Sky

  Cynthia Yee with her mother, May-Soon Gee Yee, 133 Hudson Street, 1950s. (photo courtesy of Cynthia Yee)

Cynthia Yee with her mother, May-Soon Gee Yee, 133 Hudson Street, 1950s. (photo courtesy of Cynthia Yee)

For Mother's Day, Cynthia dedicates this revised 2018 version of "Sky" to the Taishanese immigrant women stitchers, the Mothers of her Boston Chinatown childhood, and to the Left Behind Daughters, whose births provided the slots for paper sons to enter America during the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882-1943.  It was the first federal law implemented to prevent a specific ethnic group from immigrating to the United States of America. It barred paths to citizenship and intermarriage.  The reverberations of that exclusionary law continued to affect and fracture Chinese American families for four generations.


            RRRrrrr…rrrr…The humming came from the top of the summit, rrrrrrrRRrrrrrr….rrrrrrr...Rrrrrr…, the soundtrack of my seven years of life, MaMa's constant heartbeat, MaMa’s sweet lullaby, MaMa’s comfort signal, trailing down, calling me home.  I faced the steep mountains, its wide bannister worn shiny and smooth, so perfect for mounting and gliding down.  The gleaming waterfall cascaded down, ending in a large flat curl, a glistening pool, a splash, a forever and ever promise of an exhilarating, soft, and safe landing. .  I placed my foot onto the incline, skipped up two steps, and then two more, propelling myself up the long, steep incline faster and faster, two steps at a time.  I delighted in Speed, flying through hollow air, the freedom of a comet in Space. I passed the empty milk bottle goddesses  shimmering in the arched grotto carved into the wall.  I bowed a deep bow.  At the end of the passageway, I spied three oil canisters, soldiers standing guard, with oily rags draped around their necks and I saluted them.  I followed the call of the siren, the never ending…..rrrrrr. The magic door opened with a slight nudge and a kick.  I slid in onto the shiny maroon and gray paisley print swirls and I looked for MaMa. I found her, in intense concentration, sitting over her Singer sewing machine.  She did not turn around to greet me.  I looked at her curved back, the most familiar part of MaMa’s body. The Singer faced the window where she could see the dirty milk sky, if she looked up, but she seldom did.  I stared out the living room window next to her and watched the trucks and cars rumbling by on the Southeast Expressway.

            I told MaMa about my school day, how my second-grade teacher had brown spots on her arms, how she draped an animal around her shoulders, and how the animal had eyes that popped out of its head, staring at me.  I told her about how the teacher heated up thick, yellow soup from a can on the radiator, and how her upper arms jiggled when she washed her hands, and how she didn’t rinse her hands well, but just dried them with a paper towel.  Without looking up or interrupting a beat in her pedaling, MaMa said, “Lo-Fans are like that.  They eat canned food and they grow brown spots on their skin.  Not like us.  We eat fresh greens and fresh meat and we don’t get brown spots on our skin.  You must always rinse your hands off after soaping or the soap will pickle your skin.  Lo-Fans grow from a different variety of seed.  They are different from us.”  I said, “How is that true?  They see the same doctors as us, so they must have the same body.”  She said, “U ni ge llim how sang mo ge, dik a yeh ngin koh. Keck mm hoong jung.”  I tried hard to imagine Miss Murphy with hair growing out of her chest.  Like a wild woman.  I saw furry chested men in cartoons and the cavemen shows on television or the Lo-fan men at the nudist colony flicks at the Trans-Luxe Theatre before the Chinese opera on Friday nights, but never a furry chested woman.  The Lo-fans were all in black and white, so it was hard to imagine them as real. Maybe they do grow from a different variety of seed, a less advanced species, in her opinion, but I was not convinced.  I liked Miss Murphy.

            Sometimes, MaMa talked to me about her old life in China and about my two older sisters still there.  She talked while she hung the wash on the clothesline that stretched from our living room window out to the tree in the back lot.  The Tree of Heaven, it was called.  She bought me coloring books and taught me how to color: “Red goes well with Green, and Orange goes well with Blue,” my mother said. I arranged the crayons in my crayon box in that order, just so I would remember.  I obeyed my MaMa in most things.  I trusted her to know everything.

  Cynthia with her MaMa, May Soon Yee, in their first American home at 133 Hudson Street, 1950s         (photo courtesy of Cynthia Yee)

Cynthia with her MaMa, May Soon Yee, in their first American home at 133 Hudson Street, 1950s       (photo courtesy of Cynthia Yee)

            I helped my MaMa with her work.  I flipped collars and cuffs, folded the College Town shirts into a neat pile, and tied them together into bundles for Norman, the factory owner, to pick up.  This week’s shirts had ties so I used a sharpened chopstick to turn them inside out. “Make sure the corners are pointy sharp,” she said.  I poked the corners with the sharp end of the chopstick.  She stepped on the pedal of the machine and the cloth slithered forward in front of her.  She stopped and pedaled again.  I watched her.  Then I looked for some chocolate milk in the squat white refrigerator that sat behind her. It leaned against the adjoining wall in the living room.  Without skipping a beat in her sewing nor turning around, she said, “Mix half white milk and half chocolate milk.  Don’t drink just chocolate milk.”  She didn’t have many rules but I knew this was one of her firm rules.  So, I peered at the tall clear glass and I poured the chocolate milk to the level I judged to be the half way mark, more or less, and then poured in the white milk up to the top of the glass.  I stirred it.  Then I sat on the sofa chair behind her and sipped my half white, half chocolate milk while she sewed.

            For variety, sometimes, I cracked a raw egg into a tall clear glass, I whipped the egg yolk and egg white around the glass with a spoon. I stirred clockwise, then counter clockwise, to see if it made any difference.  I stirred in one, sometimes two, teaspoons of sugar and watched to see how long it took for sugar crystals to dissolve in whipped eggs.  Then I filled the glass up to the top with cold milk and stirred some more.  I looked at the globules of yellow yolk floating in the white milk.  Egg yolk and milk did not blend, no matter how much I stirred.  Without turning around nor stopping, my MaMa said, “It is good for you.”  I judged it for sweetness, then, I drank it, especially enjoying the crunch of the undissolved sugar crystals with the rich taste of raw egg yolk.  “Opera singers drank raw eggs,” she said, “It clarified their voices.”  I made it often, mainly, just to look at the globules of golden yolk swirl around in the white milk and I wondered why egg yolk and milk couldn’t blend, no matter what.  Sometimes, I yodeled around the living room and sang up and down the scale, afterwards, to see if my voice got any clearer.  I believed whatever MaMa said but I liked to test things out. Entertaining two realities at the same time became my modus operandi.  Testing them out was a part of it.  I knew MaMa was not exactly like the American mothers I saw on TV nor like my American teachers.  I had the beginning notion that MaMa was not exactly ‘“mainstream”.

            She sent me to the factory on Edinboro Street, across busy Kneeland Street, to pick up spools of thread.  I was then ten years old and not very tall so I stood on my toes to pull the coarse rope of the freight elevator.  I found Laila, the factory owner’s wife, sewing at her machine. Her dark eyes peered at me over her black framed glasses.  “Hi, honey, what do you need?  Thread? What is May Soon sewing now? Here, take these home.”  She handed me three spools of thread of various colors.  I brought them home and handed them to MaMa.  She saved the leftover spools in a large cardboard box and used the thread to sew our own clothes.

            MaMa sewed until well past midnight.  I heard the click as she turned off the machine, just a few minutes before my dad returned home from the Cathay House on Beach Street where he worked as a maitre di.  She timed it so my dad would not know how late she worked.  He did not like her to work late but she said she had to work extra hard because she was slow.  “Ngoi maun,” she often said.  MaMa believed in Humility and Extra Effort, as perfect wedded partners created by the Natural Order of the Universe.  She embroidered pillow cases, knitted sweaters, crocheted, and sewed dresses by hand, telling me which colors paired well but sewing on a machine was a different thing.  Sewing the same style shirt, all the same color, over and over again, was just different. She earned fifty cents a shirt and when she applied for Social Security, she announced, with great pride, “I made $10,000 in my lifetime.”  I knew this to be true.  Every day she sewed on her factory model machine.  I went to the sewing machine store to buy it with my parents.  You might say, it was a cooperative family venture. She earned $10,000, sewing shirts, facing that dirty milk sky and the Expressway.  The same Expressway would, one day, expand and grow, and overtake our home.

  Cynthia with her MaMa, May Soon Yee, 133 Hudson Street, 1950s  (photo   courtesy of Cynthia Yee)

Cynthia with her MaMa, May Soon Yee, 133 Hudson Street, 1950s  (photo courtesy of Cynthia Yee)

            In the evenings, MaMa leaned out of the bedroom window facing Hudson Street, calling, “Ah-Hing, hek fan la!”  That is me, Hing.  I answered to “Cynthia" in one world and “Hing” in another world, part of my Life of Two Realities.  I rushed home, knowing that she cooked my favorite foods: steamed custard eggs with straw mushroom and oyster sauce drizzled on top, or beef and tomatoes with black bean and garlic sauce, or beef and bok choy with oyster sauce and a fried egg on top, the yolk oozing down into the rice and covering everything with its delicious, rich egg-ness.  I loved runny eggs.  She sat with me at the square red formica table my father had rescued from a restaurant renovation, and she ate with me and talked with me and gave me advice.

