When Red is Black
etective Yu Guangming of the Shanghai Police Bureau stood alone, still reeling from the blow. Its impact had been slow in coming, but when it came, it nearly crushed him. After months of meeting after meeting, negotiation after negotiation, he had lost the promised apartment in Tianling New Village. It was a new apartment, and had been officially assigned to him; the assignment had even been announced, to thunderous applause, at the bureau.
In the overpopulated city of Shanghai, home to more than thirteen million people, the housing shortage was grave. The assignment of an apartment was a significant event. For many years, it had been up to one’s work unit—the Shanghai Police Bureau for Yu—to decide which of its employees would get a room or an apartment from the unit’s annual government allotment. As recognition of his outstanding service of more than a decade, Yu had finally been awarded a two-bedroom apartment—or at least the keys to it. But before he could even make plans to move, the apartment had been unexpectedly taken back.
Yu was standing in a small courtyard, littered with dust-covered odds and ends, the discards of all the families living in this old shikumen-style building, which housed no fewer than twelve families, including his. The ancient courtyard looked like a junkyard, which was what his mind felt like. He lit a cigarette.
The explanation—or pretext—for the withdrawal of the apartment involved the adjustment of debts among the state-run companies. A creditor of another state-run company had seized some of the new apartments in Tianling New Village just built by the Golden Dragon Construction Corporation. Among them was the very unit assigned to Yu. This reversal of fortune was absurd; it was as if a roasted Beijing duck had flown back into the sky.
A few days earlier, when delivering the bad news, Party Secretary Li of the Shanghai Police Bureau had had a long talk with Yu before concluding, as always, on a characteristic positive note: “Economic reform is ushering in great changes. A lot of these changes would have been unimaginable two or three years ago. Our housing system is affected too. Soon, Chinese people will no longer have to depend on a government-housing quota. My brother-in-law, for example, recently bought a new apartment in the Luwan District. Of course, you are still at the top of the list here. The bureau will take your case into special consideration. Even in the event you purchase an apartment in the future, we may be able to get some housing compensation for you.”
This was to be his consolation!
After more than forty years during which housing in the city had been government-assigned, a new policy made it possible for people to buy their own apartments, but, as the saying went, Policy may change three times in a single day. No one could foretell the future of reform in China. For Party Secretary Li’s brother-in-law, owner of several expensive restaurants and bars, there had been no problem in purchasing an apartment at the price of four thousand Yuan per square foot. For Detective Yu, a low-level cop with a monthly salary of around four hundred Yuan, such an expenditure was a dream he could not dare to dream.
“But I have already been awarded the apartment,” Yu had said stubbornly. “It was a formal bureau decision.”
“I understand. It’s not fair to you, Comrade Detective Yu. Believe me, we have tried everything possible on your behalf. We are all aware that you have done an excellent job as a police officer. But we have done all we could. We are sorry.”
Li’s smooth talk did not change the hard fact: Detective Yu had lost the apartment.
It was going to be a terrible loss of face too. His friends and relatives had learned about his new apartment, all of them had congratulated him, and some of them had prepared for a house-warming party. Now what?
But what worried him far more was the reaction of his wife, Peiqin. During the fifteen years of their marriage, they had always been, Holding hands together, talking, talking, talking, in the words of a popular song. Since their days as “educated youths” sent to Yunnan during the Cultural Revolution, and then as one of millions of ordinary couples in Shanghai, they had always been close. Of late, however, she had seemed withdrawn.
This was not hard for him to understand. All those years, he had brought little home in
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