Sport 23: Spring 1999
Alison Wong — Four extracts from a novel
When a woman is young, she follows her father
When she marries, she follows her husband
And when she is old, she follows her son.
My father was a shipbuilder and his father before him. They built the large riverboats that plied the Pearl River with their cargoes of salt, and the seafaring junks that sailed from Canton to Amoy and Formosa. My father had three hundred men who worked in his yards, and we lived in a red-columned mansion in the eastern hills of Canton.
Father was an enlightened man. Although I was only a daughter, he made sure I was educated, almost like a son. We had a private tutor who taught us calligraphy, painting and poetry. I read the Five Classics, the Four Books, the Book of Filial Piety. And I dreamed of Muk Lan, the daughter who dressed as a man and saved her father from battle.
But I never wore the clothes of a man. I could not go out like my brothers, to watch the street theatre, or sit in tea-houses with pearl-faced women—the red dust of their cheeks, their lips painted rose-bud vermilion. Sometimes I'd go out in a sedan chair and watch the world from behind its curtains, but mostly I stayed at home, reading The Dream of the Red Chamber, Journey to the West, or doing needlework.
I was a good girl, respectable. Until I was fifteen, no one outside of the family knew of my existence. Then my father's elder sister arranged my marriage. She enquired after all the good families with page 127 eligible sons. There was the eldest son of Magistrate Chew, but although his father was known as a fair man, the son was renowned for his foul temper and lack of respect for the ancestors. There was the second son of the Lees, the wealthiest family in Canton—ah, but he was a spendthrift and a gambler. There was the third son of the Kwoks, who had a thriving silk business, but he was born with not enough breath—they say he had beautiful blue-white skin, a gentle man waiting to expire.
It was then that my aunt heard of my husband. A man from the neighbouring village of my father. A man who had come back from the New Gold Mountain looking for a wife. His name was Wong Joe-Yee. He was eighteen, and being a Gold Mountain man, he had prospects. I did not know whether he was tall or handsome or kind, or whether he could quote from the classics or write a good couplet, but there did not seem to be any history of madness or of leprosy or tuberculosis—or of excessive opium or gambling. And our horoscopes were favourable: there would be plenty of sons and a life of good fortune.
Mother was First Wife. She had given birth to two sons and myself, the only daughter. No one spoke of these things but I know Mother did not want Father—it was Mother who found First Concubine for him. Over the years there followed a second concubine, and then the third. Third Concubine was barely older then me, uneducated but wily. She had large phoenix eyes and fine white skin, paled with the application of crushed pearl cream. She was, after all, educated in pleasing men.
Mother could order First, Second or Third Concubine to do her bidding, and I had precedence over all their daughters. This is the way things are: the first has power; the last has none—unless by stealth and deception. Third Concubine fed First Concubine opium-laced dumplings, and she died—though nothing, of course, was proven.
Now I would become a wife also. Unlike Mother, I hoped there would be no others.page 128
On the day selected according to the almanac, my father and eldest brother carried me to the sedan chair. As we came outside, a woman chaperone hired from my father's village opened an umbrella; another threw a handful of rice to feed and distract the spirits. Everything was red—red silk, red satin and brocade—red as happiness and the mark on a bedsheet. They took me to my husband's house to the pounding of gongs, hoping not to meet any pregnant cats or dogs, or indeed, any four-legged things. I heard my husband outside the sedan chair—he kicked in the door and carried me inside.
This was the place my father-in-law had rented: two rooms on the south side of a courtyard that was shared with three other families. Still in the eastern suburbs, where the New Gold Mountain men buy when they come home with their riches.
There I learned to steam rice covered with half a finger of water. I learned how to hold a live chicken and a cleaver—how to pull the skin tight and pluck out the feathers of the throat. Bare pocked skin stretching over the windpipe, the way the eyes close in like a blade. I could pour the blood into a rice bowl, plunge the body into scalding water and strip off the feathers. One cut to pull down the warm entrails.
I learned to wash clothes: my hands stinging with the cold water of winter, calloused from the smooth wooden stick, beating a man's trousers on stone.
And I went shopping in the market—the first time I had walked the dusty streets, the first time I had been out alone. I did not know how to carry the bottles of pickles and fish, the vegetables and the flour. Many times I dropped them and had to go back to buy all that I had broken.
My husband stayed with me six months, enough time to fill me with a son. Then he returned to the New Gold Mountain and I came here to his village. A village in the same county as my father's ancestors.
When my time came, I gave birth to twin boys. This was a comfort to me. My husband's older brother's wife had no children, only daughters. The first had been smothered with ashes as she opened her mouth to suckle, the second thrown in the river, and only after much weeping, the third had been left by the roadside. No one knows page 129 whether she was taken by strangers or eaten by dogs.
But I gave birth to sons, the first who looked like my mother and the second who took after his father. This was a double happiness, a blessing of the goddess Goon Yum.
It was Sister-in-law's envy that cursed us—that, and the ghosts of her daughters.
The day before their fifth birthday my sons came down with fever. I boiled ten different herbs, fed my sons the bitter black tea; I took a coin and scraped their foreheads, the backs of their arms, and along their spines; I went to the temple, lit incense and prayed to Buddha and Goon Yum.
