Meetings with Remarkable Men
Lin Ming interprets for Du Yuesheng’s interview with W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood
While Thomas was learning to navigate Shanghai on his own, Lin Ming, who had been forced to leave that magical city, was searching for some other place in China that could accommodate his life.
First though, in the green and pretty spring of 1938, a year earlier, he had made his way to Hankou, after being summoned by his father. Du Yuesheng no longer commanded him, but to Lin it was right and appropriate that he see his father once again; besides, he wished to visit Hankou. In that first stage of the war that followed the brutal losses of Shanghai and Nanjing, Hankou, a middle-Yangtze treaty port, turned into a sort of casual and unofficial capital. Du Yuesheng established a legal domicile in Hong Kong and then quickly decamped to Hankou;. Many others did the same, indeed it seemed that all the most important people in China had ended up there, as if by shared magnetic force, not only Chiang Kai-shek and his wife, Soong Meiling, but also Zhou Enlai and other prominent leftists, as well as journalists, officials, and various men of wealth and power.
The rich and famous lived in the center of the city, in the great European-style buildings along the river, among the consulates and banks and warehouses and offices. There were shops and restaurants and parks and cinemas and temples and churches, bars and clubs and flower houses and mah-jong dens. Beyond this affluent core with its wide, well-landscaped streets there lay a labyrinth of poor Chinese slums that spread all the way out to Hankou’s airfield. Lin Ming saw it all from the motorcycle sidecar in which he rode into town.
At Du Yuesheng’s building, he was immediately noticed by Fiery, who waved him past the phalanx of six guards standing at attention outside the heavily fortified apartment door.
Inside, Lin’s first impression of Du was that he was smaller somehow, as if the loss of Shanghai had shrunken him; indeed, when he turned to lead Lin Ming to the inner rooms after greeting him with glad surprise, Lin noticed he was much thinner. Would he himself look like this, at Du’s age?
No, because Du had the taint of evil, and he, Lin Ming, would always do right. Or would he? He had done nothing so far except watch passively as Night in Shanghai fell apart. Not that he could have done a thing to stop it.
“I’m glad you are here,” Du was saying. “I can use your assistance this morning.”
“So happy to serve.”
Du did not catch the humor, instead inclining his head in thanks. Lin felt a chill go through him. Was it possible that here, in his private apartment, Du still believed himself Lord of Shanghai, boss of the Qing Bang, and a great civic leader?
“Listen,” said Du. “Two British journalists are on their way over here to interview me. You must translate.”
Interview you for what? Lin wondered. Losing control of the Green Gang? Abandoning Shanghai to the Japanese?
Du steepled his fingertips. “I have been named to the Board of the Chinese Red Cross,” he said. “Did you know that? Yes. I made a sizable donation. That’s why these two Englishmen want to interview me.”
Was this a joke? Du, toppled gangster, hater of all things foreign, now a board member of the international Red Cross, granting interviews to English journalists? “What are their names?” said Lin.
Du looked at their cards. “W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood.”
The names meant nothing to Lin Ming. “Shall I tell them I am your son?”
“By no means.” Du loved to manipulate whenever possible. “The interview is for the Red Cross. We will say you are a doctor.”
“Be ready, now,” Du said, as Flowery Flag opened the door on the other side of the large room and showed in two men, one a tall, sloppy-looking blond aristocrat with a cigarette burning between his fingers and the other a trim, kinetic, dark-haired fellow with a square chin and sunny smile.
Flowery noticed Lin and burst into Shanghainese. “So, Little Eel, now you visit your father? What, you’re so poor you can’t come before? So poor you can’t afford a stick to beat the drum and have to use your little dick to do the job, is that it? Well, at least you’ve come at last. And here are your dull-witted, dog’s-fart foreigners.” He swept his hand at the two useless Brits and finished with an audible belch.
Lin stepped toward them and held out his hand in the affable American way he had learned at Lamb of God. “Lin Ming. Great pleasure.”
The tall, listing blond with the cigarette put out a halfhearted hand. “Auden,” he said. “Wystan Hugh.”
“Mr. Auden,” Lin replied, and then turned to shake hands with the darker man, who returned his smile with easy geniality.
“Mr. Isherwood. Pleasure. Lin Ming.”
“And you are with the Chinese Red Cross?”
“Not exactly. In a way.”
“You’re a doctor, then?”
“Yes. Call me Doctor Lin. Shall we go meet Du Yuesheng?” And they crossed the cavernous parlor, with its different sections defined by arrangements of sofas, or gaming tables. Du stood by the fireplace, as stone-like and impressive as ever, even if Lin could see the new sharpness to his shoulders and his cheekbones.
Isherwood had a small, leather-bound memo pad in his hand and a slim gold-plated pen——a lady’s pen, Lin thought. “So Mr. Du is what, a government official?”
