We are delighted to announce an original story by one of Beijing's more unique voices, Decater Collins (street name "Doc"). First, a quick interview with the Old Beijing Hand. Posted November 2015.
You've recently left China. Three words to capture that feeling?
Much cleaner air
Most memorable moment from your first year in China?
My most vivid memory from my first year in China was a trip to Yunnan, including Lijiang and Tiger Leaping Gorge. That's when I realized how diverse China really is. There is a minority group in Northern Yunnan known as the Naxi, and they have the only pictographic language still in use today. At that point, China was still just a temporary stop, and that trip made me want to stay longer. I also had my first bike stolen on that trip, but in 14 years in China, I only had 3 bikes stolen, two of which happened in Yunnan. Go figure.
Moment you realized writing was an important part of your life?
I started writing my first novel when I was in 5th grade. I still have the notes. I started and stopped that novel several times, and finally, my sophomore year of college I started in on it seriously. I now have hundreds of pages of notes and first draft for what will eventually be a five book series, but I set it aside to work on Quitting The Grave, something a little more commercial (as commercial as a 660-page novel of historical fiction that lacks quotation marks can possibly be). I will return to that novel soon though. But to answer your question, there's never really been a time that writing wasn't important to me.
Your writing history + notable writing projects:
Picasso Painted Dinosaurs, a collection of 100 100-word stories.
Ahab's Adventures in Wonderland, a mash up novel combining Alice in Wonderland and Moby Dick.
Quitting The Grave, a murder mystery set on the Oregon Trail.
I also run a microfiction blog featuring 100-word stories.
Favorite word to use in writing:
Palimpsest. But I've only ever gotten to use it once.
A metaphor to describe what writing is?
Writing is like breathing, essential.
Anything else you wish to say?
love what you're doing with the site. I think it's a valuable addition to the Beijing community.
Let me tell you a story about a woodpecker.
A woodpecker you say? In Beijing? Is this one of those legends where a god leaves the Kingdom of Heaven in the form of an animal and rewards the hospitality of a kindly gentleman or impregnates a beautiful maid?
No. Though the gods might feature at some point, our setting is not historical China, but rather modern Beijing. And although a woodpecker should be considered an intruder in such a story, even as a metaphor, there is one, sitting in a tree near Dongzhimen. Hark, a woodpecker!
The first time I saw the woodpecker was 2002. The location, one of the few tree-lined boulevards in the center of the city. Even today, it is among the quainter streets in a neighborhood that has undergone one facelift after the other, and is now home to Japanese shopping centers, a public transportation megaplex, and an Irish pub I’m no longer technically allowed to enter.
So many years later, who can say what I was doing that day? Chances are I was late for some teaching assignment. But, upon seeing the woodpecker, I abandoned my bicycle and tried to follow as it flitted from tree to tree. I needed to get closer to confirm that I was awake and this was actually a woodpecker, not some fever dream induced by too much midnight hotpot.
There was the white speckled neck, the long black tail, the red crest. Yes, this was a woodpecker. In central Beijing! Who cares that none of my friends would believe me without photographic evidence? I was George Mallory and here was my Everest!
Between that first sighting more than a decade ago and when I moved into my final Beijing apartment, in early 2014, I encountered the woodpecker on many more occasions, in various parts of the east side, ranging from second ring road all the way to Chao Yang Park.
Was the woodpecker stalking me? Was she my true love, cursed by a witch and waiting for me to break the enchantment with a kiss? Was each woodpecker actually manufactured by Skynet and sent back through time to critical points in my life so that I might avoid a dystopian future?
Whatever the case, by 2014 I had already seen the woodpecker maybe a dozen times. There would be more.
My final Beijing apartment was, for me, a step down. I had been living in a beautiful 3-bedroom in a fancy housing complex in East Beijing. I had a gym, a shopping center, and a lake all inside my gated community. But I made the decision to move into a cramped, poorly renovated postage stamp of an apartment that barely had a kitchen and with a shower that was next to the washing machine. The layout, even by Chinese standards, was hard to fathom, what I can only describe as a pinwheel turning on a central axis.
