February 3, 1944
While the war had just settled, the scars still remained. Sitting on a stool in a far back corner of the small single-room noodle cafe in the city of Guangzhou. Outside rain pattered against the windows as tired men with drooping soldiers strolled inside. The air smelled of wet straw and the smell of noodles cooking over a large fire next to the small boy.
He sat with an arm curled up against his chest, and a foot twisted on the narrow edge he left to it on his stool. The youth, not much older than ten had much the same scars of war as the men filing into this room. The hand tucked into his chest was mangled, missing several fingers from a bomb. His foot had twisted and never healed right when he had ran into and fell into a crater made from a mortar shell hidden in high weeds in the hills. The site of the young boy was grave. As he sat the old woman cooking the noddles occasionally passed a small cube of grilled chicken to him, which he took in greedy hands and stuffed into his mouth, afraid as if any of the guests stepping in would catch him and become jealous.
He was a wild haired child. He had the figure of a child who was once wild, but the grave depth and shadows under his eyes had long dampened his youthful energy. He had been suffering nightmare for the passed several months and had not slept. Even as the men spoke of peace as the Party of Hou took control of China a squirming part of his soul had not heard the news and each time there was a loud noise turned and twisted, making the child jump whenever a door slammed too loud, or the thunder cracked over head. He twisted about to run even whenever the floor boards cracked, or there was the sound of foot falls in cobbled alley ways, when a twig snapped or the wind howled through the cracks just right and imitated the sound of a passing shell.
Had he been older, he mad have been able to come to understand and articulate that it was only after the war these feeling emerged. When the chaos that had been his normal subsided and the first routines of permanent peace took hold. He was not used to living in comfort. He had only lived in terror and fear. And mundane events as happening before his eyes represented an alienating disconnect between the then and the now. The adults, and the older men and women could grasp the difference, they had not been on the front lines between China and Japan their whole lives as he, their entire consciousness was not melded in the three-way contest between Communist, Nationalist, and Japanese.
As the last of the locals packed into the small cafe a tall lanky man in a black double breasted shirt and red trousers went to the door, and pulling a heavy beam across the door locked it. The room was full of quiet, patient murmurings as things organized themselves. Volunteers produced themselves from the crowd and went up to the old woman. The youth watched them warily out of the corner of his eyes as they took as many bowls as they could hold and each filled with noodles. They rotated through the crowd passing out bowls of hot dinner.
When the men and women of the meeting were settled with their bowls an orange robbed figure rose from their midst. He would have been otherwise hard to miss among the crowd of muted and dirty colors, the saffron orange of his monk vestments burned like the light of the sun among the depressed pallet of the urban workers assembled. But among the regulars, including that of the youth his presence was so innocuous that the monk among them was almost invisible. He was treated without ritual, as he would have preferred.
With a long white beard in contradiction to his bowling ball bald head he was quickly become an ancient man in association from many of the others here. His back was bent, and even at a distance the deep lines in his face were plainly visible in his dark splotchy face. He was small, but even so he commanded the presence of a man many times his height and his simply standing up commanded the silence of all those in the room. Soon the muffled chatter of the tavern fell silent with only the faint subdued eating of noodles.
Reaching into his robes, the old monk produced a large poster he had rolled up. The torn edges suggested he had liberated it straight from a telephone pole in the city center. Its white trim around stark blood-red field indicated its author, the Communists. Its size spoke of its purpose, a proclamation. And its plain language spoke to its purpose.
“By Order of the Standing Transitional Committee of China, the Party of New China is proud to declare the end of fighting and issues the following standing orders across the nation!” the monk read in an unexpectedly loud tone. He brought total silence to the room, it felt as if time had frozen completely and only he was the only thing that moved at its center.
