Mo Hi: Don’t Look

Mo Hi: Don’t Look 

June 3, 2019 Cynthia Yee  

“Easy, easy, just take it easy,” I heard the girl whisper. Walking by my Aunty’s doorway, I saw the young, dark skinned woman’s hand slip inside the old, white man’s trench coat, at the height of his zipper. She made soothing sounds, “Coo, ooo, ooo,” like a pigeon. He stared straight ahead, nervous. They stood in the recessed doorway of the building next to mine. My Aunty Cheong-Sim’s apartment was upstairs. Shadows and a wide top step…perfect for a pair who did not want to be spotted. It invited girls and Johns, drunks, the homeless. Girls lined the sidewalk on the main drag, a block over. Girls with customers often hid in that doorway. I looked, strolling by with MaMa.

Mo hi,” MaMa said. “Don’t look.” In my Baltimore Catechism, I had studied three outlined human figures. In the middle of the first, a black heart beat. The caption read, MORTAL SIN. In the center of the second, beat a black speckled heart, captioned, VENIAL SIN. The third figure, a white heart, read NO SIN. I knew, for sure, this girl and this man had black hearts. MaMa didn’t believe in Mortal, Venial, and No Sin. She believed in doing the right thing, the kind thing, the generous thing. And eating rice everyday.

I knew what the woman’s hand was doing. I was thirteen. 

MaMa, kui doo mut yeh?”

“Mo hi,” MaMa said again.

MaMa, what is she doing?” I asked anyhow.

Mo hi,” MaMa repeated. “Poor girls do that.”

Lacy black stockings. Shiny gold-hooped earrings. Short black leather skirt. Didn’t look poor to me.

She paused. “Lazy girls do that, too.” 

“Oh.” 

“If you don’t work hard in school, and you are lazy, that’s what you will do.”

“I will never do that! Not I! Never!” 

“If you are hungry, and have no food to eat, you will do,” MaMa said, “Maut do due, Anything.”

I filed it away in my mind as a career outcome, if I continued my lounging ways. “I am going to college,” I finally said. I had never starved. Not even close. MaMa had related her Japanese invasion stories, her starvation stories. She’d starved. I could see the pot of boiling, shredded tree bark she’d told me about, her dinner. 

At thirteen, the City leveled down my quiet childhood home and transformed it into a high speed roadway. We’d moved to a place of neon lights and fast action. We moved to the Combat Zone, after the Boston Redevelopment Authorities had called my Taishanese America, “Urban Blight.” That had led to their next story, “Urban Renewal,” about rescuing us, though we didn’t need rescuing. 

When you let someone make up a false story about your life, you give them the power to destroy it. They razed Hudson Street and built a ramp for the Southeast Expressway. We, longtime Taishanese and Syrian immigrant families, scattered to live elsewhere. It was the end of childhood for me and my friends. A stroke of a pen and a swing of a wrecking ball and I’d grown up.

I lived in an alley never touched by sunshine. It stank of urine and decaying trash.  I listened to great bands, going strong, well past midnight. The beats of drums and guitars and the chatter of honky tonk strip joints drifted in the window and lulled me to sleep every night. Prostitutes, pimps, Johns, and cops strolled around my neighborhood.  

My Dad, his brothers, cousins, friends, and my paper brothers had toiled on their days off from the restaurants, transforming a factory loft into a living space. MaMa stayed in Chinatown, living a full life, close to her Taishanese grocer at the See Sun Company, and her soul sisters, Aunty Cheong Sim, and MaMa’s best friend, Ah-Goo, GockLim’s Ma. Cooking and chatting with friends, the main social activity for immigrant women, sustained them, and therefore, me. 

We’d needed city approval, a permit. But my Dad and uncles didn’t know that. They measured, sketched a plan, gutted, and installed plumbing and wiring, and stoves, sinks, tiles and tubs, three windows in the back and a bay window in the front, new ceilings and walls, and patterned linoleum squares, a staircase with handrails, and two modern pink and yellow bathrooms with doors, one for each of the two apartments. Bedrooms did not need doors, only curtains, as in tropical southern China. Doors took up room. The three windows in the back opened onto the flat rooftops of our first floors which extended into the back, and allowed in the sound of factories, breathing in and out, the sound of steam releasing, and sewing machines running. I will spend my teen years squeezed between industry, domesticity, and streetwalkers. I slept, for the first time, in my own room. It was tiny, sectioned off of our living room, with no exterior windows. I slept above the deli on the ground floor. The deli brought dancing mice. 