            She told me stories about “Aw Kee”, her home.  I kind of thought 116 Hudson Street was “Aw Kee” but I knew in My Life of Two Realities, she didn’t mean this Home when she said “Aw Kee”.  I didn’t contradict her most days.  Just occasionally. You might say, I picked my battles. MaMa told me about her mother and her father, how her father was a happy go lucky peddler with a feather in his hat and many friends, and how he refused to eat beef because the Ox plowed the earth for Mankind and how he refused to eat dog meat because dogs had sense, and was a loyal friend of Humanity, and how a lightning bolt struck him and killed him one day.  She told me about her mother who told the Matchmaker lady not to bother introducing any young men to her four daughters if the young men were from anywhere other than the Land of the Gold Mountain.  No young men from neighboring villages in China, nor Southeast Asia, nor South America, nor from Cuba, her mother said.  She did not want her daughters to be poor, like her, who had married a happy go lucky peddler of needles and thread and then died on her from a lightning bolt.  I looked at my MaMa and pictured my two Aunts and said, “Her daughters have dark skin and are not so beautiful, so how could she be so picky?”  If the Matchmaker tried to recommend a nice local boy, her mother said, “My daughters are too young to consider marriage.  Come back another day.”  If the Matchmaker asked about Daughter Number Three, her mother said, “She is not ready.  She is still young.  Her two older sisters are not married yet.”  So, MaMa, being Daughter Number Three, had to wait until the old age of eighteen to marry my father.  She told me how her second oldest sister came to check on her regularly, to make sure her new family of three teenage sisters-in-law and a bossy mother-in-law, rich with American money, did not pick on her poor little sister and how her second oldest sister said, “How dare they pick on my little sister when the groom is so unworthy of her, such an unrefined, clumsy boy?”

“Unrefined?”  “Clumsy” My father?  I adored my dad.

 

            However, there was one story MaMa never told me. It was about how my father traveled to Boston with his father and uncles as his uncle’s paper son to work and go to school when he was twelve years old.  About how he became a bugler in the Italian North End Boy Scouts, about how he ran through the streets of the neighborhood of Sicilian fishermen, and how much he loved American movie stars, American music, and American culture, even though they never bought him a bed to sleep in, because they were Not Going to Stay. Instead, he slept on the ironing table in the close quarters, and ironed with his own monogrammed brass blow sprayer, after school hours, until the age of eighteen, when his mother summoned him home to China.  He was becoming too western, too barbaric, his Taishanese showing an awkward American accent.  No, my mother did not tell me that story.  About how his mother’s solution to the problem of his growing barbaric Western ways was, “You are eighteen.  It is time for you to take a wife.  We need to find you a nice Chinese Village Girl to marry.”  How he said, “Alright, if you say so, but the girl must be tall and must be literate because I don’t like short girls, and she has to be able to read and write letters to America after I leave.”  She did not tell me how the Matchmaker lady arranged for him and his uncle to stand on a particular street corner to see a girl with long, thick braids walk by with her married second sister, how he and his uncle checked her out for a wife, how reluctant, but easy going, a son he was.  How his uncle said, to him, “With a beautiful braid like that, what more do you want?”  About how careful and vain she was about her beautiful, thick, black hair, and about the pride she took inher meticulous, colorful needlework, in her neat appearance, and about growing up in her family of four girls.  She did not tell me about that.  About how my dad said, “Yes, she is fine.” when his mother asked him what he thought of the girl, and how she said to him, “You like her? You know, she is a bit on the old side. She is eighteen years old and her skin is a bit dark.”  “No, she is fine, she is just fine,” he said.  About how they married at eighteen and how shy and scared she was with him on their first night, and how he left within a year because his papers were due, leaving her with child.  No, she never told me that story.  About how he returned six years later and they had a second girl and how his mother was not happy with her for having only girls.  And how the wife of his younger brother made fun of her and said, “Whoever heard of a woman, like you, only birthing girls, unable to bear sons?” And how he left her with child again, and how she had a third girl.  And how that third girl died of a high fever while he was away.  She never talked about that.  Not even to him.  Not to anyone.  

            About how she survived the Japanese bombing, and starvation by hiding in the village with her two daughters, digging for wild sweet potatoes and wild taro, and selling rice by walking all day with her twelve-year-old daughter from one village with rice to another without rice, about how she told her twelve year old daughter to walk slowly if the sack of rice felt too heavy on her young shoulders.  About how she recycled clothing by using the good parts of her dead sister-in-law’s dowry clothes, still in its hope chest, to redesign new clothing to sell at the vendor stalls.  About how she walked a full day to the seashore to buy the salted fish brine from the fishermen to flavor and add nutrition to their watery rice gruel because she only had pennies to spend, while my father was an American soldier in Germany and France, and his pay could not arrive.  And about how she did not see him again for fifteen years.  

All this, she never told me.  

  Cynthia’s parents, May Soon Gee and Walter Yee, Guangzhou, China, c.1930. They snuck out in the city to take this photo without telling his mother. (photo courtesy of Cynthia Yee)

Cynthia’s parents, May Soon Gee and Walter Yee, Guangzhou, China, c.1930. They snuck out in the city to take this photo without telling his mother. (photo courtesy of Cynthia Yee)

            MaMa told me how obedient my older sisters in China were, how helpful they were to their Aunts, and how my oldest sister woke up before dawn to water the vegetables.  I thought to myself, “I probably would not do that, even if I had vegetables to water here in snowy Boston.”  I didn’t mention this to her because I knew she would just say with a sigh, “Ahh…Yes, you are lazy, not like your oldest sister, who was loved by all the Aunties in China.”  Even though MaMa always smiled when she said this, I didn’t mention it.

            The phone rang and I picked it up.  I knew it was my dad calling me, like he did every evening from the Cathay House.  He was unusual, different from the other Chinatown dads, in that way, and in one other, even more important way, he always spoke fluent English to me.  It was a code I used that I knew MaMa didn’t understand.

                                                                                                                                 

How are you? “

“Fine.”

“Did you eat dinner?”

“Yes.”

“What did you eat?”

“I ate beef and tomatoes and steamed eggs.”

“What are you doing? “

“Watching T.V.”

“How was your day? “

“It was good.”

“How was school?”

“It was good.”

“Did you finish your homework?”

“Yes.  Your wife is annoying me.”

“Just ignore her. She’s your Mother.  She will always be your Mother.  When you are fifty, she will be ninety and she will still talk the same way to you.  Just don’t mind her.”

Sigh.  “Okay, Dad.”

“Goodnight, Cynthia, I love you.”

“Love you, too, Dad.”

“Sleep tight.  Sweet dreams.”

“Yes, Dad.  Goodnight, Dad.”

             I never doubted that my busy parents loved me with all their hearts and did the best they could to take care of their American child.

            

            Rrrrrrr…rrrrr..…Rrrrrrrrrr….rrrrrrr…rrrrrrrrrrrr……….I hung up the phone and looked out at the darkening sky and the sliver of moon, and I wondered if my two sisters in China were waking up, at that very moment, to water the vegetables.  My dad, my MaMa, my sisters and I were together and alone, all at the same time.  We were a family, each of us, breathing in and out, spinning in four different orbs of the Universe.

         Cynthia Yee, wearing her first store-bought dress, with her parents, May Soon Gee and Walter Yee, 116 Hudson Street, 1959.  (photo taken by Eddie Moon Fun Yee)   

       Cynthia Yee, wearing her first store-bought dress, with her parents, May Soon Gee and Walter Yee, 116 Hudson Street, 1959.  (photo taken by Eddie Moon Fun Yee) 


            The original version of “Sky” was published in the Asian American Resource Workshop Writers Group collection, “Asian Voices from BeanTown” in 2012.  Cynthia Yee was the original founder and facilitator of the AARW Writers Group. She did a reading of the original version at the Annual Banquet Meeting of the Chinese Historical Society of New England in 2016 and also at the 2016 Bodega Signs+Wonders Poetry Block Party, at the urging of Denise Delgado, her GrubStreet teacher and Lead Artist for Bodega Signs+Wonders, a public art/oral history project in Egleston Square. Cynthia is grateful to her ever dependable cheerleader, Denise Delgado, for giving her the opportunity to read her work,“Tien Yi” at the 2016 GrubStreet Open House as well.  Cynthia says, “Thank you, Denise, for the voice that always answers whenever I call out into the internet universe for literary advice. Thank you for friendship and all things.”

            Cynthia thanks her former GrubStreet teacher, and dear friend, Stacy Mattingly, for insisting on walking down Hudson Street with her on a rainy Sunday afternoon, asking her the locations of her former Chinatown home and neighborhood, for her courage in crossing borders of Time, Culture, and Place.  Stacy’s abiding sensitivity, and compassionate interest in the human predicament, all helped midwife the birth of Cynthia’s 2018 revisions into stories of greater depth.  Cynthia says, “Thank you, Stacy, for friendship, for kindness, for teaching me that Story is an Art.  Thank you for your support, reading pieces before publication, cheering me on, and sharing my work among your circles, with enthusiasm.

