The Blue Bell Cafe

black tofu

“I wish I had another stomach, but I’m really full – you finish.”

There just weren’t enough meals in the day. The whole pleasure of a trip to China was tasting the snacks and food you couldn’t get anywhere else, the fried catfish with beans in a red sauce, the spicy pork bun, the sugar-coated crab-apples. And the black stinky tofu. May picked out her phone and googled black tofu: “I wanna learn how to make it myself!”

The two girls were walking under the plane trees on the Changsha university campus. Penny taught English at Hunan Normal, May was here on a short visit. She’d come to see relatives in Guangzhou – the train was only two and a half hours. Then she would head up to Shanghai, and fly from there directly to London.

“That’s where Mao studied,” Penny said, pointing at a large building with painted eaves on the left. “Isn’t it – weird – to think of him as a nineteen year old, walking along that path, looking at that same mountain over there?”

***

Penny was a perfect host so far: May had nothing to complain about. She’d come to the high-speed station in the far eastern suburbs, took her on a guided tour of the old district, and paid for their foot massage. Now she was showing her around the campus, diligently stopping at each interesting food-stall. Yet something in her friend’s attitude irritated her non-stop since they first got on the bus 709, and Penny started a long rant about the Chinese class system. “Migrant workers actually get a decent salary, you know. Just as long as there’s work for them – but there’s no security. That’s why they keep building up new towers: otherwise, if it stopped, there could be trouble.”

Penny’s knowledge came largely from conversations – held in Mandarin – at the ‘Blue Bell’ cafe. The Blue Bell was an institution of Changsha’s intellectual Left Bank. It opened in 1994, was run by a migrant from Hong Kong, and had been adopted as informal headquarters by student union leaders, the Hunan University Chess club, and a couple of local poets. They had an ‘East Asian’ movie night every first Wednesday of the month, and hosted musical events on the week-end. Penny first went by accident. She made friends with the day-time chief waiter, and became their resident westerner.

May didn’t like that bar at all. Something about it was spooky. Maybe the strange golden masks on the wall, or the blurry photographs of Asian girls in thick black frames. “They’re by a local artist,” Penny said, “his name is Zhang Wuxi. I met him here – he’s even asked me to model for him. Hey, I can send him a text if you like? Maybe we could have dinner with him tonight?”

May politely replied “sure.” Penny’s show off was irritating, but maybe meeting a local photographer could be fun.

Zhang Wuxi was not available for dinner, but he would meet them for a beer afterwards. “That’s OK, we can have dinner just the two of us: there’s a great place I wanna take you – Hunan style yum cha, it’s so good! They’ve got spicy red pepper salad and steamed beef.”

***

May and Penny took a taxi back to the Blue Bell cafe, where Zhang Wuxi was waiting for them. He sat at a window table on the first floor, with a bottle of Tsingtao beer. It was a clear day, and in the distance, they could see the Martyrs’ tower, sparkling with lights.

“We can just speak Chinese,” Penny said – Zhang Wuxi’s English was poor, and imposing a foreign language would limit interactions and bring embarrassment. May could understand that very well. Her Mandarin was patchy, and she wasn’t used to Hunan accents; but she was happy to just nod and smile politely while drifting around her own inner world, ordering memories of the days in Guangzhou with her cousin, and imagining her future life in Europe. She was heading for an apprenticeship at ‘Purple Jasmine’, the most renowned fusion restaurant in London. Their ‘wasabi veal’ had been selected as runner-up for best new dish on Good Eats magazine, and their sichuan pepper risotto won the ‘best rice-dish in London’ award. She combined flavours in her head, recalling surprising discoveries from the last few days, and experimented imaginary Hunan-inspired English food: deep-fried black tofu, chips and vinegar.

Zhang Wuxi was a disturbing figure: even though he never addressed May directly, she could feel him scrutinise her face, as if assessing where the shadows would fall on her cheekbones under different lights. Then he took out his phone, played around with it, and handed it to her. “Look,” he said. The photo showed a tall staircase, shot from the bottom up. He pointed out the window: “It’s that tower there. I’d like to take you tomorrow.”

Shuwen, the owner, came to their table at that precise moment, carrying a small plate of boiled peanuts: “I made them today, try them!” They were delicious “Is it aniseed and chilli?” Penny smiled: “Maybe you can teach my friend how to make them? She’s going to work at a fancy restaurant in London.”

Zhang Wuxi grabbed a few peanuts and took leave: “Tomorrow, 2pm, at the tower?” May smiled and nodded to Penny, who confirmed approval. “We were planning to visit the park anyway – we’d love to see it through your eyes – but don’t feel obliged, I know you’re very busy.”

“It would be my pleasure. See you tomorrow.”

***

Zhang Wuxi was waiting outside the grey stone door of the Martyrs’ tower. When he saw the girls walk up the stairs, he took a few steps to greet them: “You came, thank you”. They followed him inside through the marble atrium to a small lateral room with black and white photographs hanging on the walls.

He stopped and pointed a finger at one of them. May quivered a bit. Zhang Wuxi was intensely staring at her face, observing how the shadows fell on her cheekbones. Penny didn’t say a word. “She does look a lot like me,” May finally broke the silence. Penny commented: “It’s the first I’ve noticed how Chinese you look.”  But by then, May’s attention had already drifted entirely to that photograph and the story Zhang Wuxi would share.

The woman was Wu Meihua. She was a nurse at Changsha hospital, where she ran the first cell of the Chinese Communist Party. “She was my great aunt”, said Zhang Wuxi, “a personal friend of Mao Zedong, and an exceptional woman.” She died in the revolution, leaving a twin sister behind, Wu Mingzhu: “In our family, we call her the feeder of the people: she saved a lot of lives – but her picture will never hang in any monument.” He took out an old photograph for May to see. “You can always tell twins apart,” and after a pause, “you look more like her.”

***

They left the monument and walked along the pink flowerbeds to the lake. On the way, Penny stopped at a small Mc Donald’s booth to buy three cups of coffee.

Zhang Wuxi continued his family story. When she learnt about her sister’s death, Mingzhu made it her mission to survive – and help others around her survive. During the great famine, in the late fifties, her vow came to the test. As provisions got more and more scarce, she managed to run a secret bun shop, and prosper. Soon, however, rumours started circulating. Her buns tasted unusual. Week after week, the rumours got worse: dogs, rats, worms, beetles, corpses. Customers became aggressive: “What are you feeding us?” Nobody would speak to her on the street. Still, she survived, and kept her neighbourhood alive. Then, when the famine was over, officials knocked on her door. Black market profiteering was a serious crime: not only did Mingzhu lose her life to it, but the whole family suffered afterwards.

***

May’s plane for Shanghai was leaving early the next morning. Penny took her to the Blue Bell Cafe for a last drink. Zhang Wuxi was there: “I thought you would come”. He picked one of the thick black frames from the wall, and handed it over to May. Twin sisters, one wearing a nurse uniform, the other a chef hat. “Take it”.

Penny said – in English – “it’s beautiful!” May replied – in Mandarin – “it is beautiful.” Zhang Wuxi was intensely staring at her face, observing where the shadows fell on her cheekbones. “It’s my last night.” But he thought otherwise. “There are no last nights, people return.” And with a very thin smile, he asked her – “Would you like to come to my place, later? I’d love to take a photograph of you.”

NOTE: This story is the second in a planned series of #52, recomposing my memories of a term in China through fiction. All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. This story was written with the help of DraftQuest. Image and story are copyright @julienleyre.

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