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The theater in Chinatown was crowded to the doors. Every night actors brought from Canton played and sang the old Chinese operas. If Billy Pan, the manager, announced a deficit at the end of the lunar year, businessmen contributed money to cover it. The theater was a bulwark of home for them. Their children went to American schools, spoke the American language, acted like American children. The fathers and mothers were not highly educated people and they could not express to the children what China was, except that it was their own country, which must not be forgotten. But in the theater the children could see for themselves what China was. Here history was played again and ancient heroes came to life before their eyes. It was the only place in Chinatown which could compete with the movies. Parents brought their children early and stayed late. They talked with friends and neighbors, exchanged sweetmeats and gossip, and sat spellbound and dreaming when the curtain went up to show the figures who were contemporary with their ancestors.
The play tonight was Mu Lan, the heroine of a thousand years ago, who took her father's place when he fell in battle and so saved her nation from invaders. This was a favorite play, and although it was in the repertory of every company, the citizens of Chinatown never tired of it. It was nearly midnight and they waited with excitement for the curtain to rise on the fifth act. At this moment Billy Pan came to the door and looked over the crowd. He was a stout middle-aged man, dressed in a gray cloth suit, and he was as usual smoking a cigar. His round red face was cheerful and his small eyes twinkled with satisfaction as he glanced about the house. Good business—Mu Lan always brought him good business. His shrewd eyes examined the crowd more closely, searching for possible celebrities. It pleased the crowd if he could produce a celebrity after the show. He knew everybody in Chinatown and his eyes slid rapidly from one face to another.
In the tenth row in the middle seat his eyes halted. Dr. Liang Wen Hua! He had seen Dr. Liang only once and then from a platform in uptown New York, when during the war delegates from Chinatown had been invited to come to a celebration of Double Ten. Dr. Liang had made the chief address, and all the delegates had taken pride in the tall handsome figure who was also Chinese. But Dr. Liang had never accepted an invitation to Chinatown. He made the excuse that he could not speak Cantonese, since his native region in China was in the north, near Peking. Yet here he was tonight sitting among the crowd!
The curtain rose and through the darkness Billy Pan edged his way up the narrow aisle. At the tenth row he paused, whispered and waited. The man in the seat next to Dr. Liang came out obediently, and Billy Pan pushed into his place.
"Dr. Liang?" he whispered respectfully.
Dr. Liang turned his head.
"Excuse me, this is Billy Pan, proprietor of theater," Billy Pan whispered in English. "I saw you. Great honor, I am sure! Our theater is very poor. I am sorry you did not tell me you are coming and I would have better show for you, anyway best seat."
Dr. Liang inclined his head. "I am very comfortable, thank you," he said in his low rich voice. "And this is the play I wished to see."
"You not come before, I think?"
"As a professor, I am kept busy."
"You like this play?" Billy Pan persisted.
"I am planning a summer course on the Chinese drama," Dr. Liang replied. "I came to see whether my students might understand this play, as presented by Chinese actors."
"It is too poor," Billy Pan exclaimed.
Dr. Liang smiled. "I suppose American students will not be critical."
Behind them and beside them people were craning their heads. Everybody knew Billy Pan and knew that he would not trouble himself about any ordinary person. Someone recognized Dr. Liang and the name ran along the crowded benches.
"Please," Billy Pan begged. "I ask a great favor of you."
Dr. Liang smiled. "Yes?"
"After the play, will you speak a few words to us from the stage?"
Dr. Liang hesitated.
"Please! It will honor us."
Dr. Liang was gracious. "Very well—but you will have to translate for me. My Chinese is not Cantonese, you know."
"Honored!" Billy Pan exclaimed with fervor.
He rose, sweating and excited, and pushed his way out again and the man whom he had displaced crept back. Now that this man knew by whom he was sitting he felt awkward and humble and he sat as far as possible from the great man.
Dr. Liang did not notice him. His mind was on the gaudy scene upon the stage. In his secret heart he did not enjoy the stylized traditional performance. He had been too long in New York, too often he had gone to Broadway and Radio City. There was something childish about the strutting declaiming actors and the brightly ancient costumes. This sort of thing might be all very well for a country audience before a temple, but certainly it did not suit a modern people. Would he be ashamed if he brought his classes here, or might he explain the drama in terms of the picturesque? He could always tell them that in Shanghai as well as in Peking there was a drama as modern as in New York.
