Wednesday, 20 May 2009

The Beggars' Gang

The Beggars’Gang
Written by Lao Le
(Translated by Chris Harry)

I came to know of the beggars’ gang through Chinese martial arts novels and that they, among all of the various types of charlatans, drifters, and vagabonds, were the most powerful school to be reckoned with. And what's more, I am really beginning to suspect that such a "beggars’ gang" truly exists.
The first time I came across them was just after I started attending university. Walking along the street at Qianmen, a middle-aged woman with a young girl confronted me asking for money. The excuse was none other than to "give the little girl some money to buy some candy". Unable to disentangle myself from them, I dug out a little less than one yuan in change when, unexpectedly, another middle-aged woman accompanied by yet another young girl suddenly appeared from the left and she too started clamouring for me to "give the little girl some money for candy". Determined to be a decent fellow to the end, I once again reached into my pocket to take out some money. But, to my surprise and bewilderment, a third middle-aged woman and young girl twosome started coming at me from behind. Not to be tricked a third time, I made a break for it. Besides, I could see a fourth pair off in the distance, the same middle-aged/young girl combination bearing down on me.
From that time on, I set a rule for myself: only give money to buskers or street side artists. But once again, this principle I had set for myself very quickly faced a serious challenge. While walking through the underground tunnel next to the Zoo, I came across a blind man playing an erhu (Chinese two-stringed fiddle). The tune he was playing, "Moonlight on Erquan Lake", was just as bleak and solemnly melancholy as the pitiful mood I happened to be in at the time. Of course I should have given him some money, but I didn't have any change on me, and besides, I thought it a hassle. Instead, I seemingly unabashedly, yet all the while so unbearably shamefully, kept walking straight on past him.
I've seen some truly professional beggars in my time. There are four beggars on a pedestrian overpass just outside the front door of the building where I live. They always split up according to the same configuration: old man on the west stairs, old lady at the west exit, old man at the east exit, old lady on the east stairs. Everyday without fail, come rain or shine, they're always there. Prostrating themselves, they press their bodies close to the ground and kowtow. Although I've never given them any money, I nevertheless had become accustomed to counting out their number silently to myself, "one… two…three… four…". And if, perchance, one of them happened to be absent on any given day, I would always feel a queer sense of loss.
One day, to my dismay, I discovered that all four of them had actually failed to "show up for work". For the longest while I was in shock. Then it dawned on me - the Spring Festival holiday was fast approaching.
There are also some beggars who are just complete bores. Since the time I entered high school all the way up until just last week, every time I walked along a street nearby Zhongguancun (a district in Beijing), I would always meet up with an elderly lady, middle-aged man beggar duo of the type that would start out asking for directions. Despite personnel changes, their roles always remained consistent, and the line they used to beg for money was invariably the same, "Ah, excuse me, could you tell me…?" Not once have I ever paid them the slightest heed, and each time I walk past them I curse them silently, "Can't you try to be a little bit more professional? Don't you have any sense of originality?"
Even though I've already learned how to deal with the most persistent of beggars in the coolest possible manner, I still managed to run into another spot of bad luck. This time it was a tactfully dressed woman, around thirty years old, who stopped me in front of the China Grain Tower. From the outset she said, "Don't misunderstand me, I don't mean to bother you." Then she proceeded to tell me she was a Middle School Teacher from Gansu who had lost her purse and was unable to find her friend and could she borrow some money to make a long-distance call home. At the time my head was swelling and my brain was already fried senseless by the sweltering sun. So I gritted my teeth as I listened to her finish her story and then I asked her plainly and directly how much money she wanted. She simply said, "Just a few yuan." and then repeatedly chimed "Don't misunderstand me. Don't misunderstand me." Now by this time the sun had baked me so badly that I felt like a shrivelled piece of dried fish. Half dead, I struggled to ask her in a moaning voice: "Look! Just tell me how much you want!" "Three or four kuai (yuan)", came the reply. I handed her a five, lowered my head and left.
There is one old beggar I've come across who looks to me to be every inch a classic member of the beggars’ gang. Last winter, an old man jostled his way on to the streetcar. With swarthy skin and a coat made of newspapers and thick, multicoloured plastic bags, he looked like a stubborn old child. A kind of sweaty must emanated from his body which smelt like a mixture of leftover food and dust. Everyone quickly made way for him and he stood straight and unswervingly in front of where I was sitting. I dared not show the slightest reaction, as this old-timer was just far too bizarre. More importantly, I noticed that he had seven or eight cotton bags around his waist, of the kind so famous in Chinese martial arts novels. But I honestly did not expect to cross paths with him again this summer on the streetcar; still the same stubborn old child-like visage, still the same odour, and once again, he sat down in the seat in front of me. An insidious smile traversed his face as he continually turned his head back and forth. And right then and there, I suddenly had this sense of being a wandering vagabond and of drifting aimlessly from place to place.

(This short story was originally published in the monthly Chinese literary periodical "Duzhe")