The Language of Threadsby Gail Tsukiyama
Readers of Women of the Silk never forgot the moving, powerful story of Pei, brought to work in the silk house as a girl, grown into a quiet but determined young woman whose life is subject to cruel twists of fate, including the loss of her closest friend, Lin. Now we finally learn what happened to Pei, as she leaves the silk house for Hong Kong in the 1930s/i>… See more details below
Readers of Women of the Silk never forgot the moving, powerful story of Pei, brought to work in the silk house as a girl, grown into a quiet but determined young woman whose life is subject to cruel twists of fate, including the loss of her closest friend, Lin. Now we finally learn what happened to Pei, as she leaves the silk house for Hong Kong in the 1930s, arriving with a young orphan, Ji Shen, in her care. Her first job, in the home of a wealthy family, ends in disgrace, but soon Pei and Ji Shen find a new life in the home of Mrs. Finch, a British ex-patriate who welcomes them as the daughters she never had. Their idyllic life is interrupted, however, by war, and the Japanese occupation. Pei is once again forced to make her own way, struggling to survive and to keep her extended family alive as well. In this story of hardship and survival, Tsukiyama paints a portrait of women fighting the forces of war and time to make a life for themselves.
"Tsukiyama's writing is richly descriptive and filled with historical detail . . . Recommended."—Shirley N. Quan, Orange County Public Library, Stanton, California, Library Journal
"In spare, evocative prose, Tsukiyama paints contrasting pictures of the bustling wealth of Hong Kong and its massive poverty . . . Women provide for each other in myriad ways in this world, and the relationships forged between them glow at the heart of Tsukiyama's story. Sisters are reunited, mothers and adopted daughters remain steadfastly loyal, childbirth breeds grief, but affirmation, too, and great friends even return from the dead to console their loved ones in this quiet but powerful effort from a writer who proves once again that she is an unusually gifted storyteller."—Publishers Weekly
"A saga of a Chinese woman in the WWII era and sequel to Women of the Silk . . . historically fascinating."—Kirkus Reviews
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Pei glanced down into the dark, glassy water of Hong Kong harbor and suddenly felt shy and wordless. She saw herself as a child again, whom, at the age of eight, her father had taken to the girls' house in the village of Yung Kee. Compared to their small farm, everything had been big and frightening. For nineteen years, Pei had lived and worked with Lin doing the silk work, only this time, Lin's patience and kindness wouldn't be waiting for her when she arrived.
Now, she alone would have to care for Ji Shen in the big, vibrant city; the thought terrified her. At fourteen, Ji Shen was almost half Pei's age, and had already been orphaned once, fleeing from the Japanese devils in Nanking. She had miraculously found her way to the girls' house, where Pei and Lin had nursed her back to health. As the Imperial Japanese Army closed in on Canton, they'd made a desperate run to Hong Kong without Lin to guide them. That the past weeks had been spent in constant movement was a saving grace. Pei's days had been filled with the needs of Ji Shen and with their impending voyage.
When the ferry groaned and finally docked, it swayed from side to side, knocking and creaking against the wooden pier. As the crowd pushed to disembark, Pei stopped abruptly at the railing and stared down at the clapboard ramp that led to the crowded pier.
"We have to keep moving," Ji Shen whispered, gently urging her forward.
Pei held onto her cloth sacks and inched toward the ramp. Highshrieking voices pierced the air, attacking them from every direction. Pei felt a sharp jab from someone behind, then stepped down the ramp into the dizzying, hypnotic life that would now be hers and Ji Shen's.
"Hong Kong's so crowded," Ji Shen said, clutching the sleeve of Pei's white tunic.
"Yes." Pei smiled wearily. She hoped Ji Shen couldn't see how afraid she was. Everything around them hummed and buzzed with movement. Ships from all over the world were docked in Hong Kong harbor, ships with long, complicated names written on their sides. Sampans huddled together, filled with families who lived their lives on the boats crowded, swaying decks. Faces glared at them, then quickly turned away. There were more Westerners than Pei had ever seen. Even many of the Chinese women were dressed in Western clothing.
