The lanterns lit up for the first time underneath the moonlight. The enormous lantern on the street was made using seven colours. The flame brought out the bright colours. People walked side by side, talking and smiling on the streets. Although the capital was a densely populated, the streets were only so lively for New Year. People would walk around solely for the magnificent walk.
Ladies who rarely stepped outside would finally come out onto the streets. Unsurprisingly, the ladies from the capital’s four treasures, namely Heavenly Fragrance Brothel, Apricot Flower Keeps the Deity Brothel, Beauty Pavilion and Cheery Blossom and Emerald Hall, would make an appearance. They could be found gazing at the moon from boats on Qinhuai River and occasionally whispering to each other. One could say it was a beautiful end to the year in more ways than one.
Blood ejected from old men’s noses when beauties in resplendent clothing, jewellery, sang in their beautiful voices on a backdrop of the clear moon and accompanied with wine.
Despite the New Year carnival, there was one restaurant that was as busy as the markets, yet was silent.
People gathered around to nervously watch a young man at a table. He enjoyed himself as if he didn’t know there were hundreds of pairs of eyes on him. His eyes bulged more and more as his hands moved. There were, at least, fifty to sixty bamboo baskets of buns, ranging from chicken buns, pork buns, barbeque pork buns, soup buns and even lamb buns.
Said restaurant was none other than Huangshang Restaurant, known for their long-running bun-eating contest. Eat one hundred baskets and the restaurant was yours. It made a name for itself throughout the capital thanks to the owner’s enthusiastic promotion efforts. He was happy with it until the fateful day, when he wanted to strangle himself for coming up with the idea, because one of the challengers could seemingly eat forever!
As soon as the challenger sat down, he wolfed down sixty-eight baskets. Forget one hundred baskets; he was on his way to eating all of the restaurants fillings. They had to serve lotus seed buns and red bean buns to make up for the numbers. He, however, only cried unfair or discussed how much he liked the food if he wasn’t wolfing more down. Despite the volume of food he consumed, he didn’t look as if he was suffering. Occasionally, he said, “Shopkeeper, you fumbled with the steamed buns. I’ll forfeit if you can prove otherwise.”
Despite his complaint, he picked up one bun after another, gobbling them at unbelievable speed.
The waiter went over to the shopkeeper with a troubled look: “Shopkeeper, we are out of fillings. All of them.”
The shopkeeper slammed the table: “Go and grab the pork for New Year’s banquet. I’ll stuff him to death!”
“But we still need them for the banquet; we cannot order any more pork at this time… Ar-Ar-, fine!”
The waiter looked miserable, but he did as he was told. As for the shopkeeper, he was well aware of the waiter’s concern. They didn’t operate solely as an eatery; during the New Year period, the chefs had to prepare dishes for their big customers who ordered New Year dishes for banquets. Those specific dishes were time consuming and took a lot of effort to prepare; it took two days to prepare the dishes. To compound their problems, they accepted three open banquets.
Open banquets were banquets whereby dinner was served separately as the guests arrived in succession, a common practice in villages. Therefore, they needed to be meticulous with controlling their resources. To play it safe, they set aside half of the day’s ingredient as reserve, opting to sacrifice the day’s business and close early if necessary to ensure their priorities were in order. Alas, the restaurant’s future was on the line.
The shopkeeper assumed their challenger was reaching his limit. If they allowed him to rest whilst they went shopping for meat fillings, wouldn’t they be giving him a break? Thus, new baskets were served up in succession. The strategy quickly crumbled. Not only did he eat fast, but he also loved it! He was on cloud nine. It was as if he was drinking them. After he finished the last basket and pushed it aside, he burped and smiled brightly: “The restaurant is now mine.”
The audience went wild with their applause despite how cold it was outside. One hundred baskets of meat buns, he ate. They showered him with praise.
“Your face resembles a meat bun. Terrific.”
“God of Food, please accept my bow.”
“God of Food? The God of Food is a chef. He’s an eater. You’re supposed to call him Taste Deity!”
“You praising a dog?! Dogs sniff scents with their noses. You’re supposed to call him Lecherous Demon!”
