The Point of It – Short Story by Charlie Chin

The Point of It – Short Story by Charlie Chin. Posted September 6, 2022.

Intro:  Dr. Gong, New York Chinatown herbalist and solver of mysteries, returns with another mesmerizing tale set in the 1900s.

       In the year 1911 discussions in New York City Chinatown were mostly about the revolution in China being led by Dr. Sun Yat Sen, so the news that Lam Hing the merchant was sick and dying was of minor importance.  Nevertheless, the formalities were observed, and a boy was sent to fetch Dr. Gong the Herbalist.

Portrait of Yip Sang, a Chinese merchant,1890. University of British Columbia Library, Rare Books and Special Collections.

       Lam Hing had come to America 27 years before with false papers in 1884.  He worked on the western railroads until he had enough money to start his own store.  His parents had arranged a marriage for him before he left the little village of Pigeon Hill in Toisan, China.  A desperately poor farming family offered their 12-year-old daughter as a bride.   But buying the papers that claimed Lam Hing was the son of Gold Mountain Guest took time.  Since he and the girl were engaged, Lam Hing was allowed to take the child for a walk one afternoon in the nearby pine forest.  Once out of sight, he brutally assaulted the child and took her virginity.  The attack left the child bloody and traumatized.   When she came home crying and bleeding, her parents had to weigh the bride money promised to them by Lam Hing’s family, against the crime.  Because they feared starving that year, they had to forego justice.   In the meantime, the matter was hushed up and Lam Hing was hurriedly sent off to catch a boat to the United States

       Since the bride groom was already aboard an American Steamer heading for San Francisco, the two families resorted to an old village ritual.  The little girl was dressed in a borrowed red and gold dress, and to represent the groom during the ceremony, a rooster was bound with a bright red ribbon and held in the arms of one of his cousins.  Some villagers played the two-string fiddle, a brass gong, and drum making a noisy parade from the girl’s home to her husband’s house.  When she arrived at her husband’s front gate, Lam Hing’s father set off firecrackers and the bride’s mother cried.

      In the years that followed, his bride was referred to formally as the wife of Lam Hing, and she didn’t starve.  There were many women in Toisan District whose husbands were away in America.    The girl learned from another “Gold Mountain Wife”, how to use the box of beads.   Each night before going to bed, she spilled a box of beads on the bedroom floor. Then on her hands and knees, she carefully counted and picked up each bead as she put them back in the box.  When she had found all the 2,001 beads, she forgot about being lonely and was tired enough to go to sleep.

     Twelve years went by, and without a child of her own, the girl grew up to be just a servant in her In-laws house, until the year that she died in the great Cholera epidemic that swept through the farming country of Lam Hing birth.

Unidentified Chinese woman, 1900.

      As for Lam Hing, he desired two things, money and women, in neither matter was he honorable.   In New York, because he could read and write, Lam Hing was entrusted by some illiterate clan members to hold on to their money for safekeeping, but then he used their cash funds to make risky loans and investments without asking their permission.   When these investments succeeded, he kept the profit for himself.   If they didn’t, he lied and claimed that he had only been entrusted with a fraction of the money they gave him.    When the men complained and wanted their money back, he demanded that they show him the paper receipt for the money.  Of course, as illiterates they did not know of such things, so he ignored them.

      Owners of the Flower Girl houses complained that Lam Hing damaged their property because he often left the girls so bruised and swollen after the “games” he forced them to play they couldn’t entertain another guest for two or three days.  He dismissed their demands for compensation by saying he had rented the girls for an hour, and they were his to do with as he pleased.  Some of the owners grumbled to their Clan association but Lam Hing was too powerful for anything serious to be done.

          To be a truly respected as a man of wealth and importance, Lam Hing decided that he should formally take another wife.  His import and export store was very successful, and he was a council member of his family association.    To complete the picture, he needed a son.  He inquired of his business associates about a suitable wife.  But when approached about the matter, most of his associates avoided discussing it.  They reminded him that he was a Chinese national who by American law could never become a U.S. citizen, and that their daughters were Americans by birth who might lose their citizenship if they married a Chinese National.  Lam Hing soon discovered that in America, where even the poor people in Chinatown had enough to eat, nobody was so desperate as to sacrifice a daughter just for the money.

     Then he heard of a gambler, Wong Git, a Chinese sugar cane worker from Cuba who was so deeply in debt, one Association had threatened to kill him.  He had a half Cuban daughter named Serena Wong.   She was born in Cuba and brought to the United States as child.  As she was not an American citizen, the law would not prevent Lam Hing from marrying her.  Wong Git’s daughter was a little older than most marriage aged girls and she had seen the rough side of life.  There were rumors that she had been involved in paying off some of her father’s debts by using dubious methods, but nobody knew for sure.

Chinese workers, Cuba, 19th century. Chinese coolies were used as cheap labour. Here they are cutting sugar cane. Artist: Pelcoq.

