Back in the 1990s, it was not easy for people in China to watch TV. Not many of us had a color TV. Even if we had one, it was usually so small that it almost hurt to watch. And there was no remote control. When one show ended, we had to lift our asses from chairs, rush to the TV, rotate the dial, then rush to fit our asses back. Sometimes silver snowflakes blotted out the screens, or the images were crystal clear but no sound emerged. In these moments, we had to pull the two long antennae on top of the TV’s head, pointing them in different directions—towards the park, the river, the factory, or the school—to see which one was the most fortunate that day. If no direction summoned good luck—it happened a lot—our grumpy fathers would slap the iron heads of the disobedient TVs. Only one man in our community did not need to take so much trouble: Mr. Xiao. Legend has it that he just sat on the sofa, cleared his throat, and called out a muffled “ahem.” The TV soon changed its behavior, like a naughty kid caught in the middle of a prank. The image would return and the sound come back.
Mr. Xiao was a household name in our community of Beixinjing. My father called him a genius of household electrical appliances.
Beixinjing was a large apartment complex with over 100 buildings, divided into three neighborhoods. Between the first two was a small park, and a river separated these from the third. My family’s and Mr. Xiao’s apartments were both in Neighborhood One, though three blocks apart. By the time I was eight, I often accompanied my father to Mr. Xiao’s after supper with our malfunctioning TV, or lamp, or radio. He stood in the doorway of his apartment, a cigarette in his mouth, another one behind his ear. My father and I waited in a line while the people ahead of us plugged their electrical appliances, one by one, into the power strip in the corridor. Mr. Xiao only needed a glance before he told us what to do.
“Too much dirt in your radio. After you go home, unscrew the back, wipe the inside with an alcohol cleaning swab, then put the back on. It’ll be fine.”
“Something’s wrong with the screen. You need a new one. It costs a lot, like up to 1,000 yuan. Something to think about.”
After the diagnosis, we would pull out some bills from our pockets to show our gratitude. Mr. Xiao would smile a broad smile, cover our hands, and say, “Never mind. I’ve got a good paying job. Repairing electrical appliances is my hobby.”
That’s why we particularly liked Mr. Xiao. In fact, we only pretended to pay; we knew already he would refuse the money.
When our radio broke for the third time, Mr. Xiao fixed it in ten minutes. I was sorry he worked so quickly. When my father said, “It’s all set. Let’s go home,” I lingered and took one more look through the half-open door, hoping to see the lovely girl with two long braids: Er Xiao, Mr. Xiao’s daughter. She went to the local public school. I was in a more distant school, because my aunt worked there and didn’t think Er’s school was good enough, so she and I seldom met. The last time I visited, Er had craned her head out before my father announced, “Let’s go home.” Now she appeared in her school uniform.
“Dad, can I take a walk?” she asked. As soon as Mr. Xiao nodded, Er skipped downstairs, her braids bouncing.
“Dad, may I take a stroll?” I asked before her braids disappeared.
“Yes, but just for a little while.” I rushed downstairs. She was waiting for me near a street lamp in the front lot, her figure bathed in warm orange light.
“Come, play Chinese chess with me,” Grandpa Zhang called. He lived on the first floor, and every night he set up a table in the lot, hoping others would play with him—he had nothing to do after retirement. “I’ve got candies!” Grandpa Zhang’s smile revealed his missing front tooth. “If you win, I’ll give you the candies!”
“Don’t go,” I mouthed at Er.
“I’ve got Maltesers!” she whispered, and turned and ran towards the far end of the lot.
I ran after Er until we were both out of breath. She took out a mini-sized package of Maltesers from her coat pocket, removed the plastic clip pinched on the wrapper, and gave me one chocolate ball. She stuffed one into her own mouth, too.
“Tasty,” I said, and I meant it.
She leaned close to me and breathed, “Better than Grandpa Zhang’s candy,” into my right ear. It itched.
I agreed. Even though Grandpa Zhang let us win every time, his candies tasted awful.
“Because they’re the cheapest,” Er said. “Anyway, we shouldn’t speak ill of him. He’s a very good man.”
I loved the way Er said, “a very good man.” There was a tenderness in the phrase which almost made me jealous. How I wished I could be called “a very good man” by her!
