A string of deaths in her family over recent years left Chongchong looking for answers to her many questions about their past; some of these questions she did not even know she had until she started to unravel the mystery of Mahmi, who had seemed “part tame and part wild, part mother, part child” to her. She begins with what she knows, their life in thriving, post-war, British-colonial Hong Kong. From here, and through conversations with Mahmi, she learns about life in pre-war Shanghai, her mother’s Confucian upbringing, and of how her mother was given in marriage just before the Japanese invasion in 1937 to the dashing navigator, Sek Duk Sing who flew for a living. We also glimpse Sek’s unfortunate childhood in a British North Borneo orphanage and how he escaped and ended up in China, where he met Mahmi’s youngest aunt, his first love. His past shrouds their present.
Beyond feelings of abandonment or because of them, the father is a gambler and alcoholic. For various reasons he loves two of his children and abuses, emotionally, the other two. All four children grow up with baggage to shed in one way or another. Not is all gloom and doom, and there are many moments of hilarity as we see them celebrate Chinese New Year and other festivals, play mahjong, and gamble; the last two activities pervade their lives, and almost destroys Chongchong’s brilliant brother. The oldest brother who is not very bright, surprises everyone when he becomes an airplane mechanic and emigrates to Canada, gets married and does well financially. Here in Hong Kong, we also meet the Sek family friends and the colorful figure of Uncle Mak, who is like a brother to Sek, and who turns out to have been Mahmi’s secret love up until his wife dies and Mahmi arranges for his second marriage. This secret is so well kept that none of the Sek family members knows of it until Mahmi is forced to tell Chongchong in her failed attempt to save the latter’s marriage.
By the last third of the novel, Chongchong’s parents are living in Toronto, and she herself, having left Hong Kong for Japan and the U.S. is, having married twice, the mother of two and teaching in California. Her sister follows quite a different path. Embedded in the sisters’ stories are their complicated relationships to each other and their families and to their childhood friend, Esther and her daughter, May. When May dies, Chongchong and her husband adopt her daughter Maya, who is the catalyst that leads Mahmi to tell Chongchong about another secret, what Chongchong identifies as her mother’s “Original Sin,” of how she abandons a young girl in the Shanghai marketplace when she herself was still a child.
Given Mahmi’s background and Chongchong’s education, Cantonese idioms, Confucian dictums, folklore, and even classical poetry find their way into the novel. The shadow of the Liaozhai, Mahmi’s favorite book, follows Chongchong’s narrative, and she, in turn, is our guide in discovering its influence on Mahmi and those whose lives she touches. In this way it also opens a window onto the ancient culture that informs this modern family’s story.
In 1990, I was invited to participate in a delegation of “U.S. writers and publishers” to visit China. Ever since I left Hong Kong all those years ago, I have often felt half in and half out of every place I have lived, not entirely belonging anywhere. On this trip, my role was particularly tricky, as the Chinese treated me as one of the visiting Americans, while the Americans saw me as Chinese. I was neither entirely host nor guest, not entirely American or Chinese. It was my first trip to the mainland, and it did make me feel somewhat strange to be going to China as an American. Incidentally, and quite unintentionally, I also found myself in the role of our group’s “secondary translator” when I related parts of conversations left untranslated by the official translator assigned by the Chinese government. This was the first time I felt my loyalties brought into question. In fact, it was the first time the question of loyalty ever popped up in my own consciousness. I had not even been aware of it being an issue except for the time when the immigration officer, during my citizenship interview, asked me if there were to be a war between China and the U.S., whose side would I be on. At the time, I was rather amused at the unlikely event, and answered without hesitation that I would be on the side of the U.S. To me at the time, the question bordered on the nonsensical, on a par with the question about whether my then husband was my brother. Yes, that was indeed one of the questions he asked me, to which I almost answered him with uncontrollable laughter. Luckily, I knew to bite my tongue.
1990 was particularly fraught, especially for a so-called “overseas Chinese” or “Chinese offspring living abroad.” In the mainstream Chinese consciousness, one is always “returning to the homeland” even if one is only visiting China, or, like me, going to China for the first time. In 1990, when so many Chinese students have fled since the previous June, after the Tiananmen incident of 1989, it made anyone’s “return” somewhat awkward. Moreover, we were apparently the first American delegation to visit China since that time. Of course, I knew my feelings would be complicated, especially when I had planned to visit my mother’s siblings and their children when we made our stop in Shanghai, but I was thinking only of my personal relationship to these people who were family but also strangers to me. I did not anticipate the larger implications that my Chinese roots would demand of me. This trip had just begun to tug at knots that will need sorting out in years to come.
