Birds for Little Jade
MICHELLE CHUQI HUANG
She dreamt quite frequently––her mind now sought shelter where her body couldn’t.
Sometime after midnight, Zhen recollected the twins’ birth. For days on end, the term ‘dragon-phoenix pair’ bounced around the house as relatives rejoiced at the fraternal addition to the village. Even in dreams, the wizened brown faces of her elders crowded her hospital bed, their wrinkles framing her vision like the roots of trees. Her husband, catching the last train leaving Shanghai, had arrived a week later. They hadn’t shared a bed in months. At first light, he must have doted on the twins in the intimacy of early morning, their mother still incapacitated with fatigue. By the time Zhen had awoken, he had returned, arms laden with staple foods following a pregnancy: brown sugar for boiled water, red dates, ribs, and radishes for stew, dried longan for porridge. He didn’t mind the household work; the cacophony of construction sites fading from his mind, he retreated into a quietness melting comfortably into that of hers. They spent a blissful week together before he followed the last traces of winter back to Shanghai.
The brother and sister, now four, accompanied their mother alongside the riverbanks. Zhen held her son in her arms as his sister crouched beside the water’s edge, assembling a small float of leaves and sticks. As if to conceal a secret, the gentle waves distorted her daughter’s reflection, but Zhen knew that some of the baby-fat had fallen away to reveal parts of her own rounded features and her father’s dimples.
Sunlight that poured from her half-open eyelids interrupted the scene. Her mind now somewhat closer to awakening, she felt the sun creep over her legs, which paid no heed as she tried to pull them under the covers. Suddenly, Zhen found herself in Shanghai. Her husband’s synthetic jumpsuit plastered itself to her neck and dug into her armpits like a vice. Her head burned as the plastic helmet dug into her scalp; in the next instant, she shuddered as wind rushed into the sweat-stained uniform, robbing her lungs of air as the ground collapsed underneath her. She felt her husband’s face suffocating her own, the rise and fall of his features jutting into hers like an ill-fitting mask, his broken ribs lacerating her chest, the skin wounds spreading fire throughout her body. Long bars of steel smashed into her flailing limbs, prying themselves free from concrete walls that receded from view. Inside her trouser pockets, two pairs of children’s socks grew slick with blood before she had even landed.
Zhen woke with a jolt. Sweat and tears covered her face and neck like a film of wet cotton, sallow and saturated with sun. On the wall opposite her bed, a calendar bearing a neat assembly of red crosses marched toward ‘Shanghai No. 2 Intermediate People’s Court’ scrawled across a date. Mechanically, Zhen forced herself to add one more cross to the calendar before stepping into the washroom.
As she poured a vat of boiled water into her washbasin, Zhen snuck a look at herself in the water. Steam flooded the room before she could make eye contact with her naked reflection, the only other person she had seen for days. The twins’ difficult birth had marred her body; she ran her fingers down the stretch marks that hugged her abdomen, their spidery patterns surfacing here and there like severed webs, and thought of her children. She imagined the weight of the two on her breast the first time she saw them. Water welled in her gaunt collarbones and streamed down her arms. How long has it been since her husband had rested his arm next to hers?
A shudder snapped Zhen out of her reverie. She drenched a towel and got to work, mercilessly wiping down her face, her back, and her inner thighs, hoping that the harsh grating would suppress the bile rising in her throat. It didn’t help. She felt the fingerprints stay on her skin, materialising back after each wipe as if hydrophobic. Dirty, dirty, dirty! She turned away from her reflection in the washbasin and retched into the toilet.
The city hadn’t felt so dirty then. After ridding herself of the brine of the long-distance train, Zhen remembered feeling rejuvenated as she explored the city––her hours at the sewing factory, although long, had a fixed end each day––and her children were being taken care of a reassuring distance away. She adored the Shanghai women, who wore their femininity like a caul––sundresses bared their backs as white as slabs of jade, and makeup the colour of fizzy drinks flitted about their cheeks and lips. Her own features, which had once complemented the muted greens and greys of Wuyuan, now appeared ashen against the metropolitan backdrop.
