The pulse raced in Joy Roberts’ veins as she hid behind the dumpster. It was a seedy alleyway, hardly what she would have expected for a meeting between a Triad representative and the official in charge of organized crime for the Shanghai government, but then again, it was oddly fitting. Wen Fulong had been appointed to his position only weeks ago by the central Chinese government, and had made headlines by swearing to finally tackle the corruption and crime within Shanghai. However, as this meeting proved, the supposed super cop from Beijing was just as dirty as almost every other official she had investigated so far in China.
Joy filmed another thirty seconds of footage, enough for her story, before shutting off the camera and pulling further back into the shadows. It was a dangerous enough job, investigating the connections between the Triad and the central government. She knew she was making enemies on both sides of Chinese law, and if it wasn’t for the fact she was waiting to release the worst evidence until after she was out of the country, she knew she could end up “missing.” She had seen it happen before.
Pulling a stinking piece of cardboard over her head to fully camouflage herself, Joy wondered again just what had led her to accepting the assignment to China. Actually, she knew what it was. Graduating from Georgetown with a degree in journalism five years ago, she quickly found that for black women like her, the big networks and media outlets had preconceived notions of what she could do. She could do sports, “local affairs,” or cultural pieces, which was media industry doublespeak for “black people stories.” If she moved further south, with her looks she could also land a gig as one of the talking heads on the nightly news, or be a weather girl.
But for Joy, the reason she went into journalism wasn’t to cover football, do fluff pieces on Girl Scout bake sales, or be the token voice every time Black History Month rolled around. She went into journalism because she was born and raised in Washington D.C., and even at a young age recognized the power that flowed through the halls of Congress. She wanted to be the voice covering those stories, not just for black people, but for all people. Unfortunately for her, the only media outlets that were initially willing to give her a chance were the “black media” such as Essence, JET, or BET. While she had no particular biases against them, she knew that once she accepted a staff job with the “black media,” she would forever be branded a “black journalist,” and not just a journalist. Even if she won a Pulitzer, it would be as a “Pulitzer prize winning black journalist.”
Thankfully, this assignment from the Asian Economic Review came just in time. While normally concerned with the cut and dry world of business, the AER had recently become more interested in the interplay of government, business, and organized crime, especially in China and Japan. Joy had been able to finagle an interview, and despite everything, get the assignment. She had flown to Beijing six months ago expecting some real work.
What she saw when she arrived was an eye-opener. The Shanghai AER offices were pathetic, barely larger than her apartment when she had been living in Georgetown, with most of the staff sitting around on their asses all day, retyping and regurgitating press releases sent out by the Chinese companies and government. “You don’t want to ruffle feathers around here,” the senior reporter, a withered old guy named Thompkins, had told her. “You piss off the wrong folks, and the Triad will find you.”
Joy had refused to accept the advice, although she had decided to remain cautious. Working almost totally on her own, she had gone out making whatever connections she could, working with charity groups, underground churches, and every other group she could to foster the connections she needed. There had been some low level payoffs, mostly out of favor officials who were caught with the wrong Triad group, but tonight’s filming was the first real scoop of her career.
Joy waited until almost sunup, dozing when she could underneath the stinking garbage, only making a break for it after she was sure it was safe. Back in her tiny apartment, she scrubbed herself from head to toe in the tepid water that came from her excuse of a water heater, using the fragrant cocoa butter soap that was her only luxury here in China. Gulping down a cup of double strength green tea, she headed to the office, taking the bus. Corrupt or not, she had to admit the Shanghai government ran a very clean public transportation system.
When she got into the office, she was surprised to see she had a visitor. Long Pao “Billy” Chin was a Hong Kong missionary who she had befriended soon after arriving in Shanghai. Born in Hong Kong just a few years before the Chinese takeover, and educated in the United States, Billy also wanted to combat the corruption in China, albeit in his own way. “Hey Joy,” he said in his California accented English, a welcome sound after the months of either international or British pronunciation, “so how was your stakeout?”
“Got the goods, Billy,” she said, patting her purse. “Once I get this out of the country, Fulong’s going to find himself on the front page.”
“I hope so, but you never know,” Billy said sadly, sipping at his tea.
Joy plopped down in her desk chair, turning to face him. “What’s that mean?”
“It means that regardless of what you have, the central government has some sway that you might not be able to overcome. They have a lot of money to throw around, and Fulong’s politically connected. But I don’t want to argue with you about that. Instead, I wanted to see if you might be willing to go with me on a trip. It might just get you a story.”
“Go on,” Joy said, plugging in her laptop and copying over the file. She couldn’t trust sending the file via normal Internet, but with some VPN’s and other routes, she might just be able to slip it through. It would at least be some sort of backup if the actual physical data card was stolen in transit. “What’s the deal?”
