Shenyang: In Search of Reverse Donkeys


An apartment complex in Shenyang, Dongbei (China). A man rides a bike full of cardboard boxes in the foreground. Parked cars line the streets.

Shenyang, Dongbei

I wore a cream-white scarf and sat on a plastic stool… Behind me were residential buildings, NE Pharm’s apartments, windows caged behind iron lattices. From a distance, the buildings looked like a prison. Wilted leeks and cabbages were piled neatly on the windowsills: old people definitely lived there. Those cargo three-wheelers we call ‘reverse donkeys’ were chained to the rails in front of the buildings. I sat in the sun in front of the wall, my face hurting from the cold wind.

– from “Free and Easy Wandering,” by Dongbei writer Ban Yu. Translated from Chinese by me.


Literature was my introduction to Dongbei, or Northeastern China, and its capital city Shenyang. I stumbled upon its ongoing literary movement “The Dongbei Renaissance” in 2020, when I was stranded at home during the pandemic. Before then, I’d known Dongbei as Father’s birthplace and China’s industrial center. After reading my first Dongbei book, I found myself shaken by Dongbeis history and the collective trauma of its economic collapse. Since the 1990s, China’s capitalist reform has obliterated the livelihood of millions of state-employed workers. The proletariats who built their country suddenly found themselves kicked out of their factories into a new identity: penniless unskilled social outcasts. They never imagined being abandoned by their government, which, proclaiming communism, promised every worker prosperity.

Father left Dongbei in 1973 when the state moved Grandpa’s work to Beijing, the metropolis I was born in. I couldn’t imagine what my life course would’ve been had Grandpa remained up north. As an aspiring writer and literary translator, I felt the urge to bring Dongbei to a wider audience. In the summer of 2021, after translating Ban’s 42-page story, I traveled to Shenyang for a literary pilgrimage.

My 38-year veteran cab driver Mr. Wu introduced himself by showcasing his knowledge of Shenyang’s narrowest streets without needing a map. As we drove along Qingnian Dajie, the ten-lane boulevard connecting the airport to downtown, the landscape of boundless poplar trees and crop fields was slowly replaced by newly constructed residential compounds. Mr. Wu pointed out to me the luxury apartment of Zhao Benshan, Dongbei’s most iconic comedian. I told Mr. Wu that I was an English and journalism student interested in Dongbei literature. Mr. Wu told me what the pre-collapse 1980s was like and which cultural landmarks I should visit. I asked him how I could see the old Shenyang portrayed in literature. “You won’t be able to find the old Shenyang anymore,” he said, “the time has completely changed.”

An intense feeling of unfairness gnawed at my heart as Mr. Wu drove me by the glamorous apartment buildings. They erased the city’s impoverished past but in no way offered an extravagant present available to everyone. I decided that even if I couldn’t find Shenyang’s past, at least I’d like to see a reverse donkey.

Reverse donkeys are tricycles unique to Dongbei. Unlike normal tricycles with the passenger’s seat in the front, reverse donkeys have the rider seated above one back wheel and a large freight container installed above two front wheels. Reverse donkeys are usually associated with high-intensity, low-skilled labor. Middle-aged riders squeeze their way through the narrowest lanes in old neighborhoods, hauling cargo loads taller than themselves, making only about ten dollars per ride.

The next morning, I rode a bike through the old industrial Tiexi District, where “Free and Easy Wandering” is set; the names of many roads there still contain the character for ‘workers’ (Gong, ). On the west side of the eight-laned “Protecting-the-Workers North Street” (工北街Wei Gong Bei Jie), concrete apartment buildings soared into the clouds, waiting for windows to be installed. In front of the apartment buildings under construction, a blue metal framework proudly displayed the names of a real estate company, a construction company, and the effusive yet literary name of the future neighborhood: “The Majestic/Honorable Passage-of-Time” (Yu Shiguang). In front of the construction site, herds of Toyotas and Nissans passed, shepherded by occasional Mercedes-Benzes and BMWs.

But only two extra blocks beyond, the streets were taken over by bikes and box vans. The pedestrian pavements were soaked in barbeque-scented water flowing from the roadside eateries. Above those neighborhood venues were rows of grey apartment buildings with crumbling exterior paint and rusting window frames. The Soviet-style former dormitory buildings were built for pragmatic use and had terrible internal lighting. Inside those poorly illuminated units, pink underwear and white baggy tank tops dangled on the clothesline above wood chests, the same wood chests I had last seen in Grandpa’s old apartment. Just like Ban’s protagonist, I quietly reacted, “Old people definitely lived there.”

