1/15/20

&: Minor Novels of the 1990s Reading Club: City Tank (6)

(Tibet, dead girlfriends, a big bathtub)

We're still reading Qiu Huadong’s City Tank, the story of Zhu Wen, an unsuccessful artist, living in Beijing's East Village in the mid-1990s.

In the third chapter, Zhu Wen gets eight hundred yuan in the mail from his ex-girlfriend, goes for pizza, gets invited by Qin Song out to an embassy party, and, on the way there, meets a sweet American girl with a boyfriend. In the fourth chapter, Zhu Wen meets yet another foreign woman, argues with her about art, goes in for a kiss, then gets blackout drunk because he thinks he's not good enough for her. In the fifth chapter, we get a look at life in the East Village artists' colony, with a Zhang Huan stand-in covering himself in honey and flies, and two famous foreign artists stopping by for a visit.

The sixth chapter moves away from the East Village performance artists and wandering Native Americans, and puts us back on the tail of Zhu Wen, who is about to run into a woman we met previously in the dance hall, and we catch up with Gai Di 盖迪, who is mentioned in passing in the first chapter.

Zhu Wen has some money left, but he's tired of starving. He’s put Qin Song in charge of selling his paintings, and a few Canadians are interested, but he hasn’t seen any money yet. He goes out and comes back with a sheaf of newspapers and scans the want ads. And what luck! There’s an advertisement seeking an in-home art tutor.

The ad was placed by a woman named Yu Hong 喻红 (a name shared a painter from Xi'an, who also made her name in the 1990s art scene that Qiu is writing about in City Tank). The final offer is three lessons a week at fifty yuan a pop. He figures her for a bored housewife with money to burn, especially when he finds out she lives in the Oversea Chinese Village 华侨村. Even though he’s not sure what he could possibly teach her, other than basic technique, he arranges a meeting for that afternoon.

On his way to the meeting, he runs into Gai Di, the lead singer of a local band. Gai Di has just returned from a Tibet. He tells Zhu Wen that his girlfriend is dead. Zhu Wen pats him on the shoulder and says, "Stay strong, brother!"

He arrives at the fancy compound and gets buzzed up. When he meets Yu Hong, he can’t shake the feeling that he’s seen her someplace before. As he settles into a Kent chair in her massive living room, he finally remembers: she was the woman that approached him after the fight at the bar (see: summary of the third chapter). It was his bitchy comment that night about her being a fake art lover that pushed her to learn how to paint.

When Zhu Wen jokes about being a live-in teacher, Yu Hong quickly agrees. Zhu Wen asks about her husband and learns that he has little to do with his wife, and she spends most of her time at home alone. Before the lesson begins, Yu Hong suddenly insists that Zhu Wen take a bath first:
The bathroom was huge, probably close to a couple hundred square feet, with a massive tub, a high-end toilet, and a full-length mirror. Everything was tiled with gleaming white porcelain, white as a movie star's teeth. On the back of the toilet was a volume of Simone de Beauvoir's Selected Work. The thought of Yu Hong sitting on the toilet reading Simone de Beauvoir made me laugh. That's what these rich women do. It's ridiculous. They have all the time and money in the world, free to sit on the toilet and read Simone de Beauvoir. What does that mean? It means that they've never been liberated and they've never rebelled against anything.
He luxuriates in the bath for a while, imagining the private life of his new benefactor. When he gets out, he discovers that she’s left him a surprise.
When I got out of the bath, I found a pair of underwear. New underwear! Yu Hong might've been a Philistine, but at least she cared about the cleanliness of her artist friends. Without women, this would be an even filthier world. They're like a type of disinfectant. They purify bad breath and semen, and give us plump little babies.
I slipped out of the bathroom and Yu Hong's little dog ran over and stared me down again. It was intimidating. While I was in the bath, she'd been feeding him liver. "This is all he'll eat," she said. "I love this dog. But I've been thinking, maybe it's time for a new pet." She flipped her hair back and said, casually, "How was the bath?"
"Good bath. I feel like a new man. Wait, what kind of new pet? A monkey?"
"No," she smiled, "maybe a pangolin. I've always liked pangolin. I even ate one, once."
"You're crazy. It'd eat its way out of here and dig into the subway. They're ugly as hell, too."
"They can only dig like that in the dirt. A pangolin can't go through concrete. Should we get started?"
The lesson begins and they sketch for a while, then Zhu Wen shows her how to paint by dripping blobs of paint on the sheet and blowing them into trees. There's something sweet and innocent about the scene, with Zhu Wen returning to his roots, I guess, and enjoying the company of Yu Hong, who is intelligent and perceptive. For all the talk about art in the book, you might start to wonder why all these people are down in the East Village starving. This is the first time anyone expresses any enjoyment of the craft of it.

