Hong Kong, 1939. It’s December, and I’m born the fifth child of my parents, after two girls and two boys. One of my brothers will die young. But after his death, no one speaks of him any longer. My children will not know anything about him—except that he once existed and died at a tragic adolescent age while in military service for China. I am still a child. My name is Sook-Yi.
My family is rich. We have everything we want. We have servants. We live in a big house that overlooks Happy Valley Racetrack in Hong Kong. Hong Kong is now a colony of the British Empire. China lost the war. Our island was the booty. So it is the British, the gui-lo (“white devils”), who rule us. My father (whose large jowls make his future grandchildren describe him as a frog) is in the legal profession. He was a lawyer, but Chinese are no longer allowed to be lawyers, so he works as a translator for the British lawyers—bridging the culture and language gap of the two sides. It is a wide gap. My father’s position is very powerful. They depend on him. He is respected. So we do not feel the oppressiveness of the British like the other Chinese do.
My father travels all over the world for business, even to America. He brings back the latest technology to us. We, the Laus, are the first family in Hong Kong to own a vacuum cleaner! It is a marvel. My sisters and I are dropped off at school in a chauffeured automobile. It is a foreign-brand car. Everyone at school looks at us when we arrive at the gates. We hold our heads high but we are not snobby.
My mother is very religious and she comes from a humble background. She will not let us get proud. My mother and my father were married through a matchmaker. You see, my father’s family did not want their own to marry the kind of good-for-nothing girls my father liked. His mother thought them gold diggers, or lazy. Vain creatures. So she found my mother. My mother is a hard working woman. She is pious. Yes, she is older than my father, and, yes, she is of a different class, but she is trustworthy. Once my father’s mother gave her approval, the match was made. The wedding was held at our home and my mother has given my father five children so far. My youngest sister is still in her belly.
We have a happy family, although my mother does not like to dress up for all the fancy occasions my father loves. She does not like parties, or make up, or booze. My father loves all that. He especially loves to dance and to gamble. They, my two eldest sisters and my parents, watch the horse races every weekend. My father owns a racehorse and has a special box seat to watch. He never wins money, only loses, but it is worth the amusement. I am still too little, so I can only watch from the windows of our house, in my pajamas, with my brother.
I am a good girl at school. One of the popular girls. I am polite and do not cause trouble, not like my younger sister, the mischief-maker. She has just been born and is already giving my mother a heartache. She is a daddy’s girl. She will be sent to Australia when we reach high school, and there she will become pregnant and have to get an illegal abortion. But now we are still young girls, just children, and we think only of weekends on the beach with our cousins. Big Cantonese feasts at the seafood restaurant on the river. We have a house that we go to on the weekends. My father joins us. We all laugh, and play, and my father showers us with gifts, clothes, toys, food. We are happy. Very happy. I love my father.
Running along the beach. My feet drag in the sand. It is slow. The waves crash into my ankles, dragging up seaweed and other ocean debris to shore. My cousins are faster than me. They run ahead. I can’t catch up. Something washes up. It is big and bloated and ugly. A horrible waxy color. It smells. My cousins have stopped running. They look. I look. It is a man.
When I am 15, my father will leave us. He will pretend not to leave us but he will. My father will meet a woman, a dancing girl who works at a Shanghai nightclub. My father travels so much on business, he is all over China and the whole world all the time. He meets this woman who loves make up and dancing and is much younger than my older mother. He does not tell anyone at first. But the servants begin to talk. They know where he spends his time. The chauffeur, who is loyal to my mother, will tell her the truth. She will confront my father. He is caught.