No Secret


No Secret 

November 1, 2018                            Cynthia Yee

I grew up in a world of secrets and transgressions, surrounded by mystery, embraced by hope.  Breaking rules was not so bad if somebody loved you. 

Sally slept with Lok Yen, but grown-ups didn’t talk about it.  They talked about how to braise beef skirt, make cheap cuts of meat tender, mash a boiled potato into sticky rice flour to made the dough soft, and whether to steam bamboo shoots alongside a glistening six pound chicken, or stew them with thick slabs of fatty pork belly.  Only children wondered about the old man in the attic named Lok Yen, and the woman named Sally.

I visited Mary, who lived in the red brick row house attached to mine.  She had stashed a piece of cloth, the color of French vanilla ice cream in the china cabinet by the stove.  We unfolded it and ran our palms across the smooth expanse of red, aqua, pink, green, and orange polka dots, some big as a dime, some small as a drop of rain.  A fluffy comforter of pink roses lay across the double bed where Mary slept with her two little sisters in the kitchen.  We sat on the edge of the bed and worked at the dining table in the middle of the kitchen.  “Let’s make a pop-pet!  I’ll show you how,” said Mary.  She measured across my shoulders, and from my neck to my waist.  I measured her.  “With her Mom’s long scissors, we cut out four large squares.  We each sewed two squares together, leaving a big opening along one edge for our necks, and two smaller ones on each side for our arms. We hemmed the edges. We made two summer shirts.  We tried them on.  Perfect.  We stood in front of the mirror.  Two girls, with shiny straight black hair cut shoulder length, smiled back.  Happy twins.  

          I heard the door open.  I said, “Hi, Aunty Sim!  Mary’s mom smiled,  “Heck a fan mei ah? Did you eat rice yet?”  “Not yet! Mee heck,” I said.  I took off the French vanilla shirt and folded it into a square.  I put on my red plaid shirt and tucked my new shirt under my arm.  “Bye, Mary!”  “Bye, Sim,” I said, and I ran outside.  Almost knocking over my crush, long legged Danny, I said, “Hey! Want to race to the pole?”  He shrugged his shoulders, said,  “Sure!”  I ran hard.  My hand touched the streetlight.  I screamed, “I win!  I win!”  Danny never got mad when he lost, he whistled.  I loved winning.  I loved running.  And I loved Danny.  

I spied Sally aiming toward my house, a sign that I should be home.  MaMa will be mad.  Every home on my street had a feather duster with shiny, brownish red feathers flapping on a long rattan stick.  Every Chinatown child knew the purpose of the gai mo lloe, it had nothing to do with dusting.  I could already hear the whoosh of the rattan switch whipping the air.

I remembered MaMa advising my Aunty Cheong Sim.  “Hit the legs.  Don’t hit the head.  Don’t damage the brain.”  That thoughtful sentiment did not help me much.  MaMa sewed and cooked.  She was busy. She did not need a brain damaged child.  I understood her duty, to teach me proper behavior, to tame me, her wild American-born child.  So she waved the feather duster around in the air, then tapped the floor, outlining what I did wrong: 

Ni koi ai UM, hui gai Vaun koi yeh?”  “What a Bold child you are!  Staying on the street!  Playing so late!”  (tap tap)

Ni ee tui ni due too mut yeh ma?  “Do you know what you did wrong?”  (tap tap)

“Ni (tap) VUN (tap) gaum (tap) m (tap) gaum (tap)?  “Do (tap) you (tap) dare (tap) do (tap) it again (tap)?”  (pause) 

Gaum M gaum ?  “Dare or not dare?”  (tap tap tap )

Mm gaum!  Mm gaum!  Mm gaum!”  “I will never dare do it again!”  “Never dare!”  “Never dare!”  Although I knew I probably will forget and do it again. 

I hopped and skipped around the rattan duster.

She tapped the floor.

MaMa never hit anyone, and I knew she could never bear to hit me, but the swatting dance humiliated me, nevertheless.  The feathers waving around on that gai mo lloe made me fear birds for a long time.