“He ate one hundred baskets of buns. I say we call him Bao Gong!”
It was an eye-opening experience for the geniuses of Jinling. The young man had a beautiful young girl accompanying him. Her shoulders shook as she couldn’t contain her laughter. He rolled his eyes: “Enough! Stop trying to compose poetry! Don’t flap your gums if you don’t know how to praise people! It’s sounding worse than being cursed.”
The shopkeeper shed tears of sorrow as he watched the young man leave with the papers to the restaurant. He cried, “Who are you?! Why are you messing with this old one?!”
The young man stopped in his tracks. He chuckled and, without looking back, replied, “You remember my brother, Tang Ye?”
Boss Huang shuddered. So incensed upon recalling how he forced fifty baskets down Tang Ye’s mouth, he convulsed and passed out.
I left with the restaurant deed.
“You said we were coming here to eat. Only to end up eating to your heart’s content. Look what you did to the owner.” Bai Lian withheld her laughter. Once she saw me look back, she wore on a straight face: “Can you still eat with me now?”
I performed a cupped-fist salute: “Please, please don’t praise me like that. I did eat a hundred baskets, but I’m still quite hungry.”
Bai Lian finally gave in. She covered her mouth and giggled: “Show off! The place is yours now; what are you going to do with it?”
I scratched my head and mumbled, “Donate it, probably.”
“Donate it?” asked Bai Lian, eyes wide. “Something’s wrong with you. There might only be one branch, but its scale and location are splendid. There’s a endless stream of customers every day. You could earn much, much more than working at Liu Shan Men. The imperial court is strict with officials’ private assets, but you’re personnel from one of the martial world offices, so they’re fairly lax with you. Why don’t you want it? As long as you don’t be an asshole, you could open another branch within three months.”
I shrugged: “But I am an asshole.”
Bai Lian was perplexed at first. She then scratched her head: “I can’t argue with that. So you do know yourself well.”
‘Don’t agree with me!! That’s called modesty! Modesty is a virtue! Can’t you just let me look good for once?!’
“If you weren’t an asshole, would you kiss me when I treat you as a friend?” Bai Lian indifferently remarked. She held up two fingers: “Twice.”
Bai Lian’s face turned red after speaking.
“Come on! What happen to reason?!” I thought. I complained, “I thought we cleared that misunderstanding up. Why are you bringing it up again…?”
Bai Lian probably didn’t want to mention it again. Evident from the glare she immediately shot me after that shut me up. I lowered my head. She apparently thought she wasn’t being fair, either; however, she refused to lower herself. All she could do, then, was glance at me with her arms folded and try to come up with a solution. She wasn’t aware I could see inside her sleeves with my visual prowess, when she didn’t tuck them inside. Her hands underneath pushed against her curves that raised my blood pressure.
‘Wait… Eunuchs have curves now? Her curves trump Apricot Flower Brothel’s girls! Why have I never seen such a good looking eunuch?’
Bai Lian suddenly questioned, “So… you seriously don’t want the restaurant?”
Bai Lian’s tone sounded a lot softer. I guess that was her way of lowering herself.
‘Pride will ruin your life, Eunuch…’
“Well, it’s not as if I have any business acumen. It’s a burden to have so much money,” I answered, waving my hand. “One can lose their money before they know it. Let go, my friend, and you shall attain peace of mind.”
Bai Lian: “Don’t forget what you just said.”
I paid Bai Lian no heed and said, “Money is necessary. In saying that, too much is a nuisance. Boss Huang toiled his entire life for the restaurant. Look who has it now. Look at all those people guarding their money all their life. During the day, they guard it in case they drop it. At night, they worry somebody will rob them. They’re afraid of poverty; they’re afraid of returning to their days of poverty. Are they truly happy when they have money? How much must you earn before it’s enough? In my opinion, earning enough is just a teeny bit better than spending a lot. That’s the most ideal scenario to me.”
Bai Lian was completely dumbstruck. She mulled on what I said. It was alarming, since it wasn’t something someone of my age would say. To avoid her questioning my goals, I changed the topic: “How are Lord Zi and His Majesty doing in Wuhua County, I wonder. They got along quite well. They must be enjoying each other’s company right now, huh?”
