Thursday, 29 May 2014

The Tofu Seller

There was once a woman who was so desperate to be somebody else she left herself behind. She left one half in China and took the other to the United States, where she abandoned her good family name, answering to Betty and Thelma as she travelled around the different states washing dishes and bussing tables, until tired of this roaming life she settled in Chinatown, San Francisco.
There in its bustling streets she set up trade as a stall owner and befriended the Fortune Cookie Factory owner, who agreed to provide the blank slips of paper to label her pots if she sent any tourists that stopped to her shop. Jimmy Chung from the Herbal Pharmacy supplied the stone mortar and pestle and the empty pots as once he had been in her position and welcomed this new competition.
Seven days of the week she stood underneath her umbrella-sheltered stall grounding bark, leaves, roots and stems, and pounding tofu to a cottage cheese-like paste. At first, onlookers, especially the other Chinese vendors, were intrigued: Why was she pounding coagulated beans? Ruining good food? Had she had not been taught how to use firm tofu? She would make no response and continue as the men joked it resembled the cellulite on their wives' thighs, while the women repeatedly tried to take over, grabbing the pestle so that she had to slap their hands like they were irritating flies, “Ai! Get away! This not for eat!” She'd say.
When she had their full attention, she'd wipe the sweat from her brow with a tea-towel and open the door of her mini-fridge, making sure they all saw her take out a chilled pot and splash her unmade-up face from a bowl of tepid water. After which she'd unscrew the lid and apply a generous layer, “Avoid eye, lip area. Leave for 5-10 minutes.” The latter was always answered with groans and sighs, but wait they did.
When the allotted time was up, they were eager to witness the transformation; even regular patrons loved this part of the demonstration. When the last trace of the tofu was washed and towelled off, the discerning public were allowed to pat her face.
Smooth, no wrinkle. Trust Auntie Fu, face food, not just to eat.” A line that guaranteed a mad rush and ensured dollars were thrust in her direction.
Selling anti-ageing tofu face masks was a brisk trade and soon she was able to expand the range from simply plain to cucumber, seaweed, lemon and ginger, but even so the profit she made only just covered the rent of her damp run-down apartment.
Feeling the pinch on a cold April night, she called Shanghai and consulted her Chinese half and reconnected with the side that knew how to be entrepreneurial, and so it was that during the height of the tourist season, she found herself at Fisherman's Wharf making to order soda bread sandwiches. However still being, at heart, a Chinese attempting to be American, her sandwich fillings tried to combine the east with the west. For ease and speed, hungry purchasers were offered two choices: cottage tofu cheese and cucumber, or scrambled tofu and tomato. On buoyant days, she threw in mixed leaves or sliced avocado. She practised her Chinese-English on the tourists and scolded the police, 'Tofu better than chips or Krispy Kremes!' as she flung their belly-busting lunches to ready and waiting seagulls.
With her enterprising ways paying off, she knew she'd made it.
This land was the land of opportunity to any Chinese who, like her, were skilled at reinvention, and the dumpy character she'd created, known as Auntie Fu, was proud to call herself an American.

