Fang Lin woke to the usual din: the bleat of a truck reversing; the steady, metallic tattoo of a jackhammer; the whining buzz of a steel saw; the driving in of nails; the slapping down of bricks; the irregular thumping—like sneakers in a dryer—of a cement mixer.
Up and down the coast, from Shenzhen to Fujian to Shanghai to Tianjin, this was what you heard. They were building—a skyscraper, a shopping mall, a factory, a new highway, an overpass, a subway, a train station—here, there, everywhere. Fang Lin had just arrived in Shenzhen and already he was accustomed to the ubiquitous cacophony, as regular and familiar as the breath in his nostrils.
Fang Lin was the son of rice farmers from Nanpo Village in Jiangxi Province. He’d come of age during the era of reforms. The Cultural Revolution and the Great Helmsman were no more relevant to his life than Genghis Khan. Even the great events of his childhood were shrouded in the obfuscating gauze of prehistory. To Fang Lin, Tiananmen was just a square in Beijing and Mao was the guy on the money. And it was money that mattered now. Mao—or was it Deng?—had said it himself: “To get rich is glorious.” Fang Lin’s parents recalled the hardship of China’s great upheavals in the 1950s and ’60s and were grateful to be allowed—in exchange for payoffs to local officials—to own and to farm their ancestral plot; to slaughter their own chickens, ducks, and pigs; and to sell their rice harvest for cash. After decades of sacrifice and poverty, they’d bought a color television and were saving for a mobile phone. They could eat as much pork as they wanted and watch pirated Hong Kong action pictures on their Video–CD player—and they were thrilled. But Fang Lin and his contemporaries were not content to gaze at other people’s better lives on TV. They wanted to have those lives.
When a cultivator gives up farming for some other kind of work, it is called li tu—to leave the land—which suggests a kind of exile. For Fang Lin, the decision was easy. As the second son in his family, he didn’t stand to inherit any land. It would all go to his older brother and his brother’s wife, a village girl with bad skin who seemed to go through a box of Choco Pies every day. Fang Lin warned that she would become fat, but there had been no fat people before the reforms—the whole country had subsisted on a starvation diet—and in his parents’ peasant eyes even obesity appeared a virtue. But although there was food in the village, there was no money. The money was in the south, along the coasts, in the boomtowns that appeared on television.
China was becoming rich around the edges while it stayed poor in the middle. So people in the hinterlands were hitting the road, hopping a bus, truck, or train to the coast and seeking employment in a factory or a construction crew, a restaurant or a brothel. The newspapers called the migration the Hundred Million Man March. Someone from Nanpo seemed to set out every day, especially after the harvest in early winter.
Fang Lin borrowed five hundred yuan (about sixty dollars) from his brother, packed his extra shirt in a vinyl duffel bag, and walked out of town to the road that ran along the river. He thumbed a ride with a truck, buying the driver a bowl of noodles at a gas station. Then he caught a local bus south to Nanchang, where he paid a hundred yuan for the upper berth on a sleeper bus to Shenzhen. He lay in his bunk and watched the TV mounted in the roof above the driver, but soon the bus was so thick with cigarette smoke that Fang Lin could barely make out the CCTV newscaster.
He rode for thirty-six hours. In the night, the villages gradually gave way to county seats and the rough farmland yielded to workshops and factories. By morning, Fang Lin was in Guangzhou, rolling south along the Guanshen Highway past multiacre industrial compounds with corrugated-metal-roofed workshops that were bigger than his whole village. Entire mountains appeared to have been hollowed out for gravel and cement. There were stretches where the landscape was practically lunar: just a few stones and, hunched amid swirling dust, a handful of shacks made of scavenged wood and cloth. Occasionally, a family farm would appear to be holding out between the encroaching factories and construction sites, its crop—usually tropical fruit—covered by a thick coating of dust.
Fang Lin saw all this and he thought it was beautiful. Amazing. Progress. Soon there would be no more farms at all. Just factories as far as the eye could see. How many people worked on a farm—one, maybe two? But in a factory, he could not begin to count.
At the central bus station in Shenzhen, he found a red pay phone beside a cigarette stand and called a number he had for two other Nanpo boys who had come south, Du Chan and Huang Po. In his thick Jiangxi accent he asked the woman who answered if he could leave word for his friends. She told him he could leave a message, but it would only be delivered if the recipients were willing to pay a yuan for it.
“Why would anyone pay if they don’t know who it’s from?” Fang Lin asked.
“How would we make any money from this otherwise?” she shot back. “If it’s important, he’ll pay for the message.”
Fang Lin told her who he was and that he would be arriving shortly. He doubted anyone would ever pick up the message. He bought a pack of cigarettes and a bottle of sweet lemon tea. He showed a slip of paper with his friends’ address on it to the cigarette seller, who told Fang Lin to follow the signs south toward the border with Hong Kong. He set off on foot, stopping every few minutes to show his slip of paper to another pedestrian. Few understood his accent, but they could read the paper and point him in the right direction.
