The old man first visited our house when I was five, in 1933. At that time, I had only two brothers to worry about. Kiam and Jung were then ten and seven years old. Sekky was not yet born, though he was on his way. Grandmother, or Poh-Poh, was going regularly to our family Tong Association Temple on Pender Street to pray for a boy.
Decades later, our neighbour Mrs. Lim said that I kept insisting on another girl to balance things, but Stepmother told me that these things were in the hands of the gods.
Stepmother was a young woman when she came to Canada, barely twenty and a dozen years younger than Father. She came with no education, with a village dialect as poor as she was. Girls were often left to fend for themselves in the streets, so she was lucky to have any family interested in her fate. Though my face was round like Father's, I had her eyes and delicate mouth, her high forehead but not her high cheekbones.
This slim woman, with her fine features and genteel posture, was a seven-year-old girl in war-torn China when bandits killed most of her family. Found hiding between two trunks of clothes, she was taken to a Mission House, then taken away again, reclaimed by the village clan, and eventually sold into Father's Canton merchant family. For years they fed her, taught her house duties, and finally put her on a steamship to Canada. She was brought over to help take care of Poh-Poh and to keep Father appropriate wifely company; but soon the young woman became more a wife than a concubine to Father, more a stepdaughter than a house servant to Grandmother. And a few years later, I, Jook-Liang, was born to them. Now, in our rented house, she was big with another child.
Poh-Poh, being one of the few elder women left in Vancouver, took pleasure in her status and became the arbitrator of the old ways. Poh-Poh insisted we simplify our kinship terms in Canada, so my mother became "Stepmother." That is what the two boys always called her, for Kiam was the First Son of Father's First Wife who had died mysteriously in China; and Jung, the Second Son, had been adopted into our family. What the sons called my mother, my mother became. The name "Stepmother" kept things simple, orderly, as Poh-Poh had determined. Father did not protest. Nor did the slim, pretty woman that was my mother seem to protest, though she must have cast a glance at the Old One and decided to bide her time. That was the order of things in China.
"What will be, will be," all the lao wah-kiu, the Chinatown old-timers, used to say to each other. "In Gold Mountain, simple is best."
There were, besides, false immigration stories to hide, secrets to be kept.
Stepmother was sitting on a kitchen chair and helping me to dress my Raggedy Ann; I touched her protruding tummy, I wanted the new baby all to myself. The two boys were waving toy swords around, swinging them in turn at three cutout hardboard nodding heads set up on the kitchen table. Whack! The game was to send the flat heads flying into the air to fall on a roll-out floor map of China. Whack! The game was Hong-Kong made and called ENEMIES OF FREE CHINA.
One enemy head swooped up and clacked onto the linoleum floor, missing its target by three feet. Jung started to swear when Father looked up from his brush-writing in the other room. He could see everything we were doing in the kitchen. Poh-Poh sat on the other side of the table, enjoying Kiam and Jung's new game. Bags of groceries sat on the kitchen counter ready for supper preparations.
"I need a girl-baby to be my slave," I insisted, remembering Poh-Poh's stories of the time she herself once had a girl-helper in the dank, steamy kitchen of the cruel, rich Chin family in Old China. The Chins were refugees from Manchuria after the Japanese seized the territory. Not knowing any better, Poh-Poh treated the younger girl, her kitchen assistant, as unkindly as she herself had been treated; the women of the rich Chin family who "owned" Poh-Poh were used to wielding the whip and bamboo rods as freely on their fourteen servants as on the oxen and pigs.
"Too much bad memory," Poh-Poh said, and then, midway in its telling, would suddenly end a story of those old days. She would make a self-pitying face and complain how her arteries felt cramped with pain, how everything frustrated her, "Ahyaii, ho gitsum! How heart-cramp!" Though she was years younger than Poh-Poh, Mrs. Lim would shake her head in agreement, both of them clutching their left sides in common sympathy. It was a gesture I'd noticed in the Chinese Operas that Poh-Poh took me and my brothers to see in Canton Alley.