“Your dad is a very good man, too,” I said. She looked up at me and smiled.
A couple of months later, my father said he needed to go to Mr. Xiao’s after supper—our tape recorder had fallen mute.
“I’ll go with you!” I exclaimed even though my mouth was stuffed with white rice.
“Why do you want to go every time?” my mother complained, but she didn’t say no.
As before, Mr. Xiao dismantled the recorder, screwed or scrapped or replaced whatever was broken inside it, and restored the whole thing. We plugged it in the socket to have a try. The recorder worked fine. Once again, my father made a polite pretense of offering payment. But this time, to our surprise, Mr. Xiao took it.
“My situation is different now,” Mr. Xiao said. “I lost my job. From now on, I have to charge for the repair service.”
That day, Er didn’t come out. Both my father and I felt very sad.
Later, we learned that the sewing machine factory where Mr. Xiao worked had closed down. Five hundred workers had been laid off. The 1990s was called a “critical transitionary period” by China’s official press; tens of thousands of state-owned factories were shut down by the central government. Many Chinese who had been assigned a career as “honorable workers” when they were young were now told to become “honorable lay-offs” in their middle-aged years. Mr. Xiao was asked to sign an agreement: he could receive a tiny allowance and was free to hunt for another job. But “honorable lay-offs” swarmed to any place with a vacancy. Mr. Xiao decided to make a living by repairing electrical appliances.
My father and I rode our bicycle to every apartment building in Neighborhood Two and pasted Mr. Xiao’s flyers on the walls—we wanted to show we were grateful, not just with money. I sat on the backseat of my father’s bicycle. When we arrived, I jumped off, took a stack of flyers, and ran into the building. After he had locked the bike, my father followed with a Coca-Cola bottle of paste and a toothbrush. The work wasn’t easy—the paper was fragile and the paste was hard to scoop out from the bottle. The flyer said:
An Expert on fixing all sorts of household appliances
Please call: 5233****
When all the stir-frying sounds of the neighborhood quieted and the bedroom windows glowed yellow, my father and I came back to Mr. Xiao’s to return the Coca-Cola bottle. He had insisted the bottles be given back, saying his wife wanted to sell them to the recycle station. Several neighbors gathered at Mr Xiao’s place. Mrs. Xiao came out of the kitchen with a tray holding a few cups of hot water.
“Thank you very much. You’re all great friends,” she said with a bow. She wore a pair of cover sleeves that didn’t match her apron.
Meanwhile, Er was talking on the phone. “Neighborhood One, Mrs. Wang. Snowflakes on the screen. Got it. My dad will come to repair it tomorrow at around 5 p.m.” She anchored the headset between her left ear and shoulder. I marveled. Before that, I thought only the office ladies in Hong Kong TV shows could do that. She stood on tiptoe while she jotted down the client’s name, address, and the problem with the appliances in a small notebook.
“Your daughter is a good helper,” one of the neighbors said.
“I promised to pay her a bonus,” Mr. Xiao explained. “She gets 1% of my income. That’s why she’s so excited to help.” All the neighbors laughed and said Mr. Xiao had real business savvy.
On our way home, I asked my father how much Mr. Xiao would earn every time he repaired a TV.
“About 100 yuan, if some part of the TV needs to be replaced.”
100 yuan. If Mr. Xiao repaired one TV per day, Er would have 30 yuan by the end of the month, enough for 15 mini-size packages of Maltesers! As I pictured Er chewing so many chocolate balls, drool trickled in my mouth.
After Mr. Xiao began to work full-time as a repairman, I had no excuse to see Er. I thought she must face the same dilemma—she’d love to share Maltesers with me after she got her first month’s bonus, but she couldn’t find an excuse either. Finally, one day I finished my homework first thing after I got home. After supper, I patted my stomach and announced, “I’m too full. I need to take a walk.”
“Don’t walk far. Walk a bit in the front lot and be back,” my mother said.
Back then, the street lamps in our neighborhood were often blind. The only lamp that worked reliably was near Er’s home; Mr. Xiao would fix it when necessary. I imagined I was walking through a tunnel leading to the brightness. I slowed my pace when I got closer to Er’s block. Within a few steps I would know whether Er was there or not. My heart leapt as I saw the orange light, but it soon sank. There was only Grandpa Zhang and his chess board.
