Shuhua’s Suite
Brian Leung





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For Iris Chang


Don’t read this first part.


No one will know, and you might not get it anyway.

They have not forgotten about the babies sliced in thirds, the disemboweled women, the Yangtze running thick with bodies and blood, prisoners buried waist deep and torn apart by attack dogs, men suspended by their tongues, heads of the living dowsed in gasoline and set on fire, women raped and raped again. No Chinese anywhere has forgotten.

The men were toys. Thousands transported to the edge of the city and shot down with machine guns. Some were tied to poles and used for bayonet practice. Others buried alive. There were slaughter contests to see how many men Japanese soldiers could kill in one day. Heads of the decapitated were kicked like balls, lined up like prizes. Some say the men had it easy.

The women were trophies. Many were stripped of their clothes and forced to pose for pictures next to the soldiers who raped them. Some were strapped naked into chairs, their hands tied down, their legs spread wide and bound to the armrests. This happened all over the city. It happened to thousands. Consider the women gathered for military prostitution, those whose breasts were cut from their bodies for sport while they were still alive. Think of the woman lying outside, prone, her dress flapping up over her face, exposing her mutilated body, a Japanese sword plunged into her vagina and through to the ground. Think of women hiding in rooms. Think of any woman stepping onto the streets of Nanking after December 13, 1937.


Shuhua woke to the sound of gunfire and breaking glass. She sat upright on her floor-mat. The room was completely dark except for small flecks of yellow light showing through the covered windows. Now she heard explosions, still more gunfire, and the sound of men running and yelling—soldiers.

Shuhua remembered her father’s words not to look outside or make any unnecessary movements no matter what. She wondered if he’d returned but she could not see into the rest of the room and the noise outside was too loud to listen for his breathing.

It was still daylight when he left to see if he could find food. They were hiding in a small burned out building near Chungshan North Road because their own apartment was too close to where the Japanese were breaking into the city. Shuhua squinted in the darkness again to see if her father had come back. “Papá?” she whispered, but there was no response. He had told her to rest and when she was sure she could not, he gave her a tablet of brown sugar laced with sedative and she fell asleep. Now, in the darkness, she didn’t know if he had returned or not.

She felt strange to suddenly rely on her father. Before the war he almost always spoke his directions through Shuhua’s mother. It was her voice that called her daughters to meals, put them to bed, and scolded them for not being humble enough. She and her sister were not even allowed to visit their father at his business. At home he only spoke to them when he was criticizing their mother, moments which turned into stern lectures on how to run a household. But she and her father had been alone together for days now. Her mother and sister had not met them at the business as they planned and there was no sign of them at the apartment. Now Shuhua found herself in the direct care of her father, and though they spoke little over the years, the war suddenly offered them a common language.

Shuhua reached her small hand into the blackness to see if she could touch her father but she felt nothing. “Papá,” she said again, a little louder this time. She thought maybe he was keeping watch at the door. Despite his warnings not to move, Shuhua started slowly on her hands and knees toward the fragment of light that marked the entrance. Outside, the yelling continued, and at every new explosion the places where light got in flashed with pinpoint brightness. Shuhua froze in place nearly every time, trembling, then continuing tentatively through the sooty floor. She stopped thinking about the charred dust and broken glass she crawled over. It was a fact of existence. After their first day of hiding, she and her father were almost completely blackened.

When she neared the door Shuhua was sure her father was there, leaning against the wall, sleeping. She paused, thinking she did not want to wake him and make him angry that she broke her promise not to move. He would tell her that she could not act like a frightened child. But she thought this new version of her father would not stay upset for long. Just the day before he gave her a small piece of foil-wrapped chocolate for her fifteenth birthday. They were sitting in the dimness of their hiding place when he took it from his pocket.

“Where did you get this?” she asked.

“I’ve kept it since we left home, Jong yú,” he said, smiling, his teeth looking so white inside his blackened face. She liked it when he used this nickname, Goldfish, and she wondered why this kindness didn’t show in him before the war. She thought of her sister and how she would never believe it when Shuhua told her how their father had become so tender and protective of her.

Shuhua reached forward to wake her father. She touched the sleeve of his arm, which was strange to her because it felt like he was wearing wool. Where had he gotten such clothes? “Papá,” she said, giving him a slight shake.

The figure jumped up, startled, pushing Shuhua backward. “Who’s there,” he said. Shuhua was silent. It was a strange voice, a young man’s. “Who’s there?” he asked again.

“Don’t hurt me,” Shuhua said.

“Are you alone?” the man whispered.


“Don’t worry then, I’m just a soldier come to rest. I injured my arm.”

Shuhua backed up, sliding slowly across the floor. “But shouldn’t you still be fighting?”

“No,” the soldier said. “We’re in retreat. The army is trying to cross the Yangtze now.” Shuhua heard the man walking slowly toward her. The soldier’s boot scuffed across the floor, scraping over bits of wood and glass. Shuhua backed up as far against the wall as she could. She had never been alone with any man except her father. Once, at the market, a vendor asked her name and age which she gave without thinking. As she spoke to the man her mother raced up behind her and snatched her away by the collar. “Stupid girl,” her mother scolded again and again on the way home.