Whack! Another head rolled onto the floor. Kiam swung his toy sword like an ancient warrior-king from the Chinese Opera. Jung preferred to use his sword like a bayonet first, and then, Whack!
"Maybe Wong Bak-Old Wong-keep you company later, Liang-Liang," Poh-Poh said, happily stepping over one of the enemies of Free China to get some chopsticks from the table drawer. She was proud of her warrior grandsons. "Kill more," she commanded.
Poh-Poh spoke her Sze-yup, Four County village dialect, to me and Jung, but not always to Kiam, the First Son. With him, she spoke Cantonese and a little Mandarin, which he was studying in the Mission Church basement. Whenever Stepmother was around, Poh-Poh used another but similar village dialect, in a more clipped fashion, as many adults do when they think you might be the village fool, too worthless or too young, or not from their district. The Old One had a wealth of dialects which thirty-five years of survival in China had taught her, and each dialect hinted at mixed shades of status and power, or the lack of both. Like many Chinatown old-timers, the lao wah-kiu, Poh-Poh could eloquently praise someone in one dialect and ruthlessly insult them in another.
"An old mouth can drop honey or drop shit," Mrs. Lim once commented, defeated by the acrobatics of Grandmother's twist-punningtongue. The Old One roared with laughter and spat into the kitchen sink.
Another head fell.
Stepmother rubbed her forehead, as if it were driving her mad.
"Wong Bak come for supper tonight," Poh-Poh said, signalling Stepmother to start preparing the supper. The kitchen light caught something gleaming on the back of her old head; Poh-Poh had put on her jade hair ornament for Wong Bak's visit tonight. He was an Old China friend of Grandmother's; they were both now in their seventies.
Wong Bak had been sent from the British Columbia Interior by a group of small-town Chinese in a place called Yale. He was too old to live a solitary existence any longer. Someone in our Tong Association gave Father's name as a possible Vancouver contact, because Old Wong might know Poh-Poh, who had once lived in the same ancestral district village.
Most Chinatown people were from the dense villages of southern Kwangtung province, a territory racked by cycles of famine and drought. When the call for railroad workers came from labour contract brokers in Canada in the 1880s, every man who was able and capable left his farm and village to be indentured for dangerous work in the mountain ranges of the Rockies. There had also been rumours of gold in the rivers that poured down those mountain cliffs, gold that could make a man and his family wealthy overnight.
"Go to Gold Mountain," they told one another, promising to send wages home, to return rich or die. Thousands came in the decades before 1923, when on July 1st the Dominion of Canada passed the Chinese Exclusion Act and shut down all ordinary bachelor-man traffic between Canada and China, shut off any women from arriving, and divided families. Poverty-stricken bachelor-men were left alone in Gold Mountain, with only a few dollars left to send back to China every month, and never enough dollars to buy passage home. Dozens went mad; many killed themselves. The Chinatown Chinese call July 1st, the day celebrating the birth of Canada, the Day of Shame.
Some, like Old Wong, during all their hard time in British Columbia, still hoped to return to China if they could somehow win the numbers lottery or raise enough money from gambling. But now there was the growing war with the Japanese, more civil strife between the Communists and the Nationalists, and even more bitter starvation. Hearing all this, Poh-Poh gripped her left side, just below her heart, and said she only wanted her bones shipped back.
Father always editorialized in one of the news sheets of those Depression years how much the Chinese in Vancouver must help the Chinese. Because, he wrote, "No one else will."
In the city dump on False Creek Flats, living in makeshift huts, thirty-two Old China bachelor-men tried to shelter themselves; dozens more were dying of neglect in the overcrowded rooms of Pender Street. There were no Depression jobs for such men. They had been deserted by the railroad companies and betrayed by the many labour contractors who had gone back to China, wealthy and forgetful. There was a local Vancouver by-law against begging for food, a federal law against stealing food, but no law in any court against starving to death for lack of food. The few churches that served the Chinatown area were running out of funds. Soup kitchens could no longer safely manage the numbers lining up for nourishment, fighting each other. China men were shoved aside, threatened, forgotten.
