Intro: Welcome to the Year of the Tiger. Charlie Chin’s new story touches on perennial themes of duty and obligation versus free will wrapped around family tensions regarding love and marriage. It brought back fond memories of going to the Wong family association every Sunday as my father and I made the rounds in LA Chinatown. Luckily, my parents spared us from arranged marriages. Just keeping us out of jail was good enough for them. – Eddie Wong
Winter is always bitterly cold in New York City and Chinese New Year’s day, February 6, 1970, was no different. Winston Chew stopped in the street to count on his fingers, and he calculated it was the Chinese year of the Dog, 4648. Having been born in 1946, also a year of the Dog, meant that Winston was exactly 24 years old. This was going to be a lucky year for him.
Most Chinese business stay open throughout the year but make a point of being close for 10 days when the Lunar New Year occurs. The company where Winston worked did and he was going to be free for a week. He took a long walk on Mott Street and enjoyed the celebration and noise of the firecrackers, gongs, cymbals, and drums that filled New York’s Chinatown.
Patrick Kwan from New York City, USA, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons
Since it was new year week, he decided to go over to the family association on the Bowery to burn some incense and make a small donation. As he started to enter the building, he ran into his father who was about to do the same thing.
“Hello father, how are you today?” The middle-aged grey-haired man stopped and looked around in confusion.
“Is somebody talk to me? I hear somebody talk to me. Who could it be? This no can be my worthless son. Son that should be on boat to Hong Kong to meet his bride.” Winston’s shoulders slumped downwards, he ground his teeth, and he said in a gentle voice.
“Dad, stop it, we’ve through this a hundred times. I’m not going to Hong Kong to find a wife.” The father continued to look around the area in apparent confusion. He bent over as if he was carrying a large weight on his back.
“The voice sound like useless son, who will not do his duty. Mrs. Kwong, best matchmaker in Kowloon have make all arrangement for meet wife. This so sad. Now I grow old, I hear voices, my wife old, she have no grandchildren.” The man starting squinting, he waved his hands in the empty air as if reaching for something he couldn’t see.
“What happen the light? Getting dark, my eyes, my eyes.” Winston was becoming impatient.
“Dad, forget it. I’m not going to do it.” The sound of footsteps told them that another clan member was about to enter the building and both men turned to greet him. Winston’s father straightened up, held up his hand towards his son. With a big smile he spoke to the newcomer,
“Ah, good business and good fortune cousin. Hing Dai, so lucky.” With a sideward glance at Winston he continued,
“The god of fortune smile on you. Both your son marry now and you have GRAND CHILDREN! They will burn incense and make offerings for you when you go Brooklyn.” Winston winced at the words. There was a big Chinese cemetery in Brooklyn, so old timers like his father never said somebody died, they just said, “He went to Brooklyn.” To be polite, Winston forced a smile,
“Yes Ah Bok, please say Happy New Year to your family on our behalf.” The man smiled broadly and put his hands together one hand cupped over the other, bowed, and cheerfully called out,
“Gong Hey Fat Choy, Gong Hay.” Winston’s father watched until the cousin was out of sight. Then a look of disgust crossed the old man’s face.
Lanterns outside a restaurant in New York Chinatown.
“You see, you see how the other people pity me? If you don’t care about me, least think your mother. How do you think she feel when other women show her picture of grandchildren? All your mother have in wallet is coupon for supermarket and photo the pet dog.” Winston tried to defend himself.
“That’s not true Dad, mom and you have two grandchildren. My sister Susan and her husband David have kids.” The old man waved his hand dismissively,
“They not real grandchildren, you sister have two children. They have last name Greenberg, they don’t have last name Chew.” Winston realized it was pointless.
The older man slowly walked towards the staircase and moaned over his shoulder,
“My leg hurt. That mean end near. When leg go, it all over. You mother and me not getting younger. Think about that when you dance the litter bugs with you friend.”
“That’s Jitter Bug Dad, and nobody done that in over a generation.” The older man grunted. His son continued,
‘And look Dad, I’m an American. I don’t have to marry anybody if I don’t want to.” The father said nothing for the moment but glared at him. They climbed up the stairs and went through the ritual greetings of other cousins. There was the task of burning of incense and placing their donations into the box. The clan secretary noted their names and the amount. But when they left the family association, Winston’s father kept muttering something about Jook Sing beneath his breath. Winston hated that phrase, “The empty bamboo.” It meant one who knows nothing. He was angry but he just couldn’t bring himself to speak harshly to his father.
They walked through red paper confetti of firecrackers that covered the sidewalks on Pell Street. They entered the busy “Forever Prosperous” tea house. Again, more cousins, greetings, forced smiles, and shouts of “Ho Si, Gong Hey Fat Choy!”
Image by Bruce Emmerling from Pixabay
They only had to wait a minute for a table and sit down. As he poured tea, Mr. Thurston Chew made another attempt to reason with his son.
