At the age of five, I was taught by my Great Auntie how to slaughter chicken.
Earlier in the day, Great Auntie went to the open market and bought a live, year-old hen. It had passed its prime for laying eggs but was still meaty enough for the pot. It was a Rhode Island Red, and red for the Chinese is lucky.
Great Auntie had planned to celebrate her fiftieth birthday with a freshly killed chicken. She would make a delicious dish for all that evening, but she didn’t trust the vendors to butcher the bird. According to her, they don’t do a good job: they ask for more money, skimp on proper preparation, and sometimes they cheat the customer by unscrupulously swapping the purchase with a scrawny or week-old kill. So, in a sack, she brought this red hen home.
She knew how and what to do, but she often complained about her arthritis. So, over the years she gave the job to others in the tenement. Today, everyone was at work or just away. And I was left in her care.
“I am going to teach you something you will find useful,” Great Auntie said, “for the rest of your life.”
“In gum san as well?” I asked. Ah-Mah had told me that soon we would fly across an ocean and live with Ah-Bah.
“Even in Canada. Learn while you are young, Wah Leng.” Great Auntie said sagely. “Here’s your first lesson.”
She took me and the bagged hen to the cramped kitchen. First, she brought out a big, empty basket. Then she sharpened the cleaver on a sharpening stone and laid it on the cutting board. In a large bowl, she poured cold water and sprinkled in some salt.
“To collect the blood,” she informed me. “Now, here’s what I want you to do. And be careful.”
Auntie showed me how to hold the cleaver and then performed a swift sliding movement with her index finger across the throat. She handed me the cleaver. It felt heavy. At first, I had to hold it with two hands. Then I got used to the weight with my right.
“Now, don’t cut yourself,” she warned. “Your mother will scold me for the rest of my life if you end up missing a finger.”
She brought the hen out of the sack, held its two legs with her left hand and wings in her right. I was to grab the bird by the head, pull its neck skin taunt, and slit its throat with the cleaver. Having made the cut, I was then to point the head down so the blood would drain into the bowl; the blood would coagulate and later be boiled into blood pudding. It didn’t work out that way.
The red hen saw me and stopped clucking. It just stared at me. I tried to grab its head and missed. I tried again, this time catching it by the beak. It struggled violently, and Great Auntie was having a hard time holding on.
“Hurry, Wah Leng!”
I slit the hen’s throat, and could feel the sharp cleaver cut through feather, skin, and neck bone. Almost immediately hot blood gushed out. Red, sticky liquid splashed onto my hand, and I let go of its beak. The hen’s neck swirled around and around, spraying the blood in circles. My face got splattered, and I noticed Auntie was also covered in scarlet. As a matter of fact, the cupboards and linoleum floor had spiral splotches. Later, I noticed traces of blood on the walls and ceiling.
“Aiiyee!” Great Auntie howled.
She quickly threw the bird into an empty basket, and the wounded bird thrashed about, making noises with its wings and feet. Dying is hard. Dying can take a long time. The hen kept at it for quite a while before its movement and sounds stopped. I later learned that though the muscles and nerves went through its death throes, the bird was already dead when its heart stopped and blood no longer flowed.
“Help me clean the blood off before everybody comes back,” Great Auntie said as she began wiping herself and me with a wet rag.
There was so much blood from one small bird. It was messy, sticky and slick. I had to change multiple buckets of reddish water in the process. Great Auntie grumbled as she did double duty in preparing the chicken and in telling me what I missed as I scrubbed not only the kitchen but also myself. At the end of it, I had to change my t-shirt. Auntie soaked the soiled one in cold water.
The lesson continued. Next was removing the feathers. This task was not simply pulling them off the bird. Auntie dropped the hen in a bucket of hot water, soaking the feathers, and then doused the chicken in cold water. Only then did both of us begin plucking the wet feathers from the skin. Auntie kept the feathers in a pile and she would later dry them on the balcony to make stuffing for cushions and pillows. She burned off the tiny hairs on the bird with a rolled-up paper torch.
