“It is time,” my mother says as she pulls me from the cab, “to run that old-man smell out of my house.”
As I haul my luggage out of the trunk, the smell of smouldering dust and gas fills the air, burning my nose and mouth. I follow my mother’s rapidly retreating body around the side of the house to the backyard, wondering if she has finally snapped and set one my sisters ablaze.
In the driveway off the lane, she pokes angrily at a crackling fire with a metal garden rake; I catch my breath, holding my suitcase in front of me like a shield. Piles of my grandfather’s old, woolly clothes line the backyard and spill into the gravel alley, waiting to be tossed into the gassy flames. A light rain begins to fall, generating puffs of smoke that blow into my face. I cough, but she doesn’t seem to hear me above the snap and sizzle.
Waving the rake in my direction, she shouts, “Take your suitcase upstairs and go help your sister.” As I turn back toward the house, she slaps down a stray spark that has landed in her permed, greying hair.
Once inside, I scan the front hall. The same rubber plant behind the door. My old slippers by the stairs. I breathe out, and cobwebs (suspiciously familiar) sway in the corners.
My mother steps through the door after me, her hands on her wide hips. “What’s taking you so long? I thought I told you to run upstairs.”
“I’m jet-lagged,” I mutter, kicking off my shoes.
She inspects my face closely, staring at me through her thick glasses. “Jet-lagged? Montreal is only three hours ahead. Go. Penny is waiting.” She spins me around with a little push and pokes me in the back with one sharp fingernail.
I trudge up the stairs to my grandfather’s bedroom, where my sister is on her hands and knees, ripping out the nubby red carpet he brought over from his small apartment in Chinatown. Her long black hair drags on the sub-floor.
“Samantha,” Penny says, pushing her bangs out of her eyes. “I feel like I’ve been waiting for you forever.”
My hands shake. I try to tell myself that it’s only the dampness in the air that’s causing this deep bone shiver. But, really, I am simply afraid. When I was sitting in the airplane, the idea of coming home didn’t seem so real or so final, and I could pretend that I wasn’t passing over province after province. Standing here, in my grandfather’s old room, with my mother’s footsteps coming up quickly behind me, I know that I have irrevocably returned.
“We have to get rid of your grandfather’s junk before the wedding. We’ll need his bedroom for the tea ceremony,” my mother says, pushing me aside to inspect the closet. She turns to Penny: “I don’t know why you have to get married so fast. I’m too old to run around like this. Inconsiderate girl.” She lets out a loud breath, punctuating her rapid, angry Chinese with a huff.
“Grandfather’s been dead for ten years, Mother,” Penny says quietly in English, as usual. “And we’ve been engaged for almost a month. You’ve had plenty of time.”
She waves her hand. “Why do I think you’ll understand? I’ve had other things to do, like look after all you girls by myself.”
Penny looks at me with her round, seemingly innocent eyes and shrugs.
I walk to the window and open it even wider. A prickly wind starts to blow out the thickness of my grandfather’s mysterious balms, the slight mouldiness of his tweed. Sharp chemical smoke wafts in. My mother walks briskly out of the room with as many of my grandfather’s possessions as she can carry—old books, a grey knitted scarf, a faded wooden apple crate with its lid nailed shut. The fear of bad luck and death hangs over her like a storm cloud, and her face is set.
“Sammy,” she snaps as she disappears down the hall, “clean out the dresser.” Penny starts to follow, dragging the rolled-up carpet behind her. As she passes, she whispers to me, “Your hair looks nice.” I put my hands on my bangs as she hurries away.
My grandfather left this room intending, perhaps, to come back one day. We kept it undisturbed, as we thought he wanted us to, but then he died and the door just stayed shut until my sisters and I forgot it was even there. I suppose my mother never thought his long life was as important, or as unlucky, as my father’s. It took her only one week to burn everything of his.
Listlessly, I open my grandfather’s dresser. In the top drawer is a cigarette tin stuffed with papers and photographs, all of them yellow around the edges. As I pull documents out one by one, I can hear his cough, the chime on the radio signalling the end of a hockey game, the click of his false teeth.
If my grandfather was ever young, I never knew. He was quiet, eating his daily bacon and eggs and reading newspapers in his brown upholstered chair. Now, I unearth a folded and yellowed piece of paper. His head tax certificate. A thin neck balancing an irregular head. Bulging eyes. The date stamped near the bottom tells me he is not quite eighteen.
I read quickly, my ears turned toward the back door and the sound of my mother returning. “Chan Seid Quan,” it says, “whose photograph is attached hereto on June 27, 1913, arrived or landed at Vancouver, BC, on the Empress of India.” His arrival is stamped and duly noted by G.L. Milne, Controller of Chinese Immigration.
The old cigarette tin, with its aging photos and cracked papers, suggests that my grandfather, in all his silence, never wanted to forget. In these pictures, his right leg is always shorter than his left. His bow tie is never straight. His face is bony. But what did it mean that he wanted to remember these things?
Perhaps my grandfather wanted to think of his flaws so he could say, “I am not perfect, forgive me.”
I hear my mother and sister coming through the back door for more things to burn. I thrust the tin under the bed and feel something sharp cut my thumb—one of my grandfather’s old straight razors, its blade protruding from its crumbling leather sleeve. I never saw his barbershop, never walked through Chinatown with him, meeting all the men he knew. He was eighty when I was born, his shop long since sold, his customers long since dead.
When I turn around, sucking the blood off my hand, it’s only Penny standing in the doorway, brushing the dirt and ash off her baggy T-shirt. She looks up at me, meets my gaze and drops her eyes again.
“Find anything else to burn?” she asks, staring at the ends of her hair.
“Not much.” I sit down on the bare mattress, facing the window. “Where is everyone?”
“Oh, you know how it is. Wendy is busy at work. Jackie can’t leave the kids. Daisy is off on some business trip.” Penny pulls an old stray sock from the closet. “It’s not you they don’t want to see.” She gestures toward the kitchen, where I can hear my mother muttering to herself.
“Of course.” I wipe my thumb on my jeans. “How’s the wedding coming along?”
“You know, it’s all just flowers and food and dresses.” She puts a hand on her stomach. “Wait—that reminds me. I have to make a quick phone call to the hotel. You can finish all this by yourself, right?”
I nod and see the relief on her round face—the loosening of the muscles around her eyes and mouth. I wonder if I looked the same when I left Vancouver for Montreal six years ago, delirious with the kind of happiness only escape can bring. My hands begin to shake again, and this time they will not stop.
As she steps back into the hall, Penny turns her head. “Sammy? Thanks for coming back. Adam really wanted to get married quickly, and I knew I just couldn’t live with her anymore. And someone has to.”
We hear my mother walking toward us, the slap of her slippers on the floor. Penny looks suddenly afraid. I stare at her T-shirt, at the completely obscured belly inside it, and wonder what she has been hiding. She shifts on her wide feet.
“I have to go,” she says quickly as she backs out of the room.
I haul the rest of Grandfather’s clothes out to the fire. The smoke begins to form a dark grey layer over my face and arms as I throw hats and vests and belts into the flames. I look over at my mother, and she stands perfectly still, staring fixedly at the burning pile in front of her.
Later, after hiding the cigarette tin on the top shelf of my closet, I return to my grandfather’s bedroom one more time. There is nothing left but a sub-floor, a bed and his empty dresser, yet his smell remains, embedded so deeply into the walls that nothing, not even the tornado-like energy of my deceptively small and shrinking mother, will ever erase it. I am looking at a beginning and an end, and a myriad of possibilities for the body in between.
For once, the curtains are open. I am six years old and lie on the floor in my favourite teal blue tracksuit as the sunlight pools around me, warming my closed eyelids. I see yellow, dots of white, the faint shadows of movement from the television. I open one eye and push my glasses back into place to see how Laura Ingalls Wilder, newly married, is faring on Little House on the Prairie.
“I need a haircut,” my father announces, walking in the back door from the garden. He stands between me and the television. “Sammy, be a good girl and tell your grandfather to bring out his scissors.”
I pull myself up and run into my grandfather’s room, rubbing my eyes as I go. “Dad wants a haircut,” I shout, just to make sure he can hear me. “Can I see your barber’s pole?”
Grandfather smiles and stands up slowly from his dusty brocade chair. “Of course. You just sit here and watch while I get my things.” He pulls an old wooden apple crate from the closet and unwraps the pole from its layers of newspapers.
The barber’s pole seems to spin endlessly—red, then blue, then white and red again. I wonder if it somehow turns inward on itself, pulling its own striped skin into a hidden and perpetually hungry mouth. My father, passing by on his way to the basement, sniffs. “An optical illusion,” he says.
“Why did you become a barber?” I look away from the pole just long enough to squint at my grandfather’s lined, thin face. “I want to be an interior designer.”
He turns off the pole then, and passes his hand over the scissors and combs in his haircutting kit. “After I married your grandmother, the man who used to own my shop wanted to retire and go back to China, so I took over, simple as that.”
He picks up his barber’s kit and, with one foot, shoves the apple crate back into his closet.
While I stand in the corner, half-hidden by our yellow fridge, my grandfather slowly lines the kitchen floor with a blue plastic tarp and arranges his small broom, scissors and shaver on the table. My father brings up the bar stool from the basement, and my grandfather, his hands trembling just slightly, goes to work, the silence between them an invisible, unbroken wall.
These haircuts were the only times I saw them touch, those brief moments when my grandfather awkwardly placed his hand on my father’s shoulder for support, or when his long, delicate fingers brushed my father’s neck clean—gently, carefully. As they both grew older and thinner (mirrors of each other, yet also somehow not), my grandfather would linger over my father’s head, the expression on his face, as always, impassive.
