For this, the second week of Loreli's two part Dylan Levi King profile, I interviewed the man via emails across the East Sea. Conversation runs from lucid discussion of craft to the "King of Hitchhiking," white people writing Chinese characters, translation, and bits of the life behind the memoir. You can check out the story, Chinese Cigarettes and Three Moments from or Related to Guangzhou and the Act of Running Away from Commitments and Everyday Life (2013 and 2014) below this interview.
MB: Based on your notes, it seems like sometimes your stories marinate for years between first draft and rewrite. What approach do you take to rewriting?
DK: I mean, basically, sometimes I'm able to produce a lot of raw material. I can sit down and write and write and I've got a notebook and text files on my computer and I'm typing notes on my phone and emailing them to myself. That stuff is kept on ice, mostly. When the drought hits, I go back to that material, edit, add connective tissue. I can dispassionately examine things, at that point, and cut things up. I can be more honest with myself, going through that process, long after I've written it.
Some writing can get stale, though, if it sits too long. I mean, it goes stale as something I'd show to other people or try to publish. It's still interesting to me. Like, writing about China, lots of what I wrote, I realize it's ten years old now. If I haven't done anything with it in a decade, it's probably going to be parted out. I might find an interesting description or an interesting setting or an interesting character buried in it and I can cut it out, put it in something else.
MB: There's a feeling of spontaneous prose hemorrhaging (almost "beat") in some of your work. To what extent is your work done after a first draft? (Exceptions would be more obviously formal fiction (i.e., 33 Transformation Bodies…) which I am forced to believe took some organizing. Am I way off on this, or do you have modes that take time in the construction and modes that produce nearly-finished work?
DK: That's about right. I'm not sure this is interesting but let me try to explain it. It might be good enough, first draft, don't touch it, but that's rare. Most of what I write, it's going to get touched up, sliced up. I'll usually have a certain image or a story and try various ways to approach it and produce a few things about it. Like, there's a setting: I worked in a slaughterhouse for a while, cutting up cattle, and I have a few images and characters from that time I'd like to write about. I'll produce a few things about it, maybe a few thousand words each, and then later, try to work that into a single coherent thing or find parts of it that work in other writing. That story, "The 33 Transformation Bodies of the Bodhisattva Guanyin," specifically that story... it was written in an hour or so and about a year later, I read it with fresh eyes, added some form, trimmed it to a publishable length and that's it.
MB: In this cluster you frame backpacking, or one type of backpacking, as an active running away. Is that ever productive? (Is all travel essentially escapist?)
DK: It's never productive. I guess, framing it in a more positive way, it was usually curiosity, trying to find something startling. I felt like I had this sense of obligation, too, or some perverse desire to put myself in bad situations, trying to get lost. Sometimes I only felt the way I wanted to feel if I was living through some shit. But, I mean, I had a friend that I met in Guangzhou that wanted to be "King of Hitchhikers" and he was from a reasonably wealthy family from Urumqi. Anyways, basically: he graduated from whatever the best high school in town was and was going to go overseas to study. But instead he started hitchhiking, all over China. WhenI tried to ask his motives or why he was doing it, he saw it as-- it's hard to explain but he told me that he wanted to unseat the current "King of Hitchhikers" and felt that the current "King of Hitchhikers" was letting down the hitchhiking community because his social media presence was underdeveloped and he didn't give enough back to his followers-- in the sense of... knowledge, I guess? So, anyways, this kid set, like, a two year time frame for himself to take the position. I spent a lot of time with him in Guangzhou and he finally told me that he had staged most of his hitchhiking photos. He rented cars, a lot of the time, or took a bus between cities. So, I mean, there are different motivations.
MB: Has engaging with translation affected your English prose at all? How?
DK: I think it has. I think with translation you're more aware of the reader, what they're expecting or what makes a work readable or gets the point across. Maybe the biggest thing is, it's helped me see what other writers do on, like, a really detailed level. You spend a lot of time reading and re-reading. The visceral enjoyment of the work or the story has passed because you've read each paragraph dozens of times. You start paying attention to subtleties, rhythms, sentence length, paragraph length, all the details.
MB: A short bio says you, "learned Chinese on the streets of Xuzhou." Can you talk more about your time learning the language?
