Pu Tai – Short Story by Charlie Chin

by Charlie Chin. Posted May 8, 2023.

     I’m on my own during the weekends.  My wife Esther is usually busy volunteering at the Jewish Temple, both our children, Alan and Susan, moved to Connecticut, so we only see them on birthdays and holidays.   Every now and then, I use the free time to go back to the old neighborhood where I grew up and visit some of the places on Mott Street in New York City Chinatown.   Each time I come back, I see the new stores that have opened and old ones that have closed.  I stood in front of number 2 Mott Street and fell back into teenage memories.  Trying to play rock music with Jeff Lee on our out-of-tune guitars, wacky Koon Jo and those awful jokes he told, “Little Bird” and his plans someday to make a big Hollywood movie.   A female voice brought me back to the present.

New York Chinatown. Photo by Mobilous in Mobili courtesy of Creative Commons/Flickr.

      “Gary, Gary Moy, is that you?”  I spun around to see who was calling my name.   Though a lot of water had passed under the Manhattan Bridge, I could never forget that face.  When I was in high school, everybody agreed that Janice Chang was hands down the prettiest girl in Chinatown, New York.   I had a crush on her that size of the Empire State building.

     A lifetime ago, on the weekends, young Chinese American guys growing up in the hand laundries and restaurants in the outlying boroughs of New York City took the subway and went to Chinatown church dances.  Every male over 15 and under 25 was hoping for a dance with Janice. Let’s just say that when I was alone and thinking about Janice, I usually had my eyes closed.  We would line up on the wall of the old church basement dance floor, a gang of nervous teens wearing bad-fitting suits and mismatched ties, hoping the next tune was a slow one and Janice would say yes.   Not that there was going to be a lot of action.  The Roman Catholic priest would be paroling the dance floor with a 12-inch ruler that he would place between the kids while grumbling, “Leave room for the Holy Ghost.”

Photo by Kirill Pershin on Unsplash.

     Janice’s dad, old Harry Chang, ran the Chinatown Museum.  A store front he had converted to hold his collection of statues, paintings, and Objects de Art, some of which he made himself.  He was proud to be Chinese and was a self-educated historian of Chinese culture.   When she was old enough, Janice was assigned to running the gift counter of the museum.  She sold the stuff that made the real money for her family, tourist trinkets, finger traps, cheaply made toys from Japan, and bags of fortune cookies.

     Curious tourists would wander in and look around.   Old Harry realized that he had to make the place interesting, so he used gags like the Laughing Buddha.  A big belly image of Pu Tai, he had crafted from plaster and decorated with gold paint and glitter.   He told visitors that stroking the Buddha’s abdomen would bring many children.  Then he would laugh as women avoided rubbing the belly.  Another big favorite was the “Lucky Drum of the Forbidden City.”  It was an old Chinese drum he had found and set up at the entrance.   He put a handwritten sign on it that read. “For good luck, hit the drum once, for a good marriage hit the drum twice, for a cheap divorce, hit the drum three times.”  Tourists couldn’t resist banging it.

     Old Henry was never rich, slow horses at the racetrack made sure of that, but he always thought that Janice would marry well.   With her personality and good looks, she could have her pick among the boys who had the best futures, Chinese American guys who had finished Harvard, Yale, and MIT.

   But as fate would have it, she ended up marrying a local thug named Luther Wong.   He was a noodle delivery truck driver who barely finished high school.  His education was hampered by a jail sentence he did when he was part of Chinatown teen gang called “Lung Doy.”  They had a gun fight in broad daylight with another gang over on East Broadway.  A couple of tourists got hit in the crossfire and the TV and newspapers demanded action.   Luther was Identified as a gang member, but he refused to squeal on the others, so he did a stretch in the joint.

    When he got out, he was a jobless ex-con.  Old Henry took pity on him and had him clean up around the museum.  Well, one thing led to another, and Luther and Janice ended up spending a lot of time together.   You know that old phenomenon, “Nice girls are drawn to bad boys.

     Old Henry wasn’t pleased about them being together, but he let it go.  He had other problems; you see, Henry was an unfiltered pack-a-day cigarette smoker.  In time it caught up with him and he had a full-blown case of emphysema.   You didn’t need a fortune teller to see that Henry wasn’t going to be around much longer.

     Sure enough, Old Henry woke up one morning with a bad cough and began spitting blood.  When he tried to walk, he got dizzy and fell in the kitchen. Janice called 911 and the ambulance guys took him to the Beekman hospital.  Then she and Luther hurried down to the Intensive Care unit.  As Old Henry lay there, hooked up to an oxygen tank, drifting in and out of consciousness, he asked Janice to come closer so he could whisper something in her ear.   She leaned forward and he said if she was ever in trouble, to look to the Laughing Buddha for help.   She turned around and cried on Luther’s shoulder.  She realized that Old Henry was rambling and close to the end.  Everybody knew the only time Old Henry had ever prayed was at the racetrack when his horse was behind at the turn.

