They Come At Night – Short Story by Charlie Chin

By Charlie Chin. Posted May 31, 2023.

    “Will you please stop and come to bed?”  My wife is always annoyed at my habit of checking that the doors are locked, that the windows are shut, and that there’s a working night light in the hallway before I lie down.

     I don’t blame her, I do it at least twice, and the ritual takes 10 or 15 minutes, but I can’t sleep until it’s done.  Never could.

    In 1954 I was ten years old.  We lived in a fifth-floor walk-up tenement apartment on the upper west side of Manhattan.  The area was poor.  A common problem was that neighborhood kids would sneak in through the fire escape window and steal food from our ice box, a Frigidaire was a luxury we didn’t have yet.  I caught my neighbor and friend, Eddie Soto doing that one day.  I came in from playing stick ball with some of the guys in the street and found Eddie trying put eggs in his pocket while he was crawling out our window.  He was embarrassed.  I told him to forget it and keep the eggs.

Photo by Eden, Janine and Jim via Flickr. Manhattan apartment building.

     Eddie’s father was a stiff neck man.  They were dead broke, but Mr. Soto felt he was the man, and the provider, and so he wouldn’t let his wife work.   During the times when Mr. Soto didn’t have a job, Eddie and his sister Maria lived on rice and beans.  Just rice and beans three times a day.  So having a fried egg was a treat.  I lied to my mother and told her I had cooked and eaten the missing eggs.   Mom looked at me suspiciously but let it go.  She knew the Soto kids were eating our food.

    She had once seen Eddie staring at the old lady and her dog who lived on the ground floor.  The woman had no family, just a big German Shepard.  She used to feed the dog ground beef in a bowl.  Once, when she was feeding the dog, she put the bowl out in the hallway to keep the dog from making a mess in the apartment.  The old lady went back into her apartment to get something else; Eddie had been standing by, he came over quickly and shooed the dog away.  He scooped up the meat and put it in his pocket.  The old lady came back out and started shouting at Eddie.  There was no doubt that he did it, there was blood on his hand and pocket.  My mother hushed her and told the woman,

    “The boy is hungry, let it go.”

     My mother was compassionate.   She had seen the rough side of life.  Her mother was struck and killed by a trolly car in the street while she was her on the way to church and her father had been kicked to death by a street cop.   In one very cold January, Mom’s dad passed out in a snowbank in the street and a beat cop assumed he was falling-down drunk and started to kick him to wake him.  In fact, he had passed out from a diabetic episode.  Since he seemed to be drunk and because he didn’t respond, the cop kept kicking him to “wake” him up.   He never did “wake up.”  The doctor said the cause of death was a ruptured spleen and fractured ribs.  My mom’s only comment was that the funeral was very small.

     She was an orphan by the age of fourteen.   She was bounced around from one distant family member to another and soon discovered their primary concern was to get her married off as soon as possible because she was just another mouth to feed.  She went out on her own by 18 and found other single girlfriends in Chinatown who were also without relatives.   One or two were women of mixed heritage, which was a social disgrace at that time.  Not like today where “Hapa” kids are more common than Asians.  These were women who had to live on the edge of polite society, between Chinese and Whites, and who made a living doing what single women were allowed at that time that didn’t involve selling your body.  She survived by being a domestic, doing piece work, being a Hat Check girl at the famous Ruby Foo’s restaurant in New York City, sweeping up in the Ladies department in Macy’s.   That sort of thing.

     She met my father when she and her pals went out dancing.  The Chinese were allowed in American dance halls if they didn’t start trouble or try to dance with White people.  My father had been clever, in the Bachelor Society times, Chinese American girls were highly prized.  But no national had a chance to marry one because of the law that forbid Ineligible Aliens from marrying American citizens.  The young girls were the envy of the community.  They threw dances and parties.  Usually, Nationals were not invited but my father noticed that they always needed help getting stuff to the party, food platters, tablecloths, party decorations, and so forth.  So, he bribed a cousin to teach him how to drive, saved some money, and then bought a second had Plymouth.  Once he had a car, he made a point of slowly cruising around Chinatown, the American born Chinese girls saw him, were impressed, started a conversation, and would ask him to help and bring stuff to the next party and then of course, then they had to invite him.

    The War was on, I mean the big one, and China was one of the Allies.  This was an embarrassing situation for the United States as it was the “Home of the Brave, and the land of the free.”   That is of course, if you overlooked the Jim Crow laws of the South, the Japanese American Internment, and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.  So, the United States made a big deal out of the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1943 and when they did, it meant that Chinese Nationals could legally marry American citizens.

     Mom made her own wedding dress and baked her own wedding cake.  It was just a few friends and a small dinner.  They didn’t have much, but it was alright until the fifties came.

