A tale of ambition and inspiration from author Zhou Hongxiang
Muzi gave me a slap under the bright sun, ending our relationship. I pretended to be calm and cool as I watched her walk away, get in a car, and disappear.
I thought it was the sun making me dizzy, and definitely not that my heart couldn’t withstand this attack. I stumbled a bit as I walked and leaned against a pole to call Huang Zijian, telling him I’d just had a breakup. He told me to come over for drinks, that it wasn’t the first time, that good girls are hard to find, so just get used to it. I ripped into him and he told me that it was good to vent.
Sitting on the sofa at Huang Zijian’s place, I didn’t feel like drinking at all. All the summer sunlight was making me drowsy.
I asked him if there was any way to get rid of bad luck. He put down his phone, and told me to stick out my palm. Appearing thoughtful, he said dramatically: “Ah, looking at your fate…you’re gonna die alone, man.”
I punched him. “Nonsense!”
Huang Zijian sighed and shook his head: “Unless you find someone with a fate similar to yours, it’s not going to be easy.” As he finished speaking he started laughing loudly. I ignored him, raising my feet to curl up on the couch and fall asleep.
Huang Zijian really thought he was the next Huang Daxian (A famous fourth-century Daoist, said to have turned into an immortal).
Huang Zijian invited me out to Ma Yau Tei (Reference to Yau Ma Tei, a trendy area in Kowloon, Hong Kong), a place where artsy youths gathered. There was cheesy music playing everywhere, and the whole area was packed with DSLR cameras, cafés, and flat-chested girls. Really not my kind of place—not my vibe, or, in Huang’s words, I lacked sufficient hipster credentials. I just couldn’t understand why anyone would spend 50 yuan to send a postcard to their future self, or that it’s a great idea to put on a sailor suit with a short skirt and go take pictures in an abandoned factory.
This was where Huang Zijian ran his game. He got a set of Daoist robes from somewhere and set up his little stand in front of a café/bookshop, and put his nameplate on a desk—Huang Daxian. Business was great, as he had become famous online as a hot young fortune-teller. He’d switch back and forth between Western and Chinese astrology, and brainless girls would laugh foolishly and nod, saying “Oh, you’re so good!”
I had to hand it to Huang. He understood the key points of the business, managed to put to use all the psychology he’d spent four years studying, and found a place where simpleminded people congregated. And of course he was quite handsome—how could he be anything but popular?
Every time he did his thing, I wanted to kick him to the ground. Huang told me I was just jealous. Damn straight; I was jelly on jelly. I couldn’t stand him being encircled by these girls like they were trying to have his babies. I told him, “Huang, stop scamming people. Just go and be a star or something!”
As soon as I finished speaking, he threw down his phone and dashed for the toilet. “Ah, no, I can’t be a star. I’d consider Toilet God, though.” In university, Huang Zijian had another nickname before Huang Daxian: Prince of Poo.
At this time a girl with glasses walked over to me. She looked at the plaque, then at me. I let out a silly laugh as I looked at her: “Lady, do you want your palm read?”
An ugly look appeared on her face. “Lady? Seriously? You’re a ‘lady,’ your mom is a ‘lady.’” I’d said the wrong thing, yes, but I didn’t think she’d be so savage. This was when Huang Zijian came swaggering out, and knocked me off the bench, clearing his throat. “Oh, we’ve a beautiful woman here. Do you want to know about your career, or perhaps your marriage prospects?” Her expression became much more pleasant. “I’ve seen you online”. She took out a business card from her bag. “I’m a lifestyle reporter for the City Herald, I want to interview you.” Huang Zijian put on his most charming smile. “Sure, an interview is OK, but first you gotta support my business, you know…” She extended her palm immediately. “Come on, when we’re done, come to the café with me for the interview.”
Well, shit. The difference in her treatment of each of us stung.
Huang walked out of the café all smiles, waving goodbye to the girl, and told me as he put his hand on my shoulder that he wanted to treat me to a meal. I asked why, and he asked, “Do you even have to ask? Don’t you see I’m about to blow up on the scene?”
