Wu Quan was a character. Everyone in Jingzhen enjoyed poking fun at him. He was born short and small, with eyes, nose, and mouth huddled together on a face that belonged to the masses. Sporting a trademark mole on the tip of his nose, he would walk as if on tiptoe. He was, however, by no means a cowardly character. Just go ask around and you'll soon find out the many tricks up his sleeve. He had a very attractive wife who bore him five children. The two were inseparable. If someone joked, "Hey, Wu, you look a bit worn out today. You rolled off your wife's belly last night?" he'd furiously reply, "Screw you! Me? Roll off? Let's just say two hours straight, no sweat, no nothing. Wanna bet on it?" He loved to boast about his sexual prowess, but no man boasts in the face of fate. When asked about his outlook on life, he'd crack a dry laugh and, somewhat uncomfortably, say, "I'm a worm."
Regardless of how others saw him or how he saw himself, there was one undisputed fact about him: Wu Quan was one of the largest shareholders in the Jingzhen timber and real estate markets.
Wu was born into poverty, his father being a sharecropper in the countryside near Jingzhen. As a young adult, he wandered into Jingzhen, starting out first as a carpenter and painter. Later on he learned how to remodel homes. He was a hard worker. Although small in stature and limited in strength, he worked so hard that he became a businessman, buying timber from wherever he could. Building and selling homes was a popular venture at the time and he wasted no time diving into the frenzy, his small eyes always sharp and his hands eager to deal. If you were thinking about getting a piece of plywood today, Wu would stop you right in the middle of your tracks the very next day. He knew what you wanted and knew what was on your mind. He was the devil himself. He always sealed the deal. No one could pry an extra dollar away from him. In town, Wu was infamously known as "a golddigging rat."
But Wu had one archenemy, the town secretary, Ding Yin.
Ding was a tall and heavy man whose middle-aged belly was on the verge of popping. Big face, flushed cheeks, pomade-slick hair, and a suit. That was him, a man born into a family of businessmen, a natural politician, diplomat, and man of commerce. As soon as he graduated from the seminary, he was immediately appointed as the town pastor, a position which enabled him to quickly ascend the social ladder, win an election, and become the town secretary. Like Wu, he too owned a timber company and operated in the construction business. Aggressive and rich, Ding was the Weeble of Jingzhen who wobbled but never fell down. This man never lacked friends. He'd shout remarks at dinner parties, mingle with the working class, and whenever in the presence of high society, figures such as statesmen, religious leaders and scholars, he'd reassume the role of one of God's chosen people and solemnly address his listener as "Brother." No one in Jingzhen could avoid him. Yet Wu Quan made him uneasy. Wu, also a popular figure among the working class, was competition.
In November 1978, the competition almost won.
A peculiar trend traveled from the cities to Jingzhen. Since 1972, because of the government's intentional effort to accelerate the process of industrialization, huge numbers of people migrated to the cities. City population exploded, leaving the national housing projects ill-equipped to meet the demand. But many people seized the opportunity to invest in the housing and construction markets, encouraging the middle-class and those better-off to become home buyers. In the hope of attracting clients, they called their projects "The House of Rome," "The Emerald Palace," "The City of Gold," and crammed the papers and TV channels with advertisement. There were endless reinventions of advertising gimmicks and special offers, one including the use of western-style housing plans. Because of fierce competition, the house-building frenzy quickly spread to the agricultural town of Jingzhen, where Wu and Ding quickly became the two main players in the market. Wu formed a small company called Fortune Enterprises; Ding took over a position at Alliance Ventures, a local investment company. Wu built a series of traditional Chinese-style houses, naming the project "The City of Perpetual Fortune"; Ding built a series called "The Grand City of London." The people of Jingzhen, however, preferred Wu's traditional take and responded coolly to Ding's modern designs. When word got out that Wu was outselling him, Ding's anxiety mounted.
By early November it became obvious that Ding was waging a losing battle. Shareholders of Alliance Ventures were worried sick and convened a meeting on the 15th. And boy, did they smoke, cigarette after cigarette, until their faces took on the yellow stain of nicotine. Finally one manager stood up and said, "Shit. We're goners. What the hell happened? Where did we go wrong?"
