top of page

100¥ Entrance Fee

by Cheng An

Every Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, Little Hu walked the half-mile home from school. But on Fridays, his father Hu Wan met him at the school gates, waiting in a slick black car with the driver’s window rolled down. On these Fridays, his father would drive him to the Big Paws cat café, located far up a residential tower in an inconspicuous but prosperous corner of Changning District. First he would lead Little Hu through the glass doors, then past the unmanned desk. Then hand-in-hand into the elevator, and a whirring ascent. Then conspicuous footfalls past uniform burgundy doors – father told son that every apartment on the fifteenth floor housed boring old strangers, except Big Paws. You’d have to be very smart – or very small – to spot the little pink bell. Every week, Little Hu would ring it and Hu Wan would knock, pay the 100 yuan entrance fee, then in the little soul would go, alone, and waving goodbye to his father.

At Big Paws there was only one cat Little Hu paid attention to. She was small for her age and a little fluffy, and always fun to play with. He had named her Fan Fan and the owners of the shop had agreed that this would be her name, since in the five years of Fridays the son had been coming to Big Paws, he had watched Fan Fan grow from a newborn kitten, to juvenile, to adult. No-one knew Fan Fan better.

Once, the boss of the café had approached Little Hu, and suggested that he play with the other cats, and let the other customers have a turn with Fan Fan. In response Little Hu had clutched the soft white creature closer to his chest and frowned at the boss, who backed down a little and explained that she was really just curious about why he only wanted to play with one little cat, when the café was full of others who were also perfectly cute and cuddly, and often – it had to be said – chubby.

“The only good cat here is Fan Fan,” Little Hu had glowered. “I don’t need the others and I don’t want them.”

Later in the year, on a Friday that burned so hot that you could barely go outside for fear of your fingers turning crisp, Little Hu watched his father smile, wave goodbye, and gently shut the door of Big Paws cat café, just like he did every single week. Inside Big Paws the air stewed and Little Hu rolled over, allowing Fan Fan to pad across his chest.


Uncle Guan heard footsteps and his eyes flicked open. He tapped his work-sole on the concrete to wake up the ginger tabby resting on his lap. Her eyes flickered too and together they watched Hu Wan approach down their passageway.

“Young Hu,” Uncle Guan called. “Come into the shade, quickly, quickly.” 

“Yes, old Guan,” said Wan. He drew near.

Uncle Guan tilted back his head to get a better look at his most regular customer; a sweaty, forgettable office-dweller – albeit with a spring in his step. “When was the last time you saw me?” Uncle Guan barked, jovially.

“About six months ago,” said Wan, after a moment’s pause. Usually Young Guan or an associate without blood relations manned the alley. But not always. Sometimes the king held court. (Guan the elder’s dealings were, even to himself, quite opaque.)

“Ten, actually!” cackled Uncle Guan. “How about that!” The cat on his lap thundered contentment along with him. He calmed quickly. “You’ve paid?” he asked.

“Yes. Ten weeks in advance. Entrance fees and all extras.”

“Ten again.” The old man scratched his chin. “Now, just testing… who took your money last time?”

“Young Guan, of course.”

“Huh. Ten and ten. Guan and Guan... everything is in doubles today. God is sending us a message.”

Hu Wan frowned in irritation and tried to pass Uncle Guan in his chair, gunning for the stairway. Uncle Guan stuck out a leg to block his way. “A story first, if you’ll humour an old man.”

It was only Hu Wan’s eyes which protested.

Uncle Guan crossed his legs, almost – but not quite – dislodging the ginger tabby, and began. “When I was sixty five, my wife lost an eye. Then an ear, because she couldn’t beat the sickness and neither could her doctor. Traditional medicine also proved totally useless. More parts dropped off one by one until she passed, when I was sixty nine. What a way to crush a young man’s world, because sixty nine is still young, young Hu. Believe me.”

“I believe you,” Hu Wan mumbled, shifting his weight from one foot to the other as if the ground were on fire.

Rotter, thought Uncle Guan, looking down. Can’t you get your mind off it for more than a minute? “Isn’t your wife dead too?”

Hu Wan stared at Uncle Guan as if the man had just pulled a knife on him.


