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The One Who Picks Flowers (挑花儿的)

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Ex-miner, one-time mining journalist, now writer about mines and the mining community, Liu Qingbang is well-established in China but hardly known outside it. It may surprise those who saw the 2003 Golden Bear Award-winning Blind Shaft (on Youtube with Chinese subtitles only) that they were watching the film adaptation of his novella, Sacred Wood (神木). As Brigitte Duzan says in her appreciation of Liu Qingbang’s work, the mines are a world of men who live with the constant threat of accidents and death, a world of hardship alleviated only by humour, alcohol and dreams of women. In the story that follows, "The One Who Picks Flowers", the young woman is indeed an unattainable dream for most of the men, but only too attainable for the wealthy mine boss. Or is she? And if she resists, what will be the consequences for her family?
—Nicky Harman

This story was originally published in Chutzpah! (天南) magazine, and is reproduced by kind permission of Ou Ning and Lee Yew Leong. Chutzpah! New Voices from China – a compilation of short stories from the magazine – was recently released as part of the China Literature Today Book Series.

Around this place, to praise a girl’s beauty, one doesn’t need a
superlative, one merely says: ‘Ah, there’s one who picks flowers’.
‘The one who picks flowers’ being local idiom, directed at the fairer
sex; not, mind you, referring to ‘flowerpickers’ who embroider floral
patterns, but used especially to describe a girl of outstanding looks.
The phrase brings instant clarity to the minds of those who hear it;
one sees, in a flash, Spring’s first apricot blossom, or a lamp lit
against the night sky. No one within earshot can resist rubbing his
eyes and giving the object of such praise a look-over.

In her village, Song Tian’er was the one who picked flowers, and when
she came to the mine, she was also the one who picked flowers.

Song Tian’er worked in the canteen for mine workers, and this is what
passed between her hands every day: steamed buns, rice, noodles, tofu,
cabbage and fried pork slices. The work of this particular
flower-picker had little to do with flowers. What about cauliflowers?
you might ask. Bah—stir-fried, they look nothing like flowers. We have
a phrase for that sort of hair-splitting, by the way: ‘poling it.’
While Song Tian’er busied herself handling food, the men below ground
carried heavy objects on poles. As they hefted their poles hither and
thither, they all imagined they were holding the same thing: the
lithe, slim body of Song Tian’er. If they’d never set their eyes on
Song Tian’er they’d probably have been better off. Carrying such
weight on a pole is wont to cause hunger. The men working in the mines
weren’t just stomach-hungry; they were eye-hungry. It’s often said
that black is the color of colors, made up as it is of all the rest
combined. But in the darkness lit by the mining lamps, black was just
black. Forget about flowers, one couldn’t even see the green of a
leaf. It’s terrible when a stomach goes empty, but it’s unbearable
when eyes are starved, when there is a gnawing emptiness between upper
and lower lids. These miners couldn’t wait to clock out and rush to
the canteen, where they could first feed their eyes, and then their

When at long last the day was over, the miners, as if gripped by some
idée fixe, would fall silent and stride towards the exit. Once out of
the mineshaft, they would hand over their gear, go to the locker room,
wash up hurriedly, put on clean sets of clothes, then troop one after
the other into the canteen. In the dining hall, the two televisions
would be tuned to a comedy, and a buxom cleaning lady would already be
at work. But no one paid heed to either; their eyes would go
immediately to the window at the front of the line, and, object of
desire sighted, shine. The object was of course none other than Song
Tian’er, The only person at the food counter was Song Tian’er, and at
the counter she stayed all day long. The canteen’s kitchen and food
counter were separate from the dining area, which did not affect the
diners’ view of Song Tian’er, because what separated them was not
brick or wood but glass, mercifully transparent. If at any one moment
too many customers came, they would have to line up to see Song

In the past, when Song Tian’er’s sister-in-law Sun Baiyu had stood
behind the counter, the miners would get restless, nervous about the
food running out; some would fuss about portions being diluted, or
about how slowly the food was being served. Some even claimed that a
takeaway bought from the counter had turned into ‘a big lump of fat’
when they reached home. But now that the person at the counter was not
Sun Baiyu but Song Tian’er, order reigned. All the diners’ heads were
raised like penguins, and all the diners kept quiet, like penguins
too. Nobody was in a hurry.

