The world is getting ready for the new Year of the Dog when I'm readying my head to drive down below sea level looking for civility among the racially different and unassimilated. I notice toads in Chinatown.
Check out your Chinatown shops for three-legged toads, folks. Don't be shy. I'm not making this up. Some are reddish, made of fish bone and feel like plastic trying to be ivory. Some are carved jade on a jade pedestal. They come in oil sizes. The small ones hold one coin in their mouths. The larger ones hold six coins. The largest ones are studded with fake jewels in the bumps along the back and eyes. The claws on the three legs are like chicken claws, maybe buzzard claws. Some are very well crafted. Some are clumsily done. With or without jewels, they're all of them ugly.
A three-legged toad? What’s a three-legged toad supposed to mean in Chinese street culture? “Money’s coming,” the people selling the ugly things in their curio shops tell me. “Lucky.”
“Why does it mean that?” I ask.
They know a little, but not enough to make sense. “Look at the coin in the gop nah's mouth” is all they can say and shrug. “Special to the Chinese people.” They remember the ugly three-legged toad meaning money is coming their way since they were children. People always had three-legged toads in their homes. Yeah, sure. Except during the Cultural Revolution, of course, that dark period when all Chinese culture was banned. The fairy tales, the heroic adventures, the operas and the toys and shrines and knickknacks inspired by these stories were all banned in the hope of stamping out, once and for all, what these stories teach: Life is war. The war is waged by the world against your personal integrity. We are all born soldiers. All behavior is tactics and strategy. All relationships are martial. Love is two warriors back-to-back fighting off the universe.
Nah Jah, the Boy Born from a Lotus; The Fox and the Tiger Strategy; The Wolf of Shandong; The Dragon and the Phoenix (the Chinese wedding ceremony), these are some tough fairy tales. Read these fairy tales and you’ll understand, “Kingdoms rise and fall, nations come and go,” the Confucian mandate of heaven. “Heaven” is a euphemism for “the will of the people.” The mandate of heaven is why the Chinese people cannot be conquered. No matter how many times China has been taken over by foreigners, the Mongols, the Manchus, the Japanese, the corrupt Nationalists, the Communists, the Chinese people stayed Chinese and did not become Mongolians, or Manchurians, Japanese, Christians, or Marxists.
The mandate of heaven is why Chinese individuals aren’t victims. Chinese aren’t born sinners. Chinese are born soldiers. Whatever else they might become or learn to be, doctors, lawyers, they are fighters. For the Chinese there is no Original Sin or Social Contract or Marxist-Leninist dialectical thinking. All of that presumes a higher moral authority than the individual, and in Chinese thought, there is none. To give up your power of personal revenge to the state for the benefits of a stable society is self-contempt and betrayal. If the society or the state is unstable, move, get out, or get rid of it. You don’t need the state to be you. The idea of a perpetual state in Chinese thought is immoral and perverse.
The mandate of heaven says, rulers of all kingdoms and nations sooner or later go bad, fail the people, and the people naturally form alliances and become armies to bring the kingdom down, choose a new ruler or rulers, and the mandate of heaven is cranked for another turn.
The Cultural Revolution was out to erase all of Chinese history and culture and rewrite the minds of a new generation of Chinese fit to accept the social contract and the perpetual state.
Banning Chinese culture and breaking up families, exiling the parents and separating the children seems to have worked. The students at Tienanmen Square in 1989 were the children of the children of the Cultural Revolution. Second generation no-Chinese culture. They were at the right place for the enactment of the mandate of heaven, Gate of Heaven Square, where emperors rise and fall. But they didn’t declare the state dead, null and void as the Chinese expected. To their horror and grief, the students asked for “reform.” The students failed because they no longer knew the mandate of heaven. They were no longer Chinese. They were mascots of Western civilization. All the Chinese who knew the mandate of heaven had left China. They were in Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, and over here, in the Americas. (Of course, you knew the world capital of Cantonese opera, is Vancouver-Seattle-San Francisco.)
Over here, “Americanization” — the force-feeding of the Christian stereotype of the Chinese as being so much more misogynistic and morally perverse than whites that they don’t deserve to survive through Pearl Buck — and the Chinese-American Christian autobiography, several generations of American-born Chinese Americans huffing hyphens sponged up Charlie Chan-Fu Manchu at the Bijou, never heard of the mandate of heaven and don’t want to because it sounds icky. I belong to one of those generations of the American Cultural Revolution born and raised in the U.S. between 1925 and 1966.
In 1925 they made the Chinese Exclusion Law of 1882 perfect. No Chinese women allowed. Those Chinamen too stupid to go back to China will die without reproducing. Between 1925 and 1966, the American-born, “Americanized” Chinese American became the majority of Chinese in America, as the laws, World War II, and the immigration quota allowing only 103 Chinese a year into the country stoppered up Chinese immigration and the Chinaman men died, the bachelor society who built the railroads, worked the mines, built the Chinatowns, built Mexicali, died. The bachelor society. The Chinamen who came here as boys and died without the society or company of women are today despised as misogynists and abusers of women in Chinese-American Christian autobiographies and in the movies, back home again with Charlie Chan Fu Manchu.
I’m one of the thousands of Chinese Americans who reputedly cringe at the word “Chinaman” and understand spoken Chinese to hear it but can’t and won’t speak it and hear and understand Chinamen telling everyone in the Chinese-speaking world what kind of stupid. American-born fool I am in the slang of four villages and a northern dialect.
But I don’t mind bumbling as much Chinese as I can get out of my mouth and taking them by surprise. Sun Tzu, the strategist, would give me points. And they give me a second look and second listen when I tell them the Chinese fairy tales and adventure stories in English. They know enough English to hear the shape is right and begin talking to me as if English were a variant of Say Yup Cantonese.
The mandate of heaven. I don’t have to talk about it with the Chinese in the restaurants and shops. It’s in the figures and little statues and gewgaws they sell. The statues of Kwan Kung and Kwan Yin, and Monkey and Nah Jah with his three heads and six arms. The shopkeepers and clerks know these stories. The dealers in Chinese art goods know the stories that go with everything they sell. But what has the mandate of heaven to do with the three-legged toad meaning money and luck?
They don’t know the story behind it.
“You don’t know the story behind it?” I ask.
No, they don’t know the story behind the three-legged toad meaning imminent money.
“I do,” I say, and catch another degree of their attention. “I know the story but I don’t quite understand it.”
“What’s the story?”
“LOWE HOY AND THE STRANGE THREE-LEGGED TOAD,” I say. I see them relax a bit, become kids again as I tell the story in English, making it easier to understand how I can know and tell the Chinese story and not understand it.
A village in old China. All the water for this village comes from one well. All the water they use to drink and bathe and water their plants and crops comes from this one well.
One day the people discover a strange three-legged toad at the bottom of the well. It has strange, sad eyes. It smells bad. It fouls the water of the well.
People who drink water from the well all get sick and some die. The plants watered with water from this well wither, their leaves turn black, and they die.
“How can we get this horrible toad out of our well without making the water unfit to drink?” the people ask.
Lowe Hoy, a petty official and student of Taoist magic and an odd sort himself, steps forward and looks down into the well at the three-legged toad. He looks and dresses and acts like a little boy. The top of his head is shaved. His fringe of hair hangs down like a boy’s. His clothes are open and his belly shows. He’s barelegged. He doesn’t look like an official at all.
“Whew! Does that ever smell bad!” he says.
“Can you get the toad out of the well without killing it?” the people ask.
Lowe Hoy laughs, reaches into his pocket, pulls out a gold coin, and flips it into the well.
The three-legged toad jumps at the gold coin, catches it with its tongue, and gulps it down. “Ooooh,” the people say. “Did you see that?”
A few people smile and toss a coin or two down the well. The toad snatches every one and gulps it down.
“My friends,” Lowe Hoy says smiling, “let us not forget what it is we want. We want water that does not kill our plants. We want water we can drink without getting sick and dying. The problem is not entertaining ourselves throwing our money away at the strange three-legged toad....”
Lowe Hoy takes out a long string with a large knot at the end. The string runs through the square hole stamped in the coins. He drops coins down the string and they clink, and with each clink, he jerks on the string. The large knot stops the coins from falling off the string.
Every time Lowe Hoy jerks on the string of coins, the toad jumps at the coins, higher and higher, and jumps so high it lands outside the well, and Lowe Hoy steps on the toad.
“Please, don’t kill me! Give me money! I’ll give you money!”
Lowe Hoy steps a little harder on the toad.
“Ah, I see you can’t be bought,” the toad says. “For you, I have something money can’t buy.”
“What’s that. Toad?” Lowe Hoy asks.
“World travel,” the toad says.
“Touch me, with your foot, your hand. Touch me and think of a place, anyplace in the world and you will be there.”
The strange three-legged toad speaks the truth. When Lowe Hoy touches the toad with his foot and thinks of peaches in the summertime in his childhood, he finds himself transported to the very spot of his thoughts.
He lingers awhile in his childhood, then thinks of China at the time of the Great Sage and is there, in a China near the beginning of time. He hears what Confucius has to say with his own ears.
Lowe Hoy touches the three-legged toad with his foot and thinks of the Monkey King leading the pilgrims to India to collect Buddhist texts and is just where he wants to be when he sees them, in the distance, all headed west.
Lowe Hoy doesn’t want to interfere. He wants to see what’s what. What’s art. What isn’t what, and what isn’t art.
Then he touches the toad and thinks himself back to when and where he has come from. It is as if he and the toad haven’t been away.
Even the three-legged toad enjoyed the trip. Lowe Hoy agrees, he and the toad seem to bring out the best in each other.
Lowe Hoy uses the strange three-legged toad to travel. Everywhere he travels he collects knowledge. He uses his knowledge and becomes a famous master of statecraft and a minister of state.
Now and then the strange three-legged toad hops away and disappears down a well or a pond. The people always become anxious about their water smelling like the toad and turning poisonous. Lowe Hoy always catches the toad with his string of coins before it fouls the air with its stink and poisons the water. And the people are always relieved.
“Give me money! Money! Money! Money!” the toad sings, snuggling up to Lowe Hoy’s foot.
They smile. They like the story. They understand it. They can’t explain it. The toad means lucky money.
I know the story but don’t understand it. Why is the toad a symbol of luck, money, and happiness? I can buy the toad or not, without understanding the story.
I don’t have to understand the story to get along with the shopkeepers in Chinatown. I don’t even have to speak their language or they mine. We can stay private in our own languages and cultures and get along with each other and do business with each other on the street, in English. And we do.
American English is a language of trade between traders. It is the language of the rendezvous. We are not all one. We are all traders.
Everyone came to America as a migrant and has been moving on, sometimes forced to move on, but moving on ever since. American culture is not a fixed culture. There is no one American culture. What we call American culture, like American English, is a pidgin marketplace culture. That’s the mandate of heaven. But much of America wants a dictated, strictly Judeo-Christian culture and is deaf, dumb, and blind to reality. They’re freaked with the fascist myth of the Tower of Babel, afraid of languages they don’t speak, and cultures like the Chinese that do very well without religion or superstition.
In the real world, the model of civility, of civilization is the marketplace, not the court, not the church, not the cross, but the crossroads.
This crossroads civility was a reality in Imperial Valley and along the Mexican border. It turned out to be a bubble that burst for the Japanese. The Japanese came to the Imperial Valley and successfully farmed cantaloupe and other melons, in spite of the state alien land laws that made it impossible for them to own land. A spate of popular racist novels in the ’30s damned them for being too Japanese and damned their American-born children for being too American that argued for alien land laws banning not only longterm, but short-term leases to the Japanese, withdrawing citizenship of the American-born and sending them all back to Japan. The Japanese grew their melons and prospered. Come Pearl Harbor and World War II and the bubble burst.
The Japanese of the Imperial Valley were sent to concentration camps in other deserts where they weren’t wanted.
Did you tell the Mr. Moto story?” Phil McGee asks his mother. She’s a little slip of a woman now. If I breathe on her she might blow away.
“Well, you mean during the war? What was his name?” “Moto?” Phil says and thinks again. It is not good for the dean of the College of Ethnic Studies at San Francisco State University and the musical director of the Edwin Hawkins Singers of Oakland to muff the names of people of other colors. “Momita,” he says.
Elizabeth McGee says, “He had this pharmacy, drug store, restaurant sort of thing. He tried very hard to turn it over to some black pharmacist. And the people that could do that were reluctant to leave Los Angeles area. But we were very close friends. The people on the corner, Mr. Woo...Young Yee. His name was Yee, but everybody called him Mr. Young. He had a large family. And most of those kids went into dentistry. I don’t know why but almost all of them went to dental school.”
As with the story of the toad and its symbolic meaning. I’m not sure if the story Elizabeth McGee just told is finished or how it is the story of Mr. Momita. Phil doesn’t know for sure. He asks, “Did you finish the story about Daddy, you all taking over the running of the pharmacy, the store? So did Young run it for a while?”
“Oh, DuBois was probably doing the business,” she says. “We didn’t run it.”
The whites hated the Japanese. The old movie Bad Day at Black Rock was set in the valley. One night Robert Ryan leads all the men of Black Rock out of town and kills a Japanese farmer and buries him in the desert and keeps it a secret through WWII, till Spencer Tracy comes back from the war with one arm and a medal for the father of the Japanese-American soldier who’d saved his life in Italy.
The blacks got along with the Japanese. The McGees, though, were a unique family. The patriarch was a school principal. The McGees were educated, musical, and close-knit. They not only got along with the Japanese-, Chinese-, Punjabi-speaking immigrants, and the Mexicans living on the east side of the tracks in El Centro, they “Americanized” them in school.
The Chinese let the Japanese take the heat and seemed to disappear under the rocks. The Chinese were there in WWII. They’ve been there since the time they are said to have dug tunnels under the border from Mexicali to Calexico to traffic in men. To the first Chinese, the blacks were the first Americans, and the Chinese included blacks when they said “lofan,”literally, “foreigner,” meaning, “not Chinese,” slang for “American.”
There’s talk of a “Chino Mountain” where Chinese dumped in Sonora died trying to make it to Mexicali.
The Mah family is supposed to be a force among the Chinese business and businesses of Mexicali-Calexico and El Centro 12 miles up the road. Mah, sometimes Mar, is “horse” in Chinese.
William A. Payne was the principal of the school where blacks, Mexicans, and Chinese sent their children. His daughters tutored Chinese children. His third child still lives in El Centro. I spoke with her and her son Phil, in Phil’s home.
Elizabeth McGee says, “I was born in Pasadena. My parents— William A. Payne, my father, and Zenobia — came out here in 1907. My dad came to El Centro in 1920.
“In El Centro, when we first went, we rented, and I think we had one of the two houses with indoor plumbing, and a bathtub. The McGees had the other. Mr. McGee was a plumber, so it was no trouble for him (to put in some plumbing). But mostly everybody had outdoor plumbing for many years.
“DuBois McGee, the plumber’s son, and I were the two youngest kids in the sixth grade. We mostly would play jacks.
“Most of the black families had come to pick cotton and work in the fields, so that they didn’t start school until, oh, maybe November, early December of every year. So that it took a while to get through eighth grade.
“I begged and begged my parents to let me go out. And I worked three days. I made three dollars and 18 cents. And the man that gave us transportation charged me three dollars to get to the fields. So I had a net profit of 18 cents. So I sort of lost any desire I had ever had to pick cotton.
“And DuBois was a very bright kid and didn't work in the field. And so when he was ten, some of those kids were teenagers, and you know how kids are, there was this big age difference, and so then we went through high school and junior college together and both went to UCLA.
“The families paid the way. There were very few scholarships being given. In fact, most of the African American kids did not go to high school because when they finished eighth grade, they felt they had accomplished a great deal, and then they went into the fields. Watermelon. All the crops that were growing then. And there were a number of farmers. Until they started the cotton pickers — you know, the automatic cotton picker — they needed lots of people to chop cotton and pick it.
“Well, we sort of set a lot of precedents. I mean our family. Most of the people only went to town when they had to shop and had to go to the courthouse for business. If you lived east of the railroad tracks, you mostly stayed on that side of town. And, once a year, the white Elks (Club) had a big outdoor Christmas tree and they gave every kid in town who went down there a sack of candy and oranges, so that was one day a year when kids went uptown in large numbers. But we used to go to the show. And we wouldn’t see any other black kids in the show, until they saw that we were going. And because we were a big family, they sort of, you know, what we did they sort of followed along.
“My oldest sister was ready for high school. And she was little, about five feet tall, just a scrap of a little girl, and when she went over to enroll in the high school, they almost had a riot. The kids were out in the hall, and they were screaming, just making a nuisance of themselves.
“Anyway, because they were so hostile, so my dad picked up a baseball bat, and the principal at Central said, ‘Oh, Mr. Payne, I don’t think that will be necessary.’
“And he said, ‘I’m going to protect my child.’
“And so she didn’t enroll that day. She went home, planning that he’d take her back the next day. But when he told my mother what had happened, she said, ‘Oh, no. I’m not going to let my little girl go over there, because she would be hurt.’
“So he said, ‘What will we do?’
“And she said, ‘We’ll have to teach her at home.’ Because he did have his high school credential. So he started teaching her at home. And then the next year, when several children graduated from the eighth grade, their parents asked him if they could take classes. And the next year they had built a new school for him. Because the year we went there, we were in school, right in the heart of the red-light district. There were gamblers, pimps, prostitutes all in that area. And these thugs would hang on the fence, you know, when the girls came out, you know, 'cause they were quite mature. And so when my dad went there he was determined to bring the school up to standard. And it’s interesting to read the minutes from the trustee board to hear some of the things he said which were not very complimentary about the whole situation.
“But anyway there was an extra room at the elementary school. So that was where the high school kids had a room to themselves at the elementary school. And then people from all over the valley began sending their children there, getting permission for them....
“And my dad was a kind of an educator that was far ahead of his time. So he would assign a tutor to each youngster — if they couldn’t speak English, then they would have their own tutor, plus attending classes. So they learned very fast. And my sisters who taught, remember, ‘Oh, yeah, I taught, I tutored so-and-so...kids around the community.’ ”
And she taught her own sons. “I taught Bobby and I taught Phil,” Elizabeth McGee remembers.
“I can remember she used to tell us stories about the origins of songs. How the slaves used to have to put their heads under a bucket to sing or that ‘Steal away, steal away to Jesus’ meant that the slaves were getting ready to escape,” Phil says.
“Or ‘There’s a Meeting Here Tonight,’ ” his mother says.
“Yeah, ‘There’s a Meeting Here Tonight,’ ‘The Old Campground,' they were actually Negro-oriented stories about the ancestors. And so we had storytelling time, and those specific radio programs that came on at night, like The Shadow, and Mr. Valentine, and stuff like that.
“She raised us to believe and to understand. You know, you come home, ‘Mommy! Someone called me a nigger!’
“And she’d say, ‘Well, what’s wrong with you? Why are you upset? You’re not a nigger.’
“She’d take me to the dictionary, show me the word nigger, tell me to read it. I’d read What it says and she’d ask, ‘Now is that you?’
“ ‘No. Sniff. Sniff.’
“ ‘So what are you so upset about?’
“We just would not accept the Western way of looking. We just would not. And did not. And we did not have as much to draw from — like China and Japan [for the Chinese and Japanese Americans) — as easily. Because the African dynasties and all that stuff had not really been uncovered yet. And so we were simply riding on the energy of the W.E.B. Duboises, the Frederick Douglasses, and the Harriet Tubmans....”