“Yes, she’s dead,” answered Hu Wan, lips tight. “Now please don’t ask any more questions like that.”

Uncle Guan harrumphed, and continued. “So be it. A month after the funeral I was walking down that blossom lane, you know, where the pet shops are. Quite a novelty. I passed the first two before I glanced into the third and saw one cat in particular, which,” he paused and patted the tabby balanced on his lap, “caught my eye. I knew, quickly, very quickly, that…”

He looked up to see that Hu Wan had slunk past him. Uncle Guan listened intently to the man’s footsteps accelerating, then diminishing to echoes overhead.


Keen of hearing herself, Hua Hua unlocked the apartment door before Hu Wan reached her floor. On the second he knocked then entered she was already pouring a glass of pink rose tea. She was barefoot, as he preferred. The gentle hum in the air told Hu Wan that she’d kept the air con moderate, probably because she was wearing a long dress, engulfing and shimmery, as he preferred. Over the three years of Fridays they had spent together, Hua Hua had won Hu Wan over to a few of the things she preferred, like washing his hands and face upon arrival, and certain mildly challenging positions. She passed him his towel: a mint green one, because she liked mint green better than any other colour, and Hu Wan seemed content to defer on such minutia, perhaps never taking notice even as they accumulated.

Before sex they sat and sipped their tea, as usual. First they talked about the weather and how this year had revealed itself to be warmer than the last, season by season. Next Hua Hua talked about her weekday job, turning skewers for her brother’s barbeque stand. A Tuesday customer had ordered three squids, eaten them, then another three, then another two, and when asked, softly, if he wanted some veggie skewers or any other meat, he had flown off the handle. Red cheeks, balled fists. Hua Hua was giggling as she recounted the squid tally, then fell right over the edge when she tried to describe the customer’s sudden fit of rage. Hu Wan smiled but did not follow her over, so she moved the conversation to Uncle Guan.

“Did you see him in the alley today?” Hua Hua asked, one hand under the table hunting for particular pills.

“Yes,” said Hu Wan. “He was being an ass, but I suppose that’s his – ”

“Did you see that cat on his lap? So cute, right? That’s his only companion these days. Everybody else died or got locked up.” Hua Hua tilted her head and watched as Wan hesitated, and then seemed to choke. “Hey handsome. Are you okay?”


“You’re sure about that?”

Wan swallowed, looked down, and then seemed to count to three. He set his tea aside. She set her tea aside too. “I’m fine,” he said, and laid a hand sheepishly on her breast. Feigning fear she mewled, and allowed him to lower her to the floor. “The only thing I want,” he continued, “and the only thing I want to think about – is you.”


By next Friday the heat had turned mellow, and Little Hu noticed that his father was driving through the traffic to get to Big Paws much faster than usual. He felt a little afraid the car would crash and they would die together. He dealt with the fear by ignoring it and thinking about Fan Fan instead. He thought about running his hands through her fur and feeling her chest vibrate beneath his fingertips. He thought about pinching her little paws and gently tweaking her whiskers. He thought about folding her ears so that she looked like a little lamb. Lately at school, whenever he felt lonely or whenever other boys made fun of him, he would go to his desk or find somewhere quiet, and think about Fan Fan. Sometimes he would play his most clever trick, and even think about Fan Fan while he was playing basketball or a chasing game with his friends, and only pretend to focus on the reality in front of him.


That same Friday, Uncle Guan was waiting for Hu Wan. Again, he was on watch in his wooden chair, with the ginger and white cat on his lap. Today he wore a battered blue jumpsuit, a relic from a decade of all-out war. An age of heated words and blows to the skull; how might soft fruit like Hu Wan have fared in such a time? Uncle Guan’s thoughts meandered in this manner until Hu Wan drew near.

“Gentleman Hu, last week you didn’t let me finish my story,” the old man scolded, with some relish.

Hu Wan cast Guan his most withering glare, but to no effect.

