The Broken Comb

A new short story from Shanghai



I live alone, apart from the cockroaches. My room is on the ground floor, down a lane. The house is as old as the People’s Republic. Damp is climbing up the walls, and the paint is peeling. I lock up my bicycle outside. At night, someone tucks it in under a blue tarpaulin. I have never seen who does this.

A line of chamber pots sits along the wall behind the bikes, drying in the wind. Further along the lane, the elderly couple keep tortoises in a porcelain basin. They settle a plank over the basin at night. The couple has a friend from one of the upstairs rooms. The man is old in an ageless way – he could be fifty, or one hundred and fifty. He comes down to the lane in his slippers. If the weather is warm, he doesn’t bother with trousers: He teams a bobbly sweater with dirty white long johns.

Around the corner from the tortoises’ basin, by the main entrance, there is a passageway to the street. Every morning a shabby mash of boxes unfurls into a dumpling stall. They sell vegetable jiaozi, tea boiled eggs, toufu patty and pickled greens. I think the proprieters are somehow related to the elderly couple. I exchange courtly nods with them  on my way to work, and the customers scoot on their stools to let me pass.

When the gate is shut at night, and my heavy door is locked, I feel as though I am in a fortress. Or a prison cell. I don’t really have windows, just little chinks the size of a catflap, too high for me to look out. That’s why I couldn’t see what was happening, though I heard everything.

The back wall of my room runs along the edge of our compound. The noises I hear come from the alley outside, just where it meets the main street. At about 8PM most nights, the trinket seller arrives. He sets out dusty teacups, re-printed Little Red Books and strings of Qing dynasty coins. The teacups and the other bric-a-brac are arranged on the little trestle tables, draped with checked cloth. Plastic desk lamps spotlight the stall, and the spectacle can draw a crowd of tourists on a good night. Laowai are magpies for dusty old crap that no Shanghai housewife would touch.

One cold evening at the beginning of winter, the old man had put his trousers back on. He held the gate for me as I came in – he was on his way out to buy more tobacco. I went down the lane, to my place. When I closed my door, I could hear the trinket seller hawking in the alley. Then the old man’s voice interupted. He seemed emotional, but his tones rise and fall in an operatic sweep when he orders his dumplings in the morning, or chats to the tortoises. So at first I only heard him.

Then I began to listen.

“It’s not yours.”

“You think I don’t know? Of course it’s mine. I gave it to her. Now she’s dead. It’s mine.”

“It’s 50 kuai.”

Ta ma de.”

“Picked it up weeks ago, round Yangpu.”

Ta ma de.”

There was a scuffle. Heavy breathing and quick steps turning the gravel.

Ta ma de!”

Then quiet.

“You broke it.” He went on – something I couldn’t catch, then, “I can’t sell it now.”

“It’s mine.”

Then quiet again.

Someone had walked away.


The next day I left my room early. But my neighbours rise with the dawn.  They were all there, scrubbing dumpling bowls and fixing up bamboo poles, heavy with laundry. Today, the old man was not wearing trousers. The long johns were looking worse for wear. He slumped on a stool by the tortoises, a jar of cloudy tea on the ground besides him. The couple’s yappy puppy was sitting on his feet. In his lap was a comb. Not one of the plastic combs they sold at the corner shop, but a heavy jade ornament. Two long prongs spiked down from a carved peony bloom. The shapes were unbalanced; there was a space for a third prong.

The man was stroking the comb, very gently, with one thumb. He muttered something to himself, or maybe to the puppy, who yapped. He saw me looking at him. He took a third prong from his pocket and held the pieces up to show me. He brought them together, one fragment in each hand, so that I could see what it had looked like, whole.

“Heavy,” I said. I don’t know how to say ‘comb’, or ‘jade’.

“She was very strong,” he said. He sat up straight, holding his neck taught. He mimed, sculpting the air around his balding pate into a high chignon, crowned with the comb. His gestured that the jade flower was a burden. “She was very strong.” He tensed his neck again, to show how she had bourne the strain, elegant.  “But now she’s dead. This is broken.”


I came home again that evening. The elderly couple had invited him round to dinner, and they were sitting around the wooden table in their front room. They leave the front door open, so their lives are never private, always shared. They were nearly finished. I could see them raising the rice bowls to their mouths, tipping the last few grains down their throats as though they were drops of water. But their friend’s chopsticks lay across his rice bowl, still full. He was watching the couple, gulping rice in practiced unison. I paused in the lane to lock up my bike. The lock is clumsy, and the key never quite seems to fit. I fumbled, swearing under my breath.

Behind me, the couple had stopped eating. I heard two hearty burps – one deep and full, the other more high pitched, feminine. Then the old man was mumbling excuses, pushing back his chair and shuffling out the door. Two voices called after him in harmony, wishing him a peaceful night. The lock finally clicked, and I turned on my heel. I raised a hand to greet the old man. He nodded back. He looked at my keys.

“You live, one person?”


“No good.” He shuffled away, into one of the darker stairwells.


Later that night, I heard voices again in the alley. The trinket seller and the old man were talking. The old man was still angry. But he was trying to sound more subdued. His voice was wheedling. Where in Yangpu had the comb been found? Who sold it to the trinket seller? When exactly? The trinket seller wasn’t interested. The thing was already broken. He’d buy other things. The old man was frustrated. His voice returned to anger.

Then I heard something smash.

Then silence again.


When I went out the next morning, the bustle in the lane was subdued. The puppy woudn’t yap. I didn’t see the old man. Out on the street, just where it meets the alley, there were shards of glassy green stone in the gutter.


I never saw the old man again. For a long time, his laundry stayed on a bamboo pole in the lane. Then one day the couple took it down. A tramp picked up every last crumb of jade from the gutter. It was no use, but he liked the idea of owning jade. The trinket seller moved his stall to a different neighbourhood.

Katrina Hamlin is a journalist and writer living in Shanghai. This story first appeared here on the China-focused literary website H.A.L. Two bits of Chinese need explaining: a "laowai" is a foreigner, and "ta ma de!" means "fuck!"