He was disappointed by the buildings here. He had imagined they would be taller, grander. But these were no higher than those in Nanchang, the provincial capital of Jiangxi. And the roads were no wider here. And the people seemed no better dressed. But there was more of everything: more tall buildings, more wide streets, more pedestrians. There were more shops, selling more clothes, more televisions, more VCDs, and more fake-fur coats. There were more rich people and more bums. More cripples and more whores. And there were more migrants. Half the people he asked for directions couldn’t help him because they were new to Shenzhen themselves.
By the time Fang Lin found his way to where his fellow villagers were supposed to be bivouacked he was thirsty and hungry and the neighborhood was swathed in darkness, the narrow alleys and dirt lanes obscured by smoke and steam. In a corner storefront, a woman sat behind a counter flanked by five booths in which five different men were shouting into red phones. Fang Lin showed her his slip of paper. She read the names, nodded, and told him the charge would be one yuan. He paid and she handed him the phone message he had left for his friends earlier that day. At least that meant he was in the right place.
Fang Lin kept asking around and was told by another migrant from Jiangxi that Du Chan and Huang Po had gone north to find work in a factory that made the machines that make sewing machines. He didn’t know anyone else in Shenzhen, but from the voices around him he could tell that numerous other men from western Jiangxi had preceded him and he took comfort in the familiar. From a stall set up on a narrow alley, he ordered a plate of chicken intestines, scallions, and red peppers—a Jiangxi dish—and a bottle of beer, which he shared with two other fellows he had just met. In turn, they offered to share their room with him. They charged him ten yuan and told him to bring some one yuan coins along to feed the meter box that provided the room with electricity by the hour.
That night in his sleeping pallet on the floor, Fang Lin turned away from his roommates and thrust his red plastic wallet into the crotch of his pants. When he woke, his roommates had already left. They had rummaged through his duffel bag and taken his cigarettes. His wallet was safe between his legs.
Shenzhen was once not so different from Nanpo—a rice-farming village with a few thousand residents. Then in 1979 it was designated China’s first special economic zone. By when Fang Lin arrived, twenty years later, metropolitan Shenzhen sprawled over a thousand square miles and was inhabited by seven million. The central government’s plans for the city had all been rendered obsolete before they could be implemented, as wave after wave of migrants swamped the planners’ ambitions. As many as four million of the city’s new residents had arrived without the proper permits to live in a special economic zone; they survived in a legal limbo, tolerated as long as they could be exploited by local officials, manufacturers, and landlords. The city had no choice but to embrace the chaos, as thousands of new buildings were put up, thousands of miles of new road were laid down every year, and a quarter million people a day passed through Shenzhen on their way to or from Hong Kong. Shenzhen is the richest city per capita in China and its population, with an average age of twenty-four, is among the youngest in the world.
At ground level, in the shopping malls and restaurants, the first impression of Shenzhen’s boom is the sheer volume of goods and services that are on sale. Chinese advertising is still pretty much all about bargains—there is very little aspirational marketing—so in Shenzhen, the plastic surgeons promise cheaper eyes, lips, and breasts, rather than better, and for every Dunhill or Louis Vuitton boutique, there are a thousand no-name shops operating out of retail space let by the day or week. Although Shenzhen sits atop Hong Kong, it has become, in many ways, Hong Kong’s underbelly. It has the same Cantonese mercantile energy and get-ahead ethos, but thanks to loose laws, looser women, and dirty officials, you can get—or get away with—pretty much anything you want in Shenzhen.
Emporia the size of football fields are given over to cheap plastic toys, cut-rate kitchenware, stuffed animal zoos, and narrow aluminum-pan alleys, making Shenzhen seem like a ninety-nine-cent store ballooned into a city-state. There are enough crappy vinyl purses to have outfitted the entire Brezhnev-era Soviet Union and, it seems, enough nail clippers for every toe in town and a hairbrush for every strand of hair. Everything is on sale, all the time. Suggest a price, any price, the vendors will meet it or beat it. Just look at the Hong Kong families returning from the surrounding factories with all manner of household goods loaded onto wagons—new storm windows, heaters, blenders, car radios, tires. Money in Shenzhen is made on volume and everyone has to sell as much as they can today because more of everything is arriving tomorrow from factories up and down the Pearl River Delta.
