Chapter 1:

Five yuans in debt.


Dear Theo, I am heading towards a place that seems very near, but perhaps it is very far.

Vincent van Gogh.



In 1972, in the sweaty backroom of a canning factory, I painted Vincent Van Gogh’s Almond Blossom. I had been painting Van Gogh’s works, one a week, every week, for the past sixteen years, yet that particular one struck me for a reason I could not yet explain. There was an inordinate sense that this specific copy of this specific painting, one amongst hundreds I’ve done, was special, even if the circumstance surrounding its conception wasn’t.

I was holding my paintbrush in one hand, and in the other, a huang-shan cigarette. For those not accustomed with Chinese tobacco, a huang-shan was the cheapest cigarette you could buy. At the time, they cost twenty-five yuan per pack– the equivalent of about three American dollars. I was paid a daily wage of twenty yuan. For most of us, that meant rationing a pack over two days and spending fifteen yuan on everything else. For me, it meant I was always five yuan in debt.

“Xiao Zhou.” The voice yawned, and I felt a hand come from behind and ruffle my hair. “It’s time to pack the new sets in.”

“Just a moment,” I said. “I want to look at this one for a little longer.”

“Oh great, here we go again.”

Liya walked around so I could see her. In those days, we both slept on the floor. It was the cheapest option and frankly, with the number of hours we had to work, we wouldn’t have had time to commute anyway. Although I appreciated the efficiency, one does miss a good night’s sleep.

Liya glanced at the piece, then back to me, sighing. Despite the shadows under her eyes and the paint stuck to her face from the last shift, she was still very pretty. Prettier than the average person at least, but not enough to get anything out of it. She once told me that was a worse fate: ruby a shade too light was just a red rock.

“This one is special,” I said. “I can feel it.”

“You always say that.”

I added a few more strokes of blue to the sky in the background. “This one is especially special.”

“You’ve said that before, too.”

“Liya, I’m not kidding when I say this is the most special of everything I’ve ever painted.”

She leaned in closer. “Doesn’t look too special to me. Looks like every other copy you’ve done before.”

“It doesn’t need to look special to be special.”

“Wow, you are so right. Why don’t I write ‘very special painting’ next to it and charge three thousand yuan?”


“No, dumbass.” Liya flicked my forehead. I flinched back, hands tight over my wound. “Now, help me load up.”

She lifted one side of the canvas off its easel and waited for me to grab the other. Together, we carried that great thing out the back, stepping through oily hallways that clung like glue to the soles of my shoes. At the back of the factory, there was a loading bay where freshly made cans would be packed into trucks and sent to grocery stores across Shenzhen. And, for just a handful of yuan a month, they also carried our paintings. I’ve always found the image rather funny: stacks of canned dace, rubbing shoulder to shoulder with one of Van Gogh’s priceless masterpieces. The truly funny thing was that the canned fish cost more.

My mother once said Shenzhen was like a prostitute, eagerly opening its wide harbours for any foreign crook with money, in a way only a cheap whore could. Of course, she added, it wasn’t always this way. Shenzhen was beautiful once; the crown jewel of China. Travellers came from far and wide just to glimpse its natural hills and beautiful architecture, dreaming that one day they could swoon the city. Then, the world took a rusted knife and mutilated her. They dug out her heart and carved lines down her limbs, and each nation would take from her any piece they desired.

Even after we drove out the invaders, the city would welcome them back. They abused her, raped her, and still she beckoned their return.

Why do you think that is? my mother asked me. Because she is lovesick, the poor girl. Because that is all she has ever known; this is all that feels familiar.

“Where the hell is he?” Liya growled.

We sat together by the harbour, several dozen wrapped canvas piled behind us, waiting for the warehouse to open. I remember fondly how the air smelt of sea salt and cigarette smoke. While I could stare into the ocean for an eternity, I could tell Liya was nearing the end of her patience.

“What are you going to do first with the money?” I asked, trying to make conversation.

“Pay last month’s rent,” she replied immediately. “And then pay the month before’s.”

“Oh c’mon, have some imagination.”

“Imagination will get us kicked out of the studio.”

“Just live a little. Please, for me.”

Liya sighed. “I guess it’d be nice to have something other than canned fish.”

“Fried pork!”

“Sure, fried pork sounds good. And what would you do with your share?”

I, too, answered immediately. “I want to go to Amsterdam! I want to see Van Gogh’s actual works!”

“Xiao Zhou.”

“I’m joking. One of the street vendors had a Van Gogh art book.”

Liya frowned, just enough that I wouldn’t realise. “Van Gogh again?”

“We only know about his popular paintings, but he’s actually painted a lot. I want to see what else he’s drawn. For example, did you know ‘The Potato Eaters’ wasn’t Van Gogh’s first painting? Obviously, it’s his first masterpiece, but he’s done paintings before. The earliest one we know of is an oil painting of a head of cabbage, which actually predates The Potato Eaters by four years. It’s interesting because when Van Gogh started off, he–”

“I don’t want to hear anymore. Please.”

“Don’t you want to know a little more about the man whose art we’re copying?”

“Not particularly, no.”

“I’ll show you some of the pictures from the book. I promise you, you’ll understand how amazing it is when you see it.”

Liya dropped her cigarette and crushed it underfoot. “Xiao Zhou,” she said. “He’s here.”