       Lam Hing took great pains to contact her father and ask him to have tea at the Good Fortune Tea parlor on Doyer’s street.  As they sat Lam Hing came to the point at once,

     “Wong Git, you have many debts, and you have a daughter.    I am a rich man and I want to marry again.”  Wong Git thought it over for a second.

    “Did you have children with your first wife?”   Lam Hing explained,

    ‘No, and she died some years after I left the village.”

     “And will you make my daughter your number one wife?”  Lam Hing boasted,

    “Yes, have no fear, she will be my number one wife.”  The other man seemed hesitant,

     ‘What about a bride price?”  Lam Hing laughed,

     “What bride price?  Are you joking?  I’m paying off your debts, that’s more than enough for a Bride price.”  Wong Git was concerned,

     “I worry about her future.”  Lam Hing assured him,

    “As you can see, I’m not a young man but I have no children.  If I die before she does, she will inherit all my money and business.  I will sign the contract saying so.”   The gambler grimaced,

     “Then I will call you, my son-in-law.”  Lam Hing laughed, and Wong Git bore it stoically.     There were bows, handshakes, and a paper to be signed.

     Because of his prominence in the community, Lam Hing thought a large banquet was required.  He made a grand occasion of it, renting an American horse drawn carriage to carry him and his bride down the Bowery to the Mott Street restaurant.  The bride seemed very impressed.  As Lam Hing accepted congratulations and well wishes, she spent a long time inspecting the carriage and the horse, spending several minutes petting the animal and marveling at how fine it was.  Lam Hing was pleased that his wealth seemed to impress his young wife.

New York Chinatown,ca. 1920s.

     After the ceremony the couple returned to his Pell Street apartment.  For a middle-aged man, a long day with rich food, excitement, and liquor, had their affect and Lam Hing was snoring in bed before his new bride could get her silk wedding dress off.

     The next morning Lam Hing got up late and had to quickly dress to attend to business at his store, Serena looked at him and commented,

    ‘Oh, my husband, you have been neglected.  The state of your shirts and pants.  They need mending. “ Lam Hing was happy that his new wife knew her place.  He went out to deal with his affairs and she went about the business of cleaning up his apartment.

    When he came back that evening, she had a dinner ready.  He enjoyed the soup and Chicken Ding she had made, and when they were finished, she asked,

     “Do you have time for me to measure your shirt size?”  He sternly nodded yes.  She asked him to take off his regular shirt and draped a nice piece of linen over his shoulders.  She brought over a piece of chalk, a pin cushion, and began to measure and pinning the cloth together as it hung on his body.  She warned him,

    “Don’t move, or you might get stuck with a pin.”  He frowned and turned to see what she was doing which caused a needle to piece his skin.   He snapped,

    “Watch what you’re doing, you stupid cow.”  A minute later, it happened again, he turned and violently slapped her face.   She bowed her head and said nothing.   After the fitting, she sat down next to him and as an apology, offered him a cup of Ng Ga Pay liquor.  He drank several and in a short time was singing some bawdy song about goats in the field, and then fell asleep.

       During the next week or two, Lam Hing tried to ride heaven’s horse a few times, but he was usually so drunk that he slipped and fell from the saddle.  When his bride asked what was wrong, he lied to cover his embarrassment,

    “You are so ugly; I find I lose interest.”  She bowed her head and said nothing.

     Two weeks later at a family association meeting, Lam Hing noticed a pain in his neck.   He dismissed it as just another old man ache, but it didn’t go away.  The next day it got worse, and within three days, he was unable to get out of bed.  It was then that several clan elders gathered and sent for Dr. Gong, the Herbalist.    Gong came and felt Lam Hing pulse points, noticed the man’s clamped teeth, the slight arching of Lam Hing’s spine, and questioned him closely.   Lam Hing’s wife stayed out of the way and kept herself busy with the sewing of a shirt on her lap.  Dr. Gong spoke softly,

     “I think your husband may have tetanus.”   He searched for an easier word, “Lockjaw.”   She nodded,

     “Is there anything that can be done?”

     “No, if he were a younger man, perhaps, but at his age, well…He may be gone in a few days.”  She nodded again.

     “I must contact my father.  He has been worried about my husband’s health even before we were married.”  Doctor Gong tried to be consoling,

Unidentified Chinese woman, ca. 1920s. Source: Wikimedia.

     “You must be strong.  You’re still young and healthy, you can get married again.  Death is a part of life.”  She made a polite smile,

    “I know, in Cuba where I was raised, we sometimes saw this lockjaw happen to the men when they harvested the sugar cane.”  Doctor Gong became curious,

    “How did that come about? Did the men get cut in the fields?”  Serena shrugged and went back to the sewing on her lap.  Dr. Gong looked at Serena for a very long minute.  He whispered to nobody in particular,

    ‘Sometimes this tetanus can come from a rusty nail, or a wound from a dirty piece of barbed wire.”  Gong glanced at the unconscious husband moaning in the bed.  A thought began to form in his mind.  He finished it out loud,

   “Yes, it could happen with something as tiny as a pin, if that pin had some spit and horse manure on it.”

    Serena bowed her head and said nothing.

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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).

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