Memoir

The story behind sister’s new villa

STANDING IN MY in red coat, next to my luggage on the shining granite floor, I wait anxiously. Facing Gate 10, my eyes survey the cavernous space around me – the dramatic high ceilings, the bright futurist décor and the endless rows of check-in counters.

So this is it: the new Beijing airport. Like a proud phoenix, it spreads its giant wings to the east of the city. When I first saw its striking shape, in Sydney, my eyes were glued to the television screen. I wished I was at the Olympics: such an intoxicating time, all the excitement, all the pride – for China, for all Chinese faces around the world.

But the glory was soon tainted – by poisoned milk, sick babies and the global recall of food containing Chinese dairy products. Even this new complex was caught up in scandal. Not long after the airport revealed its grandeur to the world's top leaders and athletes, the former head of the Beijing Airport Group faced the death sentence, accused of massive corruption.

A WOMAN IN a red down jacket rushes through Gate 10 and looks around.

I wave; she hurries towards me. ‘Have you been waiting long?' Second Sister asks, a little embarrassed, reaching for my suitcase.

‘Not long – don't worry,' I reassure her, our eyes lock, full of warmth.

As we push the trolley out the gate, the bitter wind strikes my face. I pull up my collar. Second Sister's steps quicken. Her gloved finger presses a button and the boot of a chilli-red car pops open right in front of us.

‘Is this yours?' I ask.

‘Yes, what do you think?'

‘Smart,' I reply, admiring its smooth lines and the shining V-above-W emblem on the grille.

‘Hop in.' Second Sister tilts her head. I open the door, slump onto the cream-coloured leather seat. After turning off the main road, we pass some open fields, then slow down to go through a black iron gate. A man in dark uniform and beige cap raises his right hand solemnly, fingers pointing towards temple, palm facing chin. I recognise the salute of the People's Liberation Army, a gesture my sister and I know well from our childhood in a Chinese army compound.

‘But he's only a security guard, not a PLA soldier?' I say, puzzled.

‘Many of them were PLA soldiers,' replies Second Sister. ‘They say you can judge an estate's value by how tall and handsome its security guards are.'

Passing rows of houses, our car pulls into the carport in front of a two-storey house. ‘Here we are,' Second Sister announces, leading the way with my suitcase. Past the picket fence, across a small patch of frozen lawn, we enter the front door and change into slippers.

‘Wow,' I exclaim, awed by a huge open-plan space. Facing us, French lounges feature delicate details: curvy frames and classic floral covers. To the right, a long table and eight high-back chairs define the dining area. Beyond that, a kitchen sparkles with appliances, a granite island bench and a small red TV on the wall. Next to the lounge, a large floral painting radiates warmth; across the room is a large flat-screen television.

The screen is huge, at least three times the size of mine in Sydney, which is not small by Australian standards. First Sister's admonition echoes in my mind: ‘Even a landlord's home is not as lavish.' I smile and wonder what our landlord grandparents would think of Second Sister's new house. If only they had survived those miserable years almost half a century ago – kicked out of their home, thrown into a mud house in a village, bullied by peasants, sweating on the farm they had leased before it was confiscated by the communists.

Second Sister's voice breaks the silence. ‘Come, I'll show you upstairs.' Putting my luggage in the guest room, we cross the expensive timber floor and go upstairs. As we step into the master bedroom, my jaw drops. The room makes my bedroom in Sydney seem like a closet. My eyes wander – taking in the indulgent king-size bed, the vast walk-in wardrobe, the ensuite with sparkling spa bath – and freeze. Standing against a wall, half a room away from the bed, is a screen the size of the one downstairs. The bedroom feels like a small cinema. ‘Perhaps the TV is a bit too big,' Second Sister says, sensing my reaction.

I follow her to the next room. Facing a large timber desk, matching bookshelves fill the wall from floor to ceiling. Under a bay window, cushions with delicate covers spread across cream-coloured seats. Braided ropes carefully tie intricate silk curtains to each side. Every detail seems to say, ‘We love our new home and, as you can see, no expense has been spared.'