Thursday, 22 May 2014

Clouds and Rain

Una Macchia, Irvin Almonte
Jewel used to be just like any other maid before she became a flower girl: a girl men liked to make laugh by sharing inappropriate jokes with. The pleasure house where she worked was called Clouds and Rain, a  thinly veiled attempt to conceal the relations there between men and women; relations she had known nothing of until Henry F. came.
Nobody at Clouds and Rain went by their real name. Madame Wu, the house mistress, rechristened everyone, even the patrons. She studied each  new flower girl and first-time customer facetiously, her small, dark eyes twinkling as she clucked her tongue against the roof of her mouth before she pronounced the name you would go by. Jewel, Madame Wu decided suited her for she was most like that soy bean variety: small with rounded features, shiny yellow skin and black top-knotted hair. The jewel of soy beans. And she aspired to be that jewel. She would not be farmed out to just anybody. 
Jewel learned quickly how to flatter the men, tease them and stroke their egos. She knew how to appear interested enough to avoid their caresses and still grow in popularity. She became the girl most requested to entertain tables of men or provide singular attention. Older, well-read clients joked she was an Asian Lolita: desired, but out of bounds. Jewel didn't realise that, despite her high regard, she'd just been lucky. Madame Wu had been saving her. 
When Henry F. came, her position at Clouds and Rain changed. A wealthy landowner, he'd been told of Jewel by Madame Wu and promised her. If he liked her, for the right fee, she would be his exclusively. And Henry F did, he thought Jewel's earthiness was beautiful; she was more natural than his first, second and third wife, and she reminded him of his father's hard days of farm labour. To him, Jewel was an icon of tender nurturing.
Jewel too was quite besotted with this Oriental man, who Madame Wu had playfully named as if he were an English gentleman because his manners were old-fashioned and impeccable. There was none of Jewel's usual pigheadedness, she consented to be Henry F's, and with him experienced her first clouds and rain. She couldn't say she enjoyed it, it was an act to be gotten through, but she sensed the power that clouds and rain gave her and grew discontented at Madame Wu's. Being a privileged, but an unacknowledged concubine was not enough, she would be his fourth wife.
Jewel had no trouble convincing him she was young and could bear him a son. A son to replace the ones he and his second and third wives had lost. They had not done their duty by him and after months of influencing she won and was installed in the women's quarters. True to her word she bore him a plump and healthy son and this being so, she displaced the second and third wife in his affections. Uprooted them from their more spacious quarters, but even as the second wife she still felt like a shadow; a wife in name, but not mistress of everything.
Clouds and rain would not remove the first wife for although Henry F. now didn't visit her bed, he still adored her. Everybody did as she bid and she'd given him a trio of fine sons and a daughter. She was confided in and consulted, and this made Jewel ruthless with ambition: she would befriend, belittle and finally usurp this sovereign wife. She was the rightful jewel of the house, not this ageing spouse! 
Nothing worked however, not her tactics to undermine nor her attempts to flatter, which left  murder. When the first wife was fatigued by a sudden fever, Jewel ordered the kitchen to make her mother's cure, a hot and sour soup, which she insisted only she could administer, taking hold of the steaming bowl and stirring in a toxic fungi powder. She hadn't expected to be intercepted by the other wives and made to drink the soup herself.
*A tale inspired by Pearl S Buck and Lisa See

Thursday, 15 May 2014

Fox Spirit

The fox-like woman with the playful smile stared out from the painting. A woman of indeterminable age, never changing. Looking over her shoulder at the artist, her husband, who in capturing that pose seized many people's hearts. He bridged the gap between East and West by painting an attractive western woman in a Japanese-style dress.
Those around me blew smoke rings from their cigarettes and commented on her tawny complexion. A Japanese scholar said her skin was the shade of a lightly toasted rice cake, an English professor said European women with apricot hair were known to be dangerous, and those that overheard this laughed. I stayed passive and silent knowing little about art and not wishing to encourage their clever remarks.
Bored of their conversation, I moved to a corner of the room, where a middle-aged woman was huddled with a younger female companion. Their eyes glued to the figure of Madam Monet on the wall while the middle-aged one whispered in the younger one's ear. Her more loudly declared, “Fox spirit!” caught my attention.
How so?” I asked.
She looked at me with disdain, “I know a fox spirit when I see one!”
Fox spirits are cruel, very cunning,” She insisted to the girl, “They can change themselves into wicked, beautiful women.”
So because this woman's beautiful, she's wicked?” I interrupted again, “A-what-did-you-call-her, a fox spirit?”
The middle-aged woman glared, her cheeks flushing red with indignant anger and turned on her heel, dragging her young pupil with her.
My thoughts return to this strange exchange for I think I've now met a fox spirit. A woman capable of luring men into scandalous affairs and persuading women to try promiscuity. A woman who could be vulnerable and manipulative. A woman lost, who had embraced what she was and didn't want to find another way. A woman who didn't want the fox exorcised from her spirit.
I was introduced to her first in a dream where I came across her wandering alone in a deep, dark forest. She had only a red silk negligée on and her loose apricot hair framed her heart-shaped face. Although, she was cold and shivering like a wind-blown leaf, her eyes were wild and her coy smile was seductive. Coquettishly, she beckoned me over. She didn't tell me her name, but told me usually nobody comes to save her. She was about to lead me further into denser forest when the trees perilously swayed and there, unfortunately, the dream abruptly ended. I woke bathed in sweat, my chest pounding as if my heart was about to leap to another man's chest.
For months I tried to enter that same reverie, but the forests I dreamt up were impenetrable. I was never allowed beyond their perimeters and yet I couldn't forget that woman in red. Why was I being denied a second chance to meet her?
Imagine my surprise when I found myself consciously walking beside her: the same apricot hair, heart-shaped face and tiger eyes, but dressed like a normal female civilian on her way to work in a blouse and pencil skirt. Her musky odour had attracted me before she had asked me for directions to the university where she had an interview. Being a student there I proposed to take her.
From there, a dependency grew: she manipulated me and I let her. I needed her more than she needed me. She drove me to distraction! She called me up at all hours and then disappeared for weeks with no explanation; she excreted tears of deceit and I easily forgave her.
She wore a beautiful, treacherous mask, which, like a dream, one day vanished laughing. She'd hoodwinked me but she'll always be my Michelle, my belle, the rarest of precious red foxes.