Mice indoors are scarier than mice outdoors. I noticed my child’s breasts budding. My neighbor did, too. I felt his hand on my shoulder, moving where his hand should not be. His hand moved too close. I opened my eyes. I glared at him, a tiger’s glare. “Not asleep yet?” Disapproval in his voice, as if he cared about my sleeping. He went away. I was thirteen and scared. I had to stop him. I did not have the words to describe what was happening to me. I told my parents in awkward Taishanese, so MaMa would understand.  I said to MaMa and Dad, “I don’t want him to watch me when MaMa goes to the Chinese movies on Monday nights.” I told them why. I dared my parents to protect me, to be loyal to me above all other loyalties. My love for them hinged on their actions. MaMa and Dad listened to me. He stopped. Still, I kept the front door locked and chained, my ears alert. I never slept on Monday nights until MaMa came home. The world outside frightened me less than what lay inside.

The swinging beat of Jerome’s Bar and the Naked I became my teen lullaby. On the front of the Naked I hung a blinking neon sign, two flashing, disembodied, lower legs crisscrossing again and again. Right smack in the middle, a naked eye, between the crossing legs, blinked blue, with long black lashes. The nun at school asked, “What is a pun?” I told her, on Friday nights, I walked past the Naked Eye on my way to the porno house. 

I saw things other girls didn’t.  

My Dad called me every night from the restaurant and asked me about my day, what I had eaten for dinner, and if I’d finished my homework. On Saturday mornings, he cooked French toast for me. He talked and listened to me in English. My Dad loved me. I was his American born daughter, his youngest child, the only one of four daughters that he raised. So, why had he moved his beloved teen to a place of sin? “Your mother does not want to leave Chinatown,” he said. 

MaMa loved me but she didn’t speak English. She loved me in Chinese. She, especially, liked me to eat. If I said, “I have no appetite. I don’t feel like eating anything,” MaMa frowned, and rushed about cooking my favorite, beef and tomatoes with black bean and garlic sauce over rice, a runny fried egg on top. 

MaMa often seemed heavy with worry. Getting lost, not knowing English, and having had to leave two of her daughters to come to America, having to leave them in Communist China hauling bricks and suffering, were her top three. She shed gusher tears onto the sewing machine and fabric, though she kept pedaling and sewing. She’d gotten lost, and once had to take a cab back from Jordan Marsh, just a few minutes up the street. She knew just enough, to say, “Taxi!” and, “Chinatown!” for her two minute ride. 

My Aunty Cheong Sim dashed a bucket of soapy water on the doorstep where the young black girl and the old white man had stood. Aunty Cheong Sim, often disgusted, but never surprised, muttered, “Ne llee lo fan oo ook si aw ngoi ge mon how!” “Those damn barbarians!  Dropping a load of shit on my doorsteps!” Aunty Cheong Sim was the perfect cook and housewife. She’d married at fifteen, an arranged marriage to my father’s youngest brother, Uncle Cheong Sook. She scrubbed the granite steps every morning, clearing off the stench of urine left by the Combat Zone revelers each night before. She swept her second-floor home, from floor to ceiling with a broom, and washed the long steep hallway stairs that lead up to her second floor. Two young couples and five babies occupied the two floors above her. The piles of human waste on her steps confirmed her worldview. She had moved to a Land of Barbarian Foreigners, Uncivilized Lo Fans. 

Sailors on shore leave in their crisp whites, cut through our alley looking for fun. My Aunty Cheong Sim pretended not to notice. She swept on. She said, “Hee sin, hung hoi, Get up and move.” She neither looked at me nor explained why. I knew why. She wanted me safe from nervous men. 

Fourteen and pretty…a serious problem; wild, half drunk, white men, ready to ignite. The young sailor eyed me, his mouth stretched into a questioning smile. He moved towards me. Fear and sexual danger did not come to mind, only curiosity, an awareness of my power to attract the male gaze, and the power to disobey. 