The designer said, "Well, we screwed up for a number of reasons. Take the name. I mean, hell, what do the people in Jingzhen know about London. Grand City my ass. Then there's that spiral staircase. What we need are beams. The house is too empty. Yeah, it looks modern, but people in Jingzhen buy homes for their families, their grandchildren. They're not used to stuff like this."
"OK, OK, so what should we do?" The manager was rapping his fingers so hard on the table that he almost knocked over a glass. "We're dead if we can't sell the houses, not to mention that we'd look like complete losers." Others quickly voiced agreement.
"Wait!" Someone suddenly stood up. "We failed for a number of reasons, many of which were just mentioned by our designer. However, the most important reason is that we are competing against The City of Perpetual Fortune. But as far as I know, Fortune Enterprises is made up of several wealthy locals, so it has limited capital. I know who they are."
Everybody turned to see who was talking. It was Ding. "You're absolutely right, Ding," exclaimed the manager. "Now, you're a local yourself. You know what's going on. If you've got a plan, we'll follow it."
"We'll buy them out," said Ding.
"What?" People were stunned.
"Wait!" said someone, "What if they ask for too much? Then the plan wouldn't work."
"I'll do the talking," said Ding, with a smirk on his face. "Don't worry fellows. Just leave it to me."
The rest of the meeting focused on how Ding would go about buying out the competition.
The next morning after breakfast, Ding, looking fully prepared to carry out his mission, left the house to join the director of the Jingzhen branch of the Taiwan Cooperative Bank. He planned to win over the shareholders of Fortune Enterprises one by one. Wu was the key target. If he agreed, everyone else would agree. The two men walked side by side and, although seemingly preoccupied, they nonetheless displayed an air of confidence. Everybody on the streets greeted them. Those who didn't know what they were up to gave them the thumbs up and thought, "Aren't they in good spirits!" But those who did know knew that they were up to no good.
They crossed several streets and soon came to a factory on the outskirts of town. There was wood everywhere. The sign read "Quanyuan Timber Plant." This was Wu's company. He had worked every day of his life to make this happen. That morning Wu had gotten up pretty early and tucked himself neatly into his jacket, like a worm. As he was busy directing the shipments of wood to the mills, Ding was eyeing his surroundings. "Damn. It'll only be a couple of years before he beats my ass," he said to himself.
Ding and the director walked toward Wu with beaming smiles. Wu, busy waving directions, had his hands in mid-air when he spotted the two men. Though surprised at first, he quickly examined them with those small but piercing eyes, and with the friendliness of a businessman exclaimed "Oh, what a great pleasure! Please come in."
Five minutes later Ding and the director were seated in the reception room.
"Well, Wu Quan, you seemed to have done quite well for yourself," said Ding with feigned admiration. "Business is no doubt booming for you."
"Oh, not at all. Do you mean the plant?" Wu held up a pack cigarettes on the table. "Cigarette? Please. Well, you know, it's not a big business. It's small, like a baby worm."
"No, not just the plant." Ding crossed his legs and continued smoking. "Your houses, too. Your City of Perpetual Fortune was very well received."
Wu's face tightened at the mention of the project, but he quickly resumed an air of casualness, "Oh, that. Well, your London thing wasn't so bad either. So, you're here to talk about the houses?"
"We are indeed," said Ding. Since Wu had guessed their purpose, he cut right to the point. "How about you sell me your share? Let me buy it from you."
"What? You want to buy my share?" Wu sounded surprised but then calmly replied, "You can't be serious. Or are you?"
So the two proceeded negotiations in a ping-pong fashion, one proposing, the other refusing. Ding proposed to buy Wu's share at a price that was 20% higher than the market value, then he increased it to 30%. But Wu was no fool. The future of Fortune Enterprises was at stake. He had long suspected Ding's motives and knew the man was shrewd, but the offer was almost too good to give up. So while he kept refusing, he also kept regretting. Yet he stuck to his principles.
"I can't. I'm one of the largest shareholders. I can't set a precedent. My friends would blame me."
Ding's partner, the director of the Cooperation Bank, became extremely annoyed. "You miserly fool. Do you know what you are turning down?"