“El Centro was quite a segregated community because most of the Anglo Americans had come from the South, and they were accustomed to separating themselves by races. So the dividing line in El Centro was the railroad tracks. Many of the people — Hindus, Pakistani, whatever they called themselves — various names. And Portuguese and Mexicans mostly lived on the east side of town where the blacks lived.
“And the Chinese were scattered around the community because they began in the 1920s to build grocery stores. Hong Chong Store was started in 1920. It had been owned by a black man, and when he got too old to maintain the store, then he sold it to Hong Chong. So there were two Chinese stores in my area. “And my husband in the ’30s and ’40s was very close to the Chinese people because they were suspicious of lawyers, and so the banks were rather slow about lending them money. So they would get together and pool their money. And DuBois, my husband, because of his background in economics was sort of their official accountant and even lawyer, even though he wasn’t a lawyer, and they would meet when they were having disputes and he would sort of be the arbitrator.
“I can remember when I went into a drawer one day looking for something, and it was just stacked full of money and receipts and papers. It scared me so, I called DuBois, I said, ‘Come here! What is this?’
“ ‘Oh, Henry and so-and-so, Butch, they were getting ready to go into something, and they have me working on it, and I’m keeping their money.’
“Yeah, as I say, he was the lawyer, the arbitrator, and of course, after they had been here a few years they began to get more confidence. Then the banks [let them deposit their money].
“Then as they became more prosperous and began to farm and make money, they started sending for younger Chinese people. Well, then, mostly boys of course. And when they came to El Centro, mostly they didn’t speak any English.
“When the Chinese youngsters came over, then the Chinese, merchants who had children sent them to Washington school, the school where my father taught, because they were just treated better and there was no prejudice in those early years. I mean, people got along.
“But in researching the history of the black Americans, we find that there were some who came to the valley in 1904. And some of them were...some of them came by covered wagon. And there are still people, middle-aged men, who as children remember crossing the desert from Arizona in covered wagons and camping out all night.
“And the Chinese people — well, many of them came into the valley from Calexico because it was easy to cross the border and sort of lose themselves in Calexico.
“There was not much of going out for a celebration because we didn’t have a whole lot of money. With eight kids in the house, money was very scarce. And so we were very home-oriented. And then Sunday dinner, we always had extra people there, because my mother was a wonderful cook. And she could find the biggest roast, which she would usually get from Hong Chong (Store), because we were close friends with Henry Quan.
“In fact DuBois and Henry Quan were — they were really close friends. And the thing that is interesting to me and just shows the difference in people, when I go into stores, people that knew DuBois and knew my dad, you would think I was the Queen of Siam coming in there! I mean, they’d come out and just make a big fuss over me. I mean, to this day! And I went into a shoe shop just before I left home to come up here, and this woman — I don’t even know her name — but she, ‘Oh, McGee!’ [in Chinese accent]. And then she’s tellin’ this other woman in Chinese, so I don’t know what they were saying, but I mean, she was explaining who I was and so forth. And they just never forget.”
I ask Phil about Chinese friends.
Phil says, “The Chinese kids I knew normally had to work in the store after school. They weren’t very involved in any of the extracurricular activities at school.”
“What’s a teenage boy do in El Centro on a Saturday night in the ’50s?” I ask.
“On a Saturday night, if one of my friends wasn’t having a party we would sit under that famous lamppost and sing. Doowop. Or, as we got old enough, you know, after you were 15 1/2 you could drive, if you were old enough or you knew somebody with a car, you tried to sneak into Mexicali.”
THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 10, the first day of the Year of the Dog, the Day of the Chicken.
The giant Poon Goo wakes up inside an egg with his axe. It’s been 18,000 years. He breaks out of the egg with his axe and for the next 18,000 years separates the stuff inside the egg into heaven and earth. He dies and one of his eyes becomes the sun and the other the moon. His hair becomes forests and grasses. Other parts of his body become different minerals and geographical features covering the eggy stuff with soil, mountains, rivers, forests, and plains.
His sister Nur Waw comes down to a world that is a garden but has no animal life. On the first day of the new year, Nur Waw, the mother of creation, created the chicken. The second day, she created the dog. There are 15 days in the new year’s celebration. On none of those days did Nur Waw create the toad.
First the giant comes in a boat. The egg is a boat. The Chinese creation myth has no religious significance. Poon Goo is not a sacred name. Poon Goo creates Heaven and Earth, and Nur Waw the Mother of Creation is really a migration myth. Most of the days of the 15-day celebration of the Chinese New Year, I’ll be looking around and among the Chinese of the Imperial Valley and Mexicali where Chinese and other migrants have been settling, passing through, and passing on since before whites settled here.
SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 12, the Day of the Pig.
“Aren’t you ashamed to be a man telling us what is and is not Chinese culture?” the fans of Maxine Hong Kingston, David Henry Hwang, Amy Tan ask me. I give what I think is a reasonable answer saying, “What is and is not Chinese is not a matter of sex or belief but Chinese text.”
“Aha!” they say. “The Chinese have no texts!” as if everybody knew that. And I’m a literary fascist for saying so. They say they know the higher truth of Chinese culture, and there’s no way of objectively corroborating what they say unless I want to grab their ^ precious mothers around the throat and beat the truth out of them. Why would I want to do that? None of their mothers are authors or authorities on traditional Chinese stories in nny Chinatown or China I know of.
Gracie tells me another Chinese-Mexican girlfriend from El Centro who grew up all Mexican and American and zero Chinese bought a copy of Amy Tan’s Kitchen God's Wife and recommends it to Gracie to “get in touch with her roots.” She sounds so young and sweet. Married. A teacher. Mother of two. I hate to disappoint her.
“You won’t get in touch with any Chinese roots. You will get in touch with the stereotype,” I say. “All her Chinese culture is fake. She asks why the kitchen god’s wife isn’t honored. The answer is: She is. The poster of the kitchen god was a double portrait of the kitchen king and kitchen queen. And making the kitchen god a lucky man is like making Jack and his mother in ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ rich folks. It makes no sense.”
She can’t believe American publishers would sell the fake. I laugh. Either they’re lying or I am. I’m not going to teach her 12 years of fairy tales, myths, and heroic adventures in one convincing line over the phone. I’ll send her a collection of Asian fairy tales to thank her for hooking me up with her Chinese father in Calexico.
In Asian America, I’m the designated Asian male for saying there is no Chinese fairy tale that teaches that “the worth of a woman is measured by the loudness of her husband's belch,” no matter what The Joy Luck Club, the Amy Tan novel or Wayne Wang movie, says. If they insist such a story exists and was as influential as they say, it should be a simple matter for them to present the text to prove it’s real and the toys and art inspired by the story to demonstrate its influence. The stories the Chinese say are the real stories are easily found in Chinese and English and Spanish in every Chinatown I know, along with the toys, the children’s books, coloring books, comic books, playing cards, art, and criticism the stories inspired.
So when I ask people in the Imperial Valley and Mexicali and Tijuana about the toad, I don’t want to be alone. I’ll get my friend Pok-chi to ask about the toad. The question will sound a lot better in Chinese. Whatever I hear is going on tape. I want a Chinaman camera eye that has seen the contents of a Chinese childhood and has a 24-hour bullshit detector.
Will I find the difference between the real and the fake in the valley?
Are the Chinese along the border and the Imperial Valley so “Americanized” they never heard of the three brothers of the oath of the peach garden, “Three Kingdoms,” and Kwan Rung? The thought is shocking to the man I’ve chosen to be my ally.
Pok-chi Lau is a fastidious photographer who can work with the light and the degree and kind of hostility on the scene he happens to find without intruding. He has spent the last few years getting into the houses, apartments, and rooms of Chinese in Chinatowns and Chinese suburbs around the world. He snaps shots of what people put up against and hang on their walls. He photographs them among the contents of their homes in such a way we seem to be able to read them like a book.
He teaches photography at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, Kansas. Click on your best friend, the TV set, here comes The Dark Command, Walter Pidgeon is Quantrill. His raiders burn Lawrence, Kansas, to the ground. John Wayne shoots back and has a climactic fight scene. Old movie; 1940. That’s Lawrence, Kansas. What’s a Chinaman doing teaching photography and owning a house in Lawrence, Kansas?
He’s been trying to grow his own Chinese vegetables in his back yard. Bok choy, the Chinese broccoli called gai lan, and lin ngau, lily root. He doesn’t know why his lin ngau turned out small and short and red instead of the pale pink of the lily root. I don’t understand why he would choose Lawrence, Kansas, for his experiments in Chinese agriculture. Is this another expression of Chinese self-sufficiency? Everyone is born a soldier. Every soldier is a farmer?
Where we’re going is 45 feet below sea level. Where we’re going was largely farmed by the Japanese. The Japanese pioneered the growing of cantaloupes and melons in the valley. In the ’20s and ’30s, a number of novels, set in the valley, portrayed the Japanese farmers as despoilers of the environment, evil enemy agents, and a secret army awaiting orders from the emperor to drop a secret chemical into the waters of San Diego to eat holes in the bottoms of all the warships harbored there and slowly go from house to house torturing white people to death. These novels screamed for stronger alien land laws against the Japanese. The Charlie Chan movie set in the valley, Castle in the Desert, has Sidney Toler, the white man who plays Charlie Chan, this time spout a phoney Chinese name of a phoney Chinese goddess, right in front of Victor Sen Yung, a real Chinese boy from San Francisco who should know better. But Victor’s gone Hollywood and is the Chinese of Hollywood fantasy Charlie Chan’s honorable Number Three Son.
SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 13, the Day of the Sheep.
We stop at the Tien How Goong, the temple of the Queen of Heaven. Outside, the banners of Kwan Kung hang on the fence. Kwan Kung, being the embodiment of self-sufficiency and personal integrity, is regarded by both Taoists and Buddhists as the defender of all borders. It’s the fourth day of the new Year of the Dog.
Well-dressed families, young females, Chinese Vietnamese walk in, buy incense, and burn sticks of incense by all the gods, Buddhist and Taoist. Monkey, Kwan Yin, and the god closest to them, the Taoist Queen of Heaven, Tien How, flanked by her allies, the God of Thunder, Gong Gong, and the God of Wind. The caretaker of the temple casts the I Ching and gives each a slip of yellow paper. They read the message and burn it in the flames of the fire burning in an urn by the entrance. There’s a lot of smoke from all the smoldering incense. But no blood. No Fu Manchu snake-eyed priest unbuttoning the cheongsam of young sacrificial virgins. There is a roast pig. There is a ceremonial offering of steamed rice, pomolo grapefruit, oranges, and tea. This used to be the Chinese Baptist Church. Now it looks like a Chinese building. Yellow walls with red trim. The Chinese Baptist Church is in a new larger building one block north, with their own parking lot across the street.
Pok hasn’t heard the Tien How story. After a year of listening and reading, I think I have it without the frills. Tien How was a strange girl. One day her father and four brothers are out fishing in their boats and a storm blows up and separates them. Tien How runs down to the beach, goes into a trance, and points out to sea. Each of the four brothers sees a blue light in the shape of a woman appear at the bow of their boat and wave for them to follow. They follow the light out of the storm in sight of home.
Tien How’s mother is freaked by her daughter’s trance and shakes her awake. “Mother, you have done a terrible thing,” Tien How says. Her brothers appear, recognize her as the Woman in the blue flame, and fall on their knees and kowtow to her for saving their lives. When the father never comes back, Tien How’s mother realizes she did a terrible thing. Since then, the sailors of Vietnam watch for blue flames from the tops of their masts when lost inside a storm. If the flames stay flaming, they’ll make it through the storm. If the blue flame disappears, they’re doomed.
Before we cocoon up in the Pontiac with a country music station and take I-5 south, we have fish filet juk in Chinatown. Hom jin beng. The restaurant features a large ceramic statue of Kwan Kung watching the door. Pok-chi wants to buy something for his son. We stop at a Chinese department store selling everything from herbs, teas, and dried Chinese fruit to furniture, cookware and cooking utensils, bowls and plates in real ceramic and durable plastic, and of course, the stuff of interior decoration, the statues and vases and embroidered hundred birds, drums and cymbals and lions for the lion dance.
There’s a foot-tall ceramic statue of a bald-pated boy with his belly showing, Lowe Hoy, stepping on a three-legged toad and pouring water from a gourd into its open mouth. He holds a string of coins in his right hand. Pok-chi’s never seen it before J tell him about the three-legged toads in the curio shops around Chinatown. The toad means money’s coming. Why? I tell him the story of Lowe Hoy and the Strange Three-legged Toad. What kind of Lowe? he asks. The Lowe of Lowe Bay, of the Three Brothers of the oath in the peach garden. The same Lowe as his name, Lau. All men are brothers.
What kind of Hoy? The Hoy of hoy, the sea. Pok-chi grins. He understands the story. He likes the story. But he can’t explain what he understands. He’s a photographer. He communicates his understanding in photographs. Great. Pok-chi buys a little toy Lowe Hoy playing a string of coins into the mouth of a three-legged toad. He also buys a set of characters from “Monkey’s Journey to the West,” Monkey, the Tang Priest, Samsang; the dark-skinned itinerant monk Sandy, with his iron monk’s staff, and the purple pig Pigsy, carrying his iron rake.
HEY, TANG PEOPLE!
We drive over the border into Tijuana and the borderland body-shop bazaar. Pok-chi has a lousy memory for streets and directions and a lousy sense of direction. His eye is for details, the meaning of details in a frame. The streets of Tijuana are nothing but details, floods and piles and heaps and layers of details, partials, subtleties, little things on top of each other. He’s at home just looking at what’s in front of us. We are lost. I tiptoe the Pontiac around the potholes and chunks of pavement on the edges of the holes and stop by a Chinese restaurant. Pok-chi jumps out of the car, pokes his head inside the restaurant, and shouts, “Way ah-Tangyun! Hey, Tang people!”
Southern Chinese identify with the Tang. Northerners call themselves Han people and identify with the Han. The Tang and the Han were the two great periods of Chinese unification. The difference, according to my fellow Tang people, is the Tang produced the great art and the Han produced the great bureaucracy.
A few minutes later, Pok-chi comes out with a chain-smoking Chinese, the owner of this particular restaurant, who has offered to lead us to Seto’s restaurant on his way to pick up something for his restaurant.
Seto has no time to talk to us. The microphone freaks him. He’s friendly and freaked. He says his cook is on vacation for the next two weeks and he has to cook in his place. The cook he hired is from China; $1200 a month is what a cook from China gets, and $280 a month is what a “local,” a Mexican or a Chinese too long in America, gets. The young Mexican man cooking with him has been here ten years. He’s tried going elsewhere to cook, but he can’t make as much anywhere else as he does here.
The fine and serious Chinese chefs don’t come to the borderlands. Where could they go if they made a reputation here as the finest Chinese chef in Tijuana? Make your rep in San Francisco, Vancouver, Los Angeles, you can go wherever there’s a major international airport. New York. Paris.
Seto encouraged his cashier, Ah-Connie, to learn Spanish and gave her a job. She takes the cash and handles the telephone, taking take-out orders. She tells us we missed the big Chinese New Year’s party last Friday, the tenth, the first day of the Year of the Dog. The party was held in one of the largest Chinese restaurants in Tijuana. Food, the lion dance with drums and gongs. Firecrackers and a beauty pageant and food and 2000 partying Chinese.
Ah-Connie is younger than my 30-year-old daughter. She and her daughter, with her husband’s approval, signed up for a ’round-the-world tour. Paris, London, Amsterdam, Mexico City. She and her daughter faded from the tour in Mexico City three years ago. Her tourist visa is no longer valid. She’s an illegal immigrant. She’s worked a series of Chinese restaurants here. Finding work wasn’t that hard. There are 160 Chinese restaurants in Tijuana. She did menial kitchen work because she didn’t speak Spanish till she came to work for Seto. Seto says to get a job where she can make real money here, she has to learn to read and write Spanish, not merely speak it. And after she’s learned Spanish, English won’t be that hard.
She’s studying Spanish, speaks well enough to carry on restaurant biz, and walks her daughter to Catholic school every day. She lives in an apartment where it leaks when it rains. She and her daughter live a better life here than in China. She doesn’t know when she’ll see her husband again. I take a look around at what’s better than China for her. Even as an illegal staying a few steps ahead of being deported, life is easier here in the squalor and stench of Tijuana than in China.
“What’s freedom if the country’s not free?” she asks, as if the individual is always free; it’s the mandate of heaven. When the state no longer benefits the people, the people will bring the state down and will choose a new ruler — or leave heaven or China or slavery or disaster or war and come to a country that is free. For Ah-Connie this is a vision of a free country. She could have plunked out of that ’round-the-world tour in Paris — lots of Chinese there — or Amsterdam — nice city with a nice Chinatown. But, no, this was it: Tijuana. There’s just something about this place. People just feel more free to be themselves here. Tijuana?
“What is freedom if the country is not free?” Pok-chi translates into English and tears come to his eyes. I don’t think the tears are for the meeting of the Confucian mandate of heaven . and Thomas Jefferson’s notion of government ruling with the consent of the governed I’ve just heard.
Pok says he wants to give her daughter a Chinese New Year’s present and asks her if she’s heard of the three-legged toad. She’s not sure. Seto’s heard of the three-legged toad. It means money’s coming. Does he know the story? No, he only knows what the toad is supposed to mean. You see money in the toad’s mouth. That’s supposed to mean money’s coming.
Money’s coming is Arturo Wu.
Arturo Wu has the phoenix eyes. Black as intense and dark as the eyes of an eagle. He’s a big man. Big chest. Muscles tending toward a taut pudge. He looks good, dresses sharp but not flashy. He sits erect, grinning, friendly, and intimidates everyone at the table into a kind of reverence. In the Cultural Revolution he was separated from his family and sent to the country to live with peasants. He says it was the best preparation in the world for coming to America. He learned how to work like an ox. He learned how to work as a horse. He learned how to cook for himself, how to grow things, how to build things with his hands. The peasants taught him how to work hard.
Arturo married and his father-in-law in Mexico brought the married couple over to work in his restaurant. After learning to work in the fields of China and live like a peasant, making money in America was easy. From cooking in his father-in-law’s restaurant he built an empire and a reputation as a great family man, he says, a great Chinese father. He’s so well-known as a good Chinese father and family man, he gets offers from men to break in their 17-year-old virgin daughters and dares us to challenge him. Of course, he doesn’t accept any of these offers, he says. His wife wouldn’t approve. There are people around spreading rumors about him that reach his wife because of his money, but as long as he lives squeaky clean and his deals are fair, he never has to lie to his wife. He never lies to his wife. Will I drink to that with him? I sure will.
Good, as long as we drink, I can run the tape recorder.
He hands a handful of Mexican bills to the 17-year-old Mexican waitress. She puts on her overcoat and goes out into bluish air, purpling with the threat of rain and thunder. She returns with a paper sack and hands it to Arturo. Arturo nods to me, pulls a large bottle of dark tequila he says he’s bought especially for me. He and I will drink this bottle, then we’ll be friends.
“He means you, not me,” Pok says, shying back with his camera.
Arturo tells us, each of his two brothers and a sister now own their own restaurants. Arturo brought them over from China and gave them restaurants. He says he wants nothing in return, not even a say in how they run their business. Everyone is on their own. And everyone depends on Arturo for nerve. Arturo is now opening a new restaurant with his brothers and sister. A big restaurant.
He shows off his gold watch — 24-carat gold on the face, 14-carat watchband, 47 little diamonds around the rim. One for each year of Mao Tse-tung’s rule of China. There’s a gold profile of Mao at the midnight position on the watch. Why would he want to wear a watch celebrating Mao?
