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  • [People's Choice] Red Balloons Over China by FengJiu

    Red Balloons Over China
    by FengJiu

    It was spring, and Beijing was finally pushing off the last of its winter blanket, a greyish brown haze that laid over the city. This search for the clowns was given to me by my editor, along with a last-minute flight from Los Angeles, a last-minute screenshot of an Instagram post from one of our travel bloggers, a last-minute "investigative journalism" pitch for the last minute of my career as a journalist.

    I was on the search for the intersection from the photo, strange characters on the street sign over the girl’s head, partially covered by the red balloon tied around her wrist. A Prada shopping bag hung loosely from her elbow, and there was of course full faced, almost comical, clown makeup and a red nose cutting through the smog of a Beijing winter like a mockery of Rudolph.

    Holding up my phone to another street sign, the character that looked somewhat like a chair wasn’t present, and, chagrined that they sent me, someone whose only interaction with China was takeout, ducked into a nearby coffee shop proudly called "Peace, Love, Wander" and stood at the bar waiting for whatever I managed to point at.

    "ICP?" A young girl said next to me, pointing at the photo on my phone.

    "ICP?" I asked back, wondering if she was speaking English, or Chinese just happened to sound like it.

    "The photo, they’re from the ICP."

    My mind halted, was the Insane Clown Posse popular in China? Was it popular anywhere? "Like, down with the clown ICP?"

    She shrugged and tapped at the photo on my phone to zoom in on the girl’s face. "Wudaoying, they’re always there, did that help?"

    "It did," I assured, my first lead.

    She showed me a QR code on her phone, a bright smile on her face, but a devious look in her eyes. "100 kuai please."

    "What?"

    She shoved the phone in front of mine, smiling wider, and insisted "100 kuai, information isn’t free."

    "Right, of course." I fished out my wallet and pulled out one of my hundreds and she swiped it out of my fingers.

    "Mister?" The barista said pushing my coffee towards me.

    The girl was gone.

    Wudaoying was a few train stops, a few "sorry"s, a few "excuse me’s" and a gate away. It was a narrow lane with signs that reminded me of the coffee shop, English mixed with Chinese, succulents, and ivy hanging down over picturesque patios that were only one or two tables, the alley itself was maybe four people wide with leaning old buildings on either side.

    I wandered around; Beijing’s youth loped around as if they owned the place, blocking other pedestrians for photo ops with chairs or brightly painted doors and signs that were clearly staged. I caught sight of a red balloon disappearing around a corner and cut through a line for another photo opportunity to find out where it went, it bobbed in and out of view, but as I turned the corner the balloon was tied to a chair outside a coffee shop named "ASKEW." Sitting in the coffee shop were two of the Chinese ICP, white-faced beautiful girls touching up their overdrawn red lipstick, black triangles are drawn down from their eyes. Their irises were rainbow colored. These weren’t Detroit ICP, that was for sure.

    They saw me and tittered to each other, pointing at me with a lipstick tube. Maybe I could get home early. A coffee, a chair, a conversation starter. "Are you down with the clown?"

    "Down with the clown?" The girl furthest from me said capping her gold lipstick tube, she repeated the words quietly to herself, mulling over the meaning.

    "ICP?" I pressed.

    "Yes, yes," The nearest girl replied, "We love The ICP."

    "You do?" I was taken aback at her admission. "How did you find out about them?"

    "Everyone knows." The furthest girl agreed "If you care, you know. They care, they know." She said this as if it was fact.

    I rattled my brain trying to remember something about the Insane Clown Posse, they had become so passé in America, that it was hard to remember any lore or anything about them, and with Google shut off, I couldn’t look anything up on a moments notice. "Are there more of you? Are you this girl?" I showed her the photo my editor gave me.

    "This is in Shanghai, this is Sheng'er." The far clown tapped the photo and tsk-tsk’d "You can tell by how she does her-" She motioned to her eyes. "This. Shanghai Wanghong."

    "Wanghong?"

