At 9am sharp I pulled up to the Brownstones buildings. This residential complex sits on the eastern edge of the Winter Palace, with its northern face hugging the flyovers of the north Fifth Ring Road. “The Brownstones” has been a household name in Beijing for years, ever since they executed the district mayor, Zhou Liangluo, for accepting millions in bribes on local real estate deals, including the one that made these apartments. It was the first time I had ever been here. I had a client in Building 8 who had asked me to build a KT88 amplifier to boost his speakers, an Acapella bookshelf set. Acapella systems with Campanile horn speakers are a common enough sight in this city, their equalizers flickering with a ghostly blue light, but the shelf speakers I’d seen only in magazines. I worked day and night for two weeks to produce an amplifier that would fit the system, though whether or not it would produce a good sound was by no means certain.
The late autumn sky was beginning to clear after a night of rain, and visibility was so good it seemed you could reach out and touch the mist-curled trees of the Winter Palace, or the tall pagoda atop Baiwang Mountain. Another frost or two and the maples on the western mountains would start to turn. My mood, though, wasn’t as cheerful as the weather. Five minutes ago I’d gotten a call from my sister, Cui Lihua. My brother-in-law had gotten drunk last night, and kicked her in the “privates” with a square-toed leather shoe. This morning, she said, she’d had blood in her urine. The sound of her crying irritated me, and I simply stayed quiet on my end. It wasn’t that I didn’t feel like comforting her, but I sensed some other motive hidden behind her whimpering. Sure enough, after she’d gone on for a while, my sister said to me: “I can’t take it anymore. Please, just move out. I don’t want to live like this either. Have pity on me, as a brother to a sister. I’m begging you…”
I could hear both supplication and anger in my sister’s voice as she wailed at me over the phone. As if it hadn’t been that bastard Chang Baoguo who had kicked her, but me.
The security door for Unit 3 popped open. A woman in a gray athletic shirt leaned out from the doorway. She peered at me and at the mud-flecked minivan behind me, then finally caught sight of the KT88 at my feet. She smiled and gushed, “Oooh, it’s so pretty!” I wasn’t sure if she was being polite with her praise or slightly patronizing. The way she spoke reminded me of Yufen. Her face and form did too. I couldn’t help but look her up and down a few times, as faint ripples of panic and sorrow crossed my heart. The KT88 amplifier I had worked so hard to build sat on the concrete stoop, its silver, velvety body shining in the morning sun.
Her husband had ordered the amplifier. I had met him at the International Hi-Fi Exhibition last October. I found him reserved, and a little annoying. I heard he was a professor, though I can’t say of what, or at which university. He liked changing his mind. Initially he asked me to make him an EL34, but just as I was putting the final touches on the body, he called again, demanding that I switch over to the more powerful KT88.
The husband sat at his dining table, chatting with a friend over tea. He didn’t pause in his conversation as I walked past him with the bulky KT88 in my arms, but merely acknowledged me with a stern nod. My experience dealing with professors has taught me that educated people have the ability to demean a person with a single glance. His friend didn’t seem like your average guy either. A thick mustache guarded his mouth, making him look a little like Friedrich Engels.
The wife, in stark contrast, was quite friendly and asked if I preferred tea or coffee. Anything’s fine, I replied, and sure enough, anything was what I received: she returned with a glass of orange soda. As I set up the speakers, she leaned over the back of the couch and quietly observed me. The more I looked at her, the more she reminded me of Yufen.
It was an easy job, not much for me to do. I installed a GEC KT88 electronic vacuum tube and an RCA 5u4 rectifier tube, verified its working amperage, then connected the lines for the signal and the horn speakers, and that was pretty much it. I noticed that the speaker boxes were placed a little too close to the wall and asked the hostess if we could change their location a little. Generally speaking, if the speaker is too close to a wall, the standing wave created in the ports will cause the lower registers to sound fuzzy; this is common knowledge. Yet before the woman could open her mouth, the professor turned his head around and yelled in a hostile tone: “Don’t mess with anything!”
The woman looked at me, blinked, stuck out her tongue, then said with a laugh, “Don’t worry about it. He never lets anyone touch his stuff. How about we put on some music and try it out?”
“No rush; let’s wait a moment first. I just plugged it in and the machine needs to preheat.”
“Wow, so complicated!” Again, the half-curious, half-mocking tone.
I patiently explained that in order for the amplifier to produce the highest-quality sound, it had to be turned on for at least 20 minutes before use. She was a teacher as well, a volleyball instructor at the Beijing Sports Academy just up the road. With the help of a crude analogy, she immediately accepted the importance of “warming up.”
