|THE TEN THOUSAND THINGS
"I saw your mother last week."
The stranger's voice on the phone surprised me. She spoke firmly, clearly, with the accents of Vancouver's Old Chinatown: "I saw your mah-ma on the streetcar."
Not possible. Mother died nineteen years ago.
Nineteen years ago I had sat on a St. Paul's hospital bed beside her skeletal frame, while the last cells of her lungs clogged up. She lay gasping for breath: the result of decades of smoking. I stroked her forehead, and with my other hand I clasped her thin motionless fingers. Around two in the morning, half asleep and weary, I closed my eyes to catnap. Suddenly, the last striving for breath shook her thin body. I snapped awake, conscious again of the smell of acetone, of death burning away her body. The silence deepened; the room chilled. The mother I had known all my life was gone.
Nineteen years later, in response to a lively radio interview about my first novel, a woman left a mysterious message, URGENT WAYSON CHOY CALL THIS NUMBER.
Back at my hotel room, message in hand, I dialed the number and heard an older woman's voice tell me she had seen my mother on the streetcar. She insisted.
"You must be mistaken," I said, confident that this woman, her voice charged with nervous energy, would recognize her error and sign off.
"No, no, not your mother," the voice persisted. "I mean your real mother."
"My first crazy," I remember thinking. The Jade Peony had been launched just two days before at the Vancouver Writers' Festival, and already I had a crazy. "Watch out for the crazies!" my agent had, half-whimsically, warned me. The crazies had declared open season upon another of her clients, a young woman who had written frankly of sexual matters. I was flattered, hardly believing that my novel about Vancouver's Old Chinatown could provoke such perverse attention. Surely, my caller was simply mistaken.
"I saw your real mother," the voice insisted, repeating the word "real" as if it were an incantation.
My real mother? I looked down at the polished desk, absently studied the Hotel Vancouver room-service menu. My real mother was dead; I had been there to witness her going. I had come home that same morning nineteen years ago and seen her flowered apron carefully draped over the kitchen chair, folded precisely, as it had been every day of my life. I remember taking the apron, quickly hiding it from my father's eyes as he, in his pajamas, shuffled on his cane into the kitchen. Seeing the apron missing from the chair, he asked, "She's-?" but could not finish the question. He stood staring at the back of the chair. He leaned his frail eighty-plus years against me. Speechless, I led him back to his bed.
The voice on the hotel phone chattered on, spilling out details and relationships, talking of Pender Gai and noting how my brand-new book talked of the "secrets of Chinatown." I suddenly caught my family name pronounced distinctively and correctly, Tuey. Then my grandfather's, my mother's, and my father's formal Chinese names, rarely heard, sang into my consciousness over the earpiece.
"Yes, yes," the voice went on, "those are your family names?" "Yes, they are," I answered, "but who are you?"
"Call me Hazel," she said.
Months later, Hazel turned up to be interviewed; we had tea, some dumplings, and bowls of jook. In 1939, when she herself was in her teens, Hazel had taken care of a baby named Way Sun. Her family home had been a kind of short-term foster home for in-transit Chinatown children. It was 1939, the year of the Royal Visit, and Hazel's own mother had desperately wanted to see the King and Queen parade down Hastings and Granville streets.
"That's why I remember your name," Hazel said. She proved to be a friendly, talkative woman in her late sixties, wisps of grey hair floating about her. "Unusual name, Way Sun. Your new mother worried that you wouldn't have a birth certificate."
"But I have one," I insisted.
"That was because my mother was a midwife," Hazel said. "My mother told the government clerk you born at home." She sipped from her teacup and laughed. "What do they know? What do they care?" Her eyes sparkled with memory. "Those old days! Here was a China baby, just a few weeks old! They maybe think, things done differently in Chinatown! Anyway, nobody care about one more China baby! Everybody worry about the war."
A few months before Hazel and I met, I had cornered my two aunts, to whom I had dedicated my book. Was I adopted, I wanted to know, as Hazel had told me? My two aunts looked at each other. In an interview with me, the reporter from Maclean's magazine had noted that "a caller" had left me perplexed about my birth. Surely Aunt Freda and Aunt Mary knew the truth.
