Part 1 of 2
Put an old one-jiao coin in your mouth and suck it. That metal tang that covers your tongue is what the air tastes like when you get close to Guiyu. I asked a granny on the bus why the air tasted so bad but she looked at my jeans and baseball hat and told me to leave her alone. I turned to my crew. My crew is tight. It's only me, MC Master Kicks, the Jiangxi legend . . . and then there's Catshit. I want Catshit to find a better tag but everyone calls him Catshit because his skin is dark like cat shit and he's long and skinny like a cat shit so I might as well call him Catshit, too.
"I thought Gangyan Village smelled," I said. "This place stinks like Cece's breath."
"Even that pork chop's rotten mouth doesn't stink this bad," Catshit said, putting his hand over his nose and mouth.
Me and Catshit, we're a street crew: the No Shadow Kicks, b-boys x-treme. I've got cold toprocking talent, but my signature move is my own invention, the No Shadow Kick. That's how I got my name. I kick straight up and do a back flip three times in a row. Once I get this on the streets of Beijing people are going to get mad wet and want to see all my moves. I don't have any other moves, but I'm working on them. You invent new moves when you battle other crews and since we're the only b-boy crew in Jiangxi, who do we battle?
Out the windows there was nothing alive. Just dirt and concrete. Up ahead on the horizon were the electronic mountains of Guiyu. Even from this far away we could see them against the gray sky, tall and bald like the Zu Mountains.
I had been crazy happy when the root maggots arrived and ate Daddy's harvest. That same day I had called Uncle Li and asked if I could come work for him in Guiyu. He works in IT. He said no problem but he had to talk to Daddy first. I told him Daddy had to drive the tractor to Nanchang to get some permits. Uncle Li said no problem and told me how to get to Guiyu.
That night I told Daddy, "I've got a job and I'm leaving. If you're lucky I might send you back some money when I blow up big." He tried to hit me with his shoe and said that I was a bad son and my children should be born with no assholes. What do I care? He's as useless as a corpse. First my ma left him behind and now me. Ma ran away from Gangyan Village the minute she pushed me out. My belly button sticks out too far because she cut the cord with her bus ticket. That's okay, no tears for me. Like Eminem, like Jay-Z, a man's got to be hard.
Catshit began coughing. I wanted to give him a menthol cigarette to open up his lungs but I couldn't afford anything but counterfeit 555s right then.
"This air is really bad," Catshit said. "We should have gone to Guilin and sold lucky pens."
"Take it as normal," I said. "We come here to make money to move to Beijing. This place is only ugly because people make a lot of money. Get rich first, clear up later. In three weeks we'll be mad rich."
Catshit shook his head and quoted a slogan at me.
"'If you pay loving care to public health, you will live to one hundred years old. If you throw garbage everywhere, your children will die.'"
When Catshit talks like this a dog farts out his mouth. Catshit knew we had to get out of Gangyan Village and get up to Beijing because "success is our only motherfucking option, failure's not." Plus, Catshit kept getting beat up in Gangyan Village. His glasses have been broken so many times he has to hold them on his face with rubber bands. I had his back but it was getting old. He started coughing again. The granny in front of us told him to shut up.
We got off the bus and now the metal taste was so strong my head was sick and my eyes were watering. Catshit was coughing like an old man. The ground looked like dirt but underneath my kicks it felt like lead, slick and slippery. A skinny girl with her eyes too far apart and her hair chopped short walked up and looked at us like we were abnormal.
"What?" I said.
"Are you the hillbillies?" she asked.
"What hillbillies?" I said back. "I'm MC Master Kicks and this is Catshit. We work for Uncle Li."
"Okay," she said. "You're the hillbillies."
She shoved her way through a crowd of dirty little kids and got on a three-wheeler. We followed her, carrying our plastic bags.
"What hillbillies?" I said. "You see hillbillies with kicks like these?" I showed her my shoes. "These jeans are real Levi's. This watch comes from Hong Kong."
She pointed to the back and we got on, then she turned around and took off Catshit's glasses.
"You've got nice big eyes," she said.
He coughed on her arm.
She started up the three-wheeler and it vibrated like a chainsaw. Her chest jiggled.
She must have felt me staring, because she said, "I'm Little Bun. I'll take you to Uncle Li but no eating tofu on the way or I'll smash your face."
I liked the way her eyes were far apart. Her skin was milky white and underneath those dirty shorts she had plump hips. Little Bun was one hot cousin.
She drove through Guiyu like a drunk driver, swerving all over the street, never slowing down, almost killing us, the people walking, the grannies squatting by the road stripping wires, the little babies wandering in a daze, the big bosses yelling on their cell phones, the old comrades driving three-wheelers loaded with junk computers, the cross-eyed ugly boys squatting in the dirt picking their noses with their fused fingers and dirty claws.