His brother who runs a carpet factory in Shanghai bought two of the watches because they were a limited edition and sure to become collector’s items and gave Arturo one as a gift. Arturo likes being a loud-mouthed enigma. He won’t wear the microphone and he won’t stop talking. He is suspicious and provocative. He doesn’t know the story of the three-legged toad and doesn’t have the patience to listen to a story unless he has a drink in his hand. He was a kid during the Cultural Revolution, and the Cultural Revolution banned all the Chinese stories, operas, and folk arts. But he’s heard about them.
Pok-chi is fascinated with Arturo’s Mao watch. He wants Arturo to hold his wrist up for his camera. Arturo won’t lift his hand unless there’s a drink in it. When he drinks, I have to drink. Pok-chi wants another shot. Great. Arturo holds up his glass and looks me in the eye. I lift my glass and look him in the eye. He drinks and I drink. The glasses come down to the table and he pours more tequila. I look at the glasses with terror. Oh, no!
Dinner with Seto and the Chinese help assembles at our table, with Arturo sitting near the head. This is the Chinese America I know. The old men sitting down to dinner of approximately real Chinese food after the restaurant is closed. The Mexican cook, who’s been cooking here for ten years, sits down with us.
I try offering him a drink of this monster-expensive tequila, but Arturo won’t allow it. Pok says he can’t drink, and Seto, the owner of this restaurant, won’t touch the stuff. “This is for you and me,” Arturo says. “You drink what I drink. As much as I drink, you drink.”
The Mexican waitresses eat off the menu at another table. Pok-chi asks them if they’d like some real Chinese food. Their mouths snap shut in tight smiles and they shake their heads. They like grease. Egg rolls. Fried rice. Chop suey. Barbecued pork. A little roast duck for that grease elite.
Tonight, for the Chinese, there’s a dish with dried bean curd and little wheels of lin ngau, lily root. Pok asks, “Where did you get the lily root?”
“Oh, it’s dried. What else can you get around here?” the young boss says.
Pok-chi gives Ah-Connie the little box containing the little figurines of the Monkey King and the pilgrims from “journey to the West.”
On the way out of Tijuana it’s dark and I’m drunk, and I stop the car for Pok-chi to take over driving and see we have found the Wah Kiew Hing Wooey, the Overseas Chinese Benevolent Society, above the Cafe Flor de Loto, the Lotus Flower Cafe, “Comida China, Mexicana, y Americana." We’re parked across the street from it. Through the open door we see an old, skinny, tallish Chinese man, shirt and tie, dark jacket, sitting at the front table. This has to be Chon, the old man of the Tijuana Chinese. It’s late. Arturo has me smashed on I-don’t-know-what. Pok-chi snaps a couple of shots of the front of the building and cafe window. We’ll be back to talk to Ah-Chon bok. Right now, it’s time to get to the U.S. side to find Pok-chi’s friend’s house and crash.
MONDAY, FEBRUARY 14, the Day of the Horse.
The cappuccino in the shopping center in Encinitas may be the last cappuccino in the world. Coffee doesn’t mean as much to Pok-chi as it does to me. I don’t expect to find any espresso or anything close to a well-made cappuccino in El Centro or Calexico or Mexicali or Tijuana.
We’re in the groove, rolling down I-5 painlessly into 805 to I-8 soaring on smooth concrete all the way.
“When we get to Calexico, we’re hooking up with George Woo. He’s big in the Chung Wah there and a part of the Calexico establishment. His daughter by his second wife, a Mexican woman, says she’s more Mexican than Chinese and considers herself a Mexican in terms of culture. She also says she used to tell her father weekend visits to Calexico were like long vacations, because after one night there, you feel like you’ve been there a month.”
Pok remembers the wife of his cousin, also named Ah-Connie. So Ah-Connie in Tijuana rang a bell.
Pok-chi says, “She’s about in her mid-30s now. Very dark, healthy looking, open Chinese woman who loves to talk and make friends. Very generous. And very cautious at the same time. Very capable of learning new things to survive. When I first met her and her husband, they were selling T-shirts on the streets of Chinatown, New York City. They told me they would begin at about 7 in the morning and work until 10 at night, and sometimes 11. It depends whether or not it’s a Friday night or a Saturday night. And I think that’s how they began making some hard-earned money to buy real estate.
“Later on I found out they were selling bags; they were renting a store, leased it to some of their friends from China who had escaped just like them and needed jobs.
I think there is a network of Chinese doing business together, helping each other out. Some of them are dissidents. Some of them are athletes, Ping-Pong players, who, on a world tour, just quit somewhere during the early ’80s, when I saw them.
“This network of people, their business at that time was selling fake watches. Fake Guccis and Omegas. And diamond-studded Rolexes for 25 bucks. He said the Latinos and the Europeans just ate them up. They’d buy 30, 100. So Ah-Connie and her husband had been promoted from selling things on the street to selling fake watches. My cousin would supply these street vendors with these watches."
The sky is pouting, threatening to blow out heavy rains all morning, but the drive is beautiful. The wheels smooch along I-8 into a landscape of rock candy piled up by playful giants. I’m glad I’m not driving this road alone. The hills are mounds of big rocks, boulders about the same size and shape. Grey and red rocks. Giant hard candies in pointy big mounds all around.
“So one of the Ping-Pong guys I met, interestingly enough, he was training his daughter to sing opera. Cantonese opera. And she was born in New York. And he insisted we listen to her tape. He played an instrument. The mother played an instrument. And the daughter sang. And it was a little store with about the floor space of a king-size bed, to stamp the name Omega on the face of the watch. So this means, when these watches came in through customs from China, through Hong Kong and Macao, the faces were blank. And when they come to New York’s Chinatown, they become Omegas or whatever he wants them to be.
“When I was growing up in Hong Kong, I remember, my neighbors and my distant relatives, in their bedrooms there were just whole mountains of bits and pieces of plastic flowers. And they were assembling them together. And I could never figure out where the hell they would go. I had never seen anyone in Hong Kong having plastic flowers in their houses. They all came to Woolworth’s. Sears. In the U.S.”
Pok-chi sees a certain irony in migrant Chinese in detention camps or apartment factories in Hong Kong assembling fake European designer products, trendy goods, watches, electronics, cellular phones to be wholesaled to Latinos and Middle Easterners who will hawk them on the streets of large American cities.
“I didn’t know they swam to Hong Kong. It wasn’t for a few years that they began to tell me. I think my cousin told me the story first. He told me his way to Hong Kong was a lot easier. He told me he got into a boat. A pretty good-sized boat, like a block or two long. For some reason he was hiding inside and nobody knew about it. He got to where he thought Hong Kong would be, he jumped out of the boat at night and started floating and fainted. And a day or so later he was saved by some Hong Kong fishermen. They grabbed him out of the water and began to feed him food and mun gum yow on the back, the front and the forehead and the throat, rub him off till the heat comes back. He made it all the way to Hong Kong. So he didn’t have too bad of an experience.
“His wife had an entirely different experience. She was able or willing to discuss all these details with me among a lot of her younger relatives.”
“Children!” I say.
“All of them at that time American-born. New York-born. She began talking about her parents being persecuted during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. They were intellectuals, university educated, from an intellectual family. Their ancestor was a famous poet and government official. He had a reputation as a decent, very good government official, which was rare at that time. His name was Luk Yau. Luk Fong Yung is another name. I studied his poetry when I was in high school. So right away that would demand some respect for her and her family.
"She talked about her parents being separated and jailed and hauled into the streets with signs on their front and back saying people like them were ngau gwai siyeh sun, these are demons, snakes, ghosts, horses, cows, and boars. People on the street would insult them. They would spit on them. So nobody would dare talk to them. Even friends. Of course, the children would not be allowed to talk to them. But they need to let their parents know they were doing okay. They don’t know when the parents will pass through the street where they’re condemned. They know they will not be passing through this neighborhood at the same time.
"And they used the tactic that they used fighting the Japanese. They were told, if the broom hangs outside the window upside down, it means that the family’s okay. The children are taken care of.” Then we’re out of the candyland and down in the desert and going to the bottom of something. The air is different. The air in the air conditioner is different. My ears pop. For a little bit I thought I might have been here before. I was wrong.
“And later they found out from their mother that indeed, she walked past the house, saw the broom was upside down and was relieved,” Pok says.
If I’d been here before. I’d be crazy to come back, I think. In The Movie About Me, I stop the car, get out, listen to the air, and freak, tear my clothes off, and run bare-assed and barefoot into the desert and disappear in a mirage of water just short of infinity.
“Ah-Connie was sent to the country to learn from the peasants. And a lot of the farmers, the peasants despised these people because they had never done any physical labor in their lives. And the peasants were already very poor. And the government sends all these inexperienced kids who don’t know how to take care of themselves to become a burden on the peasant farmers. Ah-Connie learned to go to the field and do physical things. She remembers having to dig into rice paddies that’s eight foot deep. Because the topsoil after a couple of years is exhausted, and they have to recycle topsoil, turn the soil over from underneath as deep as eight feet. So at 17 or 18, she’s digging trenches in soggy soil. But it turned out to be for her benefit. It made her physically stronger to survive in the water for a couple of days.”
The Arturo Wu argument, I think.
“She remembers there was a guy who was extremely handsome who liked her, but she didn’t like him. She found out he had all kinds of underground connections and was able to survive very, very well during the Cultural Revolution. He was something of a gang leader. He was a planner who was the architect behind certain gang projects. He never had to dirty his hands. Smuggling. Extortion. They had a childhood friendship. He’d liked her since childhood. So that even though she didn’t like him, he agreed to help her out.
“Then another childhood friend she hadn’t seen in a long time one day looked her up out of the blue. This guy proposed to escape to Hong Kong with her. She didn’t know if this guy was sent to her by the other guy with the connections, who’d promised to help her.
“She asked, ‘Why do you choose me?’
“He told her a fortune teller had advised that he must take another man and two women with him to make this trip. Otherwise he won’t make it. The escape must be two men and two women. So he recruited her.
“From the city to swim to Hong Kong is a long distance. That’s Poon Yur. The village Ha Herng is not too far away from Poon Yur. Her father had a friend who was an accountant. He had to oversee the security of the village so the people could not escape. He took the blame later on. He saw her leaving. He walked with her for a distance. He let her go.
“She walked to the river, met the three others, and boarded a sampan. They get out to sea; by daybreak, before they’re out of territorial waters, the coast guard intercepts them. There’s no way they can run. The sampan is boarded, and they’re physically dragged out of the boat with machine guns at their heads.
“The captain asks questions. There’s an exchange of papers. The captain lets the people go. She suspects her gangster friend has made an arrangement with the captain. After they get back onboard the sampan, the coast guard fires toward them, but fires short, till they reach Hong Kong waters.
“Then a storm came that afternoon. The sampan fell apart and they swam to an island. The island is full of corpses. The stench! They were so hungry, she said they thought of eating meat off the dead bodies. But they just couldn’t do it. They spent the night there because of the sharks around. They spent the night in the cave with the dead bodies.
“In the morning there were fewer sharks. They threw dead bodies out to feed the sharks. Like chum. After a few hours the sharks are all done and gone. No sharks out there. They don’t know how far they are from Hong Kong or in which direction it is. The guy rigged up some kind of antenna by using some wire and a piece of tin foil and a tin can. He received static and swam toward where the static was loudest. The guy took off his pants. They were made with a vinyl coating. So he took his pants off and wrapped them around Ah-Connie’s neck to use as flotation. And they swam. And another 15 or 16 hours later they made it to the New Territories, the Low FawSahn area. When I was growing up, that area was famous for recovering corpses of dead swimmers. But they got there alive. A policeman came by and woke them up and said, ‘Since you guys have made it this far. I’m going to let you go.’
“The guy she swam with and Ah-Connie decided to never see each other again. They might be caught and sent back if they were seen together again. Though she didn’t like him, she wanted to thank him. After seven months in Hong Kong, she saw him working in a barbecue place chopping pork. She arranged to have a gold necklace sent to him as a sign of her gratitude.”
In America and married to Pok-chi’s cousin now, she and her husband own property in New Jersey and Queens. Happy ending. I couldn’t work that hard. I also couldn’t get myself to own property in New Jersey or Queens.
Golden Dragon, Yum Yum, China Palace...we count six Chinese restaurants driving into Calexico on Imperial Avenue.
George Woo is in the Chung Wah Wooey Goon of Calexico. Every Chinatown of any size has an alliance of the local organizations representing Chinatown businesses called the Chung Wah Wooey Goon, or Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, also known as the Chinese Six Companies, in San Francisco. He doesn’t know the Chung Wah as an international organization with formal ties to the government of the Republic of China. A cabinet post, the minister of overseas Chinese affairs, is devoted to dealing with the Chung Wah around the American continent. Winston Chang, the current minister, is the son of generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek’s son, the late Chiang Ching Kuo, and CCK’s Chinese mistress. The Republic of China subsidizes the annual convention of the Chung Wah.
George wasn’t at the convention in Seattle two years ago or last year’s convention in Houston. For George Woo, the Chung Wah is a local organization, a Chinese community self-help organization.
What George Woo knows is Calexico, the Imperial Valley. Back in the ’60s, when he owned a grocery store, “The Chinese running grocery stores were so scattered all over the valley, you hardly ever see them.” So as a way to bring the Chinese grocers together, “In 1966 we chartered what we call the Imperial Valley Grocers’ Association, for the independent stores that come into the valley and combine our resources to compete against the chain stores. At that time we had A&P stores, we had Safeway. And we hold at least two meetings a month, you know, ‘Hey, uncle! How’ya been?’ At least we’d get to see those people. Ninety percent of the groceries were Chinese. A few American stores. A few Mexican independent stores. We started about with about 37 to 39 members.
“Henry Quan was part of the Grocers Association. And Dr. William Quan is his son.
“None of the kids are interested in continuing the retail groceries, which is a good business, but then they got their education, they got their own fields of endeavor. They go on their own.”
He’s in his 60s now, retired from the retail grocery business and now stays up late in his office at the De Anza Hotel, working as a regional vice president of Primerica Financial Services. He’s Lions Club, Chamber of Commerce, the establishment. Already an old-timer.
“My granddad’s a pioneer. In fact. Woo Yin Waw, my granddad, was a pioneer in this part of the country, in Mexicali, back in 1916, that area of time. How he came to this country in the first place, I never found out. He came directly from China to Mexicali. That part of his history I’m not aware of.
“He started as a farmer. The Mexicali Valley was pioneered by Chinese people. The first inhabitants of Mexicali were Chinese. The Chinese built the first buildings. And then the Mexican people came as a result of it. Mexicali city grew around Chinatown. There’s over a million people in Mexicali, Baja California, right now.
“We were told that before World War II there were as much as 10,000 Chinese in Mexicali. My granddad was telling me that they still call the center of town the Chinesca. Chinesca means Chinatown. Right in the heart of Mexicali, the Chinesca, all the Chinese merchants and clothing stores, restaurants. Laundry was also the main business when Mexicali first started. And they have Chinese opera, char ngau, you know, dim sum. And they had Chinese theater in the early days. So my brother-in-law, the one I told you about running a hotel in Cabo San Lucas, when he was a real young kid, you know, he was running around the street naked in the Chinese restaurant. And they’d call him in Chinese, ‘Hey, haw sang! Come here!’ And they’d feed him. So he’s just running around naked in the streets.
“So my grandfather, when he was here, they were farming cotton and other Chinese produce and stuff like that. And my grandfather had an accident. They were driving a mule team with these wheels with the big spokes. His foot got caught in one of those wheels, and the mule team dragged him for two miles. So he broke his leg. So my granddad said, ‘Forget it! No more farming for me.’ So he went into town and had his own tortilla factory.”
Pok-chi kicks his feet up and claps his hands, “Chinese got a tortilla factory.”
“It’s a tortilla factory that manufactures tortillas on a daily basis. And he starts delivering to restaurants, the Mexican food, Chinese food, whatever the Mexican people wanted. And that’s what my granddad did all his life till he retired.
“I was born in Canton. Hoy Yuen. Woo See Lun is my name in Chinese. I was a spoiled brat, they call it. My grandmother, bless her heart, she lived to be 103, I saw her many times since then, but I remember when I first went to kindergarten. My grandmother had to carry me to school because, I’d say, ‘Oh, come on! You got to take me to school.’ My grandmother carried me to my first class in school. She always used to talk about that, you know.
“ ‘Hey, you’re going to the United States.’
“ ‘Oh, where’s that?’
“ ‘Over there. Gum Sahn, where the Gold Mountain is. They pick up gold nuggets by the shovelful, by the bucket.’ I think it’s the opportunity to be somebody in the United States.
“There were emotions, I remember. But you’re a little young kid. Your parents say Go! You go.
“When I get into the States, I was just a young kid. I came to Calexico in 1936. I was 8 years old. My father was about 28 or 29. I didn’t know a word of English or Spanish.
“When I came over, there were two young kids came over with me. We were all about the same age. One or two years apart, maybe. And our fathers were in the grocery business in Calexico. So our three fathers were in business together, and we three sons come together in Calexico, in 1936.
“We came over on the President Coolidge, of American Presidents Line. We came on that boat and had a lot of fun. Chinese food. Most of the passengers were Chinese. In the first class people had the Americans and the Anglos. If you’re not Chinese, hey, you’re just a bok gwai. We couldn’t afford first class. But it was fun. In our cabin we had 450 people. It was like a dormitory. We had a trip mess hall. Everybody eats the same thing. The seas got rough, us three kids were running around the ship, all over the doggone place, you know. People were seasick. We were just going gung ho!
“We stopped at Hawaii and then came to L.A. and then came this way. San Pedro Harbor. That’s what I recall reading when we landed. From there we proceed through the check, the documents, and my dad was waiting for me in L.A. So we spent a few days there.
“My dad was about average. He was educated. He could read and write Chinese. And he enjoyed music. He played two or three instruments. He played by himself and not with a club. There were not that many Chinese on the American side. The Chinese population in Mexicali and the United States, they were not freely crossing the border.
“Even the recent boat people coming through here. Before they hit the Mexicali area, a lot of Chinese died in the desert.” “The recent Chinese boat people died in the desert?” Pok-chi asks.
“No,” George says, “that’s the history of the Chinese crossing the Mexican desert. Back at the turn of the century. The boat people. They just dump ’em off and say, ‘Hey, you guys, just go that way!’ and point, that’s all. I think at that time they were just trying to reach the Mexicali Valley. And they didn’t tell ’em how far. They didn’t tell them about food and water. And Chino Mountain is where the Chinese died trying to reach the Mexicali Valley. A lot of Chinese died going over the hill.
“Even now the boat people that were caught in Ensenada and San Diego. That’s recent history. There were over 300 people that were caught in Ensenada, brought to Mexicali, and they were there for over three weeks. And the Imperial Valley Chinese community tried to help feed them. They cost about a thousand American dollars a day just to feed those 300 detained boat people.
“So the Chinese community said, hey, they don’t mind to help out on a part-time basis, but for forever — three weeks at a thousand dollars a day, there’s no end to it. It’s like a pit.
“Finally they shipped them from Mexicali back to China.” I’m a little confused, I say. “This is Calexico. Your grandfather came to Calexico?”
“My grandfather’s Mexicali, always has been,” George Woo says. “My father came directly from China to the United States. Why he picked Calexico of all the cities in the United States, I don’t know. My father and his partners started together in the retail grocery business. One of them was Albert Woo. His family’s still in the valley. Albert was the one in administrative. And C. Woo was in charge of the meat department. And my dad was Sam Woo, he’s the third partner, he was over in the grocery department. In those days they were comparable to the chain stores. We had two locations. The first one was on First Street. First and Blair. And that’s where we grew up.
