Not long after midnight, Z.G. sets down his brush. “We’re done for tonight,” he says. “I’ll work on the background until the next time you sit for me. Now, let’s go out!”
While he changes into a pin-striped suit, tie, and fedora, May and I stretch to loosen the stiffness from our bodies. We touch up our makeup and run combs through our hair. And then we’re back out on the streets, the three of us linking arms, laughing, and striding down the block, as food vendors call out their special treats.
“Hand-burning hot ginkgo nuts. Every one popped! Every one big!”
“Stewed plums besprinkled with licorice powder. Ah, sweet! Only ten coppers a package!”
We pass watermelon hawkers on nearly every corner, each with his own call, each promising the best, sweetest, juiciest, coldest melon in the city. As tempting as the watermelon sellers are, we ignore them. Too many of them try to make their melons sound heavier by injecting them with water from the river or one of the creeks. Even a single bite could result in dysentery, typhoid, or cholera.
We arrive at the Casanova, where friends will be meeting us later. May and I are recognized as beautiful girls and shown a good table near the dance floor. We order champagne, and Z.G. asks me to dance. I love the way he holds me as we spin across the floor. After a couple of songs, I glance back at our table and see May sitting alone.
“Maybe you should dance with my sister,” I say.
“If you’d like me to,” he answers.
We twirl back to our table. Z.G. takes May’s hand. The orchestra begins a slow tune. May rests her head on his chest as though listening to his heart. Z.G. moves May gracefully through the other couples. Once he catches my eye and smiles. My thoughts are so girlish: our wedding night, our married life together, the children we’ll have.
“Here you are!” I feel a peck on my cheek and look up to see my school friend Betsy Howell. “Have you been waiting long?”
“We just got here. Sit down. Where’s the waiter? We’re going to need more champagne. Have you eaten yet?”
Betsy and I sit shoulder to shoulder, touch glasses, and sip our champagne. Betsy’s an American. Her father works for the State Department. I like her mother and father because they like me and don’t try to prevent Betsy from socializing with Chinese as so many other foreign parents do. Betsy and I got to know each other at the Methodist mission, where she was sent to help the heathens and I’d been sent to learn Western ways. Are we best friends? Not really. May is my best friend. Betsy is a distant second.
“You look nice tonight,” I say. “I love your dress.”
“You should! You helped me buy it. I’d look like an old cow if it weren’t for you.”
Betsy’s a bit on the chunky side, and she’s burdened by one of those practical American mothers who knows almost nothing about fashion, so I took Betsy to a seamstress to have some decent clothes made. Tonight she looks quite pretty in a sheath of vermilion satin with a diamond-and-sapphire brooch pinned above her left breast. Blond curls bubble loose on her freckled shoulders.
“Look how sweet they are,” Betsy says, nodding to Z.G. and May.
We watch them dance while we gossip about school friends. When the song ends, Z.G. and May come back to the table. He’s lucky to have three women in his company tonight, and he does the right thing by dancing with one after the other of us. At close to one o’clock, Tommy Hu finally arrives. Glowing warmth comes to May’s cheeks when she sees him. Mama has played mah-jongg with his mother for years, and they have always hoped for a match between our families. Mama will be thrilled to hear about this encounter.
At two in the morning, we burst back out onto the street. It’s July, hot and humid. Everyone’s still awake, even children, even the old. It’s time for a snack.
“Will you come with us?” I ask Betsy.
“I don’t know. Where are you going?”
We all look to Z.G. He names a café in the French Concession known as a hangout for intellectuals, artists, and Communists.
Betsy doesn’t hesitate. “Come on then. Let’s take my dad’s car.”
The Shanghai I love is a fluid place, where the most interesting people mingle. Some days Betsy takes me out for American coffee, toast, and butter; sometimes I take Betsy into alleys for hsiao ch’ih—little eats, dumplings of glutinous rice wrapped in reed leaves or cakes made from cassia petals and sugar. Betsy’s adventurous when she’s with me; once she accompanied me into the Old Chinese City to buy cheap holiday gifts. Sometimes I’m nervous about entering parks in the International Settlement, which until I turned ten were prohibited to Chinese other than amahs with foreign children or gardeners who tended the grounds. But I’m never scared or nervous when I’m with Betsy, who’s gone into those parks her whole life.
The café is smoky and dark, but we don’t feel out of place in our fancy clothes. We join a group of Z.G.’s friends. Tommy and May push their chairs away from the table so they can talk quietly together and avoid a heated argument about who “owns” our city—the British, Americans, French, or Japanese? We hugely outnumber foreigners, even in the International Settlement, yet we have no rights. May and I don’t worry about things like whether we can testify in court against a foreigner or if they’ll let us into one of their clubs, but Betsy comes from another world.
“By the end of the year,” she says, her eyes clear and impassioned, “over twenty thousand corpses will have been picked up from the International Settlement’s streets. We step over those bodies every day, but I don’t see any of you doing anything about it.”
Betsy believes in the need for change. The question, I suppose, is why does she tolerate May and me when we so deliberately ignore what happens around us?
“Are you asking if we love our country?” Z.G. asks. “There are two kinds of love, wouldn’t you say? Ai kuo is the love we feel for our country and our people. Ai jen is what I might feel for my lover. One is patriotic, the other romantic.” He glances at me and I blush. “Can’t we have both?”
We leave the café at close to five in the morning. Betsy waves, gets in her father’s car, and is driven away. We say good night—or good morning—to Z.G. and Tommy, and hail a rickshaw. Once again, we change rickshaws at the border between the French Concession and the International Settlement, and then we clatter down the cobblestones the rest of the way home.
The city, like a great sea, has never gone to sleep. The night ebbs, and now the morning cycles and rhythms begin to flow. Nightsoil men push their carts down the alleyways, calling “Empty your nightstool! Here comes the nightsoil man! Empty your nightstool!” Shanghai may have been one of the first cities to have electricity, gas, telephones, and running water, but we lag behind in sewage removal. Nevertheless, farmers around the country pay premium prices for our nightsoil because it’s known to be rich from our diets. The nightsoil men will be followed by the morning food vendors with their porridges made from the seeds of Job’s tears, apricot kernels, and lotus seeds, their steamed rice cakes made with rugosa rose and white sugar, and their eggs stewed in tea leaves and five spice.
We reach home and pay the rickshaw boy. We lift the latch to the gate and make our way up the path to the front door. The lingering night dampness magnifies the scent of the flowers, shrubs, and trees, making us drunk on the jasmine, magnolia, and dwarf pines our gardener raises. We climb the stone steps and pass under a carved wooden screen that prevents evil spirits from entering the house—in deference to Mama’s superstitions. Our heels sound loud as they hit the parquet floor in the entry. A light is on in the salon to the left. Baba is awake and waiting for us.
“Sit down and don’t speak,” he says, motioning to the settee directly across from him.
I do as I’m told, and then fold my hands in my lap and cross my ankles. If we’re in trouble, looking demure will help. The anxious look he’s been wearing these past few weeks has turned into something hard and immobile. The words he next speaks change my life forever.
“I’ve arranged marriages for the two of you,” he says. “The ceremony will take place the day after tomorrow.”