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.
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.
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.