Reconsidering everything: The story of a lost childhood, a struggling restaurant, and a bygone era of Chinatown.
William Pei Shih
Read an interview with William Pei Shih, author of “Happy Family.”
When the real estate business was failing, and my parents’ marriage was also failing, my mother and my stepfather took out a second mortgage and opened a restaurant. This was on Grand Street, on the other side of Chinatown. My parents christened it “Ga Hing” for “Happy Family,” which didn’t make sense to me at the time because we were barely a family, and nowhere near happy. My stepfather wasn’t happy because he played mahjong, and had accumulated the kind of debt that was so impossible to pay off, he was convinced that turning back to the game could save him. My mother wasn’t happy because she said that she already knew what it was like to be poor, and that being poor again was worse because it was now entangled with bitterness and regret. I wasn’t happy because I somehow understood, even then, that there were things that I would never be able to get back. I was fourteen; I was about to start high school. In short, it was the end of my childhood.
It was expected of me to work at Ga Hing, to contribute for the good of the family. And while my classmates could spend their afternoons at the Ice Cream Factory, or roam the halls of Elizabeth Center for anime action figures and keychains and fancy pens, I had to work at the restaurant, and at most, wish that I could be elsewhere. One wouldn’t think that at such a young age, I could learn how to take orders, serve dishes, or even work the register. But when push came to shove, I found that I could learn rather quickly.
The first school I attended in Lower Manhattan was Transfiguration. It was on Mott Street. I wore a uniform, answered to very strict nuns. We weren’t Catholics—far from it. My parents were actually Buddhists (that is, when it suited them). I tried to be a good student. My stepfather was adamant that I score the top grades in my classes, and I made sure not to disappoint. He wasn’t the kind of man you wanted to make the mistake of crossing. He used to say that I owed a great debt to him. For instance, after Transfiguration, I was able to attend the prestigious Stuyvesant because I aced the specialized high school exam. “Remember, Scarlett,” my stepfather would say, pointing to his head, “I taught you how to use your coconut.”
I was fourteen; I was about to start high school. In short, it was the end of my childhood.
Stuyvesant was only a few subway stops away from the restaurant. The building was by Battery Park; it overlooked the Hudson River. It would be beautiful the way I could, at times, catch the sunlight glittering over the water. When the weather was especially nice, people would sit on the grass, enjoying a picnic, sunbathing. Admittedly, it was at Stuyvesant where I felt some semblance of the freedom that I had been craving all along. There were times when I’d look out the window of the cafeteria during lunch, times when I’d imagine that the view of the New Jersey skyline wasn’t the view from a high school, but from my own imagined apartment, another season altogether of my life.
Back then, I would go to the mall in the World Trade Center. After school, I’d find myself wandering in the direction of the two towers, towards the matching silvery brilliance that rose as if past the sky. The year was 1996. And it was in the underground mall where I could catch the subway back to Chinatown and no one would be the wiser. Not my stepfather, not my mother. I wouldn’t be able to resist stopping to look through the windows of the numerous shops. Festive cards at Hallmark, music at Sam Goody, books at Borders. I came to tell my parents that I had nine class periods, when in actuality I had eight. Sometimes, I would even get dismissed early. But I suppose this was only a kind of foreshadowing of my later deceits, among other things.
We moved into the basement apartment in Middle Village that often felt cold and damp. I always remember it being dark too. During the winters, my stepfather refused to turn on the heat in order to save some money. There were times I even remember being home alone. I’d eat packaged noodles. Or I’d boil the dumplings that my mother would buy from the Chinese supermarkets, drizzling oyster sauce over what I’d made. I wasn’t supposed to watch TV, though I did—daytime soaps like All My Children and Passions, but also sitcoms like Growing Pains and Who’s the Boss. My stepfather would have surely punished me if he only knew. But these shows gave me a sense of great pleasure, of other families who weren’t like mine—families with their own set of problems, but whose love was seemingly unconditional and ever-present as air, if you can believe it. Families who seemed happy.
My parents were not outwardly affectionate with me. In fact, I can scarcely remember a time when they told me something as simple as “I love you,” and meant it. Even on special occasions like my birthday, or the holidays. At the same time, I didn’t know how much such absences would take a toll on me, and how I saw myself in the preponderant world. Maybe because when there was no one there to constantly tell you that you were loved, how were you supposed to treat yourself right? You didn’t.
But my mother disagreed. This was years later when I asked her. She said that my grandmother Po Po had never told her that she was loved herself. “And what was good enough for me is certainly good enough for you. Otherwise, you might think too highly of yourself—when you shouldn’t.”
Maybe because when there was no one there to constantly tell you that you were loved, how were you supposed to treat yourself right? You didn’t.
Back then, my mother never failed to remind me that she had given me enough, more than enough, which was a head start—one that she didn’t have. Later, I’d realize that the “head start” was a consolidation of all of my aspirations. It meant that I was to ignore my predilection for singing or playing the guitar or drawing, things of that nature, what didn’t count in my mother’s eyes—not for someone who wanted me to survive, as opposed to aspire. My mother was keeping score, even then.
During dinners at the restaurant, my mother would remind me to eat each grain of rice. “Never leave any of it behind in your bowl,” she’d say. She’d even criticize customers who did (and many did so) and then continued with stories of her village where people had had to peel the skin off each grain of rice by hand, one by one. It was my mother’s way of telling me to waste nothing—consider everything. Otherwise, I would never know what was worth it or not. Otherwise, I’d always be left out, in the dark.