“There were three partners in that grocery store. So the three fathers got together, and us three kids came together, so we’re the sons of the three partners. They eventually told us we should work our way, ‘You guys are going to be the future owners of the grocery store.’
“We didn’t enjoy the normal American or Spanish childhood days. We just get out of school, he gives us 15 minutes to get to the store. There was no after-school parties or basketball games or play or stuff like that. Hell, we got 15 minutes from the school to get to the store and that was it. My job, what can I do? I haven’t learned the language yet. So my job was in the kitchen, learn to start cooking as a young kid.
“We used to have chicken coops in the back of the store. Lot of times, the produce, the trimmings, we feed to chickens and ducks we raised in the back of the store. Regulations those times wasn’t the same. Our living quarters were behind the store, yeah, in the same building. Strictly bachelor quarters. The three fathers slept in one room. The three sons slept in one room. We going through a daily routine.
“I came in 1936, we had electricity, adequate plumbing, the comforts of home. We had gas stove. Kerosene heater. The first comfort we had was a desert cooler. We didn’t have any air conditioning in those days. We had one of those rotary fans. And this is where the desert cooler thing came in. We were the first to invent that. We used to have gunny sacks, potato sacks, soaking wet and put behind the fan and bring a cool breeze into the living quarters. Then came the desert coolers. The desert cooler was the first relief from the heat for the family here. Oh, man, that desert cooler would just...in fact, in some of the lower-income homes they still have desert coolers.
“In those days everything was in bulk. The rice, the beans. The flour. We would package those things. We packaged the eggs too. Everything that comes in bulk, we repackaged in one-pound, two-pound, three-pound packages for sale.
“We’d be helping out in the store too, like stocking shelves. Then as you get older, you get to learning the language and speaking to the people. Spanish was our second language. We were learning Spanish and English at the same time. We learn English language in school, then we come home and it’s a predominantly Spanish neighborhood. That’s where I picked up my Spanish.
“And a lot of times I’d go and make the deliveries, and then we’d get to know the people, take the orders, sort the orders, and make deliveries on a COD basis, like that, so I get to know people pretty well.”
Pok-chi asks if George’s grandmother and mother ever came to Calexico.
“My grandmother and my mother both stayed behind. At that time women were not allowed to come over,” George says.
Yes, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the Gentlemen’s Agreement of 1925. Pok-chi is listening for a story of women left behind. George Woo is telling the story of boys growing up with men without mothers, without sisters, without women; boys growing up to be the fathers of boys growing up without a family, without a storyteller. This is all men living like soldiers on a mission. Men. No families.
“There were very few Chinese families in Calexico. I don’t recall having any Chinese families in those early years,” George Woo says. “One day in the summertime we went down to the canal to go swimming, you know. And I got caught in the rain and came in the store all soaking wet. Man, my dad saw me! We used to have those sticks to get groceries from the top shelf. He grabbed that and just slapped the hell out of me. ‘You three kids supposed to come back from school. The other two come back! How come you don’t come back!’ Broke that stick on me. He was madder’n hell. Right in the store! To show his other partners. There’s three fathers in that store. There’s no mother to go, ‘Oh, poor baby,’ like that.
“My teenage years. I didn’t have those liberties of going dancing with your friends and girlfriends and stuff like that. My life was from the store to the school and from the store to the school, and that was my daily routine. We didn’t enjoy the joys of life at home, your mother serving meals to you. Come to that age, you kinda take your own attitude toward things. ‘How come the other kids can go to movies and shows I can’t go?’ So you start questioning your dad and stuff like that. And we were brought up to, when they say you don’t go to movies, you don’t go! There ain’t no radios or stereos. None of those things, those comforts of home.”
I’m shocked. “No Lone Ranger?” I ask.
“Well,” George admits, “The Lone Ranger is one thing I did listen to, and The Shadow. Well, they had a radio in the store, to play music to please the customers. So I got close enough to that thing, while I’m packing groceries, I could listen to it.
“In 1941 Pearl Harbor happened. I was too young to volunteer. I volunteered at the age of 19, in 1946. I didn’t know how to use a knife and fork till I went into the Army. So the Japanese saw I was coming and they gave up. I volunteered in the 8th Army. I served in Japan with the occupation forces.
“See, my generation, most of the guys, as teenagers, they all went back to mainland China because the parents had selected their wives already. They were told to go back and get married. So I can fairly say I was the first guy that broke loose from that chain.
“Like, when I met my first wife, it wasn’t a date, we just sort of start socializing. Then this Leong family from Mexicali, I was kind of attached to it. I felt a little camaraderie there for that family, father and son. I remember my mom wrote the letter back, she says, ‘Send George to China. I have his wife picked out for him.'
“My mother just said, ‘You come home and get married! I’ve got three girls picked for you.’
“Then I said, ‘Hell, no! I don’t want to go back there. I’m going to live here.’ I saw how it was for my grandfather and my dad. Their wives are over there. And they’re over here.
“I said, ‘This is the girl I’ve been going out with and I like, and we’re gonna get married. So I got married. So I was disobedient.
“My mother finally gave way, said, ‘Okay, bring your wife home. We’ll have the Chinese wedding over here.’
“I took my wife back to the village where I was born. It was 19 years since I’d been back. I was 27 years old. It was very special. Everything looked different. The village came out, all my relatives came out. Banquet. We got off pretty well, and we came back and made our home.”
Pok-chi is amazed, a little offended George and his father didn’t bring his mother over from China.
“My mother was not allowed at that time to come over, no,” George says. The quota of Chinese allowed into the continental U.S. of 103 from all parts of the world wasn’t lifted till 1966.
“The other two guys that came over with me, they went back and got married and started Peso.”
Peso are two large obviously Chinese-owned warehouse stores on Imperial Avenue. The big “PESO” sign is in some awful quasi-Spanish calligraphy in huge letters, and underneath are two obviously Chinese words. One store is just a block from the border, at the beginning of Calexico. The other occupies a huge space between a huge Kmart and a huge WalMart outside of Calexico. The big difference between Peso and the chain discounters is all of Peso’s signs and labels are in Spanish only. Interesting to see the Chinese defying national biggies Kmart and WalMart for dominance of an intersection of Imperial Avenue. People seem to come to these places to get away from the desert. Entire families wander around the Peso and the Kmart like they’re on a nature trail in the park.
George Woo says he resents the way he was brought up. What kind of father is he?
“I like my kids to have what I didn’t have.
“The two daughters by my first marriage. They’re married now. In fact, I have three daughters and a son. The daughters each has two grandkids now.”
His father is buried here. George is sure it was his father’s wish to be buried here, in Calexico.
“He lived all his life here in Calexico until he retired and died a few years later. You don’t question your dad at those times. He made decisions.”
He’s on the phone to the current president of the Chung Wah of the Imperial Valley. In the flow of a few seconds, George uses Spanish and Chinese and tells us this man is the only man to successfully farm lily root in America.
“I want to meet him!” Pok-chi yells. “I have to meet him!” Pok-chi smiles and asks Sun Lee-Louie why the lily root he grew in Lawrence, Kansas, came out small, short, and red. Sun Lee-Louie sneers at us and clams up. We are farmers from Kansas come to steal the secret of growing lily root. Right now he is the only grower of lily root in the continental United States. The fresh lily root you find sliced thin and braised or brewed crunchy — the little circular things with the holes in them in a hearty soup — are from Sun Lee-Louie’s farm. Others have tried to grow the lily root, just ask Pok-chi Lau, the photographer turned farmer on me. Stop asking for the secrets of growing lily root and snap his picture, Pok-chi.
From his father’s original 40 acres, he has built a farm of 200 acres. He grows bok choy, the bulbous Chinese green with the dark green in the leaves and white stalks. Other people all over America grow bok choy. Pok-chi grows bok choy.
Sun Lee-Louie also grows gai lan, Chinese broccoli. Lots of people all over America grow gai lan. Oh, Pok-chi’s gai lan come out funny looking and skinny.
“Too much rain,” Sun Lee-Louie says.
Near the cash register at the reception counter there’s a large reddish fish-bone statuette of a three-legged toad with six coins in its mouth.
“What’s this ugly old thing mean?” I ask.
“Oh, that’s lucky,” Sun Lee-Louie says. “Money’s coming.”
“Why does it mean that?” I ask.
“Oh, Chinese believe it’s lucky.”
“Do you know the story?” I ask.
“No," Sun Lee-Louie says, “I don’t know the story.”
“I know the story, but I don’t understand it,” I say. “I’ll tell you the story.” No customers to be seated. No customers with bills to pay. I tell him the story. He smiles. He nods. He understands the story. He knows why the toad is lucky now. He can’t explain it. Great.
It’s Valentine’s Day. They expect a good dinner business. This is a very large restaurant. Three hundred seats easy. Time to run.
On the way back to the De Anza Hotel, George takes us by the Pioneer Museum. It was built without government grants. No NEH. No NEA. The past of 13 ethnic groups is told and displayed in 13 galleries. The Chinese gallery is the history of the Mah family in the Imperial Valley. Most of the artifacts were donated and collected by the son of Henry Quan, Dr. William Quan. The museum and the idea of celebrating the history of each group in their own space came from the people of the valley themselves. Filipinos, Koreans, Japanese, the Swiss, 13 ethnic or cultural groups in all maintain their integrity and carry on with each other civilly in this museum without government money. Impressive.
Pok-chi and I have dinner at the De Anza: It’s Valentine’s Day. There’s a nice buzz of couples out to dinner in the booths. The Trio Calafia, standup bass, guitar, and requinto, wander the aisles plunking and plinking, ready to sing songs.
TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 15, the Day of the Oxen.
Breakfast at the De Anza coffee shop. George Woo gets up early and stays up late. He must live at the De Anza. George has machaca con huevos. Pok-chi and I have chorizo con huevos. When it comes, he asks what it is in a funny tone of voice. I tell him it’s what we ordered. That’s all he needs to know. He forks that strange food with confidence and anticipation. He likes the spicy sausage.
George introduces us to a young man on the go. Eddie Chun and his super cellular phone sit at our table awhile. Born in El Centro. Degree in architecture from the California Polytechnic Institute of San Luis Obispo, now is an architect and contractor-builder in the valley, with business as far as Yuma, Arizona. He also does inspections for the state. He says he found tunnels leading from buildings that used to be owned by Chinese to another Chinese business on the other side of the border. These tunnels had to be filled and plugged to save the buildings built above them.
George says these tunnels were built in the ’20s, during Prohibition, after the fences were built along the border. The tunnels weren’t built to let Chinese into the U.S., but to allow people from the Calexico side to cross over to Mexicali and drink and gamble where there was no Prohibition. According to the brochure, the ’20s was when the De Anza Hotel was built and saw its glory, offering a lied and meals on the American side of the border to Americans come to Calexico only to booze and gamble and eat Chinese food in Mexicali. George leads us out to Lee-Louie’s farm, then has to go off to a funeral.
THE PACKING SHED AT SUN LEE-LOUIFS FARM
A pregnant woman, the wife of the foreman, Sun Lee-Louie’s nephew, meets us outside the fence around the house. There’s a patch of grass and trees growing on the grass. The plum tree is blooming. There are grapefruit fat on the grapefruit tree, lemons on the lemon tree. Sun Lee-Louie knows how to make things grow. She leads us to the packing shed where her husband is weighing the lily root that hands bring in from the fields in large plastic crates. They load the crates with lily root and load the crates in the trunk and on the trunk lid and hoods of their old big-bodied American cars and bust ass for the packing shed and the scales. They get paid by the pound and make about $120 a day. They want good relations with the workers and no problems with the immigration people, so they like to keep the same workers year to year, and to keep them at this farm, they give them work, even in bad years, like now. They’re picking bok choy. The field is a total loss. But they want the same people to come back and work here next year, when things might be better.
There is a shrine to Kwan Kung in the packing shed. The candles are electric lights. The fruit is fresh. Someone takes care of this shrine.
Enrique works at a table, sorting, cleaning, trimming, and packing lily root. The nicely shaped, fat, long ones get the tips lopped off to prevent rotting and get packed in wooden crates. The shorter ones and ones with tool cuts and imperfections get trimmed and packed into cardboard boxes and sold for significantly less. I ask Enrique how long he’s been working on this farm for the Chinese.
Enrique has worked on this farm for 40 years. He has nine kids. Six on the U.S. side of the border and three on the Mexican side. His wife runs a family business. They sell stuff at swap meets. The money he makes packing lily root and bok choy and Chinese broccoli for the Lee-Louie farm buys the stuff they sell.
Pok and Sun’s nephew talk the fine points of growing lily root in California.
They spend $70,000 a year on water to leach the salt and chemical fertilizers from the sand and gravel they use. They dig trenches eight feet deep. They mix the sand and gravel and topsoil and grow the lily root. If you don’t plant deep enough and have very pure sand and soil, your lily root will come out short, skinny, and red.
Sun Lee-Louie went back to China every year to learn how to grow lily root. The bok choy and the gai lan crops of the last couple of years have been total losses because too much rain forced them to bloom early. In dollars, that’s around $200,000 a year in losses.
Uncle Freddy meets us at Sun Lee-Louie’s farm. Everybody knows everybody in the valley. All the Chinese are related to each other. All men are brothers. He is going to introduce us to a real old-timer.
Uncle Freddy takes us to lunch at Mah’s Kitchen, a fast-food sit-down Chinese restaurant-cafe-curio shop where you breathe grease and everything is deep-fried. Uncle Freddy introduces us to the owners. Their hands are wet from washing and cutting up veggies and cleaning and battering up chicken parts and shrimp for the great deep-fry. Uncle Freddy directs us to an empty table and says he’ll join us.
In the restaurant, people dressed like the middle class, nice colors, nice cuts, no flash, no adventure, nobody’s name written in hair on anybody’s scalp, are lined up against a big window across from the cash register, waiting for delivery of their grease. A young, very pretty and working-on-it pretty Mexican teenaged girl flicks and fingers her dyed and permed hair that seems to be droopy layers of curly lightning bolts. She wears designer blue jeans and a skintight leotard with a scoop neck showing lots of skin, and the edges curl out like flower petals. She takes orders, hands the orders up, and takes the cash. A pair of her girlfriends sit at plates of fried rice and deep-fried stuff and gossip with her between customers.
The only Chinese out in front of the restaurant is the cook. Fok-chi points him out behind the counter. A young Chinese man, maybe 25 at the most, and maybe just turned 20. He’s all business. The cook. The power of war and peace in all this madness. The cook has the ruddy complexion, the intense angry eyes, the cheekbones like clenched fists of the classic southern rebel of the Chinese heroic tradition. He wears a gold button in his ear. He has a pierced ear. He moves purposefully, with no false steps, no wasted motion, between the cleaver at the chopping block and the stainless steel smoker at the end of the counter. When he opens the smoker, I glimpse inside and see several pork tenderloins and racks of pork ribs being smoked. He handles the knife well, slicing lop chong, Chinese pork sausage, into little ovals for his own lunch.
Uncle Freddy sits down with an old Chinaman he introduces as Big Louie and a tray loaded with deep-fried doughy things, barbecued ribs, and a bowl of white rice. Chinese. Southern Chinese. Sam Yup and Say Yup Chinese. A southerner greets another southerner with the traditional, "Sick jaw fon may ah?" “Have you had rice yet?” Rice isn’t a euphemism for meal, they mean rice, white rice. Uncle Freddy is giving us face, treating us like Chinese. Perhaps it’s Big Louie Uncle Freddy is giving face. They both reach heartily into the piles of deep-fried doughy things and chomp away.
“Have some shrimp,” Big Louie says. Pok-chi and I take a turn breaking one of the deep-fried doughy things from the pile. Chewing on the second one, I realize I’m not chewing on shrimp. It’s chicken. Pok-chi is still looking at his first doughy thing, undecided after one bite about its identity.
“I hope you didn’t swallow any of that,” I say.
A look of pure terror sweeps over Pok-chi’s face. “Chicken,” I whisper to Pok-chi. His mind clicks back on. His brain begins to hum again. I see it in his eyes. “Chicken.” “Yeah, have some chicken,” Uncle Freddy says.
THE CHUNG WAH WOOEY GOON
The Chung Wah Wooey Goon building says “Confucius Church” on the outside wall facing the parking lot. On the inside of this wall is the Bing Kung Tong side of the building. The room on this side of the building houses the shrine to Kwan Kung. This wall is bare except for a long brush painting of a horse, all four legs stretched out back and front, and neck straining and mouth screaming for the big leap over what seems to be an idealization of the valley. A valley of trees. The horse I take to be a symbol for the Mah family dominance of the area.
The Chinese school used to be here. The pulp-paper textbooks are still here, not so neatly stacked in the room where they play mahjongg and gossip late into the night, once a month. The seats and tables and chalkboards are still here.
Uncle Freddy bustles about the Chung Wah building, setting things up for tonight’s meeting.
Big Louie sits with us out in the back of the Chung Wah Wooey Goon building, in the shade of an awning. He says, “I was born in Toishan. Kwangtung, Toishan bok sop, Ten tiew lee — A Thousand Winters — in 1916. I’m 78.”
“Where did you get the name Big?” I ask.
“In school. In Modesto. I’m a pretty damn big kid. Thirteen and big and fat. I don’t know English. They ask what am I? I say, ‘I big.’ They try name me Bic or Bick. But I write down B-I-G. And that’s how it is, you know. My name Big Louie.” He’s not a real Louie. He is a paper Louie.
His family name is Mah. His aunt sold him fake papers with the family name Louie.
I am a paper Chin. How does one come to be a “paper son”? Once upon a time there was a merchant named Chin. He might have dealt in opium, which was legal at the turn of the century. One of the spoils of the Opium Wars for the British seemed to be open markets of opium in Chinatowns around the world. Chin might have dealt in nothing but mail, but for him being a merchant meant he could freely travel back and forth between the United States and China. Every year between 1912 and 1924, he goes to China and comes back claiming to have borne a son. All of his sons have the right to enter the United States as the sons of a merchant, when they’re of an age fit to work.
Merchant Chin goes back to China again and finds families with boys born between 1912 and 1924 and sells them the paper, certifying them as sons of Chin.
My father, a man named Chew, bought the paper that entitled him to enter the country as a resident, as a paper Chin. In Chinatown the real name is the Chinese name. My family association is the Lung Kong Tien Yee Benevolent Association, an alliance of the Lau, Quan, Chang, and Chew families, based on the alliance of Lau, Quan, and Chang in the oath of the peach garden that begins the heroic classic “The Romance of the Three Kingdoms.” If I were a real and not a paper Chin, my family association would be the Gee How Oak Tien Benevolent Association, an alliance of the Chan (Chun, Chin, Chon), Woo, and Yuen families, also inspired by the brotherhood of the oath of the peach garden.
Big Louie did not come in as the son of a merchant. He came in as the son of a native citizen. He explains.
“In 1906, the earthquake. All those Chinese people in here, they come in here as what they call merchants — sang yee gee — you know? So after they come in for a while, in 1906 the earthquake, so after the earthquake in San Francisco, they burn all the records. So all those people they want to be changed to citizens, the whores and the tongs who bring all those women and opium through Hong Kong, claimed their records were burned in the fire and were suddenly U.S. citizens and had had children born here who were citizens. They counted the years and the sons and had their records and birth certificates restored. The paper sons of merchants only bought the right to enter the country and set up residence. The paper of the Chinese of the San Francisco earthquake and fire gave these sons U.S. citizenship.
