The salaryman has to hurry. The last train home is leaving in an hour or so. But on the way to the railway station Boqin likes lingering in what remains of the old quarter, now surrounded by the high rises. Soon the remnants of the old times will be razed, giving way to modernity and progress. In the place’s final days the authorities let it be. A Buddhist monk has evaded their watchfulness and stands still at the street corner with the begging bowl extended in his handsome hand, his shaven head bowed in quiet humility. The monk’s orange robe – faded and fraying at the bottom – billows gently around his unmoving lanky legs, his feet in blue plastic sandals. Under the limbs of the large maple tree, the reddish shock of its autumnal leaves camouflages the monk in the scene’s background.
Few commuters choose this shortcut. Unless they know the winding alleys well, they may get lost. ‘Perhaps losing yourself is not so bad,’ thinks Boqin, glancing sideways at the monk. He puts a two-yuan bill in the monk’s bowl without interrupting his leisurely stroll. In such moments Boqin sees himself as a flâneur, one of these fancy French words they were taught to despise. Even now, he prefers not to utter it. His no-nonsense wife left Boqin on account of his dreaminess. She would not put up with such irresponsible behavior. Anyway Boqin is unsure how to pronounce the word correctly. The image of the term’s Western letters is better left encased in his mind.
These letters remind Boqin of a gentle wind, whose rare quicker blows now and again raise fine dust particles and a plastic bag from the crooked pavement. They dance for a while in a circle, before collapsing onto the potholed tarmac. The unceasing din of rush-hour traffic feels as though coming from behind a huge glass window. Boqin smiles at the thought that he and the monk are peers. They could have attended the same elementary school. But their lives couldn’t be more different.
Thirty years ago Boqin was young; an ambitious graduate straight from a backwater university’s department of socialist economics. The previous decade’s reforms had changed the country, cautiously opening it to the bourgeois world. Boqin was at the forefront of the party’s new line: ‘let some people get rich first.’ It was his responsibility to follow this novel path, hoping that he might be one of the chosen, too. They didn’t have any openings in the Bank of Agriculture. The prematurely aged comrade in charge of the three customer service desks staffed by demure women in similar uniforms, advised Boqin to inquire with a new business round the corner. He confided to Boqin in a chain cigarette smoker’s hoarse whisper that a month earlier this company had opened an account with the bank. It was a private enterprise run by a People’s Army officer. They needed a new-style office employee with some knowledge of business English.
Boqin fit the job description perfectly and has remained faithful to it. He continues to have troubles talking to foreigners outside of the office, being much better at filling in freight and customs documents in Sino-English than at small talk. During his early career this diligence with onerous paperwork carried Boqin effortlessly from one position to another. ‘The Oriental Machinery Company’ was how he translated the enterprise’s official registration name, Dongfang jixie gongsi. Comrade Officer Director Ng liked the sound of it, so the English name was adopted in the company’s official paperwork. The director chastened Boqin for using the entire honorific form while talking to him. ‘Comrade Director is entirely sufficient,’ he kept repeating. But in his submission to authority Boqin was old-fashioned. For him Ng remained ‘Comrade Officer Director,’ even when Ng left the People’s Army to keep a better eye on the growing business. It was shortly prior to the first big contract that properly launched the Oriental Machinery Company onto the market.
Although tut-tutting at his stubborn insistence, with time Ng learned to appreciate Boqin’s reverent joining of his name with the People’s Army. At business meetings and during follow-up late night lavish dinners thrown to celebrate signed deals, Boqin’s grandiose ‘Comrade Officer Director’ never failed to put cheeky contractors in their place. No one dared to fool around with army people. The military ID trumped a mere party membership card.
Boqin was trusted. One spring morning a blurry fax was waiting to be dealt with. It had arrived during the night. The secretary tore it off from the machine and passed into the director’s tray. In no time Ng asked Boqin into his office. The document came from abroad and was written in Western letters. Boqin easily saw it was in English. A mundane request for a quote. Sending out a small brochure on their Oriental Machinery Company to various capital cities worldwide must have worked. Hoes, rakes, sickles, shovels, pickaxes and other simple farming tools were easy to turn out in large quantities at the quality that customers desired. Boqin wrote an answer in serious-sounding business English, and slipped it into the envelope together with the company’s four-page catalog and pricelist in dollars.
After dispatching samples of the company’s products to the prospective customer, an order followed in quick succession to the tune of over one million dollars. Ng couldn’t believe their good luck and repeatedly asked Boqin for assurances that he understood the paperwork correctly. The order’s value was a dozen times bigger than the entire capital of the Oriental Machinery Company. The Director cleared this order with the party’s political department rather swiftly, thanks to his army pals. Boqin let Kabuga ETC know that the transaction was accepted and forwarded them with the terms of the contract. In a free moment he looked up Kigali in the new three-volume edition of the Cihai – Sea of Words – encyclopedia. The company was located in Africa, so the cost of sea freight would be cheaper than to Europe.
During the lunch break and after work, before catching a late commuter train to his workers’ hostel, Boqin liked sipping tea at the pavement vendor’s in front of the Bank of Agriculture. It was a good location. All day long aged customers came to withdraw their meager pensions earned during the pre-reform times of revolutions. In the queue they relived their memories of hunger and struggling against the enemy, who they now found within, impatient with the service’s glacial pace. Their children also joined the long and seemingly patient line, believing the party-approved bank’s slogan that regularly depositing as much as possible out of their paltry wages on saving accounts would make them rich in time for their own old age. Counting and recounting worn-out banknotes, filling in forms, making sure that names and addresses corresponded to those in IDs, issuing and stamping approval and confirmation notes, had to take a long time. People got thirsty and irritated. Tea calmed passions and helped endure the tedium of waiting.