I hated it, but it was all part of the psychological judo I was playing with myself. I figured if I detested my living circumstances enough, I would finally get fed up and leave the country all together, which had been my stated goal since I first arrived in 2000.
My life at this point in time had devolved from standard expat bacchanalia to something more akin to Dr. Doolittle. The year before, I had rescued a beagle from a village in Cao Chang Di. I walked him five times a day and used him as an excuse to get out of work early and avoid unwanted social interactions.
While I missed my luxury apartment with its bathtub and central heating, the beagle loved the new neighborhood. There was garbage everywhere, just like he had grown up on. You could find discarded chicken bones, half-empty yogurt containers, and entire jianbing's littering the sidewalks and road ways. All that was missing was the lake, which he had enjoyed wading in during the dog days (this is a pun) of Beijing summer.
But we soon discovered something even better. In the deepest recesses of my Tian Shui Yuan housing complex there was a small patch of forested land, maybe half an acre in square footage. It nestled next to the gravel parking lot, which was not nearly large enough for all the new cars of my middle class neighbors, and right behind the compound’s utilities building. It was mainly occupied by neighborhood grandparents who spent their retirement trying to recreate their childhoods by cultivating corn and cabbage.
This undeveloped plot was a godsend. I took my beagle there to roam off-leash every day. It was fascinating to watch crops grow next to severed mannequin heads and discarded luggage. Truly, this was a perfect portrait of Beijing, a postcard-sized piece of land that had somehow been passed over for development and doubled as both a landfill and a garden.
Not immediately apparent was a small, ramshackle lean-to that someone had built near the back of the miniature forest out of leftover aluminum siding. It was constructed against a particularly stolid old tree, one that was covered in thick vines.
Was this shack just to house the dozen or so stray cats that tormented my beagle every day? Or was there a person living there as well? Such a hovel might be the ideal home for migrant workers from the countryside who wanted to stay hidden from the Beijing authorities.
I learned from one of my neighbors that the entire patch of land was slated to be paved over for an expanded parking lot. He seemed enthusiastic. When I asked when the renovation would take place (hoping it wouldn’t be until after I had left China permanently), I gathered this was one of those situations in which they painted chai on the side of a building and you had anywhere from a week to a year before the demolition crew moved in.
I’m not sure when I first encountered the cat woman. Maybe I’d noticed her walking around the neighborhood, but it took several weeks before I connected her to the shack. She was the person putting out the bowls of cat food every morning. She was the person who was sleeping on the old mattress that had been dragged under the shanty.
She was old, even by Chinese old-lady standards. Living in a shack in the middle of Beijing would obviously age anyone, but she had to be at least 90. She was shriveled up like an old tea bag and wore the identical outfit every day, heavy blue work pants that were faded to gray and a lavender sweater.
In addition to being old, she was also crazy. You probably guessed that already because of the cats.
If you haven’t figured it out yet, this is the setting of our story: a hidden forest wedged into a forgotten corner of an old Beijing neighborhood that is suffering from neglect and serving as home to one old lady, a dozen or so cats, and several vegetable plots. And, I should mention, one woodpecker.
Beijing is situated on the edge of the Gobi Desert. The dust storms, which certainly have been exacerbated by agriculture and industry, are natural phenomena that date back hundreds of years. Yet, because of all the engineering that’s been done by the Chinese government, it’s sometimes hard to remember that Beijing is a desert city, especially when it’s getting turned into a greenhouse by all the pollution or when the 24-hour thunderstorms strike because of the cloud seeding.
When these unnatural storms descend upon us, the city, which you'd think would be used to all sorts of flooding, whether from migrant workers or government officials or grey market iPhones, is transformed into an urban cesspool. Whole city blocks become dangerous whirlpools waiting to suck foolish motorists to their doom.