“You know about Toe Gee? No? See, gee, the word for paper, sounds like gee, the word for cooking, gee fan, cooking rice kind of gee. Sounds alike, right?
“When the opium comes in wrapped in paper, you can tell where the opium is from, from the paper. The paper wrapping the opium from Hong Kong is not the same color as the opium coming from Macao. The opium from Hong Kong is better. So the wrapping paper from Hong Kong was called the ho gee, the ‘good paper.’ And that sounds like toe gee, meaning ‘cooked here,’ the slang for kids born on this side. Same sounds, different words.”
“I’m a toe gee boy,” I say. I always thought toe gee meant the belly of the pig, toe for stomach and gee for pig. But it’s gee for paper and gee for cook. It was another play on gah gee, the fake papers of paper sons.
All the languages the Chinese down here switched to and from without signaling first were jamming my brain. But Big Louie hadn’t even started. “See, in the old days, we are Say Yup people, right? Four Towns. Sun Wooey.Toishan, Hoi Ping, Yuen Ping. The four towns. Way back before the war, you 'Yut chut moon how,’ first thing out the door, if you don’t speak Four Towns dialect, no one would understand what you were talking.
“The Sam Yup of the Three Towns, are Chungshan, Poon Yur, Soon Gup.
“During that time, everybody asked everybody else, ‘What Yup? What Yup you from?’ And right now, when you go and say, “Ah chin bock ngun,’ nobody knows what you’re talking about.’’
He balks at the idea his distant aunt sold or he actually bought papers giving him the name Louie. “Actually they not sell it to you because they just more or less get their expenses. During the Depression, in 1930. You know, nobody hardly make any money. Whatever little money they spend, they’re just trying to get it back. That’s about all. They’re not really trying to sell it to you or anything, because she’s kind of my distant aunt, anyway. Not real close.”
He doesn’t like the thought of people making a profit off of the fake papers. His distant aunt was doing the family a service. There was no work in China. The family decided he should go to America and work and send money back home. He was 11 years old.
“I came over this country in 1930,” Big Louie, the 78-year-old hunting and fishing buddy says. “It was a Japanese line. Shurn Yun Yerng — I don’t know how to say it Japanese. It took about 24 days to get over here to San Francisco. Some friends with me. My uncle, he coming back and he has three boys with him, his own sons. Another guy, he live in Brawley — he also come, so we have five kids together. So we have a good time.
“So we went to Angel Island. And at Angel Island, I stayed over there two and a half months. Yeah, detained at Angel Island two and a half months. So they, the other kids, get out a little faster than I do. They are what they call a son of a merchant, see? When it’s during that time, a son of merchant comes in easier, see? And I was what they call a son of a native, a citizen, so they have to check up on me....
“So I’m the one stuck for quite some time.
“During that time, I guess when those Chinese people back there, when they’re back home, they don’t have good bed anyway. They sleep on a piece of wood, you know, a piece of board and it’s hard. Yut jeng deck. A chong bon, you know. A bedboard. And a lot of them don’t even have a mattress on it, you see. But in here, Angel Island, at least they had a little mattress. It’s a bunk bed. Three or four, five or six of them, all the way up to the ceiling. See, they stacked them so high, you lay in bed up there, you put your foot up there, you see?
“So they have the footprints up on the ceiling. Maybe some five or six beds — stacked ’em up — and they made footprints out all over the ceiling.
“I think after they closed the place, they took all the beds out. They see some footprints up on the ceiling, and those inspectors or whatever it is, they went over there and inspected the place, they says, ‘Well, those damn Chinese is a pretty smart. They can walk upside down on the ceiling!’
“You just stay there and wait and worry. Yeah, worry. You don’t know if you get sent back or you’ll be able to get out. Sometimes they ask you questions, lotta times they just don’t! They just keep delaying, and so you more or less just had to wait.
There’s so damn many people in there. They got about three or four hundred people at that time.
“I think I got two and half months was a lot better off than a lot of them guys who got there for three or four years. Yeah! Three or four years, then they send them back.
“I got some uncles and cousins in here. They’re waiting for me in San Francisco and Modesto.
“When I get out I went right to Modesto. When I went to Modesto, during that time, it’s in May. May 19,1930. I remember that. So I went to Modesto. I had a cousin who had a laundry over there. It’s called Hop Lee Laundry. And I went to the laundry. And over there, of course, I’m just a little kid then, 13 years old; well, I stayed over there about three or four weeks. I kinda had my setup to learn some English. A little bit here. A little bit there. So I stay in that laundry and I learned a few words now. I know this E-G-G is an egg, see. I know what E-G-G means. So, in the laundry, the guys want something for lunch. These Chinese guys, all they do is eat gai don goh pie, egg pie, see.
“They send me out, go over there about a block in town and get some pie. They give me about 25 cents. During that time, it was only 25 cents a pie. So I took 25 cents down to the grocery store. I ask the guy, I say, ‘I want egg pie.'
“The guy look at me. I don’t understand him. I keep saying, ‘Egg pie.’
“So anyway, the guy brings me eight pies. Eight of them. So, I thought, ‘Well, I must have hit a bargain!’ I grabbed the stuff and turned around and give him a quarter.
“He says, ‘No! No! No! No!’
“I keep saying, ‘Egg pie.’ But really egg pie is what they call custard pie, see.
“So later on I finally went to work with some people when I was out ’round the front of the Chinese laundry, and I guess, when I was 13 years old, I was pretty cute, I guess. One of the womans came over, one of the customers come over and saw me around the front there, messing around and working, and she thought I was cute. She talked to my cousin, she said, ‘I want to take that boy home with me, so he can stay and work for me.’
“Well, during that time, you know, the Chinese didn’t have no families, no kids. I’m just a little kid, more or less in the way, so they want to get rid of me — well, I don’t think they wanted to get rid of me anyhow, they wanted me to work. So she said, ‘I want to take him home to work for me, and I’ll teach him some English.’ Her name’s Carlson. A.J. Carlson.
“She’s a home science teacher in Modesto Junior College. And he’s also the district attorney of Modesto. And they don’t have no family, see. I’m just a little kid, so I fit right into it. So I went over there and helped her to rake the lawn, water the lawn, cut the grass, and wash the dishes, and do some cooking. And she taught me, and after all that, I was more or less Americanized. And she set the time, ‘Six o’clock, you gotta be up.’
“Of course, at first, she was doing the cooking, you know. She showed me how to cook. So after a while you catch on, you’re a young kid, you know.
“So six o’clock, be up. And after a while school started in September. So I went to school. I get up at six o’clock in the morning and get the breakfast fixed up, and pretty soon I learned a little more, whatever she wanted, I fixed it up. After breakfast, I have to get over to the dishes, all washed it up, alf cleaned it up by eight o’clock, I take off, go to school. And the afternoon, around three o’clock, 3:30, you get out, and you come heme, work on the lawn, odds and ends, and get ready for dinnertime. And when she comes home get the dinner ready around six o'clock, you have to eat, and you go back to room and study.
“I was getting pretty good. She give me $2.50 a week. And when I was there for a while, and her husband says, ‘You’re doing pretty good. I think I’m going to give you $2.50 too.’ So I get a raise. $5.00 a week, room and board. Pretty good for a kid going to school.
“Every Sunday, the Carlsons, they’re both playing golf. Sunday, every Sunday they both take off around six, 6:30, to go to play golf, and they won’t come back till noon. After they eat, I can get the afternoon off. So I can just go down to Chinatown and all those things. Modesto there were lots of Chinese. During that time I think they had a couple thousand Chinese that were there. I think in the old Cold Rush days they had a Chinatown. Modesto’s right there on the edge of the gold country with Stockton. 'Hie Chinese called it dai hong...‘big valley.’ They called Sacramento Sing Yee Fow, the Second Town. Instead of saying Sacramento, they say Second Mento, sounds like second. Just like Marysville is Mee Lee Woon. Bomb Day is Marysville. They still doing it.
“In the old days they have some Tong Yun Miew over there. Chinese temples. Every year they have Nien Cho Yoong Pow, Bomb Day. So they get some what they call doe yuen — nee gaw pow — you know, a gun, a mortar.”
“Popping Firecrackers?” Pok-chi asks.
“Naw, naw, naw, naw! They’re using a piece of steel. Back in China they use a piece of, like, a pipe, something like a pipe bomb. They’re sitting it on the ground. They put some powder, gunpowder in it, stomp it down. That’s all. They put some paper in it on top. And they have a hole in the bottom of it and light it, then it blows up. The pieces of paper blow up, and the people all go Fight for it. Fight a piece of that stuff. Who is the strongest gets it, and they take it back to the temple to leave it in there for a whole year. They say it’s for good luck.
“I know in 1932 lot of people come over from Mexico. There was a pie wah, you know, the Mexican they discriminated — they kill lots of those Chinese back there, so that therefore they gotta sneak a way over here. I know my cousin, he did. There was a pie wah over there, and he come over here and he went to Stockton. And my other cousin, he went back home because he was an old man.
“I stayed there in Modesto with the Carlsons for four and a half years, 1934.1 just about turned 18, I think. Then I kinda get homesick. And I went back to China. During that time, going back to China didn’t cost a lot of money then, but I think it was only about $95. Special third class. So you get a bunk to sleep on. Six people in one room. For 24 days you get room and board from San Francisco to Hong Kong, 24 days. The name of the ship is President Coolidge. Yeah.
“I went back to China, and as soon as I landed over there, and go home and the folks say they’re have a wedding. I say, ‘What wedding?’
“They say, 'Yours.'
“So I stayed there for a couple months before the wedding ceremony. Then after the wedding I stayed there about a year and a half. Then I come back in 1936. No, no, you can’t. They won’t let you bring your wife back.
“Well, one thing, I don’t have any money. And another thing, they won’t let you bring your wife back, anyway, during that time.
“In 1936 I had a friend from here, he’s at Central Food Market, he has the name Harry Mah. You know, my wife’s uncle. When he went back to China, I told him, I asked him for a job, so he says, ‘You want to grocery business, you come over down here. We’ll put you to work.’
“So I comedown here with him. During that time, 1936, I was working in Stockton then, he come over early one morning looking for me. I was a waiter. And I run into him on my way to work. So he Find me, and I quit the job over there and come with him in July. Because he drove a brand-new 1936 Chevrolet and he said he needed someone to help him drive it all the way down.
“So we come through San Diego way. And we come through San Diego to here, it took us four and a half hours. Highway 80 at that time. The road’s pretty bad then.
“They don’t have many Chinese woman during that time, you know. When I first coming down here, you know how many Chinese woman in this town here? In this valley? Not more than six! In 1936. There were lots of Chinese in here during that time. All single men. About two or three hundred. Only about four Chinese women here. All married.
“The one I worked for, Harry Quan, his wife and his daughter. They were down here. Their market, F. Sang Umg. At 4th and Orange. You know right at that 4th Street, they got four Chinese grocery stores there. In just that street. First there was Peoples Food Market, Then F. Sang Long, then Quality Food Market. The next one was called Central Food Market. It was out of the city limits. See, out of the city limits was 4th and Ross. See, we was out of city limits at that time, we supposed to be able to open Sunday. But during that time, they had curfew in the city, you cannot open on Sunday. So we open on Sunday out there.
“Yeah, and Hong Chong. Butch. That must be Henry Quan. His dad owned the place. He was the butcher there, so that’s why they call him Butch.
“And Finally the end of 1942, I left here to go to San Francisco to work in Kaiser shipyards. I was shipFitting over there. Liberty ships. Troop carriers. Cargo. I worked for Kaiser Number Two in San Francisco. Stayed there two and half years. Then I get drafted and went to Air Corps.
“Of course, during that time my family wasn’t over here. My mother want me to go home so as soon as I get out. When I come out I didn’t have any money, so I had to come back here and work for one year. I worked here at the Rice Bowl. I get $300 a month, one year I saved $2700. So I took off, went back, and bring ’em all back. They come under the G.I. Bill of Rights, as war brides. My wife, and a boy and girl. I was in China when the boy was born. I was here when my daughter was born.
“And when I came in, the wife and the kid had to stay in the immigration detention for nine days. No more Angel Island then. They stayed in what the Chinese called the hoong jun low, the red brick building. Nine stories, way up high. She stayed there nine days. The kids too. The kids were 11 and 13.
“We stayed in San Francisco three or four weeks to visit and came back to the Rice Bowl again. See, we had the Rice Bowl over here. I was a part-owner. I don’t like the big city. I love to hunt and Fish. A lot of good hunting a lot of good Fishing during that time. I get up at 5:30 or six o’clock in the morning and I go hunting a little bit until about eight o’clock. And about 8:30 I go back and open the store up.
“In 1948, a lot of Chinese women then, they come over. A lot of them come in under war brides and G.l. Bill of Rights. Just suddenly we get about 50 or 60 Chinese women at that time. So young Chinese women are over here, and after a while they have babies, and so Five or six years later they have a school, a Chinese school in here then.
“We had three children born in this valley here. Boy, girl, boy, and girl, boy. Mooey fah gan juk. Plum blossoms then bamboo. They all speak Chinese.
“They come over here to Chinese school. Before, we had a Chinese school here since 1951 or ’2. As soon as the war was over, we had a Chung Wah here. We had the Kuomintang.
“See, we still have, but last year we had some teacher from Taiwan. He taught the kids Mandarin. They don’t want to learn Mandarin. Now, it’s the kids all grown up. No more young ones come in. Now it’s just a few old guys like us that stay here.
“You talk about that Eddie Chun. He went to Chinese school in here. During that time we had about 30 or 40 of those young kids in Chinese school.”
On the way out of the Chung Wah Wooey Goon building, while Uncle Freddy searches for the various light switches around the walls. Big Louie looks up and points out a piece of calligraphy glassed and framed over the doorway to Bing Kung Tong, the Chinese Freemasons, the room where they play mahjongg.
“Foong Goh Book Sick,” inspired by Book Sick.
Big Louie says generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek and his wife, Shoong Mei-ling, supposedly wrote this bit of calligraphy with their own hands, as a sign of gratitude to the six towns of the Imperial Valley — El Centro, Calexico, Holtville, Niland, Brawley, Imperial — for giving a large sum of money to the Kuomintang, when the Nationalists were fighting the Japanese.
“This is the hand of Chiang Kai-shek?” I ask. The hand is pretty. The calligraphy is good, but not that good.
“Supposed to be,” Uncle Freddy says, makes a face, and the old men laugh.
Big Louie explains the meaning of the inscription.
“ ‘Six towns joined together to save the country.’ Chiang Kai-shek likened this act to Book Sick, who was a shepherd when Liu Bong, the First emperor of the Han, was uniting the country and wanted money. So this shepherd. Book Sick, gave him money and went off. And the emperor didn’t see him again for a long time, and the next time he sees the shepherd, the shepherd asks him, ‘Do you need any more money?’ And he gives Liu Bong another huge amount of money. This happens two or three times, and Liu Bong says, ‘You’ve given me so much money. Do you want to be a government official?’ And Book Sick says, ‘No, all I want is peace for my family, my countrymen, no bloodshed.’ And he goes back to his sheep.
“Book Sick never joined the army. Chiang Kai-shek is saying Book Sick was working as a shepherd and saving his money and giving it to the emperor Liu Bong to unite China under the Han, just like these guys in the six towns of the Imperial Valley.”
An old one and half-eyed old man who speaks a strange English accented with the Say Yup dialect and a little back East from having learned English as an 11-year-old houseboy in the home of the district attorney of Modesto, California, talking of Chiang Kai-shek and Shoong Mei-ling with such familiar skepticism, and Liu Bong, the First emperor of the Han, and the legendary shepherd with deep pockets, Book Sick, has suddenly cast us into a world where knowledge of Chinese folklore and childhood lit is real knowledge and glows like the granules of quartz in all the sand and all the rocks around here in the long afternoon dusk.
We had clumsily tested Big Umie with unmotivated references to Liu Bay, the last, last emperor of the Han. Here was Chiang Kai-shek, the generalissimo who copped the revolution of Sun Yat-sen and used it as a license to be a Chinese and Western-style dictator and his wife’s family to act like Western-style money-grubbing inlaws who had seen enough American movies to know the smart thing to do was convert to Christianity, play it big in the West, and hush it up to the Chinese, who will be forever remembered for losing China to Mao Tse-tung and the Communists in 1949, then taking over Taiwan and declaring it the Republic of China and maintaining it as a police state. What a man! Here he was in the same room as Kwan Rung, Liu Bay’s second brother of the oath in the peach garden, and the painting of the horse soaring over wooded geography, talking about Liu Bong, the emperor at the beginning, not the end of the Han. And Uncle Freddy and Big Louje know it all like a nursery rhyme.
Uncle Freddy points at the painting of the horse and says a visiting artist was inspired to stroke out a long composition of a horse soaring over a forest, with brush and ink. He inscribed the painting, “Cing wan jing serng."”Ride in the sky,” Uncle Freddy translates. This is a tribute to the Mah family, not just the idea of a horse, I’m sure of it.
UNCLE FREDDY AND AUNTIE SUE
Pok-chi has a talent for getting into the homes of Chinese and snapping telling pictures. We return Big Louie to Mah’s Kitchen, where he’ll snack on big doughy things and hot tea till his daughter picks him up. Pok-chi rides with Uncle Freddy in his pickup with a camper on the back. I follow close behind as if I know what’s happening. Uncle Freddy drives at 30 miles an hour on the freeway and highways. People come up on me fast at freeway speeds and shake their fist at me.
Theirs was an arranged marriage. They never set eyes on each other before they were married. She remembers being carried to the wedding ceremony in a sedan chair. Was it two guys?
“It was four guys carrying you,” Uncle Freddy says.
‘‘No, it was two!” she laughs.
It’s an arranged marriage that works. He’s brought home the leftovers from Mah’s Kitchen. They go fishing together in the camper. They tell fish stories. Pok-chi wants to see their fishing gear, their tackle boxes, their fishing poles. Uncle Freddy says he has a copy of Sun Tzu’s Art of War someplace in the house.
Menudo at Tony’s Garden, an Italian-Mexican restaurant. It’s upstairs in a large Quonset hut. I thought they might have a cappuccino here. No. I need something familiar to bury the grease from the big doughy things. Menudo.
Pok-chi’s never seen menudo before. “Ngau bok yip," I say, “Tripe.” Lots of chili. Chopped onion. Oregano. This isn’t dinner. I want dinner before we go back to the Chung Wah for tonight's meeting. I know it’s a dinner meeting, that’s why I want dinner first. The dinner at the meeting will probably be Chinese take-out grease. Egg rolls. Fried rice. Chow mein. Let’s give our stomachs a chance to be happy the rest of the night.
Dinner at Yum Yum. A soup. Decent edge-of-the-world home cooking.
Steamed fish. Pompano. A little happv-faced fish. Once upon a time frozen, but a nice fish. The sign advertising the fish is in English and Korean. Gai lan. I call George Woo and have him share the fish with us.
After the raffle tickets have been accounted for and the business of the meeting and the dinner is over, I meet Henry Quan’s son. He’s a young-looking man, just about to turn 30. He could pass for a man in his late 30s. Unlike George Woo, William Quan grew up with a mother.
