Holding The Holy Bible in his hands, Hardy Ko feels overwhelmingly flattered. All afternoon, he could not help but read again and again the inscription:
May this Bible bring you
comfort and joy
Miss H. Andrews
The Grade 3 Class
Queen Victoria Public School
At first his mother hesitates before receiving the Bible, her hand trembling as if she feels something unholy, as if the tome weighs down body and spirit. She searches about for a place where the book would do the least harm before she returns it to her son.
“You must give it back,” his mother says in Chinese.
“Why can’t I keep it?”
“We are not fan gwei, we are hon yren, Chinese.”
The Bible isn’t just a present from Miss Andrews and his Grade 3 class. The Bible means admittance; the Bible means acceptance. Hardy wants to be like everyone else. Yet his mother frowns.
“It’s better than a comic book,” he says. “I can become a better person, a Christian. A real Canadian.”
“Look in the mirror, my son.”
Instead, Hardy recalls that happy moment at school. It was his last day as water monitor. Miss Andrews had sent him to fetch water to fill the radiator troughs. With the November snow, the dry air inside made anyone putting on or taking off a woollen sweater jump from static electricity.
“Thank you, Hardy,” Miss Andrews said. “For your conscientious work as water monitor, we wish to give you this token of our appreciation. Mabel, will you do the honours?”
“Hardy Ko, our Grade Three class wants you to have this, well, because you’re the only one who doesn’t own one.”
Led by Miss Andrews, the class applauded. Tears of joy flooded his eyes.
“Well, Hardy Ko,” Mabel Turner said, “now, Jesus Christ is your Saviour. You want to be saved, don’t you?”
Hardy nodded happily. Now he could read the adventures of Joseph, Jacob, David, Solomon, and Moses by himself.
“Wouldn’t you like to go to church this Sunday?” Mabel asked. “You can bring your brand-new Bible.”
Mabel Turner is the apple of Hardy’s eye. She is the wholesome blonde girl the Saturday matinee hero always gets. The heroine who rides off into the sunset or shares a kiss with John Wayne, Audie Murphy, and Alan Ladd. The god-fearing frontier beauty, the yellow rose of Texas, my darling Clementine.
Another wonderful thought basked in Hardy’s heart and mind all morning: acceptance.
With this Bible, Hardy felt a warm flush of welcome to gum san, Canada, from his school, his class, his teacher. Being called “slant eyes” and “chinky Chinaboy” seemed a distant memory.
But Hardy never dreamed that his mother would not want him to have this book. He is incredulous that she is asking–no, telling–him to refuse the most sacred book of the white devils in gold mountain.
Hardy’s mother worries about how the fan gwei, white devils, steal her son’s Chinese soul daily. A little bit here today, a little bit more tomorrow. And now they fill her son’s brain with the rantings from a crucified rabble-rouser. Soon she will not have a son she can recognize.
Now the boy does not dare tell his mother what he wishes to do this coming Sunday. His dream of sitting beside Mabel Turner in church evaporates.
Hardy wants to go to his father for recourse.
“We Chinese must join in,” Hardy’s father often pronounces, “and be part of the community. Become members of the Thibeault Falls service clubs. We must show them we are Canadians, too.”
He has been saying that ever since Hardy and his mother arrived in Canada four years ago, and still his father cannot belong to any service club in Thibeault Falls.
Hardy dreams of a normal Canadian life. Like what others already have, the Chinese boy wants his father with a nine-to-five job, and a mother at home. He wants a two-storey house with a veranda and a backyard. And for him, a paper route in the neighbourhood, and friends to chum around with after school. And going to church on Sundays. He yearns for this wonderful Canadian way of living.
His world, though, is the restaurant. He lives upstairs, in an apartment of two cramped, adjoining rooms. His parents sleep in the inner bedroom, and he shares his bedroom with a Singer sewing machine, bolts of white linen, a cutting table and other paraphernalia. The voices of waitresses bellowing, “Hamburg steak, French fries with gravy, toasted Western” and other orders seep through the thin floor morning, noon, night. And the smells of foods being prepared, sizzling bacon, brewed coffee.