    The clown next to me opened her mouth a few times and closed it. "Xiao Hong Shu, Xiao...Little Red Book." She finally said.

    "Mao?"

    "Cat?" The near clown asked back, "No."

    "Nevermind, Shanghai then, is there a way to get there today?"

    The far clown turned back to the window and watched a couple pass by, a man with a camera following a beautiful girl.

    "I can go, ICP’s HQ is there." The far clown said, "I need to go."

    "Is there going to be a gathering?" I asked.

    She looked at me strangely, before thrusting one perfectly manicured hand out to me "Mei."

    "Hello, Mei, I’m Ed."

    She practiced my name a few times and then stood up, grabbing her coffee "Meet me here tomorrow at nine, I will take you to ICP’s HQ."

    "Absolutely, can I buy you that?"

    "Don’t worry."

    The other clown waved it off "Mei’er doesn’t like money from others."

    Mei’er walked out ahead of us, and the other clown offered her hand "My name is Bing."

    "Hi, Bing."

    "Hi, foreigner."

    ----

    Mei was late, annoyingly so, but as she was my only lead, I waited on the patio, a partially deflated red balloon sometimes hitting me in the head as the wind blew it back and forth on a cold spring morning.

    She turned the corner, not in a hurry despite it being half-past nine, but instead checking her makeup, tugging at the circles she had applied on her cheeks as a comical exaggeration of blush.

    "Good?" She asked looking up from her phone camera.

    "Fine." I swallowed my frustration and stood up, the static of the balloon clinging to my rather worn out suit jacket.

    "Let’s go?"

    "Train is in one hour, let’s go."

    She navigated the metro with ease, a confidence that all Beijing youth must share, the commandeering presence that the world was theirs and we were all guests. If others stared, she did not notice, men apologized to her if they got too close, and she would just give an exasperated sigh.

    After forty-five minutes of fighting crowds, security, and the mad rush that was a Chinese train station, we settled on a train that looked like it was last updated in the 1960s. Where was the bullet train? Didn’t China own the fastest trains on Earth? Were they a lie?

    We sat across from each other in a worn tiny cabin and she gave me a smile, exaggerated by her overdrawn red lips. "This is good." She assured, "Better for me, at least."

    "Your preference?" I asked

    "Bullet trains have problems," Mei replied and pulled out her gold tube of lipstick, whistles and shouts cut off her sentence short and she waited to speak to me again after the train left the station. "The old way of travel has benefits."

    "You miss the olden days?"

    She let out a laugh "You make me sound like I am a grandma. No, no." She gestured to the room we were in a small wood-paneled cabin that was last refurbished sometime before the 21st century. "We are alone."

    "We are." I agreed.

    "My parents don’t know I am here." She continued.

    My heart stopped in my chest; was she going to extort me for money? Had I fallen into some scam? "I’m sorry, I thin-" I grabbed my phone from the table and made a move to get up.

    "I have your ticket." She said and pulled out a pair of paper tickets from her designer purse "You don’t want to get caught."

    I stopped and turned to her, knowing I was trapped in this train car as long as she had my ticket and sat back down. There was silence for a while.

    "My father has a lot of money." She said, not to me, but the countryside that was now whirring past us as we rattled down the tracks. "The daughter of a government official will not be seen doing anything. Or else."

    "Or else?"

    "Or else it’s bad. I went to Stanford you know, but you cannot stay away from home forever, you must return."

    "Of course."

    "And everyone knows the daughter of the secretary of the treasury, and everyone wants to know the daughter of the secretary of the treasury, and everyone wants to photo the daughter of the secretary of the treasury." She let out a sigh, her rainbow-colored contacts focused on me briefly "Not Mei."

    "The price of family."

    "The Little Red Book taught me, well, Sheng'er and some others too, they did this makeup and they said even their boyfriends wouldn’t know them. I decided, maybe I could do it, and then the press wouldn’t know it either, I could meet Bingbing without it being on Douyin, on video, you know?"

    "The other girl?"

