Hongbao Ne 红包呢

By Deva Eveland

    A rare and beautiful mammalian appears on the screen of my iPhone, causing me to forget whom I was chatting with or what about. Its eyes are perfectly round disks imbued with a mirth belying sentience. Atop its head rests a round red cap with a golden tassel. It is immediately clear that the creature possesses a deep spiritual knowledge. This is no mere animal. Its milky white skin exudes the softness of couches, marshmallows, waterbeds, sponge cake, teddy bear hugs. In fact, it is quite bear-like, though it is certainly no bear. What is it then? The creature is surely but one of an entire species. There must be somewhere hidden an entire ecosystem where they frolic together in unbroken harmony. And it must be a serene, beautiful, and spiritual place to nurture such a species. A place devoid of worldly suffering. There is nothing I want more than to go there. The mammalian’s disk eyes seem to sparkle with invitation.
    Question: “Where is your kind from?”
    Answer: “Hongbao ne.”
    As the creature speaks the words, the characters for “hongbao ne” jitter in the air. Its cap bobs up and down. The creature stamps its foot, causing red sparks to shoot across the ground. Its fingers unfurl into gimmie-gimmie-gimmie.
    Question: “If I give you a hongbao, you’ll tell me?”
    Answer : A plus sign inside a speech bubble.
    I begin preparing a red packet, but I’m unsure of how much to give. I worry that if I ask, the creature will know I’m a rich stupid foreigner and demand an exorbitant amount. I finally settle on the sum of 50 kuai. After I enter my pin number, I peer into its saucer eyes to gauge the reaction. They are dewy and gracious.
    “Beyond the fourth ring road,” it begins, “is the fifth ring road. And beyond the fifth ring road is the sixth ring road. Beyond that is the seventh ring road.”
    The mammalian emphasizes the seventh ring road with such gravitas that I assume I have missed something.
    “Your species lives beyond the seventh ring road?
    The saucer eyes briefly disappear and reappear again; a manner of blinking.
    “Three hundred and eighty leagues further north is a mountain called Mount Oniondeaf. Patterned stones are plentiful on its summit, and on its lower slopes there are quantities of jade and many carob trees. There is a valley on the northern face called Stagcry Valley.
    “This is your habitat?”
    “No. But here there are numerous three-eyed owls. They make a noise like rasping metal, and if you drain their blood, it can be used to poison fish.”
    I feel frustrated with this information. The mammalian smiles serenely and once again asks “Hongbao ne?”
    I look at my phone, trying to decide if this is a scam. The mammalian begins stamping out red sparks again. The characters for hong, bao, and ne are exploding around it like fireworks.
    I tap on the plus sign and send another 50 kuai.
    “Seventy leagues to the East of Stagcry Valley is a walled city called King of Spain’s Villa, which exists only as an image on a billboard. Below this billboard flows the River Weep, in which the fish have no fins, but rather bird wings. They make a sound like chopping wood. If you eat their flesh, it is an effective cure for ringworm.” abcdThe mammalian pauses and my frustration builds until it speaks again.
    “The River Weep flows East for 300 more leagues before emptying into the River Mudwash. The River Mudwash contains no fish, but there is an animal living along its banks like a wild horse, except that its anus is located above the tail rather than below it. After another 130 leagues, River Mudwash empties into a great marsh of blue grey water. Rising out of the center of the marsh is a city composed of nine identical towers.
    It is called: Moistgirl Paradise. 400 leagues north and east of Moistgirl Paradise is another city called Clutchribbon. And the fortifications of the city are covered in floral wallpaper. It is off-white. The embossed flowers reflect light. And the interior and exterior of every building are covered in wallpaper. And the denizens dress in it and all they own is also covered in it whether books or plates or refrigerators or whatever. Even the television screens. When they turn on their televisions, the rectangle of wallpaper they watch glows, but it is otherwise just the same wallpaper. The denizens of Clutchribbon are quite laconic. They spend most of their time staring at the wallpaper in a state of deep contemplation. If you ask the Clutchribboners what they are thinking about (for their expression is quite meditative), they will inevitably say wallpaper. If you ask, “WHAT about wallpaper?” they’ll struggle to put it into words for a long time. It will be so difficult for them that they’ll eventually lose focus and just go back to staring at the wallpaper.”
