No One Fought Back Then

Back then you would say, it’s raining, the roof is leaking over here, and the union would send a couple boys over with a wheelbarrow and a bit of tarpaper or a tarp. Problem solved, and you can keep on living there. See if anyone gives a shit now. You could sleep on the streets for all they care. These days? The union? Fuck. Some fucking union it is these days. Now they’ve got the union name but no substance.

We had a different attitude back then. Decency, friendship, family. Now—fuck—everybody’s fallen into the money trap.

Photograph by Herry Lawford.

Kang He is from Zhejiang province, the son of a farmer and an itinerant laborer. He moved to Beijing in 1993, later bringing his wife over from his hometown. He has tried many professions: home tutor, Chinese teacher, columnist for a fashion magazine, editor of a university website, events coordinator for a theater company, and theater director. His novels include Sparta and A Cavalier. The following excerpt is taken from Anthropology (2015), a panorama of northerners and southerners who converge on major metropolises, especially the capital, Beijing, in 1999. It attempts to record a panoply of voices, adhering as closely as possible to the sounds and speech patterns of their topolects. The excerpt records a conversation between a Beijing cabbie and a passenger from out of town. It has been condensed and edited by the translator, Alice Xin Liu.

Cabbie
Family used to matter. Basic decency. Now? Now everyone’s got dog shit where their hearts used to be. Like we used to say about the Japanese, no fucking consciences. Was the planned economy such a terrible thing? If you fell ill, you wouldn’t have to pay a cent. Folks who get sick now? They take every last dime. You know?

Passenger
Yeah.

Cabbie
Back then you would say, it’s raining, the roof is leaking over here, and the union would send a couple boys over with a wheelbarrow and a bit of tarpaper or a tarp. Problem solved, and you can keep on living there. See if anyone gives a shit now. You could sleep on the streets for all they care. You got sick, the union showed up with a fruit basket. These days? The union? Fuck. Some fucking union it is these days. Now they’ve got the union name but no substance.

Passenger
What do you mean?

Cabbie
You know what I’m talking about, right? Back then the economy was really—whew!—inefficient. You had to use ration tickets for everything. Though wasn’t inefficiency also good for some things?

Passenger
Hah.

Cabbie
You’d just take the day off, damn it, and you’d be fine.

Passenger
What happens now?

Cabbie
You would never take a sick day now—who’d cover for you?

Passenger
I guess no one.

Cabbie
HEY, LEARN TO RIDE A BIKE! Anyway, people were decent.

Passenger
People were poorer back then.

Cabbie
But you weren’t the only one; everybody was poor, and there are still plenty of poor people now. How many people buy property?

Passenger
Not many.

Cabbie
These days, I wouldn’t even have enough money to pay rent, let alone buy a house. If you gave me a house I couldn’t pay the utility bills.

Passenger
It’s sweet for Beijingers like you—you all own your own place.

Cabbie
Not everyone! So what the fuck is going on? Back in the planned economy, the social welfare system assigned you properties and gave you them for free, not like it is now. You might get an eight- or ten-square meter property per person, according to seniority.

Passenger
Even so, there must have been infighting.

Cabbie
No one fought back then.

Passenger
Are you sure?

Cabbie
Of course, I was there! I refused the apartment I was assigned! My wife was against paying the 2 yuan a month in admin fees, so I gave it up.

Passenger
2 yuan?

Cabbie
Back then I earned just over 30 a month.

Passenger
Heheheheh. And you didn’t want to pay 2 yuan?

Cabbie
Of course not.

Passenger
Heheheheh.

Cabbie
Back then the work unit built assignment properties. We were told to go to a single-story unit in one of the hutongs. If you turned up at the housing office in 1970, you could live in an apartment, but I went in 1975. According to the ranks, you got a 7 yuan raise every time you moved up one level, and half of that for half a level. But say there were ten of us ready for a half-level bump-up, we would have to take it in turns. You said we were poorer back then, but I got married with 400 kuai in the bank.1 What could you do with that now?

Passenger
Heheheheheh.

Cabbie
Don’t you tell me everyone is earning so fucking much right now! Pork is still 80 kuai for a half-kilo.

Passenger
What brand of pork costs 80 kuai a half-kilo?

Cabbie
Just as an example. Back then it was 6 mao for a half-kilo.2 It works out the same; it’s not about how much money you have.

Passenger
Yeah.

Cabbie
We had a different attitude back then. Decency, friendship, family. Now—fuck—everybody’s fallen into the money trap. Like we used to say about the Japanese, no fucking consciences. Who would fight if a war broke out now? No soldiers left, only children. A war is no picnic! The last time we were at war was forty years ago, and back then, soldiers were loyal. They got 2 catties of silver after charging at the enemy, and 5 catties of silver for a successful campaign.

Passenger
Yeah.

Cabbie
Take me. I’ve been through some stuff. I’ve lived on corn buns; I’ve worked in the countryside. You? McDonald’s and KFC since you were how old? I can make a meal out of flat bread and pig meat; or two eggs and 8 mao worth of noodles. Can you? If a war broke out now, who would sign up their only child?

Passenger
Nobody would sign up.

Cabbie
Money or no money, who’d go?