I ran up the stairs to the second floor, slipping around Sally, who was on her way to Lok Yen in the attic.  I kicked open the door, ran into the bedroom I shared with my parents, tucked my new shirt under my pillow, and slid under my parents’ bed.  Dustballs tickled my nose.  I stifled a sneeze.  MaMa called out the bedroom window facing Hudson Street, “Kow-Ling-ah, Ni gen aw Cin-Dee ma?  That’s “Karen, have you seen Cynthia?”  I held my arms tight against my side.  I stayed out too late again.  I lay still, mattress springs almost touching my nose, dust by me, and under me.  I reflected on my position.  I started thinking about my house and my neighbors.  

A floor length curtain and a large black immigration trunk with brass fittings, stood at the foot of my parents’ bed, separating their bed from mine.  MaMa had sewn the curtain when I graduated from a crib to a twin size bed.  My Aunty Cheong Sim had said, “A curtain is a good idea.”   MaMa agreed.

The rectangular bathroom sat next to my bed space.  Visitors had to pass my Dad’s folding desk, which stood at the head of my bed, to get to the bathroom.  The desk door, always opened, exposed the Maxwell House Coffee can, filled with my Dad’s restaurant tips.  My friends said, “Don’t your parents know that somebody could steal all their money?”  “If you need money, take what you need,” my Dad said. I needed super-hero comics after church on Sundays, and regular infusions of ice cream whenever the Frosty truck bell tinkled down my street.  

The living room had a couch, covered with a fabric of pink peonies, blooming across an aqua background.  Yim Lloe, my oldest paper brother’s wife, had sewn it.  She always greeted me with, “My Little Sister-in-Law, Hing Goo Doy, the prettiest girl in the whole wide world.’’  Yim Lloe bought cloth, measured the sofa body, then the sofa arms, and then the top and sides of each of the two cushions.  She traced the shapes on butcher paper, placed the pattern on the cloth, cut the shapes, and sewed the pieces together. She inserted blue piping all along the seams.  We slipped it over the couch and admired it.  Next to the couch, I kept my pile of comic books on a child size table, which my dad’s Boss Lady, Anita Chue, gave me.  Whenever her niece, Sandra, outgrew things, I got them.  My friend, Karen, thought I was a rich only child.  A sofa chair, covered with a matching floral covering, sat opposite the working sewing machine, which MaMa pedaled all day and late into the night.  In the corner, a phonograph and my favorite Cinderella record, also from the Boss Lady, sat on a non-working sewing machine, which folded into a table.  On top of it, we put our fake Christmas tree with its glittery fake snow.  A television sat on a Goodwill record cabinet by the sofa chair.  I sat in the chair and turned my neck around to peek at the screen while I talked to MaMa’s back everyday.

Next to the working sewing machine sat a red formica square dining table ringed by a metal strip of zebra stripes, forever falling off, and taped back again.  Three fading ebony wooden chairs with embossed seats, all rescued from a restaurant renovation, sat around the red table, and one ebony chair with sawed-down legs to fit MaMa, sat at the sewing machine.  A white refrigerator stood next to a silver radiator, on which we kept the aluminum rice pot warm when we had all of my uncles for dinner.  Hanging on one wall, all in a row, were large, framed, black and white photographs of my real Grandmother, my real Grandfather, my fake Grandmother, my fake Grandfather, and a painting of Our Lady of Fatima.  My fake Grandfather was my real Grandfather’s youngest brother.  He claimed my Dad as his son so my Dad could come to America.  We had the fake Grandparents up in case Immigration decided to pay us a visit.  It was hard to know who to really pray to, and who was exactly who.  

On Chinese New Year’s Eve, MaMa burned incense to all six of them, if you included Jesus on the Crossip .  On the red formica table, she placed a poached chicken, a slab of steamed pork belly, a bowl of oranges and tangerines, and a glass filled with sand, in which she stuck sticks of incense.  All this she positioned in front of the window facing the Southeast Expressway.  MaMa said, “Jesus and Jesus’ MaMa, your Grandfather and your Grandmother, your Grand-Uncle and your Grand-Aunt are all in the same Heaven, so we can burn incense to all of them.  Bow three times to the Heavens, and you will be blessed.”  My real Grandmother didn’t like girls much so I needed added protection from the others.  I bowed three times to all six of them, and to the sky, and the expressway.

MaMa was a baptized Catholic, but not for the reasons one might think.  She wanted to adopt a boy.  She learned that, in America, Catholic Charities gave out boys.  MaMa felt it was her duty to provide a son to pray to my Dad in the afterlife, and she had birthed four daughters.

