Spring 2019

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Excerpt from Taking Pagoda Mountain (By Strategy)

By Michael Wilson

Art work, fictitious, titled "Mao with Moko" by (the novel's protagonist) Mark Webster. It is held in a "private collection".
© Art work, fictitious, titled "Mao with Moko" by (the novel's protagonist) Mark Webster. It is held in a "private collection".

‘He won’t hurt you. He’s not violent,’ said Lanlan, trying to reassure me as the hours ticked down before my appointment with Carlos at the PSB. Easy for her to say.

Before I saw her I’d checked in at work to talk with Mr Liu and Eddie. The atmosphere seemed tense. Patriotic posters and Party props were everywhere. Signs of Western decadence and affluence had been wiped from the walls and furnishings, replaced by local products and ideologically sound sentiments.

When I walked into Mr Liu’s office, his assistants were removing some remaining pieces of ostentation.

‘Franco Albini. Yi-da-li,’ said Mr Liu of a minimalist leather and stainless-steel chair that was being taken out the door.

‘Italian,’ said Eddie. ‘Very expensive. Replace with nice Chinese-made wooden one.’

I sat down in the new chair and listened to their advice.

‘You must be there early tomorrow morning,’ said Eddie. ‘Just for a chat. Don’t be frightened.’

‘You not here yesterday,’ said Mr Liu. ‘Chen Mingyi not happy.’

Eddie explained that not only was Carlos to become the Party man on Hong Long’s board, but the Chen family had taken a shareholding in the company.

‘Chen Mingyi said that if we are paying this waiguoren, then why isn’t he here working,’ said Eddie.

‘We say you sick,’ said Mr Liu.

‘So cough-cough when you see him,’ advised Eddie.

Eddie said they had come up with a plan for me in the coming weeks. I would no longer be involved with the Project, and there was no more talk of Beijing. I would have a new mission — establishing a wine division, with Louis Lalande.

‘New Zealand wine very good,’ said Eddie. ‘You and the Frenchman can look for land development for winemaking west of Shanghai. Use some New Zealand knowledge.’

I knew little about New Zealand wine other than it was worth drinking and increasingly popular around the world. I went back to the apartment to do some wine research, hoping a few sauvignons would ease the nerves and pass the time. They didn’t. But Lanlan’s arrival did. The doorbell rang, and when I opened the door a woman in black kung fu clothes and a matching black-peaked hat walked in with a finger to her lips and a CD in hand. Not saying a word, she walked over to my audio system and put on that all-time favourite Cultural Revolution opera, Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy. The volume was uncomfortable for the ears, so we sought refuge in the bedroom.

‘May not be necessary,’ she said, explaining the music. ‘But if you are to report to the PSB, they may be keeping an eye and ear on you.’

‘You mean this place is bugged?’

‘Probably not yet. But best to be safe. And I know how much you like the music.’

We lay down on the bed, and despite the prospect of intimacy a feeling of impending doom overrode any hint of desire. We cuddled and whispered sweet and sour thoughts as our moods switched from hope to hopeless and back again.

She gave me her line about how Carlos was not into grievous bodily harm.

‘He may try to scare you. But you are a brave and fearless horse, aren’t you?’

I nodded with little enthusiasm and hugged her as if she were about to fly out the window.

Wo ai ni,’ I said.

I love you,’ she reciprocated.

Was it easier to express that emotion in a foreign language rather than in one’s own tongue? Not quite so real and direct? Whatever, it was comforting to hear. Soothing. Sleep-inducing.

When I awoke she was gone, and there were several hours left to kill. I painted to pass the time in those late morning hours.

My legs were shaky when I entered the Public Security Bureau building. It looked like a Soviet-style concrete box had been caressed by Chinese exterior designers with fantasy and feng shui in mind. The grey-white slabs were topped off with a roof full of curling eaves and dragon-shaped statues. Above the entrance to the three-storey building was a giant badge, the national emblem of the People’s Republic of China. On a red background, five golden stars glowed above a Forbidden City landmark, surrounded by a circle of wheat and rice. I’d heard the badge was a symbol of revolutionary struggle. The buildings on either side suggested there was still much struggle ahead. A McDonald’s to the left, a KFC to the right. Alternative torture chambers perhaps?

A portrait of Chairman Mao loomed large above me when I reported to the reception desk. I imagined him asking, ‘Have you committed crimes against China and the Party, you capitalist lackey?’ Mao looked so avuncular I was sure he would accept my denial of doing anything worse than wearing jandals when I filed past his mausoleum.

My 8am appointment meant there was no wait and I was taken promptly to Room 108. My nemesis Chen Mingyi was at his desk, puffing away on his coal-fired death-stick, paying his assistant little attention when she announced my arrival. I stood there, with guilt flowing through my veins, while he kept his head focused on documents laid out on his desk. He looked up and motioned for me to take a seat. It was low to the ground, so he towered above me as he sat behind his desk in a high-backed, long-legged chair. He gave me the sort of smile that suggested ancient forms of water torture would soon commence.

‘Beatles or Stones?’ he asked.

Stunned, I gasped as if I’d been slammed in the solar plexus. What did such a question mean? I was not overly familiar with either’s work but I did recall a Beatles song that suggested if you carried pictures of Chairman Mao, you weren’t going make it with anyone, anyhow.

