My mother and father would never let me keep a dog, but they let me take care of a bear cub.
The cub had the blackest fur, soft and coarse to the touch. It was about three or four weeks old and hardly weighed more than a sack of beans. It arrived in a portable dog carrier, gnawing at the wire mesh. “The critter’s hungry,” Keys said as he took it out of the cage.
Jack “Call me ‘Keys’” Largo, my father’s friend from the States, had brought the cub to the Panama Café. The cub, he told us, had lost its mother. He just couldn’t leave it in the woods. It wouldn’t survive a week. So he wrapped it in a blanket and brought it from his camp in Corbeil.
At first, the employees at the Panama Café were all excited to see a real live bear. The waitresses said that we should name it “Winnie the Pooh” or “Paddington.” It was cute and cuddly. Then it peed: the urine was hot, smelly, and there was a lot of it.
One of the cooks offered the cub a carrot. I said that bears liked honey, and I was going to get it some. Someone brought out a dish of milk, and the cub took to that when Keys put him down on the floor. I took the opportunity to pet the cub. It lunged at me.
“Be careful,” my mother warned me in Chinese. “Don’t get too close.”
“Just a baby,” my father said. “Can’t do much harm.”
“It can bite and claw,” my mother said to me. “Someone will have to mop the floor. Bear piss stinks.”
My father, Joe Ko, met Keys during one of his fishing trips. It was at the beginning of the Second World War, just after Pearl Harbor. The white population in this small town in Ontario couldn’t tell a Chink from a Jap then, and a few of the locals at the wharf confronted my father. Keys was from Pensacola, Florida and stepped in to break up a situation that was quickly changing from mouthing off to pushing and shoving. The American had the size and rugged look that said he knew what to do in a brawl, but according to my father, Keys sent them packing without throwing a punch. For that, my father was eternally grateful to him.
Keys would come up to his camp in Corbeil for a few weeks at least twice a year to hunt, fish, and get away from his wife. When my mother and I landed in Canada, Keys gave me a teddy bear. He promised that one day he would bring me a real teddy bear. At the time, everyone laughed. No one expected anything of it.
The cub, he told us, had lost its mother. He just couldn’t leave it in the woods. It wouldn’t survive a week.
The cub was a better present than a puppy. I wanted to keep it forever. I had this idea that like all baby animals in comics and picture books, it would never change from its cuddly, winsome nature.
“This is as close as you will get to a pet, Hardy,” my father said.
But since puppies and bear cubs need taking care of, the reality of caring for a living thing quickly rushed in. Once Keys put the cub back into its cage, my mother had me mop and clean up the mess, which I was quite willing to do, but the next morning the cub made a bigger mess, and since it was in a confined space, its black fur was covered in brown shit.
And it often whined from hunger. So everyone from the old Chinese cooks to the young white waitresses fed it scraps and leftovers from the dining room.
We took it down to the basement and put it in the coal bin. I was familiar with that large room because part of my job at the restaurant was to fetch buckets of coal to feed the stoves and ovens. It was tough work for a ten-year-old. Sam Lee, one of Panama Café’s oldest cooks, said it was a good way to build up muscles to fend off bullies at school.
The bear was my job. As I fed the cub with choice slop, it looked at me as if I was its mommy. But I didn’t lick its fur clean. I used a sponge, soap and water. The cub would shake it off and I would be drenched from the rinse water. It was fun though.
On Monday, I had to go to school, but throughout the day I kept thinking about the baby bear. It would be my Pooh bear and I was its Christopher Robin. I could raise the cub, while my classmates raised their pet dogs or cats. We would have adventures. And I would bring it to class and watch everyone’s admiring faces. With my bear, I could win friends. I would even make the cub do tricks: yelp, roll over, play dead.
But since puppies and bear cubs need taking care of, the reality of caring for a living thing quickly rushed in.
“Hardy, you can’t bring a wild animal to school. It’s not safe,” my teacher said. “You should return it to the woods.”
The cooks at the Panama Café had other ideas about the bear cub.
“Haven’t had hoong meat for about ten years now,” Sam Lee reminisced.
“Don’t forget the adrenalin sac,” another chimed in. “Mix a jigger of that green juice from the hoong with whiskey, gulp it, and your woman will forget you are old.” The old men all laughed.
In Cantonese, the word for bear is hoong, which also means red, strong, powerful, and (for men) virile. My mother used to tell me that bear meat had the benefits of offering protection, boo, like vaccines against polio. Since wild animals in the forest do not have doctors to help them, they look for various kinds of herbs and eat them to ward off infections and illnesses. We could take advantage of what nature has to offer by eating the blood and meat of the bear and other wild animals. Or so I was told.
