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My Sister's Love
My sister's arrival in Canada had the effect of a cleaver, slicing up our lives. Three years earlier, my father had sponsored our mother and me to Canada. My mother had to leave my sister behind in Hong Kong because she was not my father's daughter. She was only twelve years old. My mother spent the next three years becoming a Canadian citizen. She learned the names of the provinces, and their respective capitals, and the pledge of allegiance to the Union Jack. Unfortunately, none of it really sounded like English. Even at age seven, I realized that the lo fons wouldn't understand the sounds she made.
When my mother saw my sister at the airport, she became a new person. Her tiredness fell away and there was a lightness in her body. Tears streamed down her face, yet she smiled and smiled. She stretched out her arms and ran toward her daughter. They locked each other in a tight embrace. Then my sister released herself. As she looked me up and down, her first words were, "Your nose turns up too much, sort of like a pig." My mother smiled with embarrassment and brushed it aside. I swallowed a lump in my throat.
We spent that night in my Uncle Eddy's house. They lived like the lo fons. Uncle Eddy operated a restaurant. He didn't live upstairs from it. His family lived in a proper house with living rooms and dining rooms. My Aunt Lena didn't have to work. My mother told me that before Aunt Lena arrived, Uncle Eddy bought her a dresser for the bedroom, and filled it with lingerie, body lotions, and perfumes. That evening my mother, my sister, and I slept on a pull-out couch in the living room. My mother slept in the middle, her arms entwined around my sister.
The next day we went home to Cheatley on a Gray Coach bus. My mother and my sister sat together. I sat across from them, beside a large lo fon woman. It was a long journey and I watched, as my sister fell asleep, her head gently resting on Mother's shoulder, her lips slightly parted and letting out small puffs of air.
My father met us at the bust stop in Cheatley. It was a town of 2000 people, too small to have a real station. An unmarried brother and sister managed a candy store that also sold ice cream, magazines, comics, and bus tickets. Each carrying a piece of luggage, we began to walk the two blocks to my father's hand laundry.
We must have made an odd-looking sight as we walked along the sidewalk. My father was a tiny man, barely five feet tall. Wrinkles were deeply engraved into his face. He tensely knitted his eyebrows so that two deep furrows formed in the nose. He wore an oversize brown herringbone wool coat that had been left in the laundry by one of the customers, and a peaked brown wool cap. His steps were short and close together as he struggled with the weight of my sister's brown leather suitcase, trying to keep it from dragging on the sidewalk. He remained several steps ahead of us. Even when unencumbered, my father never walked with his head up. His eyes were always fixed on the ground.
Behind him, the three of us persevered against the March wind with our heads tucked into our chests, protecting ourselves from the sprays of snow. I wrestled with my share of my sister's bags and tried to keep pace with my mother walking in the middle. But after bumping into her several times she suggested that I walk behind. Mother and I were dressed in old winter coats given to us by one of the ladies from the Presbyterian church. They were shapeless and hung loosely from both of us. Mine had a belt that was tightly buckled, forming a skirt with deep folds around my waist. I was expected to grow into it. My sister wore a blue wool coat, tailor-made in Hong Kong, as smart as the one worn by the doctor's young wife. Her one free hand clutched the lapels together to keep the wind off her chest. And the wind whipped in every direction the previously obedient strands of her freshly permed hair.
My father, my mother, and I were all small and dark. My mother was round-faced and plump, while my father and I were thin and wiry. We both had high cheekbones and skin that stretched tautly around slightly protruding jaws. My hands were like my father's. They were large, with joints that were thickly knuckled and square at the fingertips.
Walking with us, my sister was tall, elegant, and exquisite. We were coarse, tough, and sinuous. Her face was a perfect oval with ivory skin, the texture of flower petals. But it was her hands that always captured people's attention. The palms were narrow and the long slender fingers ended in nails that glistened like water drops. When she held them together they reminded me of tendrils on a vine, seeking and wrapping -- vulnerable and treacherous.
