Guest judge Maile Meloy awarded "To Get Rich Is Glorious" first prize in the 2017 Zoetrope: All-Story Short Fiction Competition.
Water Poured Out on the Ground
A girl, it's announced. The mother weeps openly and, unable to look, feels a leady heaviness fill her bones. It is late and raining. A cold December day, 1980. The father leaves the room to smoke outside. Beneath the hospital's awning, he watches the ground, where thin streams of water flow downhill away from him, like his daughter will. All daughters naturally do.
Back in the room, the grandmother holds the baby and, gazing into that blank, red face, names her Hang Chun Fu. It is an old woman's nostalgia and wishfulness to want it all for this little girl.
She will be an only child—not the first ever, but the first of her kind, made singular by law rather than choice. She will have to live up to many expectations, to live up to her name. Be genuine and honest and rich and abundant. Be too much.
Hang Chun Fu
In girlhood, FuFu, as she is called endearingly, enjoys the riches of her parents' adoration and attention. She naturally possesses the virtues that make a feminine paragon: proper speech, a clean and modest appearance, diligence in work, and morality.
"Look at how good FuFu is," extended family and friends tell their own daughters. "How I wish she were mine. If only you could be as decent as she." Son-havers love FuFu, too, but they don't want a daughter like her. Rather, a daughter-in-law.
By age eleven she is elected a three-stripe leader and maintains the status until the end of her time in the Young Pioneers, at age fourteen.
"FuFu, how many threads does it take to make a braid?" her classmates ask her. "How do you write the character for speak? For dragon, goddess, and moon? Could you show me how to work this calculation? How to paint a mountain?"
Does she "hold up half the sky," as Mao famously proclaimed? She does more. She holds it up entirely, for herself and others. Everyone says she is capable of so much. Not once does she have to stand ashamed for a low mark. She orders her classmates to stand. She demands that they stand taller.
A prefecture-level city, making it something more than a city. A place with a city proper, Jinhua proper. That urban area bright and filled. That's not, however, where FuFu and her family live. They reside on the eastern edge of Jindong, in Fucun Zhen, a township in an administrative district within the prefecture-level city, whose 30,000 or so inhabitants still know one another well. They are generations of families who have courted and battled and disowned and loved. Even if they have never met, they will hear a person's name and say, Ah, yes, his paternal great aunt's husband was my paternal elder male cousin's childhood flute instructor, or, Of course, I know her nephew's wife because she goes to the same hairdresser as my maternal grandmother.
The Hang family's apartment is one of hundreds inside a compound of dozens of buildings, all the same dull brown and circumscribed by the same stained pavement pathways. In summer, dragonflies float by the residents' ankles and knees, indicating rain. In winter, an occasional light snow. Topics of conversation among neighbors passing each other outside: the weather, and their families.
Lying there in her cramped room, in her small bed, Fufu, now eighteen, feels as though her world is the least significant seed in a pomegranate. She yearns for the whole fruit.
Of course, she scores well on the gaokao. Her agile mind and hours of study have cleared a trail for escape. Her parents argue for Zhejiang Normal University, in Jinhua. She could live at home, bus back and forth, or even, they suggest, live in the dormitories. They're willing to compromise for their only child. All they want is for her to stay.
But when September arrives, FuFu's mother and father accompany her on the five-hour train ride to Shanghai University. As they enter the city, the crowd thickens, the people change, and her parents see that the world here beats faster than a hummingbird's wings. This is far worse than they had imagined.
FuFu cannot resist smiling in this new place, though she feels penitent for her parents' despair. In the taxi to the university, she stares out the window at the tall buildings, the shimmering billboards for restaurants, movies, designer clothes, pop stars, cosmetics—how beautiful everything looks when blown out of proportion. As her mother wraps an arm around her, FuFu leans in and presses her cheek against her mother's shoulder, but the act is not enough to smother the excitement and joy blooming inside her.
Studies in Shanghai
What prompts her to enroll in management sciences, with a secondary discipline in business administration, her program focus on logistics? Perhaps she remembers from somewhere what the paramount leader, Deng, said in her childhood: "Regardless of the kind of cat, black or white, it is a good cat so long as it catches mice." More likely, the spirit of it filtered down to her, as to all these young people around her, through an accumulation of many small actions and words made ubiquitous. She does not ask herself such questions. In Shanghai, she excels in her courses and moves through campus cautiously exalted, the wide, tree-lined pavilions seeming to pour out before her—until, that is, she begins to take note of her small deficiencies, reflected in the glamour of the other students. Their American sneakers, French scarves, glimmering German fountain pens. The girls' hair, slicked and smooth, and the scent of expensive department-store cologne trailing the men who stroll confidently by her.
