Mambo in Chinatown

Jean Kwok

July 6, 2015 
The following is from Jean Kwok's second novel, Mambo in Chinatown. Kwok was born in Hong Kong and immigrated to Brooklyn as a young girl. She received an MFA in Fiction at Columbia. Previously, she worked as an English teacher and Dutch-English translator at Leiden University in the Netherlands.

It was late afternoon and I knew Lisa would be at Uncle Henry’s office in the heart of Chinatown, street number 88, which many people thought was lucky. It was one of the reasons he was so successful. After taking the elevator to the third floor, I stopped in front of the sign that read “Traditional Chinese Medicine, Henry Wong” and collected myself. Uncle and Aunt would frown upon anything less than serious behavior. I opened the door to f ind Lisa sitting behind the reception desk. The room was crowded with Chinese people who were waiting to see my uncle. Lisa ran to me as soon as I entered.

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“I got the job!” I said, trying to keep my voice low while jumping up and down with excitement. Lisa leapt into my arms and gave me a hug. The top of her head came up to my nose now.

“I knew you would, Charlie!”

“Where’s Aunt and Uncle?” I asked, looking around. “Uncle’s with a patient and Aunt went out with the Vision.” “You’re taking care of the office alone?”

“Now that they’ve got Dennis, she goes out more often.”

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Lisa had mentioned a new assistant. I lowered my voice so that none of the patients could hear us. “I hoped this job would mean you wouldn’t have to come here anymore, but the hours are from one thirty to ten thirty in the evening, so I still won’t be home after school. I’m sorry.”

She looked downcast for a moment, then whispered back, “Don’t be silly. Even if you were home, Pa would make me come here.” It was true that our family owed Uncle a great deal. He had paid numerous medical bills for Ma. “Besides,” Lisa added, “I need the experience anyway. It’ll help for college.”

It was just like her to find the bright side. I wasn’t so sure I would have been comfortable working here. All around us were large glass jars containing wolf berry fruit, dried antlers and dehydrated lizards. “What’s that?” I pointed at a new jar, prominently displayed be- hind the desk. It was filled with what looked like pale, fleshy roots soaking in a light-colored liquid. We walked over to it, still keeping our voices down.

“Snake penises in wine,” Lisa answered.

“Are you serious?”

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“Extremely. The whole thing had to be specially ordered and the snake penises cost fifteen hundred dollars a pound. I could sneak you a glass if you want.”

I gagged. “Very nice of you. I never knew snakes had such large . . .”

“Probably from very big snakes. We don’t tell the patients this but they often cut it off when the animal is still alive.”

“Is that legal?” I looked away from the jar.

“There are many things that are not legal but commonly accessible if you know the right people.” Lisa imitated a commercial. “Snake penis wine is sure to warm your kidneys and enrich your qi, not to mention what it’ll do for your sexual prowess.”

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I tried to stifle my laughter. “You shouldn’t be talking about such things.”

“What? I have to listen to it all the time. Half the stuff here is for helping those old guys in bed. Look here.” Lisa pointed to a jar of dried seahorses. “Also a popular choice to improve your virility. Only four hundred dollars a pound. Ironic that it’s actually the male seahorse that gets pregnant, isn’t it? Doesn’t seem too manly to me. But who am I? I just keep my mouth shut around here. If I were to speak, I’d tell them to just go get some Viagra.”

I snorted and covered my smile. “Well, I still believe in this stuff when it’s used right. If Uncle sells it, I’m sure it helps. Don’t you remember, that milk-vetch root soup cleared up my skin?”

Lisa didn’t answer. I started walking around the jars, reading their labels now. It’d been a long time since I’d been here, since my hours at the restaurant usually didn’t allow me to visit. I passed a jar filled with dried, dark red centipedes, and one that appeared to hold a large baked cobra. “But I don’t know why they have so many poisonous animals in here.”

“Because ‘poison fights poison.’ That’s what they believe.” Lisa shrugged. “I personally think it’ll just give you a stomachache and some really weird dreams.”

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“Lisa.” It was Uncle Henry, standing in the doorway. There was a young man next to him.

Her smile vanished immediately. “Yes, Uncle.”

“Uncle Henry,” I said, greeting him with the honor due an elder.

“Charlie, so glad you stopped by. Have you met Dennis? He has an undergraduate degree in pharmacology and has been opening my old eyes to modern science.” Uncle smiled at me and his face changed from stern to handsome. As always, he wore a dark green Mao suit, buttoned up to the neck.

Dennis shook my hands. He had a shock of black hair, full lips and bushy eyebrows. “I’m really learning a great deal here. It’s fascinating.”

