The rather staid British Telegraph recently ran a front-page story, “Caught on Camera,” about the embarrassing photo of “love cheat Sun Meng,” a decent looking chap of 25, who was caught stark naked on the outside of the second floor of a modern apartment building in Chengdu, China. He had been in bed with a married woman, makin’ whoopee as Edie Cantor used to sing, when her husband came home. Enraged, hubby threatened violence. Sun, thinking fast, scrambled onto the balcony, too narrow to hold him, and next onto a nearby protruding air conditioner. From there, too high up to jump, he had nowhere to go. A “startled neighbor” took the shot as Sun balanced on the two-foot square hunk of metal. The good samaritan neighbor posted the photo on a community website and soon the naked Sun went round the world on the Net. O tempora, O mores!

“My family is ashamed and none of my own neighbors will talk to me any more,” complained Sun. What’s to be ashamed of? Women began to appear nearly nude on the American stage 150 years ago, with the daredevil performance of Adah Menken, the Naked Lady. Adah appeared to clamorous, sold-out theaters from New York to San Francisco, and on to London and Paris, as Prince Mazeppa in a thriller based on a Lord Byron poem. A cohort of soldiers stripped her, apparently violated her, and sent her tied to a wild stallion up a four-story stage-set. The audience got to see everything except her groin area, covered by what then cub-reporter Mark Twain called a diaper. Nobody supposed she was a prince, rather a princess, and the suspense hung on whether she would live through the performance.

Nowadays we see lots of bared female flesh–on calendars, in magazines, on the beaches of the Riviera or California, not to mention, in summer, on the streets of New York City. Granted, we don’t as frequently see men in the altogether, but since the male striptease act in The Full Monty (1997), more often in the movies. Aside from obvious porn flicks, nudity is becoming expected, and to get a rise anymore, the scene needs to include spanking or some other s/m touch. Sun’s story, like Menken’s, is compelling because it involves sex–the love triangle–and danger.

“I was afraid he [the husband] would kill me,” a now-clothed Sun told the press. We haven’t a clue as to how he got down from his perch. But what really intrigues us, which has so far escaped comment, is the air conditioner. Here’s why: Letha Hadady, our contributing editor, visited Chengdu twenty years ago. Then as now it was the capital of Szechuan province, home of spicy food in China’s Midwest breadbasket, and Letha was on her way to Tibet. She was at work on her book Asian Health Secrets, which has since become the bible in its field of alternative medicine. China, still recovering from the Cultural Revolution, was a very different place. Then, Chengdu, cold in winter but hot in summer, had no air conditioners. How could poor Sun have escaped when caught in the act?

August, Letha arrived by train at Chengdu after two days of being packed in a way overcrowded compartment, the men smoking, arguing, and spitting, the women tending to their kids who wore, and peed through, pants open at the bottom sans diaper. Everybody wore worker’s blue. She stayed at the downtown JinJiang hotel for a few dollars a night for a basic room shared with four other young women and a bathroom down the hall. No towels or toilet paper provided. Of course, no air conditioning. Now, the JinJiang, recently remodeled, is a five-star establishment: “Set amidst elegant gardens, this striking Chengdu hotel towers over downtown.” Rooms with air conditioning, broadband, cable TV, and hairdryers start at $150 a night.

Letha went to see the Chinese Opera. She was taken there by a bicycle-propelled rickshaw. The audience of mostly men carried paper fans with which they cooled themselves during the performance. On the way back the rickshaw passed a dim, deserted square: In the center stood a massive statue of Chairman Mao, pigeons squatting on his head. Shortly after the American Civil War, Adah Menken played at the Theatre de la Gaite before an audience of sumptuously clad nobles, generals, men of affairs and their bejeweled consorts in Emperor Napoleon III’s Paris. It is this second Napoleon who built the city of monuments and wide tree-lined avenues that we know today. He may have been on the list of Adah’s lovers (aside from her five husbands), since she was the most desired woman in Paris and Emperor Napoleon slept around when Empress Eugenie wasn’t looking. Adah accomplished what the Kaiser’s armies failed to do a few years later: She took Paris by storm.

The Second Empire is gone and mostly forgotten, so is the Kaiser and so is Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Only adultery is eternal, and as long as there are adventurous chaps such as Sun Meng and his eager girlfriend and her bellicose husband there will be love triangles. Let’s hope the “love cheat” will always have a handy air conditioner to flee to. As Edie Cantor used to sing, “That’s what you get, folks/For makin’ whoopee!”


Michael Foster

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