EXCERPT: The Veiled Shanghai — Ken Liu

June 7, 1919, Shanghai

“Don’t go into the streets today, Dorothy,” Uncle Heng said.

Ever since fourteen-year-old Dorothy Gee started attending the Willard-Pond English School for Chinese Girls, Uncle Heng liked to use her English name instead of her Chinese one—he said it sounded more educated.

“The foreigners in the International Settlement get nervous when the Chinese become unruly. They’re scared that the strike and protest are getting out of hand. Soldiers from those British naval ships at the docks came onshore last night. I think something bad is going to happen.”

“But the foreigners love freedom,” Dorothy said. “That’s what Mr. Ward always says in class. This strike is for freedom, too.”

Uncle Heng laughed at this, but Dorothy did not see what was so funny.

“The foreigners like freedom sometimes, for some people,” Uncle Heng finally said. “Just promise me you’ll stay home today.” He left to get more groceries from outside the city, as all the merchants had shuttered their stores.

Dorothy nodded reluctantly. This had been the most exciting week in her life. She desperately wanted to go out and join the throngs that filled the streets of Shanghai: workers on strike, students marching and shouting slogans, and merchants closing up their shops and refusing to sell to anyone.

Even the sing-song girls and those women standing on street corners in tight cheongsams with long slits were no longer soliciting customers. Instead they linked arms and sang songs like this:

 

China, China, wake from your slumber,

Strike down those traitors in Peking!

 

“Other girls from the school are allowed to march,” Dorothy said.

“Well, you’re not those other girls, are you?” Aunt En said. “If something happens to you, how am I ever going to face your mother in the afterworld?” She handed Dorothy a large bowl. “If you’re itching for something to do, you can help me get these carrots peeled.”

Dorothy went into the alley so she could dump the peelings directly into the sewer.

Someone was making a speech on Kansu Road, the big street at the end of the alley. As Dorothy worked, snippets from the speech drifted to her, along with the approving shouts from a boisterous crowd.

“…the Western powers have betrayed the people of China and handed Tsingtao to Japan…and now the spineless warlords in Peking are arresting students?…It’s not a crime to love one’s country!…Free the students!…Down with the warlords!”

The noise from the crowd grew and grew, rising to a crescendo, and then Dorothy heard something new: a scratchy, tinny, almost mechanical voice that was louder than the crowd.

“This is your last warning. The Military Governor and the Shanghai Municipal Council have issued their orders. Disperse immediately, and go back to work!”

The crowd shouted even louder, trying to drown out the loudspeaker. “The foreigners were in league with the cowardly traitors in Peking!” Dorothy dropped the bowl and rushed down the alley to Kansu Road.

As she pushed her way into the crowd, she heard angry shouts all around her. Someone picked up a rock and threw it at the loudspeaker; more followed. Then there was the sound of a gun being fired.

The crowd exploded around her like a tornado. Panicked people rushed around in every direction, carrying Dorothy along for the ride. She ran and ran, unable to stop for fear of being trampled, and soon lost track of where she was.

Some people were jumping onto a slow-moving trolleybus in front of her, and a man reached down for her.

“Come on, jump! Before the police get this area cordoned off!”

Dorothy grabbed the man’s hand and leaped onto the bus. She was dragged into the safety of the interior, squeezed between tightly packed passengers.

Guess that’s the end of my career as a revolutionary, thought Dorothy.

The air was stuffy and warm, and soon Dorothy grew drowsy and fell asleep.

***

Dorothy awoke with a jolt that made her teeth rattle.

She rubbed her eyes in confusion. It was dark outside, and the bus was empty. There was no one even in the driver’s seat. The engine hissed and creaked loudly a few times before falling silent—funny, Dorothy couldn’t recall ever hearing a trolleybus make sounds like that.

She got up, almost fell again because the floor of the bus was canted at a sharp angle, and stumbled to the door. She tumbled down the steps and looked around her.

The bus had stopped in a tiny square surrounded by European-style houses, each with a beautiful little garden around it. The residents of those houses, if they were still awake, did not leave their lights on. The cobblestone-paved streets were quiet and deserted. A lone electric street lamp at the edge of the square cast a sphere of yellow light. This was a part of Shanghai she had never been to.

Quelle courage! Merci, merci beaucoup!

Dorothy turned around and saw that a few boys and girls were clapping and smiling at her as they approached. The children, European in appearance, ranged in age between five and twelve. They were dressed in rags, and had faces caked in grime.

Apparently she was somewhere in the French Concession.

The children came closer and continued to chatter excitedly at Dorothy.

Je m’appelle Sarah. Comment vous appelezvous?”

