Two stories from Ninth Building
The orchestra was in tune, their scores at the ready before them. The choir filed onto their risers, while the stage manager stood at the center to ensure that everything was in order, then signaled for the curtain to rise and lights to come on overhead and in front of us. Now it was too late to change anything.
The conductor strode to his position and took his bow. Standing on his little podium, he solemnly surveyed his forces, then raised an arm and we were off! The overture commenced: the trumpets were half a beat behind, the cellos flat. With slightly wrinkled brow and energetic gestures, he expressed dissatisfaction then pleasure when the kettledrum (substituting for a flower pot drum) entered on time, and the tuba executed a splendid, resonant phrase. The conductor flung himself into his work, moving as he believed maestros should, his body bent forward, wrists high, his attention focused on the string section. Then his hands came together and apart dramatically, like a chef pulling noodles, the breadth of his gestures leading the musicians along. In the stillness of a woodwind passage, the choir and strings swept in. With that, the conductor abandoned the orchestra and turned his agitated face on the singers, communing with them, projecting all the energy he could muster, trying to elicit a more spirited performance. His mouth held the right emotions, opening and shutting correctly, but anyone could see he wasn’t making a sound, like an impostor trying to look the part. He wanted the high voices to make a brighter sound, a little brighter. His left hand swept up, and up again, but it was no good, one couldn’t just make a wish and expect these fellows to be sudden masters of high C. Besides, where would they find the energy? You had nothing to feed them, when your own last meal had been only potatoes and cabbage.
The first song drew to a close, the audience applauded, and the conductor turned, bowing to them. As he straightened up, his false collar came undone, half of it reaching up to paw at his cheek, the other remaining hidden inside his jacket. This triggered some disorder in the next song; his stern demeanor and that fake, twisted collar presented a stark contrast. As his arms moved vigorously, a patch of white bobbed before his face. During a particularly intoxicating, lyrical passage, a soprano lost control and let out a giggle. That was the breach in the dam—laughter being the most contagious thing on stage—and we couldn’t stop it exploding across the company. His sternness and fury only exacerbated our frenzy, the choir infecting the musicians, until finally everyone present was in hysterics. Hastily the curtain came down.
This was one of our more disastrous performances during my time in the Great Northern Waste. It was an important one too, meant to welcome a senior official. These days, we’d say the concert was a bust, but back then it counted as a political issue. The next day, everyone who’d laughed on stage sat and wept as they self-criticized. Nobody blamed the false collar; we found fault only with ourselves. As for the conductor, Shanghai Zheng, he swore that at all future performances he’d go on stage with a bare neck. He’d rather reveal his somewhat grubby but sturdy neck than wrap it in an inauthentic garment, and risk making a mockery of politics should this scrap of white cloth go awry.
It was only after moving to the Great Northern Waste that I encountered false collars. They first became fashionable among the Educated Youths of Shanghai—round ones, pointy ones, patterned ones. Girls put on a different one every day, a pageant as extravagant as that of any princess. Yet observing these people with their false collars, I could think only of what was missing underneath. To begin with, I’d thought the collars meant principally that you lacked a complete shirt. Later, I discovered they did serve a purpose—as a barrier between cotton undershirt and wool overshirt. Our cotton shirts had no collar, and adding a false one prevented the woolen shirt from chafing against the neck.
False collars grew more popular, and lots of people began sporting them. The wearers generally fell into two groups: those who wore them for their appearance, usually only on important occasions; and those who valued their negligible practical function.
As I owned a white shirt, I never needed to wear a false collar during performances, nor was I worried about woolen garments scratching my neck. At the time, my entire body was covered in flea bites, and there was no way I could pass myself off as a civilized human being in any case.
More than a decade later, this item of clothing came vividly to mind. I was reluctantly listening to the editor of a publishing house make a hypocritical speech. His lies, so vigorously and expansively delivered, recalled the debacle of that false collar. If I’d been wearing one, I wouldn’t have needed to say a word, merely open my jacket casually and reveal the false collar to the speaker, show it off from all angles. Look at this, it’s false, a false collar. This would have been the most splendid performance of any false collar, because only at that moment would it have become real.
But that wasn’t possible. The times have changed, and I’m a civilized human being now. I’ve gotten used to being a phony.
