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Family ghosts

Auntie May

Auntie May was born in 1919 to the eldest son of a pearl merchant. The family home was close to Tai Lake in Zhejiang Province. Auntie May’s life was molded by an extraordinary period in Chinese history: the final death throes of the Qing dynasty, the rise of Shanghai as the Paris of the East and its fall to the Communists. It’s a life well worth burgling to feed my fiction. After all, that’s what my Dad did when he told me stories of Old Shanghai.

Barefoot litigants

He told me, for example, about Auntie May’s grandfather, my great grandfather, who was a successful businessman. Great grandfather could have been content to grow fat on his profits. But a lawsuit he lost as a young man left a sour taste in his mouth. Great grandfather was convinced that the only reason he had failed was because the winning litigant was a low-level government official.

Qing dynasty court trial
Qing dynasty court trial (1899). Image source: Old Shanghai, A Lost Age (2011)

Look at this photograph of a Qing dynasty court trial. The man seated behind the table is presumably the presiding magistrate. His robes are darker and the table covered in embroidered cloth. The younger man seated to his left holding a brush in his hand must be the court clerk. The function of the other five men seated in the room is unclear. All wear the upturned bowl shaped hat of the Manchu and the requisite pigtail. The two litigants are barefoot, kowtowing on the ground.

Losing his lawsuit made Great grandfather swear that his own son would become a government official. It didn’t work. Instead of a Qing dynasty official, Auntie May’s father became an opium addict.

A pretty girl

Grandma was already married and well-established in Shanghai when Auntie May came to them for help. Auntie May wanted money to go to school. Grandma saw a pretty girl and no point to educating her. Auntie May was undeterred. She became a dance hall hostess. The seeds for my novel The Dancing Girl and the Turtle were sown.

The Dancing Girl and the Turtle

In his first telling, Dad made Auntie May’s life sound very risque and dangerous. In a second telling, he toned it down. A public dance hall in the 1930s was nothing more than an affordable alternative to the country clubs popular at the time. It was a legitimate opportunity for single men and women to meet or for men to be entertained by professionals.

Dad was quick to clarify that dance hall hostesses were not prostitutes. That would be stupid. A girl known as a whore would have no value in the marriage market. Value lay in a girl’s ability to dance (waltz or foxtrot), converse or just be nice to look at. According to Dad, Auntie May had it all in spades. She was so popular that Dad remembered reading about her in the local newspaper.

A tale of two husbands

Popularity doesn’t seem to have made Auntie May happy. She had two husbands though she did not technically marry either nor did she formally divorce the first one in order to be with the second. According to Dad, there was no such thing as divorce and marriage in those days. I suppose he meant that marriage did not imply a commitment by the man though it could cause permanent damage to the woman.

As Dad grew older and I began to write his stories down, I noticed that his stories often shifted in the retelling. He always claimed to have a bad memory for the names of persons he disliked or appointments to places he didn’t want to go. In Auntie May’s case, he may have been editing history.

For example, in one version of Auntie May’s marital history, her first husband fathered two children with Auntie May before tiring of her and his family. So husband number one introduced Auntie May to husband number two as a way to get her off his hands or maybe to share like a party favor.

In another version, husband number two is a friend of my grandfather’s who played matchmaker for Auntie May. This seems improbable to me given Grandpa’s reputedly stern and straitlaced personality. In any event, husband number two is a financier with the Central Bank of China and politically well connected.

Run for your life

Alas, these connections are to the wrong political party. Husband number two doesn’t like the looks of the Communist Party and their probable lack of appreciation for his skills. He wants to move to Hong Kong. Auntie May agrees if she can take the two children from her first marriage and and the son from her second.

But number one son doesn’t want to leave China. He has already joined the Party and pledged allegiance to the cause. Auntie May has no choice than to leave him behind. They will remain parted until Nixon goes to China.

In Hong Kong, husband number two is promptly jailed on corruption charges. Here, too, my father’s account waffles. Were the charges trumped up or was husband number two the fall guy for a group of bad actors? In any event, all the money Auntie May has brought with her from Shanghai she spends on bribes to free her husband. He dies soon after his release.

Now penniless with two young children in tow, Auntie May once again seeks help from my grandmother. Maybe, this time, my grandmother has no help to give as she, too, is a refugee from Communist China. In any event, Auntie May turns to a friend from her dance hall days who helps her emigrate to the United States by way of Canada.

In Los Angeles, Auntie May becomes part of the extended Kao family. She attends our Chinese-American style Christmas dinners as does my grandmother. I can’t remember them speaking much to each other. Only now do I wonder whether Auntie May blamed my grandmother for how her life turned out and, if she did, whether Auntie May forgave her.

Auntie May
Auntie May and Dad, Shanghai 2011

There’s a story waiting to be told in the dynamic between a pretty girl and her less attractive aunt. Dad isn’t around anymore to tell the tale so I guess I’ll have to make it up myself.

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