DK: How detailed do you want me to get? Just, generally, it started with going to China. I'd had very minimal interest in the country up until that point. I was in university, majoring in Political Science, and I got the chance to do a semester abroad. This was, I guess, right before everyone got interested in China and China Studies again, right around 2006. I chose China on a whim. I spent a year there, the first trip. I had a year of intensive language instruction in China. I learned most of the essentials by living in the country. I fell in love with a girl. I wanted to learn the language and know China in an attempt to understand her. That was part of it. I went back to Canada and found that one way to still engage with the language and the country was through literature. I ended up living in Vancouver, going to the University of British Columbia, and I changed my major to Chinese. I spent a lot of time in the University of British Columbia's Asian Library and had an inspiring professor in Christopher Rea. I ended up working in China. What else?
MB: Often your fiction closely follows Chinese characters. Do you consider writing across cultures a stretch (something that demands careful attention), or something natural?
DK: If it feels natural, I'll do it. There are some serious issues, being a white Westerner, writing in a Chinese voice. And usually, writing across cultures ends up being dog shit. I read Atticus Lish's Preparation for the Next Life and I feel like Zou Lei, a Uighur woman in the U.S., is written well. But, still, I paid close attention and found myself cringing sometimes. The way I've written stories like that, though, I guess I've tried to minimize approximating the voice, minimized interiority. I've tried to know what I'm talking about, who I'm talking about.
MB: This might sound like I'm saying how down I am but, like, writing about Chinese in Canada, I think I know what I'm talking about. For a couple years, I rented a room in a house that was carved up into apartments for recent immigrants from China. Across the hall, there was a woman from Fujian and her fifteen year old son. Down the hall, a couple from Harbin. The landlord's parents lived downstairs. There was a girl from Beijing down there, too, in another apartment. I ended up being of great interest to them. I was a way that they could understand Canadian or Western culture. I could answer questions they had about... you know, anything, anything. When I lived in Saskatchewan, I was friends with a guy... -- I wrote a story based on him, "Athabasca Street (Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, 2013)." His wife dragged him to Canada and they got in a scheme run by someone from their hometown, who offered them a job in a Chinese restaurant in the middle of nowhere. He couldn't speak English. There was a limited Chinese community there, mostly fourth or fifth generation immigrants from Guangdong. I spent a lot of time with him. I took him to the doctor. I translated during his trial for aggravated assault. I knew everything about him. It feels natural, in that case. I know his experience and his emotions. I love the people that I've written about and I know them. I don't want to appropriate their voices in a cringey or fraudulent or offensive way. I think if you can get away with it and you know what you're doing and people reading it know what you're trying to do... it's fine.
MB: Do you want to list some influences or favorite writers? Has Chinese writing influenced you (whose)?
DK: There are always writers I'm careful about not trying to rip off. It changes all the time. I've been re-reading Raymond Carver and trying not to rip shit off. I just re-read Tao Lin's Taipei and felt the same way. Apart from what's currently on my mind, I'd just list obvious names. Deeper down, though, there's always William Vollmann. Imperial is as close to a perfect book as has been written, I think. With Chinese writers, the influence crops up when I try to write a story about Chinese characters, set in China. The story, "The Sixteenth Richest Man in Xuzhou meets He Hualong" was an attempt to write a "Chinese short story," where there's a certain kind of plot, a certain approach to characterization. It was written under the influence of the big mid-90s authors I've been re-reading, especially Jia Pingwa, and also Howard Goldblatt translationese. It ends up being a hybrid of those forms and whatever I normally do. There's an influence, though.
MB: If you're actively reading, can you talk a little about Chinese literature right now?
DK: A lot of Jia Pingwa, these days. I went back and seriously read Feidu ahead of the release of Howard Goldblatt's translation (Ruined City). Now I'm working on a translation of another Jia Pingwa novel, Shaan'nxi Opera. Like I said, I've been re-reading writers like Han Shaogong, Chen Zhongshi, Chi Zijian. I found a used copy of Zhu Tianwen's Notes of a Desolate Man and I'm looking forward to re-reading it. Other than that, I hesitate to comment in general on the state of literature on the Mainland and I'm even more hesitant to comment on literature from the greater Sinophone world. It's impossible to say anything productive. I don't read enough to even fake it.
MB: Your story collection, Skoal vs. Copenhaagen, is available on Amazon, and you've written about the internet novel in China. What kind of potential or future do you see in internet lit or online publishing? Are there craft considerations? (Do you think writers should prepare work differently if it's to be consumed on the internet, and can you articulate these craft changes?)