‘Chenchen, Little Auntie is here,' my sister calls, passing a wall of built-in wardrobes and knocking on a door.

‘Ai, coming,' a voice responds. A slim girl, tall as me, stands in front of us in pyjamas.

‘Hey, Chenchen, taller again,' I tease. ‘What're you up to?' I check out her new room: circular bed, another TV, cushions strewn around the floor, books piled on a low desk.

‘Studying...' She rolls her eyes.

‘Well, good luck.' Sensing her time pressures, we withdraw.

‘She is preparing to study overseas,' my sister explains as we head downstairs.

‘So soon?' I raise my eyebrows. ‘Doesn't she want to work for a while first?'

‘No. When she finishes university, jobs will be even harder to find. 
I heard nowadays some graduates even burn joss sticks at temples, pray 
for jobs.'

‘Where is Chenchen going?'

‘America.' The word slips off her tongue. ‘It's her choice and we encourage her, while we still have some Chairman Mao left in our pocket,' my sister adds. We laugh.

It is good to see she still has her spirit and cheeky sense of humour. I love the new nickname for the red banknotes with Mao's portrait: Chairman Mao. It is also ironic – the man who put so few banknotes into pockets for so long is now on all of them. Today, despite the countless traumas and the weeping ghosts his political campaigns left behind, he still smiles at us from the red wall of Tiananmen. At least now his people have more money in their pockets, and enough freedom to joke about him, their old Great Leader, almost openly, without being condemned, arrested or executed.

While Second Sister makes a pot of green tea, I wander around the vast lounge room. Next to the giant screen, I pick up a small photo: a toddler on a bare cement floor in front of a cheap wardrobe. Under a red hat, a big smile fills her sweet little face. As I gaze at the photo, memories of my sister's first home flood back.

 

I LOCKED MY bike up among an army of rusty black bicycles below the dark grey building. Climbing the cement stairs, I turned left on the second floor. In the dim light from a greasy bulb, as the smoke and the aroma of stir-fried spring onions rose above the hot woks, I walked between gas bottles and cooking tops along both sides of a narrow corridor.

At the third doorway on the right, I stopped. ‘Second Sister?' I called through the half-length door curtain.

‘Come in.' My sister flipped the curtain aside, her face and forehead soaked in sweat. Chenchen cried in her father's arms, her tiny face red and moist. The room felt like a sauna. Hot and thick, the air stuck to my skin like a wet blanket  lifting slightly for a few seconds as the fan finally turned towards me, before turning away again, buzzing like a swarm of mosquitoes.

This was my sister's first home, a fifteen-square-metre room, one of twelve on the floor and sixty in the building. Chenchen was born there in the middle of summer. She cried day and night, lying on her parents' double bed; cuddled in their sweaty arms.

Holding his baby daughter, my brother-in-law paced the narrow space between the open door and the bed pushed against the window. Behind him, a basic wardrobe against the wall; beside him, a round fold-up table next to the bed, behind the door, narrow low shelves with rice, cooking oil, soy, vinegar, spices; fruit and vegetables.

I put down my handbag and took the water spinach my sister handed me. Walking down the corridor, I passed more curtain-shrouded doorways, each with a hot wok and steaming pot outside. Halfway along, I turned into the communal washing room. Cold-water taps were lined long washing troughs on each side wall. I turned on a tap. Next to me a woman was scrubbing her hot wok, and next to her another was soaping linen on a wash board.

I took the green leaves to my sister and headed back to the washroom. I settled myself above a ceramic squatting base, held my breath and closed the half-length yellow door behind me. When I opened it, a man wearing a singlet and shorts stepped in next to me. I bit my tongue and rushed away from my first experience of a unisex public toilet.