Dongbei sometimes exists in Chinas cultural discourse as the joker, similar to the South in America. A Faulkner quote may encapsulate how I emoted on Shenyangs streets: The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Staring at the apartment buildings, I found myself self-interrogating for finding familiarity in this real-life landscape that, to me, only existed in literature. I knew this wasn’t a place I belonged. Deep down, I knew that I might be unconsciously seeking to experience a Dongbeiness of my literary imagination. I’d always been repelled by bloggers who visited construction-site workers’ lunch stands or diners, commented on the deliciousness and cheapness of the food, and intoxicated themselves in their sense of “human connections” at these places. It was inherently violent to romanticize and consumerize what, for other people, was hardship and poverty.

My literary pilgrimage exposed me to a morally delicate position. The overbaked idea of the survivor’s guilt—surviving China’s tide of history—could not entirely encapsulate what I pondered. In America, my foreign passport gave me the authority to write about China and translate from Chinese, and my family tie with Dongbei was what drove me to explore the region. But when I found myself on the steamy and mildly odorous streets beneath Shenyang’s parasol trees, I realized that I needed to acknowledge—perhaps even confront—the possibility of gazing in my process of translation. No matter how I could claim my passion and connection, I had never needed to live a Dongbei life I aimed to translate. I found myself always questioning: how have I earned the right to work on my project? How do I know I’ll be able to represent Dongbei to an English-language audience not only via literature but also through the heaviness of its history?

I eventually discovered a reverse donkey next to an old warehouse—it traversed the narrow neighborhood lanes as if a normal tricycle was moving backward. An old man wearing a red t-shirt transported a pile of cardboard boxes in the freight box in front of him. A few feet away from him was a white $150K Range Rover. I had no idea how it squeezed through the narrow lanes in the neighborhood. I remembered what Mr. Wu told me about Dongbei’s heyday in the eighties, when he drove through these same neighborhoods on holiday evenings, how people crowded onto the streets to find taxis to go to galas and parties.

The cardboard boxes wobbled on the reverse donkey. I held my breath, hoping that they wouldn’t fall and spill on the streets.



Born in Beijing and living in Connecticut, Tony Hao is a literary translator of Chinese-language prose. His translation of Ban Yu’s Dongbei fiction has appeared in Crayon, the sister magazine of British literary journal Litro. He recently graduated from Yale, where he majored in English and studied fiction writing and literary translation

Shenyang: In Search of Reverse Donkeys

Two Poems by David M. Brunson


Skyline of Santiago, Chile



Santiago, Chile

For over a month now, my wife and I have dangled extension cords
from our 26th-floor balcony to the neighbors’ apartment

because their landlord collects rent but refuses to pay the utility monopoly.
The girls cry when we have to disconnect, but we’ll be gone for a while,

plus there’s a chance of rain, and therefore, an electrical fire
in our 1000-person highrise. We saw one just last week. The all-volunteer

Two Poems by David M. Brunson

The Ghost of Jack Radovich 


Author's parents in a group photo from a Filipino immigrant labor camp

Photo from a labor camp for Filipino farmworkers. The author’s parents are in the center, holding her older brothers.

Mama saw her boss, Jack Radovich, standing in her row during a sweltering San Joaquin afternoon. She was picking table grapes alone when he suddenly appeared, several yards away, gazing off in the direction of the blue-gray Sierra mountains. She assumed he was surveying his vineyards, visiting his farmworkers like he aways did. He was a hardworking landowner, who usually let his young sons build and deliver the packing boxes with a beat-up, sunburnt pickup truck. The kind of boss who always seemed to know when the grape packers needed more boxes. He didn’t call out or turn toward her, but she hurried his way, eager to be the first one from her team to claim the boxes. Daddy was her foreman.

The Ghost of Jack Radovich 

Fruit Tramps, Moving On


Family Leaving Lexington


A fruit tramp family of the 1930s stayed in many places for short periods of time. We arrived, picked the crop, and moved on. That’s why we were called tramps, nomads, and many other things not nearly as complimentary. Our shelters while picking could be the loft of a barn, a converted hen house, or a small sleeps-two tent. On occasion if you were in an especially nice place, you might have a cabin or a large canvas-covered dwelling with a wooden floor. If we had a place of permanency, it was the car or truck that took us to the next job: we might spend the winter in California or pick apples in Washington State. It was all dictated by the season. Packing and moving was as much a part of our life as picking the crop.