I knew how to move. If I chose, I could be inconspicuous. Look down. Hide my face behind my shiny, black, waist-length hair. Move slow. An image of Aunty Cheong Sim, laboring over steaming woks of shredded taro rice cakes, flashed in my mind, and she, with long chopsticks, frying puffs of sticky rice balls stuffed with grated peanuts, sugar, and coconut. I obeyed for that reason, and only that reason. I moved, thanking her silently.

Fierce,” my Aunty Cheong Sim once said. “Hing is fierce. She’s unlike her sisters in China. Unlike her parents. She will have to get a dog, someday, to lick her dishes.” 

“I will have a maid and a dishwashing machine,” I said, although, I had nothing against washing dishes. I didn’t like injustice, though. 

In Aunty Cheong Sim’s house, the men cooked with the women, and ate at the men’s table, and then the women who had also cooked, washed dishes. I played with her son after supper until I turned twelve. Then she called me to help my paper sisters-in-law wash dishes. “If you ate, you can do dishes,” I yelled at her son. “You ate, didn’t you?” He sprawled on the couch. He was two years younger, and I loved him. This had nothing to do with love. “OK, OK,” he said, nodding, and got up and cleared the dishes from the table. 

“Fierce girl,” said my Aunty Cheong Sim, “fierce girl.”

My father worked as a host on busy Friday evenings. My Dad spoke English, which, with his outgoing personality, made him a popular maitre di’ at the Cathay House on Beach Street. That, and the Ruby Foo, were the most popular hotspots for doctors, lawyers, Beacon Hill politicians, and other celebrities. Chinatown restaurant workers clocked in from 2:00 pm until 2:00 am, with one day off. Many households had absent fathers six days a week. Mothers sewed piecework at home, and paid limited attention to kids. The children played as they pleased. As a Chinatown host, my father rubbed elbows and joked with politicians from City Hall and the State House. Ingrid Bergman, Lucille Ball, and Desi Arnaz, came in whenever they were in town. Jovial banter and friendly favors followed the fried rice, chow mein, beer, and generous gin and tonics.

Friday evenings, with fathers toiling on in the restaurants, mothers shut down sewing machines, and stopped their work for the local garment factories; on lucky evenings, they took us to the Chinese movies at the State Theatre on Washington Street, in the center of the Red Light District, on the edge of Chinatown. My friends and I preferred modern romances and kung fu flicks with sticks and swords, and brave, agile heroes and heroines. Our mothers liked the costume dramas, Cantonese operas, with actors in heavy make up, elaborate costumes, and shrieking singing, that we children couldn’t understand. The glamorous people on screen spoke in something close to our country dialect. The musical tones and smooth sounds of Cantonese fed our hungry, immigrant souls, even my American-born one.

My Aunty Cheong Sim, my cousin, Albert, MaMa’s friends, and I walked up the main drag, Washington Street. We passed the glittered up ladies, hot pink and bright red lips, breasts overflowing low-cut tops, black lace peeking out from skimpy bottoms. The doors to the bars stood open. I peeked into the Naked I, heard the guitars, horns, drums, and singing. I took in the neat rows of police cars parked along the sidewalk, some with lights on, and I glanced at the policemen with holstered guns, some casual and joking, some at ready attention. Bright lights aglow in the dark night, Chinatown always a Christmas celebration tinged with danger protected by wise men.

We strolled up to the State Theatre, bright lights around the front and across the canopy. MaMa and the Aunties bought tickets. Chandeliers lit the red carpeted lobby. We waved to neighbors, children, moms, aunties , grandmas and grandpas, arriving.  The State Theatre, majestic, elegant, specialized in skin flicks.

Inside, past the brown leather seats, red velvet drapes, maroon carpeting, was a vast movie screen. An American movie shown, and a scattering of solitary white men sat in the plush rows. They glanced up, squirmed, and looked back at the screen. MaMa yelled loud across the darkened theatre, in her singsong dialect. “Ah Gock Lip Keck Ah Ma Ah!  Au koy yu goh vee ne!” Gock-Lip’s Mother! Here’s a seat for you!” Gock-Lip’s mother, MaMa’s best friend, elegant, refined, and educated, finished up MaMa’s sewing for the factory boss every time MaMa’s work piled up and a deadline loomed. She lived above me. I loved her. 