“You can’t slaughter it like you do with live chickens,” I protested. “I won’t let you! He’s my teddy!”
These old, bachelor sojourners from ancient China were not nurtured on cartoon animals. They thought differently. My mother used to tell me that at the age of three in Hong Kong I was taught how to gut fish and slit the throats of poultry, which I did. But living in gum san, Canada, for five years now had changed me. I was no longer Chinese enough.
My father sounded ominous when he spoke up. “We can’t keep it in the basement forever. All I need is health inspectors nosing about.” He also regularly commented that, at the Panama Café, our livelihood was in the business of preparing and serving food.
I had terrible nightmares of the bear being gutted, skinned and stewed. Keys once told me that he had a polar bear rug with head and all spread out in his living room in Florida. I didn’t want the cub to end up as a rug or a ragout.
The cub was growing. It was getting harder to push it back into the cage. Once or twice, I had to bop its nose just to show who was boss, but it wasn’t like slapping a stuffed teddy. The bear growled and snarled, showing its sharp, white fangs. It lunged at me with its clawed paws. It even tore my pants once. I didn’t dare tell my mother about the incident. I was afraid that she would make it into Chinese goulash right there and then.
These old, bachelor sojourners from ancient China were not nurtured on cartoon animals. They thought differently.
Before we had our own house, we lived above the Panama Café. My father preferred this arrangement so that he could be close to work. What it meant was that we were at the beck and call of the restaurant business, day and night.
My father and some of his village relatives had big plans to build an authentic Chinese restaurant some miles west of Thibeault Falls. The Gateway to the North was booming because the Bomarc missile site was under construction and people were populating the area. More people wanted to eat out in restaurants. It was time for the Panama Café to expand. So a consortium of Chinese investors established the Celestial Pearl Restaurant. By the time I was ten, my father, mother and I were working in two restaurants.
“There’s been a newly licensed establishment and two more big restaurants since the Celestial Pearl opened last year,” my father announced. “Competition. We need an attraction.”
“Isn’t good food attractive enough?” my mother asked.
“You don’t know the fan gwei,” my father countered. “They always want something for free. Something to see, something to draw them in.”
What my father had in mind included the cub. “Canadians like to see wild things. They like to feed cute little animals.”
“You mean you want to chain the bear to a tree?”
“They consider that inhumane.”
“Perhaps we should just let it back to the wilderness.”
“Who will look after it? Keys told me he shot the mother bear. It wandered into his camp.”
“And he did not even offer us the carcass?”
“He gave the meat to the locals. Says his teenage son could use a real bear rug. He took the pelt back home yesterday.”
“We could eat this bear.”
“We can build a bear cage at the rear of the Celestial Pearl,” my father said. “Draw customers in. Good for business!”
On the few occasions when we would travel to Toronto or go up to Sudbury to visit clan cousins, we would stop at various places for gas or food. Inevitably, there would be some animal attraction that drew the tourists to the lot. It was usually wild animals. Parents took Kodak pictures of their kids beside the caged beasts. I remember a place in Gravenhurst, where a pair of wolves with cubs would come out of the makeshift dens when food was pushed through the fence. Everybody wanted a picture of the little wolves. Other places had deer and fawns—just like Bambi—to attract visitors and customers.
“I am a simple woman,” my mother said. “So I don’t understand how you can find the money to build this thing. You have often said that there is too much debt already with the Celestial Pearl to start a new venture.”
“I have an idea,” my father said brightly.
My father’s scheme involved all the employees in the Panama Café and Celestial Pearl. He solicited donations from anyone who wanted to keep the cub and see it grow. Five dollars or even a dollar per person would go towards building a big bear cage. The cub would be housed in the back of the Celestial Pearl Restaurant. Surprisingly, there was enough interest. I even donated a month’s allowance. It was a small price to pay to keep my teddy around.
By the end of the week, my father had collected about six hundred dollars. The plan was to enclose an 8’ x 8’ concrete floor inside a galvanized, linked fence. The cage would have a kennel, a concrete splash area and a tree trunk for the cub to climb.
There was a bit of urgency as the cub had been living in the basement of the Panama Café for over a month. It was growing and could no longer fit into the small cage. It was more difficult to boss around. The cooks and waitresses were not as enchanted with it as they were when the cub was cuddly and small. In short, the bear was all mine.
My father in the meantime had his own problems. Permits had to be obtained. A lawyer had to be hired to figure out the legal paperwork. And inspectors demanded changes and alterations. The fencing had to be such and such a gauge so that the animal could not gnaw through. The depth of the concrete flooring had to be so many feet deep so the bear could not dig a hole and escape.
