At late-afternoon, the Dark Pearl club was hardly a busy place. With the lights in fact on, and the stage cleared it was hardly the night club it would be later in the night. Many of the expensive drinks on offer found themselves hidden behind curtains. The air was heavy with the smell of lunch than the cheap alcohol of late night. At mid-day, the function of the club was much more like that of a noodle house. Tucked down an alley down side streets branching off Pushan Road, across the Pengyu Pu it was more a gathering spot for those in the know. By day the clientele were local workers on the trolleys, or the textile workers finding time to step out of their apartments for cheap noodles and a break from the looms. Cigarette smoke interwove itself with the smell of spice and broth, the slap of lips with light conversation. The brushing of sandals and tennis shoes on the concrete floor marking the coming and going of the mid-day patrons.
Standing at the bar, Hou Tsun ate his late lunch. He leaned arm against the gummy wood, leveraging long wet white noodles into his mouth with one hand, and holding up a newspaper with another. With half-hearted interest he searched the pages, reading the headlines and half the content of the articles. He read about fighting in India, sudden opportunistic pushes by Japan in Indonesia to take advantage of British struggles in India. But in the end none of it coming to any decisive shift. It was all delegated to the middle of the papers.
Bored, he turned the pages and began to search with much more interest the classifieds. He read with much heavier interest the calls for warehousing workers for the ports and the railroads, comparing the rates of pay and hours posted: forty hours a week, part time; sixty hours a week full time and so on. Shop keepers in Changning and Putuo looking for someone to work ten hours a week to perform regular paper work. Calls for house keepers for across the Bund. A new law office had opened and was searching for junior associates. A doctor's office in search of nurses. The factories on Chongming were always looking, posting union affiliated positions. He considered his possibilities, weighing them out, and what he might be able to get away with.
“Enjoying yourself?” a voice asked. Tsun looked away from his paper to see a large burly figure walk over. He recognized the balding bouncer of the club, a thick dark skinned migrant from Hainan. “I'm doing find, Chiaw De.” Tsun said, “what about you?”
“Sore, from last night. There was quiet the fight. Why weren't you there?”
“I was tired.” Tsun turned away for a moment to slurp up some noodles, “Besides, I'm between work.” he added nonchalantly.
“Oh, did you turn away from the warehouse?”
“More like they turned away from me.” he said, laughing, “I guess they finally realized who I'm related to.”
“That's a shame.” De laughed, lightly punching his shoulder, “There's plenty of jobs open right now anyways. At least from what I heard.”
“Mhmm...” Tsun responded, his interest detached as he searched the job offerings more intensely. “That's what they say.” he added, although he did not believe he could believe it. There were posts everywhere but none of them all that good. Compared to his last job, he would have to take a knock of several thousand yuan off his pay, and realized he'd have to go through another chain of gang bosses to get hired, it was always the unspoken factor. There were enough prospects, but they were demoralizing in their breadth and number. He felt his gut sink, and thought about leaving the city. Perhaps he would go home to Tianjin, or head overseas; there was always opportunity in the tongs of Malaysia.
“If it helps, I know guys in the unions. I can put a good word in.” Chiaw De consoled.
“Thanks.” said Tsun.
“I'm sure perhaps they would be excited to have a more direct line to the Party President.” he laughed.
“No, I don't want to be held up to him. I'm trying it on my own.” Tsun knew it would be easy to get anywhere by dropping his dad's name in the right place. But it was just easier to never name him. He'd give his name as Tsun David before Hou Tsun. It felt dirty, otherwise.
“It's hard work to find hard work, I get it. You probably don't want to really fight half the guys you got to.”
“How could you tell?”
“Your face is all tense, twisted. I know none of them are really good. For a peasant out of the country: sure. But I know you: you've been here too long. None of them are the golden goose.”
“You got that right,” Tsun laughed, “Perhaps I should have just stayed in the north.”
“There's going to be shows here this weekend though, I'd expect you to be on the lists. But you're not: I take it you don't need the money right now?”
“No, my dad's in town this weekend and I'm going to see him.”
“Oh yes, I know now.”
“Next weekend, perhaps. I'm working new material.”