Actually, I didn’t want to go to that meal at all; I didn’t even want to leave the house. I was still feeling the effects of the breakup, and I had a huge amount of code to write for my company’s programs. I’d already worked late into the night for days in a row, and I was exhausted. Huang Zijian ordered his favorites: pepper chicken, duck’s blood in chili sauce. He of course took a selfie to post to Weibo before eating, and then read comments from fans over the course of the entire meal.
“All right, Huang. I want to go home.”
“Wait, wait up, wait a moment!” His fingers were all over his phone and he happily gnawed at a chicken leg. “A celebrity tagged me, wow!”
I dipped my head dejectedly as I gathered up my things and got ready to leave.
“Wait, wait up, I’ve got something to say to you.”
“Then say it!”
Huang pulled me back to my seat. “You know how boring your life is? Besides looking at your computer screen and making programs, can’t you enjoy some things in life, like a nice meal?”
“Wow, I stuck around for that? I’m out.”
“Wait up, man. I’m not done.” He turned his head around and called out to the waiter. “An order of spicy crayfish, extra spicy, thanks.” He turned back around to talk to me. “You know you, yeah? You never smile. How can you be like this? You should live happily. If you have a constant sour look on your face, how can those around you be happy?”
“I want to go home.”
“You want to know the key to why you’re alone?”
“You’re what, 160, 170?”
“I’m 174, man!”
“Ok, cool, I mean I knew it was under 180. How much do you make a month?”
“Come on, you’ve known me a long time.”
“About five grand, I think. Hold on, let me take another selfie.”
“You’re a moron.”
“See, you’ve got no self-confidence. You’re not tall enough, you don’t have enough money, but forget those things. The key is you don’t believe in yourself. How can you expect others to like you when you don’t?”
I looked at my reflection in the glass. Was I that lame? Nothing Huang had said was incorrect. It started to rain outside, and Huang remarked that when people aren’t happy the weather cooperates to match the mood. At a time when others aren’t smiling upon you, the heavens still understood you.
A week later, I was headed to Ma Yau Tei to see Huang Zijian and tell him that I’d thought it out, that I was gonna try harder and up my game, when I ran into the young girl that had interviewed him. She was sitting in front of an art gallery wiping away tears, her recorder and notebook both on the ground. “Hey, lady, are you ok?” I realized I’d made the same mistake again as soon as I spoke the words.
“What do you want? You’re so annoying, just leave.” She pushed me to the ground, and as she saw me fall, she cried even harder.
“Don’t cry. Tell me what’s going on.”
“There’s nothing to talk about. I’ve messed everything up, I looked for a month and still have yet to find an interview subject. I poured my heart into it, and then the story was rejected by my boss.”
“Same here. I was killing myself churning out code for my company for the last month, but I made two errors, the program didn’t work, and my boss went to town on me.”
“Oh, so your life sucks, too.”
“Yes. And my girlfriend just broke up with me, so I’m worse off than you.”
“Yeah, you’re pretty bad.”
“Huang Zijian said that I was doomed to die alone.”
“He also said my work is going to go great! He’s such a liar, a scammer!”
“Well yeah, I mean, it’s not like he can actually see the future. He’s just some guy.”
That day Juanzi and I became friends. I hadn’t thought that our common difficulties might unite us. We were both upset with Huang Zijian. Juanzi told me that I was actually better than Huang; at least I was grounded in reality. I shook my head as I replied. He doesn’t need reality, I said, his palm-reading game works well enough. Juanzi said, yeah, well, recently girls have been going crazy for this stuff. I had a flash of inspiration, and grasped Juanzi’s hand, demanding: “What did you say? Say it again!” Juanzi said: “I said girls go nuts for this kind of stuff.” I laughed loudly, and Juanzi looked somewhat confused.
