It was on a cold January day when our normally quiet house was in an uproar. It was the last time I would think something as simple as an angry mother could mean such disaster. Mother raised her voice shouting in tones I seldom heard from her. Father paced the sitting room. I could hear his footsteps on the scuffed wooden boards, back and forth, back and forth. The footsteps were accompanied by his voice, speaking rapidly in words I could only partially make out.
The servants were upset too. Amah, always scolding and shrill voiced, now railed at the cook in harsh staccato notes, hammering away at the poor man, who, as far as I knew, had done nothing wrong. I saw the Number One Boy linger in the passageway. I assumed he was afraid equally of Amah’s rough tongue and my mother’s anger. The garden boy and the gatekeeper huddled together outside in a patch of sunshine by the gate. Normally they ventured into the kitchen for bits of food and gossip.
We lived in an old courtyard house in a secluded neighborhood east of the yellow-roofed Forbidden City. Previously, our house had belonged to a Chinese family of middling means who had passed it down through several generations. They eventually sold it at a low price to a missionary board of trustees in far-off America. My family moved into the house when I was only eighteen months old, so I had known it virtually all my life. At the time, the nearby mission compound had become overcrowded, and my father had agreed to move his family. I often heard my mother say how thankful she was for the privacy.
As I quietly poked my head in the sitting room I saw my father pacing in front of the Ming bowl that had been given to my mother as a gift a few months before, the sight of it coming in and out of my view. Its beauty seemed pathetically out of place in the dim of the room and among the shabbiness of our furnishings. American chairs shrouded in faded cretonne marked the outer perimeters of the room. A tattered, almost colorless patterned rug partially covered the scuffed wooden floor. Standing upright against high ceilings - that had been designed for tall Chinese cabinets - was a Seth Thomas clock, which my mother said reminded her of her family home in America, and you could hear it ticking if the room was quiet.
That morning, Mother followed my brother Will – tall and handsome, a model student, star athlete, and our mother’s pride and joy - around the house, demanding to know why she had overheard the servants snickering about a trip to a brothel. Will, red-faced and secretive, hounded by Mother’s relentless questions, finally broke down and confessed. Mother, outraged, called my father into the room so he could hear what Will had to say: My father’s oldest friend, Donald Bauman, had taken Will to a brothel in Shanghai, and Will had bragged about it to the Number One Boy.
“They think it’s funny,” Mother spat at Will and my father. My father replied in thundering tones, saying something about Will being sorry now, but what could he have been thinking about at the time?
“It’s your friends I blame,” my mother insisted.
Amah clomped down the passageway on her bound feet, coming nearer and nearer to me. Her sharp voice was not to be denied, calling my Chinese name, instead of my English name Jane. I willed for her to be quiet so my parents would not know that I was eavesdropping.
“What?” I whispered in Chinese, knowing perfectly well Amah wanted mainly to probe for information and to vent her spleen.
“What are you doing?” Amah demanded.
“Nothing.” I moved out of the shadow of the eaves so Amah could see me better.
“Your mama is too angry.”
“I know. It’s a terrible day.” Although Amah understood English well enough, having worked for our family for years, she and I never spoke to each other in that language. I was fluent in Mandarin, the elegant northern language used in Peking.
“Aiyah,” said Amah. She lowered herself onto a concrete bench. She never seemed to feel the cold; I thought this was because she was plump. I was slender as a Chinese girl and I shivered and rocked from one foot to the other despite that fact that I was bundled in my Chinese padded jacket.
Amah grunted and pulled herself to her feet again. “Come with me to your room. We will light the coal brazier and keep you warm. We cannot have you catching cold on top of everything else.”
I was glad to seek the privacy of my room. Like the rest of the house, it had changed little from when the Chinese family had lived in it. Latticed paper windows overlooked the courtyard. Their frames, now faded, had once been painted red and green. The overhanging eaves were decorated with painted animals and flowers. There was a plum tree just outside the window. It was ancient, but it still bloomed every spring.
I didn’t want to hear my mother say harsh things to my father or abuse his friends, the Baumans, whom I liked and admired so much.
Amah sighed and grumbled about what Will had done, but my mother had made it clear that morning that there was a lot more snickering than praying going on in the kitchen, even though all the servants attended Christian church services regularly. Amah steered me into my room, and checked on the amount of coal in the brazier. Although some foreigner’s houses in Peking had central heating by then, our home was heated as the Chinese had done for centuries to keep off the chill and the icy winds of Peking winters.
