For the Zhongs of South Gate to have a son like Sissy seemed like a huge joke, at least to the folks of Pingle Town.
‘Sissy’ was just one of their disparaging nicknames for a man who was spineless, or slippery, or just plain shameless – in other words, not a proper man. There was ‘sponge’, ‘snot-sucker’… and ‘sissy’. That was for a boy who was so girly it was just gross.
Sissy Zhong was certainly girly. As a child, I used to see him mincing down South Street, hips swaying alluringly. Sometimes he was followed by a naughty kid, shouting ‘Sissy Zhong! Sissy Zhong!’
He would turn and frown with annoyance: ‘Little kids shouldn’t pick up bad habits! Don’t call me that.’ But his voice was so gentle that no kid was ever scared. They just laughed at him.
We called him Sissy to his face, but never to the rest of his family. ‘You don’t want to get on the wrong side of those Zhongs!’ the townsfolk all agreed. There were generations of martial artists in the Zhong family. And once there was a martial arts contest in our town and one of the Zhongs won a medal. It was years ago, and no one had actually seen the medal, but still the Zhongs were known as people you didn’t mess with. Particularly Zhong Zhenxi, volleyball coach at the Number One Middle School; none of the kids he taught down the years would ever have dreamt of giving him any trouble.
Zhong Zhenxi was Sissy’s father.
‘He can control any kid,’ people said. ‘What on earth did he do to end up with a son like that?’ ‘He must have beaten him too hard as a child, and that made him wrong in the head.’ And so on.
Sissy Zhong went to the county vocational college, a prison camp of a school outside East Gate where the town’s roughest kids – those that no one could do anything with – were dumped. Apparently, Sissy Zhong had told his family he wanted to study hairdressing. His dad nearly flipped his lid but Sissy wouldn’t budge. Finally Mr Zhong said: ‘Be off with you then!’ And Sissy was left at the college, to sink or swim.
When he finished there, he spent several years working at Zhu’s Hair Salon at the South Street old town gate, starting with washing clients’ hair. That was where I met him for the first time. My mother took me there. ‘Give her a “mushroom bob”, like on the TV,’ she said. Mr Zhu, in the middle of perming a customer’s hair, glanced at me, and said: ‘Zhong Qiang, you cut her hair.’ ‘Will your apprentice do a decent job?’ asked my mother. ‘Yes,’ said Mr Zhu as he carried on rolling the woman’s hair around the curlers.
Sissy stood looking at me, a bit embarrassed. I smiled at him and he smiled back. That’s all that I remember from that day. And the only evidence of the ‘mushroom bob’ he gave me is a few photos in which I’m smirking, ever-so-grown-up, in a pale yellow headband my mother bought me specially.
I began to see Sissy more regularly when I started at lower-middle school, by which time he had set up on his own. School regulations stated that our hair had to be cut level with our ear lobes so my mother took me to his salon. Every time, she stood guard at my side, her eyes fixed on the bottom of my lobes as if she had a micrometer, insisting: ‘Shorter…. shorter…’
‘I can’t cut it any shorter, it doesn’t look pretty on a girl,’ he used to say. He couldn’t change the basic style, so he spent ages finessing my fringe, sometimes layering it, sometimes cutting it in a curve, or even slightly at a slant. I was delighted with these deft, subtle variations. After he finished, he always asked: ‘Do you like it?’
I would study my fringe carefully in the mirror, and say: ‘It’s lovely!’
I have very few pictures of myself from when I was small, only a few from school. Amongst the rows and rows of girls all with pudding-basin haircuts, I can easily spot myself, glum-faced and uninteresting, but with a fringe that stands out from everyone else’s. It gave me a huge sense of pride and satisfaction.
My mum liked the way he did it too. Once she met Zhong Zhenxi in the street. ‘Your son’s such a good hairdresser, Mr Zhong!’ she told him.
But Zhong Zhenxi scowled fiercely: ‘Are you trying to wind me up? Don’t you go saying things like that!’ It was obvious my mother had said the wrong thing, and after that, everyone in town avoided mentioning Sissy to his dad.
By then, Sissy was thirty-seven or thirty-eight and still unmarried. Some years back, well-meaning neighbours had introduced him to quite a few girls. Some had dinner with him a few times, others took one look and backed off. Disgust written all over their faces, they said to the would-be matchmakers: ‘You know what? He’s just like a girl!’ Word soon got around. It was even rumoured that Sissy Zhong was really, really small down there.
So one day, some of the Pingle Town toughs stopped him in the street and demanded: ‘Drop your trousers so we can see!’ Poor meek Sissy put up quite a struggle, and finally got away. He arrived home, holding up his trousers and looking very sorry for himself, pursued by cries of: ‘Sissy’s red in the face! Sissy’s going to cry!’
Zhong Zhenxi evened up the score on that occasion, storming off down the street and giving the toughs a savage beating. After that, no one tried to marry Sissy off again.
There was one time, though, when I went on my own to have my hair cut, and a girl was there. Sissy talked to her while he cut my hair and the pair seemed very close, more than just friends. The girl sat, legs crossed, wearing black tights, a rare sight in our town in those days. She had a frizzy perm and her hair was dyed blond.
‘What do you think I should do with my hair, Qiang?’ asked the girl.
‘Don’t do anything with it, it’s too much of a mess. And wherever did you get it dyed? It’s too blonde. Just have it trimmed and wait until it’s in better condition, then I’ll do it for you again,’ said Sissy.