I say Little Bun swerved all over the street but there are no streets in Guiyu. The electronic mountains have buried the town in a sea of broken hardware and we drove down canyons cut through towering walls of high-tech trash. Catshit pointed like a tourist. I'd have to talk to him about looking like such a hillbilly before we moved to Beijing.
"Dell! iMac! Sony! Panasonic! Toshiba! Philips! Motorola! Compaq!"
It all just looked like a bunch of dirty rubbish to me, but Catshit liked computers.
Little Bun laughed.
"Those are old models," she yelled over the engine. "Nothing here works."
"So why do you have all this junk if it doesn't work?"
"We turn it into money," she yelled back.
We lurched and wove and swerved and veered and jammed on the brakes and hit the gas and finally, with our heads bouncing on the end of our necks like bobble-headed dashboard dolls, we arrived at Uncle Li's workshop. On the outside was painted the slogan: "Using the theory of 'Three Represents' to guide our waste processing!"
Uncle Li had piles and couldn't sit down. He just walked around all day smoking cigarettes and spitting. "Little Cheung," he said and spat. "Have you eaten yet?"
"Everyone calls me MC Master Kicks," I said. "And this is my friend Catshit."
"I can see why they call you Catshit," Uncle Li said. "You've got big eyes like a cat makes when it craps. You met Little Bun. No tofu eating. She's your cousin and my oldest daughter. When I'm not here she's the boss of you."
"Yeah," I said.
Uncle Li cuffed me on the side of the head.
"No special privileges, Little Cheung. You call me like everyone else. Call me Boss."
"Then you call me MC Master Kicks."
"I'll call you nuts if I want. I pay you, so you call me Boss."
"Yes, Boss," Catshit said, coughing.
"Be a smart guy like Big Eyes," Uncle Li said, and then he kicked me in the ass. "Call me Boss."
"Uncle Li," I said.
He got angry and slapped my baseball hat off my head.
"What do you call me?"
"What do you call me?" and he stepped on my hat. That hat was mad expensive!
"Boss," I said. "Boss, Boss-ee."
He smiled, picking up my hat and dusting it off.
"That's better. You call me Boss, and I call you Little Cheung and Big Eyes. Go meet Bitchy Sister over there, she'll show you what to do."
"What about our salary? Where do we sleep? When do we eat?"
I wasn't going to let him take advantage. But he was already walking away, shouting into his cell phone and giving me his back.
Bitchy Sister was Boss's big sister, a loser dog with a tight perm and teeth like a bulldozer. She thought everything was funny.
"A hundred and thirty-five yuan a week, you sleep behind the workshop, we charge ten yuan a week for room and board, cup noodles you supply, Sunday is your day off. Welcome to Li Family Workshop."
Catshit and I made no yuan a week back home so this wasn't too bad, but Catshit was still coughing.
"You don't like our fresh country air," Bitchy Sister laughed. "Get Big Eyes a mask."
They gave him a surgical mask and he breathed a little easier.
"I thought this was IT work," I said.
"IT with Chinese characteristics," Bitchy Sister cackled.
The workshop was a dusty concrete room with pillars down the middle. Green plastic shingles crusted with jeweled bugs were piled up to the ceiling.
"Circuit boards," Bitchy Sister said. "Full of gold and silver. That's what Li Family does, we mine for gold in the electronic mountains."
Bitchy Sister led us back outside, down a narrow track, over a sand hill and to a roof on poles surrounded by empty plastic barrels by the banks of the river. A bull-featured guy in rubber boots came out to meet us.
"I'm Joeman, the King of Hell," the guy said and offered us cigarettes. They were just Hongtashans but I took one to let him know I was a good brother. Catshit declined since he couldn't smoke through his surgical mask anyway.
"This is Hell, and everything in Hell can make you sick. Do what I say or you'll wind up burning off your birdie," Joeman said.
All of Guiyu looked bad, but the riverbank really was Hell. The ground was a black and muddy soup, the river a wide, ankle-deep trickle of tar, and everywhere there were pots of acid cooking on coal fires, sending out thick columns of yellow smoke. There were other shacks scattered up and down the riverbank and people were calling to each other, stirring pots and playing crappy Cantopop out of boom boxes with busted speakers. One old guy walked up and down selling bottles of water.
"Don't drink the river water," Joeman said. "It'll burn you. Clean water comes in on the trucks every day. Boss charges three yuan a week."
Now we were only making 122 yuan a week.
The job was boring. We'd get a cart of charred circuit boards and boxes full of little bugs that Joeman said were chips. Joeman would throw the chips in plastic barrels and pour in the hot acid and stir them with a metal pipe for two or three hours. Then he'd pour in another chemical that he said pulled the gold to the bottom of the barrels.