In her dorm room, at her simple desk, FuFu writes to her parents: a list of items she needs for school, with the cost of each neatly marked in blue ink. When her parents send her the money, which exceeds two months of their wages (how they have saved and continue to save just for her), she walks into the department store near campus and buys a coat, shoes, and a smart leather backpack. Striding to classes in her new attire, she looks more like the person she feels she is meant to be.
There is a young man named Liu Zeng in her talent assessment course who has taken to walking her from the classroom to the dormitory. Learning he is Shanghainese piques her interest. She says no the first time he proposes. He understands this pale-skinned girl and concocts a grander exhibition on the second try, bringing her parents to the city and putting them up in the Jin Jiang Hotel, then gathering both their families, a photographer, and a videographer at Fuxing Park's wisteria lane, the bright purple flowers dripping down on them from above. The many photos, and a video edited to include a romantic soundtrack and exclude FuFu's scowls, are sent to hundreds of family members, friends, acquaintances, classmates, coworkers . . .
See how everything is magnificent and happy! A wonderful couple—intelligent, hard working, likely to make an even more wonderful child. Luck and prosperity to them until the end!
Upon graduation, FuFu gets a job in a factory doing unskilled statistical work. She sits between gray walls, entering numbers into a computer. The best position she could find, it pays 4,000 yuan per month. "Pointless, pointless," she tells herself each day upon waking. What was the use of her education if this is all she would achieve, she wonders. It is a riddle she repeats often and without answer.
When she is home, Zeng asks how she is feeling. "Is it not obvious?" she retorts. Her ennui grows so massive and wild some days that she forgets to eat or bathe. Still, she performs her duties as a wife, duties her mother taught her, and her mother taught her, and her mother . . .
One morning in the office, on her way to her desk, she stumbles and nearly faints. A middle manager, who will later recount this episode as further evidence for why the factory should not hire women from fancy universities, catches her and tells her she should go home and rest in bed.
She stares down, sees only his expensive Italian loafers.
"If it is a girl, you must get an abortion," her father tells her on the phone. "If we could have known back then . . ."
The doctor performing the ultrasound smiles at her and Zeng.
"Very good fortune on the first try," he says.
Mainly his inability to know what she does not ask exasperates her. Otherwise, a fine husband. Zeng spends most of his days at one of the largest Chinese banks, where he is set to move up as long as he maintains above-average performance, which he will. He earns 10,000 yuan per month. His effortless way of achieving, his lack of demands upon her, and his cheerfulness often put her at enough ease that she wants no more from him. But she is not wrong to think him unambitious. Zeng's goal is the same comfortable city life of his parents and his childhood. Years ago, FuFu would have thought this wonderful and worthy. Now, her desires have multiplied beyond her comprehension. The difference between husband and wife eclipses the obvious.
It seems, in this case, he who grows up without want has the luxury of satisfaction. She who grows up wanting is never satiated.
She does what she is obligated to do and nothing more. But she glows when people praise the way she dresses and grooms him, an expression of her creativity, an extension of herself. "Look at that charming little hat. Makes him look like a child movie star," says the fruit-stand owner. "Your mother has classic, good taste," says the man in the lottery booth, patting the boy's full cheek. "There is nothing more precious than a boy who knows how to look sharp," says the woman selling children's clothes.
On his first day of elementary school, FuFu walks him to the gate, turns around, and walks back to the apartment crying. Not from being apart from him, but from being alone with herself again.
Unemployed, her son at school and her husband at work, FuFu is unmoored. She has nowhere to go and nothing to do. She watches TV dramas in which women fall in love, fall out of love, murder, and thrive. She browses online stores for hours, loading shopping carts with all the things she'd like for her own and leaving them full. In desperation, she contacts some of her old girlfriends from college, with whom she has lost contact, and finds that they are receptive to her correspondence, enthusiastic even.
"I know exactly how you feel," one says. "Let's get lunch tomorrow. We'll play mah-jongg afterward. You'll feel better."
So she does, so much. They are all women, from their late twenties to their mid-fifties. A group of about eight. They found each other in the same way FuFu has found them. Out of boredom and necessity. She fits in, and for the first time since she escaped Jinhua, she senses excitement and freedom again. She smells the intermingling of the women's various perfumes and imagines her heart bursting into vivid splashes of color.