“Look, I know, you born here America. You never know the village. All young man you age, already married back home. You think you like Bot Guei, like what you see in movie, you want to marry for love; I understand that. But this not Hollywood, this real life. Love not important. In time you learn to like somebody.”
“Sure Dad, O.K., but what if I have an arranged marriage, but I never learn to like my wife?”
“Then you take hobby. Like go fishing. Why you think all those Chinese guy like go fishing all the time? They go fishing to get out of the house. You young, so you think must have good looking woman. Hey, believe me, year go by, year go by, everybody get old and ugly. More better, they have good heart. Get along with you family.
Love not important. Obligation is important. Family is important.” A thought crossed Winston’s mind as he patiently listened to the familiar tirade again. He looked up and wondered,
“Dad, didn’t you love Mom before you were married?” His father used a tone that you use when discussing sex with a ten-year-old.
“Love her? I never meet your mother until day we marry.” In disbelief Winston asked,
‘You never met Mom before you were married? How did you know you would like her?” The old man was getting exasperated.
‘I not supposed to like her, I supposed to do what my father said. In my day we don’t expect meet somebody, fall in love. No, we do in the old way, you parents arranged it. Chinese people do this way for many thousand years. This a good way.”
“But I want to be happy when I get married.”
“O.K. Listen and listen careful, this a true thing. You can be marry, you can be happy, you can be on time, but no man can be all three thing same time.”
As the waiter came by with a platter of small dishes, Winston’s father motion at the Cha Siu Bao, Ha Gow, and Shu Mai. The waiter placed the dishes on the table and made a few notes on the table check. Winston started to take a Ha Gow but instead, put his chopsticks down. He asked,
“So, you’re telling me that you and Mom didn’t meet until you were married? You’re joking right?”
“See this is what I mean. Look at your mother and me. We married for almost 40 years. I respect her, she respect me, we have you and your sister Susan, raise up good, no problems.”
“But you do love Mom, right?”
“Hey, you ABC’s talking about love all the time, but that little boy dream.” The father mimicked a voice like a six-year-old,
“Oh, I want to be love. I not going to marry until we in love.” He focused on this son again.
Confucius, a philosopher (c.551 BCE -c.479 BCE), emphasized filial piety and deep family loyalty.
“ Turtle head, If everybody in America marry in love, why so many people get divorce? If people in China wait until they in love, there be no more Chinese people. And what about rest of family? Woman you marry, we must live with her. We have right to say something.” Winston saw there was no putting off his next statement. He drew a deep breath,
“Dad, don’t get angry, if I get married, my wife and I won’t be living with you and Mom.” In complete shock, the older man stopped talking, suddenly grabbed at his chest and his eyes stared to glaze over. He gave his son a look of despair and started to slump in his seat. Winston shrugged, reached over, took a Ha Gow off the plate and popped it into his mouth.
‘You can stop that act now Pop. The Doctor said last month there’s nothing wrong with your heart.” Disappointed it didn’t work, the older man sat back up, took the last Ha Gow on the plated and complained,
“The doctor, what do he know? He a western doctor. They talk to you seven minutes, they charge you lot of money, and then go play golf. I live in this body before he born. If don’t feel good, I go Chinese doctor. He give me herb. He make me live long life”
“So, why don’t you go to a Chinese doctor more often?” The man shrugged,
“What use long life if I have no grandchildren?” Winston refused to respond. Mr. Chew’s eyes rolled upwards as if appealing to some higher authority.
“Guang Gung, tell me, what I do so wrong? I got son, he got college degree, he got TV, he eat meat every day, he go movie anytime he want. His life good. What my life? My life dirt. I can die here, this restaurant, and nobody care.” Seeing that Winston was not paying attention, he then began talking to the Chinese painting of flowers on the wall.
“There, you see? Son treat me like garbage. Tomorrow they just go and sweep me up with dustpan in morning and throw me out. Ah Yaa. This the way is, you work, you sweat, you eat bitterness, and now what? Just sad old man with no grandchildren. Who going to miss him?”
Winston interrupted the monologue with a question.
“Where’s the check Dad? I’ll pay it.” His father swept the check off the tabletop and put in his pocked.
“You don’t pay. You only boy.” Winston took a deep breath again and looked at the ceiling.
“Dad, I’m a grown man. I have my own job, my own apartment.” His father was unconvinced,
“You have children?”
‘You plan get married and have children?”
“Maybe someday Dad, but right now, no.”
“Then you not man yet. I father, so I pay.” Pulling out his wallet, Mr. Thurston Chew paid the check and left a disappointing tip for the waiter. As they pushed their way through the crowd at the restaurant front door, Mr. Chew asked,
“You come for New Year dinner this Sunday? You mother want give you bag frozen Won Ton she make.” With a sigh of resignation and a soft smile Winston answered,
“Tell her not to worry, I’ll be there.” The elder Mr. Chew brightened,
“Good, come early, sister Susan bring her girl friend from college she want you to meet.”
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).