In China in the last years of the twentieth century and the early years of the twenty-first, the greatest mass urbanization in history coincided with, and perhaps catalyzed, one of the most vertiginous economic booms. It was a time of incessant multiplication, of more piled upon more, and nowhere was the superabundance greater than in the Pearl River Delta. As China’s economy grew by nearly ten percent a year through the late nineties, entire swaths of Pearl River marsh and paddy lands were drained to make room for factories and container ports. Consider that there are more than a hundred and twenty car companies in China, more than two million trucking companies, and hundreds of vacuum cleaner and television manufacturers; that, according to one estimate, China manufactures enough televisions to replace the entire global supply every two years; that fifty percent of the world’s phones are made there and at least thirty percent of the world’s microwave ovens; that twenty-five percent of Best Buy’s merchandise and twenty percent of everything Wal-Mart sells is made in China. Look around your home: that frying pan, blender, coffeemaker, hair dryer, sewing machine, shower curtain, doormat, flowerpot, pencil sharpener, ballpoint pen, broom, mop, and bucket—all are made in the Middle Kingdom, probably in the Pearl River Delta. China’s demand for raw materials—steel, aluminum, ore, oil, you name it—has driven global prices steadily upward in service of the principle that more is always good and cheaper is always best.
The tycoons of more—the factory owners, the landlords, the real-estate brokers, the pimps, the party officials, the scalpel cowboys doing four dozen eye-jobs a day—defined the tastes of the boom by the way they spent their money. They spent it on mah-jongg and Audi automobiles and karaoke girls and Hennessy in ceramic bottles cast in the shape of Napoleon on his rearing steed. They spent it at a brothel in Dongguan, reputed to be the world’s largest, with a choice of more than a thousand women on display behind a glass viewing wall. And they spent it on wild flavor—the cuisine so emblematic of China’s new conspicuous consumption that Chinese spoke of the boom years as the Era of Wild Flavor.
Southern Chinese have always eaten their way through the far reaches of the animal kingdom more adventurously than others, but during the Era of Wild Flavor the sheer variety and volume of creatures they consumed came to include virtually any obtainable species of land, sea, or air. Wild flavor was supposed to give you face, to bring you luck, to make you fan rung. Fan rung, which means prosperous, had become the preferred term in the Pearl River Delta to denote anything that was cool. And fan rung could get extreme: there were rumors that for the right price one could order a soup made from human babies, which imbued the diner with fantastic virility. The rumors told you that nothing was out of bounds. Restaurants opened daily offering an ever-wider range of snakes and lizards, camels and dogs, monkeys and otters. Hunters as far away as Indonesia, Thailand, and Canada became the front end of a supply chain that met the demand of Chinese traders hungry for the empowering wild flavor of tiger penises from Sumatra and black bear gallbladders from Manitoba.
The director of Wild Animal Protection at the Guangzhou Forestry Bureau, Lian Junhao, told me that in 2003 Guangzhou alone had two thousand wild-flavor restaurants. The Forestry Bureau has regulatory authority over these restaurants, but the number seemed too round to believe. When I pressed him, he admitted, “Nobody really knows how many there are.” I spent an hour in his office and in that time he issued four licenses for new wild-flavor restaurants. Before I left, he mentioned that Forestry Bureau had imposed a ban on selling snakes in Guangzhou, but an hour later I was standing in front of a writhing bag of cobras at a wild-flavor stall at Xinyuan market. I counted twenty-five burlap sacks of snakes at this stall alone and there were at least twenty more stalls specializing in snakes in the market.
Ten years ago, when I first visited these wild-animal markets, there had been about thirty stalls in all, selling a wide variety of animals. During that trip I ordered snake, turtle, and wild boar, all of which went from the seller to the carving board to the pot right before my eyes. The meat was served at a communal table beneath a corrugated-fiberglass roof. The boar was disappointingly flavorless, but the rest—washed down with green beer—was excellent. The atmosphere of the market was genial. Kids chased each other between the animal cages and women sat around on stools, chatting as they washed vegetables. Walking between the stalls, you could look up and see stars.
Now this style of dining, which was once a quaint local custom, had become industrialized. In one cage at Xinyuan I counted fifty-two cats packed so tightly that their guts were spilling out between the wire bars. There were fifty such cages in that stall. There were fifty-two stalls along that row of vendors. There were six rows of vendors in that market. And there were seven markets on that street.
A sharp, musky smell overwhelmed me—the excrement of a thousand different animal species mingling with their panicked breath. I saw at least a dozen types of dogs, including Labradors and Saint Bernards, and there had to be at least as many different breeds of house cat. There were raccoons, dogs, badgers, civets, squirrels, deer, boars, rats, guinea pigs, pangolins, muskrats, ferrets, wild sheep, mountain goats, bobcats, monkeys, horses, ponies, and a camel out in the parking lot. And these were just the mammals. The choice of birds and reptiles was every bit as diverse. Predator was sometimes stacked atop prey. Damaged animals—those that had lost a paw, say—were kept alive with intravenous drips. And because wild animals were more valuable than farm-raised creatures, I was told that some traders would slice off the hind paw of a civet or badger to make it appear to potential buyers that the animal had been trapped in the wild.