They arrive in the mail. A little booklet of government vouchers offering fifteen- to thirty-percent discounts at nearly three hundred local grocers and general stores, for everything from socks and snacks to refrigerators and furniture. The more expensive the item, the steeper the reduction. FuFu flips through the pages and rips out the ones that interest her. When Zeng returns home, she shows him what she's collected.
"Even the government tells us to spend," she says.
"We could use a new heater," he allows.
Inside the spanning store, FuFu walks along the dazzlingly white aisles picking up and putting down porcelain bowls, canisters of tea, bottles of lotion, packages of dried fruit, until she is overwhelmed with the colors and textures of the place, all those red and yellow signs screaming. She crosses into the appliance section and looks over the dozen or so heaters. Finally, she selects a middling model with five modes.
It is a chore. She finds little joy in buying something needed with money that is not her own.
Pure skin, wealth, and charm—they are everywhere in the posts by the Weibo famous, their confident, exposed bodies leaned against hoods of Lamborghinis, arched atop jet skis, reclining in beds spread with jewelry and cash. Smiling, pale faces framed by perfect, light hair and strangely blue or green eyes.
They all say to FuFu what they are designed to say: to get rich is glorious.
The skin and charm, at least, she is not lacking. She first caught Zeng's attention those years ago with her flawless features, her complexion so white it appears almost painted on. And her ability to speak pleasantly has drawn many more women to the mah-jongg tables: You look stunning with those earrings—and that hair! I hope I can be as vibrant as you when I'm your age. But auntie, we must spend more to make more!
The group needs additional space. She takes the lead in the expansion campaign, collecting a small fee from everyone and pooling their funds to rent an apartment, furnishing it with folding tables and chairs, calling it a women's social club.
The women name FuFu their unofficial chairwoman.
He says, "Could you be home more often? Watch after Wei He?"
"That's what the nanny's for. He's big enough to take care of himself. I don't see you at home all the time."
"I'm working. If you want to work, the factory might hire you back. Have you tried calling them? It hasn't been that long."
"What's wrong with what I'm doing now? It's better than that stupid job—"
"Listen, I just want—"
She says, "Why should I have to work in a factory when all these other people make a fortune by literally doing nothing?"
She plays mah-jongg every day from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., when she drags herself home for the dinner Wei He's nanny prepares. And with the money she wins—nothing too much, yet not insubstantial—she makes a number of attempts to start her own businesses, in partnerships with the other women from the club, her closest and most trusted companions.
First, she and a select few design jewelry targeting women like themselves, mothers with time and means. Notebooks filled with sketches end up on a high shelf in the laundry closet.
Second, an import/export company for antiques, particularly those of the Qing dynasty, for which they falsely sense a growing demand by the European elite.
Third, a line of skin-brightening creams, but the market is oversaturated.
She is catching fish in a tree, she tells herself.
Our FuFu, at thirty-five years old, is desperate to burst out of her want.
A Business Proposition
So it is ideal timing.
The mah-jongg group is her only sustenance, the click-clack of the tiles, the energizing exchange of words, the tea poured for hours. The place vibrates with women's voices. Pink and red nails tap rhythmically against clean, white tabletops. It smells of shampoo, perfume, salty snacks, and warmth.
A middle-aged man in a suit observes, incongruous against this backdrop.
"My sister tells me you grew this from a little women's get-together to an impressive mah-jongg den," he says, leaning toward her.
What den? she wonders, glancing around the apartment. More than thirty women are present. Her thoughts skip around, gathering bits, bunching them together.
"There's a lot of value in a person like you," the man says. He looks at his watch, a gold Rolex.
"It's not all about you. Don't forget your husband and son. Jijia congfu. Fusi congzi."
"Enough of that Confucian nonsense! Nobody lives like that anymore," she yells into the phone at her mother.
Both women sit separately at their dining tables, in their empty apartments, confused at the words of the other.
The Longer the Night Lasts, the More Dreams We'll Have
She is given a uniform designed to seduce the customers into the games yet frighten them away from cheating. All black, hair pulled into a high bun, visible earpiece.
The casino is unmarked and undetectable without prior knowledge. It consists of three floors in a commercial building. The first is usually fairly empty, a bleak-looking space offering fifteen video gambling machines for minor clientele. A young man, still in his teens, stands guard and leads the more resourceful gamblers upstairs. The second floor is where FuFu starts out, a wide expanse filled with various table games: baccarat, pai gow, craps, blackjack, roulette. The third floor is where she will eventually end up—the VIP room. Accessible only through a secret stairwell behind a keypad-locked door, down a passage hidden by a mirrored wall. Surveillance cameras monitor the inside and outside.