Two nuns visited us and asked about the photos on the wall.  

The first nun pointed to the four photos of my real and fake Grandparents.  

“Who are they?”  “Do you pray to them?” And then told us we must not do that.  

“They are asking who the photographs are, MaMa.”  “They want to know if you pray to them,” I said.  

MaMa smiled, as if the nuns just could never understand, not in a thousand years. 

The nun then pointed to the sewing machine. 

“Do you sew on that machine?” “Do you sew on Sundays?” And then told us we must not do that, either.

“They want to know if you sew on Sundays,”  I said to MaMa.  

MaMa smiled her friendliest smile, the one reserved for Americans, and said, 

Sis-See Dah ah, U li-kee Gar Fe?”  my MaMa’s version of “Sister, you like coffee?” and she offered them fresh cups of coffee with cream and sugar in our best cups and saucers.

After coffee, the nuns got up to leave.  They gave us a present, a framed painting of a pretty white woman with pink cheeks and long brown hair, wearing a veil and a flowing dress, floating above a bush, a circle around her head, her hands clasped together.  They said, “This is Our Lady of Fatima.”  MaMa smiled, nodded, and took the framed picture from them.  She hung it next to the black and white photos of my real and fake Grandparents.  I don’t think MaMa knew the right answers to the nuns’ questions, but whether Immigration or the nuns came to visit, we were now all set.  MaMa believed in the promise of America and in Heavens’ blessings, in equal measure.  

My Dad said, “We don’t need a boy.  We live in America now, and the King of England has a daughter and she is the Queen of England, Queen Elizabeth.  Even the President of the United States has daughters.  My daughters are fine.  Cynthia is fine.”  MaMa smiled at me, and said, “That’s why you are a Little Girl Emperor, because your BaBa thinks like that. Like an American.”

I thought of Lo Wong Poh, Grandma Wong, puttering around below me.  Every year, on the first warm day of spring, her daughter-in-law came out of the basement with a big belly, lugging a baby carriage.  I wondered what happened in the basement during the winter that got her belly to swell up like that.  I always greeted her with a loud, “Hi, Aunty Ling Sim!” as if we had just come out of hibernation, like the bears, happy to see each other after a winter’s nap.  With her gentle mannerisms and soft voice, Ling Sim reminded me of a shy bride.  I admired her, but, for some reason, I knew I could not be like her. I cuddled her babies. I danced with her little girl on the sidewalk and I dangled a toy monkey in front of her little boy sitting in the carriage.  The four of us laughed and giggled together. 

I loved visiting Lo Wong Poh in her warm kitchen.  I sat on her vinyl kitchen chair and we chatted about life while she offered me something delicious.  Ni hek tee ma?” she said, and handed me a steamed rice cake.  It was not the steamed cakes that intrigued me.  It was that she walked like a penguin.  She had dark, wrinkly hands, which she held close to her hips, palms flat, and fingers pointed outwards by her side.  I held my arms close to my side, palms flat, my fingers pointed outwards, and waddled like her.  Just to see how it felt.  I did this when I went home, never in front of Lo Wong Poh.  She puttered around her kitchen, her fingers sticking out sideways, and called me, “Ah-Nui ah, Ah Nui,” an endearment that meant more than “Little Girl, Little Girl.”  It meant she loved me, with a love that warmed me up from the insides out.  I traipsed up and down the stairs, visiting Lo Wong Poh, whenever I wanted some of that warm fill-up-your chest love.  If I bumped into Sally, I skipped aside, and let her pass.  

My stomach began to grumble.  I closed my eyes and saw Lo Wong Poh’s steamed rice cakes with the dried ha mai shrimp and sliced lop cheong sausages on top.  I tried not to think about food. I thought about Sally.  

