Ohmygod! You did what?’
Her first reaction was like I’d eaten her children. It was always the same. The mock-horror when people learn you once owned a sex shop. My best friend, Jasmine, and her family, were visiting Melbourne from China and we hadn’t seen each other in years. Lazing on rattan sofas with our feet on the table, we were in my garden having one of those cosy deep and meaningfuls, the way smoothed by a large glass of very-decent shiraz she’d liberated from the airport duty-free.
Simon had taken Shen, her husband, and their two daughters to Mount Dandenong for lunch at Miss Marple’s Tea Room, a favourite of mine. It carried memories of England, not the least being its infamously decadent Devonshire Tea.
‘Before you burst a seam, Jas, I don’t mean the grubby massage parlour down a dingy alley full of people in raincoats. The men were more at home in 5-star hotels, boardrooms, and private banquets, finding ways to get their money out of China.’
‘I never guessed that part!’
‘Oh, Jas, don’t be so shocked. It wasn’t as if I did the deeds myself, I’d just found myself at one of life’s truck stops. You know, a sort of temporary, accidental madam.’
I was used to the Sermon on the Mount which inevitably followed my admission, prompting my standard defensive line I called my “Great Wall of China” defence, impervious to all forms of attack.
‘I did what every girl does except I’m open about it,’ I said, more tongue in cheek than I did to most people. ‘Besides, it was a long time ago, before I – well, before a lot of things.’
She smiled. ‘Katy, you don’t need to use that old line with me. I’ve known you since the Flower Garden Mafia days, remember.’
‘At the best and the worst times. I often wonder, Jas, if a lot of things might have worked out differently if I’d been honest with you years ago, when I got married the first time. I try not to look back on regrets but_’
‘Oh hush. You haven’t turned into a pillar of salt for your sins. Besides, your family weren’t known for running around broadcasting family secrets, were they? Even that dear old housekeeper of yours would have given Jeeves a run for his money in discretion. Anyway, life isn’t always about making your own choices, Katy. Heaven knows, I wouldn’t mind another go at a couple of my own disasters. I’ve even kept one or two from Shen.’
‘Really? Can’t wait to hear about them. But life never is, is it? About being in control, I mean. Some of my decisions turned out to be magical, like Simon, offset by some, admittedly, a touch on the poorly considered side. Still, added together they delivered me to this day. That’s all we can expect I suppose, ending up survivors of our beginner’s luck and what I call Simon’s Law. I’ll tell you what that means later and you can tell me your scandals. I can hear his car.’
Walking inside together, I glanced in a mirror, then paused pretending to check my hair. Not bad for a woman in her forties…considering. We were both tall for Chinese women except I wasn’t drop-dead beautiful in the way Jasmine was. My long hair carried a slight auburn tinge in a natural wave unlike her sleek ravenhair cut in a fashionable, short bob, and my features were Manchu, more sculptured than soft, like Mama and our aristocratic forbears.
Mama would be proud of the magnolia white skin I’d preserved, and I was pleased with the body which had carried me through school sports’ successes and a few romantic misadventures. I could still turn an occasional head, not as many, just enough to keep my shoulders back, a habit ingrained from childhood rules imposed by Mama. Usually not even spoken rules, a look would do. I was for my sins, a Yehonala, after all.
The conversation with Jasmine left me thinking about my life choices. Today it seemed as if the fates played their hand without letting me see the cards, even, strange to say, like I was sitting in the front row of the theatre watching my life being played out in burlesque. I’d love to say as a symphony, except such a comparison would do a great injustice to the beauty of that art form. I should know, my daughter, Clara, has graced the world stage as a classical pianist from her earliest years. You’ll meet her a bit later.
At any rate, I suppose if I’m called to account at the Pearly Gates before I’m allowed in, I can always take the left turn to the other place if my ledger’s got too much red ink. At least I’ll get a warm welcome.
My early years weren’t too auspicious. Our family got exiled to a Chinese gulag in the bleak windswept reaches of Northern China for a couple of years. Who really knows what for, no-one ever got told and I was ten years old at the time so the reason didn’t matter.
If you’re wondering how I got here, the good news is I wrote it all down. And here is The Red Peony Garden, a traditional Chinese garden nestling on the banks of a quiet stretch of the Yarra River, not far from the bustling metropolis of Melbourne. A place my green-eyed, delicious husband and I designed to reincarnate memories of the idyllic gardens of Suzhou for our own and others’ pleasure. And in memory of my mother. Only later in my life did I realise she was a giant.
Here, I could raise my eyes and spot rosellas flitting between the riverside eucalypts, their vivid colours melting into the treetop foliage, hiding places betrayed by their chattering, by trembling new leaves, and falling seed pods.
The original Diary of my life wouldn’t be much use to readers, more another enigma for the Bletchley Park codebreakers given the weird and wonderful places I ended up. My journal-keeping consisted of finding peaceful spots and drawing pictures, scrawling grammarless sentences, and scratching spidery lines connecting things in a free associative, mind-map on anything I could find. Before becoming unfathomable, I’d write events out again in a readable sequence. Sometimes a half-decent shiraz would help.