The warehouse’s rolling door came awake with grinding metal. As it began to open, we could glimpse the man behind it. He was a short burly guy called Kevin Connolly, and though he insisted everyone calls him by his Chinese name, nobody ever did. He looked as white as his father, and sounded as Chinese as his mother.

“Xiao Zhou, Liya!” he greeted. “Good morning!”

“Kevin,” we both said.

“No, no, no. How many times must I tell you? There’s no Kevin here. Call me Xiao Jun or call me nothing at all. Come on in, leave the works.”

Kevin gestured at some of the workers, and they came to help carry the paintings in.

The warehouse itself was a rustic place, with what little space there was being eaten up by stacks upon stacks of art, wrapped tight with cloth as a cheap means of preservation. The office, as Kevin called it, was really just a corner in the warehouse where it felt just a touch more homely. There was a low wooden table, some stools, and as luck would have it, a boiling pot over a little gas stove.

“Sorry it’s a little messy in here,” said Kevin, as if it wasn’t the exact same every time we came. “A new hotel chain is opening in Italy so it’s a very large order.”

He took a seat, and we followed after. “Alright, what did you bring me?”

Liya handed him a scrap of paper. “Ten Starry Nights,” she listed, “six self-portraits, five Sunflowers, three Almond Blossoms.”

“All in good quality?”

“Van Gogh himself wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. You can check for yourself if you want.”

“Not necessary,” he chuckled, skimming through the list. “There’s not another painter in the state like Xiao Zhou. If it’s him, I’m not worried. Uh, not that I’m worried about you, Liya, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean…”

“It’s fine. Can we just talk payment?”

“Ever prudent. Alright, let me grab your money now.”

Kevin disappeared behind a pillar of fabric. Just as he went out of earshot, I leaned over to Liya and whispered, “You’re not actually annoyed, are you?”

“Oh please.” She rolled her eyes. “If I was drooling and fawning over Van Gogh like you do and I wasn’t the better painter, I’d hang myself.”

“Please don’t talk about it like that. You make it sound so weird.”

“It is weird. Somehow, out of everything you do, this is the weirdest part about you.”

“Hey, what does that mean?”

I don’t think Liya was ever going to explain in that moment, but if she was, Kevin returned just in time to cut her off. He held an envelope in his hand. “Here you go, it’s a pleasure as always.”

Liya, fire of my heart, star of my night, was always my better half. She always did the thinking of two people. “Can we count it?”

There was a twitch in Kevin’s smile. “Of course.”

She took out the stack of yuan, licked her finger, and thumbed through them. Unlike me, who never finished middle school and had to count out loud, Liya could do all sorts of math in just her head. Counting yuan came as easily as breathing to her, and as she came to the end of the stack, her eyes went wide. Her lips drew back, revealing clenched teeth. She could not hide her emotions if she tried; it always came rushing to the surface.

“You gave us half.”

Kevin frowned. “C’mon, Liya, you understand.”

“I very much don’t.”

His eyes flicked to mine, then back to hers. “This is only half the order so you only get half the pay. It’s simple maths, no?”

“What do you mean only half the order?!”

“No need to raise your voice, please.”

“No, you tell me right now, what the hell do you mean half the order?!”

Kevin’s smile dropped. “Your order sheet clearly said you had the Van Goghs and the Monets. You only brought the former.”

“The Monets were for next month! That’s how we’ve always done it!”

“It’s a rush order this week, Liya, I told you.”

“So you wanted fifty paintings done in one month?”

“That’s what I expected, yeah.”

“That’s impossible!”

“Maybe for others, but c’mon, it’s you guys. If anyone can do it, it’s you.”

“I worked sixteen-hour days to get these ones done. Xiao Zhou worked eighteen!”

“Well.” Kevin shrugged with all the nonchalance only a white man could afford. “Sounds like you’ve been slacking off, Liya.”

I heard the sound of the slap before I saw its blur. Kevin’s cheek grew red.

“I’ll ignore that.” He gave her a toothy grin. “Finish the Monets. I’ll be sending another order soon as well.”

Liya scrunched the yuans in one hand and grabbed my wrist with her other. She led me out of the warehouse, out of the dust and chemicals and back into the salt and smoke.

“Liya.” I pointed away from the ocean. “The bus stop is that way.”

“Just shut up for a moment.”

For minutes, we walked in silence. She kept holding onto me, never glancing back, and I didn’t resist. We stepped off the harbour, and onto the rocky shores. Some would call it a beach, but in my mind, beaches had golden sand and clear waters and a sun that never set. I didn’t want to dirty that image with this place.

“Liya,” I finally said. “It’ll be okay. We can have fried pork next time.”

“You asked me back there,” she began, still not looking at me. “Why I thought you were weird for loving Van Gogh so much.”

She spun around and threw the yuans at me. Reds and oranges and greens coloured the air and for just a moment, it seemed like autumn had come again.

“This is why. We work all day. We get no holidays. We barely had time for our own damn wedding. We’ve given up twenty years of my life, our golden years, to Van Gogh. Our entire lives dedicated to him, and what have we gotten out of it? A couple hundred yuan. How could you ever feel anything towards him but hate?”

I remembered staring at her, probably with a dumb expression over my face. I didn’t have an answer for her then, and I still wouldn’t have an answer for her when it was all over. Even if I had lived for a hundred more years, I doubt the reply would’ve come to me. 


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