Zhen applied a bit of her only rouge before showing up to work the next day. Under her mask, a faint grin persisted as she pursed her lips over and over again, feeling for the secret dapple of red. She looked over from her station and met Ling’s gaze, whose crescent-shaped eyes suggested a smile. The two maintained a light friendship after bonding over being newcomers and having adjoining work stations. All the women in the sewing factory resembled Zhen in one way or another––their faces, rarely touched by makeup or serums, had a darker hue; their hands were coarse but nimble, and most were mothers, whose siblings and children lived several provinces away––all except for Ling. Ling was younger, and an only-child, Zhen had learned. Her Mandarin was impeccable––devoid of dialectal accents that would have otherwise betrayed the location of her hometown. Her fair skin and delicate hands could almost blend in with the city girls Zhen had loved to regard. As they exchanged stories during breaks, Ling grew to adore the twins while Zhen, embracing the companionship and distraction from her own homesickness, hoped that her daughter would grow up to resemble Ling.
“You have to let me apply your makeup sometime,” Ling gushed, gathering all the rice in her lunch to the corner of the styrofoam container and shepherding them into her mouth. Zhen laughed and nodded, returning to embroidering a pair of children’s shoes for her children––the free access to threads in hundreds of colours was a gold mine she planned to tap into as much as possible. The liberation from conservative dress and restrained sexuality that follows high school…she had missed that stage of her life.
She was distracted again with the arrival of the Supervisor. Affable enough towards his floor of seamstresses, he made a point of always greeting them at lunch break before the next part of their shift ensued––a long, winding period approaching early evening.
“Ah, Mei, our overseas buying just approved your first test batch…”
Zhen added a stitch.
“How is Wei Wei? Ah, already seven? It must be so much easier for you now that he’s in school now huh…”
She added another stitch, finishing up the buckle for one of the shoes. Birds for Little Jade, and dinosaurs for Mingming, she reminded herself, reaching for another thread.
“Ling, Zhen, still warming up to the place?” A trouser leg brushed past her calf. Zhen placed her embroidery down and looked up.
“Good afternoon, Supervisor Qian,” she smiled. “It’s been alright.”
“Good, good…how are the twins?”
“They’re living with their grandparents. Sometimes with their cousins, too.”
“It’s good that they’re still young. Shame that both of their parents are so far from home…” Zhen took the little shoe in her hands, but her needle refused to move. The trouser leg pressed itself closer to her leg. “The factory’s a harsh place for a single-parent…especially someone that’s still quite young, wouldn’t you say?”
Zhen wasn’t sure if her head moved in accordance. A sense of trepidation coated her vocal chords, its sour taste nauseating. Stepping closer, he had taken the little shoe from her hand and began to marvel at the stitching, making sure to brush past her fingers in the process. Zhen’s brain went abuzz, conflicting decisions to either fight or flight pounding at her skull. She made eye contact with Ling, who, seemingly also facing the same decision, returned the gaze and winced. Panic must have overflowed from Zhen’s eyes. She needed to choose.
“You’re marvellously talented…this could beat any one of our machines…”
Zhen, her gaze following his, rested on the little shoe––her daughter’s. On its buckle, a hand-stitched dove with a missing wing grounded her attention. Something clicked inside Zhen’s mind––and then it felt like no choice at all. Meeting Ling’s gaze, she shook her head, almost imperceptibly.
A bell rang from the broadcasters, signalling the end of lunch break. Supervisor Qian, with a final squeeze on Zhen’s shoulder, slunk away as suddenly as he had come. Before Ling could approach her, Zhen rose with a start and headed for the restroom. Inside, her nose immediately began to reject the smell of disinfectant––a sickly-sweet perfume just barely masking the stench of fecal matter––which numbed her sinuses like poison. And yet, matching what she felt inside, the unforgiving reek set Zhen’s mind straight. Powerlessness claimed her then. With dry eyes, she faced her reflection in the mirror and swabbed the rouge from her lips, its redness now feeling like a hostile growth tainting her skin. Fear pulsated at the pit of her stomach––it, too, was red, and dully aching.