“Now, pay attention,” she said. “This is very important. You don’t want chicken shit to contaminate the carcass.” That was Auntie’s introduction to gutting the hen.
With the pointy end of the kitchen knife, Great Auntie cut around the chicken’s asshole. Having done that carefully, she slit the abdomen open. She told me to put my hand into the bird, and pull out the intestine, liver and heart, and place them in a bowl. The innards were warm, wet and yucky. We also dug out a hard-shell egg and some soft yolks. Auntie finished by taking the gullet from its neck.
She dangled the small, slimy gullet in front of me. “See, hardly anything in it. This hen hasn’t been fed for at least two days,” she observed.
“Are we done? Can I play with my toys now?”
“Don’t you want to know how to cook the chicken?”
I sighed deeply.
Great Auntie taught me how to rub down the entire bird with coarse salt, then to rinse thoroughly. Actually, I did most of the work. She fit the chicken, along with its liver, heart and feet into the big soup pot, added water, garlic, ginger and baat ghok heung (which I later learned as anisette) and set the pot onto the stove. She lit the burner, set it on low, and covered the pot.
“Your future wife will thank me,” Great Auntie predicted. “Husbands who can cook are a bonus in marriage, especially in gum san. So I heard.”
Over the next few months while Ah-Mah and I stayed in Hong Kong at Great Auntie’s tenement, I became the unofficial butcher. I scaled fish, gutted it and prepared it for cooking or congee, and I fixed pigeons for stew. My main mastery, though, was still slaughtering chicken. Auntie taught me how to hold an entire bird, still fussing, in one arm and hand, while with the other, slit its throat and drain the blood without letting go until the death throes stopped. I became so proficient that Auntie rented me out to the neighbours in the building to slaughter their chickens, ducks and other feathered fowl for meals. I was rewarded with candy, cookies and sometimes, lucky money in red pouches.
I acquired a reputation for being fearless and good at my job. Great Auntie lapped up the praise as she reminded her friends and neighbours that it was she who taught me all I knew. I think she got tangible tributes as well because there were times I saw people slipping something to her and she pocketing it promptly.
Ah-Mah wasn’t too concerned about my new “status” except to warn me about being careful with cleavers. (I became skilful in sharpening knives, too!) She was more worried about me playing in the streets and alley-ways where I could get lost, waylaid, or kidnapped by street gangs. In the kitchens within the ten-storey tenement building, she felt I was safe—using sharp knives and slaughtering live fowl.
“Keeps him out of mischief,” she said when she told her part of the story to Ah-Bah and friends in gum san, Canada.
At sixteen, I wanted to impress a fan gwei girl in my Grade 11 class at Thibeault Falls Secondary School.
Her name was Stephanie Parker. She was a strawberry blonde. She had been transferred from another school. Once in a while in class, she would smile at me. I’d smile back. Sometimes, after school, we would gossip about teachers and other classmates for a few blocks before our paths diverged: she walking towards her home, and I to work.
But I wanted more. I wanted her to really, really like me. I wanted more than the casual, courtesy conversation. And I didn’t know what to do.
“So how do you get a girl to really notice you?” I asked Reggie. He was my pal since Grade One, way back when I came to Thibeault Falls.
“Ask the chick if she wants to ride in your car,” he said. “If she gets in, you’re in. It’s easy as that, Willie.”
I had just gotten my full driver’s licence and my father permitted me to drive the Buick all by myself. I became the delivery man for customers, and for those who wanted the deluxe service package from Sam Wu’s Dry Cleaning, I brought their laundry right to their door. I was only allowed to use the car for business.
The opportunity to take the car to school came earlier than I expected. On Tuesday night, my father had loaded clean laundry in the Buick and told me to deliver it to a regular customer before 8 in the morning. I could keep the car at school, but was to bring it back to the shop immediately after class.
“Hey, Stephanie, you wanna ride?” I was apprehensive.
It was heaven just to have her beside me. I could smell her sweet perfume. I drove her straight home. She was disappointed—I could tell from the way she moved out of the car. She expected a much longer ride. Was I making progress?
“Do you celebrate Thanksgiving?” she asked a few days later as we walked our usual path together after school.