“Oh good.” De smiled, but he was summoned by someone down the bar and he left Tsun to stew for a bit. He finished the classifieds and gave a dissatisfied snort, thinking he would go back over them later and stuck it in the back of his jeans. He turned to his noodles again, and began to think about the limbo he was in. He had enough money saved up for a month or two – so De was right: he didn't need money explicitly, there was no emergency, and if it came to it he could write home and borrow some for a third. But it still made him feel cut off and precarious. The thought made him feel uneasy.
But as quick as De had left to work some other customer, and no sooner he had turned back to his noodles a presence move up alongside, touching Tsun on his shoulder. He felt suddenly cold and spooked, turning on his heels to see who it was. Next to him at the counter came a sinewy man, his short cut hair laid low across his head with grease giving him a sharkish face. He smiled wide at Tsun behind large wide framed glasses. “Good afternoon, David Tsun I'm to presume?” he asked in a friendly cool voice.
“Yes.” he answered, looking the man up and down. Seeing his nice shoes on his feet, the well pressed cropped pants and the way he tucked in his crisp shirt. He stood with the poise of a well kept professional, and his appearance in a place like this struck Tsun's curiosity. A man such as this should be at the Bund, not the hide away of neighborhood spinners, weavers, and trolley workers. In his nature, he could only inspire suspicion here.
“Nice to meet you,” the well-dressed man said, holding out his hand to take a hand shake. Hou Tsun paused in accepting the offer, nervously raising his own in response. Though his new bar partner was clearly Chinese, he behaved in a very American fashion. He had an unreserved loudness associated with American tourists. The sort who might linger in a club when they learn a man named “David” was on the roster and wanted to see what the occasion was. “I couldn't help over hear your conversation earlier.” he said with unbroken stride, “I'm sorry if that's rude. But it's quite hard not to do. Anyways, you're looking for work? You are between jobs?”
Tsun thought for a moment, and then saying with a slow nod, “Yes. I guess.”
“Oh, excellent. Listen, I represent talent – by the way by name is Liao Han, Liao Charlie Han I'm sorry I didn't say so before – but I represent talent on the South Side. I've caught a few of your acts, and I would like to introduce you to my boss.”
“South? That's not music though, why would you think I would want to go to the South Side. If you're looking for a musician I should be crossing the Bund.”
The man laughed, “I know, but what's not to say you'll cross the Bund after this. I'm just looking for men with good and intriguing looks, and you got that and talent to go with it. My boss might be able to work with that. He's looking to expand his family after all.”
Tsun took on a few more noodles, and thought. The offer was intriguing, but very sudden. Taken by the surprise he wasn't hesitant to answer. But: south-side, the film studios? What might they want with them. He always figured they haunted the theaters and photographic journals looking for models. “So, you mean: movies?” he asked.
“Yes, sorry. I didn't quiet explain the project: yes I'm looking for people to be in a movie. Our family you see is, well, not quiet to scope for it. We're looking for someones to fill a few bits here and there. Upwards of a hundred fifty thousand yuan for the season, perhaps. It depends on how things work themselves out.”
“So...” Tsun paused, “an audition?”
Liao nodded, “Beginning this weekend.”
“I'm sorry, I have obligations this weekend.”
“It's not that big of a deal, really. They'll be going for the next few months as we look for people. Come by any time.” he reached into his breast pocket and produced a stiff business card. Tsun took it. “Liao Han – assistant talent director. Team Guo Yue-Huang. Pudong, Shanghai. 200051 Qiantan Blvd.”
“Are you familiar?”
“I've seen a few of his movies.”
“Oh yes, what are your favorites?”
“I'm not much of a fan for the wizards and sages and magic shit,” Tsun said, laughing uncomfortably, “But I figure The Darkest House was alright.”
“He is I believe going to be a pioneer in Chinese film making.” Liao Han said with a smile, shining his nails on his shirt, “By the way, my number is on the back. But: I do believe he is a pioneer. He's eclectic, sure, and doesn't have quiet the capital as some others do especially those in Hong Kong, but he hit upon a script that we're all excited about. This is going to be our break. And you would be lucky enough to get in on the ground floor of this if you are accepted. And for hundred-fifty: not a bad bet even if it doesn't go north.”
