Beijing. Early spring, 1910. The early hours of morning. Two young men are furtively digging a hole in the hard dirt beside a small stone bridge in the hutong just north of Houhai. Most other residents are asleep. March nights in Beijing are usually cold, and most people sleep with the windows shut. But there are ears other than human. The clanging of shovels and scratching of earth draws the attention of the neighborhood dogs, whose barking threatens the men with discovery. They run off with the job half-finished.
The next night, they return and complete their excavation. They carefully lower an iron cask into the hole, covering it with dirt to conceal it. That is when they discover that they are missing a crucial item. Their mistake means another delay. After a visit to a local hardware store the next day, the two young men are back the following evening. Only now there is a human witness to their nocturnal activities.
One of the alley’s residents, who would later claim he was restless – his wife had just run off with another man – has gone out for a walk to clear his head and get some fresh air. As he is heading back home, he spots the two men poking in the dirt near the bridge. What could be in the hole? Treasure? Stolen goods? Something to sell? After the diggers have left, the man skulks toward the bridge and investigates. Uncovering the package, he is scared and surprised – or so he tells the authorities – to find that the two men had planted a bomb.