- Loyola Press
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- 6.39(w) x 9.30(h) x 0.84(d)
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Baby of Borden
Americans joined Europeans in creating spheres of influence in China when, in spite of opposition to foreign trade by the Ch'ing dynasty, a series of wars in the nineteenth century forced the country to open up. Thanks largely to the work of Chinese laborers, America had seen the joining of its eastern and western shores with the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869.
This linking of East and West would continue across the "Ocean of Great Peace," where three groupsmerchants, missionaries, and diplomatswere struggling to bring what they perceived as the blessings of the heavenly kingdom and the blessings of democracy and capitalism to the Republic of China, a nation born in 1911 after more than two thousand years of imperial dynastic rule. Of the three groups of Americans, only the missionaries had prolonged contact with the Chinese.
George Wong was born in 1918 in the Portuguese province of Macao, a port west of the mouth of the Zhu Jian (Pearl River) estuary in China. That same year, World War I fighting ceased with the surrender of Germany. The year before Wong's birth, Peking had joined the Allies. The year after, at the peace conference in Versailles, the Chinese request to end foreign concessions in China was ignored; the Allies sacrificed China in order to entice Japan to join the League of Nations.
This was a humiliating betrayal to the Chinese and a death blow to democracy in China. In 1921, the Chinese Communist Party was formed; an antiforeign and anti-Christiancampaign would continue throughout the 1920s. Hua Quan, the Little Flower who was to become George Wong, was nourished on imported milk. After his birth, his father's business declined.
* * *
My father worked on board ship as a compradore, or business agent for English-speaking foreigners. He had eight children in all; four were my half brothers and half sister of whom I met only one, my father's eldest. I was about thirteen and she was in her thirties when I visited with her and her husband, a Chinese who had studied in San Francisco, returning to China with a huge 1907 edition of Webster's International Dictionary, which he bequeathed to me. But I am getting ahead of my story.
When this sister's mother, my father's first wife, died, he married again. There were other children, including a half brother, my Fifth Brother, who died in his adolescence near my cot when I was a baby. My father always had a wife with him. Number One died. Then came Number Two wife. She also died, from what I heard. Then another one. Even without his wife's death, Father would get another one, a practice that was not unusual during the Ch'ing Dynasty. And so my mother was Number Four.
Mother lived in Shanghai; my father's house was in Macao. I don't have any idea as to how my parents met but imagine that it was through friends. As a traveling merchant, Father rode on a coastal steamer from Macao to Hong Kong to Shanghai, and then from Shanghai to Hong Kong, back to Macao.
My earliest childhood recollection is of being in my father's home in Macao, where Sei-ga-jethat is, my Fourth Sister, who would later be called Alicecared for me and my brother, Willie. Born on the twenty-ninth day of the eleventh lunar month of the Year of the Snakethat is, on January 11, 1918, on the solar calendarI was the youngest of all the children. My Chinese name was Huang Hua Quan. Huang would eventually become Wong, and my first name would be George; Hua Quan, meaning Little Flower, was rarely used, for in my early childhood my sister Alice called me Ah-Sai, or Little One.
Alice was eighteen years my senior. Rosie, known to me as Lu-ga-je, or Sixth Sister, was about twelve years older than I. Shortly after I was born, for reasons I can't explain, Mother returned to Shanghai with Rosie. During those early years I met Rosie only once in Macao when she came to visit for the Chinese New Year celebration; it was the Year of the Rooster, and she arrived at the house in a rickshaw, waving a toy rooster with shiny brown and black feathers she had brought me as a gift. My brother, Willie, Chat-goh, or Elder Seventh Brother, was three at the time of my birth.
And so Alice, Willie, and I lived together in Father's house in Macao. Alice was my nurse, and she nurtured me on imported Borden's milk, obtained easily enough by my father from the ship's purveyor. Fourth Sister, that is, Alice, told me that when Seventh Brother, Willie, was born, my father's business prospered, or in her words, it rose to high tide. But when I came, Father's business sank to low tide.
Fourth Sister loved us, me especially, for I was the Benjamin of the family, the youngest. She was good to us, although our pranks sometimes merited scoldings. I remember her chasing my brother with a feather duster, but she never spanked me. There was the time I pushed a table next to the cupboard on top of which Alice had placed a tin of cookies out of my reach. I put a stool on the table and then climbed first onto the table and then onto the stool only to fall to the floor, biting my lip in the fall. I still have the scar. Fourth Sister didn't know whether to scold me or comfort me. She gave me a hug.