During the early mornings, in the 1920s and '30s, nuns came out regularly from St. Paul's Mission to help clean and take the bodies away. In the crowded rooming houses of Chinatown, until morning came, living men slept in cots and on floors beside dead men.
Could we help out with Wong Bak? Perhaps a meal now and then, a few visits with the family ...? asked the officer from the Tong Association. It turned out that Poh-Poh indeed knew Wong Bak when they were in China, more than thirty years ago.
"Old-timers know all the old-timers," Third Uncle Lew said, taking inventory on his warehouse stock with an abacus. "Why not? The same bunch came over from the same damn districts," he laughed. "We all pea-pod China men!"
And now, tonight, Wong Bak was coming for dinner.
I looked up past Stepmother's swelling stomach, at the kitchen counter beside the sink with the pots and pans. Father had splurged on groceries: a bare long-necked chicken's head, freshly killed, hung out of the bag he had carried home. Poh-Poh also unwrapped a fresh fish, its eyes still shiny. Once it was cooked, Kiam and Jung would fight over who would get to suck on the hard-as-marble calcified fish eyes. I wanted the chicken feet. I wondered which part Wong Bak would want.
Father was worried about our meeting him for the first time. Wong Bak, I sensed from Father's overpreparation and nervousness, was indeed not an ordinary human being. He was an elder, so every respect must be paid to him, and especially as he knew the Old One herself. Grandmother must not lose face; we must not fail in our hospitality. Excellent behaviour on the part of my two brothers and me would signal our family respect and honour for the old ways.
Father looked at his watch and put down his writing brush.
"Let us talk a moment," he said to my brothers, and they left their game and stood before him. He told Kiam and Jung that Wong Bak might appear "very strange," especially to me, as I was so young, and a girl, and therefore might be more easily frightened.
"Frightened?" Stepmother said.
My ears perked up.
Father answered that the boys, being boys, would not be as easily scared about you-know-what. He spoke in code to Stepmother but whispered details to Kiam first, then Jung, whose eyes widened. After the whispering, Father delivered to the three of us a stern lecture about respect and we must use the formal term Sin-saang, Venerable Sir, as if Wong Bak were a "teacher" to be highly respected, as much as the Old Buddha or the Empress of China.
Respect meant you dared not laugh at someone because they were "different"; you did not ask stupid questions or stare rudely. You pretended everything was normal. That was respect. Father tried to simplify things for my five-year-old brain. Respect was what I gave my Raggedy Ann doll. I knew respect.
"I don't want you boys to stare at Wong Sin-saang's face," Father warned, which I thought was odd. Old people's faces were all the same to me, wrinkled and craggy. "Wong Sin-saang's had a very tough life."
"We know how to behave," First Brother Kiam insisted, waving the toy sword over the buck-toothed "WARLORD" nodding on the edge of the kitchen table. Jung poked his sword, bayonet-fashion, and two other heads nodded away, waiting for decapitation.
Third Uncle Lew had given Kiam the ENEMIES OF FREE CHINA game for his tenth birthday. Third Uncle had imported some samples from Hong Kong with the idea of selling them in Chinatown. Kiam read the game instructions written in English:"USE SWORD TO SMACK HEAD. COUNT POINTS. MOVE VICTORIOUS CHINESE AHEAD SAME NUMBER."
The Warlord was one of three Enemy-of-China "heads." The other two were a Communist and a Japanese soldier named Tojo. All three had ugly yellow faces, squashed noses and impossible buck teeth. It was a propaganda toy to encourage overseas Chinese fund-raising for Free China.