“My name is William Quan, DDS. I was born 12/1944. Father: Henry Quan. Also known as Quan Chew Yerng and Mah Toe Wah. He was the one they called Butch. When he first came from China, from Hang Lung Lee village. Southern Canton. He supposedly was a pretty skinny little kid, when he got here. He was tall for his age. But he was about 13, and his first job was at the, you know, the family-owned grocery store named Hong Chong, in the east side of El Centro. And the way I heard the story, he was such a good worker, they put him as the butcher. And as he trimmed the baloney or lunch meat, he’d never seen so much fcxxl in his whole life. And all of a sudden he’s thrust into this situation where he’s the butcher. And he snacked a lot on the lunch meat and stuff. I heard he ballooned to 300 pounds from a 100-pound kid. But being a butcher, that’s how he got the nickname of Butch. I’m sure the neighborhood people couldn’t remember the Chinese name that he had, right?
“I don’t know if I’m a third generation or first generation or what. The situation was, my granddad came here first. Then my dad came here, second. They were both born in China. I was the first one born on this side. So what does that make me? First generation? Third generation? Or what? My mother was born in the old country too. So my siblings and myself were the first bom on American soil.”
William Quan is a good man. I wish he knew more of his father’s Chinese language. Names of villages. Names of his grandfathers and grandmothers. He wishes so too. Like all the Chinese, he has a strong sense of history. He says, “I have one foot in the old generation and one foot in the new. I can remember. And I experienced the old days. And I’m sort of a sentimental guy, because I took it upon myself on the museum project, at the Pioneer Museum, as a debt to the old generation. Their story must be told. But as they get older, it’s like losing volumes of material, you know, history, valuable stuff that won’t be around anymore.”
The old Wah Kiew might have things to hide, secrets to keep and be shy and hostile to my microphone biting a hold on their collars, catching their every breath. But they know that Pok-chi and I have arrived as the agents if not the angels of history. We, begging the use of microphones and tape recorders and cameras in the name of objectivity, are both Battering and threatening. We’re not here to nail them to the family scandal, but we’re not here to fake it either.
“Now. I’m what they call the proverbial — what, banana-type person, or what do they call that bamboo thing in the middle? Juk sing. Yeah, I’m a juk sing."
Chinese old-timers, perhaps Chinese parents used to tell the American-born kids they were useless by calling them juk sing, “hollow bamboo.” A hollow section of bamboo was useless for carrying water. Chinese speaking American-born would in turn call the China-born Chinese juk kock, “topped bamboo.” A section of bamboo solid at both ends is also useless for carrying water. Juk sing I can understand, but why is the good dentist calling himself a banana? Yellow on the outside, white on the inside? Why put himself down?
“Yeah, my dad came through a series of stores. The one that he started at is Hong Chong Market on Last Main. That’s where all the family got together as they came off the ship in L.A. Most of the male relatives of the Mah clan would come into Hong Chong. All my dad’s cousins, they come in there and sleep there. They eat there. They work there. You know, where they waited on people was a counter, where all the boss and workers could look at the customers. And they had this string up there, and it’d come from a little loop on the roof, come down to tie packages, and to tie around these boxes to make them a little taller so you could stack more groceries in.
“Wooden floors. And in the butcher shop where my dad used to cut meat, since it was a communal store, they would all sit down after work at this little discarded chopping block, and we’d stand on soda boxes and we’d eat there. And they had these claw things on the end of pole and claw these cans up on the shelves. And my brother, he’s into antiques and managed to salvage one of these things.
That was at the first store. Mostly Negro and Mexican. Then at the second store, on the west side of 4th Street, which was to my dad an improvement, instead of the east side of 4th Street. It was still Mexican and Negro and a mix of the low end of the Anglo neighborhood.
“I remember playing in the grocery store. The store sold Christmas trees at Christmas time. And they’d stack them up in stacks outside, and I’d be running around. Playing cowboys and Indians between the Christmas trees. One situation I remember, the story’s told to me. I craved soda pop. Evidently at age six or seven, they refused to give me any more soda pop. I drank too much. Then being the creative-type person that I am, I went out there in the back yard and pooled all these bottles of half-drank soda. You know, put ’em all in one. And I supposedly just walked in the store drinking soda pop crazy. And they just about kicked my butt. They couldn’t believe what I’d done. As a kid, I was thirsty for soda pop. So that’s what I got.
“You know, I understand we had a Negro woman who was a teacher. I kind of vaguely remember her visually, but I can’t put a name to her. She tutored us. She taught us English. I remember this woman, she must have been well traveled, she had one of these Viewmasters, that old 3-D viewer. I must have gotten an interest in the world at large through this thing, because television was barely around at that point. I remember we supposedly had one of the first TVs amongst the Chinese here.
“I think my dad was very progressive for his time. I guess he came from China with nothing. And he wanted to make sure we were taught well. We had the latest things like air conditioning, TV, and stuff like that.
“He didn’t make me work in the store. That’s funny. You know, my dad came up the hard way, right, from China? He had to make his own living, even though he was surrounded by all the family members. Then when it came time for me to work in the store, he didn’t make me work. You know what he did? He made me go to the back room in the warehouse. I stacked all these boxes of groceries around. I made myself a desk. And he made me sit at that homemade desk and study.
“So what does that mean? He had an idea that education was a way to improve yourself in this new land, right? So ever since I can remember, he might have me be the cashier, but he never had me stock groceries, sweep floors, or nothing. He had me study. My sisters. They didn’t do anything either. They just stayed home. Now my brother did basically the same thing to the point where, you know, you grow up thinking, ‘Oh, gee, I am a good cashier. And I can study well....
“My first paying job was at another family-owned supermarket called New Star. You were just talking to the fellow there next to me, Eddie Wong. He’s the manager now, and part-owner with my mom. But my first job, when I walked in here, I was age 17. I must have had this swollen head or something. You know, we’re coming from this background where I didn’t really work. I decided I needed a job get my own money and stufflike that. So I figured I’d walk in as a manager, or at least assistant manager, because my dad owned this store.
“I walked in there, boy, was my ego shattered, because I expected a desk job, and they handed me this stupid broom and told me to go sweep the floor! I told myself, ‘I don’t even do this at home! What am I doing, doing this here?’ But my dad had told me before I went for this job. He said, ‘You know, I might own this store, but you have to listen to the boss that is there. You do everything he tells you to do. And you’d better do it or I’m going to kick your butt when you get back if I hear you didn’t do it right.’
“So I reluctantly picked up that broom and cleaned the bathrooms and everything. And I couldn’t believe my dad would make me do this kind of stuff.
“But as the years go by,” the dentist nods, “my dad was crazy like a fox. That was a very good beginning for me, because that summer I learned how to work. I learned how to take orders, because they’ll come a time later in our lives, we’ll give the orders, but at first we’d better know how to take orders. So I learned that very well.
“And let’s admit it, back in those days, there was prejudice! This town was actually separated. The minorities were on this side of the tracks. And everyone else, the Anglo population, was on the other side of the tracks. Here were the Hispanics, and the Negro people at that point, and here were these F.O.B. Chinese, coming fresh off the boat, you know, they identified with each other. And Mrs. McGee and her family, they were very good friends with my folks, especially my dad. They shopped at the store. He gave them credit and stuff. They kind of developed together.
“I can remember on this main street here called Imperial Avenue, I can remember as a kid in the early ’50s, we were told, ‘You can’t live on the west side of Imperial. You have to live on the east side of Imperial Avenue.’ I took that as a challenge, myself. As a kid I remember hearing that, and I go, ‘Who do they think they are to tell us that we can’t go that way!’ I think that’s part of the way I developed. And that really bothered me.
“I must have been six or seven when I started Chinese school. But you know, I hated Chinese school. Why did I need Chinese for? I was a juk sing. I spent half the time my hand paddled, sitting on the wall, sitting in the corner.
I can’t remember anything positive about Chinese school. I must have learned something. Because in my pre-dental schooling, I happened to go up to my maternal grandparents’ house in the Redondo Beach-Culver City-L.A. area. I spent a year with them to save costs on schooling. I lived with them. And they didn’t speak English. I didn’t speak Chinese. I thought I didn’t speak Chinese. But you go deep at that point, pull something out, and say something to your grandparents, right? So, lo and behold, that year I spent up there was very helpful for me. It either jarred my memory or I learned Chinese! And I know enough spoken Cantonese Say Yup dialect that I can get by. I don’t understand Taiwan, Hong Kong dialect, but I can get by. I cannot read. I cannot write. But I can speak elementary Cantonese Say Yup dialect.”
I ask him if he and his brothers and sisters had birthday parties and got birthday presents and celebrated Christmas with Christmas presents. He answers, nodding his head, as if birthday presents and Christmas presents were nothing unusual.
“See, my dad, I think, was more progressive than the average Chinese from his village. Just progressive is a good way to describe him. And yet you know, he never asked for much. You know, when I graduated, I knew there was no strings attached, like I told you. I think I took him out to dinner, once before he died. He died a year after I graduated. I know he was proud of me and all. There was no strings attached.
“My dad didn’t deal out the punishment. My mother. She was the one dealt out the punishment when you’re bad. And I have nickname of Ngun Pay, that means ‘thick skin,’ you know. Must mean ‘independent kid,’ that’s the way I take it, because my ma would tell me to go left. I’d go right, on purpose! And the teacher in Chinese school would try to teach all this stuff. Hey, I didn’t have any use for this!
“Hey, my older sister. She’s the one. I don’t get along with her to this day! She’s the one that always made life miserable for me, and she got me in trouble that day. And my dad stepped in. He didn’t know what was happening. I said, ‘This is none of your business. This is between me and my sister!’ And I decked him. I gave him a black eye. That’s unheard of in Chinese! And my grandmother, this 97-year-old woman, I remember she’s the one that stepped in at that point. She told us all just to cool down, you know. I was juk sing. I was Western. My dad was traditional. I was about 17, at that stage. I figured, after I decked him, I figured he was going to ban me out of the house forever. But see, he swallowed his pride, as I look back now. My mom soothed him down. My grandmother soothed him down. He actually ignored me for the rest of the year, because, shit! That was a bad situation. I was really sorry that I did it afterwards.
“Yeah, my dad had a lot of balls to swallow his pride and do that. I don’t even know if I would be able to do that with my kids, you know?”
Self-deprecating, sincere, yearning, “My heart is still back there in that grocery store.” He tells me something I never heard of before. Paper women. In the ’50s, to get away from the Communists, his grandmother became a paper woman.
Dr. Quan says, “Mah Yee Shurn Toy, my paternal grandmother, she supposedly had a little farm in a little village, and my dad and my granddad would send supposedly gold coins or something to her for her subsidy, right? So she got labeled Rich Landowner or whatever — and when the Communist Chinese took over, they made her kneel on glass, hung her up by her toes upside down, and whatever they did to torture her, she won’t tell us. It’s so painful, we asked her from time to time, you know, when we think she’s in a receptive mood, we go, ‘Hey, Grandma, what was it like?’ Nothing! It was so painful she won’t say nothing.
“She experienced the changeover from Nationalist to Communist.
“I think most of the Chinese from the ’20s and ’30s immigration days, they’re more loyal to Chiang Kai-shek. See, I don’t know all that stuff.”
Sure he does. He’s playing the hick country boy just a little too hard. The old Wah Kiew were loyal to Chiang Kai-shek. Chiang’s Kuomintang Nationalist China celebrated October 10, the Tenth Day of the Tenth Month, or Double Ten Day, as the day the Manchu were toppled and dynastic China was no more. The Communists celebrate October 1 as the end of Imperial China. The Chinese, especially the Tang people, the southerners who settled in the Americas, see a big, not a subtle, difference between the Nationalists and the Communists. The all-American, Westernized dentist knows the difference.
“But, you know, it’s funny, my father’s mother got out on a paper name, as our maid. We couldn’t bring her over as my grandmother. I heard something like, if you promise someone a job, you can bring ’em over. My dad somehow got her over as the maid to take care of us, as we’re growing up. In public we were never supposed to call her Grandma, Ah-Paw Paw, because someone would find out and ask, ‘Hey, how come you’re calling that maid your grandmother?’
“So she came over on gah gee, fake papers.
“They actually tried to get her over before my paternal grandfather died. Her husband. That was in 1955. They tried like heck to get her over but didn’t make it. She came over, like, two months after he passed away. So they never saw each other.
“He had actually left her, like, maybe 20 or 30 years prior, you know, the typical Chinese experience. Come over here, the males will work like slaves and they never see their family again. But they got her over as maid, then somehow she got to stay. And she’s still here.”
He seems very ’50s to me. His language. The way he uses “going” to mean “thinking” or “saying to myself” seems very ’50s to me. He looks too young to be steeped in the ’50s.
“We were one of the first Chinese to get a TV, is the way I heard it. In 1955 I started watching TV. I remember all those, Howdy Doody, the Red Ryder-type programs. Whereas my wife, same age and everything, they didn’t get their TV for another ten years. She kept listening to the radio, the Green Hornet and all that.
“Seventeen years old. Friday, Saturday night. I’m not that independent. I’d be in the back room studying. My friends, they’d be out cruising the streets. Going out to beer parties, smoking cigarettes. We didn’t have anything worse than that back then. Maybe drinking beer. My friends would go, ‘Hey, let’s go get drunk! Go find some hookers!’ This is high school, you know.
“I’m going, ‘No, I don’t want do any of that kind of stuff.’ Maybe I wanted to, but I knew I couldn’t go anyhow. So why worry about it. I’ll just be at the store. Then at the store my friends would come by and they’d go, ‘Hey, sell us a pack of cigarettes.’ At that time you couldn’t sell cigarettes to underage kids, but peer pressure, you know, I go, ‘Oh, yeah, okay. Don’t tell my dad. Here’s a couple packs of cigarettes.’ So there was a way I had of fitting in, but I didn’t really do all that extracurricular activities.
“I remember once I wanted so badly to throw some eggs at something! You know, when my friends would drive around, you throw eggs at people’s cars — and I’m going, ‘I got all these eggs here, and I don’t even know what to do with them.’ So I took a couple out there and I threw at the neighbor’s car.
“It’s not that my dad told me flat out I couldn’t go out there and have fun. My thing was to he around the store, even though I didn’t work there much, just to be there, I guess. They never told me.
“My wife, she’d go to all the games and all of that. She was very Western, but when she got home she was very traditional. There are two sides to everything. I thought I was independent. But I stayed home a lot.
“I married a local girl. As a matter of fact, we used to run around this Chinese school together when we were little. Of course, I didn’t know who she was at that time, because who was interested in girls at that time? But they took this picture of the Chinese school class of 1957 or something, and lo and behold, I’m sitting there next to her! I always played with her brothers and everyone else. Her dad used to be very prominent in this local El Centro community. He would be in charge of the Chinese Benevolent Association, the principal of the school. He’d actually take it upon himself, the Ten Ten dinner, the New Year’s dinner, and he’d have everything prepared, and everyone would come in and eat and leave, and he’d be there. Not only did he prepare it, he had to clean up afterwards. And I found that out because after we got married, I was on the cleanup crew too. And I’m going, ‘I didn’t used to do this! What’s the deal here?’ ”
Pok-chi is out with the old men of the ('hung Wah, skimming the pond for gossip. The pictures of two Mahs are on the wall of past presidents of the Chung Wah. The little speaker’s stage is flanked with the flags of the United States and the Republic of China, portraits of Dr. Sun Yat-sen, generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, his successor, and, coincidentally, his son, Chiang Ching Kuo, the ruthless police-state tyrant turned benevolent populist, and the current president of the Republic of China (Taiwan) Lee Teng-hui, a Taiwanese, not a Chinese born in China. On the American side of the wall are the portraits of Nixon, Carter, and Reagan. Bush and Clinton haven’t entered this time zone yet.
Dr. Quan says, “I’m a simple guy. I grew up in this environment. I experienced life in the big city. It’s okay. I think, being married at the time, my wife and I are both from this area, both sides of the family are in this area, our roots here are deep. So when it came time to find a place to practice, in my mind there was no other place. There was nowhere else in the world I want to go to. When I got out of dental school, there was no other place I wanted to be except the west side of Imperial Avenue.
“Maybe, through limited experience or whatever, or respect for the elders, because now they’re proud of you, you come back as a doctor, you’re from a grocery store family, you know this is your place in life, right here. So I came back. My brother came back. My sisters never left. Their husbands were in the service, and they came back.
“Maybe I ought to give my parents credit. They instilled in us this sense of community. Then I ask myself, ‘What happened to me? My children want to go to L.A.!’ ”
Now we talk of paper sons and paper names. Fake papers and fake names. And the sons of paper sons living the hush or being kept stupid about dad’s real name. What does this mean to your name, son of a paper son?
His father, Henry Quan, was a paper son, a paper Quan. He knows that and is and is not touchy about it. Other paper sons around the valley have been giving up their paper names and taking back the name Mah. The horse. He doesn’t do it because it’s too much trouble or he’s lazy or he doesn’t care after all this time. All the Chinese around know he’s a Mah.
I understand his problem and lack of a problem. My father was a paper son. He made the real family name Chew, my middle name, so my name is Frank Chew Chin. It took me a while to figure it out. The explanations about why my Chinese family name was different from my “American” name made no sense. Nobody wanted to confess to being a paper son before 1966 and an amnesty and naturalized citizenship for paper sons who confessed. This is America, the wild West where names don’t matter, where you make a name for yourself and nobody asks questions about the past.
He understands. He says he did the same thing for his sons. Made the family name, Mah, their middle name. Though we’re nothing alike, different in our understanding of the Chinese, we seem to have come to the same conclusions about how to reconcile our names with our history.
To all the Chinese here, the old Wah Kiew, the Chung Wah Wooey Goon, the connections to the old times and old-timers, the Mah family, the Chinese here are history. They talk like they’re extinct already.
The Chinese putting money behind the Peso stores along Imperial Avenue and shopping centers anticipating the new port of entry are from Hong Kong, using Chinese restaurants and shopping centers as their Swiss bank. When Hong Kong goes back to the Communists in 1997, their money will be safe till they can catch up with it.
Then there are the Chinese Mexicans who run businesses in Mexicali and own nice homes on the U.S. side of the border in the Imperial Valley. They don’t seem to be brooding on extinction.
WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 16, Everybody’s birthday. Ash Wednesday.
Over a breakfast of chorizo con huevos at the De Anza Hotel with George Woo, Carlos Auyon says his father came over on a Chinese junk, a kind of wide-bodied junk called a cattle boat because it was used to carry cattle. His father married an Indian woman, Florinda Gerardo, in Chiapas. He started a brewery.
He and two others were born in Mexico. He is the only one of those three to return to Mexico. The others are living in Hong Kong. His brother Eduardo was born in China.
The Auyon family has become one of the first families — if not the first family — of the Chinese of Mexicali.
Carlos was president of the Mexicali Chung Wah Wooey Goon. The Chung Wah building fronts on a street lined with Auyon family and Chinese businesses. Carlos’s insurance agency is next door to the office of Dr. Enrique Auyon Tam — his son, the doctor. Next door is the gate to the Centro de Investigacion de la Cultura China, the Center for the Study of Chinese Culture. This is the domain of Carlos’s youngest brother, Eduardo, or Prof. Eduardo Auyon Gerardo. The baby of the family, born in China, now 59 years old, is a brush-and-ink artist crazy about wild, riderless Chinese horses.
Eduardo is shorter than Carlos, more intense, and looks strangely like young Tony Curtis playing Ira Hayes, the American Indian U.S. Marine immortalized in Abe Rosenthal’s snap of the Marines raising the flagon Mt. Suribachi, Iwo lima. World War II. John Wayne died in the movie The Sands of Iwo Jima. I don’t remark on the resemblance or the movies. As the Johnny Cash song goes, “Who remembers Ira Hayes?”