Well, Sally was a sight that made you stop what you were doing, and take notice.  Everybody, up and down my street, had black hair.  Unless they were old.  Then they had gray hair, or no hair.  Sally, on the other hand, had red hair some days, pink hair other days, orange hair when she felt like it, and on some days, if she got the formula mixed up, she had purple hair with pink highlights.  She wore a lightweight house dress with a collar, four buttons in a row that ran down the front, beginning at her chest and ending at her middle, and a flair skirt that swirled.  Her round breasts hung low, almost down to her waist, and she wore shoes with thick heels.  She had the look of a disposable doll, frumpy and well filled out, a doll one would not miss much if it disappeared.  On sunny days, she wore sunglasses with bold red frames.  Nylon stockings rolled up at her ankles and red rouge smeared on her cheeks, she looked a bit like the clown I saw at the circus the nuns took us to see, but she was not the smiling kind of clown.  Her face wore an unwavering seriousness, and her walk spoke a focused determination.  All the women on my street sewed at home, but Sally did not sew, and she did not stay at home. She followed old men home.

I watched this happen over and over.  The old man signaling her, looked to his right, then to his left.  He caught her eye with his eye, a whisper, or a small wave of his hand.  Then he looked away.  He pretended not to know her.  She followed.  I thought it a curious call and response game.

The old man slithered off, hands in his pocket, glancing over his shoulder.  Sometimes I felt the signal coming before the man made it.  The old men tried not to look obvious.  That was the first sign.  Trying to look invisible.  I did not blink.  The men slinked away and Sally followed, muttering under her breath.  Never too close.  

Sally’s visits to old men in the attics and rooming houses of Chinatown, and following old men home, made me wonder what she did exactly.  She answered to “Rose” and sometimes to “Mary.”  I wondered if the nuns had named her Mary.  They gave that name a lot to Chinatown girls registering for the public school next to the convent.  Jesus’ MaMa’s name came up when we got toys at their Christmas party, and so did Mary Magdalene, a loose woman.  Children called her Sally.  “Here comes Sally in the Alley!  Three bucks a throw,” we chanted as she walked down the street on one of her missions.  No matter that she did not live in an alley.  She lived in a red brick row house, like mine, next to the convent.  We didn’t know what a “throw” meant.  We just liked rhyming.  She was a Lo-Fan, a barbarian, a white woman, a woman with neither husband nor children, living in Chinatown, alone.  Sally stood out. Yet people did not talk about her.  People looked away.  They pretended not to see her. 

So I noticed her more.  I did not look away.  She was different.  A woman of many names, and no name she claimed.  A bit sloppy, and a bit odd, not much to look at, but regular and dutiful.  Her halo, an aura of the forbidden, glimmered in my young eyes. The question, “What if you did that, then what would  happen?” and its partner,  “What if you didn’t do that, then what would happen?” walked along beside her, each holding one of her hands. Transgression, its promise of alternatives, of adventure, of unknown and unexplored possibilities, fascinated me. 

I did not admire Sally in the way I adored Aunty Ling Sim, nor pray to her, as I did the Lady of Fatima, nor want to live like her, but Sally intrigued me.  Transgression and her companions, Forbidden and Courageous, waved enticing hands to me.  I had not yet grown up enough to learn their boundaries and limitations. 

I didn’t understand English when I was young, so I watched the American teachers, as though they were in a silent movie.  I figured out what they wanted me to do, just enough so I wouldn’t get into trouble for Disobedience.  A lot of school was about following directions.  “Smart” in school meant being obedient.  I prided myself on being smart so I had to figure out the rules.  Obedience did not come naturally to me.  So I became good at watching. I watched Sally.

Sally is tiptoeing down the stairs now.  Finished with her business visiting Lok Yen today.  My stomach gurgled, so I thought of the floor above me.  My little cousin, Albert, lived there with his parents, my Aunty Cheong Sim and my Uncle Cheong Sook, my Dad’s youngest brother.  The place always smelled of delicious food.  My Aunty Cheong Sim could neither read nor write, neither in Chinese nor in English.  She was illiterate and brilliant.  She had created a system for computing numbers in her head fast, experimented with intricate recipes not written down anywhere, and navigated around Boston visiting friends and family by train, using landmark pictures.  Paintings of swan boats meant, “The Park”, a short walk to Chinatown.  Aunty Cheong Sim, a tourist in her new homeland, a traveler bringing juicy gossip along with home cooked deliciousness, marked distances by their proximity to Chinatown.