“Come, little Qin. Play Chinese chess with me. I’ve got candies!”
Perhaps Er was on the phone. Perhaps she’d soon get downstairs. She wouldn’t forget me. I sat down beside Grandpa Zhang’s square table.
“Little Qin, you captured my horse.”
“Little Qin, you’re doing great. Now you’ve got the other horse I had.”
When Grandpa Zhang announced checkmate—“You win, boy!”—I stood up and, without saying goodbye, slouched back towards the dim street.
“Little Qin,” Grandpa Zhang shouted. “You forgot your candies!”
But I kept walking. Er had forgotten me.
When summer came, lines of watermelon boats floated down the Beixinjing River. The farmers from the neighboring provinces loaded their boats with fresh watermelons and sailed all the way here. That was how watermelons were sold in suburban Shanghai in the 1990s. The children in our neighborhood would run to the river bank and knock on the watermelons, trying to figure out which ones were sweetest. We had no idea how the knocking worked—we were simply copying our parents.
That year, the first year of Mr. Xiao’s business, I never once saw Er by the riverside in July, nor did I see her parents. In fact, I had scarcely seen her since April. I asked my father about her absence. So, one night, after supper, he and I carried a big watermelon to Mr. Xiao’s. We placed it in his kitchen. Mr. Xiao mumbled that it was too generous and he couldn’t take it. But Mrs. Xiao had already sliced the fruit into pieces and served them on plates. She asked my father and me to have some.
We had racked our brains to think how we could bring up the topic of Mr. Xiao’s business, but there seemed no need. We saw how Er bit into the watermelon. She hurled herself upon another piece the second she finished the first one. Red juice smudged her face. Mr. Xiao and Mrs. Xiao had only taken one slice. My father and I didn’t have any, saying we had eaten at home.
Never mind Maltesers. I felt guilty for being jealous earlier.
When the melon was finished, Mrs. Xiao let Er go downstairs to enjoy some cool air with me. As usual, Grandpa Zhang summoned us to his table. But we pretended not to hear him.
As we walked to the far end of the lot, Er said she wished she could help her father. “He stays at home almost every day. All he does is watch Hong Kong TV shows: A Grand Era, No Regrets in My Life.”
I was surprised to hear this. Fathers didn’t watch series, because they were too long and romantic. But I didn’t comment. Instead I said, “What would you like to do to help him?”
“That’s why I’m asking you. I have no idea.” Her lips were still red from the watermelon juice.
I recalled what my grandma did when she was in trouble. She’d murmur prayers before the statue of Goddess Guan Yin. I told Er that Guan Yin might be able to help. Why not try begging to her?
“What shall I do to beg to her?” Er asked.
Honestly, I knew nothing about Buddhism, or praying. But I couldn’t show my ignorance. I told her that Guan Yin resided somewhere above us, and so we should pray towards the sky. I volunteered to say the prayer with her. An old saying went, “The more people, the more power.”
We tilted our heads, closed our eyes, clasped our hands, and murmured, “Save us from hardships, Goddess Guan Yin. Please let Mr. Xiao have some work. Let Er have watermelons.” Er said we should do the prayer once again. Given that Guan Yin was so powerful, we shouldn’t bother her with such a petty matter as watermelons. So, instead, we prayed, “Save us from hardships, Goddess Guan Yin. Please let Mr. Xiao have some work. Let Er have Maltesers chocolate balls.”
“When I have Maltesers to eat, I’ll give you half of them,” she said to me.
I was glad that she didn’t forget me.
Goddess Guan Yin was indeed powerful. The next week, a violent typhoon came. It landed in the neighboring province, Zhejiang, and sent huge storms to Shanghai. I stood by the window at my home, watching. The lightning in the night sky blossomed like a huge lotus flower. The slim stamen of it stretched out to touch the suddenly-bright-white old buildings in Beixinjing. I detected something different in the sound of thunder, like a heavenly warrior chopping the sky with a gigantic knife.
