I was a hungry five year old street kid who’d do pretty much anything for food. I did what I thought was intelligent at the time. Stealing from pushcarts and open grocery stands was part of my daily activity. I wasn’t a bad kid. I’d share with other abandoned kids if I took too much. Some foods spoiled so it was either toss it or share it. I was never one to toss anything out. It was also a game sometimes to see how much I could steal but first it was survival. It wasn’t like the foster homes didn’t feed me but it was only two meals a day and if you didn’t eat fast enough the other bigger kids took your food. There were no second helpings. There was no one to complain to about someone taking your meal. That was just the way it was. Pretty soon you learn to gulp down half-chewed food or take from other less competitive smaller kids. I was, and am, a survivor.
There’s an epic Chinese legend over 2,000 years old handed down from mother to child, written in poems, essays, and operas and still studied in Chinese schools today. It is the legend of a girl who goes to war in place of her elderly father. She fights in a bloody campaign for several years and when it’s over, the emperor of China invites her to court. He wants to reward her for her outstanding heroic service but all she asks for is a good horse to return home. Once home she discards her warring manly clothes and dons her silk woman’s clothes much to the astonishment of all her war comrades. Her name was Mu Lan and I was named after her, after my father’s last opera. I believe he wanted me to emulate this warrior woman, to be strong and resilient. I believe my own elderly father knew he would not live long enough to guide me through life and he left me the only legacy he could, my name.
There was strong pungent Chinese incense burning in front of a large black and white professionally-taken photograph of an elderly gentleman; in the small tenement apartment crowded with people, some crying, some talking; lamenting the gentleman’s death. Besides the smell, the sounds that I remember most are heavy sobs and a humming hush that stayed inside me through the years, a dream image that never leaves; though the image has faded over the decades it’s there none the less. I think I was two but I’ve no recollection before that image and only a brief memory at three. The large photograph is of my father.
My father was an opera star, deep baritone or so I was told by old men at the Tung On Association, one of the three major triads that once ruled New York City’s Chinatown. Men at the association knew him back in China or saw my father perform and all spoke highly of him as a gentleman and star performer.
He was an amateur photographer and left me a few black and white photos of himself. In almost all of the photos my father looks handsome, arrogant, and debonair in his expensive well-tailored three piece suit. He’s balding with a moustache and stands with a sexy attitude that clearly comes across even in old photos. Is it indecent to think that one’s father is sexy? If so, well, I guess I’m guilty.
One large portrait with crumpled yellow edges shows two couples, a Caucasian man and woman and my father and mother. The Caucasian woman holds me aged two on her lap. This photo shows a different man, much older, sickly thin and haggard. What was he suffering from and how did he get this way? I suppose in those days there wasn’t any health insurance for immigrants. Actually, there still isn’t health insurance for the people who come to this United States to escape whatever horrors there are in their homeland.
The Caucasian couple were Italian and eventually changed my life. They helped my parents name me, Rose Maria Isabella, and even got me baptized in the Catholic Church.
That’s all I have, a few photos of my father. Images I used to stare at and caress as a young inquisitive child, often wondering what it’d be like to have this arrogant and handsome man for a father or just to have a father who would stand by me, guide me through life. I wondered as an adult what type of father he would have been and what kind of daughter would I have been to him. I wonder if I haven’t canonized my father but then that’s what we do sometimes when we’ve lost loved ones. There must have been bad habits that drove others mad or maybe this father of mine was too good to be true. I have often thought about this man and how different my future would have been, enfolded in his love, his touch and kind wisdom. Daydreams. That’s all it is, daydreams.
I never thought much about the woman in the photos, my mother, but I could see there was love between my parents. It’s all in their eyes. I don’t know her real name, where she was born or how she came to be with my father. Someone once told me that she was a groupie and followed my father around the country but I don’t really know the truth. I don’t even know her real age or if she had family back in China. She abandoned me when father died and I never knew why but I blamed myself for his death and her leaving me. In some photos she’d be smiling wide with her hands resting on his shoulders as he sat posing for the photo. You could see he was definitely the dominant one. In some photos she looks really put upon, as if she didn’t want to be bothered being photographed or maybe she was angry about something in her life. She was a beautiful woman, angry or not, and twenty years his junior but I didn’t know much about her until I’d meet her later at age ten. There’s something in these black and white photos that captures the essence of the man I wish I had known at least for a little while, just long enough to remember a hug, his scent or the sound of his operatic voice.
