I woke next morning to the sound of another discussion in the He household in the building next door. Madam He was again dissatisfied that He Ban wasn’t out of bed already. I knew neither of them and both could have been completely justified but I would have preferred that Madam He hadn’t made her points in such a penetrating voice. I visited the bathroom, dressed and went downstairs. Mercifully Madam He’s voice wasn’t penetrating enough to be heard from the kitchen. Master Que wasn’t in evidence, so I dished up the offering for the family shrine and made tea for everyone.
Master Que and I had spent the previous evening discussing, well, business strategy. He had filed Madam Lei’s card with the rest of my growing stack of contacts and then told me about the reply to his query about the mid-week tournament. “They do require an agent,” he had smiled at me as he added, “and they were kind enough to provide a list of potential representatives for me. Because I’m a suspicious sort of fellow, I eliminated all their suggestions from my list of potential agents for you and I’ve arranged a lunch meeting for us tomorrow with some people from the local office of one of the firms that approached you in the capital. I haven’t used my professional name with them or the television station. If tomorrow’s meeting doesn’t pan out, then we’ll try someone else. You should wear one of your brocade jackets.”
I’d asked, “So why aren’t we telling the agents or the television people that I’m the current professional champion yet?” I’d been washing up at the time.
“Because we want to know how they treat people they aren’t actively pursuing.” Master Que had looked predatory when he’d added, “You won’t always be the flavour of the month and it’s worth knowing how they act when they don’t care. Besides, this way, once you have one, your agent might be able to manoeuvre the television people into making an offer without them realising that I’ve already expressed an interest in their competition on your behalf.”
I’d looked at him with awe and concern. “Master Que, you really can be a devious-“
“Old devil? Yes, I can be,” he’d agreed serenely. “I have your interests to protect, after all, and these people are in business to make money. I don’t begrudge them that and neither should you, but there is no reason that they shouldn’t pay you what you’re worth.”
That had been last night and I’d gone to bed after putting the rice cooker on and leaving the pickles chilling in the refrigerator. Master Que had been going outside with a teacup of brown liquid and a cigarette at that point, so I had no idea of when he’d actually gone to bed. I dished my own breakfast up after I’d made the morning offering and left his ready to be dished up when he was ready for it.
Then I started making a shopping list. I was in the throes of deciding how much toilet paper two people would be likely to need in a week when Master Que strolled into the kitchen and helped himself to tea, rice, pickles and two types of soy sauce. “Good morning!” He certainly sounded cheerful enough. “What are you doing?”
“Our shopping list,” I replied. “How much toilet paper do we need, and do we keep buying pickles or do we make our own?”
“Both important questions,” he agreed as he sat down to eat. “When it comes to pickles, I think it depends on what’s available by brand and type. With toilet paper, I suggest that you get a bit more than you think and we see how long it lasts – I can always pick up some more during the week if we get dangerously low.”
“That sounds like a good idea.” I made a note on my list. “While we’re on the subject of food, which meals do we need to provide for from here?”
“Breakfasts for both of us,” replied Master Que. “If we assume we’re going to be taking lunches from here for the week it will be cheaper than eating out every day. Today is an exception, of course. As for the evening meal, well we have at least one night a week when we’ll be eating out and we should allow for me to go to the fish markets for fresh ocean fish twice a week.”
“I can’t really cook fish,” I confessed.
“You’ve lived in Jingshi most of your life,” pointed out Master Que. “A landlocked city with a few rivers nearby. We’re probably lucky you know what a fish looks like. I remember being surprised that they didn’t all look like eels. Despite what your previous experience at the fishmonger might have taught you, there are really more fish in the world than eel, trout, salmon and carp - you can probably get lessons on cooking all of them if you want.”
“My mother uses tinned fish in one of her rice ball fillings,” I began.
Master Que looked me in the eye and said firmly, “We will have fresh fish. Quite aside from anything else, you will likely find that the brands here are different from the ones you are used to and it will take you time to become familiar with them.”
“So, rice and vegetables,” I was going down my list. “Bean curd for four meals. Chicken for two. Dried fish for breakfast chilli, unless you’d rather have bean curd with your sambal.”
Master Que asked hopefully, “Can we have both?”
“I don’t see why not,” I altered my notes on the shopping list. “Dried fish for five and bean curd for eleven. Beef for two and mutton for four.”
“Mutton?” Master Que sounded unimpressed.
“It’s less expensive,” I replied. “You stew or casserole it with vegetables and add a few chillis. It can be very good.”
“Meals prepared in advance will be useful,” Master Que conceded. “What else?”
“Rice paper wrappers. White radish pickles. Carrot pickles. Plum sauce – we already have two weights of soy sauce and oyster sauce. Toilet paper. I need a good lunch box, what about you?” I prepared to make some more notes on my list.