We passed the hardware store, turned a corner and came to my father's laundry, our home. My father set down the suitcase he was carrying and lifted the wooden latch on the paneled wooden door, then opened the heavier wooden door, the one with the glass window, and let us into the first room of the laundry. Because it was winter, we were greeted by a blast of sulphurous air from the coal burning stoves. My sister gasped. My father lifted the hinged portion of the handmade wooden counter that separated the work area from the customers. He awkwardly stepped aside as we filed past him. Silently we watched as my mother's smile tightened and her eyes grew dark with anxiety, while her older daughter surveyed and assessed.
My sister glanced at the wooden shelves, stacked with brown paper bundles of finished laundry. We walked past a wooden table, the top thickly swathed with old blankets and sheets. At the edge of the table stood an iron, and beside it, a basin of water with a bamboo whisk resting inside. She pointed to two long horizontal rollers that were held up by a wooden frame. I explained that this was an ironing press. When my father bought the laundry, it was considered a real bonus, a true labour-saving device. When it was turned on, wrinkled bedding, tablecloths, tea towels, and pillowcases were fed between the humming, rotating rollers. Like magic they piled on the shelf underneath in smooth folds like sheets of molten lava. On ironing days my father stood at these tables from early morning until late at night. At the end of the day he rubbed Tiger Balm into his aching muscles.
My mother held open the red and yellow paisley curtain that concealed the washing room. The first thing that caught my sister's attention was the washing machine. It stood in a drainage pan in the middle of the floor. It was a monstrous steel barrel, held up horizontally by four posts, looking like some mythical headless beast. Along one wall was a row of three wooden tubs. Attached to the one at the end was a hand-cranked mangle, used to wring out water. Inside one tub was a four-legged wooden stand with an enamel basin. Above it hung a clothesline between two nails. Dangling down were three thin hand towels and facecloths. My sister's eyes moved slowly about the room. She swallowed as she looked at the four burner coal stove with an oven. On the front burner was a large canning pot filled with hot water and holding a ladle. Beside the stove, on a wooden shelf covered in faded blue-and-white-checked oilcloth, was a two burner electric hotplate. The rings were finely cracked and the electric coils were recessed inside. In the corner, standing at attention, was a tall cylindrical water heater made of galvanized iron. Connected to it was a small coal burner. Hot water flowed from the taps only on washdays which were Mondays and Thursdays. Along the wall that led to the stairs were four straight-backed wooden chars and a wooden table covered with the same faded, blue-checked oilcloth that was beneath the electric hotplate.
It seemed a long time before anyone spoke. Then I heard my mother's voice.
"Irene-ah, hang up Elder Sister's coat and take her upstairs. Show her where she'll sleep."
After I hung up both our coats, I led my sister past the faded wallpaper of large yellow pansies, up the wooden stairs, and past the window whose frame was stuffed with rolls of rags, keeping out the winter air. We stood on a floor covered with a piece of worn and finely cracked linoleum, patterned with brown and blue paisleys. My sister set her suitcase down beside here. I pointed to a bed behind us. "That's where Baba sleeps." Then I pointed to a narrow room off the main one. "You and Mah and I sleep in there." A single bed was jammed against the end wall; at a right angle stood a bunk bed. Across from the bunk was a four-pane window. A flowered print curtain, threaded with a string, was tied to a nail in each top corner of the wooden frame. She walked over and poked her head in the doorway. "You can sleep on the bottom bunk; I sleep on the top." My sister stood in the doorway, listening. I touched the large wooden dresser that stood opposite from my father's bed. "This is where we keep our clothes. I use the bottom drawer. You can have the middle one. Baba and Mah use the small drawers at the top."
"Well, if that isn't enough room, I can keep the rest in my suitcase."
"Yeah," I said. "You can shove your suitcase under your bed."
The next day when I returned home from school, I saw the photographer from the local newspaper in front of the laundry. My sister was standing beside a drift of snow and the man was taking her picture. By the time she started school two days later, her picture had appeared on the front page of the town paper.