“Matter 1: For compliance with the transitional authority, all local municipalities not presently governed by the Chinese Revolutionary Army dissolve their present governments for assumption of selected authorities to oversee the process of New Nationalism.” the monk read, “Matter 2: That civilian organizations not already registered to the Party Office of External Affairs register themselves with the State, or disband. Matter 3: That private companies in operation in the claimed Chinese territories disband private ownership for transition to State operation. Matter 4: The private individuals and communities submit to a region wide census of material and people in compliance to a State Inventory of industrial, agricultural, and other material assets in interest of and welfare of The State. Matter 5: Foreign churches operating within China are to disband, its foreign missionaries to return to their home. Compliance will be ensured.
“These Five Matters are issued thus.”
The room rang with excited chatter. The sudden chaos of the noise caused the youth to recoil reflexively, throwing up his hands to guard his face. The old woman next to him was the only one to take notice of his discomfort and laid a gentle hand on his shoulders and gave him a comforting squeeze. His breathing shuddered, and the torrent of noise faded away, the Buddhist Monk regaining control.
“I know this isn't good.” he said, “But that's why we're here. That's why we're always here.” he reminded him, “Does anyone want to take up the floor?”
There were soft murmurings from among the attendees. Then one stood up. The young man lowered his arms and slowly lifted his face to continue following the proceedings. “This ban on civilians meetings and organizations, it's basically a ban on meetings is it?” he asked.
“I'm not sure but it sounds like it.” the monk said.
“This isn't much better than under the Guomintang.” the other man spat. He carried a weight of betrayal on his shoulders. His heart had been stabbed and he declared it boldly on his voice.
“Then what do you expect to do?” someone in the crowd asked, “Go and fight? Chun Lo we have been doing that now for nearly twenty year! How much longer can we go on.”
“And what am I supposed to do? I have my pride, I have my principles. I wished to see a freer world, and this is what we get today? Something no better than what we had under the Generalissimo?” he was referring to Chiang Kai Shek. His name still sent ripples of fear and paranoia among them. Though he was rumored to have been killed in the course of battle, invoking his name was like invoking the state police and inviting them to come down on them. While they were never very effective, fighting the Communists and Japanese both equally hard took away many resources from suppressing the numerous far-left groups in southern China.
“You will have to let it go. If you are to fight, then please give yourself some rest.” a woman pleaded, “I have lost too many sons, too many brothers to this fighting. We have our peace now. Can we get at least a year of no more war?”
There were murmurs of silent approval. The general opinion of his peers though did not set well with the man so eager to fight. “Wai Ling Ho, open the door. I want to leave!” the man said, clearly enraged beyond tolerance.
“As you will.” a soft voice said, resigned. The board shutting the noddle house's door was lifted, unlocking the door and the man stormed out into the gray rain.
As the door was shut behind him a pervasive and sad silence hung over everyone's heads. “I will miss him.” someone said, resigned, “Before he does anything rash, before it is too late for him I hope he will come to his senses.”
Everyone nodded. Some whispered in agreement.
“If we are not to fight, then are we surrendering?”
“No!” someone declared, “If we do surrender, then the dream for freedom will be for naught. If I may suggest: we resist. But in our own ways. We have through the entire war survived and resisted Nanjing and Tokyo with our own networks, we never had to rely on them for our needs, our wants. We should maintain them, surrender nothing to Beijing. But, we will not fight them with gun or sword.”
“I agree, brother. But for how long?” a young woman asked, tense and fearful.
“How ever long it will take to have liberty. One month, a year, a hundred. Until the sun sets on the dynasty of Hou. However long it will need to be until the authority of the state is diminished and the people inoculated. All is for all, let us know no negative freedom.”
There were resounding calls of agreement, and people began to rise in their chairs. As the fervor rose they all began to sing. They began to sing songs the Americans taught them. What the men who called themselves the Wobblies taught them.
“In the gloom of mighty cities
mid the roar of whirling wheels
we are toiling on like chattel slaves of old,
and our masters hope to keep us
ever thus beneath their heels
and to coining our very life blood into gold.”
May 25nd, 1960
It was three in the afternoon and Lo Bai Shun sat at his drawing desk, a lamp directed down on the starchy white paper he was working with and a jar full of pencils, pens, and markers off to the side. A few pensive lines had been put to paper, but nothing much had been done. Interest had been lost in the project, and had been lost for the passed forty-five minutes. Caught in the terrifying clutch of his imagination Lo Bai shuddered as it gently stirred the silt and clouded the waters of his imaginations with bitter tasting memories.