DK: I like libraries and I like browsing used bookstores but I do most of my reading on a phone or laptop screen, like everyone else. I got a thrill the first time I could go to a real bookstore and see my name in a book or a magazine but I have more Instagram followers than will ever read a short story I've written. With putting stuff online, it's nice to be able to not worry about anyone editing it but you, not worrying about length or content or who owns the rights to it.
The form or the style... I mean, I end up reading Nathaniel Hawthorne, David Foster Wallace on my phone and the medium works just as well for Mira Gonzalez poetry or the cell phone novels my fellow Tokyo commuters on the Yamanote Line train are reading. I think it's more interesting to see how we try to take internet-published writing and put it back in books.
MB: How clear is the divide between your fiction stuff and your memoir-ish nonfiction stuff?
DK: I mean, yeah, there's no separating them. I try to be a bit strict if I'm claiming it's memoir. When I wrote the piece about going to a Chinese detention facility, I would have rather called it fiction. I wrote it in the third person and it fiction and then, later, to suit a requirement for something memoir-ish I went back through it and made sure that everything was, like, true true. I'm scared of being called a fraud, too. I hated comments from people that read that piece and questioned if it really happened.
MB: I think longing for a certain time in Guangzhou appears in a couple different stories of yours. Of the cities you've lived in, what's the city you have the most nostalgia for?
DK: It's hard to say. Guangzhou was, like, the end of my extended adolescence. Lots of the writing is, like: these are beautiful moments that I lived right before everything turned to shit. There's a lot of regret. Like, I lived through these important moments and then I tore it apart.
MB: What's do you think about commas?
DK: I've been trying to write short sentences because I've realized I don't know how to use punctuation.
MB: What are you working on now?
DK: A lot of translation work. I'm deep into the Jia Pingwa, Shaan'xi Opera project. I'm indebted to Nick Stember for putting me on. After dealing with all these hurry-up-and-wait publishers, I feel like Pac when Suge came through with his bail and got him in the studio to do All Eyez On Me.
Full disclosure: I'd known the name Dylan Levi King about ten minutes before realizing we'd have to see if he had anything new cooking. We got lucky.
The now Tokyo-based writer spent seven years in China, mostly in Dalian, Nanjing and Guangzhou. King's work exists in a balancing act. On the one hand– in one mode– you have authentic beat prose (even when entirely fictional), painfully relatable and grounded in the ordinary (some will think of Tao Lin). On the other, you never know when time and geography are going to crumble under your feet. (If you want to see what it looks like when a craftsman plays fast and loose with scene breaks, you want to stop now and read King's slippery 33 Transformation Bodies of the Bodhisattva Guanyin.) It would be a waste of time to talk about how productive King finds this tension, and in the end it will remain a mystery why his work remains so delicious / compulsively readable. Instead, check out a recent piece of nonfic featured on the Anthill, raid his Medium, and checkout his collection of stories– Skoal vs. Copenhaagen– available on Amazon.
We're excited to be running a new story: Chinese Cigarettes and Three Moments from or Related to Guangzhou and the Act of Running Away from Commitments and Everyday Life (2013 and 2014). Next week an interview with King will appear in this space. Story after the jump.
A pack of Vietnamese Marlboros.
Tasting notes: the distinct Marlboro flavor on the inhale, which always brings to mind Fig Newtons and sweet diesel exhaust and an exhale heavy on roasted nuts, woodsmoke.
Other notes: Vietnamese tax information. Available in the northern half of the country but most frequently encountered in the south. Colleagues deride me for buying probably bootleg cigarettes. Price fluctuates but is usually under twenty renminbi.