I creep through the basement door as quietly as possible, hoping that my entrance won’t wake my mother. As I walk toward the stairs, I can hear Penny snoring through her open bedroom door. I climb upward, passing the doilies my mother has draped over the banister, my body dull and heavy with wine and cigarettes. Such a long evening, I keep thinking, like a boring foreign movie with no subtitles. The whole time, even as I was sitting on a bar stool with my old friends from high school, nodding along to the beat (monotonous, cold), I could only think, Fuck you, Matt. I push open my bedroom door, throw my shoes on the floor beside my bed and put on my pyjamas. I just don’t know how to finish things, that’s all.
I stumble my way to the bathroom. My mother mumbles in her sleep. I turn on the light and look in the mirror. Red eyes, flat hair, makeup rubbed off a long time ago. I suck in my thin cheeks.
“What’s up, Dollface?” I say to my reflection, realizing too late that I have just mimicked the way Matt used to greet me in the mornings. Our last day together, he placed his hands on either side of my face, holding my head just so, daring me, it seemed, to move. I did move, but only when he let me, after he kissed me and asked, “How about just one more time?”
I shake my head, rub the smokiness of the night out of my eyes. At least I have all this. I wave my hand around my mother’s pink and peach bathroom, knock over the crocheted toilet paper doll, and laugh. Memories can go fuck themselves.
I walk through the hallway and look up at the family portrait hanging on the wall. My own younger face looks back at me from within the heavy wooden frame. Shadows play across the picture, making the faces of my parents and my four older sisters jump out—three—dimensional, gargoyle-like. My eyes pass over their faces until they come to my father, sitting in a tall leather chair, a rolled-up newspaper in his hands. I walk a little farther, and his eyes follow me, the irises moving with every step I make. I think I see him breathe.
I stop moving and close my eyes, hoping that this living, breathing version of my father will go away, disappear into the night. “Are you watching me?” I whisper. “I thought you had left us a long time ago.” I open one eye. My father’s photographed face, usually so benign, sneers.
I run forward and shut my bedroom door, feeling the resistance of the darkness without.
The next morning, I walk into the kitchen for breakfast and blink at the bright sunshine pouring in through the window. Outside, the back garden is tangled with weeds, but even so, through the tangled blackberry branches and dandelions, I can see the beginnings of returning chives, the buds on the branches of the neighbour’s cherry tree.
Penny stands in the driveway, slowly digging at the huge pile of ash with a snow shovel. She places a hand on her belly, rubs it counter-clockwise. Still wearing my flannel pyjamas and slippers, I step outside and join her.
“We have to get rid of this somehow,” she says, kicking at the ash with her shoe. “Are people even allowed to burn garbage in their yards anymore?”
“Of course not. But do you think Mom cares about bylaws?” We giggle, hands over our mouths just in case. “We’ll put it in bags and drive it down to the dump. No one will ever know.” I take the shovel from her and start working.
Penny stands to the side, watching me dig through the black, dusty pile and holding her sleeve up to her face. My pants are streaked with ash. I start to wonder what this looks like to the neighbours. My unwashed hair and skinny arms. My dirty pink pyjamas. The remains of my grandfather’s life floating through the air and into our noses and mouths, no heavier than useless flakes of skin. I look up the unpaved alley at the decrepit garages and dangerously leaning fences. Nothing, it seems, ever really changes.
I can feel my sister behind me, unmoving. I turn.
“Are you going to help, or are you just going to stand there?”
“Don’t be a bitch, Sammy. If you want to complain, then I have six years’ worth to get off my chest.”
I turn back to the garbage bags.
“You didn’t have to come back,” Penny says suddenly. “You could have stayed in school forever. Don’t blame me for this.”
I try to think of something to say, because she’s right, but she’s also wrong. Walking down Ste-Catherine or St-Denis, past the well-dressed Montrealers, I had become convinced that they could smell the stink of Vancouver’s Chinatown—durian and rain-soaked cardboard boxes—leaking out of my pores. I had tried to let the city absorb me completely, envelop me in its own particular smells of poutine and river water, but it was no use. Leaving Vancouver was like leaving myself.
When I fled Montreal, everything was unfinished: my thesis, my feelings about my boyfriend, the unpainted walls in our apartment. I had run away once before, and I did it again, fear and duty propelling me back to the place I had once escaped. I kept telling myself that, after all, it was my turn to be the good daughter. What I didn’t know was that my spot in the family had been ready for me for a long time, carved out like a cast made from my body.
My contact lenses itch; a tear drops off the end of my chin. I wonder if Penny can hear me sniffling. I take a deep breath and turn around, but she’s gone. I squint through the ash toward the house, but all the doors and windows are closed tight against the sun.
Chinatown shows its ghosts on every surface. They appear and disappear in the shifting light, hiding and re-hiding in the uneven concrete. In the brightness of day, homeless people fight by the Carnegie Centre on the corner of Main and Hastings. The produce merchants pace up and down the sidewalks outside their shops with their rubber aprons and boxes of vegetables and shout, “Very fine bok choy! Only ninety-nine cents a pound!” And the few surviving old men without families congregate around stoops and doorways, smoking their cigarettes, saying hello to everyone who walks by. When I was a child, my mother walked me quickly past these men, and threw away the candy they gave me.
“Nothing but a tourist trap. A dumping ground for human trash,” my father always said, his eyes darting left to right as we hurriedly made our way through the markets on Keefer and Pender. The inevitable smell of rotting produce and piss only angered him more. “These old buildings should be torn down. Probably full of rats; squatters, too.” Even now, I am still faintly scared of the alleys, the sides of buildings with their mysterious downward steps that don’t seem to go anywhere, the cloudy purple glass bricks embedded in the sidewalks that seem to hide yet reveal something both underground and sinister.
I avoid the roasted pigs hanging in the butchers’ windows and the pungent smells rising from the ragged corners and, instead, propel myself westward, where the ocean salts the air, where I can pretend that those old Chinatown sidewalks aren’t so deeply lodged in my body that they tilt my walk just so, shift my eyes left and right.
The photo from my grandfather’s head tax certificate feels stuck to the inside of my head as I trudge along the seawall in Stanley Park (gulls and hot dogs, sand and flesh; here, this strip of sand and high-rise apartments makes me forget the stubby lawns and cracked driveways of our neighbourhood in East Vancouver, where cats mate behind garbage cans and old women try to grow squash in the thin, acidic soil). I imagine him walking beside me, a little off-balance, dressed, even in this unseasonable, early spring heat, in a well-pressed grey suit. He would ask me why I walk here, why I’ve grown so thin. Why I am unable to finish school or hold on to a boyfriend. Why I spend so much time away from my mother.
I imagine he understands.
At a concession on the beach at English Bay, I buy an orange Popsicle. My grandfather shakes his head.
“You’ll get a headache.”
I ignore him, but he follows me anyway, staying a few feet back so that he is out of sight. He says nothing, only treads softly behind me, his hands behind his back as he leans forward into the sea wind. I do not turn, knowing that once I look directly at him, his gaze will hold me until he is ready to let me go, until I’ve done exactly what he wants and he rests, allowing me to do the same.
I’m not ready for him, not ready to understand what he needs. I would rather rush ahead, let my body do the thinking so that I am only following the urges of my own flesh.
I stare ahead, feel a gust on my back.
That old man smell, I think. Not again. I turn to look.
Seid Quan knows he is dirty; he can smell the boat on his skin, the salty, rancid odour of cured fish, other men’s hair oils, rotting wood. It is windy, and the water is nothingness: grey, bottomless, incomprehensible. The roof of his mouth is crackling dry, and his hands shake as he smoothes down the front of his only jacket. He wants his mother.
Only one thought runs through his head: I cannot imagine that this will be all right.
He looks out toward the city and sees the mountains, dark blue and hazy behind the wood frame buildings, which appear dirty and brown, larger manifestations of the smell on his skin. He fears that the stink will be mistaken for the smell of China, but he does not know how to say that there would be no smell if Canada never was, if the boats were not so full of desperation, men trading one kind of poverty for another. Mud pools around the wooden sidewalks, indistinguishable from horse dung or something worse. He hears the water crashing, changing shape as it hits the shore and the wooden docks. He wonders if the ocean (so close, so savage) will consume him and sweep everything else away. He shifts his small bag from one hand to the other.
He does not know where to start, which lineup he needs to be in, which direction to walk in to find the part of the city where all the Chinamen live. He had hoped someone would be able to guide him, but when he was on the boat, while they were talking and eating their watery soup and salt-cured, fatty pork, he found that everyone knew as little as he did. Like him, they had read the letters that other men from their villages sent home describing the beautiful land, the generosity of the white men, the fortunes they were making. And like him, they saw how much richer those men’s wives and children became.
The first afternoon at sea, an older man shuffled past him on the deck, his thin hips only partially hidden by his oversized Western-style pants. He turned to Seid Quan and looked him over from head to shoes.
“You must be new.”
Seid Quan nodded.
“I am the only one on this boat returning to Canada. My wife begged me to stay home—I must be crazy.”
“Don’t say that, Uncle.”
The old man pointed a finger at Seid Quan’s nose. “You’ll go crazy too one day. And by then, it won’t matter if you say it out loud or not.”
That exchange, Seid Quan now reflects, was not very helpful.
He joins one of six lines, each with a white man at its head, sitting at a desk. He hopes he is in the right one.