He starred out the window a foot from his desk, it was opened wide letting in the warm spring air as it swept off the ocean that shimmered just beyond the law-ground flats at the base of the mountain. At the top floor of a three-story apartment block in the hills in the mountains of Hong Kong. The fresh spring air was doing little to calm him, and despite it being in the mid 20's Celsius he was sweating as if it were two times hotter. He brushed his brow with his war mangled hand and pushed back from the drawing desk.
His apartment was small and sparsely furnished. A studio apartment. Apart from the writing desk he used for drawing he had a dresser with six changes of clothes, a bed barely big enough for one and a half persons, and a sink and toilet that would be out in the open if it were not for the curtain the surrounded both. He had another sink and a small counter-top, ostensibly for cooking but he had no appliances or means to cook let alone store anything apart from a bowl of fruit or a bread-stocked bread box. Every surface available was covered with books and sheets of paper, organized into folders and numbered in a sequence. He had portfolios dating back to 1951 when he had begun doodling simple comic strips in charcoal; much of them had rubbed thin but he had managed to find a few unworn and getting the remaining charcoal bonded to the paper managed to save his early works, these he kept in a folder under his clothes in the small dresser. He also had a notebook, several actually containing a script written by he and two other friends, and notes from a much broader network of friends in the region; it was being passed around but he had not yet gotten to making his reviews of changes and passing them around.
He had two windows, at one he kept two banzai plants on the windowsill and grew a small potted pepper plant which sat on the floor nearest.
There was not much space for a single person to move around well in Lo Bai's apartment, and pacing it on a gimped leg was an act of avoiding cracking an elbow or a knee on the corner of the chair, dresser, or something else in the way. He stopped his pacing when he heard a phone ring. His phone. He stopped mid stride and looked over to the counter, where the ringing was coming out from within a stack of books. He made the few steps over, and moving aside the art books answered. “Lo Bai.” he answered.
“Lo Bai, hey this is Hui Feng.” the voice on the other end said, high pitched and excitable.
“Oh, hey Feng.” Lo Bai grumbled. Rubbing his forehead with the ball of his palm. He did not feel happy, nor did he sound happy speaking. His voice, naturally deep and rumbling was even harder and tense.
“Are you OK? You don't sound so good.” Feng asked him, concerned.
“It's nothing.” Lo Bai grunted.
“You should go see Master Fu, it might not hurt to make a trip out to Guangzhou again.”
Lo Bai grumbled something unintelligible in response. The Old Network was alive and well. And while Lo Bai could not ever say he was depressed as a part of the War experience, meeting up with fragments of the Network helped to calm the anxiety. He didn't need to be told that. “Anyways, I was calling to ask if you had the camera.” Feng added.
Lo Bai turned towards the door where on a coat rack a decade-old black and white hand held camera hung by a cracking leather strap from a coat hook, alongside a surplus army raincoat and over a pair of boots and shoes. Tapped to the wall above, a black piece of cloth embroidered with a white skull and crossbones hung to the wall, the Old Network. “Yeah, I have it.” he said.
“Are you using it?” Feng asked.
“Not right now, bu-” Lo Bai began. Feng however cut in quick.
“Listen, I need it for a day or two. Maybe three. My sister is getting married up in Shanghai and I thought I'd do her a favor and try to get some pictures of the ceremony while I was up. Can I take it?”
Lo Bai knew is the camera was passed along to him and if anyone else found out they'd be going to Feng to ask to borrow it. It was no single person's tool and it was passed around through a small insulated community, the Network. But he had asked, and it would be impolite to turn him down. So Lo Bai had to acquiesce.
“Excellent.” Feng said.
“I still got film on it I need to develop.” Lo Bai said.
“Don't worry about that. You can stop by the studio and develop your pictures. I'll take it from there.”
