Orion headless

Poetry, art, found objects

the big boss & the beautiful orphan

by d.

The good rain knows when to fall.
—Tu Fu

remember your promise: no fighting. these aren’t just the ramblings of an old man. i speak from years of experience. violence doesn’t solve anything.

i know, says cheng.

he stands, suitcase in hand, on the deck of the docked boat. the waters lap the hull.

caressing a circle of jade cheng wears around his neck, the old man, cheng’s uncle, says, remember your mother.

i will.

this is your new home.

it smells of fish. ashore are lots of shops and stands and more people than cheng is accustomed to. they get off the boat and walk the streets, and the streets are of dirt, and they are walked on by many people, and the dirt is packed and hard.

uncle worries. cheng is a good worker and has a good heart. but like his cousin, hsu chien, cheng desires world peace. and world peace means fighting injustice wherever you find it. in the country, you found it in bullies. but in a big town, it’s everywhere.

mind your own business.

i will, says cheng.


&&&&

hsu chien says, cheng chao-an, these are your cousins

ah san.

ah yin.

ah wang.

ah pi.

ah chang.

ah kun.

and chaio mei.

they stand in the yard. they make small talk and small jokes and they laugh together, all of them. and they go in. and on the floor around the table they eat rice and talk. chaio mei is flush with desire and watches cheng shyly. but these are hard times. nobody has money enough to support himself, let alone a wife. she lives in a house with eight men. she is happy. and sad. they drink rice wine.

cheng is a good worker, says uncle. coming in this spring to help the seeds, he says.

of course he is, says hsu. i already spoke with the manager. he starts tomorrow. how are things back home?

these are bad times, says uncle. things are hard. people are hungry.

some people say old man wang went back home for a new wife, says kun. have you seen him?

old man wang? says uncle. no. what would old man wang do with a new wife? besides, who can afford a wife these days?

hsu looks pensive. when old man wang had disappeared, it was the manager at the ice factory who had told all the workers about old man wang going home for a new wife. hsu had doubted it. but who questions the manager?

on the other hand, it was obvious. it was just as uncle said. things were bad. old man wang was broke, like everyone else. he didn’t go anywhere for anything. hsu now fears the worst. the world is full of lies. they’re everywhere. the whole earth over. and hsu chien is utterly unsure who to beat up first.

&&&&

cheng’s first day at work went well, but it was hard work, and everyone was tired, and nobody paid it much attention at the end of the day when the foreman approached san and pi and said, stick around a while; the manager wants to see you.

san and pi had never seen the manager but at a distance. sitting in his nice office in comfortable chairs and looking at him across his big desk made them feel small.

the manager smiles. he says, boys, i’m going to be straight with you.

yes, sir, says san.

mmmm, says pi.

the bag you found in the ice today—it was heroin.

heroin! exclaims san.

what? says pi.

that’s right. there’s no money in ice. no jobs. you understand. but in heroin, there’s lots of money and plenty of work for everyone. now that you know, the boss considers you one of us. this is your cut: a thousand dollars each.

the manager holds out two bills.

san shakes his head. sir, he says, we’re just stupid farmers. we can’t help you. we’d just mess things up.

pi agrees.

very well, says the manager, but take the money, and not a word to anyone.

we won’t say anything, says san.

no, says pi.

take the money, says the manager.

sir, says san, we had better not. we don’t deserve it. we haven’t earned it.

that’s right, says pi.

i see, says the manager. that’s too bad. it really is.

&&&&

when san and pi disappear for days, hsu chien decides to go pay the big boss in his big mansion a little visit. he takes yin with him. a guard opens the gate. there are lots of guards. they carry knives, axes, chains and bats. a guard with knives leads them through the front door of the mansion and down a big hall and to a private room where the boss smokes a hookah on a couch, surrounded by lovely young women. one rubs his back. another tends his pipe. a third brings him dishes of fancy snacks.

what can i do for you? says the boss.

we’re here about our friends, says hsu chien: san and pi.

ah, says the boss.

choosing to fall by night with a friendly wind?

he takes a long drag on the hookah. what does this have to do with me?

the manager asked to see them, and now they’ve disappeared, says hsu chien.

disappeared? are you sure?

yes. we want to know what’s happened.

i wanted to see them, says the boss.

you?

that’s right. i asked the manager to send them. they’re very good workers. i gave them a bonus.

i don’t believe you, says hsu chien.

