Simplicity Zhao visits his uncle on Salt Melon Street, and Benevolence Hong makes a match at the Hall of Beauties
A young man was seen rushing over Lu Stone Bridge, which linked Shanghai's Chinese district to the foreign settlements. He was dressed in a golden brown box jacket of glossy Nanjing silk, under which was an off-white cotton archery gown.' Surprised by the busy scene, he bumped into a ricksha and fell smack on the ground, splashing mud all over himself. Scrambling quickly to his feet, he seized the ricksha puller, shouting and cursing wildly at him, deaf to remonstrance. A Chinese policeman in a dark blue cotton uniform came over to question him. "My name is Simplicity Zhao, and I'm bound for Salt Melon Street," said the young man. "But out of the blue came this blockhead who ran me over with a ricksha! Look at the mud on my jacket. He'll have to pay for it."
"You could have been more careful yourself. I shouldn't press the matter," the policeman said.
Simplicity Zhao grumbled on for a bit but finally had to loosen his grip on the ricksha man and watch him pad away. A crowd of spectators had gathered at the crossroads, talking and laughing. Simplicity Zhao tried to brush the dirt off his clothes, complaining in despair, "How can I go and see my uncle like this?"
Even the policeman couldn't help laughing. "Why don't you go over to the teahouse and get a towel to wipe yourself down?" Following his advice, Simplicity went to the Waterway Teahouse by the bridge, where he took a seat near the street and removed his jacket. A waiter brought him a basin of hot water and a towel. He wrung the towel dry and wiped his jacket carefully, until not a trace of mud was left. Then he put it back on, took a sip of tea, paid the bill, and headed straight for the central market on Salt Melon Street. Here he saw the signboard of the Flourishing Ginseng Store and ambled into its small walled courtyard, asking loudly for Mr. Benevolence Hong. A young salesclerk answered, invited him in, took his name, and hurried in to announce him.
Soon Benevolence Hong bustled out. Though Simplicity had not seen his uncle for a long time, he still remembered well the hollow cheeks and protuberant eyes. He quickly walked up to the man and greeted him on one knee. Benevolence Hong hastened to return the salutation and asked him to take the seat of honor, inquiring meanwhile, "How is your esteemed mother? Did she come with you? Where are you staying?"
"My humble quarters are at the Welcome Inn on Treasured Merit Street. Mother did not come but told me to pay you her respects, sir," Simplicity replied.
While they talked, the young clerk served tobacco and tea. Benevolence Hong asked his nephew what had brought him to Shanghai.
"Nothing in particular," Simplicity said. "I'm hoping to find some employment."
"Just now, though, there aren't any good opportunities in Shanghai," said Benevolence.
"Mother says I'm not getting any younger, and there's nothing for me to do at home, so it's better for me to go out into the world and learn to do business."
"There's certainly something in that. How old are you?" "Seventeen."
"You have an esteemed sister, too. I haven't seen her either for several years. How old is she? Is she betrothed yet?"
"Not yet. She's fifteen."
"Who else is there in your family?"
"Just the three of us and a maidservant."
"With so few people, your expenses are probably low."
"Even so, we also have to pinch and skimp much more than before."
There was a clock on a table carved from tree roots. As they talked, it struck twelve, whereupon Benevolence asked Simplicity to stay for a casual meal and summoned the clerk to give him the instructions. A little later, four plates of cold cuts, two main courses, and a jug of wine were brought in. Uncle and nephew sat facing each other, drinking and chatting about recent developments and how things were in the countryside.
"Are you staying alone at the inn? Isn't there anyone to look after you?" asked Benevolence.
"A friend of mine from a rice merchant's has also come to Shanghai to look for work. His name is Rustic Zhang, and he's staying with me." "That's all right then."
After lunch, they wiped their face with a towel and rinsed their mouths. Benevolence handed Simplicity a water pipe. "Do stay for a while. I'll go and finish a few small chores and then see you back to the inn."
Simplicity agreed politely, whereupon Benevolence hurriedly left the room.
Simplicity sat smoking the water pipe until he got good and tired of it. The clock had struck two by the time Benevolence came out. He summoned the clerk again to leave some instructions and then went with Simplicity to his room at the Welcome Inn.2 There was already a man in the room, lying there smoking opium. After a brief greeting, Benevolence asked, "Mr. Rustic Zhang, I presume?"
"At your service," said Rustic. "And you, Uncle, must be Mr. Benevolence Hong."
"You do me too great an honor to call me Uncle."
"I apologize for not having called on you to pay my respects." After this exchange of civilities, they sat down. Simplicity produced a water pipe and offered it to Benevolence.
