Excerpt from a novel-in-progress
When Lim Sian Beng saw the storefront with its huge signgolden characters carved on black woodhis heart leapt. It looked exactly as the storefront shown in the photograph his father Lim Hua sent home to his family over two years ago. "Tong Hok Tsun"village of shared prosperitythe sign read. Sian Beng was glad he could read, just like his father. Sian Beng was proud of himself. He had taken his eight year-old sister Siu Lan, his mother Lan Ping, who could not read, through the strange streets of this foreign place, boarded a kalesa, showed the huanna cart driver the address written in foreign script and asked to be brought to a place where they were supposed to have made foreign soap in the old daysJaboneros, Ah Beng, would later learn to call it. He had never seen foreign soap until his uncle Lim Lui brought pieces of it back to their village many years ago.
| What followed was that terrible silence that Lim Sian Beng would remember the rest of his life. He would always look back to the moment wishing that he had indeed become deaf.
Ah Beng gave the driver one round copper coin-the smallest sizejust as his uncle had instructed and helped his mother and sister down from the cart. The driver helped carry their luggage to the storefront and people began gathering about them. When he saw the tall man in white suit walking towards them with a disturbed, almost frightened, lookas if he were seeing ghoststhe boy knew something was terribly wrong. Still, he ran towards the man. "Ah Pa!" Ah Beng shouted, "We're here!"
He saw the man's look turn from fear to loathing and the boy dropped his gaze to the floor. He knew it was wrong for them to have come. What followed was that terrible silence that Lim Sian Beng would remember the rest of his life. He would always look back to the moment wishing that he had indeed become deaf. The man's face folded in and Ah Beng thought his father would crycry for the many years of separationbut the man just turned away as the crowd gathered about the newcomers. "This country is warmer than I expected," Lan Ping finally spoke to scare away the huanna ghosts that seemed to have descended upon them all.
"Well, husband," she went on as Lim Hua continued to look away silently, almost as if in shame. "As you see, I and our children are all alive and well. Rumor of our untimely passing are quite untrue. But since you would not answer my letters, thinking perhaps that they were sent to you by some neighbor trying to keep your spirits up, and since we could no longer survive without your support, I have brought your children to you. See how healthy they are. Children, greet your father."
The boy and his sister looked to each other. They could see the man squirm inside his foreign clothes. He looked dapper, he looked unlike a father but more like the men, the foreign actors, in pictures that some of the sojourners who returned to Pu Tong brought home with them. He looked different from the other lannang inside the store who wore sleeveless shirts and plain trousers with strings, some perhaps wearing the very clothes they had on when they left the old country. His father was in fact 'rich,' the boy thought and became glad. "Children," their mother repeated sternly, pointing to the ground. The children knelt before the man, their father. "Honored father, we have come to do our filial duty, please forgive us for taking so long, punish us as you see fit."
"What is this?" the man finally said, finding his voice. "What on earth have you done, you mad woman? What are you doing here?"
"Father it is I who insisted that mother bring us here so we may at last fulfill our filial obligations," the boy said.
"What?" Lim Hua asked, in his heart he was asking: " Who are you? Who is this strange, arrogant runt with the temerity to call me 'father' and to try to protect this woman before methis woman who has no right to be here?!"
"We had half a sack of rice left, Lim Hua. I had to borrow money from my sister to get here."
"I told you not to come! I told you I will send you money when I can! Do you think money is plucked from trees in this country?" The man's voice was deep. The boy suddenly thought that if he stood over his father he would look down into a bottomless pit and his gladness fell away.
"You look well. Business must be good. Everyone who goes home to Pu Tong tells me that you have a made a fortune. They say you work too hard and that I must come to take care of you."
"Fool! You think all of this is mine? You think I'm rich? Do you know how much I owe?"
"We will work for our keep, father," the boy said, trying to retrieve his gladness.
"Shut up! Don't speak unless spoken to!"
"Forgive me father."
"Listen, woman, I did not send for you. There is nothing I can do for you. You came here on your own, fend for yourself. I have nothing to do with any of this!"
| ...so the boy swallowed his fear and his tears and his hunger and dreamt only of the roast duck he tasted once during his late grandfather's last birthday.
"How can you say that? Do you not fear Heaven's wrath? These are your children."
The man Lim Hua looked at the strange boy before him, the one with eyes that cut his father in so many places and Lim Hua saw the girl, so fragile and sad looking, and he hardened his heart.
"And I must take your word on that?" he asked the woman, his wife.
