By Paul Berg – (formerly Wagenberg) – Victoria, Australia
The rice was delivered daily in a large truck, driven by Japanese-looking uniformed men. They could have been Koreans. They definitely did not look Chinese. Apart from the driver, there were two more men in uniform sitting on top of the rice bags, each man equipped with a long leather whip. Behind the truck ran hundreds of Chinese kids and some young men waving sharp knives and taking thrusts at the bags of rice until they split, and the rice poured out in a stream on to the street. All this in spite of the whip cracking down on their heads, necks, shoulders all the time, leaving bloody streaks. Every now and again, a boy would fall down and clutch his eye, where the whip had found a mark. The small boys were assigned to hang on to the bags, where they were cut open, allow the stream of rice to fall into their shirts. When they could not carry any more, they just allowed themselves to fall off, like a leach, full of blood, and were quickly replaced with others. The truck made its way to the rice shop, where my friend worked. His job was to spear the crowd of buyers from behind the barred window, so that only one person at a time could be served from the small opening. There were four other boys employed to do the spearing, but I only knew him well. We first befriended each other when I walked past him on my way to school and saw him open the shop, every day. He slept in the shop on the counter. According to Shanghai customs, this was a great privilege. His mother and his many brothers and sisters slept on the footpath in front of the shop. Even they were lucky, they had the shop-owner to protect them. Others had to sleep on the street itself. I was attracted to Wing Lee right from the start. He had a catlike walk, and a fluid motion of his body as he opened the door, and swept the gutter in front of the shop. But our friendship was sealed when I gave him my bamboo dagger; which I had whittled out of a very good piece of bamboo. He smiled and pointing to me, he said: “You goodnako zlo” which means, you are a good white pig.After that we smiled at each other each time I went to school and on my return. After some time, I think about one month of this, he stopped me on my way home, and gave me a sling shot made from steel and real rubber cord.Not the weak rubber bands which everyone else had to use. I was delirious. It was exactly what I had always wanted, and it would finally enable me to hit one of the many cats parading along the wall in front of our window keeping my mother awake with their love calls. I collected some smooth pebbles and went to war. It was more difficult than I imagined, but at last I scored. The big tomcat, with the loudest cat scream, fell to the ground, stunned. I had hit him between the eyes. My mother was shocked when I told her of my gallant deed, but secretly pleased, for the noise had finally stopped. The slingshot had other effects on my life. I was no longer scared of the White Russian bullies, who waylaid me on my way to school and had to be paid off to let me pass. I hit the leader right on his prick, and from then on, I was left alone. But to return to the rice shop, my friend, and the story I really set out to tell. On rice sale days, the crowd, hanging on to the iron bars with which the shop was protected was yelling and screaming. This was the usual Shanghai scene, and none paid any attention. But on the particular day I am talking about, a Japanese patrol arrived during the height of the rice sale, and prodded the crowd with their bayonets to make room for theofficer. He marched the Chinese up front, who seemed to be organizing the buying and pointed at him, and his soldiers grabbed him and pulled him out onto the street. Without any further ado, the officer drew his sword, and cut off the man’s head. This was my first experience with sudden death. I hadseen the body of my dead father in the hospital morgue, I had seen many Chinese dead beggars on the municipal depot, stacked like fire wood, but I had never seen a head pop off a body, the spurt of blood, and most amazing of all, the continued movement of the body after it rolled, together with the head, into the gutter. The Japanese soldier bent down and pulled a roll of copper wire from the dead man’s pocket. He had been a telegraph wire thief. Everyone knew that this carried a death sentence, and the crowd took this execution very calmly. They returned to the rice shop window, and the yelling started again. The dead man’s position at the window immediately taken up by another Chinese man. That evening, my friend and I re-enacted the execution. He was the officer and used the bamboo dagger I had given him as a sword. I was the copper – wire thief. I fell to the ground, and twisted my arms and legs, just as I had seen the body do. It was a good night, and we went to bed, looking towards another day of exciting living in Shanghai.