"This is my nephew's first visit to Shanghai. He is absolutely dependent on your great kindness," said Benevolence.
Rustic said, "Alas, I am all too aware of my own inadequacy. But since we came to town together, it's only natural that we should look out for each other."
After more courtesies, Benevolence passed him the water pipe. Taking it in one hand, Rustic gestured with his other hand toward the couch, inviting Benevolence to share a pipe of opium with him.3
"No, thanks," Benevolence declined, and they sat down again.
Sitting to one side, Simplicity listened to their conversation, which drifted gradually to the topic of courtesans. He was just about to slip in a question or two when Rustic passed him the water pipe, so he took the opportunity to whisper into the latter's ear.
"Ha!" Rustic turned to Benevolence. "My brother Simplicity says he'd like to take a look at the sing-song houses. Is that all right?"
"Where shall we go?" said Benevolence.
"Let's take a stroll along Chessboard Street," said Rustic.
"I remember there's a courtesan called Jewel at the Hall of Beauties on West Chessboard Street. She's not bad," said Benevolence. "Then let's go," Simplicity broke in.
Rustic grinned. Even Benevolence could not help smiling.
Simplicity told Rustic to put away his opium tray and then waited while he changed into a new outfit-a melon-ribbed cap, Beijing-style trimmed slippers, and a padded gown of shiny gray Hangzhou silk topped by a glossy box jacket of sapphire-blue Nanjing silk. Rustic then proceeded to fold up one by one all the clothes he had changed out of before he was finally ready to go. At the door, he and Benevolence each pressed the other to take the lead.
Impatiently, Simplicity pulled the door to, locked it, and followed them out. After turning a couple of street corners, they were on West Chessboard Street. Outside one of the doors, there was an iron stand with an octagonal glass lantern inscribed in vermilion with the words "The Hall of Beauties." Benevolence led the way in. The menservants knew him and shouted at once, "Mama Yeung, a friend of Young Mr. Zhuang."4 Somebody answered upstairs and came stumping to the head of the stairs to greet them.
The maid Mama Yeung watched as the three men came up and said, "Oh, it's Young Mr. Hong. Please come in and take a seat." A servant girl of thirteen or fourteen had propped up the bamboo curtain with a stick to let them through. There was already a man in the room. He was lying on the couch, his arms round a courtesan, cuddling with her. Only when Benevolence walked in did he get up to greet the newcomers, cupping his hands palm over fist to salute Rustic and Simplicity and asking for their family names. Benevolence answered for them and turned toward Rustic, saying, "This is Mr. Lichee Zhuang."
"Honored," Rustic murmured.
The courtesan hid behind Lichee Zhuang, waiting till everyone had taken their seats before she came up to offer them watermelon seeds. The servant girl also brought water pipes and filled them for the clients.
"I was just going to look for you," Lichee Zhuang said to Benevolence Hong. "I've got a lot of stuff here. See if anyone can help dispose of them." He fished a folder out of his pocket and handed it to Benevolence. Benevolence saw that on the list were items of jewelry, curios, paintings, calligraphy, and clothes, all numbered and with prices written next to them.
"This sort of thing . . . " Benevolence said, frowning. "Well, they're hard to sell. I heard Script Li of Hangzhou is here. D'you want to try him?"
"I've told Cloudlet Chen to take this to Li. There's been no news yet." "Where's all the stuff?"
"Right here, over at Longevity Bookstore. Would you care to go and take a look?"
"What's the point? I don't know the first thing about this kind of stuff."
Simplicity, impatient with their conversation, turned to give the courtesan a good looking-over. She had a very fair round face and regular and exquisite features. Loveliest of all were her smiling lips-so small they formed a vermilion dot-and her mercurial eyes oozed tenderness. Since she was at home, she was dressed casually and for ornament wore only a silver filigree butterfly in her hair. Her cotton blouse was the color of dawn's first light, set off by a sleeveless jacket of black crinkled crepe with satin pipings and pink crinkled crepe trousers trimmed with off-white satin and three bands of embroidered lace.
She felt Simplicity's gaze and, smiling, walked to the big foreign mirror against the wall and studied herself from all angles, smoothing her sidelocks. Entranced, he followed her with his eyes. Suddenly he heard Benevolence Hong call out, "Miss Woodsy, shall I make a match for your little sister Jewel?" Only then did he realize that this courtesan was Woodsy Lu, not Jewel.
He saw her turn around and answer, "Why not? You'd be doing my sister a good turn." She shouted for Mama Yeung, who happened to come in at that very moment to offer them towels and more tea. She told her to summon Jewel and add more teacups.]