The most moving experience of the trip, ironically enough, for this group of wordsmiths, was a wordless one. After an early banquet one evening, the official translator who was also our guide, told our bus driver to make a detour and took us to Tiananmen Square for an after-dinner stroll. Without saying anything, he indicated that we should disembark and walk around. Up to this point, no member of our host country had mentioned the Tiananmen incident of the previous year, and when asked, they were evasive or said that there was nothing to worry about now. This speechless side trip spoke volumes.
Tiananmen Square was deserted. There was an eerie feeling, however, that something was, or had been, there. As I walked around, I saw patches that looked like dried blood. I recalled all those images of young men and women at the beginning of their protest, carrying posters, laughing, chatting, so full of life and joy and promise. One of the posters that left the deepest impression on me, read:
He who knows me knows my sad heart.
He who knows me not asks: to what end?
The couplet is from Qu Yuan’s Lament. He is an ancient poet known to Chinese people as the “First Poet-Patriot” of China. All those youthful faces returned to my mind’s eye on that silent evening, such hope, such promise, crushed. One need not have been Chinese to feel the loss, the turmoil, the desolation. No one said a word. No one had to. Night had fallen when we left Tiananmen Square.
Before going home to California, I stopped in Hong Kong. My brother Jee and his family were still living at the Waterloo Road flat at the time. The visit was good but for the wrenching moment on the Star Ferry gangplank: a Caucasian man pushed past me as if I were invisible and walked on. I was taken aback and shouted, “Hey, look where you’re going!” People stared. I had reacted without thinking. I had been away for too long and forgot that here the white man always had the right of way. Before that moment, I had almost forgotten how it felt to be a second-class citizen. And even though I had travelled “around the world,” I had lived in that proverbial ivory tower all my life. My revulsion, buried so deep I was not even aware of it, surfaced. I was sick to my stomach, both because of the man’s insolence and because the people around me expected me to give way. At the time, Hong Kong was still a colony; seven years later, in 1997, it was returned to China. It brought to mind the British colonial passport I used to hold which had stamped on its first page, “Subject of Her Majesty the Queen, with no right of abode in Great Britain.”
I called Sam that night after the Star Ferry incident to vent. Sam was his usual jovial self. At the end of our conversation, my Anglo-American husband said, “Remember, not all white men are your enemies. Don’t blame me for my forefather’s sins. I, too, am a child of immigrants, not a colonizer.”
“You, sir, are very confused,” I laughed. “Hand the phone over to my child.”
“When will you be coming home, Mommy? We miss you,” Tom, my not-quite-two-year-old sang into the phone. “Daddy’s fried rice isn’t as tasty as yours, but he is very good at washing clothes. You just give him the dirty clothes and they come back all nicely folded up the next day.”
That made me laugh again. I felt so much better hearing his voice. “I’m coming home very soon. Have you been helping Daddy?”
“Yes, of course, I have been a good boy.”
“How’s Maya?” I asked, worrying about my daughter who was on the autism spectrum.
“Maya misses you, too,” my brilliant little man said and handed the phone back to Sam.
It felt good to be calling home and good to have a place to call home. It felt good, too, to be holding a passport that conferred upon me the right to call America my home and claim my right of abode in it.
By then I had been living in the United States for almost twenty years, longer than I had lived anywhere else in my life. Yet I was still often asked where I came from, and since I am now living in California, I would reply, “Boston.” And some would insist, “No, really, where do you come from?” “My mother’s womb?” I would answer facetiously sometimes. Mostly though, I would give in and say, “Hong Kong,” and if I felt particularly thoughtful, I would add, “from a borrowed time of that borrowed place,” borrowing the clever description from a book by that name.
My daughter, Maya, was born four years ago to May, who had become a close friend after I made my reacquaintance with her mother, Esther, in San Francisco. May had “come out” but was still single when she decided she wanted to be a mother. “So, she bought herself a sperm,” as Yun, my sister, put it. Esther disapproved but no longer had jurisdiction over her as May was now a grown woman, making money working at an art dealership and living on her own. Then, disaster struck. Maya was just a few months old when May was diagnosed with a particularly vicious form of cancer. Death came swiftly. Before she died, she asked if we would adopt Maya and raise her as our own. At the time, Sam and I had already been married for almost seven years and had tried to get me pregnant for nearly two. We talked it over, and it felt right to us; Maya was already our goddaughter and we loved her to bits, so it was just a matter of paperwork. May’s parents had disapproved of her having the child in the first place, and then when they saw that the baby was “a half-cast,” were even more disapproving. They were therefore totally indifferent to the adoption. If truth be told, they were relieved that we “took their unwanted grandchild off their hands,” again, as Yun uncharitably put it.
