The Secret Happy Life of Uncle Renfeng

ALR Volume 26: Winter 2014


‘I won’t blame you if you look for a lover,’ I said tentatively.

‘You won’t?’ A barely detectable smile came to Uncle Renfeng’s face, exposing the little gap between the two central upper teeth, his eyes searching for and avoiding mine all at the same time.

‘I mean . . .’ I cleared my throat a little. It was an embarrassing topic. After all, Uncle Renfeng was married. ‘You’ve put up with her naggings and insults for so many years. You need to have a life before you get too old.’

Uncle Renfeng was about to say something but stopped himself. He got up from the sofa, walked to the dining table, and came back with the teapot. For a while, the only sound in the sitting room was that of water pouring into my teacup.

‘I knew you’d be the only person I could talk to about this.’ Uncle Renfeng put down the teapot and adjusted his white cotton T-shirt. ‘I did think about finding someone to look after Guixian. That would give us a chance to know each other. Then perhaps she and I can be together after Guixian is gone.’

That was the first real conversation we had had other than the how-are-you and I-am-fine clichés. I had thought that perhaps Uncle Renfeng and I would see less of each other when my mother died in 1998, especially because he lives in Beijing and I in Guangzhou.

Uncle Renfeng was then 71 years old. About five foot three inches tall, he looked overweight yet healthy. His belly appeared bigger than it really was, as he liked to tuck his shirt into his trousers. He has been wearing the same pair of dark brown glasses for as long as I can remember. With scarcely any grey hair, he looked about fifty. So young that a nurse said to him, ‘Your mother doesn’t like the rooms here,’ when he took Aunt Guixian to visit a nursing home in the suburb of Beijing the year before.

Aunt Guixian was five years older than Uncle Renfeng. She had a narrow face made all the more so by her wrinkled and hollow cheeks and sharp chin. The thin, black glasses gave her a very refined look that was offset by a stern face. She had been a housewife almost all her life, and a very good one, too. She made sure that the small two-bedroom apartment was always clean and tidy; the food on the table always varied and cheap yet nutritious; that the only high-wattage light bulb was in Uncle Renfeng’s study, to save on the electricity bill. She had been sick most of her life, and still had her childhood nickname, “medicine pot”. She was like a herbal medicine showcase and a walking wonder for her father, a well-known Chinese medical doctor.

Yet Aunt Guixian was better known for her complaints. Either the maid’s footsteps were too loud, or Uncle Renfeng was not paying attention to her, or her back was killing her, or her two sons-in-law had not visited for two weeks, or a neighbour was wearing a shirt that was much too bright . . . Aunt Guixian had to be unhappy, and could not stand anyone who appeared not to be so.

‘Your Uncle Renfeng is useless,’ she said to me on one of my visits, as Uncle Renfeng helped her get up from the sofa. ‘He never made much money. He’s too honest for this world. He gave me nothing to look forward to.’

Later in the day, I asked Uncle Renfeng why he allowed Aunt Guixian to keep saying such terrible things about him.

‘What else can I do? She’s sick. She wasn’t like this before. And she was very pretty,’ Uncle Renfeng said, in his usual flat tone.

Yes, but that was half a century ago, when she was his sister-in-law.

That was the open secret of the family. Aunt Guixian had been married to Uncle Renfeng’s eldest brother Tiejian, the result of an arranged marriage. Seeing that the seven-year-old marriage was going nowhere, grandpa called for a family meeting. Aunt Guixian had to stay married in the family to give face to her folks. Grandpa wanted to know which of his four younger sons would take her. The second son, Uncle Liqiang, the most obvious candidate, steered clear of the matter. The third son, Uncle Renfeng, the quietest and most talented among the siblings, stepped forward and said he would.

I had asked him whether he did it to help grandpa out. He said there was a little bit of that. ‘But I really cared about her. She was very attractive, tall and slender. She carried herself with a good sense of pride. That’s probably because she had finished high school, unlike many women of her age.’

Yes, a good sense of pride. It turned into contempt toward others over the years. For example, she forbade the maid, Huang, from using their toilet and made her walk for ten minutes to the one in the nearest petrol station.

‘People like her can’t get used to the western-style toilet. She has to squat down.’ She would always give an authoritative explanation.