As the flower-picker of the entire mine, Song Tian’er was
distinguished by her height. Someone would say she should be a
volleyball player; at this she would smile. Another would suggest: a
model! At this she would also smile. A third would say: what do you
need to be so tall for, little girl? She would smile again, saving she
didn’t know. Because she was taller than the average male, even the
last person in line could see her. Song Tian’er kept her hair unpermed
and undyed—au naturel—and tied back tightly with a rubber band,
revealing a shiny forehead. She didn’t pencil her brows, use eyeliner,
or touch lipstick to mouth. But her brows were black as could be and
her teeth sparkling white; her cheeks and lips were naturally red. The
miners couldn’t see what Song Tian’er wore; a sort of apron that
served as a workplace uniform covered up her clothes. It had long
sleeves, finely checkered in pomegranate red. The way the apron was
reflected in the glass made it seem like the glass itself was bursting
with fresh red pomegranate juice, so irresistible one couldn’t help
but drool. As the saying goes, the saddle is to the horse as the
clothes are to the man, and in the eyes of these coal miners, nothing
suited Song Tian’er more than the apron she wore; nothing could better
complement her beauty. They would linger in line as long as possible,
feasting their eyes on Song Tian’er, Sometimes one would reach the
window and then couldn’t for the life of him recall what he’d wanted
to order. Thinking only of his eyes, he’d forget his duty to his
stomach. When Song Tian’er would ask him what he wanted, he’d stutter
out a string of random noodle dishes. Rather than picking for him,
she’d wait until he had emerged from his daze and articulated his
request, then sell him his food. Some people were only cut out for
looking at Song Tian’er from behind other people’s backs; close up,
they would shrink, unable to raise their eyes, fussing with their
hair, blushing like mad. Song Tian’er knew about men who go
tongue-tied in front of girls, and instead of laughing or commenting
she would wait patiently for them to speak, then carefully serve them
their orders. There were the opposite kind too, who spoke loudly and
brashly, and divided their meals into two shifts. This kind of diner
would line up first for a beer and appetizer, then get in line a
second time for the main course. In front of Song Tian’er, he might
daringly call himself ‘Big Brother,’ or refer to her as ‘Little Sis.’
After this, no matter how Song Tian’er reacted, he would sit down with
his food, beside himself with glee. But regardless how each diner
performed in front of Song Tian’er, nobody harassed her. This was
different from when Sun Baiyu had stood behind the window, when some
had clowned around, made rude gestures with hands and legs, cracked
crude jokes without a shred of decorum, Something about the new girl,
though, made them hold back.

All this did not go unnoticed by Sun Baiyu, and she couldn’t help
feeling a bit proud of herself. But like a dumpling whose skin tightly
wraps the dollop of meat even as its fragrant oil seeps out, she did
not let anyone know what she felt. She ran the canteen with her
husband Song Jin’er, surrendering up an annual rent to the mine, and
keeping what profits she could. The canteen was leased in Song
Jin’er’s name, but Sun Baiyu actually ran the business, Song Jin’er
was an honest man, given to honest work; he had nimble hands but was
not so quick when it came to the mouth. In the time he took to make
ten steamed buns he might not utter a single word. But to run a
canteen, you not only have to make steamed buns, you have to know how
to talk. This was where Sun Baiyu came in, when someone had to say
something. They didn’t have many employees; apart from Song Tian’er
who’d just joined, there was the spatula-wielding chef and the
cleaning lady (whom Sun Baiyu had recruited) who was responsible for
scrubbing bowls, washing dishes, wiping tables and sweeping floors.
Sun Baiyu had very early on broached the idea of getting Song Tian’er
to help out at the canteen, saying that Tian’er, all grown up now,
could probably do with prettier clothes—clothes that she would be
able to buy if she earned her own money. Song Tian’er was Song
Jin’er’s sister, so Sun Baiyu had to get his agreement first if Song
Tian’er were to work at the canteen. But about this Song Jin’er
refused to say a word, either to agree or disagree. After a period of
incessant nagging, Song Jin’er put his foot down and said he did not
want Song Tian’er to report to the canteen. Song Jin’er’s mother had
died from an illness just two years before, and now it was just their
father and Song Tian’er at home. The implication being: Song Tian’er
had to stay home to prepare meals for their father, and if Song
Tian’er went outside to work, who would cook for him? Sun Baiyu
pooh-poohed the idea: oh my, do you mean that Song Tian’er must never
leave home for the rest of her life? Would she never marry? If she
really were to leave, would their father stop eating? Song Jin’er did
not respond.