            Cynthia Yee is an American born daughter of mud, silt, and water, a daughter of the Pearl River Delta and of Migration, and all that that implies.

BaBa

   
  
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   Village of Two Beauties, Dik Hoy, Taishan, Guangdong, China  (Photo taken by: Chao Bak Yee, )

Village of Two Beauties, Dik Hoy, Taishan, Guangdong, China  (Photo taken by: Chao Bak Yee, )

            This companion piece to“Sky” is dedicated to the Left Behind Daughters, whose births provided the slots for paper sons to enter the U.S.A. during the Chinese Exclusion Act era of 1882-1943, and to the unsung heroes, the Chinese American veterans of WWII and their left behind wives.

            This is a work of creative nonfiction based on a composite of what Cynthia Yee’s two sisters, Yerk Lin and Li Sun Yee, told her of their experiences growing up as Left Behind daughters, surviving the Japanese invasion of China during WWII.  The real Kwan Hoong was Cynthia’s third sister who died in infancy, and is here reimagined as four to seven years old based on their stories. 


            Kwan Hoong sprawled on the fraying bamboo mat.  She fingered the reeds unraveling from the weave and then the smooth cleanliness of the brownish red cloth binding that ran along the edge.  Rubbing the nubs, the pilling on the patched up silk comforter, calmed her.  She snuggled against her mother’s back.  It felt warm, and MaMa’s breathing rocked her into a drowsy dream.  She wanted to hug her mother, to hold her tight, but was afraid to, so she closed her eyes and pressed her small fists together.  MaMa shook, her body heaving up and down, and it awakened Kwan Hoong from the light sleep she had gotten used to having these days, a sleep that made her wonder whether something was really happening. MaMa turned and put her arms around her. Kwan Hoong rubbed her eyes, brushed her mother’s tears away, and buried her face close to her mother’s breast. She fell asleep again, lulled by MaMa’s even breathing and warm body, and the pat-pat-pat, pat-pat-pat, the steady rhythm of MaMa’s hand on her back, pat-pat-pat, the only sound in the dark silence.  Kwan Hoong tried to ignore the pain in her belly, but it was hard not to notice the insistent throbbing. Its agony for food.

            They used to live in the city of Guangzhou, in one of her Returned from the Gold Mountain Grandpa’s houses.  It was not Yeh-Yeh’s most palatial house, not his favorite brag about building, but it was comfortable.  Comfortable enough, good enough, for a family without sons, a family with three daughters and no father, a family of “Sit Bon Fo”, a family of “Losing Investments”. She missed the special corner she used to hide and play in and the yard with the peach tree.  Her Grandpa’s best house went to her Grandpa, her GrandMaMa, her Uncle, and her Aunty with the Many Sons.  Her Aunty had many things, like rice and meat every day, and the four sons had a father to talk to and protect them.  Not like her and her mother.  

            One day, Hoong’s mother asked her to deliver something her father had sent from the Gold Mountain, to offer as a gift to her Aunty with the Four Sons and her GrandMama, some dried figs from a place called Ga-zhou, a special treat.  Hoong put on her cleanest shirt, one that her eldest sister had just sewn for her from a leftover scrap of cloth, big enough only for a child’s shirt.  It only had two patches and her eldest sister, Lin, was such a good stitcher, she made the patches look like two pretty birds flying in the air.  Kwan Hoong arrived at the large, heavy door in time to see them seated at the round table.  She straightened her two thin braids which hung down to her waist and she smoothed her pink shirt.  Hoong gripped the cloth bundle holding the last of the dried figs.  Her Aunty greeted her with a smile, “Ah Hoong, Yip lai la.”  Hoong walked in.  She watched them put chunks of meat and salted fish on their rice.  She breathed in the fragrance of salted fish steamed with ginger and water chestnuts and chopped pork cake.  Hoong’s mouth watered, her saliva ran, and her stomach gurgled, but she just smiled, and handed over the dried figs and said, “This is for Ngin-Ngin.  MaMa thought she might enjoy something sweet.  It is soft, and easy to chew.  It is for her health”. She memorized what MaMa said.  She hoped they would invite her to sit down and join them for the meal but they did not.  “Ooo deah nek a Ma la!” said her Aunty with the Four Sons, and she yanked the figs right out of Kwan Hoong’s fingers.  Hoong thought that her Aunty didn’t act that grateful as she rushed Hoong out the door.

            MaMa often said that she did not like the country village life.  Hoong didn’t mind it.  She liked running up and down the hillsides and climbing trees so it was alright for her. When she tired, she laid on the grassy incline and stared at the big sky.  She loved breathing in the fresh, sweet smell of the mountain grasses.  She scanned the blue sky and wondered about the size of the world and what her BaBa was doing at that moment. Maybe, he was thinking about her and buying her a giant doll, a gift.  She got up from her daydreams and felt the wetness of the earth on the back of her shirt.  “MaMa will not like this,” she worried.  When she heard her eldest sister, Lin, calling for her in that impatient voice she used when she got sweaty busy, Kwan Hoong ran off to help her sister dig for wild roots but her hands hurt after a short while, and she had so many cuts and scratches MaMa wrapped her hands in cloth.  “Your Mui-Mui is not yet six years old.  Don’t ask her to dig anymore,” MaMa said to Lin.

            The warning alerted the city that the Japanese soldiers were coming.  The news traveled through the streets of Guangzhou and into the alleyways and homes.  “The fierce Japanese soldiers are mercenaries without hearts.  They slash and shoot people without hesitation.  They are arriving at any moment.  Blood is flowing down the streets.  Blood is spattered all over the school walls.  Soldiers are pushing their way into people’s homes, stealing food, forcing women to cook for them, and then grabbing the women and girls into the bedrooms.  They look for pretty girls, like you,” said her Aunty with the Many Sons.

            Kwan Hoong felt the terror that had invaded the city.  Schools were closed.  The market stalls were empty.  Fires burned all around her.  The sounds of screaming and people scurrying surrounded Hoong and MaMa when they walked onto the city streets.  Hoong stared at the babies and children left by the roadside, crying and screaming, “Ma Ma, Ma Ma!”  Her hands were numb from gripping her mother’s hands so hard so as not to lose her. Kwan Hoong tried to hold back the tears brimming from the edges of her beautiful, fish shaped eyes.  The tears collected on her long, thick, black lashes and she wiped them with her sleeves.  Even though she was only a girl, she wanted to be a brave girl, like in the stories of Fa Mu Lan that MaMa told her, not a cry baby.

            “My storefronts are up in flames.  I have lost everything, all the money I earned in the Gold Mountain laundry. Everything gone!  All my hard work gone!”  Grandpa cried, tears flowing down his ruddy cheeks.  “We must move back to the village. Yow fun hui Leng Mee Tuen la. The Village of Two Beauties is a few hours away.  It will be safer there, easier to hide,” he said.  “We must leave quickly.  Just take what you can carry.”  Her mother jumped up.  She always did when her Grandpa spoke.

            “Pack your clothes and what you need.  We will probably live in the countryside for one year so just take what you need for one year,” MaMa said.  So, her two older sisters packed their clothes in a straw suitcase.  “Just take one pot, only one pot is all we need for one year in the countryside,” MaMa said, “We will not stay there forever.” Wing Yuen sounded like a mysterious length of time, but one year seemed acceptable for a four-year-old.

            One year, then two, then three years passed in the little country village.  Kwan Hoong’s father did not return.  He was a Gold Mountain soldier.  He left for the Gold Mountain before Kwan Hoong was born.  Hoong tried to imagine his face at night, as she laid in bed, leaning close against MaMa.  She saw his face before falling asleep.  His face changed each time.  Sometimes he was tall, sometimes he was short, sometimes fat, and sometimes skinny. Always, her BaBa had a friendly smile and open arms.  He was smiling at her tonight in her dream.  Hoong faded into sleep with a smile on her face.

            Hoong told herself a bedtime story.  “In the hills of Taishan near the South China Sea lived a girl named Kwan Hoong, the prettiest girl in the Village of Two Beauties.  She was the youngest daughter in a family of three daughters.  Theirs was a disfavored family because in her village, sons were prized above all else.  She sat on top of a hilltop looking far, far away, as far as she could see. This little girl said to herself, “I wonder how big the world is.”  “I wonder how far away the Land of the Gold Mountain is.”  “I wonder how long it would take to sail there.”  “How long would it take for me to find BaBa?”  “How long would it take for my BaBa to find me?” “Maybe BaBa has forgotten about me.”. “He never saw me even when I first opened my eyes.”  “No, BaBa would never forget his Precious Daughter, his Bo Bui Hoong!”  MaMa always hugged and squeezed her and kissed her at the “Bo Bui” part.  Then they both laughed.  Hoong heard this story so many times she had memorized it.  She told it to herself whenever she wanted to feel happy, imitating the singsongy way MaMa told it.  She always hugged herself at the end, the “Precious Daughter Hoong”, the “Bo Bui Hoong” part, and giggled to herself.