No one on the boat had been worried. A golden mountain it couldn’t be, of course, but there would be jobs, good paying jobs, jobs with which you could feed your whole family for a year with only two months’ pay. And in a place with that kind of opportunity, the going could only be easy. However, Seid Quan still isn’t so sure.
The line moves, and he pushes his suitcase two feet forward. He peers ahead and sees that a policeman is leading one of the men to a building on the left, a building with bars over its tiny windows. He hears someone say, “They are going to put us in that jailhouse for a couple of days, so they can fully check our papers. I didn’t come here to be thrown in prison!”
Just before they disembarked, he told one of the other men he was worried that the stories couldn’t be as good as they sounded. The man laughed and said, “Well, why do we keep coming, then?”
Seid Quan responded, “Do you see any rich men on this boat?”
The other man laughed again and, as he walked away, the loose soles of his worn-out shoes slapping against the floor, he turned around. “You can doubt all you want, brother, but remember how much money the people in your village saved to send you to this gold mountain. So, for their sake, it had better be as good as everyone says.”
The white man peers at him over the rim of his glasses. “Your papers,” he says, with his hand stretched out. Seid Quan swallows. It is his turn.
He is one of the lucky ones. He spends only one night in the jail cell at the dock and manages not to cry, as some of the other young men do. They beg the guards to let them out, snot and tears running down their faces for everyone to see. The guards turn away and pretend they don’t understand. Really, thinks Seid Quan, what else could these young men possibly be asking for?
When Seid Quan is released, he follows the rest of the Chinese men who are leaving the docks from various boats. Some of them are coming back after having visited their families. Some are like him: gangly, open-mouthed, eyes squinting in the morning sun. Like a line of ants, they walk east. He sniffs the air, smells rotting fish and freshly cut wood.
One of the older men asks Seid Quan what his family name is. “Chan? Why, that’s my name too! Good to meet you, little brother! You should come with me to our clan association. The men there, they’ll help you find a place to sleep, maybe a job, too. It’s always good to have family in a strange place, eh?”
At the clan association’s offices, which turn out to be in the storage room behind a restaurant, the men quickly find Seid Quan a just-vacated room in a boarding house and arrange for him to begin English lessons at the church every morning for two hours, starting immediately. The next afternoon, he finds a note slipped under his door from the clan association president, telling him to report for work at Yip Tailors at five. There, he discovers that several businesses in Chinatown have hired him to clean their offices and front rooms after they close. They dare not hire white cleaning women, so it is Seid Quan who begins sweeping up the loose threads at the tailor’s shop, cleaning windows at the laundries and washing out towels for the barber. Women’s work, he thinks, looking down at his thin, chapped hands, but better than nothing.
He doesn’t start until the evening, and spends most of his days walking through the city, although he stays away from the richer neighbourhoods. Stanley Park lies just beyond the tall houses and manicured gardens of the West End. He has heard that it is like a forest within the city, a place where trees the size of buildings dwarf even the brawniest white men. Seid Quan wants to breathe in the tang of the trees every morning and feel the moss with his hands, but he dares to walk only as far as the entrance, where he stands and stares at the white families strolling along the water. One morning, a photographer, who had set up his camera opposite a large tree stump, turns to him and asks, “Brother, do you need a picture to send home?” Seid Quan fishes in his pockets for some change, poses for the photo and scurries off.
A few weeks later, he walks along Pender Street, nodding at the laundrymen who call out to him from their front steps. “Lucky brother,” one shouts. “My shop is like an oven, it’s so hot, and here you are, walking in the fresh air without a care in the world. How about we trade places?” The frail, wood-sided tailor and laundry shops begin to disappear, and Seid Quan finds himself among tall brick and limestone buildings. He shrinks into his jacket and keeps his head down, avoiding the glances of the well-dressed white men walking around and toward him. Some, walking in pairs, whisper to each other, and Seid Quan can only guess what they are saying.
“Another one, did you see, Robert? I wonder if they simply cut off their fingers to grow more Chinamen and breed themselves that way.”
He turns south to the Granville Bridge. He cannot keep his eyes off the teeming grey-tinged water below, swollen with floating logs. Somehow, he had expected the water here to be clean, reflective of the sky and the faces of people surrounding it, not this brown and grey mess, not much cleaner than the Pearl River, which Seid Quan had never liked to visit. All that shit smell, he remembers. Made my eyes water.
He steps off onto the shores of False Creek; even here, more Chinamen. Their shacks are built with scraps from the lumberyards and whatever else they can find—hammered-out biscuit tins, aluminium wrappers. Seid Quan notices the gaping holes in the walls, the small plots of limp vegetables growing in the muck. He feels the failure in the air, almost as thick as the smell of the human waste being used as manure. How can they keep on like this? Doing nothing, making the rest of us look so bad and lazy? An old man peeks through his open doorway and smiles when he sees Seid Quan.
“Young man! Come in and have some tea with me.” He waves his skinny arms.
“Thank you, Uncle, but I need to go back to Chinatown very soon to start work.”
“Ah, you young fellows, always working. I used to work hard too, laying down tracks for those godforsaken trains.” He shakes his head. “Some other time, then. I’m always here.”
Seid Quan, back on the bridge, sighs with relief.
That night, Seid Quan washes the floors in the front room of Mr. Yip’s shop on Carrall Street. There are rat droppings everywhere, and some of the cloth used for winter suits has been chewed through, probably for nests. This close to the waterfront, the rats seem to outnumber the people. Seid Quan carefully kicks a trap into the corner, where the white businessmen who come in to get their shirts made cheaply won’t see it. The high windows above the door are open for the fresh night air—clear and, as Seid Quan thinks, blue to the eye if it weren’t invisible. The streets are mostly empty, and even the sounds of gambling that sometimes float out into the night—the tapping of mah-jong tiles, the shouts of men losing the money they have just made, whisky-rough singing—are absent. It’s eerie tonight, Seid Quan thinks. I don’t like being alone when it’s like this.
He hears footsteps, several of them, running. He puts out his kerosene lamp and steps back into the shadows of the dark shop, behind a dressmaker’s dummy.
A man is shouting in English, “There, over there! All these places are owned by them!”
Just as Seid Quan begins to understand what it is they’re shouting, the front window of the shop shatters. Seid Quan ducks, covering his head and face with his arms. Someone outside laughs and the running footsteps continue. He can hear other windows breaking in the distance.
He walks to the front, glass cracking under his feet. A brick lies on the floor, and he sees that there are English words written on it. Just then, Mr. Yip, who lives upstairs, comes down in his nightshirt. He walks over to the window and shakes his head, murmuring, “It’s been a long time since someone broke my window, ten years, maybe. I thought this wouldn’t happen anymore.” He looks at Seid Quan. “You okay, little brother? Not cut anywhere?”
“I’m all right. I found this.” Seid Quan hands over the brick to the older man. “What does it say?”
Mr. Yip takes a look at the writing and drops the brick on the floor. Glass fragments bounce up. “It says ‘Die, Chinaman, die.’” He turns away and starts heading to the back. “I’ll get a broom and help you clean this up.”
After they are done, Mr. Yip sits down heavily on the stool behind his sewing machine. “Such anger,” he says, shaking his head again. “They are only afraid of us, you know. Afraid that we will take jobs they think are theirs, afraid that we will one day be their next-door neighbours and turn their children into lazy opium addicts.” He looks up at Seid Quan. “Look at that long face. Come. We’ll have to do something to forget about this mess.”
Forgetting. Seid Quan puts a hand on his stomach to try to quell the rising guilt. They think we are all lazy and shouldn’t live here, and I thought the same. Forgetting is the very thing he needs.
Mr. Yip won’t tell Seid Quan where they’re going, only that they must pick up Mr. Lam, the barber, on their way. Seid Quan looks suspiciously at the tailor’s finely fitted shirt and pants and wonders whom he is dressing up for.
Mr. Lam opens the door to his apartment. As soon as he sees them, he hoots loudly. “Coming to get me in the middle of the night,” he laughs as he pulls on his trousers, “can only mean one thing!”
Ten minutes later, Seid Quan sits in a small living room. He perches awkwardly on the edge of a red and purple velour sofa and does not speak to the other men. His friends slap each other on the back, make lewd jokes and take sips from a flask Mr. Lam pulls out of one of his pockets. Seid Quan fixes his eyes on the gold-painted ceiling.
A fat woman with red lips and ratty hair waddles into the room. Her blue eyes are small and almost invisible in her puffy face. She breathes heavily and winks. “All right, who’s next?”
Mr. Yip pushes Seid Quan in the back until he stands up uncertainly and wavers slightly in place.
“C’mon, fella. Up the stairs, second door on the left. Enjoy.” The fat woman laughs wickedly and waddles back to her desk by the front door.
He goes up the stairs slowly, one foot in front of the other. The plush carpet silences his approach, and the sweat on his hands leaves the banisters sticky and wet.
He stands in front of the door and breathes deeply. He knocks.
“Come on in!”
He opens the door—slowly, creakily—and pokes his head through the small crack.
On the enormous bed sits a woman. She wears a black satin robe and high-heeled slippers, her toes glinting red in the yellow light. Her hair is an impossible brassy orange colour, and her eyes are long, serpentine and lined in kohl. She pats the spot on the bed beside her.
“Have a seat, lovey.”
He sits on her bed, his hands steadying his body on the satin spread. She talks rapidly, giggling about her job and the other girls and what she tells her parents she is doing out west in her letters home. He listens carefully, trying to understand as much as he can.