At the pavement tea stall Boqin met the bank cashiers in grey party-style uniforms, who took turns to have a meal. At a rare moment two of them sat together, talking incessantly and giggling at a shared joke about a senile partisan who had brought a book about his revolutionary unit, instead of his ID. Obviously, they hadn’t let him have his pension. It would be against the law. Boqin always greeted the women politely and sat apart, keeping to himself. But once, in an unguarded moment he alluded to his company’s good fortune. Miss Wu took an interest in him. They started chatting about the rightness of the leader’s reforms and complained to each other about salaries that would not keep up with the fast-rising prices of essential everyday items. In no time both saw that it would make sense to marry. Their parents lived in far-away hamlets. Neither Boqin nor Ms Wu had the money to pay for their travel; the families would need to wait for a more opportune moment to meet. Without unnecessary formalities, Miss Wu and Boqin signed the marriage certificate when the big deal was being concluded. Comrade Branch Manager and Comrade Officer Director agreed to represent the bride’s and the bridegroom’s parents during the marriage ceremony in the city district civil registry. Less than a year afterward a daughter was born to them. They called her Bo, their Precious. Boqin kept calling Wu ‘my Mrs Wu’ when he wanted to irritate her. His own surname Li sounded too bland and was so common. Who isn’t a Li? Boqin couldn’t imagine Mrs Wu would become one. That would be a shame.
Quite reasonably, a Kabuga representative wanted to finalize the large contract in person. There was no margin for error. The director sent Boqin to make sure that their production facility, Mountain Goat Plant, was up to this job. Before Boqin left, Ng instructed him about the visit. But on the travel form Boqin noticed that the specified destination bore a different name, the Old Mountain Family Reform Through Labor Center. Not the one Ng had told him about. When asked about this discrepancy, Ng just patted Boqin on the shoulder, and added: ‘The same place, the same city. You go to Jingmen. No worries.’ Boqin had never suspected this degree of bonhomie from the director. The People’s Army was about orders and obedience. Boqin was a mere soldier of commerce in the Oriental Machinery Company. He silently bowed to show that he understood. Ng smiled and inquired politely: ‘How’s Bo?’
‘Fine, and growing up fast. Thank you for asking, Comrade Officer Director.’
‘And your wife?’
‘Good. In Jingmen make sure that you talk only to Mr Chen. He is in charge of the center. Don’t speak with anybody else. Understood?’
‘Yes, Comrade Officer Director.’
‘This morning I was on the phone with him. Mr Chen expects you. Any questions?’
‘No, Comrade Officer Director.’
‘Fine, and make sure to have some fun. Mr Chen was telling me that now they have some karaoke restaurants as good as those in the capital.’
Ng winked and pushed across the desk a thick envelope toward Boqin. Beads of sweat appeared on Boqin’s balding pate. He had heard about this new custom but had never experienced it before.
At that time flying was not yet a matter of course. The slow and overcrowded trains took almost two days to reach Jingmen. From the ‘good relationships’ money Boqin forked out several banknotes for the sleeping carriage attendants, who gave him quiet compartments and provided with simple meals. During the twelve hundred kilometer trip Boqin slept his fill. At home Bo began teething, so they couldn’t sleep through a single night without taking turns to comfort her. On board Boqin ate well, no need to be watchful about spending too much. ‘That’s what they call good life,’ Boqin thought idly to himself, while smoking and chewing on pumpkin seeds. Gradually, the spat-out husks covered the floor beneath his bunk. The regular trundling of the wheels on the rails lulled him day and night.
Boqin arrived at Jiangmen in the late morning. Rested and with a vibrant mind, ready for business. At the railway station he ate some chicken broth noodles and asked about the center’s whereabouts. It was a half-an-hour walk away, in the industrial zone. The people to whom he inquired about the way looked at Boqin strangely, as if it were bad manners to ask about such a place. ‘Southerners harbor some of these bourgeois prejudices. It must be because of the Japanese occupation during the war,’ thought Boqin.
The eight-and-a-half-meter high steel gate topped with the barbed wire coils looked desolate. The dirty dark stained color of the gate, which had been painted and repainted, was brightened with the huge red cloth banner bearing the party’s recent slogan written in white letters: ‘Time is Money, Efficiency is Life.’ No other information, let alone the center’s name, was to be seen on or around the gate. The high windowless wall made from huge concrete slabs and crowned with the three barbed wire coils – one on top of the other two – marked the center’s parameter. It stood at the legally prescribed 250 meters from the nearest civilian buildings. Muddy terrain, littered with industrial rubbish and slag, separated the center from the city. Only sparse clumps of grass, yellowed by toxic refuse, obstinately sprouted in this no-man’s-land. The street leading to the entrance was narrow, barely the width of a single truck. ‘Who’s there?’ someone yelled at Boqin from above. When he raised his head to look up, he heard the unmistakable clink of a gun’s security lock released.
Boqin knew that the guard in the observation tower kept his finger on the trigger, as the military regulations required in such a situation. He had done his military duty. The whole thing was increasingly unpleasant. ‘I’m Mr Li from the Oriental Machinery Company in the capital,’ Boqin yelled back. ‘Stay where you are’, the guard kept the gun aimed at him. As The Rule Book of Guarding Duties at Security Facilities provided, the two guards in charge of opening the gate had to phone the center’s head office for their decision. The law didn’t allow any intruders at the perimeter. It was a serious offence to idle in front of the gate. After opening the country a crack to the world, sightings of class enemies and spies multiplied. The Leader was right, ‘Maintaining Stability is of Top Priority.’ In order to keep the state steady and prosperous on the socialist road of progress toward communism, the dictatorship of the proletariat and the leadership of the party had to be maintained with all necessary means. Only in this way would it be possible to construct a socialist market economy with Chinese characteristics that would ensure wellbeing for all as Marx and Mao had rightly predicted.
Boqin thought that he must have already waited for well over half an hour, and nervously glanced at his wrist watch. But no, not even a quarter had elapsed. The small door in the gate opened with a metallic creak. A guard stepped out and the door was immediately locked up behind him. Without a word he walked up to the motionless Boqin, who passed his ID and travel form to the guard’s extended hand. After examining the papers closely, he ordered Boqin to walk in front of him. They entered through the small door into a dreary courtyard. At the courtyard’s opposite end, the inner door buzzed and its lock was released. A superior walked in. ‘Mr Li,’ he said without shaking hands, ‘Comrade Deputy Head Zhao will see you. Follow me.’ Boqin hated defying authority, but had no choice and replied, ‘I need to see the head, Mr Chen.’ Now he realized what Ng had meant. Dealing with the army is not for softies.