    "She’s not-" She waved it off angrily "She’s from Hunan, not from Beijing."

    "Not from money? I don’t know about Hunan."

    "ICP let me have a life. What did you say "down with the clown"?"

    "It’s the ICP’s motto."

    "Yes, then I am down with the clown because the clown-" here she gestured to her face "- lets me live without ruining my family.

    ---

    Shanghai was disgustingly hot for April, and Mei exited the cabin before me, hopping off the train onto a sunny platform that smelled like burning plastic. Her red dress picked up a breeze and her white face looked up at me as I tried to get down from the high train gracefully but ended up clumsily sliding down onto the platform.

    "Wukang Road," She said gesturing to my phone "That’s where the photo was taken. Let’s go."

    The metro was blissfully air-conditioned, and we rode together for a while in silence, she was scrolling through makeup tutorials on her phone next to me, more clowns, dozens of clowns, carefully applying different patterns, showcasing different products, it was a strange Chinese Instagram that seemed to have makeup ads built into every video.

    She explained the neighborhood as we walked through shady trees and the shadows of skyscrapers and we arrived at the intersection where the photograph was taken to see a beautiful clown girl in a striking blue dress waving frantically at us.

    "Come, we’ll go to HQ," Mei said, but even so, she waited for the walk sign, even when others did not. A billboard lit up on both sides of the intersection, displaying faces and names like mugshots of those who did not obey the signal.

    She put a finger to her lips and waited. "A fine, of course."

    "Is it a lot of money?"

    "No, but it does cost." She said, and the "Do Not Walk" turned green, and we met up with the blue clown that was waiting for us, that I had sought out.

    "Sheng'er!" Mei squealed next to me and began excitedly chattering in Chinese. After a moment, Mei motioned towards me and we walked down the street, hopefully on our way to the ICP’s Chinese HQ.

    We stopped at a makeup store that was covered in holographic tint, in pink neon at eye level the words spelled out in bubbly font: Image Choice Project HQ

    "This has nothing to do with the Insane Clown Posse?" I asked, but got no answer.

    The Image Choice Project had a wide array of concealers, lipsticks, and face paint in every color under the sun, displayed on sparse tables as if each individual item of makeup was in itself some kind of artwork. The two clown girls walked around the tables, testing colors on the back of their hands as I felt my story about the clown communists die in this small boutique in Shanghai. It was a bunch of girls playing dress up, not some movement that requires investigative journalism. My editor would kill me.

    "Mei?" I asked, and the two clowns looked up at me strangely, streaks of color now adorning their hands. "I’ll just get going."

    "Wait." She commanded, with the type of confidence she used everywhere else, I felt cowed, and a bit stupid now that I was here in the middle of China chasing some makeup fad.

    From the back, behind the counter, a curtain parted, and the first male clown I had seen stepped out, head to toe in a Gucci tracksuit, but with overdrawn lips like Mei and panda eye makeup he eyed me warily before barking some Chinese to the girls who were currently using their wrists for lipstick swatches.

    "Haode, Haode." He said and then turned to me "You are a friend of Mei?"

    "Yes, but I think I have made some mista-"

    "Lai-le, come." He said and disappeared behind the curtain.

    Behind the curtain was four folding chairs, one of them occupied by another male clown who was following some tutorial video on his phone, exaggerating his eyes with a bold sweep of black, and the man who had ordered me back here was kicking over a bucket for me to sit on. Mei sat down with a sigh, and Sheng'er began to straighten the tea set that was on the table, pushing some makeup out of the way to make way for the teapot.

    "Your name?"

    "Ed," I said extending my hand, but he did not take it.

    "Mei says you know the ICP?"

    "I think I’ve made a mistake." I said, shifting in my seat uncomfortably "I don’t want to buy makeup."

    "I’m Ju." He said, ignoring what I said "Tea?"

    "Okay."

    Sheng'er began to pour tea for the table, steam rising in the poorly lit stock room for the makeup shop, the fluorescent tube, a sickly yellow that buzzed due to age was barely heard over the Chinese instructions from the video the clown-in-training was playing while he tried to match his eye makeup.