            She had a new story now. “The Japanese soldiers are coming to kill me.  I must hide and smear soot on my face so they cannot see how I look.  With skin as pretty as a porcelain teacup, they will drink me up!”  She repeated this new story to herself before bed and it gave her nightmares.  “You have skin as pretty as a porcelain teacup,” her Aunty with the Four Sons had said, stroking Kwan Hoong’s cheeks, “the Japanese soldiers will eat you up.”  Her MaMa and her Aunty reminded her and her sisters every day to smear ashes on their faces.  “Pretty is not good,” her Aunty said.  MaMa said, “The Japanese soldiers are far away from home.  They are fierce and lonely and angry, so pretty or ugly, old or young, will not matter.”

            MaMa and Lin, sewed every night.  They took the fancy silk clothes her Third Auntie had given them from her dead Auntie’s wedding chest.  The first Third Auntie had died a while ago.  Most of the clothes were in good shape but parts were frayed so they cut the frayed parts off and used the good parts.  Kwan Hoong liked the soft shiny silk scraps and the colorful embroidery. She took a needle and thread and asked MaMa to show her how to thread a needle and she practiced sewing with the old pieces that MaMa and sister Lin cut out.  Kwan Hoong sat close to twelve-year-old Lin to watch.  In and out, in and out, she pulled the needle and thread.  Kwan Hoong copied Lin but poked herself with the second in and out.  Her finger bled and then stung but she didn’t cry.  She wiped it and didn’t tell MaMa.  She wanted to make clothes to sell too.  MaMa and GrandPa’s concubine called this, “Zhou Goo Yi”, and they returned from a day of Zhou Goo Yi, smiling and happy, with the coins they made selling their remade clothes.  

            One morning, MaMa and Lin came upon a village with rice.  They bought the rice with their coins and carried the rice to another village with no rice.  They set up a stall and sold the rice with Lin yelling, “Rice to sell!  Rice to sell! “U mai mai!””  Lin had a clear strong voice and was good at getting a high price.  They scooped out handfuls and sold the rice for more coins then they used to buy it. Lin carried the bag of rice on her back. MaMa said, “Walk slowly if it feels too heavy on your back.”  Lin slowed down her walk.  Carrying the bag of rice on her shoulders made her hump over as she walked so sometimes she stumbled.

            Kwan Hoong said, “MaMa, please let me carry a bag of rice too!”  “U mai mai!  U mai mai!” “Ho ga ten!”  “Rice to sell!  Rice to sell! Very good price!” she yelled in her strongest voice.  “See? I have a loud voice.  I can sell rice too!”  but when MaMa tied a small bag of rice on her shoulder, it kept sliding off and some of the rice spilled.  So, MaMa said, “No, Hoong Niu, you are too small still.”  Kwan Hoong wished she was seven years old already, not just five years old.  She wanted to grow up fast, to be taller, to be stronger.

             MaMa walked all day to the fish pier to buy the salty fish brine with the coins from selling the clothes they made.  MaMa said, “Hom ngui siu hek a ho lik.” and spooned the salty fish juice into the watery rice gruel they ate.  She always fed Kwan Hoong and her eight-year-old sister, San, first because she said they were still growing and needed it.  MaMa fed herself and Lin last and Kwan Hoong noticed they only ate a little bit.  Kwan Hoong spooned another bit of salted fish brine into her watery rice because she remembered that MaMa said that salted fish juice would make her strong.  She really wanted to grow big and strong enough to carry firewood so she could help her MaMa and Lin.

            Kwan Hoong turned seven years old.  MaMa saved her a small, wild, sweet potato she had saved for her special day.  The rice was all gone.  The cabbage was gone.  There were not many more wild sweet potatoes and taro to dig up.  The villagers were hungry and had dug up what little was left and eaten it.  Hoong watched two villagers fighting each other for a small wild taro.  Kwan Hoong felt a piercing ache in her swollen belly so she told herself her favorite story.  “In the hills of Taishan near the South China Sea lived a girl named Kwan Hoong, the prettiest girl in the Village of Two Beauties.  She was the youngest daughter in a family of three daughters.  Theirs was a disfavored family because...”.  Hoong could not finish.  She felt out of breath.  “No, BaBa would never forget his precious Daughter, his Bo Bui Hoong…”  Tonight, Hoong did not hug herself.  Her arms felt heavy and she could not lift them.  Her eyes felt heavy and she could not open them and she could not laugh, so she smiled.

            Tonight, she dreamed. She stood at the fish pier and she had enough coins to buy fresh fish, not just the salty brine.  She spied her BaBa, handsome and tall, stepping off a big ship, waving at her, calling,” Ah Hoong!  Ah Hoong!  My Precious Daughter, Ba Ba has returned!”  “Ba Ba fun li le!”  Her BaBa had returned from the Land of the Gold Mountain and come home from the War. She felt BaBa lift her and swing her up high and put her down on his knee, straighten her braids, and pat her head. He pulled candy from his pocket and she tasted the sweetness as he put it on her tongue.

            Kwan Hoong heard voices. Her GrandMaMa and her Aunty with the Many Sons were whispering.  She thought it strange because they never visited her house.  Kwan Hoong knew her GrandMaMa loved her grandsons best and did not like girls much.  She felt a rough hand on her forehead, not MaMa’s soft touch.  Kwan Hoong felt a bit chilly, a shivering and burning feeling, all at the same time.  She tried to turn around, to get up, to greet them properly, as she knew she should to show that she had manners, but her limbs did not move.  “Her fever has gone on for how long?  Five days?”  “Kiu mm duk-le.”  “Kiu mm duk-le” she heard her GrandMaMa say with a sigh. “Hopeless?”  “Who is hopeless?”  Kwan Hoong wondered.  Then Kwan Hoong smelled bamboo, clean fresh bamboo.  A clean smelling mat of soft bamboo wrapped around her, encircling her, hugging her, like her MaMa’s arms.  She heard her GrandMama and her Aunty say, “Let her go.”  “You must let her go.”  Kwan Hoong’s eyes felt heavy.  “Go where?”  “Who is going?” wondered Kwan Hoong.  She heard MaMa’s voice crying and cooing in her ears.  “My little Hoong, my Hoong-niu.”  She heard MaMa scream.  She felt herself floating up, floating, floating, floating, becoming lighter and lighter, twirling around and around, then coming down and landing.  Moisture, wetness seeped through the bamboo wrap and onto the shirt on her back.  She felt the cool earth.  She smelled the rain in the air and the sweet grasses of the mountainsides, the mountainsides she knew so well, the ones she loved to climb and run up and down every day. She knew.  She knew Baba would come back.  She knew he would come back and love her, like a father would surely love his little Precious Daughter.  

            “My Bo Bui daughter, my Precious Hoong-Niu, run as fast as you can.  Go to that place where you will have rice to eat, many bowls of soft white rice, all the rice and salted fish and meat you want.  May you eat until your belly is full.  Laugh and play and be happy.  MaMa is so sorry she could not feed you and keep you well.”  Kwan Hoong closed her heavy eyes with MaMa’s voice in her ears, and greeted her BaBa with a smile.  “BaBa, I knew you would come.  I just knew you would.”  Kwan Hoong drifted off.  Darkness and silence embraced her. 

 

Pat…

 

Pat…

 

 

Pat.

            In the hills of Taishan, near the South China Sea, lies a girl named Kwan Hoong, the prettiest girl in the Village of Two Beauties, a girl with skin as translucent as a porcelain tea cup.


                Cynthia’s father, worked in America, then enlisted in the United States Army and became a teacher of English for Chinese American soldiers at Fort Jackson, the Orderly for the Commander of the 100th Infantry, and a Corporal in Germany and France during WWII.  He was separated from her mother for fifteen years and never met his third daughter, who was born during his absence.  Her two older sisters remained in China under Communist rule until 1979 when Cynthia disputed the paper sons practice.  She presented her case to Senator Edward M .Kennedy’s office and he expedited her petition.  Cynthia’s two sisters and their families entered the U.S.A.  under the category of Humanitarian Parole in the summer of 1979.  It took fifty-eight years for them to enter the U.S.A. after their father  entered the North End of Boston as a boy of twelve in 1921.  Her eldest sister, Yerk Lin Yee, passed the U.S. A. Citizenship exam and became a naturalized U.S. citizen at the age of 80.

            In 2012, under President Barack Obama’s leadership, the government of the United States of America issued a statement of regret for the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882-1943.  The effects of this Exclusionary Act has had reverberations for four generations of Chinese American families.  The War Brides Act of 1945 allowed Chinese wives to join their husbands in America and the formation of Chinese American families began in earnest.

            The practice of wrapping ill daughters, daughters judged as unable to get well, in a bamboo mat and taking them out to the hillsides to die was a common Taishan village practice that was strictly enforced.  It may have served to limit contagion at a time of limited medical care and medicines and also to conserve limited food supplies.  In their patriarchal society it was believed that daughters must not be allowed to die in their homes of origin since they were looked upon as belonging to their future husband’s families.  Two of Cynthia’s girl cousins as well as her Third Sister, Kwan Hoong, were taken out of their homes to die in this way.  Even though the Grandmothers were powerful matriarchs in a village with few men, their cries and tears could not stop this practice.

            Cynthia Yee thanks her writing buddy, Yvonne Ng, her devoted and loyal First Reader.  “Thank you, Yvonne, for being such a fan of my work, your honest no nonsense straight talking critiques, great tips, and recommendations.  You are the kind of cheerleader a friend needs.”