    I try to imagine a city of wallpaper inhabited by serene bear-like creatures, but it doesn’t seem right. The mammalian’s habitat should be more like a rainbow crystal cave or something, a sylvan mushroom forest.
    “Hongbao ne?” the creature asks. As I suspected, we are not there yet. In frustration I double the amount to 100 kuai so it will stop interrupting itself to ask for hongbao.
    “200 leagues north of Clutchribbon is a mountain called Mount Halfshade. On the lower slopes are great quantities of garbage, while on the upper slopes there is rock crystal and yellow gold. There is an animal on this mountain that looks like a human. But it is not a human because it lives in a cave.
    “75 leagues beyond Mount Wholeshade and to the East is a city called Classjoy. The people of Classjoy delight in being photographed while wearing ethnic costumes. Any nationality will do. By custom, all residents of Classjoy wear costumes of the same ethnicity at the same time. To avoid boredom, and to replace worn and torn getups, they switch cultures annually. Last year it was Balkan peasants, this year Korean royalty, which is good, because the ethnic costumes of Korea are suitable for the climate of Classjoy. When it was Innuit, the summers were unbearable. The people of Classjoy, when not being photographed wearing ethnic costumes, lie dormant. In this state of despair, they can hardly rouse themselves to eat or bathe. Once tourists bearing cameras arrive, they spring back to life again. In this way, visitors are not only important for their economy, but for their sense of self-worth. Hongbao ne?”
    “But I just gave you one for 100 kuai!”
    The mammalian is once again stamping its feet in time with the characters popping in the air around it. The bobbing tassel on its cap, the beckoning paws — the mammalian has choreographed its every move in perfect harmony with the written request. It’s all choreographed.
    “Hongbao ne. Hongbao ne. Hongbao ne.”
    This time I only give 50. I’m running out of money, and besides, I’m not convinced paying 100 got me anything more the last time.
    “I just want to know about your species,” I plead. “I don’t care about the rest.”
    The disk eyes disappear and reappear. I feel as if I’m being given the disappointed expression Master Yoda gives to Luke, though the mammalian actually lacks the range of facial motion to do so.
    “75 leagues beyond Classjoy is a mountain called Mount Hooksprout. The central slopes of Mount Hooksprout have great quantities of electrical towers growing out of them. On the summit there is a village called Goldreward, a settlement founded by means of an air crash. Though the plane is a rusted hulk of scrap, ancestral memories of the flight form the basis of their culture. Theirs is a highly stratified society in which the descendents of the Medallion Members lord over those of the economy class. The worst crime in their society is to smoke in lavatories. Hong—”
    Before the mammalian can spit out ‘bao ne,’ I have already shot off another 50 kuai.
    “In the shade of Mount Hooksprout is a deep lagoon brimming with fruit punch. It is called God’s Inkwell. The natives do not drink of the punch. Instead, the ablest of their divers plunge into it from atop a limestone pillar, armed with nets to catch the crimson squid camouflaging themselves in its depths. With the squid’s ink, the natives, who lack speech, scribble drawings and notes as their only form of language. If no squid can be caught nothing can be said, and so they are quite anxious to capture the fattest cephalopods, lest they lose all ability to speak with their loved ones.”
    The mammalian goes on in this way, telling me of the land of Skypoison and the River Moundtime and a forest with two kinds of rhinoceros, neither of which have mouths. I send hongbao after hongbao. There are more mountains and rivers winding north and east and north and west for thousands of leagues. Eventually I realize that even if the mammalian’s habitat were the very next thing described, I wouldn’t be able to find it. In my impatience I haven’t been keeping track of the markers along the way. I keep sending hongbao’s anyway. A bee as large as a duck. A city where men with four testicles must drink menstrual blood to regulate their digestive tracts. The dueling currents of the Squal and Roil Rivers, their shores littered with white jade. A mountain with weeping willows, porcupines and quantities of iron. Finally my account runs dry. The mammalian still stamps out its request for hongbao, every two seconds, for as long as I care to look at my phone.

Deva Eveland is the curator for the READ section of Loreli, a platform that hosts the visual art, sound, and writing in China. He collaborated with the historian Hieronymous Atchley on Oft Neglected Wars, a compendium of strange and forgotten military conflicts.