“I’ll get us both lunch boxes,” said Master Que firmly. “Lacquerware I think, and more than one for you. We’ll use them for travelling to tournaments on the weekends as well as for daily use. Remember that you are a stylish creature, not quite in the normal mode – which reminds me, I need to find a couple of satchels for you to carry your lunch box, books and notes around in.”
“So I don’t get to have a book bag with an animation cel of Yongfai and Danmeng on it?” I named the two lead characters from a popular and heavily merchandised cartoon series.
“Not unless you’re being paid to have it,” replied Master Que, then he looked at me shrewdly before adding, “or you really want one. I imagine that wasn’t the sort of thing that turned into a hand-me-down until it was well past its time of interest.”
“If any of us want something like that, we have to buy it with our own money.” I smiled, “Mother doesn’t think they’re value for her money and she’s probably right. Anyway, what time do we have to leave here for this business lunch?”
The answer obtained, I charged out of the house and went to the grocery store between the nearest bus stop and the next on Bai Cun Road. It may not have been the best, the cheapest or even the nearest but I knew where it was, and I had to be back home again and ready to go out shortly after noon. Mr Kong, the man behind the counter, was perfectly affable but I did decide that I should spend the next day walking the neighbourhood to find out what else was available – Mr Kong stocked aromatic rice in a size my mother would have grabbed to tide her over in an emergency but which would last Master Que and I for several weeks, but I wanted more choice in sauces and pickles. I also had to find the green grocer Mr Kong was kind enough to recommend.
Regardless, I did my shopping there, got everything outside, and hailed a taxi so I didn’t have to carry everything home. My mother would have had a fit but my mother also had a car, last I’d seen her, and she could drive. I had no car, couldn’t drive, and I had awkwardly shaped bags of heavy groceries. Convenience won out over economy.
I went out again to find the greengrocer and, hopefully, a butcher. It wouldn’t be a disaster to have bean curd and vegetables for two nights running but I would prefer to break it up a bit. Qing Vegetables and Spices was on Nan Song Road, over on the other side of Bai Cun Road and next to the temple. It was worthy of receiving Mr Kong’s recommendation, full of fresh green leaves, various roots and tubers, the best of the late summer fruit, herbs and spices – even foreign ones. Some of the vegetables weren’t familiar to me but that was only to be expected when you cross half a continent. I could have bought a lot more than I did but I left with cabbage and four varieties of green leafy vegetables, ginger, chillies, two types of onion, two colours of capsicum, carrots, celery, white radish, and a packet of their made-up pickling spice – I had already bought pickled vegetables but I did want to try both their mix and making pickled radish myself. There wasn’t a butcher’s shop near there, well there wouldn’t be one within a block of a temple unless the shop had been there first, but I did get recommendations for two butchers’ shops and a cooked meats shop. Naturally each of them lay in completely different directions from the house. I caught another taxi to get the vegetables home.
Once I had put the vegetables away, I decided to try the closest of the two butchers’ shops. It was one street down, not counting the laneway, and a street across which placed it opposite the local park. It also specialised in sausages. The traditional pork, chicken or liver sausages were supplemented by northern-style sausages made with other meats and although I used my shopping list as a guide, I left the shop with a variety of fresh, dried and smoked links of proteiny goodness. I even had a meal’s worth of smoked and dried mutton sausage. I counted it as a plus that I could carry the bag back home without needing to hail a taxi.
Even after all of that I was back just in time to put the sausages away before Master Que could ask me questions about them, freshen up, get changed and be ready to go out to our lunch appointment.
Master Que explained, “I called this meeting and as we don’t yet have a business relationship with the agency, I’m expecting that we will pick up the bill for everyone. As we want it to be a fairly private affair, I’ve booked us into the Phoenix Garden which I’m told caters for an upper level business clientele – I’ve requested a private booth. Wear silk, including one of your brocade jackets. I will go as myself.”
In wasn’t quite sure what that meant until we were ready to leave the house, but in contrast to my heavy black silk trousers, white silk shirt, and silk brocade jacket with red and gold flowers on a navy ground, he wore sturdy cotton blacks with a white shirt in the same fabric. I could see from the hang of his pockets where he was keeping his wallet, cigarettes and lighter, and when I looked at him he said, “This is who I am. In fact, given my overall dodgeyness, this is probably a misrepresentation of my social standing. Now, let’s go co-opt some unsuspecting agent into representing your interests.”