Then one day Sun Baiyu sprained her ankle, and the doctor at the
hospital cast it in plaster. The ankle thickened overnight, whiter
than white jade. A crutch was needed to sit, stand, and of course to
move around. Sun Baiyu knitted her brows, sucked in her breath, and
brandished her plastered ankle to Song Jin’er, scolding him for being
heartless. In such circumstances, Song Jin’er had no choice but to let
Song Tian’er report to the canteen. Although it was now inconvenient
for Sun Baiyu to move her legs, her eyes and her tongue remained as
lively as ever. Armed with a crutch, she sat on a square stool behind
the door, where she could survey everything going on in the canteen.
Wielding the crutch like a baton, she continued to orchestrate the
activities of those around her. Sun Baiyu also saw clearly the effect
that Song Tian’er had on business: after Song Tian’er reported to
work, the number of customers had grown with each passing day, and the
canteen now attracted three times the number of diners as before.
Sichuanese miners were picky about food; in the past they’d found
fault with the meals at the canteen and opted instead to prepare their
own tastier dinners. The average miner did not come to the canteen for
sustenance. But that was then. Now they bought meal tickets and filed
into the dining hall. Also, there were mahjong players from the
mahjong halls, who in the past would simply have found a stall next
door and made do with any grub. Now they too showed up at the canteen
for food, abandoning nearby grazing grounds in favor of more distant
pastures. From the canteen’s soaring sales, it was clear that business
was booming. It didn’t matter that Sun Baiyu’s ankle had thickened,
but as profit margins widened, so too did her waistline.

Sun Baiyu was well aware that this was due to Song Tian’er. The truth
was she had expected everyone to fall for the Song Tian’er brand—that
was why she had plotted to get her on board to begin with. Nowadays,
be it in food or clothes, branding was all that mattered. In a
product’s brand lay the crux of its competitiveness! Song Tian’er,
being the picker of flowers, lent the canteen her brand by dint of
showing up every day. No wonder business was so good. In addition to
feeling proud of herself, Song Baiyu saw the humor in the situation.
After all, the steamed buns that moved across the counter were the
same steamed buns as before, the cabbage the same cabbage as before.
All Song Tian’er did was serve food. No extra ingredient had gone into
the meals. Almost unthinkable, the droves of people coming in just for
her! You came here to eat food, didn’t you, not to eat a person?! she
felt like saying to all of them. What does the attractiveness of the
foodseller have to do with the food? At the end of the day, though,
men must have their cheap thrills. What full-blooded man can resist
the sight of a pretty girl? It must be remembered that Sun Baiyu had
herself capitalized on this irrational urge that caused men to part
with money. Indeed, cheap thrills could be used to another’s

As the saying goes, a pretty flower attracts butterflies, a big tree
invites wind. As the one who picked flowers, Song Tian’er was in a
dangerous position, and the mineworkers worried that she would not
last long. Below ground, they pooled bets; some said she would be at
the canteen for at most half a year, some said three months. As for
where Song Tian’er would go, this was harder to say. Everyone was in
agreement about one thing, though: best keep their boss, Chairman
Xiong, away from her. Chairman Xiong had a reputation for plucking
flowers. If Chairman Xiong chanced to see Song Tian’er, no way could
she carry on in the canteen. The mine was a private mine, and Xiong
was not operations manager, but C.E.O. Its operations manager, deputy
operations manager, chief engineer, etc. had all been poached from a
government mine. In this capitalist age, Chairman Xiong believed, you
could poach anyone if you had enough capital. He didn’t care much
about the details of the mine’s day-to-day operations, was more
interested in converting black coal into red cash, How much he was
actually worth, no one could tell. It was said that apart from
operating the mine, Chairman Xiong used the mine money to invest in
real estate. To an investor like Chairman Xiong, owning a couple of
houses was nothing. Rumor had it he owned property not only in the
city and the provincial capital, but in Beijing too. Upon arriving in
any of these places, Chairman Xiong required no five-star hotel; he
could just check into any of his own homes. At the mine too, Chairman
Xiong had his own apartment that doubled as an office—though he was
seldom at the mine, appearing only on special occasions like the first
and fifteenth of the Lunar New Year, when firecrackers were set off
and paper offerings burnt to appease the mine gods. He had never eaten
at the canteen, let alone stayed the night, he just did what he came
to do and then left. Most of the miners had never seen Chairman Xiong
in person, just sighted from afar his imported SUV. It was said that
Chairman Xiong’s car alone cost more than a million yuan.