I had brought a list of banned animals from the Wild Animal Protection Office. I asked for the rare bird species, the monkeys, the tigers.
“No problem,” I was told by a smiling trader with buckteeth who said he was from Guangxi.
“What about the authorities?” I asked.
“No problem.” He pointed to a fellow in a gray and blue uniform sitting on a white plastic chair, flicking his cigarette ashes by a bag of banned snakes.
“OK, how about mountain lion?”
I decided to push my luck.
“How about panda?”
He shook his head. “You must be sick.”
On his first morning in Shenzhen, Fang Lin explored his new neighborhood. Ka-Ta, or the Click, was a perfect grid of sixty-four white-and-pink-tiled, eight-story buildings. The Click had got its name from the electricity meters that ticked away outside most apartments. Due to the peculiarities of Chinese zoning laws, the neighborhood was technically a distinct village and remained under the jurisdiction of the farming cooperative that had owned the land when the Special Economic Zone was formed. Elsewhere in Shenzhen, city planners, politicians, and architects controlled construction practically by fiat, but the farmers in charge here had contracted independently with a real-estate developer to put up these housing blocks for the zone’s rapidly expanding middle class. But the developers had left so little space between buildings that the Click was forever shrouded in darkness and there was little chance of attracting such dream tenants. The narrow, unpaved alleys were bathed in fluorescent light day and night—except at high noon on sunny days when the sudden appearance of yellowish, natural light was almost confusing.
During the damp summer months, the Click’s pathways turned to streambeds and even in winter they remained soggy. The neighborhood’s original plan had provided for commercial space in each ground-floor corner unit, but enterprising tenants had rented other ground-floor apartments then punched their way through the brick walls facing the alleys to create prime, street-front retail space. In the absence of urban zoning laws, there was little anyone could do to restrain such sledgehammer capitalism. Many of the apartments had been subdivided into smaller one-room units, some without water or even windows. Electricity was pirated through jury-rigged lines and once a month ChinaGas workers arrived in groups of ten to snip away illegal cables, which quickly grew back like vines. The interiors of the buildings had been similarly modified with power lines and broadband cables nailed to the walls in tangled masses that occasionally emitted bright showers of sparks. There were buckets of sand deposited at every landing in case of fire, but these were so full of cigarette butts that one wondered how they would contain a blaze.
Illicit commerce thrived in the alleys of the Click. There were several small piecework factories of three sewing machines each; the workers slept under their machines at night. There were four shoe repairmen and a man who converted old tires into sandals. There were a half-dozen key duplicators and no fewer than a dozen doctors in one-room practices—fifty-square-foot storefronts that usually featured a bench covered with newspapers, a cabinet full of pills, maybe a diploma on the wall, and a stool on which the M.D. sat smoking cigarettes. The doctors all specialized in treating venereal diseases and a frightening few also practiced cut-rate plastic surgery. But it was easy to bypass the doctors and head straight for any of the half-dozen pharmacies that did a thriving business in aphrodisiacs and antibiotics. There were barber poles swirling red, white, and blue—a beacon that, in China, very often denotes a brothel—and hookers in skintight Lycra pants and tube tops would grab your arm as you walked past. There were the pay-by-the-call phone centers, the pay-by-the-hour hotels, and the pay-by-the-tablet ecstasy dealers. You could buy anything in the Click in the smallest possible increment: one cigarette, one nail, one phone call, one injection, one sheet of paper, one envelope, one stamp, one match, one stick of gum, one bullet, one brick, one bath, one shave, one battery, even one feel.
The disorderly, bursting, subterranean energy of the Click made it a perfect microcosm of Shenzhen. Everyone was winging it. Many residents didn’t even know their addresses. Their telephone, if they had one, was a mobile. If a message were truly important it would be text-messaged to them via their phones. And they’d be moving in a week or two or three, so what’s the point of giving out an address? And since the floor plans and roadways were as impermanent as sand castles, it was impossible for the police to keep tabs. But the city, in some sense, thrived on this chaos. There were certainly risks—I was robbed in Shenzhen twice—but for the quick-witted and flexible, there were great rewards. You may not know where you are going, but neither does anyone else.
One afternoon in Shenzhen, I decided to look at a few apartments, reckoning that it might be cheaper to rent a place than stay in hotels. I walked into a realtor’s office where the broker said he had several apartments that might interest me, one of them in the Click. He borrowed a set of car keys from another broker and we set off in a rented Hyundai. After a few minutes’ drive, I noticed that we kept passing the same giant Video Display Terminal on which a plastic surgeon was promising a “cheaper, bigger, more womanly bust.”
“Where are we going?” I asked the broker.
He explained that he wanted to show me a small apartment in Laohu.
“But why are we going in circles?”
I asked my real estate broker when he had arrived in Shenzhen.