It did not seem to bother anyone – it was early days in China's opening up. When we were Mao's Little Pioneers at primary school, we were told that most of the world was still living in ‘deep water and hot fire'. As China began to open up that image seemed less convincing, but to most of us the world outside was still a mystery. Compared with what the peasants had to endure, those with an iron rice bowl in their hands, with everything provided by their ‘work unit', felt they had little to whinge about. When someone joined a large state-owned factory they were set for life: free kindergarten, free apartment, access to canteens, public baths, cinemas and pensions. Everyone had to be patient, to be allocated a room such as this, and hope someday to move to something better.

‘Wha! Wha!' I heard Chenchen's cry before I reached their room. The humid air sapped her energy; she'd caught the flu at the factory kindergarten and had to stay home. ‘Who will look after her?' I asked. ‘I've called Mum – she is coming on Sunday,' my sweaty-faced sister said, flicking the door curtain aside as she walked to and fro stir-frying the pork and green leaves.

Like a soldier in the reserves, our retired mother was on standby, ready to jump on the train and attend to her daughter's and granddaughter's needs. It was not unusual for Chinese grandparents to devote their retirement to their precious grandchildren. When they became frail, they would expect their children's attention and devotion: the bargain at the heart of the Chinese family bond. To care for your elders is a cornerstone of Confucian values and tradition.

The following week I returned to the building. It was mid-afternoon. Most of my sister's neighbours were still at work in the factory. As I reached the top of the stairs, my eyes caught an old woman and a girl sitting on a stool in the communal washroom. With the cool breeze blowing from the windows to the stairs and over their bodies, Mum and Chenchen looked peaceful and content.

Life went on and, before long, under a dim bulb, I watched Chenchen toddling along the narrow corridor while finely chopped shallots, ginger and garlic were thrown into smoky woks, white vapour danced above bamboo steamers and hotpots bubbled away.

Soon it was time to celebrate Chenchen's birthday. Sitting on the edge of the bed, we clapped our hands while she danced on the bed, her little face shining joyfully. ‘Happy birthday to you,' we sang together, watching her blowing out the three candles on her cake, a luxury my sister and I never dreamed of when growing up. Eating the tasty dishes my sister and her husband cooked in their narrow corridor, I watched their perspiring faces proudly following their precious daughter's every move.

 

SITTING ON THE french lounge I heard the approaching steps and turned around.  My sister put down a tray of goodies – Chinese teapot and cups, roasted chestnuts and tiny sugar mandarins. ‘How's Brother-in-law?' I ask, as my sister pours green tea for me.

‘He's okay – coming home Friday night.'

‘How's his new job down in Wuhan?'

‘Well, tough, but he's hanging in there – our whole family's counting on him now.' As my sister bends down to fill the teapot, I notice the deep lines around her eyes, the extra grey in her hair: her face is not as smooth and her smile not as bright as it once was.

With a faint smile, my sister looks away and I lower my eyes, sipping tea from a fine cup. A strong current of emotions surges inside me. I wish I could be more direct, like a real foreigner, looking deep into her eyes:Sister, it's all right. I know what you've just been through, and I know how you feel. She is avoiding me. The memory of the dark cloud of events in their previous apartment hangs heavy in the air between us.

‘It's getting late. Let's talk about this tomorrow, in my office, shall we?' my brother-in-law appealed.

‘No, if you don't give us an answer tonight, we aren't going anywhere,' shouted a man.

‘That's right. We're going nowhere. It's your bloody problem – you fix it,' added another, his craggy finger pointing at my bother-in-law's nose, his fiery eyes staring.

Ten men took over my sister's  apartment that night, and stayed. For two weeks they ate the food in the fridge, used the only toilet, slept on the couch and the floor, yelled, swore, demanded their jobs back. They had decided not to wrestle the security guards in the company, nor to harass the German ‘big boss' in his guarded villa. Instead, they stormed the home of the top Chinese manager.

Desperately trying to get their home back, my sister and her husband called the company's security guards and the local police. No one came to their rescue. The Chinese government had just issued an order urging companies across the land to take extreme caution with retrenched workers, ‘in order to protect the stability of China'.