I called her Ah Goo, Aunty. She was a Yee, like me, but married to a Soo Hoo.  Her mailbox said Lee, her legal paper name. Nobody called her Mrs. Lee. Chinatown dwellers knew the elaborate code of real and fake names. We never confused them.  

I loved her three gold teeth. They sparkled from the sides of her mouth when she smiled and said, “Hing should be a lawyer or a news reporter on TV because Hing enjoys talking so much. She will be good at it.” I liked that she saw the future for me and I loved her sweet dessert soups, the hong sui, she brought down to me and my friends on cold nights for our pajama parties. My friends, who stayed over, were no longer neighbors. They had moved all over Boston. She made mashed sweet potatoes with ginger sweet soup, egg flower sweet soup with lotus seeds, and papaya sweet soup, with lily bulbs. She chatted with us about politics, fashion, careers, and our studies. 

One night, the Miss America Beauty Pageant came on television and we watched with her and MaMa. The girls, all white, paraded down the runway. MaMa and Ah Goo sat side by side, and commented: 

“This girl is not bad.”

“No, this one’s nose is too high.”  

“This one’s pretty, but her eyes are blue.” 

“Some of them have blue eyes, even green eyes. Like cats! Some have white hair. Like ghosts.” 

“In America, yellow hair and blue eyes are supposed to be pretty,” I said to our darkened room of black haired, brown eyed women. 

“Oh no!” MaMa and Ah Goo said. Black hair and brown eyed girls are the prettiest. They look human.”

I did not argue but I wondered if they really knew the color of the eyes on our black and white television. 

My friends and I modeled the dresses we had sewn for an upcoming party. Ah Goo and MaMa asked us to show them the latest dances. They smiled and laughed, and told us how fabulous we looked. Ah Goo’s only daughter, Fee King, left behind in the tumult of the Communist Revolution of China, lived in the framed photos on her living room table, and visited Ah-Goo’s dreams, marching in a gray padded jacket and a green beret with a red star. Fee King and Ah Goo’s own girlhood dreams came alive in our living room in America, in the alley of our displacement. Delighting in our new dresses and American dances, Ah Goo became one of the girls. In our snug, newly renovated apartment with those traditional Chinese sweet dessert soups, American music and dance, sheets of new fabric and self concocted fashions, women and girl talk, laughter and giggles, the Combat Zone outside faded.

“NUDIST COLONY” the big screen read. The background music, little bells, tinkled. No love, no anger, no story. A lot of walking around, smiling, towels draped over forearms, and little black rectangles coasting along over key spots. My friends and I felt embarrassed. Mothers chatted and giggled, “Look at that. Like animals in the wild!” “Sucking your lips and sucking your nose, dot dui, dot bee, doesn’t mean somebody loves you.” MaMa said to me. “Feeding you good food, taking care of you, that means love.” MaMa had a way of turning everything into a lesson on life. Even a naked-people movie with no dialogue and no plot. MaMa and her friends savored the film. It confirmed that they had made an intergalactic move, landing on another planet. 

My friends and I ran up and down the aisles of the theatre. Our mothers called us back to our seats, the nudist flicks still running. We sat down and covered our eyes with the Chinese movie program, moving the paper hei kiu up and down, playing peek-a-boo with the naked people. I wondered what those solitary white men, sitting in the dark, thought of MaMa, yelling across the theatre as if she were working in the rice paddies.

The American Nudist Colony movie ended at 10:30 pm and just like that, the Chinese movie began. Chinese instruments, Chinese lyrics, Chinese actors and actresses with shiny black hair, dark eyes, flawless skin. Love and betrayal, lovers separated and reunited, courage and honor defended, revenged and redeemed, and always, justice prevailing. We held our breaths when the heroine believed lies, and sighed collectively, when kindness finally conquered evil. 