This is what else I had to consider: There was still the family house in the village then. It was in the Guangdong Province of Southern China, the Pearl River Delta. The region of Toishan—close enough to Hong Kong, but also separate, because Hong Kong was still considered a British colony; the profile of Queen Elizabeth II, on the face of stamps. The house was in the country, and there were even pigs to take care of too. In fact, each month, my Po Po, who now lived in Jamaica, Queens, still sent money back to relatives. It would be a portion of what she’d earn at the sweatshop on Baxter Street where she worked. Needless to say, it wasn’t very much, but it made a difference. It had been arranged that a distant relative would take care of the property, make obeisances to the shrines of ancestors. Sometime after Ga Hing’s opening, my mother had gone back to the village for the first time since she’d left as a girl for Hong Kong. I had been made to stay with my Auntie Mae in Flushing. There was no way that I was going to be allowed to miss a week or two of school.
When my mother returned, she said that so much had changed. More commercialized, new buildings, hotels, everything cleaner. Karaoke places and restaurants, so many of them you wouldn’t believe it now. A sea of bicycles, but also, more mopeds than ever. “Many people don’t remember that it was the Toishan people who built all the Chinatowns across North America.” I didn’t know how much of this was actually true, for my mother was prone to exaggeration. But she’d also say, “It’s convenient for people to forget. So they do.”
While in Toishan, my mother had gone to check up on the house because by then, my Po Po was not in good enough health to travel. My mother went to see if all was in order, and to see if the relatives to whom Po Po had been sending money had held up their end of the bargain.
“Of course, they didn’t,” my mother told me. “But that’s China for you. Even worse, that’s our family.”
She had gone to see a fortuneteller as well. This was no surprise. Let me explain. For as long as I can remember, my mother had always been superstitious. My stepfather had actually recorded the fortuneteller on his video camera. The woman was very old. She had blackened teeth. I was told that she was nearly a hundred, but this, again, was according to my mother, so one had to take it with a grain of salt. The fortuneteller was blind too, and when she talked, she spoke in that harsh farmer’s dialect, which always made me think of my Po Po, and which is why I can still understand some of its music today: “Heck fan,” for “eat.” “Liang gnui,” for “beautiful girl.” “Hoi sim,” for “Happiness.” “Ga hen,” for “Family.” “Oi ten,” “love.”
I remember seeing the whites in the fortuneteller’s eyes. Her skin was dark, sunburnt. And her voice, high-pitched and throaty. I heard her utter the fortunes of my mother, which was prosperity. Fortunes of my stepfather, which also included prosperity. Other relatives like my aunties and cousins. More prosperity for the family to come. After all, we were already out of Toishan—out of China. Only my mother would always stop the tape when it got to me. She wouldn’t want me to hear what the fortuneteller had to say, other than to tell me that I should always be vigilant, and to never relent, like my mother had done in order to give me the best shot possible.
Of course, I knew that this was more my mother putting words into the fortuneteller’s mouth. By not being vigilant, she meant the failing real estate business. She even meant my stepfather. Most of all, she meant the restaurant.
My mother would always stop the tape when it got to me. She wouldn’t want me to hear what the fortuneteller had to say.
Ga Hing served dim sum during the day. One could order the little dishes from the carts. And they could also order rice dishes off the menu. Roast pork over rice, mixed seafood over rice—the usual. In the windows, there were roasted ducks hanging by their necks, glistening with oil under the hot orange heat lamps. The restaurant had a second floor, and it was to cater to wedding banquets. On the main red wall, there was the golden display of a dragon and phoenix. The gold character for happiness—double happiness. My mother used to say that the restaurant didn’t make its money from dim sum, but that the service was only meant to advertise the space for events, from which the restaurant could finally generate some significant revenue. I used to look forward to the wedding banquets. All the red—red tablecloths, the elegant red traditional gown that the bride would wear. The embarrassing games that the wedding party would be forced to play. Such things would be endlessly entertaining for me to watch.
The banquet would usually consist of eight or nine courses, and it almost always included shark fin’s soup, which was a delicacy and, back then, was made of real shark. It was also the most expensive soup on the menu. It meant something when one had shark’s fin on the table. Also abalone, which was difficult to get, and therefore another sign of one’s good fortune. One even worried about how to make the dish properly, that they might make a mistake. There would be sea cucumber too, once only offered to Emperors. A whole chicken for luck. A whole fish for abundance. Noodles for longevity. A head of a chicken along with its tail meant that everything came full circle—completeness, renewal.
“The Chinese like to have things come to a conclusion,” my mother would say. A pair of lobsters at each table was almost a necessity. Though now you can find lobster at Panera.
I used to look forward to the wedding banquets. All the red—red tablecloths, the elegant red traditional gown that the bride would wear.
But my favorite dish was yin yang fried rice. After school, my mother would sometimes ask the kitchen to make it for me. It was a dish from Hong Kong and it symbolized “love,” of all things. Shrimp in a lobster sauce with green peas on one side, a red and sweet and sour chicken on the other. The dish was also one of the restaurant’s specialties, noted in ribbon-like calligraphic black ink over one of the neon signs, hanging along the mirrored walls. It was my stepfather’s writing, and there’d be times when I would wonder how someone with such beautiful characters could be so brutal and ungenerous. The kitchen was on the first floor, in the back, beside the shrine of the Kitchen God. Suffice to say, it was not nearly up to standards. Filth everywhere, old and unrefrigerated food, grime and soot, dingy. But also, standards were different then.
One time, I went inside the kitchen unannounced and caught the cook off guard. He was spitting into the dish. I watched the glob dangle from his thick mouth and linger there before finally disappearing into the wok. I knew this cook. We called him Fei Zai for “Fat Boy.” It was supposed to be endearing. Now he turned around, and when our eyes met, his stare was defiant, as if he only challenged me to tell. His apron was dirty too, stained with grease and different sauces. I didn’t know what else to do but run.