“How's the project going, by the way?” Feng asked. That was a tough question to answer. Lo Bai turned to the drawing desk and the sheets of paper scattered over it. On them various character drawings stood, sat, or walks across a white landscape of negative space in various reference positions.
“Where it was last week.” he said. While there had been progress it wasn't anything that seriously moved it ahead. When the work was done it had to be passed around. It had to be animated, assembled. It was a cartoon after all. Feng understood.
“You can drop the camera off at my place. I'll see about getting some tea.”
“Thanks, I'll be on my way.” Lo Bai said, and Feng hung up. So did he. Rubbing his head he felt the claustrophobic apartment becoming even more so and he counted his graces that he had reason to go out. Not like he would have anyways. He took the camera, and slipping on his shoes headed out the door.
Hong Kong's mountain fringes were a whole other world to the city itself. And while no designation was dropped between what was considered Hong Kong and not in the re-integration of the city at the end of the Revolution to be anywhere north of Kowloon or on the outlying islands was cause to wonder if one were really in a city. Apart from a few squat brick apartments barely higher than the maples and the mangroves. Sparse paved roads wound across the rolling hills and into the tiny village communities nestled at the bottom of lows in the soil and clay where farmers lived butted up to their rice patties. The city had been spreading itself out very slowly, and year by year people like Lo Bai wanting to leave the claustrophobia of inner Hong Kong could get a lottery ticket out into the New Territories, freeing up space in the old port-side neighborhoods in Kowloon and Hong Kong Island. One by one the districts of the New Territories and Lantau island were dotted with small, almost cute small apartment blocks.
The revolution had nearly shut down the city. The isolation and autarky of the Hou administration closing down the ports and now only internal traffic came in and out of ports. If it had not been for post-revolution decisions of resettlement and reconstruction the total collapse of industry would have seen the thousands who had migrated into Hong Kong from the country outside the former British colony going back. But things were captured and held into a stasis, Lo Bai recalled some politicians said there was growth in Hong Kong, growth in the community. But the effects must only be what could be seen on paper, Lo Bai couldn't find it.
But he had sought out and took the chance to head out of the tightly packed, vertical community of Hong Kong and its densely packed seven, fourteen story apartments. Even if his apartment was not much bigger than what he once had he relished the freedom from the sounds of street hawks. He reveled in the absence of the clicking, squealing, and bells of the trolley system. No more had he chicken cages pressed against his windows, or pigeons on every edge. And every smell of man and machine was gone, replaced with its distant phantom blowing over from just over the Kowloon district line.
The walk to the nearest trolley station though was a brisk hike of almost twenty minutes along a narrow road that was variable paved or unpaved. Occasionally winding passed a bombed-out house left behind from when northern Hong Kong was a battlefield between Japanese and Republican forces, or the no man's land where Communist mountain guerrillas and Republicans battled. There were fences of wood and stone hidden behind clumps of wild tea trees and young pines, looking into the wild and gnarled branches hiding weather-worn fence posts Lo Bai could imagine a still undiscovered corpse hiding among the thickets.
The country road passed fenced in grazing fields where small herds of cows mulled across the pasture. Passed orchards, passed fields. By a semi-wild groves of trees and over-grown under brush until finally it let out on a paved main road. Through the middle tracks had been laid down in the asphalt. This was the trolley line.
Lo Bai lived in Sha Tin district, north-eastern of Hong Kong and. Mostly pasture land, still mostly farmed it was its own world. Hui Feng lived in Kowloon City..
Passing by some bushes, and a chest-high red postal box Lo Bai came on the street car terminal, a small wooden canopy with low benches. He looked at the clock hung up on one of its posts, it was 3:24 in the afternoon. In a few minutes the street car would be arriving and he could be on his way to the city center. He sat down and was soon joined a few minutes later by an elderly couple who took their seats on the far end of the bench. At 3:02 the trolley street car arrived, its contact sparking on the over-head wire as it came to a stop in front of them. They got on.