‘Ouch, you’re hurting me,’ Aunt Guixian screamed, and hit Huang on the right arm. She had asked her to massage her leg.

‘You’re not paying any attention. You just want to sit next to the old man and watch TV. Stop daydreaming about replacing me some day! The old man is useless. He can’t give you a thing.’

I had never heard anything nearly as insulting and irritating as that. I looked at Huang, who was sitting on a stool by the sofa against the arm of which Aunt Guixian was leaning. She kept her head low, her eyes fixed on the floor, her hands still holding Aunt Guixian’s left leg.

The room was dead quiet. I stole a look at Aunt Guixian. She was looking at Uncle Renfeng from the corner of her eye. I stole a look at Uncle Renfeng, who was one seat away from Aunt Guixian on the sofa. His posture had stiffened, his nostrils were contracting forcefully and rapidly. His eyes were glued to the TV, too intently to be watching.

‘Aunt Guixian, you’re making things up,’ I heard myself say.

‘Fan, you don’t know these things. Everybody wishes me dead. I’m just a burdensome old woman who is taking too long to die.’

‘You know that’s not true. You do the grocery shopping and you make all the meals.’

‘Your uncle doesn’t think so. He goes away on business as often as he can. He’s tired of me.’

‘He’s only working for extra money to keep things going. He doesn’t stay away for more than two days because you don’t like it.’

‘That’s what he tells everybody. Who knows what he thinks.’

‘Aunt Guixian, this is not fair . . . ’

‘Shall we not talk about this? It’s getting late. Time to go to bed,’ Uncle Renfeng cut in, in his flat yet non-negotiable tone.

‘Fan, I meant to say this to you earlier. Those panties are far too fashionable for her! She’s only a country girl,’ Aunt Guixian said as Huang helped her get up.

I had given two pairs of panties to Huang, as appreciation for her tolerance of Aunt Guixian’s daily verbal and physical abuse, something that members of the family did periodically so that Huang would stay on the job.

Uncle Renfeng’s eyes stopped me from saying more as he made his way to the toilet. ‘It’s bed time.’

The apartment was too small to allow any private conversation, but I managed to whisper to Uncle Renfeng as he walked past me to his bedroom, ‘How could you not speak up for yourself ?’

‘Good night,’ he said.

I first knew Uncle Renfeng through his letters. They came to my mother from a cement factory in Pingdingshan City in Henan Province in northern China. I was too young to have any interest in what he had to say. The only thing I knew was that he had three daughters and that the two younger ones, Xianping and Xiaoren, lived in Beijing. The eldest one, Yingping, lived in a small city called Zhucheng in Shandong Province in eastern China.

I had not met anyone from Uncle Renfeng’s family before 1971, as travelling to Beijing from Guangzhou was too expensive then for the average person. In the summer of that year, though, one of my playmates was going to Beijing with her mother. Beijing at the time was associated with the Godlike figure of Chairman Mao. It was the place to be. I asked my parents to let me go with them and cried for days on end until they said yes.

After a two-day train ride, Xianping and Xiaoren met me at the station. They were teenagers living by themselves in one tiny bedroom, sharing a kitchen and bathroom with two other families that occupied the two other rooms in the apartment. In the week I was there, they took me to Tiananmen Square. This was the only time I was able to get out to do some sightseeing. Being stuck in the tiny room was boring. I was sick of the bed that all three of us were crammed into, sick of the eggplant dish that we had for every single meal. It was the cheapest vegetable in the market.

I left Beijing hating my cousins for being so mean, for the lice I caught from the sweat-soaked mat in high summer, heartbroken that there was no Chairman Mao to see. I did not know that Xianping and Xiaoren lived on fifteen yuan a month sent by Uncle Renfeng from the cement factory, that my one-week visit had put a huge strain on their life.

I later learned that the 1960s and 1970s were the lowest point of Uncle Renfeng’s life. Like many people who were born into a rich family, he was tossed around to several places during the Cultural Revolution. In the meantime, Aunt Guixian, who was constantly sick, was the subject of persecution for the same reason. She had to give up her job. Consequently, all the financial burden was on Uncle Renfeng. To make things worse, their oldest daughter Yingping was disfigured in a firecracker factory explosion in Zhucheng at 17, while their youngest daughter Xiaoren suffered from a serious brain injury.