young man, says the boss, keep it cool. i’m sure your friends will turn up. can’t you picture it. with such a generous bonus in their pockets, they’re out getting drunk . . . with women!

that’s a lie! says hsu chien. they’re not like that.

the boss shoos away the women, stands, and turns his back on hsu and looks west. young man, he says, suppose for a moment your friends are never coming back. is that so bad?

what are you saying? says hsu chien. i’ll bet you killed them.

i didn’t say that.

you implied it. what did you mean?

i’m saying, mind your own business.

or what?

or else, says the boss.

i’ll see you’re arrested for this, says hsu chien.

and with that, he and yin turn and go. but outside the boss’s big mansion the guards are waiting in a big row on the yard. they’ve got their knives drawn, and they’re holding their bats ready for swinging. hsu chien is a great fighter, and yin is a tough guy. but the guards are many, ruthless, and just too much.

&&&&

cheng wanders the dark and crowded streets looking for his friends.

and at a table on the patio to some place of entertainment, cheng spots the manager with some foreman and a bunch of women.

when the manager sees cheng looking at him, he calls out and waves cheng over and says, join us!

please, says a woman with a round face.

a foreman pulls a chair out, and cheng hesitates and sits politely. he thanks the foreman, thank you, and to the manager he bows and says, i was wondering about my friends, san and pi.

cheng! shouts the manager, cheng! how good it is to see you. isn’t he handsome?

yes, says the woman with a round face.

she pours shots for everyone.

a toast! cries the manager.

cheng has never had liquor before. everyone raises their glasses. cheng imitates them. everyone chugs. and cheng does, too. it burns. he holds it down. everyone laughs. yes! yes! cries the manager. everyone drink up!

someone passes cheng some fresh bread.

the manager cries, drinks!

another woman pours shots.

to the manager cheng says, i was wondering, have you heard any news of my friends?

the manager gets sober a second and looks kindly and confidential. don’t worry about your friends, he says. they’ll show up. everyone is out having a good time these days. it’s a good thing.

i’ll be your friend, says the woman with a round face.

the foreman laughs and says, cheng is our hardest worker, our strongest man. he’s strong as an ox.

cheng is embarrassed. he blushes. he is humble of spirit.

but he drinks some more. and some more.

and later, when the foreman says it again—he’s our strongest man!—cheng does something quite unlike himself. he pulls up one sleeve and shows his naked arm flexing.

that’s the spirit, says the manager.

the woman with a round face gasps and claps her lips to his arm.

let’s have a drink, says the manager. drinks all round.

&&&&

chiao mei cries on the porch and looks at the moon. kun comes out on the porch and says, don’t worry your pretty little heart.

there are six of us missing now, she cries.

we all know you’re crazy about cheng, says kun, and we think you’ll be great together. don’t worry. uncle says cheng is real tough. says he’s really fierce. he can take care of himself.

chiao mei nods.

wipe away those tears, says kun.

where does it end? says mei.

don’t worry your pretty heart. cheng is out looking for our brothers. he can take care of himself. he’ll be home soon. he’s thinking about you this very second, i can feel it.

Tomorrow morning everything will be red and wet,
And all Chengtu will be covered with blossoming flowers.

&&&&

cheng wakes up naked in bed with the woman with a round face next to him naked and sleeping like she’s been well satisfied. cheng has betrayed chiao mei. he is embarrassed and heart-broken. he jumps out of bed and looks frantically about. where are his clothes? they are on a chair in the corner. hurriedly, he puts on his pants and shirt, and the woman with a round face wakes up and says, leaving already?

cheng nods. he says, i gotta go.

he has betrayed his brothers.

they were missing.

he had gone in search of them.

there’s no reason to be sorry, cheng.

how do you know my name?

i must tell you something. that boss of yours, he’s no good. be careful.

what do you mean?

can’t you see it? in the countryside, people are so poor they’re moving to the big towns. they’re just dumb farmers. they bring their innocent women. that boss of yours captures and enslaves them. he has quite a collection. he is rich and powerful and does as he pleases with impunity—the debauched style of his life hidden within the compound of his estate. the innocent women flow like the country’s blood out a terrible gash and into his dirty mouth. it’s a system.

cheng is confused. she has big words, and she is guilty of so many things, she must know everything. he says, where are my friends?

i was kidnapped by your boss years ago. i was his concubine until he got tired of me and turned me out on the street. he killed my family.

killed your family?

all of them. he rules this town, cheng. he’ll kill you, too.

four of my cousins are missing, says cheng.

they’re gone, cheng. you must run.

gone?

think about it. that factory you work in, you know it’s not really an ice factory?

what is it?

drugs, cheng. they put drugs in the ice. there’s no money in ice. you must believe me. you’re in danger. all of your friends are dead.

dead? chiao mei!