“Well, one of my new parishioners came to me last week, with a pretty fantastic story. It seems that a few hundred kilometers west of Shanghai, north of Wuhan there’s an area that the Triads just don’t go.”
“So? They’re interested in money, and a lot of those countryside villages don’t have any.”
Billy shook his head. “It’s not that. I mean, we’re talking not even traveling through. Central government avoids the area too, as much as possible. I took a look at a map, and there’s like this triangle between Wuhan, Xinyang, and Hefei that has almost nothing. Close to Hefei is this tiny city called Lu’an, but after that? Nothing. A road travels through it, but that’s it. No major towns, no governmental bases, nothing. I had to go to some old paper maps to even start to figure out where this place might be.”
Joy sat forward, intrigued by Billy’s story. “And?”
“And in a really old map, I mean at least two hundred years old, there is a place that matches up. Get this though, the name is going to make you chuckle.”
“Okay. I’m game. What’s the name?”
“Long Xue Yu. It means Dragon Blood Fields.”
Joy smiled, enjoying the implication. “Come on, Billy. Don’t tell me that you, with your church background and your UCLA diploma are a believer in those old myths? I mean, really? Dragons?”
Billy smiled cryptically and folded his fingers under his chin. “Well, there are some translations of the Bible that include the mention of dragons. Who knows? Either way, it could be an interesting story, and you could afford to get out of Shanghai for a while. The smog isn’t good for you, and you’re not as invisible as you might think. There are some in Shanghai who are paying attention to you that you do not want attention from.”
“That’s a lot of words to say I’ve got Triads interested in me, Billy.”
“Not just Triads, Joy. All of the Triads you’ve exposed are replaceable men, minor flunkies. The government men though, they’re a little more valuable.”
Joy thought it over for a moment. If Billy was correct, the trip could make a great story, maybe even a series of stories and give her another angle to work on how China could defeat the Triads. If it wasn’t, it would probably still give her enough for a few human interest stories, and some necessary time away from Shanghai to get some perspective. “All right, I’m in. Let me file the paperwork with the Beijing main office, get the travel money, and we can hit the road.”
For Joy, getting out of Shanghai was more enjoyable than she had imagined. For about the first two hundred kilometers, the drive was pleasant and enjoyable. Billy had agreed to use his van to take her, picking her up in the early morning. Joy had been surprised to see two other people, a man and a young woman sitting in the back of the van when she slid into the front passenger seat. “They’re coming along to help,” Billy said casually. “From what I understand, this village has a really unique dialect of Chinese, and they both come from around the area.”
Joy just nodded. She had come to accept the fact that for a country that supposedly had one official language in “Chinese,” the seemingly endless number of dialects, regional variations, and flat out different grammar structures meant that it was really a country with as many languages as the United States. Perhaps the only unifying element was the use of Chinese characters, but even then there seemed to be regional differences. While Joy was decent with daily use of Mandarin, she was hopelessly lost with almost any other dialect. “Nice to meet you,” she said, looking back. “You guys okay if I use English?”
“My uncle has very poor English, but I can speak okay,” the young woman said timidly. “My name is Tang Wen.”
“Nice to meet you. I am very sorry, but my Mandarin is rather poor. I will try my best though, if your uncle would like.”
“It is no problem. If you do not mind, I would like to practice my English with you as we drive.”
Joy agreed, and for most of the drive enjoyed pleasant if sometimes boring conversation with Tang Wen. She was apparently a student in Shanghai, whose goal currently was to finish school and get a good job working for a computer company. Joy relaxed as the kilometers rolled by, until the first refueling stop.
Getting out of the van and stretching her legs, Joy saw Billy and the older man, who so far she only knew as “Uncle,” pointing at a map and getting into a relatively heated discussion. Joy waited until Uncle walked away before approaching. “What’s up?”
“Oh, he is just saying that the roads get a lot rougher from here on out, and that we should have brought a different vehicle. What I keep explaining to him is that while I may have more funds than your average village goer, I’m still just a missionary, and I don’t exactly have access to a Range Rover on a daily basis.”
“Are you worried?”
Billy shook his head. “Not really. The van has four wheel drive and the tires are meant for all terrain travel. I’ll be honest the shocks and springs aren’t the best, but other than a bumpy ride, I’m pretty sure we’ll get there eventually.”
Eventually turned out to be seven hours, as the roads degenerated to the point that Joy was at times not sure if they were even on a real pathway. Billy stopped three times to ask for directions, with Tang Wen acting as a translator as the local dialects strayed further and further away from Mandarin. The sun was going down by the time Billy approached the village of Long Xue Yu. Looking around, Billy shrugged. “Not a lot here.”