Uncle Renfeng was torn by misery when he received the telegram about Yingping, having just left Aunt Guixian in Pingdingshan City to go to Beijing to look after Xiaoren. He had to leave Xiaoren to thirteenyear-old Xianping’s care. By the time he got to the hospital in the small city of Zhucheng, he found Yingping in excruciating pain, purple all over with the gentian violet that was used to prevent infection. He stayed for a week, tortured by Yingping’s muffled screams from the daily treatment of her wound. He left for Xiaoren as soon as Yingping was no longer in a critical condition, leaving her in pain and in tears, biting his lips hard to dull his heartache.

When Aunt Guixian died in June 2006, Uncle Feichi, Uncle Renfeng’s only living brother and my youngest uncle, who also lived in Guangzhou, went to Beijing after a call from cousins Yingping, Xianping and Xiaoren. Five days later, Uncle Renfeng came to Guangzhou with Uncle Feichi.

Uncle Renfeng called as soon as he arrived. ‘I really need to talk to you.’

Uncle Feichi came with Uncle Renfeng the next day. He had not been aware of the bond Uncle Renfeng had with me. He left us with a what-doyou-two-have-to-talk-about look.

‘I’m sorry to hear about Aunt Guixian, but it must have been a relief for everyone.’ I knew that Aunt Guixian had been bedridden for three months.

‘Yes, but I’m more sad than relieved.’ Uncle Renfeng wiped the sweat off his face with a white handkerchief. ‘In fact, I feel very guilty.’ His usual flat tone carried an extra touch of heaviness. ‘I did something terrible, to Guixian, and to my daughters.’

Uncle Renfeng had seen a woman who was an acquaintance of Aunt Yiren, his youngest sister, who was always keen on introducing women to him. The three arranged to meet on the train when Uncle Renfeng was on a business trip. When they parted, the woman said, ‘I’ll wait for you.’ When she learned that Aunt Guixian was very sick and needed twenty-four-hour care, she called Uncle Renfeng and said that she would not mind taking care of Aunt Guixian and waiting till the right time for their relationship to develop.

She was the first and only woman who had ever initiated a relationship with him, and it was all the more special as it came at a time when he was exhausted from caring for Aunt Guixian and from the torment of her daily verbal abuse.

‘To be honest, for the last twenty seven years, I never had any sex. When Guixian was diagnosed with Myasthenia Gravis in 1980, she told me that making love had become a pain for her.’

Uncle Renfeng paused and looked outside across the sitting room, beyond the balcony, into the distance.

‘I was fifty then. Now I can no longer tell how it feels to be with a woman.’ He let out a long sigh.

I was doubly shaken, by the fact itself and by Uncle Renfeng’s talking about it. Sex was a taboo topic, especially for someone like Uncle Renfeng. I did not know what to say. But I was glad he was talking about it, when he’d kept his silence for more than two decades.

After two phone conversations, Uncle Renfeng agreed to the woman’s suggestion that she should visit him in Beijing. She had been through a lot herself, having raised four children after her husband’s death years before. The oldest son was handicapped following an accident, the second son was a teacher, the third a security guard, and the daughter a saleswoman. Now she felt she needed to have a life of her own.

Uncle Renfeng felt sorry for the woman and understood her situation. He said he would pay for her train ticket from Hengyang, Hunan Province. For the first time in his life, he lied to Xianping and Xiaoren, who were taking turns looking after Aunt Guixian. He told them that his university classmate Wenxiang had written a memoir and would like him to read and comment on it. It would take two days.

Wenxiang lived alone in a three-bedroom apartment. He agreed to let Uncle Renfeng meet the woman there.

They spent the first night in two separate rooms. She invited him to her room on the second night.

Uncle Renfeng paused again, as if to re-live the memory of the night. I held my breath for fear of interrupting him.

‘She called me lao gong in the next letter,’ Uncle Renfeng said. A rare, sweet look came to his face but disappeared instantly. The phrase was an intimate one, a woman’s way of addressing her husband.

‘She had tears in her eyes when I saw her off at the train station. She made me buy her a cheap bracelet from a small stand on the street. “So that I have something to remember you with,” she said.’