The next night, someone called my name from the lot downstairs. Looking out of the window, I saw Er smiling and waving. With my mother’s permission, I rushed to meet her. She conjured a small red packet of Maltesers from behind her back. She tore it open, and took a chocolate ball from it. I took one, too. She told me the lightning had cut off the electricity of the whole Neighborhood Three, and that a number of TVs had broken down. She’d just finished a very full working day. Her right hand was numb from writing down all the addresses. Mr. Xiao was still out offering repair service.
His appointments book was full until the day after tomorrow.
Er crunched the Maltesers in her mouth, their smell sweet on her breath. “Guan Yin was superb,” she said. I agreed.
But Mr. Xiao’s good days didn’t last. In early November, I saw him ride his bike out at 6 a.m. and come back at 6 p.m. He had found a job.
Another two months went by and Er didn’t summon me again. One Saturday I ran into her outside a grocery store, with her mother. They hurried away before I could say anything other than “Hello.” Mrs. Xiao held a plastic bag; in it was only a bag of salt. The next Saturday, I told my mother I needed to take notes of the prices of groceries for my math class, and went to the store at about the same time. I waited, but they didn’t appear.
Mr. Xiao was sitting at Grandpa Zhang’s table when I came back. The dusk cast their shadows, long and narrow. Both men were thin. I heard the sizzle of stir-fry from every apartment building, and wondered why neither of them went back for supper.
The next evening, Mr. Xiao was there again, playing Chinese chess with Grandpa Zhang. On the flaking, scratched table sat a bottle of cooking wine and two glasses. They sipped the wine before making their next move.
Mr. Xiao was there every night.
Finally, one night, I asked my father at dinner, “Why is Mr. Xiao playing chess with Grandpa Zhang all day?”
This time, my father said nothing. He rose from the table, walked to the kitchen, and came back with a glass of cooking wine, too. My mother sighed. “Those new private factory owners are bad men. They want slaves, not workers.”
“Don’t say such useless things.” My father banged his glass on the table. Not until that moment did I realize that we’d had only one dish for supper for a string of days. My parents had heard their factory was going to close down; they, too, would be “honorable lay-offs.”
Next July, when the watermelon boats moored, I saw Er by the river. In her short-sleeved school uniform, her pale slim arms looked like sugar canes. She had come not for the fruit, but for me. She asked me whether I was willing to pray again to Goddess Guan Yin with her.
“The more people, the more power,” she said.
That night, we went to the same peaceful corner in the lot and said our prayers. The sky was dark blue and the moon was veiled by woolly clouds. “Save us from hardships, Goddess Guan Yin,” we murmured. “Please bring another super typhoon to Shanghai. Let Mr. Xiao take on his repair work again. How he loved tending the electrical appliances!” Er paused here, and then she continued.
“Save us from hardships, Goddess Guan Yin,” she said alone. “If you bring a super typhoon here again, I swear I won’t eat any watermelon this year. Nor Maltesers.”
Er was offering to pay a great price. Now that I was with her praying, I thought I should make the same sacrifice. So I murmured to Guan Yin that I too wouldn’t have watermelons or Maltesers.
This time Guan Yin dithered. She took a long time to test our sincerity. Perhaps I was the one to blame. Not long after our prayer, I had visited my grandmother in central Shanghai. She gave me a Maltesers chocolate ball. I put it into my mouth, regretting it as soon as the chocolate began to melt. I brushed my teeth three times after I got home, and prayed to Guan Yin through my window for her tolerance and forgiveness.
It was at the end of August that Guan Yin eventually answered our prayers. All the TV and radio programs kept reminding us of the danger of a coming typhoon. They said the Bund was armed with sand bags, and the government leaders were already sitting in the Flood Control Headquarters. The community committee sent Grandpa Zhang walking through the neighborhoods with a loudspeaker, three times a day. “The typhoon’s coming,” he called. “Keep your doors and windows shut. Turn off the electricity. Remove all stuff from your window sills.”
How funny to hear Grandpa Zhang say something other than, “I’ve got candies!” He seemed very excited to have some duties at last. When I stuck my head out of my window to greet him, he put on a serious look and shouted, “The typhoon’s coming. Close your windows, little Qin! Stay safe.”