God will teach you patience yet, Uncle Guan thought assuredly. He began again. “About that cat I mentioned yesterday. Upon seeing her I knew, quickly, very quickly, that I had seen her before.” He paused to observe the effect his words would have. Sure enough, they left a dent in Wan, who leant back on the passageway wall – baked bricks in the colonial fashion – and began to watch the cat on Guan’s lap attentively. “In fact I felt sure, very sure, that the cat was my wife reborn. I didn’t doubt it for a second. I bought her for not very much money at all, and took her home. Then I walked back and bought all the food and equipment I needed. And now my wife is back with me, in good care, without a doubt in my mind. What I lost was never truly lost. Just briefly absent.”

Hu Wan had gone quiet. His face was a perfect mask, pale and still. “And is that her on your lap?” he said, finally.

Uncle Guan grinned. “On no. This is just an old moggy. The wife is back home.”

Wan looked distraught.

Uncle Guan stared right back at him, hard, then broke and chuckled. “Relax, ah. I’m tricking you. Want to pet her?”

Wan Hu sighed and made for the stairs. Uncle Guan watched him vanish from sight, first stepping then bounding skyward. The tabby cat swished its tail and then, quite unexpectedly, bit Uncle Guan on the finger.


Hua Hua heard Hu Wan coming even earlier than last week, and stood puzzled as, barely through the door, he kicked off his shoes made right for her, neglecting to wash his hands or face. She picked up the teapot, but thought better and set it down. When she parted her lips to speak, Wan grabbed her by the waist, pinching hard and trying to kiss her, but just as soon he folded. He folded elsewhere too, and as his grasp slackened, and Hua Hua felt cold tears running down her neck. It was hard not to feel bad for the man.

Playing nonplussed, she pushed his chin up. “That was a little rude,” she chided.

No answer. He would not meet her eyes.

“Come on. Tell Hua Hua. What’s wrong?” she insisted.

“It’s too complicated for you,” Hu Wan murmured, turning to wash his hands.

Hua Hua suspected otherwise. She had known Hu Wan had had a wife. Among her customers this hardly set him apart. He’d made passing mention of a boy too, a sweet little boy with a doting aunt – notably an aunt, not grandparents – and yet the boy remained in the whoring father’s (apparently genuine) care. Other slivers of life hinted at considerable wealth, badly spent, and long commutes to the outskirts. Each impartance whether true or false was Hu Wan’s tender expression, and even from so meagre a masculine portfolio a predictable enough pattern might be inferred. Over time, one learns the tricks.

“Baby, what’s wrong?” she tried again, drawing on a voice she kept in reserve.

Despite himself, Hu Wan became largely unresponsive, but stayed on in penitence and mild affection until the time allotted by his entrance fee ran out.


Little Hu rolled across the floor with Fan Fan. She purred quietly, content to remain limp in his arms. Time was passing slowly today in the Big Paws café. He’d checked about this with the coffee lady behind the counter, who confirmed that his father had already been away for three hours. So, already one more than the usual two. He didn’t mind of course – it meant more time with Fan Fan. At three and a half hours, the coffee lady came out from behind the counter and gave him a free hot chocolate which he sipped and fed to Fan Fan in drips, when nobody was looking. She purred slowly and the vibration moved through his thigh muscles, sending him into a kind of half-sleep. One quarter of his cocoa in the mug remained by the time Big Paws’ only door swung open to reveal his father, breathing heavily.

“Dad!” cried Little Hu, as he was gathered up into his father’s arms. He saw that his father’s eyes were red and wet at the edges. Though he’d scarcely seen adults cry in real life before, he was old enough to understand that it could happen, and for all sorts of reasons. Some people would become so, so tired, that they could cry for that reason alone. Fan Fan spilled to the floor.

“What’s wrong dad?” Little Hu whispered.

“I’m not well again,” said Hu Wan.

Little Hu smothered the jolt these words triggered. He stayed silent to let his father continue, but Hu Wan did not speak again as he carried him away from Big Paws, and into the elevator.

“Will mum ever come back?” asked Little Hu, watching his own soft face, reflected in gleaming steel.

His father still did not answer. When the elevator doors opened and his father carried him across the lobby back into the waiting world, Little Hu imagined Fan Fan trotting at his father’s heels, mewling.


