Bill Meilen
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CHANGO JADE

Prologue

‘Tear in the eye of Buddha’
Is the name of our mountain pool —
It is of a most celestial green
Just like this beautiful nephrite
Sent by sea from the far shores
Of Gim San, Golden Mountain.
This is a sad tear — when I hold it
Every family woe falls into place.
Chang Suey-sun
Year of the Ox — Ting Chou. 1937

FROM far away, the ringing sounds of steel on rock, and steel on steel made a busy musical rhythm of their very own. The high-pitched nasal humming of focussed working men made a mystic workmusic rise on the brisk mountain air. In the hanging dust of the main quarry, where a great south-facing curve had been carved in the living rock, gangs of Chinese men in blue denim clothing, leather coalminers’ helmets, gloves and strong boots laboured mightily, jacking, wedging, levering raw green rock from the stratified face of the cutbank.

Wherever the great blocks thundered to a dusty halt, men moved in efficiently and reduced them down to a manageable mass, steel-wedging and chiselling the stone into slabs, blocks, columns and pyramids. Others rope-sawed masses of the hard lapidary rock into blocks of a size to be carried, feeding constant water to the rope, sprinkling grits along the lay of the wet hemp saw-rope to bite into the rock. Still others sorted smaller lumps into shapes and sizes, bagging it all in strong burlap bags. Even small chips left by the masons was collected and bagged. Later it would be ball-ground to dust and reconstituted in a setting compound for carving.

There was not a real megalith among the stones that stood prepared for despatch by foot-porter down the conifered valley to the nearest flotation point. All of the quarried rock had been reduced to a portable condition, and packed on porter pallets, with not a scrap left for waste. Here and there, simple raw-wood A-frames stood propped on their poles, loaded with slabs of rock or bags of chippings large enough for one man to carry.

The well-fed quarriers ate in staggered shifts during the working day. Down at the scraped, sere river’s edge, a cooktent served a remarkable array of food of every kind, and the noisy clatter of busy cooks filled the small valley, their musical voices echoing from high escarpments. Everyone was going somewhere, doing something, except a tall square-faced man and his well-tailored but grubby companion, a younger replica of himself in his late teens, looking red-eyed and smitten with fatigue. The two watched the busy industry of the workers, then examined the men in the open air around the cooktent. For a while they watched the flashing split-cedar chopsticks as the healthy men crammed their faces with rice and fresh vegetables. The younger one made notes in a small note-pad at the elder’s behest as they moved around the worksite.

 

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