“What'd happen if it does?”
“Honorable Yue-Huang has a habit of seeing success bonuses are handed out to all in the family.” Han smiled.
“Well, it is not like I have much going on.” Tsun said, pocketing the card, “I'll see when I can make it.”
“Excellent!” Liao Han cheered, clapping his hand on the bar. His cheer attracted the subdued surprise and scorn of the patrons, “Auditions however will be ending by the middle of next month. So don't wait too long, your coming weekend obligations aside. I would be incredibly upset if you did not show.” he smiled, peeling away from the counter and checking his watch, “But I must go now. I hope to see you again.”
“Well why don't you look at that, a job came to you.” De said, returning, “Are you going to take it?”
“I might. I have a few weeks to think about it.”
“I think you should, it'd suit you. What can you lose?”
Draped in dark wood trappings and muted blue wall paper, the president's office was as executive suite was. It was trimmed up with the trappings of state, bunted along the ceiling with the rich blue flag of the Republic and the unofficial Flag of the Five Races. Portraits of Sun Yat-Sen, Yuan Shikai, Chiang Kai-Shek, as well as the other leading heads of state in those moments between and since hung from the wall. The room was dominated at one end by a large teak desk, raised off the floor by a miniature platform, its chair stood higher. The wall behind was dominated by large French windows, bordered by rich blue curtains. It was raining today, rain pelted the windows, shimmering with the light thrown by street lamps and the office lights. Li Su sat reclined at the desk chair, pushing himself back and forth with a leg, hands were clasped over his chest, a dour and detached look on his face. Behind him there was set up a wooden easel and portfolio brief. His desk had been cleared of paperwork and it was organized into folders and books arrayed at the edge of the desk or hidden in the number of cavernous drawers within it. State ministers were coming in now, taking comfortable positions at the plush dark leather sofas and armchairs that filled the middle of the room. Around the edges between cabinets of the president's personal effects and war memorabilia sat smaller cafe style tables where others sat in high bar-styled stools. TV Soong stood by the side of the room, next to a door through which was a personal room that Su had set aside for martial arts and meditation. The vice president himself was speaking to the foreign ambassador from Burma, a squat round headed man from Rangoon by the name of Sein Bien.
The room filled with the chatter and Li Su prepared himself for it to begin. He watched the door as the last of them arrived, most of all importance the British ambassador, Edward. Li Su greeted his arrival privately with bottled annoyance but relief. He carried a brief case under his arm to an armchair which was hurriedly abandoned for him to use. The door was closed behind him by security. Taking his seat he said nervously, “Sorry for the late arrival, Mr President, but I was caught up in traffic.”
“Would you like some tea?” the president asked.
“Oh, yes please.” Edward said, a little absently, “Thank you.”
Li Su gave a hand signal. A man in the corner of the room rose to his feet and rushed out the tall wood doors to fetch the order. “While we wait: we should begin.” the president said in a low tone, “Mr Soong, could you open us?”
“My pleasure.” he said, stepping into the middle of the room, “We're here today to open preliminary discussions over the partial reopening of, and expansion of the Burmese Road. In case none here are aware, the road was opened in the course of our war with Japan to allow the resupply of our forces by the British from India into South-west China. Since then, much of the original course has fallen into ruin and faded from use. Pertaining to the still ongoing conflict with the Japanese, it was determined by Xiu Lu and Ambassador Edward Grensill to be a subject of economic and strategic importance for the mutual survival of the economies of either of our nations. We seek to, through ambassador U Sein Bien determine the best possible course of action as it applies to his nation of Burma as much as it is an act of committed economic and political partnership with the British and the Federation.”