Fruit Tramps, Moving On

The Ala Wai Canal Fish Ate Grandpa’s Spit


The skyline of Honolulu Hawaii on a cloudy day

Honolulu, Hawaii 

This is not a metaphor. Was it before his funeral? During? After? But, whichever time, my sister and I recollected how, the first time we went to my grandparents’ beloved Hawaii, we strolled with Grandpa by the Ala Wai Canal, a wide polluted channel which bounds and drains Waikiki. How he demonstrated his peculiar gift: Lobbing globular, yellowing blobs of spit from his mouth into the murky water. Our wide-eyed awe, delight, as the fish surfaced, eating his saliva, lump by lump. We copied him, leaning as far as our tiny bodies could over the concrete guardrail, but our spit was thin, flavorless. That must be it, because there were no takers breaching the sluggish water. We tried again, years later, before he and my grandmother died, on our second trip to Honolulu, but no fish wanted us, anything of us. I have my theories. Grandpa had diabetes, among other conditions—perhaps his body chemistry had altered his spit, made it palatable, nourishing even, to the fish? More fancifully, was it age? The decades he had on us, thickening, flavoring his saliva with everything he had ever eaten, mountains of rice and filet mignon and lobsters and lambchops marinated with his closely guarded recipe. The Internet says, sagely, that the custom of spitting on bait before fishing is for good luck. What about spit could draw fish to you, to certain death and consumption? People can, in dire situations, use saliva to clean themselves. Perhaps spit can erase the coming danger from the fish, as if purifying bait of fishermen’s culinary intentions. I am thinking now of when I taught my students a poetry collection by a fellow Filipino diaspora writer, how they thought the crucifixions in the poems were metaphorical. Their gaping mouths when I explained that no, in my mother’s native Pampanga, people willingly and literally crucify themselves, a bloody tribute to their adored Christ. I come from a people whose faith is physical, enacted in flesh. Here in the Hawaii my grandparents loved, after they both died within the sacred forty days, one after the other, I can feel them here. Like they’re walking next to me, shadowing each step. Like if I spit into the canal, the water’s surface will break. 

The Ala Wai Canal Fish Ate Grandpa’s Spit

Bless These Backs


This feature is part of our print and online portfolio of writing from the immigrant farmworker community. Read more online or in Issue 26.

Buckets of freshly picked apples

Part of a day’s harvest, 1985.

Bradley County, Arkansas

I stood behind the orthopedic specialist and watched the giant monitor where my MRI reports glowed. He traced the contours of my spine, his index finger waving back and forth down the screen. I had gotten his name after a months-long battle with neck and back pain. What started as fire and numbness in my right arm grew into a welter of spasm and neuropathy. This doctor was known as an oracle of back pain. He bragged of being able to guess how people used their bodies just from reading his screens.

The exhaustion of having a nameless, and, therefore, untreatable problem was eroding my spirit. I needed him to find the answer. As he squinted, he rattled off his wins, spotting the bone-wear patterns of golfers, softball players, fiddlers, and software developers. He stopped to identify the small bumps on each vertebra: bone spurs. It felt like he was stalling. Had I stumped him?           

Bless These Backs

The Bee-Eaters



The teeth of the excavator are wet. The cage opens, hovers, and grips a mouthful—some floor, some outer wall, some window frame, the glass disappearing with a tiny, tinkling sound.

Now, suddenly, the bedroom of the upstairs flat is revealed. A ragged cut-away, leaving just one perfect wall, wallpapered. Poppies on a purple field. The room, when it was a room, was probably small and ordinary; now, illuminated, it is the envy of all other rooms, the ultimate mezzanine. Light pours in from everywhere and the window frames blue sky.

The Bee-Eaters

Into the Woods


person with an orange bag walking through the dirt paths in a sun-spotted forest

Stone Mountain, North Carolina

A mile into the woods, I am always slightly afraid. Fear’s lace knots the cuff of an otherwise lovely afternoon. Nights, when I peek out of the tent, the moon is a bright friend too far away to help.

Into the Woods