            Cynthia also thanks her eldest sister, Yerk Lin Yee, a left behind daughter who shouldered an Eldest Chinese Daughter’s traditional adult responsibilities while still a child.  Cynthia says,“Thank you for telling me stories of your survival and stamina in helping our family withstand life in a patriarchal society in wartime China.  Your intelligence and hard work helped our mother to endure and be reunited with our father in the U.S.A. under the War Brides Act of 1945, and set the stage for me to be born in Boston and write this story.”

Life from the Viewpoint of a Chinatown Chicken

by Cynthia Yee; to celebrate the Lunar New Year

  May Soon Yee (Cynthia’s mother) and Foong Ying Yee (her aunt) preparing dinner at 116 Hudson Street.

May Soon Yee (Cynthia’s mother) and Foong Ying Yee (her aunt) preparing dinner at 116 Hudson Street.

          I lay here, all fragrant and dressed in my finery, listening to the sound of joyful chatter and laughter all around me. My head and graceful neck rest neatly by my side; my legs tucked under me with care. Elegance is my middle name. I am the center of a festive occasion. The smell of burning incense swirl around me and a great fuss accompany the aromas. I have never felt this important in all my Chicken Life.

          I was once alive, albeit, some might say, “What kind of Life is that, squawking around, scratching the ground, and pecking at pieces of grain? It was a Life, nevertheless. I ate. I defecated. And I pecked at lesser ones in the yard.

          One day, all that suddenly changed. Packed into a crate with others of my kind and trucked to a place full of squawking birds held in cages, I felt befuddled. Ended were my days of freedom on the farm, walking about, head held high, strutting my stuff. We were crowded into cages of twelve or more. I pecked at the grain in the trough and, of course, at those lesser than me. It was, after all, my nature to do so. On a sunny, snowy, cold, and quite ordinary winter morning, a little girl with shiny, straight black hair came into the place where we stayed. “Six-pound pullet, please.” she said. A hand reached into my cage and grabbed my neck. Off to the inner chambers I went. They slit my throat and drained my blood and then de-feathered me of my beautiful, shiny frock. A powerful spray of water finished me off. I opened my eyes in the cozy darkness of a brown paper bag.

          As she walked, the little girl hugged me close to her chest. She snuggled me closer and tighter. To keep warm, I think. My body, you see, still contained the warmth of Life. I snuggled back. I have never been hugged before in my entire Chicken Life. I felt myself ascending, and then, entering a steamy apartment kitchen where two women greeted us. “Ai Ya! Mai-a-gai la!” they said, in excited voices as if their deep and heartfelt wishes had come true. Popped out of the bag, I looked up into their smiles which spread from ear-to-ear. “Ai wah! Ho leng! Jeck gai, ho leng,” they repeated over and over. They bathed and massaged me with a nice warm salt-water bath. I have never had one before, you see. A bath, that is. Or a massage, for that matter. I giggled to myself, as they rubbed me all over with aromatic bean sauces. Suddenly….Oooo! They tucked a piece of garlic, a scallion, and a piece of tangerine rind inside me. What a strange feeling. Into a wok and onto a rack I went. Hot steam enveloped me…a sauna. Ahhh…Time passed, and before I realized it, I was cooked!

          I rode in on a silver coach…a round, metal pan, and onto a table in front of a large window. Three porcelain bowls filled with rice wine, three pairs of ivory chopsticks, three porcelain spoons, six sticks of incense stuck into a can of sand, a plate of shiny oranges and tangerines, sweet and salty rice cakes, and a slab of roast pork encircled me. They poured the rice wine on the floor, whispering some words I could not quite understand, and made a few cuts, removing one of my wings and placing it with care along my side, keeping me complete. A man and a woman bowed three times in front of me, facing the window and the open sky. They say I am a Special Offering. Wow. The little girl asked, “Why are there three of everything?” “It is for Heaven, Earth, and Man, Tian, Di, Yun” he said, laughing, “It is the Chinese Trinity,” implying it was a silly question. The little girl fingered the porcelain bowls and looked around the table and came around to face me and the open window. “Bow three times. Bow to your Grandmother and Grandfather to bless you,” the woman said. The little girl looked at the sky and looked at me and she bowed three times, just as she was told to do.

          Me, lowly me, a lowly chicken from a dusty farm yard and a dirty cage. Who would ever have guessed such a special importance could be bestowed upon a lowly chicken? Incense perfumed the air as the woman and man chanted good wishes, praise to the gods and Ancestors, and made humble requests for a prosperous year, healthy lives, and obedient children.

          I rode on my silver coach back into the kitchen where the woman chopped me into bite-sized pieces. Put all back together again on a beautiful porcelain plate as good as new, she brought me to a table surrounded by eager and smiling faces. The little girl with the shiny black hair and a boy younger than her, fought over my heart but the girl won, by decision of the elders. “She is older than you by two years. She is your Didi. She should get the heart,“ they said. The little girl deserved respect and deference, they said. So, my heart became her. As a consolation, the boy received my crunchy gizzard and they happily shared my rich, tasty liver between them. With two sticks, they picked up my tail of glistening yellow fat and offered it to a gray-haired man bent over his rice bowl, the oldest person at the table. I thought it was a respectful gesture for their old age because my tail was nice and soft and tasty and easy to chew. My drumsticks and wings went to the children. “May you fly high and strong someday.” the man said. As a sign of courtesy, the men and women offered my dark back pieces to each other, each declining and offering it back, for that meat is considered the choicest. The women picked up the pieces of my sweet graceful neck, deferring the choicer parts to the men. One of the older men offered my white breast to the little girl and boy. He said, “Oh, they are American born children; jook sing children, so they will like the white meat.” and they all laughed, except for the little boy and girl. The children refused. They knew that it was considered tough and dry and therefore the least tasty. They knew only foolish people would choose that.

          Thus, I became part of the family and so energized their work and their studies and blessed their efforts. By so doing, I contributed to the World’s Progress and one family’s hopes and dreams for the future.

  The Yee Family having a celebration dinner at their home on Hudson Street.

The Yee Family having a celebration dinner at their home on Hudson Street.

          The original version was published in the Asian American Resource Workshop Writers Group collection, “Asian Voices from Bean Town” in 2012. It was read at an Asian American Studies class at Suffolk University by invitation of Professor Da Zheng.

          Cynthia has many fond memories of sharing delicious home cooked meals with extended family. She shared meals rich with symbolism at holiday times, like Lunar New Year. Cynthia still tries her best to shop and cook with fresh produce from farmer’s markets and avoids cooking with processed and canned foods. She, however, makes an exception for Chinese wind dried meats, which she buys from traditional Taishan sausage makers in New York and San Francisco. She is always interested in food: its source, growing it, shopping for it, and preparing it from scratch.

          For a child with tropical blood flowing in her veins, the Chinatown chickens who shared their warmth on cold New England winter shopping treks, remain a sweet memory, like an old friend. To them, she says, “Ooo-Deh,” “Dor Jee, “Much thanks.”
 

If Hudson Street Could Talk

by Cynthia Yee, a Hudson Street resident displaced by the construction of the Central Artery in 1962. All photos courtesy of Cynthia Yee. This is her "valentine" to Hudson Street, which holds beloved memories for Cynthia and many others who grew up and lived here.

“The past lives on; in art and memory, but it is not static: it shifts and changes as the present throws its shadows backwards. The landscape also changes, but far more slowly; it is a living link between what we were and what we have become.”
      Margaret Drabble, A Writers Britain, 1979.

  Cynthia Yee on her tricycle on Hudson Street, 1950’s.

Cynthia Yee on her tricycle on Hudson Street, 1950’s.

           “HUDSON STREET,”  the sign read. The Chinese characters underneath transliterated the English words as, “HUT SIN GAI”, “The Street of the God of Beggars.” I came into the world after my mother escaped being slaughtered in a tropical village in southern China and after my father traded cans of rationed Spam for fresh killed rabbit in Germany, and my mother’s mother begged, to stave off starvation in wartime, but starved anyways. I was born and grew up on these four blocks in Boston’s Chinatown. I never saw a beggar here but I did see a lot of gods. I guess this god in America was mighty busy, filling up our lives with new prosperity.

           I gazed up at the tall, gray, concrete wall and the ramp that ran along the top of it. The rubber tires of cars and trucks sped up the ramp and rumbled onto the Southeast Expressway. This wall cast a dark shadow over the edge of Hudson Street and over the remaining red brick townhouses, blocking out, forever, any possibility of sunlight drenched living rooms. New immigrants from China and visitors to Boston’s Chinatown see the wall as always having been there, supporting the ramp that was built so South Shore residents could get home faster from their downtown jobs. I walked along the middle of the black asphalt road. Weeds, taller than I, greeted me. Graffiti on the wall winked at me, teasing me. Vagrants, loitering on the corner, snickered. I hesitated, and almost turned back, but I decided to walk on to the end, where more weeds and a chain link fence overlooked more Expressway.