Watching Kiam and Jung jump up and down was far better than having them force me to play dumb games like Tarzan and Jane and Cheetah. Kiam had seen the picture Tarzan three times. Kiam got to be Tarzan; Jung, Cheetah; and I got to be Jane doing nothing. I embraced my Raggedy Ann and watched another swing of Jung's sword Whack! take off Tojo's head. Father said that Tojo, a Japanese, was in command of the plot to enslave China for the Japanese.
The third head went flying.
"Don't forget," Father repeated, thinking of the worst, "no staring at Wong Sin-saang's face. No laughing."
"Tell Liang-Liang," said Jung, waving the wooden sword at me. "She'll stare at Wong Sin-saang's face and behave like a brat."
"Jook-Liang will be too shy," Stepmother said. "I promise she'll do nothing but run away. At five, I would."
"Jook-Liang almost six," Grandmother interjected. "She look. I look."
Stepmother turned away. Jung swung. Whack!
"Liang-Liang'll say something to Wong Sin-saang," Kiam said. "She'll say something about Wong Sin-saang's face."
"You will, won't you, Liang-Liang?" Jung said, following First Brother's cue to be superior at my expense.
I looked up at them through the flowered wall and tiny windows of my Eaton's Toyland doll house. I put Tarzan's Jane, whose doll legs would not bend, in the front room. At Sunday School, I had learned how all visitors, like the Lord Jesus, for example, and even Tarzan and his pet chimpanzee, Cheetah, should always politely knock first, before you invited them into the front room of your house. At Kingdom Church Kindergarten, I also learned to say the words "fart face," and that upset Miss Bigley.
"Fart face," I said.
Jung opened his mouth to reply. Kiam looked darkly at me.
"If you have eyes, stare," Poh-Poh said to me. "Eyes for looking?
Just as Jung was putting away the game box and taking my Raggedy Ann from me, and Stepmother and Kiam were setting the oak table, someone banged on our front door. A rumbling Boom... Boom... tumbled all the way from dark hallway to kitchen. Grandmother and I were waiting for the rice pot to finish cooking.
"Thunder," Poh-Poh commented, sniffing the air. The autumn damp would tighten her joints. She was midway through telling me a story about the Monkey King, who was being sent on another adventure by the Buddha. This time, the Monkey King took on the disguise of a lost boatman, and with his companion, Pig, they rode the back of a giant sea turtle to escape the fire-spouting River Dragon. "No one crosses my border," Poh-Poh said, in the deep voice of the River Dragon.
"It's the front door," I said, comfortable against Poh-Poh's quilted jacket, listening.
"Thunder," Poh-Poh insisted, "ghost thunder."
There were in Grandmother's stories, always, wild storms and parting clouds, thunder, and after much labour, mountains that split apart, giving birth to demons who were out to kill you or to spirits who ached to test your courage. Until the last moment, you could never know for sure whether you were dealing with a demonor a spirit.
"Liang, stay in the kitchen," Stepmother said, wiping her hands on her apron. I heard Father struggling with the swollen front door, pulling, until the door surrendered and slammed open. "Step in, step in ..."
I jumped off Poh-Poh's knee. Everything in our musky hallway was suddenly lit by the outside street lamp. I could make out a hunched-up shadow standing on the porch, much shorter than Father. I thought of the burnished light that lingers after thunder; a mountain, after much labour, yawning wide.
"It's Wong Sin-saang," Father nervously called back to us, as if the shifting darkness might otherwise have no name.
Is it a demon or spirit? I thought, and nervously darted back to join Stepmother standing quietly at the end of the parlour. Jung and Kiam raced to crowd around Father; he waved them away. I grabbed Stepmother's apron.