The Phoenix Garden was somewhere near the city, but off a laneway rather than a main street. Access was through an iron-bound door opened by a doorman and the foyer lay up half a flight of stairs from the street door. The décor was dark, although the lighting was bright enough to read by and I noticed that the whole effect made the gold in my brocade seem to glow in the ambient light. I followed Master Que’s lead in bowing to the major domo and, when he went off to that gentleman’s desk to discuss some something about the booking, I bowed as well to the two substantial gentlemen in tailored blacks who were seated two seats apart in the foyer. My instincts suggested that they were gi fighters too and as my elders, worthy of respect. Both of them bowed in return without rising, one of them putting aside his newspaper to do so. Master Que and the major domo rejoined me at that point and we were shown to our booth, Master Que saying quietly, “I hope we didn’t make a mistake coming here today – apparently another meeting involves people who require bodyguards. You did well to be polite to them,” he added.
The representative agents arrived a few minutes after we were seated so I stood and bowed when Master Que did. He and the two gentlemen, Mr Chen and Mr Shu, exchanged business cards and then we all sat again. We exchanged small talk until the waiter took our drink orders, I had the generic pot of tea, and then Mr Chen said, “We are flattered that you contacted us, Master Que, but I’m afraid I’m a little at a loss. It isn’t clear to me why our head office put out a circular saying that our branch offices were to respond favourably to any approach from you or why you want an agent for your student who is still a very young lady. My apologies, Miss Sung, if I have been rude.”
“Not at all.” I smiled, “I am only just eighteen, after all.”
Master Que gave Mr Chen a hard look and then glanced at Mr Shu who was looking young and earnest. “Would I be right, Mr Chen, if I thought that you don’t personally deal with gi fighters a great deal?”
“My personal portfolio is in the field team sports area,” admitted Mr Chen. “Our gi specialist is tied up in intensive negotiations on behalf of an existing client at this time and has been all week.”
“I see,” said Master Que austerely, and Mr Chen flushed. “Would it be enlightening if I told you that my professional name is Shui Tzu Dan?”
Mr Chen said slowly, “That is familiar-“
Young Mr Shu however looked excitedly from Master Que to me and back again, then burst out, “Is Miss Sung your student who won the national professional championship just before New Year? You’re younger than I expected, Miss Sung.”
Master Que and I spoke simultaneously. He said, “Yes.”
I said, “I’ve been told that before.”
Mr Chen bowed to Master Que without rising and said, “My sincere apologies for being under prepared, Master Que. I understand completely why Miss Sung is seeking an agent. I understand that you are her manager?”
“Yes,” answered Master Que. “The other complicating factor is that Miss Sung is enrolled at the university and is about to start her course. Her movements and availability during term time will necessarily be constrained.”
“If more of the young men I deal with had Miss Sung’s sense,” replied Mr Chen, “then parts of my job would be a lot less tense. I assume you want us to deal with potential sponsors? If you had your professional name, Miss Sung, it would make you more attractive to advertisers in general.”
“There is also the issue that Miss Sung left her parental home precipitately just after her final secondary school exams,” added Master Que. “She has not been using her name where it might be publicised or showing her face where it’s likely to be photographed and published.”
Mr Chen thought for a moment then said, “That’s surprisingly easy to accommodate. Particularly if we can give the sponsors and advertisers an ‘unveiling’ moment once she has her professional name. I can tell you that once she has an acknowledged professional name, independent bank accounts, an agent, a manager and a solicitor-”
“Mr Su of Dong, Pan and Su,” I put in.
Mr Chen acknowledged me with a smile and a turn of his hand, “Then it’s much harder for anyone to claim that she requires parental supervision and seize control of her person and assets. May I ask why you approached our firm in particular?”
“Your office in the capital approached us after Miss Sung’s win,” said Master Que easily, “and they were on my list of possible agents for her. Then, when I made enquiries about getting her into the mid-week televised professional tournament here, for the income, they said they required an agent and helpfully gave me a list of possible agents. You weren’t on it.”
Mr Chen and Master Que were grinning at each other when the drinks arrived and the waiter took our food order. The rest of the meal was spent hammering out details of our agreement which their solicitors would draw up, my solicitors would review, and then we would all sign when we were happy. One of the issues that was still to be agreed when we finished was who would be handling my account on their end; Mr Chen professed to be unsure of exactly who was available on their end and Mr Shu agreed with such fervency that I was suddenly sure that their original plan had been to present him as my only available option. Master Que, on the other hand, was insisting on final say in the matter and had them promise to provide biographies for each of their suggestions.
It occurred to me to wonder as we bowed good bye to each other in the laneway outside the restaurant, just how big their office was. Xiamtian was a provincial capital, and if they had a gi-specialist and a field sports expert, how many other people did they employ? I really had no idea about such things and it occurred to me that perhaps I ought to. I also remembered that I needed to remember to get the phone connected to the house in my name. And then Master Que and I made our way back to the house, where I expected to spend the rest of my day cleaning.
This is now followed by In Which We Do Not Observe Quiet Domesticity.