*Inspired by the works of Pearl S. Buck, Soseki Natsume and Haruki Murakami

Thursday, 8 May 2014

White Ghost Lady

Legend says the village of Heaven's Breath has a white ghost lady. A spirit to rival Lady Macbeth, Shakespeare's bad ambitious woman, who instead of spilling others blood uses tea to achieve immortal greatness.
This lady, it is said, is the perfect hostess; always smiling as she attends to guests, but vague when asked why they were invited. She pours cups of tea and listens patiently to their confidences; their burdens, their fears, their hopes and dreams. She draws them out then imprisons these guests in her cloudy house for her own evil purposes. For the same evil that befalls all mankind: power borne from loneliness. A hunger, a greed and a need for attention and company.
A widow, she purposely set out to crowd her house with lively guests. She didn't realise she had died in unusual circumstances or that her poisonous plot to avenge her husband's murder had been foiled. Some said she suffered a heart attack when her accomplice refused to follow through; others, that in undertaking the deed, she mistakenly drank the deadly brew, but the lady herself simply did not remember. She only knew that she had woken from a sweet slumber to a cold and seemingly empty house.
Dizzy and perspiring with fever she had explored the grounds, but her desperate calls had gone unanswered. Never before had her commands been ignored. Never before had she been abandoned. Even her feet resisted and would not carry her beyond the gated garden walls. Pale with exhaustion, she was subdued, but not defeated.
Each day she grew physically stronger. The dizziness stopped and the fever abated. The mountain air revived her and she found she could conjure mist: light wisps, low-hanging or high sweeping clouds, or heavy fog. She cloaked her stately house with these until it appeared to the villagers all the more eerie and sinister, but this lonely new way of life made her grieve so she perfected the art of making tea from vaporous clouds said to be God's breath. Then she waited patiently at the garden gate for passers-by.
At first her attempts to lure were feeble until one day her patience was rewarded by an old army truck that she could hear was obviously breaking down. She heard its engine spluttering as it laboured its way up the winding pass, then it's hiss and final cough before she saw the dark plumes of smoke. High-pitched tones of dismay and frustrated murmurings followed shortly after, then there was the sound of feet kicking dust and laughter. These voices, to her, seemed to be getting closer, so in her best musical note she called, a note like a cooling breeze or a chilling whisper.
Fearlessly, the group, two boisterous men with two nervy, giggling women, approached her. She offered them tea and a bed for the advancing night, which after hesitation and a little persuasion they gladly accepted. Tired and thirsty, it took just one sip of tea for them to relinquish all their desires. They drank her delicious tea until their eyes were glazed and their heads were vacant. They forgot who they were, how they came to be here, and where they were meant to be going. In this house of cloudy thinking, they told this lady everything and desired nothing.
The lady was victorious – she'd succeeded! And with this her confidence grew. She compelled more people to pull off the road, to confide and forget; at times she made the winds cry and concealed the mountain and the village with thick clouds. She believed she was omnipotent and the deserted donkeys, horses, hand-carts, cars and trucks on the winding pass fuelled these rumours. The villagers were wise to and enthralled by her ghostly presence.
No other village had a white ghost lady who could detain people from their paths and murder worldly instincts.