One such impossible storm struck soon after I had moved into my last Beijing apartment.
When you’re a beagle, being stuck in a small apartment sucks whether your owner is staying out late after work or the storm of the century is raging outside. So as the storm eased up, enough that the rain was no longer horizontal, I tried taking him for a walk. This ended disastrously as he managed to escape his leash and I had to go chase him through shin-high puddles.
Although it was mid-afternoon, the thick cloud cover made it seem close to dusk. Finding the beagle would not be easy. When he started barking, presumably because he’d treed one of the cats, I was thankful. But as I wound my way along the small path through the gnarled thicket, I started to smell smoke and knew something was wrong.
The beagle hadn’t chased a cat into a tree. He’d discovered the crazy old cat woman prone on the ground and surrounded by her minions. They were circling her and mewing, a scene straight out of Batman Returns. Because they normally ran from the beagle, he didn’t know how to react as they courageously guarded their caregiver, and so he alternated between barking and whining. When I arrived, he hid behind my leg and growled.
The regular smell of cat urine and dirt was accentuated by charred wood and wet fur. The shack was in shambles, the tree it was built against knocked over. It had been struck by lightning, and not too long previously.
The old woman was still alive but mumbling incoherently. Incoherently even if my Chinese weren’t abysmal. She was dazed and had been close enough to where the lightning hit that steam was rising off her clothes and hair.
I didn’t know what to do. She needed help but I’d left my phone at home, not wanting it to get soaked. I got the beagle back on his leash and decided I needed to go find someone with a phone. My first stop was the local xiaomaibu. Though they had closed for the storm, I could see a light inside. It was not just their shop but also their home.
I knocked, and I knocked some more, ever more insistently, until someone answered. The look on their face said it all. This crazy laowai ran out of water and he expects us to deliver a new jug during the storm of the century. I tried to explain that a woman had been struck by lightning, but I think I kept repeating that I’d found an electric fan. Finally, I dragged one of them away and brought them to the old woman. Reluctantly, he pulled his cellphone out and called for help.
It took an hour for the ambulance to arrive. It would later turn out that dozens of people died all around Beijing that day, most of them drivers who drowned trying to cross flooded intersections rather than lose face and turn around. The EMT's were both smoking cigarettes and they spent as much time sorting out who had discovered the woman as they did actually checking to see if she was okay. They started arguing with the xiaomaibu people and the only words I could understand were hukou and qian.
They wouldn’t drive her to the hospital without guarantee of payment. I strongly suspected this was against the law, but there was nothing I could do about it. I was barely competent enough to understand what they were saying.
Eventually some sort of agreement was reached and they loaded her onto the gurney and wheeled her away. She was still moving but I had little confidence that I would ever see her again. It probably won’t surprise anyone who knows me that I was more worried about what would happen to the cats now that she was gone than I was concerned about her.
Stop judging me. I’m the only protagonist you’ve got here.
I came by the next afternoon and didn’t see any sign of the crazy old cat woman. In the aftermath of the storm, the little grove had been completely devastated. There were fallen limbs, deep pockets of mud, scattered debris, and a damaged shack. I sat on her recliner, a grey seat that had once been in the back of a mianbaoche, and wondered what I should do. I heard the pecking of the woodpecker and found him a few yards above my head, going at the charred trunk of the tree that had been hit by lightning.
Right, life goes on.
It turned out, however, that the old woman didn’t die. After three days, she returned. It was a miracle.
A middle-aged gentleman was with her. I thought for a moment that this must be her son. Except, no Chinese son would let his mother live like this crazy old cat woman did. He was dressed respectably and drove a Volkswagen.
He was surprised to see me walking in the small woodlands and we struck up a conversation. Luckily, he spoke a limited amount of English to go with my limited Chinese.