           “1-2-3, Red Light!”, “ M-I-SSI-SSI-PPI!”, “Eeeny-Meeny-Minee-Moe, catch a rabbit by the toe. If he hollers, let him go, 1, 2, 3, 4, and out you go!” Children giggling, children laughing, whispered in the air. Mrs. Soo Hoo, with her smooth fair skin and neatly coiled, shiny black hair, hung out of the second-floor window of her red brick townhouse, calling, “Hep-pa-hek-fan-la!” followed by the voice of Hep-pa’s Syrian best friend, Johnny, imitating her. ”Hep-pa, hek-fan-la!”, in his American accent, picked up by other children, repeating “Hep-pa-hek-fan-la!”, relaying the message all the way down the street, ”Hey, Hep-pa, your mom wants you home to eat rice!”  The music of my childhood reverberated in my mind’s eye and I smiled to myself  as I walked the length of the now eerily quiet street.

           Hudson Street was the main residential neighborhood of Chinatown in the 1950’s and early 1960’s. As Syrian families moved out to the suburbs, new immigrants from a rural area of Guangdong Province in Southern China, called Taishan, settled here. The War Brides Act of 1945 opened up immigration quotas for Chinese women to emigrate and reunite with their sojourner husbands. Chinese American babies were born and Chinese American family life in Boston began, in great numbers, for the first time in American history. The Chinese Communist Revolution or Liberation culminated in the formation of modern day People’s Republic of China in 1949. Diplomatic relations between China and the United States soured. China was closed. Any dreams of Chinese sojourners hoping to return home ended. Old men, stranded here, lived in the attics and rooming houses of Hudson Street, as did young boys, some as young as ten to fifteen years of age. The young boys were sent here as “paper sons”, that is, ‘“sons” only on legal papers, to work and send money home to their families. Young daughters were left behind in the cities and villages of southern China, only to suffer the chaos of the Communist Revolution.        

           The people of Chinatown and those they left behind were the living legacy of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. This law, the first law implemented to prevent a specific ethnic group from immigrating to the United States, blocked paths to citizenship and forbade intermarriage. It was repealed in 1943.

Cynthia’s second sister in law, Yu Ching and her paper brother, David Yee, Hong Kong, 1959

           Men, like my dad, who were soldiers in the U.S. Armed Services during WWII were able, under the War Brides Act of 1945, to bring their wives here. Chinese American babies, like myself, were born. The young boys, including my three “paper” brothers, grew up to be young men and as immigration quotas expanded for the Chinese in the 1960’s, they traveled to the British colony of Hong Kong to marry southern Chinese women, many of whom had escaped the turbulence of the Communist Revolution by taking refuge there, working in the factories fueling the rapid economic growth of Hong Kong into a modern capitalist giant.

           Young brides arrived on Hudson Street. I was almost ten years old and I was in awe. The new brides arrived with luxurious silk cheongsams, sequin embroidered sweaters and purses, glittering gold and jade jewelry, and cedar chests. The fragrance of cedar permeated everything, even the brides themselves. From my new sisters-in-law, I received gifts of silk jackets, gold charm bracelets, and jade heart pendants and it tickled me endlessly.

  Last Easter Sunday, April, 1962, before the demolition of Hudson Street; Cynthia Yee wearing a polished cotton lilac dress she designed and sewed, babysitting her friend Susan’s little brother, Ken Lim.

Last Easter Sunday, April, 1962, before the demolition of Hudson Street; Cynthia Yee wearing a polished cotton lilac dress she designed and sewed, babysitting her friend Susan’s little brother, Ken Lim.

           My mother and my friends’ mothers stayed home stitching piecework, earning 50 cents a shirt, using their own sewing machines and their own electricity. The young brides soon joined them. My father and I helped by flipping collars and cuffs with a sharpened chopstick, folding the shirts, and tying them into neat bundles for the factory owner to pick up. As I grew older, I sewed darts by the hundreds. I had more practice sewing darts than a girl normally might have or would want to have. By the time I was eleven, I designed and sewed my own clothes. Zippers were hard for me so I enlisted my friends, Karen and Susan’s, help. We enjoyed sharing dress patterns, picking out decorative rick rack and cloth, matching by texture and by color. I thought store-bought clothes, all alike, and lined up in the department store racks, were boring and couldn’t understand why anyone wore them. At 2:00 in the afternoon, as regular as clockwork, I watched the parade of fathers marching down Hudson Street to meet and talk at the coffee shops before starting work at the restaurants. Kneeland Street was the crucial divide between residential and commercial life. For me, crossing that wide, busy street into the commercial area, was a big deal. Fathers returned home at 2:00, and sometimes 3:00, in the morning. It was commonly accepted that loud outdoor play began only after 12:00 noon so as not to disturb the fathers’ rest.

           When I was born, my parents lived at the upper end of Hudson Street, at No. 133, and we moved across the street to the second floor of No. 116 when I was a young child. There I spent my childhood. An abandoned gas station sat at the upper end of the block. My friends and I played “House” there, using the foundations of old gas pumps as “stoves.” We gathered wild dandelions and the leaves of the hardy ailanthus tree, that grew by the railroad tracks, for our green vegetables. At the lower end of the block on the corner of Oak Street was a Syrian grocery shop in the basement. I loved going there with my mother to buy nuts. Sometimes, I went in by myself, just to walk around and look.  At age nine, I enjoyed a measure of freedom. I walked down the steps and took a deep breath as I entered the store, loving the fragrant aroma of pine nuts and olives. The Syrian women shoppers used large spoons with long handles and holes to ladle out the olives from large wooden barrels. As they slurped the green ones, then the black ones, the large ones, and then the small ones, they chattered and chirped in excited voices in their Syrian language. I wished I could do the same: ladle and taste olives and speak that musical language, too.

           At Jimmy’s Spa, on the opposite corner, I bought ice cream cones for ten cents. “Vanilla, Chocolate, or Strawberry?”, Jimmy asked, in his cheerful voice. “Vanilla, Chocolate, or Strawberry”, these words formed the beginnings of my first English vocabulary. With the ice cream, though, came a far more important lesson. I learned that tragedy could be ameliorated by acts of kindness. One day, when my scoop of ice cream fell onto the ground with my first lick, I stared at it with disappointment. I was seven years old and I felt all alone with my personal loss and humiliation. To my great surprise, Jimmy gave me an even larger scoop, accompanied by a big smile. I always remembered that act of kindness from one of the very few non-Chinese persons I came in contact with in those days.

           Shared streets and shared toys were our life. An occasional automobile ambled down the street, but for the most part, it was a street free of traffic. One volleyball net strung across the street and one ball made for a fast game of Volleyball. Taishan had a long and illustrious history of producing volleyball champions. It was in our blood and the air we breathed. We knew how to play it without anyone teaching us. A brother and sister owned a pair of bikes, a boy’s bike and a girl’s bike. The whole street shared that luxury. We each took turns riding them down the length of the street, adventuring around the corner by way of Harvard Street, cutting through onto Tyler Street. That is how we practiced being brave, and turning corners without falling over.

           A piece of chalk, a few lines drawn on the sidewalk and any small object, like a pebble, made for a game of Hopscotch with our best buddies. Kick-the-Can in the middle of the street was excitement itself. The only equipment needed was one can and good legs. There was the leaping and blindfold game of, “Buck Buck Buck Lo Si Buck, How many fingers have I got up?” the Chinese American equivalent of “One Two Three, Red Light”. One child covered his eyes and leaned against a wall, with his or her back turned, and each child, in turn, hopped onto the stone ledge behind him, calling out “Buck Buck Buck Lo Si Buck! How many fingers do I have up?” The child guessed with eyes covered and then turned around. If he or she were wrong, another child leaped onto the ledge and repeated the chant. The ledge filled up fast with children tucked one behind the other.  If he or she guessed correctly, then it was time to switch and start again.

            On summer nights, after sewing and cooking, mothers conversed on stoops, while fathers worked at restaurants. It was too hot to stay home. There were only small electric fans to create a small breeze in the small four room apartments. We played Volleyball and Kick- the-Can under the street lamps. Hide-and-Go-Seek in the shadows was a special challenge. Hiding in shadows, being very still and not moving, could become a useful life skill.

           Stoops were ideal for board type games although none of us owned board games, per se. We only played board games and ping pong at the Maryknoll Sisters Center on Tyler Street. Baseball card collections were treasures. I played flip ups with my cards on the top stoop. Other days, my friends and I sewed little square rice bags with rice taken from our mothers’ rice bins and scraps of cloth from their sewing. While their backs were bent over their machines, we scurried out handfuls of rice and scraps of cloth onto the stoop, reminding each other to take a needle and a spool of thread. We sewed together and had our own sewing circle by age nine. Each set had its unique design and we admired each other’s handiwork. We shared grains of rice and pieces of cloth so there was enough for everyone to make a complete personal set. Our hands and fingers flipped the little rice bags and caught them in the air with great speed, our gold charm bracelets jangling, playing the Chinese equivalent of “Jacks”. We played this game on the top stoop which was wider than the other steps. We sat on the narrower stoops below to talk and whisper and share our growing Chinese American views about life. Once I discovered, around age seven, that most of the grownups didn’t know English and we did, we had our own secret code: English. We enjoyed a great deal of privacy, sharing our observations, our truths, and misconceptions, as if they were truths until they were proven false. This give and take of conversation taught us to listen to each other and that ideas and opinions were changeable. My father, however, spoke fluent English, so I mistakenly thought, if I spelled my words to my cousin, like “Do you have any M-O-N-E-Y?”, my dad would not know what I was saying. I was wrong, but my dad played along, as if he didn’t know my secrets at all, and I truly appreciated that.