Bai Lian curled her lips: “Hmph, yet you told Lord Zi to call you ‘dad.’ You must not be afraid of losing your head.”
‘Watch what you say, dear me!’
“Lord Zi said His Majesty doesn’t like him. He keeps thinking he’s an illegitimate son. I don’t know how to clear it up, either.”
“Then, you’re blessed! How can you be complaining about that?”
‘The point is he said he’s my son with his mother! You can’t mindlessly say that. His Majesty would rip me apart if he heard you! Besides, Feng Huang was still a young girl when I met her back then. Sure, she was a winner in the appearance department, but why would I ever bother with her when I visited brothels thousands of times?!’
Bai Lian fumed, “Don’t say ignorant things. His Majesty has nine palaces and countless beauties in them; however, he loves only Brilliant Consort. I treat Her Highness as my family. Speak ill of her, and I’ll rip your ears off.”
‘Bai Lian sees Feng Huang as someone that important, huh?’
“Why would Lord Zi think His Majesty isn’t his biological father, then? Logically speaking, His Majesty should love him if he loves his mother, right?”
“That was always the case. It was just that Lord Zi was rather… rather… mischievous when he was young. He often… put His Majesty in embarrassing predicaments. That’s why His Majesty sent him to Luoyang to expand his horizons and learn how to conduct himself. In addition, Lord Zi’s maternal grandfather is getting on with age; it’s an opportunity for Lord Zi to fulfil his filial piety duty. His Majesty actually dotes on Lord Zi the most.”
“Mischievous? How so? How bad must it have been that he had to practically be exiled from the imperial palace?”
Bai Lian’s face muscles twitched. She then shared Lord Zi’s heroic epics back in the day.
“Mother, I’m back. I want a huggie.”
“My, why are you acting so spoilt today, hmm? Eh? Zizi, how come I can smell alcohol on you?”
“Father took me drinking. I’m a terrific drinker. I out-drank f-five… three people!”
“You’re so drunk you can’t even count anymore. Your Majesty, why did you let Zizi drink?”
“Never mind it, Hui’er. My son is a real man. Zizi, I am proud of you today as your father.”
“You two… Geez… Zizi, where did you go? I didn’t see you anywhere in the palace.”
Lord Zi righteously answered, “We left the palace! Apricot Flower Brothel!”
“W-Wait! I can explain! Wait! Wait!”
The Emperor kowtowed. When he was embarrassingly punished from climbing onto the bed, Lord Zi revealed in his dreams, “Apricot Flower Brothel’s neighbouring restaurant…”
“Father, last time at Apricot Flower Br-.“
“Stop, stop, stop. Don’t mention Apricot Flower Brothel again. You not satisfied with my punishment? Huang’er, as I explained, we went to a restaurant!”
“Hmph! Zizi, go on. What happened at the broth-, I meant, restaurant?”
“Oh! Well, this girl said to give this to Father.” Lord Zi handed his mother a silver ingot and added, “She also said she refused to do something against her beliefs, so she refused to accept the money.”
“… How old was she? How did she look?”
“Mm… I’m not sure. She looked maybe eighteen or nineteen. She looked pretty.”
“Mr. Li! What were you doing?!”
“Huang’er! Huang’er! Let me explain! I have to plead ignorance here! Zizi, say something! Stop! Don’t hit me! Don’t put the spittoon on my head! Don’t!”
Lord Zi had a sip of tea and took his time saying, “She said Father dropped the ingot. She said, one should not keep something they pick up that does not belong to them, or they will not be able to sleep at night… Eh? Where’s everyone?”
“Mother, I was a good boy today. I read books. Teacher said I’m a quick learner.”
“Good boy. What a smart boy. What characters did you learn?”
Lord Zi wrote down three characters in large font: Heavenly Fragrance Garden.
“S-Son… how did you learn these three characters?”
“I saw Father go there today!”
“… When your father comes back, tell him to grab a washboard. He knows what to do with it.”
“Father, why do people call you Heavenly Son?”
