Intro: Here’s a love story of sorts just in time for Halloween. It’s safe to say that no one writes stories quite like Charlie Chin. He told me that this story is based on an old New York Chinatown fable, believe it or not.
It was generally agreed by the old, wrinkled grandmothers who sat on the brownstone steps of the New York Chinatown tenements that Mr. Leong was a good businessman. When he arrived from Hong Kong in 1950, he had nothing but the black hair on his head. While other the Chinese immigrants joined the laundries and restaurants, he had another idea. People laughed, “Whoever heard of a Chinese man owning a hardware store? You’ll will starve.”
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Mobilus in Mobili
But he didn’t starve, he learned about the business as he went along and in five years had enough to bring a wife over from Hong Kong to join him. In time, three sons rounded out the family. Albert, James, and Dennis. The first two were bright and blessed with good looks, Mr. Leong was proud and boasted about them. But the last son, Dennis was different. The bones and muscles of his face were put together in a way that could only be called “interesting.” When Dennis passed on the street, the old grandmothers nodded, and paper fans waved thoughtfully. His awkward appearance and clumsy manner were proof that bragging about your first two sons could draw the attention of forces that would send a third son to demonstrate what such careless behavior could produce.
During their high school years, the older boys were popular with girls, good at sports, and brought home report cards filled with straight “A’s”. They earned scholarships to prestigious universities. This gave Mr. Leong great face. Customers praised him.
“Leong Sin Sang, your boys bring honor to the streets of the Tang Dynasty people.” He protested,
“They are stupid boys, I have to tell them over and over, study comes first.” Some bolder shopkeepers would hint,
“Mr. Leong, a wise man doesn’t wait until he’s thirsty to dig a well. When your boys graduate, they will be professional men and will need an educated wife. Don’t forget my daughter will be a schoolteacher when she finishes college.” Mr. Leong would smile broadly and mumble,
“Such things must wait until they finish their studies.” In the evening over dinner, he would tell his wife which of Chinatown’s leading families had brought up the matter of marriage that day.
And then there was Dennis. His scholastic achievements were modest. To put it bluntly, Dennis, even at his very best as an average student, and he was not always at his best. Albert, the first born, became a plastic surgeon and married a stunning beauty whose family had been government officials in Shanghai before 1949. Her family was so high class, they never entered Chinatown, not even to go food shopping, for fear they might be mistaken for Cantonese. Their lavish wedding was held in an American restaurant on the upper westside of Manhattan, and many famous people came. Including a Chinese American actor that had once been an extra in a Hollywood movie.
The second son, James was an architect and had studied in Boston. He married a tall New England Blond who had good check bones, a trust fund, and a summer house on Cape Cod. Each of the brothers bought a middle-class home in Long Island townships where they were the only Chinese family. They learned how to barbecue, eat bagels, and have just the right number of children.
And then there was Dennis, still single, working as a waiter in Chinatown, and living in the old tenement apartment on Henry Street. His mother burned incense every night to the Bodhisattva, Kwan Yin, and her whispered prayers were predictable. When asked how Dennis was doing by his cousins at the family Association Hall, his father would mumble,
“If a tree has a hundred branches, one of them will be rotten.” As for himself, Dennis was not embarrassed to be the one that “didn’t turn out well.” He was not bright but at least he was not prone to crime or vice. His only indulgence were sweet pastries, and his main virtue was a ready smile and an easy-going nature. All that was to change one summer night. Dennis finished his waiter’s shift at the restaurant and was walking home. Because he like to read the sports page before going to sleep, he picked up a newspaper at Betty’s Candy Store on Mott Street.
He was ambling along slowly on Chatham Square and turned towards East Broadway when he noticed something lying on the sidewalk. It was a small package wrapped in brown paper and tied with a red ribbon. He looked around to see if there was somebody near that might have dropped it but there was nobody in the vicinity. A wise man would have left it there, but Dennis was not wise. He picked it up. He unwrapped the package and looked inside. Sitting on a piece of white cotton was a simple gold ring. Not sure what to do Dennis looked around. Then a voice called out in Cantonese,
“Please wait sir.” Dennis fought the impulse to run away and offered a lame excuse,
“I’m sorry, I saw it lying there and I…” A young man about 19 years came out of the shadow of a doorway.
“Brother-in-law. Please come, your wife’s family is waiting.” Even in Dennis’s slow way, he realized something strange was going on. He spun around to see if this was a mugging. The boy understood Dennie’s fears,
“Brother-in-law don’t be afraid. This not a trick. Please come. Your in-laws are waiting.” The boy turned into the hallway of the building and was going up the rickety stairs. The boy seemed honest and without knowing why, Dennis just followed along. They walked up two flights of stairs to an open doorway with a middle-aged couple who peered out curiously at Dennis.
Michal Osmenda from Brussels, Belgium, CC BY-SA 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons
With formal greetings in a country dialect of Cantonese, they offered him tea and a plate of cookies. A free cookie was something that Dennis was not likely to turn down, so he sat at the table. The woman offered him a teacup with both hands. Dennis was embarrassed to be served by somebody older than he was. The older man glanced meaning fully at his wife and son and then asked,
“You are not married sir?”
“No Uncle, why do you ask?” the family broke into big smiles. The man leaned forward,
“Sir, our insignificant family name is Chin. The young man who brought you here is our son, Ah Lung. He is a useless son, but he goes to City College. He has met a girl at school, and they wish to marry, and you see…” Dennis smiled and offered,
“A hundred grand-children to you cousin.” The boy gave a head bow of thanks. The old man took a deep breath and went on.
We have gone to the marriage broker who tells us the match is well made, all eight of their birth signs are in alignment, the girl’s family is agreeable, but there is on small thing that stands in the way of their happiness.” Dennis asked innocently,
“What’s the problem, Uncle?” The older man sighed deeply and explained the details.