In the bluish light cast by the street lamp, a dark figure with an enormous hump shook off its cloak. My eyes opened wide. The large hump continued shaking, struggling, quaking. Something dark lifted into the air. The mysterious mass turned into a sagging knapsack with tangled straps. Father hoisted the knapsack above the visitor's head and took away a black cloak. The obscure figure gave one more shudder, as if to resettle its bones; now I could see, against the pale light, someone old and angular, someone bent over, his haggard weight bearing down on two sticks.
"This way to the parlour," Father said, turning to put the cloak and knapsack away in the hall closet.
The stooped stranger, leaning on his walking sticks, confidently push-pulled, push-pulled himself into our parlour. My eyes widened. Everyone was anxious to see his face, but so sloped was the visitor, yanking his walking sticks about, that at first only the top of a balding grey crown greeted us. Finally, he stopped, half-standing in the parlour, a runty frame rising just under First Brother Kiam's chin; the narrow torso, fitted with a grown man's broad shoulders, thrust against an oversized patched shirt. Powerful legs angled out from his suspendered work pants. He looked like a half-flopped puppet with its head way down, but there were no strings moving him about. Suddenly, the old man snorted, cleared his throat, but did not spit. The force of his breathing told you he was ready for anything to happen next. Now it was your turn to breathe or to speak. Or to clear your throat. Your turn.
No one moved except Jung. He tried secretly bending his knees to peek at the very face we had been warned not to stare at; Kiam quickly elbowed Jung up again. Did the old man notice? No one said a word. The old man began to breathe more heavily, sawing, as if to inhale strength back into his lungs. Still no one could see the face. We examined the rest of him. Sleeves were rolled up over frayed longjohn cuffs; dark pants, freshly pressed. Gnarled thick fingers curled tightly onto bamboo canes. Scuffed boots pointed in skewed directions. Except for a cane on each side of him, his crooked legs looked no worse than some of the one-cane bachelor-men I'd seen sitting on the steps of Chinatown, hacking, always hacking, with grey-goateed heads bowed to their knees.
"Sihk faahn mai-ahh? Have you had your rice yet?" Father asked using a more formal phrase than Stepmother's village Haeck chan mai-ah! greeting-Eat dinner, yet!
To answer, the visitor straightened himself as far as he could, which was not far, and shook his head sideways: the overhead light bluntly hit Wong Sin-saang's face. A broad furrowed brow came into view. Wrinkles deepened. Jung gasped; the back of Kiam's neck stiffened. Father's warnings echoed in our minds: Remember not to stare. How could we help it? We all stared. Even Stepmother stared. I stared until I felt my eyes bulge out. The old man's face was like no other human one we had seen before: a wide-eyed, wet-nosed creature stared back at us.
A thrill went through me: this face, narrow at the top and wide at the bottom; this face, like those carved wooden masks sold during the Year of the Monkey; this wizened face looked directly back at me, perhaps like Cheetah, but more royal. I heard ghost thunder. A mountain opened, and here, right in our parlour, staring back at me, stood Monkey, the Monkey King of Poh-Poh's stories, disguised as an old man bent over two canes. But I, Jook-Liang, was not fooled. It could not be anyone but mischievous him. The air intensified; the world seemed more real than it had ever been for me. Poh-Poh was right: she heard ghost thunder when I heard only the door. A spell was cast in our parlour. Kiam pushed against it, trying to be sensible; First Brother asked the Monkey King, "Have you eaten, venerable sir?" Kiam used the formal dialect, just as Father had instructed him.
Monkey grimaced, showing large tobacco-stained teeth.
"No, not yet, thank you, so good of you to ask," he said, with Monkey smoothness, in a Toisan dialect, meaning that we, the family, needn't be so formal. Kiam tried discreetly to clear his throat, gulped, and stepped back, leaving Jung to stand alone. Now Monkey King, exactly as if he were holding court, looked steadily at Jung.
Jung said nothing. There was a long silence; it was Jung's turn as the Second Son to give his own greeting. Jung kept staring, open-mouthed. I thought of a sword flying through the air-Whack!-Jung's head, tumbling. I laughed, a short unstoppable titter. Stepmother's hand quickly covered my mouth.