The Cantonese language of the movies seldom sounded like the Taishanese commands our rural mothers shouted at us, telling us to eat, sleep, behave, and do homework. No words of romantic ardor, no “Slay the enemies for revenge!” had ever flowed from MaMa’s’ mouth. The actresses looked nothing like our busy mothers, and the handsome actors, unlike my English-speaking Dad. Still, the distinctive world of Chinese movies enchanted us. 

I walked home with MaMa, Ah Goo, my Aunty Cheong Sim, my cousin Albert, our Chinatown friends and neighbors, chatting, laughing, and mingling with the Friday night gala. My friend Susan’s little brother, Harold, went home, put band-aids on his nipples, and paraded around.

Through the curtain, late at night, I heard MaMa telling my Dad, the entire movie plot. I dreamt about the story, and on Monday, it still ran through my mind during class.  Ah Goo had given MaMa a recording she made of a classic Chinese opera. On separate floors, they sang along with the music and sewed late into the night. Listening to MaMa sing and sew, I lay in my bed, gazing at the rectangle hole, framed with stained wood moldings, cut high in the wall, opening onto the kitchen where MaMa sewed. In the distance I also heard the loud music from the Naked I and Jerome’s Bar. I slept.

MaMa and her friends called each other, “So and So’s Mother!” I never learned Ah Goo’s name, nor the other Aunties’ names, only that they were “So and So’s Mother.” I called them Elder Aunt, “Ah Moo” or Younger Aunt, “Ah Sim” or “My Father’s Sister, ”Ah Goo,” if their surname was like mine, Yee, though they were not my aunts nor my father’s sisters, in the English sense. This respectful formality created an easy intimacy, Chinatown a big family linked by aunties, uncles, grandmas, grandpas, and paper brothers. 

Aside from the white people on film, I saw housewives on television with puffed hair and neatly pressed house dresses; teachers at the American school in orthopedic black high heel shoes; nuns in long black habits with black head veils, strings of beads with crosses around their necks, and ropes with three knots dangling from their waists; ladies in kitty cat smocks selling blueberry muffins at Jordan Marsh; streetwalkers in scanty tops; Johns in trench coats; pimps in cowboy hats, waving dazzling rings; Theatre District patrons in pressed suits and mink stoles. None of my Chinatown friends and neighbors dressed special, and nobody walked around nude! The parade of white folks’ styles along our neighborhood streets and the naked people on screens confirmed our separateness. And no Chinatown folks, young or old, worked in, or patronized the Combat Zone, though we lived right in it. 

I started high school about the same time we moved into our alley home. I won a place by competitive entrance exam at a Catholic girls school. My Dad bought me a Brownie Starmite camera for my thirteenth birthday, and a sleek, aqua colored Smith Corona typewriter for my fourteenth. I learned to frame a photo, and I learned about footnotes, bibliography, and specific references to evidence in the text. In my sophomore year, I typed my first term paper, “The Influence of Minor Characters in To Kill a Mockingbird.” I clacked on the typewriter keys to the music of Jerome’s Bar until my Dad walked in the door from the restaurant. 

“It’s late. Why are you still working? Go to bed.” 

“I think better, closer to the deadline,” I said, and kept typing. 

I aced it, an A Plus, in fact. My teacher, Sister Agnes, the strictest nun of all, who never smiled, penned a note on the cover page. “Beautiful work, Cynthia!” I kept that note on my night table for months.  

Mr. Yee, the See Sun Company grocer, reached into his glass jars and handed me packages of chin pi moy, preserved plums wrapped in waxed paper, and tubes of san ja pin, red hawthorn-fruit wafers. MaMa checked out the mustard greens, daikon radish, hairy melons and bak toy, neatly stacked in baskets on the floor. She ordered a quarter of a soy sauce chicken. He, chopping the chicken into bite size pieces, slammed the cleaver down onto his round chopping block, a thick slice of tree trunk bound with a strip of animal hide soaked with oil. He threw in a chunk of barbecued pork for free. Beginning at age twelve, my friend, Mary, and I picked out fresh greens and bought soy sauce chicken for our moms. Mr. Yee gave us fistfuls of preserved plums and red hawthorn-fruit wafers, no matter how tall we grew.