“Some friend you are, Keys Largo! More headaches!” I heard my father mutter when he thought he was alone. It was too late, of course, to pull out of the project. It was a matter of pride. My father had asked for money, and his employees delivered. Everybody expected some good to come of their donation.
“What will we do with it when it is fully-grown?” my mother asked. “Find it a mate?” She looked at me.
For me, I found the upkeep of feeding and cleaning up of an animal a chore. Still, the growing cub sniffed and recognized me whenever I stepped down to the basement with a dish of milk or leftovers. Now, when it lunged at me, it would retract the sharp claws. If the cub were a dog, it probably would have licked my face. But a bear was not a dog, and it would not learn or do tricks. So stubborn!
In mid-June the Celestial Pearl Bear Den was completed. We had to rent a bigger cage to transport the bear. It had almost doubled—tripled—in size and it took two adults to lift and carry the cub and cage onto a pickup truck.
I had to clean up its last mess. My mother helped by setting off fire-crackers. “Big noise. Scare away bad spirits,” she said. I was later told that this was the traditional Chinese way of disinfecting and getting rid of odors.
“No more bear messes to clean up,” I cheered. But I was half glad and half sad. I had gotten used to the daily care for my bear. The coal bin looked empty and bereft.
I mainly saw my cub on weekends now. The cooks at the Celestial Pearl tossed the cub a lot more leftovers and slop than I ever did at the Panama Café. Someone said the bear now weighed about a hundred pounds or more. My hoong wasn’t cuddly any more.
During the summer, I took turns with other staff to enter and clean the big cage. One of the cooks said that I was brave to go in alone, but the bear was used to me. I was sweeping some of the inedible things spectators tossed in the cage when my large cub lunged at me. Suddenly the cub was on top of me. My back was on the concrete floor and I could smell its breath as its wet tongue licked my forehead and face.
Onlookers from the restaurant were screaming. Some shook the linked fence to distract the animal. I just slapped my teddy on the nose, and it rolled away.
The city newspaper ran an item: “Bear Mauls Boy at Chinese Restaurant.” My father wanted the bear to become an attraction, but now it aroused controversy.
My mother exclaimed later, “You could have been badly hurt! Don’t go in there again.”
My father complained. “Humane society do-gooders and insurance guys are screaming for more safety measures. Another fence around this fence. Too much headache! More money wasted. We have to get rid of the bear.”
“He’s my teddy!” I protested. No use.
Arrangements with the Department of Lands and Forests were made. My bear had to be taken far enough away so it would not wander back. It was mature enough to fend for itself in the woods. A game warden would officially supervise the move.
I was not there to say goodbye. I couldn’t bear it and my parents forbade my presence. In my heart, I wished my big pet would somehow find its way back to me no matter how far they took it. Come home, I found myself praying.
“We should have eaten it when we had the chance,” my mother said. “I have several recipes.”
My back was on the concrete floor and I could smell its breath as its wet tongue licked my forehead and face.
Three years later, when I was thirteen and in high school, I was thinking of girls rather than bears. But white girls were off-limits. There were no Chinese girls of my age at Thibeault Falls Secondary School. I was years ahead of daughters of Asian immigrants settling in a growing small town. I had become identified with the lo wah kew, older generation.
One day, my father got a call from a game warden in Mattawa, Ontario. The warden had found a young, black bear caught in one of those leg traps and wondered if my father wanted it. Sometimes bears would chew off the trapped limb and run off, but they would not live long because of blood loss and infection. It was more merciful to put them out of their misery.
“Save me the trouble of burying it, Joe,” the warden said.
My mother was finally going to taste bear meat. My father brought me along for the ride.
As we drove to the site, I recalled the cub. The cage had been long dismantled and only the concrete flooring remained. The spot was transformed into benches and a play area for toddlers and little kids. Now the cub, too, was only a distant memory.
This big bear glared ferociously at us when we arrived with the warden. Its trapped paw was bloody, swollen and full of white pus. It had been there for days and had begun to gnaw at its limb. The warden was right: the animal was in a lot of pain. It needn’t suffer longer.
The bear sniffed the breeze, growled at us, and then lunged towards my father and me. That was when the Warden put a bullet in its brain.
“Damn! Didn’t expect that.”
But I did.
This hoong didn’t rush us in rage. My teddy bear remembered us—me.
Garry Engkent is a Chinese-Canadian who immigrated to gum san in 1953. He has a Ph.D. and taught at various universities and colleges. He has co-authored three texts: Groundwork: Writing Skills to Build On, Fiction/Non-Fiction: A Reader and Rhetoric, and Essay: Do’s and Don’ts. He has had short stories appeared in Exile, Alberta Magazine, Many-Mouthed Birds, SELS Review, and other anthologies. Most of the stories have a Chinese immigrant slant, and are set circa 1950-70s.