           Woven clothesline made sturdy jump ropes. A clothesline never used an entire length of rope so our mothers always had leftover rope. We jumped to classic American jump rope rhymes, like “M-I-SSI-SSI-PPI”, graduating eventually to Double Dutch. We practiced high jumping by having two people hold the two rope ends at ankle height, then moving to knee height, then waist, then shoulder, then ear, then forehead, then above our heads. We jumped higher and higher by leaping sideways. For variety, we linked rubber bands together and made Chinese Jump Ropes. We warmed up by twirling the elastic rope around our ankles first once, then two times, then three times around one ankle, then crossing both ankles, and jumping out of its confines, backwards and forwards, in a series of patterns. Then, we began the game of “Chinese Jump Rope” with one child each holding an end and moving the elastic rope up in increments. We jumped higher and higher, by leaping sideways, and hooking our ankle around the rubber bands, just so, and around, and catapulting over to the other side. We admired whomever could leap the highest over the elastic rope, in the most graceful of leaps and flips, and we tried to better our jumps each time, even jumping at heights above our heads.

           One time, a father died.  I watched his three little girls, in shiny black braids tied with black hair ribbons and dressed in black shirts and black skirts, leap higher and higher over the elastic rope, every day, for a month.  When a child loses someone that she loved, but did not have the words for that hurt yet, perhaps running and leaping into the air sideways, and catapulting higher and higher over to the other side, may be a good enough balm for the sorrowful soul.

           When we needed a break or to decide on turns, we played the hand game, “Ching Chang Foo” also known as “Paper, Rock, Scissor,” but we never called it that, only “Ching Chang Foo”. Sometimes we had money to buy strands of plastic strings called “gimp”. We sat and wove gimp together and learned new patterns from each other, using different color pairings of plastic gimp string to create new and unique designs. Pink and white, green and blue, yellow and orange all looked good. I hung my roller skate key on the gimp chain around my neck. I needed that key to adjust the width of my roller skates so it was important not to lose it. Nobody seriously locked their houses so we seldom needed house keys. I knew how to open my friend, Karen’s front door with a special kick followed by a nudge and how to climb up the ledge to knock on my next-door neighbor, Mary’s first floor window, to get her attention and to ask her if she wanted to go to St. James Church on Sunday morning. Religion, for us, was a personal choice that did not involve our parents and we seldom rung doorbells.

           On Sundays after church, I bought comics from Carl Martin’s Drugstore. I pilfered a dollar from my dads’ Maxwell House coffee can where he threw his tip money every night. I always took only one dollar. I knew he worked hard to earn it. Comics cost ten cents apiece and twenty-five cents for the Giant Special. I traded comic books with my friend, Bingy, so I had twice as many comics to read.  His American name was James Fong but only the teacher called him that.  His mother called him “Bing Doy”, “Little Bing” so he was always “Bingy” to us. 

           On Sunday evenings, I usually walked down to the lower end of Hudson Street to “Doofy’s”, a store in the basement across from the YMCA.  Doo Foon Bak had a gray balding head, a young wife, and three little girls, with thick, shiny, black braids, running between the store shelves playing tag.  It was the only place that stocked American food like mayonnaise, ketchup, white bread, and cold cuts.  Sometimes, on a busy Sunday, my mother and I forgot to buy ham, my American food for my week’s school lunch.  So, on Monday morning, I brought two slices of Wonder Bread to my friend, Karen’s, house and told her mother, “Ngoi a Ma m ge ack mi ham.”   With her usual friendly voice, soft smile, and twinkly eyes, she asked,  “Ah-Hing, ni jung yi hek Jel-lee, mo jung yi hek Marshee-Mello, ah?”  A golden opportunity.  I always said  “Marshmallow!” because my parents did not allow me to eat that.  She slathered peanut butter on one slice of bread and marshmallow on the other slice.  She wrapped my fluffer-nutter sandwich in waxed paper and handed it to me.  Karen rescued her crumpled homework from the trash bin, ironed it with the iron that sat on the ironing board in the kitchen, and put it in her schoolbag with a chuckle.  Her mother had thrown it out the night before when she cleared the kitchen table where we did our homework together.  Our mothers did not speak, read, nor write English.  We knew that and we adapted.  Off to school, Karen and I went, walking and chatting all the way.  

           A bag of Wise potato chips cost a nickel and I relished the chips with an air bubble. I called them “hor bow ahn” chips, the “fried egg chips” because they reminded me of the fried egg my mother put on top of my bowl of rice, oyster sauce drizzled on top, and runny egg yolk oozing onto the white rice. So delicious. I shared the chips with my Chinese School friends in between reciting Chinese texts aloud, memorizing them, and cheating. I felt that cheating was the only reasonable thing to do in that situation and sneaking junk food was my compensation for the extra time required after school and on Saturday mornings.

           Every Chinese Lunar New Year, I became rich. My parents gave me five and some years ten dollars each, in fancy red envelopes I saved because they were so pretty. My relatives and neighbors gave me lucky red envelopes with a dollar in each. Two envelopes from a husband and wife made for two dollars from every couple. I could calculate numbers pretty fast in my head. My mother accompanied me to deposit most of the money in my Union Bank account but I could keep some of it in a cigar box where I counted the bills over and over, amazed at my new wealth, thinking of how I would spend it. Every Chinese New Year, my father gave me a small brown paper bag filled with firecrackers and cherry bombs and an incense punk to light them. I lit them on the sidewalk and ran, with a finger plugged in each ear. By age seven, I learned to be quick to avoid injury. On Lion Dance Parade Day, I bought a large box of thick hand-cut french fries for twenty-five cents, at the Gam-Sun, a Chinese restaurant owned by the Wongs on the corner of Kneeland and Hudson Streets, or at the Nile, a Syrian restaurant owned by a Syrian family, on the even side of lower Hudson Street. With the firecrackers popping, the large kettle drums beating their steady rhythm, imitating the heartbeat of the Lion, and smoke all around, my friends and I were in Chinese New Year Heaven.

           My friends and I knew if we greeted any Chinese adults we met, and there were many about on Lion Dance Day, and we wished them a “A Prosperous New Year to You!”, greeting them in a loud, cheerful voice, “Gung Hay Fat Toy!”, they would invariably smile, reach into their pocket or purse and pull out red envelopes, always two, and give them to us, saying “Grow tall and study hard!”  Always. We learned the importance of greeting people with respect, by title as in “Second Uncle!” or “Aunty Chin!” and always in a cheerful voice to show how glad we were to see them. And we were glad to see them. So, it was sincere. Every adult was an Uncle or Aunty and we used our own judgement to figure out whether they were older than our parents or younger because that age rank would determine which form of “Uncle” and “Aunty” we used. “Bak” for older Uncles, ”Sook” for younger uncles, “Moo” for older Aunties, “Sim” for younger Aunties, or “Yi” for some women who were close friends of our mothers. Very old gray hair men and women became “Gung” or “Poh”. Young brides we called “LLoe.”  We, children, showed our respect for age and rank, by remembering these differentiations. The holiday celebration always fell on a cold winter day. I wrapped my mittened hands around my warm box of hot french fried potatoes, with my friends gathered around me, huddling and laughing, as we each dipped a french fry into the common pool of ketchup, lots and lots of ketchup. Sharing became my standard for Exquisite Joy.

  Cynthia on a tricycle with her cousin Albert and her mother May Soon Yee inside her home on the second floor of 116 Hudson Street, 1950’s

Cynthia on a tricycle with her cousin Albert and her mother May Soon Yee inside her home on the second floor of 116 Hudson Street, 1950’s

           Our lives were punctuated by many special days, aside from holidays. On our Father’s “Day-Off-Foo”, my cousin, Albert and I, enjoyed special meals prepared from intricate recipes that took our mothers and fathers hours to prepare. It was usually a Tuesday or Wednesday when restaurant business was slow. Stranded sojourner uncles and paper brothers and sisters-in-law came to dinner once a week. Some days, our fathers took us on trips across Kneeland Street to drink chocolate milk at the Lotus Inn on the corner of Oxford and Beach Street. We listened to the men talk Sports and Politics over cups of creamy hot coffee. Albert and I sipped our chocolate milk and felt very special to be in the company of our father and their friends. Freshly killed chickens, still warm, were carried home to be cooked. Whole fish, whole lobsters, ducks, and ribs of whole roast pigs were common fare. Years later, I discovered supermarkets where you could buy packages of frozen animal parts. At first sight, it seemed unnatural and quite barbaric to me. I had learned to respect the whole animal, not just the parts. I witnessed the careful and meticulous way, my parents and uncles and aunts prepared them for our enjoyment. I listened to them tell us about their healing powers and sustaining qualities. To me, what was so pleasurable about eating a drumstick on my birthday or a wing, if there was a whole package of them? It would take the fun out of fighting with my cousin for the one chicken heart or the one chicken liver. High School Biology dissection class proved, later, to be nothing for a Chinatown child who ate like this. We knew and respected all the special parts of an animal and knew how they were interconnected and we learned to respect how they nourished us. We were the transplanted descendants of Pearl River Delta peasant farmers and we respected our food.