She promised to come to Beijing any time he saw fit, either to take care of Aunt Guixian, or him, or both. The only thing she wondered about was housing. She would leave her two-bedroom apartment to her daughter, and would like to buy a two-bedroom apartment so that she would have a place to stay whenever she went back. Would he mind helping her with that? No, he said, he would be happy to contribute 50,000 yuan, which was almost enough to pay for a second-hand apartment.

Uncle Renfeng must have been too carried away by his romance. As soon as Aunt Guixian’s funeral was over, he decided to tell all three children about the woman, so that his oldest daughter, Yingping, would know before going back to Dalian, in Liaoning Province, where she had been taking care of her grandson.

He said he would like the woman to come soon so that his daughters would not have to worry about taking care of him. He talked about his intention of helping her buy an apartment.

‘My! I can’t believe this! How could you lie and see her when our mother was sick in bed!’ said Yingping.

‘Such a disgrace! I always respected you! How could you do this to mum?’ said Xianping.

‘Mum has only been gone for two days! If you had waited longer, we could have found it easier to take,’ said the mild-tempered Xiaoren.

Uncle Renfeng was beside himself with grief and guilt, as his daughters wept and sobbed.

The next day saw more chaos, when he answered a call from the woman. She urged him to mail her the 50,000 yuan so that she could buy the apartment before she went to Beijing.

‘I can’t do it now, but should be able to do it soon,’ he said in as low a voice as possible.

‘Is that the woman? Were you talking about sending her the money? Let me talk to her!’ Xianping, who was sitting close to the telephone, had caught enough of the conversation to figure out what it was about. Uncle Renfeng hung up before she grabbed the phone.

After Uncle Feichi arrived, a meeting was held. Uncle Renfeng agreed to write a letter to the woman. It was read to everyone for approval. He wrote that he had made a mistake and had to put an end to the relationship. He put the picture the woman had sent to him into the envelope in everyone’s presence. She was in a white wedding gown and had written on the back that she hoped he would be next to her in the next picture.

Uncle Renfeng gave out a long sigh of relief after finishing the story.

It all felt like a public humiliation forced onto a guilty person. ‘Are you sorry for yourself ?’

‘Not really. I came to realize what I did was very disrespectful of Guixian. Besides, the woman did have an eye on money through the relationship.’

But he was in such need of affection, after twenty-seven years of an ascetic monk’s life! I could not bear to blame him for the mistake.

‘But I do want to call her to apologize and explain things. I couldn’t do it at home. Would you mind calling for me? I’m afraid she was very hurt after getting the letter and the photo.’

Uncle Renfeng dialed the number on my mobile, and handed it to me as it got through.

‘Hello, my name is Fan. I’m Renfeng Huang’s niece.’

Silence. Then the hang-up click.

I re-dialed. The phone had been switched off.

Uncle Renfeng let out a sigh, and wiped the sweat from his face.

A year later, Uncle Renfeng came to Guangzhou again.

‘This is Xiao Wang.’ As I opened the door, Uncle Renfeng introduced the woman standing to his right. She had thick lips that gave her an honest look. Her fringe almost reached her eyebrows, providing a shy touch to her face. She had light brownish freckles here and there.

‘Hello,’ Xiao Wang said, her eyes meeting mine before looking away

quickly. ‘Nice to meet you. Come on in!’ Uncle Renfeng stepped into the sitting-room. Xiao Wang followed him

in gingerly, as if she were trying to hide herself.

They sat down next to each other on the sofa. Xiao Wang clasped her hands, put them on her knees, clasped them again, put them on her knees again . . . She was aware of my reserved curiosity, and was determined not to look at me.

‘How have you been?’ I asked Uncle Renfeng the obvious question.

‘Very well. As I told you in my last letter, Xiao Wang’s been taking good care of me. I exercise regularly. I eat well. I feel really good.’ This time, the flat tone of his voice was lifted by a joy I had never heard before.

That joy was hard-earned.

When the death of Aunt Guixian had sunk in, Uncle Renfeng fell into deep mourning. He resorted to writing her a letter.

Dear Guixian,

You’re gone. I’m happy for you because you’re finally free from all the pain that had taken over your life. I’m also very devastated because I lost the wife who spent sixty years with me.

Every time I closed my eyes, moments of our time together would flash back. You came to our family when I was only twelve. I liked you. I regarded you as my elder sister. I had lost mine when I was little.