"Wong Sin-saang," I heard Stepmother say, "you must be hungry."
Pulling a red handkerchief from his shirt pocket, Wong Sin-saang blew his nose noisily. Perhaps to signal his companion, Pig, waiting outside for instructions. I looked past the lace curtains, saw only the one-eyed street lamp.
"Who's there?" Poh-Poh shouted from the kitchen, all this time waiting for one of us to call her politely to come and meet the visitor, so she wouldn't seem too rude or too anxious. We'd forgotten. She banged on a bowl and banged on a plate and stayed in the kitchen, waiting.
The Monkey King seemed to hear nothing; he had turned his sable eyes on me. I let go of Stepmother's apron and slowly walked towards him. Stepmother reached out to grab me; I slipped past her. I pushed Jung and Kiam aside. Father began to fidget in the hall.
Across the room, Wong Sin-saang seemed not much bigger than me. His grey head drooped, as if it needed to bend lower. I stepped towards him. Stopped.
"This must be Jook-Liang," Monkey finally said, and his voice trembled, "the pr-pretty one."
I ran the last few steps and reached out to him, at once burying my head against his bone-thin body: Here was the Monkey King! After all, I heard his voice tremble-the pr-pretty one-a signal to any child not to be afraid of him. Not to doubt him. His disguise as an old man and his two canes were not meant to fool me, especially the canes. I knew what these really were: the two walking sticks, which he could instantly rejoin to become the powerful bamboo pole Monkey used to propel himself across canyons and streams; the same pole he employed to battle monsters, mock demons, shake at courage-testing spirits. I laughed and felt Monkey awkwardly embrace me; very awkwardly of course, so as not to betray his disguise as an Old One with two canes.
His gesture broke the ice; everything was familiar again.
I heard Stepmother and Father welcoming Wong Sin-saang in a jumble of ritual phrases: "Stay, stay for dinner!" "No, please don't stand on ceremony." "How good of you to visit." Even Jung finally spoke, though he did not remember every word. "Have you your rice?" No one felt it necessary to notice how Monkey blew his nose again-and again-or how quickly he wiped his eyes. A signal to Pig, hiding under our porch.
The aroma of twice-cooked chicken filled the air; we could hear Grandmother preparing the food for the table; she stepped into the parlour and boldly stared at Monkey. Eyes for looking.
"Aiiiiyah! Wong Kimlein!" Poh-Poh exclaimed, calling him by his birth-name in a voice loud enough to break up the hubbub. "It's truly you! They say you come back from Yale. Not die there. Die here, in Salt Water City, in Vancouver."
"Die here, maybe," Monkey said, looking up. "How goes your old years? Are you well?"
"Die soon," Poh-Poh said. "You and me too old for these days."
Stepmother took my hand and led the way to the dining room.
"You hear from Old China?" Poh-Poh took Monkey's arm, as if she would lean on his walking stick, too.
"We must talk, Wong Kimlein, just you and me," Poh-Poh commanded. "Come, come, sit for dinner."
I rushed to take the seat beside Monkey, and Poh-Poh pulled back a chair for him and sat down to be on his other side. She suddenly spoke to him in a different dialect, more pitched and strange than I had ever heard. Monkey talk. Poh-Poh waved Father into the kitchen to bring the food. Monkey chattered back to Grandmother, matching her odd, lurching vowels. Stepmother and Kiam and Jung brought in bowls of rice and steaming dishes of pork and vegetables and fish and bitter melon soup.
"Let's all sit and eat," Father said, bringing in the twice-cooked chicken.
All through dinner, I sat next to Wong Sin-saang, looking up at Monkey devouring his rice. He was careful not to miss a single grain so he would not have a pock-marked bride, and kept monkey-talking in that strange way with Poh-Poh. Jung could see what I was thinking. Being seven, he could still think like a kid, but not completely. When Jung brought over my own bowl of bitter melon soup, he whispered to me, "He's just a man, stupid."