Old Yoo played the round horn, also known as the French horn, in the propaganda orchestra. When he followed the five-line score, his grasp of rhythm was exceptionally accurate. Old Yoo usually didn't practice very much. One time the political commissar overheard him as he was rehearsing and called the little tune he was playing “the stinking fart of the bourgeoisie.” This saddened Old Yoo. He put down his horn and asked Old Qian to teach him the erhu. He learnt to read simple notation, and to play “Waters of the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers.” The commissar listened to his rendition and commented that Old Yoo had improved.
The full name of our brigade was “Thoughts of Chairman Mao Propaganda Orchestra.” Apart from our own little concerts, we staged mostly revolutionary operas. Being short-staffed, each of our performers often took on three or four roles each. In Legend of the Red Lantern, I played a liaison officer, a spy, and one of the Japanese devils at the execution ground. In addition, I handled the curtain and special effects.
Old Yoo kept to the orchestra, playing both the round horn and erhu, and was also the electrician in charge of the loading platform. He most enjoyed the horn solo in the “Assault on Tiger Hill.” He even received a round of applause at one performance, and for ages afterward sat clutching his instrument in a daze.
He compared the tone of the round horn to “white clouds above a palace.” What did he think of the oboe? “A girl by the water.” And the clarinet? “A young boy growing his first beard.” So what about the erhu? He thought about it and whispered, “The groaning of the political commissar and his wife.”
Old Yoo had gotten a girlfriend at the age of twenty-six, a Shanghai Educated Youth from the brickworks called Blossom. She was a scrawny thing who spoke in her city's dialect, bringing to mind old-time Shanghai actresses like Zhou Xuan and Ruan Lingyu. Once Old Yoo met Blossom, every night he'd walk six miles to meet her at the brick factory. Each evening before he set out, he'd say, I'm going to do it with her tonight. And when he got back later on, we'd ask, did you do it? And he'd say no, there was always someone working late around the kiln. We'd ask if he was tired from the twelve-mile round trip, and he'd say: of course. I'm exhausted, brain and body both. Luckily I can catch a ride back—in the back of the brick van, that is!
That night, he came back badly injured. The van had overturned into a ditch, and he'd been battered by falling bricks. He ended up in the hospital with a broken leg. When we visited, he was miserable. Blossom had just left—she'd come to break up with him. In the end, she'd used Mandarin to tell him she was leaving. Old Yoo asked me why she'd switched to Mandarin to inflict these cruel words. I couldn't find a reason. Perhaps she felt it was more solemn, more proper. Old You spat out “bitch,” then mysteriously informed me that it was just as well, she had women's issues.
After Old Yoo was discharged, he had a bit of a limp, though you wouldn't notice unless you were looking for it. He kept up a front of nonchalance, but withdrew into himself, not bathing or washing his clothes for months at a time, then finally taking to drink. When drunk, he’d blow awkwardly into his mouthpiece, chapping his lips, and even so he continued until a layer of calloused skin formed.
One time we performed for the armed forces. The People's Liberation Army was always particularly welcoming. After we set up the stage, they offered us all a drink; afraid of fumbling during the performance, everyone declined—apart from Old Yoo. As he drank, he toasted, “Wine brings soldiers and the people together, like family.” We thought he was knocking back too many and advised him to slow down. He said he was fine.
The performance started, and everyone busied themselves with their own parts. Old Yoo really did seem fine, switching frantically between horn and erhu. When we reached “Assault on Tiger Hill,” he clutched the instrument to his chest, pressed down on the keys, and entered on the right beat. But halfway through the passage, Old Yoo suddenly stopped and let out an enormous belch, loud and resonant. We were shocked for a moment, but couldn't help laughing. With the orchestra in hysterics, the music grew chaotic. The actor playing Yang Zirong, waiting in the wings, missed his cues for both his entrance and his aria. The show descended into chaos, and finally we were forced to bring the curtain down and start over.
Right after the performance, the political commissar held a meeting that lasted through the night. He said Old Yoo had let out an “anti-revolutionary belch.” After this, Old Yoo gave up the round horn. We replaced all the horn passages with the cello, and he stuck to the erhu and operating the electricity.
I thought of Old Yoo again yesterday. I asked my wife if she remembered him and she said she did, but he was called Old Yew, not Old Yoo. Still I can't bring myself to change it. I can't explain why, but I feel like if I were to use his correct name, I wouldn't recognize him anymore.