“Let me also add,” Li Su said loudly from his platform over his vice president, “That the completion of this project would allow and alternative route that would skirt around the naval battlefield of South East Asia and the South West Pacific in the Japanese persecution of war against the English and the Dutch. Though submarine attacks on civilian vessels are few and far between there have been moments where vessels under the flag of the British and Dutch were sunk by Japanese patrols. To date, only one other neutral ship has been torpedoed, that being a cargo freighter under the French flag. While I still commit to China a policy of neutrality in this conflict, with a commitment of only self defense should we be attacked, I can not and will not permit putting Chinese property, capital, and lives in danger casually. It benefits the Chinese state to continue free trade with her allies, and I take the threat of Japanese patrols against neutral ships very seriously. Since being informed by Xiu Lu of this plan, I feel that it would be a useful allocation of Chinese – and British – resources to blaze a new path for the resupply of her overseas friends. A clear and speedy path through Burma, clear of any conflict, would be the safest course to make.
“Today we are merely drafting the presidential proposal to submit to congress. But we have here with us the president of the Congress, Xiaogang Wen who has himself a proposal from the Congressional Developmeent Committee. But in the tradition of hospitality we have two guests among us today. I will let Ambassador Bien and Ambassador Grensil go first. Mr. Bien, do you mind?”
Sein Bien smiled politely and fidgeted with the sleeves of his jacket. He wore a olive green military dress uniform, decorated with his ribbons and his rank. “Thank you Mr President.” he responded deferentially, “It would be my honor. But, I would rather cede my turn to Mr Grensil, thank you.”
Li Su nodded and turned to Edward Grensil who cleared his throat, and rose gently. “Thank you, Mr Bien.” he said with a polite bow, “Now, Mr President, if I may present the plan from the Foreign Office?” he asked, pulling out from his briefcase a map of Burma, on which the British plans were drawn. Li Su leaned up over the desk and took them, before putting them on the easel to be viewed.
The map was revealed to the room as it was set up. Two red lines intersected over Burma, completing the image of the country as a kite. “My government believes the most capable action is to entirely restore, and expand the old Burma road from Leto to Wanming, and to run a new line from the middle at Myitkyina south towards Rangoon, following the course of the Irrawaddy valley. The government in London would be willing to pay for the reconstruction of the India side of the project, and up to one-third of the north-south corridor with state funds.
“The reason the Foreign Office believes that it would of an advantage to also restore the Indian side of the road is for the relief of British private parties from India. Those of the civilian sort for evacuation from the sub-continent. It would not need to be a path laid with rail or entirely refurbished for long term modern usage, as its goal is to be a relief valve from the Indian conflict zone. In any time of peace to come, the route may be upgraded for commercial use from India to China or to Rangoon. The Federation undersecretary is sensitive of the regional diplomatic situation, but urges this to be a promise of the near future.”
“If I may,” Ambassador Bien interjected, “The British proposal is similar to our own. Though our government had not made any thoughts to expand anything all of the way into India. May I?”
Li Su nooded, and U Sein Bien came forward, producing his own map of the country with his own people's plans. It was placed over the British plan. “With a mind towards the advantage of following the Irrawaddy,” Sein began, stepping aside to reveal his map of Burma, “We can construct a powerful trunk for commerce to flow from China in the north to Rangoon in the South. The republic which I represent also offers the chance to expand the plan, and to ask to commission the refitting and modernization of old British railways in the area to serve as branch-lines to what the Internal Development Ministry dubbed the Irrawaddy Main Line.” he held out his hand to draw attention to the map of Burma. Branching off from the heavy red line that snaked gently through the city of Myitkyina in the north from the mountain border with China, along the course of the Irrawady to Rangoon in the south, a half dozen of smaller rail roads branched off into the highlands of the country's frontiers, “For several years the government has talked about and considered development of the nation's upper regions for development of capital extraction in the highlands which has been thus far stymied by the lack of commercial development, and the rapidly deteriorating Anglo development of the country. Since our independence, we have not been able to keep up, and through our recent civil wars it has been impossible to keep it all. But now under cease fire, we believe we have the opportunity to request foreign investment to expand and revive the old commercial networks to build a robust, centralized economic corridor through the country that may buy us peace in the future.”
Seeming to rise unnoticed from the sofa in the middle of the room to borrow some attention, Xiaogang Wen spoke, taking a moment to adjust his glasses higher up his broad nose. “I'm sorry, Mr President: but if I may?” he asked, half rising from the seat with a pale hand raised in the air. Li Su addressed him with a soft nod and the speaker for Congress spoke: “I'm happy to see that so far our two guests have had the same core idea as the Development Committee's proposal, independent of one another. This makes things easy. But for the sake of completion can I simply present our own?”
