Wah Lum, my father, was born in 1908, the same year the Qing emperor, Xuan Tong, came to the throne. Being the only boy in the family, my father was doted on by his grandmother, whose feet were bound. Years before, his grandfather had gone to Malaysia and had returned some time later with taels of silver to buy many mou of paddy fields. He had also bought land and built two new houses for his family. He told them that in Malaysia he worked in a chili plantation and had taken the daughter of the plantation owner as his second wife. When he came home the next time a few years later, he brought his Malaysian wife with him to pay their respects to his ancestors. After he had gone back to his other home with his second wife, the family never saw him again.
Growing up, my father still heard talks of his Malaysian grandmother. How the villagers had been shocked to see her bathe half-naked in the river that ran by the village. When his father was young, he had also gone to work in the chili plantation. A bookish man, he could not endure the back-breaking work. He later went to Canada and worked as a clerk for a Chinese import-export company in Vancouver’s Chinatown.
With my grandfather away, my father grew up to be a rebellious, stubborn boy. He hated school. Every morning, his mother would take him to the village school to make sure he would get to the class on time, but as soon as she was out of sight, he would sneak off to go fishing in the river. Or he would go into the foothills behind the village searching for bird eggs.
The bamboo switch fell on the back of Wah’s legs.
“You lazy, disobedient, stubborn boy!” his mother yelled as she hit him again. “Skipped school again. How many times this month?”
“I hate the stupid teacher,” my father yelled back. He did not cry. He would not cry. He would show her he didn’t care if she beat him to death.
“What?” She gasped for breath. Such a state she worked herself into, her face glistening with tears of wrath and desperation.
“Why should I go to class? He beats me just like you do. For no reason.”
Unlike his teacher, who was strong and vicious as a dog gone mad, his mother soon tired herself out. She flung away the switch, sat down on the ground and sobbed. Already she was sorry for hitting him, her only son, so hard.
“Thirteen years-old. Roaming about the countryside like a motherless urchin, ” she said between sobs. “What am I going to do with such a difficult boy?”
He glanced at the basket of shrimp he had spent the day catching. He had wanted to show her the eel he’d also caught for her. She liked eels. She stewed it with a special mixture of spices and herbs and garlic.
Instead, he answered her remark with defiant toss of his head. “Why don’t you send me to Golden Mountain.”
That stopped her sobbing. “You want to leave two old women at home to fend for themselves?”
“You’re not old.”
“How about your grandmother?”
“She’s got her maid to look after her.”
His mother started to sob again. “You heartless boy. You would leave us just like that.”
“Better than to be hit and yelled at everyday.”
She wiped her eyes on the edge of her sleeve. “All right, you want to go, write to your father,” she said. “Without you home to cause me grief every day, I’ll live a few years longer.”
To his mother and grandmother, to let my father, their sum goin, go to Canada was like cutting out their hearts and livers. But they saw that it was their only choice. Banditry was rampant in the countryside. By day the bandits hid in the nearby hills and in the marshes near the mouth of the river. At night they raided the villages. They seemed to know exactly who the wealthy landlords and merchants were, which families had a father or son in Gum San, Gold Mountain. Sometimes they would bind and gag the head of the family, take him for ransom, or if they couldn’t find one, they would take the sons of the wealthy households. Everyday, his mother and grandmother prayed to Guangyin to watch over him, to protect him from harm. In their hearts, they knew that my father must be sent away to Gold Mountain to be with his father sooner or later.
The night before he left the village his married sister, who came to see him off, cried. His grandmother cried. His mother wailed the loudest, holding him, touching his hair, his face, his hands. Later he thought she must have known that she would die before seeing him again.
On the Blue Funnel ship from Hong Kong to Victoria, Wah was always thirsty in the steerage hold he shared with the others. Like him, most of the Chinese passengers slept on hard bunk beds that groaned and creaked with the tossing waves. They were not allowed to leave the compartment. Some, especially those who were crossing the Pacific for the first time, were too seasick to get up at any rate. There were two other village youths about Wah’s age. They were thirsty too, and always hungry. They were sons of wah kiu, overseas Gold Mountain men, men who had gone to seek work in places like Canada and the United States. They were used to eating the best food at home. They were not used to the salted fish, eggs, and rotting vegetables that the ship served them.