"Which is the gentleman?" Mama Yeung asked.
"Young Mr. Zhao." Benevolence Hong pointed to Simplicity.
Mama Yeung eyed him sideways. "Oh, so this is Young Mr. Zhao? I'll get Jewel." She took the towels and ran out, thump, thump, thump.
Not long afterward came the sound of bound feet, creakety creak all the way.6 That must be Jewel coming. Simplicity Zhao had his eyes on the door curtain and saw her walk in, pick up the plate of watermelon seeds, and pass it around, first to "Young Mr. Zhuang" and then to "Young Mr. Hong." When she got to Rustic and Simplicity, she asked for their names and gave Simplicity a little smile. He saw that she, too, had a small round face, exactly like Woodsy's. She was younger and not as tall, but if they were not seen together it would be quite impossible to tell them apart.
Jewel put down the plate and seated herself shoulder to shoulder with Simplicity, which embarrassed him a little. He didn't know whether to remain seated or walk away. Fortunately, Mama Yeung came hurrying in again. "Young Mr. Zhao, please come this way."
"Everybody, please come over together," said Jewel.
At this, they all stood up, inviting each other to take the lead.
"I'll lead the way," Lichee Zhuang said. He was about to walk ahead when Woodsy grabbed him by the sleeve. "You stay here. Let them go."
Benevolence Hong looked over his shoulder with a smile and, together with Rustic and Simplicity, followed Mama Yeung into Jewel's room. It was right next door to Woodsy's and was similarly furnished, with a dressing mirror, a clock, golden hanging scrolls, and colorfully painted silk lanterns. They sat around casually as Mama Yeung bustled about adding teacups and summoned the servant girl to fill the water pipes. Then a manservant brought in a plate of nuts and sweetmeats, which Jewel offered to everyone before sitting down next to Simplicity again.
"Where is Young Mr. Zhao' s residence?" asked Mama Yeung, who was standing next to Benevolence.
"He is staying at the Welcome Inn with Young Mr. Zhang."
"Has Young Mr. Zhang got a girl?" Mama Yeung turned to Rustic, who smiled and shook his head. "He hasn't? Then we must fix him up with one, too," she said.
"Fix me up with a girl? How about you?" said Rustic, at which everybody roared with laughter.
Mama Yeung laughed and continued, "Wouldn't it be more fun if you got yourself fixed up and came and visited together with Young Mr. Zhao?"
With a sardonic laugh, Rustic went and lay down on the couch to smoke.
"Come, Young Mr. Zhao, you be the matchmaker," Mama Yeung turned to Simplicity.
Simplicity, busy fooling around with Jewel, pretended not to hear.
Jewel snatched her hand away from his. "Hey, you're to be the matchmaker. Say something!"
He still did not speak.
"Go on, say something," she urged.
Hard pressed, he glanced at Rustic and made to address him, but Rustic ignored him and went on smoking.
Simplicity was saved from his embarrassment by Lichee Zhuang, who had just come in through the door curtain. He took the opportunity to stand up and invite Zhuang to take a seat. Mama Yeung, seeing that there was nothing doing, went out with the servant girl.
Lichee Zhuang sat down opposite Benevolence and talked about things in the business world. Rustic was still lying on the couch, smoking. Jewel held Simplicity's hands tightly in her own and forbade him to move. She would only chat with him, one minute saying she wanted to go to the theater, the next that she wanted a drinking party. Simplicity just grinned. She went so far as to draw up her feet and roll into his arms. But when he stuck a hand up her sleeve, she held her bosom tight and cried out desperately, "Stop it!"
Rustic had just finished smoking a couple of pellets of opium. "You should pass up the dumplings and go for the buns!" he said smiling.
Simplicity did not understand. "What did you say?"
Jewel set her feet down quickly and tugged at him. "Don't listen to him. He's making fun of you." She glared at Rustic and pulled the corners of her mouth down. "You won't get yourself a girl, but when it comes to wagging your tongue, you're tops, right?"
This dampened Rustic's spirits. He got up sheepishly to look at the clock.
Sensing that Rustic wanted to go, Benevolence Hong also stood up. "Let's go and have dinner."
On hearing this, Simplicity hastily fished out a silver dollar and tossed it into the candy dish. Jewel said, "Do stay a little longer," and then called out to Woodsy, "Elder Sister, they're leaving."
Woodsy hurried over and said something to Lichee Zhuang in a low voice. Then she and Jewel saw the men out to the staircase landing, both saying, "Come together again soon." The four men made affirmative noises as they walked down the stairs.