4240 words, short story
It starts out like this: halfway up a ladder looking at the stars. Xiao Zhu is behind me with the paint pots, whistling something tuneless to himself. I’ve got a brush in my hand and a delicate tracework of flowers in front of me; there’s a job to be done, and Lao Yang is waiting. But all I can think of is the stars.
We don’t see them that often, not the real ones. On the streets of Beijing you can see them every night, a glorious winking parade for the people who made them, but in the courtyards, the behind-spaces where we live and work and play, we just see clouds. Ever since I was a boy, there’s been a roof of smog over my head. And these days people think there’s something suspicious about stars. They’re for farmers and foreigners and dissidents, people who know how to find them and still want to. But they’re up there tonight, faint specks in the muck, and my hands go still as I stare.
Lao Yang coughs behind me. It’s a smoker’s cough, full of sound and fury, but it’s also a warning: there’s a job to be done. I turn my eyes to the roof beam, to the beautiful tracery of blossoms and leaves, and begin to fill in the green. Xiao Zhu begins to wander the courtyard, a young man’s amble, taking in the neat tiles and the potted pomegranate in one corner. Lao Yang just waits.
The paint takes shape under my brush as if it were a living thing. Red, green, blue, gold; it drifts across the wood and makes it real. When I have chased the last of the color into the corners, Lao Yang helps me down the ladder, and the three of us look up in silence at what we have done.
“It’s finished,” he says.
“Three months’ work,” he says.
I nod again.
We walk out onto the street, sharing a steady silence between us. Xiao Zhu is already busy at the gate, stabbing at a small control panel with his slim fingers. We turn and look at the image of a house, the stone lions guarding its door, its roof beams painted like a sunrise. Above us, the false stars shine clear and unadorned.
Xiao Zhu hits the switch, and the hologram collapses. There is a quiet shimmer, and then nothing. The street remains unchanged.
Lao Yang smiles. “Let’s go home.”
It starts out like that, but that’s not where it started. It started fifteen years ago, when the hutongs disappeared. Those narrow alleys, pinpricked by public toilets and hawkers, the sights and the sounds and the pervasive smells, and on either side the courtyard houses, the heritage of Beijing. They were already vanishing by the close of the twentieth century, whole stretches of history being leveled to make way for apartments and poor-quality condos. A lucky few were protected, turned into tourist traps and holiday homes. Gulou, Nanluoguxiang, Liulichang Jie: their names trip off our tongues like ancient mnemonics. But eventually, they too disappeared.
Lao Yang was forty when he saw the demolition sign go up above his door. He lived in a protected hutong, a heritage-listed area. When he went to register his protests with the local authorities, he was waylaid by plainclothes agents and beaten. That was the day the first hologram went up, in front of the place Lao Yang used to call home. Seen from the street, it looked like any other courtyard house, elegant and serene. From behind, it was a sick pile of rubble. He tells us over and over how he could put his hand through the mirage, how in that moment what he saw and what the world saw changed forever.
The next day, Lao Yang’s whole street was cloaked in holograms. The usual smog had subsided into a pearly blue. The crude demolition notices had vanished from the doors, to be replaced by fresh coats of vermillion paint. Lao Yang looked at them and knew that there was rubble waiting behind. And the holograms spread, street after street, so fast you could see a workman in the morning and know your whole district would be gone in the afternoon. I was just a boy when it happened, but I remember the spread of blue skies and green leaves like it was Chinese New Year. I didn’t understand back then. All I knew was that the city was beautiful, and I never wanted to leave.
I understand now. People believe what they see. These government holograms, they make Beijing a dream town, a false perfection that follows you home and leaves you at the door. We don’t see the demolition, the shaky buildings, the squalor. There are clear skies every day even though it hurts to breathe. We are a city of flickering images, of fantasy, of fraud, and nobody objects because nobody sees anything to object to. There are stars above us at night. Who cares where they come from?
