That night, on that bamboo mat in our studio we called a bed, I dreamt of Van Gogh. I can’t say that’s all that special on its own because frankly, I dreamt about him every other day. I painted his works during the day, and at night, I walked through them. I made my way through the Wheatfields, where Sunflowers and Irises bloomed aplenty. I walked through the woods with the Girl in White. I strolled around the corners of the Yellow House. I had supper with the Potato Eaters, and ended my evening at the Café Terrace. When I glanced up, I saw the Starry Night, its every stroke coming alive with vivid detail.
I remembered this dream in particular because although I lived in his art, this was the first time I saw him.
I was in Arles, in his bedroom, when I heard a knock at the door. When I opened it, he stood in the walkway and smiled at me.
He said, “Xiao Zhou, do you love my work?”
And I told him, “Van Gogh, I admire you so much. I have never painted a brushstroke without seeing you within it. I love the skies of Shenzheng, because you taught me how.”
I didn’t know how he understood Mandarin, nor how I understood Dutch. The sane answer was that I was speaking to a dead man in a dream, though I’d like to think that one way or another, he really knew how I felt. I truly hoped that great enough emotions could cross the boundaries of life and death. I understand it’s a childish thing to believe, and someone smarter than me could probably explain exactly why it’s wrong, but the alternative was just too cruel. Van Gogh died, alone and penniless, without knowing just how many his work would touch. If the universe was at all benevolent, I hope that somewhere, somehow, he realised just how loved he was.
And perhaps, I hoped, even if it weren’t in this lifetime, I would also be loved.
I awoke from my dream by a knock at the door. I leapt up with such ferocity, I almost tripped on a pile of drying acrylic paper. I sped to the door and swung it wide open. “Mister Van Gogh?!”
Much to my disappointment, it was not Van Gogh. It wasn’t even a white man, though he smelt of white money. He wore a cashmere suit that cost more to clean than I made in a single month.
He spoke his vowels like a Beijing native, rolling his words off the tip of his tongue. “Zhang Xiao Zhou?” he asked.
“That’s, uh, that’s me.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you.” He extended a handshake. When he smiled, I saw a golden tooth tucked deep behind his incisors. “Everyone calls me Lao Wei.”
I took too long to meet his hand and when I did, it was an awkward affair. Not knowing what else to say, I invited him inside.
As one would expect, the backend of a canning factory wasn’t the most ideal place for a studio. What little space we had was either used for making paintings, drying paintings, or packing paintings. I couldn’t tell you how many times I rolled over in my sleep, only to wake up covered in splotches of blues and yellows.
Nevertheless, I cleared out as much space as I could for two stools.
“Mr Zhang.” The man reached a hand inside his thick brown coat and pulled out a photograph. “This is your painting, yes?”
He handed me the photo and I saw that it was Van Gogh’s Almond Blossom.
“I imagine it can’t be easy making a living as an artist right now,” he continued. “With everything going on. That’s why I’m here. I want us to come to an agreement because I’ve seen your work. I know what you can do, and frankly, I think there’s nobody in China like you. Maybe even in the whole world. I’ll just cut to the chase: I want you to work for me.”
“That’s not me,” I said.
“That’s not me.” I showed him the photo. “This painting. That’s not mine.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Because I don’t make such unconvincing fakes. Whoever did this was an amateur. The shape of the branches is completely wrong. The blue sky is shaded too darkly.”
“I see.” He took out another photo and passed it to me. “And this one?”
“Another fake. The third flower is too bent.”
“Used a 50mm brush instead of a 40mm.”
“Here’s the last one.”
I paused for a minute. “This one’s mine.”
He laughed. “That’s not yours, my brother.”
“Then whoever painted it must be a skilled painter.”
“Yes, I suppose he was. His name was Vincent Van Gogh. This photo was taken at his museum in Amsterdam.”