The days dragged on. The family struggled to live with the angry mob in their home. Exhausted, my brother-in-law dragged himself into the bathroom. He lit another cigarette, inhaling long and deep, he ran his fingers through his hair, through the new strip of grey just above his forehead. Glancing in the mirror, he saw a face that looked five years older than it had only a week ago: red dreary eyes, deepening wrinkles in dry skin, dark cracking lips. Instead of his normal smart suit and tie, he was wearing a casual jacket, a rumpled T-shirt underneath.

He wished that this was all just a nightmare, but every morning when he opened his eyes it was all still there – the swearing mob, the messy floor. Above all, he could not bear the anger, the fear, and the pain in his wife's almond eyes. ‘This is so unfair. She should have never been drawn into this. As for all of you out there, although I wish I could pick each of you up and throw you out of the door, deep down, I feel sorry for you too. I know how hard it must be for you. Do you think I want to see you losing your job? But what can I do? The German partner has bought the company, and their board has made the decision. To make the company more competitive, it has to cut down the number of low-skilled staff. They are, after all, running a multinational company, not a communist commune...'

Big Zhou was the man who showed Brother-in-law around when he first joined the factory twenty-five years ago.  Having worked in the company all his life, Big Zhou could not believe his eyes when he saw his name on the retrenched workers' list. ‘How can they do this to us? Aren't we a socialist country?' he heard his angry mates yelling. ‘Why me? What have I done to deserve this? What can I do now?  Who'll take care of my family?' he asked himself over and over, wandering the streets aimlessly,  lying wide awake in the dark.

Days passed, and he had not broken the news to his parents. He did not know where to start; his parents would worry themselves sick over their only son. At home, his eyes avoided the concerned gaze of his wife and the innocent eyes of his precious daughter. He kept asking the same questions. He felt ashamed.  He felt he had let  his family down.

Then one of his mates called. ‘We're gonna get loaded. Coming?'

‘Sure, I could sure use a few drinks,' agreed Big Zhou gloomily.

 

AT A CHEAP local restaurant outside the factory, over stir-fry dishes spread on a large round table, Big Zhou and his mates swore loudly and drank bottle after bottle of Chinese liquor, the cheapest brand but still 60 per cent alcohol, the real stuff.

‘Big Zhou, you coward, why didn't you crash the boss's home with us?' demanded one half-drunk man.

‘I...couldn't. He's my...friend, my old neighbour,' replied Big Zhou, red-faced.

Cao (fuck). Your friend? Your old neighbour? Bullshit. Look at you. Did he spare you?'

‘Well...shut up!' Big Zhou's tongue stiffened, his eyes turning to the speaker, burning with rage.

‘Okay, that's enough. No more bloody work. Drink up,' interjected another, clamping his hand on Zhou's shoulder.

In a karaoke bar, a bunch of young girls in sexy skirts wiggled into a dark room. Among the noisy singers around the television, one of the girls sank into the soft couch next to Big Zhou. He opened his eyes. Her legs looked smooth and tempting, her lips red and shining. Still holding the liquor in his right hand, Big Zhou lifted his other arm. He was just about to put it around the slim shoulder, when suddenly he stopped. Under the blue eye shadow, the girl's pretty eyes looked familiar – so familiar that they turned the girl's face into the one he'd been avoiding at home. Blood surged into Big Zhou's head. His world turned black, and he slumped onto the girl's lap.

As my brother-in-law stood among the mess, confronted by angry faces at home, his mobile rang. He went into the bedroom. My sister followed.

‘What...when...how did it happen?' he pressed, his voice tense and anxious. ‘Big Zhou just had a stroke, nearly died, and now he's paralysed,' he whispered to my sister, his face ashen. For years the two men had enjoyed their cheap cigarettes at the end of the stairs together, their wives had washed green leaves in the same cement troughs, and their daughters had toddled along the same humble corridor. ‘I am sorry Big Zhou. I know your area has just been shut down.  I know it would be tough for you, but, please, not like this...'

The news about Big Zhou broke my brother-in-law's spirit, and his body – that night, he too was rushed to hospital. After pacing for hours in the corridor, my sister finally saw a nurse and heard: ‘Your husband is all right.'