“Two days ago,” he said.
Mao once said that environmental woes affected only capitalist countries. In that regard, China’s transformation to a market economy was complete. In the Pearl River Delta the normal color of the sky was a smudged brown; in Shenzhen on most days it looked like it was about to rain. You noticed the pollution first as an itchiness in the eyes, then a sore throat, and finally a hacking cough that stayed with you throughout your visit—or, if you stayed long enough, landed you in the hospital, where doctors had observed a steady increase of respiratory diseases. Similarly crime, which was also dismissed as an ailment of the decadent West, had surged in China. In Shenzhen in 2003 a police officer claimed that kidnappings were up seventy-five percent and murders were up thirty-five percent. Some of these murders were the work of serial killers, who have proliferated amid the migratory flux of China’s boom. In a three-week period last year, arrests were made in three unrelated serial murder cases. In Shenzhen the victims were eleven young women, in Henan they were seventeen boys, and in Hebei a man was arrested on suspicion of having killed sixty-five people in four provinces. In the damp, dark back-alleys of a migrant-workers ghetto like the Click, a killer could lurk without being discovered for a long time. During the Era of Wild Flavor, the biggest such killer turned out to be a virus.
Humans have always died in cities in greater numbers and from more varied causes than we ever did as nomads or villagers. Mass urbanizations have always been accompanied by epidemics of emerging or reemerging diseases. Smallpox ravaged the great Roman cities; plague overwhelmed the cultural capitals of the Renaissance; the commercial centers of England’s Industrial Revolution were bazaars for the swapping of cholera and tuberculosis bacilli; and Africa’s urbanization may have been a key catalyst for the AIDS epidemic. Each of the four major modes of disease transmission—water, air, animal carriers, or human contact—is facilitated by urban life. Furthermore, in the early twenty-first century the Chinese health-care system was in a virtual state of collapse at the precise moment when the cities were being inundated and overwhelmed by new bodies.
In the Maoist past, rural Chinese could count on a few basic medical services, usually provided by the armies of so-called barefoot doctors who tromped through the countryside providing rudimentary care, setting broken bones, giving prenatal exams, and vaccinating children. This service, which was essentially free, helped bring about the virtual eradication of smallpox and sexually transmitted diseases in China and partially accounted for the near doubling of the country’s life expectancy between 1949 and 1990. But with the sweeping economic reforms of the past decade, health care in China was privatized as rapidly as the country industrialized. Today, only fewer than thirty percent of Chinese have health insurance and for the uninsured in China, just like their counterparts in America, this system has meant the end of preventative care. Tuberculosis and hepatitis B have been allowed to spread largely unchecked; AIDS had afflicted at least a million and a half Chinese before the government declared it as a national health crisis. Asthma, exacerbated by air pollution, afflicted as many as one in four children in the Pearl River Delta. In the cities, doctors saw outbreaks of diseases they hadn’t encountered in a generation: schistosomiasis, measles, meningitis, dengue fever, malaria, and encephalitis.
Measles needs a population of at least seven thousand susceptible individuals in order to maintain a chain of infection. Shenzhen’s migrant neighborhoods could provide many more receptive immune systems than that. Unvaccinated migrants arrived every day, providing a perpetual supply of meat for a new epidemic. And in migrant communities where roommates often don’t even know each other’s names, it is extremely difficult to trace a disease outbreak back to its origins or determine who should be vaccinated or quarantined.
Everyone in the Click seemed to have a hacking cough. For those who suffered, the primary objective was to stay out of the hospital where a bed for the night could cost half a month’s wages even before any intravenous drips or special tests getting added to the bill. So the alleyways of the Click were lined with the offices of doctors who would have you open up, say ahhh, and sell you a box of pills. And if you were really sick, you handed over a few more yuan and the barefoot doctor, who now had shoes, would jab a needle full of antibiotics into your ass. (Who knows how many potential measles outbreaks have been thwarted in this manner?) Many residents subsisted in a perpetual state of low-level illness. So Fang Lin thought nothing of it when he came down with a cold during his first months in town.
Fang Lin had settled in a building that housed mostly Jiangxi natives, and he quickly discovered that jobs and trades tended to be divvied up according to one’s province of origin. People from Henan, for example, were into waste hauling and recycling, while most shoe repairmen and key duplicators came from Anhui. The construction trades were dominated by Fujianese and others from Guangdongese, Uighurs opened restaurants or set up begging networks, and men from Zhejiang generally became garment workers. And for those from Jiangxi it was easiest to find work in restaurants as dishwashers or busboys or “cut-men,” who were hired to chop ingredients. New restaurants opened every day throughout Shenzhen and within forty-eight hours of his arrival Fang Lin had found a job working at one restaurant managed by three brothers from Sichuan.