‘Impossible,’ the superior replied rudely and loudly. Unsure what to do Boqin came closer to him in order to be out of the guards’ earshot. ‘Comrade Officer, please, understand, my company’s director sent me to talk to Mr Chen,’ simultaneously, Boqin was extending his right palm toward the superior, rubbing his thumb and forefinger. The superior shook his hand to a rustling sound of mint banknotes. ‘Fine, Mr Chen will be available to see you tomorrow. Let’s get inside.’
Boqin sighed, resigning himself to the regulations specified in the Rule Book on Suspected Intruders in Security Facilities. ‘A suspected intruder who entered the facility must always undergo security clearance by the superior before allowed to leave.’ And the superior of the superior to whom Boqin was talking was Deputy Head Zhao and Mr Chen. Now the former had no business to talk to Boqin. ‘A night in the center isn’t so bad, at least I’ll spare some money,’ Boqin rationalized the situation to himself.
The superior gestured Boqin to follow him. From the entrance courtyard they crossed the main building’s imposing gate-style two wing door and entered the meandering corridors. They were narrow and low-ceilinged with little windows set wide apart. The dirt accumulating on the long unwashed panes let in little sunlight and didn’t allow any view of the outside world except for the iron bars. The staircases were secured with metal mesh to prevent someone jumping over the banister from one flight of the stairs to another. Boqin and the superior were walking downstairs. The air got musty with a whiff of cold humidity. They must have reached the basement. The superior knocked on the corridor door, which was immediately unlocked by a saluting guard. ‘The comrade will stay overnight. Make him feel at home, soldier!’ the superior ordered the guard.
‘Yes, Comrade Officer!,’ replied the guard.
Without saying goodbye, the superior left Boqin in the guard’s care. Both sides of the corridor were lined with the heavy dark cell doors, each with the peephole covered by the sliding hatch. It was silent but for the buzzing of the light bulbs in the protective wiring. The guard welcomed Boqin to a cell at the corridor’s end by saying, ‘It’s here, Comrade,’ when he switched the light on. ‘Thank you, Comrade Soldier,’ said Boqin. There was no window. They were in a cellar. Boqin sat on the metal cot with the thinnest of straw mattresses. ‘No need to change clothes for the night,’ he thought, switched off the light, and lay down with his warm winter woolen coat on.
The guard closed the door with a loud metallic clang, the bunch of keys clinking at his belt. But no, the guard didn’t lock the door as Boqin had feared. The rule book provided that no unreasonable treatment should be extended to an intruder under suspicion. He wasn’t an inmate. Not yet. ‘That is what they call hospitality in labor centers,’ sighed Boqin and quickly fell asleep. He was always a good sleeper. There was nothing to do but wait for the next morning. It was like another train ride, though curiously motionless and quiet.
Boqin woke up with a start at the loud sound of a tin bowl of breakfast coarse rice porridge being placed in the cell door’s tray-slot. Through this small opening, dull yellow electric light penetrated the darkness of the guest cell. It was five in the morning but for Boqin it felt as if in the middle of the night as there was no sunrise to be seen. He splashed his face with water from the plastic drum in the corner with the squat toilet. The national anthem blasted out from the loudspeaker at six sharp. Laborers reported to their work stations in the center and all around the country. ‘Discipline is Progress,’ the oft-repeated slogan declared.
Shortly afterward, Boqin heard a polite knock on the door and said: ‘Come in,’ while standing up from the cot. As he expected, it was Mr Chen. He welcomed Boqin warmly to the Mountain Goat Plant. They shook hands and bowed, Boqin lower than Mr Chen.
‘How is my dear friend, Comrade Ng, doing?’ asked Chen.
‘Comrade Officer Director is an excellent manager and follows the party’s line. He’s in good health,’ Boqin assured him.
‘Good, good. I hope you’ve had a comfortable night.’
‘Thank you, Comrade Head, I slept well.’
‘I know the conditions are simple, but we are far from the capital. Progress takes time to arrive here.’
‘It is faster than any five-year plan’s targets.’
‘Indeed, everything works as it should.’
‘Thanks to our Leader. And the cooperation of your Mountain Goat Plant with our Oriental Machinery Company is sure to contribute to surpassing the current plan’s production quotas.’
‘It surely will,’ replied Mr Chen and invited Boqin to inspect the production floor, which was located in another building. Walking across the center’s extensive inner courtyard completely surrounded by the six-store buildings, Boqin saw the last groups of inmates led – after the morning rollcall – by guards to their labor venues. Mr Chen gesticulated in an elegant minimalist manner, while animatedly discussing the rich fruits generated by the leader’s economic reforms. He concluded by citing the party’s old slogan ‘The Sky is the Limit, Much Can be Accomplished,’ and let Boqin into a production hall.
The machines were buzzing. The hissing presses cut out the required shapes from metal sheets, each with a brief strong metallic pop. Workers were efficiently taking cut-out elements for tempering and polishing before fitting newly turned out pickaxes or scythes with wooden handles. The din was deafening. Boqin and Mr Chen had to resort to yelling. Crates were filling up with produce. Boqin took out a hoe that smelled of newness, and beamed with delight when he recognized the Oriental Machinery Company’s distinctly arched logo of three red stars. Below it the small note in Western letters announced ‘Made in PRC.’ Ng, together with Mr Chen, had already seen to getting the production rolling. ‘Comrade Officer Director will be pleased to hear that the Mountain Goat Plant has already started work on the order,’ thought Boqin.
Mr Chen and Boqin were striding purposefully to observe the different stages of production and other workstations in the hall. Soon the official part of the inspection was over. Taking leave of the hall, Boqin recognized a worker operating one of the cutting presses. In their reform-through-labor identical uniforms all appeared to be alike, especially with their uniform crew haircuts. However, the worker’s protruding and broken in the middle nose was unmistakable. Boqin remembered well this lanky thoughtful student. He had enrolled at the same university where Boqin had been doing his penultimate year. It was him, Ai. They had never talked, but Boqin had liked listening to Ai’s impromptu speeches about the glasnost and perestroika reforms in the Soviet Union. Everyone had then been so full of hope for a better future. It had seemed that this future they had been so impatiently waiting for would come next month, or at the most in a year. Yes, things had changed rapidly. Ai’s and Boqin’s paths had diverged after the Six-Four Incident. Ai had joined the wreckers. Boqin, cautiously, had stuck to the party’s line. The Leader’s reforms had been good enough. ‘The better is an enemy of the good,’ Boqin recollected what he’d thought at the time about the whole matter.