The retrenched workers got what they wanted – more compensation – and proudly withdrew from their protest base. Returning from the hospital, confronted by the mess the intruders had left behind, my sister sank into her stained couch and sobbed uncontrollably.

‘It's over. Things will get better,' I said, trying to comfort her over the phone after the angry mob had finally left and her husband was about to come home from hospital. But things were set to get worse.

Not long after the Germans took over, the company was swallowed by another western shark, a Dutch company. Soon the new senior managers arrived and made it clear who was in charge. My sister and her husband did their best to adjust and co-operate. Watching the division she had built and managed for years dismantled overnight and her files taken away, my sister bit her tongue. She went through one internal interview after another, even for lower-level jobs, swallowing her pride each time; but the answer was always, ‘We regret...' Then the announcement came: her service was no longer required.

My sister's world was shattered. She could not make sense of it all. She had devoted twenty-five years to her ‘work unit'. She was always the last to turn off the lights in the office, sometimes staying until midnight without dinner. She had an engineering degree from a respected university and an MBA after countless evenings and weekends of study. She had always been loyal to the company – despite the regular calls she had received from head-hunters in the last few years, she and her husband had never considered leaving.

They had devoted themselves to the factory they had been assigned to as fresh university graduates. It had become their life; their colleagues were like extended family. Over a quarter-century, the large factory had been transformed from state-owned to joint venture, to fully foreign company. They worked their way up, step by step.

Their salaries jumped from a few hundred RMB a month to packages comparable to those of western managers. Every day my brother-in-law was taken to and from his office by a personal driver. When he came home, he stood in front of his sparkling cabinet, enjoying the sight of his souvenirs, mementos from  board meetings around the world – a small Dutch windmill, a  red London double-decker bus, a German beer glass and a miniature Thai temple.

The family had long since moved out of their one-room pigeonhole: first to a two-bedroom apartment, then to a brand-new three-bedroom apartment, the first home of their own. Before long, they had bought an apartment for my parents, and one for my sister's mother-in-law. After the siege in their old apartment, my sister was determined to find a new home and, despite the intimidating price and the demanding management fee, they bought the plush new villa.

Then suddenly it was all over: the company which they had helped build was no longer theirs. The new owner grabbed the keys from their hands and pushed them out. My brother-in-law was told he had two choices – take a menial job under the new Dutch owner, on a fraction of his salary, or move inland, to set up a new company for the Germans. He chose the latter. Although he only sees his family over the weekend, and the demanding job and the tiring early morning and late-night flying have painted more grey above his forehead, he seems content. Despite their achievements, he and my sister are just as humble, and just as determined as the young parents whose sweaty arms held a crying baby in that tiny room, twenty years ago.

 

BEFORE DRIVING ME to the airport, my sister puts a red envelope in my hand. I open it. Some green Australian banknotes slip out.

‘No, I can't,' I protest, pushing the envelope back.

‘Take it,' they urge.

‘I can't. You just bought this house, and...you need the money.'

‘No, we have no debts; you still have a mortgage, and you are all on your own,' my brother-in-law insists. ‘Don't worry about us – we can always move back to our old apartment.'

‘What about Chenchen? She needs money to study in America,' I say.

‘Don't you worry, by then we'll have saved enough for her. We won't need much ourselves,' he adds lightheartedly, trying to sound convincing. ‘You know the story – when people asked an American tycoon why, unlike his lavish son, he always stayed in moderate hotels, the old man replied: my father had no money, but his father does.'

Half convinced, I take the red pack hesitantly.

Waving goodbye at the new Beijing airport, I board the plane. The cabin is packed. Sitting among Chinese students, as the plane heads south towards summery Sydney, I watch a woman on the small screen in front of me announcing: ‘Wall Street tumbled again, despite another stimulus package from the Obama government.' Where will this lead us? I wonder.

How will it affect China, and all of us?

Get the latest essay, memoir, reportage, fiction, poetry and more.

Subscribe to Griffith Review or purchase single editions here.

Griffith Review