For the few months that were left in the school year, my sister was in the grade eight class. But the following September, after her sixteenth birthday, the school placed her in grade seven. We never walked to school together. I remember often seeing her at recess, alone in a corner of the schoolyard. Our schoolyard was separated from the train tracks by a high wire-mesh fence. My sister always watched the trains whistle by as I played and laughed and talked with my friends.
While my sister was in Hong Kong, we lived on a diet of soup made from chicken bones, salted fish and pork, and dried vegetables. When she arrived, there was suddenly meat on the chicken bones, and fresh fruit on the table. My mother cooked my sister's favourite dishes. Lily picked at the food and rejected her efforts. My mother watched in despair as her daughter's unhappiness grew and seeped into our lives like a persistent mist. Lily longed for her friends in Hong Kong. She told me stories about her life there. With each telling our town became more dull, our home more meager, our food more plain, our clothes more shabby. Even her new Canadian name, Lily, so evocative of her delicate beauty, and given to her by our neighbour across the road, did little to make her feel more at home.
Several months after Lily arrived, Mother decided to take us to Toronto to visit Uncle Eddy and Aunt Lena. Uncle Eddy took us for dim sum at a restaurant in Chinatown. Afterwards we shopped for groceries in the China Trading Store. The atmosphere at the store was always dusty and mysterious. The mingled, conflicting odours from the many packages of dried fish, shrimp, oysters, scallops, and mushrooms had a pungency that prickled the nostrils. The China Trading Store had glass cases along one wall. Inside were dried roots, seeds, and herbs that were carefully wrapped in white paper and sold. There were barrels containing "thousand-year-old" eggs, and shelves of fresh fruit. On that particular day, there was displayed a small shipment of fresh lychees. No one in our family had had lychees since coming to Canada. My sister looked at them and touched them with her long white fingers. It was then that I noticed a man staring at us from a corner of the store. He was a tall, powerfully built man. His thick black hair was greased and combed straight back. He had a strong jaw and a nose that was slightly aquiline, unusual for a Chinese. His clothes were new and fashionable, his shoes black and polished. The other men in Chinatown were shabby, and their spirits were worn by living in the Gold Mountain. This man possessed a confidence that was enigmatic, predatory. His gaze fastened on my sister, and he watched as her hands picked up the lychees, and then put them back. My sister looked up and turned to meet his eyes. Then he suddenly walked toward us and shook hands with Uncle Eddy.
"Ah, Eddy, good to see you. How are you? How's business?"
"Not bad, not bad. And how about you, Tom?"
"The usual. And who are these two beautiful girls?" the man asked as his gaze once again fixed upon my sister.
"Yes, these are my two nieces, Lily and Irene. This is their mother, Chung Tai Tai. I'd like you to meet Tom Leung." The man looked us over. Uncle Eddy went on proudly. "They're visiting the big city. Later this afternoon they're leaving on the bus for Cheatley."
Tom turned to my mother. "Cheatley, I'm going that way myself. I can give you a lift."
"Oh no. We don't want to take you out of your way. It would be too much trouble," protested my mother.
Tom wouldn't hear of it, and that afternoon he made the first of many visits to our home.
In 1955, Tom Leung was forty-seven years old and a very wealthy man. He owned several restaurants in Chinatown, three houses, and a fancy car. However, he was still unmarried. Unlike other Chinese men his age, he had never returned to China to look for a wife. He had come to Canada as a young boy. A self-educated man, he moved with ease in the white man's world. He spoke English perfectly and he read their newspapers. When he joked with the lo fons, he laughed like an equal, throwing his head back with his mouth wide open. Other Chinese always came to him when they needed someone to fill out forms, or to read and answer letters from the government. In Chinatown, this gave him special status -- a sense of power. This air of confidence, along with his flashing eyes and quick laughter, were like a magnet. But along with this expansive, easy charm, there was a shark-like quality that seemed to devour people.
A week after our ride home in Tom's car, he came to visit us. He drove up in a shiny sea-green car with gleaming chrome bumpers and a wrap-around windshield. What impressed me most were his sunglasses. They were mirrors that rested on the bridge of his nose and reflected his world around him. What impressed my mother, though, were his gifts of food. He brought a barbequed duck, oranges, assorted dim sum from Chinatown, and lychees for Lily.
