke, maybe with another guy. But nothing surfaced in his memory. Katyusha closed the book she’d been reading, a slim volume titled How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia.
Never seen that book before. What’s it about?
On the cover was a perfect teardrop of water. Two shadowy silhouettes were frozen in a tense embrace; edges dulled, features blurred by the refractions and the haze of memory.
It’s about a boy, Katyusha began. A boy in India, or Pakistan, I’m not sure which one, who becomes the head of a water-delivery empire. It’s about how he grows the business. There’s this side story with a girl who sometimes crosses paths with him, from one decade, then the next, then on and on.
A real coming of age story.
I kind of like these stories. They have a sense of time and place.
What do you mean?
What I mean is, they have this expansiveness, you know? Like there’s this big city or this big world that you’ve never been, and you want to see what it’s all about? And sometimes you feel like there’s actually this big change happening, like the characters grow up and they get older and so does their world, so does the city and everything like that.
A pause; a shot laid on the counter; a Yanjing cracked open with a hiss and a pop. Katyusha thumbed the corner of the pages, trying to pick the right words. He noticed for the first time the new lamps installed along the ceiling, and the frayed threads on the collar of her shirt, and the dark brown coloring her roots.
And for once you feel that time is this real, solid object, like it’s this force that pushes their lives along. Pushing them away until the very end, Katyusha finally said. She looked at him, softly, expectantly. Charlie felt a lump in his throat.
Yeah. I like that. That’s a good angle.
A moment of silence; a shot tilted back and tumbled down the hatch; a grimace and a glug to wash it all away, the good times, the dying embers and the lifelines that crossed here but were now consigned to some faraway island fading into the past. Charlie thought he could still sense them, those evenings soaked into the first layers of paint and inscribed into the wooden fixtures, the split upholstery, the railthat never got washed. He could smell the smoke of years past, and almost fool himself into thinking that he could hold onto these things for a while longer.
So you’re leaving tomorrow? Flying out, nice and early. Do you have all your stuff ready? Yeah. Did you find a place to live? No, but I still have the phone number of a guy I know…
Can I visit you one day?
Yeah. One day. I’d like that.
The bartender with the pixie cut came over to them. She took away their glasses and started rinsing them out. Last call, she said.
Charlie checked his watch. I thought this place closed at three.
It’s a weeknight. Hours are different now.
Katyusha laid her hand on his shoulder.
Come on Charlie. I’ll take you home.
As they walked back she kept a grip on his arm, to help steady his gait. The warmth and pressure of her hand relaxed him, and he slowed his pace to match hers. The streets were mostly empty, but just before they reached home, they heard a jangling somewhere behind them. It was another girl, young and new to the city, fiddling with the keys to her apartment.