He was the sixth of eight brothers in the An-Wei province in the delta waters that emptied into the Canton district and finally Hong Kong. He was sent to America- Old Gold Mountain more specifically- also named San Francisco. The Italian name never conjured up, for him, the dreams of promise, that came from the beautiful strokes of the characters, written by scribes in the street or on the oddly fanciful writing of his passport. His own writing was splotchy and crooked at that age, “like a crow,” not “like a stork,” his father would ridicule, or his tutor. The Shan- the mountain character- was simple and elegant, amidst a series of ornate characters with too many strokes. It consisted of three simple up right strokes, taller than shorter, showing the rise and fall, from a lateral view. That was the difficult part with learning the characters, he remembered. The horse- the first one a child was taught after counting- it was from above, not sideways. Looking down on a horse, as you are riding it.
He was never good with writing. He had almost failed the only real test for a middle class boy in his country, the diplomat’s test. From that every decision was made. He was full of dreams, though, and promise when he saw those letters, Old Gold Mountain. His father had decided earning money abroad was more lucrative than in some remote province- Mongolia or Tibet- places where low level imperial clerks wasted away their life and married local girls with brown skin and light eyes. His father was rich, and rich in sons, but that made him harder to please. His father defined his life by what dreams had not been realized.
Lui Sing, Lui, the sixth, and Sing, his family clan’s name. He ran through this history, it was not unusual for him to reminisce at all while doing dishes. He let his mind fly wherever it wanted while his hands were soap in the hot water- he made sure to heat the water for his own pleasure- his hands were knotty with arthritis and the act of plunging them in the suds, lavendar soap and sandalwood that he bought for this purpose- eased their constant ache. His hands slowly circled the pans, glasses, knives, and teacups of the brothel. He thought of cycles. This, pan, you were used last night for roast beef and tonight you will be dumplings in gravy. You glass, with your distinctive chip, you have been in the front parlor with sazerac and tomorrow you will be in a punch bowl. We reincarnate each day, we have different tasks. We are not defined by today.
It was odd for him at first, to put his back to the young women and his boss, to stand there for hours doing dishes but they got used to it quickly as he was fast to prepare their porridge the way they liked, the coffee the way madame preferred, and keep a clean and tidy house. They’d also quickly gotten used to his silence.
His other chores were, in ascending order of unpleasantness, fetching water from the pump in the Square, eavesdropping while standing behind other women or the occasional servant. Making up the beds- the smells were the worst- but he himself wasn’t smelling too good lately. That was an unpleasant discovery with old age. No matter the amount of bathing and touch-up sponge bathes in the afternoon he had the smell, the old skin, the sweat, the food he ate making its way out of his pores like he was made of a porous canvas bag.
His highlight in the day was shopping. He’d walk the produce stands of Stockton Street, occasionally hearing the tones of his province and turning, seeing if he could trace perhaps one or two facial attributes to the major clans of his region.
Lui Sing made a point when he was out shopping to stop in his benevolent society, or, more briefly known as his tong, to get mail and light an incense stick for his ancestors. While he wanted to do every day, he usually ended up saving his money for a good shave or some chicken braised with egg in the Mandarin style. He’d linger in the hall sitting on the chairs, sometimes hearing a bit of news from home, chatting with the others or teasing a newcomer. While they knew he worked in a brothel, here he was the 6th son of a wealthy family in An-Wei, and connected in his way. He was the former merchant from Sacramento, the tragic father figure and the respected gentry (or what passed for gentry in this outpost).
Most of the men in the tong- tongmen- were mildly obsessed with women, there being about one to twenty-five women-to-men in the entire area. Worse, that most Chinese were were poor ignorant village girls who had given away their charms by their families. He had hear from his brothers- his tongmen, not his blood brothers- that he’d want their charms more as he got older. But life, he was finding, was more complex as one grew older. Simpler in many ways, but also more complex. Capturing youth for a night, for a dollar, or less if he liked his country women more than the Chilean beauties near Broadway, that was something not quite as comforting as a beautiful painting of a poem by Li Po or the strains of a unique, forgotten melody from the Han Dynasty.