My mother was obviously flattered that a man with Tom's exalted reputation of wealth and influence should decide to visit us so soon.
"Ah, Leung Sen Sun, how are you? Come in. Come in. How good of you to come and visit. Sit down. Sit down."
"My pleasure. Now that we're all in Gam Sun we must stick together. I've brought some small gifts for your family."
"Oh, you needn't be so full of ceremony. Just come and visit."
"No trouble at all." Tom gave the bag of food to my mother, but first he took out the bag of lychees and handed them to my sister. Lily blushed, murmured thank you; she held Tom's gaze.
My father exchanged brief pleasantries with Tom and returned to work. Tom sat down on a wooden chair. Lily and I sat across from him. My mother placed the dim sum that Tom had brought on a plate, sliced some oranges, and filled a pot with water to boil for tea. I could tell by the way she fussed that she was embarrassed by the meagerness of our home. Tom looked at the unfinished plank floors, the dangling cords with the bare light bulbs, and the worn-out equipment for washing clothes. His eyes, though, always returned to rest on Lily's face.
Next Sunday, Tom visited our home again. Once more he offered gifts of steamed buns, barbequed meats, and fruit. But this time he had a stack of Chinese movie star magazines for Lily. "Here, these are for you, Lily."
"Ah, Leung Sen Sun, thank you so much. You have gone too far, too much trouble." Lily beamed and shyly accepted the gift. She told Tom that Hung Bo Bo was her favourite singer and her favourite actress, and that she always went to her movies in Hong Kong.
"Perhaps next week, I could come and take you and your sister to Chinatown to see the movies. Chung Tai Tai, would you like to come as well?"
"I won't be able to come. Too much work in the laundry. It's very kind of you to invited the girls. You really shouldn't go to so such expense."
"Oh, Mah, it would be so much fun. I haven't seen a movie since I left Hong Kong. It's very kind of Leung Sen Sun to invite me and Irene." Lily leaned eagerly forward in her chair, her hands clasped together in her lap. I hadn't seen her so excited since she arrived. From the dark look she shot in my direction, I knew that my wishes were not a consideration.
"Well then, it's settled. Next Sunday I'll come and take the girls for lunch in Chinatown, and then to the movies." Tom sat back in his wooden chair and inhaled deeply on his cigarette. I watched the smoke come out of his mouth, curl upwards, slowly disappearing.
The next Sunday, Lily wore a blue-and white striped full-skirted dress with a collar that tied in a bow at the front, and black slip-on flats on her feet. I wore a red shirt-waist dress with a gathered skirt and ruffles around the collar, and black patent leather shoes with buckles. Lily waited eagerly; I was resigned. That afternoon I rode alone in the back seat of Tom's car. At the movies, my sister sat in the middle.
After that day's outing, Tom came to visit us every Sunday. As Sunday came closer, I sensed Lily's swelling excitement and anticipation. On Saturday night she washed her hair and slept in curlers. Sunday morning she woke up singing and smiling. By the time I returned from Sunday school, Tom was at our house, engaging Lily in conversation and laughter.
Over the next few months, Tom bought our family many gifts. He bought Lily a record player and records of Chinese music. One day he even came with a television. Mother and Lily greeted these gifts with delight and enthusiasm. My father muttered indecipherable comments under his breath and carried on with his work, his eyes always on the floor.
One day I returned home from Sunday school and found Tom and Lily speaking very seriously to my parents. Tom was earnestly explaining as he leaned forward in his chair, "I wish to become Lily's godfather, her kai yaah. I could make life more comfortable for her and help towards her dowry when the time comes. As you know, I have no family of my own."
"Leung Sook is already like an uncle, another father. He comes every Sunday and has been so good to us," added Lily. Her face was radiant.
Mother was beaming, as if she couldn't believe the good fortune. "Leung Sook, you honour us with your proposal. We would welcome you as a member of our family."