“They’re such nice people,” she trills. “Dad practically kills himself working in that mine like he does, and Mum, she just raises her chickens and takes in washing, kind of like you people. So I tell them I work at the telegraph office, copying messages down and things like that. Mum would die if she thought I did this.” She drapes her arm around his waist and whispers, “What are you gonna tell your family?”
“Nothing,” he mutters.
“Gosh, your English is pretty good compared to some of the others I see around here. I tell you, if I had ten dollars for every mute Chinaman I had to keep company with, I’d be a rich woman and not doing this anymore.”
He looks at her face covered in white powder, smells her perfume of lilies and musk. He closes his eyes and tries not to think about who else has been on this bed, inside this whore.
It is as if he is sitting on his marriage bed, and he sees the red-veiled face of his future bride looking down at her shoes. He can smell her freshly washed skin—lye and rosewater—and hear her breath. He imagines her hair, how it might feel, how blackly it might shine in the light. In his mind he reaches for her hand.
The whore giggles and thrusts her tongue in his ear.
Seid Quan’s long arms and legs have become tangled in the slippery sheets, in the long, dry clumps of her hair. He can smell sweat (his or hers or that of the man who was here before, he does not know, and does not want to find out), the heady odour of what he thinks must be gin. Her bony chest and ribs are pressed up against him, her white, white skin stretching so much he is sure it will be torn in two, revealing her bird-like skeleton, her blackened and diseased lungs. He places his hand over her face and lets out one high-pitched, razor-sharp cry.
“My God,” she whispers. “I thought you were going to snap my neck.”
The quiet of dawn helps Seid Quan forget the scratchiness in his throat, the fuzzy coating on the inside of his mouth. As he walks up the stairs of his rooming house, he rubs the back of his aching head. He wonders how badly he smells of whisky.
“I’ve been looking for you.”
Seid Quan jumps at the sound of an unexpected voice. He shoves his room key back into his pocket before he turns around. Leaning up against the window at the end of the hall is a young man, dressed stylishly in pleated trousers and suspenders. As Seid Quan squints in the early morning light, he notices that the man’s hems trail loose threads on the floor and the knees are worn shiny and thin.
“Lim? Is that you?”
The young man walks over to Seid Quan, his arm outstretched. “It’s me, all right. Come and shake the hand of an old friend.”
“Is this your room, then?” Lim asks after Seid Quan has opened the door and offered him his only chair.
“Yes. It’s not much, but it’s dry and cheap.” Seid Quan smiles. “I should take you out to the café for some coffee and a doughnut, but first you must tell me how everyone is doing in the village. Have you seen my mother?”
Lim nods. “Yes. She wants you to know that she’s looking for a wife for you.” Lim laughs loudly. “I don’t know how you could manage a woman, old friend, when you can’t even say boo to a cat.”
Seid Quan blushes. “And how are all the others? Kam? How about Hon?”
“Kam went to Hong Kong, started working in a restaurant. Wants to find a lady to marry.” Lim snorts. “Hon, he went to America, lives in California. Doing laundry.” He brushes a piece of lint off his pants.
“All our friends gone,” mutters Seid Quan.
“Are you still cleaning shops?”
Seid Quan nods.
“Degrading jobs, all of them. I’m not going to stoop, though. If anyone is going to suck everything out of this country, it’s going to be me.”
Seid Quan raises his eyebrows. “What do you mean?”
“I’m going to be the richest Chinaman in Canada, you wait and see.”
“How are you going to do that?”
“I’ll figure something out. I always do.” He grins widely, showing all his long teeth.
Seid Quan sighs. “You should go to the church, like I do, and start taking the English lessons. I can read some now, and I’m working on writing next.”
Lim laughs loudly. “I didn’t come all this way to go to school.” He stands up, adjusts his suspenders. “How about that coffee? Your treat.” He saunters out the door and down the hall, not even looking to see if Seid Quan is keeping up.
Mr. Lam watches Seid Quan as he mops the floor and manoeuvres around the empty barber chairs. Outside, the light is fading. The fish peddler dumps his cart of melted ice onto the street, leaving behind a slick, fishy puddle.
“How long did you stay at the gambling den last night, little brother?”
Seid Quan grins. “Just until nine. I don’t have much money to gamble.”
He nods. “No, I suppose not. You know how to save your money, don’t you?”
“Don’t we all? I don’t think anyone really has much of a choice.”
“No, this is true. How long have you been here now?”
Seid Quan looks up. “About a year.”
“How is your family? Your mother?”
“She’s doing well. Always busy, you know. My sisters keep her on her toes.”
Mr. Lam laughs. “Yes, I bet. Have you been looking for steadier work?”
Seid Quan shrugs. “I suppose. But finding good work is harder than it sounds.” He looks down at the wet floor and the scuff marks on his shoes.
Lim had come to him three weeks ago, early in the morning, dried blood like a snake down the side of his head. He had lain on Seid Quan’s bed, wheezing. It was only after he had slept for an hour that he had said anything.
“I went to the sawmill to look for work, and the boss, he said I could start the next day, but only at Chinaman wages. When I left, some of the white men working there followed me and asked if I needed a ride.” He stopped and covered his face with his hands.
“What did they do to you? Tell me.”
Lim swallowed hard. “I tried to get away, but they pushed me into the foreman’s truck and drove me out of town. They said if I ever came back, they would beat me even worse. Then they left me out in a bog, and I think I passed out.”
“Where were you?”
“I don’t even know. I woke up and just started to walk toward the mountains on the side of a road. Seid Quan, I walked for six hours.”
Seid Quan drops the mop head into the bucket and bends down to wring it out.
“How about coming to work for me?” asks Mr. Lam.
Seid Quan stands back up. “Here? In the shop?”
“Sure. You have steady hands. I’ll train you to cut hair and shave.”
“Really? But can you afford to pay me?”
Mr. Lam stands up, runs his hands over his pants. “You shouldn’t worry about that. I want to retire one day, go back to China and see my wife again. I would like someone I trust to buy the shop, run it like it should be run. In a few years, maybe that will be you. But only if you think it’s a good idea. So, yes or no?”
“Yes, of course.” Seid Quan reaches out and grabs the barber’s hand. “Thank you.”
Mr. Lam reaches into a cabinet and pulls out a bottle of whisky. “You’re too serious, Seid Quan. This will lighten you up.
Later that night, sitting on his single bed in the rooming house, Seid Quan sips at one more glass of whisky from the bottle he keeps hidden in one of his boots. My own shop, he thinks. That’s more than I ever thought. He imagines his mother’s face as she opens the letter announcing the news, her voice as she shouts to his sisters, the speed with which the gossip will travel through the village.
The village. He rests his face on his sharp knees. How will I ever pay back the village? He calculates how much money he will be able to save working as a barber and how much he will need to buy the shop. He shakes his head. I will have to keep on cleaning at night as well, for as long as it takes.
He turns to his small desk and the long scrolls, brushes and inks he keeps on its surface. He walks to it, leans over his calligraphy and squints. He thinks of the hours he spent as a boy on the floor of his mother’s kitchen, crouched over old newspapers. He drew character after character with a dull pencil, imitating the grand strokes of the calligraphist he once saw in Guangzhou on a trip with his mother.
His mother, sighing, would always say, “If only your father were alive, then maybe we could afford a tutor.”
Now, he stares at his own, self-taught work. The mistakes are obvious. Seid Quan rubs at the foot of one character until the paper’s top layer comes away in small brown and black pills.
Smudged, he thinks. Of course.
He bundles up his papers and places them in an empty apple crate. He pushes it under his bed with his foot; clouds of dust puff up on the opposite side. Sighing, he reaches into his closet for a small broom.
“I am still a cleaner, after all,” he says to himself. When he turns back to his desk, he pulls out his English exercise book from the drawer and places it on the surface, so he won’t forget.
After three years in Canada, Seid Quan must return to China to marry. His mother has chosen his wife, and he has to consummate the marriage and impregnate the girl, all in the six weeks before he returns to Canada. His mother, in the letters she dictated to the local scribe, never asked what kind of girl he wanted and never mentioned whether the girl she eventually settled on was pretty. Seid Quan was afraid to ask. He reasoned that, since he hadn’t seen a Chinese girl in two years, anyone would look pretty to him.
The night before he leaves, Lim takes him to the Bamboo Terrace for dinner. He orders shot after shot of whisky and tells Seid Quan grandly that he can order anything he likes because money is no object.
“Where is all this money from, brother?”
Lim places his hand on the pocket of his jacket. “None of your business. I told you I’d make it. I’m going to buy a car before the year is out.”
“But how? The last time I saw you, you were driving the Canada Produce truck.”
Lim drums his fingers on the red tablecloth. “You don’t need to know, Seid Quan. Just eat your dinner and drink your whisky. It’s all taken care of.” Lim pats Seid Quan on the shoulder and grins.
Four weeks later, Seid Quan is back in the village. Everything looks just as it did when he left it: dusty roads, children everywhere, squat little houses filled with noise, the voices of women. He walks past the houses and waves at the people inside. Everyone asks him about Canada. They all want to know if it is as wonderful as it seems, if it is true that no one goes hungry because there are jobs for everyone, if the trees are so tall they are like mountains, if the mountains are so tall you can’t see the peaks, if people are happier there.
Seid Quan only says, “As long as I can send money home, that’s enough for me.”
The villagers are amazed by his humility and say that he is remarkably down-to-earth, even with all his success.