Lui Sing was no saint, and he would be the first to admit it. He loved to gamble and most of his time was spent playing elaborate tricks on himsel to prevent his feet from walking down Ireland alley in Chinatown, a few blocks really from his residence and safe comfort, the small room off the kitchen. If he did head down Ireland he would come back as the dawn was breaking, penniless, IOUs in his pocket, or busting with coins and promise and hopes of coming back that night, probably to lose it all again.
The real reason he didn’t talk constantly about the gentle folds of the charming hinterlands of young women, like his tongmen, was that he was around thirty of them every day, and intimate matters between men and women were occurring simultaneously from every corner of that house. The afterwards, the before, the during, it was replayed cruelly in front of him, and around him, no matter whether he was cleaning or sleeping, cooking or visiting the outhouse. The illnesses of the young women, the awkward walking, the smells and spills of the linens—the realities of love were part of his life every day.
But for a moment, didn’t he want to be part of the life and death surrounding him? He did not think this consciously, but it was more true than any other aspect of his life: when he arrived in Jiu Jin Shan, hired bodyguards and underwent the journey crossing the river delta to Sacramento, and finally up the foothills of the Sierra to the Gold Country, with his cart laden with tools of the Gold Diggers, and his well-chosen wife, pregnant at that time, though he didn’t know. The tragedy that ensued made him never want to protect another person again.
Chapter 6: Melinda
It took Melinda more than an hour to get to Woodward’s Garden that first morning of work. She had to cross downtown, then trolley along the new buildings going upon Market Street- they seemed impossibly tall- more than four stories, and she wondered at the people in those buildings having to walk so many floors to get to work. It quickly became rural with more livestock in the pens out back and ramshackle lean-tos, warehouses, stables and a few barns. Then Mission City began and she boarded the Green Line to Woodward’s. Patrick met her at the front gate and led her to the add-on to the private house, a small room with many shelves, a hot plate, and a small desk. She had gone up to 4th grade and worked or her parent’s shop so she could add sums, copy writing and read quite well.
She took a break at noon to walk the zoo—she bought a small hot chocolate and sipped from the tin cup while standing. Little girls and boys played around their nannies- and some parents- or elder siblings? She couldn’t tell. She stood in the sunshine, between large palm trees and cypress. The gardens were beautiful in a majestic way. She felt it was fancy, and she was fancy just standing among it all. A bear’s roar startled her and she lost half her drink.
“You’ll get used to Mr. —–,” Patrick said, and she turend to see him at her elbow.
“I don’t think I ever will.” A shiver ran up and down her arms. “Are the cages strong?”
“Aye, and he’s a big pussycat. They all are. Mr. Woodward’s kinder than the wild places they come from.” Patrick seemed confident but Mildred doubted that the bear wanted to be caged up in a city, with hot chocolate so close and small children that would make a nice afternoon snack.
She thought the park was very pleasant, fresh-smelling from the woodchips in the cages to the humidity. It was always damp here in the city but this was a different, heavy hot dampness.
She felt herself relax and then got nervous- she didn’t have a watch and wasn’t sure how long it had been. She hurried back to the office, she didn’t want to stay too late on her first day, and the zoo was so interesting she knew she could dawdle there for hours without knowing how fast time passed.
She was adding up receipts in long columns. She did this at er father’s store in Visalia and disliked it, her eyes were always jumping off a line losing her place, and her mind would not obey her and add up odd combinations of numbers quick enough. She was absolutely delighted, though, to sit down all day. She coudln’t help think of the lovely dinner she could buy on the way home, and the nice hat she could find with a lovely ribbon- baby blue and wide, perhaps an inch thick. As well as a glass of honey wine with her sister at the Telegraph Public House atop the hill behind her house.
Danny Humphries worked the docks as a longshoreman and he and his pals were over there every night, it seemed, or every night she went and she saw him on the way near the water pump most evenings. If Mildred had to choose a man to watch the fireworks with, or escort her on a night where marauders or shanghai’ers were out in force, it would be Danny Humphries. He was a big man, for lifting those sacks all day, and had dark blue eyes that were so clear and deep. He also had curling dark hair and black eyelashes. She thought he was a tad too dark- “Black Welsh,” he had told her one night, but no she suspected Black Irish.
One thing she noticed, as she blotted a line of numbers and reviewed her work, this job made her mind go round with very silly directions.