“Hahaha, Zizi, that’s because I am the son of heavens.”
“You can’t fool me! You’re grandma’s son. Heavenly Son combines the characters ‘heaven’ and ‘son’. That means, grandma’s son should combine the characters ‘grandma’ and son’. That means you should be c-.”
“Shut it, kiddo! Your grandma will skin you if she hears you!”
“Zizi, your brothers and sisters prepared so many presents for your father for his birthday, yet you haven’t prepared anything.”
“What does Father want, then?”
“You know, your father still doesn’t know the feeling of having a longevity peach his son personally prepared.”
“Father, when it’s your birthday, I’ll let you know how longevity peaches are!”
On the day of the Emperor’s birthday, he held a banquet with a hundred tables and the world celebrating with him. Lord Zi furtively sneaked over to the Emperor and whispered in his ear, “Father, I had a taste. Longevity peaches are sweet!”
‘Fuck me! The kid’s an elite killer! Man, I’d be surprised if the Emperor wasn’t mad! I never knew Lord Zi was a father slayer. Shit me! Getting hit on the head with a spittoon, kneeling on a washboard and being called a breast?!’
“Lord Zi was still young. What’s wrong with being a little mischievous? Moreover, His Majesty never seriously reprimanded him. He just felt Lord Zi was too naïve. If he stayed in the imperial palace for too long, someone might eventually use him,” Bai Lian said.
Bai Lian hopelessly explained, “His Majesty’s other princes left the palace after that. Lord Zi wasn’t conferred a prince rank. He needed to do what was politically right. Brilliant Consort, being the most considerate person she is, backed down and had Lord Zi sent back to her home. That was why the other consorts who opposed sending their sons away had to give in.
His Majesty loves Brilliant Consort the most. I’ve been in the palace all these years, so I can tell. How could he possibly not love his son? If Lord Zi really was her child with someone else, Brilliant Consort would’ve been banished to the Cold Palace long ago. Do you think she would be treated so favourably?”
Bai Lian continued elaborating on Brilliant Consort’s relationship with His Majesty as we walked and provided evidence to prove Lord Zi was His Majesty’s son. I believed her. Feng Huang was sort of wilful. Nevertheless, she would have to control herself as a consort. Moreover, she was upright and looked great. She and His Majesty was a good match. There was no reason for her to have an affair. Lord Zi probably heard rumours in the palace and made a mistake. As for the root of the rumours, I guess that was because I escorted her back to the palace…
‘Is it really going to come back and bite me? Man, eat shit! I was helping her for crying her loud!’
Bai Lian’s stomach soon growled again, reminding me we were supposed to go eat. Only for me to be so consumed with avenging Tang Ye I forgot. Unfortunately, the temple would be packed at night. Even if we travelled around using qinggong, where would we land? On someone? Hence, we chose to dine at a hawker’s place selling duck blood and vermicelli soup.
Curious, Bai Lian asked, “What’s this? It smells quite nice.”
‘You live in Jiling, yet you’ve never had duck blood and vermicelli soup? Which back water village did you come from?!’
“Only quite nice?” I raised an eyebrow: “If anyone dares to question Jinling’s Snack King’s duck blood and vermicelli soup throne, I’ll be the first one to teach him a lesson.”
“Are you exaggerating again?” asked Bai Lian, wearing a kid’s expression and smile. “Well, since you insist, I’ll give it a try.”
Bai Lian: “Shopkeeper. I mean… umm…”
Bai Lian didn’t know what to call the owner. Due to her upbringing, she rarely interacted with hawkers, so she forgot how to refer to them. She proudly looked up and pointed at me. I figured she was asking for help, so I did nothing: “You weren’t born in the palace. Is this too much for you?”
Bai Lian glared at me: “Just you wait.”
Honestly, if she just pleaded me, I’d help her out. The problem was she was an independent character and isolated herself. She wouldn’t ever plead me. She took in a deep breath and tried to recall if she ever ate at hawker’s places. Then, she blushed upon recalling her childhood memories. She blinked and called, “Uncle…”
‘That’s how you pronounced ‘uncle’ as kid?! In that tone, too?! Why didn’t the heavens let me meet you ten years earlier?! If I met you back then, I’d become an authentic lolicon!’
