Chapter 3: Dull, Not Dull
Listen to this song during the second half of the story!
Xiao Bo, Zhang Jun and Luo Qi Qi finally meet together for the first time, what will happen?
1. Things Originally Thought To Be Dull Aren’t Dull.
There were many proverbs when I was little. I only realized after growing up, that they were only beautiful lies. For instance, “the more plowing and weeding, the better the crops.” *
This proverb only considers the farmer’s hard work as a variable, yet forgets to consider the change in weather, the rise and fall in prices, and other related variables.
In reality, the harvest is a function with lots of variables, not a function with a single variable.
I prefer to use precise mathematics to define it: plowing and weeding is a necessary condition, but it isn’t sufficient. To derive the harvest, there must be plowing and weeding, but deriving harvest from plowing and weeding isn’t for certain.
*[No gain without pain]
Of Primary No.4 Year 6 Class (1)’s more than thirty students, half got in to various key middle schools, and the other half entered ordinary middle schools. My results which just reached the minimum acceptance line got me into a key middle school- our city’s High School No.1’s middle school department. Zhang Jun and Guan He were also accepted by them. These didn’t surprise me, what surprised me was that Xiao Bo actually got into High School No. 1’s high school department with his results that were high above the minimum acceptance line.
High School No. 1 was very casual in admissions and the entrance exam wasn’t any harder than other key middle schools, it was even slightly easier. However, high school was completely different, the enrollment rate was one of the top three highest in the province every year. In the eyes of many parents, being able to get into the high school department represented having one foot already successfully in university, so parents racked their brains trying to get their child into High School No.1, resulting in extremely fierce competition. Every year, students of the key middle schools and outstanding students from the ordinary middle schools had to act in a natural selection performance, a ruthless game of the survival of the fittest.
In order to give Xiao Bo a celebration, Brother Li held a big party at his newly opened karaoke lounge. He reserved two rooms and provided food and drinks, all for free.
At that time, ‘karaoke’ which had spread to China from Japan had just started to become popular in our city. Our parents’ generation hadn’t even understood what karaoke was but young people had already regarded it as a very fashionable, very reputable amusement. Brother Li’s karaoke lounge wasn’t the city’s first, but it was the best renovated. That day, people of all sorts gathered. Wu Zei invited a bunch of bros and girls and felt his reputation was very bright. Additionally, the enchantress he had been chasing all this time had also come, so he kept holding on to the microphone, forgetting long ago who the main character for the evening was.
The room was small but there were many people who squeezed in. The smell of alcohol and cigarettes mixed together and finding it hard to breathe, I secretly snuck out and ran to the balcony for some fresh air. Xiao Bo also wobbled out from the other room, carrying a cup of alcohol and a cigarette. He took quite a lot of shots tonight, and although he forced himself to vomit twice, he still swayed as he walked. I laughed and called him “duck” (at the time, duck didn’t have the other meaning yet.)*
*[Duck is a slang word for male prostitute]
I leaned on the railing breathing in the air. He stood for a while but his body turned soft so he slid down the railing and sat on the floor, smoking while chatting idly to me. I asked him how he got into No. 1, he laughed, “how you got in is how I got in.”
I thought about how hard I toiled during that time and gloomily sighed, “aren’t there any shortcuts in the world? Why must it always be “the more plowing and weeding, the better the crops”?
*[No pain without gain]
He was drinking alcohol and hearing what I said, he sprayed out the mouthful of alcohol and said coughing, “It’s already very lucky to be able to apply “no pain without gain” to things in this world!”
The two of us both became silent, our minds wandering off over our own matters.
Brother Li brought a few people into the lounge and just as they were about to enter a room, one of the people saw me and greeting the person beside him, he hurriedly walked over. Because he didn’t see Xiao Bo sitting on the floor and his steps were impatient, he tripped over Xiao Bo’s leg and fell on the floor. Xiao Bo was drunk and didn’t apologize, instead he started laughing loudly. I wasn’t able to resist laughing either and as I laughed, I bent down, wanting to help the person up.
I wanted to look pretty that day so I didn’t wear glasses and in that dim light, it was until I had bent down to help the other person up before I saw clearly that it was Zhang Jun. My laughter was immediately stuck in my throat and my hand hang stiffly in midair. He didn’t take my hand and stood up himself then turned around and left without a word. Xiao Bo happily asked, “Qi Qi, who is that boy?”
My brain was still frozen and I didn’t answer for a long time. Xiao Bo pulled my hand, “who is he?”