I learned that he was a doctor who specialized in traditional Chinese medicine. He had taken it upon himself to see to the crazy old cat woman’s care. He had a jar of ointment, something that smelled like a mixture of Bengay and green tea, and she was refusing to take it, out of pride or lack of trust wasn’t clear. I never got an explanation as to whether he was there out of charity or if someone had ponied up the money for her medical care. Knowing this country, it was probably the latter.
There were two things he kept saying that I didn’t understand. The first was tuolue. He’d point to my clothes, point to the sky, point towards the parking lot, and say tuolue. I had no idea what it meant.
The other word he kept using was clearly a name, Lei Gong. It wasn’t the old cat lady’s name though, because he kept pointing to the burnt tree as he repeated it. Maybe it was the kind of tree.
I gathered up my beagle and left him to his argument with the old woman. I had a feeling he wasn’t going to have much luck convincing her. She seemed okay enough in any case. She was apparently made of stronger stuff than the tree had been.
When I got home, I looked up the words in my Chinese dictionary. Lei Gong was the name of the Chinese thunder god.
In Chinese mythology, Lei Gong was a Taoist deity. When directed by heaven, Lei Gong would punish both humans and evil spirits who had committed crimes. He had claws, the wings of a bat, and a blue face with a bird's beak. He wore only a loincloth. Some people still pray to him in the hopes that he will take revenge on their personal enemies.
Lei Gong began life as a human. One day, he found a peach tree that had been planted by the gods. When he took a bite out of one of its fruit he was immediately transformed.
I found one story about Lei Gong in which a hunter was caught in a terrible storm. He saw a child sitting on a tree waving a flag. Lei Gong wanted to strike the tree with lightening but when the child waved his flag, Lei Gong was driven away. The hunter realized that the child must have been some sort of demon and the flag he carried an evil talisman. In order to help Lei Gong, the hunter took his gun and shot the flag out of the child’s hand. Lei Gong was then able to strike the tree as he intended but, as he did so, he accidentally hit the hunter as well, who fell unconscious. When then hunter awoke later, he found a letter from Lei Gong promising the hunter another twelve years of life in gratitude. The hunter also noticed the body of a lizard on the ground, the true form of the demon.
On a side note, Lei Gong is said to be extremely prudish, and will not enter a house where copulation is taking place.
None of this made any sense. What did the crazy old cat lady have to do with Lei Gong. Was the Chinese doctor trying to say she was a demon? Was she the hunter, and had been trying to help the thunder god? Or had I misunderstood completely, and he was really trying to speak about science and engineering as academic subjects?
The other word, tuolue, means indulgence. That at least seemed somewhat relevant. Any more than 4 cats is definitely on the indulgent side.
After the crazy old cat lady returned from the dead, life in Tianshuiyuan returned to normal. Twice daily, I forgot I lived in modern Beijing as the beagle and I paraded through the wooded grove. I might have traveled to the Chinese countryside of the 16th century, or been shipwrecked on Murakami’s Cat Island. Underneath the thick canopy, not even the nearby high-rises were visible.
I started noticing a parade of black Audis coming in and out of my neighborhood. Men in dark pants and white shirts, carrying man purses and chewing on bamboo toothpicks, parked in our gravel lot, walked around and gestured vociferously, made some phone calls, and then got back in their cars and drove away. I got the distinct impression that whenever they saw the oasis of trees, they, just like me, could not believe it really existed.
Then, one day, several workers in hard hats arrived driving a bulldozer. They were clearing out the underbrush, avoiding the largest trees while running over the smaller ones. My tiny park's day of reckoning had finally come.
When they got to where the crazy old cat lady’s shack was situated, the bulldozer stopped. The old woman refused to leave. The workers alternated between hurling insults at her and idly smoking cigarettes. They really didn’t seem to care one way or the other whether she moved. Displacing peasants was way above their pay grade.
It was an old fashioned Chinese standoff. For those unfamiliar, a Chinese standoff necessarily entails a crazy old person standing athwart the aspirations of an ascendant China, as when the man in Chongqing refused to sell his apartment to developers, and so they dug a huge pit around his building, or when the old couple in Wenling wouldn’t relocate and so now their house sits in the middle of a highway. (See also: a certain picture from 1989.)
