Editor’s Note: Charlie Chin continues his monthly series of short stories with a look at a seldom discussed aspect of Chinese American life – intermarriage between Chinese men and Irish women at the turn of the century. In this story, fate throws together partners who would be unlikely companions let alone spouses. Although this story is fiction, these characters are certainly true to life.
Ming’s Second Wife by Charlie Chin
The Newspaper boy on the corner was shouting something about America going to war with Spain. Kate tried to hear what he saying but there was a ringing sound in her ear. She was sitting on the sidewalk and slumped against a tenement building where she and her Tommy rented a room. It wasn’t hot, but she was sweating. When she went to wipe her brow, she realized it wasn’t sweat, it was blood. She looked down and saw that her dress front was splattered with it.
She tried to stand up but her legs didn’t seem to work. All she remembered was that her husband Tommy was kicking some woman on the floor, he kept kicking and kicking. She couldn’t remember who it was, but then she thought that the woman the floor might have been her. What she did remember was Tommy came home drunk, which meant he didn’t find any work, which meant he was in a bad mood.
Two Irish women in New York City, circa 1900s.
People passing by stared at her but said nothing. She realized she must look a sight. As she watched the faces walking by, she saw one peering out from under a shawl that she recognized. It was Mary O’Rorke. They had come to New York City in America on the same boat from Belfast. Mary rushed over to cradle Kate in her arms, and then she began to wipe the blood from Kate’s face with a dirty handkerchief,
“Kate, Kate, my sweet darling, has he killed you at last? Say something t’a me Kate for the love Christ, it’s ya Mary talking t’a ya.”
Mary tried to help Kate struggle to her feet but it didn’t go well. Mary half led, half carried, Kate to the corner and down to Pell Street. They got as far as the stair well of a tenement. Mary sat Kate down on the bottom step and called up to the apartments above,
“Ming, come down and help me. Here’s my friend and she’s been hurt. Help me get her upstairs ya dumb heathen.”
A door opening up on the second floor landing and a little Chinese man came out. He wore a simple pair of black trousers, a cotton jacket, and soft felt hat. He nodded at Mary and with a grunt picked up Kate with both hands and carried her up the stairs. Half awake, Kate thought to herself,
“How strong he is for a little man.” Then the darkness came and she knew nothing.
She woke up in Mary’s place. A little trundle bed had been made with straw matting and a blanket. Sweet Mary tended her like a baby for three days until Kate could sit up for herself. The little Chinese man came and went, often without saying a word. Mary would make him a plate of food, he would eat, and then either he would lie down and sleep in the other room or go back out again.
After the third day Kate felt strong enough to ask,
“Dear Mary, have you taken with a Chinee man?” Mary took a moment to pour a cup of tea for Kate and herself and began to explain.
Chinese men, circa 1900s.
“Aye, I have me little Ming, he’s a heathen, but it’s for the best. You remember my Tim? Well Saints preserve us, he was taken down by the docks. A great hod of bricks fell on the poor fellow and he was taken to God and his reward. Two weeks later, the landlord told me t’a leave if I don’t pay the rent, and me without two pennies t’a knock together. So I went t’a the street but there’s no work and no man that was kind enough t’a take me. “
“So whatever did you do Mary.”
“I found myself hungry after two days without a morsel t’a eat, and was begging in a doorway over by the Bowery when Little Ming, he come by. He looked me over, and made a sign with his hands t’a say I have victuals, come with me. Being close t’a starving, I prayed t’a God for mercy and followed him up t’a this place. “
“Are ya not ashamed t’a be….?”
“The slut of a Chinee? Don’t fret Kate, it’s done and common. There’s more than a few Irish girls taken with a Chinee. Our Irish men die before their time and the Chinee have come t’a this country with no women among them. Ya remember Bridget Kelly? She taken with a Chinee down on Doyer’s Street, and there’s more besides.”
“So it’s come t’a selling your body and your souls then?”
“No, no Kate. We’re “Siu Bot Ngop” not “Ching Guy Nooi.”
“And now ya can speak the Chinee lingo as well. Tell me Mary, what ‘s the meaning of them words?”
“Ya see Kate, if you just lie with a man for the money, they call you a “Ching guy nooi.” meaning that anybody can buy you like a chicken in the market. But if you have a Chinee man who has taken you in, a protector like, then ya being a Siu Bot Ngop.” Ming says it means a little white duck. As I supposed t’a the Chinee way of thinking, we Irish girls , we’re clumsy, so they think us a duck or a goose. Kate was puzzled,
“But what be the difference between them?”
“Well Kate me darling, by way of being a Siu Bot Ngop , then no other Chinee man will touch or mistreat you.”
“How did you learn t’a speak the Chinee talk?”