From the pier they turned left and walked down the crowded street, sidestepping swarms of people as if in a dance, sweating in the humidity. The salty pungent smells and high whining voices were overwhelming. They passed endless stalls of merchants, selling silk stockings, flowers, fresh fruit, and hot noodles in soup. Filthy, toothless beggars thrust their wooden bowls out, hoping for a coin or two. Ji Shen squeezed Pei's arm tighter as they fought their way through the crowd. A long, jagged line of rickshaws and their drivers snaked from one end of the street to the next. Pei felt her pocket for their envelope of money and the letter Chen Ling had given her with the names and addresses of other silk sisters who had made their way to Hong Kong. "Go to the address at the top of the list," Chen Ling had directed. In her other hand, Pei grasped her belongings, including the cloth bag Moi had insisted she take. Pei carefully swung it over her shoulder, the jars of herbs and dried fruits clinking against one another.
"Ride, missees? Cheap deal!" A barefoot boy wearing once-white cotton pants and shirthe was no older, Pei guessed, than thirteen or fourteenstopped in front of them. A pointed straw hat hung from a string around his neck, thumping against his back. He pointed to a red-and-green rickshaw, which sat next to a nearby stone wall. On the ground beside it, an older woman in mismatched, soiled clothing cradled two smaller children on a straw mat.
"I'll give you a much better price!" another voice, belonging to an older, bigger man interjected.
"No, no, thank you." Pei took a step forward, but neither rickshaw driver moved.
"Cheapest deal in Hong Kong!" the boy repeated.
Pei pulled Chen Ling's letter from her pocket and looked past Ji Shen and the rickshaw drivers toward the crowded street ahead. In the weeks before Lin died, she had told Pei of going to Hong Kong with her father as a little girl. Across the street was a large open spacethe one Lin had said was Statue Square. Statue Square was where the Government House and city hall stood, flanked by the precipitous green hills that loomed over everything. Pei caught her breath at the sight.
"Where are we going?" Ji Shen asked.
Pei cleared her throat. "Over there." She straightened her shoulders and began walking toward the square.
"Please, missees, cheapest deal in all of Hong Kong!" The boy was still following them.
"Don't listen to him." The older man laughed. "He's too scrawny to pull you more than a few feet!"
Pei stopped. She put down her belongings and looked up at the darkening sky. It was getting late. Statue Square would have to wait until another day. From the corner of her eye, Pei could see another rickshaw driver approaching them. She turned toward the boy. His smile grew wide now that he'd gained Pei's attention. She pointed to the address at the top of Chen Ling's letter. "Do you know where this is?"
The older rickshaw driver coughed and then spat on the ground in front of them. "Only a fool would choose a boy to do a man's job!" he said, stomping away.
The boy studied the letter for a few moments. Finally, he nodded his head in recognition. "In Wan Chai, not so far from here. No problem, I'll have you there in no time," the boy boasted. He glanced quickly at Ji Shen.
Pei hesitated. "Are you sure you know how to get there? Maybe we should try"
"Yes, yes, right away." The boy nodded again. He ran back to the woman sitting on the ground, whispered some words to her, then grabbed the rickshaw and quickly pulled it toward Pei and Ji Shen. "Right away, right away! I know just the place. No need to worry." He stepped aside, offering Pei and Ji Shen help up into his rickshaw.
Pei suddenly remembered the stories she'd heard of rickshaw pullers doubling and even tripling prices once they arrived at their passengers' destination. Lin had told her to settle on a price immediately, before climbing up into the seat.
"How much?" Pei asked, fingering the Hong Kong coins she'd gotten at the exchange in Canton. She kept her voice low and confident.
"Don't worry, missee." The boy smiled. "I'll bring you there for a fair price."
When they'd settled on a fare, Ji Shen stepped up into the rickshaw. Then Pei squeezed into the torn leather seat next to her, proud of her first Hong Kong transaction.
The boy jumped between the wooden poles, squatting low to grip a pole in each hand. "Don't worry. Quan will get you there."
Pei felt sorry for him and wondered how such a skinny boy would be able to pull them more than a few feet, but Quan straightened his back, tightened his leg muscles, lifted up the poles, and moments later had them gliding smoothly down the crowded street. He called out, "Coming through! Coming through!" to urge the crowds and waiting rickshaw drivers out of his way. Ji Shen let out a scream and covered her eyes when they barely missed knocking down another driver. "I'll kill you next time!" the man shouted after them, raising his fists at them, but Quan simply turned around and yelled back, "You have to catch me first!"