We troop out of the hutong in single file, Lao Yang, Xiao Zhu and me. We never talk much after a job: we have done something majestic, something monstrous, and the silence is almost holy. We make our way through the winding streets like an ant trail, left, right and left again, until we reach the main road, bustling with cars. Xiao Zhu flags a taxi and bargains the price down to something we can afford. He sits in the front and we sit in the back, while the driver putters us home.
I met Lao Yang three years ago in a dingy noodle shop which had looked much cleaner from the outside. We were sitting side by side, slurping our noodles like some triumphant symphony. I had a book propped up against the vinegar pot and was considering it thoughtfully as I chewed. Not that I’m an intellectual or anything; I’m a man who works with his hands. But I like books. There’s something honest about a printed page. You know what it is today, and you can make a fair guess at what it’s going to be tomorrow.
Lao Yang peered over at my paperback. ‘You’re reading,” he observed.
“Yeah,” I said.
I hooked a noodle out of my bowl. “I like words,” I said.
“You a writer?”
“No,” I said. “Just a laborer.”
Lao Yang considered this. Then he grunted. “Let’s have a few beers.”
I guess that’s where it really started: me and Lao Yang, getting drunk together in a deadbeat little noodle shop like any other in Beijing. That’s when he told me about what had happened to his home, the place he’d brought his wife back to and the place where his children grew up. He told me he had a plan to bring back the hutongs, as good as they’d been or better. He already knew a kid who could manipulate the hologram systems, knock out the feed to a single house. All we had to do was rebuild the ruins behind it, hit the switch, and watch the fantasy be replaced with something real.
We’ve restored twenty-odd courtyard houses so far. Some of them have been left vacant and fallen into disrepair; these are the small jobs, just repairing and repainting and finally, hitting the switch. The bigger jobs are the houses which were actually destroyed, demolished to make way for property developments which never came around. These we rebuild, brick and timber and roof tiles, until the only difference between the house and the hologram is the color of the sky. We are the quietest dissidents in Beijing. When we do our job right, nobody knows we were ever there. But little by little, the three of us are fighting to bring the barrier between truth and illusion down.
Home is the first courtyard house we ever fixed up, on the outskirts of Gulou. Lao Yang’s house. When we arrived it was little better than a heap; now a crab-apple tree hangs lazily over the courtyard, and goldfish drift in the ornamental urns. The only furniture we have has been salvaged from demolition sites, old moth-eaten futons and wobbly tables, giving the place an eccentric, creaking charm. We’ve never been able to afford to buy new things for ourselves.
Xiao Zhu goes into the kitchen to boil water for noodles. I join him, helping to shake the little flat cakes out of the packets and into the bowls.
“You did a good job today,” he says. “All those colors. Really pretty.”
“You too,” I say, tearing open a seasoning sachet.
I never quite know what to say to Xiao Zhu. He’s a young guy, good with all the technology which has long since left me and Lao Yang behind. He’s got a thick mop of hair and a rakish smile and he dances when he walks. He could’ve been a TV idol, but he became a dissident instead. He’s the one who works the holograms for us, when all the hard labor is done; he helps out here and there with the painting and tiling, but his real job is something I can’t even begin to understand. I don’t know where Lao Yang found him. But he’s part of the secret, and that makes him family. I just wish I knew what to say.
We carry the steaming bowls of noodles out to the courtyard and sit down. Lao Yang hawks and spits into the bushes, picks up his chopsticks and digs in. Xiao Zhu and I eat slowly, making each bite last. When we’re done, Lao Yang lights up a cigarette, puts his feet up and eyes us across the table.
“That was our twenty-eighth house,” he says. “From here in Gulou to Chenxiang Jie and out to Dongjiaominxiang, we have brought twenty-eight courtyard houses back to reality. Nobody knows it but us, but we are making the past the present, and the present the truth of the past. The future is ours. And I think it’s time to move on.”
“Double prosperity,” I murmur.
“Double prosperity,” Lao Yang agrees. “Twenty-eight is an auspicious number. We’ve talked about this before, and I think we’re ready. There’s a jewel at the heart of this city, a treasure lying forgotten, and it needs to be saved. We can save it, if we’re willing to try.”