Later, when the dish was brought out to me, thick with sauce, half white, half red, I ate it without question or protest, though of course, without the usual relish either. In my mind, I had no choice. It was either that, or I tell my parents—I was trying to consider everything. And I thought, what would my parents do? If they fired Fei Zai, it wouldn’t be easy to find a replacement, another who would work for such a lowly wage, especially on such short notice.
This is the truth: the people who worked for my parents had little choice. They were recent immigrants. They were poor. Many weren’t yet citizens. So they worked off the books. They had families in China, and often sent money back. The alternative was to do like what my Po Po did, work at a sweatshop. Or like my Gong Gong, who’d worked at a laundromat for the greater part of his life in Queens. “It was all that was available,” my Po Po once told me. In short, I didn’t want to undermine what was already functioning, no matter how fragile. So I didn’t say anything, not a word. And yet the incident only confirmed, for me, a dreaded suspicion that I had had for some time—how people actually felt about my parents.
My stepfather was a complicated man. At the end of each day, he made it a habit of counting up the restaurant’s earnings. There were times when the numbers wouldn’t add up, and so he’d have to start over. I’d watch him standing at the register, stacking one dirty bill after another over the counter. He had a way of counting too, flipping through the bills with his thumb as if he were swiping. Once, about the time when my stepfather would start his end-of-the-day count, a man came into the restaurant. This must have been when Ga Hing first opened. At first, I thought that the man would ask for an order to go, which was not uncommon for the later hour. But then I listened more closely to what he had to say. He sounded as if he were demanding something that my stepfather was not prepared to give. Unbeknownst to the man, my family had nothing but debt.
Then he was telling my stepfather that it would only be to our advantage—to invest in some much-needed protection. It was for our own safety, he said. The restaurant’s safety. He could have it arranged, easily. His voice didn’t seem to match his face either, too high pitched. He was gaunt and pale and even haggard. When he finally noticed me, he smiled, though I already knew not to trust it. “What a good girl,” he then said. “I can tell.” Looking back now, I realize that it had been a thinly veiled threat.
“Scarlett, go upstairs,” I heard my stepfather bark. I must have done as I was told. But at the top of the steps, I continued to listen. My curiosity, needing to be satisfied.
It was near closing time. Many of the chairs, already flipped upside down over the round tables. The man wore a black t-shirt and black pants, the kind of pants that were devoid of a tag or label. He spoke Cantonese, but not like the actors or hosts from the Hong Kong shows that I watched on TV. Rough, like construction workers and deliverymen. He went on to explain: Our restaurant was on the territory of one gang. A rival gang was going to make a claim for it. And if we didn’t do anything soon, Ga Hing would be caught in the crossfire, and it would be out of his hands. That is, if we weren’t protected. So we had our chance, right then. Otherwise, there would be the alternative.
“What kind of protection are you talking about exactly?” my stepfather inquired. I don’t know why he was playing coy. Even I knew what “the alternative” meant: robbery, vandalism, arson. It wasn’t like it hadn’t already happened to several other restaurants in the area. But I knew that he was only baiting the man. My stepfather was trained in martial arts, Wing Chun. According to him, he had even studied with a classmate of Bruce Lee’s. He often said that if need be, he could tap back into his skills. But also, it had been some time, years. Now my stepfather was heavy-set and a smoker, so naturally I had my doubts.
But the man just said, “It wouldn’t be wise to find out.”
My stepfather stood still, unflinching. “No,” he then remarked. “Absolutely not.” I somehow remember that he threatened to call the police, but this could have been another instance too, as this kind of situation would occur in one form or another in the years to come.
I do remember on this occasion thinking that my stepfather was not prominent enough to protect my mother and me. And that if he had to choose who to save, he would certainly not choose me. I wasn’t even sure if he would choose my mother. By then, my parents had been arguing frequently; my stepfather was losing more and more at mahjong. I feared for what might happen next. Would I be kidnapped, held for ransom? And had it not happened to another girl, only a couple of blocks away from Ga Hing, who was not so much younger than me? The story had been all over the Chinese newspaper. Yet the family had paid the ransom, and she had been returned to the police in one piece. I remember that I had prayed for her (prayers that I had learned from the nuns at Transfiguration). That’s why to this day, I remember that the girl’s name was Agnes. But would my stepfather pay the ransom? And even if he wanted to, with what money? Because wasn’t it also true that he had lost it all?
He sounded as if he were demanding something that my stepfather was not prepared to give. Unbeknownst to the man, my family had nothing but debt.
Then there were further financial setbacks for the restaurant—so many that my mother had to ask my Auntie Yi Ma if she could lend a hand. By then, we were doing so poorly that many of the staff had already left. Yi Ma was a part-time accountant and worked mostly during tax season. In the past, I had heard my mother criticize Yi Ma for not being able to obtain her CPA, as my mother had done when she had gone to school for accounting. But I could now see that we had little choice. I watched my mother bite her tongue. She wouldn’t be able to pay my auntie either—at least not right away. But who else could she ask, other than her own sister? Someone who would always have to be there, in good times and especially the bad? After all, we were family.
“Ga Hing,” Auntie Yi Ma said, echoing the name of the restaurant. She stood outside, considered the yellow awning with the bold red characters: 家興. One of the lights had gone out. “We have to do something about that sign one day.”
