Jannis Jizhou Chen — RSEA G2 student, published author, and winner of the Singapore Tertiary Chinese Literature Awards — presents a short story inspired by his summer trip to Berlin, funded by the Fairbank Center’s Summer Grant.
On a cool morning of July 2017, a police report was filed at the university police station. The newly employed archivist of the Confucius Institute was horrified at the discovery that many of the archive materials had been tampered with; some shredded, some burnt, and much more missing. The police immediately suspected a missing woman who had lived on Kantstraße. And here is a report.
Dagma’s untimely birth was to her a condemnation. When people are born, they are usually born into a place, a family or a community — a kind of specificity in which they can come into being arborescently, extending their roots deep down into the soil while growing tall and majestic into the sky. Even if in the future their trunks will be buffeted by the wind of fate, they can still remain firm and strong. However, this was not the case for Dagma, for she was born into a kind of in-between-ness from which she had sought to extricate herself all her life, but to no avail.
Just like all the children born in wartime Berlin, Dagma’s life was tainted with a melancholic hue that bespoke the political situation of those turbulent years. The lives of these children were foreshadowed by a sense of uncertainty and precariousness that would refuse to relinquish its ghostly grasp on this generation even in many years to come. Thus, they, as early as in their youth, had learned to look back and lament over their not-so-distant past.
And of course, this was all a long time ago.
“Oh, it’s bloody cold!” Dagma groaned to herself out of discontent and wrapped the emerald green wool blanket tighter around her shoulder. Although her face was already marked by wrinkles, upon closer examination one would realise much to one’s surprise that this was a woman that time had touched but gently. The blanket emanated a familiar but repulsive smell, outdated yet relevant. It seemed that it had absorbed all the scent from the items stored in this semi-basement archive: the browning pages of the German newspaper clippings, photocopies of the dossiers from Federal Foreign Office, and some correspondence in German, English, and elementary Chinese. All was wrapped and mixed in this cold air, seeping into her bones.
It was too cold here. Dagma raised her head, and looked through the small windows to catch a glimpse of the world outside. It was by way of the field adorned with lush grass, cosmoses, petunias and agapanthuses that she was assured that it was still the height of summer. Nowadays, Dagma constantly sought affirmation externally, for over the years she had learned not to trust herself. Lately, she had even begun to misplace and forget things, small items as trivial as pens, letters and utensils. Nevertheless, ageing had given her a cynical incredulity that was self-consuming.
“Dagma, komm! Was machst du da? Komm zu Papa!” It was that tender voice again. In this semi-basement, Dagma often heard the uncanny ghostly whispers of her deceased father when she immersed herself in her life-long research about her “folk”: the wanderers and wayfarers between China and Germany, and especially the Chinese Berliners, for she too — born to a Chinese father and a German mother — belonged to this group. With the conscientiousness of a detective, she sought her folk’s existence by meticulously sieving through the archive materials which she had gathered over the years. They piled up so high on the shelves that often Dagma feared that the possibility of their sudden collapse would be her burial.
“…but perhaps this would not be so bad after all, would it? They are all I have now,” thought Dagma. As for Dagma’s father, he had never expected that his princess would end up in this pathetic situation. If he, the former owner of the best Cantonese restaurants in the whole of Berlin, had not died of heart attack at such a young age, Dagma would not have been left to her own devices at the age of 23. Indeed, he named his daughter Dagma, but this coined name always denoted a certain unsettling peculiarity which he had never grown accustomed to. For him, his daughter was always De-mei, virtue and beauty, but he knew that she needed a Western name, hence the peculiar Dagma. Unfortunately, he never got the chance to explain the connection to her. Therefore, for years, Dagma hated her name and lived under the shame of bearing this peculiar name with all the peculiarities that her Chinese father had bestowed to her. She did not believe there would be another girl in this world who could be named Dagma, a name equally un- Chinese and un-German, a marker of the in-between.
