Tuesday, March 23, 2004

Fu Manchu and the Golden Phoenix

Some years ago, long before he became Fu Manchu, Fu learned the secret of extending life.

He stole it – although he claimed it was fair exchange – from a sect of monks whose commune he swept and cleaned for seven years. The monks, peculiarly for their sort, did not sweep and clean their own quarters. They had lost the discipline. Their order had once had a strong discipline, a rigid and some would say harsh regimen: gruel, manual labour and an obedience that would have appealed to the very soul of old Kong. But in those times of easy living, the scions of gentlemanly families, who as you would expect made up the most part of the monastery’s complement, would have no truck with anything that might dirty their hands – preferring to pass their days in meditating and playing cards – and it became necessary to hire a boy for the job. Fu was that boy.

He wanted to tell Harry Landers, as he fastened the handcuffs on to the steel bar above his head, that he only stole the secret because the monks, degenerates all, had replaced him with a woman, their order having fallen so far from its ideals as to permit the defilement of the monastery with a female. But he doubted not only that Landers could grasp the intricacies of Chinese society of that time, although Landers did claim to be Oxford’s foremost Sinologist (which Fu did not credit, Landers’ putonghua having shown itself more than once to be lacking, unless the importance of China as an area of study had very much declined since he had last visited), but also that Landers would welcome the distraction from the serious business of figuring out how to escape from the fiendish end Fu had prepared for him.

Sometimes, in a darker hour, Fu felt he might just as well shoot them, these blowhards who came to foil his cunning plots for world domination, but it was one of the few pleasures his dwindling years afforded him to spend long hours in imagining the most fiendish of end.

He left Landers strung up by the wrists, and walked out on to the verandah of the mountain hideaway. He had built it himself, twenty years before. He enjoyed the physical work of cutting the wood, shaping it. It kept him supple and focused the mind. He had learned the art of carpentry and joining from a man in Shanghai who had built houses for merchants who had made money in opium. The carpenter had struggled with his conscience. He knew the money he was paid was dirty, that it derived from others’ misery. He knew that the merchants sometimes had one another beaten, assassinated even. He knew they were not good men. He found it hard to bear.
Fu Manchu reflected that a man can always choose. The opium does not choose the smoker. Fu knew that well. For many years he had been a dope fiend, hanging around the slums of one of the numberless cities of the south, hoping to destroy himself, to eradicate himself in opiate oblivion. It didn’t work. Fu had a core, an inner light, which no matter how he tried he could not extinguish. He blamed his youth in the monastery.

On a dark night – unseasonally dark, you might say, for July in Shanghai, but the clouds covered the moon and made it a night for evildoing – Fu Manchu drowned the carpenter in a bucket. The carpenter had been washing his face. Fu knew a fork in life’s road when he saw one, and pushed down the carpenter’s head. With all his strength he pushed the carpenter down. When he was dead, he threw his body into the harbour from a shaded boardwalk. The carpenter barely made a splash.

Fu took the carpenter’s business and expanded it quickly and ruthlessly. His strategy was simple. Some of his competitors he killed. In those times a man could disappear and hardly be missed, if you had the will to make him gone and a dark night for the deed. Fu had the will and as the year drew on, the nights became dark enough for any desperate thing a man felt he had to do. Other competitors he frightened with sorcery, which is to say by using thinly veiled threats cloaked in the melange of smoke, mirrors, blood and thunder that impresses the less educated, or did back then, before schooling became more available to the lower classes. By the close of the year, Fu had a monopoly on traditional housebuilding on the waterfront. But clouds were gathering. Soon the Europeans – who had been only an occasional, pitiable presence, mostly in the form of crazed priests, whose own version of sorcery, with its own thinly veiled threats (which Fu somewhat admired for their ferocity but scorned for their lack of personality) gripped the peasant mind of many of Fu’s workers, to his great delight, because they ceased to agitate for better conditions, having come to believe that their reward was assured in another life – began to encroach into all areas of trade. The worst of them was that they despised the wooden houses that the merchants had always loved. They held to a peculiar belief that the solidity of stone was the right medium to express wealth rather than the organic beauty of wood.