That day, I went back and bought a big stack of books on palm reading and astrology and spent a week researching those topics. I found that I could bullshit at the same level as Huang Zijian, because all of the nonsense really wasn’t that complicated. I started planning a little program while at work, and when I went home I went to work on implementing it. It really was a snap to do—who said that programmers couldn’t have a life? I set out to make my thing, and show it to Huang.
A month later, I called up Juanzi and asked her to come out. I urged her, come on, hurry, come try out the thing I made. She hurried over, asking me, “What is it? What’s so urgent?”
I turned on my phone and waved it at her. “Try it out”, I said. I opened the app and had her put her palm on the screen, to which the app responded. It played some nice music, and then started to tell her the story of her palm lines. It was one about a girl who worked hard and succeeded in the end.
“Wow, how did you make it?”
“What do you think?”
“Oh, I have to write an article about it, you have to help me out.”
“You can interview me, but first you have to help me promote it.”
“Young miss, would you like your palm read? Try our new phone app.”
“Young miss, come have a look.”
“Young miss, you’ll love this app—the lines in your palm contain a wonderful untold story.”
That day, Juanzi and I hawked the app to all kinds of people in Ma Yau Tei. Within an hour, we found ourselves encircled by a crowd of people. I told them that the app was about to go online very soon, and they could all download it.
I called Huang Zijian out to share a meal with me, and made a show of demonstrating the app to him. He laughed as he spoke: “Hey man, not bad. Really, you’ve done a good job.”
When Huang Zijian called me, I was in the middle of a meeting, but the vibrations in my pocket caused the bosses to look over at me. I made some excuse about needing to use the toilet and ran out, picking up the phone. “What, man, I’m in a meeting!”
“Screw your meeting, come to Ma Yau Tei. Someone wants to collaborate with you on your app!”
“Don’t ask questions, just come!”
My boss came out and glanced at me, saying sternly: “Stop wasting time, you’re up.”
I put away my phone quickly, and could only say a weak “oh.”
Huang Zijian looked at me extremely judgementally. He spoke: “Forget it, you’re past help.” I was used to this. He’d said the same thing to me two years ago in the office.
Back then, Huang Zijian wasn’t Huang Daxian; he was my colleague. After we’d worked together for two years, I complained to him one day in the toilet: “I can’t take it, I’m quitting!” He patted my shoulder and said “Yeah, I also plan to quit. Looking at a screen full of code every day, it’s worse than being constipated.” I, however, became aware of a little kink in my plan: what would I do after quitting? Huang Zijian had a casual response: disappear off into the sunset. A month later, he quit, and I stayed behind, writing computer code like my fingers were on fire.
“Forget it, you’re past help.” He just threw it out there, and bounced.
After Huang quit, he was all over the internet. He made a hook-up site, more or less: guys could “like” girls, and girls could “like” pictures of guys, and if they both “liked” each other, they’d receive each other’s contact information instantly. It was a really simple idea, but it was immensely popular. It protected users’ privacy and allowed everyone to avoid people they weren’t interested in. A year later, with the site enjoying a high amount of traffic, he sold it, and then really just disappeared off into the sunset. I have no idea where he went, but when he came back, he was at Ma Yau Tei working his game, living that kind of chill life.
Huang gave me a business card.
“Take a look who it is.”
My eyes almost popped out.
“BQIT? Seriously? They like my app?”
“Hey, anything’s possible. Even though your app’s just a prototype, they think it’s got huge potential. Cool, right?”
“Eh, well if I missed the boat, I missed it.”
“Missed what? Mate, they left a card, you have a shot at this!”
“Nah, I can’t contact them.”
“Liu Kangkang. This kind of mindset will have you grow old as a moron, a stupid programmer. Alone.”
Juanzi said that she wanted to treat me to a meal. Her article was finally approved. I said I wasn’t in the mood, but she said that was all the more reason to come out.
Juanzi saw how down I was at the meal, and fed me another piece of meat. “Where’s that guy who chewed me out back then? Come on, you look so down.”
“Ugh, I just feel like I’m always going to be in a not-so-great place.”
“No way. I showed that thing you made to my older brother, he thought it was great. He even said he was going to get in contact with you about it.”