All the colorful, crowded shops that lined the busy street Quan had turned on to mesmerized Pei. In the fading light of early evening, the street seemed to open up and come alive right before their eyes. Bars, curio shops, food stalls, fish stands, a shoe repair shop, a dress shop all blended together. Bright, harsh lights hissed and flashedgarish red, green, and yellow against the oncoming darkness. Pei had never seen anything like it, not even when she'd visited Canton with Lin. A quick spirit seemed to live here in Hong Kong, making everyone and everything move faster and louder than they did anywhere else she'd been.
After weaving in and out of dozens of streets, Quan rounded a corner down a narrow lane, which, though quieter, was just as dense with people and brightly lit shops. He drew the rickshaw to a stop, then turned around to face them.
Pei looked up at the narrow, grayish building, which rose four or five stories above an herbalist's shop. Signs plastered across the front window advertised ginseng and snake gallbladders and deer horn. To the side of the shop, an entrance led upstairs. The small window in the door was covered with a flimsy lace curtain. At one time the door must have been painted an auspicious bright red; now most of the paint had flaked down to the pale brown wood. In the fading light, the building looked tired and forlorn.
"Here, missees, this is the place." The boy carefully lowered the wooden poles and offered his dirty, callused hand to help them down from thc rickshaw.
Pei accepted his help. "Is it safe here?" The words slipped from her lips.
"As sale as anywhere in Wan Chai. Just don't go wandering around alone at night. There are many foreign-devil sailors looking for a good time, and bad men roaming the streets at night." Quan shook his head from side to side as if to make his point, his hands brushing against Ji Shen's long braid as he helped her down and signaled for them to follow him. "I think it's this way," he said.
Pei and Ji Shen followed Quan as if he were an adult, not a young boy barely older than Ji Shen. Strangely, Pei had felt comfortable with him from the moment she touched his callused hands. He swaggered up to the door and rapped hard three times. When no one answered, he knocked again, harder and louder. Pei held the letter up against the dim light to see the name and address again. "Song Lee" was written in neat black characters. Chen Ling told her Song Lee had been in Hong Kong for over eight years now, and would help Pei just as she had helped other sisters who had left Yung Kee. "She was a good worker," Chen Ling had said. "Tell her that I gave you her name. The last thing I heard was that she had found work in a good household."
At last, they heard the slow scrape of footsteps. Ji Shen held tightly onto Pei's arm. Then an irritated voice called out, "I'm coming, I'm coming!" The lace curtains parted and dark, suspicious eyes glared out at them.
"I beg your pardon." Pei stepped forward. "We are looking for a Song Lee. I was given this address as a place I might find her."
The lace curtains fluttered closed, and in a few moments, they heard the door unlatch and open just a crack. "What village are you from?" the woman asked.
"The village of Yung Kee."
"Are you from the sisterhood?"
Pei nodded. "Yes. I was told by Chen Ling that Song Lee might be able to help us."
The door swung open wider, and they stood in front of a thin, wiry woman in her forties who glanced at Pei's clothing and lacquered-black hair and chignon, then at Ji Shen's long single braid. "Come in, come in. I'm sorry for all the questions, but you must be careful in this area. Beggars will rob you blind if you let them!"
Pei stepped in, then turned around, remembering Quan. "No, no, I'll carry this up for you," he said, stepping in behind them. "All part of the service."
Single file, they followed the woman up a dark, narrow stairway, their steps resonating. Once upstairs, the building was slightly more inviting. The first floor had a high ceiling, which at least kept the building cool and comfortable. Doors to other rooms opened in three directions.
The woman didn't say another word until they reached the landing. "This way," she said. She led them through the middle door into a small, yet comfortable sitting room. There was an old sofa, a few chairs, and a small cabinet, which held a few small jade pieces. "You must be thirsty. Let me bring you some tea."
Quan smiled, then spoke to the woman in a cheerful, bargaining voice, a street voice. "These missees need a cheap and clean room."
The woman bowed her head slightly toward Pei and Ji Shen. "We will talk about that when I return with tea." She smiled. "Please, make yourselves comfortable."
Pei looked around at the worn furniture. Her tongue flicked across her parched lips. She reached deep into her pocket and brought out a small silk pouch, from which she extracted several coins. "Here, this is for you," she said to Quan. "You've been very kind to help us."
Quan glanced at the money. "Too much," he said. "Just what we agreed on."
"Please, take it," Pei insisted.
Quan hesitated, then quickly pocketed the coins. "I'll stay a little longer. Just in case you need me to bring you somewhere else tonight," he said shyly, watching Ji Shen.