The circuit boards were rubbish and they went in a pit near the river. We had to wait until "Save the Earth Hour" to burn them. "Save the Earth Hour" was anytime after dark so the Green Cats wouldn't see the black smoke and make more regulations. We slept in a snail shack attached to the back of the workshop, with two pieces of thick foam for our bed. And all day, every day, we worked in Hell.
In old Liberation movies they always show bombed-out cities left behind after the Nationalists retreated and that's what Guiyu looked like: a smoking ruin. During the day it gave off white fumes from the acid baths and the circuit board smelters. During the night, after "Save the Earth Hour," it gave off black smoke from the trash fires. Up and down the riverbank other workshops turned old electronics into money. Catshit liked to wander around and watch them work. He told me there were toner sweepers who brushed old toner out of printer cartridges, CRT smashers who broke open monitors and pulled out the copper yokes, wire burners who only came out at night and melted plastic cables to salvage their copper cores; cell phone crackers, telephone strippers, plastic chippers, aluminum recyclers, and people like Uncle Li who specialized in circuit boards.
In the mornings I woke up and practiced No Shadow Kick. At first, Catshit would get up and do it with me, but we were pretty sad and pretty soon he stopped. Every Friday we stuffed our money in a pouch that I wore around my waist, waiting for it to get five fingers high and then: Beijing!
Little Bun visited us sometimes while we stirred chips and boiled acid. She hated the riverbank, but she liked Catshit. At the meal break she would answer his questions about Guiyu and tell him boring things about her life. I always got left out of these conversations, which was nonsense. I was a better b-boy than Catshit and I had better image points. The only advantage he had was he was tall and had big eyes. Women are stupid and they fall for tall guys all the time. You see it every day.
The way they talked to each other like handkerchief friends started making me feel dumb. One day, I got sick of watching Catshit eat lunch while Little Bun hung all over him, sucking up his bad breath, and so I started doing some floorwork. I could tell she was looking at me while pretending she wasn't, and then, when I knew she had her eyes on me, I did a No Shadow Kick. Fucking Guiyu! The ground was too slippery and my feet couldn't grab the dirt and instead of going over in a back flip and landing on my feet I only went over halfway and landed on my neck.
It really hurt. Everyone watching me started laughing. Even Catshit! He can laugh all he wants, but if he had been practicing with me this never would have happened.
"Hey!" Joeman yelled out. "You really are a break-dancer. Break your neck dancer!"
Everyone laughed, and my new name was "Break Neck Dancer." I stopped practicing after that. Guiyu was a no-good place, but soon we'd be in Beijing and I'd practice all the time. Our bundle of cash was one finger tall.
One day a village cadre came and said the Green Cats were making us wear face masks. Joeman got in an argument with him by the river.
"Brother," the cadre said, "you must have a scientific outlook on workplace safety."
"I have a scientific outlook on beating your ass," Joeman said.
I punched Catshit's shoulder and pointed to the top of the sand hill where a gold Mercedes was parked.
"Three-and-a-half more fingers of cash and that's my car," I said. Then I quoted, "'It is shameful to be poor.'"
"'The saving man becomes the free man,'" Catshit quoted back.
"To get rich is glorious according to Deng Xiaoping Theory," I said. Catshit laughed and I turned around and stepped in one of the steel pots of boiling acid. It splashed up on my pants. I screamed. Joeman was suddenly there, tackling me and yanking my pants off. They were smoking in the mud and I was standing there in my red briefs and I looked up the sand hill and saw a middle-aged guy standing by the hood of the Mercedes, smoking a cigarette. He was wearing nine gold necklaces, and paper slippers over his shoes. He looked bored, like he'd been channel surfing and the action had momentarily caught his attention.
Joeman bought two bottles of water from Water Man Gao and poured them over my legs. They stung.
"Don't be lazy," he said, his cigarette dripping ash. "That's aqua regia, it will burn your skin to the bone."
He sent me to my room to get clean pants.
I had to trudge by the middle-aged guy on the way. As I went by, he looked at me and laughed and said something to another tough-looking cadre standing with him.
"What did you say?" I asked, turning around.
"What's that, kid?" he said.
"What did you say about me?" I asked, suddenly angry.
"I said I didn't know I had someone working for me with such a tiny pecker."
I was going to kick his ass because that's just how I roll, and then Little Bun came up. I was happy to have her see me face down this fronting grandfather.
Instead she started apologizing.
"Don't mind this hillbilly," she said. "He's from Jiangxi, Mayor Yuen. He doesn't know how to act in the city."
Mayor Yuen laughed.
"You don't let your boyfriend wear pants?" he said. "You're a tough woman."