She excels. She feels a sense of purpose. She makes 2,000 yuan per day. Surrounded by the thrill of money made and lost, she falls in love, perhaps for the first time.
The Perfect Job
- Provide cigarettes and drinks to gamblers.
- Collect commissions from winners and losers.
- Enforce loans and interest.
- Keep an eye on lower workers, especially the young men hired to interfere in disputes between gamblers and prevent local hooligans from disrupting.
- Bribe local police.
- Report to laoban at the close of each business day on the activity of the second and third floors.
What She Tells Others
Including her husband, nobody outside of her casino work unit—her danwei—knows about her job. Where does she get the money for the Gucci bag? The Louis Vuitton sneakers? The Cartier bracelets? The Valentino dress? She smiles and says, "Do you like it?" Photographs of her and her new possessions stack her Weibo feed, garnering attention and comments.
When a gambler fails to pay his debts, it is FuFu—called laosi (fourth in rank)—who visits the debtor's house. She begins by asking firmly and politely, and if he does not give her the money, she transforms into someone else. "Pofu," they call her, after tales of her exchanges stream through the casino.
Out of her mouth come screams, curses, threats. Pay your debts, idiot, or I'll have Dage come and smash your retarded brains in! Fuck your ancestors to the eighteenth generation!
Almost always the men succumb, out of distress. The power of an angry woman.
In those rare cases when they fail to bend to FuFu's demands, she calls upon those workers she oversees, gives them the offenders' addresses, and walks home in her Italian shoes, knowing what will come.
It is a small sacrifice, she thinks. They deserve it anyway.
She demonstrates that people, whether under extreme duress or not, are capable of incredible shifts in tolerance.
Wei He, now eleven years old, interacts with his mother only at breakfast and the occasional weekday dinner. She is beautiful and perfect, he thinks when he sees her, like a woman on a billboard selling a delicious, sweet drink. She is a distant, giant mountain. He tells his schoolmates that she is an entrepreneur, though he is not sure what the word means, only that it is something important, the way he hears her say it at home.
All along, during those blissful six months, an undercover investigative reporter from Shanghai Television Station works on a story about organized crime in the city. He spends two weeks on the first floor, making and losing money on the machines until he is ushered to the second, where he plays for months, figuring out its hierarchy and operational structure.
She does not notice anything unusual about him. Only that he needs constant cigarettes and is an average—slightly below average—bettor.
Amid the widening gorge in his marriage, Zeng acquires an unhealthy habit, gambling with a group of five friends in the back of a noodle shop. Of course, FuFu does not know, but if she did, she would not care. He is a man of manageable dreams, so his problem remains small. The old proprietor charges only 10 yuan to sit and play for several hours, and Zeng makes meager bets, one yuan at a time.
When he returns home in the evenings, the apartment smells of meats and rice, and his wife is not there. On occasion, he worries about her, whether she herself has an addiction to mah-jongg, but shakes the notion as silly and inconsequential. Women need to socialize. He notices some changes in his wife's appearance. She seems to shine a bit brighter, her pale face accented with darkly lined eyes and flag-red lips, yet he goes on thinking everything is fine because she has not indicated to him otherwise.
There is nothing at home for her that provides as much as the casino. She lavishes Wei He with gifts, and even periodically offers Zeng a thing or two, a beautiful wool hat, a wallet made of snakeskin. The expansion of her self-worth subsumes them.
One night in September, just as the exposé is broadcast on television, the police raid the building.
By the time the officers locate the VIP room, with difficulty, FuFu and her gamblers are aware of their approach. Her boss pulls a sledgehammer from a closet and begins smashing the east wall. A route of escape, planned specifically for such a potential. They had discussed it before, knowing the risks, but standing here, watching the boss, she wonders how this could be. They have been careful. They have done nothing wrong. Nothing truly wrong. Nothing harmfully wrong. Have they? FuFu can no longer feel her legs. Yet she senses herself moving, her hands ripping at the flimsy drywall, other bodies pushing up from behind her.
And what is on the other side? A fleet of yelling officers, guns pointed forward. FuFu nearly faints, but in this moment she cannot muster enough resolve to commit to even this small act.
Sixty-eight gamblers and casino staff are arrested, and 90,000 yuan confiscated from the casino safes, the papers later report.
At the Detention Center
As the only female employee, FuFu is separated from the others, then marched into a cell occupied by eight inmates, all tired and oily looking, at the Shanghai Women's Prison.
