The Chilli Bean Paste Clan, Chapter 1 – An Extract

The Chilli Bean Paste Clan, Chapter 1 – An Extract

08 August 2018

Nicky Harman’s translation of Yan Ge’s ‘The Chilli Bean Paste Clan’《 我们家 》was published this year by Balestier Press. The two will be in conversation at China Exchange on Thursday 13 September as part of the Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival.

Register for free entry here.


In Dad’s cell phone, Gran was listed as ‘Mother.’ From time to time, ‘Mother’ popped up on screen at peculiarly inappropriate moments.

Sometimes it would be during a meeting at the factory when Dad was trying to call the laughing, chattering salesgirls to order. Or he was out drinking with his bros, knocking back the maotai, the air thick with smoke. Or, worse still, Dad would be in bed, either with Mum or else some young woman of his acquaintance and, just when things were getting lively, A Pretty Sprig of Jasmine would ring out. Dad would feel himself going soft and, when his cell phone proved incontrovertibly that it was Gran, all the fight would go out of him. Floating gently to earth like a hen’s feather, he’d pick up the phone, walk out into the corridor, clear his throat and respond: ‘Yes, Mother’.

At the other end of the line, Gran would start to tug on Dad’s heartstrings. ‘Hello, Shengqiang!’ ‘Yes, Mother, what’s up?’ He’d stand, propping himself against the wall, just four or five streets from Gran. ‘Mother, I know about that. Don’t you worry. I’ll deal with it.’

Then he’d hang up and go back into the room. But those few minutes had wrong-footed him. If he was with the salesgirls, they’d be gossiping away amongst themselves, if it was a get-together with his bros, they’d be texting or lighting up another cigarette. Or if he was with a woman, she’d be bent over scraping a callus off her heel. Still, Dad would give a cough, shut the door behind him and they’d get back down to where they’d left off.

The only exception to this rule was if the woman in the bed happened to be Mum. In that case, he had to answer a few questions about Gran first. ‘What’s up with that mother of yours now?’ Mum would ask. Dad would come across the room, take off his slippers, and dive under the bedcovers. ‘Oh, just forget it!’ And they’d get back down to where they’d left off.

Dad put on a maroon striped shirt over his trousers and went out into the passageway. He called Zhu Cheng. ‘Where are you? … Right, come and get me then.’

He started down the stairs. He had only got halfway down to the next floor when he paused, then gave voice to a stream of poetic obscenities. ‘You’re vermin, the lot of you! Son-of-a-bitch, I’m gonna murder you all one of these days!’ When he reached the ground floor, he lit up a cigarette and smoked it until, far in the distance, he saw the shiny black Audi approaching. Then he hurled his cigarette down, ground out the sparks under his foot, pulled open the car door and jumped in. ‘Cornucopia Court,’ he ordered.

Zhu Cheng turned the steering wheel and the car bowled along West Street towards the outskirts of town. As they crossed the intersection, Dad looked out of the window. The two streets were hideously thronged with people. No one paid attention to traffic regulations any more, not since the Tianmei Department Store had opened up here. One young couple, their arms draped around each other’s waists, made a reckless dash across the road in front of the car. A young mother had her hands so full of shopping bags she wasn’t holding her kid’s hand and he charged out and nearly pasted himself onto the car’s side-mirror. Zhu Cheng slammed on the brakes, just avoiding hitting them, then stuck his head out of the car window and shouted lengthy picturesque references to their ancestors.

‘Calm down, Zhu Cheng,’ said Dad from the back seat.

‘These people need a telling-off, boss. They think I won’t dare hit them!’ Zhu Cheng steered the car through the crowds.

‘Nothing’s the same any more,’ Dad said. ‘People with shoes are scared of people without, and car-drivers are scared of pedestrians.’

‘Absolutely! Chinese people are a bunch of idiots!’ Zhu Cheng agreed.

They crossed Celestials Bridge on West Street. Just three years ago, a new park had been built there and the original smelly ditch filled in and covered over. Dad could see a bunch of old people gathered in the park, some chatting, some just sitting. Gran wouldn’t be there though. He pulled out his cell phone and checked the time.

At the entrance to Cornucopia Court, Dad said: ‘Don’t bother to drive in, Zhu Cheng, just leave me here and you can be off. I won’t need the car this evening, I’ll walk home.’

