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.