When the woman returned, she sat down, poured each of them a cup of tea, and spoke words Pei suspected she had repeated many times before. "I am Ma-ling Lee. I was also a member of the sisterhood, though I left it many years ago to come to Hong Kong. When other sisters began migrating to Hong Kong, I decided that they might need a place to stay while they decided what to do. Hong Kong is a large, sometimes frightening place." Ma-ling sipped her tea. "You can stay here as long as you like, but there is a small fee. Many sisters have passed through this way. Most of them find work in a household within a few months. The less fortunate ones find whatever work they can."
"What kind of work?" Ji Shen asked.
Ma-ling smiled. "We'll talk about that another time. You two must be tired. Let me show you where you can sleep."
"And Song Lee?" Pei asked.
Ma-ling stood. "You can see her tomorrow. Right now she's working as a domestic for a household up on the Peak. I'll try to get in touch with her first thing in the morning," she offered.
Pei smiled. "We're very grateful."
Quan parted with them at the foot of the stairs. "I'm sure you'll be all right here," he said. "It looks as if she can get in touch with your friend."
"Thank you," Ji Shen said.
Quan blushed. "If you ever need anything, just ask for Quan. I'm around Wan Chai a lot. People here know me." He backed slowly down the stairs. A moment later, they heard the front door open and quietly click behind him.
The room Ma-ling brought them up to was not what Pei had expected. Once a large, open space, it was now divided into numerous smaller rooms by thin wooden partitions that didn't reach the ceiling. If Pei stood on her toes she could look over the partitions from one space to the next. They walked down the narrow aisle that separated the cubicles. At the entrance to each space hung a white cotton curtain most of the curtains were askew. Bare and clean, each small cubicle held two single cots and a wooden chair. Ma-ling told them there were some larger cubicles in the back with two sets of bunk beds.
"You can have this room." Ma-ling stopped and pointed to a cubicle with a curtained window that looked out on a small, colorless concrete courtyard. For a moment, Pei stood looking out at the graying darkness.
"Thank you." She tried to smile, grateful at least for the window.
"Everything will look better in the morning," Ma-ling assured her. "The bathroom is down the hall. There are only a few other sisters staying with us now, so it should be quiet. The kitchen is downstairs. I'll bring you up some tea and sweet buns in case you're hungry."
"Thank you for everything," Pei said, too exhausted to say anything else.
Ma-ling closed the door behind them, leaving Pei and Ji Shen by themselves. Pei couldn't believe they had come so far from their life in Yung Kee and the silk factory. With the Japanese now occupying most of China, she wondered whether Chen Ling and Ming were safely hidden away at the temple in the countryside where they'd taken refuge, and whether Moi would be all right by herself at the girls' house. Pei tried to push these thoughts out of her mind. Yet she couldn't stop wondering if she had made the right choice leaving Yung Kee. Her doubt was like the constant prickling of bristles.
"It's as if everything's alive here." Ji Shen's voice rose and filled the small space.
Pei inhaled, the warm air tasting slightly stale. "I suppose it's time we join in," she heard herself respond. She looked around at the bare, colorless cubicle that was now their home, then hurried to open the window, letting in the demanding, boisterous voices from outside.
* * *
That night, in a restless sleep, Pei dreamed of Lin. Once again she heard her friend's sweet, calm voice telling her that everything would be all right. At twenty-seven, Pei had spent almost twenty years of her life with Lin, first at the girls' house with Auntie Yee and Moi, and then at the sisters' house, where their life took on the comfortable rhythm of work at the silk factory. Pei was amazed at how easy it was to forget. Suddenly gone were the raw, sore fingers from soaking the cocoons in boiling water, the long, grueling hours of standing on damp concrete floors, the lives that were lost in their union's struggle against the rich factory owners. And Lin's death. It wasn't just Lin's death that tormented her, but how she had died, and what had gone through her mind as she gasped for breath, slowly suffocating in the devastating fire that destroyed the silk factory. In the past month, Pei had learned what to hold on to, and what to discard.
Instead, Pei dreamed moments of pleasure. How Lin always found answers to her smallest questions, even before Pei could ask them. When she first came to work at the silk factory, the steamy, sweet-sweaty smell of the soaking cocoons seeped into every pore of her skin, clung to her clothes, hung on every strand of her hair. It was so persistent, yet so subtle a scent, Pei thought it wouldn't ever wash out.