We lived on the second floor in the house in Macao. A large room faced the street, and there were two smaller rooms for sleeping. In the living room was a long ebony table of medium width on a low platform alongside the wall. A couple of idols sat on the table next to joss sticks on an earthen burner and red candles that were lit on occasion. On the wall hung calligraphic scrolls. The stairway was long with wide steps but insufficient lighting; I tripped myself on it more than once, rolling sideways all the way down to the ground floor.
There were no rooms on the ground floor, but near the bottom of the stairs was a huge well, our source of water. Having heard stories about people drowning, I steered clear of it except in the company of my brother. We did not have electricity but used oil lamps, and yet I remember striking the electric wires strung outside the second-floor back bedroom window with a bamboo pole. I stopped this amusement when cautioned about a short circuit even though I did not know what a short circuit was. During downpours we had to close the windows facing the street lest the rainwater splash into the room, making it hot and muggy. Wondering where the rain came from, I remember spotting an old-fashioned biplane upon opening the window after a shower. My conclusion was that the plane brought the rain.
There were daily goings-on in the street outside our house. Every morning at seven o'clock we could buy bread loaves and buns from an itinerant baker who was quite distinguished in having a large goiter under his chin that looked like one of the buns he was peddling. We called him meen bao loh, or bread man, with no disparagement to his goiter. Also available was a portable street kitchen that catered to a taste for yu sang ju yuk jook, or congee with raw fish slices and meatballs. In the afternoon, there were vendors of sweet sesame-seed paste and red-bean congee; they peddled ice cream in the summer as well.
Sometimes a peanut vendor would sell his roasted peanuts and a song on the fiddle. You could drop your coins from the window for a packet of peanuts, which he would toss up from the street below. Other delicacies were better hauled up in a basket tied to a string. On certain occasions there was a monkey show; a crowd would gather and the monkey would mimic people to the accompaniment of a little gong or small cymbals. At night, after people had stopped playing mahjong, they could purchase dumplings and noodles from a portable street kitchen as the vendor struck his Chinese castanets. We rarely had visitors playing mahjong so late, but when we did, my sister would wake me to share in the dumplings.
From the window we watched funeral processions; the mourners, wearing coarse white hemp, were accompanied by a brass band playing some Western-style dirge. They would be followed by a line of horse-drawn carriages transporting relatives and friends of the deceased to the place of interment, which was not necessarily the cemetery; sometimes it was a solitary mound in the countryside. And there were wedding parades too, with the bride being carried in a decorated sedan while sprightly music, like "Johnny, Get Your Gun, Get Your Gun" from World War I, was played. More exciting and distinguished were the parades of certain business enterprises that showed off their success in celebrating their anniversaries. There were flags and banners along the route and exploding firecrackers and bands playing both Western and Oriental music.
During my early childhood, I was well acquainted with my father, who came home at intervals during his intermittent voyages from Macao to Shanghai and back. He was affable, and I can vividly recall one afternoon sitting on his feet, placed together at the insteps, enjoying so much the horseback-like heaving up and down. When he had to stop playing in order to attend to some business away from home, I felt so disappointed and frustrated that I cried inconsolably. When he returned home, he brought with him some delicacy to make up for my crying.
I got along very well with Chat-goh, or Elder Seventh Brother, following him wherever he went to play. Once we joined the neighborhood boys in sliding down an inclined cobblestone street on a board that had been soaped on the underside to make it slippery. It happened that a Portuguese policeman making the beat on an upper street did not permit our playing with the skidding board, but we continued just the same. The policeman then came to chastise us, punching each boy on the chest. My brother and I, the last targets of the cop, were lucky. Willie got only a light tap on the ribs, and I, the smallest of the group, was spared. The incident was a kind of omen of the leniency I would be accorded for my weakness among others who were bigger or stronger.
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Although I am an avid reader, I have not often come across books with such depth of content AND superb style. Faith, hope, and love have been realized to heroic levels in the life of Father George Bernard Wong, S.J., whose life is portrayed in Bamboo Swaying in the Wind. I appreciate the introductions to each chapter, full of history and other relevant information. Our youth ought to study such high quality, excellently written literature and ponder such an exemplary role model who was blessed, despite all he endured, by a peacefulness that surpasses all understanding. I am grateful to have come across this masterpiece.