“It’s not hard, there’s a lilt to it, which ya learn by the hearing of it daily. And the Chinee usually know a few words of a civilized tongue and what they don’t know. they use their hands to make signs.”
Kate was troubled by a thought.
“Do you have t’a let them under ya skirt?”
“Of course, by God’s will, they’re only men in that respect.”
“Ya make it sound like a paradise, is there no bad part t’a it?”
“Aye, every now and again, they’re giving t’a fighting among themselves, and somebody gets killed. and you have to find another man, but that’s no different than any other life.
Irish immigrant women in transit to the U.S.
“That fellow, Ming, where does he go?” Mary answered indifferently,
“Most days he’s gone t’a work at one thing or another. When he’s working at the laundry, he don’t come home until midnight. Sometimes he goes t’a gamble at his club or talk t’a his friends at the store.”
“They have clubs then? What kind of clubs?”
‘Oh Aye, they have fellowship, sort of like the Hibernian Society. Them that has t’a same last name or come from the same little town. They meet and play cards, take the pipe, and talk.”
“A pipe, what kind of pipe?”
“Oh they take the Devil’s own black tar from the poppy and smoke it. It’s not like the drink, no, they don’t fight, they only want t’a lie down and sleep.” Kate marveled at this different world that her friend Mary lived in. As more days passed, Mary tutored Kate on how to deal with the Chinee.
“Now Kate , upon greeting a Chinee man, ya must first look at his shoes.”
‘Ya trying t’a make a fool of me.”
“No darling, ya must bow ya head and look at his shoes.”
There was much to learn. Mary show her how to chop up the vegetables, some of which Kate had never seen before, and how to toss it all in a pot with a dark sauce the Chinee seem to put on everything. There was meat, chicken, and something that was neither fish nor fowl. It looked like cheese but Ming said they made it with beans. They called it “Ta Fu”
One night Ming brought home several Chinese men. They entered respectfully and sat down around the table. Mary and Kate hurried to make tea and put out dishes filled with melon seeds as a welcome. One of the men was young and he was dressed in a western suit. He didn’t wear his hair in a queue like the others. When Kate looked at him, she noticed he had the prettiest eyelashes she had ever seen on a man. He glanced at Kate with some interest and then surprised her by speaking in perfect English.
“I am Yee Toy. How are you called Miss?
“Them that knows me call me Kate.”
“They say you are Ming’s second wife.”
“I’m nor his first or his second.”
“If you like Miss, I have a friend that needs a woman to keep his place clean and cook for him. Would you like to meet him? Kate glanced at Mary who didn’t look back but only nodded.
“I might. Where be this friend ya talking about?”
“Come with me.” Yee Toy stood up abruptly and strode out the door. Kate grabbed her shawl and followed, careful as Mary had warned her, not to walk beside him, but behind him. After two blocks, they came to a Chinese store on Mott Street. When they entered all the men in the place stood up and looked down. Kate wondered to herself.
New York Chinatown, Pell Street.
“What kind of a man am I with?’ Yee Toy talked to the owner of the store who kept pointing to the street outside. Yee Toy shrugged and sat down on a chair motioning for Kate to do the same. As Kate looked around she smelled the rich scent of spices and herbs. She was about to pick up one of the brightly colored packages when the front door opened up and a squat, dark Chinese man walked in. Everybody in the room stood up.
Without thinking about it, Kate found herself standing on her feet. The man was short, a little dumpy fellow who had a scar on his right cheek. All the men in the room bowed deeply and Kate noticed that even Yee Toy was bowing. The short man waved his hand as if to say that will do and he walked to the back of the store. a special chair was brought out for him to sit on.
At this point Yee toy took Kate by the elbow and led her to the short man for approval. Yee Toy talked for a minute, gesturing toward Kate, who was trying to look calm. The short man asked several questions in Chinese while inspecting Kate from his seat. Yee Toy turned to Kate and asked,
“How old are you Miss?”
“By the Grace of God, I’m 20 years old.” He relayed that answer in Chinese. Then asked,
“Would you like to be this man’s wife?”
“I don’t mind if he feeds me and gives me money, but I won’t be beaten. Tell him that, I won’t stand to be beat.” Yee Toy spoke again and he and the other man chuckle as if there was a joke. The man nodded yes. Yee Toy said in a formal voice,
“This man is Sing Dak. A great man, a man of much respect. You will keep his place clean, make food, and tea. In return you will not want for food or money. Does that suit you?”
Kate realized that there was no going back, so she slowly nodded yes. By the next day, it was known in the five streets of New York City Chinatown, that Kate Kelly, formerly of Belfast, Ireland, was no longer Ming’s “Second Wife,” but was now the” Siu Bot Ngop” of the notorious assassin, Sing Dak, the one they called “The Scientific,” and under his protection.
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 men arrested in New York City after a fight between two warring tongs.