One day, though, several city council members showed up at the mine
for a safety inspection. Chairman Xiong happened to be at the mine
too. Nowadays, it was no longer necessary for safety inspectors to
call ahead, and Chairman Xiong had no idea that an inspection would
take place that day. If he had known, he would have steered clear. But
as the city mayor had come in person to visit the mine, it behooved
him not to sneak off without saying hi. He could presumably hide in
his office, but with his car stationed in the parking lot outside—he
couldn’t, after all, take his car into the office—any visitor could
tell he was in.

Capital may be bull-headed, but it still has to shake hands with
Authority, in order to give Authority face. If Capital, inexperienced
in the ways of the world, omits this vital step, then Authority,
provoked, might cuff Capital’s ear—and Capital would still be the
losing party. That’s how Chairman Xiong came to share a meal with the
city mayor and his safety inspectors. In one corner of the canteen a
small space had been partitioned off with a wooden board, and this
makeshift private room was where the higher-ups dined. Song Tian’er
brought in the food, and it was then that Chairman Xiong first set
eyes on Song Tian’er. Having traveled far and wide—what delicacies
hadn’t he eaten?—he did not care for canteen fare. It behooved
someone of Chairman Xiong’s position to treat the waitress as
perfectly invisible, so he did. Only after Song Tian’er had left the
room and a safety inspector, eyes alight, remarked, ‘Even the waitress
here has high heat-generating capacity!’ did Chairman Xiong become
aware of Song Tian’er, though his initial reaction was of doubt.
Really? he thought. Or was the inspector just brown-nosing? When she
entered the room with another dish, Chairman Xiong saw her clearly for
the first time. A conversation ensued.

‘You must be new, aren’t you? I haven’t seen you around before.’

Song Tian’er nodded, yes she was new; Chairman Xiong looked her up and
down, said, ‘How tall are you? One meter what?’

Song Tian’er said, ‘Don’t know, never measured myself.’ Chairman Xiong
said, ‘You’re young, you should be in school.’

Someone interrupted: ‘Yes, let Chairman Xiong send you to university,
get yourself a Ph.D., then come back!’ Song Tian’er said, ‘I don’t
want to go to school.’

The person who interrupted asked, ‘Why?’ Song Tian’er said, ‘No
reason. I just don’t feel like it.’

Everyone laughed. Song Tian’er set down the plate and turned to leave,
but Chairman Xiong hadn’t finished yet. He asked Song Tian’er what her
name was. Song Tian’er said her name. Chairman Xiong appeared to think
for a while, then said, ‘I know! Song Jin’er is your brother, you’re
Song Jin’er’s sister. I can’t believe you and that mute dimwit are
related.’ Indignant, Song Tian’er replied, ‘My brother’s not a dimwit.
He’s just not good with words.’

Director Chai from the office spoke. ‘Girl, where are your manners? Do
you know who you’re talking to?’ Song Tian’er said, ‘No.’ Director
Chai said, ‘Well, I’ll tell you. This man is our boss, everybody’s
boss. A strand of hair from his body would be thicker than your waist.
Smile when you speak to him, and give him your best service.’ Chairman
Xiong said, ‘No, no, the city mayor is the one we’re all here to
serve. All right, just bring us more food, bring the best you have to

Song Tian’er hadn’t yet emerged from the private room when a ruckus
broke out at the counter outside. Someone was demanding a refund,
insisting that the vegetables he had just bought were too salty.
Standing in for Song Tian’er was Sun Baiyu, hopping around on a

‘Out of the question,’ she said. ‘You’ve already eaten from the

The miner said he hadn’t eaten, just tasted a little of the soup. Sun
Baiyu shot back, ‘If you’ve tasted it, your lips touched it, that’s as
good as eating it. Our vegetables are cooked the same way day in and
day out. Don’t make a fuss.’