Chinatown changed, and so did we. Aunty Cheong Sim’s son became a physician and medical director of the first Asian American bilingual bicultural health center in Boston. Ah Goo’s son graduated from MIT and became a radiologist. The two young couples who lived above Aunty Cheong Sim opened popular Chinese bakeries and restaurants, and moved out to rich Chinese enclaves in the suburbs. I became a teacher, teacher trainer, and writer. I sent my family’s story to the governments of the Peoples Republic of China and America. I negotiated with them, with letters, translated in Chinese and English. China allowed my two sisters and their families to leave. America gave them permission to enter. My father sold over the house for $35,000. In 1980, the neighborhood was designated a United States Historic District and our homes were listed on the National Register of Historic Places, requiring special permission for further renovations. Today’s developers price my house at over $2 million, and rent it to young professionals. The police have swept the streets of prostitutes. Poor girls of all races, including girls from China, lured with false promises, are trafficked into massage parlors and suburban motel rooms instead. No loud music flows onto the streets to disturb the cafe and theatre crowd. The porno houses are replaced by high rise apartments, and people of all ages stream hard core porn in the privacy of their own homes.

I walked to Eldo Cake House on Harrison Avenue, where Mr. Yee’s See Sun grocery once stood. The new owners sublet part of the cafe to an herbal store. High rents meant sharing commercial space. A new Boba tea chain has opened next door, with long lines out the door. 

Eldo has gone through two new ownerships, but the ladies at the counter stayed the same. Immigrant newcomers, they speak three Chinese dialects and adequate English. Customers lined up, seven days a week, for traditional Hong Kong style milk tea, coffee, whipped cream, fruit filled sponge cakes, steamed and baked buns of all sorts, cake rolls, custard tarts. I walked up the three steps and entered the cafe. “

“Next!” “Next!” “Next!” I am glad to see the three familiar ladies, in green smocks, at the counter. Customers, holding cups of hot coffee and tea, pineapple and coconut buns, barbecue pork and red bean buns, strawberry whipped cream birthday cakes, rushed out the door toward double parked cars awaiting them. Rising prices, no deterrent. I waited, and the crowd cleared.

“Hi, Missy! Why are you wearing thin clothes and sandals? It is cold today. You wear a thin jacket on a cold day, and a thick  jacket on a hot day. In China, they’d think you were a beggar the way you dress.” The ladies called me, “Missy,” for “Miss,” Teacher. Min rushed to make the nai cha, Hong Kong style milk tea, their special black tea blend with evaporated milk, just the way I liked it, no sugar. 

Friendly banter, gentle teasing, smiles all around, welcoming a beloved child home from a long trip. Chinatown ladies, no matter how young they are, or how old I become, give free advice, a family linked by fussing. I went to Eldo’s for the fussing, laughter, and teasing as much as the tea:

“Missy, where’ve you been? Traveling? Nai cha, no sugar, right? Something to eat? Don’t worry about getting fat. You are not fat. One custard tart won’t matter. Just fresh hot from the oven, ngum ngum chut lo, yit lat lat!”

“No, thanks,” I said, “I gain weight easy.” I showed them the travel photos on my phone, cows grazing on rolling green hills in the Azores. They crowded around my phone, looking.

“Wow, so green, so beautiful!” 

“Good beef,” said Min.

“You are lucky,”said Ling. “You like writing stories? I take you to China. Each house in my village has a story. I take you and tell you all the stories.” 

“Oh, that would be great, but I don’t read and speak Mandarin well.”

“No problem, you follow me. I read for you.”

“How are your daughters doing?” I said to Min. 

Mo yung! Worthless! Lan do say. Lazier than the dead,” she answered.

I took the warm tea from her hand and sat at one of the green tables. 

Min came by with her mop, and a paper. “What does this say, Missy? My eldest daughter gave it to me. She said, ’Look at this, MarMee!’ ‘What’s this?’ I said.”

I took the paper from her. “NATIONAL HONOR SOCIETY,” it read. “It says your daughter is smart, a member of the smartest group in America. This is wonderful!” Min, smiling, kept on mopping. “I don’t mind their business. I don’t know English. I can’t help them with school. I feed them. I tell them: ‘if you’re lazy, you sleep in the street someday.’ My daughter is volunteering for a film festival by the Chinatown Gate today. She’s always running around. I don’t bother her.”