I thought of how not so long ago, my mother had told me that Yi Ma had once been a seamstress. She had aspired to design her own clothing line with a single Singer sewing machine. “Only it led to nowhere.” Even then, I wondered why my mother would say this, especially about her own sister. And then I realized that my mother had been trying to teach me a lesson all along. “That’s what happens when your head is lost in the clouds. So don’t ever let it go there.”
Besides being the more intelligent sister, my mother also believed herself to be the prettier of the two. She had been more popular, more liked. Growing up, my mother had long straight hair, and a beautiful, dulcet singing voice. She used to like to sing, believe it or not. Chinese songs from films. Pop songs. Teresa Teng’s “The Moon Represents My Heart.” On the other hand Yi Ma’s hair was always short and wavy. Her skin, too white. She could be too soft-spoken at times, and therefore prone to misinterpretations—unlike my mother. And so my mother often made such comparisons, and for too great a part of my life, I would not be able to understand the extent of my own accomplishments and worth unless I had something to compare them to. For my mother, there were always going to be two kinds of people in the world—those who were “with it” and those who weren’t. And they could even be in the same family. Hence, Yi Ma.
But my mother also told me that when she married my stepfather, it was during a time when she couldn’t afford to buy a decent wedding dress. “I wasn’t in the country for very long, you know. I was behind, unlike you.” This was another side of her though—her version of tenderness. The point is, I came to realize that my mother had always been a woman rife with contradictions. (What I mean now is, hypocrisies.)
And yet on the point of the wedding dress, it was my Auntie Yi Ma who had come to the rescue. The story was that she had stayed up for several nights in order to sew the dress together. Even my mother confirmed this series of events.
“Just like that,” she had told me herself. “Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t a piece of art or anything. It was a white dress, nothing more.”
Still if I’m to be fair, my Auntie Yi Ma took her role seriously, and in those initial weeks, she must have worked every day, including the weekends. It was as if she treated the restaurant as her very own. There was no job too small, no task too difficult. She played waitress. She played sous chef, bussed tables. She washed dishes, dried them. One could see that she was determined to make the restaurant a success, if she had it in her. Of course the needs of the restaurant were never-ending. During dim sum, the ladies wearing matching pink uniforms and white caps pushed the metal carts of the steamed delicacies from one table to the next, shouting out what dishes they were selling. Yi Ma came to help serve the dishes herself. We had all the staples: Siu mai. Shrimp dumplings. Sticky rice wrapped in lotus leaves. Egg tarts. Malaysian cakes. Chicken feet.
Each of the ladies hoped to sell as many of their dishes as possible. In fact my mother had told them that if they sold all their dim sum, they would receive a bonus—and the first to do so would receive an even greater bonus. Naturally, this stirred a bit of competition among the ladies, until one day, two of them erupted into an argument, when a cart carrying roasted pork buns crashed into another that carried rice porridge and soy milk. Next thing anyone knew, there was porridge, soggy and hot, dripping all over the red carpet. And this happened in front of all the customers, who momentarily stopped eating and craned their necks to see what the fuss was about. It was nothing short of an embarrassment for the restaurant, for my family.
At last, my mother gave in—she let Yi Ma do the accounting. As a token of appreciation, Yi Ma was given some of the leftover dim sum (we were rarely able to sell all of it). In truth, I was glad. I was sick of the food. Leftovers seemed to be present at every dinner and even breakfast. Cold dumplings. Cold rice cakes, turnip cakes, skin congealed together and hardened like glue.
But Yi Ma would say, “All they need is a little reheating,” as if she could really rescue anything with a wok and some hot oil. It didn’t matter what it was, she would take it. She said she hated seeing good food go to waste, which was one of the few times my mother agreed with my auntie.
She said she hated seeing good food go to waste, which was one of the few times my mother agreed with my auntie.
Then there were times when my Yi Ma would bring my cousin to help out at the restaurant. She did so on days when he didn’t have school, like on holidays or the weekends. Or even after school.
Victor was only a couple of months younger than me. And he didn’t attend Stuyvesant. In fact, it was a kind of family anecdote that my cousin had applied and didn’t get in—a story that my mother would perpetuate during family gatherings, to anyone she could get to listen. Victor now attended an arts school on the Upper West Side, which, for my mother, was a concession. He played the piano, and made it no secret that he wanted to play in a rock band like Bon Jovi.
“Another head in the clouds,” my mother would say. “But what do you expect? Runs in the family. I mean, that side of the family, of course.”
At the restaurant, Victor cleaned up tables. He served tea, set up chairs, carried dishes back to the kitchen. He laid out chopsticks, forks, spoons. What was so hard? Only for Victor, it was hard. As a kid, you want to learn certain things, like little tricks. Using two spoons as a pair of tongs to serve food, for instance. I had learned the maneuver by watching the older waiters. But this wasn’t a skill that Victor was interested in mastering. What I mean is that things would take him unnecessarily longer. Or when he would take on a task, it would have to be done all over again. Napkins needed to be refolded, place settings rearranged.
But like Yi Ma, I suppose Victor tried his best to help in his way. For one, my cousin told me that he had gone to each of his teachers before the summer break. He handed out Ga Hing menus and business cards. I thought that it was all a waste of time, but my cousin was adamant that his teachers would turn up, along with their families, for Sunday lunch, for dinner. And I knew instantly that this was what my mother must have meant by “not with it,” though I didn’t say anything. Not then.
Over the next few days and into the following week, Victor continued to ask about his teachers. Had they come? Had I seen them? Their families? He even asked my mother and stepfather. They would in turn ask me what my cousin was rambling about, what he was up to. I did not want to be the one to have to explain.
So one day, I couldn’t take it anymore.