Xiao Bo stood up wobbling, and drunkenly said, “don’t get close to him, that person isn’t good.”
I started laughing, the sadness that filled my heart completely vanished. People’s eyes really grew on their heads, they only see the bad in others. I irritably said, you’re not a good person, I’m not a good person either, good people should be at home, not here drinking and smoking.”
Xiao Bo was about to speak but a person made their way out of one of the rooms and as if having an epilepsy, he ran around the corridor half naked shouting “Xiao Bo”, noticing that he was standing here, he immediately ran over. Xiao Bo muttered swear words and walked over.
I walked out from the karaoke lounge and passing the book rent store, I walked in and rented two sets of Qiong Yao’s books, deciding to read into the night.
Coming out of the book rent store, I unexpectedly saw Zhang Jun standing on the street.
I ignored him and walked off. He blocked in front of me, “don’t play with Wu Zei and Xiao Bo, they aren’t good people.”
What happened tonight? How come everyone’s turned into bad people?
I held my chin up, “It’s none of your business! I’ll play with whoever I want.”
Zhang Jun was unexpectedly learning to control his temper, and didn’t flick his head and leave like in the past. Instead, he patiently persuaded me, “I’m doing this for your own good, you’re a girl, it’s better if you don’t mingle foolishly outside. If you don’t have any friends, you can go and find Guan He, she’s a really good person.”
I was angry and hurt. I glared at him and asked, “what kind of person do you think I am? I need you to do this for my good? You’re trying to lecture me when you’re like this?”
He turned and left at my sharp words.
I also walked quickly, but I became more and more unhappy. I violently threw down the book in my hand and kicked it.
Qiong Yao’s novel didn’t help to improve my mood. Instead, it made it worse. The next day, I wasn’t able to concentrate on reading any books and I didn’t have any friends either so I could only go and find Xiao Bo to play with. I got Xiao Bo’s address from Wu Zei and went to look for his house.
When Xiao Bo opened the door, he was shirtless and his upper body was covered in sweat. Seeing that it was me, he was a bit dazed. I saw that he wasn’t wearing anything and also felt very awkward. I stood outside the door, not knowing what to say. He immediately turned around and went back inside to put on a shirt and then came back.
In the moment when he turned around, I saw that he didn’t have tattoos on his body like Brother Li and Wu Zei did. I didn’t know why but my heart felt relaxed, like that feeling when we were playing cards and I knew he was on my team.
We talked at the door. I asked him if he could go and walk with me, he said that he had to do work. I thought that it was housework and said that I could wait for him. He opened the door and let me in. Up to this day, that scene is still vivid in my mind.
The living room was empty. It could be said that the house had nothing but four walls, making the living room seem large and open. There was however, two mountains of blue gloves in the middle of the living room. In the middle of the two mountains, there was a stool, making it seem like Xiao Bo was just sitting there.
People from the 80s should all have seen those kinds of blue flannel gloves, it was specially for doing heavy work. We have many at home, it was issued by my dad’s company for labor safety equipment. Seemingly, in those years, many companies issued these kinds of labor safety equipment. My dad would wear them when he went to change liquefied petroleum gas.
From Xiao Bo’s introduction, there were two large sequences of process to these gloves. First, the machine will cut a sheet of flannel into different parts of the glove. Then, the various parts had to be pressed together manually by the sewing machine. Xiao Bo’s mother was currently on the balcony with a mask on, immersed in pressing the gloves together.
The gloves that were pressed together were inside out. Xiao Bo’s job was to flip these gloves back then fold the right and left gloves together.
Because there were many fine threads in the flannel, they would be blown away by the wind. so no matter how hot the temperature was, the fan couldn’t be opened, causing the room to be extremely hot and stuffy.
My eyes must have contained astonishment but Xiao Bo’s expression was calm. He wasn’t uncomfortable or ashamed, he casually found a stool and gave it to me then went back to sit between the two small mountains to continue flipping gloves. I brought the stool over to his side and copying what he was doing, I flipped gloves together with him.
We chatted as we flipped the gloves. I asked him how much money was earned from these gloves, Xiao Bo told me that his mother could earn 18 cents from pressing together a pair of gloves. A few years earlier, it was only 12 cents per pair of gloves.
I asked all the questions I had regarding the gloves and didn’t know what else to say so I stopped talking. He also didn’t speak and the two of us flipped gloves silently, until we finished the mountain of gloves. My body was covered in sweat and my dress stuck to my back, Xiao Bo’s forehead was also filled with sweat.
