I wonder how my life would have turned out if father hadn’t been arrested and charged with taking a bribe and I hadn’t sacrificed my education to support the family because of that. His thoughts drifted back to the events that preceded his life changing decision. His father, Yin Xue-Heng (Yeen Shay-Hung) was a public servant in the customs office and had been accused of collaborating with a smuggling ring to bring illegal contraband into the country by falsifying customs declaration documents.
The job required working many hours, the pay was only average and there were few opportunities for promotion. However, the government pension policies assured him a comfortable life upon retirement. The main source of satisfaction with the job was derived from the fact that all customs officials had to pass a government exam. Because of this, they were looked upon with great respect by the general population. In their own eyes, they regarded their status to be similar to high ranking officers in the military.
However, the reality of their existence was that the single salary of a customs officer was barely enough to support a family of five. In the beginning, his marriage to a school teacher named Xiao-Mei provided for a more than adequate life style. But after she gave birth to Mo-Xiu, she was forced to quit teaching. Later, Xiao-Mei had to give up her plans to return to teaching when she became pregnant with Mo-Qian and eventually abandoned the thought entirely. In spite of the reduced income and the added expense of raising children, by living frugally they managed to maintain a satisfactory, albeit mundane lifestyle.
The only respite from their banal existence was the occasional visit by Zheng Ying-Quan (Jeng Yeeng-Cheean), Xue-Heng’s colleague, to drink tea with them. He seemed to take a great pleasure in conversing with Xiao-Mei and during one of their chats requested that she act as matchmaker to find someone like herself that he possibly might marry. At first, Xiao-Mei was very diligent and tried very hard to find a suitable mate for Ying-Quan but he always found some fault in every candidate she suggested so she lost interest and finally stopped searching altogether.
Eventually he was coerced into marrying a woman that his mother had chosen for him. He had protested vehemently, to no avail, and warned her that if anything went wrong in the marriage it was on her head.
Xue-Heng only saw Ying-Quan with his wife at the wedding. After that they were rarely if ever seen together in public and in the ensuing years, Ying-Quan still visited Xue-Heng and Xiao-Mei and acted as if he were still a single man. When asked about his wife, his disgust for her was not only apparent in the expression on his face but also in his criticism of her. “She has no social graces and doesn’t know how to interact with others. She is like a simple stupid country girl. Mrs. Cheng is too good of a title for her. She is not capable of giving a husband the support and encouragement he needs!”
Aside from Ying-Quan, the visitors most remembered by Qian were the wealthy looking businessmen that frequently dropped by bringing fruit shipping boxes. The memory was quite vivid because when they arrived he asked his wife to take the children into another room so they could have a private meeting.
He remembered that his father had always acted in an inhospitable manner during these visits. He remained silent while they were obviously trying to persuade him to accept whatever it was they brought in the boxes. The meetings invariably ended with one of the visitors angrily removing the cover from the box and yelling, “Look! If this isn’t enough, just tell us how much you want.” Then his father would ask them to leave and show them out. Although curious about the meaning of the visits, Qian never ventured to ask his father about it and his father never brought the subject up.
Some time later, after arriving at the office, Xue-Heng was shocked to find a cargo release request on his desk that he had denied, pending further investigation, that was now approved with his signature stamp. He was instantly in a panic because he was almost positive that the importer was lying about the contents of the cargo containers to avoid paying large tariffs. If they were caught, he would be blamed because his stamp was used to approve the release. He would most likely be discharged from is job without pension and may even be sued by the government for part of the back taxes owed on the imported goods. He hurried over to the customs clearing warehouse to find out why the cargo had been cleared for release with his stamp.
“Ying-Quan, I found this approved cargo release on my desk with my stamp but I didn’t approve it. Can you explain how this happened?”
“Oh, you weren’t supposed to get that paper work in the first place. The deputy director has a personal stake in this joint venture company and assigned me the job of handling all the import processing transactions for it. But, since you had already quarantined this shipment, you were the only one that could approve the release. I was directed to release all shipments without question, and the only way I could comply with my orders was to use your stamp.”
Xue-Heng felt betrayed and was so angry that he couldn’t speak for a moment. “What! How could you steal my stamp? That is forging my approval to a document that I didn’t approve of to start with.” ~~
Ying-Quan patted him on the shoulder in a patronizing manner. “It’s no big deal. In the future you don’t have to get involved because I will be handling all the document auditing for that company. We are a very small department so we have to be careful not to rub our bosses the wrong way if we are to survive in our jobs. In the end, we must do what we are instructed to do.”
Xue-Heng walked away disheartened by the revelation of this deceptive aspect of Ying-Quan’s character that he had never seen. He realized that the apparent difference in their personalities and business ethics would prevent them from remaining friends in the future. He firmly believed that a civil servant must maintain integrity of the highest level. But it was also common knowledge that some employees were greedy enough to get involved in corruption despite very stringent laws, thinking they would never get caught and he now suspected that Ying-Quan was one of those persons.