He had cut his hair so short his scalp showed through. This allowed him to economize on showers, which cost a yuan each. With his wide forehead, bulging brown eyes, sturdy nose, and thick lips, the crew cut made him appear almost menacing—until his stutter and diffidence betrayed him. A few weeks after his arrival in Shenzhen he called his parents. His mother was excited. She reported that his grandparents had made a down payment on a burial site—a south-facing plot close to the village with very good feng shui, an auspicious starting point for their afterlife. Fang Lin heard his mother’s pride and knew what was coming next-—the cost, eight thousand yuan. The plot was bought on an installment plan, his mother explained, so Fang Lin need not worry that his grandparents’ souls would go wandering for lack of worldly funds. After his grandparents’ down payment of five hundred yuan, the family had to make monthly payments for the next four years of two hundred and twenty-two yuan—even the number was good luck, his mother pointed out. “That’s good news,” he said before hanging up. But he understood. He was the only member of the family who earned cash instead of, say, rice or coupons for rice. He would bear the burden.
Fang Lin had his own dreams: to smoke Panda cigarettes and slap down mah-jongg tiles while he talked on a flip-phone with a camera function. He wanted to sing karaoke with Korean girls in slit dresses and drink ten-year-old grain liquor. And, like so many in the Delta, he dreamed of feasting on wild flavor. Walking home along Dongmen Road, Fang Lin saw that a nightclub, which had featured Russian girls when he came to town, was being torn down. Already a new building was going up in its place. The sign on the construction sight promised “International Commerce.” Fang Lin walked past a Häagen Dazs shop and turned down a narrow alley on his way back to the Click. There was a wild-flavor restaurant at this corner called Heartiness and Happiness. It, too, was expanding. The spirit of more was irresistible in Shenzhen. He read through the Heartiness and Happiness menu and wondered what camel hump tasted like. He’d had pangolin, but what about marmoset? Or badger? And what was a turtle-fish? When the menu offered monkey brains, did that really mean the brains of a monkey? Or was that a euphemism, the way they wrote phoenix instead of chicken?
“Do you want a job?” a woman asked. Fang Lin saw that she wore gold earrings and a pearl necklace. When he didn’t respond the woman asked, in the flat tones of a Jiangxi accent, where he was from. When he told her, she clapped her hands together sharply, a sudden gesture that caused Fang Lin to jump back a step. “I already have two boys from there,” she said.
Fang Lin asked, “What’s the job?”
“Assistant driver,” she said.
“Seven hundred a month.”
Fang Lin nodded.
“Come back and meet the boys.”
She led Fang Lin through the restaurant, the kitchen, and a darkened, fetid menagerie of caged animals to a narrow dirt lot. A diesel truck stood next to a pen in which two peacocks and a boar were tied to pegs driven into the earth. Sitting there on concrete steps, drinking dense tea from plastic mugs, were his old friends, Du Chan and Huang Po.
To have found his fellow villagers and a new job on the same afternoon made Fang Lin think that perhaps—despite the cost of his grandparents’ burial plot—his luck was changing. Over cigarettes, Du Chan and Huang Po described the job to Fang Lin: how they rode with the drivers, collected the animals from local markets and farms, unloaded them at the restaurant, and then slaughtered them as the chefs called out the orders.
They showed Fang Lin the animal pens, the peacocks, and the boars—very fan rong they all agreed. Then they took him around the other side of the truck where there was a giant bird with feathers the size of hundred yuan notes.
“What’s that?” Fang Lin asked.
The animal was coated in dust and snorted like a giant pig.
“Ostrich,” Du Chen explained.
Every night the restaurant went through about a dozen pangolins, twenty badgers, two-dozen civet cats (in winter, when they were in season), three-dozen snakes, and a half-dozen lizards. You had to move fast with the badgers and the civets or they would take a bite out of you. In the winter, the lizards and snakes were usually too sluggish to be a problem. But just in case, the men wore thick rubber gloves.
If there was a soundtrack to the Era of Wild Flavor, it was bleating, high-energy techno music. The relentlessly upbeat dance tracks poured from every karaoke bar, fitness club, barbershop boom box, and taxicab radio. Grannies playing mah-jongg in the back of noodle shops and old men smoking Cocopalm cigarettes in front of their knockoff handbag stalls had it cranked up to ten. No one seemed to know the names of any of the tawdry, yet infectious, songs. In fact, the CDs they played in Shenzhen were often pirated mixes. In other words, someone had ripped off someone who had sampled someone else and packed the compilation in a jewel box labeled: Feel Good Music! Dance Forever! Wild Flavor Mix! If this music were an edible substance it would be cotton candy injected with steroids. In Shenzhen’s narrow streets and muddy alleys, while you were stepping over a legless man or skirting a woman picking rice from a trash can, there was something disconcerting about this much enforced feel-goodness.