Beneath the bluster and damnation talk, love and pride, Chinatown style. 

“You mean you’re not a helicopter parent?” I said, teasing her back. 

“What’s that?” She laughed, “Oh, you mean hovering…like a helicopter! No, I give them space. They need to figure things out, without me all over them.” She stopped mopping, and said, “Where are you headed today? You’re always going somewhere. Hey, you like sweet potatoes, Missy? We just cooked some. You like? I give you some. They’re very good.” Before I could answer, she rushed downstairs, and brought up three Japanese purple yams. She handed me two fist size yams, still warm. We munched sweetness together. 

“Taste good?”

“Yes, it’s very good, thank you. “Any ji ma wu left?”

“Yes, we have. You want some?” 

Min filled a plastic pint container with black sesame sweet soup, and handed it to me. Ji ma wu, a sweet dessert soup made with toasted black sesame seeds, rice, and rock sugar, at $3 a pint, a bargain treat.

I slurped the warm, fragrant soup, and I thought of Ah-Goo. The memory of her kindness, sparkling gold toothed laughter, shy elegance, and unwavering faith in me, made me smile.

“I made fa sang zhoong today. They’re boiling downstairs. Ready soon!” I loved her bamboo leaf wrapped sticky rice, stuffed with sausage, pork belly, salty egg yolk, and fa sang, peanuts. MaMa and Aunty Cheong Sim always made zhoong with peanuts. “We made char siu bao today, sun seen yit lat lat, fresh hot!” she said. They made the best steamed barbecue pork buns in Boston. 

“Want any, Missy?” 

“I’ll take three fa sang zhoong, and three steamed char siu bao, to go,” 

Sitting at the table by the window, where Mr. Yee’s jars of salty plums and hawthorn fruit wafers once stood, I sipped the nai cha, slurped the last spoonful of ji ma wu, and ate the rest of the sweet purple yam, waiting for the zhoong and char siu bao, boiling and steaming downstairs.

Sun seen yit lat lat

Delicious.

 

Note: The State Theatre or the Trans Lux Theatre, at 617 Washington Street, on the site of the Park Theatre, a playhouse in the late 19th-early 20th centuries, became an adult house from 1960 on. Nudist colony footage formed the beginnings of the porno trade. Located in the Combat Zone on the corner of Washington and Boylston Street in the Chinatown/Theatre District, the building was demolished in 1990. The State Theatre, rented Friday and Monday nights by Chinatown merchants to show Chinese movies from Hong Kong, provided entertainment, at an affordable price for immigrant Chinese families, beginning in the 1950s. An upscale furniture store, Roche Bobois stands there now. 

The Beach-Knapp District encompasses a collection of six 19th century buildings in the Chinatown neighborhood of Boston, Massachusetts. It includes two Greek Revival residential structures, 5 and 7 Knapp Street both built in the 1830s. The writer and her family lived at 5 and 7 Knapp Street during her teen years after the demolition of Hudson Street. She and her parents moved out in 1970. The district was designated a United States Historic District and listed on the National Register of Historic Places on December 9, 1980.

The See Sun Company, originally located at 36 Harrison Ave, now the site of Eldo Cake House, was a popular two generation, family owned Taishanese grocery store.

Hoi San dialect (Taishanese), a southern Chinese rural dialect, is similar to Cantonese, but with eleven tones, instead of the nine tones in Cantonese, or the four tones in Mandarin Chinese. Together with a strong singsong rhythm, Hoi San dialect also has unique sounds made by putting the tip of the tongue on the roof of the mouth and blowing, creating the “thloo” sound. It’s a sound not easily mastered by speakers of other Chinese dialects. One has to learn it by age 2 or 3 to get it right. It is an earthy, peasant dialect, often spoken loudly, laced with humor, and great emotional expression. It is Cynthia Yee’s first language and therefore, dear to her heart. 

Taishanese immigrant mothers, raising their American born children, in post Chinese Exclusion Act Boston, often used the filter of “separateness.” This idea was reinforced in many ways, and it helped them to live and thrive in an adverse environment. That said, insularity combined with patriarchy, also created, at times, an unhealthy environment for young girls, young boys, women, and men.

 

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