“Yeah, dude, he’s a PM at BQIT.”
I almost did a spit take like in the movies. “What?!”
“Yeah. You have to believe in yourself.”
“Juanzi, this meal’s on me! Don’t even try to pay.”
That night, we walked around the Bund (The waterfront along the river in Shanghai). Juanzi talked about how she felt pretty worthless, that after graduating she’d switched jobs a number of times, always being squeezed out rather than failing, none of her bosses liking her. She talked about how if she hadn’t run into me that day, she wouldn’t have been brave enough to continue working at all. At home, her brother was always more competent than she was, and she always compared poorly against him, but she always wanted to prove her own worth through hard work.
“Do you understand that kind of feeling?”
“Ever since I was a kid my mother always liked to compare me to Huang Zijian, all kinds of stuff. Oh, he aced that test, oh, look where he got into university, check out his girlfriend, you know. I’ve always lived in his shadow.”
“You know, I actually feel a bit better after hearing that. I don’t know why, but every time after I talk to you I don’t feel so tired.”
“Yeah, well everyone who runs while holding back tears will have some other guy just lapping you, over and over.”
“Liu Kangkang, I want to drink. Drink with me!”
We chatted all night, walking around Shanghai with beers in our hands, from the Bund to Xintiandi to Huaihai Road. When we were tired out, we found a convenience store and hung out there until sunrise, enjoying each other’s company.
Looking at the feedback forms in the convenience store, I suddenly said to Juanzi: “I need to do something.”
“Potential market research.”
“OK. I’ll help you.”
In order to check out potential market data to analyse for a report, Juanzi and I ran around Nanjing Road like crazy with our phones, finding people to test the app out. I found a few girls on the street, but when I called them “lady” and asked if they wanted their palms read, I was torn a few new ones. Juanzi was, by comparison, more successful. She managed to get girls, guys, even a few foreigners. She’d say, smiling, “Hey handsome/beautiful, I’ve got something that’s gonna rock your world. Wanna try it?” In one afternoon, she got feedback from hundreds of people.
“Wow, you’re on fire!”
“Don’t fall in love with me!”
“Uh, that’s not what I meant. That’s not gonna happen.”
“You’re the worst”
“Liu Kangkang, you really aren’t any fun at all.”
“I’m going home.”
After Juanzi left, I called up Huang. He said to me “I’ll come pick you up in my car. Come to my place and check out my new console.”
“Car? Console? Huang Daxian’s struck it big, eh?”
“Yeah, I read my own fortune a few days ago, bought a lottery ticket, and won half a mil.”
“Yes, kidding. How could you believe that? I spent all the money from selling my website. I gotta start over.”
“I’m sure you’d like to.”
“Okay, enough. Anyway, what’s up with you and that reporter?
“What do you mean what’s up?”
“Mate, you’re not serious. You think you guys are just friends?”
On Monday, Huang had me take a half day off, and took me over to BQIT. I gave the potential market research report to the PM, and Juanzi’s brother was all over me with praise. Huang Zijian said “Sir, you do know we can’t sell you this.” I stared wide-eyed with shock at Huang, but he kept going. “We can work with you, but we’re to retain the copyright.” I thought Huang Zijian was certainly insane. Something like this could easily be copied immediately by anyone with basic technical expertise. This wasn’t a good strategy.
Juanzi’s brother laughed. “Nice. You do know that we could easily just copy your product and screw you guys over.”
“Yeah, you could, but we’d sue you.”
I thought Huang Zijian was most definitely insane.
“You’ve got balls, homie. You want to develop this thing together, then?”
“Yeah.” Huang was over the top. He knew I wouldn’t speak, so he just went in his own direction.
“OK, where do you work now?”
“Uh, can’t really tell you that.”
“Whatever. I’ll give you a 40 percent raise, if you come work for us?”
I couldn’t believe my ears. Forty! In my time at my current job, my total raises only amounted to 500 yuan! Huang Zijian grasped my hand, and said calmly: “We’ll have to think about it.”
