Hot Water:


It was the last bamboo token. I didn’t know whether my mother had any money to buy more. The 343 Ward Road Lane, my home in Hongkew Shanghai, was also home to my best friend, Abdul Rashid. I passed his house on the way to the hot water shop. His house always smelt of burning cow dung, his father owned a cow, and brought home with the milk also pads of cow poo. This they mixed with straw and used as fuel for cooking. Thinking about the cow made me realize that Rashid’s father was really well of, an officer in the former British, and now Japanese police force, although he did not remove his Sikh turban when he changed sides and joined the Japanese. Well off enough to give me some money to buy some more bamboo sticks for hot water. I stopped, and turned right, and went into Rashid’s house. Blue smoke made it hard to see anyone inside, but I could hear his mother talking to him. She adored him, he was short, not tall like his father, short like me, perhaps that is why we became such good friends. She yelled out to me to come in, and gave me some tea with flowers floating on top. Delicious. Suddenly she told me that I must never invite Rashid to stay in my house overnight, as Isaac stole Ishmael’s inheritance, and a Mohammedan is not allowed to stay in the house of a Jew overnight.

However she said I was welcome to stay in Rashid’s house any time. Such hospitality decided me to ask her for some money to buy the bamboo hot water tokens. I felt no sense of shame in asking her for money, my mother was dirt poor, and so was I, and they owned a cow, and Rashid had a father, whereas I had lost my father a year ago – he died ostensibly of a failed gall bladder operation, but I knew better, he died of a broken heart. It broke when I told him one time, without thinking, that if one depends on him, than one is totally lost. That night I heard a noise, and got up to investigate. I saw my father with a razor blade in his hand, trying to cut his wrist. I tore it out of his hand, and called him a coward, and was unmoved by his tears. He died shortly afterwards. I was taken by my mother to see his naked body in the hospital morgue, she told me that I should always remember him that way. I could not get away fast enough from the morgue, and my mother, fortunately I had organized my first bicycle riding lesson, and soon forgot the image of my naked father on the floor of the morgue.

Rashid’s mother gave me some money, I went on my way, out to the street, turned left, and passed the usual Chinese fixers of broken porcelaine, drilling the shards with the violin bow like drills and hammering copper wires flat to make the joining clasps. Then I passed the barber, busy operating on a customer by twisting a fine bamboo stick next to his eye, and winding up on that stick what seemed to be a white gooey tissue. After that his ears were scraped out with a long bamboo spoon shaped stick, and he by himself rid himself of a huge ball of phlegm by spitting it out, narrowly missing me. Further along the way I saw the large white man, I knew he was Jewish, walking round and round a granite grinding mill pushing a large bamboo pole which was used to grind coal to a fine powder. This was mixed with earth and water and formed into ball shaped briquettes, used by everyone to heat their cooking stove. I was expert at lighting this stove every morning, using a large bamboo fan, and arranging the bamboo kindling in a special way, my patented way.

The hot water shop was full of Chinese men, the tops of their bodies naked, washing themselves with the hot water they had purchased. These were the Coolies who did the lifting and pushing of the heavy cargo of goods which made up most of the traffic in Ward Road. There were no trucks, not many cars, and only a few bicycles in our street. I gave the hot water vendor my remaining bamboo token, and bought 2 more with the money Rashid’s mother gave me. I had brought a large thermos bottle, which he filled, I left the steam filled room for my return trip.

This hot water would be used by my mother and me for washing ourselves. It was poured into a shallow dish, cold water was added and we started washing our faces, and then progressively our bodies, downwards, finishing with our feet. I had completely forgotten by then how we lived in Vienna, in the nice apartment on Franz Josheph’s Quai which my father and mother and I moved to in 1937 from the second “Bezirk” where I was born. Another use for the hot water was to kill the bedbugs. Every Sunday we would take the wooden beds out onto the street, and pour hot water over the joints where the material was nailed onto the wooden boards. The bedbugs would come crawling out, and I would spear them with a small knitting needle.

Washing myself always reminded me of the time my mother and father were in protective custody in a Viennese jail, and I was living with my aunt. She gave her daughter a bath with fresh hot water, and I had to have my bath in her used water. I badly wanted a peek at her private part, but she never granted me this favour. Perhaps she told her mother about my request, because one day she delivered me back to our servant Wetty, who looked after me for the next 3 months of my mother’s and father’s incarceration. Wetty took me down to the street, and she and I enthusiastically waved to the German soldiers who marched in a big parade down our street.

One day the door opened, and my mother and father walked in, smelling of carbolic disinfectant. Their clothes which Wetty and I picked up regularly from the prison, and which Wetty washed, alwas smelled of carbolic, and perhaps it was this smell which made me hang onto Wetty, and refuse to walk across the room to my mother, who called out to me.

After washing, it was time for me to go next door, as part of the rent we owed our Japanese landlord was for me to clean his house twice a week. He was very kind to us, as were all the Japanese I met during my life in Hongkew. I was not even arrested when they discovered my illegal radio transmitter which I used to send morsecoded messages to my friend Rashid. Instead, when they waited for me to return from my job as a hand weaver’s apprentice, the Japanese officer and his 5 solders all broke out in great shouts of merriment and laughter when my mother pointed me out to them saying: “here is your spy”. They did confiscate my crystal set and large bell which I used as a source of the spark for my transmission to Rashid. He picked them up on his crystal set, and so did the Japanese military.

I ran to Rashid’s house to warn him, and he hid his radio gear, but the Japanese never came. We played instead with his father’s beautiful gun, which he left behind in its holster, while he went to his farm to milk his cow. It was an automatic, with a magazine, dark blue to black in colour, and shining dully. It was an exciting game, and we took out the magazine and aimed and shot at each other. I suppose if there had been a round left in the gun, this story would not have been written
 

Shanghai, between 1940 and 1947, by Paul Berg (Wagenberg), born 5 September 1929