As we waited, I flipped through their CD collection. All dated pop music—Mei Yanfang, Zhang Xueyou, and (of course) Cai Qin. Mostly pirated. I have no opinion when it comes to my clients’ musical tastes. It doesn’t matter to me if they like Renaissance, Baroque, or the Romantics, blues, jazz, or even “glass-shattering” heavy metal. But honestly, spending a 150,000 yuan on an Acapella set so you can listen to pirated Mei Yanfang CDs seemed almost unbelievable. I realized with some consternation that I had been taking this job a little too seriously, spending two weeks fine-tuning the amp to perfection. If one really wants to listen to this kind of stuff, just spend 500 yuan at the local electronics market on a pair of discount computer speakers.
Naturally, I didn’t say any of this out loud, merely asked which CD she’d like to listen to. She said she didn’t care. Their whole collection of “music” was organized right on the coffee table.
The professor and his friend were still talking in the dining room. For the most part, conversations between intellectuals are incomprehensible to the everyday person. Nothing strange or new about that, of course, yet their dead-serious tone of voice can enthrall nonetheless. With that tone, even the most ridiculous point of view sounds completely sensible. And so the Engels impersonator suddenly started to praise the Empress Dowager:
“Thank heavens she stole a percentage of the funds the navy was going to use to build destroyers and spent it on construction of the Summer Palace. When the war with the Japanese broke out, the ships would have been destroyed anyway. Thus we can see how corruption isn’t always necessarily a bad thing. You can’t help but admire the old Dowager’s vision—after a little bit of work on her part, not only has she left us a World Heritage Site, just imagine the enormous sums of money we get per annum from ticket sales alone. I live outside the southwest corner of the palace; as long as it’s not raining, I ride my bicycle through the grounds every day, in through the southern Gate of Fortune and out the North Palace Gate. Twenty years later, I’m still not tired of it.”
The mention of the Empress Dowager jolted me to attention. My great-grandfather was once summoned to her court to perform Peking opera and received a gift of two bolts of silk in return. Listening to him stand up for her was comforting. Besides, I’ve always loved the Summer Palace myself, especially the landscape around the Jade Belt Bridge. Unfortunately, the tickets have grown more expensive with every passing year, and I hadn’t been for nearly a decade. As for the Empress Dowager, my grandfather maintained his own judgment, which seemed to me a lot more objective than what Engels expressed. Even if she was quite intelligent, he once told me, she obviously didn’t know much about the real world; in other words, she acted like nothing more than an average noblewoman of those times, penny-wise and pound-foolish. She mishandled an historical opportunity, and when it came down to saving the Qing dynasty or saving the country, she chose the former, with tragic results. When they nailed her to the historical whipping post, no one can say she didn’t deserve it.
The professor listened to Engels’ long pronouncement, nodding periodically. Yet his response was hardly credible. He expressed complete agreement with his friend’s point of view; in fact, he saw the Sino-Japanese War itself as an unnecessary conflict. If, at the beginning of the war, China had surrendered directly, not only would it have saved 100s of 1,000s of lives, but China and Japan could have joined forces to resist Western imperialism, which could have changed the global balance of power dramatically. Moreover, he had always felt that Wang Jingwei, the one-time president of the Japanese puppet government in Nanjing, was actually a national hero, no less than Li Hong Zhang or Yuan Shikai, and that his life history should be thoroughly re-examined and his image rehabilitated. He even quoted a passage from Wang Jingwei’s diary after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
The professor liked to repeat the rhetorical question “Am I right?” to emphasize his every point, as if he had merely to ask it and his nauseating opinions would be trans-muted into truth. Though I don’t consider myself an ardent nationalist, though I didn’t have the skills to refute him, and though I’ve always respected intellectuals, his whole exhausting argument angered me. Why did his words have such an effect? What he said made me feel ashamed, like someone had just dug up my family’s grave; I wanted to step forward and argue the point. What I found even more shocking as he blathered on about his admiration of Shintoism was that he pronounced the word for “spirits” as shen-di. Now, my formal education ended after one year at technical school and thus my knowledge of literature comes mostly from Xu Zhongyu’s College Level Language Arts, but even I knew that word is pronounced shen-qi and not shen-di.
I tried my best to control myself, sliding out a copy of the opera The Red Detachment of Women to test out the sound. The professor’s wife, however, requested a different CD. She liked Andy Lau. She said she almost shook Andy Lau’s hand during his concert at the Worker’s Stadium in 2004. I was in no position to argue with her. Still, you can imagine how I felt when lines like “give me a drink to forget your love” came drooling out of those beautiful Acapella speakers.
Goose bumps spread over my entire body; my mood dropped into my shoes.
I’m not saying that people shouldn’t listen to Andy Lau. These days it just seems like everyone is listening to him, old and young, man and woman. I could rack my brain all night and never figure out why.
Something is definitely wrong with this world.
The Invisibility Cloak, by Ge Fei, translated by Canaan Morse is published by New York Review Books.