Title: Petulia's Rouge Tin.
Author: Su Tong (translated by Jane Weizhen Pan and Martin Merz).
Genre: Literature, fiction, novella, prostitution, social criticism.
Publication Date: 1991.
Summary: China, early 1950s: Two friends find themselves on their way to a re-education camp for those not adhering to the standards of the new order – working girls, madams, misfits. Who would have anticipated that Petulia, stripped of her silk gowns, would be forced to denounce the Red Delight Pavilion? Or believed that Autumn Grace would cry in desperation as nuns shave off her locks? After years working side-by-side, their sudden goodbye is the first sign of a changing society. Still, the scent of rouge filling their memories keeps them close, despite the twists and turns that life throws at them. Until one day, the promise of love and stability becomes a temptation neither can deny...
My rating: 7.5/10
♥ "Alright. Whatever you want." Mr P'u gently lifted her gown to peek inside. "Autumn Grace," he sighed. "You'll be the death of me."
Autumn Grace pretended to spit on the ground. "Sweet talk means nothing to me," she retorted. "I really would like to gouge a man's heart out with a knife to look closely and see what it's made of. Probably just filthy mud. Then I would no longer harbour any illusions."
♥ Autumn Grace covered part of her face with a silk scarf and held Mr P'u's arm as the rickshaw threaded its way through the bleak and disorderly streets. Cinemas were still showing Hollywood movies; the heroes and beautiful women on the movie billboards were as enamoured with each other as ever. Autumn Grace pointed to a billboard. "You see that couple," she said. "They're fake."
"What's fake?" asked Mr P'u, puzzled.
"It's all fake," said Autumn Grace. Your kindness to me is fake. My ardour for you is fake. Sealing off Emerald Cloud Lane is fake, too. I just can't believe that men don't like to visit brothels. Is this world any purer for throwing us out?"
♥ Then the prostitutes started to wail in unison. "Stop crying!" the officer bellowed. "Whoever doesn't stop will be shot dead!"
"We are not allowed to kill ourselves, and even crying is forbidden. How are we supposed to live?" someone in the crowd protested. "Why don't you shoot us all and be done with it!"
A gaggle of prostitutes then rushed up to grab the legs of the officer and the soldiers. They tore off their uniforms and squeezed their genitals. In an instant, the labour camp descended into chaos. The searchlight on the watchtower zeroed in on the scene and gunshots reverberated. Putulia jumped behind a wall to take refuge, dumbfounded by the battle she had precipitated. She never imagined it would result in this.
Reports of the prostitutes' disturbance at the Women's Labour Training Institute even made it into the newspapers. That was in late spring of 1950. As news reports are always concise they did not mention Petulia's name, let alone that she was the catalyst.
♥ "Your attitude is not conducive to becoming a reformed person," said the woman cadre calmly. "Tell us why you wanted to die. Tell us about your suffering, we are all class sisters. We also suffered in the Old Society."
"I already told you. I have blisters on my fingers and can't sew thirty sacks, do I might as well die."
"That is not the main reason. The brothel exploited and oppressed you for many years. You suffered bitterly in the Old Society and are consumed by a deep-rooted class hatred. Yet you were powerless to resist. Yesterday you were afraid you would fall into the clutches of your enemies again, so you wanted to die. Am I right?"
"I don't know," Petulia kept her head lowered and stared at the hole in her stocking. "I'm scared."
"Don't be afraid. No one can hurt you now. You were brought here to reform yourself and give you a chance to be a new person in the New Society as soon as possible. Brothels are products of the Old Society, and they have been eliminated. What do you want to do in future? Be a worker? Or perhaps a shop clerk?"
"I don't know. I'm happy to do anything as long as it's not too tiring."
"Good. Now, Petulia, tell us about how you fell into the clutches of the madam at the brothel. We want to help you. We want you to attend the women's meeting next month to denounce the madam and the brothel owner for exploitation and oppression."
"I don't want to," said Petulia. "How can you talk about such things in public? I wouldn't be able to say anything."
"We are not asking you to talk about those filthy things," the woman cadre said, blushing slightly. "It's a denunciation. Do you understand? For example, you can denounce the way the brothel tricked you into their trap and how they beat you up when you attempted to escape. It's all right of you exaggerate a little. The important thing is to reclaim a debt of blood from your enemies. After that all you have to do is shout a few slogans."
"I can't do a denunciation, I really can't," said Petulia indifferently. "Perhaps you don't know that I signed a contract to prostitute myself at Red Delight Pavilion. Besides, they never beat me up. I took in customers to earn an honest living. Why would they want to beat me?"
"You are saying you entered Red Delight Pavilion on your own volition?"
"Yes." Petulia lowered her head again. "I was sixteen when my father died and then my mother remarried. I had to leave my hometown and come here to work. No one looked after me. I had to earn money to look after myself."
"Why didn't you work in a silk reeling factory? We were born poor, too, but we all worked silk reeling factories. We earned enough money to live on."
"You don't mind slaving away in a factory, but I can't take it." Petulia appeared completely inconsolable. She covered her face with her hands and whimpered. "All of you are from good families. But I was born a whore. I have no choice, I was born a whore."
♥ Now Petulia had nothing. Autumn Grace could not imagine what Petulia's life would be like in the future. The moment a woman has no money she can only depend on a man, but men are never reliable.
♥ Autumn Grace would never forget her first night at Joyous Moon Priory. She slept alone in a small store-room piled high with firewood and farm tools. A candle flickered on the windowsill. The night wind soughed through the bamboo grove outside, and later she heard the trickling of rain. She tossed and turned at the sound of the rain, thinking of how she slept beside Mr P'u just the previous evening. Overnight, the remnants of her old world filled with the scent of rouge powder lay out of reach, beyond the walls. Autumn Grace mused on her situation. This world is truly treacherous and unpredictable. A person can live up to today and not know what will happen tomorrow. Who would have thought that Autumn Grace of Red Delight Pavilion would enter a convent?