      Over the next 24 hours the word spread among the Wah Kue and old-timers came by to pay their respects, some of his clan cousins from the village came by to sit with him till the end.  Three days later his family association rented the limos that drove slowly around the streets of Chinatown bearing a large, framed photo of Henry and his cousin Ah Hung threw “ghost money” out of the window of the vehicle as it drove around.  His cousins were short by one when they came back from the Brooklyn cemetery and Janice and Luther were left to run the museum.

     The next thing I heard was Janice and Luther got married.  Old Henry had left no money and Luther was broke so it was a budget wedding was down in City Hall.  Just Janice, Luther, and Annie Quan, Janice’s girlfriend since high school.

    Time went on and I went to college.  I didn’t do too badly at Parsons, and after a couple of years apprenticeship, I started my own industrial design company.   I met Esther through an architect friend, and after a year, we married.   Living on Long Island and raising kids, I lost touch with a lot of the old gang.   Although Esther can only cook two things, one of them is chicken and I‘m pretty sure the other one isn’t, my life hasn’t been too bad.  My company was mentioned in the Wall Street Journal a few times, so I got that “Honorary White Man” card that allows me to live in a middle-class neighborhood without hassle.

     And now, years later here we were, Janice and Gary back in Tong Yawn Guy.   I just couldn’t stop smiling.  Time hadn’t touched her, practically no wrinkles and just a touch of grey.   We quickly agreed to take the unplanned reunion as an opportunity to have dim sum around the corner on Doyer Street at Nom Wah, just like in the old days.  We talked about mutual friends and came around to the present.

Photo from Wikipedia.

    “So, Gary, I heard you got married, you live out on the Island now.”

     “Yeah, life is funny. When I was young, all I wanted to do was to get out of Chinatown.  But now I live in Roslyn, and I miss the old neighborhood.  What about you?  I heard the museum closed several years ago.  You and Luther still together?”  She made a sour face and frowned,

     “That jerk?  I should have known from the beginning he was untrustworthy, but I was in love and thought he was just misunderstood.  Now I know better.”

      “What happened?”

      “Well, when dad was dying, one of the last things he said was “If you’re in trouble, go to the Buddha for help.”

     “So, your dad got religious in the end.”

     “Not really.    Luther suspected that it was some kind of hidden message.   About a week later, I opened the Museum and found the place ransacked.  Several things were broken, the drum was slit open, and the big plaster Buddha was smashed to pieces.”

     “Kids?”

     “I wish.  I called Luther about it and told him to get down to the shop.  But he laughed and said that now was as good a time as any and told me that he and Annie were going to Seattle, and that he wanted a divorce.”

     “Annie, your friend?”

     “What can I tell you?  Your enemies stab you in the back, your friends stab you in the heart.”

     “What about the stuff in the museum?’  She looked at the ceiling as if trying to get the right words.

     “Luther was convinced that Dad had some hidden money around.   I didn’t know it, but Dad had won big a few times at the track.  Luther had heard about it from a bookie.  Dad never trusted banks, not even safety deposit boxes.   Luther guessed the money was hidden somewhere in the museum, so he came in late one night with a hammer.   The first thing he did was smash open the big plaster Laughing Buddha.  There was nothing inside, so he went on, breaking everything big enough to put money in.  The bastard is now living in Seattle and we’re legally divorced.”  Her eyes started to get watery as she told me the story, and I was in stunned silence. I offered,

    “Listen Janice, do you need help?   She smiled at me, dabbed a tear drop at the corner of her eye with a handkerchief and went on.

    ‘No, I’m fine. I found the money that dad had hidden in the museum.  I put it in the bank, sold the museum, and Peter Chou, the banker, you remember Pete from your Columbus Park basketball days, he fixed up a portfolio of investments, they worked out very well, so now I don’t have to work anymore.”

     “I’m curious, where was the money?”   She smiled, reached across the table and patted my hand.

     “After Luther had run off with Annie, I tried to clean up the place.  My aunt Mary, the one that had that jewelry shop on Canal Street for years, was helping me sweep up.  She saw something sparkling in the mess on the floor and fished it out.  It was the Buddhist Prayer beads from the Laughing Buddha, she inspected them and whispered,

     “Where did your dad get that plaster Laughing Buddha?”

    “Oh, he made it himself with stuff he found.”  Aunty rolled the beads in her fingers and peered at them closely,

     “Sweetheart, I think these beads might really be jade, diamonds, and pearls.”   She read the Chinese inscription on the clasp and got excited,

    “Oh my, Janice, these beads are from the Imperial Ming Dynasty, maybe worth a couple hundred thousand dollars.  Honey, you’re rich!”

      When Janice finished the story, we both laughed for a minute, and then she squeezed my hand again.

     “Gary, this has been really great; why don’t we meet again and soon?”

     “Before I answered her, I took a deep breath, looked into her eyes, and offered a silent prayer to the Laughing Buddha.”

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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).

2 Comments

  1. Leslee Wong on May 13, 2023 at 5:45 am

    What a wonderful stories, Charlie! We’re all getting older, loosing the occasional word or two; but your gift for story telling, for telling our stories, has not at all diminished.

    • Eddie Wong on May 13, 2023 at 8:34 am

      thanks, leslee. I’ll pass your note along to Charlie. hope you and my cousin GT Wong are doing well. we must meet up sometime. all the best, Eddie

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