The miner said, ‘I don’t care about how the food is day in and day
out, I just care about today. I’ve got high blood pressure, I can’t
eat anything too salty. You can’t not give me a refund.’

Sun Baiyu lowered her voice. ‘Our chairman is here today with the city
mayor, would you please act more civilised?' The miner said, ‘So what
if the chairman’s here. The chairman’s human too.’ The miner broke
into laughter. Sun Baiyu said, ‘What did you say? I dare you to say it
again!’ The miner said, ‘I’m not scared of repeating what I just said.
I’d say it a hundred times more if you wanted me to. I said the
chairman is human too, what’s wrong with that? If anyone else agrees,
give a shout!’

Now Director Chai stepped out of the private room and looked around
severely. ‘What’s with the ruckus here?’ Sun Baiyu filled him in.
Director Chai shot a look at the miner with the plate of vegetables,
then turned to Sun Baiyu: ‘Why not give him the refund? Give him ten
times the money. That should settle it.’

The miner knew that Director Chai was being sarcastic, and withdrew
from the counter, carrying his plate. But instead of resuming his seat
in the dining hall, he walked straight to the used plates depository,
tipped the entire contents of his plate into the sink, then made for
the exit. Feeling affronted, Director Chai commanded the miner to stay
put and identify his name and team. The miner didn’t stay put, said
nothing, and left.

The afternoon of the next day, Sun Baiyu received a memo from Director
Chai asking her to see him at his office. In the memo, Director Chai
didn’t call her Baiyu; he called her by a nickname, Baigua—‘white
melon.’ The moment White Melon showed up at Director Chai’s office
with her crutch, Director Chai closed the door and drew the curtains.

She smiled, saying, ‘I’ve got three legs now instead of two, I’m
afraid I can’t provide any service.’ Director Chai said, ‘Three legs?
Better if you had four!’ White Melon said, ‘You’re the one with four
legs!’ There was a bed in his office, and he helped White Melon to it,
saying, ‘Today you don’t need to provide any service, let me be the
one to service you. There’s a favor I’d like you to return me in the
future.’ Sun Baiyu asked, ‘What do you mean?’ Director Chai said
nothing, but his fingers began to pleasure Sun Baiyu. Pleasure before
talk. Dying to know the answer, Sun Baiyu covered her melon and
refused to let Director Chai continue, insisting he tell her first.

Director Chai said, ‘Do I really need to spell it out? You’re an
intelligent person, I’m sure you’ll figure it out.’ Sun Baiyu said,
‘Do you mean Chairman Xiong has taken an interest in Song Tian’er?’
Director Chai said, ‘You see? Didn’t I say you were intelligent?
That’s why you’re my little baby.’ Sun Baiyu said, ‘That Chairman
Xiong, I can’t believe it. Plucking any flower that comes his way.
When will enough be enough?’ Director Chai said, ‘But he didn’t ask to
pluck you, what are you scared of? Pickers of flowers are meant to be
plucked, it’d be a waste if they weren’t!’

Baiyu said, ‘Even if Chairman Xiong wanted to pluck me, I wouldn’t
necessarily give in!’ Saying this, she gave Director Chai’s pants a
good tug. Director Chai in turn resumed giving her ‘melon’ his
complete attention, and praised it for being juicy. Afterward White
Melon sighed. ‘When I got Song Tian’er to come to the mine to help
out, I was afraid of just one thing—her being seen by Chairman Xiong.
It’s true what they say about your deepest fears coming true! Now
there’ll be hell to pay.’

Director Chai said, ‘We’ve been seeing each other for so long, you
think you can pull a fast one on me? You deliberately let Chairman
Xiong see Song Tian’er, so he’d want to pluck her. If Chairman Xiong
had acted like Song Tian’er was no different from the rest, you’d be
complaining he had no taste!’ Sun Baiyu said, ‘Bullshit! If you keep
saying that, I’ll get rid of her immediately.’ Director Chai smiled,
‘Small matter. As soon as you kicked her out, I’d send a car to bring
her back. As long as Song Tian’er is on this planet, she won’t escape
from Chairman Xiong, you know that. But at that point you’d be out of
the picture. Just think about it.’ White Melon fell silent.

