“I don’t get it.”
“Well, you could say it’s about self-imprisonment and breaking free from that,” Lao Zhang explains. “Or breaking free from irrational authority of any kind.”
“Hey, Lao Zhang, ni zenmeyang?” someone asks.
“Hao, hao. Painting a lot. You?”
Everyone here seems to know Lao Zhang, which isn’t surprising. He’s been in the Beijing art scene since it started, when he was a teenager and hung out at the Old Summer Palace, the first artists’ village in Communist China. After a couple of years, the cops came in and arrested a lot of the artists, and the village got razed. That happened to a lot of the places where Lao Zhang used to hang out. “Government doesn’t like it when too many people get together,” he told me once.
Finally, Lao Zhang gave up on Beijing proper. “Tai dade mafan,” he’d say. Too much hassle. Too expensive. So he led an exodus to Mati Village, a collective farm that had been practically abandoned after the communes broke up. A place where artists who hadn’t made it big could live for cheap.
“You think they’ll bust you here?” I asked once.
Lao Zhang shrugged. “Who knows? It lasts as long as it lasts.”
I have to wonder. Because even though Mati Village is pretty far away from Beijing proper, far from the villas and townhouses on Beijing’s outer fringes, people still find their way here. Foreigners, art-lovers, journalists.
And that Prada chick from the jiaozi place tonight. Lucy Wu. “Jianli, it’s been a long time.” Lucy Wu smiles and extends her hand coyly in Lao Zhang’s general direction, having spotted us hanging out by the café, behind the PA speakers where it’s not quite so loud.
“Luxi,” Lao Zhang replies. He takes her hand for a moment; it’s dwarfed in his. He stares at her with a look that I can’t quite figure out. “You’re well?”
“Very.” She takes a step back, like she’s measuring him up. “I met your friend Yili earlier this evening. Did she tell you?” “Sorry,” I say. “I forgot.”
Lucy giggles. “Not to worry. I knew we’d find each other.” I watch them watching each other, like a couple of circling cats. “I’m going to get a beer,” I say.
Back in the main room, muffled thuds come from inside the “concrete” block (I’m pretty sure it’s plaster). Cracks appear, then a little chunk falls out, then more pieces, and all of a sudden there’s a hole, and you can see this skinny, shirtless man covered in sweat, swinging a sledgehammer against the walls of his prison. The room is flooded with a rank smell, which makes sense, considering the guy’s been in the box for a couple of days.
I drink my beer. Grab another. The crowd starts to thin out around me. Show’s over, I guess. It’s been almost an hour since I’ve seen Lao Zhang.
I think about looking for him, but something holds me back. Someone, more accurately.
She’s got to be an old girlfriend. Except I couldn’t tell if he was really happy to see her.
It’s Lao Zhang, who has appeared next to me, without Lucy Wu.
“How was it?” he asks.
Excerpted from Rock Paper Tiger by Lisa Brackmann. Copyright © 2010 by Lisa Brackmann. Excerpted by permission of Soho Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
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Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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