“What’s the deadline?”
Huang laughed. “Yeah, I know, I’ve always been crazy.” He sipped his milk tea, full of satisfaction. “No matter what, think about it. Forty percent is no chump change.”
“But what? You call women ‘lady’ regularly. How can you do marketing? Keep on like this and you might as well just go back to your hometown.”
A week later, I got an offer from BQIT, and became Huang’s colleague again.
With Huang’s fortune-telling knowledge and my technical skill, our app quickly gained a huge market share, and bonuses came pouring in. Huang said that he never thought fortune-telling could be so profitable. With Huang by my side, I became more confident in the things I produced, and every time I gave a presentation at my office, I nailed it. My bosses liked me more and more.
Juanzi came to see her brother a few times, but never said hi to me.
A half-year later, I moved house. I wanted to invite Juanzi and Huang Zijian over to celebrate, but Juanzi said that she was busy, and so it was just me and Huang sausaging it up. Lame.
“Kangkang, are you interested in her?”
“Then don’t lead her on.”
“A girl is willing to go out in the burning sun and do ‘market research’ just as a favor? And she’s not interested in you? You’re a moron.”
After hearing all this from Huang, I called Juanzi. After two calls, she capitulated on the third. She came out with a cheongsam on, her hair all done up. I’d never seen her like that before. I didn’t have game for this.
“So, yeah…have a seat? What would you like to eat?”
“All right. How have you been? You look like you’re doing great.”
“Oh yeah, my writing’s going well, and my editors like me more and more.”
“I mean, you too, right? My brother loves you.”
“Well, I’ve you to thank for that.”
“Don’t say that. You stand on your own merits.”
“You what? Oh yeah, did you ever try it yourself?”
I shook my head as the dishes started to arrive.
I didn’t really say much the entire evening. I listened to Juanzi talk while she had a bit to drink.
Silly co-workers, things that made her laugh, things that made her fume. She killed all the beers. She looked at me, red in the face. “Liu Kangkang, actually, I’m not going to be at the paper much longer. Did you know that?”
“No, I didn’t.”
“Yeah, you didn’t. A few days ago, a guy proposed to me.”
“Well, that’s great, right?”
“Yeah, it’s great. However, I’m going to Paris soon to further my studies.”
“Sounds like a great opportunity.”
“Yeah, it is. It’s going to be for three years.”
“It’ll go quickly.”
That night, I said I’d drive her home, but she waved her hand to hail a cab. “I don’t know why, it just feels more chill to ride solo.”
That was the last time I saw Juanzi. A week later, she left the country.
The day she left, her brother saw her off. He asked me if I wanted to go, but I said I was fine just having him pass a message to her from me instead. I didn’t really have anything to say to her. I just wanted to tell her that fortune-telling was legit.
Actually, when I developed the app, I was the first user. Maybe just as Huang Zijian said, I was afraid of confronting stuff, in general. The app told me I’d succeed in making something big.
The company had a celebration that day. A newcomer came over to clink glasses with me. He asked me why I wanted to make the app.
I said, well, because girls like that kind of thing.
I felt like the light went fuzzy as I looked down at the glass. I don’t know why, but I thought about that hot afternoon, the first time I saw Juanzi. She was wearing a white dress.
As she pushed the frame of her glasses up on the ridge of her nose, for a second, I thought she was there for me.
– Translated by Moy Hau (梅皓)
Born in 1990, writer Zhou Hongxiang has published six novels; The Beauty Battlefield (《名丽场》), his most recent centers around the growth of an independent, principled career woman. Zhou has also published three short story collections and a number of stories on various publications and his WeChat channel, “zhouhongxiang19.” Winner of the 2011 Sichuan Youth Literature Award, Zhou explores themes such as the growing pains of the 1990s generation, career aspirations, and urban romance. His relatable characters and clean-cut writing style have won him a large group of young urban followers.
“Lady, Do You Want Your Palm Read?” is a short story from our issue, “Taobao Town”. To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the iTunes Store.