It is six o’clock and he has his chores downstairs. There is so much to do in the Panama Cafe, especially now with Christmas shoppers coming in. His father expects Hardy to do his part. His father’s words echo in his head: “During the Depression, my clan uncle took me out of Grade One and put an apron around my waist and a box under my feet so I could reach the kitchen sink. You, my son, are fortunate. You still attend school.”
“Now, class, we have two weeks before the Christmas pageant,” Miss Andrews announces. “This year it is our turn to present the birth of our Saviour, Jesus Christ, to the other classes and all the parents. We need angels, shepherds, innkeeper, three kings, Mary and Joseph…”
“I wanna be Mary,” Mabel volunteers immediately.
Hardy envisages Mabel Turner with shoulder-length curled golden tresses, azure blue eyes, and rouged lips. Truly a beautiful princess, worthy of bearing the Christ child. And he can be–
“Can I be Joseph?” Hardy blurts out.
Suddenly Hardy realizes his blunder. He has revealed his secret to everyone in class. Hardy Ko is sweet on Mabel Turner. In his head, he can hear the schoolyard chant.
“Hardy and Mabel, sitting on a fence
First comes love,
Then comes marriage.
Here comes Hardy with the baby carriage!”
“I was saving a special role just for you, Hardy. Wouldn’t you like to play Balthazar, or Caspar, or Melchior?”
The role of Joseph goes to a husky redhead with more freckles on his face than you would wish on anybody.
Mabel Turner tells Hardy later. “I can’t stand Dougie McIntyre. At least you get to sing ‘We Three Kings’.”
“Hardy Ko,” Mabel admonishes, “I don’t care for that kind of talk. Well, what can you expect from a person who doesn’t–”
“–Who says I don’t go to church?!” exclaims Hardy. “What’s so good about going to church?”
“Hardy Ko, Hardy Ko, don’t you know anything?” She shakes her finger at him. “Don’t you want your soul to be saved? Don’t you want to go to heaven? Don’t you want to be like the rest of us? Don’t you want to be a Canadian?”
“Sure, I do!”
“Well, you’re not,” says Mabel. “And you’ll never be.”
That Friday evening Hardy screws up courage to talk to his father. He has rehearsed over and over what he would say. At the last moment, seeing his father’s stern face, Hardy loses heart.
On Saturday, with Mabel’s taunts still ringing in his ears, Hardy again goes to his father. He ingratiates himself upon his father with chores: hollowing the dozen freshly baked cakes to make Boston cream pies.
“Father,” Hardy begins nervously, “do you remember what you said about how hard it is for us Chinese to be accepted here? Well, I think I have found a way….”
“How, my son?”
“We can all go to church. Then we’ll be just like them and they’ll like us. And then you can join those service clubs–It’s all so simple.”
“If we all go to church, who will run the restaurant?” Hardy’s father sighs. “What is so important?”
“Well, I’ve been chosen as one of the three wise men: Caspar.” Hardy wants to go to church so he can know the true meaning of the three wise kings in the Christmas pageant. This is his first chance to get in the spirit of things–school, Christmas, church. All he needs is his father’s permission.
“So I can go this Sunday? Tomorrow?”
Joy washes over Hardy’s entire being when his father says nothing more and started another task. He would have hugged his father, but Hardy knows such a show of affection is unseemly. In Chinese custom, silence is approval. Things left unsaid is approval.
“Where are you going so early?” Hardy’s mother asks. “And so dressed up?”
“Church,” Hardy stammers. “I’m going to church. I have to go.”
“Does your father know this?” His mother scowls.
“He knows.” Hardy expects his mother either to stop him or to give a long lecture. But she does neither. She sees the determination in her son’s face and eyes—and fear of a vocal disapproval. Instead, she goes downstairs to work.