    For a while, no one said nothing and sipped tea, Sheng'er, and then Mei, dutifully refilled everyone’s cups twice and then Ju set down his blue teacup with a sigh.

    "Why did you become a clown, Ju?" I asked a tentative question to break the silence.

    "My father." He replied, and motioned towards the clown-in-training to check the front.

    "Also a government official, like Mei?"

    His comically exaggerated brows wrinkled and he made a moue of annoyance before answering "Stupid." His spat out the word, and relieved, he continued "Greedy and stupid."

    Sheng'er paused motions at this "Your father wanted to provide." The teacup runneth over, but she did not move the teapot away "He did."

    "At the expense of my life." Ju said and hooked his finger under the tea spout, pulling it up "Sheng'er."

    "What do you mean?"

    "Ju’s family has bad credit," Mei explained to me, looking at Ju for confirmation that it was okay to proceed.

    "I’m only a few points away from a criminal." Ju said and then looked away "I can’t even go to university."

    "Debt?"

    "Not debt, we don’t owe anything, we don’t own anything." Ju got up and left at this, his chair folding and falling to the floor in a clatter.

    The clown-in-training finished his eye makeup and looked up. "Ju doesn’t like talking about it, he lives with his grandma, but his meimei is stuck in Chengdu."

    "Sister." Mei provided the translation.

    "Ju and I left Chengdu, but with our score, we shouldn’t have. We are criminals here in Shanghai. If it wasn’t for the little red book, we would not even be here."

    "Little red book? Mao’s little red book?"

    "It’s an A-P-P." Mei said and showed me her phone, opening up an application "Xiaohongshu, it teaches you how to do your makeup."

    "And hide your identity."

    "That too," Mei admitted and the clown-in-training looked at me hopefully, his eye makeup reminded me of some posters I had seen in Beijing of the opera. Sharp angles that made his face skinny, and white makeup that was well contrasted with his black Supreme shirt.

    "Qi." The clown-in-training said happily "My name is Qi. My mother and the creditor got into a fight over some land in Sichuan, and so our credit is bad."

    "Your mother’s land?"

    "Not anymore," Qi said picking up a red pencil "Nothing is ours anymore. Below a 70 and you cannot own land."

    "And your score?"

    "Si-Shi'r-Wu, 45" Qi wrote the numbers on his palm with his finger.

    Sheng'er gasped quietly before covering her mouth. "And Sheng'er?" I asked, looking at the beautiful clown who had served us all tea.

    "She’s the leader of the Shanghai Bang, and the girlfriend of Liu."

    Sheng'er muttered something angrily to Qi who rolled his eyes before shouting for Ju to return. "Liu?"

    "In Sichuan," Qi said as if it was a question of where and not who.

    "But who?" I stressed.

    "He is the person you wanted to meet," Mei replied and picked up a teacup. "Isn’t it?"

    "The ICP? I thought this was the ICP."

    "Oh no," Ju said with a laugh "The Shanghai Bang just the wanghong of the ICP."

    "What is wanglong?"

    "Wanghong." Three people corrected me at once.

    "Celebrities?" Mei asked to the ceiling light.

    ---

    We waited at the train station the next day, four clowns, and a white man standing on the platform for the first train out of Shanghai bound to Chengdu. "Shi'r wu," Sheng'er said, her eyes looking up at a few cameras that were twenty feet down the platform, black glass orbs suspended from ceiling beams.

    "Fifteen minutes," Mei supplied an expensive Louis Vuitton bag in her hands, her clown makeup, bright and cheery in the early morning sun. "The bullet train takes 15 hours, but for us, thirty...five?" She confirmed with Ju in Chinese "Thirty-five."

    "And we’re meeting Liu?"

    Sheng'er looked back at us, her eyes, the same rainbow contacts that Mei wore, filled with concern

    "There’s been some talk about Liu lately, do not speak about him when others can listen." Ju hissed, waving to the cameras.

