Chapter 1 Dragon And Phoenix Quilt

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Early mornings in March were sometimes warm or cold.
From a small dilapidated building, sounds of cutting vegetables, frying oil cakes*, and a mother shrilly scolding her child could be heard.

*Note: A sort of pancake, very similar to roti or chapati.

Hua Jin pushed open her door to see a boy, in a blue school uniform wearing a backpack, standing in the corridor with his head down.
He didn’t even bother to look at her when she opened her door.
When his mother saw Hua Jin come out, she tried to tidy her curly hair, before asking, “ Xiao Hua, are you going to work so early?”

While Hua Jin returned her greetings, Sister Qin would fidget with her hair or sleeves, all the while, her son just stood there silently, like a potato. 

When Sister Qin noticed Hua Jin had shifted her eyes from her to her son, she stopped with all her fidgeting and began to recount her son’s many shortcomings.

“Sister Qin.” Hua Jin had to interrupt the tirading as she checked the time on her phone.
“I might miss my train, so let’s talk again tomorrow.” She bade farewell then raced down the stairs, silent enough to not trigger the sound-activated lights. 

When she arrived downstairs, she could hear Sister Qin scolding her son once again. 

After Hua Jin ate her breakfast at a roadside shop, when she exited the store, she saw Sister Qin’s son waddling along the street, crestfallen.
He was walking at a snail’s pace.

The streets were already crowded with cars even in the early morning, though there was still a bit of dull sleepiness in the air, it didn’t dampen the feeling of the day’s fight to life. 

“Be careful!” Hua Jin took two quick steps to grab the boy’s school bag to pull him to safety as a car raced past the intersection he was about to cross on.
It was quite a close call.

The little boy looked up at Hua Jin, still looking a bit dull.
After a bit, he managed to whisper, “Thank you, Sister Hua Jin.”

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“Don’t mention it~” Hua Jin was pleased.
What woman in her twenties didn’t like children calling them ‘sister’?

“Be attentive when you’re walking on the road, and be mindful of vehicles! Safety is important!” Hua Jin couldn’t help but advise the child as she tidied up his collar.
After she saw the child safely go, she rubbed her faintly aching knees, then proceeded to get on her way.

In a bustling city, one cannot afford to stop too long if you want to survive, thrive, or have a better life.
People will come and go, but the city will remain.
It’ll continue to prosper, along with the many dreamers that call it home. 

When she got off the crowded subway, Hua Jin saw a street performer busking away while pedestrians hurried along, apparently too busy to pay her any mind.
Hua Jin fished through her coat for some change, before placing them into the collection box in front of the performer.

“Thank you~” whispered the busker, who was only a little girl.

She still had her baby fat on her face and her eyes were still clear and filled with hope.
Hua Jin put her hands into her coat and smiled, “You’re welcome.
A lot of people are rushing to work in the morning, so they really can’t afford to stop to take a look.” 

As she was saying this, she pointed to a train station staff walking towards them.
“It seems talent shows aren’t allowed here, so why not relocate somewhere else?”

Obviously, the little girl was performing to make a living, but she phrased it as a ‘talent show’ to make it seem less offensive.
The girl smiled gratefully at Hua Jin.

Hua Jin smiled back and walked out of the subway station following the flow of people.

Outside, she shivered, as a cold breeze blew.
She decided to walk quickly to her place of work. 

“Xiao Huahua.” When Tan Yuan saw Hua Jin coming in, she opened the door from the inside to quickly get her out of the cold.
“It’s really windy today.
Are you cold?”

“I’m okay.” Hua Jin rubbed her hands together as she took off her coat, folded it, and put it away in her locker.
Then she started to prepare the store for opening.
The store’s decor were all either embroideries or lacquerware handmade by Tan Yuan’s parents.
They were signature pieces displayed to attract customers.

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The old couple didn’t really bother with the store’s affairs nowadays, so Tan Yuan became the big boss.
On the other hand, Hua Jin could also be considered as the second boss of the store, so they got along quite nicely. 

“We received a custom carp embroidery order last night.
As you know, I’ve never been any good at carp embroidering, so I’ll have to trouble you about doing it.” Tan Yuan laid on her table and yawned lazily.
“Young people these days! Don’t they have anything better to do than going crazy for kois and pandas? We’ve got so many other embroidery designs, but these two are always the most popular ones!” 

After speaking her mind, she turned to look at Hua Jin who was carefully cleaning the koi lotus screen, as if it had mysterious powers that could make people successful everyday. 

“Shush~” after carefully cleaning the screen, Hua Jin turned towards Tan Yuan, “Xiao Tan Yuan, a lowly vagrant like you will never understand the mysterious power of koi!” 

“Yes yes yes,” Tan Yuan exasperatedly nodded.
“Should I start calling you Hua Koi instead of Hua Jin then?” 

“If the law would allow it, I’d even go so far as changing my name to Hua Koi Panda! Cats* and kois are both auspicious!” Hua Jin hunkered down on her chair as she prepared to receive customers.
Their store may be a bit small, but it was exquisitely decorated and was quite stylish as well. 

*Note: Pandas (熊猫) in Chinese can be literally translated as “bear cats”, hence the statement. 

Custom orders were expensive as they were all embroidered by hand, and the best colored threads and Shu brocade were used.
It’s a pity though that in our fast-paced modern society, very few people would even consider paying the high price of custom pieces.
In order to adapt, survive, and thrive with the changing of the times, the shop also sells small smaller items like pendants, purses, scarves and shawls, all featuring Shu embroidery*. 

*Note: Shu Embroidery is a traditional embroidery style.
Google it for samples. 
Only literary or artsy youths were still willing to dole out their spare money to buy traditional fashion and accessories from shops like theirs. 