Now the war put Shuhua in a room with a man and she had no choice but to speak to him. He was coming closer. “What are you doing?” she asked.

“I just want to see you.” Outside there was the largest explosion yet and the soldier flattened himself to the ground, sending dust and the smell of old fire into the air. The soldier coughed. “I don’t think this is going to be a very safe place to hide,” he said. “We should get out of here.”

Shuhua thought the soldier sounded young, almost her age and she was less afraid. “I have to wait for my father,” she said. “Besides, you are a soldier. Why are you hiding?”

The soldier sat up but did not move forward. She was sure he could not see her, but he spoke in the direction of her voice. “I have family in Nanking,” he said. “And the army is drowning in the river. They’ve been overloading barges all day and now everyone is just trying to save themselves.”

“The Japanese will kill you if they find you.”

“I’ll steal some clothes.” The soldier was quiet for a moment before speaking. “You should be more worried than me. I hear things about how they treat women.”

Shuhua rose on her knees. She’d heard stories too, but her father told her not to listen, the Japanese were not all bad people. They had bad leaders. “Papá will take care of me,” she said. But as she spoke this, it was the image of her sister that flashed in her mind and safety became the idea of holding each other as they did during the loudest thunderstorms.

“My arm needs attending. I have to go,” the soldier said. “Are you sure I can’t take you somewhere safer? Can I see your face just once before I leave?”

“I’m sure Papá will return soon,” Shuhua said, but she was becoming frightened. She didn’t want to ask this soldier why he thought this place was unsafe.

“My name is Ling,” he said. “Maybe we’ll meet again.” He walked back to the door and when he opened it, dark yellow light flooded the room and over Shuhua in the very back, shining on her blackened skin. He offered a small bow and carefully made his exit.

Ling, Shuhua thought to herself. He seemed brave to her. He was remaining in the city. She wrote the character in the dirty floor next to her even though she couldn’t see it. As she finished, the sound of gunfire rose again outside. She wondered if her father was safe, if Ling was, and she hoped that her mother and sister had found a safe place to hide. Maybe when they were all together again, she thought, they would be a different family, happier. The end had to be soon, she thought. No war lasts forever. What did the Japanese want with Nanking anyway? She felt a small pang in her stomach and realized she hadn’t eaten or had a drink of water since the day before when her father gave her the chocolate. Maybe it was just too dangerous for him to return. Maybe he found her mother and sister and they were waiting until things were safe before they came to her.

Shuhua sat against the wall listening to the fall of Nanking. All night she heard the rumble of the war outside, great flashes of light shooting into the room, then leaving everything dark again. The air smelled smoky and sour from all the fire. Occasionally she heard someone run by and each time she was afraid the Japanese had finally overrun the city and they would burst into the room. She remained like this until she fell asleep, curled tightly into one corner.

When Shuhua woke, it was morning. There was still little light, but she saw that her father had not returned. She could not bring herself to the happier speculations of just a few hours previous, that she and her father would find her mother and sister and something new amongst them would begin. Maybe, she worried, her father was hurt or captured. Maybe he had fallen and he was lying on the street somewhere in need of help. She stood up. Her knees were sore from bending tight to her body all night. Shuhua heard the rumbling sound of engines in the distance, but the morning was remarkably still. She walked to the door and opened it to a sliver of daylight and then to the reality of breadth. Debris lay everywhere, and far off there were plumes of black smoke. All Shuhua could think of was her family. Where were her mother and sister huddled? Where was her father? She needed to find him, all of them. She didn’t care how dangerous it was or what might happen to her. Besides, she thought, they would never hurt a girl as young as herself. Some day, she was sure, she and her family would look back and barely remember any of this.

Shuhua knew she should not take another step. For her family, she knew she must not be the humble daughter. The city is just another room, she told herself, a room with an almost blue ceiling. She listened to the percussion of aftermath and named it music, a suite of rescue. Shuhua opened the door all the way and gathered her long, black hair out of her face, pulling it back behind her shoulders. Stupid girl, she prodded, stupid girl. Then, with a confident breath, she stepped onto the street and out of her life’s prologue.


But you want a happy ending. Shuhua makes it to the United States. You need not read further.

The man buys a latte. Skim milk, please. A small stack of books sits on the table next to a cranberry scone. The books are about China. The woman pulled her recommendations off the shelf for him because he is fascinated by the history and culture. That, and he likes black hair, Mao red, and the idea of dragons.

The Great Wall coffee table book is exquisite. Such an ingenious people. The women of Shanghai are lovely. So modern.

Sucking cranberry skin off a molar, he picks up the book with the orange spine. It falls open to black and white photos in the center. Jesus. The young Chinese woman is naked and strapped to a chair. The man reads . . .raped. . . tortured. . .before snapping the book shut. He tosses it behind him onto the table littered with pink rectangles of artificial sweetener.

Why would she fucking recommend that? The man returns to the women of Shanghai.

Shuhua is shelved.


















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