The Mei family was different to every other Chinese family. People might have whispered about them, saying they got what they deserved, but the members of the Mei family didn’t care. Or rather, the women of the Mei family didn’t care, since for five generations there had been no men to speak of. Not since the time, five generations back, of an ancestor whose maiden name was Wu, who was called Mei-née-Wu by the other villagers, and who was known to her descendants as Auntie Mei-Wu. Mei-Wu’s first child was a daughter, and so was the second, and when her third daughter came along, her mother-in-law could scarcely bring herself to prepare any pig trotter in ginger and vinegar to help the milk along. Why bother going to such much trouble for such disappointing returns?
But Mei-Wu refused to cower in her in-laws’ home. She went out in public without any sense of shame, her third daughter perched on her head – a ten-month old child, who laughed as a trickle of urine crept down onto her mother’s head. Mei-Wu didn’t respond, allowing the little girl’s wee to bead on her glossy oiled hair and drip down onto her shoulder. Only when the baby had finished in comfort did she explain to the gawping onlookers: my daughter has a problem – she can’t be distracted when she’s pissing. If she gets distracted she won’t be able to finish, and if she holds it in it might harm her kidneys… it wouldn’t matter if it was a worthless boy, who cares what happens to their kidneys? But our girls are priceless!
The neighbours’ tongues began wagging: this daughter-in-law might be able to do the work of two young men, they whispered, but she’s a madwoman.
When it was time for the birth of her fourth child, Mei-Wu did everything for herself. With a knitted towel hanging from a copper pan of hot water, she took herself to the front of the house, bolted the main door, and got the baby out onto the blue gingham sheet without so much as a peep. When she unlocked the door, everyone asked her: boy or girl? She pointed into the gloom of the inner door: Go see for yourself. Her mother-in-law was sitting on the bed, cradling a dead baby. It was a boy.
Two years later, Mei-Wu’s belly was big again. Nine months after her husband Mei Darong had been back from abroad, the latest member of the family emerged from the womb with such a fanfare that people could hear it from miles around. But what they saw when they opened the gate was another dead baby. Another boy.
Had she deftly ducked her baby boy headfirst into the chamber pot? Mentally counting – one, two, three, four – done. Another worthless son sent back where he came from. Was that the way Mei-Wu had killed three successive Mei heirs? Her mother-in-law came at her with a poker, cursing and swearing. Every year we put six or seven loads of rice into you, and what kind of returns do we get? Every boy of yours comes out dead! Mei-Wu was a strapping woman – a poker was nothing to be afraid of. Like so many other pokers before it, it was snapped over Mei-Wu’s knee as she corrected her mother: How can you complain about a daughter? A hundred daughters between them couldn’t lose anything approaching the stack of gold Mei Darong has frittered away!
When they eventually got old and frail, Mei-Wu’s in-laws became entirely dependent on her. They turned docile, no longer daring to mention her record in bad investments. But when they heard of some new bride in the village giving birth to a daughter, the two of them could share a moment of secret schadenfreude: such bad luck, having a daughter as their firstborn. Mei-Wu would leisurely puff a mouthful of smoke from her water pipe, and congratulate them: A daughter’s a good thing! What can you fault in a daughter? Won’t gamble, won’t whore, won’t smoke, won’t drink, won’t go off to the mountains to join the bandits in times of famine, won’t grow up to go stirring up trouble with revolt and rebellions. There’s nothing you can fault in a daughter! These days her in-laws were careful not to provoke her. They never answered back or bickered, because their son was still abroad and there was no sign of him or his money. The success of the family’s silkworm business lay entirely with Mei-Wu. Her three daughters were all married now, but at the busiest times, two of them would come back, and three pairs of hands and feet to work in the fields and rush to market meant they could finish before everyone else.
