The Language of Threads

A Novel

Gail Tsukiyama

St. Martin's Griffin

Chapter One
Pei glanced down into the dark, glassy water of Hong Kong harbor and suddenly felt shy and wordless. She saw herself as a child again, whom, at the age of eight, her father had taken to the girls’ house in the village of Yung Kee. Compared to their small farm, everything had been big and frightening. For nineteen years, Pei had lived and worked with Lin doing the silk work, only this time, Lin’s patience and kindness wouldn’t be waiting for her when she arrived.
Now, she alone would have to care for Ji Shen in the big, vibrant city; the thought terrified her. At fourteen, Ji Shen was almost half Pei’s age, and had already been orphaned once, fleeing from the Japanese devils in Nanking. She had miraculously found her way to the girls’ house, where Pei and Lin had nursed her back to health. As the Imperial Japanese Army closed in on Canton, they’d made a desperate run to Hong Kong without Lin to guide them. That the past weeks had been spent in constant movement was a saving grace. Pei’s days had been filled with the needs of Ji Shen and with their impending voyage.
When the ferry groaned and finally docked, it swayed from side to side, knocking and creaking against the wooden pier. As the crowd pushed to disembark, Pei stopped abruptly at the railing and stared down at the clapboard ramp that led to the crowded pier.
“We have to keep moving,” Ji Shen whispered, gently urging her forward.
Pei held onto her cloth sacks and inched toward the ramp. High shrieking voices pierced the air, attacking them from every direction. Pei felt a sharp jab from someone behind, then stepped down the ramp into the dizzying, hypnotic life that would now be hers and Ji Shen’s.
“Hong Kong’s so crowded,” Ji Shen said, clutching the sleeve of Pei’s white tunic.
“Yes.” Pei smiled wearily. She hoped Ji Shen couldn’t see how afraid she was. Everything around them hummed and buzzed with movement. Ships from all over the world were docked in Hong Kong harbor, ships with long, complicated names written on their sides. Sampans huddled together, filled with families who lived their lives on the boats crowded, swaying decks. Faces glared at them, then quickly turned away. There were more Westerners than Pei had ever seen. Even many of the Chinese women were dressed in Western clothing.
From the pier they turned left and walked down the crowded street, sidestepping swarms of people as if in a dance, sweating in the humidity. The salty pungent smells and high whining voices were overwhelming. They passed endless stalls of merchants, selling silk stockings, flowers, fresh fruit, and hot noodles in soup. Filthy, toothless beggars thrust their wooden bowls out, hoping for a coin or two. Ji Shen squeezed Pei’s arm tighter as they fought their way through the crowd. A long, jagged line of rickshaws and their drivers snaked from one end of the street to the next. Pei felt her pocket for their envelope of money and the letter Chen Ling had given her with the names and addresses of other silk sisters who had made their way to Hong Kong. “Go to the address at the top of the list,” Chen Ling had directed. In her other hand, Pei grasped her belongings, including the cloth bag Moi had insisted she take. Pei carefully swung it over her shoulder, the jars of herbs and dried fruits clinking against one another.
“Ride, missees? Cheap deal!” A barefoot boy wearing once-white cotton pants and shirt—he was no older, Pei guessed, than thirteen or fourteen—stopped in front of them. A pointed straw hat hung from a string around his neck, thumping against his back. He pointed to a red-and-green rickshaw, which sat next to a nearby stone wall. On the ground beside it, an older woman in mismatched, soiled clothing cradled two smaller children on a straw mat.
“I’ll give you a much better price!” another voice, belonging to an older, bigger man interjected.
“No, no, thank you.” Pei took a step forward, but neither rickshaw driver moved.
“Cheapest deal in Hong Kong!” the boy repeated.
Pei pulled Chen Ling’s letter from her pocket and looked past Ji Shen and the rickshaw drivers toward the crowded street ahead. In the weeks before Lin died, she had told Pei of going to Hong Kong with her father as a little girl. Across the street was a large open space—the one Lin had said was Statue Square. Statue Square was where the Government House and city hall stood, flanked by the precipitous green hills that loomed over everything. Pei caught her breath at the sight.