"I do," said Wu. "And I'd be a fool to accept."
Upon that, Ding left, having decided it was useless.
He was visibly flustered. Screw that scheming Wu Quan, acting as if he owned the town. "One day I'll defeat him! One day!" said Ding.
Ding lined up a number of prominent figures to try to persuade Wu: the mayor, the chairman of the Youth Commerce, the town representative, and the list goes on. But none of them succeeded. Wu was a rock. The devil himself wouldn't have been able to change his mind.
But one month later, news broke out that the U.S. had severed its diplomatic ties with Taiwan and no longer recognized its government as the legitimate representative of China.
The island was in shock; the people were stunned. Nobody knew what to expect. All they could do was speculate. The upper class called upon the people to "unite and save the country," the government aired countless TV and radio campaigns, and the police and armed forces braced for the worse. The mad rush was blinding. Looking back, some of the statements would have been better toned down. The paranoid drew comparisons to Vietnam and insinuated that the same fate would befall Taiwan. Some people even wrote manifestos and "blood statements." Things were blown out of proportion, making the upper class ever more desperate to abandon the island and the rest of society ever more fearful. Rumors hit the town of Jingzhen and exploded like a bomb.
Jingzhen's high society was first to feel the blow. You could practically see the pomaded glistening class squirming with anxiety. The mayor canceled the office dinner banquet, the school principle asked students for "patriotic donations," the staff at the Farmer's Association forgot to spit out their betel nut juices after chewing them, and the bank accountants added up the wrong numbers. It was pathetic. And so was Ding. What do you think he did? He rushed to the pastor's house and joined every other "somebody" in speculation.
An emergency meeting was held on the evening of the 16th.
The president of the bus company waved a quivering hand in the air and blurted, "Fuck Carter. Fuck him. Eats his peanuts and swallows the shells, too. The double-dealer. Wait till I get my hands on him!"
The manager of the post office straightened his glasses, rolled up his sleeves, and shouted, "The U.S. isn't our friend. We've been duped. Goddammit, we've been duped!"
The pastor's house was a mess. Everybody was asking him for advice. But he was in such a panic himself that he forgot all about God. "Who gives a fuck! If you can leave, leave."
After much deliberation, somebody finally said, "Let's ask the former pastor, our current town secretary, Ding Yin."
"Well, I, I—" Ding was finding the situation increasingly nerve-racking. He started to pace back and forth. "I'm afraid I don't know. But I couldn't leave even if I wanted to. All my assets are here!"
"What! Not even Ding Yin knows what to do. We're done for."
"But I don't think it's as bad as we think it is!" There was a hint of defiance in Ding's eyes. "I don't."
The meeting ended with no resolution. Ding went home, exhausted from the ordeal. As he lay on the sofa, thoughts swirled in his mind—his company, the timber plant, Wu's share that he so desperately wanted to buy. He lay there trembling as his mind churned. He trembled with despair. But despair gave way to the fierceness of a caged animal. He was trapped no more.
"Yes!" he said to himself. "If you're betting to win, bet big."
He jumped up from the sofa and marched outside, heading towards the house of his old friend, the director of public services.
December 17th was a fine, sunny winter day in the town of Jingzhen.
Wu had taken the day off and stayed home. He reviewed operations at the timber plant and went through all the numbers, then went on to estimate how much money he could make out of The City of Perpetual Fortune project. But something wasn't quite right. He remembered what he saw on yesterday's TV and the commotion on the streets. Wu knew nothing about politics. He remembered thinking, "Hell, it's not like your parents died!" But he couldn't get rid of the images. Well, strange things happen. He realigned his abacus, resumed his calculations, and forgot about yesterday. But then two men came rushing in the door. Wu thought they were robbers, but when he looked up he recognized Ding and the director.
"Oh, it's you!" said a smiling Wu. "Please have a seat."
"Sorry to barge in," said Ding with gleam in his eye. "Look at you, abacus and all. It must be tiring adding up numbers all day."
"Oh, it can be," said Wu, his small eyes fixed on the two men. "And may I ask what brings you here today? I'm sure it has something to do with buying my share of the project."