“Go ahead.” the president said.
“Very well, thank you.” Wen said. He motioned to the corner of the room where a congressional aid stepped forward, and placing over the previous two plans added a much simpler plan over all. Following much of the old supply road from the war, the simple core of a main rail road headed south, following generally the Irrawaddy valley to Rangoon existed. There was no other pleasantries. “The proposal of the committee was to take the purest aspect of the proposal to heart. Simply, if the project is to allow for commercial trade with Britain and their allies easier and to avoid the bulk of Japanese activities, then it is a direct route to Rangoon that recycles much of the old war-time supply route. The advantages will of course be that the plan would save considerable money, reusing much of the existing railway stocks left over. If I am correct on that.” he stopped to look at Sein Bien for confirmation.
“Yes, you're correct.” the ambassador confirmed.
“I can say in full confidence this is more or less the plan that this office has come up with as well.” TV Soong confirmed dryly, referring to the presidency and its ministries, “So I don't see any reason to bring up our own plan. Do you agree, Mr President.”
“I agree, let's keep things efficient.” said Li Su, “Mr Xiaogang I think we agree entirely in principle and goal. I'll concede our plan to yours. Their one of the same.”
“Thank you Mr President.”
“So we have the courses we can take. But what has to be said now is what is the better course. Edward, you offered capital investment from the British for the project, what would you government offer were we to drop the Ledo route?”
“If I recall it'd only be a twenty-five percent capital offer. We appraised our plan at roughly four-million pounds given the condition of the environment that we can ascertain at short notice. We would be able to find and allocate over a million pounds towards construction of this route.”
Li Su stole a glance to TV Soong at his side. The vice president was however motionless and hard to read, “You are certain that the British offer would not spill the war out into the general region?” he asked.
“I am certain. I do not believe that I am in any position to discuss any military plans with anyone in regards to Ledo. I have been told to say that there is a project underway to discuss with the rebel armies in India measures to protect civilians. A route out of India through Burma and beyond would make for a safer and structured way from India.”
“Pray tell: what do the British plan to do with the refugees already in Burma?” the Burmese ambassador asserted, “Every day thousands more cross the border from Bengal into out countryside. Will you help up remove them to your territory, or the Federation in general under this proposal?”
“Well, I'm afraid this would depend on where these refugees are at.” Edward responded rather nervously, “I am again only under the ability to present the Ledo plan. If there's any intention to expand anything else, it's between you and the Chinese.”
“Whatever the British might offer, I am authorized to announced Rangoon would be willing to find loans for a million or more as well to simply expand the network. If it is necessary, I can contact my superiors for a change of plan to accommodate. You, Mr President sir won't have to see the network reach to India. But probably we can have it make it half way into the Kachin or Naga Hills.”
“Are you going to recommend the two of us negotiate further on this?” Edward asked, a stunned shock peaked in his voice which was not unmet by Bien.
“Yes. Does the Foreign Office not want to recognize the fault it has in forcing so many Bengali Kala into our borders?”
“Mr Bien, sir.” TV Soong spoke up, “We will not be litigating the ongoing crises in India here.” Li Su nodded, “If I can direct you to the point: the proposed railroad.”
Bien smiled, and sighing turned away from Edward and bowed, “I'm sorry.”
“Mr Ambassador Bien,” Xiogang Wen said, reclining back in his sofa, “If I may ask – and could we perhaps look at the Burmese plan please, Mr President” Li Su leaned over and removed the simple Congressional plan to show the Burmese proposal for the road, “Thank you – but if I can ask what the purpose is of the branches spun off from the main line is?”