*A legend inspired from The Kitchen God's Wife by Amy Tan

Thursday, 1 May 2014

Boat & Sea Monster

A retired sailor with mournful eyes looked out to sea. A vicious, stormy sea. The cold spray from the waves made him turn up the collar of his pea coat as he smoked his seaman's pipe. It was just like that night he thought. The night they'd been saved.
Saved. By a miracle. By the benevolence of the Gods. By a myth. It had been wonderful to survive, but a part of him wished he'd died because he hadn't realised the hold it would have on him. As he focused his eyes on the crashing tide he recalled that eventful day and night.
Under a clear blue sky, their small fishing vessel left the harbour. Light winds filled the sail and the air was warm. The placid sea allowed them to glide gracefully into open waters until they were surrounded by only blue sky and sea.
Waves had lapped hypnotically as he with another inexperienced youth had begun to dredge a fishing net from the bottom of the sea. What was usually a two man job took all three as the net felt surprisingly heavy, as if it were weighted down by rocks; a weightiness that turned out to be caught fish. A huge haul of fish! More fish than they'd ever seen! Their shiny bodies slapped the floor and gently rocked their tiny vessel, and as they gasped their scales glistened in the midday sun. Heaving nets and sorting fish was sweaty, back-breaking, relentless work, but a fisherman's life was a gamble and this kind of luck was rare.
All that hot afternoon, more fish were magically drawn from their nets, so that as the sun begun its slow descent into the sea they had argued about heading home. With their tempers raised, the climate changed. A change that was sudden and total. The sky that had been blue turned dark grey, then black, and the wind blew. Rain beat down and the sea grew choppy; the sky came alive with flashes of lightening and rumbles of thunder.
Marooned on this angry sea, they clung desperately to their vessel as it bobbed violently and prayed it would pass. How long could such a storm last? He had asked himself.
At that point the belly of the sea had seemed to grumble ominously and the waters had stilled around them. He was fearful and saw that same look mirrored on the faces of his fellow fishermen. Something was encircling them. Something that wasn't entirely visible yet, but which appeared to have a monstrous head and a writhing snake-like body. Could this 'something' be the Sea Monster that as a boy he'd heard tales about? Was he about to see his boyish fantasy made flesh?
The others by now were cowering at the stern, further unbalancing their vessel, but not he. He stood upright in the middle, his feet planted firmly, as the serpent, with effort broke the surface with its huge dragon head and apprised them with its glass bead eyes. It snorted, misting their boat in its puffed breath and launched its red coral body out of the sea. It gently grabbed hold of the mast with its mouth and coiled itself around the whole boat so that its tail was a roof, a shelter from the tempest that still raged.
What would it do now? Would it drag them down? To the Underworld, the realm of the dead? But no, they stayed that way on top of the tempestuous sea contained like a fossilized creature. And gradually his companions, like he, were lulled by this security from the pounding heart beats of the sea.
The Sea Monster kept its large, unblinking eyes on the skies until the overhead darkness cleared and the beating waves subsided, then it loosened its curled grip and with a huge splash and puffed sigh sank into the depths of the emerald sea. 
As he now smoked his pipe, he remembered the moment the serpent had left: jubilant that they hadn't capsized, but still possessed by those glass bead eyes. A feeling that throughout his sea-faring years had caused him much distress.