That was an understatement, in Joy’s opinion. Long Xue Yu was the epitome of a country village. The main street was dirt, although the ruts were shallow compared to some of the roads they had traveled over getting there. Most of the houses were relatively ramshackle, made of wood and scavenged corrugated metal, and Joy wasn’t sure but she thought she could see a few thatched roofs on the outer edges of the village. Off in the distance, obscured by the low light of sunset was another, larger building, but Joy couldn’t tell what it was. “I don’t suppose they have a Hyatt or even a Motel 6?”
“This is China, not likely,” Billy replied. “Why do you think I brought the van? We pop the back, shut off the lights, and it’ll sleep three people.”
“But we have four.”
Billy shrugged. “I like to sleep outdoors. I have ever since I went camping as a kid. If I need to, I can use the front passenger seat, lean it back and I’ll be fine. Seriously, you two get some sleep in the van.”
Joy nodded, looking around. “Well, where do we park then?”
Billy laughed. “Right where we are. I don’t see any gas stations, and at least the shoulder of the road is technically public use. First, let’s get the lay of the land, maybe we can find a place to eat. If we’re lucky, they may even have a tavern or some sort of lodge or temple we could use, instead of worrying about who’s going to sleep in the van.”
Billy put the van in gear and drove slowly though the village. There were no streetlamps, and from what Joy could see, none of the houses even had electricity. While there were a few lamps burning in windows, most of the houses were dark. Obviously in this village, people rose and went to sleep with the sun itself. Finally, in the distance Joy could see the large building that she had spied earlier. Approaching, it became clear that it was some sort of temple, with stone buildings and a wall running around it. Unfortunately for them, the gate was closed, and Billy’s knocks went unanswered.
“Well, that settles it,” he said, climbing back in the van and shutting it off. “Looks like we’re camping here tonight. Most temples let people stay on their grounds for free, and I did pack food.”
“Oh, what do you have?” Tang Wen asked from the back.
“You’re not going to enjoy it, but I brought two cases of American MRE’s. They’re easy to eat, easy to heat, and one of them is enough to fuel us for almost an entire day if we need.”
Tang Wen made a face, but nodded. “Fine. I am hungry. Let’s eat.”
The next morning, Joy started her investigation. Waking up a little past dawn, she gobbled her breakfast before the group started out on trying to find people to talk to. “Might as well start right here,” Joy said, walking up to the now open gates of the temple. Tang Wen and Uncle followed, while Billy said he was going to find a better place to park the van.
Joy’s frustration with the investigation grew as the day wore on. Most of the villagers seemed very shy, or even fearful of outsiders. She had thought perhaps it was due to her brown skin, but even when Billy had gone out with Uncle and Tang Wen they had little success. By evening, Joy was almost ready to give up.
The biggest challenge was language. Almost nobody in the village spoke any English at all, apart from a few children who could spout a few phrases, only to go off giggling and running up the road. The adults of the village were hardly any better, speaking a broken, heavily accented form of Chinese that sounded like total gibberish to Joy. Even Billy couldn’t understand, and Uncle could only translate phrases to Tang Wen. All of them were the same, too. “No, nothing strange,” “What is a Triad?” “We have lucky protector,” and the ever present unintelligible yammering.
What made it worse for Joy was the particular tone of the village’s dialect. She had gotten used to the higher pitches and seemingly excitable talking of Chinese, which to American ears sounded a lot like shouting and screeching, but this village’s tone was on a whole new level. Even when the villagers repeated themselves to Uncle, it sounded almost painful to her ears.
On the positive side for Joy however, the village was remarkably clean and peaceful. She had gotten used to the Chinese culture that had grown under the Communist regime of people often being very rude to those they didn’t know. She had seen drunks kicked in the streets, children shoved out of the way of shoppers, and many other varieties of petty unkindness.
But in Long Xue Yu, everything seemed the opposite. People were kind to each other. She had seen a young child, maybe no older than three or four, stop to help pick up the things dropped by an old grandmother who was struggling with her load. Better yet, with nothing but a kind word the child volunteered to carry the woman’s things the rest of the way to her destination. In the fields surrounding the village, Joy watched farmers work in harmony with their animals and with each other, exchanging hearty calls and greetings across rice paddies. While the village was obviously very poor, in many other aspects it was almost a Utopian setting.
As the sun set, the foursome collected themselves back at the van, which Billy had ended up leaving next to the temple. “So, what’s your opinion, Joy? This is your story, after all.”
Joy shook her head. “I don’t know, Billy. To be honest, I’d love to stay and just observe for a while, but I don’t think there’s a real story here. Maybe a human interest piece, but anything on Triads? No.”
“So what’s your plan?”
Joy sighed, and stirred her ration packet, dipping her plastic spoon into a foil envelope to scoop out what was supposedly beef stew. “I think I’m going to stay a while, but you should probably head back. Maybe if it was just me, and I went organic and just low key, I might be able to see something that will give me a clue.”
“You sure? You get in trouble out here, there’s not exactly a lot of help available.”
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