"Wash your hair with this," Lin had told her one evening when they'd returned to the girls' house. She held up a bottle filled with an amber liquid. When Lin shook it, white jasmine petals drifted through the liquid, floating slowly back down to the bottom of the bottle.
"Does it work?"
Lin stepped closer. "Here, smell," she directed.
From that day on, the scent of jasmine became a part of Pei's everyday life. Just after the girls had washed their hair, the strong, sweet smell rose up and filled their room at the girls' house; she couldn't help but think of Lin. Even the clean smell of Auntie Yee's ammonia was no match for the jasmine.
Again, Pei smelled jasmine in her dreams. Ammonia. Cocoons boiling in hot water. The fragrance of Moi's cooking wafting from under the kitchen door they were forbidden to open without knocking first. Again, Pei stood at the bottom of the wide wooden stairway that led up to their rooms. She heard a sound, a small intake of breath, and looked up to see Lin, radiant in her white burial gown, walking down the steps toward her.
"I've been waiting for you," Lin said, smiling.
Pei opened her mouth, but at first no words emerged. She felt so dizzy she thought she might faint.
Lin answered her question even before she had asked it. "Yes, it's me."
"I've missed you." Pei finally found her voice. "More than you can know."
"I do know." Lin took her hand. "Now come along. Everyone is waiting."
Pei held onto Lin's hand, never wanting to let go. It seemed so real in hers she squeezed it tighter, feeling Lin's warm softness in her own large, rough hand. "But who's waiting?" she asked.
"Still so curious." Lin smiled. "You'll soon see." She swept a strand of Pei's hair away from her face, then swung open the double doors to the reading room.
Pei's heart raced. She glanced around the crowded room. The smell of burning incense was overpowering. Shadows flickered across the walls. The chairs were filled with women dressed in the white cotton trousers and tunic of the sisterhood. Pei closed her eyes and opened them against the thick, stinging air. She touched Lin's sleeve to make sure she was really there beside her. Faces from the past appeared fresh and young.
"Come, come in," called a high, shrill voice. Pei knew it immediately: It belonged to Auntie Yee.
Pei rushed toward the older woman, fell to her knees before her chair, and threw her arms around her. She breathed deeply. The faint clean smell of ammonia rose above the incense. "It's been so long," Pei whispered into Auntie Yee's neck.
Auntie Yee squeezed her tightly before letting go. "You've grown into a fine young woman, just as I knew you would."
"Yes, you have," another voice added.
Pei faintly remembered it. She stood up and looked closely at all the faces that surrounded her. "Who?" she asked.
"It's me," the voice said. Moving out and away from the other sisters was Mei-li, who appeared just as she had so many years ago, before she had drowned herself.
"Mei-li?" Pei asked.
"And don't forget me," another voice rang out.
Sui-Ying stood by the side of Mei-likind, sweet Sui-Ying, who had been killed during their strike for better hours.
All through the years Pei had prayed to the gods that these two friends would find the peace they so richly deserved. Like Lin's their lives had ended much too soon.
Then, from the corner of her eye, Pei saw movement from behind the others. The flash of gray hair stood out among the rest. Pei strained to see beyond the sisters in front of her, hoping to catch another glimpse. She wondered if this could really be. The last time Pei had seen her mother, Yu-sung, she had been so thin and fragile. "Ma Ma," Pei said softly, then again, louder. The hum of voices died down around her.
Yu-sung stepped forward. Her gray hair was neatly combed back. She smiled widely and said, "Yes, my tall daughter. I'm here."
Growing up, Pei had rarely seen a smile cross her mother's lips, Now it glowed before her as bright as any light. Pei took a step forward and began to say something, but the words became confused and caught in her throat. Tears blurred and burned behind her eyes.
"It's all right," Ma Ma said. "You have done well in life, just as I always knew you would. After you and Lin visited, I knew I could leave your world in peace."
Pei hung on to her mother for as long as she could, but soon she felt Lin lean near and heard her whisper, "You have to leave now."
Pei shook her head. "I don't want to leave. I want to stay here with all of you."
Yu-sung pulled away. "That can't be. It isn't your time yet. There are too many things you must still do. Don't forget your baba, and your elder sister, Li."
Pei began to cry, at first softly and then without restraint. She felt Lin take hold of her arm, pull her gently away from the others. Ma Ma stood before her, whispering words she could no longer hear.