“The Forbidden City?” says Xiao Zhu. “We’re talking about the Forbidden City again? It’s massive. We’d be dead before we finished.”
“Not if we had help,” says Lao Yang, and a gleam creeps into his eyes. “What have we been playing at, these past three years? Pockets of reality here and there. Drops in an ocean. But if we could rebuild the palace—shut the holograms off and let people see the truth through the haze—that’d be worth dying for. I know a guy. He’s got a construction company. He’ll come in and help us for a price. We can do it! Give the people back their history! The government thinks they own our futures. Let’s fight them with the past!”
I pick up our bowls, toss the chopsticks in with a clatter. “We’ll talk about it,” I say. And then, apropos of nothing: “If the past and the present and the future had a battle, who would win?”
“The future,” Xiao Zhu says softly. “The future always wins.”
The next day, I head over to Houhai to see my girlfriend. She’s a sweet thing, a little younger than me, and has no idea what I get up to in the small hours of the night. Sometimes I think I should marry her, but then I remember I have no money, no job, no future. I am a down-and-out hero, not a husband. At these times I hold her tighter, kissing her with a sweet desperation; when she finds out the truth, we are finished. But the sun is bright today, the holographic sky projecting a deep and powerful blue, and we walk around the lake hand in hand while she chatters about her extensive circle of friends. I drift in and out, thinking about what Lao Yang said. Restoring the Forbidden City. Bringing it back to reality. Could we really pull it off?
“Oh!” my girlfriend exclaims, her eyes falling on a nearby shop. “They’ve put up the lanterns for the festival!”
“They’re not real lanterns,” I sigh. “They’ve just altered the hologram.”
“Hologram, real lanterns, what’s the difference?” she says. “They’re pretty!”
She rushes over to the shop and insists on posing for a photo, two fingers up in a cheeky V-sign. I dutifully hold her bag and snap the picture with her smartphone, assuring her she looks beautiful in every way.
“I’m going to eat so many mooncakes this year,” she says. “I always do. Every year when they come out in the shops, I go in and scold them. You’re going to make me so fat! I say. But I just can’t resist them.”
“You’re not fat,” I say absentmindedly. I’m thinking about the palace, how we’re going to shingle those roofs. Then my phone buzzes in my pocket. It’s Xiao Zhu.
“They’ve got Lao Yang,” he gasps.
I stop dead. “Who has?”
“The cops. Or someone like them. That guy he met was a plant, or a rat, or something. They grabbed him this morning on his way to where they were meeting. I don’t know where they took him. I don’t know where they’ve gone.”
“Calm down,” I say, trying to sound soothing without arousing my girlfriend’s suspicions. “Where are you now?”
“Back at the house. I don’t know how long we’ll be safe here, though. He’ll have to tell them everything.”
“I’m coming over right now,” I say. “I’ll get a cab.”
“Don’t take the first one,” he says, and hangs up.
Xiao Zhu is pacing the length of our courtyard, one of Lao Yang’s cigarettes on his lips. The smog is thick today, outside the holographic curtain, and I have to squint to see him.
“It’s over,” he says. “Him and his fucking double prosperity. They’ll come for us, and we’ll never see the light of day again. Not that we are now. Not that we ever have.”
I sag onto one of our dilapidated couches. “It’s not over,” I say. “There’s still the two of us. You can work the holograms, and I can do everything else. It’ll take us longer to finish a house, but it’s what he’d want us to do. To keep going. To keep making things real.”
Xiao Zhu snorts. “You’re just like him. Big dreams. Today the Forbidden City, tomorrow the stars. What are you in it for anyway? What are you hoping to change?”
I start to speak, and then pause. What am I in it for? I loved the holograms as a kid. I remember people cheering when they switched them on in our street, watching the sky turn blue and the grass turn green. We never even had grass before. But then I grew up, and one day I realized I hadn’t seen the sun for ten years. Not the real sun. Not the stars. And I started looking at houses and shops I had known all my life with suspicion. What did they really look like? I knew what they looked like inside, because government-sponsored holograms stop at the door. But the truth of them was as foreign to me as if I had never seen them before.