“How could you be so stupid? So not with it?” I said this to Victor, surprised to sound so much like my mother. Only it was too late to take it back now; I found that I could only go further. “Why would your teachers come all the way from uptown? Just to eat here?” As I’ve already mentioned, Ga Hing wasn’t even in the heart of Chinatown, but in an area that was not exactly the best, on the other side of Canal. Back then, it was rat infested. In the summers, it smelled like sewer and waste. The outdoor fish market across the street didn’t help. At night, the streets were empty, dark and uncertain and filthy. Again, this was back then.
“Why not?” Victor persisted. “You wait and see. They’ll come.”
We waited. More days went by. And then it was weeks. Not one of his teachers showed up, though. Not his chemistry teacher, nor his math teacher. Not even his music teacher. Even after Victor had reminded them time and again.
“Not even Mr. Reeberg?” Victor asked. Mr. Reeberg was his social studies teacher. Somehow the man had promised Victor that the next time he found himself in Chinatown—which was actually quite often—he would certainly stop in for lunch. Especially since by then, we would have earned our Zagat rating (which wasn’t exactly true, but something Victor had insisted).
Then came the day, to my relief, when Victor stopped asking about his teachers altogether. Soon afterwards, I took stock of the slight diminishment about my cousin when he would put forth another one of his silly ideas. It was as if he now realized that they contained within them an infinite possibility of failure and doom.
But there was the one diner that I didn’t tell Victor about. It was during the height of summer, when my mother and stepfather were out showing houses seemingly every day. Victor had not been at the restaurant that day either, due to his summer music camp. I was at the restaurant, along with Yi Ma, who now took on the additional role of unofficial guardian. The man had come for lunch, and for some reason or another, I thought that it was possible that he could be a teacher. I don’t know what makes me think this even to this day. Perhaps it was the book he had carried. Or perhaps it was also the way he dressed. He didn’t wear a business suit. Nor did he look like a tourist as he didn’t carry a guidebook or camera, and he didn’t seem to be so in awe of his surroundings. And somehow the man fit the description in my mind’s eye of the teachers who passed in and out of the halls of Stuyvesant: dark-rimmed glasses, button-down shirt. An aura of privilege and entitlement, which I associated with academia, especially at a school like Stuyvesant.
Then I remembered Victor giving me a description that somewhat matched his social studies teacher—though this only came to me when the man was halfway done with his meal. The salt-and-pepper beard. About such height. I thought to settle the matter and ask, but I couldn’t work up the courage. Instead, I stood at the register, stealing glances from time to time. I saw that he had ordered the kung pao chicken and also the yin yang fried rice (an odd combination). Still I was relieved when I saw the dishes on the table. In fact, Fei Zai had outdone himself, and I was also glad when I saw the waitress set down both tea and water, because there were times when it would only be one or the other. “Chinese people might not mind,” my stepfather would say, “but white people are a different story—they mind. At least some more than others.”
I suppose I was shy. That’s what people tell me now—that when I was younger, I was shy, reticent, much too quiet. That it was difficult to surmise what I was thinking. Here’s what I was thinking: Maybe I didn’t truly want to know the man’s identity. Maybe I only wanted to remain correct in my initial assumption—that my cousin’s plan could not have possibly worked. I suppose if I had a cell phone back then, I might have taken a picture. But by the time the would-be teacher was paying the bill, I knew that my chance was all but over.
The man then called for one of the waitresses. For a while, I couldn’t quite make out what they were discussing, but saw that it was growing more heated by the second. Yi Ma quickly made her way to the table. The dispute was about the bill. There must have been a mistake, the man was saying. He had been charged more—extra. Not by much, but it was still extra, nonetheless. “You people,” he was saying. Now he meant to get to the bottom of it. Later, Yi Ma would say, “There are those who need to be this way in order to feel better about themselves, make the most of what little power they think they have. The problem is, the rest of us let them.”
The waitress was now trying to tell him why, but her English was quite poor. He was speaking too fast to listen, and in his outrage, he talked over her. She had taken the liberty of adding the tip to the bill. Ten percent. When he finally understood what had happened he became all the more livid. “You can’t tell me how much I can or can’t tip.” And then, “It’s a free country.” He kept repeating it too. “You people,” also. This, of course, didn’t mean much to the waitress, who was from Toishan. I knew that she now lived in Bensonhurst, in Brooklyn, and that she had a son, about five. No husband. Her name was Ling.
It was Auntie Yi Ma who looked the bill over. Upon considering it, she could see that the waitress had, indeed, added on tip. That was what she was telling Ling as to why the man was so upset: you don’t do that here. She was speaking Cantonese. (Yi Ma also pointed out how the bill, with Ling’s added tip, was actually less than what the man had originally left.) But like I said, I knew that my parents didn’t pay the waitstaff well, and that their tips were taken away too. This was what the waitress didn’t know how to say either, what she couldn’t explain.
Grudgingly, the man paid the bill, leaving exactly what he owed. I somehow knew that he would never be back, even though Yi Ma apologized as much as she could, following him behind as he left in a huff, all but slamming the plate glass door.
Afterwards, a disheartened Yi Ma could only shrug. “What can you do? Some people aren’t ready to understand.”
As I said, I’ve always imagined this person to be one of Victor’s teachers, though I never told him so. It wouldn’t have mattered. In the end, his plan didn’t work anyway, so what was the point of adding fuel to that fire?
He played the piano, and made it no secret that he wanted to play in a rock band like Bon Jovi.
Only there were other instances of “not with it-ness.” Like one time when I was sick. I had come down with a fever. No matter how many jackets I piled over me—my mother’s faux fur, my own winter coat—I still felt the chills seeping deep into my bones. Victor remained with me upstairs that day in the office in the back, adjacent to the banquet hall. The restaurant was not very busy; it was after the lunch rush.