The night before the wedding, he realizes that the only men left in the village are old men. Seid Quan brings out a bottle of Canadian whisky; he had meant to have a party with all the young men left in the village, but instead, he finds himself sitting around his mother’s kitchen table with his great-uncle and all his friends, men with no teeth and stooped shoulders. His great-uncle says to him, “I’d go to Canada or America or even Hong Kong myself if it weren’t for my bad hip. I suppose I’m forty years too late now.”
It doesn’t take much to get them drunk, and by nine o’clock, everyone but his great-uncle has fallen asleep at the table, their heads cradled on brown, bony arms.
“So, young man, how do you feel about getting married tomorrow?”
Seid Quan shrugs. “It feels good, I guess. I have to leave in a few weeks, though, so I’m not sure that I’ll really feel married even after it’s all over.”
His great-uncle looks at him out of the corner of his eye. “Yes, I can see how that would be difficult. But you’ve done well with what you have. Why, you speak English now, even better than those snobs in the city. You know, your mother has been able to buy a lot more things since you left. She’s started dowries for your sisters already. Widows always have the hardest time, don’t you think?”
“Yes. My mother has always worked hard for us. I just wish there was a way that I could stay home and make the same money here.” Seid Quan taps his glass on the table, and the old man on his right raises his head for a moment before sleepily dropping it again.
“The children are so much healthier here since the young men started going away and sending money home,” his great-uncle continues, as if Seid Quan hasn’t spoken. “No more bony knees, no more sunken bellies! Our village has waited a long time to be healthy, I’ll say. You must have seen that new water pump in the square. The village owes a lot to its young men overseas. But, as I’m sure you’d be the first to admit, the young men owe a lot to the village too.”
“Of course we do, Uncle.”
“All the money we saved to send you boys to Canada and America in the first place—the amounts can keep me up at night. It brightens my day just to think of you all working so hard so far away—I know you do it for us, for the money you send home to make everything better here.”
Seid Quan sighs and stands up. “I should take the others home now. Are you going to stay here, or should I take you home first?”
The old man stands up and pats his great-nephew on the shoulder. “Oh, I think I can go home by myself. Without any young men, the village has never been safer.”
That night, just before he falls asleep, Seid Quan imagines that he is king of his village. Fruits, vegetables and game are laid at his feet, and he says grandly, “Pass this food out equally among the villagers and let the men serve the women and children, so that these men may also know what it’s like to find joy in domestic rituals.” He is called the Magnanimous King, and he parades around the village, magically living without food and watching his subjects grow fat.
When Seid Quan wakes up, the insubstantial light of dawn has seeped into his room. He sees his trunk and his wedding clothes gleaming redly on the hook by the door. Through the wall, he hears his mother, her steps slow and heavy, as if she is dragging something behind her. He runs out of the room in his nightclothes to help her because he cannot bear the sound.
He wanders on the deck, his hands clasped behind his back as he makes his way around piles of rope and other Chinese men. Another boat, he thinks, but exactly the same.
It has been only twenty hours since he left his new wife standing in the doorway of their new home, where she will be its only permanent occupant. That morning, she was wearing a jacket and pants, her hands held behind her back as if she had something to surprise him with, or as if she were afraid he would see her shaking hands. Her eyes, small and sharp, darted left and right. He placed his suitcase in the yard and put his hand on her head.
“Will you be lonely?”
Shew Lin snorted, the nostrils in her broad nose flaring. “No, silly. I’m still in the village, aren’t I? I should be asking you if you will be lonely.”
He kissed her on the forehead. “No more than usual.”
But this, he now knows, is a lie, because he did not have her to miss before. He stares at the ocean—limitless, forever moving men away from their places of birth. I haven’t known her for very long, he reasons to himself. Really, I’ve only just met her. But in those five weeks they lived together in their little house (the only thing, he reflects, that he actually owns), they conducted a marriage in miniature—shopping together, cooking together, eating and sleeping together.
“I feel so old,” he whispers to himself. And then he laughs, his twenty-one-year-old self amused.
He watches the young men and boys around him, some no older than fourteen or fifteen. They are dressed in the working clothes of their villages: pants rolled up well above their ankles, ropes as belts, long-sleeved jackets unbuttoned to show bare chests. As Seid Quan knows, each boy will have only one good Western suit in his bag and will not waste it on the boat. But Seid Quan, like the others who are returning to Canada, wears his Western suits all day, every day. He can feel the envy boring into the back of his jacket from the newcomers, who must suppose that he thinks nothing of ruining his good clothes on this dirty boat. But he doesn’t care—he has done well so far, and the jealousy only makes him shrug.
Only four more weeks of this boat, he thinks. But then it will be years before I see her again.
He pushes his hands into his empty pockets, feels the cotton muslin, the loose threads he never bothers to cut. If he could, he would strip off all his clothes and jump off this boat, swim back to the Guangzhou port and walk on the river’s shore all the way back to the village. But there is no money there, no wool to make Western suits, no one who could pay for a straight razor shave. The house would have to be sold. He would have to repay the village elders somehow, but there would be no way to do it.
He looks out at the ocean again, knowing that his only destination is to the end of east, where the west begins.
The smoke is almost solid, forming transparent walls between Seid Quan and the next man. He squints, but that does not help. He can hear men shouting and the jingle of coins. He steps forward and bumps into someone else’s back.
It’s not often that Seid Quan goes to the gambling dens, rooms hidden between floors or underneath cellars in almost every building in Chinatown. There’s the danger, of course, that the police might come, or that he might lose all his money. But really, these places always make him feel sick. Perhaps it’s the trapped smells of cigarette smoke, stale whisky and dozens of men crammed into a windowless room. Or perhaps, like Lim always says, he’s just not man enough to play real stakes with real gamblers.
Midnight, and the action shows no sign of slowing down.
The mah-jong table is surrounded by men, all crowding around to peek at each player’s hand and whisper to each other about who is most likely to win. The players have been sitting for six hours already, having rushed here as soon as the workday ended. One of them, a short, fat man whose butchering apron is still draped on the back of his chair, is sweating so much that his shirt is soaked through. Dozens of beads sit glistening on his forehead. The crowd murmurs that he has not even gotten up to relieve himself. Someone makes a loud joke about wet bottoms, but the butcher still does not move. His eyes are fixed on the tiles.
Seid Quan is scanning the room, looking for anyone he knows, when he feels a gnarled hand on his shoulder.
“How are you, young man?”
“Mr. Yip. I’m very well. How about you?”
The tailor grunts. “Not so great. The arthritis is getting worse, and I haven’t been working as much as I used to. I’m sorry I haven’t been around to see you when you come in to clean. I’ve been relying on my brother to do most of the work.” He smiles. “But I hear you’ve been busy. Your wife had a baby?”
He blushes. “Yes. A girl—Yun Wo. Everybody is healthy.”
“Good. Good.” Mr. Yip cranes his neck for a look around the room. “Ah, it’s old Mr. Wong. I should say hello before he decides to get his shirts made somewhere else.”
Seid Quan walks over to the mah-jong table and peers at the players’ tiles. He hears a familiar voice behind him and turns around.
“I can get you anything you want, brother!” Lim waves his arms at a man standing in front of him. He blinks his eyes twice and shakes his head before continuing. “You and me and these useless drunks, we’re family. You just need to ask. How do you think I can afford all this?” He gestures down at his shiny black shoes, the perfectly sewn cuff of his glen plaid trousers. “I can get you fellows everything you want: women, Scotch whisky, even some of the good stuff.” He pauses as he looks into the stony eyes of his companion. “You know,” he whispers loudly, “dope. Don’t ever sell anything you don’t use yourself, that’s my motto.”
Seid Quan looks around, wonders if anyone else has heard Lim’s speech. He hurries over and grasps his friend by the elbow.
“Lim. Good to see you. Let’s go for a walk, get some fresh air.”
“I don’t want to leave. This is a great party. Just great.” Lim smiles widely at the room.
“Maybe you just need some sleep, maybe something to—”
The butcher has overturned the mah-jong table, sending tiles sailing through the air and skittering across the floor. Someone pushes someone else, and men start shouting obscenities, throwing glasses, shoes, anything at each other. Other men push past and pour into the street.
“All this noise, the police will surely come now,” someone shouts as Seid Quan runs down the stairs, losing his grip on Lim’s sleeve. He slips into an alley, pokes his head around the corner to see if Lim is anywhere in sight. Men are running into every alley and street, but in this dark, it is impossible to see if one of them is Lim. He turns to walk home and breathes the night air. Into the blue light.
He has come to understand the movements of the boats, the sway that means a storm is coming from the west, the rocking that means another ship, miles away, is slicing through the water at the same time. He lies on his bunk, listens to the breathing of the three other men in his cabin. He places his hand on a pocket in his pants, feels for the wad of papers he will need to re-enter Canada. At the port, they will look him over, ask him questions about where he has been and why. They will mark his return on a piece of paper—one more little check mark on a list of comings and goings.
This last trip, he played with Yun Wo, a serious-faced three-year-old who asked him alarmingly adult questions about his life in Vancouver. “Do white men treat you badly? How many hours a week do you work? Why do you stay?”
He helped his wife cook meals (she laughed at the clumsy way he chopped vegetables and claimed she could do better with her bare hands), poked around in their garden. He showed her the pile of bills he had brought back, and she went with him to his great-uncle’s house to pay the rest of his debt to the village. As they left, he whispered in her ear, “It’s all going to be better now. You’ll see.”
He held her at night, his hand resting on her solid hip. He watched her sleep, noted the way her mouth fell open as she exhaled, the movement of her eyeballs beneath the lids. It was warm, as he remembered, and he shed layers of wool, relishing the lightness of linen and cotton, sun on skin.