Seating himself in a distant section of the trolley Lo Bai leaned his head against the window and watched with detached interest the world and city passing by him. Wilderness and farm fields passed slowly by in rhythmic click-clacks and into small development. Tall trees shading the sides of brick buildings. A few wayward cattle standing atop a road side hill, or laying in a sandy hole cut into the side of a steep hill. Their relaxed expressions only half following the trolley. A few small beaten cars, a couple trucks passed the trolley on its whole journey, but much of the other traffic was men and women with rickshaws, ox drawn carts, or bicycles; some pulling small wagons laden with produce and goods throughout the city in a loose thin river.
At points the trolley stopped and a bell rang as a door opened, letting on more riders in the mid-afternoon or letting them off. Lo Bai did not pretend to notice them as they went through, little more than ghosts and detached souls to him as he laid his head against the window. He daydreamed as he went, slowly collecting himself to a less anxious state. The slow rocking movement of the trolley allowed that much, and the short sudden jolts it made as it popped over a small bump between the track rails kept the ride from being so regular he could lull himself to sleep.
He sat with his head against the window thinking about the world he and his companions were making. He had suggested the world, and passed it along to his closest friends over a year ago and they all made changes and adjustments to it, fleshing it out and adding dialog until it had turned into a script much longer than the ten to fifteen minute odd jobs they've done for the local theaters and cinemas in Hong Kong. For him to be honest, he felt that much of what they made in way of cartoons could not possibly reach a national stage, could not pass through the censors and approval board of some of the last openly operating organs of Beijing's total control. Still, he did not mind things being kept in the underground, informal circles; there was plenty of that in Hong Kong, Macau, and Guangzhou alone.
But how did he get into animation? That puzzled Lo Bai plenty, he knew how he did as if it was recalling a road taken to get from A to B. Sometime during the Revolution, radical expatriates from America made their way into Asia. Forced out of their homeland by the end of their civil war they brought their passion for new ideas, their own guns, books, images, movies, and music and settled down in Hong Kong. Or rather: not immediately. The conditions of China at the time meant they had to head west first and to do so under otherwise illegal pretenses – to the KMT – to fall in with the Communists or other groups as international battalions. The movement of Communism in China was the only safe place they had to be in those times, and when the fighting was over they settled down on Hong Kong island as a Little America alongside various Little Britain's, Australia's, and New Zealands housing expatriate communities who found themselves trapped, unwilling to leave, or who came to China on the purpose to fight for its revolution and to live within its spirit. Among them they brought their western animation, and showed it in cobbled together basement cinemas as the world was torn apart above.
He had been inspired then, and fascinating. He started drawing, and when things cooled down and peace restored had been making gains in advancing his skill and scope. He had worked on a few state projects during art-school post-war in the late forties and early fifties. Found friends who worked in animation as well, within the Network and without. They made up an informal studio of sorts, mailing progress or visiting each others homes and doing work there. It was a disorganized sort of work, and chaotic but very human. Yet, he wondered how he got there, what force had driven Americans to China, to deliver black and white cartoon animation to inspire him as a shell shocked kid? If there was a God, he believed it may have been his intervention.
Which lead into what he was working on, what he and his friends had written and were producing. He had proposed the concept as being that, suggesting an outside force was the director of world events; no one was really free in this world. But that had changed, it turned from a god to aliens, and then from aliens to an alien machine that could manifest wishes or fears. Then it was asked: was it on our world, or in space? The answer came to space, and the heroes were now of a future millennium who traveled to seek this distant Wish Maker on its strange planet. And then they began to ask: what is a wish? What is the nature of a wish? How could it be articulated? Should it be?
The trolley car stopped. Shaken away from the doldrums of his own imagination Lo Bai saw he was in Kowloon now. He shifted in his seat and rose up. The trolley car was full now, and people were standing in the aisle. An old woman had taken a seat next to him and stood up to let him out. He went out the open back door and headed to the sidewalk and the pedestrian lot.
