“Please Now, Rest In Peace:” A Docudrama on Mao’s China

[First published May 16, 2005] I was not at home when police arrested my husband, Peng. As I approached our home on my bicycle after shopping, I saw him, handcuffed, being pushed into one of two police cars. I knew immediately that I would probably never see him again.

All the scientists at the institute understood that arrest was a possibility. As scientists, they had interacted with foreigners, had read foreign publications, and therefore were always in danger of having such normal activities misunderstood or misinterpreted by the Red Guards. Peng and I had prepared, as had so many others, for such an eventuality.

I quickly pedaled my bicycle past the police cars and down a side street. I could hardly steer it, I was shaking so much. My feet shuddered off the pedals several times. My breath caught in my throat; my stomach knotted. The devastating thought, Peng, my poor, dear husband Peng, kept beating in my mind. I could barely see through the tears that stung my eyes.

I wonder now how I stayed upright on my bike and didn’t crash into the police cars or a tree. I knew if I did, the police would discover who I was and arrest me. The Red Guards often jailed whole families. I steered the wobbly bike around a corner, around another corner, and into some bushes. I dragged it behind the bushes and fell on the ground, beating the earth with my fists, and sobbed into the dirt for my husband and our lives, now totally destroyed.

Maybe an hour or two later, emotionally and physically exhausted, I used the bottom of my dress to clean by face and wipe my eyes. I ignored the food that had fallen out of the bike’s rear basket. I knew what I had to do.

I headed for my cousin’s small dim sum restaurant on Yunnan Lu Road. There, I hid my bicycle in the rear among the garbage cans. I entered through the back door.

My cousin, Ding Xiaoshuang, was in the kitchen preparing meals with another cook. He was too skinny to look like a cook—cooking made him lose all taste for food, he said. Lack of a good chief’s fat might cast suspicion on the quality of his food, but his friendly, outgoing nature compensated for that. About every fifteen minutes he toured the restaurant, asking customers how they were, what their children were doing, and how they liked his dim sum. He always suggested his custard tarts as a treat.

Ding looked at me without surprise when I came in the back door. This was one of the signals we had planned if Red Guards, soldiers, or some other faction arrested one or the other of us. Otherwise, I would have come in the front door of the restaurant.

No doubt my eyes were puffy and red. “Hello, cousin,” Ding said, as mindful of his cook working nearby as I was in hiding my face from him. Moving towards the stairs to his apartment above the restaurant, Ding added, “I have that present for Peng you wanted me to get. Come on upstairs and I’ll give it to you.”

I had so far not said a word. I followed Ding up the stairs. We moved towards the room at the front, where Ding’s cook and the waitresses hustling in and out of the kitchen would be least likely to hear us.

He put both his arms around me, and I quietly wept into his chest. He just held me tight and rubbed my back with one hand. He had never seen my tears before. He knew what would cause them. He didn’t hurry me, but he risked arousing his cook’s suspicion, so I knew I had to stop. I fought for control.

Peng and I had been married for only a year. I had met him at a conference at the institute, where I had served as a lab assistant. I had a degree in physics and had participated in experiments on magnetic propulsion, his chief area of research. I found Peng, with his tall, athletic build and his strong Manchurian features, handsome; he often attracted the stares and smiles of strangers when we ambled down the street—although he claimed they were admiring my willowy figure.

After we were married, we tried to reduce the risk of arrest. Only Peng worked at the institute, and we cleared our home of everything foreign. We concealed as much as possible from those at the institute the fact that we were married—as I mentioned, whole families were often arrested—and that both of us spoke and read English.

As I pulled back from my cousin and rubbed my eyes to clear them, Ding asked me in a subdued voice, “What do you want to do now? I haven’t touched what you and Peng prepared. Do you want to flee to Hong Kong?”

Wearily, I answered, “No. I first want to be sure about what happened to Peng.”

Ding had to lean forward to hear me. I tried to raise my voice but only increased its quaver. “This might only be a warning or harassing arrest, and he might be home within a week or so.” More firmly, I added, “I must find out. Can I hide here until I do?”

Ding hesitated. He took my hand and held it in both of his. “I think I can find out for you. You know my dim sum is famous,” he whispered proudly, “and I get many prison guards with their families coming here to eat. When one of them gave a party for his son’s graduation, I offered to cater it. There were over one hundred relatives, friends, and their families there. The food was sumptuous, I must admit, and I gave him a big cut on the cost. Now I can get my payment, yes?”