Lan Ping raged like the wind. "Animal!" she shouted. "Bastard! You have no conscience. How dare you malign me after all I have suffered at the hands of your mother!" She tried to attack the man but the others held her back.
"Come, come, this is no way for families to behave after such long separation. What will the huanna say?" the oldest among the lannang said, herding the newcomers towards the back room.
"I am cursed," Lim Hua whispered.
The newcomers stayed for several hours inside the back room along with bales of cotton, crates and cartons of merchandise, some from the old country. There were pear, apples, persimmon and strange fruits; thermos bottles from Shanghai, porcelain from Guangzhouthe boy Sian Beng read the Chinese characters and he vowed to learn as well the foreign script printed all over the boxes. One day, he knew, despite himself, Lim Hua would have to bequeath all this to his first bornLim Sian Beng. Or would he? Why does he hate me so? Ah Beng asked himself. Perhaps he has sired other children, huanna children, the boy surmised and fear crowded his heart for the first time since they left home and he wanted to cry. But Ah Beng knew that if he cried his sister would follow suit and his mother would break down, so the boy swallowed his fear and his tears and his hunger and dreamt only of the roast duck he tasted once during his late grandfather's last birthday.
In the morning the oldest of the lannang brought them gruel and tofu minced with soy beans. He said Lim Hua's heart had hardened too much, that perhaps some huanna witch had hexed him.
"He travels sometimes to the provinces, who knows what might have happened?" the old man said. Such spells could only be countered with desperate measures, the old man, Lao Pai, explained. He gave the newcomers some coarse white cloth to wrap around their foreheads, he gave the children loose white sack clothes to wear.
"These are mourning clothes!" Lan Ping protested, "Why should we wear them?"
"To bring back his spirit. For as long as he refuses to recognize you, he is dead to you. You must mourn him, mourn the one who was husband and father to you."
The newcomers knelt by the storefront and mourned for the husband and father who was no more; the man who had left them many years ago and vowed to return with enough fortune to build a house to last ten generations. People gathered among the mourners. "She's gone mad!" some of the lannang said, "They will bring misfortune to the whole neighborhood, chase them away!"
Lim Hua sat in his hardwood swivel and bit his tongue. "Let them curse me!" he said inwardly. "Let them bring Heaven's wrath upon me. Let them summon dragon fire so we may all burn!" It was then that his son Sian Beng took out his flute, one given him by his grandfather, Yak Ti, Lim Hua's father, and started playing the tune that had always struck fear in Lim Hua's heart. To this day, the lannang say that wild birds and pigeons gathered about the mourners as the boy played his flute, that some of the old folk wept while the huanna tax collector and police all went away upon hearing the music.
When evening came, the women urged Lan Ping to lift her siege of Lim Hua's storefront. "Nothing good will come of this," they told her, "only misfortune and death."
"Better death than dishonor," she replied, "let me be a widow to the living but let my children not be orphaned too soon."
| Ah Beng believed then that he would never again mourn another man's passing because in his heart he had already slain his father.
When darkness fell, Lao Pai finally came and told them: "Lim Hua has agreed to set you up in a room across the street. You will take your meals here, before the employees eat but after Lim Hua and his cousins have eaten. He will provide you five pesos a month for your needs. The children will attend school at his expense. Should he wish to visit you in the evenings, he will send word in advance. The boy will come here after school to learn the trade, he must be taught not to speak unless addressed. You and the girl are not to be seen anywhere near these premises."
That night, Lim Sian Beng with his mother Lan Ping and his sister Siu Lan entered their new home. It was a room built of dark wood with clamshell windows and the smell of camphor. Lao Pai brought them mattresses while the previous residents had left behind kitchen utensils and three stools. It was quite unlike the brick red houses of Pu Tong that were built around hearth and stove. Lan Ping gathered the mourning clothes they had worn for nearly a day and set them afire to chase away yao kwayhungry ghostsbut Ah Beng had torn off a piece of sack cloth and kept it inside his pocket. He would pin the piece of cloth to the inside of his clothing from then on to remind himself of their day of mourning. He would wear it everyday, in joy and in sadness, awake or asleep. It would shield him from the worst adversity and pain. Ah Beng believed then that he would never again mourn another man's passing because in his heart he had already slain his father.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: This is a chapter from my novel in progress, tentatively titled Banyaga: A Song of War. The novel is set in Manila and spans the 20th century. It recounts the histories of three families whose patriarchs immigrated from China in the early years of the 20th century. The chapter is set in Binondo, Manila, 1920.
© Charlson Ong
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