My father mumbled agreement, as he sat perched uneasily at the edge of his stool. Tom rested comfortable back in his chair; one foot resting on the other knee. He smiled broadly and confidently as the smoke from his cigarette rose gently, vanishing into the air.
That evening over dinner, Tom, Lily, and Mother talked and laughed as they planned for a celebration banquet. My father and I ate quietly and exchanged glances.
After Lily and I went to bed that night, I woke up to the sound of loud voices. As Lily was softly, steadily breathing, I crept out of bed and crouched at the top of the stairs. I heard my father's voice.
"Something is not right. Tom is hiding his true feelings. They're not right. He's too close to her. I don't feel right about it."
My mother hissed back in a loud whisper. "Don't you see that he makes Lily happy? What can be wrong about his attention? He's old enough to be her father! She's just a teenager. He looks upon her as a daughter. Your suspicions are ridiculous."
"I don't know. It just doesn't feel right."
"Listen. He even said that he wants to be her godfather. You're just jealous that he's rich and successful! We should be honoured that he wants to help us. I'm not going to risk Lily's happiness. I'm going to bed." My mother turned sharply. As she started up the stairs, I dashed back into the bedroom and scurried under my covers.
And so Tom continued to embrace our lives with his lavish gifts. Arrangements were made for a celebration banquet, making Tom's entry into our family official and respectable. Friends from Chinatown were invited. Everyone could see that Tom Leung had become Lily's godfather, her kai yaah. Everyone could see that his feelings were honourable. Lily was luminous, like a bride, in the new red silk dress that Tom had chosen for her. He sat proudly beside her, the smoke from his cigarette languidly floating above their heads. Mother sat at the banquet table and looked triumphantly at my father. Any nagging anxieties had been obviously banished to the corners of her mind.
In the months that followed, my father's gaze rarely left the floor. We were drowning in Tom's beneficence. He installed a bathtub and sink in the washroom upstairs so that we no longer had to wash in the wooden laundry tubs. He bought us a refrigerator. He even constructed a small addition to our house. His visits began to last for several days, until he became a permanent guest in the addition that he had built. He even took Lily away on overnight weekend trips. One Sunday night, looking out the upstairs window, I saw Tom and Lily returning in Tom's car. Lily was asleep. Tom's arm was around her and he kissed her gently on the lips to wake her up. When I saw them get out of the car, I hurried into bed and pulled the covers over my head. I never mentioned to anyone what I saw.
The following Wednesday, I had a headache at school and the teacher let me come home early. I walked into the back door. My parents didn't know I was there. As I peeked around the door to the work area, I saw my father shove a letter in my mother's face.
"Read this. Read what Eddy's written. People are talking about your daughter and her kai yaah. You've got to do something about this." My father spat out the words kai yaah like bile stuck in his throat.
As my mother silently read the letter she started to cry. "But Tom makes Lily happy. Life here has been so hard for her. She hasn't made any friends of her own. And he has spent so much money on us. What can we do?"
"Tom's feelings for Lily aren't those of a godfather. You know that. Stop fooling yourself. Do you want Lily to marry Tom?"
"You know what I want for my daughters. I don't want them to be like us. I want them to marry men, you know, educated, higher class. I want them to be Canadians. Not helpless, like us." My mother looked desperate. "Tom has been so good to us. How can we tell him to go?"
"Well, if this keeps up, the talk in Chinatown will grow; Lily will have no marriage prospects. And then what?"
My mother put the letter down on the ironing table, looked at my father as she wiped her face, turned and left the room. I tiptoed out of the house and crossed the road to call a friend.
After that, the line of my mother's mouth changed. Her lips were pressed tightly together with the corners tucked in, and the two tendons in her neck stood out from her collar bone to her jaw. Her eyes, bewildered, became moist whenever she looked at Lily and Tom.
The quarrelling between my parents grew worse. And it was over little things. My father exploded one night because the soup wasn't hot enough.
"I've been working all day 'till I'm like a worn-out clog. And you can't even come up with hot soup!"
One humid summer evening, while Lily and Tom were out for a drive to escape the heart, my mother chased after my father as he ran into the backyard. She pleaded with him. "Tom has to leave this house. I know that now. But I can't bring myself to do it. You have to do it."