It was November or December, and I had only a space heater. I lay back in the swivel chair, trying to stay as warm as possible. Victor took up the task of making me feel better. Again, he did so in his own way. He liked to joke around, and he was now telling me to imagine a TV commercial for Ga Hing. Could I envision what it would look like? Perhaps it would star our family, sitting back-straight, circling one of the round tables in the hall. A Lazy Susan spinning in the middle, stacked with banquet dishes, the picture of enjoying a lavish meal together. It was absurd, but it was also not unamusing: My mother, Yi Ma, Po Po, Auntie Mae, Victor, and myself. My stepfather, too. “Knowing the man,” Victor said, “he’ll likely tell us not to touch the food, that it’ll be only for the photos.” Soon my cousin was even doing the voices, acting it out. “Come to Ga Hing,” he announced to the empty and dark banquet hall, mimicking a bellowing voice that was supposed to be my stepfather’s. “Use your coconut.” He then said in the high-pitched operatic-like voice of my mother, “Stay for the fine dining. Eat all your rice. Don’t waste.” Back in the office, Victor pointed at the desk; it was cluttered with unpaid bills and a disarray of papers and menus. “Enjoy the ambiance,” he then said in the voice of Auntie Yi Ma. This was soon followed by, “Take in the wonderful aromas.” In actuality, the office reeked of old grease and leftover food and dirty dishes that still needed to be washed. Suddenly Victor declared, “And take in the splendid view.” I saw that he was now imitating me, strutting across the room. Of course, outside the window, the view was actually blocked by several decrepit buildings, and the second floor overlooked the crowded fish market. “When you’re here at Ga Hing, you’re one of us—you’re family.”
But I shook my head. “That doesn’t sound like me at all.”
Victor went on. He sang the beginning of one of his songs and treated it like the restaurant’s theme song, going so far as to play air guitar. It was supposed to be a kind of finale. Clutching a pretend microphone, he shouted as if he were an announcer at a circus. He then pointed to the garbage bags that still needed to be taken out to the curb. “Ga. Hing,” he pronounced, as if awaiting applause. I listened as the echo of his voice faded away among the empty chairs, tables of unfilled teacups, set as if for dead relatives and ghosts. Perhaps it was because we were alone, or perhaps it was because I was under the influence of the medication, but Victor actually succeeded in making me laugh. Mind you, I didn’t usually laugh at his jokes. His brand of humor often veered toward the childish. But that day, for once, it was as if we were both in on the joke together. I liked seeing how even Victor could understand the ridiculous ambitions of my parents in trying to keep up the appearances of running a restaurant. And maybe they were actually the ones who weren’t “with it,” in the end.
He liked to joke around, and he was now telling me to imagine a TV commercial for Ga Hing. Could I envision what it would look like?
I was wrong. Let me explain.
There was the time when Victor was asked by my stepfather to work the cash register. This must have been on a weekend—during peak dim sum hours. As usual, my parents had been short on staff, and in even more need of extra hands. My stepfather had no other recourse than to ask Victor, thinking that my cousin would at least know how to use a calculator in order to figure out what change to give back to customers. It was, after all, basic arithmetic. What could go wrong? Really, nothing should have gone wrong. But it did.
It was much more difficult to take orders and to negotiate the trek from the kitchen or the dumbwaiter to each table, while having to balance each dish (most often scaldingly hot) on the tips of one’s fingers, making sure that the orders were correct, all the while being able to serve efficiently and with a smile to boot. Victor was not very good at taking orders because he didn’t understand much Cantonese, other than a few choice words like “Ngo zung yi sik seoi zing lei,” which only means, “I really like to eat pears.” And who would ever need to say a sentence like that? The truth was Yi Ma had not bothered to have him learn the language properly, for the sake of improving his English.
“Subtract,” my stepfather voiced at the register. “That’s all you have to do. Can you do that?”
Victor assured us that he could. “Simple, easy.” Then, “I’ll use my coconut.”
“Oh, good,” my stepfather said. “Get to it.”
The problem arose, however, when Mrs. Chou, a frequent visitor for dim sum, called my stepfather over to tell him that the young man working the cash register was a “lucky boy.” Mrs. Chou was a woman in her early sixties. She was retired, someone who held on tightly to her purple pleather purse. She also had a hoarse laugh. At first, my stepfather was confused by what Mrs. Chou was saying. No one had ever described my cousin as anything remotely close to being lucky.
“And yet he gives out lucky money, here and there,” Mrs. Chou informed my stepfather. She then continued to laugh to herself, as though it was the most hilarious thing in the world, when it wasn’t. She held out a crisp twenty-dollar bill. “Look.” And then, “I appreciate the gesture, but I am an old woman now. I’d say, the boy will need it more than me.”
I knew that my stepfather was furious. And yet, he couldn’t show it in front of paying customers. He stood there and smiled, revealing the yellowed teeth of the chain smoker he was. As discreetly as my stepfather could manage, he made his way over to the register, telling Victor that it was time for him to take a break.
“But I was just starting to get the hang of it,” Victor said.
In the end, I took over for Victor. At the same time, I had to bring out dishes as soon as they came up from the dumbwaiter. I also had to take orders when I could. Needless to say, I was in way over my head. I was angry with Victor. How could he be so hopeless? So not “with it”? Did he not see? He only made it more difficult for the rest of us—that’s for sure. I wondered if he even cared. Of course he didn’t. He didn’t even know how to care. He sat at the back of the office and folded menus, which was about the best that my cousin could do.