Aunty Cheong Sim took me shopping in Haymarket on Saturdays.  Won Dollah?  She held up one finger, then squeezed the tomatoes, and tapped the melons.  The seller yelled, “No!  No!  No!”  “Don na tucha da melon!  Leave ma tau may toes alone!”  She smiled, and nodded, and pinched the eggplants.  Then we went to the Butcher Shop, she, wheeling her cart, precariously balanced on rickety wheels.  The Butcher knew what she liked, so he brought out a slab of pork butt and a bag of chicken feet.  “Cut, Cut,” she said, and made a slicing motion over the pork and held up one finger.

Two dollahs!”  He shook his head and wrapped up the meat in brown paper.  Then he said, ”Heah, take this for your soup!” and handed her a bag of pork bones.  She smiled, and said,  Dank-kew!  Dank-kew!” and her eyes crinkled up.  Saturday after Saturday she did this. 

She loved me like Lo Wong Poh.  She loved me with Taishan rice cakes, fried and steamed, a smile that made the corners of her eyes crinkle up, and lots of sighing.  Ai-ya!  Gwoy Maai la!  Ah-Nui,  in just that tone that meant, “I got this.  I take care everything.  I take care of you.” We both understood the language of food. 

I thought of the attic, two floors above me, where old Lok Yen lived.  MaMa asked me to go up to the attic with her one day.  So I did.  I always obeyed her.  Well, most of the time.  When it made sense to me.  That day I had the sense that MaMa did not want to be alone with a man who was not my Dad.  

I watched Lok Yen shuffle across the room in his brown, vinyl slippers.  He looked close to ancient to me.  His mostly bald head tottered on his skinny neck, and out of the sides of his head sprouted a few wisps of thin gray hair slicked back.  On his curved back hung a navy blue vest.  

Lok Yen poured MaMa some tea from a gold teapot that stood on a tray where he kept two matching teacups.  Each teacup had a red dragon circling the sides, ready to pounce.  The gold teapot, decorated with a painting of the same ferocious red dragon, and a flying red phoenix, had a once white spout turning gray.  

A dark green blanket, the color of my Dad’s army uniform that we stored in the black immigration trunk, covered a narrow bed.  One side of the bed leaned against the gray wall, a bed so narrow there was hardly enough room for one person.  The headboard had bars like the jail cell on Bonanza, a Western I watched on TV.  I fingered the army green blanket draped over the bed.  It felt itchy.  The corner of a sheet, once white, peeked out from under the blanket.  The other side of the bed faced the front door.  His blue facecloth hung stiff on a wooden drying rack, next to the sink, as did his baggy underpants, and graying, ribbed undershirt.  A neatly pressed navy blue suit hung on a metal hanger hooked over the closet door.  A red tie hung over the suit.  

No photos adorned his wall.  Lok Yen lived alone.  He had no visitors, except for Sally, and today, MaMa and me.  A square table, covered with newspapers, leaned against the wall diagonally across from his bed.  A rice bowl, decorated with flying goddesses, and a pair of wood chopsticks sat on top of the Chinese news.  I noticed the edge of the rice bowl had a chip like the one on the spout of Lok-Yen’s gold phoenix teapot.  

He smiled at me, and called me, “Ah-Nui Little Girl.” I stared at his yellow teeth.  He poured two cups of tea from his gold teapot.  He said ,“Ngim-cha ma,” offering me tea.  His wrinkled hands shook.  I took the porcelain cup, which had no handles, with both my hands, as my Dad and my Uncles had taught me.  “Always take with two hands, look at the other person, and address him by title.”  Yung leng jek siu.  Hum ngin,” they said, but I couldn’t call him Lok Yen.  That would be rude.  I knew not to call grownups by their names, real or fake.  So I called him, “Bak” “Elder Uncle.”  I looked into his smiling eyes, and I smiled back and said, “Ooo deah, Bak,  “Thank you, Elder Uncle.”  I took a tiny sip, careful to avoid the chipped edge, afraid of cutting my lips, and getting blood into my tea.  

MaMa said, “Thank you. We must go down and cook now,” my signal to leave.  He went to a drawer and pulled out some dollar bills and handed them to MaMa.  Eee due ni la.  MaMa said, “Ooo deah.  She put the rent money in her apron pocket and we went downstairs.  

