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May 11, 2011 / Katie

Trouble in Peach Blossom Land

I can’t remember a time when strange men didn’t come in and out of our building at all hours of the night, but I know they weren’t there when I first moved in. And when I tell people that there are two–not one, but two–mahjong gambling rings in my Chinatown apartment, they usually respond with a comment like “How cool!” or “That’s awesome!” I assure them that it is most certainly not awesome or cool to live with Chinese ruffians.

It began quietly. Our building is small with 10 units, two per floor spread across six floors total. Two men bought one of the third floor apartments. We know these partners only by sight: the younger of the two walks with a cane and has an ominous limp that hints at a violent past; the old man has a head full of gray-streaked waves (a perm, at his age?) and an ugly face, he’s usually smoking in the elevator in spite of the sign and likes to make a point of remembering which floor we live on.

Then a group venture bought up both units on the second floor under the auspices of a Fujianese Village Association. They claimed the space was to be a community center. They even applied for a special city permit. Legit, right?

You should know by now that nothing in Chinatown is ever legit.

***

During my senior year of college, I went to see a production of the famous Chinese playwright Stan Lai’s Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land. The play is actually two plays (within a play) that compete for rehearsal time on one stage due to a scheduling snafu. Secret Love is a tragic romance that follows two lovers in contemporary Taiwan who spend a lifetime apart, waiting with baited breath, while Peach Blossom Land is a rollicking farce set in a charmed land that claims no history or future, and where everyone and everything live together in harmony.

On the surface, these two story lines appear to have nothing in common except for the stage they must share. The two casts attempt to sabotage each other by moving props, rudely critiquing performances, and arguing about who needs the rehearsal space more. All to no avail.

But the play, as the title implies, is really about what happens when two disparate worlds collide. A lack of empathy, discord, and petty squabbling. Then something strange happens. The actors begin to finish each other’s lines. The themes merge. And everyone is left to contemplate “the burdens of memory, history, longing and love–and the power of theater itself.” Perhaps they have more in common than meets the eye.

***

If you’re not familiar with the game of mahjong, it’s often described as the Chinese equivalent of Gin Rummy only with tiles instead of cards. The game is so old it’s pre-cards. It requires four players and the first player to collect a set of 14 matched tiles wins–Mahjong!

Having played mahjong a few times myself, I can attest to its addictive nature. Each round has one winner, and so the three losers, of course, always want to continue play as soon as possible since they are bolstered by the hope of winning future rounds. You can see how this could quickly spiral into a vicious cycle. Add wagers and money on the line to that mix, and you have a recipe for one of the most heated “card games” known to man.

Every night I hear the gamblers slamming their tiles down on the table. More than once I’ve heard a loser argue hopelessly with the proprietor, sounding as if on the verge of tears or an all out mental breakdown. It’s not pretty. Then there are the nights when I or my roommate or both of us go out on the balcony at 1 am and yell down to them to, “Shut the hell up or I’ll call the police!”

“OK, OK, OK!” They call back to us with the only English word they know besides “police,” as if they’re the unruly teenagers and we’re the nagging parents.

I’ve often laid in bed listening to their mangled Chinese dialect, internally steaming with anger, hatching schemes to make them suffer the consequences of their destructive and annoying vice. Water balloons? Rotten tomatoes? A flaming bag of shit left on their doorstep?

To be continued…

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

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4 Comments

Leave a Comment
  1. Brad F. / May 12 2011 12:34 am

    Sounds exciting, but only because I don’t have to deal with it every day. I’ve had bad neighbors before, though, so I wish you the best of luck. I have a feeling they’re not going to be dislodged easily, if ever.

  2. moonrat / May 12 2011 8:53 am

    this is an amazing piece. i have now added Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land to my Amazon shopping cart.

  3. contemporarycontempt / May 17 2011 9:33 pm

    That play sounds really interesting–in the manner of Stoppard or something. I’ll have to keep an eye out for it…and I like to think that this post (and the future ones it promises) are mirroring that “structure of the conjuncture” (Sahlins 1985) and the two disparate-yet-related pieces within that play. Ah, levels/layers…

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