‘Will you give me a discount?’ asked the girl.
‘OK,’ said Sissy.
The girl sat for a while longer, watching him cut my hair, then said: ‘What huge eyes the kid’s got. Have you ever seen such big eyes, Qiang?’
I was startled. I smiled at her but didn’t know what to say. Sissy gave my eyes a long look and said: ‘Not as big as Yuan Qingshan’s eyes.’
The girl’s reaction surprised me even more. ‘Who’s Yuan Qingshan?’ That must mean she was from out of town.
‘She died last year. You didn’t meet her,’ said Sissy.
After another little while, the girl got to her feet. ‘Gotta go. I’m off to play mahjong.’
‘You’re not still playing mahjong are you?’ said Sissy.
‘Business is slack. There’s nothing else to do,’ the girl said, and strode out of the shop, arms swinging. She had such a big arse it threatened to burst the seams of her skirt, which was eye-catchingly short.
‘Is that your girlfriend?’ I teased him. I knew Sissy quite well by then.
He laughed. ‘No.’
In that instant, I really wished Sissy had a girlfriend. But I didn’t say so.
Everyone in town agreed that Zhong Qiang was a real sissy. He was always so slow and deliberate, and I never saw him riled. I was very struck by his hands. They were beautiful, white-skinned, with slender fingers and neatly manicured nails, quite out of place in Pingle Town. Every time he took up the scissors to cut my hair, I felt how different he was from the rest of us.
The summer I finished lower-middle school, Sissy killed himself. He sliced the artery of his left wrist with a cutthroat razor. There was blood all over the room.
We were all shocked. Who could have imagined it? What a brutal way to go.
Zhong Zhenxi was an elderly pensioner by then. His few remaining hairs went white, and he looked stooped and frail as he and his wife buried their son at Clearwater Creek. They both wept bitterly. People talked: ‘It’s too bad. Mr Zhong is a good man but he’s never had any decent luck.’ Afterwards, Zhong Zhenxi seemed to get smaller. If we bumped into him in the street, we could never think of anything comforting to say, but the old man always spoke up. ‘That’s the end of the Zhong family line,’ he would mumble. ‘The end of the line…’
Yan Ge is a Sichuan author, currently resident in the UK, who writes both in Chinese and in English. ‘Sissy Zhong’ is one in a series of vignettes she wrote in preparation for her full-length novel about secrets and lies in a fictional smalltown, The Chilli Bean Paste Clan. Yan Ge sent me three of these vignettes, and I chose this one because it works well as a short story: in just a few pages, it manages to be touching and funny, and to shock you with its denouement.
Yan Ge has always taken her inspiration from the town where she grew up, but she uses that backdrop in very different ways. In fact, one of the delights of Yan Ge’s writing is her range: in the four works published in translation in the last couple of years, there is fantasy, madness and gross corruption. But there is also humour and playful, rude language, and food, lots of numbingly hot street food.
In Strange Beasts of China, an amateur cryptozoologist is commissioned to uncover the stories of fabled beasts in the city of Yong’an. These creatures — with their greenish stomachs or gills or strange birthmarks — live unobtrusively alongside humans, some with ancient forbears, others engineered as artificial breeds.
The Chilli Bean Paste Clan is a twenty-first century family drama that is both warm and funny, and barbed and irreverent. The eponymous chilli bean paste enterpriseis headed by the matriarchal figure of Gran. As the family gather for her eightieth birthday celebrations, there are growing tensions between the family’s middle-aged siblings. Events take an unexpected turn on the day of the party, when a number of secrets are revealed, most surprisingly, some from Gran’s own past.
In ‘White Horse’, Yun Yun lives in a small West China town with her widowed father, an uncle, an aunt and one older cousin – all who live nearby. Then her once-secure world falls apart. Through the eyes of Yun Yun, we observe her cousin, Zhang Qing, who is keen to dive into the excitements of adolescence but clashes with repressive parents. Ensuing tensions reveal that the relationships between the two families are founded on a terrible lie.
Yan Ge’s writing is full of acute comments on human relationships. She has a wonderful ear for the things that remain unsaid, as well as for the way people actually talk to each other. The strength of her writing is her ability to inhabit the character and his or her humanity. She does not spare us human tragedies, but somehow manages to soften the blows. In ‘White Horse’ and ‘Sissy Zhong’, she achieves this by having the story narrated by a young girl, and hinting at homophobic prejudice and the toll it takes on Sissy, rather than making it explicit. Both of these stories were written early on in Yan Ge’s writing career, and have proved very popular with young adults. She says ofthem, ‘[t]he message I have got from young readers is that they relate to the feelings I describe. In other words, these stories are very personal but they chime with what other young people in China are going through’.
Yan Ge has aroused a lot of interest among Chinese critics regarding her use of spoken language, and in particular, of her local dialect. As an example, just the title of this piece had me scratching my head: 钟腻哥 - surname 'Zhong', nickname, 'Greasy [soft/unctuous] elder brother/young man'. I came up with 'Softie Zhong' and 'Sissy Zhong', both of which Yan Ge liked (the great advantage in having an author whose English is good is that you can brainstorm such problems), but eventually plumped for the latter.
Sissy Zhong was originally published in Read Paper Republic, in its free-to-view translated short fiction series, in August 2015. Paper Republic is an independent, registered non-profit, promoting Chinese fiction in translation.