Authors: Judy Fong Bates
for Alison and Katherine
Wheresoever you go, go with all your heart. Confucius
I know men in exile feed on dreams of hope. Aeschylus, from
THE MAIN CHARACTERS
FONG WAH YENT: my father and father of Hing, Shing, Jook and Doon
FONG YET LAN: my mother and mother of Ming Nee
FIRST WIFE: my father’s first wife, mother of Hing, Shing, Jook and Doon SECOND UNCLE: my father’s older brother, my uncle
BIG UNCLE: my mother’s oldest brother, my uncle
the Chinese title for both a sister and a daughter-in-law, the title my mother used for Big Uncle’s first wife
LITTLE AUNT: my mother’s younger sister, my aunt
FIRST BROTHER HING: my father’s oldest son, my half-brother
SHING: my father’s middle son, my half-brother
JOOK: my father’s oldest daughter, my half-sister
DOON: my father’s youngest son, my half-brother
MING NEE: my mother’s daughter from her first marriage, my half-sister
JEN: Shing’s wife, my sister-in-law
YENG: Doon’s wife, my sister-in-law
KIM: Jook’s oldest daughter, my niece
SU: Jook’s youngest daughter, my niece
VEN: Su’s husband
CHONG: Jook’s youngest son, my nephew
LIANG: Jook’s middle son, my nephew
LEW: First Brother Hing’s son, my nephew
WEI: Lew’s wife
JEEN: First Brother Hing’s daughter, my niece
BING: Jeen’s husband
KUNG: Little Aunt’s son, my cousin
LIN: Kung’s wife
MICHAEL: my husband
This memoir is a work of creative nonfiction. The story of my parents changes according to the teller. This is my version.
I have used the actual names of my parents and my husband. The names of many other people in this book have been changed out of respect for their privacy and, in some cases, their safety. I have also given some of the Chinese personal names new English transliterations, which I hope are closer to the Four Counties dialect.
My family is from Kaiping County, one of the counties in the region known as Sze Yup, the Four Counties (Kaiping, Taishan, Xinhui and Enping) in Guangdong Province, southern China. Many of the Chinese who immigrated to North America in the first six decades or so of the twentieth century were from this region. My family speaks Sze Yup, or Taishanese, the Four Counties dialect that is still widely spoken in the region.
Parts of this book take place in pre-Communist China.
When referring to places in China during those times, I have used the spellings that were in usage then. However, when writing about current times, I have used the Pinyin, the official system used in China for writing Chinese in the Roman alphabet.
Not long after my father hanged himself in the summer of 1972, I found a small cardboard box tucked far beneath his bed. My mother and I were clearing out his bedroom, and all that remained was this one piece of furniture. The walls needed a coat of paint, and I could see silhouettes left from pictures of family weddings and my university graduation. I knelt on the bare, wooden-planked floor and reached under with a broom handle, pulling the box toward me. I wiped away a layer of dust, and as I lifted the lid, a stagnant smell of old ink and stale papers, of things sealed off for a long time from anything living, wafted up and caught in the back of my throat.
Piled inside were several old documents, along with letters from China, written on aerograms and onion skin paper, folded and stored in airmail envelopes. I took out one of the letters and opened it, felt the thin, translucent paper between my fingers and stared at those columns of beautiful Chinese characters penned in black ink, a script that I was unable to
read. What was in those letters? I wanted to know. I suddenly felt angry. In the months after my father’s death, it seemed that whatever equanimity I was able to achieve could shatter in an instant. Without warning I would be seething with rage, then overcome with grief. But why was I angry again? with myself, for never learning how to read and write Chinese? for having parents so unlike me and so difficult to understand? at my father and what he had done to himself, what he had done to us?
I took a deep breath and lifted more letters out of the box. Underneath, I found my father’s blue, cloth-bound Chinese passport. I found his 1949 immunization certificates for smallpox and cholera and the stub of his airline ticket from the China National Aviation Corporation—departing Hong Kong on August 22, 1949, for Gam Sun, the Gold Mountain, a place to which he had thought he would never have to return. Toward the bottom of the box, on top of some Kuomintang government bonds, was his Canadian citizenship certificate, dated July 25, 1950. On the back it stated that Fong Wah Yent was fifty-seven years old, a laundryman, five feet two inches in height, eyes brown, hair black, complexion dark and colour yellow.
I loosened a faded brown envelope from the stack of now worthless bonds. I opened it and found a green certificate with the words
Dominion of Canada
arranged in an arc of emphatic black type across the top. An ornate geometric pattern formed a border around the certificate’s edge. The paper felt thick and smooth. All these things declared the importance of this document. In the lower right-hand
corner, I saw a photograph of a man, a small, black-and-white portrait, similar to those in passports, except this one was on a certificate dated April 7, 1914, that had cost its holder five hundred dollars. The man was young, twenty-one years old, a year younger than I was as I sat looking at his image. His hair was parted at the side and neatly combed; his cheekbones were pronounced and his ears stuck out. He wore a dark, loose-fitting Chinese jacket with a stand-up collar. He looked back at me with an expression that was impossible to read, perhaps because the task before him was so overwhelming that he was unable to communicate an emotion. The man in the photograph was my father, and the piece of paper was his head tax certificate. How did this youth become the old man my mother found hanging from a rope in the basement of their house, the man whose death had struck us like a sudden explosion of glass, hurling shards so small and fine they embedded themselves deep in our flesh, never to be removed.