Chicken Skin – A Short Story by Charlie Chin

By Charlie Chin. Posted January 10, 2024

From the files of the Bureau of Unusual Occurrences.  Quarterly report to main office.  Agents Carmen Chung and Olivia Kim reporting.  These transcripts are taken from collected field recordings of the last three months.   Interviewers poised the question “What is the strangest story you have ever heard?”

Sunset over the Pacific Ocean. Sunset district, San Francisco. Photo by SFBrit via Flickr.

Case Number 1763.  Informant:  Chester Young.  Dental Assistant.

     “This one is about my Auntie Wu.  She was raised in Hong Kong.  She has a nephew named Tommy Yee.  Tommy met and fell in love with a girl named Suan Leong.  They met at the Marina in San Francisco at some event.  Anyway, they fell in love.  It seemed perfect so they moved in together about a month later to her apartment in North Beach.   Then it turns out that Suan is insanely jealous.  If Tommy just talks or even looks at another woman, Suan goes ballistic.  He can’t take it after while and they break up.   Tommy moves back to his place in the Sunset but the next day he starts getting these intense migraine headaches.  I mean bad.  He can’t go to work.  His Auntie Wu comes by with a pot of pig foot soup to help him.  While she’s there she questions him closely about what’s happened in the last couple of days.  When he explains he just broke up with his girlfriend, Auntie Wu thinks for a minute and then tells him that the migraines are being caused by his ex-girlfriend who has put a curse on Tommy.   Tommy asks how she knows this, and she tells him she was raised by her mother to be a Deng Gi.  A sort of Taoist medium or fortune teller.    She asks Tommy where he met Suan and tells him to go back to that exact spot, look out at the ocean, and walk seven steps to the right.  Then he will see a triangle shaped stone.  He is to lift the stone up and set free whatever he finds under the stone.  Tommy thinks this is all superstition, but the headaches are so bad, he’s willing to try anything.  He does as his Aunt Wu asks.  When he lifts the stone, he finds a crab tied up with a string.  Must have been tied up there for days.  He cuts the string off the crustation, the crab scurries into the water, and Tommy’s headaches are gone.  To this day Tommy won’t eat Dungeness crab for fear of migraines.

Note:  Belief in Deng Gi is common among Overseas Cantonese speaking groups.  This may be a variant of a folktale from Hong Kong.

Powell St. at Clay St., San Francisco.

Case Number 1759.  Informant: Leonard Shek.  Former Office Director of the Chinese Historical Society.

    “About 20,000 Chinese Americans were in the American armed forces during World War II.  One of the things that the community in Chinatown, San Francisco, did often was to throw a dance and buffet for the Chinese American soldiers before they shipped out.   The dances were frequently at the Chinese YWCA building.”  (Note: This now the Chinese Historical Society Building.)

     “At the time, everybody was welcome and some of the Chinese American boys brought their White buddies from the platoon they were in.  It was all supposed to be legitimate and very proper.  You see, folks in Chinatown knew a lot of these guys were not going to come back and they wanted soldiers to have a warm and pleasant time to look back on when they went to war.    Anyway, a local girl, she was a Moy, Vera Moy fell in love with a White guy named John Kerrigan from Omaha.  This Kerrigan from Omaha started to come by on a regular basis just to see Vera and very soon she had a big thing for him.  I mean a really big thing.  On the last day before his company was to be shipped out, he came by and promised her that when he came back from his tour of duty he would take her home to Omaha, and then marry her there.   This was because being a Chinese girl and White guy, they weren’t allowed to legally marry in California until the law was changed years after the war.

     They were just a couple of kids, it was war time, they thought he was leaving and might never come back, it was all very romantic, and you can figure out the rest. Well, a month after he left, Vera discovered she was pregnant.  Back then there was nobody she could talk to and no way to help her.  It was kind of like Texas today.  She tried to hide the pregnancy as best she could but after three months she started to show, and people began to whisper.  She began to check in with the army post office almost every day, but she couldn’t find out anything.  Until one of the secretaries took pity on her and took it upon herself to find out where Kerrigan was.  She digs around unofficially and finds out that this Kerrigan was wounded in France, sent back to the States, and when he had mustered out of the army, he went back to Nebraska and married his High School sweetheart.

      Vera was pregnant, alone, and without help.  She knew her family could never live with the shame.  She cried every night for a week and finally in desperation, she went to the top of the north tower at the YWCA and jumped off.  She hit the pavement headfirst on Clay Street.  She was dead by the time people got to her body.  She was buried quietly, and the matter was not discussed.”  At this point the informant lowers his voice.

     “To this day, if you walk up Clay Street to Powell Street, at dusk, then turn around and look at the top window of the north tower, you will see the shadow of a crying woman.  They say it’s Vera Moy, she never got over her White boyfriend not coming back.”