Waiting for a sheet of metal to be put in place, and before starting a new cutting cycle, Ai raised up his head briefly, as though looking in their direction. Mr Chen and Boqin had already been turning away toward the hall entrance. Ai could have hardly seen his face. But for some reason Boqin felt dread and disgust at being recognized by Ai. It wouldn’t be right, for himself or for Ai. Mr Chen didn’t notice anything and carried on with a well-practiced monolog on how together their companies were destined for great things in the field of global commerce. ‘Cooperation, co-op-er-a-tion, my young friend, is the way of progress,’ Mr Chen said emphatically.
Boqin and Mr Chen left the Old Mountain Family Reform Through Labor Center in style, driven in a vintage Hongqi CA770 limo, a rare sight these days on the streets inundated with imported Japanese cars. In the center’s inner courtyard the superior saluted Mr Chen, but feigned not to notice Boqin. Off they went to downtown. Official duties positively concluded, it was time to unwind. The subsequent two nights of feasting, karaoking and gambling in company of quickly changing escorts quickly transformed the once fat envelope of good relationships money into a skeletal shadow of its former self.
A sum barely enough to cover the train ride home was left in the envelope. The still tipsy Mr Chen goodheartedly kissed Boqin on both cheeks and insisted that he see him to the railway station. But Boqin and the center’s patient chauffer convinced him to snatch some sleep in a nearby hotel because important duties awaited him back at the Mountain Goat Plant. Not much time was left to fulfill the foreign order that would make all of them rich. In less than a week’s time a Kabuga representative was scheduled to arrive on a Lufthansa flight from Frankfurt.
In a courteous fax Boqin commiserated with Monsieur Félicien Kabuga from Kabuga ETS what a pity it was that there wasn’t yet a direct air link between their countries, adding that the contract might be a first step in this direction. Ng used his army contacts to gather necessary background intelligence. The powers that be were pleased with the information and the contract that the Oriental Machinery Company was about to land. Apart from owning Kabuga ETS, Monsieur Kabuga was close to President Juvénal Habyarimana. The president’s two sons were married to Kabuga’s daughters. It was certain that with some careful tending more business was to follow down this lane. The party approved.
Not only did Ng and Boqin meet the guest at the airport. For this occasion they hired three ambitious graduates from the provinces as French interpreters; obviously shapely girls. They were paid cash. No paperwork changed hands. Back at home Monsieur Kabuga had made sure to dissuade his wife, Josephine, that Beijing might be like Paris. Neither freezing temperatures of the Far Eastern country’s winter would agree with her, nor would Josephine enjoy the drab and industrially utilitarian look of the socialist capital. He knew what he had been talking about. The vacation Josephine and Kabuga had had half a decade earlier in the People’s Republic of Romania – when Monsieur Kabuga had been sounding out the ground for business during the president’s state visit to that country – had been a disaster, to say the least. No running water in the opulent hotel suite’s bathroom of white marble finish. The golden faucets and handles had failed to charm Monsieur Kabuga’s demanding wife, and when the toilet had begun to overflow the staff had been unresponsive. At long last a repairman had turned up, but his native jabbering had sounded almost abusive. For now Josephine had had more than her fill of people’s democracies.
Apart from gracing the business talks with their feminine charm, the three interpreters proved efficient at paperwork, which was translated and dictated by Boqin. As agreed Monsieur Kabuga preferred to discuss the contract in English. In order to resolve the fine details, the three men retired to Ng’s office, leaving the ladies to their own resorts. The usual ten per cent cut was split equally between Kabuga EST and the Oriental Machinery Company. This hurdle out of the way, they returned to the conference room where the contract was officially signed and stamped in the presence of the company’s bookkeeper and production manager, alongside the three interpreters. The atmosphere was light. Boqin felt elation. Ng was beaming. At long last the future had commenced. Their future.
The waiters brought in French champagne. ‘To the contract!,’ Ng and Monsieeur Kabuga exclaimed, no translation needed, and everyone gingerly clinked their flutes with one another. The wall was graced with a classroom-size map of Africa. Much of its center was taken by the large Rwandan coat-of-arms that proudly announced, ‘Liberté Coopération Progrés.’ Boqin had briefed Ng on the meaning of this slogan, which to their ears sounded reassuringly like one of their party’s. The director raised his hand to hush the hubbub. His speech was short as befitted a former soldier. ‘Comrade Kabuga…,’ said Ng. Boqin translated, ‘Monsieur Kabuga. It is our pleasure that today we are opening a new bridge between our countries. This contract starts a cooperation that will bring more progress to Rwanda and China. To Progress and Cooperation!’ The flutes were hastily refilled for another toast.
The official part over, the bookkeeper and the production manager stood up and bowed to the guest and Ng, before taking their leave. Ng was chatting merrily with the interpreters. At this moment the entertainment of the foreign guest was left to Boqin. ‘Monsieur Kabuga, I have heard that in Rwanda everyone speaks the same language, that is, Rwandan.’
‘Indeed, we do,’ replied the smiling Kabuga.
‘But a colleague told me that as many as three different nations live in your country.’
‘How is it possible? What separates one from another? Do they profess different religions?’
Kabuga became more thoughtful, ‘Well, no, we all are Catholics. But let’s not speak of nations, these are mere ethnic groups.’
‘Then how would I know who is what, if I happen to visit your country?’
‘Rwandans just know. It helps that everyone’s ethnie is indicated on the personal ID card.’
‘I see…,’ Boqin wasn’t really sure he understood.
‘Mon Dieu!,’ by now Boqin had realized that was how Kabuga introduced anecdotes. ‘Back home,’ continued Kabuga, ‘we say that Hutus are Rwanda’s Belgians, Tutsis – Ethiopians, and Twas are my country’s Chinese.’
‘So you must be a Twa,’ Boqin tried to join Kabuga in the jocular mood.