My face paled. My eyes went wide. “I…I didn’t mean to…”
“No, no, no. Don’t apologise.” Lao Wei’s grin stretched from one cheek to the other. “Relax. This is not a mark on your art knowledge. Rather, it’s a testament to your talents. Your fakes are just that good.”
I leapt out of my chair. “They’re not! The canvas material is obviously too cheap, I used aluminium-based paint that will look bad in the sun, the stroke pattern doesn’t nearly capture the same gentle subtleties! To say my painting was evenly remotely close to the real one is an affront to not just Van Gogh’s skills, but my pride as an artist!”
“Okay, alright. I get it. But my point remains: you can paint Van Gogh better than anyone in the whole country. So, I want your help.”
“I want to commission a piece from you,” he said. “A Van Gogh piece, of course.”
“You can just go to Kevin Conolly. We get our orders from him.”
“Mr Zhang, I believe that above all, man should be fair. As Confucius said, do not do unto others what you would not want others do unto you. So, in the spirit of that, I will be perfectly honest with you. I intend on breaking the law, and I want your help doing so.”
“I’m not a criminal.”
“I’m not asking you to kill someone, brother,” Lao Wei chuckled. “But I’m not saying painting this for me won’t carry with it some risk. The risk is what gets you paid. In fact, I will pay you more than fairly. You will earn more in this one job than you have in the past twenty years combined.
“Just think about it. I understand you have a wife who works with you, yes? Wouldn’t you like to do something for her? Be a good husband? Buy her nice clothes and jewellery and take her on holidays overseas. You want to see her happy, right?”
I knew, even back then, the dangers of falling for such a honeypot, but I let myself indulge in that fantasy, for just a little bit. Everyone deserves that much, right?
I thought about what my heart most craved. I could buy all the art books I wanted. Rent out a real studio with a bedroom and kitchen. I could finally give Liya the wedding she had always wanted; the Western kind with the church and white dress. And perhaps, if we had a little left over, we could visit Amsterdam and see Van Gogh’s pieces in person. That could be our honeymoon, the one we never had.
“He’s not taking the job.”
I turned around to find Liya behind me. There was a long streak of blue running diagonally across her face. “He’s not going to do it.”
“You must be the wife.” Lao Wei offered a handshake. “It’s so nice to meet you.”
“Get out of my house.” Liya crossed her arms. “Now.”
“This is a factory, ma’am.”
The stranger carried with him a silent kind of dignity. He just got up, bowed, and without another word, left the same way he came in. I had never seen anyone take Liya’s berating and leave with their pride.
The moment that door shut, Liya turned to me. She gripped me firmly by the shoulders and spoke without taking her eyes off mine. “Xiao Zhou, promise me you won’t deal with men like him.”
“Crooks. Criminals. Good-for-nothings.”
“But he just wanted me to do a painting for him. It’s the same thing as with Kevin, just with less work and more pay. A lot more pay, actually. He said it’d be more than we’ve made all our lives.”
“Because we’re not forging,” she explained. “Kevin knows he’s just buying fakes and the white people that buy from him know that too. Nobody thinks we’re making actual Van Goghs here. It’s just for people who want a splash of colour on the wall. We’re not lying to people. And the money, Xiao Zhou. All just lies. That’s what crooks do. They use their silver tongues to fill your head with fantasies, and then once you start thinking about it, you can’t stop.”
“But isn’t it worth at least a try? We can do so much with that money.”
“Nothing worth our lives.”
To be honest with you, I could never understand what she meant. Maybe I was just an idiot, but my life was never worth much to me. For years, I had surrounded myself with great things that long outlasted their creators. Or, it was more proper to say things that became great because they outlasted their creators. If at the end of the day, I was only an ephemeral blink in a vast world, would it mean so little to just hope?
But Liya wanted me to live. I had to trust that meant something.
I took her hand. “I want to make you happy.”
“I am happy,” she told me, in that cramped backroom we called a home, where the air choked of drying paint and the floors were sticky with dried fish blood.
Even she knew how ridiculous that lie was the moment it left her tongue.