That night, before getting in bed, Sun Baiyu asked her husband, ‘How
much is one hundred thousand yuan?’

Song Jin’er said, ‘Go to sleep.’ Sun Baiyu raised the stakes, ‘How
much is five hundred thousand yuan?’ Again Song Jin’er said, ‘Go to

The miners at the coal mine divided their work into three shifts, but
at the canteen there was only one shift. Song Jin’er and Sun Baiyu
woke at five in the morning, and only got to bed at one or two in the
morning. It was no wonder he kept yawning, Song Jin’er was so tired.

Sun Baiyu said, ‘It’s like you’re a pig, all you know how to do is
sleep! How about some interaction every now and then? What good is a
hubby like you?’ Song Jin’er blinked, asked Sun Baiyu to explain the
nature of the interaction she had in mind. Sun Baiyu said, ‘Use your
mouth to interact, I mean. ‘When I ask a question, listen, then give
me an answer.’ Song Jin’er said, ‘Okay.’ Sun Baiyu asked, ‘How much is
one hundred thousand yuan?’ Song Jin’er said, ‘One hundred thousand
yuan.’ Sun Baiyu asked, ‘When will we ever earn that much?’ Song
Jin’er said, ‘Not in our lifetime.’

Sun Baiyu nodded—it was the right answer. She proceeded, ‘Some people
can earn one hundred thousand yuan in two years,’ ‘Who?’ asked Song
Jin’er. Sun Baiyu said: ‘Your sister Song Tian’er,’ Song Jin’er
pooh-poohed the idea, saying she must have gone mad lusting for money.
It was at this point that Sun Baiyu brought up Director Chai’s
suggestion. Chairman Xiong had recently bought a property in the
provincial capital, a lakeside bungalow. This bungalow was
uninhabited. Chairman Xiong wanted to hire a house-sitter for the
bungalow, and was willing to pay a fee of five hundred thousand yuan a
year, which would make it one million for two years. This one million
would be on top of living expenses (including upkeep of pets and
flowers) incurred within the two years that Chairman Xiong paid for
Song Tian’er. If, after two years, Song Tian’er wanted to continue
house-sitting for Chairman Xiong, great. If not, Chairman Xiong would
find someone else.

Song Jin’er did not seem the least shocked at Sun Baiyu’s words. He
shut his eyes, shook off his shoes, crawled into bed. Sun Baiyu patted
his cheek, ‘What’s the matter?’ Song Jin’er said, ‘Nothing’s the
matter. I told you I didn’t want Song Tian’er working at the canteen,
but you were adamant, so I let you have your way. Now look at this

Sun Baiyu said, ‘What mess? I think this is a good thing, a very good
thing. I should congratulate you for having such a flower-picker for a
sister.’ Song Jin’er said, ‘Sun Baiyu, don’t you take me for a fool.’

In his heart, he knew well what looking after a bungalow
entailed—being Chairman Xiong’s kept woman! Song Jin’er had heard of
Xiong’s womanizing ways from others; it was said that once he took
interest in a girl, he would resort to money to make her his own. The
properties he bought were abodes for the women he kept. He seemed to
want to live like an Emperor, taking turns with different women in
different houses. Some even bore him children. Never mind that
Chairman Xiong had short legs, a big belly, a coarse neck, that he was
a dwarf whose head wouldn’t come level with Song Tian’er’s shoulder.
Never mind that Chairman Xiong was thirty years Song Tian’er’s senior,
older than her father. Chairman Xiong had a supreme belief in the
power of money, that as long as you had money, there was no one you
couldn’t buy, and no one who wouldn’t accept you for who you were. But
was a human being with money no longer a human being? Could he do
anything his heart desired, to the point of committing evil?