"Oh, not at all, not at all!" said Ding with an easy laugh. "It has nothing do with that. We were just wondering if you had any plans to go abroad."
"Abroad?" Wu was taken by surprise. He couldn't really figure out why they would ask such a question. "What do you mean abroad? Why would I go abroad?"
"What! You can't be that stupid," exclaimed Ding. "Haven't you heard that the U.S. no longer recognizes us anymore? A lot of people are thinking about quitting the place. They're about ready to pack up and leave." Ding lowered his voice and whispered, "Didn't you watch TV yesterday? Bad news for us. We can't live here anymore!"
"Really?" Wu was getting confused.
"Ask the director," said Ding.
"Really?" Wu couldn't believe what he was hearing. "We can't stay here anymore?"
"That's right." said the director, placing his mouth next to Wu's ear, "You need to get ready to leave now or it'll be too late!"
"He's right," said Ding. "I want to leave, too, but some time later. If you want to leave, you should start planning now. I'm not here to talk about the project. I'm here to talk about your whole business. If you sell it, I'll take it."
"No way." Wu opened his mouth, revealing a row of little teeth. "You're messing with me."
"Now, why would we do that?" said the director. "You don't understand politics so we came by to help you."
The two men were done. Having successfully carried out their initial plan, they left before Wu could ask anymore questions.
Wu decided to take a walk and make the rounds about town. No one was smiling. Everyone looked distraught, ill-at-ease. He placed his hands in his pockets and proceeded to walk on his toes. But even that didn't make him feel confident. True, he didn't understand politics, but if the director was telling the truth, that he would have to leave, then he was in a lot of trouble!
On December 20, the unrest grew. Both Taiwan and the U.S. kept issuing different statements. Posters were put up at every major intersection; rumors were flying. Nobody in Jingzhen felt safe.
As soon as Wu came home from work that day, he saw his son returning home from school. The boy was holding a piece of paper that he wanted his father to sign. Wu saw it was one of those "blood statements."
"What the hell? Where did you get this?" he demanded.
"They gave it to us at school. The teacher said we would have to get our parents to sign it, to show that you read it. We need to write a report on it, too!"
Wu read the statement more carefully. It turned out to be someone's account of how Vietnamese boat people surrendered to the horrors of cannibalism. He had never been much of a reader, but this was definitely too much. He started to waver, yet still refused to believe what was happening. He picked up a newspaper. The headline was very disturbing.
"Did the teachers say anything at school?" asked Wu.
"Uh-huh." The kid was beaming. "Our teacher said that he would most certainly not eat another human being!"
"Shit. This is serious." Wu felt like fainting.
He knew there was a problem. An intangible veil of terror and confusion enveloped our little businessman who had little schooling, who had fought his way up in society. He couldn't completely understand what was happening, but he knew he was in danger. He wavered because he knew. He ended up glued to the TV and newspapers, yet they did nothing but magnify the horror. Slowly, he was losing it.
After the 30th, public unrest became public chaos. Those with a green card had mostly left. The economy was devastated. Stocks plummeted, transactions were left pending, the price of goods plunged, and people were buying gold like crazy. Jingzhen soon joined in the commotion. A home appliance dealer started auctioning off his merchandise, but no one was interested and hardly anything was sold. One county official sold his house for a meager price, stating that he was raising money for "the cause." Some property values even dropped by half.
Wu was at home when three men suddenly came rushing in. They looked furious. All of them were small business owners. As soon as they saw Wu, they blurted, "Wu Quan, we're not buying the timber. We want to return the shipment. Do you understand?"
"What?" said Wu. "Why?"
"Fuck. Don't you know that it's worthless to build houses now?" said one of them. "The government will take them over in the future anyway."
"Slow down, guys. There's no need to hurry things. You've already made down payments and I've already cut up the wood for you. It's too late now."
"You can keep the down payment!" they said.
The three of them left. While contemplating their grim futures, one of them couldn't stop sighing. He ended up sighing more than fifty times within an hour.
Wu watched them leave, speechless. All of a sudden, another group of men came rushing in. Their faces were covered in sweat.