Amah turned from the coal brazier and said, “Young Miss, there is far worse trouble in this household than what your brother did.”
I didn’t know what she was talking about.
“This terrible trouble with the Li family,” Amah said.
I crossed the room to Amah’s side, and laid my hand on my nurse’s plump arm. “What terrible trouble? Tell me, quickly.” I had just seen my friend Li Han the day before, and there had been no indications of a quarrel between our families.
Amah sighed. “Yesterday, your father dismissed Little Gao from his job. He did not first consult with Li Wutang.” Little Gao was a Li family cousin.
“But why? What did Little Gao do?”
“The other missionary’s wife, Mrs. Appleton, caught him stealing money out of the box meant for poor people.”
A hand went to my mouth. The mission kept a box for contributions for feeding poor women and children and anyone else they could manage to help from Peking’s teeming, dirty streets. The missionaries feared it was a small effort, a mere drop in the bucket, but coins from the mission box filled many empty stomachs, and even saved a few lives.
“Your father was angry and shouting. But he should have talked to Li Wutang first. Now the Li family has lost much face and Li Wutang is torn. Should he be loyal to his family or to the mission?”
Father called Little Gao’s Uncle, Li Wutang, his “right-hand man.” In fact, my father was patronizing Wutang when he said this. Wutang held equal status to my father; both were ordained ministers. In those years many Protestant-American missionaries in China were making an effort to “Sinisize” their missions, so their Chinese counterparts could eventually replace them at the helm. However, out of a long habit and ingrained relationships between Caucasian and Oriental, Wutang still deferred to my father and my father let him do it.
There was an unusually close tie between our two families. My father and Wutang had worked closely together since 1912, when my father and mother had come to China for the first time together. Not only was Wutang smart, helpful, and a dedicated Christian, but his presence had given my parents a reassuring sense of continuity. Wutang’s uncle had converted to Christianity under my grandfather’s tutelage. The uncle had died, along with my grandfather, in the Boxer Rebellion at the turn of the century. Subsequently, Wutang had been baptized a Christian, as had his uncle’s son, Little Gao.
Everyone in the McPherson household, including the servants, liked Little Gao. All made allowances for him because he was mentally slow, especially now that he was over thirty. As he had never married or managed to retain more than a few characters and so couldn’t read, everyone still called him by his milk name, which meant “Little Cake.” Lately, some young men in the Li family jokingly called him “Little Telephone,” because my father employed Little Gao as messenger boy. Proud of his job, Little Gao had done it well, running and panting through the streets of Peking, clutching notes and letters in his sweaty hands – nobody would have trusted him with a verbal message. Although people laughed at Little Gao, and he, having an excellent sense of humor, laughed with them, no one who knew him made the mistake of underestimating him. He was capable of fierce family loyalty, and he had a temper. My parents often said he was more intelligent than his relatives believed.
As soon as Amah left my room, I pulled my padded jacket back on. I knew Han had gone out that morning and I knew where he was. He had gone to the house of Ambrose Varley, who agreed to allow Han and some of his classmates to secretly meet there to discuss politics. I told myself that if I were the first to tell Han about the trouble with Little Gao and my father’s insensitivity to his family, he would appreciate my act of friendship. I also wanted an excuse to see him and to discuss a sensitive matter. I wanted to show him that I was independent and I could think for myself about things, apart from the opinions of my family.
I stepped out once more into the icy air, tiptoed down the steps and crossed the courtyard. When the gatekeeper and the garden boy, hunkering down in their patch of sunlight, saw me coming, the gatekeeper jumped up and pulled open one side of the double-door gate to let me slip out into the quiet lane, or hutong. The gate creaked shut behind me, its faded red-painted surface cracked and peeling from the long exposure to the sun on the earthen south wall of the compound.
I half-walked, half-ran down the narrow hutang alley to the corner market, and negotiated the price of a ride with one of the emaciated rickshaw coolies, who were wrapped in torn blue jackets and crowded around me. I climbed into the rickshaw, which as always, rocked unsteadily on its spring seat. I told the man to take me to Dong An Market. “I will tell you where to go from there,” I said. “Hurry. I’m late.”