‘No, no. Not really,’ a shadow passed across the guest’s face.
All others stopped talking and listened to them, hoping for a good laugh when Boqin would interpret the joke. Ng was quick in such situations. He silenced Boqin with a wave and put his large soldierly palm on the shoulder of the interpreter sitting next to him. He talked and she struggled to get Ng’s words into French, ‘Bien…, bien sûr…, et. Monsieur Kabuga, it’s a pleasure of ours, to invite you… come…, now to a modest banquet in the distinguished guest’s honor. Allons-y!’ Kabuga started clapping and the rest joined him eagerly, everyone smiling in the exaggerated manner required by politeness.
Monsieur Kabuga immensely enjoyed the modern Japanese-style Hotel Otani Chang Fu Gong that had opened the previous year. Its décor gleamed with elegant opulence, complete with the exquisite massage and spa services. The hotel’s dozen restaurants catered to the varied tastes of its guests from every corner of the world. It was a novelty even to his well-travelled eye. In the cavernous entrance hall, the party from the Oriental Machinery Company was welcomed by a harp ensemble with traditional court music. The brief concert soothed them to the place’s relaxed atmosphere. When the music died away, they clapped and exactly at this moment Boqin bowed to Ng and Monsieur Kabuga, saying a good bye. The ladies were better at French and interpreting Monsieur Kabuga’s wishes. Ng stayed in the hotel for three days wining and dining the guest. Meanwhile the day-to-day running of the Oriental Machinery Company fell on Boqin’s shoulders.
It was time well spent, as already the following month Boqin’s commitment was duly rewarded with a substantial rise in his salary. Half a year later, when the contract had been successfully fulfilled, Boqin was promoted to another post in the company’s fast coalescing ladder of managerial structure. Understandably, the top positions were reserved for Ng’s wife and son, alongside his two army pals who made sure that the crucial link between the Oriental Machinery Company and the Mountain Goat Plant would never unravel. Their success was sealed, to the mutual contentment of the party and the People’s Army.
Mrs Wu and Boqin lived the new Chinese dream. Bo grew well and was healthy. She got all her front teeth before turning one and at last let them sleep most of the nights. Around that time Bo began talking, and soon enough she was firing short sentences at her mum and dad to their immense delight. Meanwhile, hoes, pickaxes, shovels and sickles from the Oriental Machinery Company were sold across the length and breadth of Rwanda at discounted prices, the country entering – as Monsieur Kabuga had emphasized – its own five-year developmental plan in agriculture. Par-dessus tout, les progrès!
During the two next years, more contracts followed. Some even for grain harvesters, which they had to buy from other companies, because the Oriental Machinery Company had no intention or means to enter the market of agricultural mechanization dominated by large state-owned factories that turned out tractors and harvesters by their millions. Year in and year out Kabuga EST never failed to spend over a million dollars on the Oriental Machinery Company’s produce. All was well. So well, that Boqin and Mrs Wu bought a forty-second-floor apartment in a new fifty-store residence tower, just more than one hour by train from the city center. They could even afford to hire a nanny for Bo so that Mrs Wu could return to work in the Bank of Agriculture. The branch manager watched the progress of Boqin’s career closely, and decided to promote his wife to the position of bookkeeper and away from the tiresome service desks that need to face the brunt of the never-ending line of frustrated customers.
Boqin regretted that having climbed onto a higher step in their careers, it didn’t become Mrs Wu and him to continue taking their tea at the pavement vendor’s. An appropriate venue was located too far for them to meet there during working time. Now they had less time together than before. Nothing doing, Mrs Wu and Boqin resigned themselves to ordering takeaway food to be eaten alone in their small offices. At least tea was brought to them regularly and unprompted. The Bank of Agriculture and the Oriental Machinery Company took good care of their senior management.
* * *
Boqin is walking fast to the railway station, the old quarter behind his back in the distance, already obscured by the office towers and posh residential blocks of apartments. He remembers clearly. It was in late November 1993 when he quarreled with Mrs Wu. Bo had turned two and Boqin argued that with all the money in the savings account, they could bribe the reproductive watch officer to have another baby. The idea incensed Mrs Wu. She asked Boqin what kind of attitude this was and quoted him the party’s line ‘Have Fewer Children, Raise More Pigs.’ In her rage, Mrs Wu threatened she would report him to Ng and the party. ‘How temperamental and strong-willed she is,’ recollects Boqin. He still misses Mrs Wu. After their divorce she made sure they would never meet by chance and moved south to Guangzhou where, as Mrs Wu likes repeating, ‘this is now where all the action is.’ What remains to Boqin of their short marriage is Bo and her fortnightly calls to his mobile to check upon her aging dad. She is so far away, studying in America for a degree in business. Boqin is happy, but hasn’t seen his daughter for over three years now. Her absence weakens his lonely heart.
Boqin never remarried and doesn’t have friends. No one visits him. He keeps to himself. Boqin thinks he has grown used to the solitude that screens him from the capital’s unbearable noise and ever-worsening air pollution. He gave up smoking, but the wheezing cough refuses to go. Boqin could afford a health checkup and treatment in a sanatorium. ‘What’s the point? One can’t cheat fate,’ thinks he. Boqin is regular in his habits and good at paperwork. Some tai chi in the morning and not too much meat. His career stalled after that. Ng was richly pensioned off and now advises start-up enterprises of the People’s Army on how to properly engage in commerce with companies from abroad. The Oriental Machinery Company scaled down its ambitions and trades exclusively through the medium of the Chinese language. It doesn’t even have a website. Word of mouth and over the phone works best, as long as a sufficient cut of the modest profits reaches the company’s overseers in the army. Soldiers are not as greedy as some civilian party officials who time and again disgrace themselves with rapacious corruption. The party wouldn’t have it. ‘It is high time that those who got rich first would start sharing their wealth with the rest. Damn it!’, Boqin agrees.