    The train pulled into the station, and before it had even stopped, Ju had hopped onto the open door to the car, turning around to help Sheng'er and then Mei. No hand was extended towards me, but Qi pushed me forward "Hurry."

    I scrambled onto the train as it stopped, the screams of machinery as people started to push their way off the train in the normal Chinese chaos and I was yanked roughly by Ju into the first open door, a small cabin with four beds. Sheng'er pulled the shade down roughly and we were plunged into darkness.

    A phone screen turned on, and then the flashlight. "They scan the passengers on the platform, we are not on the platform" Ju supplied.

    "They have no way to scan on the train, not like the new trains." Mei said, "So they must do it before anyone gets on."

    "The new trains?" I asked

    Qi gestured to his makeup. "Facial scan."

    The train car fell silent, Mei and Sheng'er climbed onto the top bunk above me and I heard the tinny sound of a TV show playing from one of their phones.

    Ju, whose clown makeup looked terrifying in the dim light of his cellphone’s flashlight, looked up above me to see them, and then back down at me. "My baba was the mayor of Chengdu. He was a citizen, not rich, but right. All four, we lived in one apartment, not a house. The previous mayor was corrupt, he would chase people out, he would tear down homes with people in it. Malls built on bodies. Bribes for blood."

    "It was wrong." Qi agreed, a whistle sounded outside. "Many died."

    "Baba was elected, the people’s mayor." The train began to pull out of the station "And he took no more bribes, no more deaths." Ju fell silent for a while, and all that could be heard was the breathing in the dark room. "But there were no more buildings either, no more malls, and then no more jobs."

    "It was a strike?" I asked.

    "I don’t know, construction workers work together, and they work only one way. And they didn’t work all winter and spring, and finally, they began to work in the early summer, and my baba began to drive a Mercedes, and the people began to eat again, and the city began to live again...people began to die again."

    "Progress costs," Qi said quietly.

    "It costs." Ju agreed. "Baba was caught, bribes from the wrong person, bribes in front of the party, and Chengdu has buildings, and malls, and we have nothing, my score is a 17. Politically Corrupt." He spat out each syllable of his crime before taking a moment to compose himself. "Our bank accounts are gone, our apartment is gone, my meimei is not allowed to go to school. We are nothing, to China, we are dogs."

    "You are no dog, Ju." Qi said quietly next to him and turned to me. "I saw Sheng'er on Xiaolongshu, if I didn’t have a face, I could start a new life, I could make money for my family in a new city. So I lost my face, and now I have enough to bring home to feed mama, meimei, and my baba."

    "Me too." Ju agreed. "Except for my baba."

    "And what about your baba?" I asked. "If you’re politically corrupt, what of him?"

    "Gone, the night security took him, the wan’an." Ju pulled down on the blind and then it flew up, revealing the sunlight and the clowns surrounding me in the cabin. "Rumor has it the wan’an took Liu too."

    "And the night security will take you?" I pressed on.

    "Eventually," Mei said from above me, the clatter of the tracks making it hard to hear "The wan’an will come for all of us."

    "Politically corrupt." Qi echoed Ju’s crime and then looked at Sheng’er to list her crime "Spreading the disease with the little red book."

    "Is anonymity a sickness?" Ju asked to no one in particular, his eyes watching the city pass us by. "If the cameras ever see me, I will die. Isn’t anonymity my medicine?"

    "You have the lowest score," Mei said, "To China, you’re the sickest of all of us."

    "Liu’s is lower." Ju began softly, his voice cracked on the name. "Liu might already be dead." He repeated the last sentence in Chinese.

    At that, Sheng'er began to cry above me, and the train fell silent.

    -----

    It was night, and Mei was sharing a bottle of beer with me and Qi. Ju and Sheng'er, already asleep, due to the lack of beds we slept in shifts, one too many passengers for the four bunks. Her red lipstick was wearing off, and so was her white face paint, Qi, usually dramatic and otherworldly, now was half human in the early hours, splotches of his skin caught the moonlight flooding into the window as we rode through the Chinese countryside. Ju and Sheng'er were fully human again but wore surgical masks even as they slept.