It was the fourth day, the number of death, that the one like my mother died. Only the one like my husband survived.
Now I look at my son whom I love—I see the straightness of his nose, the fullness of his lips, a certain way of lifting his head when lost in contemplation—now this is the shape, the space left behind by my husband.
The earth full of the dead, they hold up land and wander streets. Come to door, pretend they are beggars.
Alone. I hear knock-knocking, strange voice. I very still. Silent.
The New Gold Mountain full of devils. They have red hair and big nose. They all look alike.
My husband goes to the New Gold Mountain fourteen years ago. He says the devils make him pay to get off the ship. He pays for the ship and then he still have to pay. All the money. One hundred pound, he says. Because we are Tong people. Chinee, he says. White devil page 130 don't have to pay and black devil don't have to pay, only people from the Middle Kingdom. This is poll-tax, he says, this is why I do not go with him.
I wait ten year and he comes back. Buys a concubine. Bitch concubine that men go nerve-sick over. Her father gambles fan-tan and pak-a-poo and smokes up the money. Ha! Then he sells her to buy opium.
My husband teaches her to read some devil language so she can pass the devil test. He takes her with him. Fuck her grandmother. She is first woma n to see New Gold Mountain.
Husband is Number One Son; I am the wife. Every day I get up first. Use rice stalks, light the stove; boil the water, steep tea. Feed the fire with sticks from lychee orchard. Feed Mother-and-Father-in-law.
Every day I get water from river. Carry two big pails, swing my hips, swing the pails on shoulder pole. Every day do what Mother-in-law says.
Husband have brother: Number Two Son. He go with Husband to New Gold Mountain. His wife have small feet like rich man's wife, so does not work in field.
She writes the red scrolls, so we do not pay a scroll-writer. Around the door she writes, In and out of the house, walk in peace. She writes above the fireplace—to protect us while cooking. On both sides of window, she writes. She writes the red paper scrolls with long, curl black ink, so the devils and ghosts do not come.
She writes the letter to my husband. I say to her, Tell him I am good wife—do everything Mother-in-law says. Tell him, Send plenty money. Tell him, Come back. She tells him I am useless, no-good wife—I know. She tells him get concubine and not come back. She reads my husband's letters. Says, The concubine have a son.
The ghosts everywhere. On the graves: the dirt-hills with turf for head. There is no names. Where are the ancestor? Who can remember? The dead get dug up and bones put in urns. Lychee orchard full of urns. No lids, so dead can get out.page 131
I do not go to lychee orchard; I tell Sister-in-law, Go get sticks for the fire.
The river full too. Full of drowned ghosts. Girl babies, and boy babies who get sick and die. I tell Sister-in-law, Go wash the clothes in river, but she have small feet—I still have to bring back the water.
After we marry, my husband says, Stupid woman, scared of ghosts. That no ghost, just dirty beggar. He drink wine and tells me ghost story … Night-time, raining hard. He walk home on built-up earth of rice paddy. Drunk and cannot walk straight. Terrible ghost comes, coming to him. He is running; ghost is coming. He run faster, faster and ghost light still come, tumble over rice paddy. He fall into rice paddy and ghost still come, big shiny ball, roll and tumble to him. Cannot get up, ghost coming.
What happen, what happen? I hide head in hands.
Husband laughs. Ghost is afraid, just like stupid woman, he says. Ghost come closer, closer, then gone. Just rain on rice paddy.
Night-time. Raining. Cannot sleep. Ghost come. They stand over bed. I see head but no body. They all have girl face.
My husband says the New Gold Mountain full of white devil. They smell like sheep-meat and butter; they don't like Tong people. But not many ghost in the New Gold Mountain. Not so many kill themself or get killed. My husband says, you hear someone outside door in the New Gold Mountain, this not ghost, this Tong person or maybe, white devil. No ghost on raining night. He says in the New Gold Mountain all the ghost are ghost you know.
When I die, Mother-and-Father-in-law dead, Husband in New Gold Mountain. Who burns the paper money and incense and put out the food? Maybe after die, I go to New Gold Mountain. See Concubine. See Husband.
Those who speak know nothing;
Those who know are silent.
Every woman has two faces. One a fine white porcelain—a slipping smoothness, carefully shaped, dressed for the eye. The other big and raw and strong, ingrained with the hardness of life.
I do not speak these things; I cannot think in daylight. Only at night when all is quiet, when the only sound is that of the frogs calling, when I lie awake in this room, big enough for the bed and the wooden barrel toilet.
In this bed with my husband's father and mother and his elder brother's wife—and my son.
My sons. My memory of their births and the aftermath is fragmented. Here, and not here, like reading a book where one central chapter has been reworked at random—here a full paragraph, there a full whitespace, here the end of a sentence with no beginning, there a beginning with no end.
I remember my body, squeezed by the hand of God, my innards pressed together, so that all I could do was stop breathing. I could hear deep groaning. Tearing pain. The sound of boiling water, and far away, Mother-in-law crying out, His backside, it's his backside.