Standing at the door of Feng's apartment now, Lo Bai looked up. There wasn't any side-walk here, the road and the foundation of the building ahead of him seemingly phasing well into one another in the brick work. Looking up he counted the rising awnings and porches of each ascending level, 1, 2, 3... 6. Six floors above, and all around in the middle of Kowloon there he could hear and smell all the sensations he had moved to avoid. The faint cackling of hens, the passing of cars and trolley cars. Nearby a street vendor called out for customers, hawking noodles, buns, and eggs. Somewhere off in a distant alley there was a barking dog and higher up the building a window was open and a radio on and the sounds of a radio soap opera drifted down onto the street with the fluttering of pigeons wings to mix with the chorus and rise up again.
Stepping inside the afternoon light dimmed to a soft incandescent glow. Old men say in whicker chairs along the side of the hall with knees connected and a game of checkers unfolded across their shared laps. Lo Bai knew the way up, and he ascended each flight of stairs on automatic programming. Still though, to be among this concentration of people, in such a tight space his old anxieties bubbled and he knew he had to step out quick, or at least get out onto the balcony. He controlled his breathing, in and out slowly; keep from hyperventilating. He was among people now, not the makeshift hospitals all over again.
He stopped at a room numbed 417, it was a simple green door in a white hall; the numbers a faded bronze. He knocked, and inside the muffled sounds of movement could be heard. The door creaked open and a face peered through the narrow crack, and then opened all the way. “Hey!” Feng called, a tall lanky man with a broad bullish face and shallow, dark brown eyes, “I was wondering if you were coming.” he laughed, stepping back into his apartment.
Feng was stout and short, shorter than most. He cut his hair short along the edges, and kept the rest combed back across his head. Despite his heavy muscular build he moved with surprising grace around his small apartment, packed with a vast collection and furniture, he even had time and space to put a small family alter by the window looking out over the street.
Lo Bai passed a small mirror hanging on the wall and turned to look at himself in the reflection. A gaunt narrow face, and hair that was long; passed the ears. His gaze was light, but detached and distant. He scratched at some thin stubble along the side of his face and limped into the apartment. “Yeah, well I made it.” he said.
“I can see.” Feng laughed, he moved energetically about and Lo Bai gave up watching him quick. He scanned the room without taking in any details as his friend sailed between three small rooms, “My wife stepped out to get tonight's dinner. You want to stay?” he asked.
“I don't know.” Lo Bai answered.
“You don't know?” Feng answered, “Why not?”
Lo Bai shrugged, “Work, I suppose.”
“Well you're doing a good job at avoiding that.” Feng laughed from another room, “But while you're out why don't you stay a while. How are you feeling?”
“So moody and acting like shit smells, the usual?” Feng answered, reappearing in the living room as Lo Bai took a seat in a lime-green recliner. It smelled like rice wine. He didn't have anything to answer him with, and long having failed watching him dash about turned his head to the window and looked out into the city. There was not much to see, a slightly shorter building stood opposite, with the typical Victorian roof styling with added Chinese dragons for local flavor.
“When's the wedding?” Lo Bai asked out of politeness.
“I leave tomorrow.” Feng answered.
“You have a lot to get ready?” Lo Bai asked.
“Oh yeah, I haven't stopped moving since I woke up. You remember my old suit? I had to go get that fixed. I had to run several blocks to the tailor to pick it up today. I also forgot to check in on the train for tomorrow, and I had to run to do that. I don't need to be caught off guard.”
“Mhm.” Lo Bai nodded detached.
“So, you got your film out?” Feng asked.
Lo Bai remembered, he had the camera to hand over. Turning it over in his lap he flipped the door on the compartment holding the role of film and pulled the canister out. He passed the empty camera to Feng.
“What'd you get?” Feng asked.
“Alleys, oceans, background. Nothing spectacular.” he said, then thought to ask: “While you're up in Shanghai, you think you can get some pictures too?”
“Like what?” asked Feng
“I don't know, factory shots: you know. Pipes, vents, dumps. Anything... 'alien' I guess.”
Feng thought about the request for a moment, then shrugged assuredly. “Sure, why not. I'll see what I can do. You need the keys to the lab?”