     Note:  Agent Olivia Kim walked to the corner of Powell and Clay streets at dusk and observed that it is not possible to see the upper window of the north tower from that vantage point.  Conclusion:  The story was used as a cautionary tale to prevent extramarital sex.

Little Italy, New York. Photo by Ajay Suresh, courtesy of Wikimedia.

Case 1760.  Informant Edward “Eddie” Chu.   Community activist in New York City Chinatown.

    “In 1971, I was working for the Chinatown Free Health Clinic as a volunteer.  I was assigned to pick up an old timer named Wing Fung and bring him to the clinic.  He was still living in the same apartment he had moved into when he arrived in the States in the 1920’s.  I came by on the appointed day and knocked on the door.   He let me in, mumbling something about being sorry that the place was such a mess.  He commented that he would be ready in a minute.  He went into the bathroom of the little apartment, and I noticed a woman sitting on the bed in the other room.  To be polite, I looked away, then Wing Fung came back into the front room.

    “Sorry Wing, I didn’t know you had company.  I was…”  Wing Fung froze and asked,

    “Did you see somebody?   Was there somebody here?”  He took a quick look around the kitchen and into the little bedroom.  I followed his gaze and saw that now, there was nobody there.  Confused I explained,

        “I thought I saw a woman sitting on the bed in there.”   He looked suspiciously at me and gestured for me to sit down at the little rickety table he had in the kitchenette section of his apartment.  Then he told me this story.

     Back in the 1920s, this apartment was a Gung Si Fung, what they call a public room.  The Family Association rented them for the boys from the village who were over here working and sending money back home to China.  Maybe four or five guys shared one apartment.  One of the first guys was young man named Ho Leong.  He got along well with everybody, maybe too well.  He got to be friendly with a girl named Maria Punzi.   She lived in the Italian section at the Mulberry Street bend.   They used to sit on the front steps of the building and talk.  Nothing serious, just talk.  Well, her father and brothers found out about it.   Her father was concerned that people would gossip, and he demanded she stop seeing Ho Leong, but she told her father that she did care and would see him when she wanted to.

   Her brother and father tried to lock her in her room, but she got out through the window and down the fire escape and made it down to street.   Her brother caught up with her at Chatham Square and beat her up without mercy.   Bleeding and half-conscious, she somehow dragged herself over to Wing Fung’s apartment on Mott Street.  When he came home, saw blood on the tenement stoop door.  He came in and found Maria lying in the hallway.  He picked her up and put her on one of the beds in his place.  Then, after he wiped her face with a wet cloth, he tried to figure out what to do.  One of the other Chinese boys living there came home after work and found Wing Fung tending to Maria.  This other guy got really scared.  He started shouting that if the Italian guys found out she was in their apartment, they would all be in trouble.   Wing Fung promised to get her out before morning.  In the meantime, he was going over to the Chinese grocery store to get some herbs to make a compress.  He left his roommate and the girl there.

    Well, when Wing Fung came back, the roommate was now hysterical.  The girl had died because of her injuries and the roommate say that if the police came and found a dead woman and two Chinese guys in the same apartment, they would both end up in jail and doing time for a crime they didn’t commit.  Wing Fung claimed the authorities would understand but the roommate convinced him that it was foolish to bring in the police.  The question was, what were they going to do with the body of the dead girl?  The roommate got a big hammer, some plaster and an oil skin tarpaulin.   He knocked down a wall to expose the space between the apartment walls, wrapped the dead body in the tarpaulin, and put it in the hole.  After they replastered the hole to cover it, they painted it over with the same color as the rest of the apartment.

   Of course, there was a bad smell for a couple of weeks, but there was always a bad smell in those old buildings, it was usually because rats that died under the floorboards.  So, nobody complained and in time the matter was forgotten.  But Wing Fung swore that sometimes people who came by saw a young White woman with dark hair in the bedroom who was softly crying.  Wing Fung said it was Maria and that she was still waiting for Ho Leong to come home.  About a year after he told me the story, the nurse at the Free clinic told me that old Wing Fung had passed away.  When people came to clear out his stuff and get the apartment ready for a new tenant, the guys putting Wing’s stuff in a dumpster swore they could hear some woman softly crying the whole time.”

Note:  This is a variant of the myth “The Body in the Wall” which has been collected in the Cantonese communities in Boston and Baltimore as well.

   From the files of the Bureau of Unusual Occurrences, Agents Carmen Chung and Olivia Kim reporting.  Next scheduled investigation:  The reports of a Mo Yawn or “Hairy Man” living in the sewers of Stockton Street, San Francisco, who comes out at night to steal food.

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Author’s Bio:  Charlie Chin is an author, singer/songwriter, and master storyteller. He served as the Community Education Director at the Museum of Chinese in America in New York City and as Artist-in-Residence at the Chinese Historical Society of America in San Francisco. He is the author of several children’s books, including China’s Bravest Girl (1992) and Clever Bird (1996).

Featured Image:

Chinese Ghost King from website Sixth Tone.

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