I had written a novel about the secrets of Chinatown, and in the kaleidoscope of my life, one single phone call had altered the picture significantly, shifted all the pieces: my life held secrets, too. This real-life drama beginning to unfold, this eerie echo of the life of one of my fictional characters, seemed absurd. Suddenly, nothing of my family, of home, seemed solid and specific. Nothing in my past seemed to be what it had always been.
During the Depression and the War years, the trading and selling of children, especially the giving and taking of male children, were not uncommon practices either of Old China or of the Old Chinatowns of North America. Canada's 1923 Exclusion Act and similar racist laws passed earlier in the United States all forbade the immigration of Chinese women and children. Thus, there were only limited numbers of Chinese families in North America. Chinatowns became social and sexual pressure cookers; bachelor-men dominated the population. Children were being born, wanted and unwanted. Scandals and suicides multiplied. Family joys were balanced by family suffering.
In the hothouse climate of Vancouver's Chinatown in the 1920s, '30s, and mid-' 40s, children were born and kept mainly within their own families, or family tongs; however, a secret few were sold, traded, or given away to fill a childless couple's empty nest, or to balance a family that lacked a first-born son to carry on their kinship name; family pride and Confucian tradition demanded a son to inherit the family artifacts. And so, I must have been sold, traded, or given away to balance my adoptive parents' empty nest. I was to be the only child, a son, heir to the family name and worldly goods.
My adopted parents had both died, believing that I would never discover that they were not my birth parents, that my memory of home had been fraudulent in a sense, lovingly fraudulent. Now the truth was trickling out. The ground shifted under me. Was it true? Was I adopted?
At the airport restaurant where we spoke, my two aunts looked sheepishly at each other, and then, eyes full of loving concern, they turned to look at me. I said nothing. At last, Freda confessed, "Yes, yes, you are adopted." Mary quickly added, "So what? To me, you're just as much a part of our family."
"You're even better than that!" Freda laughed. "You were chosen. We just got born into the damn family!"
I didn't laugh. Hearing them confirm Hazel's claim made me pause: all those years that I had taken "home" for granted. . . . A long drawn-out sigh escaped from me: I had become an orphan three weeks before my fifty-seventh birthday. I glanced at the date registered on my watch.
"Tomorrow is April Fool's Day," I finally said, voice maudlin. Then, barely able to contain ourselves, we all three burst out laughing.
"Life has no beginning. . . nor ending." The man whom I thought was my father had said this to me three days before he died. "Good things go on being good," he said, sighing that long sigh that I had learned from him. "Bad things go on being bad."
Unlike the woman whom I had thought was my mother, the man whom I'd taken for my father was not afraid to talk of other mysteries and losses, of life past, and even of his own eventual dying that summer's end at St. Paul's Hospital.
In this hospital, throughout the '30s, the nuns had lobbied the city fathers and the health authorities to admit the people of Chinatown into its ill-lit, mildewed basement. In this hospital, the Chinese and other undesirables-"Resident Aliens"-were to be nursed back to health or to die there, at least in the care of God's holy servants. His father died there, in the basement; and in September of 1982, the man I had known as my father ended his life, at eighty-five, of a stomach cancer he accepted as the last indignity.
He stayed, not in the basement, but in a sixth-floor bed that looked over the West End, in a newly built wing of St. Paul's, in a room that was flooded with morning light, free of dampness and mildew. His eyes had grown too cloudy to see anything but light. I rubbed his back with mineral oil, his skin like a baby's. He barely smiled. He had been happy to greet my friend Marie, who had flown in from Toronto to be with both of us. That last evening, with Marie's gentle encouragement, he accepted from me a spoonful of fruit salad. He took into his dry mouth a seedless grape, but would not swallow.
The next morning at eight o'clock, when he died, a torrential rainstorm lashed the city. Marie, so beloved of my father, touched my father's stiff hands and brought them together. As his only son, I kissed his still-warm forehead and marveled at life and death.
I did not know then that he was not my real father; I only knew that this old man-whose outward frailty betrayed the tough spirit within-was the man I had loved as my father all my life. There was no other.
Since hearing from Hazel, I have thought often of the Chinese phrase "the ten thousand things," whose number symbolically suggests how countless are the ways of living and dying, how much of love and life cannot be fathomed. And I have thought of the Cantonese opera.