‘I’ll wait for you, you can’t go home on foot,’ said Zhu Cheng solicitously.

‘It’s no distance. I can walk. And don’t take the car back to the factory, come straight to the house and pick me up at eight o’clock tomorrow morning,’ Dad instructed him. Then he got out.

Granddad had died two years previously and last spring their housekeeper announced her son wanted her back in the village to look after the grandchild, whereupon she upped sticks and left. Gran said she’d never find anyone else to suit and wasn’t going to try, so now she lived alone in the family’s old apartment, with its three bedrooms and two reception rooms, without even an hourly-paid helper. She just wanted the peace and quiet, she said.

Gran had lost weight since last year, and was getting shorter inch by inch, Dad reflected, as he walked up three floors, took out his key and opened the door. As usual, he couldn’t see Gran at first. The apartment was piled high with books, magazines and newspapers, and it looked as if no one had lived there for months. ‘Mother!’ he shouted. Then again, ‘Mother!’ Had Gran lost her voice?

‘Coming, coming!’ Gran called back, emerging from somewhere at the back. ‘Shengqiang … it’s you!’

‘Yes, it’s me,’ said Dad, going out to the balcony to retrieve the ashtray which Gran had put beside the potted orchid. He took it back into the sitting-room and put it down on the coffee table, lit a cigarette and sat down on the sofa.

‘Smoking again!’ Gran exclaimed from her rattan chair, shaking her head.

‘Ai-ya! Don’t go on at me!’

‘Well if I don’t, who’s going to?’

‘All right, all right,’ Dad said, with a puff on his cigarette.

‘There’s something I want to talk to you about,’ said Gran.

Dad scrutinized his mother as she talked. Her hair had been completely white for a while now but she still had it neatly permed so that the waves undulated over her head. She wore a pale-green silk padded jacket over a knee-length grey silk skirt with white flowers on it. Her calves were bare below the skirt and, above her flesh-coloured socks, the skin was pallid and drooped as if half-a-dozen weights were pulling it down.

Dad let his thoughts drift back to the exact moment when he realized that Gran was old.

It was 1996, or maybe 1995, in March or April, and Gran suddenly got it into her head that she wanted Dad to take her to Chongning County see the pear blossom in Pear Blossom Gully. When they got there, the gully and all around it was crammed full of people. Gran sat in the car frowning at them.

Zhu Cheng, who had just started as their driver and hadn’t quite got the hang of things, sat woodenly in the driver’s seat and Dad had to help Gran out of the car. He took her left hand, and put his other hand on her shoulder to guide her out.

That was the moment it struck him Gran was old. Through her clothes, Dad could feel the skin on her shoulders hanging in slack folds which actually quivered as she moved. He froze, appalled. Then Gran said: ‘Get out of my way, Shengqiang. If you stand in my way, how can I walk?’

Dad took a step back and watched as she made her way to Pear Blossom Gully. ‘Mother,’ he called.

Gran stopped and looked back. She looked just as normal, no different from a few minutes before, but Dad had to steel himself to look her in the face.

‘Come on!’ She said.

On their way back to Pingle Town, Gran had said: ‘Don’t you go divorcing Anqin, there’s too much at stake. She did wrong, but now she’s got down on her knees and grovelled to you, just let it go. The pair of you should stop bickering and just muddle along together.’

Dad gave a non-committal grunt. His right hand still tingled.

‘Are you listening to me, Shengqiang?’ demanded Gran now, after waiting in vain for his response.

‘Yes, right,’ Dad said again, putting out his cigarette, lifting his eyes from her calves and nodding.

‘Off you go then. I’m going to read for a bit and then go to bed.’

‘Yes, you get an early night, Mother,’ said Dad stolidly.

Outside Gran’s apartment, Dad paused for a moment, then went up to the fifth floor. Here, the staircase ended and two lonely doors faced each other. Dad took out his cell phone and made a call. It rang just once, then someone answered.

‘Open up,’ said Dad.

In a second, the door had opened. Pretty Jasmine Zhong stood there, her hair hanging in a gleaming black curtain around her dainty face.

Dad’s face finally cracked a smile. He went in, shutting the door behind him.