No Secret

Local writer Cynthia Yee shares with us a few excerpts from her new creative non-fiction piece, “No Secret”

116 Hudson Street in Boston’s Chinatown.  Image courtesy of Cynthia Yee

116 Hudson Street in Boston’s Chinatown.

Image courtesy of Cynthia Yee

I grew up in a world of secrets and transgressions, surrounded by mystery, embraced by hope.  Breaking rules was not so bad if somebody loved you.


MaMa was a baptized Catholic, but not for the reasons one might think.  She wanted to adopt a boy.  She learned that, in America, Catholic Charities gave out boys.  MaMa felt it was her duty to provide a son to pray to my Dad in the afterlife, and she had four daughters.                                 

Two nuns visited us and asked about the photos on the wall.  

The first nun pointed to the four photos of my real and fake Grandparents.  

“Who are they?”  “Do you pray to them?”  and then told us we must not do that.  

“They are asking who the photographs are, MaMa.”  “They want to know if you pray to them,” I said.  

MaMa smiled, as if the nuns just could never understand, not in a thousand years. 

The nun then pointed to the sewing machine. 

“Do you sew on that machine?” “Do you sew on Sundays?” and then told us we must not do that, too.

“They want to know if you sew on Sundays,” I said to MaMa.  

MaMa smiled her friendliest smile, the one reserved for Americans, and said, 

Sis-See Dah ah, U li-kee Gar Fe?”  my MaMa’s version of “Sister, you like coffee?” and she offered them fresh cups of coffee with cream and sugar in our best cups and saucers.

After coffee, the nuns got up to leave.  They gave us a present, a framed painting of a pretty white woman with pink cheeks and long brown hair, wearing a veil and a flowing dress, floating above a bush, with a circle around her head, her hands clasped together.  They said, “This is Our Lady of Fatima.”  MaMa smiled, nodded, and took the framed picture from them. She hung it next to the black and white photos of my real and fake Grandparents.  I don’t think MaMa knew the right answers to the nuns’ questions, but whether Immigration or the nuns came to visit, we were now all set.  MaMa believed in the promises of America and in Heavens’ blessings, in equal measure.  

My Dad said, “We don’t need a boy.  We live in America now, and the King of England has a daughter and she is the Queen of England, Queen Elizabeth.  Even the President of the United States has daughters.  My daughters are fine.  Cynthia is fine.”  MaMa smiled at me, and said, “That’s why you are a Little Girl Emperor, because your BaBa thinks like that.  Like an American.”


Well, Sally was a sight that made you stop what you were doing, and take notice.  Everybody, up and down my street, had black hair.  Unless they were old.  Then they had gray hair, or no hair.  Sally, on the other hand, had red hair some days, pink hair other days, orange hair, when she felt like it, and on some days, if she got the formula mixed up, she had purple hair with pink highlights.  She wore a lightweight housedress with a collar, four buttons in a row that ran down the front, beginning at her chest and ending at her middle, and a flair skirt that swirled.  Her round breasts hung low, almost down to her waist, and she wore shoes with thick heels. She had the look of a disposable doll, frumpy and well filled out, a doll one would not miss much if it disappeared. On sunny days, she wore sunglasses with bold red frames.  Nylon stockings rolled up at her ankles and red rouge smeared on her cheeks, she looked a bit like the clown I saw at the circus the nuns took us to see, but she was not the smiling kind of clown.  Her face wore an unwavering seriousness, and her walk spoke a focused determination. All the women on my street sewed at home, but Sally did not sew, and she did not stay at home. She followed old men home.

I watched this happen over and over again.  The old man, signaling her, looked to his right, then to his left.  He caught her eye with his eye, a whisper, or a small wave of his hand.  Then he looked away.  He pretended not to know her.  She followed. I thought it a call and response game. The old man slithered off, hands in his pocket, glancing over his shoulder.  Sometimes I felt the signal coming before the man made it.  The old men tried not to look obvious.  That was the first sign.  Trying to look invisible.  I did not blink.  The men slinked away and Sally followed, muttering under her breath.  Never too close.  

Sally’s visits to old men in the attics and rooming houses of Chinatown, and following old men home, made me wonder what she did exactly.  She answered to “Rose” and sometimes to “Mary.”  I wondered if the nuns had named her Mary.  They gave that name a lot to Chinatown girls registering for the public school next to the convent.  Jesus’ MaMa’s name came up when we got toys at their Christmas party, and so did Mary Magdalene, a loose woman.  Children called her Sally.  “Here comes Sally in the Alley!  Three bucks a throw,” we chanted as she walked down the street on one of her missions. No matter that she did not live in an alley.  She lived in a red brick row house, like mine, next to the convent.  We didn’t know what a “throw” meant.  We liked rhyming.  A Lo-Fan, a barbarian, a white woman, a woman with neither husband nor children, living in Chinatown, alone.  Sally stood out.  

This is a work of creative non fiction.   

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was the first significant law restricting immigration to the United States based on ethnicity.  It outlawed intermarriage and barred paths to citizenship.  The Chinese adaptation to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was the creation of a system of paper sons, whereby young boys were claimed as legal sons by Chinese American fathers.  These young boys and young men came to work and sent home remittances to support their families and clans.  Though the Exclusion Act was eventually repealed in 1943, allowing 105 visas per year for the Chinese, the repercussions of this Exclusion Act continued for four generations.  The Chinese Communist Revolution of 1949 further exacerbated the fracturing of Chinese American families when diplomatic ties between the United States and the Peoples Republic of China were suspended.  The men who came to work became stranded and many lived in the attics and rooming houses of Boston’s Chinatown.

Cynthia Yee, who grew up in Boston Chinatown, honors these sojourner men, many of whom were her neighbors and relatives, and who lived and died alone.  She thanks Alysia Abbott, author of “Fairyland,” and in whose Memoir class, Cynthia originally sketched out the “Sally” story.  “Thank you, Alysia, for reminding me every time we met, how much you liked my Chinatown stories, even remembering my Sally story, long after the class had ended.”  Cynthia also thanks Professor of Narrative Journalism, Mark Kramer, for advising her, even though he said, “It feels l like I am feeding a baby bird who keeps turning its head.”  To him, Cynthia says, “I listened and collected every word from your mouth, like pearls. Thank you.”

Cynthia looks forward to sharing with us her next piece “Don’t Look” soon!