&&&&

when cheng gets home, he discovers all of his cousins murdered in their beds.

he cradles kun’s head. it is attached barely anymore to kun’s body. he kisses the head’s lips and weeps. he sits in a pool of blood. it is fresh. still warm. he remembers kun’s goofy humor. always a joker. whoever killed kun, they killed everyone. all of cheng’s cousins gored in their beds. for what?

where was chiao mei? with kun’s head in his arms, cheng had forgotten about her.

he calls to her.

he wanders through the house and calls.

everyone is dead.

chiao mei is gone.

cheng retches. his vomit stinks. he feels dizzy. he passes out and sleeps.

when he awakes, he is numb. he goes to the kitchen and gets some long knives. out of a t-shirt he makes sheathes for the knives and puts them in his socks. into a sack he gathers his few belongings and goes with them to the river’s shore.

he remembers his mother.

he remembers his uncle saying, violence solves nothing.

run, said the woman with a round face. i was kidnapped. your friends are all dead.

had cheng not been drunk, he would have been home, and had he been home, his cousins would all be alive, and chaio mei would be safe.

he feels he doesn’t deserve a mother. and he yanks off the jade amulet from around his neck and, along with the sack of all his belongings, flings it into the river.

over this silent wilderness the clouds are dark. he goes back to the house and gets a heavy flashlight.

&&&&

on his way to the big boss’s big mansion, cheng stops by the ice factory. it’s a hunch. he jumps the fence. the factory is locked. but there’s a chute with a conveyer belt the ice is moved on, and cheng climbs on the belt and follows it through a hatch and goes in. he turns on the flashlight. it’s a big room full of big blocks of ice. cheng goes up to one block of ice after another and gets real close with the flashlight and lights up the block’s core and looks for any sign of anything inside. when he thinks he sees something, he takes one of his knives from out of his sock and chips into the block. yes—there is something. it’s a clear bag. he pulls it out. breaks it open. it’s some sort of powder.

he drops the dope on the floor and shines the light wildly around the big room. tools hang from a nearby beam: an ice pick, some sharp pinchers, some chains. there’s a platform with a slot in the floor that a big saw comes up through to cut the blocks of ice. there’s frozen blood on the floor. cheng checks out more blocks of ice, gazing inside them. they’re hard to see into. but it’s not hard to see hsu chien’s severed head. cheng springs back. hsu’s head is in a block of ice.

suddenly, cheng is aware of the others. lots of others. someone turns on the lights. it’s the big boss and fourteen goons.

poking around, eh? says the boss. didn’t anyone ever tell you to mind your own business?

so now i know the whole story, says cheng.

so now you know, says the boss. so what? you’re headed for the freezer.

no sooner has the boss completed this sentence than cheng has hurled the flashlight and dashed a goon’s brains out.

the boss is delighted. that’s the spirit, he says. then to the goons, get him!

&&&&

two hundred years ago, in the time of the fall of the ancient siam capital of ayutthaya, nai khanom tom, a poor farmer, was captured by burmese soldiers and taken to the city ungwa and enslaved for seven years.

though but a poor farmer, nai khanom tom had a celebrated reputation in his village home for boxing, and when king mangra planned a seven-days-and-seven-nights celebration of the buddha’s relics, he invited nai khanom tom to face the burmese boxing champion.

beat the burmese champion, he said, and i will free you.

when nai khanom tom disposed of the champion with a single blow, king mangra said it was beautiful.

he promised even greater rewards should nai khanom tom agree to fight nine more burmese boxers in a row. and so it was agreed. and so it was that nai khanom tom disposed of each boxer, each with a single blow.

king mangra said it was beautiful. every part of thai is blessed with venom.

and to nai khanom tom he offered the choice of riches beyond imagination or beautiful wives.

nai khanom tom chose a beautiful wife. he said riches were in all things, and a beautiful wife nowhere to be found.

