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Manoa 15.2 (2003) 83-109
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The Seat on the Verandah
I once saw a photograph of Zhu Liang in her youth. She had posed sitting. The sharp contrasts in the black-and-white picture gave the image a strong three-dimensional effect. The woman in the picture was wearing a full-length cheongsam slit to the thigh, a style popular in Shanghai in the 1940s. Her body was supple and curvaceous, and her face radiated beauty. This beautiful glow, like an eternal aura, enveloped Zhu Liang throughout her youth. Her gaze in this photograph fixed itself on me across half a century.
The two-inch-by-two-inchphotograph was set in an elephant-bone frame of a clean and simple design. The new frame set off the old yellow photograph. This frame did not belong to her, its owner said. Her voice was filled with deep nostalgia, like that of a doddering man remembering an undying love from his youth so beautiful and tragic he has never been able to forget it.
In this town called Water Mill, a beautiful actress was born in the 1960s. Her picture appeared on posters and became an icon. She starred in two glamorous films, was once received by the Premier, and was granted government permission to travel abroad to visit an ancient civilization. In short, she was crowned with every possible glory. Later on, though, she was slandered and died, her life becoming the stuff of a tragedy that hovers over Water Mill to this day.
In Water Mill, anyone over the age of fifty who had seen Zhu Liang in person would agree that she was far more beautiful than this actress. The woman who lived in the attic of the old red mansion said that if the actress shone like one star, Zhu Liang shone like ten.
Her words are no doubt exaggerated.
Water Mill lies at the same latitude as my hometown—the twenty-third parallel. But whereas the water of my hometown river runs clear, the river of Water Mill is always filled with rusty silt. It's a wild river that runs all the way to Viet Nam, where it becomes the Mekong.
I have felt drawn to this river ever since childhood. Once while travelling, I passed through Water Mill, which sits high on the river's bank.
When I arrived, it was autumn, October 23 to be exact. Usually I am rather foggy about time, and so ever since I turned twenty I forced myself [End Page 83] to keep a diary and to record every day the places I went and people I met. This is why events I experienced after age twenty are not a mere blur. The edges of certain events coalesced into words, and hibernated in my notebook.
The noon of October 23 felt like dusk in late autumn. I was shivering even with a wool vest on, and I realized I had to stay in town until the temperature rose. No way around it. I walked past the low-roofed houses on Water Mill's main street, then headed toward the hidden recesses of the town. Every time I passed a narrow alley between houses, I heard the thunderous waves of the river. Curious, I squeezed through one of the alleys. It was then that I saw enormous red rocks in the middle of the river. Muddy red rapids dashed against the rocks and then hurled themselves toward the mountains that loomed over the opposite side. On my right hand was a lone papaya tree, tall and straight, with several dozen fruit of varying sizes strung around its neck. It seemed inviolable, glistening a bluish green in the drizzle.
It reminded me of something.
There was a strange kind of vegetable at Water Mill called the four-point bean. It has the texture of the starfruit of my hometown, but it has four points instead of five. It is about the length of an unusually long finger. I went to a restaurant and had this strange vegetable stir-fried with pickled...