I went south because of the cold. I can’t tell you how sick of the cold I was. I stayed in. Even when I was starving, I stayed in. I drank too much. I couldn’t go out. I was desperate and I stole potatoes from the bins my neighbors had left outside their front doors. I drank too much and when I closed my eyes to sleep, I saw nothing but white and then something like dreams, full of faces, faces pushing towards me, pushing against my face. This is how I fell asleep. And when I slept, I dreamed and couldn’t escape the north. I dreamed my toetip moving a crescent through a layer of dust on sidewalk ice and jerked awake and felt dry snow on the back of my neck. My dreams smelled like the city, varnish, exhaust, sweet chemical smells and sounded like the city and the buses grinding down just-paved roads and motorcycles flicking by and grinding metal and firecrackers and the low digital burps of the long black cars. Sometimes when I was in Guangzhou, I still dreamed that I was there and I was patrolling the puddles of egg yolk light and shooing pigeons off my cuffs and looking at the women with faces painted white that walked the shelter of the overpass near Lin Lin Ballroom. The women spoke with southern accents stretched by betel chaw. The women gathered in groups, pecking at men as they passed. Other women, with unpainted faces and heavy coats held signs advertising the flophouses. All of the apartment blocks around the overpass and their dozen doors to a floor and hanging padlocks. And I smoked cigarettes in the cold. And I came back again and again to the north, drawn by a cigarette light, drawn by the man under the streetlamp burning phonebook white pages– thin sheets of gold paper and drawn by the blue spitty mushroom cloud and drawn to the white clean smoke as he stirs the embers with a gloved hand and I’m somewhere in the silly cartoon of ancestors in pink nightgowns and tissue paper beards, glowing and shimmering like neon in a puddle, and the man with the gloves and the stick to poke the flames rises and reaches behind him and douses the flames with water from a Pepsi bottle. I’m sorry. I’m sorry for everything I did there and I want to forget it. The south is warm and there are palm trees below my window.
A soft pack of Hongtashan and a hard pack of Hongtashan.
Tasting notes: a toasty inhale, which brings to mind caramel, walnuts or roasted hazelnuts and maybe the smell of sweet potatoes cooked in a steel drum, and then matchsmoke and wet hay, and then, on the hard breath out there is hardwood smoke, and burnt butter and burnt sugar, black pepper.
Other notes: a classic design, red and grey line drawing of the pagoda, and curlicue clouds and mountains beyond. The simple text in red and gold and the year, 1956. They burn like torches. The soft pack is symbolic of something, even beyond the working class aura of the brand, but the hard pack is more convenient and durable.
I flew to Shanghai to meet her one last time and take the trip south and she would take her own trip south, separately. I took a bus to the train station. The windows were open. The sun shone medical blue through dusty curtains. As the bus climbed to the expressway, a woman stood and walked to the driver and said: You can’t put on the air conditioning? The driver ignored her until she went back to her seat. The bus picked up speed.
I met Yueran in the train station square. It had been a month since I had seen her last, since I had taken her on the Skytrain to the airport in Vancouver. She looked the same as the day she left. She looked the same. She never changed. Hair smooth oiled black, cut flat across the tops of her eyebrows. Her eyes, her lips. The same long single brushstroke eyes, elegant as Longmen Avalokitesvara blissful lids. The heat of the city pearled the delicate fur of her upper lip with bubbles of sweat. Same pale pink lips as the first time she asked me, Can you kiss me?
We had been to Shanghai together once, a few years ago. I tried to remember the details of the trip. I couldn’t remember what had brought us there. But the trip had faded from memory, the details gone and replaced with a few biographical jottings. Maybe it wasn’t a happy trip. I’m sure it wasn’t a happy trip. But I wish I remembered it.
We went into the station together. We held hands. She asked if I needed any money. We tried to talk to each other. She was going back to Kunming. I bought my ticket and we sat together until her train came. I hugged her goodbye. She disappeared through a metal gate.
I sat on the plastic chairs in the waiting room. Across from me, a man in a tracksuit was nibbling sausage and feeding a cat in a plastic carrier. I remembered a story Yueran told me.
When she was a little girl, she lived on the edge of the city. She lived in an apartment building in a row of apartment buildings connected to a factory. The field is gone now and the apartment building and the row of apartment buildings and the factory are gone. The field was full of small ponds and tiny shacks made of scavenged stone. She walked through the field to get to school and back. One morning, she found a cat. The cat had been poisoned. She carried the cat home and fed it yogurt and chicken. When the cat was healthy, she let it go outside every night. One morning, the cat did not return home. She went outside to look for it. She walked through the courtyard of the factory compound. A neighbor stopped her. He was a man that worked as a security guard because he was missing a hand and could not work in the factory. The man said that he took her cat and ate it. She went to her father and told him. Her father laughed. I don’t think it was a happy laughter but maybe a sad, nervous laugh. But she remembers that he laughed. He told her that there was nothing he could do.