A monotone week ensued like a cringing afterthought. During that time, Zhen had managed to schedule a video-calling session with her children for the end of the week. She hadn’t seen their faces for three months. By then, the completed two pairs of shoes rested by her bedside cabinet, their flocks of stitched dinosaurs and birds bringing a smile to her face each morning. Ling greeted Zhen at the back of the factory where all the seamstresses filed in each morning, and together, they shuffled to their workstations. Conversation had lightened after last week; during their lunch breaks, Ling would scurry to other parts of the factory, donning a baggy coat over her uniform despite the heat, while Zhen took the opportunity to nap like the other seamstresses. Word of her embroidery skills had spread among her co-workers, whose amiable sides revealed themselves as Zhen became a normalised sight. What’s more, she had been scheduled a meeting with the management team to look over the arrival of a new order. Just a few more hours, she thought, and then I’ll be able to see Little Jade and Mingming.
At the end of her shift, Zhen walked promptly to the office. From the windows, she could see slits of warm oranges and purples spilling across the sky that had been siphoned by the glass and redirected onto the factory’s rubber walls. Zhen picked up her pace; each colour change brought her closer to her children that evening.
“I’m so glad you could offer some extra time today,” a voice, strangely contained––the door must have closed––said. Zhen looked away from the window and flinched. The previous week burst free from its constraints Zhen had worked so hard to secure. She noticed his hand on the doorknob.
“It’s no problem,” she replied. Was that her voice?
“We’ve had complaints on the quality of the needlework. Would you take a look at our mock-up before we send it in?” Supervisor Qian gestured to the mound of fabric on a table. Her brow tense and calculating, Zhen turned to the fabric and tried to focus.
“The…blanket stitch with polyester fabric like this will tend to come loose with wear…” She heard a step. The hairs on the back of her neck sat upright. Walk around the table. She forced herself to continue.
“Cotton thread will work better, although the current kind should meet the standards.” She felt a pressure on the small of her back. Get out of here.
“Using mesh is a wise choice, the skirt here will need the extra layer…” The hand spidered further down. An instinctual agency taking over her paralysed body, Zhen spun around and screeched.
“What. Are. You. Doing?”
To her surprise, Zhen saw Supervisor Qian mouth the same words she had planned in her own mind. Her own voice, it seemed, had once again clamped itself shut. She felt her gut feeling short-circuit. Had…had she been too loud? He looked annoyed. Zhen stumbled away from the table and slammed the door open.
Someone had been standing at the door. With her camcorder still pointing towards the office, Ling turned and locked eyes with Zhen.
“What?” Ling stammered, her hands trembling. Before Zhen could reply, exclamations exploded from inside the room. Supervisor Qian ran towards Ling, hoping to seize the device. With a resounding smack, Ling shut the viewfinder, stuffed the camcorder into her baggy coat, and made a beeline for the emergency stairs. Shirking away from the pandemonium, Zhen turned and ran for the exit down the opposite hallway, the momentum flattening her tears into a sheet across her cheeks. She felt Ling’s face sear into her brain.
Somebody had seen them––
no, the stakes are higher, Zhen thought.
Somebody had seen her.
Fumbling into her cramped apartment, Zhen fell to the ground beside her bed and dug out her working contract papers. In a file limp with humidity, she extracted the necessary documents to file a complaint. Her ears ringing with panic, Zhen scanned the pages with trembling hands, hoping to check a box characterising her abuse.
‘Unreasonable shift assignments’
Zhen’s pen, after hovering to the end of the page, wedged itself into a crevice on her table where it began to bleed. Was that all it was? Did fear and powerlessness eat away at her worth, reducing her to something simply too ‘other’ to be recognised? Guidelines for writing stretched out onto the next page like a series of disapproving tripwires.