Passenger
Yeah.

Cabbie
Back then Deng Xiaoping had authority, what about now?

Passenger
Is there an accident?

Cabbie
No, traffic jam. It’ll be more jammed after the festival. Today, if there’s wine, why not get drunk? Nobody knows the name of the President. What do they fucking care? Whoever’s got the milk is the mom. Mao and Zhou were basically family back then.

Passenger
It’s because there aren’t enough newspaper and TV reports about the current leadership.

Cabbie
No, no, no. Know why? When we were growing up, it was just like North Korea. I started school in 1960, and all day we had to recite: “Two—thirds—of—the—world—still—live—in—extreme—misery. Taiwan—is—still—under—the—rule—of—Chiang—Kai-shek—and—the—people—live—in—
extreme—misery.” Then the opening up and reform campaign began, and fuck me, Taiwan became one of the Four Asian Dragons? Fuck, we were still using rations for soap!

Passenger
Heheheheheh.

Cabbie
At the time it was . . . fuck . . . it was like North Korea.

Passenger
So do you miss it?

Cabbie
I wouldn’t say that. It was just how we were educated, every day. We knew Mao’s “Three Old Essays” by heart. We believed all the books. Fuck, at forty I can make a living without being a cabbie. If I didn’t do it I could be at home, waiting for dinner.

Passenger
You do it for the kids?

Cabbie
Kids? I regret having kids. Shit. Do you smoke?

Passenger
Yes.

Cabbie
Do you have a cigarette?

Passenger
Yes, I do.

Cabbie
I finish at eight, make 100 kuai; I eat, drink, and smoke. I don’t ask for money from my wife, I don’t want her on my case. No one should tell you how to spend money; shit, she can say what she pleases.

Passenger
You spend it on yourself.

Cabbie
I don’t spend it on myself. First my wife asks me for 10 kuai for the water meter, then 20 for the electricity. There’s no point burning the candle at both ends to give my wife 3,000 kuai a month. Because then she wants the same thing next month. Now this bitch only understands money. Some men ask for it, they leave at five in the morning, get home at ten. Then one day you go home at four because you’ve got a stomachache, and your wife asks why you’re home so early. You brought it on yourself, didn’t you?

Passenger
Yes.

Cabbie
Best to earn your own money, and spend it yourself. What do you want to eat at lunch? Pig intestines? Zhajiang noodles? I make 15 yuan from you, which is enough for anything I want, even a bowl of knife-shaved noodles.

Passenger
Knife-shaved and zhajiang noodles don’t cost the same.

Cabbie
Zhajiang noodles are 2 yuan, 5 mao. Making money isn’t easy. So I tell my buddies to eat and drink. Or screw if you’re young. Get a hooker.

Passenger
Hahahahahaha.

Cabbie
Prostitutes call you “mister” when you’re rich, but otherwise they’ve got no time for you. How sad to spend your money on someone that’s not you!

Passenger
Your buddies might prefer a hooker to zhajiang noodles.

Cabbie
A hooker, first you have to, uh, you know, you have to have money. It’s over in three or four minutes, anyway, wouldn’t even be that long for me, three gos and I’m done.

Passenger
Hahahahahaha.

Cabbie
It doesn’t even need to be a young girl. Any old woman feels better than my wife. Money doesn’t come easy, I’m just saying. I’m good at enjoying myself. I’d do it if I had money, too.

Passenger
Sex is bad for your health.

Cabbie
It’s good when you’re doing it. It’s the same as smoking. If you’re meant to die today, you will. So do what you want. You have to listen to the doctor, but not all of it. Otherwise you can’t smoke, drink, eat meat or eggs, play cards or get a hooker, because too much excitement is bad for you. Can’t enjoy anything.

Passenger
Pay attention to the road!

Cabbie
You have to know your limits. Don’t do anything you can’t handle. I can play cards, or get some young girl to massage my feet. My wife won’t touch my feet. I wouldn’t feel anything anyway.

Passenger
Hahahahahaha.

Cabbie
200 kuai for a screw? Not worth it, unless I had the money.

Passenger
We’re almost there.

Cabbie
The cabbies go to Langfang. Langfang or Tianjin, where the hookers are cheaper. It’s good to screw, otherwise we’re just sitting doing nothing. But sex is still just sex. Like cabbage, you’d eat it no matter what. Stir-fried with vinegar or stewed. You’d eat it if it had gone sour. It’s all in the head. As the old saying goes: Eat whatever, fall asleep wherever.

Passenger
You’re right. Stop here.

Cabbie
Not having a heart means nothing bothers you: Eat whatever, fall asleep wherever. That’s the right attitude. Fourteen.

  1. Kuai is an informal word for yuan

  2. 1 yuan is equivalent to 10 mao. 

If you like this article, please subscribe to n+1.

Related Articles

March 23, 2016
Episode 23: Inherited Disorders
June 9, 2014

Tuition was free. He hardly showed up except for biweekly badminton classes.

May 6, 2010

This will be the toughest negotiation of the day. I will undoubtedly eat a great number of the little low-end donuts.

Issue 6 Mainstream

Humans can’t fly in Pamuk’s novels, and they don’t wrestle with their secularity in Marquez’s.