He calls himself “El Dragon Celestial.” A Chinaman has to have balls to call himself a dragon in the face of other Chinese. A Chinese Mexican mestizo who looks like Tony Curtis and wears his hair like Elvis is plain crazy to put on his black smock with the dragons embroidered all over it and paint horses to a cassette of wind, rain, and thunder playing on a little boom box. Hmmm. Stereo. He opened a kung fu studio. The signs announced he taught Shaolin five animals, a little choy lee fut and chee kung. He has researched, written, and illustrated a history of the Chinese in Mexicali, El Dragon en el Desierto: Los Pioneros Chinos en Mexicali, that, toward the end, becomes heavy with pictures of the Celestial Dragon with beauty queens and tall women in tight sequined gowns.
What counts are the opening chapters. The pictures snapped of him talking with the old-timers, the old men, old men across the border have heard about and mean something. He did his homework before he posed in dark glasses with beauty queens.
- 1902 — We can say 1902 marked the first arrival of the Chinese pioneers of Mexicali.
- Mr. Mariano Ma, also known as Ma Lean, and Mr. Chang Pei established themselves in Ensenada in 1890.
- Later they crossed the desert, moved along the coast of San Felipe, and finally settled in Mexicali. In an interview, Mr. Mariano Ma said, “The road lasted 26 days approximately, those days were very hard and very heavy on us.""
Mariano Ma, yes. The Ma family. The horse has come to triumph in the valley. Uncle Freddy had talked about a Ma Leong. Mariano, also known as Ma Lean, is the same Ma Leong Uncle Freddy knew.
- Mariano Ma lived in Algodones, worked for the benefit of the community, and they honored him by naming a city street after him. He was well thought of by all the people who called to him, "Tata Mariano Ma.”
- Guillermo Andrade transferred a parcel of 90,469 hectJrias in the Mexicali Valley at a cost of 60 cents an acre, between the Sierra de C'ucapah mountains and the Colorado River. The region covered 283,290 hectarias.
- Otis and C Chandler contracted Chinese to California to farm com, barley, cotton and alfalfa.
- The first group of Chinese laborers arrived in 1903. Twenty-two persons, including Mariano Ma, Ung, Chan Lei, and Ramon Lee, contracted by the Colorado River Land Company to level roads and canals. The pay was 50 cents, 25 cents more than the cost of their food. They lived in cabins, tents or huts built under the trees, the walls were of wood and adobe, sticks, etc. Mariano Ma said:
- “In this place were many mosquitos, many died because of the various sicknesses caused by the bites of flies and rattlesnakes, by the intense heat of the place.”
Carlos’s wife is dressed-up, done-up, and made-up well, dignified, not trashy, not flashy. When there was an opera and music club in Mexicali, she enjoyed singing. I’m sad to hear the Mexicali music club didn’t survive. Yes, when the opera comes to the border, to Mexicali, it is always special. Now she has a karaoke machine at home and sings karaoke.
She met and married Carlos in Macao. They lived in the same building and saw each other in passing. He noticed her. She noticed him. He did not notice her noticing him. She did not notice him noticing her. I’ve seen this Hong Kong movie before, haven’t I? She finally met him at a meeting of his theater group. Oh, Carlos had a theater group in Macao. She came out to audition for the first play he was directing. Thunderstorm. Pok-chi hasn’t heard of Thunderstorm and repeats the name in Cantonese without any lights flashing a snap in his head.
Thunderstorm was billed as the first Chinese play written in the Western, naturalistic, Ibsenesque manner. Three acts of turgid melodramatic elephantiasis from the ’30s or ’40s...though it feels like it should be from the ’teens. The writing has pimples.
Carlos was a teacher, a student of Portuguese, a scoutmaster, a theater director. His wife met him at the theater and likes to sing. Interesting couple.
I ask Carlos about tunnels under the border, and he laughs. “There was no fence or barriers on the border until the ’30s. There was no reason to dig any tunnels. One could just walk across the border back and forth without any worries. So why waste your time digging a tunnel? The Chinese did dig holes in the ground, line the walls with wood, put up a roof, and live in holes and caves. It was a way to get away from the heat. When the Chinese first came there was nothing in Mexicali. They built it up. Mexicali at first was an all-Chinese town. There’s a bit of the first settlement left called the Chinesca.”
“I’ve heard about a place where many Chinese died, called Chino Mountain,” I say.
“Yes,” Carlos says, “there is a Chino Mountain, but it’s not called Chino Mountain. It’s La Sierra Cucapah,” and turns to a page in his brother’s book.
- 1908 — A group of Chinese braceros moving up from the south of Sonora set sail in a small boat piloted by a Japanese.
- Part of the group came looking for jobs because their contracts were completed where they had been working; the others beard it was easy to find work and make a lot of money in Mexicali. So they left Sonora by boat bound for the coast of San Felipe. The people in charge of guiding the group of Chinese braceros, on seeing that it was impossible to take a boat to Mexicali, showed them the road to Mexicali and left them there, a group of Chinese braceros alone on the road. After a few days on the road without knowing where they were, and without a compass to guide them, they were lost. Desperate and tired they set out wandering aimlessly; hungry and thirsty with a temperature reaching 125ºF they began to die one by one.
- The Sierra Cucap where the Chinese braceros died is known as “Sierra de los Chinos” or “El Chinero.” These facts were confirmed by Mr. Chan Fuk Yau, one of the survivors of this trek from Sonora to Mexicali, who was interviewed at the age of 103.
Carlos’s brother’s book says Mr. Chan Fuk Yau lived out his last days at the Gee How Oak Tien, an alliance of three families. People with the family name Chan, Woo, and Yuen are members of the Gee How Oak l ien society. We have to meet this brother.
Groups of women in overcoats walk into the De Anza coffeeshop. Rain is expected in San Diego, but here it’s sunny and already around 70. Why are all these young women wearing overcoats? Do they think it’s cold outside?
“Mothers bring their children from Mexicali to school in Calexico. Catholic school. Then they stop by here for coffee,” Carlos says.
Ah, I understand, so when they came over earlier this morning with their children, the morning was colder. The De Anza Hotel coffeeshop is the Mori-esque house where the Old Woman Who Makes Swell Doughnuts lives. This is the depot of folklore.
Carlos is now 63, closer to 64, he says. He’s Chinese and Mexican, speaks very good Cantonese for smart people with a Mexican accent and speaks Spanish like the native Mexican he is. He looks sort of Chinese, Chinese enough to make me happy, hut his eyelashes are long. Chinese have short eyelashes. Carlos’s lushly lashed eyes droop a little, Tallulah Bankhead eyes, panda bear eyes. His cheeks pudge a little. He has a soft, cuddly look. He has a soft, cuddly voice. He speaks with a smile and an ease as if he has all the time in the world, even when he says he has a meeting back on the Mexicali side at one o’clock in the afternoon.
His Chinese name is Ngau Yerng Fay; non-Chinese know him as Carlos Auyon Gerardo. “I was born in 1922, in Montocintura, a town near Palenque, in Chiapas, Mexico. There, perhaps when my father was there, there were more Chinese. Now there aren’t very many people of any kind. Chinese didn’t move out there to build their own coffee plantations. Mostly it was the Germans, people from Germany who had the large plantations. The Chinese who came, came as contract laborers. My father’s uncle came first, when he was just 11 years old. At the time he came he was like the others, a contract laborer. He came to Mexico in a junk to pick coffee.”
“A junk? A Chinese junk?” I ask. The Chinese junk is a flatboat. It has no keel to keep it steady in the moving sea. It is an okay river boat and okay following coasts, but on the open sea, the junk is not the boat most likely to make it across the Pacific. But the one carrying Manuel Auyon and six other Chinese laborers made it. And apparently so did many others. That’s something I never saw in a Charlie Chan movie — Chinese junks, two-masted flatboats with square sails and big rudders, carried the first “coolies” to Chile, and Manzanillo, Acapulco, and the Sonora. If you lived, you owed the contractor money for the next ten years.
“The coffee plantations in those days were run by Toe Yun Indians. Chinese — there were very few staying there and working.
“Back in the old days, my father’s uncle, when he was a very young man, developed an instinct for doing business. Back there in Moctoxintlan, it was just one little village. He built a distillery, then a brewery, then a soda pop plant, then a sugar refinery, all when he was just a young man. His shops occupied an entire block. My father ran the brewery. Then when he married my mother, Florinda Gerardo, my mother helped him. He said with the money he had sent back to China, he had saved enough to support us and our families for five generations.
“When I was four I heard lots of people saying, ‘¡Gran China! ¡Gran China!'— talking up China as the world’s greatest civilization, a country where people knew things other people in the world never heard of. When you’re a little older. I’ll take the whole family to China. He didn’t want us to be without a country. He wasn’t sure what Mexico would do with the Chinese.
“Then he took the whole family back to China with him, and after one or two years, then I came back to Mexico to work in the brewery, then he sold it all, everything, and we went back to China.
“We weren’t in China very long when World War II began, so we couldn’t return to Mexico. Now we’re stranded. My father tells us, ‘You came here to this place, now we have no idea of when we can return, now there are no boats and no planes to take us back to Mexico. So, the thing to do is go to school, learn a lot or a little Chinese, and when you go back to Mexico, you’ll find it useful.’ So all of us enrolled in school.
“At the beginning, my mother had a hard time of it. In China you find very few Mexicans speaking Mexican Spanish. She goes back to China and finds her father-in-law, mother-in-law, our grandparents are all Chinese, so she has no choice but to learn Chinese.
“World War II lasted about ten years in China. Then the Nationalists and the Communists go to war. We were running this way and that.
“My father said we should all finish school before coming back. My father wasn’t in business in China; he bought farmland in Chungshan and leased it. So when the Communists came, my father was one of the first people they arrested as a big landlord. And he lost it all.”
Pok-chi is moved to say, “Wow, you’ve seen hard times.”
Carlos Auyon chuckles. Hard times are his meat. “Back then a lot of people were being arrested and having their money confiscated. Chinese were sweeping other Chinese from place to place like dust. China wasn’t a very hospitable place for Chinese after it turned Communist. So Chungshan was finished for us. We ran down to Macao. Macao is Portuguese.
“When we fled to Macao, it was very difficult. There was nothing to eat. Macao depended on Chungshan for rice and staples, and there was war in Chungshan. There was nothing. Even if you had money, there was nothing to buy. Christian charities kept us fed.
“My father had several thousand dollars in American money saved for us in a Mexican bank. So should we ever return to Mexico we had a well.
“When the Communists came, they arrested my mother and made him give them all the money before they would release her and let her out of the country. My mother told them, ‘I’m a Mexican woman, not a Chinese. That money was made in Mexico by a Mexican citizen, not in China by a Chinese.’
“The Communists didn’t care. They made my father transfer all the money to a Hong Kong bank before they released her and she joined us in Macao.
“I taught school in Macao. I taught Chinese language and culture. I had a law degree from Canton and was qualified to do more than teach, but getting a job teaching grade school was the easy thing to do. Back then there were a lot of Wah Kiew Chinese schools.
“I taught Chinese in several grades and several subjects in the daytime. And at night I studied Portuguese. Every grade had its textbooks and curriculum set by the department of education. At first you teach ‘up,’ ‘down,’ ‘eye,’ ‘hand,’ ‘nose.’ Everything is regulated. But a teacher is required to teach everything, language. Literature. History. In secondary school, I even taught physical education. Calisthenics. Soccer. Basketball. Gymnastics. Yeah. When I was in school studying literature, I enjoyed gymnastics very much. I learned a few things, so when I was a teacher, I had a few things to teach.
“Then after I was there three or four years, the viceroy of Macao was looking for somebody who was fluent in Chinese language and Portuguese to be his translator. So I showed up for the test with 18 other candidates, and I got the job.
“When I got married was around ’63, ’64. My wife had a brother in Macao, her father and mother and brothers and sisters in Hong Kong, and an older brother and a female relative in San Francisco. And we told her San Francisco and Mexicali are very close. Everybody’s always seeing everybody else’s face.
“At that time we had three children.
“I lived a good life. I was in a world of black-and-white. As the viceroy’s translator, all the criminals were brought before me and I translated for them. Out of the lawyers’ hearing I would tell them what they should say to get time off and how they should speak in court if they hoped to get off. And in court I would translate for the viceroy and the accused criminal. They were members of triad societies, and they always gave me a lot of face. See me on the street, ‘How are you? Have you eaten rice yet? Join me for tea?’
“I remember I had a friend who lost his wallet or had his pocket picked or maybe was hit and had his wallet stolen on Cho Dur Street in Macao. I knew which triad controlled this turf. Mr. Leong Hung. His flower name was Um Say Um Hur — If He’s Not Dead, Don’t Go.
“I said. Hello Mr. Leong. A little matter. I have a friend who lost his wallet on Cho Dur Street. I don’t know if he dropped it and lost it or someone hit him and took it. Could you look into it for me?
“‘I’ll take care of it in two hours’ time,’ he said.
“Two hours later he calls me and tells me to ask my friend if he has his wallet back yet. I did and he had. So the black societies were very nice and gave me a lot of face. We would go out to restaurants and a bill would never come. We would be invited to their new year’s spring banquets and sit near the head table. They would invite us to the opera and invite us out to drink.
“My mother had Mexican women’s society in Macao, and they’re always writing letters back to the Mexican government saying, ‘We have a lot of boys and girls stranded in China. Circumstances being so uncertain, we want to return to Mexico.’
“The president of Mexico sent two men over to investigate. They could speak Mexican Spanish, hut they couldn’t speak English very well and couldn’t speak Chinese at all.
“ The Mexican government offered Mexican people in China repatriado, repatriation to bring them to Mexico via Hong Kong. In Hong Kong they’d catch an airplane. My mother was a Mexican.
I was a Mexican. Chinese origin didn’t matter. You could be Japanese Mexican or Chinese Mexican. If you were a Mexican you could be repatriado and all come back together.
“There were a lot of Mexicans living in China who no longer knew how to speak Mexican Spanish. S0 how are you going to know where you live? So at that time they were looking for people to help, so I offered my help.
“And as these people we’ve helped get their papers to return to Mexico are boarding the airplane, the Mexican representative asks me, ‘Why aren’t you going back to Mexico? You’re a Mexican.’
“We found everybody else and forgot me.
“Back in the old days my father became a Mexican citizen. And my mother was a Mexican. And all of us children born in Mexico were Mexicans. So they brought us all back in a group to Mexico in 1966. We stayed in Macao more than six years before coming back to Mexico. That’s how I came back to this place.
“We came back to nothing in Mexicali. We lived in the Colonia. Sheds. Pig pens. Dirt floor. No indoor plumbing. No sewage system, so if it rained you couldn’t go out in the street. And when we came, there were sandstorms. It was very hard on my wife. She didn’t know how to speak or write the language. And when the sandstorms came up, the three kids would get sick.”
MEXICALI STREET SCENE
We meet Carlos’s wife back in the coffeeshop. She’s sitting at the head of a group of the first young Chinese women Pok-chi and I have seen in this place. They’re well-dressed, well-groomed. Overcoats. Young mothers. They look almost too young to be young mothers. Where have they been? Will we see them again?
We follow Carlos across the border into Mexicali. It’s not the shock to the system Tijuana is. The slums are not up against the border here. We park in front of his brother’s Centro de Investigation de la Cultura China. We get out of the car and hear birds in torment. A parrot screams bloody murder across the street. This whole block is Auyon businesses and the Chung Wah Wooey Goon. Across the street with the parrot are two Chinese restaurants. A young Chinese kid walks by wearing glasses and a school backpack and looking guilty of something. Pok-chi points him out to me. “That’s the first Chinese kid we’ve seen!”
As the kid strides by us with his head lowered. I jerk my head up and ask, "Way! Ah-kit doy ahli! Hey, kid!”
The kid stops and turns around with his mouth open. “Gwai jie muh? You been a good boy?” I ask.
"Gwai! Good!” the kid says, turns, and runs.
“I always wanted to do that,” I say.
Senora Auyon takes us by her son’s doctor’s office to meet her son the doctor and for a walk around the immediate neighborhood, near the border. The Chung YVah Wooey Goon in Mexicali now displays the red flag of the People’s Republic of China. Mexico recognizes the PRC and not Taiwan. The Wah Kiew loyal to Taiwan, or the old Chung Wah, or the history of the bachelor society that built Mexicali to the point where it supported 29 family associations and tongs, and two Cantonese opera houses in the late ’20s take refuge in the Chungshan Gay Niem Long, the private Chungshan Benevolent Association, a temple in Eduardo’s compound.
Inside the temple are lion drums with the heads of dancing lions sitting on them. The silk, papier-mache, and bamboo heads are tattered. The drumheads are split and cannot be played. Against a wall, between the lions and drums, stands a portrait of Dr. Sun Yat-sen, the founder of the Republic of China, in a dark military uniform.
On the street she tells us she cried every day when she first came to Mexicali. She wanted to go back to Macao. Three children. No running water. No indoor plumbing. Such dirt and filth all around. She didn’t speak or understand Spanish. It was awful. She didn’t speak a word for seven years. Then there was nothing else to do but let go and open her mouth and try to speak Spanish.
She leads us around the potholes and cracks in the street in her high heels. She can’t wear flat shoes, she says. As we walk, a Mexican woman comes out of her shoe store to give her a hug and a kiss. Her Chinese husband follows with a little girl about five or six. Their grandchild. Sra. Auyon is the queen of the street. Shop after shop, these are her people.
We pass a storefront with a large sign, “Wong’s,” on our way to lunch at the Hong Kong. Sra. Auyon tells us the Wongs worked very hard. For all their success and wealth, they still work hard. They work so hard they eat their meals standing up. A Wong son was kidnapped and the Wongs paid the million-dollar ransom. The son was released. The kidnappers, as far as she knows, were never caught. A million dollars for one son. She wonders if one son is worth it. What happened to the Wongs made all Chinese think. All her children are grown and married. They’re spread out around Mexico and the U.S. There’s going to be a taco party to celebrate the birthday of one of her grandchildren tonight, why don’t we come along? Pok-chi’s up for it. He volunteers to take pictures.
Lunch at the Hong Kong. A steamed black bass. A real fish. Nice. Pok-chi is very happy. The rest of the lunch is okay, just okay.
PROF. EDUARDO AUYON GERARDO
The self-made professor, who would be a playboy and a hustler of Chinese artsy-fartsy hoochie koochie, is too much the classic Chinese hermit, alone driven by his art, his horses, and his knowledge and not greed to be the ruthless, heartless hustler. The handsome artist is going a little to pot. The hustler went to pot and bailed a long time ago. His struggle with his artistic and his hustling self battles in front of us as he tells us his books in Chinese and Spanish on the history of the Chinese in Mexicali ayer y hoy, yesterday and today, are $25. May gum, American gold, then a couple of minutes looking through books later tells us, actually, the price is $50. American. Okay. We’ll be hustled because the information in the book is complete with telephone numbers and addresses and looks like the real thing.
I ask him why he’s made a specialty of brush-painting the horse.
He says the horse is a symbol of the artistic achievement and power of the Tang dynasty to the Tang people. Individual, personal, private power, not state power, not delegated power from the state, but raw personal power: that’s the horse. The riderless horse. The horse that has never been saddled. Everybody who’s ever picked up a Chinese brush and ink attempts a wild horse after they get tired of doing bamboo, birds, and shrimp.
Eduardo clears his desk and announces he will paint a horse for us to commemorate our meeting in Mexicali. He shows us the paper he will use. The smooth side. The rough side. To the naked eye both sides of the white paper look the same. He paints on the rough side. When the ink touches the paper, the paper will immediately begin sponging up the ink, so he must see what he is doing before he does it. He will put on his special smock, clear his head, and paint to Chinese music, and when he hears the rain and the thunder, he will begin painting.