He sits up in his bunk, hitting his head on the low ceiling. He feels around in his bag until he pulls out a knitted grey scarf—Shew Lin’s goodbye present. He wraps it around his neck and over his chin and lies back down, noting the tilt of the boat to the left and wondering what it means.
“Congratulations, little brother! This surely predicts a long, lucky life for you!”
“You’re a good man.”
“I’ll never get my hair cut anywhere else again.”
“Hey, he gives a good shave, too!”
Seid Quan stands in the middle of a crowd of men at the clan association offices, now located in a newly purchased house on Keefer north of Gore, shakily holding a glass of rye. He knew before he arrived that everyone had heard about his new ownership of the barbershop and that even more knew about the birth of his second daughter in China, but he did not know they would hold a party for him, complete with food supplied from the Bamboo Terrace.
“Seid Quan, we need a speech!”
He blinks rapidly, wonders what he will say when, usually, he says so little. Perhaps, I fear I will forget what my wife looks like or I am so lonely that I stay in my barbershop after closing until late at night, pretending that I am still cutting hair. He walks to the front of the room, turns and faces the crowd of eager, half-drunk men staring at him, waiting for the words that mean time here is not wasted and their lifetimes spent chasing success will count for something in the end. Seid Quan opens his mouth to speak.
“I am only a man. I don’t feel successful, and I’m not sure I ever will. This,” and he waves his hand around the room, at the streets of Chinatown beyond the windows, “is what I’m living. I make the best of it, as you do, and I don’t think I deserve a party all to myself just for that.”
He looks around him. The men are crestfallen, so disappointed with his speech that their mouths are gaping open. Some shift uneasily from foot to foot. Others cough.
“But,” he begins again, loudly, “here we are, together despite all the bad things we have experienced in this country: washing dirty laundry, poor wages, living with these white ghosts.” The crowd snickers. “And yet we still succeed. We have improved our villages, fed our families and helped tame this wild place. We will go on and conquer anything in our paths, brothers, I promise you that. Thank you.”
The applause crashes over Seid Quan, and he steps backward, as if pushed by the sounds of clapping hands and uninhibited hoots. The men surround him until he can see nothing more than their blurred faces, the movement of their hands slapping him, shaking his hands, like birds. He begins to laugh. He sucks his stomach in, stands up straight and plunges forward into the crowd, allowing the pull of the party to lead him farther into the throng.
A weathered wood house. Five small bedrooms, three up and two down. A fireplace in the living room, where the men gather and burn newspapers, scrap wood from construction sites, pieces of things they find and do not need.
Seid Quan’s room is upstairs, in the back, its window facing the vegetable garden they once tried so hard to keep going. When Jimmy, a younger man from the clan association, told Seid Quan about the empty room in his rented house, Seid Quan immediately thought it was an extravagance. But then, he realized that he needed to leave his room in the boarding house on Pender Street (a room where he had tried to accumulate nothing, where he only slept and, sometimes, when he couldn’t help it, thought). This place, even though the floors are bare and the siding is beginning to rot, is still a house where he can do as he pleases and where no strangers peer at him as he moves down the hallways. It is more expensive here, but he can still save some money, as the profits from the shop are growing. He splits expenses with Jimmy and the others, each shopping and cooking in turn.
None of the men have had much time, and the yard has grown over with weeds and grass. The vegetables are still there, lurking, half-unseen, among a riot of plants that no one knows the names of. Five old kitchen chairs are set out in a circle, and a full ashtray sits on a tree stump in the middle. Seid Quan’s chair is the farthest from the house.
Even on sunny days, the ground squelches underfoot, and their trouser hems are always wet.
Seid Quan has just received a letter from his mother. Without wasting words, she suggests that he might want to plan on coming back once more, or perhaps twice, to see if he can conceive a son before his wife grows too old. “Shew Lin is twenty-five now,” his mother writes, “and you must come back soon, for she will have only so many chances before she becomes dried up.” She writes about Shew Lin as if she were a breeding pig.
He counts his money and writes back. “I cannot afford the trip home for a long time, Mother. I would have to close the store while I’m gone, and we would all lose money. Coming back cannot be my first priority.”
He smells the odour of preserved dace and rice, hears the sound of a crowd of men cooking together in one kitchen, on one coal-burning stove. He steps into his slippers and places the letter into the pocket of his work pants so he will not forget to take it to the post office in the morning. He glances out the window, sees a red-haired child in a striped sweater cycling slowly up and down the dirt alley.
“Brother, come eat!”
He pulls his chair up to the table and sits down. His roommates are laughing, teasing each other, making faces behind each others’ backs. Another trip, he thinks, and another child I will never see.
Seid Quan wonders if he will ever go home for good, or if he will always be stuck in this land that shimmers with rain and is not quite dream, not quite day. He looks behind him at his empty shop and then out the big front window at the sheets of almost opaque rain.
“No one will be out today,” he says to himself. He listens for the echo of his own voice bouncing off the walls. “Not even to go to the barber.” A stray dog lopes across the street, pausing to sniff the wet air with its even wetter muzzle.
He thinks he will count the combs, maybe dig out the old hairballs that collect in the corners and between the tiles. As he turns to walk to the back, he hears the bell on the front door.
A tall white man, dressed in a dark grey raincoat and hat, stands in the doorway, water streaming off his shoulders and pooling around his rubber boots. He shakes his head, and tiny drops spray across the room, hitting the mirrors and Seid Quan right between the eyes. All Seid Quan can see of his face is his jutting and pointy chin, clean-shaven.
In English, Seid Quan says, “Here for a cut, sir? Have a seat.” He gestures to the chair closest to the door.
The man stands still and breathes heavily.
“What can I help you with, sir? I do a good shave, too. But I don’t think you need one.”
The dripping man steps forward and holds out his hand. “You should leave now, lock up and go home,” he whispers. “There’s no point in boarding up the windows. Don’t even try to warn the others. There’s no time.”
Seid Quan steps backward. “What do you mean?”
“A mob is coming. They want to scare you and make you leave. Get out. Hide in your cellar. Just run away.” He backs out, pushing the door open with his hip. He walks out into the waterlogged street, turns the corner and is gone.
Seid Quan blinks nervously. He has heard stories of the 1907 riot many times and wonders if this could be something just as destructive. However, this warning from a stranger could be a joke, or a way of luring him out of his shop so that goons can drag him into the alley and beat him. But he’s not sure, so he runs to the safe in the back room and stuffs his trouser pockets with cash. He throws his barber’s coat on a chair and leaves, turning the lock as far as it can go. He runs down the wet street, thinking that all the others who can see him through their windows must think he’s mad. He slows to a walk, his face flushed with embarrassment, until he hears the sound of breaking glass. Not daring to look behind, he throws himself through puddles until he arrives at the rented house. He locks the front door carefully behind him and stands in the corner by the window, hidden by the curtains from the street.
It starts so quickly that Seid Quan does not even have a chance to take off his wet trousers. He stares down the hill through a crack in the curtains, his arms wrapped around his body as if he is afraid that he will crumble. He holds his breath.
Outside, a dozen white men are throwing bricks and stones through the windows of all the shops, dragging boxes of produce and bags of laundry out onto the sidewalk, where they overturn them into the mud. Seid Quan can see Chinese men running away, ducking into the alleys only they know so well, disappearing into skinny gaps between buildings. Some of the white men chase them, but the Chinese always manage to slip away from the crowd and vanish. Seid Quan sighs with relief.
He cannot see his barbershop from here, only the storefronts of Canada Produce and Yip Tailors. Seid Quan has never seen such violence first-hand and is afraid that Chinatown will fall, be flattened to its very foundations. The windows are all broken, and the white men have started to laugh and pound each other on the backs. Seid Quan closes his eyes and slides down the wall until he is sitting on the unfinished wooden floor. There’s no point in watching anymore.
When the white men leave, chests puffed out, he and the others run into the streets. Seid Quan searches for any hurt men, poking his head into doorways and alleys. He can see overturned furniture and graffiti through broken windows. Rain falls steadily, soaking the men who are returning to their shops. Seid Quan wipes off his dripping face with his sleeve and looks up at the grey sky, now somehow greyer than it’s ever been before. No one speaks.
An hour later, when Seid Quan and the others have determined that there are no casualties, he finally walks down the street. He is afraid to see what has happened to the shop. Mr. Yip weeps on the sidewalk at the sight of his smashed sewing machine. Seid Quan turns away. Better to pretend he has not seen.
He stares at the barbershop. The big front window is smashed. One of the chairs has been wrenched from the screws holding it to the floor, and the front of his safe in the back has been dented. The money is safely hidden in his room at the house, and all his razors and scissors are unharmed. He leans against the counter and sighs. It could have been worse, he thinks. But why should I be thankful for that?
Mr. Mah, who owns the café across the street, pokes his head through the broken window. “Is it bad?”
“Just the windows and this chair.”
“Good. They took my whole cash register and tried to get into the apartment.”
“Yes, me too. Listen, we’re going to have a meeting in the morning at church. This isn’t even half as bad as the last big riot, but still. Old Mr. Wong says we should lobby the city to pay for the damage. The others will need you if we have to write a letter.”
Seid Quan nods. “I’ll come.”
“Good. I’m going to the lumberyard to see if there are any boards. I’ll grab you some.”
Mr. Mah hurries off. Seid Quan begins to sweep up. He can hear the fall of hammers and the sawing of wood. No one will even notice, he thinks, because they just want Chinatown to disappear.