Two days later than the weather forecast had promised, the typhoon arrived. The government suspended all classes but demanded people work as usual. Alone at home, I was both excited and terrified. The noon sky turned greenish in seconds. And, like the year before, I saw the lightning blossom into a huge lotus. Thunder rumbled, and I imagined a celestial warrior slicing the sky like a watermelon.
After the thunder faded, I took an umbrella and walked the few blocks to Er’s building. Standing outside in the pouring rain, I called to her. Though I shouted at full volume, I wasn’t sure if she would hear my voice. But she was watching and soon saw me. She hurried downstairs. Her two braids danced like rabbits’ ears, and her wooden slippers made a lovely tapping sound. The wind rippled our clothes, and we looked at the grey world.
“We made the typhoon come,” I said.
“Little Qin, you’re a very good man,” she said. Then she ran back upstairs as if the compliment made her shy.
Her tender voice left me standing there for a long time, staring at the soaked lot blurred by the endless sheets of rain. I didn’t hear the rain, nor did I hear the occasional squeak of the bikes that began to fill the evening streets. Her voice echoed in my head. I felt great to be “a very good man.”
But this time not a single building in Beixinjing lost electricity. The next day, I watched the local news report on TV: two people had been struck to death by the lightning in Shanghai. One was on a vast barren beach in Congming Dao, an outlying island of Shanghai. The other was a man in Beixinjing, by the Beixinjing River. He had apparently been on his way back from a grocery store. One hand still clutched a plastic bag full of candies.
On the day of Grandpa Zhang’s funeral, I didn’t dare steal a look out my window, at the people with white paper flowers in their hair and patches of black cloth pinned to their sleeves. We had a tradition that the family members must cry aloud all the way from the home to where the funeral took place. Listening to their weeping, I knew I was responsible for Grandpa Zhang’s death.
“Why should the lightning strike such a good man?” My mother kept asking.
Why? I, too, asked myself.
I kept dreaming about Grandpa Zhang. In my dreams, he sat at his square table and played Chinese chess alone. He didn’t look so thin as when he was alive, but his face was coal black. When I called on him, he seemed not to hear and continued to move the wooden chess pieces on the checkerboard. I wondered if Er, too, dreamed about Grandpa Zhang, but I never got a chance to ask her. As for my parents, they never mentioned him.
The next time I met Er, a while later, I was with my mother. Er was coming back from a grocery store alone, holding a bottle of cooking wine. She wore a large T-shirt which, I guessed, belonged to Mr. Xiao. It was so long that it covered her knees. She was bare-legged, and no longer reminded me of an office worker on a Hong Kong TV series, but those girl gangsters who wandered the streets all day, smoking, cursing, and selling drugs. It was October, and the weather was not that warm. Her damp hair, which she must have just washed, trailed over her bony shoulders.
“How come your parents let you out in such a dress?” My mother looked at her with a raised eyebrow.
Er didn’t answer, but only crossed her arms across her chest.
“How are you?” I asked.
She fluffed her damp hair with her left hand. “Not bad,” she said. “You?”
“Not bad,” I said, trying to copy her indifference.
That was the end of all our conversations. I felt her remote and distant, as if a river stood between us that we were unable to cross. “Let’s go,” my mother said. “You have homework to do.” She dragged me away.
Er didn’t say goodbye. But as my mother and I passed her, she flicked her hair. A chill strand brushed my face.
“Fortunately, I didn’t let you go to her school. You know what your aunt said? If you don’t want to see your son selling drugs in the street at the age of twelve, don’t send him to that school.”
My mother continued babbling, proud of her wise decision. “Such a shame,” she eventually said. “To have a daughter like that. Mr. and Mrs. Xiao are good people.” Then my mother commanded that I should never talk to Er again. I didn’t respond, and she took my silence as a yes.
Not long after that, my grandma died of illness, and we sold our apartment and moved to her old place. I never returned to Beixinjing. There was no point in revisiting the run-down buildings, the abandoned factories, and the dim muddy streets filled with the smell of stir-fry and cooking wine. But sometimes, turning into a side street in a part of the city I don’t know, seeing a streetlight in the distance, I am once again walking towards Er’s building. The orange streetlamp beckoning me on, blinking, fading, and finally popping out, leaving the street dark and empty.