When I woke, Mother-in-law was screaming. I could not open my right eye. The pain in my head, in my body.
Then my left eye closed over.
The midwife called out, It's a boy, it's a boy, but I could not see. My face was thick with pain—my forehead, my eyes, my ear.
Mother-in-law screaming at Sister-in-law. The midwife quietly saying, There's another.page 133
Later, Sister-in-law said she had done it to waken me. I had fainted with the pain of labour. So she had picked up the lid from the pot of boiling water and put it down on my forehead.
The heat of the metal burned into me, and when she pulled it away, she took my skin also.
I could not open my eyes for nearly two days. Mother-in-law told me that my face swelled, the way dried fish stomach puffs up when put into a slow fire. My right ear stuck out from my swollen head. My lips were fatter than Father-in-law's fingers. I remember throbbing, the wound oozing into my hair and down my face, lying in bed shivering with cold, my bedclothes soaked with sweat. And I remember my sons—their thin cries like the mewls of two kittens.
I did not go out of the house for six months, and even then Mother-in-law would not let me stay in the sun. I did not wash clothes or gather firewood or shop in the market while my face and my body healed.
I have no right eyebrow now, no hair where the pot lid touched my face—just a raised, widened forehead, a sweeping arc of skin like a gibbous moon, pale and puckered, knotty, as if afflicted by tiny, colourless varicose veins. My right eye is pulled upwards, the whole of my face drawn tight by the scar.
My husband does not know—I am the only one who knows how to write.
There is an old saying: Never marry a woman from Tile Kiln. We live in a small village and theirs is large. When the sweet potato harvest is good, they come in the night, and by morning nothing remains. Never pick a fight with a man from Tile Kiln, they say. His brothers and uncles and cousins are too numerous.
There are no hills in Melon Hill, only the round tombs of generations lying stretched to the east, their faces looking out over the water. Over the river that winds through a thousand villages on its way from the Pearl, past ten thousand villages on its way to the sea. There are no melons in Melon Hill, only long leaves of rice that ruffle fields green in spring and autumn, and lush groves of lychees, yielding their fruit in summer.
This is our village, famous throughout all of Kwangtung. They say the lychees of Melon Hill are the best in China. Just break the crisp red shell and inside the membrane is dry—a translucent skin filled with green-white flesh, juicy and sweet, fragrant of flowers and full of meat, and at its heart the smallest brown stone, smooth as jade flicked by the tongue. This is the story we tell, the story we have told for generations.
I still remember the fragrance of the flowers, the small cream heads among the dark green leaves. In springtime you can smell them everywhere, and in summer when the fruit is ripening on the branches, the gow-pay-dahn come—the ‘dog fart bullets’—red insects like cockroaches, with their brown spots and their stinking beating wings. I used to sit in the trees eating the smooth white fruit, and they would be there also, sucking out the juice and biting small boys. My mother would scold me for the pain—bunn-dahn, saw-gwah, ‘you stupid egg, dumb melon’, she would say—as she spread knobs of ointment as long as her uncut thumb nails on the great red swellings.
They say the ‘dog farts’ like the taste of men who have been away—the sojourners whose blood is sweet and foreign. But I have never been back.
These are the things I remember: the lychee trees, the gow-pay-dahn, the grassy smell of rice when it is ready to harvest.
I do not remember my wife, only her smooth white skin and tender page 135 hands. The tiny silk slippers, embroidered with flowers, that she wore each night in bed.
My wife writes about my son—my Number Two Son—who was born after my return here. The resemblance is unmistakable. Look in the mirror, she says, and there you will see your son.
All I know is the letters, the envelopes coming back in my own handwriting, self-addressed, so that she cannot mistake this strange language: Wong Joe-Yee, 100 Adelaide-road, Wellington, New Zealand. And inside her beautiful grass script (or sometimes his). Respectful Husband, The roof is leaking, please send 20 man … The river has flooded again and the house has collapsed—should we rebuild with mud bricks or will you send money for fired ones which will not dissolve in water … Cousin So-and-so has died and there are expenses.
Now it is his writing that comes—a sheet of paper so thin, I hold it to the light, almost read the black ink from the other side.
I am writing to tell you that Mother died of fever on the fourth day of the fourth month at two in the afternoon. She was sick for three days. I have arranged for her burial in the family plot on the eighth, as this is a favourable day according to the almanac. All the money will be used up to pay the monks and pall-bearers, and to buy the coffin, the bowls and chopsticks, the beef and fish and vegetables.
Your foolish son,
Wong Chung-Lai1908, the fourth month, the fifth day.
Every three months I have sent 5 pounds home. I have educated my son and repaid our debt. Now I have saved 129 pounds—100 pounds for the poll-tax, 22 pounds for the ship (steerage class), 7 pounds towards settlement expenses. Enough to send for my son.
It has been seventeen years—and she has been buried already three weeks.page 136
There are many hundreds of lychee trees in Melon Hill, they cover the land across the river. They say the lychees are junn hou sihk, the very best in China. Yes, there are hundreds of trees, but there is only one—half withered, half alive—that bears the gorgeous fruit, the fruit that is given to officials.