He sits in the Hong Kong Café, drinking his coffee and looking at the cracked mirror behind the counter. One month after the riot, he thinks, everything made of glass remains broken, even now. He sees himself, a man with large ears and thin, upright shoulders. He sips his coffee and takes a bite of his apple tart. When he looks up again, he sees that his face looks different, but right then, amid the noise and commotion of the café, he cannot put his finger on it. He finishes his snack, nods to Mr. Mah behind the counter, and returns to his barbershop.
Later that night, as he is sweeping up the last of the hairs on the floor, he looks up into one of his own mirrors. He suddenly sees what has been confusing him all day: his eyes, once dark brown, have begun to turn grey.
The rumours start as whispers that snake their way through the streets of Chinatown, bouncing off the walls of buildings and ending as suspicions, not quite groundless, in the heads of men who have learned to fear the worst.
They’re sending us all back.
The illegal ones are going to be thrown in jail.
There are spies everywhere.
Seid Quan is not immune. He has heard many rumblings over the years, but this time, it is getting worse. There is no labour shortage anymore, and the whites want the jobs they once rejected and threw to the hungry masses of Chinamen, who still work for half-price. The Chinese men, sitting in his customers’ chairs, their heads tilted precariously back as he shaves them, ask him for information, ask him what the newspapers are printing, what the radio declares. To them, he seems to hold a golden key that unlocks the long words, the sounds that seem to flow into one another with no pause for breath.
Men mobilize, hold protests and march down Pender Street. The grocers strike, and the wives of the West End and Shaughnessy find themselves without lettuce and onions. But this, as Seid Quan knows, is futile, for none of these Chinamen is of any consequence to anyone. They are not citizens and they do not vote, so, like the generation before them who died, weathered and forgotten, on the cold rail lines, their suffering is barely noticed. The Chinamen have families—mothers, wives, children—but they are unseen, hidden away in small houses in China, where politicians can ignore them and disregard their well-being. Seid Quan writes letters to the mayor, the prime minister, even the papers.
“If only you could live as we do for one whole day,” he writes, “you would see what we suffer. After the riot in 1907, the government promised us protection. Now is the time for that protection. Let us live as freely as white men.”
No one writes back.
One week later, he reaches for his newspaper, stares at the headline and blinks to clear his eyes, hoping that what he sees is a mistake. He looks again. His eyes have not tricked him.
“NO MORE CHINESE TO ENTER CANADA,” it shouts.
Seid Quan reads through the article slowly, poring over each word so that there can be no confusion. He knows he will be asked about this later, when fear will spread through Chinatown like a fast-moving and vicious epidemic. The men will swarm him, push their newspapers in his face so that Seid Quan can tell them what is really happening, even though he would rather lie and say that nothing has changed or has only changed for the better.
“The Parliament of Canada has passed the amended Chinese Immigration Act of 1923, which limits the class of Chinese that will be allowed to enter Canada. It is hoped that this exclusion will curtail the number of Chinese now living in our cities and towns and slow down the waves of immigrants, which have not abated despite efforts such as the federal Head Tax. Chinese will be allowed to leave the country only for a maximum of two years before they will be denied re-entry to Canada. All departures and returns will be closely monitored by immigration officials.”
Seid Quan pushes his hair off his forehead and clenches his teeth. This is no surprise, although for months he had hoped that it wouldn’t happen, that all their lobbying work after the riot would change something, that the number of sympathetic politicians would grow and overwhelm the others. But change, he knows, isn’t popular with the rest of Canada. Still, his hands shake as he folds the paper up, the other articles unread.
In his mind, he sees Shew Lin and their two daughters, one of whom he has never even met. They are small, almost indistinguishable from each other. He had not yet decided whether he would return to China to retire or whether he would bring his family here. Few men have been able to bring women over at all, most preferring to save the passage and head tax money to bring young men and boys who can work and repay the debts they owe. Women are money-losers. Still, he thinks, we could have built something here, lived in a house, walked through Stanley Park together.
He hears someone running up the stairs, heavy shoes hitting the wooden steps with force great enough to shake the walls.
“Seid Quan! We must go. They’re calling for you at the clan association to read the papers out loud! Come!” Jimmy pounds on the door.
He stands up. Already, he can hear an elevated buzz coming through the windows from the streets of Chinatown. He follows his roommate and walks toward it.
As Seid Quan unfolds the letter, written on thin, tissue-like paper, he sees that Shew Lin’s writing, despite his hints to her that she should practise, has not improved. Her characters are big and open, like the eyes of a child seeing cotton candy for the first time. She writes deliberately, one character after another, each painstakingly drawn, thought in every stroke.
“Dear Seid Quan,” she writes. “There isn’t any point in waiting, so I will tell you now. I would like it very much if all of us could come to you. I know this isn’t possible, but still I wish it. The other women are saying the Japanese are in the north, although I do not know how this will affect us. I do not like to be a woman alone with female children in such times, especially now that Yun Wo will be turning fifteen. If we cannot come to you, you should come to us.”
Seid Quan folds up the letter, stuffs it back into its envelope. He stares at the photograph of Shew Lin and his two daughters in the garden of their home. If he looks carefully, he can see the dying vines of the winter melon curling around his wife’s feet. He stands up, scraping the chair along the unfinished floor.
He walks the streets of Strathcona, just east of the produce markets and butcher shops that line Keefer Street. He thinks about going to the barbershop, but it is seven o’clock already, and if he were to go in now, he would simply be standing around or cleaning something that doesn’t need to be cleaned again. Instead, he walks along the residential streets, looks at the front porches and gardens, the children playing in the street after dinner.
Men have been going back to China in droves, scared that the Japanese will soon begin a war and this will be their last chance to visit before the borders are closed. Some stay with their families, forgoing the money they make in Canada that keeps their wives and children well fed and well clothed. Seid Quan stuffs his hands into his empty pockets and continues walking.
A few days ago, he heard a young white man who, for some reason, was waiting for Seid Quan to give him a haircut, say that this was a ghetto, a place where the city lets all the poor and unwanted live so that they don’t contaminate the nice neighbourhoods. The young man had snorted mightily. “I’d rather live with you lot than be rattling around in one of those new stone mansions in Shaughnessy. A whole lot of rich snobs there, if you ask me.”
Seid Quan had only murmured a noncommittal agreement, nodding like the good Chinaman this white man expected him to be.
As he walks, he can identify each house by the family who lives there. There is the Jewish house. The Italian family who shouts all the time lives in the yellow house with the red trim. And here is where the Gins live, complete with wife and daughters. There aren’t many Chinese children, but the ones who do live here are now out playing in the streets, chasing balls, skipping rope. Seid Quan watches the little boys with their short Western pants and unruly hair. He would like to join in on their games but does not have the least idea how to play them, so he marches on, the setting sun on his back.
A young boy with hair the colour of sand and freckles all over his broad, pale face, stands in front of Seid Quan. His smile is crooked, and Seid Quan can see that there are chips broken off his front teeth.
“Hey, mister,” he says. “Are you Peter Wong’s dad? He still has my set of jacks, and I need them back for Saturday.”
Seid Quan stops and smiles. “No, I’m Mr. Chan. I run the barbershop down there.”
The little boy looks disappointed. “Oh. I’m Pat. I thought you looked like Peter.” He puts his hand on his hair. “But I’ll tell my dad about you, and maybe you can cut his hair. Maybe mine too, one day.”
Seid Quan hears a woman’s voice from down the street.
“That’s my mom. She’s calling me in because today is bath day. Yuck. I’d better go though. Nice meeting you, Mr. Chan.” He runs down the sidewalk just as Seid Quan reaches out.
He draws his hand back to his side, not knowing what he is reaching for, but knowing that he shouldn’t; the boy could have been embarrassed or angry or both. Then what would Seid Quan do? He turns around and walks back to his rented house to write a letter to his wife as the sun disappears behind a line of steeply angled roofs. We must have a son, he thinks, so I will go back, maybe for the last time, no matter how long it takes or how much it costs. He blinks, cursing under his breath.
As usual, he walks to work, his three-piece suit carefully pressed and cleaned. A misting winter rain has just started and is dotting his fedora with tiny drops of water. He holds his face up and feels the water graze his forehead. He passes a house shaking from the noise of a mah-jong party still raging from the night before. He glances in and sees several men he knows, all now in their undershirts, swearing furiously at each other as tiles move swiftly back and forth. One man walks out and stands on the front porch with a cigarette.
“Seid Quan! You’re out early.”
“Hello, Jimmy. Still going at it, eh? You didn’t come home last night.”
“Well, I can’t bear to lose. Listen, I was just listening to the radio in the kitchen for a break. They say the Communists and Nationalists are united against the Japanese. Nothing about occupation, other than in the far north, so the south and the villages by the Pearl River are probably safe. But still.”
“I hope no war breaks out.”
“Yes.” Jimmy lowers his voice. “I’m thinking of going back and fighting with the United Front. I don’t know how yet, but I can’t stand it here anymore. They could still use me, I think. I’m only twenty-eight.”
“We’re raising money, you know, with the penny drives and that banquet tonight. Let me see if I can talk to the treasurer—we might be able to pay for your passage back.”
Jimmy grins. “You’re a good man. Never an obstacle for you, is there? Well, I’d better get back inside. You never know—the food might run out, and then they might start eating each other.”
Seid Quan unlocks the door to his barbershop and changes his jacket for his white barber’s coat. He sets up his shaving kit, boils some water for hot towels and checks to make sure all the disinfectant jars are topped up. The doorbell tinkles and, not even turning around, Seid Quan says,
“Mr. Mah, you’re right on time. Every week, like clockwork.”