As Bai Lian’s voice was too quiet, the owner didn’t hear her. I bet he only looked up because he caught her scent. He blushed upon seeing her pitiful expression and hearing her call him again. He took in a deep breath that must’ve magically wound back his clock twenty years. Oily-face Uncle suddenly became Gentleman Uncle. He asked, “Miss, what can I do for you?”
‘Which stage opera group are you with?! I bet you were only a servant when you were twenty! And help with what?! Even if someone had shit for brains, they could tell you sell duck blood and vermicelli soup, you clown! What, you think she’d be asking you to marry her?!’
‘H-Hang on! This girl who called, ‘Uncle’ isn’t the General Manager Bai I know! What happened to your ice-cold tone?! What happened to your superior-being demeanour?! What happened to the, ‘You’re trash’ gaze?! Am I the only one you look down on?!’
Bai Lian earnestly checked out the bowls of duck blood and vermicelli soup. In that sweet voice of hers again, she said, “Can I have a bowl of duck blood and vermicelli soup? Mm… I rarely eat chilli, so please do not add too much. I can’t handle spicy foods too well.”
‘You can’t eat spicy foods?! What’s the point of eating duck blood and vermicelli soup, then?! Why do I feel agitated?! Why are you so sweet to him, yet so aggressive to me?’
Unable to tolerate it any longer, I complained in a frigid tone: “Hey, the soup is flavoured a specific way. You can’t just not add something…”
“Of course I can!” proclaimed the owner, voice energetic. He adopted the posture of the sage of soup or something and added, “For the twenty years this one has been on the streets, there is yet to be any soup he does not have complete command over.”
‘Hey, you retarded, mate! You’re okay with sacrificing business just to please girls?!’
“Great. I honestly cannot handle spicy foods. Well, it’s not as if I can’t touch it at all; it’s just… I can only handle very little,” said Bai Lian, using her thumb and index finger to create a visual for “little.”
The owner was literally dying from cuteness overload. He spun around and poured out all of the soup with chilli in it. He cleaned it spanking clean then started up another pot. He was as quick as a martial arts adept!
Bai Lian clasped her small hands and smiled: “Thank you, Uncle.”
The owner went bright red in the face. He put on the air of a head chef and began mumbling as if he was entering some soup grandmaster mode, firing on all cylinders.
“This bowl is on the house.”
Bai Lian somehow earned a free bowl. I had been on the streets of Jinling for months, yet I was never given a free meal! He even gave her an extra-large bowl. He gave her twice the amount of chicken and little chilli.
‘Screw you! You charge me ten coins every time no matter what! What’s wrong with this world?! You get free meals if you’re cute now?!’
*A lot of the audience praising is lost in translation. What they were doing was using terms with multiple meanings that could be misunderstood. For instance, smell and taste could be written using the same character. You could interpret “God’s Tongue” as “God’s Nose”.
Bao Gong was a government officer during the Song Dynasty (Emperor Renzong’s reign). The character for “bun” in “meat bun” is the same character used in Bao Gong’s name. Gong can be interpreted as master, sir, gentlemen etc. It denotes a male of some sort in a formal tone. So, Bao Gong could be understood as “Bun Man,” or it could be a poke at Bao Gong, the government officer, depending on how you interpret what was said.
“I don’t know how it feels” can be written the exact same way as “I don’t know how it tastes.”
Lord Zi mixed up the meanings; he thought the Emperor didn’t know how they tasted, when the original intent behind what was said was that none of the Emperor’s sons ever gifted him a longevity peach.
** Spittoon on the head – Spittoons were loos for the bedroom back in the day. When a husband was unfaithful or wronged his wife, she’d stick it on his head (the slot goes onto the head, of course).
***Son of heaven = 天子.
Grandma = 奶奶
Grandma’s son = 奶子
At the same time, 奶子 means breast
**** Longevity Peaches Joke – Again, this is a homophone joke. Taste, feeling, sensation and similar words all share the phrase.