Truth is, like most of us I finished up in a place a far cry from where I imagined as a child. Reminiscing on my own journey, where I am shouldn’t be unexpected, perhaps inescapable is a better word when I think about the serpentine paths of my life. Along the way, I discovered there are two basic kinds of people.
The first are those sure-of-themselves types who traverse life’s highways like shiny river pebbles skimming off the water, ending their days in a far off celestial garden centre unchanged by their passage through life. They’re the same at the end as they were at the start of their journey. Most are quite uninteresting, except for being rich.
Then there are those full-of-doubt types who travel life’s byways as a piece of sticky rice. Occasionally a bit gets stuck on a passing branch and lost, or is pecked off by a hungry bird. Whatever’s left picks up a little dirt and discolouration along the way, adding to the flavour, and often as not, adding bitterness if they’re not careful. The rain and wind lash and pull it into different shapes so by the end of the journey that virginal piece of sticky rice is no longer recognisable.
By far my greatest discovery was finding there’s a greater humanity embracing us all. That was family.
However, first things first. How did I get here from a childhood spent banished to those forbidding “Forever White” Mountains up near the Russian border?
A thousand li journey starts with a first step. Well, at least it did for the men of ancient China. As kids, we listened wide-eyed to stories about the Tang Dynasty monk, Xuanzang, making his intrepid pilgrimage to India to obtain the Buddhist sutras, returning to China after many trials to be immortalised in The Monkey King tale.
For the long-suffering women of China, such heroic wanderings were more difficult. Our much admired lotus feet, broken and bound at birth, prevented us hobbling more than a few metres to the village Woolies, so we could forget visions of trekking off on jaunts through the Hindu Kush. At least the menfolk were happy mooning over our sexy walk as we teetered around the house. I suppose my Laboutin stilettos are the modern males’ voyeuristic torment. We girls have come a long way in 1500 years…
Of course, Lao Tzu was talking about great things starting from humble beginnings with his thousand li aphorism. Thus, what better place for me to start.
I close my eyes and let gossamer wings float me back to those times of purest innocence. Long before that other innocence, the fraught one, when rampaging hormones devastate a girl’s self-esteem in changing rooms and risked our virginity just about everywhere else. And how could we forget the first sprout of pert little breasts. A traumatising rite of passage I knew too well, certain mine would never graduate from a pair of poached eggs resting forlornly on my chest.
In fate’s way of balancing outrageous injustices, I’m told puberty is also hard for boys as their tallywhackers mature at different speeds, raining life’s first crushing blows upon a fragile ego in the communal showers after a testosterone-laced game of junior school football. Whether they were sliced and diced or allowed to remain hooded, like Batman, becomes a lifelong cause of bewilderment to many men so I’m told. A rich topic for another tale…
Yes, before then. I’m talking about the purest innocence of the newborn.
Invisible hands draw back the time-travelling veils and rougher hands haul me unceremoniously from the warmth and comfort I’ve been sheltering in for nine months into the chilly welcome of a snow-laced October day. The greyness of that steely morning resounds with a quite unseemly, indignant shriek for a demure Manchu girl like me as I rebel against my unasked-for quest for life’s meaning.
I’m in Shenyang, the sprawling capital of what is evocatively called Manchuria. The winter winds are rattling windows and shaking the last determined leaves from the trees and chasing them around our courtyard. I’m the only child of the most wonderful parents, as my mother was before me. I’m also the young charge of Granny Chen who’s been part of our family since the dawn of time. She’s the comfort food of our home as well as my parent’s dear friend through longevity and, as I’d learn soon enough, unwavering courage through our traumatic periods as well. She made it her business to ensure the “House of Brooding Lions” ran as it should.
They say life is what happens while you’re making other plans. Back then, tumultuous other plans had been rolling over the Chinese landscape like a tsunami for years. It was one of these that forced me to spend my childhood, with my parents, in the countryside. Not a welcome holiday like a weekend getaway to Victoria’s magnificent Grampians would be today. We were dispatched to the icy wastes of Northern China’s Jilin province for some good old-fashioned re-education during Great Helmsman Mao’s voyage to the promised land. In those days, being wonderful parents was frowned upon for those with more than a basic education, a few cooking pots and an opinion. In fact, one of the latter might see you falling off a tall building.
But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself.
My grandparents were wealthy descendants of the last Qing royalty, the Dowager Empress, Cixi, and lived in a traditional siheyuan, or courtyard house, in one of the now disappearing hutongs near the city centre. They also owned rather more than a few cooking pots, but wisely kept their opinions to themselves.
They had modernised their historic home with running water, plumbing, and central heating, preserving the Qing-era architecture and decorated pathways around the four buildings, set in a square around the courtyard.