&&&&

cheng didn’t feel very well. the boss’s goons he blew out like birthday candles, and the boss he killed with a single blow to the gut, exploding guts. and atop the boss’s dead body cheng sits beating on the boss’s dead face with his fists. he punches and punches the boss in his dead face over and over again, one cheek, then the other, the boss’s dead face flopping side to side, his chin bouncing off the ground, his dead mouth filling with broken teeth. eventually, beating on the boss’s face like this will make things better. chiao mei will be safe. she will call his name. and the police will come. and they will tell him to stop punching the dead boss in the face and to put his hands in the air.

 

3 Responses to “the big boss & the beautiful orphan” (post new)

  1.  

    A well written comment on the contest between innocence (farmers) and greed (the boss) and the ultimate victory of evil when we betray morality. Another hero chooses vengeance in order to feel temporarily powerful in the face of overwhelming odds. It also demonstrates how the young often cannot follow the excellent advice of their elders. Cheng’s suitcase doesn’t have packed what he needs to stay true to his uncle’s parting comments. I would suggest that his guilt over being with a woman when he should have been searching for his brothers is a large part of his need for redemption. He chooses violence to redeem himself even though he gets no satisfaction from it. No matter how many men he kills and how many times he punches the big boss’s face he feels no better. This proves his uncle right.

  2.  

    I enjoyed the exploration of the conflict between greed and morality and the difficulty the older generation faces in imparting knowledge to the younger. Cheng’s uncle exacts a promise but he doesn’t put in Cheng’s suitcase what he needs to maintain a higher order of thinking when his emotions and his guilt overpower him. When Cheng should be searching for his cousins he is with a woman and his subsequent guilt evokes a powerful emotional response. He gets revenge, but this only creates a momentary feeling of power. He doesn’t feel better after repeatedly punching the boss in the face. It is a tragedy in which everyone loses either himself or his life.

  3.  

    carmela/mom!,

    thank you for your thoughtful comments. you’re the best mom, and you touch on a lot of the principle concerns of the work. you’ve been a huge influence on the way i read art.

    “the big boss & the beautiful orphan” is a remix/remake of the 1971 hong kong, kung fu classic, “the big boss” (a movie i saw with dad like over and over again at the drive in). it was great to remix the work of lo wei and bruce lee. and that the work was chosen for inclusion in “orion headless” is due foremost to the power of the story as lo wei and bruce lee dreamed it.

    as you mention in your comment, the work portrays farmers as naively good and capitalists–particularly, drug-dealing capitalists–as wicked. yet in farmers rests a power the capitalists do not foresee and cannot withstand. these are recurrent motifs in 70s and 80s kung fu movies, and in “the big boss” are contemporaneous with the cultural revolution.

    i agree with you that cheng is motivated largely by guilt. in the original “the big boss,” cheng is seduced far more elaborately than in the remix, and his guilt runs even deeper. first, cheng is made foreman. everyone is so proud, because someone poor, a poor farmer, has been granted power. but cheng is a pawn of the powerful, and his appointment an act of superficial appeasement. later, cheng is invited to the manager’s table. he has “dinner with the manager,” and back home, the bowl of rice his cousins save for him goes cold. unlike his cousins who refused the manager’s offer of $1,000, cheng accepts the manager’s “gifts” (including alcohol). he gets drunk. he betrays chiao mei and his cousins. in the movie, it is evenly more pronouncedly as you say: he is guilt-stricken, grief-stricken, humiliated. and the odds are overwhelming. he forgets his promise, and the words of his elders. he seeks violent revenge, and things end sadly.

    on the other hand, in the epigraph of “the beautiful orphan,” we see the words of tu fu, “the good rain knows when to fall.” it may be that at some point, greed having gone too far and gained so much control, violence becomes a sole and desperate recourse. this idea was vehemently contested in the united states during the 60s and 70s, as exemplified in the popular dichotomy of martin luther king and malcolm x. samples of “the big boss” (“you wanna fight, i’ll take you on”) appear in ghostface killah’s track “R.A.G.U” on the album “fishscale.” kung fu movies played an important part in conversations about U.S. domestic battles over civil rights–and that’s something that makes these movies and stories something bigger than works of entertainment or genre. evidence of the importance of these connections, ghostface killah’s stagename is from the 1979 kung fu movie, “chessboxing.”

    when to adhere to morality, or good sense, and when to fight are among the most troubling questions at the heart of “the big boss.” it may be as tu fu says, there is a time when the good rain must fall. and it may be as cheng’s uncle says, violence doesn’t solve anything.

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