Z.G. moves behind his easel. He doesn’t like us to speak or move when he paints, but he keeps us entertained by playing music on the phonograph and talking to us about this and that.
“Pearl, are we here to make money or have fun?” He doesn’t wait for my answer. He doesn’t want one. “Is it to tarnish or burnish our reputations? I say neither. We’re doing something else. Shanghai is the center of beauty and modernity. A wealthy Chinese can buy whatever he or she sees on one of our calendars. Those who have less money can aspire to have these things. The poor? They can only dream.”
“Lu Hsun thinks differently,” May says.
I sigh impatiently. Everyone admires Lu Hsun, the great writer who died last year, but that doesn’t mean May should be talking about him during our sitting. I keep quiet and hold my pose.
“He wanted China to be modern,” May continues. “He wanted us to get rid of the lo fan and their influence. He was critical of beautiful girls.”
“I know, I know,” Z.G. responds evenly, but I’m surprised by my sister’s knowledge. She’s not a reader; she never has been. She must be trying to impress Z.G., and it’s working. “I was there the night he gave that speech. You would have laughed, May. You too, Pearl. He held up a calendar that just happened to be of the two of you.”
“Which one?” I ask, breaking my silence.
“I didn’t paint it, but it showed the two of you dancing the tango together. Pearl, you were dipping May back. It was very—”
“I remember that one! Mama was so upset when she saw it. Remember, Pearl?”
I remember all right. Mama was given the poster from the store on Nanking Road where she buys napkins for the monthly visit from the little red sister. She cried and railed and yelled that we were embarrassing the Chin family by looking and acting like White Russian taxi dancers. We tried to explain that beautiful-girl calendars actually express filial piety and traditional values. They are given away at Chinese and Western New Year’s as incentives, special promotions, or gifts to favored clients. From those good homes, they trickle down to street vendors, who sell them for a few coppers to the poor. We told Mama that a calendar is the most important thing in life for every Chinese, even though we didn’t believe it ourselves. Whether rich or poor, people regulate their lives by the sun, the moon, the stars, and, in Shanghai, by the tide of the Whangpoo. They refuse to enter into a business deal, set a wedding date, or plant a crop without considering the auspiciousness of feng shui. All this can be found in the borders of most beautiful-girl calendars, which is why they serve as almanacs for everything good or potentially dangerous in the year to come. At the same time, they are cheap decorations for even the lowest home.
“We’re making people’s lives more beautiful,” May explained to Mama. “That’s why we’re called beautiful girls.” But Mama only calmed down after May pointed out that the advertisement was for cod-liver oil. “We’re keeping children healthy,” May said. “You should be proud of us!”
In the end, Mama hung the calendar in the kitchen next to the phone so she could write important numbers—for the soy-milk vendor, the electrician, Madame Garnet, and the birth dates for all our servants—on our exposed, pale legs and arms. Still, after that incident, we were careful about which posters we brought home and worried about which ones might be given to her by one of the neighborhood tradesmen.
“Lu Hsun said that calendar posters are depraved and disgusting,” May picks up, barely moving her lips so she can keep her smile in place. “He said that the women who pose for them are sick. He said this kind of sickness doesn’t come from society—”
“It comes from the painters,” Z.G. finishes for her. “He considered what we’re doing decadent and said it won’t help the revolution. But tell me, little May, how will the revolution happen without us? Don’t answer. Just sit and be quiet. Otherwise, we’ll be here all night.”
I’m grateful for the silence. In the days before the Republic, I would have already been sent sight unseen to my husband’s home in a red lacquer sedan chair. By now I would have given birth to several children, sons hopefully. But I was born in 1916, the fourth year of the Republic. Footbinding was banned and women’s lives changed. People in Shanghai now consider arranged marriages backward. Everyone wants to marry for love. In the meantime, we believe in free love. Not that I’ve given it freely. I haven’t given it yet at all, but I would if Z.G. asked me to.
He’d positioned me so that my face would be angled to May’s, but he wanted me to look at him. I hold my pose, stare at him, and dream of our future together. Free love is one thing, but I want us to get married. Every night as he paints, I draw on the great festivities I’ve been to and imagine the wedding my father will host for Z.G. and me.
At close to ten, we hear the wonton soup peddler call, “Hot soup to bring sweat, cool the skin and the night.”
Z.G. holds his brush in midair, pretending to consider where next to apply paint, while watching to see which of us will break our pose first.
When the wonton man is just below the window, May jumps up and squeals, “I can’t wait any longer!” She rushes to the window, calls down our usual order, and then lowers a bowl attached to a rope that we’ve made from tying several pairs of our silk stockings together. The wonton man sends up bowl after bowl of soup, which we eat with relish. Then we retake our places and get back to work.