Fang Lin said he barely heard the music even though it pounded through the cab of the Heartiness and Happiness truck as he and the driver, smoking Honghe cigarettes, made their rounds of the wild animal markets. The sound had become as familiar to him as the sound of jackhammering or drilling. Back in the restaurant’s chopping room he would sometimes work his knife in time with the beat, though he never noticed when one song ended and another began.
It was hardly a surprise that the work left him insensate. The restaurant went through as many as two hundred animals a night. The high volume creatures—wild rats, cats, and dogs—were stacked near the kitchen. Snakes and other animals that might take a bite out of you were under the two fluorescent lights in the middle of the room, while more docile creatures, which could be extracted from their cages with less risk, were in the corners, further from the light. In the summer, the temperature in the kitchen would climb to a hundred and ten degrees. The only good thing about the heat was that it made most of the animals sluggish.
When an order was called out from the kitchen, Fang Lin picked through the wooden-and-mesh cages until he found the beast he needed. There was a specific technique for retrieving each animal. For a snake, one pinned the head until the tail could be located and used to swing the animal, smashing its skull against the brick floor. A lizard had to be thumped in the head with the fat part of a knife handle. Cats were easy: reach in with the thick rubber gloves, pull them out, and chop the head off; it usually took one clean blow with the cleaver. The female civets were easily extracted and decapitated. But the males could put up a fight. So one cut-man would pin the animal to the back of the cage while another would bind its legs with duct tape. Fang Lin would treat it like any other animal—pull it from its cage, skin it, bleed it, and separate the organs into those that were prized for their various invigorating properties and those deemed inedible or inauspicious. At last, it was ready for the hot pot. The chefs would further slice the animals according to their own recipes. Some dishes, like civet and snake, tended to be heavily seasoned, while rat, for example, was usually skinned, basted in sweetened soy sauce, grilled, and then chopped up like an order of barbecued pork. Occasionally an animal would get loose before the coup de grace was administered and the three cut-men would have to chase it through the chop room and the kitchen and—in one particularly frightening incident involving a wild boar—into the dining room of the restaurant itself.
By the end of the evening the floor of the chop room would be slick with blood and entrails and feces and animal urine. Fang Lin became used to all the noises--—the construction, the music, and even the shrieks and screams of dying animals. But he never got used to the smell. He kept a cigarette lit constantly, clenched between his lips so that the trails of smoke were always pouring into his nostrils and obscuring some of the stench.
Between dishes, the chefs would stand beside their woks, smoking and slugging from screw-top jars of chuhai grain liquor. A couple of chefs sometimes expressed disgust at what Guangdong people were willing to eat. One night, when several of the chefs and cut-men were sitting around on the back steps passing back and forth a jar of grain liquor, a chef named Chou Pei looked at Fang Lin and said, “You’ve got blood on your face.”
Fang Lin rubbed his cheek.
“Other side,” Chou Pei said.
Fang Lin wiped the other cheek and his hand came away coated in blood. That entire side of his face, in fact, was covered with some animal’s gore. He shrugged and wiped it off with his T-shirt.
“It’s still there,” said Chou Pei.
“What?” Fang Lin asked.
Fang Lin shrugged and wiped it again, this time smearing some of it into his eyes. It wasn’t the first time one of the cut-men had got animal blood in his eyes or nose or down his throat. But what did it matter? People were paying a fortune for the stuff.
Fang Lin began to feel feverish at the end of the summer—or, as he put it, around the time the big Yao Ming advertisements for mobile phones started to appear on billboards around the city. After a day and a half, when the fever didn’t break, he consulted a local physician, a man with one eye and a rusty stethoscope. Fang Lin described his symptoms: in addition to the fever, he had nasty diarrhea and his muscles ached when he woke in the morning. The doctor nodded and without saying a word removed a box of tablets from a glass case.
“How much?” Fang Lin asked.
“Fifty jiao each.”
Fang Lin bought four tablets, swallowed two right there, and went to work. Riding around in the truck that day, he felt better but still feverish. At one point, as he was tossing caged animals into the truck, he felt so weak that he had to sit down. The driver offered him a cigarette.
“Here,” he said. “That’ll make you feel better.”
Fang Lin made it through that day and that night, when he told his colleagues in the chop room that he didn’t feel well, they offered to cover for him. But there was no way that just the two of them could do the job without slowing down the kitchen, so Fang Lin kept on chopping, although he often had to pause to catch his breath and he took frequent cigarette breaks.
The next evening, when he sat down on the back steps for a cigarette break he couldn’t get up. The fever had climbed—he guessed his temperature had reached a hundred and three—and no matter how deeply he breathed, Fang Lin felt perpetually winded. His body ached no matter what position he stood or sat in; it felt as if his muscles were being pulled from his bones. When Du Chan found him and asked what was wrong, Fang Lin told him that he didn’t know.