“Where are we going?” Ji Shen asked.
Pei cleared her throat. “Over there.” She straightened her shoulders and began walking toward the square.
“Please, missees, cheapest deal in all of Hong Kong!” The boy was still following them.
“Don’t listen to him.” The older man laughed. “He’s too scrawny to pull you more than a few feet!”
Pei stopped. She put down her belongings and looked up at the darkening sky. It was getting late. Statue Square would have to wait until another day. From the corner of her eye, Pei could see another rickshaw driver approaching them. She turned toward the boy. His smile grew wide now that he’d gained Pei’s attention. She pointed to the address at the top of Chen Ling’s letter. “Do you know where this is?”
The older rickshaw driver coughed and then spat on the ground in front of them. “Only a fool would choose a boy to do a man’s job!” he said, stomping away.
The boy studied the letter for a few moments. Finally, he nodded his head in recognition. “In Wan Chai, not so far from here. No problem. I’ll have you there in no time,” the boy boasted. He glanced quickly at Ji Shen.
Pei hesitated. “Are you sure you know how to get there? Maybe we should try—”
“Yes, yes, right away.” The boy nodded again. He ran back to the woman sitting on the ground, whispered some words to her, then grabbed the rickshaw and quickly pulled it toward Pei and Ji Shen. “Right away, right away! I know just the place. No need to worry.” He stepped aside, offering Pei and Ji Shen help up into his rickshaw.
Pei suddenly remembered the stories she’d heard of rickshaw pullers doubling and even tripling prices once they arrived at their passengers’ destination. Lin had told her to settle on a price immediately, before climbing up into the seat.
“How much?” Pei asked, fingering the Hong Kong coins she’d gotten at the exchange in Canton. She kept her voice low and confident.
“Don’t worry, missee.” The boy smiled. “I’ll bring you there for a fair price.”
When they’d settled on a fare, Ji Shen stepped up into the rickshaw. Then Pei squeezed into the torn leather seat next to her, proud of her first Hong Kong transaction.
The boy jumped between the wooden poles, squatting low to grip a pole in each hand. “Don’t worry, Quan will get you there.”
Pei felt sorry for him and wondered how such a skinny boy would be able to pull them more than a few feet, but Quan straightened his back, tightened his leg muscles, lifted up the poles, and moments later had them gliding smoothly down the crowded street. He called out, “Coming through! Coming through!” to urge the crowds and waiting rickshaw drivers out of his way. Ji Shen let out a scream and covered her eyes when they barely missed knocking down another driver. “I’ll kill you next time!” the man shouted after them, raising his fists at them, but Quan simply turned around and yelled back, “You have to catch me first!”
All the colorful, crowded shops that lined the busy street Quan had turned on to mesmerized Pei. In the fading light of early evening, the street seemed to open up and come alive right before their eyes. Bars, curio shops, food stalls, fish stands, a shoe repair shop, a dress shop all blended together. Bright, harsh lights hissed and flashed—garish red, green, and yellow against the oncoming darkness. Pei had never seen anything like it, not even when she’d visited Canton with Lin. A quick spirit seemed to live here in Hong Kong, making everyone and everything move faster and louder than they did anywhere else she’d been.
After weaving in and out of dozens of streets, Quan rounded a corner down a narrow lane, which, though quieter, was just as dense with people and brightly lit shops. He drew the rickshaw to a stop, then turned around to face them.
Pei looked up at the narrow, grayish building, which rose four or five stories above an herbalist’s shop. Signs plastered across the front window advertised ginseng and snake gallbladders and deer horn. To the side of the shop, an entrance led upstairs. The small window in the door was covered with a flimsy lace curtain. At one time the door must have been painted an auspicious bright red; now most of the paint had flaked down to the pale brown wood. In the fading light, the building looked tired and forlorn.
“Here, missees, this is the place.” The boy carefully lowered the wooden poles and offered his dirty, callused hand to help them down from the rickshaw.
Pei accepted his help. “Is it safe here?” The words slipped from her lips.
