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.”