After the quarrel over whether to have another baby, Mrs Wu grew cold toward Boqin. They began to sleep in separate beds. Mrs Wu got completely immersed in her job and reserved all the little free time she had for their daughter. Step by step Boqin was erased from their lives. He moved out from their apartment and bought a tiny studio, almost three hours by train from the city center. It didn’t make sense to spend more on a closer or bigger place, while traveling by train kept Boqin’s mind occupied and off his marriage’s failure. What is more, the long commute left him with no time for anything else but his work. Boqin’s only idle hobby was to observe other commuters and guess their jobs and spouses. In this way, he put aside money for Bo’s university education. Mrs Wu’s salary alone wouldn’t suffice.
The divorce papers arrived on the very same day, when a year earlier, on 2 December 1993, the fax machine had spewed out a new order from Kabuga ETS. Boqin just signed off the papers, without even bothering to read the legalese, and sent them back to Mrs Wu. As usual he thought he had no time to waste, no time to look backward. Business. It was always about business. With the new order in hand the previous year, it had seemed that 1994 would prove prosperous. At that time, agribusiness had been booming in Rwanda. Félicien and his business friends had needed more tools to overshoot the country’s five-year plan’s targets. Unlike Ai and the likes of him mistakenly maintained about freedom for individuals, capitalist economy in order to be successful had to be as meticulously planned as socialist production. The market’s invisible hand is none other but the five-year plan. Rwanda had gone deeper into sugarcane cultivation. The world wanted more sugar, well why not to satiate the globe’s sweet tooth? From 1992 to 1993, Rwanda’s sugarcane production had more than doubled to fifty thousand tons.
Kabuga ETS was on the lookout for half a million steel machetes indispensable for agricultural workers getting ready for another bumper harvest. High quality carbon steel machetes would be the best, so they wouldn’t go blunt for a long time. Blades had to be long. Anything between forty and sixty centimeters to let the peasant take a good sweep of cane with a single swing. The only worry was the deadline. Félicien – as now Boqin liked referring to Monsieur Kabuga in office – wanted the whole lot by early January. A tall order, given that it took half a week to transport the containers with tools from the Mountain Goat Plant to Tianjin Port. On top of that, it took at least a month or so by boat to Mombasa, and who knows how much longer by train across Kenya to Uganda, and from there by trucks to Rwanda. The logistics of this route was never meant for speed. At this end Boqin could use the company’s army contacts to cut on the transportation time within China, and to make sure the produce wouldn’t linger anywhere on the way. But that required much bribing. And even with all these precautions in place, the ordered machetes wouldn’t make to its destination earlier than late January, possibly early February. What happened beyond the country’s territorial waters was out of the Oriental Machinery Company’s control.
Félicien should have placed this order much earlier to be on the safe side. Monsieur Kabuga wasn’t pleased with their reply, but finally agreed to the terms. He wasn’t stingy when performance was needed. Instead of the typical wholesale price of thirty to forty cents per machete, under these circumstances, the Oriental Machinery Company was compelled to quote him with a four times bigger price. Surprisingly, given the time difference, the quote was accepted over fax in less than half an hour. Apparently, in this busy period, office workers had to pull all-nighters in Kabuga ETS.
Now the difficult part was to make sure that production in Jingmen would accelerate accordingly so as to meet this order’s unusually quick pace. It was up to Ng to make sure Mr Chen would put the heat on the plant’s workers. The solution was easy, as Mr Chen let them know. No worries. For a month the center didn’t release any already reformed laborers, while the security forces ensured a bigger intake of inmates than usual. Yet even that wasn’t enough to meet the contract’s strict terms. Boqin faxed Kabuga ETS with the list of different kinds of available machetes:
Not all were suitable for cutting sugarcane. Some were as short as thirty centimeters rather than the prescribed length. But the plan ruled supreme. Kabuga ETS had to be in dire need, because they ticked off each single type, as long as the Oriental Machinery Company would supply them with the required half a million pieces. It was made clear that what counted was the total number. Other considerations were pushed aside.
Agreed. The first transport with half of the order, or one hundred forty tons of machetes, left on 11 December and reached Kigali on 26 January. The Mountain Goat Plant went into overdrive, working days and nights. Mr Chen was as good as his word. The already reformed laborers knew how to work well and wanted to leave the center as soon as possible. Their gateway to freedom was the completion of this order for Kabuga ETS. Greenhorn inmates copied them diligently, fearful of correctional beatings and withholding of meals. Eventually the center even exceeded the plan. In this situation, the Oriental Machinery Company was left with eighty one thousand machetes too many. Ng included them as a sweetener with the second lot that concluded this order. It was a nerve-wrecking operation. Everyone was exhausted in the Oriental Machinery Company. Ng drank more than usual and rather than going home to his scolding wife, preferred to sober up on the comfortable sofa in his office. On 18 February Félicien faxed them an exuberant thank-you note to confirm the receipt of the second transport. He was truly delighted by the additional machetes.
In the letter that followed shortly afterward, Félicien informed Ng about his intention to visit the Oriental Machinery Company in May. The director – as a good soldier and a party member to the boot – told Boqin to start planning the visit. That was a leisurely affair in comparison to the crazy race with all these machetes. Boqin made an early booking for the same Hotel Otani Chang Fu Gong because Félicien had liked it so much during the previous visit. That done, Boqin put off dealing with the visit’s details until April. Now he had to catch up with polishing the freight and customs paperwork, so as not to fall foul of any of the detailed and increasingly numerous regulations that govern international trade. China was preparing to join the World Trade Organization and the party wouldn’t tolerate any missteps. Finally, all the calculations done and the filing completed in late March, Boqin stamped the backdated Rwandan invoices with the English-language note ‘Eligible Imports.’ With Ng’s signature they were faxed and sent by courier mail to Kigali.
In early April the plane with the father of Félicien’s daughters’ husbands was shot down. The Rwandan president was dead. The news made it to the front page in the People’s Daily. The fax machine of Kabuga EST went silent. No replies followed Boqin’s urgent queries regarding Félicien’s preferred itinerary. He never came again. Chaos engulfed Rwanda. No one knew what was going on there. Plainclothes from the Ministry of State Security kept visiting Ng twice or three times a week. In May the Chinese Embassy in Kigali was evacuated as the last foreign diplomatic mission in Rwanda. Comrade Officer Director was exhausted. He even stopped drinking and developed blueish bags under his eyes.