Normally this story ends with thugs hired by the developer coming to forcibly remove the recalcitrant resident, while physically abusing her for making them go through the trouble. I did not have high hopes for the crazy old cat woman’s chances. If only we were in America, where we have lawyers do battle on our behalf.
The bulldozer remained parked in the wooded lot for several days. The workers were nowhere to be seen. I’d let the beagle run around while I sat in the tall seat and imagine driving through the city. How much would a foreigner have to pay for going on a joyride with a bulldozer?
It was now several months into my experiment and I didn’t feel any closer to leaving China than I had 14 years ago. What was it about this country that kept me here? I’d never dated a local, I didn’t have a particularly compelling job, and the pollution was slowly killing me. Literally.
On the other hand, there was the expat lifestyle, which certainly had a measure of appeal. Eating every meal in a restaurant, driving around town in taxis like I was a Rockefeller, having a housekeeper come clean my apartment three times a week. I would be giving up a lot by returning home.
Tuolue. Indulgence. That’s what the Chinese doctor had accused me of. But although these comforts were nice, they weren’t the reason I was still in China. I could live without them. It might even do me some good, force me to aspire to more than what I already had.
The real answer was probably guanxing. Inertia. That was why I had moved into this shitty apartment, in hopes of motivating myself to finally make the decision to leave. Unfortunately, it was easier to just accept some slightly less comfortable circumstances than to motivate myself home.
Thwack, thwack, thwack, thwack, thwack, thwack.
The woodpecker was back. There he was, pecking away at the charred remains of the tree. The crazy old cat woman was probably out scavenging for recyclables, and the cats had scattered, as they generally did, at our approach.
Thwack, thwack, thwack, thwack, thwack, thwack.
Here it comes. That important moment of reflection that leads me to a satisfying decision and is somehow thematically tied to the presence of the woodpecker. Except nothing happened. I tried to pull out my phone and get a decent photograph of the woodpecker, so I could prove to my friends I wasn’t some sort of Captain Ahab and there really was such a thing as a Beijing woodpecker.
As always, before I could get close enough for a decent shot, the woodpecker flew away. Without any photographic evidence, it could still just be a figment of my imagination.
Another man arrived in a black Audi. I knew he was important because he was sitting in the back seat and the driver came round and opened the door for him. He was wearing dark pants and a navy blue polo. He must have left his man purse in the car.
When he saw the little patch of forest, all he said was qiguai. There were other, less important men with him as well. They led him back to the crazy old cat woman’s shack. I watched through the trees as he first attempted bribery and then reverted to insults. Neither appeared to move her.
I wondered why this woman wouldn’t take the money. Was she worried about what would happen to her cats if she were to leave? Was she just being stubborn? Was she truly crazy?
And why weren’t the police involved yet? This woman couldn’t have any legitimate claim to the ramshackle structure.
As I had been for the last 14 years, I was a spectator, but I never truly grasped what was going on. I had few Chinese friends. My Chinese level had never surpassed barely able to survive. One of the greatest appeals of expat life had always been that I could tune out conversations and feign ignorance whenever I wanted.
The laoban must have said something to provoke her, because the old woman began screaming and gesticulating wildly. She was so irate that she kept yanking up her lavender sweater, revealing her white underclothes. I have no idea what she was trying to communicate, but the men seemed taken aback by her vehemence, and they tried to calm her down. The confrontation stretched on with no apparent resolution.
I eventually grew bored and went home.
Another thunderstorm arrived overnight. This one seemed even more potent than the last. My beagle, frightened by strangers, bicycles, and balloons, shook every time the thunder struck. He whined and cuddled me while I lay in the dark. Every few moments, the room lit up as bright as day.