“How often does that guard eat here?”

“About once every one or two weeks, and I think he was here about a week ago.”

I didn’t have to think about that. I wanted to know. Absolutely. “Then I’ll wait. I’m leaving now, so that no one gets suspicious. I’ll come back after you close at . . . when, eleven?”

“Right.” He took a rag out of his back pocket and carefully wiped my face with it, and leaned over and kissed me on the forehead. “Be careful, now. Oh, here, take this package and make believe it’s the present I mentioned.”

I straightened up and went down the stairs first. At the bottom, I turned and yelled up with false cheer, “Thanks cousin, Peng will really like this.”

I headed for the waterfront on my bike, where I could bury myself and my heartbreak among the crowds.

Ding met me at the back door when I returned that night. “Peng’s dead,” he told me, reaching to hold me. “I’m sorry.”

I’d known it was coming. Now it was real. I staggered under the blow of his words, and sagged into his arms.

“You have to escape,” Ding continued. “Go to Hong Kong.”

Through his contacts in the Shanghai harbor market where he often bought fish for his restaurant, Ding knew a fishmonger named Wen who dealt with freighter captains that could be bribed. Much later, in his room, when I had stopped sobbing, he tore a small piece from a sheet of rice paper on his worktable and scribbled a message on it. He brought it back to me and, pressing it gently into my hand, said, “Give this to Wen. If the police stop you before you see him, you can easily swallow and digest it.”

I sought Wen first thing in the morning.

He was easy enough to find. He sold tuna filets at the market in the third stall nearest the dock. After looking over several filets, I asked Wen for one. When I paid him, I included the note. He took it with the money and placed it in the bottom of his moneybox, so that only he could read it. Closing the box, he told me to come back at 4:30, when he could give me a special deal on fish.

When I returned at the appointed time, a thin young boy stood with Wen. When Wen saw me approaching, he said something to the boy, who then moved from behind the fish table. As he brushed by me, he whispered, “Follow me.”

I followed him through the market crowd, out onto the Shanghai docks, and into Dadong Warehouse through a small side door. I found myself in a small room that smelled of long-dead fish and rotting wood. Rope, hooks, canvas, and bags of all descriptions were heaped in corners and against two walls. The place was so dirty that I halted and flinched back as I entered.

The boy spoke for the first time since we’d left the market. “Turn around and face the door and be still.” He studied me for a moment, eyes curious. He twitched his shoulders as though shrugging, turned, and swiftly disappeared out the door.

I could hear muffled sounds from the warehouse and occasional yells from dockworkers outside. An engine roared in the distance. I was beginning to worry about Wen setting me up to be kidnapped into the Chinese sex trade. This sometimes happened on the docks.

A door opened and closed on the other side of the room. Softly at first, then louder, I heard footsteps approaching behind me. As the person drew closer, I heard heavy breathing. The person stopped. The breathing got louder. I twitched my nose at the added stench.

I jumped at a sudden, unpleasant sound.

“Name?” a man’s voice rasped in the most awful Chinese. I thought I recognized a Portuguese accent.

“Gu . . . Gu Yaping,” I said, trying to keep my voice firm.

“Got jewel?” the voice grated.

“Yes.” In the emergency store that Ding had hidden for us, Peng and I had included most of our family jewels, especially several antique jade rings and miniature ivory statues left to us when our parents died. The items were worth thousands of dollars on the black market.

“Give me.”

I spun around and saw an older Caucasian man in a dark blue coat with two stripes on each sleeve. He wore an officer’s cap with salt-tarnished, fake gold braid. His face was barely visible, but its red complexion and his bulbous nose could not be missed.

“No,” I said, speaking pidgin Chinese, “you get when go on ship.”

The man asked, “You go Hong Kong?”

“Yes.”

“You fuck on ship?”

I gasped. I felt my face get hot. I suddenly shivered in the warm room.

The man stared at my hips, trying to imagine me naked, I guessed. He then unhurriedly raised his eyes to my blouse, apparently judging my hidden breasts. I wore a shapeless white blouse and it hung loosely over my gray slacks. I had done my best to hide my femininity, not only out of traditional modesty in public, but so as not to invite any propositions in the docks, where many prostitutes worked their trade. But, I couldn’t hide everything.