There was no evidence to substantiate the rumour that Mei-Wu had drowned her three sons in the chamber pot. But no one doubted that she was capable of it: her contempt for men was certainly strong enough. All the men in her home village were like Mei Darong, travelling abroad to pan for gold. Half of them died, and the remainder had no sooner exchanged their grains of gold for cash than they had gambled it all away, leaving them no choice but to go and work like a donkey on the railroad, hauling tracks and sleepers – because the rules had changed, and anyone with a yellow face was no longer allowed to pan for gold. Even if you tried, you’d still have to pay five times as much in taxes as a white face would.
It had taken Mei Darong five years to put together his palmful of gold. On the way home he would take out the picture of his betrothed. A girl of sixteen, not unattractive, not too fat, not too thin. His heap of gold should suffice to build a home for a girl like her, probably with some left over to make her a pair of gold earrings and a ring. Back then it was common practice for families of charming women in this part of Guangzhou to snub all offers from men who had not been abroad.
But when Mei Darong arrived at his home port, he had gotten right back on the ship heading for foreign parts without even waiting to catch a glimpse of the girl named Wu from his picture. The suit and shoes he had bought to impress his wife-to-be were gone: lost at the ship’s gambling table.
In preparation for the wedding, Mei Darong had used a few of his granules of gold to buy her gifts: a pair of goatskin slippers (they were a symbolic present, so it didn’t really matter if they turned out to be the wrong size) and the kind of ornamental silk parasol that the rich foreign ladies all liked to carry – just as useful for repelling the glances of strangers in a crowd as they were for repelling dust and sunlight. After buying his steamer ticket he had fifty dollars left, the lesser half of which would be given to his bride’s parents, and the rest used to build the house. Like all Chinese men returning home after gold panning adventures, Mei Darong was wearing a second-hand suit and hat in the Western style, and carrying two bundles stuffed with foreign knick-knacks (such as half-finished boxes of talcum powder and empty candy tins) to serve as gifts for friends and family. The steamer was operated by a Chinese company, and on the night they boarded, twenty people gathered in the gambling joint below decks. Mei Darong was not one of the first batch to be parted from their savings – not because of any moral compunctions on his part, but because for the first three days he was so seasick he wished he was dead. But on the fourth day he discovered a miraculous remedy: once he started betting he forgot all about eating, drinking, sleeping, relieving himself – and feeling seasick. There were twenty tables down there, where dice and dominoes clattered with a sound as tantalising as jingling gold and jade. A sound that drove everything else from your mind. When the steamer arrived in Guangdong, a month and a half later, half the passengers disembarked and the other half remained onboard as it headed back to San Francisco, where they would continue blasting holes through mountains, laying down train tracks, or reclaiming land from the ocean for arable farming. With their money all gone, they would be in debt to the shipping company for the price of their return ticket.
And so a sixteen-year-old Mei-Wu’s first hopes of sitting in a bridal sedan were dashed. When she heard Mei Darong had headed straight back to San Francisco without even stepping off the boat, she assumed the portraitist must have produced a likeness so ugly that it scared him away. When her anxious family received another generous set of gifts from the Mei clan they were even more wary of asking what had really happened.
It would be another ten years before Mei-Wu finally did get to take that sedan to the bridal chamber, and it was there that she heard the truth from Mei Darong himself. Her new husband had eventually made three return trips to San Francisco, and now he was here to tell his bride – betrothed at sixteen, now twenty-six – about the greatest accomplishment of his life thus far. For the first time, Mei-Wu could make sense of the steady stream of gifts from his family. The fourth time Mei Darong had boarded the steamer heading towards his betrothed, he was so determined to make it back that he had made a cut in his finger and downed a bowl of blood-laced liquor, swearing to the ocean that if he gambled this time, it should not hesitate to allow all its subaquatic creatures to gnaw on his bones. Halfway through the trip, when the wound on his finger had healed, he happened to stumble across a silver dollar. He would allow himself to gamble with this one dollar, but no more than that. That one dollar became a dozen, and then those dozen dollars were lost. And won. As the mountains of his hometown appeared in the distance he had nothing; by the time they laid anchor he owned over a hundred dollars. Mei-Wu, the child bride who had grown up, was married into the Mei clan as soon as Mei Darong stepped ashore.