"How long will I be here," she murmurs as she steps in. There are fluorescent lights and no windows. She glances down and sees that she is still wearing her work uniform. A smile curves its way to her lips.
Is it twisted and shameless, the way this woman is so gratified by her appearance under these circumstances? Yes, she is pleased to be wearing her expensive clothes in jail; yes, she is pleased to be more beautiful than the surrounding women; yes, she is pleased, for a moment, to be who she is.
"Are you a famous person? Really rich?" an inmate asks.
FuFu is about to respond. Then she stops herself. What can she say? The petrifying unknown overwhelms her, supplanting her pleasure.
"Can you help me?" the inmate says into her static face. "Hello? Aiya! Just another useless idiot."
Please explain below:
"I was bored at home. I was unemployed, with nothing to do. My husband had a job. He had a place to go, where he could feel useful. I wanted the same. First, mah-jongg. Then, the casino. I was busy and happy. It was important work. It made other people happy. We never forced anyone to come. We only provided the opportunity, and everyone thrived. I could get the nice things I needed. I took care of my son and my husband, too. People recognized my value, they supported me, they looked up to me. Yes, technically it was illegal, and I knew that . . ."
Yet it was worth everything. Sitting here, writing out her confession, FuFu finds this brighter feeling mixed in with her remorse, and she begins to sweat in confusion, her hand trembling. As the guards stare at her, she thinks, At every moment I've been told what I can and cannot do, and still—in spite of what my parents say, in spite of what my husband says, in spite of what the very law says—I have lived, and so what, so what if it was illegal, the money I made, it was mine, and how many people can say that for themselves, isn't this what everyone wants, to have done something all their own, not for anything or anyone else, not for Wei He, not for Lui Zeng, not for Mama and Baba, but for me, only for me, how many people—
"Eh! Wake up!" A guard slaps her hard across the face.
Because it is 2017 and the government has declared war on gambling, nationally and globally, Hang Chun Fu is sentenced to thirteen years in prison. "Nothing is more visible than what is hidden, and nothing is more obvious than what is minute," the president says in a speech against corruption, quoting Confucius. "Therefore a gentleman is careful of himself even when alone." Later he writes, in an essay on poverty alleviations: "It is easier to rob an army of its general than it is to rob a common man of his purpose and will," though the application is less clear in this case.
Lui Zeng and Wei He will live on embarrassed, and then less so, but finely, without her. Both her parents will die while she is in prison.
Seven of her male colleagues and coconspirators, some guilty of violent crimes, all deemed higher in rank, are given suspended death sentences.
When the women of her mah-jongg group hear of FuFu's punishment, they say, over their games, "How lucky, dodging the death penalty! See, sometimes it's good to be a woman. The government pities you more than a man."
In Zhejiang province, thirty-four wealthy housewives are apprehended for operating an illegal gambling den.
A month later, in the city of Wenzhou, sixteen old women are arrested for running a drug gang.
And then in Zhuhai, several teenage girls are detained for conducting what their school calls a prostitution ring, though the sums were insignificant and the boys permitted only to touch the girls' chests.
Oh, these women braid their luck and others' pity together, because what else do they have at their disposal? If, at a young age, you feel like you can achieve anything, and then you realize along the way that you were living in a fantasy, how do you respond? How do you decide what is rational or not? If you're born with a strength in spirit, is it fair to dampen it, and if not, how many lines made by others can you cross before you've crossed too many? Who is to judge?
Better a Diamond With a Flaw Than a Pebble Without
FuFu's mother walks the corridors of Shanghai Women's Prison on March 8, International Women's Day, alongside thirty other mothers of inmates invited by the warden as part of a rehabilitation program. This is years before her lonely death, years before she will truly forgive her only child's betrayal.
Oh, our FuFu, she is on the auditorium's stage in a white dress, black heels, and pink lipstick, looking glamorous and beaming down at a seated, mute woman in an ugly blue jumpsuit.
"You were always such a good girl and you did so well in school," FuFu says to the prisoner. "We had such high hopes for you. I don't know where we went wrong and how you ended up here. I only hope you can build a better life."
The inmates and mothers clap at her committed performance. She is a changed woman, they say, possessing the empathy necessary to remold her life. She has embraced her natural maternal instinct! FuFu bows deeply before the moved crowd.
When she rises again, tall and erect, the expression of mocking pride that spreads across her face is recognized only by her mother, who clutches her chest in shock as her heart beats erratically.
To read other stories from the Winter 2017/2018 issue, please purchase a copy from our online store