Chinese Opera



In headdress and black robe embroidered

with golden dragons, a young African American boy sings

Chinese opera. In song he becomes Justice Bao,

a judge of the Song Dynasty revered for his integrity.


His voice travels a ribbon of sound, riding

the clash of cymbals, sound that transports me

to San Francisco, 1939. A rare occasion

when the Wong family has arrived

at the Great China Theatre as if on wings,


flying over the mudflats of Oakland,

tidal land lapped by metal gray waters,

over Treasure Island wrapped in fog,

coming to rest on Jackson Street.


Almost midnight, slouched in my seat, head pressed

against the arm rest, feet hanging in the air,

I long to escape the rumbling drums, scratchy violins,

clatter tangled with the chatter of Cantonese voices,

crunch of lotus seeds cracked between teeth.


Mama nudges me. A crash of cymbals.

My cousin, Jue Quin Won, enters,

strides across the stage, majestic

under his towering headdress, beaded, tasseled.

Dark eyebrows flare above the red of eyelids,

high cheekbones. What is he singing about–

why so angry?


Tonight his voice rises above the beat of drums,

the scream of violins. Tonight his sequins sparkle

in the footlights, and when he flings his arm

across his chest, the long sleeve flows

just a moment behind the gesture.

In five years he will be dead,

his gowns hanging in our living room, the silk crumpled.


That night, I long to be in my own bed,

for the evening to be over. When we finally escape,

fog horns blare, the air so damp

we run the windshield wipers.

My father makes one turn after another,

searching for the on-ramp to the Bay Bridge. He stubs

his cigarette out in the ashtray, wraps his hands

tightly around the steering wheel, stares through ropes of fog.

My sisters and I fall silent, while mama sits up front

clutching her black handbag against her chest.

I fear the maroon Packard will never get us home.


–Mai-Lon Gittelsohn



The Writing on the Fan


Hundreds of years ago, the women of Hunan created a secret script to share feminine feelings, including fears about arranged marriages, husbands and of course, mothers-in-law. Mrs. Yang, the last practitioner of Nushu said, “By writing, so much suffering disappears.” New York Times: October 6, 2004.



Huddled in the kitchen,

I watch cousin Ming’s hands

splayed on the table–how they begin

to clench, the knuckles turning white.


My sister says, You don’t have to marry him!

I chime in, This is America! You don’t have

to marry someone you don’t love.


An odd smile on Ming’s face draws down

the corners of her mouth as if the folly

of our voices could make her laugh and cry.


What do we know?

If she were a woman of Hunan in the 19th Century

she would be married now, writing

pain between the ribs of a fan


brushing spidery characters

in a language hidden from men.

She would be lamenting her life in marriage,

and the tyranny of her husband’s mother.


We don’t know about Ming’s debt,

the years our parents sent money

to keep her alive in China.


We don’t know about our own mother’s debt–

repaid by coming to America at sixteen

to live among strangers.


This is America, we say. You don’t

have to marry someone you don’t love.

We go on to marry as if we will be lucky

in love, as if we are holding a heart of green jade.


–Mai-Lon Gittelsohn





Yesterday’s Chinatown



How to describe the Chinatown of my youth–

captured as it is in the mind of a child

who cannot control where or when to go

but can only hold onto her mother’s hand

or stumble after her sisters, who are wearing

too much make-up, her father striding ahead

while her mother follows, almost at his side.


Roast ducks hang by trussed legs

in the window of the poultry shop, eyes

like slits, oval nostrils in the beak–dark craters

on the moon, bronzed skin dripping fat.


Fog horns bleat as mist settles gently

around our shoulders; I feel the press

of bodies, families with children, gray-haired ladies

carrying oranges in string bags, lips clamped tight

after a day at the sewing factory pushing fabric

under the wicked flash of needles.


A lonely Chinese bachelor

reads Gum Sahn See Bow

Gold Mountain News–in the window

of Uncle H’s coffee shop,

on the corner of Grant and Stockton,

sipping coffee with a slab of apple pie.

At night, he climbs four flights of narrow steps

to swallow rice porridge, letting the soup

bland and gelatinous, slide down his throat–

sore from too many cigarettes.


–Mai-Lon Gittelsohn

































































































































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