When the train was announced, I walked to the gate and stood in the middle of a long line. The gate was opened by a woman in a crisp green uniform. The line moved forward and flowed to the right, down a hallway and then down a flight of stairs. People pushed each other. There was the sound of suitcases clattering on the stair tiles and men shouting directions. The line of people hit the platform and were scattered across it.
I had a standing room ticket. There were already a few people crouched in the entry hallway of the car, the antechamber that held the bathroom and the office, where the attendant would ride. A boy of about seventeen stood and I moved to stand beside him. He asked me if I had a seat. I said: There were no seats left. I just bought a ticket. I don’t care. At least it’s cheap. He told me to put my bag on his bag, which was on top of a pile of bags leaned in a corner. I did not have a bag. I crouched beside him and he crouched beside me. We watched the other passengers without seats moving into the car. We crouched and looked up at them.
The story she told me, it meant she was looking for someone to protect her. The story wasn’t about the cruelty of her neighbor but the weakness of her father. She’d left me because I was weak, too. I wouldn’t laugh but maybe I wouldn’t be there at all. I would be running away, again, like I was running now. I stood and went to the end of the car and watched the endless beige blocks along the gravel trackside and a wasteland of building sites and construction camps. I was running again. The only time I felt calm, when I was in motion away from my life. I saw the last rough homes standing on ripped up field and then sudden black apartment towers and shopping centers, and the sun settling on the horizon, and the sky streaked with red and cut with green neon and white spotlights, and then everything outside was dark.
I went back and crouched in the entryway of the car again. The air conditioning blew weakly from a vent in the ceiling. A woman leaned over me, her shoulder against the wall and her feet between mine. She had a short brown skirt on and leggings that looked like denim. Her skirt brushed against my cheek and it smelled like bleach and pear candy and her sweat. She looked down at me. Her look was curious, I think. She was sweating. Her cheeks and her forehead were wet. Her makeup was smeared into grey streaks from wiping the sweat away. Her hair was pulled back sharply from her forehead. She had green contact lenses on her eyes. The contact lenses looked like kaleidoscopes. The train made two stops. More people got on. She leaned closer to me, until her thigh was pressed against my cheek, skin on skin. I looked up at her and she looked down at me. When the train arrived in Hangzhou, she pushed herself off the wall and looked down at me one more time. She slid through the crowd and the crowd moved out of the car and carried her onto the platform.
The entryway of the car emptied. The boy beside me shifted and spread a piece of newspaper under him and sat down on the floor. I looked at the other people crouched against the wall. The boy beside me announced that he was going all the way to Hunan. A girl across from us said that she was from Wuxi and was going somewhere in Jiangxi. She was sitting on a carpetbag of shirts. She was going to open a clothing store. She was wearing a black cardigan. She pulled her legs against herself and laid her head on her knees. And a girl from Guangdong, long legs and gold chains on her high heels spread across the floor was going to Shaoguan, her hometown, after working in Nanjing for a year. She stood and walked into the bathroom and left the door unlocked. Through a rattling crack in the door, I saw her patting her face dry and re-applying her makeup. And a boy from Fujian, on his fourth day of travel, coming down from Shenyang’s great northern waste, through central China, through the south, to Guangzhou and one stop further to Shenzhen. And I told them I was going to Guangzhou and they asked why I didn’t have a seat.
Between us, we divided a stock of tissue and newspaper and cigarettes. We stood together at the same time, the boy going to Hunan and the boy from Fujian and we walked to the space between the cars and one of us passed out cigarettes. We looked out the window and could only see highways or side roads lit with yellow lights. We blew smoke against the windows and stubbed our cigarettes out in the foldout ashtrays in the wall. We went back to sit on our newspaper rugs. The girl with gold chains on her high heels passed out oranges and we washed our hands over the garbage can with water poured from a Nongfu Springs bottle.
We fell asleep pressed together. The boy going to Hunan’s head tipped onto my shoulder and I tipped my head back against the rumbling plastic wall. I fell asleep and woke up and fell asleep again. Five or ten minutes of sleep at a time. Our legs spread out across the hallway and we were banged awake by midnight washroom visitors stepping over us. Our legs wove together in sleep. In the morning, when we stood for our first cigarettes, we were in Jiangxi, middle of nowhere, rolling past clusters of villages with skinny three and four story single family towers looking out over rice fields and dirt roads. Concrete towers rose in the middle of muddy green fields. We saw kids swimming naked in a drainage ditch. They looked up at our train as it passed. The day was hot but it seemed to be becoming cooler, wetter as the train headed south.