I forced myself to stand still, stop trembling, and endure his lusty inspection. I had to. I was not dumb. I knew that, once aboard his ship, he could take my jewels, kill me, and throw my body in the Huangpu River as the ship traveled to the sea. All that would keep him interested in keeping me alive would be sex and the promise of more sex.

Now blushing at what I must do, I lowered my head a little and looked at him demurely out of the corner of my eye. I whispered, “Yes.”

“Do now. Take off clothes.”

Well, I thought, what choice do I have? This was not going to be a strip tease. I promptly set a personal speed record in taking off my clothes, and let them fall anywhere. I stood naked with a straight back, head high, looking into his eyes, willing my knees not to shake. He probed me with his eyes, hurriedly took off his coat, tossed it on the dirty floor, and motioned me to lie down on it.

As hasty as he was to gratify his lust, I was more anxious to get this over with. I dropped down and spread my legs, turning my head away from him. He did nothing more than pop the buttons on his trousers to spring his erection free and fall on top of me. Straightaway he tried to enter me, but I was too dry. It was painful. I motioned for him to stop. I might have had more success in halting the charge of a bull. I had to grab his shaft in one hand to get him to stop long enough for me to spit on the fingers of my other hand and moisten his penis as best I could. Then I guided him into me.

As he vigorously pumped back and forth, my body jerked in unison. It was nothing to me but forced physical exertion, but I knew to save my life I had to fake pleasure. I moaned and put my legs around his back and moved my hips in rhythm with his. Fortunately, the time he took to ejaculate was almost shorter than it took to pronounce the word. I had to rush to lower my legs, reach between them, and pull his quivering penis out. I slid down and managed to put it in my mouth a second before he came.

Damned if I’ll get pregnant, I thought, spitting everything out.

Afterwards, he lay on me and stroked my breasts. Finally, getting his breath, he murmured, “Good.”

I pitied this man’s frustrated girlfriends.

He got up, helped me to my feet, and again devoured my naked body with his eyes for a few minutes. Finally, he picked up his coat, shook the dirt off it, and motioned for me to get dressed. While watching me cover myself, he said, “Go to Longwu Port dock by Longwu Road. At 1 AM. You know?”

I felt sick and dirty. My tears seemed to have a will of their own. I struggled not to show them, but I felt one escape down the side of my face. “Yes,” I whispered.

“What?”

“Yes, I be there,” I said, more loudly than I’d intended.

The man disappeared without another word.

***

When the Portuguese freighter Bartholomeu Dias docked in Hong Kong, among the many boxes unloaded was one labeled “Toys” in Chinese. Customs passed the box, as did a British inspector who beat on three sides of the box with his baton to make sure it was full and not hiding a refugee. A small truck picked up the box and took it to the bustling market on Tung Choi Street. There, two men unloaded the heavy box in front of a small women’s dress shop and lugged it through the front door and into the rear, where they dropped it on the floor with a loud thunk.

The owner of the shop, Wu Jin, a thin man in his thirties whose thick, black-framed glasses dominated his face, signed for the delivery, and then impatiently waited on two women in the shop. When they left, Wu closed and locked the front door, then rushed into the rear. He pried open the box, flung aside the toys and stuffed animals inside, and then saw me.

I was curled up in the box, my chin touching my knees. I turned my head slowly and looked up at him with what must have been weary, red-rimmed eyes. Suffering and fatigue had etched years onto my face, I’m sure. I whispered huskily, “Hello, third cousin. I see you got Ding’s message.”

I tried to get out of the container, but fell back. Wu bent over me and, with a grunt, lifted me out. I moaned and put a hand over my abused crotch as he carried me over to a Chinese low chest and set me down on it. I must have lost ten pounds.

Weakly bracing myself with my hands to stay upright, I looked over at the container and saw the label. “Toys from China,” I murmured. Yes, I thought, how appropriate. I had been a sex toy for half the ship. But I’m alive.

My hand trembled when I raised it to my lips. I kissed the palm, then tilted my head back and blew the kiss toward the ceiling. That’s for you, my sweetest. I made it and I will never forget you and what was done. Please now, rest in peace.

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