♥ A waiter brought over the bill. Fortunately, Mr P'u had enough money to avoid making a spectacle of himself. He even tipped generously, like a real gentleman. Petulia hooked her arm in Mr P'u's when they left the restaurant. All sorts of feelings welled up in Mr P'u's mind when he thought about his own bleak situation – his dream life had come to an end. An impecunious man in front of a woman is a useless man.
♥ Mr P'u quickly sealed her lips with his dry and coarse tongue. They began to float in the darkness, in silence.
♥ Her monthly salary was only fourteen yuan, which was barely enough to get by on.
She was stunned the first time she received her pay packet. "What can I do with this pittance?" she groused.
"Depends on what you want to use it for," retorted the female factory manager. "Of course, it can't compare with your previous income, but this money is clean, and it carries no shame."
Petulia was a little embarrassed. "What's this about clean and dirty?" she shot back. "Money is money, people are people. Even the cleanest people need money, just like the dirtiest people. Who on earth doesn't like money?"
♥ "You just want to see me die!" she wailed, pointing her finger at Mr P'u's nose. "You are the scion of a good family. Why are you consorting with whores? I'm not giving you a penny. You might as well just kill me!"
"Petulia is a good girl. We'll be a good couple once we're married," said Mr P'u, patiently defending his decision.
"A whore is always a whore, no matter how good she is! Do you really think a woman like that would be a good wife?" sneered Mrs P'u.
"Mother, I'm begging you. Petulia is already pregnant."
"Pregnant?" Mrs P'u snorted. She certainly is a crafty one. Why must the continuation of the P'u family line depend on a whore?"
..In the end, Mrs P'u collapsed into a rattan armchair and wailed. Mr P'u found his mother's harrowing reaction a little revolting.
Why all this drama? It's not like I'm a murderer or an arsonist. All I want is to marry Petulia from Emerald Cloud Lane. Why can't I marry a prostitute? My heart is set on Petulia, and no one can do anything about it.
In the end, Mrs P'u handed her son a metallic cigarette case, inside which was give gold ingots. She coldly glared at him. "This is everything the P'u family has. Take it and do whatever you like. If you squander it all, don't come back to me – you are no longer my son."
♥ Petulia's background was no secret to the guests. But after objective conjecture, they concluded that the marriage was a matter of course.
Weddings are always joyful occasions that eclipse the vulgar talk of men and the secret suspicions of women.
♥ Autumn Grace's black robe soon melted into the darkness. Petulia felt it was all so surreal. She and Mr P'u had almost forgotten about Autumn Grace. Maybe it was their intention, or maybe it was meant to be that way. Sometimes, men are like buses that women have to hitch a ride on. Whoever gets on the bus will move on with life. Petulia thought Autumn Grace should not be angry at her, and there was no use of being angry at her anyway – now she and Mr P'u were already married.
♥ "What's wrong with playing a bit of mahjong? I'm stuck at home all day and hardly ever get a chance to platy. What are you so angry about?"
"I slave away at the office to make money to feed my family and am not even greeted with a cup of hot tea. You've got it good, fondling mahjong tiles till the wee hours." Petulia lifted up the covers and caressed Mr P'u's manhood. "Oh come on, my dear, don't be angry. I won't play mahjong anymore. I depend on you. I can't afford to make you angry."
Mr P'u rolled over and sighed.
"Why are you sighing? You're my man so of course, you have to make money to look after me. There are no more brothels, otherwise, I'd be able to make some money to look after you, and wouldn't have to put up with your dirty looks."
♥ Autumn Grace glanced at her aunt. "You mean I must return to the priory? What if I don't want to be a nun anymore?"
"I'm not banishing you to the priory," said her aunt a little embarrassed. "This is your home, after all, and whether or not you return is entirely up to you."
"I want you to tell me the truth," said Autumn Grace, turning to face her aunt. "Do you want me to stay?"
Her aunt hesitated for a moment. "Better go back," she said softly. "Since you became a nun, the neighbours have had no excuse to bad-mouth our family."
Autumn Grace blankly stared out the window at the run-down neighbourhood. She did not move as tears silently streamed down her cheeks. After a while, she bit her lip and spoke. "You're right," she said, "it's better for me to go back. People outside the priory have had their hearts eaten by dogs."
♥ Eventually, Autumn Grace was once again surrounded by a silent void that was too deep for her tears.
♥ Mr P'u named his son Griever.
"This name is no good," said Petulia. "It sounds dreadful. Why not "Sunny" or something else?"
Mr P'u waved his hand dismissively. "I want to call him Griever. It's meaningful."
Petulia frowned. "What do you mean by that?" she asked.
Mr P'u picked up his son and gazed at the baby's face. "It means what it means. Griever – growing up with nothing but grief, so much grief there can be no tears."
♥ "Don't cry," said Autumn Grace. "You can rest assured that I will treat him better than you could. Do you understand?"
"I understand everything, except myself."
Only Autumn Grace went to the train station to see Petulia off. She had thought about bringing Griever with her, but changed her mind just before leaving home. All she took was a bag filled with fruit, preserved plums, and some other snacks.
Autumn Grace and Petulia had their sisterly talk for the last time on the railway station platform. Petulia blankly stared into the distance the whole time.
"What are you looking at? "Asked Autumn Grace.
Petulia's pallid lips quivered. "I'm looking for the archway of Emerald Cloud Lane, but I can't find it."
"How can you possibly see the archway?" said Autumn Grace. "It's too far away."
Then the trail pulled away, taking Petulia to the north to follow a man.