Matters of the heart is a theme Charlie Chin explores in this latest in a series of stories rooted in Chinese American history and tradition.
You should never show that you’re upset when talking with your partner. Don’t raise your voice, and don’t get snippy. When I got home late last night, I had to keep that in mind. My wife was in bed and almost ready to go to sleep. She rolled over and looked up from her mystery novel to ask,
“Did you eat yet?” I hung my jacket in the closet and shrugged,
“I ate something at the bar after work.”
“I don’t remember, it was Mexican I think.”
“You want me to make you something?”
“Don’t get up. Did you finish the guest list for the Saturday party?” She indicated that the piece of paper on the nightstand was it. I picked it up and inspected it.
I gave it a quick scan and two names jumped off the page. I put the paper down. I pulled my right earlobe with my fingers while I stared at my shoes. The Woman Warrior looked up from her mystery novel and asked,
“Something wrong? Did I forget somebody?”
“Did you send the invitations already?”
“Yes, I emailed them this morning before I went to work.” I scratched the back of my head and looked at the ceiling. I frowned and explained,
“It’s not your fault Honey, there’s no way you could have known. I have to call Doug Wong, do we have his number?”
“It’s on my phone. Just tap his name. Why are you calling him?”
“Because he won’t be coming.” I saw the Delicious One arch her two eyebrows into question marks. I eased on to the bedside across from her and pointed out.
“Haven’t you ever noticed that Doug Wong and Susan Bayan are never in the same place at the same time?”
“No, but why is that?”
“Well in the late 60’s they used to…” She tried to read between the lines.
“Oh, you mean they’re former lovers.”
“It’s a little more complicated than that.” I started at the beginning.
Back in the late 1950’s Doug Wong and Susan first met as kids. They were in the same kindergarten class in the New York City Chinese Lutheran church. She was Susan Gow back then. For some reason, they hit it off as kids, and they were more like a brother and sister than friends. In those days New York Chinatown was small, about six blocks and about 5,000 people, just a little town really. So there was no way they wouldn’t keep running into each other. When they were small, like all little boys he pretended that he didn’t like girls and she of course, thought he was annoying jerk that play practical jokes on her like hiding her school books.
Chinese American kids at Marco Polo Day parade in New York Chinatown and Little Italy, 2014. Photo by Eddie Wong.
That kept up until high school. But as the years passed their childish pranks began to be tempered by hormones and turned into concern and affection. Most people assumed it was just puppy love, just innocent stuff, group dates, ice cream sodas, and church dances. But all their friends knew that Doug and Susan were meant for each other. It was common knowledge.
There was something electric going on between them, you could feel it when they were together. They were soul mates. He wrote poetry to her and her friends jokingly called her “Mrs. Wong” behind her back. Most of the guys in Chinatown knew from the grapevine that it was pointless to ask Susan for a date, and Doug was considered “Taken” as far as the girls in their circle were concerned. When they were seen holding hands or stealing a kiss or two in the movie house, nobody was surprised. Of course things were heading just one way. One week after they graduated from High School, Doug asked Susan to join him for a coke at Mindy’s on Mott Street. First Doug formally recounted his plans for the future, go to CCNY to get his Accounting Degree, then opening his office and build a client base, and then as a matter of fact Doug commented, that it would be then that they would marry. Susan buried her face in her hands and burst into tears, and then she ran out of the café. Doug was understandably confused. He knew that there was nobody else in her life, her parents liked him, and her love for him was plain and had always been so.
She wouldn’t answer the phone so he waited outside her building most of the next day until she came out. He confronted her and demanded to know what was going on. It was then that she confessed that she was already married.”
My beloved interjected,
“She was already married? How did that happen?” I explained the situation.
New York Chinatown’s Pell St., 2009. Photo by chensiyuan via Wikimedia Commons.
“Back then in the Fifties and Sixties, there were very few Chinese American girls around, girls who were American citizens by birth, and so for a fee her father had arranged for her to be married to a National so the immigrant could get a Green Card.” My wife’s eyes grew big,
“You mean her father sold her to a Chinese National for money?”