“As safe as anywhere in Wan Chai. Just don’t go wandering around alone at night. There are many foreign-devil sailors looking for a good time, and bad men roaming the streets at night.” Quan shook his head from side to side as if to make his point, his hands brushing against Ji Shen’s long braid as he helped her down and signaled for them to follow him. “I think it’s this way,” he said.
Pei and Ji Shen followed Quan as if he were an adult, not a young boy barely older than Ji Shen. Strangely, Pei had felt comfortable with him from the moment she touched his callused hands. He swaggered up to the door and rapped hard three times. When no one answered, he knocked again, harder and louder. Pei held the letter up against the dim light to see the name and address again. “Song Lee” was written in neat black characters. Chen Ling told her Song Lee had been in Hong Kong for over eight years now, and would help Pei just as she had helped other sisters who had left Yung Kee. “She was a good worker,” Chen Ling had said. “Tell her that I gave you her name. The last thing I heard was that she had found work in a good household.”
At last, they heard the slow scrape of footsteps. Ji Shen held tightly onto Pei’s arm. Then an irritated voice called out, “I’m coming, I’m coming!” The lace curtains parted and dark, suspicious eyes glared out at them.
“I beg your pardon.” Pei stepped forward. “We are looking for a Song Lee. I was given this address as a place I might find her.”
The lace curtains fluttered closed, and in a few moments, they heard the door unlatch and open just a crack. “What village are you from?” the woman asked.
“The village of Yung Kee.”
“Are you from the sisterhood?”
Pei nodded. “Yes. I was told by Chen Ling that Song Lee might be able to help us.”
The door swung open wider, and they stood in front of a thin, wiry woman in her forties who glanced at Pei’s clothing and lacquered-black hair and chignon, then at Ji Shen’s long single braid. “Come in, come in. I’m sorry for all the questions, but you must be careful in this area. Beggars will rob you blind if you let them!”
Pei stepped in, then turned around, remembering Quan. “No, no, I’ll carry this up for you,” he said, stepping in behind them. “All part of the service.”
Single file, they followed the woman up a dark, narrow stairway, their steps resonating. Once upstairs, the building was slightly more inviting. The first floor had a high ceiling, which at least kept the building cool and comfortable. Doors to other rooms opened in three directions.
The woman didn’t say another word until they reached the landing. “This way,” she said. She led them through the middle door into a small, yet comfortable sitting room. There was an old sofa, a few chairs, and a small cabinet, which held a few small jade pieces. “You must be thirsty. Let me bring you some tea.”
Quan smiled, then spoke to the woman in a cheerful, bargaining voice, a street voice. “These missees need a cheap and clean room.”
The woman bowed her head slightly toward Pei and Ji Shen. “We will talk about that when I return with tea.” She smiled. “Please, make yourselves comfortable.”
Pei looked around at the worn furniture. Her tongue flicked across her parched lips. She reached deep into her pocket and brought out a small silk pouch, from which she extracted several coins. “Here, this is for you,” she said to Quan. “You’ve been very kind to help us.”
Quan glanced at the money. “Too much,” he said. “Just what we agreed on.”
“Please, take it,” Pei insisted.
Quan hesitated, then quickly pocketed the coins. “I’ll stay a little longer. Just in case you need me to bring you somewhere else tonight,” he said shyly, watching Ji Shen.
When the woman returned, she sat down, poured each of them a cup of tea, and spoke words Pei suspected she had repeated many times before. “I am Ma-ling Lee. I was also a member of the sisterhood, though I left it many years ago to come to Hong Kong. When other sisters began migrating to Hong Kong, I decided that they might need a place to stay while they decided what to do. Hong Kong is a large, sometimes frightening place.” Ma-ling sipped her tea. “You can stay here as long as you like, but there is a small fee. Many sisters have passed through this way. Most of them find work in a household within a few months. The less fortunate ones find whatever work they can.”
“What kind of work?” Ji Shen asked.
Ma-ling smiled. “We’ll talk about that another time. You two must be tired. Let me show you where you can sleep.”
“And Song Lee?” Pei asked.
Ma-ling stood. “You can see her tomorrow. Right now she’s working as a domestic for a household up on the Peak. I’ll try to get in touch with her first thing in the morning,” she offered.