Then there was something equally strange about Dagma’s look. When she was young, she looked just like any Chinese girl from China. However, as she grew older, her countenance started to change. Her epicanthic fold disappeared, her eyes set deeper, her iris turned light amber, and even her once flat nose got higher and sharper. She eventually transformed, and grew out of her Chineseness. Anyone who saw Dagma on the street now would not have mistaken her for a Chinese. Of course they would not have known that as her face grew more German, her heart grew more Chinese. It was with this instinctual inclination that Dagma visited China a few times in the 90s, when she still harboured the hope of finding a sense of belonging in her forefather’s land, especially when the Germans had, for a long time, refused to issue her a German passport on the basis of her dubious birth and on the suspicions of her father’s dealings with the prominent communists of the 30s and 40s. Yes, she lived in Berlin without a proper passport until the wall came down, so for a long time she was neither German nor Chinese. She was simply stateless.
And of course, that was all too long ago.
That night, when Dagma got back to Berlin from the archive located in the suburbs, it was late. Like any other day, she alighted the S-Bahn at Charlottenburg, crossed Stuttgarter Platz and headed towards her flat on Kantstraße. Day in day out, after so many years, she still could not resist the temptation of glancing over the grocery shop on the square, where her father once opened the first Chinese restaurant in Berlin after the war. Diagonally facing the Bahnstation, the restaurant welcomed all the well-to-do Chinese students of Charlottenburg, who consciously differentiated themselves from their working class compatriots near Schlessisches Tor, the “yellow quarter.” In Berlin, shops disappear everyday like people, erased and rewritten like Dagma’s memory, but strangely the most distant ones seemed to linger on, unwilling to relinquish their battle waged against this urban palimpsest.
As Dagma entered her flat, she found a letter lying on the floor. It had been slipped in through the openings on the wooden door, an architectural vestige from the old Berlin. She hung her tote bag on the rustic plank, wall-mounted coat rack, before bending down very slowly to fetch the letter. “It must be from him,” she thought to herself. “Who else would still write letters these days?”
The letter was in German and like all the letters that she had received from her brother whom she had neither seen nor spoken with again since he left Germany for good ten years ago. And he never bothered to tell her where he went, but his letters came from France, Switzerland, Austria and Ukraine, never China, for she knew that he was never enchanted by that land. This time, the letter was from Russia, written in a telegram fashion, unfeelingly succinct.
Mutters Grab ist gefunden in Moskow. Vergraben mit ihrem russischen Mann. Sie hatten Vaters Vermögen… Kontakt Herr
Anikin… Alles ist gut bei mir.
Three months later, the neighbours told the landlord who was there to collect the long-due rent personally that they had not seen Dagma for months. Together with police, they entered the flat and found nothing suspicious, so they filed a missing person report. A few weeks later, the police received another report from the University’s new archivist about a burglary, many of their archive materials had been tampered with. They suspected Dagma, so the police started another round of detailed investigation about this missing woman. It was under their inquiry that the neighbours started to slowly realise how little they knew about her. They had always assumed Dagma to be her surname and German her nationality, whereas in fact they could not know for sure now. Hence, everything was tainted with a mysterious hue.
In an unforeseeable future, the flat will have a new tenant. She will be told that once in this flat lived a peculiar lady known as Frau Dagma of Kantstraße. While the new tenant is cleaning her new flat, she will accidentally find an old notebook with a distressed leather cover from the Third Reich, hidden in the secret compartment of the antique writing desk which she will have probably acquired from the landlord. On the first page she will find a humorous saying from the Chinese Berliners whom she will certainly fail to comprehend:
Von Kanton zu Kantstraße ist kein weiter Weg.
Perhaps she will start telling her friends about this notebook, and become interested in the flat’s former tenant. Perhaps she will not. Nevertheless, this will become how our story is told and how it is transmitted.
Jannis Jizhou Chen is a second-year student in the Regional Studies East Asia masters degree program at Harvard University. He is a published author in English and Chinese, and a former winner of the Singapore Tertiary Chinese Literature Awards. This short story was inspired by his summer trip to Berlin, supported by the Fairbank Center’s Summer Funding for research.