Looking back, we seem to have have been meant for each other. You and Brother Tiejian never loved each other. I had to go with both of you once a year to visit your parents during the Spring Festival. Dad wanted me to serve as a buffer in case you two fought on the way. And you fought all the time! Once, Brother Tiejian simply walked away from you in a fury. I felt so bad for you. I had asked him to be nice to you but he never listened.

You used to live in the big bedroom on the second floor in the eastern wing of our house. I could feel your loneliness, especially in the cold and dark of winter nights. And you were sick so often. I was the one who delivered the herbal medicine to you when it was ready. We never said anything as I handed the bowl of herbal liquid to you. But you must have felt something special as I always sat outside your door and read until  after you had gone to bed. I didn’t think of you as my sister-in-law. You were my sister.

We spent one winter together in 1944 in a family friend’s home during the Japanese Invasion. We met and talked in the study every day like brother and sister. It was the best memory I had during the war. Do you still remember the time when you offered to cut my fingernails when you saw how clumsy I was with my left hand? I had wanted you to help!

When you said, ‘Let me help you, Renfeng,’ it was the best music I had ever heard. That was the first time you were so close to me, but I didn’t dare to look at your beautiful face. I only saw how long your fingers were, and how fair your skin was.

When we became engaged in the spring of 1946, both of us felt a little strange about our new roles. I was only a seventeen-year-old high school kid and knew nothing about courtship.

Dad said that I must approach you and get intimate with you. I was nervous.

Fortunately, the cold weather helped. We used to warm ourselves by the stove. We had a wooden frame to hang our clothes on, and we put our hands under it. I reached for your hands under the cover of the clothes. I still remember the warmth of your hands and I still get drunk at the thought of your silky skin. We didn’t talk. It was more than sweet just to look at each other and hold each others’ hands.

One evening, everybody else left before us. I got up, and kissed you on the left cheek before I knew what had happened. It was so quick and so light that I do not remember how it felt. I only remember how fast my heart pounded. That was the very first time I kissed a woman. Wasn’t I silly and awkward? I wish I had seen movies in which young lovers kiss passionately. I wished I could go back to that kiss and kiss you better than you’d ever know, until neither of us could breathe!

I know you always remembered our wedding in the spring of 1947, because you used to talk about the two men who made us follow their demonstration to learn about love-making.

Every time you talked about that, I knew you were sending me a signal for intimacy.

But you stopped sending the signal after 1987, when you fell ill with Myasthenia Gravis.

You said sex gave you pain. I would never want to give you pain. I used to joke about it, saying that there was a power cut. Later on, I found it hard to joke any more as it became an increasingly uncomfortable and sensitive topic.

I respected and believed in you. You were a good wife and a good mother. You took care of me so well that I never learned to take care of myself. You spoiled me. Our neighbours and my colleagues all envied me.

Your unfortunate marriage with Brother Tiejian, the insults you suffered during the Cultural Revolution, and your poor health: they all gave you mental and physical pain when you should have enjoyed life. To make things worse, I was led to believe that our lives would be better if we divorced. I’m so sorry I talked about that in 1968. I hurt you so! But you forgave me so generously. You knew, and everybody knew, that I wasn’t happy after you were diagnosed with Myasthenia Gravis. You became a different person. You found fault with everyone, me in particular, every day. The one time that really hurt was when you faked death by leaving sleeping pills spread over the pillow. You waited till I panicked and called for the ambulance before jumping out of bed. You said I wished you dead. I kept reminding myself that such a mental condition was part of the illness. I knew it wasn’t you. Every time when you said and did terrible things, I tried to remind myself of the good times we had. Dear Guixian, I never wished you dead. Even when you threw the most spiteful words at me, I knew that your tender loving care was behind your stings.

Your eyes were fixed on me in your final moment. I knew you

wanted to say something but your tongue couldn’t move. I could tell

from your eyes that you wanted to stay.

Guixian, I can only comfort myself in thinking that you’re now

with our parents. Please do tell yours and mine that in the sixty years

we spent together, I never stopped caring about you.

The title of the letter was ‘An Undelivered Letter’. That was not exactly the case. It was sent to friends and relatives. It was so uncharacteristic of Uncle Renfeng that it landed like a bomb for everyone. The daughters saw their father as an affectionate human being, a loving husband who had lived a selfless life for the good of their mother. One of his colleagues wrote, ‘I used to think of your marriage as tragic. But you’ve made it anything but tragedy.’