    "The credit score was supposed to be for bad men," Mei said, her voice echoing inside the beer bottle, wistful and tipsy. "Ju and Liu are not bad men, but Sheng’er and I have to work to hide them!"

    "Why is she one of you?" I asked, looking up at the bunk bed above me, I couldn’t see her, but I could hear her soft breathing "Family?"

    "Liu." Qi said "Liu convinced her, Sheng'er was a wanghong before she became one of us, but she is smart, smarter than all of us. At first, she was like Mei, avoiding fans, and Liu gave her a way to avoid getting caught, and then she gave Liu’s ideas fame."

    "No credit problems?"

    Mei shook her head "Sheng'er is why people think it’s fashion, Sheng'er is the reason the government does not pay attention."

    "If it’s fashion, it’s not a crime." The words came out of my mouth and I cursed myself for being so stupid earlier. I had come to the same conclusion when I first met the ICP’s Shanghai Bang. Just girls playing makeup. I had thought there was no story. "So she is the distraction?"

    "She’s the attraction." Mei corrected me "Cameras cannot see us, and it’s because everyone sees her."

    "And your faces are gone." I murmured.

    "We have faces." Qi said, taking another swig of beer "But never the same face twice."

    -----

    Ramen was passed out dutifully in the morning for breakfast, the smell of beef stock and onions filled the cabin, Sheng'er brewed tea, her makeup in place before I woke up, she was photo ready even though the train rattled and shook every moment of the ride. The black triangles that adorned her cheeks were geometric in perfection, her eyeliner that touched her hairline had no mistakes. "We arrive in Chengdu tonight," Ju said after he slurped some noodles, broth flying everywhere to the annoyed hiss of Mei who now had some splattered on her shirt. "Liu hasn’t messaged, but-"

    "But it could be just fine. He does this sometimes when he’s busy." Mei replied assuring me, but then her eyes moved to a red-eyed Sheng'er who was trying to focus on her teacup.

    "Why don’t you just leave China?" I asked suddenly "Surely the credit score can’t follow you to America, or-"

    "Cannot." Qi said, "You must be 85 or higher to cross a border, even land borders."

    "But can you flee? Claim asylum? There must be something more than this."

    "We help our people." Ju replied "Who will help them, if not us? If we leave, how many more people will take our place at the bottom?"

    "The son of a politician," Qi said sagely and Ju nudged him harshly, spilling some of the ramen broth on the floor of the cabin.

    "Idiots." Mei teased, rolling her eyes.

    Sheng'er did not react to the conversation but instead held out her teacup for a refill.

    -----

    Chengdu, a messier city than Shanghai, was cold and bustling as our train rolled into the station. Sheng'er got out first, followed by Ju and Mei, Qi followed me out, handing me a black surgical mask "This is where things get dangerous."

    "What?" I asked hurriedly putting on the mask as the crowd pushed me forward off the train "What do you mean dangerous?"

    Chengdu was a city of two things: cameras, and capitalism. Malls soared around me on all four corners, and on street lights cameras hung like ripe fruit, seeing all. Sheng'er looked up at the large inflatable bear that was sitting outside the closest mall, her white makeup reflecting the LED signage of a billboard advertising perfume.

    "He lives down this street," Mei said, the crowds parting for the clowns that were strolling down Chuxi road with the usual confidence that Mei commands. "A few kilometers."

    As we walked, passing a few dozen restaurants, shops, and karaoke bars, more and more clowns were seen in the crowds. No two faces were alike, stark against the sea of people, red lips and noses, black and white features that made them visible to me, but invisible to the cameras that lined the streets. "Your people?" I asked Ju.

    "All the people of Chengdu are my people." He replied, cutting through the crowd with ease. "After all, my family destroyed these people in order for my baba to have a nice car."