“Well, yes and no. The old immigration quota for Chinese was still in effect only a 105 people a year up until ’68, and it was still tough after that. You see the Black Market arrangement was that a Chinese National who needed a green card, would pay a several thousand dollars to some family that had an American-born daughter over 18 years old. The deal was strictly “business.” The couple didn’t meet until the official ceremony at City Hall, and then the bride would be whisked away. After a respectable amount of time, two years later they would file for divorce, the guy got his Green card, and the girl’s family got the money, everybody was happy. But because it was illegal and socially not quite proper, most of the families involved kept it quiet. I believe Susan’s father used the money he got to pay for part of her college education. Susan was not happy with the situation but she would never go against her father’s wishes. When Doug found out what was going on, he spent a day walking around the Lower East Side and thinking about it. Then he made up his mind. He pleaded with Susan for a meeting and there he told her, he loved her, he would always love her, and that he would wait until the divorce came through. Then, when she was legally free they would have a proper marriage.
Susan was overjoyed. They started saving money together and planning their wedding over the next two years. When the time came, Susan due fully chaperoned by her father and brother went to the divorce proceedings at City Hall, papers were signed, and now at age 21, she was legally single.
At that time Chinatown weddings were measured by how many restaurants were needed for the guests who were to attend. It wasn’t like today where there are restaurants that can handle a thousand diners. Then, most of the places in Chinatown only had a 300 chair capacity tops. Details of the banquet and menu were the top gossip in Chinatown for weeks before the event. Everything had been planned beforehand. This was going to be a three restaurant wedding. At each table waiters would bring a set up tray with ice, soda, classes, and a bottle of Johnnie Walker Red Scotch, its red and gold label a good luck symbol for the happy event. There was going to be marinated jelly fish, smoked beef, thousand year old eggs on the appetizer platter, and the menu would include, duck, abalone, lobster, squab And at the end, high quality cigars were to be passed out to all the men. Some folks were planning to come from Boston and Philadelphia Chinatowns for the event. After a whole roast pig was sent to each of the family, a formal engagement party was held where Doug and Susan ritually served tea to their prospective in-laws.
Head table at a Chinese American wedding banquet. Photo by Kenneth Lu via Wikimedia Commons.
As Doug was introduced to all of Susan’s family one by one, Susan’s very old grandaunt kept staring at Doug. She asked him what village his people came from and when they came over to the States. She turned and whispered several questions to Susan’s other aunts. It was plain she didn’t like the answers. Then all of the sudden the old woman stood up and announced out loud that there would be no wedding. Everybody was stunned. She explained that Susan’s grandfather had been a Wong, from the same village as Doug’s grandfather, and in fact their grandfathers were fourth cousins. Susan’s grandfather had taken a “paper name” of Gow when he came through immigration on Angel Island in San Francisco. Like a lot of families at the time, the children were never told their real family last name for fear that they might mention it to an outsider and then somebody in the family might be deported. The situation was that Doug and Susan were in fact, actually cousins.” My wife was trying to take this all in.
“But weren’t they distant enough cousins so that it didn’t matter?”
“Old time Chinese people believed that if you have the same last name, the same written character, you are related even after a hundred generations.”
“Wait a minute, what if they were cousins on their mother’s side? They could be first cousins but they would have different last names.”
“Strictly speaking, you are right, but hey, I didn’t make the rules. That’s the way it was, and still is, in some parts of China.
Today nobody would care, but back then it was considered incest. The marriage was off. Susan was inconsolable and was spent off to spend a year with her aunt in San Francisco, and Doug was crushed. He became like a Zombie, just going through the motions of living for about ten months. His friends tried to set him up with some nice girls but his mind was always somewhere else.
Sunset in Santa Cruz, CA. Photo by Eddie Wong.
In time he met Jennifer, and she was good for him. They got married, had two kids, and moved to the Bay Area, and in time Susan had met a nice Filipino guy from Daly City. Ever since then, Doug and Susan just avoided being in the same place at the same time. Their old friends know and respect that, but there was no way you could have known about what had happened.
I punched Doug’s number and explained that my wife had made a mistake. He was under no obligation to come. He was silent for a minute and then quietly asked,
“How does Susan look now-a-days?” I mentioned,
“Her hair is grey now, but she looks great, her grandson is a computer Techie in Silicon Valley and her daughter has two boys, she does Yoga…” Doug cut in.
“Thanks, but never mind, maybe it’s better if I don’t know.”
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).
Chinese American wedding banquet appetizer called the Four Seasons Platter.