When Lao Yang approached me that day, I slurped at my noodles and listened to a dream. He wanted to live in Beijing—not a copy or a model, but a real city, a city that breathed, a city that had shit on the pavement and smog in the air but was free, effervescent and alive. He wanted a place that could move from past to present to future of its own accord, without technological intervention. He wanted his home back. And I wanted to help him.
“I’m in it because sometimes you just fight,” I say, finally. “And you keep fighting until it’s done. Lao Yang’s out there. He’s an old man and he’s hurting. But he’s helped you, and he’s helped me, and I’m not going to let him disappear. I said something dumb before. I said there’s still the two of us. That’s not true. There’s three like there always was. I’m going to try and help him. And you’re coming with me.”
Xiao Zhu lights another cigarette, blows the smoke out into the haze. “Nice speech, big guy. In a battle between the past, present and future, who would you be?”
I growl. “The future. The future always wins.”
Two days later, we have the names of the people who took Lao Yang and where they’re hiding him. Xiao Zhu bribed a local guard and wouldn’t tell me where he got the money. We have a plan, too, but I don’t trust it. It relies too much on gadgets, on things I’ve never learned to think of as real. This is Xiao Zhu’s world, and it makes me uncomfortable. But there’s nowhere else to turn.
We’re standing in front of the Ru Jia hostel in east Chaoyang. Just like home!, the sign proclaims, and I believe it. I’ve met plenty of people who get beaten at home. Behind this facade is a black jail, an illegal holding facility for protesters and political dissidents. This is where they’re keeping Lao Yang, stripped naked and starving, pulpy and bruised; for once, I don’t have to see it to know that it’s true.
I look over at Xiao Zhu. “Ready?” I ask.
He nods, and pulls the hope of our whole campaign out of his pocket. It’s a portable holographic projector, powerful enough to generate a large object or change the appearance of a room. I have no idea where he got it; they’re normally only found in large hotels or function halls, helping to create a dream wedding at a fraction of the cost. He studies it intently, thumbing buttons as he perfects the image, confirming every last detail. A guard left the building half an hour ago, and I watch over Xiao Zhu’s shoulder as he is recreated, down to the pores on his skin, on an alien machine.
“Ready,” Xiao Zhu says at last. He pushes a button, and the guard flickers into existence by our side. My stomach lurches involuntarily. If something like this passed me on the street, I’d think it was real. Xiao Zhu curls his hand around the projector, concealing it from sight, and the two of us walk up the steps of the Ru Jia with our holographic guard close behind.
“You programmed the speech?” I whisper.
“Everything you said,” Xiao Zhu replies. “We’ll be fine.”
I knock on the door, then jump back behind the guard and try to look penitent. The door opens a fraction and a man peers out.
“I got ’em, sir,” the false guard says. “The two that were with Lao Yang. Figured I’d drop them off here until the courts decide where they belong. Should I throw them in with their pal?”
“Do that,” the man says, “do that. Make sure they feel welcome, too—ha, ha!”
“Yessir,” says our guard. “I’ll treat them just right, don’t you worry about that.” The door creaks open further, and we step inside.
The first thing that hits us when we enter the jail is the darkness. The second is the stench. Somewhere in another room a woman is sobbing, an endless, throaty sob that sounds like it could eat up the whole world. For the first time in years, I find myself longing for the comfort of holograms. Our false guard leads us down the corridor to the room where Lao Yang is being held; as we get closer, the stench grows stronger, and I start to panic. When we stop, it’s at Room 28. Double prosperity. I want to cry.
I open the door. It’s not locked—the people here know what happens if they run. Lao Yang is lying in a ball on his bed, shaking in time to some unknown beat in his head. There’s dried blood on the sheets, and a dank smell in the air. I run to him. “Lao Yang, it’s me,” I say. I say it over and over, willing him to respond. At last he raises his head, a distant look in his eyes. “Oh,” he says. “So it is.”