    I kept quiet after this, Ju obviously was unhappy to be home, and it was hard to talk and keep up with Sheng’er’s frantic pace through the overly crowded streets, and as quickly as we had escaped the crowds, we stopped in front of a very boring residential skyscraper of about thirty floors.

    Kids were playing in the courtyard as we walked around the building, a woman was hanging laundry over a bush, and two older women were speaking in hushed tones as Sheng'er unlocked a side door, and the five of us slipped inside.

    "Xia." Sheng'er said pointing up the concrete stairs.

    "No elevator?" I asked the stairwell was endless.

    "Not for us," Mei said and began her way up the stairs, her Louis Vuitton bag bouncing with each step.

    The stairs were endless, my calves burned, my thighs burned, my lungs burned, each landing higher and higher, and each followed by yet another set of stairs. No windows, and on some floors no lighting except for the flickering green of the exit sign. On and on we climbed.

    "Okay?" Ju said leaning over the green metal railing a floor above me as I dragged my out of shape body up another flight. His clown face beaming down at me, his face drawn into a smile even if he was sweating as much as I was.

    "Okay!" I wheezed "Okay!"

    When I thought I was going to die, Mei waited for me, her phone flashlight illuminating the concrete stairwell, she sat before a door, the end, the top. Her white face was stark against the darkness. It looked as if it was a horror movie, her red nose casting a shadow over her mouth. "Jesus." I panted, doubled over. "Jesus."

    "Okay?" Mei asked, her flashlight bobbing as she walked up the last bit, and opened the door, a blast of cold air surged down the stairwell. Her long hair billowed behind her.

    "Okay."

    We stepped out onto the roof, skyscrapers dotted the skyline around us, and sitting out in front of a shack made out of corrugated metal, was a clown dressed in black, consoling a crying Sheng'er. Ju and Qi both were seated at the tea table on the roof, looking as tired as I did.

    "This is Liu." Mei said quietly and walked with me. "He is the one you wanted to meet."

    I extended my hand, he was whispering softly to Sheng'er, his hand patting her head for reassurance. He wore the same style of clown makeup as Qi, harsh black lines that went from his eyes to his hairline, cutting his face into blocky portions, with a red flower painted intricately on his forehead. It seemed more sophisticated that Mei and Ju's classic clown style.

    "I’m Ed."

    He did not take my hand but gestured for me to sit down, and Ju poured some tea. Sheng'er seemed to regain herself momentarily, wiping her tears away with the back of her hand, taking a good swipe of her makeup off with it. Perfection marred.

    "Call me Liu." He grabbed the clay pot and poured a cup of tea for me. "I have been tied up recently, the wan’an have been tracking me."

    "Of course they have," Qi breathed shakily, relieved that the wan’an had not found him. "Of course."

    Liu had that same type of presence that Mei had, the confidence that came with money or power. He sipped his tea and leaned back into the folding chair, studying me, studying Ju, who was studying his feet. He acted as if a king, and I was the first outsider in his court. "Ju, have you visited your meimei? Don’t stay because of me."

    "The Foreigner…" Ju protested weakly, even as he got up from the folding chair on the roof. "He knows the ICP."

    "Yes." Liu agreed. "He does."

    "Qi, stay." Ju said and eyed me "Foreigner-"

    "It’s Ed." I cut him off and extended my hand. "Thanks Ju, stay safe." Ju would never trust an outsider.

    "Let’s meet again," Ju said, nodding to Mei before leaving out the door we just entered.

    There was silence, and I stared out over the city of Chengdu, the glittering lights of the city, the rainbows of the LEDs that outlined the buildings did a good job of distracting me from my present company and the tears of a grateful Sheng'er. We drank tea with no awkwardness, Liu and Mei both had that ease that settled the group.

    "Sheng'er and I grew up on the same street. She is the most beautiful woman in all of Chengdu." Ju assured, repeating his praises in Chinese to which she looked up at him. "Sheng'er, Ju, and I, all went to the same secondary school, and we all witnessed the same thing, but I was the only one who reported it."