Je m’appelle Alissa.”

Je m’appelle Becky.”

Je m’appelle Anton.”

“I’m sorry,” Dorothy said. “But I don’t speak French; well, I do know that merci means ‘thank you,’ but I have no idea why you’re thanking me.”

“They are thanking you for getting rid of the Panopticon that has made this neighborhood extremely unpleasant for street urchins.”

Dorothy saw that the speaker was a tall Chinese woman who had followed the French-speaking children and now emerged from the darkness. She wore a brown kasaya filled with a pattern of silver threads that glinted in the moonlight. Her head was bald.

“You’re a Buddhist nun.”

The woman smiled. “Yes. You can call me Beini, for my temple is far in the north. I come here to help the orphaned children who make the streets their home.”

Dorothy had seen Buddhist nuns only in pictures in books. She said cautiously, “I’m sorry, Venerable Beini, but I have no idea what a Panopticon is, and I certainly did nothing to it.”

The woman pointed to the front of the stopped bus.

Dorothy now saw that the bus had crashed into and toppled what appeared to be a statue. She walked closer and discovered that the statue was actually a tall lamppost of sorts, topped with four telescopes that pointed in four directions like giant eyes. The bus had cracked the structure in half and broken all the lenses.

“A few years ago, the police installed Panopticons in the wealthier neighborhoods of the French Concession,” the woman explained. “With these, one policeman can keep watch over an entire neighborhood. The authorities say that the homeless orphans who roam these streets are a gang of thieves—”

Nous nous appelons les Munchkins!” the children sang in unison and laughed.

“—and when the children are caught, they’re put into institutions more horrible than prisons, full of cruel headmasters and sadistic teachers. By destroying this Panopticon, you make it easier for the children to hide and move at night. And that is why they’re thanking you.”

Dorothy was reminded of what Uncle Heng had said about the foreigners: “They like freedom sometimes, for some people.”

“Well, I’m glad that the children are happy and free, even if I didn’t do anything.”

“Your bus did, and that’s pretty much the same thing.”

Dorothy wasn’t sure about this, but she didn’t want to argue. “It’s very late, and I’m sure my aunt and uncle are worried. Can you tell me how to get back to Kansu Road?”

Beini shook her head. “I don’t know where that is.”

Dorothy couldn’t believe it. Everyone knew where Kansu Road was. “It’s in the native city, where there was a large rally today, and the police came to break it up.”

“I’m sorry, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Dorothy suddenly felt very tired and alone. She tried to not cry.

Beini looked at her more intently. “Ah, you are a child of the Veiled Shanghai. That is why you’re afraid.”

“What do you mean?”

“There are two Shanghais, one on top of the other. The Shanghai you’re from, the Veiled Shanghai, is inhabited by different people, possesses different wonders, and is filled with unfamiliar sorts of machines. It occupies the same space as our city, but a thin veil hides you from us, and us from you. Yet what happens in one Shanghai seems to affect what happens in the other.

“What I do know is that here the night is longer and darker, and the old magic is still strong, the magic that had filled the port with lines of qi and crisscrossed the land with currents of power long before the foreigners came and paved it over and covered it with their steam engines and electric automata.”

Dorothy was frightened, but she tried not to show it. She looked over at the bus again and saw that in place of the trolley poles, the bus now sprouted a big chimney. This wasn’t the vehicle she was familiar with, but a new machine powered by white steam and black coal.

“Oh dear,” she said. “How will I ever get home?”

“I don’t know,” Beini said. She looked thoughtful. “Once in a while we get a visitor from the Veiled Shanghai…but who knows, perhaps you were sent here for a reason, for yuanfen…I believe if you want to go home, you must go see Oz.”

“Who’s Oz?”

“The Great Oz is the most powerful magician in all of Shanghai. He lives in the Emerald House, in the middle of a green park.”

“How do I get there?”

“You follow the road of yellow brick.”

Dorothy looked down, and she could indeed see yellow bricks embedded here and there in the cobblestones, forming a trail that led out of the square into a dark side street.

Beini bent down and picked something out of the broken Panopticon. “Here, take these.” She handed two silver coins to Dorothy, each showing the profile of a bald man.

“The workmen who installed the Panopticon left these coins, the dayang, to appease the Chinese ghosts haunting those who disturb their rest. The coins have some charm associated with them, and you might as well keep them in your shoes for luck.”

“Thank you,” said Dorothy. She took off her shoes, put one coin in each, and stepped into them. “And now I’ll be on my way.”

Merci, merci!” the children called after her.

“Be safe,” Beini said, and she held her hands together and said a benediction for Dorothy.

[End Excerpt]