The thought flashed through Song Jin’er’s mind that, were he to stand
in the Chairman’s way, not only would he have to put up with Sun
Baiyu’s incessant nagging, his lease for the canteen might not be
renewed. It was true, Song Jin’er had to admit, one million yuan was a
lot of money, a sum that his and Sun Baiyu’s lifelong slogging could
never yield. But, on the other hand, some things can’t be measured by
money, or bought with money. Now that Mother had passed, and Little
Sis worked with him, he ought to be her protector. If he let her go
down that road, how could he face her? Sun Baiyu wanted an answer
before Song Jin’er went to sleep. Song Jin’er, provoked, blew his top
and cried, ‘You made your own bed, now sleep in it! If you want Song
Tian’er to agree to Chairman Xiong’s proposition, talk to her

Sun Baiyu bought Song Tian’er a new blouse and a new scarf. Only after
getting her to change into them did Sun Baiyu tell her about Chairman
Xiong’s proposition. She didn’t mention the exact sum of money
involved, afraid that Song Tian’er would be shocked. Song Tian’er
asked, ‘Who else will be looking after the house with me?’ Sun Baiyu
said, ‘Just you, probably.’ Song Tian’er said, ‘It’s not like I know
kungfu, what if a burglar breaks in?’ Sun Baiyu said, ‘You don’t need
to fret about that. If the boss chose you, he must have his reasons.
He’s a man of taste, whoever he chooses will be the one Lady Fortune
smiles upon.’

Song Tian’er cried, ‘I won’t go!’ ‘Why?’ asked Sun Baiyu. Song Tian’er
said, ‘He’s so ugly.’ Sun Baiyu acted surprised, shook her head in
amazement. ‘Silly little sister, you should never say that out loud.
What good are looks in a man? Your boss is always good-looking,
whoever has money has looks. If you ask me, Chairman Xiong is the
handsomest man in the world! You don’t know the market, so you can’t
see his value. I’ve heard the watch on his hand is worth two hundred
thousand yuan!’ Hearing her sister-in-law proclaim Chairman Xiong the
handsomest man in the world, Song Tian’er couldn’t help but laugh.
‘Why don’t you go and look after his house then?’ Sun Baiyu said, ‘I’d
like to of course, but it’ll never be my turn. You’re the one who
picks the flowers, not me.’

Song Tian’er protested. ‘No, I’m not the one who picks flowers, you’re
the one who picks flowers!’ Sun Baiyu said, ‘Don’t make fun of me! How
can I be the one who picks flowers? I’m not even the one who picks
melons!’ Song Tian’er had only heard the phrase ‘the one who picks
flowers,’ not ‘the one who picks melons.’ She saw the likeness between
her sister-in-law’s roly-poly figure and a melon, and almost burst
into laughter, covered her mouth with her hand. What an obstinate
girl, thought Sun Baiyu. Finally she brought her mouth close to Song
Tian’er’s ear and divulged the sum at stake.

Hearing the figure, Song Tian’er was speechless. She stared at her
sister-in-law. Sun Baiyu said, ‘Now you see how Fortune smiles on you?
The lucky can be lazy, the unlucky stay busy. Once you have your
riches, both your brother and I, not to mention your nephew and niece,
we all stand to gain a little. Just think about it. If your nephew
ever needed money to build a house, he’d have someone to borrow it
from.’ Song Tian’er stopped her sister-in-law, and said she
understood. Sun Baiyu said, ‘Good girl. You wised up fast. Much better
than your brother. If you need anything, let me know, I’ll buy it for
you.’ Song Tian’er said, ‘I don’t need anything, and I won’t look
after Chairman Xiong’s house. I already have a boyfriend, his name is
Guo Shulin. He came over just a few days ago, both of you’ve seen

Guo Shulin was Song Tian’er’s classmate in secondary school. After
graduating, he had gone to a polytechnic to specialize in coal mining.
Song Tian’er hadn’t continued her studies. Sun Baiyu had heard that
the two of them had gotten along famously in school, so much so that
everyone called each by the other’s name. Sun Baiyu once asked Song
Tian’er about this; Song Tian’er only blushed. The last time Guo
Shulin came to the mine to look for Song Tian’er, Sun Baiyu had
appraised the boy. Apart from being a bit thin, his looks were
impeccable. But Guo Shulin’s family was poor, without the means to
build a home. Others went from grass huts to brick houses, then from
brick houses to single-storeyed houses, then from single-storeyed
houses to many-storeyed villas, having climbed several rungs up the
hierarchy. Guo Shulin’s family, on the other hand, seemed to have
stagnated at the brick house stage. Guo Shulin wore an old tracksuit;
he didn’t own a single new shirt. Most embarrassing were the running
shoes he sported, one of which had a gaping hole in the upper heel.
How could this pauper be a match for Song Tian’er, the picker of