Striking cherry-red pillars framed the doorways and supported the shady verandas, serving as shelters from the sunshine during the day and becoming a restful place to appreciate the courtyard garden’s quietude at night. They had also preserved the varnished lattice windows, hardwood floors, and latticed woodwork in the main reception room. The lacquered, ornate huanghuali furniture, a rare species of rosewood, was magnificent, though the chairs weren’t very comfortable even with the silk cushions. Soft watercolours on silk scrolls graced the walls and hallways, with portraits of our ancestors hanging in pride of place across from the front door, the first thing visitors would see. In pride of place stood a tall, white-jade Guanyin on an ebony pedestal; the Goddess of Compassion watched over the family fortunes like a benevolent, translucent spectre.
Their bedroom and the kitchen were in the northern wing to catch the auspicious morning sunshine and Mama’s bedroom lay on the western side. The less formal family living areas spoke to a love of books, music and ceramics. Grandfather collected porcelain. His proudest possessions were a set of exquisite Cizhou black and white wine glasses dating back to the early Ming period and a collection of elaborate Longquan Celadon vases in a pale jade dating from the Song, among an assortment of other ceramics. Today, his collection would have been priceless.
Music filled the house until the communists came. Grandmother sang Beijing Opera and Grandfather was an accomplished pianist, rare in those days, and he taught Mama to play. They had acquired a mid-nineteenth century Pleyel piano, inlaid with exotic woods and nacre fashioned into the shapes of flowers and birds. The piano’s velvety tone was said to be the choice of Chopin himself for his poetic recitals.
My grandparents delighted in the courtyard garden. Their favourites were multicoloured peonies they grew in huge cast iron pots, becoming a joy to them in the spring after the icing of their roots during the long winter months. Mama took an equal joy in the spring and summer blooms. Together, they planted lilies and camellias in the entranceway garden and black bamboo grew tall against the whitewashed courtyard walls, topped by semi-circular grey ceramic tiles, their traditional flying eaves curling upwards in lines of pure simplicity. White, fragrant jasmine grew untamed around the courtyard’s red painted moongate, studded with black iron hinges. Two massive stone lions sat on pedestals at the top of the wide steps on either side of the main gate, guarding the house, their glowering round eyes and grinning teeth deterring any evil influences. Hence the house’s name.
I never lived in the “House of Brooding Lions” in its glory days, though like Mama I loved this ancient courtyard home during its later periods of decay and renaissance, until finally, like so much else, it was gone. The memories stayed.
The Japanese had been purged long before my appearance on the scene, however their lethal legacy lived on and presaged the end to our way of life. Grandfather had owned a cinema back then and was ordered to show newsreels of their conquests, always a favourite with Japanese soldiers. He also owned several properties in those occupied Manchukuo days, both made him a marked man when the communists took over the north. Fortuitously, Grandmother died a year prior to the excesses of the Mao era, never recovering from a cholera epidemic during the war years, so escaped Grandfather’s grotesque fate during the Cultural Revolution. She must have been a formidable woman and passed her feisty nature down the line to my remarkable mother.
From 1966 and for the next ten years, Mao’s version of the Four Horsemen was unleashed on the long-suffering people. These were the Red Guards. He used them to rid China of the capitalist classes, intellectuals and non-believers who were threats, real or imagined, to his power.
Mostly gullible high school and University students, many as young as fourteen or fifteen, their ranks swelled into the millions of brainless lunatics who were given free rein across China. Mao called them his little generals. They roamed in gangs wearing their red armbands as badges of honour, beating gongs and drums, and waving red posters bearing either a quote from Mao’s Little Red Book or the latest denunciation of some poor soul fallen from the Chairman’s grace. They pillaged homes, beat up women for trivial crimes like wearing stockings, or anyone for wearing clothing not deemed proletarian enough. Worst of all were the public struggle sessions where a victim was forced into bone-numbing positions for hours on end, beaten and humiliated, while being ordered to confess their imagined crimes.
As frightening as anything else during the years of the Cultural Revolution was how the population got behind these juvenile thugs. Feeling safe because most people were poor and uneducated and no threat to Mao, many enjoyed the spectacles as a blood sport, egging on the Red Guards in their brutality. This wasn’t a proud time in China’s history.
Mama told me the story of Grandfather’s death a year after we’d returned from exile. We were sitting outside basking in the spring sunshine on Qingming, by tradition the day we visit ancestors’ tombs to honour them. We’d just returned from Grandmother’s grave. I noticed there was no tomb for him.
‘What happened to Grandfather, Mama?’
‘That’s a long and difficult story, Meiling. Not one for your ears.’
‘Mama, could it be any worse than we went through in Jilin? I’d really like to know about him. Please?’
‘I’m not sure I can tell the story.’
I linked my arm through hers and rested my head on her shoulder, waiting. I knew asking a second time would bring a stern rejoinder about manners. She lay back and gazed at the sky for a long time.
‘…I remember it was a sunny afternoon, just like today. I was eighteen years old. He and I were strolling along the banks of the Hun River, chatting about music, when we heard the noise of an angry crowd. I remember gripping his arm when I saw they were a gang of Red Guards and puzzled because they were heading towards us, holding their banners, yelling rabble-rousing slogans, and waving their Little Red Books like a field of poppies, right in our faces. Escape was impossible, we were surrounded.’
‘Why were they after you? What was wrong with walking by the river?’