Rich Man, Poor Man,
Beggar Man, Thief.
This old English nursery rhyme his British employer said was a neat trick, which as well as helping him count would foretell what he might fall or aspire to. To Zhen this rhyme gave him no hope at all, sitting as he was on a garment factory floor sorting buttons. A menial task for a new worker, who had been stripped of his ancestral skill.But even as a boy, he'd loved buttons. Big, small, metal, plastic, and shiny; their different hues, textures, and shapes. Back then, he had been a respected tailor's son until his father's small enterprise died as the trade was taken over. It was not possible to complete garments in the same speed as the factories, although his work was detailed and finer.
“Cost too much. Cost too much.” People began to say, “Needs to be cheaper.”
So with no business or merit for his boy to inherit, but with tailoring in his blood, the father sold Zhen to a factory owner whose sole business was making clothes. The labour was hard and the daily quotas were high. Stoppages were rare: the air always filled with the sounds of machines sewing seams.
At first, Zhen, as his name suggests, had been greatly impressed; astonished at the piles of jumpers, shirts and trousers that accumulated in a single day, but this he shook off when he saw the inferior quality of the cloth and the machine stitching. His father, and likewise his grandfather, would not have been content to give these to peasants.
Zhen questioned the way these clothes were being made and earned himself more tasks of counting. His employer said he would be sure to fall to the lowest rung of the rhyme: a beggar and thief. Zhen on hearing these words, instead of being deterred, was inspired to do exactly that. He begged and stole rags of cloth, sweeping them off the factory floor and bundling them under his tunic. He often walked out the factory door with his abdomen distended, but the foreman not being quick in thought or youth, dared not challenge Zhen's alteration in physique or the taking of property since verbal warnings, firings, and company medicals meant employer grumblings and extra paperwork. At the end of a long day, all the foreman wanted to do was go home to his wife, smoke and drink.
But for Zhen, working late into the night was the start of it. In a corner of his candlelit shared hostel room he repeatedly threaded his needle. Pushing and pulling the needle and its thread in and out, in and out, of different fabric. There was never enough of the wasted cloth in one colour or pattern and so he patched his collected scraps together. Floral squares and birds caged in rectangles; cranes and rivers; moons and pagodas; emperors and concubines; and Chinese characters. His fingers were nimble, his stitches were neat, and he'd soon completed his first patchwork jacket, but quickly began work on the next.
During this time, Zhen's thieving extended to buttons, zips, clasps and food. He begged from the poor, he stole from the rich, he made deals with soldiers and sailors.
He lived to reclaim his good family name: Hui as the tailor of emperors.
*With thanks to Brandon W Jones for inspiring me to stitch this piece together. Brandon W Jones is the author of All Woman and Springtime.