"My Aunt Helena says that your father was a member of one of the opera companies," Hazel told me, much later, in her young-again, excited voice.
On my behalf, Hazel had been earnestly digging up as much information from the Elders as she could. She had already learned that the person she thought was my real mother, the old woman she saw on the streetcar, was not my real mother after all. She, it turns out, had died decades ago. And, yes, the man who fathered me was a member of one of the opera companies. Alas, there was no more information; at least, no more was revealed by the Elders. Not even Mrs. Lee, a best friend of my adoptive parents, would admit she knew anything. So much you can know, and no more.
For the past two years, long before Hazel's first telephone call sent her seismic quake through my world, I had been, ironically, researching the Cantonese Opera, especially the touring Chinese opera companies that had thrived all through the '30s and '40s from Canton to Hong Kong, from San Francisco to Seattle to Vancouver, the semi-professional companies that formed "the Bamboo Circuit." My second novel, the one I'm writing now, is centered around the Vancouver opera companies of Old Chinatown.
Since childhood, I had been enthralled with the high drama and acrobatics of Chinese opera. The woman who was known to me as my mother had taken me to see the operas and then, afterwards, to visit Shanghai Alley and the smoky backstage of the opera company. There, among jeweled headpieces, gleaming costumes, and prop curtains, she played mah-jong5 with members of the troop, while I was being spoiled by sweetmeats or left alone to play with costumed opera dolls with fierce warrior faces. Alone, I became a prince and a warrior, my parents the Emperor and Empress. All the adventures of the world were possible, and I the hero of them all. Finally, I remember the laughter and sing-song voices, the clack-click of the bamboo and ivory game tiles, lulling me to sleep.
Even today I recall, as a child, dreaming of the fabled opera costumes, how they swirled to glittering life, how I flew acrobatically through the air between spinning red banners and clouds of yellow silk and heard the roar and clanging of drums and cymbals. And how I fought off demons and ghosts to great applause. Were those dreams in my blood?
"The way things were in those old days," Hazel said, pushing back a strand of her salt-and-pepper hair, "best to let the old stories rest. Your father belonged to the opera company, that's what my Aunt Helena says."
For the past two summers, I had pored over the tinted cast and production photos of the opera companies in Vancouver. For intense seconds, without realizing it, I must have caught a smile, a glimpse of a hairline as familiar as my own; I must have seen eyes looking back through the photographer's plates, eyes like my own: I might have seen, staring back at me, the man who surely was my father. I cannot help myself: I imagine the man who fathered me, dressed in imperial splendor, sword in hand; he is flying above me, majestic and detached. If I were seventeen, and not fifty-seven, would I weep to know that this man abandoned me?
"Best to let the stories rest," Hazel repeated.
And so I do. I let the stories rest, though not quite. My writer's mind races on, unstoppable. I had always thought of my family, my home, in such a solid, no-nonsense, no-mystery manner, how could I possibly think that the untold stories would never be told?
I think of myself as the child I was, playing with the fierce-faced dolls among the backstage wooden swords and stretched drums of the opera company. I see myself, five years old, being watched and wondered at by a tall figure behind me, a figure who slips away if I turn my head towards him. Was that the man who fathered me? And perhaps a woman-the birth mother-raises her hand at the mah-jongg table and smiles at me, briefly noting how blessed my life now seems. How lucky I am, to share the fate of the man and woman I came to know as Mother and Father, decent and good people, who, all my life, loved me as their own.
I marvel that the ten thousand things should raise questions I never thought to ask, should weave abiding mystery into my life. How did most of us come to think of parents and family and home, as if there were no mysteries, really? How did most of us contrive for decades to speak neither of the unknown nor of the knowable? And how, with the blessing of a community that knew when to keep silent and when-at last-to speak up, I am come home again, like a child, opened up again to dreams and possibility.
At home, I turn on my computer to begin tapping out the second novel; in the middle of a sentence-like this one, in fact-I laugh aloud. I had been writing fiction about life in Chinatown; Chinatown, all these years, had been writing me.
Choy, Wayson. “The Ten Thousand Things.” The Norton Reader, Shorter Eleventh Edition. Ed. Linda H. Peterson and John C. Brereton. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2004. 12-17.