So, we became Maya’s parents. Two years later, Tom happened. We had stopped trying for a biological miracle after Maya came to us and especially after she was diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum because of speech delays and other symptoms, and her disabilities would consume much of our time and attention. She was diagnosed just before she turned two. Indeed, we were somewhat ambivalent when we found out I was pregnant. Of course, we were overjoyed by the surprise, but we were also anxious about saddling our unborn child with an older sister “with special problems.” We soon adjusted. Joy won. Besides, we reasoned, was everyone not born into some kind of responsibility or other? And would this child’s special responsibility not, in fact, make him or her a more sympathetic person? Fortunately, Tom, who accompanied us to all his sister’s therapy sessions and doctor’s visits, turned out to be kind and helpful, observant, and loving towards his sister.
Mahmi was at first glad that we adopted the beautiful baby that May left us, since, as she put it, “You can’t have any of your own anyway. This was meant to be. Just as well she looks a bit like Sam, and she has dimples too, just like you.” When Maya was diagnosed though, Mahmi was dubious about this so-called “disorder.” I tried to explain it to her, no doubt poorly, as I was just beginning to be exposed to the mysteries of autism and to come to terms with its many unreasonable demands. “Sometimes it just takes a while for babies to talk,” Mahmi said, disagreeing with the diagnosis, but when Maya repeatedly turned away from her when she tried to get her attention, she said, “There is something wrong with this girl, so quiet, like she’s gone somewhere else.” Dehbu considered himself prophetic in his disapproval. Yun reported that “he thinks it’s because she’s a mixed-blood child. Mixing the blood invites all kinds of trouble he says. He almost thinks of her as a foundling, from another world.”
“An alien, you mean an extra-terrestrial,” I said in dramatic disgust, and asked, “and what about Tom? What does he have to say about Tom?”
“Well, Tom is smart,” Yun said, “so he has nothing to say about him.”
And even when Mahmi finally accepted Maya’s diagnosis and grew to love her just because she was my child, she could never overcome her regrets for her. Then one day, she told me about another childhood playmate of whom I had heard nothing until then.
The momentous event I am about to relate is what I have come to call Mahmi’s original sin and the reason why, I believe, she often felt her life was not entirely her own to live. I don’t know if she ever told this incident to anyone but me, and perhaps she would not even have told me had it not been for Maya.
And so Mahmi began, “She had come to us from the countryside as a bond maid. Her family was extremely poor and owed my family money, I think. Anyway, we were about the same age. She was maybe four or five when she arrived. They called her Ah Mui (plum blossom) on account of her red cheeks. She was a very pretty girl and we got along right away. When there were no tasks for her to do around the house, we played together. Ah Mui loved to ask me to tell her stories because she couldn’t read herself. Later, I taught her to read and write a few words, but she sure was slow. Also, they often sent me on errands because I knew my way around, and I was fast and remembered things well. Ah Mui, on the other hand, would get lost if she were to go out alone, but she was strong and could haul things back from the market with me that I couldn’t manage on my own. So, they sent us on errands together. One day, we must have been twelve or thirteen by then, we were about to go out again when my mother took me aside and told me to take her to the market like always, and when she wasn’t looking, slip away. ‘And go to the market that is farther away. Maybe some kind person would take her home with them,’ she added. I can still hear those exact words. I wasn’t sure what she meant at first, but when I finally understood, I refused. My mother got angry then and said that Ah Mui was ‘becoming too much of a handful and would get us all in trouble if we didn’t get rid of her.’”
“What? Why? What did she do that was so unforgiveable?” I asked.
“She had been behaving quite strangely. It’s what people call Flower Possessed,” Mahmi explained.
“What’s that? Sounds lovely,” I said.
“It’s when you go crazy over men,” Mahmi answered irritably. “Ah Mui was laughing too much and acting very silly when there were men or even boys around. I sort of knew what my mother was telling me even then.”
“So? A lot of girls are like that. And you said she was thirteen? Weren’t you like that at thirteen?” I asked. I wasn’t going to let her off so easily.
“Noooo!” Mahmi said, acting offended. “How she was behaving was not normal.”
“It was probably just puberty,” I retorted. “And some people are like that anyway, puberty or not. Remember how you used to say I laughed too much?”
“I know. I feel bad about Ah Mui even now,” Mahmi said, almost in a whisper.
“What, you gave in? You did what your mother told you to do?” I asked in disbelief, and involuntarily got up and moved a little farther away from her.
After a pause, I said, “Reminds me of that Liaozhai story about Ying Ning. Do you remember how you used to warn me about laughing too much? Look how much trouble Ying Ning caused, you would say.”
“I know,” she said again with a sigh. “Sometimes when you laughed like that, it would remind me of Ah Mui.”