Fu knew he had two choices. Kill every European who came or change track in his business. Fu did the research. It seemed clear that Europeans were tenacious where they were not subtle. Still, he felt it would be somehow noble to kill them on principle. The meddling fools seemed to believe they had a right to the wealth of the whole world, and would trample the locals underfoot, destroy their customs and traditions, to get their grasping hands on it. There were many unemployed coolies on the waterfront whom it proved easy to inspire to a grudge against Westerners. Soon Fu had a small army of thugs, who would assassinate the European businessmen who were becoming so prominent in Shanghai. The thugs grew ever more enthusiastic. They burned and looted godowns, churches and houses; they even swam through the choppy water of the harbour to climb like rats up the anchor chain of the Europeans’ boats, to rob them of the merchandise they brought as well as that they intended to take away. Chief among the imports was opium, and Fu quickly found he owned several hundred pounds of it. He did not wish to enter the drugs trade, having been ensnared by opium himself and recognising it for the evil it was, but neither did he wish to waste the goods that he had so the scruple proved surmountable.

Fu Manchu’s thugs were not often caught. When they were, they did not speak his name, because they feared him more than any torture the authorities offered them. Still his name came to be known, and the Europeans, who had been making great profits from the opium trade, began to think that he was the worst of things in their universe – bad for business.

So they began to send their agents, resourceful although not particularly intelligent men, to find and if possible eliminate Fu Manchu. Over many years they came and he amused himself with the game of setting them ingenious puzzles, watching them blunder through Shanghai and the surrounding countryside, bemused and lost children, his playthings. He had amassed a very large fortune and employed many thousands of men. It became obvious to him that he could, if he chose, become ruler of all China, which was becoming more and more complacent of its power and, in truth, was needing only the gentlest of pushes into instability. From there, how could he be stopped, were he to arm his nation with the latest weaponry, easily purchased from the Europeans, who would sell anything to anybody if the price was right, if he wished to conquer the entire world?

But something held Fu back. He began to doubt he could rule the world and remain the shadowy figure he liked to present. He did not seek the limelight. He had managed these many years not to be known, just to be a name – not even his real name. The people who could correctly identify him could be counted on the fingers of one hand, and each of them could be eliminated in an instant if he chose. Periodically he had them eliminated anyway, just to be sure. But if he had to inspire a nation of millions, he would need to be a figurehead. There would need to be rallies, conferences, meetings. Meetings! Fu did his business in smoky rooms, speaking from behind a curtain. He began to doubt you could conquer the world from a smoky room.

The view from the verandah was splendid. The low hills and wooded valleys around Fu’s hideout shone with late spring rain. The air, fresh, with hints of pine and jasmine, made a promise of new life that even Fu, bitter as he was, could not fail to respond to. He was glad that he had begun to make the puzzles that little easier, the traps slightly more escapable, so that the European agents would at least have a chance. Their ends could be, and often were, ghastly, usually involving sharp blades, for which Fu would confess a penchant. But they were not entirely doomed. Fu had come to feel he should share some of his own ability to escape fate, that they too should not necessarily have their lives curtailed. He did not know why. He had begun to have the idea that they were like children, and he was no more than their teacher, a guru of pain. Certainly they did not understand that wisdom must be earned, which explained why he found it so easy to entrap them in the first place – they never had the experience or plain dog sense to try to cover their tracks when they arrived in China. They blustered about Shanghai and Guangzhou, shouting the odds with the locals, many of whom owed something to Fu, and could repay their debt by sharing what they heard. The fools might just as well publish a circular, Fu thought, so brazen were they.

But it tired him. He bowed his head over the rail of the verandah. He could hear the cries of Landers, who had realised what was planned for him. Fu sighed. What use was life’s game of chess, if one’s opponents must each time be taught the rules, over and over? He walked down from the verandah, on to the path that led down from his hideaway, down through the forest, over the old bridge and into town. He would eat some rice and pass perhaps an hour in contemplation of the people passing by.


“The world shall hear from me again,” says Fu Manchu, wishing that this time he will not escape from the abyss and return to one of his hideaways to lick his wounds and once more work up a plan to make himself master of perhaps not the whole world but at least the corner of it he coveted. But he knows that Landers, who did not have the sense to look behind him when he entered a dark room, can inevitably only confront him by the cliffside.

Fu curses. He doesn’t even know whether he’s cursing himself, the Europeans or the world for existing for him to dream of owning. Or nothing at all.

He will turn end over end, his voice fading, until the watching agent can no longer hear it at all, and will not see, will not know that Fu Manchu has concealed a parachute, can fly, will live a thousand years and a thousand more, always striving, always thwarted, always alone.


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