Once outside the closed door, Pei held tight to Lin. "Not you, too," she said, through tears. "Not again."
"You have to go on with your life in Hong Kong, just as we planned. We will be together again one day," Lin whispered. "I promise."
Voices. Footsteps. A dull thump against the fragile partition. Pei awoke. In the darkness she felt lost. A thin, pale light filtered into the room. Ji Shen slept soundly in the bed across from her. Pei closed her eyes again, struggling hard to hold on to the memory of Lin's sweet, lingering fragrance of jasmine.
Song Lee quickened her steps, already late to meet the two new sisters waiting for her at Ma-ling's. Wan Chai was crowded and noisy. In the past year, since the Japanese devils had seized Beijing and continued their march southward, more and more people had flowed into Hong Kong from Canton. Along with the crowds, the heat and humidity already felt unbearable. The pounds she had gradually put on in the eight years since she had arrived in Hong Kong left Song Lee gasping for air.
That morning, when the young boy with Ma-ling's message arrived at the gate of the house she worked at, Song Lee had already made plans for her Sunday afternoon. She'd intended to meet some of her other sisters at the Go Sing Teahouse in the Central District. There, the latest news and gossip were eagerly delivered. The sisterhood from Yung Kee and other villages had remained strong in Hong Kong. Most of the sisters were known to be clean and hardworking. Nearly all were enthusiastically accepted as amahs and servants in wealthy households, both Chinese and British. The majority of the sisters now working in Hong Kong had been in the sisterhood back in the delta region of Guangdong province for many years, and had gone through the hairdressing ceremony, pledging their lives to the silk sisterhood. Song Lee knew the Hong Kong Tai tais had their own term, sohei, to describe their vow never to marry. Their vow meant the sisters were less at risk of attracting philandering husbands, and their services quickly grew in value.
Some sisters couldn't adapt to domestic work and were soon replaced. But for the most part, the sisterhood continued to thrive in Hong Kong. Organizing themselves much as they had in the silk work, they remained strong in numbers. Loan associations and retirement committees were quickly formed to help sisters who found their way to Hong Kong. In no time, Song Lee became an active participant in helping the new arrivals adjust to living and working in Hong Kong.
Like most of her sisters, Song Lee had had a lifetime of adjusting. She was the only daughter of a poor farmer and his wife. Her two older brothers were granted what little her parents had to offer them, both materially and emotionally, while Song Lee was given to the silk work when she was six, earlier than most. For months she refused to speak to anyone and cried herself to sleep every night. She lay small and voiceless in one of ten beds that lined the long, narrow room. Then one night Song Lee heard another girl crying, the soft hiccuping breaths drawing her attention away from her own misery. She listened in the darkness, mesmerized by the strangely comforting lullaby. For the first time, she realized that she wasn't alone. Every girl in the room had been abandoned by a family she loved. A dozen years later, Song Lee had pledged her life to helping her sisters in whatever way she could.
By the time Song Lee reached the boardinghouse, she was hot and thirsty. The two new sisters were waiting for her as Ma-ling ushered her into the sitting room.
"Please, please, don't get up," Song Lee said. She let her thick body fall onto the sofa next to the young girl, across from the older, strikingly tall sister, who watched Song Lee's every move with sharp, inquisitive eyes.
"Thank you for coming all this way," the tall Pei said, relaxing into a slight smile. "I wouldn't know where to begin looking for work. Hong Kong is so big, so crowded."
"I hope I can make your transition easier." Song Lee smiled. She rummaged through her bag for the red, gold-trimmed paper fan at the bottom, and snapped it open. The slight movement of sticky air brought her little relief.
Song Lee watched Pei closely for a moment. She must have helped more than a hundred sisters relocate and find domestic positions since she herself had come to Hong Kong. Now she prided herself on reading each woman's face as if it were a map of her life, with hints in every line and crevice. Even if Song Lee didn't know a woman's final destination in life, she could guess in which direction she was headed. Sometimes the clue was as subtle as a young woman's slightly protruding forehead, or the delicate downward curve of her lips. Each small feature foreshadowed a person's destiny.