This awe-inspiring story was all she heard about on her belated wedding night. As far as the townspeople were concerned, Mei Darong was a king among men. What was the point in slaving away as a coolie to scrape together enough cash to pay for property? The real winners in life were the ones who earned everything in the twinkling of an eye. Money made like that was a windfall from heaven – what could stand in the way of fate? It was right then, in the bridal chamber, that she foresaw the fate of her new husband. After a few years spent idling at home – having overseen the completion of their house and the gradual expansion of their mulberry tree forest; having watched the repetitive cycle of leaves growing and dying and growing again, and the silkworms slowly fattening, becoming cocoons, and then moths; having seen Wu give birth to one daughter, and then another daughter, and then another – he would go about yawning for days at a time, irritated at how sluggish his wealth had become. He couldn’t get over that moment of triumph on the boat, when it had felt like the skies were collapsing around him – or the moment of defeat, when he became just one more face in the pale, fearful, trembling throng.
He had long known about the existence of a place called Macau, not too far away – a place where a thousand gambling tables were packed with paupers at midnight who were millionaires by dawn – before they found themselves stepping into the pawnshops as soon as they opened. Unfortunately Macau had been occupied by a foreign country for many a year now, which meant a native like Mei Darong couldn’t just show up there as he pleased. And so he had found someone just outside Macau to gamble on his behalf. All his money went gushing away from him that night, and the next day he went home to pack up his things. He would be on the next steamer to San Francisco. Didn’t you say you would never again go and work like a donkey laying railways for those foreign devils? Mei-Wu asked him. He ignored her. With his luggage on his back, he left the village. She picked up the contracts her husband had signed with a fingerprint, and – with one daughter on her back, one in her arms and one following along behind – dealt with each and every one of the creditors who showed up as soon as Mei Darong disappeared.
It was fortunate that there was a rise in the price of silkworm cocoons that year. And it was also fortunate that she was used to hard work, and was not counting on heaven to bring along any windfalls. With that first year’s profit she bought a further fifty mulberry trees. The price of cocoons continued to rise for a second year, and then a third. Mei-Wu stopped selling the cocoons, instead renting a mill in the town to handle the silk production. By the time Mei Darong returned empty-handed and planted another child in her belly, Mei-Wu was in charge of three factories and a hundred employees. She was only beholden to two people: her in-laws. Once he had satisfied himself that Mei-Wu was pregnant, Mei Darong told her she’d better make sure it was a boy this time, and set off for San Francisco once again.
When Mei Darong got on the return boat again, now in his mid-forties, he had a hundred and eleven dollars. He had acquired this money in exchange for his ear. He and several other Chinese labourers had been laying explosives for the construction of the railroad linking America to Canada, when a flying shard of debris had severed his left ear. His boss had gotten him a hundred and eleven dollars from the insurance company. With this money he could spend the return voyage turning rich and then poor and then rich again, a beggar at midnight and a tycoon by dawn. Mei Darong got to try on dozens of different identities as the steamer crossed the Pacific, but by the time they arrived he was as unencumbered as he’d been on the day he was born: even the clothes on his back belonged to others now. Don’t worry, he told them, Mei Darong is as good as his word, I’ll hand over these clothes before we arrive. And sure enough, one by one, his oversized black suit jacket, shirt, and trousers formed a heap on the deck, before Mei Darong threw himself into the sea.
Yan Geling wil be talking about her new book "Little Aunt Crane", translated by Esther Tyldesley, on BBC Radio 4 Woman's Hour today (UK time 10-11 am, and podcast later). http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06r8t1z
Helen Wang, November 19, 2015, 7:11a.m.
Yan Geling on BBC Radio 4 Woman's Hour, 19 Nov - http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06r8t1z (07:18 to 15:55)
Helen Wang, November 20, 2015, 6:14a.m.