Chou Pei came out and handed Fang Lin a bottle of grain liquor. Fang Lin took a tiny sip and immediately vomited a stringy pool of yellow bile.
“You need to go,” Du Chan told him.
Fang Lin nodded, but couldn’t get up.
Du Chan and Chou Pei helped him to his feet and loaded him onto the back of a motorcycle taxi. Somehow, Fang Lin managed to hold on for the five-minute ride home. Even in his addled state he knew he needed medical help. He presented himself to another storefront doctor, who told him to stand still, then to stand on one leg. The doctor asked him where he ached and what he’d eaten in the last few days. He also asked where Fang Lin was born, whether his mother was taller than his father, and what direction his bed faced. As Fang Lin answered, the doctor ran his hands over Fang Lin’s blood-stained shirt, gently squeezing his chest and arms. Finally, the doctor pronounced Fang Lin’s chi to be unbalanced and advised him to face south more often. He was also sold vancomycin and proparacetamol tablets for fifty yuan and told to drink a certain type of fungal tea that the doctor sold by the can.
Fang Lin made it back to his north-facing room but he never went back to work. The medication did nothing to assuage his fever. On the contrary, for a time his temperature seemed to be rising. Twice he was unable to rouse himself from his sleeping pallet to reach the toilet in the hall, each time soiling his pants. He hadn’t eaten in three days, he gasped for every breath, and he grew progressively more disoriented. In a state of near-hypoxia, he lost all track of time in the constant darkness of the Click. He was vaguely aware that his roommates were sometimes sleeping alongside him and their steady, deep breathing reminded him of how frantic and shallow his own breaths had become. Standing up was out of the question: even the slightest movement—rolling over or attempting to sit up—winded him completely. When he begged his roommates to open the window, they could not bring themselves to remind him that the room was windowless. Fang Lin managed to sip from the cans of herbal tea, but when his roommates brought him a Styrofoam bowl of soup with pork dumplings, he left it on the floor.
Du Chan brought bottles of beer from the restaurant and plastic jugs of bright-blue sports drink. Fang Lin could bend his head forward just enough to pour a little of the liquid down his throat before falling back in pain.
One of his roommates suggested he go to a hospital.
“No hospital,” Fang Lin muttered. “No money.”
Who ever died from a bad cough?
What terrified Fang Lin most when he was conscious was the sense that he was running out of air. No matter how freely he breathed, he felt that he was not inhaling oxygen but some other odorless, tasteless gas.
He now had to remain perfectly still. To move was to suffocate. Stay still. And breathe. Breathe as deeply as possible.
He fell into fitful, angry patches of sleep during which he would systematically recreate and recount his days since leaving Jiangxi. Bits of conversation he’d had were steadily repeated and turned over in this dark semiconsciousness. It was as if he was trying to make sense of something someone had said, but the meaning eluded him and he woke dissatisfied—unsure whether he had slept at all.
He could still hear the city outside, the steady clanging and banging racket of construction, the constant clomping of other residents’ feet coming and going, the sounds of doors opening and slamming. He had never felt as alone as he did then, hearing the working girls returning from their nights and, a few hours later, the day laborers and construction crews rousing themselves and setting off. Sometimes all these sounds would converge into one dull tone, leaving him frustrated at his lack of comprehension.
Around the sixth day of his illness, Fang Lin lost all track of his environment. From then on there were only dark dreams and the sensation that his life was being squeezed from him. The muscle aches came in steady, rolling waves that peaked in cramps around his spine, his neck, and his upper legs, a dreadful tightening that would coincide with a constriction of his ability to draw in enough oxygen.
Fang Lin could not have known that even as he lay fighting for breath and life itself, just a few miles north, in Foshan, an entire family had been afflicted by the same mysterious ailment and was already in intensive care. He could not have known that elsewhere in Guangzhou, patients with complaints like his were presenting themselves at emergency wards-—and that within days the health-care workers with whom they came in contact would also become gravely ill. He could not have known that these symptoms often presaged death—because no fatalities had yet been reported from the disease that would later be identified as severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). But as he struggled to hold still and to stay awake—fearful that if he fell asleep he might forget to breathe—it occurred to him that perhaps that is what dying is: your body forgetting how to breathe.
He began to drift off, always remembering, even in his unconscious state, that he must stay still. Any movement, even a wiggling of the toes, even blinking, used precious oxygen. That was air he didn’t have. So he lay perfectly still and in the moments between severe cramps and muscle aches, when his bowels were settled, he would fade into dark snatches of unconsciousness—a cruel sleep that never let him forget his suffering. During these naps he always felt very far from home and very alone. Fang Lin had never really thought about what happens when you die. His parents and grandparents had always been adamant that one must die and be buried as close to one’s home and family as possible—and now, finally, he understood. Then he thought of something else: even if he were to make it home, who would pay for his funeral?