So many times Song Lee's heart ached when she detected future problems. One eighteen-year-old sister, whose eyebrows were like two sharp knives pointing upward, had foolishly played up to the master of the house, become pregnant, and been kicked out by his wife. Afterward, the sisterhood had a hard time placing her. Word had spread, and no Chinese Tai tai would take her. She eventually found work washing clothes for an English family. Another young girl, whose eyes were always moist and watery, cried suddenly at the slightest word or glance. Her employers were at a loss for what to do with her, and when she returned to the sisterhood in tears, Song Lee was exasperated, too. In cases like these, Song Lee simply had to look the other way. There was little she could do against a fate that had already been set. She could only hope that what she detected as a flaw would be balanced by some other favorable feature she hadn't seen. Song Lee's own life had been no less difficult, and though that didn't show on her round, prosperous face, it was evident in the large, dark mole she carried on the back of her neck. If the same mole had been on the front of her neck, and carrying her, Song Lee's life might have followed an easier path.
The face of this woman, Pei, told a different story. Song Lee saw a quiet strength in the bridge of Pei's nose, along with intelligence in the deep-set eyes. If Ji Shenwhose face lacked a certain definition, with its flatter nose bridge and sloping foreheadminded Pei, then she too, would be all right. Pei was also old enough hot to make some of the foolish mistakes that other younger sisters had. Song Lee saw a complex journey ahead, but one Pei could most likely manage.
Over the past years, Song Lee had learned to move slowly, leading each woman carefully into the specifics of her new life. She drank down her tea, cleared her throat, and spoke in her high, melodious voice. "The sisterhood has been good to me, and the least I can do in return is to help other sisters. Besides"Song Lee smiled"I have always believed good fortune will someday return to me. But tell me, how arc Chen Ling and Ming?"
"Well, we hope," Pei said, her smile disappearing. "They have given themselves to the Buddhist faith and joined a vegetarian hall in the countryside. They were to leave the day after we left Yung Kee. I can't help wondering whether they're all right."
Song Lee leaned forward. "If anyone will be all right, it's Chen Ling. She has the strength of a dozen men!"
Pei and Ji Shen relaxed. They spoke of Yung Kee and the silk work, until Song Lee sat back and raised her hand as if to wave away the recollection.
"Most of the sisters who have come to Hong Kong do domestic work now," Song Lee said. She poured herself another cup of tea. "It is a small island, after all, and word spreads quickly from one household to another that a sister is looking for a position. Most families prefer us above all others as their children's amahs."
"Why?" Ji Shen asked.
"Because we have come from a working background, and we've proved to be stable and reliable," Song Lee answered.
"Will I be able to work, too?" Ji Shen asked. It was the first time she had uttered a full sentence since Song Lee had arrived.
Song Lee smiled at the girl. "I'll have to talk to some of the other sisters, but I'm sure we can find you a place"
"No," Pei quickly said. "I'm sorry to interrupt, but I would like Ji Shen to finish her education."
"But" Ji Shen began.
"You're still young enough to choose another path. It's important to me," Pei continued, lowering her voice seriously. "In a few years, you can do whatever you want." Then, turning back to Song Lee, she said softly, "For now, I'm the only one who will need to find a position."
Song Lee nodded. She sipped the slightly bitter tea, then adjusted the collar of her tunic, which was getting too tight. Perhaps she had been wrong; this tall sister's strength was not so quiet after all.
Three days later, Pei followed the directions Song Lee had given her to the Bing Tao Fa Yuen, the botanical gardens across from the governor's palace. She had thought about hiring Quan to take her up, but decided she should learn the streets of Hong Kong as fast as she could. Walking would assure her of a quick challenge. After making sure Ji Shen would be comfortable staying with Ma-ling, Pei set off to meet Song Lee and the other sisters who would help her seek work.
"Come meet some of the other sisters on the committee," Song Lee had said. "It is important to make as many connections as you can here in Hong Kong. You can never know when you'll need them."
Pei nervously agreed, wondering if she'd even be competent to do domestic work. With the help of Song Lee, she had no choice but to enter this new world, of which she knew so little.
A crush of people enveloped her as soon as Pei rounded the corner from the boardinghouse. She suddenly became acutely conscious of her surroundings. The sour smells of sweat and urine, the oily odor of Chinese doughnuts frying, the heady fumes from the many motorcars, the high-pitched voices of vendors. In the quivering afternoon heat, even the bright daytime blend of garish color was jarring. Pei had never seen so many big, dark motorcars, which roared and raced at her from every direction. "Metal monsters," she muttered under her breath as she dodged across a crowded street.