In my mind’s eye, I saw Lo Wong Poh downstairs, puttering around, a busy penguin steaming egg custard.  I saw my Aunty Cheong Sim above me, in her flowery apron, chopping greens, and stir frying mung bean vermicelli in her blackened wok. I imagined my Dad welcoming customers to the Cathay House in his friendly way.  I saw Lok Yen in his attic, shuffling around, pouring Oolong tea into his dragon and phoenix teapot, waiting for Sally.  I thought of her, walking down the street with her orange hair, and climbing up the stairs to visit Lok Yen.  I wondered if when he served her a porcelain cup of Oolong tea if she took it with both her hands, nodded, and looked him in the eyes, and said, “Ooo deah, Lok Yen,” and if he smiled at her when she said that.  That thought made me smile.  I wondered if he bought her a nice, new rice bowl, decorated with beautiful goddesses.  

Then I thought of myself, stuck by the pile of dustballs, mighty worried I would get a licking with that rattan duster, and a new thought occurred to me.  What would happen if I was never found?  

I thought of Lok Yen, snuggling tight against Sally, like the porcelain spoons I washed and laid in the kitchen drawer, warm with the kind of love I felt with Lo Wong Poh, that special feeling that grew from deep inside my chest, filling up my entire body, and radiating up and out, traveling like fire down my arms, down my legs, and shaking up the world.

It must be dinner time.  Sally must be walking back out onto Hudson Street.  She didn’t stay out later than she should, like I did, getting herself into trouble.  If MaMa never found me, I might have to sleep in the dust all night.  

I heard MaMa walk to the window and call out again, looking for me.  I felt vibrations under me.  The vibrations rippled closer and closer.  I stiffened my arms and held them against by body.  I covered both my eyes with my hands.  My heart raced faster and faster, so fast I thought it would jump out of my chest.  I tried to slow it down.  I held my breath.  My heart beat louder and louder, echoing in my ear.  I felt a presence peeking under the bed, fingers touching my arm.  I clenched my fists.  I squeezed my eyes tight.  I stiffened my body.  A hand grabbed my arm, and pulled.  I slid out, exposed.  

I stood on my two feet.  “Ai Ya!  Ni naut aw ge chong ai doo Maut ah?  ”MaMa patted my bottom.  The dust flew off me.  I did not answer her question.  I did not tell her why I was under the bed.  I stood there, silent.  I clenched my fist and I held in the avalanche of tears swelling inside my chest, ready to flow up into my eyes.  Then I burst.  I cried.  In between gulps of air, I said, “Ngoi pa ni ah ngoi.  Ngoi aw Jit Lan ok kee.”  “I was afraid you would hit me.  I was at Jit Lan’s house.” I choked.  The tears would not stop flowing, no matter how hard I tried to hold them in.  I heard MaMa’s heavy sighing, like when I had swollen glands, and she thought I had a tumor growing out of my neck.  I remembered how MaMa touched the lump on my neck with a worrying, soft touch.  She wrinkled her brows and smoothed my hair, and insisted my Dad bring me to the Hospital.  She insisted that my Dad question the Doctor again and again.  

MaMa picked through my hair, removing specks of dust.  She forgot all about me Being in Big Trouble.  She forgot about being angry.  She forgot.  

I stretched both my arms out, and let MaMa clean me.  She picked every bit of dust off my hair, off my wet, teary face, my shaking shoulders, the front of my red plaid shirt covering my sobbing chest, my heaving back, my blue pants, which held my two trembling legs, and then my red sneakered feet.  She did it over again, two and three more times.  Just to be sure.  MaMa removed every smidgen.  That warm feeling I got with Lo Wong Poh filled my chest and radiated out my arms and legs.  I didn’t need to worry about birds and feathers and pain and humiliation and all that.  My MaMa loved me.  She didn’t want me covered in dust or lost in the streets. I felt like Mary Magdalene, a lost sinner, and one of Jesus’ best friends.

