Out of the blue, my father commanded that I should never eat Bugs Bunny.
Bugs Bunny is the feature character in the Looney Tunes entourage, and a mainstay of the Saturday matinee of two feature movies and three cartoons, back in the 50s and 60s. Most of the characters are caricatured animals with distinct, exaggerated human traits, like Porky Pig, Daffy Duck, and the Road Runner. I grew up with them in my formative years, and I could not imagine chomping on that wisecrackin’ wascally wabbit’s carcass.
“Bugs Bunny is a cartoon character,” I corrected him. “Haven’t watched him in years.”
“You can eat pigeon, dog or cat—no rabbits,” he said seriously. “Your mother still has village recipes for the others, if you want.”
“This is Canada,” I reminded him. “It’s against the law to eat canines and felines. It’s not socially acceptable, either. They are pets, not food. Maybe, it’s okay to taste pigeon.”
Actually, I was more worried about negative Chinese stereotypes that the gwei lo, white Canadians, had of us—that we, hon yren, eat anything. My father had introduced into the conversation a topic not often talked about among the lo wah kiu, sojourners to gum san, the gold mountain. There was no sense adding to negative rumour, gossip, and fable.
“Pigeon ragout or in soup. Both delicious. So is rabbit stew or roast, but you aren’t allowed to eat it.” He emphasized the “you.”
This was the cue for me to ask why. This was so he could begin his dragged-out lesson for his son.
“How come Hardy at the Panama Café can eat rabbit?” I asked. Hardy is a distant cousin. Well, in Canada, any hon yren is a village relation.
My father sighed deeply at this impertinence. He must enlighten his ignorant son. “He is Ko. You are not.”
“You are Ng.”
By his tone, I knew this was the “talk”. In fan gwei families, the patriarch is obligated to set the son at a certain age—usually about 13 or so—down and speak of many things. Usually, about sex, girls, and babies. And responsibility, just in case. But this “talk” did not seem to be about the birds and the bees.
He sat me down, and began the story:
Once, in the early years of the Middle Kingdom, there was a sadistic emperor who delighted not only in torturing his enemies but also in tormenting his own courtiers. He would devise horrific stratagems to test those whom he suspected of treachery, sedition, or even, slightly disloyal. When the emperor discovered that a few of his own kindred would dare consider rebellion, he had all his brothers, sisters, nephews, nieces, and distant relatives flayed alive in public for all to see. No one was safe. This was the emperor’s object lesson for all.
Patriarch Ng witnessed all this, and understood that he, his wife, and baby son would be subject to such treatment, given time. Secretly he prepared for his family to flee from this tyranny.
However, the emperor summoned Ng to court before he could escape. At first, both men chatted about expansion of the empire westward. Then the emperor presented a special dish for Ng. It was a stew of meat and vegetables. He expected Ng to eat every morsel, but Ng hesitated. The emperor laughed and said that the dish was not poisoned, but Ng noticed that he did not partake of the similar bowl in front of him. The courtier knew this was a test, undoubtedly, to determine obedience, loyalty, and subservience.
As he dipped his spoon into the stew, Ng instantly discovered what was in it. Tears swelled in his eyes. His heart sank. He knew he had to eat the flesh of his baby son. He knew also that should he refuse he would die painfully and soon his family, kith and kin would be put to death in horrible ways. He ate solemnly and swiftly.
The emperor gave a satisfied smile. He permitted Ng to leave the court.
Once outside and distant enough, Ng vomited. According to legend, the pieces of undigested meal immediately turned into rabbits and scampered into the woods. On that day, this ancient ancestor pledged that his descendants with the Ng surname would never again eat rabbit.
According to my father, there is a double meaning to our ancestor’s pledge: Ng ho jai. In one way, the phrase can be interpreted as “The Ngs love their sons” and in another, “The Ngs don’t eat rabbits.”
“That’s why you can’t eat rabbit.”
“Okay, that’s for the Ng,” I countered. “We are Wu.”
“Same difference,” he said, and then with a Chinese writing brush wrote this: 吳.