Then it occurred to him that not only the play was difficult. The audience was even more so. Children pattered back and forth and women talked whenever the action dulled for a moment on the stage. Men got up and went out and came back, pausing to greet their friends on the way. It was most unfortunate, he thought, his handsome lips set and his head high, that Chinese like himself were not the sole representatives of his country. It was a great pity that Chinatown had ever been allowed.
The clamor of drums and flutes and violins burst forth in concerted cacophony and the crowd was suddenly silent. The star was coming on. A curtain was drawn back and a brilliant figure dashed upon the stage. It was Mu Lan herself, in the ancient garb of a warrior, and shouts burst from the people. She stalked up and down the stage brandishing the little whip which meant she was on horseback, singing in a high falsetto as she went. From the timbre of the voice Dr. Liang knew that Mu Lan was being played by a young man. The audience, knowing it also, were yet naïvely ready to imagine that she was a beautiful strong young woman.
"I might explain the motif by saying that Mu Lan is the Chinese version of Joan of Arc," Dr. Liang thought.
He was pleased with the idea and his mind played about it. Before he knew it the curtain went down, the hard neon lights flashed on, and Billy Pan stood on the stage waving his arms for attention. Everyone obeyed. People who had been getting up sat down again, and babies began to wail and were hushed. A flood of rapid explosive Cantonese burst from Billy Pan, none of which Dr. Liang could understand. When everyone turned to stare at him, however, he knew that he was being introduced and he rose. The people in the row with him stepped into the aisle to allow him to pass, and he thanked them gravely and walked with dignity up the aisle to the stage and mounted four rickety steps. Billy Pan was waiting for him with a look of devotion, and Dr. Liang smiled slightly. He stood with his hands clasped and he bowed to the audience. Then he began to speak, waiting at the end of each long sentence for Billy Pan to translate.
It was one of his less important speeches, pleasant, courteous, mildly humorous, but the audience was easy to please and laughed heartily and quickly. He was warmed by their pride in him and he took the opportunity to remark that it was the duty of every Chinese to represent his country in the most favorable light to Americans who were, after all, only foreigners. As for himself, he said, he was careful always to behave as though he were, in his own small way, of course, an ambassador. He closed with a reference to Confucius, and was astonished that this did not seem to please the people. They were ignorant, he supposed—very provincial, certainly. He saw them whole, a mass of rather grimy people, small tradesmen and their wives and children, alien and yet somehow building a small commonplace version of China here. Very unfortunate!
He bowed again, smiled, and walked down the steps. Billy Pan followed, and pushing aside the people, he led Dr. Liang out to the street and bawled to a passing taxicab, which swerved and stopped. He opened the door and bowed deeply.
"Thank you, a hundred thanks," he said with fervor. "Come again! Please let me know next time and have dinner with me. There is a good restaurant in next street. I tell him plenty of time to make some good Chinese food, eh? Please! Thank you—thank you—"
He was still bowing when Dr. Liang shut the door firmly and turned to the cab driver.
"Riverside Drive," he said distinctly.
From the darkness of the cab he looked out at Chinatown. The people were going home from the theater, shuffling along the streets. They were waking, he supposed, from the dream world of the past into the dreariness of the present. Yet they did not look dreary. Stopped by a traffic light, he heard their voices laughing and gay, and he saw fathers tenderly carrying little children while mothers led the toddlers. When did they sleep? Shops that were also homes were still lighted and viciously bright neon lamps shone down on windows of chinaware and groceries and lit up long signboards which declared the names of small firms that sold bamboo shoots and dried shrimps and curios. Young men lounged upon the counters and young girls in two's and three's chattered along the sidewalk. It was a lively place, and because it was crude and cheap it was almost worse, Dr. Liang thought, than Americans liked to believe it was, a place of mystery and evil. There was no mystery here, and very little evil. Families lived together closely, and parents struggled with their children to keep to the standards of a country the young had never seen. It was an ordinary place and the people were simple and common. He did not often come here because he found it depressing.
He wished with some annoyance that he had not come tonight, or at least that he had not been recognized. It was gratifying to be known, and yet it made him remember what he habitually tried to forget, that the common people of his country were not in the least like himself.
"Surely you are not a typical Chinese—" how often Americans had cried the words at him!