I looked at the mountain of completed gloves in the middle of the living room and feeling a sense of accomplishment, I beamed at him. He also laughed, “I’ll treat you to a popsicle.” I nodded.
Outside, with the wind blowing on my back, I felt incomparably comfortable, it was the first time I thought the wind was so cute. We held one each, the cheapest popsicle, and sat by the riverside, eating it while enjoying the setting sun.
After doing half a day of work, and being covered in sweat, my mood mysteriously turned better. I couldn’t resist laughing at everything Xiao Bo said. Seeing me laugh, Xiao Bo also laughed. The two of us kicked the water with our feet, seeing who could make the biggest splash and we both tried hard, wanting to get the other person wet first. When we were exhausted, we laid on the rock smiling, both in a daze.
The rocks had been basking in the sun all day, and were hot. Yet our clothes were wet and between the hot and coldness, it felt very pleasant. Xiao Bo put both his hands under his head and started to whisten. It was so out of tune that I had to listen for a while before I was able to realize what he was whistling seemed to be ‘Love Song of Kangding’, but with the sound of the water and in the warm breeze, I couldn’t help but curve my lips upwards. Xiao Bo also smiled, his smile was brought through the sound of his whistling. I hummed to his whistling:
“High up on the mountain slide, floats a cloud so white, bathed in silver moonlight, there lies the Kangding town, the moon shines bright over Kangding town….”
Later, Wu Zei told me that Xiao Bo’s father was an electrician, when Xiao Bo was three, an accident occurred during a wire maintenance and he died, electrocuted by the power line. Xiao Bo’s mother was a housewife and had no job. Since then onward, she had to rely on doing odd jobs to raise Xiao Bo. During this time, she had sold popsicles, held a pancake stall, sieved sand on a construction sand and pressing together gloves, which was also her longest job. Wu Zei also said that her mind wasn’t normal, either she didn’t speak for days, not uttering a word to her son, or she would speak uncontrollably, and grab strangers to cry to about Xiao Bo’s father. Wu Zei spoke with a lingering fear, clearly he had also been grabbed before.
When I think back to the scene that day, indeed Xiao Bo’s mom had not said a word. When Xiao Bo left, he had told his mom but she didn’t even raise her head.
For a long period of time after flipping gloves, when I went to purchase anything, I would first subconsciously change the price of the good into pairs of gloves. For instance, a bowl of cold noodles was 50 cents, which would be pressing three pairs of gloves; a bowl of beef noodles was two dollars, which would be pressing eleven pairs of gloves. Every time after converting, I became more prudent with how much I was spending and I would consider carefully if I should spend the money. My spending habits became more modest and I started being able to understand Xiao Bo valuing money more.
My summer break was very idle whereas Xiao Bo’s summer break was very busy. He was learning to manage the Karaoke lounge business from Brother Li. Brother Li had many people by his side, no matter the age or qualifications, even over time, there were people far more suited than Xiao Bo, especially since Xiao Bo was still at school but curiously, Brother Li always treated Xiao Bo differently. Brother Li talked impatiently to others, sometimes he would even loudly yell the person was pigheaded, but he would always patiently answer Xiao Bo’s questions. Xiao Bo was very smart though, and no matter where Brother Li spoke, as long as he has said the words before, Xiao Bo will remember it forever.
Wu Zei had already graduated from technical school and officially started doing business with Brother Li. Brother Li let him and Xiao Bo manage the karaoke lounge together. Although Wu Zei was older than Xiao Bo and usually acted like an older brother, when something really happened, it was always Xiao Bo who made the decisions.
Along with them, my main activity venue shifted to the karaoke lounge. The conditions improved a lot, at least when many people didn’t know who Tsui Hark* was yet, I already watched quite a few of his films in addition to numerous Hong Kong and Taiwanese gangster films.
*[Tsui Hark (徐克) is a film director, producer and screenwriter. A few of his movies include Once Upon a Time in China (武状元黄飞鸿), A Better Tomorrow/ True Colors of a Hero (英雄本色) and his most recent Flying Swords of Dragon Gate (龙门飞甲) ]
The charisma Chow Yun Fat’s Mark* had was greadly admired by hooligans like Wu Zei. They often wore all black, had a pair of sunglasses on and a toothpick in their mouth, acting cool and deep, lest when they walked on the streets, people didn’t know they had mental issues.