    "Report makes it sound like you did something official." Mei scoffed, "That is not what you did."

    "I posted the video on weibo." Liu said some of his grace left with the admittance to his crime. "The former Chengdu mayor, accepting bribes to forego safety checks on one of the old towers nearby from a construction company. The same day, twelve people died in a tower that was demolished, including two children."

    "It was terrible." Qi agreed

    "They found my blog and wiped my credit to discredit the video. Ju is at 17 points, but I am at 15, legally, a criminal. I ruined my family by telling the truth, I ruined my life before I even finished secondary school."

    "Ju’s father was elected shortly after. They had to get rid of the mayor, they couldn’t get rid of the video." Mei explained, "and then Ju’s life was over too."

    "Even though you reported a crime, you had to pay." I muttered, aghast. "They fired the mayor, what of your credit?"

    "I am a criminal." Liu sighed "but I could not hide. I could not live my life afraid of being scanned and caught. Mei told me about the ICP, and how they were a gang in the USA whose faces could not be scanned."

    "A gang?" I echoed, not believing that anyone could look to the Insane Clown Posse as a way of avoiding a totalitarian government.

    "Sheng'er was willing to try, and it worked. They could not identify her, but with only three clowns it wasn’t enough, we needed more, to hide amongst, if only criminals did it, it wasn’t enough."

    "Sheng'er spread the fad with the little red book. She was a makeup wanghong and now an ICP wanghong." Mei supplied "After a few months, thousands of wanghong became ICP."

    "And then you were just following a trend, not a criminal." It didn’t seem like a revolutionary spreading propaganda when they sold it to me, and maybe that was the point. It wasn’t propaganda, it was just a fashion trend. It wasn’t political dissidence, it was makeup.

    "Everyone knows someone with bad credit, you know. Your uncle, your baba, a friend, an old classmate, yourself. If you could help them, wouldn’t you? Those who care, care." Mei sipped her tea and looked at me expectantly.

    "The government must know." I said, sitting my teacup back on the tray where Liu refilled it before my fingers even left the tiny cup. "If you know, they know."

    "It’s just a trend, like Gucci," Mei said, casting a disparaging glance at Liu’s bulky gold shoes. "And those ugly sneakers."

    "You’re not setting a trend, you’re ruining the credit system, it’s not some small thing like making ugly shoes trendy," I replied and sipped my tea.

    "The credit system ruined me, it ruined Liu, and it ruined Ju. The credit system is broken, to make children pay for crimes they did not commit." Qi snapped and Liu frowned.

    "Right, but they’re going to find out somehow that you’re messing this all up right? That’s why they’re after you?" I gestured towards Liu with my cup and some tea spilled over the lip.

    "The wan’an have wanted me for a while, they don’t know I am ICP. They know I’m Liu with a criminally low credit score. Will they learn about this from you?" Liu seemed to become wary at this, folding his hands neatly on his lap.

    "Not from me, no," I replied.

    "Liu, he’s one of us, he’s ICP. He told me from the moment we met." Mei came to my defense. "I wouldn’t put you in danger."

    "It’s just a trend, why should the government care?" Liu said airily before picking up Sheng'er’s hand and bringing it to his mouth, kissing the backs of her fingers. "Like Gucci."

    "That’s why it works." Qi said, the tension easing as Liu turned his attention to his girlfriend. "And you?"

    "And me?" I asked turning away from the couple.

    "Are you part of the ICP?" Qi asked.

    "I am," I assured, tossing my notes for the story onto the table, watching the papers soak up the excess tea that had been spilled, my black ink smearing. My editor would kill me, but I could not kill these revolutionaries.

    "Welcome to the family," Liu said raising his teacup to me. "It’s time for you to chose your image." He whispered to Sheng’er and she pulled out a makeup bag.

    "Haode, welcome." Sheng’er said, pulling out white face paint.
    Last edited by Dark Tangent; June 27, 2019, 18:51.
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