“Not really,” I said. “We don’t do turkey. Too big to—.” I did the index finger across the throat.
“You don’t buy a turkey from the butcher shop?”
“Well, my father and my mother, we drive to the outlying farms and buy live chicken.”
“Live chicken! What do you do with live chicken?” she asked in a way that showed she already knew the answer.
“Slaughter them ourselves. Fresh kill tastes better.”
“Really,” she said. She sounded nonchalant, but I could tell she was interested, fascinated even. Ideas were swirling in her strawberry-blonde head.
“Wanna see how it’s done?”
It just happened that the day before, we had gotten two hens, white Leghorns. (Yes, yes, I realize this sounds like the made-up coincidences in melodramas to keep the narrative going, but it’s the truth!) My mother wanted me to prepare them before they became scrawny. It was one of my chores for the day. So I took the opportunity to invite Stephanie to Sam Wu’s Dry Cleaning.
“Sure,” she said. “What else does a girl have to entertain herself on a Friday?”
My mother was cautious, jittery, and none too pleased that I brought someone home. And a fan gwei noi, a white girl, to boot. I introduced Ah-Mah to Stephanie, and knew immediately I had crossed an unspoken line. If it had been Reggie, Ah-Mah would not have minded; his parents were regular customers back when my father owned Wong’s Wash before its conversion to a dry-cleaning business. Ah-Mah became less worried when I told her that Stephanie was here just to see the Cantonese way of preparing chicken.
“You sure you want to see? All of it?” I asked for assurance, and she nodded eagerly.
I was nervous. I still had memories of my first kill with Great Auntie. Blood everywhere. I didn’t want Stephanie splashed in fowl blood. I wanted to show her that I was a skilled—okay, competent—master of slaughter.
I went routinely through the preparation that Great Auntie had taught me: bringing in an empty bucket, pouring water into a bowl, sharpening the cleaver. I brought out the Leghorn from its coup. Then I made the first cut. Stephanie gasped as the blood flowed out of the first hen into the bowl. She could not take her eyes away. Her body tightened. I thought she would scream and rush out of the kitchen, but she remained still and entranced as the Leghorn went through its death throes: flapping its wings, kicking its legs, swirling its bloody neck in the steel bucket.
“Why don’t you just chop off the head?” Stephanie asked, after the second hen was drained.
“Need the heart to pump out all the blood. Otherwise, the leftover blood in the meat turns black when we cook it.”
I showed her how my Great Auntie had taught me to clean the birds of their feathers and to take the innards out. Surprisingly, Stephanie wanted to help. She got her hands messy and bloody. My mother came back into the kitchen and observed Stephanie working on the chicken. I caught a minuscule nod of approval.
Out of courtesy and hospitality, Ah-Mah had to invite Stephanie to stay for dinner. Actually, Ah-Mah asked me to ask her. Stephanie called her parents saying she wouldn’t be home for supper, and she dined with us on boiled chicken, steamed rice and Chinese greens. I did most of the cooking. There wasn’t much conversation at the table. Ah-Mah’s English was limited, and Ah-Bah didn’t extend the standard chatter outside of small talk: “Try some of this,” “Please take some more.”
“So, you can cook,” she commented when we were in the Buick. Ah-Bah thought it would be better if I drove her home rather than having her walk in the evening.
“It’s a necessary skill,” I said.
“Let’s go for a ride,” Stephanie suggested.
I drove to the outskirts of Thibeault Falls and parked. It was an October evening, days before Thanksgiving weekend. The moon and stars were shining against the dark sky. I was nervous, and she was waiting. I kissed her.
And then kissed her. Again. This time more needy, more demanding, more hungry as faces, lips and then tongues collided.
And then hands pushing against clothing.
Stephanie Parker was everything a sixteen-year-old teenage boy could dream of—responsive, welcoming without words, wanting to be touched, felt, and groped. Hands and fingers on smooth skin, on fine hair. No holding back, not wanting to hold back.
The front bench seat of the Buick was an obstacle. The steering wheel was the main encumbrance. We rushed in to the back seat: more room to manoeuvre. So I thought.