“And what reminded you of her just now?” I asked, and I saw her glance over at Maya. I did not pursue my question any further. It dawned on me that Maya was why she was reminded of Ah Mui, not because she laughed too much, of course, but because Mahmi thought she was sent to me so I could pay her debt for getting rid of Ah Mui in the marketplace. It was perhaps the only “pitiless thing” [yum gong si] she did in her life, and my daughter was the “payback” [bo ying] sent as punishment for it. Some Chinese think that children are sent to chase after debts from one’s previous life or to repay the debts that were owed to one. I admit that sometimes when my patience is tested to its limits by Maya’s unforgiving, unrelenting disorder, shadows of such fantasies would find their way into my consciousness unbidden. Of course, at such times, I would only be thinking of my own debts, and the wrongs I had done in this life, not my mother’s as well.
This pitiless thing that Mahmi did when she was almost a child herself must have haunted her ever after. She lost her innocence that day when she left Ah Mui in the marketplace, and perhaps her decision not to pursue happiness with Uncle Mak might in part be due to the shame she carried around with her the rest of her life.
Dehbu, what I called my dad, said at dinner one night when all of us were still living together in Hong Kong, “I don’t know how he does it, living with two wives under one roof, one is hard enough to please.” He said this in all seriousness and sighed in awe. This cracked us all up and started a string of jokes. It was still legal in Hong Kong in those days for men to have more than one wife, a phenomenon not unusual among the older generations.
“Why, are you envious of Uncle Chan? Why don’t you ask him for a few tricks? Learn a thing or two from the pockmarked man,” we shouted out one above the other.
“Ugly and poor, and yet able to satisfy two wives and feed five children.” Now it was Mahmi’s turn to sigh in admiration.
“He looks like a pockmarked Uncle Hong,” I piped up. Yun glared at me and everybody else acted as if they didn’t hear me. By that time everyone knew how Uncle Hong had wanted Mahmi to run away with him, but no one yet knew about Uncle Mak’s feelings for her and hers for him.
That afternoon our whole family had visited Uncle Chan with whom Dehbu had just reconnected. He was Hakka as well and knew Dehbu way back when they were young and single, sailing mates, before the Second World War. Unlike Dehbu, he had remained a sailor all this time, and had just retired when they ran into each other on the Star Ferry the week before. They had so much to catch up on that they arranged to meet again and to introduce the families to each other. Uncle Chan was not what one would call an attractive man, but despite his pockmarked face and rather burly appearance, he exuded a kindness that drew one close even at first meeting. He and Dehbu both spoke Hakka, and even though none of us understood a word they said, their exuberant conversation lightened everyone’s spirits and the afternoon sailed by without anyone getting bored. None of us, not even Mahmi, had seen Dehbu quite so cheerful. He was genuinely happy, contented in a way that even his best friend, our Uncle Mak, couldn’t bring about. The families got together several times after that, but unfortunately, Uncle Chan, who was quite a bit older than Dehbu, died only months after his retirement and reunion with Dehbu. In those few months, we all tried to learn some Hakka and merrily chattered away in Cantonese-Hakka gibberish, but none of us were able to keep that festive atmosphere alive for long after Uncle Chan died, and we gradually lost touch with the rest of that family. My recollection of this episode reminds me how alone Dehbu must have felt most of his life, how frustrating it must have been for him not to be able to express himself fully, if at all, to those he loved.
After Dehbu died, Mahmi started to give away all their possessions that were worth anything. I already had the moth-shaped chune hup that we used for Chinese New Year and which I now use as a jewelry box. It was one of the treasures from my childhood, and I was glad to have been there to rescue it from the trash bin Selina, Jee’s wife, had consigned it to. That was the year I visited Hong Kong before they, too, were to leave. I also rescued some old photos on that trip, although “The Adventures of Little Worm,” the photo album Mahmi had made of me, had gone with her to Toronto by then, and I did not come into possession of it until I collected her things from the nursing home. I did not need anything more. Knowing it was important for her to feel that she had valuables to leave behind, however, I accepted her gifts. She had asked my sister to make gold chains for each of her grandchildren with their individual gold zodiac animals attached to them as pendants. After giving my children’s pendants to me and taking off a saddle ring from her finger, Mahmi said, “This is the other half of the jade that broke from my original ring that my mother gave me when I got married. I made two rings from it when it broke and gave her one when she left Hong Kong to go back to China, and that was the one confiscated by that evil man at the border. I have already given my other jewelry to your brothers and sister but saved this piece of jade for you.” As she said that she handed me the jade ring, the twin of the one left behind in China. Now that Mahmi is gone, this piece of old jade has become my closest companion, just as I had been to her all those years ago.