Couple of Mirrors – Chapter 34: No More Secrets
(cn: blood, guns, war and casualties of war, child death)
‘I grew up as a soldier in a foreign mercenary company,’ Yan Wei recounts. ‘Every day of my life, it was either kill or be killed.’
We get a flashback to Yan Wei rushing across a battlefield with her comrades, dodging explosions and gunfire.
‘Yan,’ her commander instructs, ‘they want us to break through the enemy’s defensive lines as quickly as possible!’
Yan Wei knocks an enemy soldier on the head with the butt of her rifle, then pulls out a knife and cuts his throat.
‘I grew tired of war,’ Yan Wei continues. ‘I wanted to live a normal life, so I ran away from the company.’
We get a flashback to Yan Wei bandaging a wounded comrade’s arm. ‘Are you really leaving?’ he asks her. ‘Going back to your home country?’
‘Yes,’ she replies.
‘But what will you do once you get there?’ he asks.
‘Live as a normal person,’ she answers.
He smiles, shaking his head. ‘Even if the company decides not to go after you, it’s impossible for someone like you to live a normal life.’
Yan Wei doesn’t — or can’t — respond.
‘I made my way back home,’ Yan Wei’s narration continues. ‘I opened my studio and tried my best to seem like an normal person.’
In another flashback, Yan Wei stands just outside her studio, eyeing the dessert stall opposite. She’s holding a wad of cash in one hand. ‘Osmanthus flower and red bean soup, sweet lotus-seed porridge,’ cries the stall-holder, hawking her wares. ‘Sweet and sticky.’
The local bully, whom we’ll soon find out is called A-Fa, accosts Yan Wei. ‘Give me that money!’
Yan Wei sidesteps him easily.
Outraged, he jabs a finger at her. ‘How dare you pick a fight with me? Do you want to die?’
Yan Wei fantasises briefly about putting A-Fa in his place…
…Restraint, she reminds herself.
She allows A-Fa to snatch her bag and money away from her. ‘Give that here!’ he snarls.
‘Soon after that,’ Yan Wei continues, ‘I met Hongmei, the milk delivery girl.’
We flash back to Yan Wei doodling a series of gruesome deaths for A-Fa. The page is labelled ‘One Hundred Ways for A-Fa to Die’. ‘What do you think?’ she asks Good Luck. ‘They’re not bad, right?’
Good Luck stares up at her, wide-eyed.
We flash back to Hongmei arriving at the studio. ‘Here’s your milk, miss!’
She looks around the studio. ‘Did you take all these photographs yourself, miss? You’re so talented!’
As she watches Yan Wei gulp down the milk, Hongmei says, ‘Miss, you don’t have to drink that so quickly. I can collect the bottle tomorrow—’
Yan Wei finishes the milk and hands the bottle over. ‘Here.’
Hongmei takes the bottle and glances outside. Rain is falling relentlessly. ‘Miss, it’s raining so heavily. Can I stay here for a little while longer?’
‘You can,’ says Yan Wei.
‘Thank you, miss!’ says Hongmei.
Just then, A-Fa walks into the studio. ‘Ah, a familiar face!’
‘What do you want?’ asks Yan Wei.
‘Protection money,’ says A-Fa. ‘Get it?’
Yan Wei shakes her head, and A-Fa becomes agitated. ‘Money that will protect you from getting beaten up,’ he snarls. ‘Get it?’
He walks around the counter. ‘If you don’t get it, then just step aside!’
Hongmei tugs at his arm. ‘Please, sir. Business here hasn’t been very good for the last little while, maybe you could wait until—’
A-Fa grabs hold of her hair and tugs it brutally. Hongmei yelps in pain. ‘You little whelp! I haven’t been asking you for money lately, and here you are, poking your nose into my business!’
‘Let go of her!’ Yan Wei calls out. She flings a box of cash at him. ‘It’s all here.’
Satisfied, A-Fa leaves the studio with a thick wad of cash in hand. ‘You should have done that earlier!’
‘I’m sorry I couldn’t help you, miss,’ says Hongmei dejectedly.
Yan Wei only stares at her.
‘Bye bye, miss,’ Hongmei adds, and steps out into the rain. A moment later, an umbrella appears over her head.
It is, of course, held by Yan Wei.
‘You’re so kind, miss,’ says Hongmei happily. ‘You’re even taking the trouble to walk me home!’
‘What’s your name, miss?’ asks Hongmei. Without waiting for a response, she adds, ‘My name is Hongmei — have you heard of it before? It’s a cigarette brand! You can buy three packs for one yuan. If you buy ten packs at once, you can even get a discount one jiao per pack!’
‘My mother said, when she was pregnant with me, all she wanted was a Hongmei cigarette,’ Hongmei continues. ‘But she didn’t manage to have one until after her confinement. That’s why she named me Hongmei. Isn’t that interesting?’
Yan Wei is silent.
Hongmei points excitedly at a passing tram, which carries an advertisement for Xu Youyi’s latest book. ‘It’s Xu Youyi! Have you heard of her, miss?’
Yan Wei shakes her head.
‘You really haven’t heard of her?’ asks Hongmei in amazement. ‘But she’s the most famous authoress in all of Shanghai! She’s from a poor family as well, but now she’s married into a rich family with a big house in the Settlement. She’s in the newspapers all the time!’
‘My mother says, once I’ve saved up one hundred yuan, she’s going to send me to school,’ Hongmei continues. ‘Then I can learn to read and write, and marry into a good family as well!’
Yan Wei looks at her pensively.
‘I didn’t understand why, given her circumstances, she could still be so full of warmth towards other people,’ Yan Wei recounts. ‘But she taught me something new about what “normal people” could be like. Later, I realised that she would never be able to save enough money for school…’
We get a flashback to Hongmei’s mother, wrestling money out of her own daughter’s hands. ‘Isn’t it payday today?’ she demands. ‘One yuan? Is that all you have? Fine, I’m out of cigarettes anyway. This will be enough for a pack of Hongmei.’
‘She couldn’t even afford to buy a copy of your book,’ Yan Wei’s narration continues.
We flash back to Yan Wei telling Hongmei, ‘Why don’t you give me a bottle of milk, and I’ll see if I can exchange it for a book.’
‘Will that work?’ asks Hongmei dubiously.
‘And then she died,’ Yan Wei recounts. ‘I took the red string from her wrist.’
‘Later,’ Yan Wei continues, ‘I learned the truth of what happened from Xiao Pang, one of the milk delivery boys.’
We flash back to Hongmei getting run over by Zhang Wan. She manages to force out a single word: ‘Help…’
Xiao Pang watches in horror.
‘Hongmei!’ he shouts, rushing over to her.
Zhang Wan starts to drive away, but then she reverses course, and backs the car right over Hongmei.
‘That was the night I fired Zhang Wan,’ says Xu Youyi. ‘She drove off in Zhou Heng’s car, and she used the fact that it was his car to blackmail him.’
Please view the original manhua here.
- The ‘Settlement’ refers to one of the foreign enclaves that were established in Shanghai during the late nineteenth century to early twentieth century. Each concession was administered by a different foreign power and was governed by the laws of that power. They developed their own sub-cultures, which were culturally and socially distinct from Chinese culture.