‘If you chose ‘Other,’ please specify your concerns below:’
‘Three months after being employed as a seamstress, I experienced harassment under Supervisor Qian,’ Zhen tried. The characters for ‘harassment,’ sao rao, ended with a fishhook-like stroke followed by a dot––Zhen felt the two bait her like a trap. Zhen paused to observe the two characters.
A jingle announcing a pending video-call blared across the room. Forced to halt her writing, Zhen blew her nose before picking up her phone. Little Jade and Mingming popped onto her screen, their heads frothy with shampoo.
“I was going to get them cleaned up before doing this, but you know how slippery they get when you soap them up––they’re like little barrels!” Zhen’s sister’s face vied for room inside the screen and began to explain. The twins chortled and clutched at their auntie’s earlobes. Zhen laughed, biting her lower lip which had started to quiver. In the background, she saw her parent-in-laws hang up bedsheets on their tiny patio to dry, their white hair ghostly against the evening light. Around the two hunched figures, her nieces and nephews fell over one another trying to claim the remaining space in the screen. “It’s been too long, Zhen! How is Shanghai treating you, big sister?”
“I’ve been getting by,” Zhen smiled, waggling her fingers at a giggling Mingming. “Momma always called me the tougher one, remember?”
“Oh, just keep on milking that title, will you?” Her sister retorted, her voice sandwiching a smile, and smothered the two kids under a towel, wiping the soap suds from their faces. “In all seriousness, you need to take care of yourself out there, you hear?”
“I am, sis, don’t worry,” Zhen said, then returned to cooing at her children. Had Little Jade’s hair grown that long already? She became aware of the perpetual traffic sounds that still leaked through her thin window panes. The sound of homesickness. “You take care of yourself too, alright?”
All too soon, she found herself ending the call. Silence had begun to settle over everything once more like a thin layer of dust. Two children; one sibling, a sister; two nieces and a nephew; countless elderly. She had everything to lose and only a shadow of a possibility to regain something for herself—something indescribably, obscurely ‘Other.’
Zhen tore up the letter of complaint.
A line of dust outlined the sewing machine’s absence from her workstation; the identical setup next to it outlining Ling’s. She had been summoned to the office again. There, an array of tuxedoed men turned to her.
“Madam Zhen, are you aware of the video clip sent by this online organisation overnight?” One man spoke, holding up an blogpost to her face. Zhen stared at the phone screen and shook her head.
“Since its release last night, it has been shared over a million times online. Are you still to claim your ignorance of this matter?”
“Yes, sir.” Zhen murmured. Dread exited her body in irregular puffs of air. “I have no idea what’s happened.”
“Mr. Qian is now working with a team before making any legal action. As a sensitive precaution, your position at this factory has been terminated.”
Zhen’s gaze dislocated itself from the screen and wandered away as she tried to process this information. She even looked out the door for a familiar face. Ling wasn’t there, either.
“Anyone home? Madam Zhen, are you home?”
A woman stood outside the door. Through the peephole, Zhen made out a small build, tied-back hair, and a set of binders clutched at her chest. Turning to press her back against the thin wood frame, Zhen slid into a sitting position. From there, the travelling bag at the foot of her bed waited with her quizzically. Silence comforted her these days, its neutrality calming to the ears.
Outside, the woman winced and eased her weight onto her other heel. She turned her head to her companion, who leaned against the wall, equally sweating with her camera pouch dangling by her neck, and raised an eyebrow. Sighing, the other woman made her way to the door.
“Zhen, it’s me, Ling.”
Zhen turned and pressed her ear against the door. “I worked alongside you…as an undercover journalist. We can help you."
“What’s the accusation?” The woman probed, balancing her mug on her legs as Ling flipped through her binder on the table. Across from it, Zhen cradled her mug in her hands and blew on the steam.
