◎ Ba Jin
I was asked to a dinner party in Xiguan given by a friend of mine. There were seven of us going together, including the host.
As has long been known to me, Xiguan is a busy downtown area in Guangzhou — a place inhabited by many old-fashioned big families. The streets are wide, but there are quite a few narrow lanes and flagstones too. Hidden in the tightly packed dwellings were unfathomable mysteries of all sorts. Every afternoon many gaudily dressed young women will be seen parading through the streets, escorted by their maid servants. It is said that they are concubines of big families and that the maid servants have been hired by their masters specially to keep watch on the young women in case they should run away.
After parking our car by the side of a big street, we alighted and walked into a narrow flagged lane lined with small houses.
We came to a big restaurant after taking a turning. The gorgeous restaurant, standing in such a lowly place, struck us as unusual and fantastic.
It was quite roomy inside. An old-style multi-storeyed building, with corridors, halls, courtyards and trees, it also looked like a VIP private mansion. After walking about for a while, we went upstairs and took our seats at table in a beautifully-named room.
The host having ordered food, we sat chatting and cracking melon seeds. The room was quite spacious. The electric fan kept rotating. The balcony was decorated with potted flowers. A bamboo shade under the eaves kept off the sun. Birds were heard again and again singing outside. The whole place was nice and quiet.
A sallow-faced woman in her early fifties appeared at the door of our room, umbrella in hand. She paced about for a while before she came in and said a few words to all of us. I couldn’t make out what she said. Then she left after exchanging a few words with one of us, who was a native of Guangzhou.
My friends laughed and I thought I knew why they laughed. The woman reappeared shortly, with a young girl and a middle-aged woman following after her.
The young girl, though nicely dressed, was plain-looking. She sat down without saying a word, and having her eyes dropped, kept waving a folding fan. She looked embarrassed with all eyes centered on her.
The silence among all made the host feel rather uncomfortable until the Guangzhou man and the old woman exchanged a few words which, however, I could understood a bit. He wanted to know what price she was asking and the answer was, “1, 300 yuan. ”It was not until then that I realized what it was all about. The young girl was a potential concubine, waiting for a prospective buyer.
All kept silent. The old woman accepted a 20-cent silver coin (a sum due to her) and then left with the young girl. On leaving the room, the latter turned round to make a slight bow to us.
A moment later, while we were eating, the old woman came again, this time bringing with her two young girls. One, wearing a braid at the back of her head, was very young, said to be only 16. The other, with bobbed hair, was older and said to be only 18, but her real age was probably over 20.
The girls both sat down in a chair, waving a folding fan all the time, probably because they wanted to keep their idle hands occupied or because they were fidgety beneath the gaze of so many eyes. They kept quiet until the Guangzhou man asked them their names.
The two girls were more nice-looking than the previous one, hence their higher selling prices. 1, 300 and 1, 800 yuan were the prices asked for the two girls respectively. When one of my friends said the old woman was asking too much, she replied complacently that the two girls had got some schooling and knew how to read and write. Then she fetched from outside the room two slips of paper and a pen and put them on a tea table. Thereupon, the older girl turned sideways to pick up the pen and write down her name, and then handed the pen to the girl with the braid, who also wrote down her name.
The old woman brought the two slips of paper to our table and we took a look at them in turn. The three neatly written characters Huang Xu Zhen on one slip showed that the older girl wrote a slightly better hand. The other slip was written by the 16-year-old girl, whose name was Li Pan Hao.
However, despite their ability to write their own names, the two girls were turned down and left after each receiving a 20-cent silver coin. They also turned about to bow to us.
My friends continued to chat and laugh. They said the reason why they had chosen to eat at Xiguan was to find me some materials for writing fiction. They may have told the truth. But, being students of natural science, they had little interest in literature. They knew I was a novelist, but they had never read any of my works, and even if they had, they probably wouldn’t have appreciated them. Nevertheless I was grateful to them. But they didn’t know how sorry I felt. What I had just seen seemed to weigh heavily on my mind like a solid stone. I couldn’t imagine how the three girls had felt the moment they bowed to us on leaving the room. Had they accustomed themselves to such dealings?
Human trafficking is nothing new. I know it is one of the outcomes of our morbid social system. From day to day, a great many living things named“women”are being bought and sold across the land as commodities.
My grandpa bought a concubine, so did my father’s brother and my mother’s brother. And some of my generation are going to follow the example of their elders. I know of just too many instances of concubinage. But it was the first time for me to see women openly offered for sale at a restaurant like they were commodities, and prices negotiated in their presence. It was said that after the bargain was struck and the deposit paid, the customer would go so far as to scrutinize the woman he had bought physically from top to toe. I could not help feeling most indignant about all that.