He closes and locks the doors. He adjusts the lighting. He stands behind his desk and calls the girl he lets occupy one of the little rooms out back of the temple with her two children. She’s a kid herself. He says he’s also trying to teach her to read. She’s his nominal assistant. He calls her and she answers, “Si, maestro!” and brings him his black silk smock with golden dragons embroidered on it. She helps him slip it on and takes his jacket and stands to the side and looks on reverentially. There are pictures of his wife in a Chinese jacket doing it better. But we won’t know that’s his wife till he tells us she died 40 days ago.
He prepares his brushes. He prepares his ink. A little ground ink stick in a little bottled Chinese black ink. A little water. People usually pay a thousand dollars for one of these paintings, but he will do this one for us as a gift. His assistant pops a cassette in the boom box. Rain. Rain. Thunder and rain. Eduardo dips his brush in the water, in the ink, and lays three or four short strokes across the blank paper. He paints.
It’s raining when we get back to the car. Real rain. The streets quickly puddle up.
Pok goes to the birthday party for their granddaughter. I stay in Calexico, have a chicken dinner alone, and take a long walk.
THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 17, the Day of the Wheat.
Yut gay pong sun. One skill next to the body. It loses everything in translation. The pun on skill and whore can’t be duplicated in English. Gay in Chinese is “skill,” and another gay is whore. The real laugh comes from inside the tellers and listeners of this joke. Old men who remember the old men who came to America as boys. No Chinese women in America. Big Louie tells me and Pok-chi, when he came to El Centro in 1936, there were 10,000 Chinese men and 4 Chinese women. They were the wives of merchants. No Chinese whores for the 10,000 hardworking and horny Chinese men.
Just down the road from El Centro is Calexico, and just the other side of Calexico is Mexicali. More puns. Between Calexico and Mexicali runs the U.S.-Mexican border. In Mexicali is the Centro de Investigation de Cultura China, the domain of Prof. Eduardo Auyon Gerardo, a passionate, tender, grieving man who seems to aspire toward being a big-time artist hustler but has too much respect for the Chinese culture he studies, defends, and practices in his little re-creation of a Chinese village compound with a pond of goldfish at the base of the pedestal bearing a bust of Dr. Sun Yat-sen or Shurn Chungshan Sin Sang, “the Gentleman from Chungshan,” who led the revolution that ended the Manchu Dynasty and dynastic China in 1911, a tree, a large open cage of chattering parakeets behind the walls of the Del Valle Hotel and the Chung Wah Wooey Goon building.
Here it is quiet and a million miles from the potholes, parked cars, and the bustling and busting dust)' happening just outside his gate, on the street. The compound centers around the Chungshan Benevolent Association temple, the main building. Smaller buildings once housed the down and out, the passers-by, the dying old men of Chungshan. Around the entrance and yard and walks are little shrines covered with ash and the sticks of burnt-out incense to the memory of the pioneers from Chungshan who died here.
Before taking us out to visit the Chinese section of the graveyard, where his wife, who died 40 days ago, is buried, he tells us of a man of Chungshan who was 78 years old, had come to the American continent when he was 10, and in all his life had never had a woman. Eduardo, who presents himself as a kind of gentle, ascetic mystic of the four treasures of the scholar — the inkstone. The inkstick. The brush. The paper — paid for a whore for a night for the old man before he died. The old man couldn’t get it up. “He couldn’t get his little head to rise. He broke down and cried. The whore was kind and tried to help him get it up all night long, but no luck,” Eduardo sighs.
“And the whore burst into tears!” Pok-chi laughs. I understand all the Chinese and laugh. Listen to the Chinaman artists and keepers of the memories and history laugh at the loneliness of our old men.
Maria Lau Lopez Auyon was a beauty. At least Eduardo painted her as a beauty several times. They met in Kongchow. They married in China, and he brought her to Mexicali, Baja California, Mexico. Here he taught art, painted Chinese horses. They had a boy and girl. The boy now imports used American cars. His Mexican daughter-in-law cooks “foo ngooey horn ha” better than her mother. She fell ill and went into a coma for ten days. Eduardo painted himself and Maria Lau Lopez Auyon as a pair of horses. One dark. One white. She revived and he nursed her back to health. He studied the healing arts and massaged his wife with knowing hands. Years later she’s struck down by a heart attack. He is driven to paint another painting of the dark horse and white horse together. She survives. Years pass. She dies for the third time and is gone. It’s a beautiful story as he drives out to the cemetery, past houses made of spit and mud, and through a landscape that stinks of the shiny odd-colored sludge frosting the waters that trickle down the banks of ravines.
The cemetery is built on landfill. A river of silvery, milky slime runs along the edge. It seems to have seethed its way through the landfill, exposing layers of colored rags and garbage and a mix of dirt and paper and plastic gewgaws and leafy stuff that poses as earth. Thousands of slabs and monuments and crosses made of an aggregate fake marble lie sort of level, tipping a little this way and that, about a quarter of a mile to each side of the narrow path we drive down between the Mexican side and the Chinese side of the cemetery. He has done the calligraphy on the Chinese stones of many of the dead. No one else knows how to write a formal textual style. He does it for free. He can’t charge people for doing such a thing. He can't hustle them in their grief. Too much heart.
When I turn away, Eduardo grabs his wife’s marker with both of his hands and drops his head. I ask Pok-chi later if he got the shot. He says he did and feels terrible about it. That’s his job, I tell him. My job is to go home with memories. His job is to drop the shutter and go home and make pictures.
Everybody here, Mexican and Chinese, is buried in holes dug in garbage. At the official entrance to the cemetery, beyond the little bit of pitiful lawn, people seem to be picnicking in the rain. They’re on both sides of the seam of slime, scratching out the edges of the hanks, mining the garbage for a living.
Several of the crosses and monuments on the Chinese graves are tipped over and oddly broken and broken into. Eduardo says an earthquake knocked them down. But earthquakes don’t break open little gates and the glass and tear out the photos of the dead cemented to the stone at the back of the niche. I see a little owl standing in the shade of an overturned monument. Big eyes. The mau tau ying, the cat-faced bird. I wish I hadn’t seen that bird staring out at me from a Chinese grave.
We leave Mexicali and drive to El Centro and Lee-Louie’s farm, buy a box of lily root, and it’s raining when we’re on I-8 west toward San Diego in search of a dinner of Japanese sushi and the best cappuccino in America.
“Really?” Pok-chi the fisherman asks.
“Really,” I say. “I’m all peopled out. One more tough-as-nails Chinaman telling me another story of the miserable Cultural Revolution teaching ’em how to eat shit, coming over in a leaky boat, and crossing the desert barefoot without food or water, learning the secret of growing lily root, and bringing a hundred members of his family over and buying each of them a big Chinese restaurant, I’m going to roll over and throw up. Let’s find a motel in San Diego and go get some good sushi and come home to middle-class luxury awhile.”
We’re running toward the sunset now and are making long, smooth curves up mountains of rock. I see a palm tree sprouting by the roadside up here. It looks like a joke, a sign of visitors from alien civilizations. Pok-chi didn’t see it.
FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 18, the Jade Emperor’s birthday.
Across the border into Tijuana. We stop at the Flor de Loto, "Comida China, Mexicana y Americana” and ask for the patron. Jesus Chon is sleeping. He won’t be in till 2:30 in the afternoon. We take a few pictures. I have a bottle of Squirt. An old, thin man with white, white hair walks in. He is not the patron, but a friend, an employee. He says he’s been here some 40-plus years, and my ears perk up. Pok-chi introduces him to me, saying, “This is Mr. Hui Kai Hing,” in Chinese.
“Where is he from?” I ask in English.
“Canton, China,” Mr. Hui says in English.
“Nay sick gong Ying Man ahh!” Pok says, startled, “You speak English!” in Cantonese.
“Any question you want to ask me, I can understand. I can speak Spanish too,” Mr. Hui says.
“What year did you come over? Nay gay men gaw lay ahh?” I’m talking more languages at once than I can understand.
“Ngaw Yut gow say yaw hot men, chut yurt, lay luh? I came over in 1948, in July."
He tells us about the Tarahumara Indians of Ciudad Cuauhtemoc, Chihuahua. “They’re taller than six feet. They say they’re Mongolians who walked across the land bridge from Siberia to Alaska and down to Mexico. They look Chinese or Mongolian. They didn’t like the Mexicans and the Mexicans didn’t like them. The Mexicans cheated them, sold them rotten goods. The Chinese didn’t cheat them. They liked the Chinese. And once there was a Chinese wearing a sombrero. And they stopped him and told him to never wear a sombrero; the Indians might mistake him for a Mexican. In this part of Mexico it was better to be mistaken for Chinese or be a Chinese mistaken for an Indian than a Mexican.” Good story. Pok-chi likes the story. I like the story.
We have come to the right place and the right man. Mr. Kai Hing, a.k.a. Fernando Hui, a.k.a. Frank Hui, has been everywhere and seen everything and been to every Chinatown and Chinese hangout in Mexico. He and his friend, the patron, Jesus Chon, are the only Chinamen left in the world who value Chinese culture and collect the history of the Chinese in Mexico. He has worked in Chinese restaurants and kitchens all over Canada, the United States, and Mexico. He married a Mexican woman and has a son and a daughter. They have a little house on the U.S. side of the border, in San Ysidro. He doesn’t want to be a burden on his wife and sleeps over here on the Tijuana side, in a room at the back of the Wah Kiew Hing Wooey, upstairs, above the restaurant. He hangs out in the restaurant, helping out and talking with his friend, the patron. And on weekends he sells T-shirts, which he has bought for $2.00 in the U.S., for $3.00 in a flea market over here and gives the money to his wife, to help the family out.
“Wong FungChurk. He owned all the businesses in Torreon. The electronics store, the bank, the laundry, the machine shop. He also owned a ranch, Kwangtung Yuen. He had a school for Chinese kids. And this General Plutarco Elias-Calles thought he owned too much and wanted to buy all of Wong’s businesses. Wong refused to sell. When Elias-Calles became president, he launched a campaign of discrimination against the Chinese in the state of Coahuila. They all ran to Mexicali.
“Elias-Calles’s face is on the 100-peso note.
“In 1934 the President oft he Republic was Lazaro Cardenas. He was good friends with another Wong. Wong Way or Jose Wong,” and he tells another sad story about another Wong.
Mr. Hui, a.k.a. Fernando Hui, a.k.a. Frank Hui, was 19 when he crossed the Pacific on the General Gordon, the first of the American Presidents Line’s ships. He was small and looked young for his age. It was 1949 and he was avoiding being drafted by the Communists to fight the Nationalists and avoiding being drafted by Chiang Kai-shek’s wobbly Nationalists to fight the Communists.
“I come from Toishan to Canton. Canton to Hong Kong. Hong Kong to Shanghai. Shanghai to Yokohama. Yokohama to Hawaii. Honolulu to San Francisco. San Francisco change to train to Los Angeles. Los Angeles to El Paso. FI Paso, Texas, cross the border to Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. I study English about two years in Canton but cannot make a conversation. Now I speak English because I work almost telf years in the United States. I chose Mexico because I had my father in Torreon.
“HurGum Baw. My hither didn’t have to buy a paper name to come to Mexico. Before 1942 there was no immigration department.
“In Mexico City, there’s another Wong. Wong Chung Fook. They call him Chocolate Wong. Very rich. Very privileged. He had a house within a three-mile security radius around the president’s Pink House. Anybody else with a house in that zone, the government bought your property in the name of national security, but they didn’t bother Chocolate Wong. The presidents of Mexico have come and gone. The estate of Chocolate Wong is still there and his family still lives there.
“He came around 1905 and he died around 1970. I knew him personally in 1964. He made chocolate better than anyone else in Mexico. His chocolate is really very good. It doesn’t melt in the heat like other chocolate. His chocolate is called ‘Chocolate Wong’ right on the label, and it’s famous all the way into Central America. Oh yeah, his family’s very rich. There’s an Edificio Wong in Mexico City."
Times haven’t changed for the Chinese. They want to come to America. And in America there are Chinese always ready to help Chinese.
Fernando Hui says, “The year before last, the Mexican government had a law that allowed Chinese to turn their tourist visas into resident’s visas. There’s never been such a law. This law is especially good to the Chinese because there are Chinese who are willing to pay for good law.”
The patron of the Cafe Flor de Loto, old Chon-bok, notes Pok-chi’s family name is Lau, the same Lau as Lau, also spelled Low, or Lowe, for the respectively old and fancy as Lau Bay (Liu Pei), the first brother of the famous oath in the peach garden. And my family name was Chew, the same Chew as Chew Gee Lung, of the Lau, Kwan, Chang, and Chew family association based on the brotherhood of the oath of the peach garden that opens the heroic classic “Romance of the Three Kingdoms.” Chew, my legendary ancestor, was a kind of foster child of the brothers of the peach garden. Chew was never in the peach garden. I tell the old man of Tijuana’s Chinese my mother was a Kwan and I consider myself more a Kwan than a Chew. Kwan Kung, the second brother of the oath, is, in today’s folklore, the god of war, plunder, and literature.
A plastic relief portrait of Kwan Kung, his son Kwan Ping, and squire Chow Chong behind him hangs on the side of the large stainless steel beer and soda pop cooler with the glass doors. Kwan Kung was the most popular role model out of the pages of childhood adventure novels and popular culture among the first Wah Kiew, the first overseas Chinese who came and settled here before World War II.
Chon-bok, the patron of the Flor de Loto, “Comida China, Mexicana y Americana, ” is so happy to see us, tears come into his eyes. He swallows hard and studies our faces again. My face is red from having been drunk under the table by Arturo Wu. And Pok-chi’s face is white under the pale blue glow of the fluorescents. A prophecy seems to have come true. One day two of the three brothers will come bumbling into Tijuana. Lau will be respectful, gracious, knowing, royal, and humble. Kwan will be a glowering, red-faced drunk. And lo and behold, we drive up with old man Hui.
He uses an old word Pok-chi doesn’t understand. He says this word explains the Wah Kiew’s way of life in Tijuana and America. He fumbles with the Chinese and finally writes the Spanish word for it, on a paper napkin. “ESTRATEGIA,"all block letters in black marker.
“Strategy!” I say and point at the word, “There it is, Pok. The Chinese lived by strategy.”
“Yes,” Jesus Chon agrees. That’s exactly what he means. Then these old Chinese who came over as young boys and lived by strategy had to know Sun Tzu’s Art of War. Yes, he knows Sun Tzu. He goes behind the counter and comes back with a copy of the book translated by Yeng Chen, published by the Confucius Publishing Company, in Chinese and English. Here he was, a Chinaman out of the heroic tradition. A couple of old boys who’d read “The Romance of the Three Kingdoms” and “The Outlaws of the Water Margin,” and “Monkey’s Journey to the West,” and heard about foxes and tigers and toads and wild geese in their childhoods in China and taught Chinese language and culture upstairs in the Wah Kiew Hip Wooey hall, to Chinese children in the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s till they stopped coming. There’s a vacuformed plastic relief of Kwan Kung on the side of his soda pop cooler. There’s the paper napkin with the word “strategy” printed on it, and the book of Sun Tzu itself. I have Pok-chi ask him what, after all his years living here and watching the passage of the Chinese and their business in Tijuana, he wants remembered about them.
“There isn’t anything worth remembering,” he says. “They survived, worked hard, married Mexican women, had children, and the children are Mexican, not Chinese. They’re not interested in Chinese history or Chinese language or how the Chinese survived here. They don’t care. They don’t want to know. They’re useless. Nothing Chinese about them.” I think he’s being a little extreme, perhaps scolding his 25-year-old son Rafael in a language he has no ear for and doesn’t speak, a little unjustly. Rafael seems to have an ear for his father’s Cantonese as good as mine. And he seems interested in the Chinese old men and the stories and the books we pull out of his father and his friend, Fernando Hui.
In telling us his life story, he says “I was like a toad jumping after money in a well.” Pok stops and turns to make sure I heard. “This is a very important line,” he says, “Ah-Chon bok says in America he was chasing money like a toad jumping in a well.”
That’s what that story means. We identify with the toad? The toad is the Chinese as world traveler, as migrant, as Rumpelstiltskin. Yuck. The bachelor society. Old man Chon understands, knows the story, looks on himself as the toad, and says doing anything to make money was the Chinese bachelor jumping like toads in a well.
Ah-Chon bok turns to Pok-chi and says, “I have this book. The History of the Chinese in Tijuana. My sons are useless. They have no Chinese heart. You are a better keeper of this book than me.” He gives the book to Pok-chi. I can’t believe it. I grab Pok-chi’s camera and move around to snap a few shots of the old man and Pok-chi at the table with this book between them as they chat.
Old man Chon traveled around Mexico interviewing old Chinese and researching the history of the Chinese in Mexico before he wrote his book. Old man Hui, who still seems to have itchy feet ready to travel, is the only Chinaman left in Tijuana who cares, who has a sense of history. Old man Chon is a toad. The Flor de Loto is his well. His power to travel in time is his book. In Mexicali, Prof. Eduardo Auyon Gerardo is a toad. And his Centro de Investigacion de Cultura China is his pond. And he has his book. And west of Imperial in El Centro, Dr. William Quan, DDS, is an American-born toad. The Chinese gallery in the Pioneer Park Museum is time machine and pond. The books and the museum echo the accomplishment of Confucius. Confucius recovered knowledge that had been lost and ways that had been forgotten. Old men. Alone, in their wells, with all they know and all their books, wondering who knows? Who cares? And I come hopping along.
On the road back to L.A., Pok-chi asks if I have the book old Chon-bok gave him. No. Whoops. One of us toads messed up. Pok says he plans to go back, tow his boat behind him, and do some fishing. He’ll pick up the book then. He wants to hire old Fernando Hui to show him around the old haunts of the Chinese around Mexico for a month.
Yeah, I’m relieved to hear that. Maybe old man Chon’s son will ask to keep the book, read it, maybe write a new chapter.
SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 19, the Day of the Stones
I pull off the freeway into Chinatown back in L.A. and find all traffic-diverted around Chinatown. The Chinese New Year’s parade is in progress. It’s still daylight. No more night parades since the riots. I get glimpses of flashy uniforms and flags and the tips of massed batons as I drive the detour and look up the cross-streets.
Later that night I meet Pok-chi, and his friends have great Chinese food in Monterey Park that night. Lightly poached geoduck, as close to raw as they can get it, with a soy, sesame, chili, and green onion dip. Fish lips with sea cucumber. A lamb brisket casserole, with dried bean curd. A dish of lily root sauteed with Chinese side pork, and green pea pods and orange carrots for color and contrasting crunch. Great food. A big restaurant full of chomping people and noisy kids. A statue of Kwan Kung, the god of war, plunder, and literature, and a distant relative of mine, in a shrine overlooks the cash and door. The memory of all the mediocre and downright awful Chinese food inflicted on us is gone.
The house is different when I get back. The first thing I do is sweep the floor.
I look in the mirror and look a thousand years older than all the Chinamen I’ve talked to put together. My hair is thinner, I’m more bald than when I left. Most of my hair is white now. When I left a week ago, it was black. My eyes are tired from reading too many road signs in the rain at dusk and at night. The horoscope says everybody dogs it this year. Hard work and tough going for everybody, even people born in the Year of the Dog. The dog has just begun. I think I’ll go down to Chinatown tomorrow and buy a nice toad and drop it in my well. I can use all the luck I can get.