Shuang stood at the window clad in a trailing gown, satin unstained and unbroken until failing drastically at the hems, a pale princess watching two orbs outside crawling closer, sending her thoughts to the boil. Upon first sighting she had stuck at her first guess: they were death’s messengers. They’d float the fifteen floors up, and then do as they may, whether searing flesh or liberating it. Or, a thrilling second guess, perhaps these twin messengers would take her to meet god – yes, pilgrimage, hence the snarling engine – whom she would at last marry and teach her tricks, but of course that would be illegal, because she was already married. Indeed the ring still burned on her finger. She grabbed to twist the metal and bit into her lip. Burning. Puncture. Searing light. Skin, turning red, and tufts of fur trapped in elevator doors. Metal biting hard, as it’s born to.

After these pleasures collapsed on themselves and the orbs faded, Shuang sighed, turned from the window, then turned back. She brought her hands to rest, clasped behind her back, where they could do no harm. Behind her, she could sense a static charge in the room. Dust was rising in columns from the floorboards.

“Daddy,” she mumbled. “Daddy’s hands.”

“Do you know who’s coming?” When summoned, her father’s voice was calm and flat, always, as if it were the only trace of him left.

“Death’s messengers,” she said with confidence, letting one hand creep from behind her to tug on the window’s golden padlock.

“No,” said that voice, “it’s god himself. He drove all the way out here to see you. But if you wish, you can turn him away. He doesn’t need to come inside.”

Shuang shut her eyes. Her fingers flexed across the cold metal like spider’s legs. In the corners of the room, she knew that tiny shards and sprouts of spectral electricity were roving, always just on the edge of one’s vision, daring to extend, steal more ground, throw this old tower into ever deeper ruin.

“What do you wish?” her father asked. “Pull yourself together and decide.”

“God is dead,” she stated, opening her eyes then padding barefoot over to her only armchair, then sinking in, slippery satin finding little purchase on the battered blood leather.

From her seat, she retained most of the window view. The orbs were dim now; gone, actually. There were lights turned on outside, neon up close and plain afar, but it didn’t matter really.  The black sheet of night buried the city and country beneath. Every shop, every shrimp pool. Black. Concealed. She ran her hands down her dress and tugged the fabric as tight as she dared. This trick summoned her mother and granted her father a body. Their papery faces looked weary. Quite weary…

“Your husband is coming in to visit you,” said her mother. “Do you remember that sound?”

A scratching, sending black bolts skittering and scratching along the walls. The key in the lock was turning. Scorch marks blooming round the keyhole. Heat, waves of heat. The hottest summer on record. Weather for a long dress and nothing else. Spent with a man. One you can stretch. One you can bite.

“I remember,” she droned. Now came a routine. So old and tiresome. First a draft of air, then a perfunctory greeting, then in came the hands of a ghost, plying. Plastic man, invisible man. She allowed her father to tie her up. Gentle hands, wafting like paper. Circled by undead moths. It was funny… he looked just like Hu Wan. Just like him.

“My husband is dead,” she insisted. “Let me see the body.”

Her father, paper face but a mask, empty, insisted, “Shuang darling, it’s me.”

“We can easily send him back to where he came from,” her mother promised. “And that way, we don’t need to tie you up. Just say the word. Just say it and he can die. I know how to open that window.”

I didn’t know any damn word, Shuang thought, and found she could not leave her chair. Perhaps if I twist, twist at just the right angle, let the cord bite, perhaps there is a new trick, perhaps if I bite my ring, bite something…

Slowly, god entered the room through the ceiling, and Shuang saw him. Everything was only an inch away, even the black lighting, and it was quiet and unbearably loud and at the same time, like the wet whisper of a child, horrid and impertinent, and she couldn’t sit still. She tried to discern his face but could hold focus only on his grid of black pores, all sprouting hairs, decorating protrusions less and less resembling real human features. Her jaws clamped and she fought them, and their clatter filled the room, harmonsing and drowning her father’s pleas, and her father’s newfound entreatments, and whatever spells god was casting. Harder than ever to remain captive now. Harder than ever to remain in denial. The black lightning tightened and ran her through, and as her back arched and bloody lips unpeeled, both pupils turned to saucers, and all hairs rose, and all ties were slashed by ragged nails extending, the ringfinger the worst of them, and there in her lonely room she began to spit and snarl.


Cheng An is a Shanghai writer who uses their experience and observations of the urban world to write strange stories.


bottom of page