I admit I was still not entirely sure and I kept arguing with myself: if Wong Sin-saang knew Poh-Poh-who said she felt older than even Miss Bigley's Bible friends, like Moses-how could Monkey be just a man? An ordinary man?
I drank all my soup, but hardly ate any rice. I was too excited, though Poh-Poh was drawing away most of the Monkey King's attention. She grew more animated, grew flushed with excitement to hear a voice matching the servant dialects of Old China. She listened with glee to the resonant slurrrph the old man sounded at the edge of his soup spoon, a sound not encouraged at our table. (Father had taught us to sip our soup slowly, noiselessly, in the Western way.) Poh-Poh hardly ate anything, barely touched the green vegetables Father dropped into her bowl. She had turned her attention completely to the old man, speaking Old China secrets. Poh-Poh nodded, sometimes laughed, but both of them-more often than not-sighed with longtime sadness. Grandmother's eyes grew wide with remembering; the more she talked, the more she had to say. Monkey kept eating, nodding; between bites, he spoke a moment or two, then let Poh-Poh chatter on. He was hungry.
I thought of all the stories Poh-Poh had told me since I was two: Monkey King, in all kinds of disguises, adventuring through the world of ordinary people: "He could look like an old woman with a hooked nose and crooked fingers, or turn as lovely as Kwan Yin standing in a white silk gown; sometimes it suited him to be a country farmer with dirt on his brows... but all the time he was as hungry as a bear from his travels. You could trick the Monkey King with food, especially if you offered him ripe peaches." Poh-Poh smacked her lips. "Lunch and dinner were perilous times for Monkey."
My eyes were in pain from so much staring. I could not help myself: here beside me, the Monkey King sat, playing at being an old man as ancient as Poh-Poh, yet wielding chopsticks with youthful ease. I imagined juicy peach slices, delicately held by those same chopsticks, skinned slice after skinned slice, smoothly disappearing into his mouth. Wong Sin-saang ate every piece of stir-fried celery, bean cake, carrot, bok choi, eggplant, pork, fish and twice-cooked chicken offered to him, and ate, and ate, into his third brimming bowl of rice. Hungry as a bear. When the Monkey King ate, not a drop of sauce fell, not one grain of rice was lost. Father nudged Jung to stop staring at the old man.
I fidgeted with joy. Looking up at Wong Sin-saang, watching him carry his third bowl of rice to his mouth with such a sigh of pleasure, I sensed no one knew what else I knew: here, too, right beside me in his patched-up shirt, with his soft eyes, like liquid-sat the marvellous Cheetah of the matinee movies; Cheetah, Tarzan's friend. Poh-Poh had educated me about this. After Jung took Grandmother and me to the Lux to see my first Tarzan movie, Poh-Poh announced that Cheetah was another one of the Monkey King's disguises. It was a way for the Monkey King to be with his monkey tribe and still keep in touch with Buddha's commands,for Monkey could not do without human company, black or white or yellow. After all, people were closest to Buddha, Poh-Poh told me.
First Brother Kiam always argued that Poh-Poh's stories were just stories, nothing more, like the stories about the blonde Jesus Miss Bigley told us. At home, after Sunday School, Kiam always demanded to know: "How can anyone walk on water? How can so few baskets of bread and fish feed hundreds?" And Santa Claus never once visited our house. Doubt grew in me. Jung's insidious whisper was doing its job: He's just a man, stupid. The more I looked at Wong Sin-saang's animated face, his cheeks flushed with food, the more I felt I needed to know for sure. Slowly, a single question began to disturb my child's mind: He's wearing a mask... I thought... like one of those Halloween demons... I wanted all at once to make sure he was not tricking me, not wearing a monkey mask, like those demons who came banging on our door and sent me crying with fright back into the kitchen. At once, I stood up on my chair. I dropped my chopsticks, turned, and grabbed Wong Sin-saang's large ear, tugging his Cheetah face towards me. Father banged his hand on the table.