In the afternoon, the two girls from the night before were offered seats. They left. The boy going to Hunan received a text from his friend a few cars down. They had been split up boarding the train in Nanjing. He left. The boy from Fujian took off his shirt and sat in the metal cavern between the cars. There was no air conditioning there but it seemed to be cooler. He fell asleep against the wall.
I got back into the car and sat across from the boy from Fujian and we smoked from his pack of Hongtashan one after another and looked at each other through the smoke. He set the pack of cigarettes on the floor between us. I leaned against the wall and tried to sleep. The boy from Fujian laid on his back on the floor. I finally lay there, too, hopeless for comfort. The floor was covered in dust and ash and oil. Heat and exhaustion. The clack of railway passage turned into thick hypnagogic hallucinations the second I closed my eyes. I was asleep and awake. I was dreaming sometimes and sometimes not dreaming.
I woke up in Shaoguan. The train filled again. I sat against the wall. The pack of Hongtashan was empty. The boy from Fujian passed me a pack of Baisha. There were two cranes on the box. I stood and lit the cigarette and stared out the window. The landscape had become greener and wetter, flatter. It was late afternoon and hazy but almost cool after the heat of Shanghai. Somewhere south of Shaoguan, the train stopped. I stepped onto the platform. I bought another pack of Hongtashan and a bottle of green tea and a sausage wrapped in plastic.
The air smelled like flowers and stagnant ponds. The humid stink of the land covered the diesel and dust of the train yard. I didn’t know where I was, but I thought about leaving the train and walking out of the station. I was hungry and tired and I wanted to sleep. I ripped the plastic off the hard pack of Hongtashan. On the bottom of the pack was a sticker directing me to seek out the Nine Commentaries on the Communist Party. I got back on the train.
A pack of Shuangxi.
Tasting notes: prunes and licorice on the roof of the mouth and black pepper on the tonsils, followed by a thick exhalation that recalls pissing on campfire coals.
Other notes: a comparatively ancient brand, launched in the Qing, and nationalized by the Communist Party following Liberation. Popular in Guangzhou.
The first girl ran a finger down the bridge of my nose and pushed her thumb against my front teeth. The first girl was named Menghui.
We walked through the Friendship Store and the mustard smell of air conditioning hung around us. The cicadas’ buzz and the car horns broke up the patter of the girls in pearl pink headscarves hustling phone cards on the overpass and the hissing, accented Arabic of the moneychangers doing business with Syrian men in tight jeans and ballerina Pumas. We walked in the wake of African traders scraping long robes in the dust.
We walked through Haizhu Square and up Yide Lu and through the daily closing up of the markets and the daily wrapping up of everything in plastic tarps. We walked carefully behind men humping cardboard boxes on their hips.
We sat beside each other on Line Three.
I walked alone on Hanjing Lu with the Guangyuan Expressway thundering above me. There was a beer garden that was closed and there were plastic pools in the asphalt yard with fish splashing in them. Past the beer garden, the frogcall from the ponds was loud enough to be heard over the highway shush. This is where her dormitory was. Her dormitory was a grey building in a row of grey buildings. There were raised beds of dust in the courtyard, where students had once grown vegetables.
We walked from the Westin to Gangding and the computer superstore towers and the men waiting on the sidewalk with bundles of electronics, loading them into the trunks of grey Kias, and north past the last part of real Tianhe and the yellow and green tiled sidewalks and past the schoolyards and dormitories and east down Hanjing Lu. There were small fields below the street and irrigation ponds. There was the sound of frogs croaking. We went up the stairs that were lit by the cellphones and the cigarettes of girls in pyjamas. We went into her room and the door scraped across the floor. The room was empty, a bed and a mosquito net and a plastic and polyester dresser for her clothes. She brought me an empty jar to use as an ashtray and I lit a cigarette. She made me leave the room and she changed her clothes and put on a T-shirt and shorts. I flicked the cigarette down the hallway. I could see her nipples through her T-shirt and the hair under her arms and the poke of her hipbones and the V of ribcage below her flat chest.