I looked at him blankly, not understanding.
“It is Wu,” I said. “Ah-Mah taught me how to write it and recognize it since I was five.”
“It is also Ing, Eng, Ang, Ng,” he lectured. “Officials in Hong Kong have now standardized the English spelling to Ng. But this 吳 ties us all together. Ng and Wu are the same. You are forbidden to eat rabbit.”
“So, the Jews and Muslims can’t eat pork, the East Indians can’t eat beef, the vegans can’t eat meat at all, and we—okay, we the Wu—can’t eat hare,” I summarized. “Woe is me.”
“Good, that’s settled,” my father said brightly. “Now you can take these four rabbit carcasses to the Panama Café and let our village cousins have them.”
I sighed heavily. He could have just told me to drop off the rabbits to Joe Ko’s restaurant, but then that would not be my father. He had learned this indirect, long-about method from his mentor and boss, Lo Baan Wong, many years ago when he was a young apprentice at Wong’s Wash, a hand laundry. Today, my father owned Sam Wu’s Dry Cleaning.
Earlier in the day, I had wondered what was going on when I saw a regular customer drop off work clothes to be dry cleaned and hand laundered. My father and he had a spirited discussion. Evidently the man, a local farmer, had trapped some rabbits that were munching on his crops. He believed the myth that the Chinese eat everything and anything, and thought, in a nice way, to indulge us—a gratuity for cleaning his work clothes. My father received the gift and thanked the man profusely. The farmer left believing he had done good. My father was left with a problem.
Problem solved: instead of tossing good meat in the garbage can, the son takes the rabbits to someone else who can find use in such a meal, and thus gain future favour. In this case, to the Panama Café. Simple enough task for a bored teenager.
Joe Ko, the owner, received my father’s gift. The rabbits had already been gutted, but the fur was still on. “Fresh. Supple. Hardy, prepare these. Oh, William, give your father my thanks.”
“Yes,” Hardy said sarcastically, “Thanks a lot for giving me more things to do, Willie.”
“You’re welcome,” I said in the same tone.
“You wanna help me prepare these hares,” Hardy invited.
“I’m into dirty underwear,” I said. “You’re the cook.”
He took the rabbits to the butcher’s block, and “bam, bam, bam, bam,” chopped off the heads and paws, and tossed them into a metal bin assigned for leftover, unusable bones and meat. He handed me a rabbit’s foot for luck and expected me to know how to preserve and keep it. I knew he knew that I didn’t know what to do with this three-inch appendage.
“Wanna skin a rabbit?”
I could see myself holding a sharp knife in one hand and the bunny carcass in the other and slowly slicing between meat and fur and trying not to damage the pelt. I could see myself being frustrated and fearful of cutting a finger or two in the process, and having Hardy witness my distress. He would be having fun at my expense.
“Don’t know if I’m allowed,” I said. He looked quizzically, and I explained what my father told me earlier. Hardy laughed.
“Maybe you can’t eat rabbit, but nothing in the tale says you can’t kill it, skin it, or cook it.”
“I think that’s implied. After all, rabbits are metamorphosed from a human baby.”
“Watch,” he said, as he held the bunny’s shoulder with one hand and with the other the skin, and then just peeled. The fur came off like a charm. The carcass now was just meat and bones. He did this three more times. He put them in a bowl.
“You want the pelts?” Hardy asked. “They make a great fur collar, or a pair of fur gloves. Your mother sews for a living, right?”
Already, he was stuffing the four pelts into a plastic bag. He handed it to me. I didn’t know what to do, so I just took it.
“Take ‘em home. Soak ‘em in brine for a whole day. Rinse thoroughly and stretch the pelts individually on wooden boards and wait until the skins dry. Oh, yeah, scrape off any specks of meat. They tend to rot,” Hardy instructed. “Afterwards, you got real, homemade pelts.”
Four rabbits weren’t enough to make a menu for general consumption, even as a limited special of the day at the Panama Café. Instead, roast or ragout rabbit would entertain the palates of the cooks and waitstaff and friends of the Café at Joe Ko’s Saturday midnight feast at the rear of the restaurant. My family, especially my father, had an open invitation to these gatherings. Obviously, we wouldn’t be participating in this Saturday’s twelve o’clock shindig.
