China Beat Archive



Jonathan Tel

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March 5, 2009 in The China Beat


Copyright March 5, 2009 Jonathan Tel. Used by permission.


This is a selection from Jonathan Tel’s forthcoming collection of short stories, The Beijing of Possibilities, to be published this summer by Other Press. Tel is the author of Freud’s Alphabet and the story collection Arafat’s Elephant. His stories have appeared in The New Yorker and Granta. Drawn to “writing fiction set in places whose inhabitants believe themselves to be at the center of the world,” Tel first visted China in 1988 and has particular affinity for Beijing.

It’s been a while since the Monkey King set out on his Journey to the West. With his Fiery-Gazing Golden-Eyes he infallibly recognized Evil, and vowed to combat it in every form. He changed shape at will and leaped from cloud to cloud. It was in the spring of 2008 that the Gorillagram appeared in mainland China. (One of those fads, we believe, that sneaked in from America or Europe.) A Taiwanese-owned company introduced the concept; they were in the business of couriering documents around Beijing, and they diversified, or call it a promotional gimmick. The way it works is that a man in a gorilla suit arrives in your building. He steps out of the elevator and jogs right up to the reception desk, banging his chest. He’s directed to the appropriate cubicle, where he sings, ‘Happy Birthday to You!’ to the lucky and amazed recipient, or ‘Congratulations on your Promotion! Ten thousand Congratulations!’ He accepts his tip, and off he goes.

So who is he, this fellow in the furry disguise? His true name is unknown; no doubt he’s a migrant worker, not legally resident in the capital. The salary is pitiful, and the costume hot and itchy; he must be from the South. He’s not as tall as he looks: his real eyes are at the level of the Gorilla’s snout, and he speaks through a veil around its throat. Six days a week, he cycles around Beijing, going wherever he’s told; sometimes he’s in a hell of a rush, pedaling like crazy, scarcely time to pant his song before he dashes to the next appointment; but there’s downtime too – he un-Velcros his head and puffs a cigarette. There are worse ways to make a living.