"That's not my boyfriend," she said. Then she made a gagging gesture. "I don't date river trash."
"Who do you date?" he said, stepping closer to her, and I stomped off. How can they be so shameless? Acting like this after I almost died!
After that Catshit got moved up to the workshop while I stayed on the riverbank. Boss was mad I'd talked back to Mayor Yuen so he was treating me like a punk. Now Catshit was smelting circuit boards, one of the best jobs. He got to sit outside the workshop and heat up the boards in a giant wok until the solder got soft and then he'd pick off the chips with tweezers. It was his cast off trash I was burning every "Save the Earth Hour."
Little Bun was always around him like a horny cat but he didn't seem to notice. In his free time he walked around Guiyu sightseeing like a nerd. It made me angry because he was acting like a tourist in this dirty place and we still didn't even have two fingers of cash. How were we going to get to Beijing if he kept acting like this? He thought Guiyu was interesting? Guiyu was somewhere to eat, shit, and sleep on my way to Beijing.
One night he found me by the riverbank where I was burning circuit boards.
"Have you eaten?" he asked.
"No," I said.
"I want to show you something."
"Look at this," he said and held out a plastic water bottle. Something inside scrabbled angrily.
"Showing me rubbish?" I asked.
He turned on a flashlight and lit up the bottle. Inside there was just a little capacitor: a tiny red and yellow cylinder with four wires sticking out each end, no bigger than a baby's fingernail.
"So what?" I said.
I looked closer and saw that the wires were moving, like little legs.
"What is it?" I asked.
"It's a bug."
"Why's it look like a capacitor?"
"It grew that way, I think," Catshit said. "Maybe to hide. You know, some bugs look like trees? Some look like sticks?"
"That's a chameleon," I said. "Not a bug."
I knew some science. I'm not a retard.
"No," he said. "Some insects, too. I think this one was born to hide in Guiyu. So no one sees it."
He tipped the bottle up, spilling the bug-capacitor onto his palm. Then he pinched it between his fingers and lifted it for a closer look.
"Then it's stupid," I said. "If I saw that I'd pick it up right away. Boss would kick my ass if I left a capacitor on the ground."
"Then maybe it wants to be picked up," Catshit said.
"Why?" I asked.
"I don't know," he said.
It wriggled out of his fingers and ran across his hand. He laughed like it tickled and then he yelped. The bug was sticking its head underneath his skin, burrowing into his wrist.
He looked at me, eyes big and terrified. "Get it out."
I tried to pull it off but it was squirming too much. I finally got a grip and pulled, but it was like it had hooks in its head and Catshit's skin stretched with it. I let go to get a better grip and it just wriggled beneath his skin and was gone. There was only a bump on his wrist with a red spot on it.
He looked at me. I looked at him.
"Should we cut it off?" I asked.
"Cut off my hand?"
"Do you want a bug living in you?"
He prodded the bump delicately.
"It doesn't hurt. It's not moving. Maybe it'll die in there."
And then a voice called to us. It was Little Bun, standing on top of the sand hill. She came trotting down and Catshit hid his wrist.
After that all Catshit could do was look for bugs. Real bugs, not circuit bugs. I was still locked away in Hell with Joeman, trapped in this paper yoke job and we didn't even have three fingers of cash. Every morning when I woke up, Catshit would already be gone. I hardly talked to him anymore. Then one day, when I came out of my room Little Bun was waiting for me.
"Looking for your grass-eating boy?" I asked.
She shook her head.
"I need help."
Suddenly, I was interested. Maybe Catshit had broken her melon and she was pregnant? "What?"
"Can I trust you?" she asked.
"Catshit's my brother by another mother," I said. "So you're my sister-in-law."
She just stared at me. Everyone was so thick here!
"Of course you can trust me," I said.
She pulled me into my room. I was excited. Maybe she'd saved a slice of melon for me?
"I need you to come with me to Shantou and talk to Mayor Yuen. I have to negotiate something."
"Getting your stomach cleaned?"
She slapped me. At first it hurt but then it felt good. It was the first time she'd ever touched my face.
"What kind of animal are you? Are you even human? Why would you talk that way?"
I leaned back and lit a Hongtashan, feeling like a big brother in a triad movie.
"I can't have a successful negotiation unless I know what it's about."
"He wants me to have his baby."
Was this a joke?
"He wants me to have his baby."
"You're going to be his wife?"
"You're going to be his mistress?"
"No, but his wife can't have a baby, so he started calling me all the time. He wants to pay me to have his baby in secret. He wants a son."
I sat there for a minute. This was bigger than I could deal with. I'm just a small potato. Then I realized that if I passed up such chances, I would be a small potato all my life. I put my hand on her shoulder and squeezed it like a big brother. Damn, she was hot.
"You can count on me," I said.