"But Lily is your daughter. You need to take charge."
"I can't. Don't you see. Lily hates me. She hates me because I left her in Hong Kong, even though I had no choice. If I make Tom leave she'll hate me even more. You have to tell Tom to leave, for my sake, for the sake of our family."
One afternoon in September, I returned home from school, went to my favourite corner and sat down on a squat wooden stool, opening a book of fairy tales I had borrowed from my teacher. The atmosphere felt different, clouds of tension and relief hanging in the air at the same time. My parents were silently working. My mother was preparing supper and my father was ironing clothes. A few minutes after I entered, Lily walked in. "Where's kai yaah's car? He's usually here by now?" Before anyone spoke, Lily understood. Panic and fear radiated from her eyes. She dashed upstairs to the small room that Tom had added. She saw the bed and opened the empty drawers of the dresser.
Lily came hurtling down the stairs. Mother was standing at the kitchen table, slicing vegetables for supper. Lily, her body rigid, walked over and faced her. Rage emanated from every pore of her body. Her words were like knives, slashing the air around her. "Where is he? Why is his room empty?" In the silence that followed, I thought the air around us would explode. I wanted to fade into the flowered wallpaper, to become just a face, flat on the wall, staring out. Any movement would let them know I was there. I knew if I stayed perfectly still, I would become invisible.
Mother laid down the cleaver on its side, lifted her head and spoke. "He had to leave, Lily. He had to leave on business. He's opening a new restaurant up north somewhere."
Lily screamed, "You're lying. He didn't have to go. You made him." Her eyes shot towards my father. He stood in the adjoining ironing room with his back to her, pressing shirts, his arms moving like a robot's.
Mother implored, "Lily, you've got to try and understand. Tom agreed to go. He wants you to have a life of your own. He wants you to marry a Chinese boy, close to your own age, someone who's educated, so you can be a real Canadian." She reached into her apron pocket. "Here, he left a letter for you."
As Lily read Tom's letter, her disbelief gave way to tears. Then she walked into the ironing room, stopping a few feet from my father. Her rage and anguish rose from deep inside her, lacerating each of us. She glared at him as she spoke. "You're the one who told him to go. You're the one who made him leave. I hate you. I hate everything about you. I hate this laundry. The lo fons come in here with their dirty clothes and laugh behind your back. And all you do is smile." My father carefully placed his iron on the table and turned, facing Lily as he spoke. "Lily, Lily, I know this is hard. But it is for the best. Even Tom knows this." He held out his arms toward her as he spoke. I could tell that he wanted to put them around her, but did not dare. Instead, she stood alone, covered her face with her hands, and wept, dropping Tom's letter to the floor. Mother walked over to her and lightly touched her shoulder. Lily immediately recoiled. My mother dropped her arm and took a step back. Lily stopped crying, straightened herself, and wiped her cheeks; staring all the while at my father and then our mother. Before my eyes my sister turned into stone; hard, cold, and impenetrable.
After that, I never saw Tom again. I don't know what happened to him. He never answered Lily's letters. I spent as much time away from home as possible. Any pleasures that I experienced with friends at school or at play, I hid when I came home. In the face of Lily's sorrow, I felt ashamed. What right had I to be happy? I grew more and more fearful of Lily. A glass of spilt milk, or my laughing too loud, unleashed in her a torrent of rage. She never spoke to my father again. At first he tried to make amends. He bought food that she liked. When he tried to engage her in conversation she never answered. She always turned her face away. We became accustomed to the silence. An invisible shroud encircled each of us and separated our lives.
Three years later, my mother arranged a marriage between Lily and a young Chinese man, an accountant, only four years older. He was tall and hollow-chested. His cheeks were severely pock-marked, his smile too eager. I remember Lily at her wedding ceremony. Her eyes were glazed. The "I do" was barely audible.
Afterwards at the reception, Lily sat, stone-faced, next to her husband at the head table. She watched the smoke from his cigarette coil slowly upwards, fading into the air.