Uncle Renfeng told me that he found a little peace of mind after writing the letter. For the next two months or so, Xianping and Xiaoren took care of him alternately. Yet it was obvious that he needed someone there on a daily basis.

Uncle Renfeng decided to take a trip to his native Hengshan county in Hunan Province, three months after Aunt Guixian was gone. He bought an extra return ticket for a domestic helper, but they had become increasingly hard to find with each passing day, as anyone eligible would either be not available so soon, or thought Beijing to be too far away, or had to stay home because her family was against the idea.

Uncle Renfeng was about to return the ticket when Xiao Wang came to the hotel.

Xiao Wang is one year younger than me. She sat there like a little girl who was worried about getting a low grade, though she must have known that I was the most sympathetic person in the extended family with regard to her role in Uncle Renfeng’s life.

‘Have you been to Guangzhou before?’ I asked.

‘No.’ Her voice was a little coarse.

‘She hadn’t been anywhere before going to Beijing,’ Uncle Renfeng added. He turned to her. ‘Why don’t you give Fan the pickle you made?’

Xiao Wang reached for the red plastic bag she had put down by her left foot, and took out a bottle of pickled turnip. It looked pretty with bits of dried red pepper scattered in the bottle. She opened the lid for me to

sample the mouth-watering smell.

‘Mmm . . . Smells really good!’ I exclaimed.

Xiao Wang smiled. Her posture softened. Her plain and plump face became pretty, her cheeks red like her rosy-colored T-shirt. She smiled, and her teeth were yellow with some darkish stains.

‘Everybody loves the pickles. She has to make them non-stop to meet demand from Xianping and Xiaoren’s families,’ Uncle Renfeng said, as proudly as if he had made them himself.

There was a soft quality in his tone. He looked at least twenty years younger than his seventy-seven years.

They looked good together.

‘Have you taken a picture together?’

They looked at each other. Uncle Renfeng shook his head.

‘Would you like me to take a picture of you?’ Seeing the hesitation in Uncle Renfeng’s eyes, I added, ‘I can keep it for you.’

‘Yes,’ said Uncle Renfeng. Xiao Wang looked at him, shy and contented.

They stiffened on the digital screen. They were sitting apart as if they were saving a spot for someone else between them.

‘Relax! No one will see it except me.’

Both attempted to smile, just enough to indicate that they did not mind having the picture taken.

‘Are you happy?’ I asked as soon as Xiao Wang went to the bathroom.

‘Yes, yes. I’ll tell you more when we have some time alone,’ Uncle Renfeng whispered.

It was not until two months later before we had a chance to talk properly, in Beijing. As I had suspected, Xianping and Xiaoren had been feeling uncomfortable with the way Uncle Renfeng and Xiao Wang interacted. Nothing seemed wrong, but something just didn’t feel right.

Xiaoren’s office is five minutes away from Uncle Renfeng’s apartment. She had been checking on him every day. She saw him help Xiao Wang put on her coat before she went grocery shopping one day.

‘Dad, you never did that for mum. You never did that for me either.’ Xiaoren did not hide the resentment in her tone.

‘Dad, it’s not a good idea to lend Xiao Wang so much money,’ Xianping said after hearing that Xiao Wang had borrowed 47,000 yuan and would work to pay back the amount.

The money was for her daughter’s university fees, and for the down-payment for the apartment her son had to buy before marrying a shop assistant: the girl’s parents needed to see some financial commitment from their prospective son-in-law, who did not make much as a truck driver.

Uncle Renfeng paid Xiao Wang 800 yuan a month for the first year, and 100 yuan extra with each additional year until the amount reached 1,300 yuan a month. This meant Xiao Wang would need to work for more than four years before she could pay everything back.

‘You have no obligation to lend her the money,’ Xianping said. ‘And you don’t even know her that well. Even if you lend her money, it doesn’t have to be such a large amount. Who does she think you are? You’re just a retired old man with a pension of three thousand something a month!’

‘I understand my daughters’ concern. But they don’t seem to understand that Xiao Wang needs to sort out things at home before she can think of settling in Beijing. I want her to feel at home here and take care of me until the end.’

‘And you’re sure that Xiao Wang is the kind of person you need for the rest of your life?’