For ordinary people, they really couldn’t care less if the work was Shu, Xiang, Su, or Yue embroidery, etc.
As long as it was beautiful and attractive, and most importantly, that the price was right, they’d be willing to make a purchase.
Hua Jin and Tan Yuan were well aware of the current situation, so, to ensure the store’s identity remains intact and also that they remain profitable, they had to toe the line of being abreast on current trends, while maintaining their signature Shu Embroidery roots. 

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Tan Yuan’s parents were fairly traditional craftsmen that didn’t know the phrase ‘in line with the times’.
In fact, they really had no plans at all with regard to their growing young customer base. 

Hua Jin sat on her workstation busy embroidering the ‘fame and wealth’ order she still needed to finish, while Tan Yuan burned a few incense sticks to add to the shop’s mystique.  

The samples on display weren’t just there to attract customers, but were purposefully put there to display the fact that the store takes custom orders that were all hand-embroidered.
No machines were involved in the making of the final product so they could charge a higher price of them.

Recently, as traditional art forms got popular with the younger generation, some unscrupulous businessmen began selling goods produced by machines en masse as hand-made products, deceiving their customers and giving them a wrong impression on what authentic hand-embroidered goods really are.

Tan Yuan’s mother and Hua Jin’s master, Gao Shu Lan, would often sigh helplessly because of news like these.
There weren’t a lot of things in this world that one could change just by wishing it so.
The only thing they could do is to keep their intentions pure, so that every object they make with their hands has their own unique characteristics. 

At eight or nine in the morning, there were basically no guests.
So Hua Jin continued to do her embroidery work when she heard footsteps from the door.
She looked up and saw a middle-aged man in a gray and white coat standing just outside.
He was looking peering inside the shop, with his head a bit bowed and with his arms positioned awkwardly at his back.
He definitely looked uneasy.

Hua Jin put down the needle and got up to walk to the door.
“Welcome! We’re already open so you’re free to enter and browse our wares.
If you need anything, please don’t hesitate to talk to us.” 

The man squeezed out a smile.
Hua Jin noticed that he had secretly tried to wipe his hand on his trousers twice, before lightly pushing the door open.
His movements suggested that he was still uncomfortable, like he was afraid that he would dirty the shop just by stepping in. 

His eyes wandered around the store, before glancing at Hua Jin, who wasn’t paying attention to him purposefully, so his mood improved and continued to look.
There were both classic and trendy handbags on display, together with some beautifully embroidered high-heels, fans, ornaments, capes, hats, etc.
They had almost everything.
They even had mini-phoenix coronet and ceremonial robes! 

“Do you sell… quilts here?” The man’s accent suggested he wasn’t around here, but he turned towards Hua Jin and asked, “A red quilt with a dragon and phoenix design on it?” 

In this day and age, the possibilities are endless when it comes to designs because of machine manufacturing, but for hand-embroidered quilts, designs like the dragon and phoenix were not only excessively labor intensive, it was also not popular.
Even newlyweds were reluctant to buy such quilts for their wedding bed, so it was only natural that shops wouldn’t have such a product at hand.
“I’m sorry.
We don’t have any dragon and phoenix quilts in our store.”

The middle-aged man didn’t seem to be surprised at Hua Jin’s reply, so he just nodded and was just about to leave.

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“Please wait a moment!” Hua Jin saw that the man was sweating even though it was a cold day in March.
She turned to get him a glass of water, and asked, “Do you really need to buy a dragon and phoenix quilt specifically?”

The man had felt out of place from the moment he entered the shop, as his attire was a bit too shabby for a stylish place like this.
But when he saw the beautiful shopkeeper kindly giving him a glass of water, he embarrassingly thanked her.
His brows betrayed his sadness, and gullies of wrinkles had formed on forehead.
A slight trembling could also be noticed while he held the paper cup. 

Perhaps, this person had been depressed for a long time, and at the little act of kindness from an unfamiliar girl, he felt he could confide in her. 

“More than 20 years ago, I married Wa Er’s mother.
At the time, I told her that if we got rich in the future, I’d buy her a big red dragon and phoenix quilt.
But all these years, with my work needing me to go all around, with Wa Er’s school fees, the money we used to renovate our house, and the fees we needed to pay for our parents’ maintenance medication, and even now that my wife’s seriously ill… I haven’t been able to fulfill many of the promises I gave her.” The man, already in his forties, knelt on the ground and tried to cover his face as he cried bitterly.
His crying had also exposed the dilapidated condition of his shirt underneath his coat.

“I’m nothing.
I’m useless and stupid…” cried the man hoarsely.
“I finally managed to scrape some money together to send her to a big city to see a doctor, but then she got diagnosed with advanced cancer… It was all over before we started.”

Obviously exhausted, he continued to recount how good his wife is and how useless he was.
He mentioned that he had searched many places in the city, but none had the dragon and phoenix quilt he promised his wife.

Seeing a grown man cry like this, Tan Yuan was at a loss.
She tried to communicate with Hua Jin, but unfortunately, she wasn’t looking at her, so she couldn’t see what Hua Jin was thinking.

“Hearing your accent, you should be from the southwest, right? We might even be from the same town!” Hua Jin tried to console him as she gave him some tissues.
“If you really need one, I can make you one myself.”

Red dragon and phoenix quilts were once a favorite of Shu embroidery customers. 

It might have been common sense for someone who lived in a big city to send someone sick to the doctor, but the world was large and different people had different circumstances.
The sacrifice required for a poor family to send someone seriously ill to the big city for treatment, isn’t something normal city dwellers could easily understand. 

Sometimes, even our feelings and humanity takes a back seat when it comes to money.
But the irony of it all is that this unfortunate situation highlights the importance of simple emotions. 

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