‘Stones,’ I replied.

‘Oasis or Blur?’

Had a fist just smashed my jaw? I thought Oasis was more working class. More proletarian.

‘Oasis.’

‘Spice Girls or Bananarama?’

My ears felt like they had been pulverised by pistol butts. How should I answer such a brutal question? The Girls had Posh. Upper class. Not good? Perhaps Bananarama was more street-smart? I felt paralysed. The Spice Girls seemed more like your average Communist Party karaoke soundtrack, Beijing 1990s era. But then Bananarama had a bit more radical chic.

‘Bananarama.’

‘Good choices. My favourites too when I lived in England.’ He offered me a cigarette. The pack bore the symbol of a golden pagoda. Was this even more exclusive than Eddie’s Red Pagoda or Mr Liu’s Xiong Mao Panda brands? I thought it best to accept the offer, even though I knew my throat would revolt. He leaned over from a great height to give me a light. I inhaled as lightly as possible, but still it sent me into convulsions of coughing.

‘Strong, aren’t they?’ he asked.

‘Like China,’ I spluttered after another drag.

‘Exactly. You could be a good Communist, if you tried.’

‘I came close,’ I said. ‘I was a member of the Green Party once, at Auckland Uni.’

‘Nothing like that at Massey in Palmy. But when I studied in London — lots of communists. But you are not here to talk about that, are you?’

I had no idea why I was there, so I said nothing. I did feel guilty of something, but I wasn’t sure what he had in mind — other than our shared interest in Lanlan.

He blew clouds of smoke towards me, causing my eyes to water. Then he hit me with it.

‘We have evidence you made treacherous, criminal comments about China and the Party. Do you deny it?’

I was sure I had made some insulting comment about China and the Party at some point in my time in the Middle Kingdom. But how could he know that?

‘I do deny it,’ I said. ‘I love China. The people are wonderful.’

He opened a file, and pulled out a piece of paper and a copy of the New Zealand Herald, possibly the one I had dropped off at the Old China Hand café.

‘The Party is just like a gang. They hire thugs to beat up the little people. We have evidence you said that. Vile, defamatory lies.’

He looked long and hard at me with a stare that could have cracked a Ming vase at twenty paces. I didn’t know what to think, other than to be wary in future when plumbers came to my apartment to fix blocked pipes.

‘If I ever said such a thing, it was only meant to be a joke. A bad one.’

He seemed unconvinced.

‘You could be jailed for spreading such treasonous lies.’

I imagined being locked up in some cold, cavernous compound in Inner Mongolia where I had to recite Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book by heart after twelve hours of labouring in the fields.

‘Twenty years ago, and you would already be in jail,’ he said after puffing long and hard on his cigarette. ‘For a much worse crime,’ he added.

I couldn’t imagine what that crime could be. Mangling my Mandarin? Using my chopsticks in a barbaric manner? Not drinking the Moutai firewater with enthusiasm? Not being respectful of Chinese womanhood? Ah, yes. Was that it?

‘Being seen with a Chinese woman?’ I asked. ‘Is that what this is all about?’

‘We used to imprison foreigners who dared try their slippery tricks on our honourable women. Then we threw them out of the country.’

Remembering Eddie’s advice, I coughed several times, as a distraction.

‘I’ve been sick,’ I said. ‘Took time off work.’

‘I noticed,’ he said. ‘Can I give you some advice?’

He pushed a button and a piercing shriek of pain burst out of speakers attached to the wall above his desk.

‘I could take you to the floors below, where this is the sound you hear from our little jailbirds. They cry and yell for their mamas.’

He pushed the button again and a high-decibel groan rattled the speakers.

‘New Zealand is a beautiful country,’ he said. ‘Boring but beautiful. It misses you. You should return. China can be a dangerous place for waiguoren.’

He stood up and indicated I should leave the room.

‘If you insist on staying in China, why not go west. We could arrange some cheap accommodation in Inner Mongolia.’

He walked me to the door. Now I looked down on him from my 1.83-metre height to his barely 1.75. Before leaving the room, I had to ask him the obvious question.

‘Is this all about Li Lanlan? You don’t want me to see her?’

He looked like he was about to push me out the door, but pulled back on seeing I was quite a lot bigger than him.

‘Li Lanlan will never marry a foreigner. You are not important to her.’

I was sure it wasn’t true, but I did feel a little crushed.

He was about to shut the door on me when he gave me a parting shot.

‘I hear you like Chinese Cultural Revolution opera, Tiger Mountain. But make sure you stay clear of real tigers.’

I didn’t want him to have the final word, so before he could close the door I asked, ‘Why the name Carlos? Because you lost the Ferrari? Car loss?’

He had to think it over for a few seconds before replying, ‘The Jackal. Look it up.’ He shut the door with a resounding clunk.

About Michael Wilson

Michael worked as a journalist and TV presenter for more than 30 years at outlets such as Radio New Zealand, National Business Review, TVNZ and TV3. After being 'restructured', he sought refuge in the Master of Creative Writing course under Paula Morris's tutelage, and the result is his debut novel, Taking Pagoda Mountain (By Strategy).