It hurts him to go against his mother and her Buddhist beliefs but his heart is set. Hardy clutches onto the Bible. Mabel Turner’s welcoming face is before him in the church.
It is February, and Hardy has been going to Sunday School regularly. He is no longer a novelty. At that time, he was the centre of attention: the only Chinese boy there. “How delightful. You should bring your father and mother to church.” Hardy can still remember Mabel’s surprised but ebullient face that Sunday morning.
During the Christmas season, Sunday school was festive, some mothers always brought in cookies to share, and the teachers and kids sang holiday songs and did fun things. He learned the music and lyrics to hymns. On those first two Sundays, Mabel paid a great deal of attention to him, explaining all the things he did not know. But now Hardy starts noticing that Mabel isn’t around him as much.
“The fan gwei have made a fool of you, my son,” he recalls the words of his mother after the Christmas school pageant. “First, they paint your face black as coal–”
“Caspar is supposed to be–”
“They have brainwashed you. They have made you fan gwei inside. A white devil in yellow skin.”
“Mother, you don’t understand!”
“What is there to understand? Hon yren! I am Chinese. Your father is Chinese. You are Chinese. Remember that! When you don’t, the fan gwei will certainly remind you. Oh, if it weren’t for those damned communists, we’d be home.”
Hardy remembers the tears in his mother’s eyes, tears rolling down her cheeks as she spoke, tears freezing into ice drops. Hardy still feels an excruciating pain in his heart.
His thoughts turn to St. Valentine’s Day and Mabel Turner. Will you be my Valentine, sweetheart? Roses are red; violets are blue. My heart belongs to you. Is my Valentine true? He scrutinizes the cardboard cut-outs and stencils; the figures are always so lovable, happy and joyous. Finally he decides on the cut-out Valentine that has the biggest carmine heart for Mabel.
“Remember, boys and girls, print the names on those envelopes clearly before you put them in the Valentine letters box,” Miss Andrews announces. “On Tuesday, our class mailman must be able to read the names before he can deliver the cards to the right desks.”
“Miss Andrews,” Mabel interrupts, “can we put other things in the box for delivery? Well, you know, things, like birthday invitations. I’m going to be nine years old next Friday.”
Her birthday! Hardy wonders why she has not mentioned it to him. What present can he get her?
“Gee, Mabel,” he says to her after school, “I don’t know what to get you for your birthday party.”
Mabel stares at him. Finally, with hands on her hips, she exclaims: “Hardy Ko, you are so, so presumptuous. I’m not inviting you to my birthday party.”
“I thought…. You and me… At Sunday school–”
“Sunday School is Sunday School,” Mabel interrupts. “My birthday party is mine own. Anyway, Mom and Dad say…”
“I thought by going to church, you know, you’d…”
“Well, it’s stupid of you to think that.”
“I won’t go to church any more! I won’t, I won’t!”
“So lose your soul to Satan. See if I care. My parents were right: you can never be one of us, Hardy Ko.”
Mabel Turner walks away and disappears behind the distant mounds of ice and snow. Hardy turns to the direction of the Panama Cafe.
In the kitchen his mother is chopping vegetables. His father happily announces that a fan gwei is finally willing to sponsor him as an associate member of a Thibeault Falls service club.
Hot tears stream down his cheeks. Hardy stares into the bathroom mirror. Before going downstairs to his chores, Hardy shreds the large cut-out heart and, in the farthest corner of a drawer, buries the Bible.
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.
His stories have appeared in Exile, Alberta Magazine, Many-Mouthed Birds, SELS Review etc. Most of the stories have a Chinese immigrant slant, circa 1950-70s: “Why My Mother Can’t Speak English,” “Chickens for Christmas,” “Visiting,” “Ten Questions and a Slice of Boston Cream Pie,” and “Mother Came to Visit and Stayed.” His stories “The Bear and I”, “Eggroll”, and “The CNE Canary Cage” were published in Ricepaper recently.