“Simply put, our government would like to lay new or upgraded lines to our most promising regions in upper Burma. The region is marked for its under-development but possess considerable promise in the nation as being resource rich if only we can deploy labor and bring materials to market.” sighing he looked momentarily to Edward and back up to Li Su, “Access to these raw deposits would be available to British and Chinese firms alike were it permitted to reach market. But trapped as they are underground and in inaccessible hills and valleys, the vast fortunes of wealth stored there, wealth that can build a nation, remain out of reached. The Kachin Hills are rich in storied supplies of jade. Shan State has been prospected and developed for the extraction of further metals, but the government now can not simply acquire these materials in recent years for lack of infrastructure. For lack of development, the prospect of development there holds the country back. We can not develop in peace if we do not first gain access and logistics for these commodities. I trust you understand this, Mr. President, Mr Xiogang and Soong.”
“May I ask what contributions the government is willing to make?” Soong asked Bien.
“We will need to apply for loans. But we believe we can get some million or more to offer. If it's possible, perhaps some other financing can be allocated.”
“What about the conditions of your ceasefires?” the President asked, leaning in.
“It has been a year at the least of no sustained engagement.” Bien Sein said, “But our government is responsible for further development of the affected state were this to be a true peace.”
Edward spoke up, shifting in his seat, “If you do not mind me asking where do these branch lines go?”
“At the furthest south is a line that has been proposed to Sittwe, which would come from Rangoon. Further north is a proposed branch from Katha to Lashio, it perhaps even be an alternative route into Burma from China, with a future extension from Lashio into China.”
“Into Kunming, I believe.” Xiogang Wen added, he idly scratched at his chin, but his eyes were bright with attention none the less. From the corner of his eye, Li Su caught Soong look up at him and then away.
“On pure speculation on the mineral deposits – and this speaks to Edward's interests in development in the direction of Ledo – is expansion of the rail to the upper Chindwin river valley. Here commercial and industrial freight would create a beach head into the upper jade country. The government would also like a spur from Mandalay to Kalay on the western frontier with India.”
There was a period of silence and thought, broken by Wen asking, “What is the supposed value of the material in these regions?”
“It could be worth billions on a long enough time line.” said Bien Sein.
“Billions that can only be access once development can be done.” TV Soong said, “Suppose there is nothing there, then what?”
“These branch lines don't need to be intensive. All the government is asking for is the logistics to deploy equipment and technicians into these regions to do the exploration. They may even come after the main project.”
TV Soong considered it for a moment, and then rose. “Mr President, if we can talk for a minute in private.
Li Su looked over and nodded. “Let's have a break for a couple minutes.” he said, following Soong through the side door.
Su's private training room was sparse, decorated with a few hanging scrolls of the antique and even modern sort. A bamboo mat covered the floor, with training dummies abound. A single chair was placed by the window. In all it was a small room, serving mostly as a liminal space between private apartments and the working and ceremonial office of the president.
“Are you thinking it might be used for them to deploy their own troops?” Li Su asked, thinking about the Burma railroads
TV Soong was silent for a few long seconds, “Possibly.” he said quietly, “The value in the region feels inflated though.”
“But he could be right on that.”
“If these projects were financed however it would be impossible for us to keep them from being used for military purposes. It is their infrastructure.” Li Su pointed out.
“I agree. But suppose we offered our own technical assistance in that front. We can hold our skills against them in the event of the war. But I don't want to put us on the financial hook for a speculative failure at the least.”
“So, what do you have in mind, money man?”
Again falling into silence, Soong considered his options, “Xiogang Wen might approve of this: but we put up the Chinese support as stock supported. If we go in and it passes congress we sell most of our commitment as futures and organize it in bonds and stocks supported on the value the project accumulates over a five and ten year period. After that period, the holdings are valued at the commercial value of the road and they can sell, or the company joined to it can pay dividends on it. We do a pretty basic public ownership model that way. We put down some state money ourselves to start it. From Bien Sein's model we can adopt the British position and have a bulk of the project paid for. Aside from any emergency funds, our government's stake is minimal.”
Li Su considered it, and nodded, “I can keep it closer if I buy as much as I can in my son's name.”
“Classic.” Soong smirked.
“Quiet, we're agreed?”
“So we might have gotten everyone in. Let's go.”
Turning on their heels the two re-entered the room. Immediately low chatter ended as the two came in and the president took his seat, “We have some questions over financing...”