     Then one day, Mrs. O’Mally from the fourth floor called the stairwell to my mother to say there was a phone call for her.   We didn’t have a phone, and the only reason somebody would want to call us, through Mrs. O’Mally, was that something was very wrong.  My mother hurried down to the fourth floor and answered the call.  It was my father.  Some men from Immigration had raided the Chinese restaurant he was working in and demanded to see everybody’s papers.  My father explained that his proof of residence was too valuable to carry around in his pocket, so they were at home.   They didn’t believe him and handcuffed him.  He pleaded to be allowed to go home and show them his papers.  They reluctantly agreed.

     At that time, televisions were still new and expensive, so the women in our neighborhood building hung out the open windows and watched the goings on in the street for entertainment.  They saw the two heavy set official looking White men wearing fedoras and over coats escorting my father up the block.  Women shouted from window to window and the news was relayed to our fifth-floor apartment that my father was under arrest by the law.  By the time they reached the front door of the first floor, the whole building knew.   As these men laboriously marched my father up each flight of stairs, our neighbors came out on each landing and silently watched.  My mother opened the door and look out apprehensively as the men got closer.   My little six-year-old brother Kenny and I asked what was going on and our mother just hushed us.  We half hid behind my mother’s skirts as we heard footsteps coming closer and closer to our landing.

    Just as reach our fifth-floor landing, the big men stopped and took a long look at my mother and her children standing in the open doorway.   She was teary eyed as she asked the grim-faced men the obvious question,

    “What going on?  Why are you arresting my husband?”  The men looked at each other, took the handcuffs off my father, turned around without a word and started walking down the stairs.

    My father came in and collapsed in a chair.  He explained that the White men thought they had caught an undocumented Chinese immigrant, because he didn’t have any papers on him, but when they saw that he had a wife who spoke English and a couple of kids, they realized he was legal and so they just un-cuffed him and left without an apology or explanation.

     That was scary but not as bad as the FBI.  J. Edgar Hoover, the head of the FBI was convinced that the Chinese in America were a big danger to democracy because they came from and had relatives in China.   I don’t mean the island of Taiwan that the Americans claimed was China, but the mainland, what they called, “Red China.”  They thought that one’s Red Chinese relatives might be used to pressure you into becoming a spy.   Several innocent Chinese laundry men were deported for no other “crime” than due fully sending money back home to their families in the village Kwong Dong province.  Seems J. Edgar believed that money was being used to support a Communist government.

     The first time it happened, we were confused.  They banged on the door, loud enough for the whole building to hear.  When my father got up and opened the door just a little, to see who it was, they flashed their badges, pushed the door in, breaking the safety chain, and started shouting,

     “Nobody moves!  Joe, check the bathroom, make sure nobody’s flushing anything away.”  They pushed my father back and shouted in his face as he tried to wake up.

    “O. K. Charlie let’s see your papers.  Is this Chink bitch supposed to be your wife?  What’s your name?  I’m not fucking with you Charlie.  What’s your real name?  Whose kids are these?  You got proof that you’re married?”  They knocked over the furniture in the kitchen and made sure the shouting was so loud that it would frighten the family.  It didn’t take much.  We were all sleeping when it started, and I was trying to rub the sleep out of my eyes as they grilled my father and mother.  I was ten, but I knew that my parents were really frightened, my mother was shaking, and my father was stuttering as he tried to answer the questions they were screaming at him.

   After about an hour, when these husky men in their over coats and badges gone through the drawers by their bed and looked at his papers and were satisfied that my father was not the David Chin that they were looking for, they just simply left.   Dad tried to repair the door chain as best he could, and my mother put the kitchen chairs back upright.   My brother Ken was crying without knowing why, and Mom had no answer to our questions, she just kept repeating the same simple phrase, “Go to sleep.”

Chinese suspected of illegal immigration held at Ellis Island, Jan. 31, 1951. From American Experience website/Getty Image.

    It happened several more times.

    So, you see my wife doesn’t understand my neurotic fear. Yes, it’s true.   I was born in the United States, I’m a citizen, and now I’m an old man.  She doesn’t understand why I must check the doors and windows, and make sure there’s a light on in the hallway before I lie down.   Or why I always keep a folder by the bed that contains a copy of my birth certificate, my passport, and other important papers within reach.   I learned a long time ago that when they want to make sure that you’ll confess to whatever they want, they will wait until you’re all asleep, and then they will break the door down, use loud voices, flash their badges, and made threats to scare you awake, so you will be confused, frightened, and vulnerable.    It’s all very simple, you see, that’s why they come at night.


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).


  1. Lydia Tanji on June 1, 2023 at 12:40 am

    Thank you Charlie! Another wonderfully written story about what it means to be an ethnic minority in America.

  2. Taiyo on August 9, 2023 at 9:17 am

    An urgent story straight for the throat, like a monologue in the play of US history. Thank you for sharing these, Charlie. Much love, Taiyo

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