“Ah Lung had an older sister named Ah Ling. She died in an accident in Kowloon when she was 12 years old. The broker said if Ah Lung and his wife are to have good fortune, his older sister must be married first.” It took a minute for it to sink in as Dennis looked around the table. They weren’t kidding. They were implying that they needed a husband for their dead daughter. The whole thing didn’t sound right. Dennis started to get up and leave but the family began bowing repeatedly and the old man grabbed his arm pleading,
“Don’t go sir. We will pay for everything. You can take a second wife if you wish. We just want to insure the happiness of our children. You are the one who found the ring. We will pay for the wedding banquet; there is no need for a bride price; you need not spend any money.”
As he listened, Dennis’s good nature came to the forefront. These folks needed help, and he reasoned he could be generous. Especially if it cost him nothing. Not being married and having no plans to do so, he formally intoned,
“Thank you, parents of my wife. If you will tell me the place and date of my wedding, I will invite my friends.” They seemed genuinely happy and wrote down the address of a local restaurant. With many smiles and hand shaking, Dennis left the little apartment and walked home.
On the appointed day, his buddies Victor Huey, and Little Wing came over to the Henry Street apartment bringing a white shirt, tie, and an old brown suit. Victor thought the whole thing was a joke, but Wing had heard of such things happening in China, but he confessed it was usually two families, one who had lost a boy and one that had lost a girl. He explained, it was the way people in China made sure that those who had passed away were happy. Otherwise, the dead might become lonely and jealous. Such spirits could cause no end of trouble for the living, and everybody knows a parent’s job is not finished until all the children are married and settled.
Chinese tea ceremony at wedding.
Dennis and the boys walked over to the New Golden Phoenix restaurant. There were only three tables in the wedding party. Dennis was seated next to an empty chair that held a red wooden plaque that had the bride’s name written in fine calligraphy. Some aunts came over and wiped away tears as they placed a gold bracelet or a jade heart pendant at the base of the plaque. Victor smiled at the glint of gold, but Little Wing reminded him that these were the bride’s inheritance from the female members of her family and couldn’t be used by the groom. A few of the uncles stood up and gave speeches about the importance of marriage and family and then quickly sat down. Nobody wanted to be in the presence of a spirit for longer than necessary.
Dennis’s new father-in-law called for the party to come and view the wedding gifts. The members of the wedding went the back alley of the restaurant and watched as paper reproductions of a car, refrigerator, a TV, and a double bed were placed in the fire in the metal container on the sidewalk. As the smoke drifted up to the grey sky, Victor laughed and muttered, “There goes your dowery.”
The last thing thrown on to the fire was a bundle of Ghost Money by the bride’s mother. She knew a girl should always have a little money of her own. Dennis was not upset. He reasoned he and his friends had gotten a free meal, he had helped somebody, and he was none the poorer. The bride’ mother was softly sobbing as she placed the plaque in Dennis’s arms.
He took it home and put on the bureau next to his bed. He stared at it for a minute and then warned,
“Well, Ah Ling we’re married now and I’m not easy to get along with.” Then he laughed, read the sports page, and went to sleep.
Ghost money. Photo from Littlegate Publishing website.
A week later there was a knock at the door. It was Dennis’s mother-in-law. She brought a bag of home-made Cha Siu Bao and some oranges. She looked around and clucked,
“Where is your broom?” Before Dennis could protest, she found the broom and swept the apartment clean. Dennis had to draw the line when she started to do his laundry. This became a weekly occurrence. Three months after that, the wedding of Dennis’s new brother-in-law, Ah Lung, took place at the Silver Palace Restaurant. Dennis and the wooden plaque were seated at the immediate family table, and he was introduced to the extended family as a new son-in-law. One of the uncles asked what he did, and when Dennis said he was a waiter, the uncle shook his head and wrote down an address on the back of his business card.
“Waiter? That won’t do. We’re related by marriage now and I need a man I can trust to manage my restaurant uptown. Come to tomorrow and we’ll talk.”
Dennis took the job. The previous manager was a clever man who skimmed 10 percent of profits off the top every month, but Dennis wasn’t a clever man. So, the place did well, and his in-law was happy. Making good money, Dennis was able to save a little and then another distant cousin of his wife asked,
“Dennis, we’re family. I’m going in with three other men to buy some property on the edge of Chinatown. It a good deal but there are only four of us, an unlucky number. Just put in a thousand dollars so there will be five partners.” He did so and in less than three months, an overseas Chinese family in Canada bought the property for twice the asking price. The news spread by word of mouth that Dennis was good luck, so several other groups pleaded for him to join them. All he had to do was invest a token amount of money, attend meetings, and say nothing. With so many business meetings to attend, he had to buy a new suit and tie, and get a regular haircut, all of which greatly improved his appearance.
Since he was now a man of property, his eldest brother began to invite him to dinner with his other important friends on Long Island. Dennis’s haughty Shanghai sister-in-law made sugar cookies and waited on him personally. It pleased his second eldest brother’s Anglo wife to casually mention during reunion luncheons with her school mates from Vassar that her sister-in-law was a ghost, which they all thought was very exotic, and Dennis’s father couldn’t stop bragging to anyone who would listen,
“I tell him to take it easy, but you know how it is when you own property and have business investments.”
The old woman sitting on the brownstone steps stoops of Chinatown fell silent now and watched him closely when Dennis passed by on the street. They assured each other that the bumps on Dennis’s face and his oddly shaped ears had clearly foretold his success. And without exception they all agreed that it was very wise of Dennis to not take a second wife.
Image from the movie “A Chinese Ghost Story” (1987) by Ching Siu-tung. Actress Joey Wong as Nip Sui-sin.
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).