Then came the buttons and zippers, exasperated and exasperating in trying to undo as fast as possible. There was no way for either of us to strip off entirely. In the cramped space of the car, clothes did not cooperate with body parts. Limbs got tangled in clothes. Total nakedness was impossible, especially when desire was running rampant. Both of us just couldn’t wait.
I wanted to get inside her; she wanted all of me inside her. Me on top was frustrating. Switch. She on top was—success. Stephanie would toss her head from side to side, almost in a circular motion. Her long, strawberry-blonde hair would swish and spiral. She moaned. She cooed. Her body would gather up; her face anticipatory for some big moment.
Stephanie shook in throes.
After a short while, we returned to normal: somewhat shy, secretive and sensitive. We gathered our disarrayed clothes by the light of the silvery moon. In a cramped Buick, we returned our clothing to our bodies; the only sounds were breathing and shifting as we dressed. I wanted to say things to her. (“Does this make us boyfriend, girlfriend?”) I stopped before these words gave voice.
I drove her home. I think she was about to say “thank you” or “see you in class” but didn’t. I didn’t try to kiss her good night.
The next day, Saturday, I was about to do deliveries when I saw the mess in the Buick. Blood on the bench seat. Soaked into the fabric. Not much, but noticeable. As I quickly started wiping the splotches out, I couldn’t help thinking of the time in the tenement kitchen with Great Auntie and the Rhode Island Red.
All weekend, I thought about Stephanie Parker. I thought what we did usually takes a long time, going through the motions of getting to know you, getting to know all about you. Yet, that Friday, we threw caution, restraint and sensibility into the wind.
It was the chickens, wasn’t it? All that blood. All that life and death thing. That must have turned her on. I wondered what Great Auntie would have said if she knew how I used the skills she taught me. Would she point a finger, or heartily laugh?
Stephanie avoided me the whole week. Needless to say, in my head I kept reliving every moment of that evening for a very long time. Yes, I wanted to do “it” with her again. Forever. But by November, Stephanie Parker was gone. According to rumour, her father found a better job somewhere in the States and they moved hurriedly away. She didn’t say good-bye. She didn’t even leave a hint of leaving.
I was hurt and angry, and I wanted to forget her but I couldn’t. I couldn’t talk to Ah-Mah or Ah-Bah about her either. She was fan gwei.
Depressed, I shared my feelings with Reggie. He was quite sanguine about it.
He said, “Gee, Willie, I guess you have to sacrifice a chicken each time you wanna lay a chick.”
At age 60, I am minding the grand kids.
My children, now middle-aged parents, come to visit and leave their children with us to go on vacation. Both sets of parents are taking a river cruise on the Danube.
Jenny and I have retired after thirty-some years of college teaching, and we decided to settle close to farms and farmland, away from urban gridlock. We have a large garden for vegetables and flowers. Here, we can even keep a dog, a cat, and a small flock of ducks and chickens.
The two boys and three girls are all about the same age, between five and eight, so they play well together. They love the open fields. Laughing, they run about the big yard. They are chasing the fowl.
“Are you all staying for supper?” I ask. “Let’s have chicken.”
Our grownup children look at one another quickly and know what is about to happen. After all, they were once the same ages as their kids when I showed them what to do. They all nod and call their kids to the kitchen.
I sharpen the cleaver. Great Auntie comes to mind. She is smiling.
“Kids, grandpa’s going to teach you something you might find useful for the rest of your lives.”
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, 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.” His stories “The Bear and I”, “Eggroll”, “The CNE Canary Cage”, “Acceptance”, “Fan Gwei Lo” and “Yellow Duckie ” were published in Ricepaper.
Wendi Ma is an Illustrator and Designer based in Vancouver. Born in China, raised in Tokyo and Vancouver, she developed her interest in sharing her worldview and experiences as a person with cross-cultural background through art. Fluently speaking three languages, she is passionate about communicating emotion through her pieces. She currently works as an illustrator and Designer at IBM. Her work is available @ wendy-ma.com