Mary’s mom never scolded us for taking her French vanilla cloth, but just said, “What pretty shirts you two girls made.  Koi lek nui-ah!  Such smart girls you two are.”  The nuns let MaMa pass the test to get baptized, even though she didn’t know the answers to their questions.  Just so she could get a son to pray for my Dad in the afterlife, even though that kind of praying broke the nuns’ rules.  We didn’t need a son, anyway, because my parents had me, their American Girl Emperor, to honor them, always.  A feather duster, whooshing in the air, landed as a tap, tap, tap on the floor, aiming only for the legs, never the head, and then missed.  Every single time.  On purpose.  My parents left a can of restaurant tips out in the open, so anyone could steal coins if they wanted to, but nobody ever did, because nobody stole from such naive and trusting, foolish people.  My Aunty Cheong Sim, illiterate and brilliant, pinched tomatoes in a foreign land, and the vendor gave her free pork bones to cook delicious soups for me.  Lok Yen needed Sally, and Sally took care of Lok Yen, giving him what he needed, so he wouldn’t feel lonely, and he gave Sally what she needed, so she wouldn’t be poor.  No one ever talked about Sally sleeping with Lok Yen.  Even though everyone knew.  I knew not to waddle like a penguin in front of Lo Wong Poh, but waited, and only did that when I got home.  

Love, or something close enough, can look a lot like all that.  

Through the window, I glimpsed a bright purple pink head, gliding under the jeweled sky, making its way toward that safe, warm place called home, next to the nuns kneeling in evening prayer to Our Lady of Fatima, a woman famous for telling three secrets about the world to children.  A woman of many names, one of which was Mary.  

From under my pillow, I pulled out my French vanilla shirt with its constellation of dots, bursting with color.  I put it on and ran my fingers through my hair, mussing it up, then shook my head. I looked in the mirror, twirled around three times, and stopped.  A girl with sparkling, copper eyes, rosy cheeks, and shiny, raven tresses, all in disarray, stared back at me.  I curtsied and bowed a deep, regal bow.  She smiled back and winked. 

This is a work of creative non fiction.  

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was the first significant law restricting immigration to the United States based on ethnicity.  It outlawed intermarriage and barred paths to citizenship.  The Chinese adaptation to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was the creation of a system of paper sons, whereby young boys were claimed as legal sons by Chinese American fathers.  These young boys and young men came to work and sent home remittances to support their families and clans.  Though the Exclusion Act was eventually repealed in 1943, allowing 105 visas per year for the Chinese, the repercussions of this Exclusion Act was felt for four generations.  The Chinese Communist Revolution of 1949 further exacerbated the fracturing of Chinese American families, when diplomatic ties between the United States and the Peoples Republic of China were suspended.  The men who came to work became stranded and many lived in the attics and rooming houses of Boston’s Chinatown.

Cynthia Yee, who grew up in Boston Chinatown, honors these sojourner men, many of whom were her neighbors and relatives, who lived and died alone.  She thanks Alysia Abbott, author of “Fairyland,” and in whose Memoir class, Cynthia originally sketched out the “Sally” story .  “Thank you, Alysia, for reminding me every time we met, how much you liked my Chinatown stories, even remembering my Sally story, long after the class had ended.”  Cynthia also thanks Professor of Narrative Journalism, Mark Kramer, for advising her, even though he said, “It feels l like I am feeding a baby bird who keeps turning its head.”  To him, Cynthia says, “I listened and collected every word from yours and Stacy Mattingly’s mouths, like pearls.  Thank you.”

14 thoughts on “No Secret

  1. Hello,

    Your article caught my eye as I was scrolling Facebook this evening. I believe my father and his siblings may have grown up in your neighborhood around the same time, but I know very little about what life was like then — did you know Ronald Yee? He had lots of sisters Ginny, Linda, Nancy, Susan? My email is I’d love to hear from you!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I lived on the upper end of Hudson street and I am younger than your dad so I know about the street and my neighbors . Nancy us married to sloogie. I am near Susan’s age . If you live near boston I can meet you in Chinatown one day .


  2. At first, I found your writing detailed and confusing. Then I read it in its entirety. Thank you, Cynthia Yee, for the answers to the many questions of a growing up,young girl in NYC Chinatown, to the adult understanding of the ‘paper sons’. Your style is highly charming,confusing, a joy to experience. Thank you,again…..

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Such a beautiful piece — you guide us through all of these micro-worlds and moments that at times seem connected only by your experience, and then the lovely paragraph at the end that ties them all together, that starts, “Mary’s mom never scolded us for taking her French vanilla cloth, but just said, “What pretty shirts you two girls made. Koi lek nui-ah!” — that’s what made me cry.

    Thank you, Denise, my lovely writing teacher and dear friend! Your kind words make my eyes tear up. Thank you always for your support from the very beginning. Love you lots !♥️♥️

    Liked by 1 person

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