Uncle Renfeng nodded. ‘As soon as she entered the apartment, she went about washing, cleaning and tidying up, as if she had lived here for ever. Life has been easy and simple since she came.’

‘Do you think she cares for you?’

‘I . . . She is attached to me in some way. The other day, I overheard her talking with her daughter on the phone. She told her that if grandpa were younger, she would marry him.’

‘She calls you grandpa?’

‘She’s thirty-three years younger than me. Xianping and Xiaoren suggested this.’

It was to remind him that they are a generation apart.

‘They asked for a meeting with me to talk about Xiao Wang. Xiaoren made it clear right from the beginning that Xiao Wang is, and will always be, a domestic helper.’

‘Did you have a problem with that?’

‘Not really. For one thing, my daughters simply cannot see Xiao Wang in their mother’s place. For another, I’m seventy-nine years old. What do I have to offer to Xiao Wang anyway? I can only pay her a salary. But I respect her and take care of her as best I can, including lending her money.’

Xiao Wang came into the sitting room with two bowls of soup and placed them in front of us.

‘This is the soup we have had every day since she arrived,’ Uncle Renfeng explained.

‘What’s in it?’

‘Peanuts, red beans . . . and some Chinese herbs, ‘ Xiao Wang said.

‘I’ve done a lot of reading about health management, and worked out a whole set of things to do and eat throughout the day.’ Uncle Renfeng took a few sheets out of the drawer from the desk at the far end of the room, as Xiao Wang went back to the kitchen.

‘These are the records of my blood pressure for the last two years. I check it four times a day at roughly the same time. See, this is for early morning, mid-morning, afternoon, and here, for evening.’

‘Wow, these have to be the world’s longest non-stop and most detailed record for blood pressure!’ I exclaimed as I saw not only the daily record, but also a monthly summary and an annual summary.

Uncle Renfeng smiled and held the sheets up as if he were looking at a work of art. ‘Perhaps some doctor may find them useful some day.’

There was also the daily action plan:

  1. 6:00 am – on-bed exercise: head and abdomen massage 15-20 minutes

  2. 6:30 am – 45-minute outdoor exercise in Zizu Park, 15-minutes neck, back and limb movements; 30-minutes Taiji

  3. 7:30 – breakfast

  4. 8:30-11:30 – reading

  5. noon – lunch

  6. 1:00-2:00 – nap

  7. 2:00-4:30 – free time

  8. 5:00 – dinner

  9. 5:30-6:30 – outdoor activities

  10. 6:30-9:30 pm – TV

  11. 10:00 pm – bedtime


Following that was another list of what to eat and not to eat, and how much.

‘These may look very rigid to you, but once you get used to it, it becomes a routine you stick to,’ Uncle Renfeng said.

‘What else happened in the meeting?’

‘Oh, yes, the meeting. I understood that Xianping and Xiaoren were worried about me giving too much money to Xiao Wang. That I could understand too. So I keep only 20,000 in the bank for emergencies and divided the rest of my savings among my daughters. Yingping has 40%, and Xianping and Xiaoren 20% each. Yingping’s family needs more help and she needs more security with her declining health. They’ve also agreed to use the same percentages for my apartment when I’m gone, whether they let it or sell it.’

He finished the last two spoonsful of soup. ‘Now that I only have 20,000 yuan at my disposal, they know that I don’t have much to give away. But I did find another way to help Xiao Wang.’

He had taught her to type. He had been helping a friend’s company to update information related to construction material overseas on a monthly basis, so that the friend would know what to buy for his import business. Uncle Renfeng went to the Beijing Library once a week to read all the journals in the field, and summarize the most recent information. He used to copy the information on sheets of paper and send them away each month. Now he let Xiao Wang type everything up and gave her a quarter of the pay.

‘This also makes her feel that we’re in something together.’

This is so typical of Uncle Renfeng. Working everything out for everybody.

Uncle Renfeng smiled quietly. ‘Now I do feel I’ve taken care of everything. All I have to do is to stay healthy so I won’t burden anyone.’

‘Does Xiao Wang go with you for the outdoor activities?’

‘Yes, she comes out with me for my morning exercise and evening walk. We’ve become famous in the neighborhood. I can feel that some people envy me, some frown at us, and some are curious but pretend not to be.’