Later that afternoon, as usual, my stepfather counted up the earnings for the day, swiping the bills with his thumb. I don’t need to tell you that the dim sum service had come up short. It was nearly four hundred dollars—gone missing. I suppose it doesn’t sound like so much now, but back then, and for an already failing restaurant like ours, every penny seemed to count.
I made sure to mention that Yi Ma did not punish Victor. She didn’t even inform him that he had done anything wrong. I knew that my cousin left that day, clueless.
“I can’t believe that the fool gave all this money away,” my stepfather muttered through clenched teeth. “Like nothing.”
“The opposite of with it,” I concurred.
“If that boy was my own son, I would teach him a real lesson, one that he would never unlearn.”
Of course, I replied in the language of my stepfather: unfeelingness, indignation, resentment, unforgivingness.
Mrs. Chou, a frequent visitor for dim sum, called my stepfather over to tell him that the young man working the cash register was a “lucky boy.”
I lied about the fortuneteller. You see: I watched the tape. This was sometime when I was home alone. Neither my mother nor my stepfather ever found out. I was careful. I would even rewind the tape back to where my mother had left it off.
Here is what the fortuneteller said: I would be rich. I would marry. I would have many grandchildren. I would be prosperous. It was everything that the woman thought that my mother wanted to hear. My mother had likely given her some money beforehand, enough to persuade—enough to alter fates. That was what the U.S. dollar was meant to do. The point is, the fortuneteller was wrong. I was troubled. I wasn’t happy. I was someone who later in life would want my due—only it’d be too late. I was not who the fortuneteller said I was going to be. Yet at one time, I thought that when I had my chance, I would take it. I thought that I would run, far away. Only I didn’t run, not in the end. There was never the chance to run. And my motivation to do so only dwindled as the years went on.
But there was another window of opportunity, and I took it. What I mean is, I took the money from the register. Shortly after the Mrs. Chou debacle, and after Victor had left the register unattended, I made use of my cousin not being “with it” enough. More so, I wanted to take from my stepfather and even my mother. I wanted to take a little of what had been denied me. Only I didn’t know how to put it in those words then. I just knew that I had been shortchanged in some way. And mind you, I didn’t have an allowance. And all the red envelopes I would receive on Chinese New Year from relatives would be collected by my mother, mostly never to be seen by me again.
What did I do with the money? I saved it—at first. I had been afraid to spend any of it. What if it only raised red flags? And then I no longer wanted to save it anymore. So one day, I took my savings (I had hidden the money on the bookshelf in my room, between The Things They Carried and Winesburg, Ohio). I set my mind on spending it all. But how? I went to see a movie, one I didn’t even like. I went to Elizabeth Center and bought a lucky cat figurine, one that constantly waved hello. I went to buy lychee and red bean ice cream from the Ice Cream Factory. But after all that, I still had money left over. Indeed, I had more than I’d anticipated.
In the end I sought to give it away. I had seen one of the ladies collecting soda cans in the street. I still see them all the time now, but people pass them as if they are invisible. They rifle through garbage can after garbage can all throughout Chinatown, and even beyond, like the courthouses, filling up trash bags in order to be recycled. I must have had a few hundred dollars left, though when I think of it now, it would have been impossible to have that much. One could only imagine my mother’s reaction, if she only knew. But the thought of it actually motivated me further. My mother believed that people were in the positions they put themselves in. (Why she sought the advice of fortunetellers was another one of her many hypocrisies.)
At first, the woman refused to take the money. Her eyes were sad, and her wrinkles, deep-set. Her hair was silk white. She wore a dark cotton shirt and pants that didn’t match. But she kept shaking her head and telling me no. “No, no, no, no, no.” She was waving her hands. She didn’t want it, she said. Not a single dollar. It didn’t matter how much I insisted. I had mistaken the woman’s need for despair. Worse, desperation. Still, I told her that it was for her. She spoke in a different dialect, but I knew that she understood more or less what I was telling her. “Here, take it,” I kept saying. I was surprised that there were tears streaming down my face, and it must have startled the woman all the more.
“Is it bad luck?” she managed to ask. “I don’t want bad luck. I already have enough bad luck.” Several of her teeth were missing. They looked like dark holes.
I thought of how my mother would say that for some people, not so unlike us, passing by the used cans would be like seeing money on the street and not picking it up.
“No,” I told the woman, pressing the bills into her hands. They were rough, dry. Her nails were long. “This is from my family.”
“Is it bad luck?” she managed to ask. “I don’t want bad luck. I already have enough bad luck.”
My stepfather wasn’t handsome. Nor was he kind. When I look back on it now, I can never understand why my mother married the man—a mahjong addict, a debtor, a person of complications. He was not like my real father, who had played the guitar and sang songs by the Beatles (I had tried to follow in his footsteps here). He died when I was three. Cantonese Cancer, or cancer of the throat. In contrast, my stepfather was secretive. He had a severe temper, and his permed hair was always messy. He spoke Hakka, the dialect that neither my mother nor I understood, and he spoke it over the phone when he didn’t want either of us to know what he was saying. One day down the line, my mother would discover that he had been having an affair with a woman from Fujian—a rich woman, it was said, in need of a green card.
“A woman in an ugly yellow dress,” my mother would lament, having seen her once at a wedding banquet, at another restaurant, wearing a yellow dress. “She’s cut her hair as if she thinks that she’s some fancy person, when she’s not.” (This was what my mother would mean by a bob.)
There came times when I would even see the Fujian woman, or someone who I thought resembled her, in the streets. Chinatown is not so big, though it is crowded. During such instances, I would always turn to walk the other way, against what seemed like the current of the sea of people, as if I was afraid that she would know who I was and say something to me. Perhaps ask me to pass along a message to my mother. What, I didn’t even know.