I worked at night and usually walked to see her in the early afternoon. The last time I went to see her, I called and she didn't answer but I walked north from Shipaiqiao anyways. I reached the apartment block and walked through the dusty courtyard and then left and walked back under the Guangyuan Expressway. There were taxis parked along Hanjing. The Expressway blocked out the sun and the road was trafficless. At the university, I took the Metro north instead of south, got off at the bus terminal and, lost, walked north instead of south. I knew I was lost but I had nowhere to go and only stopped and turned south when I was in the green hilly suburbs and stretches of reclaimed village turned into government bureau land. Nobody noticed me. I walked south with the glass towers of Tianhe as my guide, past the Guangzhou Christian Cemetery, and picked up my regular route back, up Tianhe Lu and the underground trace of Line 3 from the university station to Gangding to Shipaiqiao to Tiyu Xi Lu.
A tricycle loaded with pineapple preskinned and carved, and apples wrapped in styrofoam nets. A busker playing guitar while standing on his head. I bought another pack of Shuangxi at Circle K and a pork cutlet sandwich at Queen's Bakery and walked through the dark ravine between the two towers of the Yangcheng Center, where men were hosing down the tiles. I sat on a cement bench and took my phone out. I watched the trash sorters on Huayang working along the leafy walls and iron fences and ate my lunch.
The second girl met me there. The second girl’s name was Bobo. She walked with me toward the Metro station and showed me a picture of herself on her phone. She was standing topless in her messy apartment bathroom. I saw the tiny washing machine standing in the corner, below the water heater, a row of shampoos and lotions, an empty and open Yonex bag, Her left arm was across her ribs, holding up her breasts. Her right leg was crossed over her left leg. The steam on the camera lens made her skin look like buttercream icing.
I shook a cigarette out of the pack and lit it. She made a face and stepped a few steps to the left. I told her, Go down and I'll be right there. I waited until she disappeared into the Metro entrance and walked past the entrance, crossed at the intersection and kept walking. My phone dinged. I walked south along Xiancun Road, tree-shaded sidewalks and a wide roads, a neighborhood of luxury condos and hotels, the Ritz and W., science-fiction architecture and the peeling facades of ‘90s boom. My phone vibrated in my pocket. I caught the Metro a few blocks down, transferred to Line 3 and rode to Panyu.
I took a mototaxi from Xiajiao, weaving the speed bumps on the wide roads around the wholesale markets. VIP Hotelex Wholesale Market had a red banner welcoming buyers to the Canton Fair. On the way home, I made eye contact with a girl riding another mototaxi. She was wearing a dress that looked like Wedgewood. She looked at me for a long time and my mototaxi driver sped up to run alongside her mototaxi. He shouted something at her in Cantonese that sounded like a joke. She smiled and tilted her head. When I got home, I climbed to the sixth floor, stopping on every landing, wrung out from the heat. From the unglassed landing window, I could see the green fields along the river. Each flight of stairs, gave me a better view, until I could see over the fields and over the river to the opposite shore and I could read the six story high signs stuck to the sides of the towers still under construction. I climbed the final flight, unlocked the door, went into my bedroom and felt the sweat chilling on my ribs. I sat on the cold windowsill and looked across the way at the wide-open windows of the building across the way. I watched my neighbors. An old man was sitting in a recliner, watching TV. A woman in pyjamas was hanging clothes to dry on a balcony. I lit a cigarette and smoked and ashed it on the floor and checked my phone.
A few stray Liqun, handed out by a man I meet while pretending to wait for something on a street corner.
Tasting notes: A peppery smoke with a pleasant whiff of mildew and diesel.
Other notes: A handsome red and gold box with consistently well-packed and clean-burning flue-cured tobacco. Product of Zhejiang.
Because I promise I will always run.
When I got to Shenzhen, I walked through the train station square. On the concrete ramps down to the streets of Luohu, women pulled at my arm and said: Massage, massage, young girl. I checked into a hotel on the fourteenth floor of a grey fortress towerblock near the Guo Mao Metro station. I asked for a room with a desk. I tried to write and couldn’t and there was a mirror above the desk and I stared at myself in the mirror. There was a knock on the door, a short girl with a pushed up Southern nose was there. I told her I didn’t need anything and I shut the door.
When it got dark, I went for a walk down Jiabin Road. Shenzhen seemed to be populated by young women, young women in skirts, always a cigarette between their fingers, and girls wrapped in pink crêpe paper rushing to sauna backdoors, ladies sitting in Xiangxi alleys on stools directing men up to other ladies in the apartments above.