"You Tarzan monkey," I said to Wong Sin-saang. "You Cheetah..."
Poh-Poh reached across to stop me. "Let go!"
Wong Sin-saang started laughing.
"Let her pull, Old One," Monkey said, "let her pull away. Jook-Liang has your lao foo spirit." He looked into my eyes and announced, "Liang is tiger-willed."
I looked into his eyes. His dark eyes focussed and refocussed. They were real, reflecting life. I touched his deeply wrinkled forehead, studied both sides of his head to look for a telltale string. Nothing but straggly hair. Even the pen-brush tufts that stuck out from his ears were honest. I felt proud of myself, unable to hold back the news: "Gene-goh Mau-lauh Bak!" I said to the soft eyes. "A for-real Monkey Man!"
Stepmother swallowed deeply. Jung giggled. Wong Sin-saang pushed himself a foot away from my chair. Father tried to say something, but Monkey shook his head. Everyone sat with chopsticks poised. Silent.
The old man bent his head lower. We were eye-to-eye. He knew I knew his real name. My lips soundlessly mouthed the words: Monkey Man. Mau-lauh Bak. Monkey Man. He denied nothing. But he said, "Will you call me Wong Suk?"
I tried out the name: "Wong Suk."
Suk meant someone about Father's age, or much younger. Suk was more informal than Sin-saang. Suk, I thought, and knew he was younger than Father even if he was very old on the outside.
"I like Suk very, very much," he said. "Oh, much better than Wong Bak-Old Wong. Make me feel younger. Call me Wong Suk. Okay? Maybe everyone call me that. Okay?"
I nodded. He was giving us his secret magic name as a blessing.
Then I said the next thing Father insisted no one was supposed to say out loud.
"Wong Suk," I said, loudly, in Chinese, "you all twisted up, crooked."
Wong Suk swallowed; he reached out and held me gently at arms' length, though it seemed to me, his long fingers, his wide palms, were too awkward to hold an almost-six-year-old with such unearthly gentleness. Wong Suk's eyes grew strange. He spoke to me in the family dialect:
"M-pai Mau-lauh Bak?" Wong Suk's voice was a half-whisper. "You not scared of Monkey Man?" I shook my head, took a closer look at Wong Suk, touched his for-real wide nose, delicately tugged at the curving tufts of salt-and-pepper hair that formed his bushy eyebrows. I recognized his hair tonic; it smelled of the stuff Father always used. I leaned closer. Crooked arms enfolded me. M-pai... m-pai...? I heard Wong Suk chant. Not afraid... you not afraid... m-pai...?
It seemed he could not stop his chanting nor his heart's rapid beat, nor could he let go his hold on me. I only knew to hold him tighter, lean into him like a cat, a tiger, catching the herbal scent of his body. The air felt hot.
"This child not afraid of me," I heard him say to everyone. "She not afraid."
"Don't be foolish," I heard Poh-Poh saying, in the dialect I understood, and I could feel her tugging away at my arm. "Don't be foolish."
He's mine, I wanted to shout. He's mine! Something old sprang from me, something struggled to defy even Poh-Poh. I pulled my head away from Wong Suk and looked back at her. Something like an ancient sword swooped-Whack!-striking her against the wall, though outwardly nothing happened to Grandmother, or to Wong Suk, or to me.
Wong Suk let me go. I slumped back into my chair and picked up my chopsticks. Poh-Poh turned back to the table. Everyone went back to steadily eating supper, went on breathing the heated air. After Wong Suk settled back and slurped his soup, loudly, he and Poh-Poh spoke no more in their secret language to one another, though their lips smiled and moved with the memory of something deep and savoury.
Copyright © 1995 Wayson Choy.All rights reserved.