To my surprise, both my parents decided to go. They brought me along as I had finished the chores in dry cleaning.
The smell of authentic Chinese food wafted into our noses half a block before we reached the Panama Café. The sounds of oriental music from a record player and of mixed conversations in Cantonese and English became clearer. Hard liquor and beer bottles were prominently displayed on almost all the tables. Already the employees and guests at the midnight banquet were having a good time.
Hardy’s mother welcomed us, and then quickly engaged my mother in Cantonese. Both women disappeared into the restaurant kitchen. Lady talk, my father said. He went to the clutch of men, smoking water pipes and playing cards. For man talk.
Hardy had a mischievous look. “Hey, Willie, one of the waiters brought back some real Chinese jiu, liquor, from Toronto. Good stuff! Wanna try?”
“Can’t. I just got my learner’s permit to drive.”
“So? Live a little. Nobody would know. Anyway, you’re not driving home.”
I was no stranger to booze. Both Ah-Mah and Ah-Bah used cooking wine and sometimes whiskey to marinate and cook chicken, beef, or pork at home. There were times when I even tasted raw whiskey burning down my throat. (My father had given me a shot to cure me of my curiosity of firewater earlier in my childhood.) I didn’t hate it; I didn’t love it. The buzz was sometimes welcomed, other times, annoying. Here in this gathering, none of the employees and lo wah kiu, old sojourners, would mind or care.
Hardy poured generously, he and I toasted, and we knocked back hard liquor. As if on a mutual dare, we immediately tossed back a second, and then a third. The burning of alcohol penetrated the mouth, tongue and throat. I was feeling both the buzz in an empty stomach and the swirling in my head.
“Let’s eat something,” Hardy suggested, “so we can drink more.”
He brought two bowls from the kitchen. It was congee with pieces of meat. I was hungry. The meat was succulent and delicious. I was eager for a second helping.
“So, what do you think of rabbit meat?”
The last bit of food caught in my throat. Hardy was studying me. He was not drunk. He was waiting for a reaction. He was Ng’s emperor of old.
I felt stupid. Tricked. But I didn’t want to give him the satisfaction of witnessing my discomfort.
“It’s good,” I managed to say evenly.
“You’re not going to throw up, are you? Presto! Little bunnies appear!”
“Human flesh turned into rabbits,” I corrected. “I ate rabbit, not babies.”
Hardy laughed. “Right, Willie! Just hare. Shouldn’t believe such stories. Shouldn’t take those old fables to heart. This is Canada.”
Maybe Hardy Ko had a point, but I wasn’t feeling that charitable to give him the benefit of the doubt. He had betrayed a trust. I didn’t want to be with him anymore.
“Time to leave,” I said, looking around for my parents.
When we got home, I told them that I ate rabbit, that I broke thousands of years of tradition, that Hardy tricked me into it. I didn’t tell Ah-Mah and Ah-Bah I enjoyed it. My father patted me on the shoulders.
“You got drunk. I can smell the liquor. Now you know the consequences of too much.”
“Then it’s okay?” I wished to be absolved.
He smiled a smile that had different meanings all rolled into one. Kinda sad, kinda mad, kinda accepting of the situation.
“Maybe you will understand,” he said, “when you grow more mature.”
A week later, my mother presented me with a stuffed rabbit. She had made it from the four pelts. It didn’t look anything like Bugs Bunny. I told her I was too old for such things. In truth, I was a bit offended at the time. Upon reflection, much later I got the subtle message. Like my legendary ancestors, like my father and mother, I had certain responsibilities.
The stuffed bunny wasn’t for me, but for their grandchildren.
Garry Engkent is a Chinese-Canadian. 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 Belief, Exile, Asiandian, 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,” “Visiting”. His stories “The Bear and I,” “Egg Roll,” “Yellow Duckie,” and “Chicken”were published in Ricepaper recently.