In the morning, I kept running, running past the men in the broken down mall with dollies loaded with milk powder and the passport stamp and over the Shenzhen River seen through Plexiglass polished hourly by Filipina women with bottles of Windex. In the no man’s land beyond the border, where water buffalo wallow beside Kubota tractors in lush drainage ditches, I feel the weight of everything lifting. I feel the dry blasts of air conditioning from Chow Tai Fook and the watch the rustled skirts of the doorways girls. I breathe the perfume of dried scallops and Burger King. I end up in Wan Chai. There is no sky but only dull stucco and streaky windows with houseplants and bedding.
I stayed at a love hotel above a Filipino grocery store. There were mirrors on the walls and on the ceiling. There was no bathroom. The room was to fuck in and get out. The door didn’t have a lock. Out the window, I could watch the rugby jerseys, the salarymen, and the Filipina girls stilting up Lockhart Road between New Makati and WILD CAT, gold lamé bikini tops, crooked brown legs, tapping the bottom of a pack of Lucky Strike Menthol Lights.
I ate my first meal of pork chops and macaroni and lemon Coke from a cafeteria up the block. I cleaned the layer of congealed fat off my spoon between my lips. I stared out the big window into the crowded street. I watched the girls lined up at a food stall across the street in hospital-blue school uniforms and period drama heroine hairstyles taking gasps of curry steam mixed with tropical winter night humidity.
I thought Hong Kong seemed like the perfect place to disappear completely or start over or something else. I’m not sure.
When I returned to my room that night, I lay on the bed and listened to people fucking. I spread myself as flat as I could on the bed, so that I could not see myself in the mirrors on the walls. I couldn’t sleep and I went out again and stood on Lockhart Road and watched the girls walk past.
Dan met me when I got back to Guangzhou and we spent the night in a rundown massage parlor in Haizhu, took handfuls of complimentary cigarettes from the front desk, lay on recliners in our pyjamas. There was a TV showing Tyson-Tucker, 1987. We had talked before about going to Huizhou, maybe hitchhiking there. Our friend Wang San had hitchhiked south and east from Xinjiang that summer and visited us in Guangzhou. We’d followed him to the edge of the city and waited with him until he took a ride going north to Hunan. We took the Metro to Panyu and filled a backpack with bottles of Vitamin Water and seven packs of Zhongnanhai. We took the Metro to Xinyuancun and walked and caught a taxi toward the G4 interchange. We stood on the side of the road for an hour and smoked cigarettes and then gave up and took a taxi back to Xinyuancun and the Metro back to the bus depot and a Sprinter van to Huizhou. We chose the first bus leaving the depot at Huizhou. The minibus was leaving in ten minutes.
I fell asleep as we left Huizhou, face against the back of the seat, curled into myself. I woke up as we pulled down front street in a summertime resort town. There were hotels under construction and a sign for a nature preserve and a hot springs. The shops along the main road set up for tourist trade, wooden baubles and Hakka specialties. I wasn’t sure where we were. I might have noted the name of the village or the name of one of the hotels but I’ve forgotten them now. When we got off the bus, a kid riding a bike with no chain rolled down the hill towards us. He was wearing a school uniform, a plastic windbreaker and dark blue trackpants, hair cut in rows of asymmetrical spikes, sucking a mouthful of hard candy. We followed him as he kickpaddled his way back up the hill on his bike. The stores along the only street in the village were mostly untended. The stores sold woodcraft and there were mesh bags of thumblong green and gold and brown and black wasps. The village felt empty. The village was empty. There was a grey institutional building at the end of the street. There was a red star on the building. In front of the building, there was a fountain, turned off, and a drained concrete pool. There were stone benches around the pool. We sat for a while on a bench and smoked Zhongnanhai. There was nothing in the village. We had made the trip for no reason. I want to make that clear.
In the afternoon, we stretched out on the benches and went to sleep. It was early in the morning, when we woke up. We walked out of the village and down the highway. There were no cars. The highway had two lanes. The highway twisted around mountains and went down into valleys and on both sides there was thick forest and occasional offshoot roads with signs for scenic lookouts or mountain hot springs. A truck passed, a pickup truck with a steel cage on the back with pigs in it. We waved to it but it didn’t slow down. I had no idea where we were. We came to a junction and a small town. I forget the name of the town. We sat in a park surrounded by beige apartment blocks. We walked down the street and found a bus depot. There were six buses in a mud parking lot. We found one leaving for Huizhou, already half full. We bought a ticket and sat in the back.