In such violent storms, what happens to the stray cats? Are they outside getting soaked, trying not to freeze to death? And what about the birds? Where does a woodpecker hide? Do these storms kill off all the mosquitoes, only to be replaced by new ones as soon as the eggs hatch? Or do they have a secret place they all go to wait out a storm, like taxi drivers at rush hour.
All these manufactured worries were more palatable than wondering whether the crazy cat woman would survive the night. Her shack was never very stable to begin with and its integrity had been seriously threatened after the lighting had collapsed the tree it was built against.
The next day, I found the storm had completely leveled the shanty, with all its detritus strewn across the half acre of woods. The crazy old cat woman was nowhere to be seen.
The Chinese doctor was there, though. He was cleaning up, searching among the refuse. He had gathered what looked to be the crazy old cat woman’s possessions in a pile. There was a wok, a picture of one of the door gods, two shoes, not matching, some clothing, a plastic figurine. The line between trash and something worth keeping seemed extremely blurred.
I asked him where the old woman was and he said he had come to take her home last night during the storm. He was here now to gather her belongings and feed the cats.
I helped him search among the debris and I found the ointment he had given her earlier. He unscrewed the top and smiled when he saw that half of it had been used.
“Lei Gong Teng.” He tucked the container in his pocket.
In some cultures, there’s the idea that if you save someone’s life, you then become responsible for that person. This never made much sense to me. Maybe the thought was that if you prevented the person from passing on to the afterlife, then you had some responsibility to make sure that their remaining life had some meaning.
In China, there’s an assumption that if you help someone at the scene of an accident, then you will be made to pay their medical expenses. This is like a modern offshoot of that old time belief, aided by recent court cases that have found good Samaritans liable for the people they have attempted to help.
In one case, a man was sued after he accompanied an old woman who had broken her hip to the hospital. The courts found him liable for 40% of her medical expenses, with the reasoning that no person would go so far out of his way to help a stranger if he wasn’t somehow involved in her injury. This kind of rationalization culminated with the famous case of a toddler who was run over by a truck, and the bystanders refused to stop and help her.
Together, the doctor and I raised up the fallen walls of the shanty, looking for the rest of the old woman’s belongings. A cat darted away, a dead lizard in its mouth. Perhaps the cats would be okay after all.
Lei Gong Teng. I looked it up once again. The dictionary told me it means "Tripterygium wilfordii.” In colloquial terms, it could be translated as the thunder god vine.
Lei Gong Teng is a plant used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat fever, chills, edema, and carbuncles. That includes burnt skin, I suppose. The doctor had never been talking about the Thunder God. He was explaining the name of the ointment he was giving her.
Although it made more sense that he was talking about medicine, I preferred it the other way.
I never saw the crazy old cat woman again. The little forest was cleared out of all the underbrush and garbage but it remained an open lot for the rest of my time in China. The larger trees were never knocked down and I certainly saw no signs of the plot of gravel or the patch of trees being converted into a parking lot.
I eventually overcame my inertia and, at the beginning of 2015, I left China after more than 14 years in Beijing. It turns out that even though I live in a country now where I can understand the language, I still don’t need to engage with strangers if I don’t want to.
You probably won’t believe me because I still don’t have photographic evidence, but I continue to see the woodpecker, even in America. I saw it at my mother’s house, I saw it as the beagle and I drove cross-country, and I’ve seen it at the Thousand Acre Dog Park near my new home. I mean, obviously, it's not the same woodpecker. That would be crazy.
Somehow, even as the reasons to leave multiplied, knowing that Beijing was a city with at least one woodpecker made it okay for me to stay. The pollution couldn’t be so awful, the crush of urbanity not so overwhelming that it prevented nature from finding a way to survive. No matter how bad it got, I could live in Beijing as long as there was a woodpecker. I think about it at times, and hope that it’s still thriving.
Now, whenever I see a woodpecker, it’s a reminder. No matter where you might end up, no matter what the superficial differences may be, life is pretty much the same, give or take a few cats.