“What’s Qian offered you?”
“A settlement if I plead guilty. I’ll pay a fine, lose my job. They’ll wrap this up privately and my records would be wiped from the factory,” Zhen looked at her fingers looped around the mug handle. The usual pinpricks had completely faded. She hadn’t touched a needle in weeks. “No strings attached.”
A momentary pause. Ling made a move as if to touch her hand, which Zhen stopped with a stare.
“Zhen, you…you can testify against him. We can help––”
“Are you out of your mind?” Zhen set her mug down on the table. Droplets of tea spilled out onto some of the papers, which the woman quickly herded back into her binder. Ling blinked.
“Are you out of your mind? Our organisation does its research. I’ve been pulling strings and looked through the files of that factory––”
Zhen stood up in disbelief. This encounter will be simply the cherry on top to my credibility in court, she scorned. Ling, her eyes not breaking contact, continued. “There’s been other women before you, who went through the same thing. Don’t you want justi––”
“And why haven’t they said anything?” Zhen turned to look at the younger woman. “Were they out of their minds, too? You know what they come from. You should know that I’m no different. If I don’t speak out, I’ll still lose my job, I’ll have to pay a fine. I’ll have already been shamed, but with some luck, I’ll be forgotten. And then I can still provide for my family elsewhere in this first-tier city.
“You never hear about these cases for a reason. If I testify against him, I risk losing more. They’ll rack up a fine so high not only would I be taking back all the money I sent home these past months, I’d be taking food straight from my kids’ mouths. The media will explode. My name and face with be all over Shanghai, and then where will I support––”
“But what if you win?” Ling’s hands reached out and took hold of Zhen’s arms, her brow furrowing with anxiousness. “What if you testify, and they believe you? What if he is proven guilty? You’ll be given compensation. You’ll keep your job.”
Zhen shook her off and sat back down, pinching her nose-bridge, her head shaking. Ling pressed on. “This will be an opportunity they can’t take from you. But it will disappear soon, it always does, and it’ll take you with it. Think of the women before you. Think of the women after you.”
Ling’s foot had bumped into her travelling bag. As it flopped to its side, Zhen caught a glimpse of a little white dove tumbling out with the rest of her garments. Birds for Little Jade. Soon, it will be school for Little Jade, independence for Little Jade…careers for Little Jade, too. She would claw out the eyes of whoever dared to land her daughter in her current situation, should it ever happen.
But who would fight for herself?
“What if you win?”
Zhen got up and made her way to the fallen knapsack. Ling, unknowingly standing in its wake, shrunk a bit under her shadow. Paying no heed to the journalist, Zhen bent over and began folding the contents back into her bag. She turned to the woman still sitting by the desk––she hadn’t spoken much, and yet Zhen knew she had been listening.
“Introduce me to your colleague over here,” Zhen spoke to Ling, who went limp with relief. “You must be a lawyer, I presume?”
Ling’s garments fit her well. After being granted some creative license, Zhen had tailored the blouse and pants to crisply hug her figure. On her lips, Ling had helped her apply and blot out her only stick of rouge––a ritual in which both women regarded the other with a wordless sincerity. They would not see each other until late into the afternoon.
Inside the courthouse, the other woman approached Zhen, her eyebrows slightly raised.
The courtroom doors groaned to life, sending tiny hurricanes of dust swirling across the marble floors. Its astigmatic brass frames cradled Zhen’s reflection for a brief second as she entered, imagining the hundreds of stories whose resolutions the doors had stashed away like secrets. The jaded hinges turned to claim one more.
Michelle Chuqi Huang is a Chinese-Australian student currently attending Shanghai American School, Pudong campus. She has written for her school’s official publications, as well as for the student-run literary and press publications. "Birds for Little Jade" was inspired by a research unit in her Asian History and English classes, where she researched issues faced by migrant workers in China. She intends to continue exploring non-fiction and fiction writing by studying journalism and creative writing in university.