He hears a strange voice behind him. “A telegram for you, sir.”
He sees a young white man with a sneer on his face staring at the instruments. Probably wondering if he’ll get an infection just from standing here, Seid Quan thinks. He hands the messenger a few coins and watches him leave and carefully wipe his hands on his pants as he walks out of the shop.
Seid Quan tears open the envelope carefully. When has anyone ever sent him a telegram? He feels his stomach drop.
“CHO LAI HERE STOP SON BORN DECEMBER 14 NO NAME YET STOP EVERYONE WELL STOP NO JAPANESE IN SOUTH.”
He sits down in one of the customer chairs, the telegram crumpled in his hand. It took him over two years to save the money to visit his family all those months ago. Cho Lai, one of his sisters’ husbands and a tea merchant in Guangzhou, must have worked for hours to send this message in English. Seid Quan can feel the corners of his eyes start to sting. He dabs at his face with a corner of the telegraph.
Mr. Mah pokes his head through the doorway. “You open for business?”
Pon Man, he thinks, that will be his name.
“Come on in, Mr. Mah. You’re always right on time.”
The letters are intermittent. No one is sure if the money they’re sending back home is arriving. Their wives may claim to be fine, but many of the men are suspicious that the Japanese have taken control of the post and are now censoring or doctoring every letter that is sent out. The accounts of how badly the war is going change every day, and no one knows what to believe. Old Mr. Wong’s three sons have left to fight for Canada, and others sign up daily. They pour into Seid Quan’s shop to have their heads shaved.
He touches their heads gently, as if they are as breakable as eggshells, knowing that they will not be touched with care again for a long, long time. He listens to them talk, sometimes shout, in excitement, their hands fluttering under their smocks.
“It’ll feel good to shoot up those Japs.”
“My father doesn’t want me to go, but you understand, don’t you, Uncle?”
“They say we’ll be used for special assignments, like spies.”
“I can’t just sit here and wait. I have to do something.”
He nods, brushes the hair off their necks and shoulders, gives them coffee if he sees that their hands are shaking. When they leave, their white scalps show through the stubble, a vulnerable white—the white of baby skin, the white of raw nerves and new bodies.
Seid Quan scours the newspapers every day for news about the occupations, asks every customer in his shop if they’ve heard anything from family in China and Hong Kong. Walking down the street every morning to work and every afternoon home, he is beset by images of Japanese soldiers raping his wife and stealing his children, sleeping in his home in the village, torturing the old men. Months pass. The Japanese occupy Guangzhou and the rest of the province. He receives a single letter from his wife.
“The children are fine. I am afraid that someone is intercepting the mail and taking the money you send home. But I have been poorer than this, so we are managing. Yun Wo will be marrying a young man whose family name is Gin. He has consented to live with us here, as protection. We are being like mice—quiet and unseen. Do not worry.”
And so he cuts hair, glued to the radio, glad, at least, that he has had practice in waiting.
He runs through the crowd. People shout and throw things—hats, gloves, pieces of paper—in the air. He pushes his way through, steps on newspapers with the headline “VICTORY! JAPAN SURRENDERS!” Men slap him on the back as he goes by. He hears old Mr. Wong yelling, “I knew that our sons and friends leaving to fight for Canada wouldn’t be for nothing! The government can’t deny our citizenship anymore. We’re going to get the vote now, brothers! And then we’ll see change. Our wives will come, our children too!”
Seid Quan reaches the doors of his barbershop and stumbles in. He closes the door behind him and collapses on the low windowsill. Outside, the celebration rages on, and Seid Quan is sure he will find broken and empty whisky bottles on his front stoop in the morning. He catches his breath and walks to his office in the back room.
He opens the safe quietly (his habit even if no one is there—you never know who might be listening) and pushes the papers and legal documents aside. He reaches into the very back and takes out a pile of money, carefully organized into stacks bound by rubber bands. And he starts to count.
When he finishes and each stack is snug in the back of the safe, he sits at his small, yellow-varnished desk. He writes a list.
He stares at the list. His wife, well into her middle age, his young son and his unmarried daughter. He calculates their passage money in his head, the cost of a house to fit them all, the head tax if the government continues with it. It is far more than the amount in the safe.
He sits back in his chair, his eyes closed. There are nights when he is so hungry for his wife that he thinks he will crack in two. During the day, he thinks of buying her a house and giving her the kind of garden she always wanted. The idea that he might soon see her makes him catch his breath; he inhales slowly, holding the air in his chest until his head and heartbeat settle.
By the time he opens his eyes again and stands up, he knows that it is his son—the boy he has never even seen—who must come first.
He walks up the courthouse steps, reaches with his hand to touch the cool, stone-grey columns. His heart is beating faster and faster with every breath he takes. He stops, rummages in his jacket pocket and pulls out a piece of paper.
You are hereby notified that, in pursuance of your petition for a decision, you are qualified and fit to become a Canadian citizen, delivered to me dated the 22nd day of December 1949.
His Honour Judge Boyd will hold a sitting at the Court House of Vancouver on the 25th day of March 1950, at the hour of 11:00 in the forenoon for the purpose of considering such petition, and you are required to be present at my office, together with two sponsors, on that date to be examined by the presiding judge with respect to the matter set out in your petition.
Seid Quan touches the Canadian shield of arms at the top of his letter. It seems cruel, somehow, to read everything he has wished for on a piece of paper, as if his life and the years stretching before him are nothing but words that can be contained in a notice. He has not been back to China since his wife conceived their son thirteen years ago, and now, it seems, they will come to him. He swallows, folds the letter up and straightens his back. Eyes fixed on the door in front of him, he walks through the columns and inside.
He hurries down the street, unshaven, wearing only a pair of trousers and a thin cotton shirt. He looks up at the perfect mid-blue sky, the sun reflecting off the high windows of the three-storey buildings. How appropriate, he thinks and plunges on.
He turns into an alley and knocks on a dark grey unmarked door. Silence. He coughs and then knocks again. The door opens slowly and smoke floats out, wrapping itself like fingers around Seid Quan’s chest.
“Lim. It’s me. Let me in.”
A thin man (so thin that his hands hang like weights from his stringy arms, his sharply angled shoulders) squints through the gloom. “Seid Quan,” he whispers. “Yes, of course. My old friend.”
The room is tiny, with only one window, like a wound cut out of the cinder block. Seid Quan steps over bottles—mostly empty—and piles of mud-coloured clothes. He hopes the smell won’t cling to him and follow him home.
Lim waves at a small chair in the corner and lies down slowly. Seid Quan swears he hears his friend’s bones creak on the bare mattress. Lim pulls a wool coat over his body and stares at Seid Quan, waiting.
“I came to tell you that Pon Man is coming. The government has granted me citizenship and is allowing me to bring him over, just like any other immigrant.”
Lim smiles, nods. “Good news.”
“Yes. He’ll grow up here, have all the advantages. Things are changing, I can feel it.” Seid Quan stands up in his excitement and begins to pace, weaving his way around piles of garbage. “Things will only get better.”
“An optimist, eh? I never would have thought it of you. You were always too practical for hope, my friend.” He pulls a mug toward him and spits in it. “I once thought things would be better too.”
Seid Quan walks over to the mattress and kneels down. “It can be, Lim. You just have to work hard. There’s still time.”
“You silly fucker. You’ve worked in this country for almost forty years and this is the first time you’ve felt hope. Once in forty years. We have no time left, Seid Quan. We’re old men.”
“You’re not old. Let’s get up right now and get some food. I’ll help you find a better room. You can work with me.”
Lim’s laugh emerges as if it has been trapped in his dusty chest for months and has only now been let out. “Doing what? Cutting hair? Sweeping up? I made a lot of money doing things that good men would never do. And then I lost it smoking and whoring and drinking. I don’t need a new, pious life. If things are going to get better for me, then they’re going to get better the way I know how.” He stares at Seid Quan until the intimacy forces Seid Quan to look away. “Why do you come to me now? You could have come two years ago, ten years ago.”
“I didn’t know it was like this, or where you were. I hadn’t seen you in years. I had to ask four different men this morning to find out where you were living.”
Lim waves his hand. “It doesn’t matter. I don’t want your help now, and I wouldn’t have taken it then. Just go away. I’m glad your son is coming. Make sure he works hard.” He turns to the wall, offering Seid Quan only a view of his pimpled and skinny back.
When Seid Quan returns to his rented house, Mr. Yip, waiting just behind the front door, hands him a glass of whisky. Immediately, men pour into the living room from the kitchen. “Surprise, brother! Consider this an early welcome-home party for your son.”
It has been many years in this place, trees brilliant and green against a summer sky low against the mountains. This is what it is: a man grown old (who seemed to go from eighteen to fifty-six in a matter of weeks) waiting to see his son, a man who has been back to his village three times, one visit for every child he has fathered, a man standing at the docks, looking with tired eyes at a large boat fresh from China.
He spots his son immediately even though he has never seen him in person before, a small, slight boy with slicked hair and blush red lips. He is so pretty, he thinks, like a little girl. He calls his name, and Pon Man looks over, an insolent expression on his face.
Seid Quan reaches out to him and Pon Man steps back. He is smelling the old-man odour on me, he thinks. Like the odour of this huge and unfathomable country. Seid Quan is desperate to touch him, and Pon Man looks scared, as if his fifteen-year-old self is completely unable to cope with his father’s tangible and enormous emotional need. He sneers instead, turning his head to avoid the smells and sights of despair and pathetic happiness.
Seid Quan’s hands shake as he puts them in his pockets, his son still untouched.