My stepfather hadn’t forgotten about the money he assumed that Victor had lost. He was adamant that it wasn’t the only time. There was too much missing. (This was before we found out that Ling had been helping herself to the cash register as well.) But one day, my stepfather took his chance. He punished the boy, as if he were his own son. In my mind, it wasn’t so long before the restaurant closed down altogether, but I also know that the restaurant stayed open far longer than it should have. My cousin was certainly caught by surprise. What set off my stepfather was the fact that Victor had been folding menus. Only he had folded half of them one way, and half the other. Looking back, I suppose it wasn’t such a terrible mistake. Certainly one that could be undone. But the point is that it had to be done all over again. And of course it was only one of several mistakes. My stepfather dragged Victor to the back office. He closed the door. I could only listen in. Once again, I considered the moment—everything. I found that all that was left for me to do was consider and consider. I suppose the man took out all of his frustrations on the boy. The failing real estate business. The failing marriage. The restaurant.
When Yi Ma found out, she was outraged. “You can’t do that to my son,” she kept shouting as she grabbed her belongings and rushed out the front entrance, taking Victor with her. When she left that day, it was supposed to be for good. I wish I could say that she and my cousin never stepped foot in the restaurant again. I wouldn’t have blamed them. But we were family. In the end, it didn’t matter if we were happy or not. We just had to be together. The alternative was to be alone, and that was actually worse. Wasn’t it?
Years later, after Ga Hing closed, my mother’s real estate business rebounded and even flourished. Chinatown was now a place of trendy upscale and modern cafes, coffee shops, chic boutiques. The next generation of entrepreneurs, seeking to exhibit the new, but also to preserve the old world, many even picking up from where their own parents had left off. Thriving with diverse food, different waves of immigration from various provinces throughout China. By then, my mother had already divorced my stepfather. She could go to the doctor and get Botox injections in her forehead.
When I got married, I didn’t marry in Chinatown like I had expected, but at a restaurant in an up-and-coming area of Long Island City. My mother wore a blue dress that didn’t quite fit, though she’d managed to squeeze into it. Of course, she was older, but there was still that resilience about her. I already knew that it would never go away.
It was as if all the Who’s Who of Chinatown were there in Long Island City. My stepfather had actually been a member once. My mother no longer spoke to the man. Nor did I. The difference was that I wanted to. I wanted to reach out and ask him: Why did he treat me the way he did? Why had he made me so terrified of him, and in turn, someone crippled by such terror—a mere child? But that conversation could never be had, because I was no longer a child, and therefore, I knew that the man would never be able to have such a talk. Not with me now.
It was true: our fortunes had changed—we had prospered, though was it actually for the better? Now we acted as if we had been fortunate all along—a true happy family. In the end, it was just me and my mother. Not quite a team.
Yi Ma was there. I saw how my auntie looked even smaller, her figure more fragile. She didn’t exhibit the confidence of my mother, that’s for sure. Victor didn’t come. By then, he wasn’t speaking to any of us.
“When we are healthy, we can hold grudges,” as Po Po would say.
“When we are healthy, we can hold grudges,” as Po Po would say.
I walk by the block today where Ga Hing once stood, the corner of Eldridge and Grand. I barely recognize much of the building now. Only the facade still exists. For a time, after my parents sold the restaurant, it became another restaurant. No longer was it called “Ga Hing.” I don’t know what it was actually re-named. But I was told that the restaurant served the same kinds of dim sum and banquet dishes, and entertained similar weddings.
It was not long afterward that the restaurant caught fire. For some, it was the talk of the neighborhood. No one knew who did it. Of course there were rumors. Some said that it was arson, even gang-related. But there was also talk that the owner had set the blaze himself in order to cash in on the insurance claims. Let’s just say, business had been less than stellar. Everyone agreed that the restaurant was not in the best location, but that was then.
Now the building is the site of a karate studio, catering to the new occupants, moving into the neighborhood of skyrocketing rents. But those in the know say that the core of Chinatown won’t change all that much because it is the Toishan people who still own many of the old buildings. The associations, the tenements—restaurants. Everything they’ve built, one family at a time, like bricks in a wall. A city of villagers, in the biggest city in the world. Like its own kind of miracle. Happy, lucky, fortunate, auspicious. But even I know that of course, it won’t be forever.
About the Author
William Pei Shih’s stories have been published or are forthcoming in The Best American Short Stories 2020, VQR, McSweeney’s Quarterly, The Southern Review, The Michigan Quarterly Review, The Boston Review, Crazyhorse, F(r)iction, Catapult, The Asian American Literary Review, The Des Moines Register, The Masters Review, Reed Magazine, Carve Magazine, Hyphen, and more. His stories have been recognized by the John Steinbeck Award in Fiction, the Flannery O’Connor Award in Short Fiction, the Raymond Carver Short Story Award, the UK Bridport Prize, The London Magazine Short Story Award, among others. His stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. He has been awarded scholarships and support from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Sun Valley Writers’ Conference, Kundiman, the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference, and the Ragdale Residency. He has served on the admissions board for the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop (MFA in Fiction), where he was a recipient of the Dean’s Graduate Fellowship. He currently lives in New York City, and teaches at NYU.
Written by William Pei Shih
Story edited by Dawnie Walton
Audio story produced, directed, and sound designed by Alicia Qian
Illustrated by Christina Chung
Music by Jiro Yoshioka
Performed by Aria Song
Executive Producers: Dawnie Walton and Mark Armstrong
Distributed by Lit Hub Radio
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