“Young Miss, I can only run as fast as my feet can carry me.” The coolie shifted the poles in his hands and began to jog, jolting the rickshaw over the uneven ground. I clung to the sides and willed the man to hurry. There was little traffic on this quiet back street, and I could hear the flip-flop of his straw sandals and his ragged breathing. I could also see his breath on the frosty air. We rolled and bumped through splashes of alternating sunshine and shadow, following the line of the old wattle-and-daub walls.
The coolie stopped suddenly and lowered the poles, nearly dumping me out of the rickshaw, and began to cough. He spit on the sidewalk, picked up the poles again, and waited a second or two to catch his breath before pulling the rickshaw forward again. I looked away. The man was sick. I prayed silently: Please God, don’t let me be too late to see Han, and I promise to put money in the mission box the next chance I get. Thinking about the mission box reminded me again of what first Little Gao and then my father had done. Their actions threatened the foundation of my tranquil life in Peking. I felt a surge of anger, then fear. Oh hurry, hurry, hurry, I said again to myself.
The coolie pulled me out onto the wide, macadamized Hatamen Street. Here, the rickshaw rolled smoothly, passing others with people also bundled up against the cold. For a few minutes, my rickshaw raced evenly beside another bearing a Chinese girl who didn’t look much older than me. I glanced at her curiously and saw her flour-like, pasty make-up and finely drawn, cherry-red lips. I sucked in my breath. A prostitute, I thought. Maybe like the one Will went to. The thought filled me with awe, rather than repulsion. By this act, Will was now a grown man, remote and set apart from me.
The coolie dropped the poles at the entrance to Dong An market. “It is too difficult to go through here,” he said. His eyes looked stubborn.
“All right. I’ll walk,” I said. I was feeling too rushed to argue. Besides, the coolie was right. The market was packed. If I cut directly through and came out the other side, I could easily walk the rest of the way. It would be easier than arguing with the coolie or going around the long way. I climbed down over the shafts and paid the man, then turned and plunged into the crowd.
The noise was deafening. People crowded over the frozen, rutted ground, chattering and shouting. Vendors bawled out their wares. Two men argued furiously. Someone pushed on an automobile horn, over and over.
I cautiously made my way around a camel that stood placidly chewing its cud in the sunshine, its coat roughened and shaggy because of its winter growth. The sharp stench of camel dung hit my nostrils, mingling with the smells of meat and garlic being cooked on braziers nearby. I could also smell roasting chestnuts. All these smells overlaid the constant odor of bad sanitation, to which I was so accustomed that I rarely even noticed it.
I stood on my tip-toes to get my bearing. Across the low-lying buildings, I could see the yellow roof tiles of the Forbidden City, just two blocks away, peeking over its thick, reddish walls. I pushed my way past a tangle of horse-drawn carts, whose drivers, with shocks of black hair and wearing dirt-encrusted rags, cursed at each other and pulled at the horses’ reins.
The market gave way to an open street. A legless beggar followed me for awhile, expertly steering a wheeled platform that supported his body, and whispering a litany of pleas. I dared not give him anything; I was on foot and there were many other beggars around. A signal from one would alert the rest and I would be mobbed. I had been warned countless times that Peking’s beggars were a well-organized, hierarchical group, and that most of what I gave to a beggar would be divvied up among the leaders of the organization. My father defied this conventional wisdom and gave freely, but I was afraid to.
Suddenly, I heard the deep, rhythmic boom of a drum and the high pitch of musical instruments. Shading my eyes with my hand, I peered down the street. A mass of wailing, white-robed people was making its way toward me. It was a funeral procession.
A large catafalque with embroidered curtains swung into view. I lost count at forty men straining under the weight of its red-lacquered poles. The men on foot were dressed in white – all official mourners – and plodded wearily before the coffin. Female mourners brought up the rear. The drummers and musicians came closer. Now I could hear the wailing of the paid mourners. The natural noise of the street intensified.
“Eh, a very rich man has died,” a ragged old woman said in my ear. “Just look at the size of the possession.” She smiled with delight, showing toothless gums.
A man next to her grinned and marched in place. “Maybe, if I’m lucky, I’ll be so rich before I die.” Both he and the woman broke into laughter.
My father had once pointed out that the desperately poor Chinese seemed to enjoy watching such displays of wealth. They were eager for amusement and full of curiosity. “The Old One Hundred Names,” he had said, using the colloquial term for the masses, “have a vivid sense of fun. We in the West could envy their gift for life.”