The crowds thinned and Pei's panic calmed as she left the noisy streets of Wan Chai and began the upward climb along paved streets toward the gardens. Beautiful brick and stucco houses stood large and imposing on each side of the street. Pei felt the muscles of her legs pull as she walked briskly up the incline. The flat, open space of Yung Kee had had almost no hills; climbing the streets of Hong Kong left her hot and breathless. As the streets grew gradually steeper, she tried to imagine making her way back down again. One slip, and she might roll all the way back to Wan Chai!
When she was high enough to see the shimmering blue-gray water below, Pei paused and turned around. Ships dotted the harbor. Across from it rose the dark landmass that was Kowloon, and beyond Kowloon lay China. Pei was amazed by all she could see. She swallowed the dull pain of wishing Lin were there with her.
At a soft shuffling of footsteps behind her, she turned around. An old woman dressed in a servant's dark tunic and trousers, carrying a bulging bag in each hand, walked slowly downhill toward Pei. She seemed to stare at her with disdain, mumbling under her breath. Pei made out the words "young and strong" and "take our positions," as the old woman quickened her steps down the hill.
The botanical gardens were on Upper Albert Road. Ahead, Pei could already see a cluster of green among the concrete roads and houses. She began to walk more quickly, promising herself the cool shade of the trees once she had arrived. Song Lee had told her that the sisters would wait on the grass just to the right of the entrance.
Near the gardens, Pei stopped and caught her breath. She liked sweet-voiced Song Lee and hoped for the best in dealing with the other sisters, but Pei remembered all too well the different personalities that had affected her life, first at the girls' house, then at the silk factory and sisters' house. Dealing with so many people was often like playing a game of chess. There were so many pieces, all moving in different directions. It was always wise to guard all sides against capture.
The sisters were waiting right where Song Lee had said. From the distance they resembled a flutter of black-and-white birds in their black trousers and white tunic tops, not unlike the clothing of the silk sisterhood. For a moment, Pei felt she could be back in Yung Kee. She took a deep breath and dusted off her own white trousers.
"Ah, Pei, you've found your way." Song Lee ran over to meet her. "I hope you didn't have any trouble."
Pei smiled, a bead of sweat running down her forehead. "No, your directions made it easy. I just didn't realize how steep the hills are."
Song Lee laughed. "You'll get used to them. You'll have no choice, going up and down to the market and picking up the little ones from school." She took Pei's arm and led her back to a small group of women waiting by a shady boulevard, surrounded by flower beds. "Don't worry," Song Lee whispered, "they won't bite."
Of the six or seven women gathered there, Pei could only remember the names of two: Luling, who was roughly the same age as herself, and a younger-looking sister who preferred to be addressed by her newly adopted English name, Mary. The others greeted her, poured her tea from a thermos, and handed her rich-tasting almond cookies, whose flaky crumbs tickled her throat as she tried to answer all the sisters' questions.
That night, as Pei lay in her cot next to Ji Shen's, she thought of what a different impression Lin would have made that afternoon. Although she was shy, Lin would have spoken eloquently, made them listen to her and recognize her gifts. But Pei felt as if all her words had been short and dry, falling to the ground like stones. Hong Kong is hot, big, crowded. Yes, I can cook, wash, dust.
Pei shifted on the uncomfortable cot. She felt the slight ache of her strained leg muscles, and winced again at recalling Ji Shen's excited, happy voice when she returned.
"What did they say?"
"They wanted to know how we like it here in Hong Kong," she answered wearily.
"Have they found you a position yet?"
"I've only just met them."
"When they do, will we live there?"
Pei forced herself up the stairs. "I don't know," she said, her voice barely audible.
Two days later, Pei went downstairs to find a note from Song Lee waiting for her. She turned it over in her hands, as Ji Shen urged her to hurry and open it. When Pei finally did, she read:
We have found you a good position in the Chen household. Be at the address below at two o'clock tomorrow afternoon. Use the back entrance.
Pei studied the address on Po Shan Road. She wondered if it was like one of the big brick and stucco houses she'd passed on the way to the botanical gardens, whether it had many rooms with the same thick, soft carpets she'd seen in Lin's house, and a view of the harbor. She kept the note tucked safely in her pocket all day.
For dinner, Pei and Ji Shen went to the nearby Star Village Restaurant to celebrate their good fortune. That night, Pei was too excited to sleep. Her heart raced. Their new life in Hong Kong would begin tomorrow. Pei inhaled the musty air, tried to find a comfortable position on the sagging cot, and then closed her eyes against all her fears.
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