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CHINA - Shanghai Nights, June 2004

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Neon in downtown ShanghaiEscape to the Open City

In December of 1994 I found myself caught in the middle of a gang war. I'll never know for sure what started all that bloody fighting, and there's nothing I can say about it except that someone shaved off all of my hair before giving me a sharp kick in the face. Those are some pretty eyes you've got, little girl, he said.

It was a horrible night. My eyes had been injured, and when I went to pay the nurse, she told me that all of my money was counterfeit. When I finally made it to the operating table, the anesthetic had no effect on me because of my tolerance, and I had to suffer through the entire operation anyway. After leaving the operating room, I wasn't allowed to leave until someone came with real money. While I was sitting and waiting, a drug dealer from the Northeast called Blackie came limping in. He'd been stabbed, and I took him to the operating room. I'd been needing a fix for a while already, but Blackie had no heroin and no money, since he'd just been mugged. Blackie and I ended up sitting there together, waiting for someone to bring us some money, but the people who'd promised to bring the money took forever to show up. I was wheezing because I needed a fix, and I was fretting about not being able to leave the hospital until after daybreak. I was going to have to go outside with my messily shaved head. I was worrying about lots of other things too, and so I sat there, crossing and uncrossing my legs, not knowing what to do with myself.

That night, I had a sudden realization of this very simple truth: heroin was a drug that brought nothing but bad luck. It was true for anybody; all you had to do was cross paths with heroin, and sooner or later you would find yourself up to your neck in bad luck, with no way out. In this respect, heroin was no fun at all.

My father came to town. Once again he sent me to a rehab clinic in Shanghai. It seemed that this gang war had been a stroke of good luck after all, because otherwise I'm sure I would have died in the South. It must have been fate.

Before I went back to Shanghai, Sanmao and his old lady gave me a whole load of hats, hats of all shapes and sizes, and Sanmao told me that he was going to go back into rehab himself. He said, I have a feeling that you're going to get better, that we're both going to get better. Y'know, you look great in hats!

Completely bald, with a gauze patch over one eye, and lugging seven big suitcases, I arrived at the airport with my father. I had hidden some heroin in my underwear because I knew the craving could hit me at any time. This was something my father didn't understand at all.

As we went through airport security, I kept looking at my father anxiously and thinking, He's such a good person, and I'm so bad.

The moment the plane left the ground, I f---ing burst into tears. I swore I would never come back to this town in the South ever again. This weird, plastic, bull---- Special Economic Zone, with all that pain and sadness, and the face of love, and the whole totally f---ed-up world of heroin, and the late-1980s gold rush mentality, and all that pop music from Taiwan and Hong Kong. This place had all of the best and all of the worst. It had become my eternal nightmare.

On the Edge
Rock and Roll Romance
• Escape to the Open City
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Excerpts from CANDY by Mian Mian. Copyright © 2003 by Shen Wang; Translation Copyright © 2003 by Andrea Lingenfelter. By permission of Little, Brown and Company Inc. All rights reserved. To purchase copies of this book, please call 1.800.759.0190.