Someone happened to bring along Hong Kong newspapers to the Oriental Machinery Company. Boqin was idly leafing through them over a cup of steaming tea when he saw the photos. In each newspaper. Mutilated dead people on a reddish dirt road sinking in luscious vegetation. Charred bodies in a burnt out church. Torsos, severed limbs and heads strewn on the wide entrance stairs of a public building. Massacred schoolchildren peacefully lying in their classroom, the lesson’s topic on the blackboard written in chalk, Notre patrie. You could still read expressions of horror mixed with utter disbelief from the students’ faces. A heap of rapidly decaying corpses in a field, clearly visible in full sunshine against the backdrop of the tall green wall of unharvested sugarcane. In each photograph, hundreds of discarded machetes of all shapes and kinds. Pictures of mounds and hillocks of confiscated machetes. ‘Our machetes,’ Boqin muttered to himself and shook his head, ‘Belgians are killing Ethiopians, and no one gives a damn about the Chinese. To hell with them. To hell with us all!’
Boqin’s hands trembled when he tried to go on with his daily duties in office. He was unable to hold a pen steady. With full force he threw it against the wall. The plastic tube broke, the fractured refill sprang out smudging the paintwork with gluey blue ink. Boqin lit a cigarette and smoked thirstily. One cigarette after another. Until it was time to go home. Parks in the capital were so freshly green and serene. Flowers in full bloom and fountains squirting water into a variety of fancy shapes that split sun rays into small happy rainbows. Boqin saw nothing of that kind. Everything was grey, as though covered with ash. ‘Cigarette ash. We live in an ashtray,’ thought Boqin.
At home he told Mrs Wu that ‘In Rwanda Belgians are massacring Ethiopians and Chinese with our machetes.’
‘You are insane!’
‘What are you talking about?’
‘About dead Chinese.’
‘Are you mad?
‘No, not death by a thousand cuts.’
‘Watch your words, Bo’s around. She doesn’t deserve a crazy dad.’
‘A single cut was sufficient! Thanks to our carbon steel of excellent quality,’ sobbed Boqin.
‘Get out now!,’ screamed Mrs Wu.
‘I am going!,’ Boqin was bawling uncontrollably.
He ran out from the apartment and slammed the entrance door. At the sound of the bang resounding down the corridor, some neighbors peeked out anxious to see what was going on. Boqin didn’t notice them and instead of talking the lift ran and tripped down the eighty odd flights of the stairs to the bottom of their residential block. All the time he was bellowing at the top of their lungs, ‘Belgians are slaying Ethiopians and Chinese! With our machetes!’ That night he slept rough under a bush near the large sandpit in the children’s playground between their block and another. In the morning he sat down dazed and haggard. Parents taking children to school made a wide detour around Boqin, disapprovingly whispering under their breath, ‘He is drunk,’ as an explanation.
Boqin disgraced his family by disturbing public peace and order. Two people’s policemen bundled him into a detention van. Good riddance, one drunkard fewer in the streets, more peace and quiet for people to go undisturbed around their daily business. As if nothing happened. What happened? Rwanda? Where’s that? Who can find it on the map? Thanks to precautions taken by the party not a single Chinese died in Rwanda. Boqin wasn’t arrested for long. Ng needed him badly to run the Oriental Machinery Company, so the director’s contacts in the army came handy for exerting pressure on the people’s police to deal with this case swiftly and positively. After a couple of weeks Boqin was released from detention. The form, which he had to sign when leaving arrest, stated that he suffered from ‘a temporary mild mental disorder endangering the public order and security.’ The steady rise up through managerial positions in the company was over for him. Boqin’s career stalled. This irked Mrs Wu most. Furious at what had happened, she couldn’t imagine their future would be coming to such a rapid end. Boqin became a liability weighing down their family. She had no other solution but to divorce him.
Ng organized a curative stay for Boqin in a party sanatorium complex located in the midst of a large coniferous forest in the snowy north. He needed some peace and quiet to become himself again. After convalescing for half a year, Boqin was back home, but to a new life without a family and in a distant suburban studio. He kept to himself, busy with his job and long commutes. In the coming years the situation stabilized in Rwanda. Boqin stopped following the news from this part of the world. There was no need; no more faxes arrived from Kabuga EST. The new director appointed by the People’s Army in the Oriental Machinery Company kept Boqin at arm’s length. Boqin’s job was to deal with the paperwork, and as long as he was diligent with that he was assured of his position in the management.
In the early twenty-first century websites and online communication became the main way of furthering business. But no novelties of this kind unduly incited the new director. Their company stuck to the reliable postal and fax services. The stellar growth of the Oriental Machinery Company ceased. It remained a medium-size enterprise with no undue aspirations in the sphere of international commerce. Once was more than enough. The company’s catalog was printed exclusively in Chinese. The prices and terms offered were competitive. Wholesalers made sure to seek out the Oriental Machinery Company. In 1998 a fax came from the export-import Nshikabem Agency in Nairobi with a request for a quote for several thousand hoes. It was good money, so the director instructed Boqin to take care of the order. A Boinett Mutunga signed the contract, though to Boqin’s eye the lettering appeared eerily similar to Félicien’s hand.
Boqin didn’t mention his suspicion to the director because he had promised himself to forget about what had happened. ‘The past is the past,’ Boqin whispered, almost inaudibly under his breath. In the subsequent years other similar orders followed from Kenya from different companies and signed by different executives – Mr Kimani, Mr Mbaya, or Mr Ayungu – though always in the same wavy elegant hand. The matter was the responsibility of the Ministry of State Security. Their specialists knew best. As long as the director cleared all these orders with his army and party superiors, it was none of Boqin’s business. He just did his work. He followed the instructions. That’s for the best.
Years passed by. Bo was growing up, while Boqin aged. Every couple of years he made time to go south to visit Bo in Guangzhou. When Bo turned fourteen Mrs Wu let her visit Boqin in the capital during the spring school recess. It was the only time Bo stayed with her dad. Together they visited museums and historical buildings, relaxed in parks and ate simple meals from street vendors. In his studio Bo discovered Boqin’s old collection of English novels, all forgotten and dusty at the bottom of an overflowing bookcase crammed with volumes of all sizes. In the tiny spaces between the books’ tops and the shelf above, old periodicals and rolled up newspapers were stuck in.