“Better get used to it,” one of the older wah kiu said to them. “In jow fu, that’s about all you get, unless you eat guei lo food.”
That day Wah learned from the old timers that Canada was not a land of gold, but endless bitterness and sorrow; and the people there were called fan guei lo.
On their ninth night out at sea, Wah and the other two boys managed to sneak upstairs to get away from the crowded hold with its foul smells. Most of the men were sick and the air in the hold was already soured with the smells of urine, vomit and sweat. The boys hoped to find water and food somewhere and a glimpse of the sky perhaps, a breath of fresh air.
At first they were afraid they might get caught. They soon found that the maze of dimly- lit corridors was deserted. They could still hear the roar of the ship’s engines, but as they climbed higher, the sound became more like a hum. Another sound, though, grew louder: the slapping of waves against the ship’s hull. Soon, the smell of machine oil and grease, the lingering odour of vomit and sweat dissipated from their nostrils. Wah could smell the sea air drifting down the staircases and narrow corridors.
At last they reached the open deck and their first glimpse were the bright stars. They dotted the dark canopy overhead and so numerous, so close. He felt he could raise his hand and touch them with his fingers. A powerful gust of wind almost knocked them flat on their backs. Holding on to the rail, they turned a corner and found the wind was calmer there . They hid behind some crates as a man walked by. The man paused, struck a match against a crate, cupped the tiny flame with his hand and lit his pipe. Before the flame died, Wah caught a glimpse of a thick dark beard, a big nose, bushy eyebrows, a knitted woolen cap pulled over his ears. Then the man—he must be one of the watchmen— went on his way, undaunted by the wind, or by the ship’s rolling motion as it plowed through the ceaselessly cresting waves.
The boys did not stay long on deck, for the wind was chilly. They soon began to shiver. They stayed as long as they could for the fresh air and then sneaked back in. It took them several wrong turns before they picked up the sour smell of vomit and found their way to the hold again.
They planned to bring their thick, quilted jackets the following night. But they couldn’t sneak upstairs the next night, or the next. A man had died that morning. The Chinese Boss, a man whose responsibility was to look after the passengers from port to port, delegated four men the task of taking the body away. Wah didn’t ask where. He didn’t want to know.
The man who died had had diarrhea. When the white men from upstairs discovered this, they placed guards at the top of the ladder leading to the hold day and night. Wah and the other boys could no longer sneak upstairs, to get away from the sickening smells, even for a short while.
Another man died two days later. Wah now began to worry if he would die, too. He remembered the talks about these long passages across the Pacific Ocean. Sometimes one-quarter of the people died during the journey, some said. Sometimes worse. He always thought the talks were exaggerations, the way the villagers were apt to make, either to scare the young ones, or to voice their own fear. Or maybe both.
More men died. Others grew weaker. Now Wah and the other two youths, who were still relatively strong, had to take their turns washing the floor, then emptying the buckets of dirty water overboard. They carried them one at a time, the bucket hanging from the middle of a bamboo pole resting on their shoulders. Up and down the staircases they went, careful not to spill the contents, and always watched by the guards. Into the dark green, heaving waves they emptied the bucket. Greedily, they filled their lungs with the sea air as their eyes scanned with marvel at the mountain-high waves, at the expanse of waters that ended where the grey sky began.
For some moments as Wah stood between sea and sky, with the wind on his face, he stopped thinking about the sick below. He even forgot worrying about his own possible death. Instead, he thought about the land whose shores they were drawing near. He thought about his father, whom he had seen no more than three times in his young life. Would he be able to get along with him? He also thought about his mother and grandmother and wondered how long before he could go home and see them again.
When his companion called for him to go down, he quickly dried his eyes with the back of his hand before turning around to join him.
Caroline Wong came to Canada from China in her early teen and lived in Vancouver’s Chinatown with her family from the 1950s to the early 1960s. She is a graduate of The Writer’s Studio program at SFU. She writes fiction and poetry. Her work has appeared in The Prose-Poem Project, The Canadian Tales of the Fantastic, Prism International, Grain, and Ricepaper.
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