Yu Hong enjoys herself, too, and is fascinated by the lives of the vagrant artists, who seem to live on another planet. Zhu Wen gets paid, but it doesn't end there. He invites her out to the Palm Beach Bar 棕榈滩酒吧 to see Gai Di play:
I could tell Yu Hong was a bit nervous. She told me she'd never been to a place like that before. The way she said it, it was like we were walking into a lion's den, rather than a bar. I told her that everyone there was cool and that we'd just have a seat somewhere. The dance floor was getting full and the sound of music was rattling my ear drums. Yu Hong was dressed slightly too formally, in a long gown with the back cut out. She looked out of place. But whatever, she was a classy lady, so it made sense. I still couldn't figure her out. I looked around for Gai Di and spotted him over at the bar, drinking with his band and scanning the dancefloor. I figured he probably hadn't seen me. It was too fucking dark in there to see anything. I could just make out that each member of the band had their instruments by their sides. That must mean they were getting ready to take the stage soon.
"That guy over there," I said to Yu Hong, pointing at Gai Di, "the tall, skinny guy, sipping the beer, that's Gai Di."
"That guy? Why does he looks like he's angry at the world?"
"His girlfriend just died. They were out in Tibet. I met her a few times. They grew up together. Her name was Lu Liang. Very sweet girl. One day, she started talking about all this spiritual stuff, about what was going to happen to her after she died. She ended up running off to Tibet. He went looking for her. She was in a little village out there. I guess she came down with typhoid, before he got there. He only got to spend a short time with her before she died. She died in his arms." I was only sort of making it up.
Yu Hong listened but I could tell she didn't really understand the story. I suppose it came down to not understanding Tibetan culture. Han culture is all about this life, but Tibetan culture is focused on what comes after. It's two different things. It was hard to understand a Han girl rushing off to Tibet on a pilgrimage, though. I looked across the bar at Gai Di. I wasn't sure what I thought of the story either, and I couldn't sort my feelings out.
Zhu Wen relates the story of the first time he met Gai Di. He was busking in a park:
I sat down to listen. Beijing had no shortage of this type of wandering musician, but there was something pure in the singer's voice—something that moved me. Maybe it was the purity of youth. Maybe it was the naked desire in his voice. He was pouring his soul into it. As I sat there, listening to him, I wondered if I might be able to get to know him, maybe make friends with him. When he was done singing, I saw two pretty American girls in jean shorts go over and drop a few coins in front of him. They were followed by a seventeen or eighteen year old Chinese girl, who dropped even more. What was I supposed to do? I felt in my pocket and took out a crisp fifty yuan bill. When everyone was gone, I went up and gave it to him. "Let's go get something to eat. I'll get you some Xinjiang barbecue—fifty skewers!" That was the first time we met. We liked each other right away. The only problem was that he was a bit younger than me. Compared to him, I came off pretty calm and rational.
Zhu Wen relates the story of Gai Di, who despite his Beijing residency, wound up running away from home, eventually stumbling into a contract with a Hong Kong music producers looking for homegrown campus singers, and then breaking the contract to hit the streets again.

Back at the Palm Beach Bar, the band takes the stage and Gai Di sings a passionate ballad about his dead girlfriend.
He'd ended up losing her, I thought to myself, but she had found herself. She had moved on to another world. She had been born brand new.
We were still living, though. Red worms swimming around in the dyeing vat. Gai Di stepped off the stage and I ran over to hug him. I pulled him back to sit with me. Yu Hong had already ordered a couple bottles of good brandy. She had read our minds. I didn't know what she was spending all that money for, but I didn't care. We started to drink and Gai Di told us what had happened in Tibet.
Mountains all around, he said, with snow on them that would never melt. He said that life was hard in Tibet, but everyone was happy, because they knew that their present life was nothing, that they were just dust in the wind. Gai Di went all over Lhasa looking for Lu Liang but he couldn't find her. He slept during the day and went out at night to sing in the bars. One time, he got into a thing with a Kham boy and the kid wanted to stab him, but as soon as he heard Gai Di sing, he put the knife up and said that they were brothers. He met an old Buddhist woman who told him to head west. She said you had to go west to find the source of everything, to find the road home. Gai Di took her advice. He went west and that's where he found Lu Liang. She was close to the end, but she smiled when she saw him.
Zhu Wen drinks too much and gets too sad. He falls down and smacks his nose on the floor. "At that moment," Zhu Wen thinks, "I felt so much pain in my heart, it was like I was feeling the pain of all humanity. And nobody could save me. Nobody!" In a blackout, he tells everyone to fuck off, collapses again. He's vaguely aware of being taken somewhere in a car, and when he sees Yu Hong's face looming over him, he tries to tells her to fuck off, too, but he starts vomiting midway through. He asks himself: "Why do I have to be in so much pain?"

Chapter 7: Zhu Wen is at a low point in his life as he gets rejected by various woman at a party held by Old K, and I discuss how I can't write about how I identify with him.

Chapter 8: Zhu Wen attempts to sell out, and I discuss Jie Lu's academic work on the novel and how all the artists mentioned in this book are millionaires now.

Chapter 9: as an STD panic grips the city, Zhu Wen finally busts.

Chapter 10: Zhu Wen's experiences creamy discharge and pain during urination, then heads off to the mountains, and I discuss whether Chinese novels really are under-edited.