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Jo'Burg Days: The Quiet Street

In this magical piece of writing Barbara Durlacher involves us in the centuries-old traditions of the Japanese tea house, and the studied, formal world of the geishas who devote themselves to entertaining and pleasing rich and powerful men.

Overhung by willows and plane trees, the quiet street was redolent of earlier times. Under the swooping, red lacquered eaves of the two-hundred year old wooden houses swallows’ nests clustered. Delicate rice-paper windows glowed in the westering sun, sheltering household secrets. Appetising smells wafted from the kitchen quarters, high pitched servant’s voices emphasised the quiet serenity.

Inside the house, Wang Li left her okobo, the stilt-like lacquered shoes outside the door, then walked delicately in her white split-toe socks into the softly lit room. Lifting the hem of her beautiful brocade kimono slightly she negotiated the tatami mats, and bowed deeply to each of the soberly dressed men reclining against the floor cushions. A servant-girl entered, carrying the charcoal burner and utensils for the tea ceremony. As she left the room Wang Li knelt, folding her legs gracefully under her, back perfectly straight, the rich folds of her brocaded garment arranged elegantly on each side.

Going through the motions of the tea ceremony, Wang Li inclined her head, exposing the curve of the nape, long considered the most erotic part of the female form. The avid eyes of her wealthy customers greedily devoured the entrancing sight, impatient for the long tea ceremony to be over and the entertainment to begin. Men of position and wealth, they could command anything they wanted. It was her task to entertain them and see that they were perfectly taken care of. Status and power made them impatient and allowed for few rebuttals or refusals. They were used to being obeyed.

Once more the servant entered, bringing the Samisen. Wang Li tuned the strings, and commenced the evening’s entertainment. Songs and witticisms, poetry and deftly turned compliments followed one another. With her long training and innate skill it came easily. She knew the rich businessman were satisfied and prepared to come again, eager for more. This would be good for the house; she knew her job was safe as long as they continued to pay for her fascinating arts. Their happiness was paramount; without their patronage, her livelihood was at stake and her freedom threatened.

Sold into this refined form of slavery at an early age, she trained as a Geisha from late childhood, but if she did not amuse and satisfy her clients, she would be sold off to other, less prestigious houses, where the conditions were worse and more demanded of her. This would include sexual favours of the most base sort.

Here, in this quiet street, at the Teahouse of the Silver Moon, she had risen to a rank of seniority and power, and now she could accept or refuse clients and dispense favours as she pleased. The authority and management of the establishment were hers, and if she chose to dismiss even the richest and most favoured clients with a disdainful flick of her fingers, or a click of her fan, she could get away with it. Her reputation would grow when the other geishas knew how she could command her clients to do her bidding and not lose face with her behaviour.

But, despite her cool composure, poise and lack of feeling, there was one man she liked. She appreciated his deep understanding and knowledge of her craft. He understood her mastery of the musical instruments she played so skilfully, and she valued that. He enjoyed her clever witticisms and luxuriated in her graceful bearing. His eyes lit up each time she appeared in another of the never-ending variety of beautiful kimonos intended to show off her exotic make up. With downcast eyes she had glimpsed his frank stare taking in her chalk-white face, delicately winged eyebrows, rouged rosebud mouth and doll-like pink patches on her cheekbones. She had heard his swift intake of breath as he viewed the delicately curved ‘V’ at the nape of her neck; seen his appreciation of the elaborate, lacquered hairstyle decorated with nodding plum blossom and brilliant butterflies. She knew her beauty satisfied and entranced him; that her skills at entertainment captivated his senses and chained him to her in the most powerful way possible.

But her heart was cold; and she knew she would never give herself to anyone. Despite her skilful imitation of a courtesan, a mistress and a wit, she would never love a man. She felt she could never exchange her freedom and the power she wielded for a man’s dominance in marriage. It could never be an exchange; the stakes were too high. She would continue at the Silver Moon until she had amassed sufficient prestige and money to open a Teahouse of her own, she was determined she would be beholden to nobody.

Years passed and her power and influence grew. Faces changed, new clients succeeded old; the influential ones brought their newly successful business colleagues. Japan was losing its isolationist policy, opening up to the Western world. Trade links and new contacts brought European and American businessmen eager to experience the phenomenon of a brash, yet age–old civilisation finally rousing itself from the trance of centuries.

American enterprise arrived and soon Wang Li entertained her most influential client and his new America partner. “This is Paterson-san,” said Shumikazu-san introducing the handsome American, inviting him to sit on the tatami behind the low, black-lacquered tea table. The endless evening proceeded; her jokes and witticisms sounded hollow in her ears. The instruments seemed out of tune and she felt the crystal clarity of her voice was not as fine as in the past.

But Paterson-san visited her again and again, and gradually a firm friendship developed. Then one day he indicated that he had something important to say. “I have a proposition to put to you,” he murmured as she filled his sake cup for the fourth time, “I want to give you something.”

“Yes, and I know just what it is,” she thought cynically, determined to refuse him, no matter what he suggested or how much he offered. When he took her aside later and re-opened the matter, his proposal was very different from what she’d expected.

“I want to set you up in business. I’m opening a chain of tea-houses in America, on the West Coast where certain influential Japanese businesses are located. You’ll have complete control and management of the houses. You pay me a percentage of the profits. I’ll take no part in their running and won’t interfere with anything you do.”

This was the realisation of her long-held dream; the opportunity to have a place of her own, to train other Geisha in the strict disciplines and traditions of the tea-house. She could build a business for when she would no longer be the beautiful Geisha all men desired.

“But there’s one thing you’ll have to agree to. Without this, you’ll not be able to enter the United States. You must marry me and commit yourself completely to this undertaking. Without a marriage certificate you will not obtain the necessary permission to enter America, nor will you be allowed to run my business. Unless you agree immediately, I’ll withdraw my offer, and you’ll never see me again.”

“I agree,” she whispered with a secret thrill of delight. Within a few months, when the United States entered the war against Japan she was a safely married woman in a comfortable home in Seattle. As other Japanese Nationals in the States were rounded up and sent to concentration camps where they endured primitive living conditions, a severely restricted diet and great injustice, she retired into a quiet obscurity, waiting until the War had ended. Then she opened the tea houses again.

Wang Li’s life remained one of luxury and comfort, Paterson-san provided for her and her three children. They lacked for nothing, all he demanded was that, in private, she continued to dress as a Geisha and practice her graceful arts, the tea-ceremony, the Shamisen and the Haiku, and he would take care of her for ever.

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