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In a narrow alley near Buji River, between a makeshift open market and a karaoke nightclub, the brick-roofed, small-windowed bungalows had been on the government's teardown list since the previous winter. It was fall, but no workers and cranes were there. Rumor said the government had been preoccupied with renovating ancient temples and shopping malls to attract tourists. The bungalows' red roof tiles had darkened from age and pollution. Their stucco walls were covered in graffiti scribbled by the kids going to and from a nearby elementary school—the alley was their shortcut. Along with the graffiti were scattered poorly printed posters in many colors, advertising services ranging from [End Page 73] locksmiths, plumbing, fake personal identity cards and diplomas to plastic surgery and cures for venereal disease. When it rained heavily the alley would flood; sometimes the water would be ankle deep, lasting days or weeks. When the flood subsided and the sun emerged, people would dry their clothes, shoes and bedding outside on stools or on nylon clotheslines hung temporarily between window bars and worm-eaten willows. The smell of mildew and damp fabric would linger in the air like mucus on a homeless kid's face.
* * *
Jade had just turned sixteen. She lived with Coco and Mimi in the second house from the river, a barbershop. She sometimes thought herself lucky to live so close to Shenzhen, where a special entry permit was required. A dazzling world, people said of Shenzhen; residence there was restricted to college graduates and businesspeople, unless a person could claim it as his or her birthplace. Jade didn't have a document yet, but Coco said she would get one for her soon. Coco was never too shy to ask her customers for favors. Sometimes she would let Jade ride with her on her borrowed red Honda scooter to the border, a mere twenty minutes from where they lived. They would stop outside the customs, and Coco would describe to Jade the shimmering skyscrapers and luxuriously decorated downtown boutiques. Then they would order fish porridge or sweet tofu soup or a few small plates of dim sum in a nearby restaurant owned by Big Head, one of Coco's customers.
Their barbershop had a pink sign in the window: Coco's Beauty Salon. On the front door was a color print secured with a rusty drawing pin: Cut 10 yuan; Wash-Cut-and-Dry 15 yuan. Of the three girls, only Jade could cut hair—Coco had sent her to a three-month program organized by the Continuing Education Bureau. The barbershop used to be one big open space, but after Coco took up residence there two years earlier she had it divided into three rooms and a bathroom. The biggest room served as a lobby, furnished with two chairs covered in black, man-made leather, a maroon-fabric three-seat sofa, two unframed wall mirrors and a long desk with drawers in which to store scissors, blow dryers, combs, etc. Magazine clippings of men and women in stylish hairdos dotted the walls. The sizes and shapes of the clippings varied, like freckles on a person's face. The kitchen, a converted closet, accommodated a two-burner stove and [End Page 74] an aluminum sink. The two smaller rooms were bedrooms—Coco and Jade shared the one with attached bathroom; Mimi had her own room but had to leave it to use the bathroom. Jade liked this arrangement. She was afraid of ghosts and darkness. Before she came to Buji Town, she had never had her own bed to sleep on—she had always slept with her parents, with her little brother, then her grandma.
They were renting for seven hundred yuan a month—nearly what people in Jade's village made in a year. They could have rented a better, newer place elsewhere for the same price, but they liked being near the river and far from a police station.
Coco and Mimi did business with men. The barbershop was just a cover. They charged new clients by the hour, frequent customers per...