Wouldn’t it be cool if…?

I just finished a large reconstruction on my house where the entire second floor was gutted. No plaster, no ceilings, no walls, no nothing. I kept looking at the empty space, trying to re-imagine what the space could be. Should I put a closet here? A door entrance here? Could I fit a loft in the attic? My kids even asked for a small swimming pool and water slide in their room.

Have you ever looked at a wide open space and imagined “Wouldn’t it be cool if…?” For one night this fall, we are transforming the open park at One Greenway (the backyard of hundreds of residents at One Greenway) into an outdoor art display, called With/out Water. Through a series of light projections, we will be telling the story of displacement and how displacement has and might in the future affect residents of Chinatown.

Coming September 29, ACDC has partnered with local artist Yu-Wen Wu, BCNC’s Pao Art Center and residents from our 66 Hudson affordable rental homes to create these colorful projections. The projections will turn on around 7pm after sunset.


Over this past summer, ACDC residents met weekly with Yu-Wen to describe their own stories of how they moved in Chinatown. Many of them faced displacement in the past, either in their home countries, or even when they moved to America. The reasons for displacement are many, including war, natural disasters, pollution, economics, to name a few.

With/out Water will focus on environmental displacement. While we often think of climate change as affecting the ozone layers in Antarctica or rising tides in Florida, Boston’s Chinatown faces the real threat of being flooded by rising oceans. Some estimates would project Chinatown to be underwater by 2050 if current environmental trends continue.

Along with the outdoor projection display, we will also be opening up our community room at 66 Hudson for spectators to meet with some of the residents whose stories are told in the artwork.

Come join us!

Vote and be heard!

Check out the video we made with one of our residents in 2016 about why voting matters.

(dates and deadlines at the end of the video were for 2016—please visit www.boston.gov for updated dates)

Vote today in the State primaries!!! Primary elections typically don't get as much attention as the general election in November. Nevertheless, they are an important part of our civic process and they determine which candidates represent each party in the general election which will take place on November 8.

If you are interested in becoming a civic engagement volunteer with ACDC, please contact us!

Click here to find your voting polling station.

For the past four years, ACDC has been involved in civic engagement efforts in Boston and Quincy. Partnering with Quincy Asian Resources, we have conducted two city council candidate forums in Quincy. This year, we are expanding our civic engagement efforts into Malden, where we recently launched a new office. We are currently recruiting youth and local residents to join us in our door knocking efforts which will begin later this month. We focus our civic engagement efforts to encourage low income Asian immigrant citizens to become registered voters. We conduct voter education workshops to ensure that voters understand the stances of the various candidates and understand what issues are being debated. Furthermore, we host gatherings between residents and elected officials where our residents can directly ask questions and tell their stories to those who represent them. It is important that candidates know the importance of reaching out to Asian American voters. According to AAPI Data, "[n]early 70% of Asian Americans have reported that neither party contacts them in regards to the election."

According to the Pew Research Center, while Asian Americans are the fastest growing ethnic group in America since 2000, Asian Americans voter turn-out percentage severely lags that of other ethnic groups at 47%. This compares to 66% for black voters and 64% for non-white Hispanic voters. Some of this is due to language barriers where immigrant voters have difficulty understanding the issues that candidates discuss. There are also cultural barriers where immigrants come from countries that do not have a strong democratic process. Since our civic engagement work began in Quincy, the Asian American voter turn-out in Quincy has tripled from 413 voters in 2013 to 1120 in 2017.

Our civic engagement efforts are funded through generous funding from the Coulter Foundation, the Boston Foundation, and the Asian Healthcare Foundation.

Welcome 51 families to Chinatown!

Last month, we welcomed 51 new families into our homeownership condo units at 88 Hudson St located in the heart of Chinatown. 88 Hudson represents the culmination of a decade long process of community organizing and advocacy by the Chinatown community. This completes the second and final phase of our One Greenway affordable housing development. The first phase which was completed in 2015 provided 95 rental units at 66 Hudson St. This second phase provided 51 condos for 102 people. Over 75% of the families were Boston residents.

All of our homeowners have recently completed the often-long and arduous homebuying process of applying for a mortgage, getting their finances in order, and moving from their former homes. Many of them took advantage of ACDC's first-time homebuyer workshop and 1-on-1 counseling where our housing counseling staff walked them through the process.

We spoke with one of the new homeowners:


Phil, 88 Hudson Homeowner

I grew up in Allston and then moved with my family to Watertown. My parents are still in Watertown.

I found out about the affordable condo application for 88 Hudson through a family friend last May and applied because I like the neighborhood.  My grandma lives in Chinatown, and I’ve always admired how the community is really tight-knit. I wanted to be a part of that. 

Though the neighborhood has become more and more gentrified and is losing that close-knit feeling, I hope to strengthen the sense of community with my new neighbors.

Now that the families have all moved into their new homes, ACDC will continue to assist the new homeowners in managing their homes and to become engaged with their community. 

Congratulations to our 51 new home owners!


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? “


“Did you eat dinner?”


“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.


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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. 








            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.”