He always answered them with mild amusement. "I assure you I am a very ordinary Chinese. There are millions like me and better."
He suddenly thought of his eldest son, James, and he sighed. He was profoundly proud of that brilliant boy, the child who had so easily stood at the head of his classes in school and was now at the head of the list of graduates in the medical college.
"A great mind, Dr. Liang," the Chancellor had said only a few days ago. "A great mind and skillful hands—what a surgeon he will make!"
And now James wanted to waste all his education and go back to China! Who in a war-ruined country could pay the fees of a surgeon?
The cab slowed. "Whereabouts Riverside Drive?" the driver asked.
"Two blocks, and then one to the right, please," Dr. Liang replied.
The streets were quiet with midnight. There was a moon and it shone down on the river. Just ahead was the George Washington Bridge, silvered with light. It was a scene familiar through twenty years of living, but Dr. Liang always felt its beauty. There was nothing more beautiful in the world, perhaps, unless it was the great marble bridge near Peking. But he did not want to be in Peking.
"Here you are," the cabby said.
Dr. Liang stood on the sidewalk and counted his change. The man would expect an exorbitant fee—all American working people expected to earn more than any workingman was worth. He counted out the exact amount and added five per cent to it. His daughter Mary had once been angry with him for that five per cent. "Why don't you ride on the subway?" she had demanded. He had not answered her.
He turned abruptly and entered the apartment house where he lived and stepped into an elevator without speaking. He was very tired and he felt confused and old. His son James was very confusing. The elevator mounted rapidly to the tenth floor and he stepped out. The door to his apartment opened and his wife stood there.
"I have been expecting you for an hour," she said.
He followed her in and she shut the door and yawned loudly. He could see by the slightly dazed look on her plump face that she had been asleep on the couch and her Chinese robe of dark blue silk was wrinkled. He was often ashamed of her, but Americans liked her heartiness and good nature and Chinese feared her temper and her domineering ways. She was an excellent housekeeper, she made him entirely comfortable, and she did not interfere with certain pleasant dreams he had of quite different women whom he met in the pages of Chinese poetry. He was too good a man to allow them to come to life otherwise. He had made Confucian ethics his own and he respected his wife as the mother of his children and the heart of his household. Moreover, she worshiped him, in spite of often scolding him and occasionally flouting him. The problem of her life centered in how to indulge her children and at the same time seem to obey her husband.
"Are the children asleep?" he asked.
"An hour ago," she said, trying to be brisk. "Sit down and rest yourself. I have kept some soup hot."
"My sons might have waited for me," he said in a hurt voice.
"Well, they did not," she said in her practical way. "Now drink your soup and let us get to bed ourselves."
She went into the kitchen and brought out a bowl of soup and a spoon on a tray and a plate of crackers. He crumbled the crackers into the soup and began to eat. "I would have been back earlier except that I was recognized and the crowd would have me address them," he said slowly without looking at her.
"Yes, well—" she said without interest and yawned again.
A crude woman, he thought with distaste, and he did not speak for a while as he ate.
Mrs. Liang sat on a stool and watched him, her eyes bleary with sleep. She perceived simply that he was not pleased with her and she tried to make amends. "It was good of you to speak to those small people," she said. "And I am glad you were not at home. That James of ours did nothing but talk about going back to China." She sighed and scratched her head with her little fingernail. "You must get a good night's sleep—he is going to talk with you in the morning."
"I shall put him off," Dr. Liang declared. But his appetite failed him and he set the bowl on the table only half empty. He knew that James was not a son to be put off even by his own father. Then he caught sight of Mrs. Liang's mouth wide open in another yawn and he was suddenly angry.
"Come—come," he cried, "get yourself to bed—spare me the sight of you!"
He stalked out of the room and turned out the light at the door. In the darkness she pattered after him humbly, and forgave him. He was a great man, and he was her husband.
Dr. Liang prided himself on his calm. Reared upon Confucian ethics in his early home in China, he had for many years comforted himself for his somewhat arid life in New York by teaching Chinese philosophy in colleges. There, he hoped, crude young Americans might imbibe from him the spiritual nourishment which he liked to think had kept China intact for four thousand years and would, he said confidently in his classroom, weather her through her present difficulties.
Excerpted from Kinfolk by Pearl S. Buck. Copyright © 1949 Pearl S. Buck. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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