Pei smiled. “We’re very grateful.”
Quan parted with them at the foot of the stairs. “I’m sure you’ll be all right here,” he said. “It looks as if she can get in touch with your friend.”
“Thank you,” Ji Shen said.
Quan blushed. “If you ever need anything, just ask for Quan. I’m around Wan Chai a lot. People here know me.” He backed slowly down the stairs. A moment later, they heard the front door open and quietly click behind him.
The room Ma-ling brought them up to was not what Pei had expected. Once a large, open space, it was now divided into numerous smaller rooms by thin wooden partitions that didn’t reach the ceiling. If Pei stood on her toes she could look over the partitions from one space to the next. They walked down the narrow aisle that separated the cubicles. At the entrance to each space hung a white cotton curtain most of the curtains were askew. Bare and clean, each small cubicle held two single cots and a wooden chair. Ma-ling told them there were some larger cubicles in the back with two sets of bunk beds.
“You can have this room.” Ma-ling stopped and pointed to a cubicle with a curtained window that looked out on a small, colorless concrete courtyard. For a moment, Pei stood looking out at the graying darkness.
“Thank you.” She tried to smile, grateful at least for the window.
“Everything will look better in the morning,” Ma-ling assured her. “The bathroom is down the hall. There are only a few other sisters staying with us now, so it should be quiet. The kitchen is downstairs. I’ll bring you up some tea and sweet buns in case you’re hungry.”
“Thank you for everything,” Pei said, too exhausted to say anything else.
Ma-ling closed the door behind them, leaving Pei and Ji Shen by themselves. Pei couldn’t believe they had come so far from their life in Yung Kee and the silk factory. With the Japanese now occupying most of China, she wondered whether Chen Ling and Ming were safely hidden away at the temple in the countryside where they’d taken refuge, and whether Moi would be all right by herself at the girls’ house. Pei tried to push these thoughts out of her mind. Yet she couldn’t stop wondering if she had made the right choice leaving Yung Kee. Her doubt was like the constant prickling of bristles.
“It’s as if everything’s alive here.” Ji Shen’s voice rose and filled the small space.
Pei inhaled, the warm air tasting slightly stale. “I suppose it’s time we join in,” she heard herself respond. She looked around at the bare, colorless cubicle that was now their home, then hurried to open the window, letting in the demanding, boisterous voices from outside.
That night, in a restless sleep, Pei dreamed of Lin. Once again she heard her friend’s sweet, calm voice telling her that everything would be all right. At twenty-seven, Pei had spent almost twenty years of her life with Lin, first at the girls’ house with Auntie Yee and Moi, and then at the sisters’ house, where their life took on the comfortable rhythm of work at the silk factory. Pei was amazed at how easy it was to forget. Suddenly gone were the raw, sore fingers from soaking the cocoons in boiling water, the long, grueling hours of standing on damp concrete floors, the lives that were lost in their union’s struggle against the rich factory owners. And Lin’s death. It wasn’t just Lin’s death that tormented her, but how she had died, and what had gone through her mind as she gasped for breath, slowly suffocating in the devastating fire that destroyed the silk factory. In the past month, Pei had learned what to hold on to, and what to discard.
Instead, Pei dreamed moments of pleasure. How Lin always found answers to her smallest questions, even before Pei could ask them. When she first came to work at the silk factory, the steamy, sweet-sweaty smell of the soaking cocoons seeped into every pore of her skin, clung to her clothes, hung on every strand of her hair. It was so persistent, yet so subtle a scent, Pei thought it wouldn’t ever wash out.
“Wash your hair with this,” Lin had told her one evening when they’d returned to the girls’ house. She held up a bottle filled with an amber liquid. When Lin shook it, white jasmine petals drifted through the liquid, floating slowly back down to the bottom of the bottle.
“Does it work?”
Lin stepped closer. “Here, smell,” she directed.
From that day on, the scent of jasmine became a part of Pei’s everyday life. Just after the girls had washed their hair, the strong, sweet smell rose up and filled their room at the girls’ house; she couldn’t help but think of Lin. Even the clean smell of Auntie Yee’s ammonia was no match for the jasmine.