My parents came to this country with an opera troupe despite the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which removed immigration and most civil rights from Chinese until 1943. The Chinese couldn’t be naturalized or own property or businesses. Most people don’t even know about it or that there was even such a law. The Chinese Exclusion Act lasted from 1882 and was finally suspended in 1965, a total of 83 years in this country. During that time you could come here if you had wealth or position and I think my father had both. I don’t know the specifics of the type of visas they used but I do know that my mother had false papers with a fake name – Mary Wong – and her false papers said she was a seamstress. Most immigrants coming over here had false papers with fake names and backgrounds. It was the only way to get into the States, or the immigration people misread their names, for instance the Chinese use their last names first, like mine is Chong Mu Lan, last name first.
A story told by the old association men was that my mother was my father’s fifth wife, as you could have more than one wife in China back in the late 1930s as long as you could support them. According to tales told by the association men, father was rich and famous with many homes, wives and children but they all perished when Japan invaded and occupied China for a decade, butchering over 250,000 Chinese in a short ten week period. That horrid war was bought to the attention of some by a few authors but the most famous was Iris Chang who wrote “The Rape of Nanking”, and recently a movie/documentary was made – “Nanking” – which featured major movie stars as missionaries who worked in China when it first got invaded. One major movie, one major book about the Chinese during that time period, that’s all.
My father died in China while performing on stage and all my life I thought he died in a fire. I grew up deathly afraid that I would die the same way, burned to death. It wasn’t until I came across an old Chinese newspaper clipping that I found out he died from a massive stroke. Over many moves and life changes I lost the clipping and since I can’t read or write Chinese I don’t really know his real name or even his stage name. Not knowing played havoc in my early brain.
Maybe I was born here in NYC, USA, so they could stay in this country, as a person born here was an automatic citizen and therefore the parents could stay. Mother must have had an extremely difficult time in a strange country with its strange language and culture. I don’t know where she went after my father died. It isn’t until now that I realize that it was she who paid for my foster care and schooling. I guess the pain of losing the man she adored was too much and I must have been a reminder of her loss or . . . she just didn’t want me anymore.
I was a lost child, an invisible small being that tourists passed by without notice. I was an unapologetic child who fought and usually won because I fought without thinking whether I lived or died, it didn’t matter. I was a child who knew no grace; unruly with no manners and not knowing she should have any. Hygiene was fairly absent except for the weekly baths given in the foster care tenement kitchen. Most Chinese living in Chinatown pretended we didn’t exist. There weren’t that many of us kids. I think in total we added up to about eight or so in foster care, all of us unwanted for one reason or another. A few children were born into too large households and given away to wealthy childless couples. A few who had no one to protect them were sold to lonely old men as servants. I noticed early that obedient and pretty girls never stayed around long and I took care to stay dirty, to be as foulmouthed as possible and never to behave. I used kitchen shears to cut off my own hair. I wasn’t going to be a girl that disappears.
I remember being three or four and an old man named Bossy Ho took care of me. I remember his scent as he held me, his laughter that made me laugh. I remember sweet treats that he placed in my mouth to please me. I don’t know anything else about him, or how I got to live with him. I do remember that he died sitting on the toilet. I remember cringing in a corner unable to leave, too small to reach and turn the lock. I don’t know how long it took before the cops broke down the door and took me out. I don’t remember where I went to next or how I wound up where I did. I do remember that Bossy Ho cared for me and loved me.
I remember a bath shared with another girl in one of the foster homes. I liked her toy and grabbed it from her. She grabbed it back and then held my head under water. I watched my air bubbles rise up through the calm warm water. I watched them slowly and softly swirl away from me in a quiet that was not part of my young life. I liked it. It felt like an embracing peace under water and I wanted to stay beneath there forever. Suddenly arms reached down and pulled me out. I got a beating for taking the girl’s toy but somehow I didn’t mind since it was my first taste of sweet suicide and near-death. I was five.
My suicidal ideation began in that bathtub. I knew instinctively that it would be my only means of escape from a world of beatings, abandonment, neglect and hunger. It would be a way of shedding my pain forever and I craved it. I was weary of this world and learned to shut down my emotions. If I felt nothing, then nothing could hurt me.