Where do they get this? Lin wondered. “Yes, exactly,” said Lin, and glanced over to see Isherwood write the words high government official in an elegant hand. “But also a business leader. Shipping companies, finance, that sort of thing. He is a director of the Bank of China.”
“Sort of a Rockefeller,” said Isherwood.
Lin winced inwardly. “You might say.”
“Coming back to his position in government, could you translate for us the name of his political party, the Qing Bang?”
Political party! It took all Lin’s control not to laugh. “Well, bang means clique or band,” he said, avoiding the obvious word gang, the more precise translation. “And qing means green, but a clear, light green… I would say it is the color of jade. Yes, like jade.”
“Hmm.” Isherwood absorbed this. “The Jade Band, then. How about that?”
Auden who had been listening closely, agreed at once. “Oh yes. I quite like that. Let’s use it.”
Isherwood smiled, and wrote it down, as Lin stared. Of course, he reassured himself, he would have been happy to inform them that English speakers everywhere referred to Du’s erstwhile army as the Green Gang, but they seemed to prefer their own translation, and as they were professional writers, well, perhaps they knew better. Let them use ‘jade band’.
Meanwhile Du was taking their measure. “Jijian fan,” he sniffed. Sodomites. It was an observation, no more, delivered as if remarking on their appearance.
“Mr. Du says he is so pleased to meet you,” said Lin.
Du did not offer his hand——he always went to great lengths to avoid touching foreigners——and they seemed to understand this, saying “Our pleasure,” in their arch British way.
“Mr. Auden,” said Lin. “Mr. Isherwood. Please.”He steered them to a set of stuffed chairs, placed in a typical Chinese square around a low table. When all three were seated, Du moved magisterially to lower himself into the highest-ranking seat, facing the door.
“Dispense with these turtle eggs,” Du said to him. “I have business to discuss with you, matters of importance.”
“Du Yuesheng asks if you have any questions,” said Lin.
“We do,” said Isherwood. “As Mr. Du is the Director, we’d like to know more about the Chinese Red Cross. How many doctors do you have?”
Lin turned to his father and spoke in Chinese. “He thinks you are the head of the Red Cross.” Red Cross half a million silver, that’s all. More importantly: we are running again——shipping. It is vital that we keep industry going here in free China, or we cannot support the war effort.”
War effort my balls. You want to make money. Everything was clearer to Lin now.
“I need you,” Du was staying. “Work for me. Stay here in Hankou.”
Lin turned to the two patient Englishmen. “My master says, there are eight thousand doctors in China.” He turned back to Du and switched to Mandarin. “What about your sons? Aren’t they here?”
Du’s face darkened, and Lin was reminded, as he so often was when he considered his father’s life, that there were some things neither money nor power could ensure. “I need you,” Du repeated stubbornly.
Lin swallowed back the flicker of triumph he felt at the words, having always known that none of Du’s legitimate sons had the strength he possessed.
Once, it would have meant the world to Lin Ming to be validated. Now, it hardly mattered. He held his father’s gaze.
“My good fellow, excuse me,” said the tall, droopy, yellow-haired man. “But how many of these doctors are in the Red Cross?”
Lin never took his eyes off Du. “So you are shipping where? Up the Yangtze to Sichuan?”
Du nodded. “And also up the Grand Canal to north China.”
“Through Japanese lines! How could that be possible?”
“We pay them, of course. How else?”
Lin felt his lip curl. For the first time in his life, in front of his father, he did not try to hide it.
“My good man,” Auden prompted.
“Twelve hundred,” Lin spat back in English. “Doctors in the Red Cross.” He switched to Chinese. “So you’re doing business with Japan.”
“It’s that, or abandon north China to the wolves!”
So you become one of the wolves? That’s how you resist? “To pay them anything is give them more power.”
Du dismissed this with a precise movement of his hand. Isherwood spoke up: “What about soldiers at the front?”
Lin turned to him, focused on his English. “Of course. Many soldiers at the front are wounded. Though arrangements are far from perfect, we have sent several mobile units.”
“To my offer, what do you say?” Du interrupted in Chinese. “Will you stay?”
Not if you’re working with those devils. “I’m sorry, Teacher,” he said, using the old appellation to at least give his father some face. “I have already set my plan. I am going inland. He said no more, for this was a complete lie and he had no plans at all, but for the first time ever he stood tall against his father. He may have lacked plans and even ambitions, now that Night in Shanghai was gone, but he was a free man on that spring day of 1938, still young. He had time on his side.
It was a start.
“I see,” said Du. “Well.” Never one to allow weakness, he brushed his hands together in a show of finality. “Then at least get these dripping pustules out of here so we can have a decent lunch before you go. The smell of them sours my appetite.”
Deep into the next winter, Lin Ming still remembered the seamless politeness with which he had turned back to the two Englishmen. “Mr. Auden and Mr. Isherwood, Mr. Du Yuesheng wishes to say how much he appreciates your interest in China’s Red Cross. He wishes to thank you——in the name of humanity.”