*[Mark is the character Chow Yun Fat played in A Better Tomorrow/ True Colors of a Hero (英雄本色). Search up some images of the character and laugh as you imagine Wu Zei strolling down the street like that]
Brother Li dressed in normal clothes that couldn’t be any more normal, lest people saw him as the head of the psychos. Looking at his men, Brother Li often couldn’t help but laugh, his favorite phrase was, “don’t think that after watching two gangster films, you can mix into the mafia.”
The enchantress officially became Wu Zei’s girlfriend. She was three years older than Wu Zei and he was extremely pleased about it. It seemed like at that time, if a guy was able to find a girlfriend older than himself, he’d have lots of face in front of others. I didn’t know why at the time but now I roughly understand, adolescent boys were probably impatient to prove they’ve already grown up. Having a girlfriend that’s older than themselves will make them feel that they’ve surpassed people of their age.
Once, I was whispering to Xiao Bo behind Wu Zei’s back about the enchantress. Wu Zei heard this nickname and not only was he not angry, he was pretty pleased, feeling that his babe really was enchanting. He stopped using her real name and actually started calling her “enchantress”.
I didn’t meet Enchantress frequently but gradually, we chatted a bit. I found out from her that Brother Li had gone to prison before. They all thought that once he came out, he would try and recover his lost territory but nobody expected that in these few years, he actually started doing proper business, moreover his businesses were very successful. I was very curious to how Xiao Bo got together with them, in my opinion, people who were able to get into No. 1 High School’s high school department shouldn’t be in the same league as Brother Li and Wu Zei. Enchantress also didn’t know, only saying that Xiao Bo was very good at fighting and his attacks were ruthless. Back in the day, people who came out to mess around all knew that Xiao Bo was good at fighting.
Nowadays, Xiao Bo was really a good man so I listened dazedly. Enchantress looked at me and laughed, “I heard from Wu Zei that you’re also very vicious at fighting, last time if it wasn’t for Brother Li, you’d have a human life on your hands.”
Actually, it wasn’t viciousness, but honor doesn’t permit turning back and leaves no way out, half forced by the situation and half due to my personality, but in the eyes of the outsiders, the situation gradually changed as it was spread. I suddenly understood Xiao Bo’s viciousness, he lost his dad in Year 3 and his mom had a mental illness, so he also didn’t have any way out at all.
In many people’s memories, the summer break of Year 6 was splendid because it was the ending of an old chapter and a start of a new one, and in between, there were no summer homework, no study stress, there was only anticipation of the future as well as play, play, play!
My memories however, were very plain, I only remember the only time I met with Zhang Jun as well as the mountain of blue gloves in Xiao Bo’s house and his out of tune whistling.
Many years later, when I went singing with a group of friends, my friend selected ‘Love Song of Kanding’ for me. I laughed and sang, while singing, the mountain of blue gloves appeared in front of my eyes along with the out of tune whistling. My sound was suddenly choked with emotion. At that time, I realized the things originally thought to be dull aren’t dull.
Here is another version of Love Song of Kangding, sung by Song Zuying and Placido Domingo and accompanied by Lang Lang on the piano. I found this version more bittersweet, and perhaps due to the slower tempo and Song Zuying’s soulful voice, I felt that this was a more fitting version
as Luo Qi Qi remembers back to her summer in the last part of the story ^.
“High upon the mountain side
Floats a cloud so white
There lies peaceful Kangding town
Bathed in silver moonlight
Moonlight shines bright
Over Kangding town,
Lovely maid with a smile so sweet
Li the wood cutter’s daughter
Zheng the blacksmith’s eldest son
Came through moonlight to court her
Moonlight shines bright
Over Kangding town.
He fell in love with her smile so sweet
And her pleasing ways,
She could cook and she could sew
Care for him all of his days,
Moonlight shines bright
Over Kangding town.
Lovely maidens of the world
I cannot but love you
Gentlemen of the world
They cannot but woo you. ”
Why did this song pop up in Xiao Bo’s mind and why did he choose to whistle it? Was he reminded of the song by Qi Qi “with a smile so sweet”? What do you guys think? 😀
Wow, all this time I thought Qi Qi had it hard, but it turns out Xiao Bo had it harder. How scary must it have been for Xiao Bo watch his mother turn mentally ill as a small child. How did he even cope with it? What a strong boy.
I guess none of our three main leads (?) have a good family life- Qi Qi’s parents are present but they only have eyes for her little sister, Zhang Jun’s parents are never there and Xiao Bo has no father and his mother is mentally ill.