"We're not buying any of your houses. It's the wrong time to buy. We want a refund." They surrounded Wu, shouting their demands.
"Slow down. We'll take care of it. But I need to have a meeting with the other shareholders first."
So the shareholders of The City of Perpetual Fortune convened at a restaurant in town. This was January 2, 1979. The small business owners were all present. They were the rich of Jingzhen but they were far from their beaming selves.
The first to speak was the fishmonger Xu Kuenlin. "A lot of people are backing out. You know what they're saying?"
"Some say that time is running out, that you should just eat, drink, and drop dead. They don't want their houses anymore," said Xu.
"Hey, it's not just them," said Lin Changjiu, a feed seller. "Lately, I've been thinking the exact same thing."
The shareholders quacked like a bunch of ducks. They almost flipped the table over because they were too agitated.
"Hey, Wu Quan, what do you say?" asked someone. "After all, you are the largest shareholder."
"I don't know." Beads of sweat were forming on Wu's forehead. "But I'll suffer losses no matter what. It's pretty much over for me."
"If we're bound to suffer, we might as well suffer now," said one of them. "I'm selling my share. I'll sell it to anyone who's willing to offer me 80% of the market price!"
"Wait!" said Xu. He saw that the situation was getting out of hand and tried to put a stop to it. "No one is selling their share."
"We want our money back!" someone shouted.
"Stop this nonsense!"
The meeting ended with no resolution. Wu walked out of it, sensing for the first time how much was at stake. His business was about to go down the drain just like that. Oh, it was horrible, horrible! His heart was crying out in pain; his legs wobbled as he struggled to walk.
The next day the newspapers reported the unusual plunge of the stock market. The price of gold skyrocketed. Because people were scrambling to buy gold, the government immediately made it illegal. Some people suggested that the government should promote tourism instead. Although it was an inevitable move, the government was reluctant to do so right away. Most of Wu's friends wanted to leave.
Wu sat in his office. The horror he felt was beyond words. He wanted to eat, drink, and drop dead like everybody else, but he didn't know how.
"I'm a worm. A worm!" he shouted.
But with panic came insight. Why didn't he think of this before? Assets are dead, gold is alive! Besides, nothing's for sure. Who said that times had to be that bad? He felt a strange sensation, like the thrill of a gambler.
Shortly after, two men burst in. One was Ding, the other the director. As soon as Wu saw the two he shouted, "You two again! Bloodsucking ghosts!"
They were up to no good. He wanted to leave, but it was too late.
"Hey, there," smiled Ding. "Wu Quan, my oh my, you look wonderful!"
"No I don't." Wu was fraught with worries and couldn't compose himself. "It's over."
"No, it's not," said Ding. "How about I take your place? Brother Wu, let me go to hell in your place. Sell me your business. If I don't make it, I might still have a chance in heaven!"
"But, but—" Wu struggled to say something but couldn't.
"Idiot," said the director. "You're the only one it town who doesn't want to sell your business. The only valuable thing now is gold. If you want to leave, you'd better start preparing, shouldn't you?"
"But—" Wu began to stutter and backed himself against the wall. He wanted to fight back but couldn't. "How about this, I can't sell you everything at once, but I can sell you some. How about I first sell you my share of The City of Perpetual Fortune? I'm only asking for 80% of the original share price."
"Really?" Even Ding was taken by surprise, and as if it were indeed a bet added, "You bet!"
So Wu sold his share. He regretted the decision at first, but as soon as he received the money and bought gold, he felt safe. He went to Ding again. This time much surer of himself, he sold all his timber. The third time he sold all his machinery.
A month later, nothing changed in Taiwan. Another month went by and the commotion died down. By the third month, everything was back to normal. In terms of politics and the economy, it was business as usual. The housing market was as hot as ever. Ding made a fortune. People would see him walking on the streets with a gleam in his eyes, shouting, "Son of a gun. I won! I really won!"
And what happened to Wu Quan? Our Wu Quan went bankrupt, spending his days at home in silence. One day his family heard him cry, "I'm a worm! I'm a worm!" followed by an endless wail from the living room. They went to take a look and were met with a hollow stare. Wu was crying but there were no tears. His eyes were instead lined with blood.