I enjoyed the street life too, but as Han grew older he scorned such sentiments. He brought to my attention the emaciated rickshaw coolies and filthy children. “I am ashamed,” he said. “China is neglecting her people. They are hungry, dirty, and sick. Things must change.”
The procession paused to give the bearers a rest. I ran alongside the line of mourners, looking for an opening so I could break through the crowd and be on my way. I had seen funeral processions before, and noted that this one had an unusually large number of mourners and that the coffin, that dipped and swayed above the crowd, was of the finest quality.
Hurrying down the street, I nearly stumbled over an exhausted young mother in filthy rags, nursing a half-naked baby, and guarding a scrap of paper weighted down with stones, which detailed the sad circumstances of her life. The woman grabbed at my skirt with a filthy hand. “Give money so I can eat. My baby will starve.” She tugged at my skirt to draw me closer. When she moved, the infant’s head lolled unsteadily, making me wonder if it was even alive.
I jerked away from the woman’s grasp. Everyone, including Han, told me people such as this woman also were professional beggars. I ignored the stabs of pity I felt. There was nothing I could do for this woman.
Several rickshaw coolies vied for my attention. “Young Miss, young Miss, you must not walk. You must ride. Take my rickshaw. It is best.”
I shook my head and pressed on. Swerving to avoid a man bent double by the bundle on his back, I crossed the street. The rich man’s funeral procession started forward once again. Someone threw paper money into the air to appease the spirits. Later, the dead man’s relatives would burn the paper money, so he could be as rich in heaven as he had been on earth.
By contrast with the market, Ambrose Varley’s compound was an oasis of serenity. Varley was a peculiar, quiet American, who, like our family, lived in a Chinese-style house. Unlike us, he wore Chinese dress, the ankle-length robes and brimless hats strangely suiting him. Varley’s house was filled with treasures he had collected since he had come to China years earlier. Unlike other Americans in Peking, he kept mainly to himself, refusing to attend legation parties, though he was often invited. He spoke excellent Chinese, and was criticized by many of his compatriots, as well as by the British expatriates, for “going native.”
Varley’s number-one servant, an old eunuch, was named Chen Lifu. Chen had been driven out of the Forbidden City when the last Qing emperor, the young Pu Yi, had dismissed all the eunuchs, because they were stealing too much from the imperial storehouses. Although most of these eunuchs had managed to enrich themselves at the emperor’s expense, Varley’s old Chen had managed his own money badly and lost it all. His present life apparently suited him. Together, Chen and his American master combed the antique markets for treasures. Han told me that he had met the two several times returning from their forays among the curio stalls. Han thought the eunuch very odd and frightening, and insisted the old man had the eyes of a devil.
I heard darker stories about Varley: he was said to frequent opium dens and brothels. Once, he acquired a long-term Chinese mistress, but then my father stepped in and somehow convinced the young woman of the error of her ways. Some said Ambrose Varley despised her newly Christian views and had thrown her out on the street, where she had fallen to her knees at the gate, begging to be let back in. No one knew what had become of her. Someone in the American community said it was the first time a missionary had stolen a whore away from the man who kept her, and this was widely quoted, to my father’s discomfort.
In spite of Han’s repugnance toward old Chen, he was fond of Ambrose Varley, who loaned him books and listened to him struggle to understand the world around him. Inexplicably, Varley had now taken to allowing student activists to meet in his house. Han told me the day before that an ex-student who had since joined the communists would be at Varley’s house to meet with Han and some of his classmates from Yenching University, a school established by American missionaries. The students from Yenching, outraged at what they perceived as the Chinese government’s cowardice in the face of Japanese aggression, had become progressively more politically active. Several weeks before, they had taken part in massive demonstrations on the streets of Peking, and a number of them had been beaten by policemen.
I visited Varley on a number of occasions, always in the company of Han or Will, or both. We never told my mother when we went to Varley’s house. Although Varley knew my family quite well, was usually on friendly enough terms with my parents, and had even once given my mother a valuable gift – a Ming bowl – Will and I sensed our mother would have strongly opposed our visits to his house.
Now, for the first time, I was going to Varley’s house by myself. I felt worldly and adventurous as I hurried up to the gate and pounded, announced my name, and stated proudly that I wished to see Mr. Varley.