Bo liked these solid old tomes published by the Foreign Languages Press before the reforms kicked in for good. The hand-set print was uneven, but at the same time large and clear on heavy, glossy paper. The pages were sewn together into a sturdy spine that was firmly set in the handsome cloth cover. How flimsy and smelly were the paperback editions of the same novels today, imported from Europe or America and blighted with tiny grey letters, smudgy to touch, and printed on grainy yellowish paper only fit for the loo. The Western treatment of these great books didn’t become the unforgettable stories encased between the covers. Bo pulled out the novels from their lowly dungeon in the bookcase and dusted them clean. Boqin felt as if transported back to his student times. Bo talked about plotlines with her dad, who thought he had long forgotten what he had read. But no, Boqin soon discovered he could fish out from his capacious memory each scene, and even entire passages that he declaimed verbatim with much gusto, surprising himself as much as Bo. His daughter was spellbound. Boqin treasured their only time together for years to come.
Mrs Wu never let Bo visit Boqin again. He was such a bad influence. After coming back home Bo insisted she wanted to study English belles lettres. French words began creeping again into their prosperous and orderly life in the south. According to Bo’s mum, it could only mean trouble. Mrs Wu would not have that. Boqin nearly ruined Mrs Wu’s life once. She wouldn’t let him do the same to her only daughter. No way. Over the phone Mrs Wu gave Bo an earful on what she thought about her daughter’s plan to waste time in Paris or Oxford reading fancy books. ‘An MBA from a good university in America is the only sure way to advance in life,’ Mrs Wu opined sternly to Bo, and added, ‘You can always read literature in your leisure. It requires no special skill. Everyone can read. It won’t earn you a living.’
The matter was settled. Boqin consented. Bo was accepted to an American business school of Mrs Wu’s choice and left for California. Boqin and Bo could only exchange letters now. Bo wasn’t particularly fond of this old-fashioned way of communication, but time difference precluded continuing with their former custom when she phoned her dad in the office, they’d set an hour and then he would call her back from the payphone booth near his residential block. Boqin never went about getting a landline installed in his studio. When mobiles became all rage, he was made aware of this new breakthrough in technological progress while commuting. From one week to another increasingly more apparently disturbed people were muttering half-audibly to themselves, and even in full voice. At the office they laughed at him when Boqin related this story. It was the new way, the Tao of the cellular phone.
During her first winter abroad, Bo sent dad a ‘Xmas present,’ as she wrote in English on the label attached to the box wrapped up in red decorative paper and printed with tiny images of Christmas trees and Santa Claus. It was an iPhone, Bo explained in her letter. She tucked the onionskin pages covered by writing in her neat hand into a festive postcard with an idyllic winter scene depicting children making a snowman in the back garden of a Midwestern clapboard house. Boqin smiled to himself, Bo was progressing in life. In spite of the ocean separating them, they would continue talking. ‘Like daughter and father,’ thought Boqin.
After that, this that of 1994, Boqin avoided telephones whenever he could. You cannot escape fate, but why to make its job easier. Bad news will never fail to find you. Boqin didn’t want to be woken up in the dead of night by an ominous telephone ring, shortly followed by people’s police knocking hard at his door. His heart was too weak for that. With the highest economic growth in the world, reform through labor centers needed more inmates than ever. The sheer variety and technological advancement of produce turned out there also required more specialized work force than ever before. Boqin would be a worthwhile catch. Sooner or later an information retrieval clerk in the archive of the Ministry of State Security would make the connection between Boqin and that. They were paid fat bonuses for improving productivity of the country’s economy, so understandably the clerks were always busy sniffing out irregularities. From all the management who had run the Oriental Machinery Company in 1993 and 1994, only Boqin remained in the enterprise.
‘If they seek me out, let them apprehend me in office or on the train. Among people. In full view. Then they won’t be able to pounce on me, so I should have a moment to press the alarm button in the iPhone. I owe nothing to anyone, but to Bo. I’m not going to disappear on her,’ thinks Boqin and hastens his step. He is almost running up the stairs leading to the main entrance of the railway station. At the platform, waiting in the seething crowd for the train, Boqin wishes he were this Buddhist monk he met in the old quarter. That he could muster courage to give up on his job and his party membership card in order to become a novice, or shami. Boqin even learned the correct pronunciation of the original Sanskrit term Śramanera for a Buddhist novice. It was easier than any French word, so perhaps Mrs Wu was right to dislike his infatuation with the West.
A superfast express is passing through the station without stopping, the passengers waiting at the platform are sternly told to move away from the rails. Boqin wants to step back as told, but wavers for a second. The wall of compressed air pushed by the front of the express’s engine is speeding at two hundred and sixty-four kilometers per hour, as hard as a freak wave in the ocean. It catches Boqin off balance at the platform’s edge. He is tottering. A passenger standing next to him, another salaryman like Boqin, immediately extends his right hand to, ‘Help me,’ thinks Boqin. But the hand, in a flash, has just pushed him, preventing Boqin from regaining his footing. While falling under the advancing steel wheels, Boqin has convulsively pressed the alarm button on his mobile. ‘Reinforced carbon steel,’ is his last thought.
The express is gone in the blink of an eye on its way to faraway Shanghai. Aghast at what they’ve witnessed, the commuters stopped talking. The deafening silence that has descended on the platform is immediately shattered by the ringing melody of Boqin’s iPhone, the piercing crescendo finale of Mozart’s Violin Concerto Number Five, repeated time and again. Bo’s happy icon is flashing up. No one is answering the phone. In the oft-repeated mundane procedure, plainclothes are already cordoning off the place of this tragic accident. Such things happen. Backward villagers haven’t got used to progress yet. Now the passengers have started talking to one another in agitated voices. An officer has jumped into the rails trench and retrieved the buzzing mobile with Boqin’s fingers clutched tightly around it. He has switched it off, so everyone can continue going about their business undisturbed. Passengers are pointing at the brave officer. In no time a commuter train has arrived. Waves of humanity trade places on board, getting off and on. Order has been restored. Life continues as normal under a peaceful heaven. Tomorrow no newspaper will bother with reporting this incident of no importance.