We lift him to his feet, cradling his body and wincing as each new bruise is revealed. Xiao Zhu takes the clothes we’ve brought from his pack, and we dress him as gently as we can, first pants and then arms up for the shirt. Lao Yang says nothing as we fuss over him, swaying unsteadily like a sapling in the wind. It is as if knowledge and years have all been beaten out of him, leaving him back as he began, an empty seed. When I reach out to him, I find myself stroking his hair as I would a child’s.
“We should get moving,” Xiao Zhu says. “I’ve reprogrammed the projector.”
“Just give me a minute,” I say. I look at the old man twitching feverishly in my grip, try to catch my gaze with his own. “Lao Yang, we’re going to get you out of here now. Just think of this time as a hologram. It was a bad one, but we’re going to hit the switch and bring you back to reality. You’ll never need to be afraid again.”
Lao Yang’s gaze wavers, but he nods. I turn to Xiao Zhu. “Let’s go.”
We pack up the bag and sneak out into the corridor, Lao Yang hobbling between us. The guard is slouched by the door, watching some trashy late-night television and tossing sunflower seeds into his mouth.
“Are you sure this will work?” I whisper. “It’s so melodramatic.”
“It’ll work,” says Xiao Zhu, and as he pushes the button, he grins.
A van slams through the opposite wall of the corridor, sending glass and masonry flying through the air. A brick lands on the horn, setting off a piercing wail. Lights flash and spin manically. Despite myself, I sniff. Melodramatic. The guard jumps up, shouts for someone, anyone, and rushes to inspect the damage. We run for the door, Lao Yang propped up between us, our footsteps camouflaged by the racket. We have about five seconds before he realizes there’s no van after all.
We stop for breath in a small park two streets over, flattening ourselves against the trees for cover. I hold onto Lao Yang as tightly as I dare. I don’t believe what I said to him; reality is smog and shit and beatings, and you can’t hit the switch on that. But when you’re looking into the face of a broken man, what can you say? Beijing is a city of holograms, and that’s reality. It’s a city where you can get picked up off the street for no reason, and that’s reality. But we got in and out. We rescued a friend. That’s reality, too. “It shouldn’t have been that easy,” I say. “We should have had to fight them.”
“I wanted to fight them,” says Xiao Zhu. “All those people in there, and that sobbing. We should have rescued them all.”
“That trick wasn’t going to work twice,” I say. “We did what we could. We fought until it was done.”
Xiao Zhu considers this, while the traffic roars past us and the holographic stars shine down. Then he turns to me, and the light in his eyes is brighter than them all.
“We’re not done,” he says. “I’ve got a surprise for you.”
Two minutes later, with my heart in my mouth, I watch the hologram go down.
The bright blue and yellow paint of the Ru Jia flickers, becomes faded and dull. Cracks appear in the plaster, windows become fractured and dusty, and the grass around its borders suddenly dies. For the first time in years, I see an eyesore on the streets of Beijing. And it stands out. It shouts its presence to the world. It makes me smile until I hurt.
“Tomorrow morning, people are going to be asking questions about that,” says Xiao Zhu. ’They’ll probably even have a look at what goes on inside.”
Lao Yang lifts his head. “What did you do?”
“I released a virus into their system, one that operates on a time delay. It’s knocked out their projector and it’ll block any attempt to fix it. I did it to cover our escape, but—” and he grins, helplessly, “it has an upside, too.”
“Xiao Zhu,” I say, “I could kiss you. Let’s go home.”
It’s funny. We spent three years picking away at the scab of history, but we never pulled it off until tonight. Twenty-eight courtyard houses are scattered throughout Beijing. They are beautiful, and they represent truth, but they never changed the world. All those roof beams, those delicate flowers, the tiles and the urns and the towers never did so much as hitting a switch and showing reality as it is. Our greatest triumph wasn’t renewing the past, but exposing the future. And in a battle between the past, present and future, the future always wins.