           American New Year’s Eve was the busiest night at the local Chinese restaurants across Kneeland Street. My dad worked at the Cathay House Restaurant on Beach Street, at the end of Hudson Street. Hudson Street sat on filled-in land. It was once a beach with the Atlantic Ocean flowing by. Therefore, the name, Beach Street, for the thoroughfare which cut through the center of Chinatown. My father worked as the maître d’ , twelve hours a day, six days a week. His fluent English and outgoing personality made him perfect for his job. On New Year’s morning, after serving New Year’s Eve celebrations all night, the men were more exhausted than usual. My friends and I knew to be extra quiet but I could not fall asleep that night. I was too excited. On New Year’s Day morning, my cousin, Albert, and I got up early to peek inside the tall brown paper bags that said “Quinzani Bakery.”  They were the bags for the French baguettes they served in the restaurants so they were tall and could hold a lot.  We knew our dads brought them home the night before. We peeked at the New Year’s Eve paper hats and noisemakers that our fathers had brought home, just for us. As soon as our fathers woke, our fun began. I donned a shiny red hat and he, a shiny gold one. Some had tassels and some had pom poms. We stretched the elastic string under our chins. We grabbed clangers, clappers, twirlers, and blowout zappers, one in each hand. We marched all around, into the living room, the bedroom, the bathroom, the kitchen, up the stairs and down the stairs, and back again, exchanging hats and noisemakers as we went around. We knew that next American New Year, there will be new, maybe even fancier hats and noisemakers, just for us.

           My friends and I were scrappy Chinatown street children. We were agile, smart, and full of joy, delighting in the freedom of unsupervised play. We played day and night, in sun, snow, and rain, weekdays and weekends. In between times, we went to school, the Josiah Quincy School, during the day, where we learned English, and Kwong Kow Chinese school, during the evening, where the local grocers tried to teach us “Jook sings “, American-borns, how to read and write Taishanese. Chinese school took away from our playtime and taught by memorization, recitation, and testing. I was a well behaved all A student during the day and a budding juvenile delinquent in the evening. The grocers were kindly, so punishment for infractions was not severe. We, children, knew we had the upper hand. Identity, I learned, was flexible and fluid, expansive and broad. Being Good and Being Bad was a matter of context, not mutually exclusive, but parts of a whole.

           Of course, all of us children of Chinatown, grew up. We moved into mainstream American life and went on to successful enough lives. Some of us return to do community work as volunteers, physicians, nurses, teachers, writers, engineers, restaurant owners, artists, and activists. Some of us have children graduating from colleges and graduate programs. Many do not speak Chinese. Most have no idea of how we grew up.

           Recently, I find my peers and myself speaking of our childhood with sweet nostalgia. We see each other mostly at the wakes of our parents or the weddings of our children. As we reminisce and laugh,  I realize we are the only ones that share that common memory, something that brings a smile to our faces but no one else understood.  It is at that moment of realization, for each of us, at differing times, that we begin to feel that we have moved into another generation, and it happens so seemingly suddenly that it often takes us by surprise.

           Yet, that sweet memory of simple, youthful play remains. If you were to ask us, former children of Hudson Street, what it was like to live there, each of us will tell you about each house and who lived in it, every rail we slid down, every sidewalk we traversed, every pole we climbed, every stoop we sat on, and every face. It was the landscape of our childhood: always sunny, always a playmate nearby. The street was ours to share and in which to create imaginary worlds, a place where we played games of our own invention and making.  Implicit in the freedom we were given was the trust of our parents that we would always choose to do the right thing.

           I turned away from the concrete wall. I went into the lobby of the new, modern high rise building on the corner. I spoke to the young concierge and I told him I once lived on this street. He listened and nodded and welcomed me to look around. A man rushed by me. He was picking up and dropping off dry cleaning. Young men and women, dressed in business suits, scurried in and out.  People lounged on leather couches. A bright chandelier hung overhead. There was not one Chinese face. Nor did I see any children. I walked out again onto the busy intersection.

           It was on Hudson Street that I had my first lessons in love, generosity, neighborliness, and a belief in my own agency. “Buck, Buck, Buck, Lo Si Buck, how many fingers do I have up? “, “Ah-Hing, Hek Fan La!” “Ah-Hing, time to eat rice!” “The echoes of chanting games, of children giggling, of my mother calling me to dinner in her melodic country dialect, recede and fade.         

  Albert and Cynthia standing in the doorway of her Hudson Street home.

Albert and Cynthia standing in the doorway of her Hudson Street home.

           Modern Mandarin speakers say another transliteration of “Hudson Street”, one more beautiful and poetic, would be “Han Sheng Gi”, “Street of the Humble and the Profound.”  Perhaps.

           I took one last glance.

           The Goddess of Beggars stood in the moonlit mist. She smiled, held up one hand, and waved.

           I blew her a kiss and I waved back.

           Goodbye, Hudson Street, thank you.

           Cynthia Yee holds an M.Ed. in Early Childhood Education from Boston University and a B.A. in Sociology from Emmanuel College. She taught in Boston’s Chinatown and in Brookline, MA.  Play, Creativity, and Exploration as the central work of children, a respect for the Agency of the Learner, with the teacher acting as Chief Co-Learner, and building a warm, supportive, education community where children can grow and thrive, are hallmarks of her classroom practice.

           For her work training student teachers, Northeastern University School of Education honored her with the  “Outstanding Mentor and Master Teacher of Young Children” Award and the parents of her Brookline students voted her “#1 Teacher” in the Brookline Tab.

           The Expression Language and Arts Studio in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, founded by artist/educator, Ilana Zisman, was inspired and influenced by Cynthia’s work. Ilana and Cynthia are the best of friends and colleagues who play and laugh together every chance they get.

           The original version of this essay was published by the Chinese Historical Society of New England in 2003. This is a 2018 revision of that earlier work. A companion piece, called “My Name is Hudson Street” opens the online portal to the website, “Chinatown Atlas”, created by Tunney Lee and the Chinese Historical Society of New England for researchers and scholars.

           Cynthia thanks the wonderful, caring, and inspirational teachers at GrubStreet for teaching her how to write better and for the support of the Boston Writers of Color Group, which originated there.

           Cynthia is grateful to her Hudson Street playmates and neighbors for their gifts of joy and friendship and dedicates this piece to them.

Affordable Housing and Health Study

 Carolyn, Virginia and Mehreen in the back row with ACDC staff

Carolyn, Virginia and Mehreen in the back row with ACDC staff

ACDC has been working with a team of researchers from Tufts University and MIT, on a collaborative community health survey to explore how and to what extent affordable housing improves various health factors such as nutrition and safety.

Thank you to Carolyn Rubin, Ed.D, an Assistant Professor at the Tufts University School of Medicine, Department of Public Health, Virginia Chomitz, PhD, MS, an Associate Professor also at the Tufts University School of Medicine, and Mehreen Ismail, MPH, a doctoral student in the Food Policy and Applied Nutrition program at the Tufts University Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, and to Mariana Arcaya, ScD, MCP, Assistant Professor of Urban Planning and Public Health at MIT's Department of Urban Studies and Planning, who worked with ACDC to develop the survey, conduct the survey and record the survey results. Carolyn, Virginia and Mariana recently shared with us the preliminary results.

The study, which was also translated into Chinese and Spanish, focuses two sets of households, the first set (56 households) were those who were selected via lottery to move into an affordable rental at 66 Hudson at One Greenway, ACDC's affordable development completed in 2015. The second group are those who are still on a waitlist for affordable housing and have not yet moved into an affordable rental or affordable condo/house. The preliminary study focused on the first group, those who now live in affordable housing. A few highlights from the survey results:

  • 75% of respondents felt that their living in affordable housing in Chinatown enabled them to meet their basic needs, meaning the location was close to amenities such as grocery stores, work, school and the hospital.
  • 75% reported being able to find fresh fruits and vegetables nearby.
  • Respondents who previously lived in suburban areas (Weymouth, etc) found that living in Chinatown was more convenient to meet their basic needs.
  • 50% of the households reported that their previous living situation was overcrowded.
  • One respondent commented, "Chinatown is a better place to live for older individuals", and explained that there was more time to do other activities because they were not spending as much time commuting. They also mentioned appreciating the shorter distances they needed to walk to get to various amenities, and how walking further distances increases their arthritic pain during colder months.

We are working to secure additional funding to continue the study and follow up with those who are still on a waiting list for affordable housing, in addition to:

  • exploring the nuances of the responses from the preliminary study;
  • conducting qualitative research to connect with survey respondents on their food intake and nutritional habits;
  • exploring the effects of gentrification on the food environment and how that affects those who live in affordable housing (i.e. Whole Foods moving into a gentrifying neighborhood vs a grocery store with more affordable prices);
  • surveying if those living in affordable housing still deal with food insecurity and to what extent;
  • and continuing to follow up with each group to explore these health factors over time.