Sun Baiyu nagged Song Tian’er. The more Song Tian’er resisted, the
more she nagged. Sun Baiyu said, ‘Isn’t life just spending money? With
the security of one million yuan, you’ll never have to lose face
again, or lack for anything for the rest of your life! Your brother
and I, we keep busy from morning till night—but even if we work till
old age we’ll never be able to scrape together a million. Our rice
bowl rests at other people’s feet, and if one day they aren’t happy
with us, they might kick it away. Just think, if you don’t accept
Chairman Xiong’s proposition, he wouldn’t let us off the hook—not to
mention his underlings. We’d probably lose the lease on the canteen.
If that happened, how would your brother and I earn our living? How
would we get by? Even if you don’t think for your future, spare a
thought for ours! Dear sister, your brother and I are begging you!’

Song Tian’er would not be swayed. ‘Even if the heavens fell,’ she
said, ‘I still won’t look after Chairman Xiong’s house. If you won’t
let me sell food at the canteen, I’ll leave tomorrow.’ Sun Baiyu
cursed Song Tian’er silently.

Director Chai asked Sun Baiyu when Song Tian’er could move into
Chairman Xiong’s house. Chairman Xiong, he said, had already opened
for Song Tian’er a hundred-thousand-yuan bank account for shopping;
before she moved in, Song Tian’er might buy some clothes and
accessories to doll herself up. When Song Tian’er had fixed a date,
Director Chai added that Chairman Xiong would accompany Song Tian’er
to the bungalow and personally go over the details of the
house-sitting with her. Sun Baiyu lied to Director Chai, saying that
Song Tian’er was still thinking about it. Director Chai said, ‘What’s
there to think about? The more you think about a good thing, the more
likely that good thing will slip away… if you wait too long, the
flowers are going to fade!’ Sun Baiyu sighed. ‘If only I were twenty
years younger, I wouldn’t mind looking after his house for the rest of
my life!’ Director Chai said, ‘This is not a matter of being young or
old. It’s some people’s fate to be a flower, others a melon. If you
were born thirty years later, you’d still be a melon!’ Sun Baiyu shot
back, ‘All you do is cry “melon”, don’t you! Don’t call other people
melons when they’re not.’

Sun Baiyu decided to turn up the pressure on Song Jin’er, let him
convince his own sister. She did this by going on strike in bed,
crossing her legs tightly and pursing her lips. Attacking the soft
spot via the hard part—that was Sun Baiyu’s strategy. And what a good
strategy it proved. Song Jin’er spent all day long bottled up in the
canteen, and it was only in bed, with Sun Baiyu, that his hands and
legs were free to express themselves. From Sun Baiyu’s body, at least,
he got a little joy. Now that Sun Baiyu was on strike, his joy was
confiscated. Song Jin’er well understood the reason for Sun Baiyu’s
strike, and for the first two days gritted his teeth and bore it,
saying, ‘Suit yourself. You’re starving yourself too.’ Sun Baiyu
unclenched her mouth, said, ‘Not me!’ Song Jin’er said, ‘Who feeds you
then?’ Sun Baiyu said, ‘None of your business.’ Song Jin’er asked, ‘Is
it Director Chai? Ever since I first set eyes on that guy, I knew he
couldn’t be up to anything good. Has he fed you before?’ Sun Baiyu
said, ‘None of your business, I already told you. A husband has no say
over what his wife does out of his sight!’ On the fourth day, Song
Jin’er could take it no longer and plotted to take Sun Baiyu by force.
Sun Baiyu saw what Song Jin’er was up to, said, ‘A melon that’s
plucked before it’s ready won’t be sweet! If you’re going to do it the
rough way, I’ll shout your sister’s name and let her know.’ Now at the
end of his tether, Song Jin’er swallowed his pride and agreed to do
what Sun Baiyu wanted. But Sun Baiyu still kept her door closed
tightly against him, saying, ‘Try me when you’ve convinced Song
Tian’er, I’ll give you a good time then.’

Song Jin’er found Song Tian’er and sat her down for a talk. Before
Song Jin’er could begin, Song Tian’er said, ‘Brother, I know what
you’re about to say. Save it. Go back home, to our mother’s grave,
tell it to her. See if you can bring yourself to open your mouth.’

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