It wasn’t lunch time yet but his stomach was grumbling for food. He was anticipating the savory left over stew from last evening’s meal that Xiao-Mei had packed in his lunch box. He put his work aside and headed for the lunch room to heat his meal in the steamer, stretching his stiff muscles on the way. As he passed the bulletin board, several colleagues were excitedly chatting and glancing at a small note posted there. He did not pay attention to their conversation but looked at the note as he passed which read:
Senior clerk Zhao was investigated by the department internal affairs unit following accusations of corrupt bribery. The accusations were substantiated and Zhao was immediately dismissed with official censures placed in his personnel file and the case turned over to the judicial branch for trial. If convicted, a court interdict would be issued to bar him from any future employment in a government department.
This explained why Zhao had not been seen for several days he thought. Momentarily shocked by the news, the animated chatter in the background manifested itself as an unintelligible droning in his ears. One voice finally emerged from the din. “I never could have imagined that Zhao could do such a thing!”
Ho Chin addressed this comment with a self imposed air of authority. “How well did you know him? You know you can’t tell what a man is thinking by looking at his clothes! Besides, the investigation substantiated the accusations. Don’t assume he is an innocent victim. You don’t know how much money is involved. Whatever he did, he was not very smart about it either. If you do something illegal, you need to make sure you don’t leave any evidence behind!” His levity was not appreciated by his colleagues and the atmosphere in the lunch suddenly became tense. The way people react to a scandalous incident will always vary in emotion from utter dismay and shock to suspicion and omniscient ‘I knew it’ gloating.
Ho Chin felt his credibility fading fast so he divulged more information to further instantiate his assumption of authority about the subject. “I heard that it does not end with Zhao!” All eyes turned immediately to him eagerly waiting for him to elaborate. He savored the moment and teased them with feigned surprise. “Oh, you didn’t know that? I’m Astonished!”
“Where did you hear this?”
“The media reports say that Zhao is now telling the judicial authorities that there are others involved and that a thorough audit should be conducted to determine the entire extent of dereliction. This is really starting to snowball. The next victim could be any of our colleagues!”
Several people gasped and the atmosphere immediately became tense. “Tell us more details. What do you know? Who is in danger?”
But Ho Chin remained silent, turning his head toward Xue-Heng, fixing his eyes on him with an accusatory stare. The others followed suit and suddenly Xue-Heng felt he was being unjustly accused.
“Why are you all looking at me? I don’t know anything about this!”
“Everyone knows Zheng is your good friend. I heard this news from his mouth. Why would he not tell you about something this important?”
“I really don’t know anything about this. You say you heard it directly from him?” Xue-Heng could not believe that Zheng would not tell him either and wanted to confirm without a doubt that his close friend had withheld this news from him.
Like a ping-pong match all eyes in the room shifted back and forth between Xue-Heng and Ho-Chin, eagerly waiting for the answers to unfold that would elucidate this shocking event.
“Well, I didn’t actually have a conversation with him. You know that since the new Deputy Director took over two years ago, Zheng has become very close to him. Yesterday I was passing by the director’s office and overheard their conversation. It was there that I heard this news from Zheng. They wanted to just find an excuse to transfer Zhao and sweep it under the rug but the media found out about it and once a hint of corruption in the government becomes public, it has to be investigated to avoid the appearance of a cover-up. Especially because the article hinted that Zhao may only be the tip of the iceberg of corruption. Now the Secretary has to conduct an extensive investigation to avoid criticism. Who knows what will happen next. We could all be in danger if they go on a witch hunt and throw someone to the wolves just to satisfy the feeding frenzy of gossip columnists who are looking for blood.”
Everyone in the office was now depressed and in fear of losing their jobs or worse, being imprisoned and or fined heavily. Xue-Heng left the office early, no longer able to concentrate. His mind flashed back to the incident of Zheng using his stamp to authorize release of a shipment that he had quarantined, and worried that this might put him in jeopardy. He picked up the evening newspaper on his way home to see exactly what the press was saying.
He read the story to Xiao-Mei and the content verified that Ho-Chin’s account of the news had been accurately described. Beyond the known circumstances related to Zhao, there were vague innuendos carefully worded to avoid censure from the government. Freedom of the press was a loose term interpreted with varying degrees of latitude depending on whether or not unsubstantiated accusations were made against the government. In this case, extreme discretion was exercised because the department of commerce was directly involved.
Xiao-Mei was very concerned about Zhao’s wife. “Do you think we should call his wife or go to see her and offer to help out?”
“Don’t even mention that out loud. The authorities may have bugged our home and be listening. The paper said that there may be more employees involved which means the investigation will be in full-bore until all guilty parties are found and punished. We have to protect ourselves and not give them any reason to believe that I was involved with Zhao’s wrongdoing in any way. Besides, you shouldn’t feel sorry for someone who commits a crime. Zhao knew it was wrong and certainly must have considered that he might be caught.”
Xiao-Mei could not deny his logic but still held sympathy for Zhao’s wife. In a way, she resented that her husband sounded as if he believed that Zhao was guilty and in his mind had condemned him.
The next day, Xue-Heng installed security chains on the door to prevent unwanted guests from intruding at will.