That was a hugely different Uncle Renfeng. He used to go out of his way to avoid having anything to do with women, as Aunt Guixian would get insanely worked up about it.

‘Fancy becoming famous at this age, and for this reason!’ I laughed. ‘Who would have thought that you’d be in such an eyebrows-raising relationship?’

But I was really happy that he was. A year after that, Uncle Renfeng called early one morning. He sounded distressed. ‘Xiao Wang may have to go. I’m afraid she’s not as reliable as I had thought.’

‘I thought you had worked everything out between you.’

‘I thought so too. But she’s taken 10,000 yuan out of my bank account.’

A week later, Uncle Renfeng called again and said Xiao Wang was going to stay. ‘When you come to Beijing next, make sure we can spend some time together.’

It had all happened because Uncle Renfeng persuaded the friend for whom he collected information not to hire him anymore, as such information had become easily available on the Internet.

The friend, grateful for his help over the previous ten years, paid him an extra lump sum of 10,000 yuan. He sent the money to an account that Uncle Renfeng was about to close. Uncle Renfeng asked Xiao Wang to transfer it to his active account, but she sent it to her son instead. She simply needed the money. He was not very pleased but decided to wait for a good occasion to talk about it.

A few days later, Xiao Wang said she wanted to go to a clothing exhibition. She went three days in a row, asking for two hundred yuan each time. Uncle Renfeng pointed out that she was going beyond his means. His pension was 3,300 yuan a month. Daily expenses were up to 1,500 yuan a month, Xiao Wang’s salary was 1,300 yuan, her medical fees were about 100 yuan, and he was left with less than 400 yuan a month to spare.

What broke Uncle Renfeng’s heart was that his granddaughter Wang Yuan accidentally saw the online exchange Xiao Wang had had with her daughter: ‘The old man wasn’t very pleased about me sending 10,000 yuan home and spending extra money. But I’ll ask for more anyway. If he has no more to give, I’ll leave.’

Xianping and Xiaoren were so upset that they bought a ticket for her to leave the next day.

‘Wake up, Dad! She’s only here for money and she’s overstepped the boundary!’

Uncle Renfeng agreed that Xiao Wang should leave if she wanted more money. ‘You know how much I have and I’ve done the best I can. If you can’t appreciate that, you can leave any time,’ he told her.

In spite of the hurt feelings, he made Xianping and Xiaoren promise not to say harsh words to Xiao Wang. ‘After all, she’s done her job well, and it’s not a sin to want more money. She has also apologized for the 10,000 yuan and said she’d return it within a week.’

Xiao Wang cried bitterly and said she had been a fool. She must have realized that it was hard to find a man like Uncle Renfeng.

In fact, Uncle Renfeng’s name, the combination of the two characters of people and phoenix, means “the best of men.”

‘I do want more money but one doesn’t just live for money. You’re a good person and I want to look after you for the rest of your life,’ she said.

I asked Uncle Renfeng whether he was disappointed. He nodded. ‘But I also learned that I must not expect too much from Xiao Wang. She’s only in her mid-forties. She could choose to work elsewhere or marry someone. I feel lucky that she’s chosen to stay.’

In 2010, Uncle Renfeng turned eighty. He celebrated the birthday by sending an informal memoir, Traces of Renfeng, to relatives and friends. The cover is designed by his oldest grandson, Pang Ming, who is an interior designer. It has a blue background, with a tree to the right. The blue has a nostalgic feel to it.

In the preface, Uncle Renfeng says that it was time to say something about his life, and he did it in a special way. He wrote it by hand, in very small yet neat characters. ‘I want to show that I could still write steadily at eighty.’

The characters are not only steady but also very pleasant to the eye. Small enough to show the writer’s ability to attend to the details of each stroke; big enough for an easy read.

In the section related to the family was his letter to Aunt Guixian. In the section of correspondence with his university buddies is the letter in which he suggests an organization be set up to bring the class together again, so that everyone might know what has happened in whose families, who needs help, and other details. His warmth and humour, rarely detectable when he speaks, sparkles on the page.

So life goes on and Uncle Renfeng is happy. There is a Chinese saying, Zhi Zu Zhe Chang Le: those who choose to feel satisfied are always happy. Uncle Renfeng never asked too much from life, and he has therefore managed to enjoy his share of happiness, even in the most unlikely circumstances.

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