I decided not to mention my new job. If it didn’t work out, I didn’t want Uncle’s pity and it wasn’t much anyway, not compared with what someone like Dennis could do. I’d always wished I could be better than I was for Uncle. In high school, the only respect I ever got from the other kids was for being Uncle’s niece.

Uncle Henry had a softer version of Pa’s features. I’d heard matrons whispering, “What a fine figure of a man Doctor Wong is,” even though most of his hair was gray by now. He was a traditionalist and refused to consume any sort of non-Chinese food. If he hadn’t had rice, then he hadn’t eaten. He and Aunt Monica had never been on a vacation away from their house. He didn’t see the point of wasting money, he said, although he would like to return to his home, China, some day. I remembered that when I was a child, he’d often paid special attention to me. He was the one who would sit at our plastic table in our tiny apartment and try to explain fractions to me. When Aunt Monica got impatient with me for not catching on faster, he would soothe her by saying, “Charlie is trying.” But that had changed as I’d grown older.

“We need an extra pair of hands for a moment, Lisa,” Uncle said. When Lisa followed them down the hallway, I trailed after her.

He opened the door of the examination room to allow Lisa to enter and I saw a woman lying on her stomach, acupuncture needles protruding from the smooth curve of her naked spine. The smell of mugwort drifted out to me. Uncle stepped in behind Lisa and Dennis, then turned to me with a smile. “Would you please watch the front office for me for a moment, Charlie?” With a little nod, he closed the door in my face.

It was clear he remembered as well as I did the day I’d been fired from his office. When I was around twelve, before Ma had died, they had tried to have me help in his office just as Lisa was doing now. “I would be happy to teach Charlie,” Uncle Henry had told my parents.

I remembered Aunt Monica standing over me with her hands on her thick hips. “How could you have dropped the vat of rat fetuses all over the waiting area? Do you know how much that’s worth? And we’ll never get the oil stains out of the carpet.”

After that, I’d been banned from working in the office. I felt guilty that Lisa had been stuck with the job simply because I’d been no good at it. But at least she wasn’t a dishwasher. I would do anything to keep her out of the restaurant life.

I’d been sitting behind the desk in the off ice a few moments when Aunt Monica and the Vision walked in, trailed by Todd, the Vision’s assistant.

I stood and greeted them. “Aunt Monica, Mrs. Purity, Todd,” I said. Behind her back, everyone called Mrs. Purity by her true title, the Vision of the Left Eye, but none of us dared do it to her face. Like most children in Chinatown, I’d been taught to be afraid of her. She was considered the most powerful witch in the area, and people believed witches bound the souls of young children to themselves to serve them. Witches needed souls who would do their bidding to travel in between ours and the spirit world. They were even suspected of murdering children to gain their souls. As kids, we’d been forbidden to be alone with her.

The Vision was small, her back more crooked than I remembered, dressed in too-short cotton pants and a flowered shirt, looking just like the hundreds of old ladies in Chinatown. She carried a red plastic handbag. Her face was shaped like an iron with a small pointed forehead and blunted at the chin, the brown skin unwrinkled and unflinching, and set deep in one socket was that wandering eye, roaming loose in the blankness of her face, staring where it would.

Aunt Monica gave me a controlled nod. Her lips were screwed tight, her eyes cold under reddened, hooded lids. Her hair was white and had been for years because Uncle Henry didn’t want her to color it. He said the dyes caused cancer. It was well known that they’d been desperate to have children, especially a son, but they had not been successful. I remembered from my childhood that their house had been filled with fertility Buddhas and ancient drawings of plump, healthy boys. They believed that this would help bring a male child into their life. Aunt Monica had followed a diet of coconut and eggs, so the baby would have smooth white skin, and had stopped watching animal shows on television for fear that the baby would emerge looking like an ape. But no child came at all.

I’d always suspected that Uncle’s own desire for a boy was the reason my Chinese name, Cha Lan, meaning “beautiful orchid,” had been turned into Charlie in English. Everyone knew it was easier to be accepted with an American name, so after choosing a Chinese name for a child, many parents would ask English-speaking friends and family for suggestions for an American equivalent. I’d been the one who had suggested Lisa when my little sister had been named Lian Hua, “lotus flower.”

After I’d figured out from Uncle’s behavior that boys were more desirable than girls, I’d asked Pa, “Did you want a boy too?”

Pa beamed and said, “When I could have two girls who remind me of their ma? Of course not!”

Ma had hit him playfully, saying, “You are a charmer.”

“I got you to come with me, didn’t I?” said Pa. But then their laughter had died. Ma’s face had grown tight, as if with grief for something she had lost.

Todd, the Vision’s assistant, gave me a friendly smile. He was tall, with hair that was shaved high up behind his ears in a partial mohawk. Despite his hairstyle, there was a sweet light in his eyes. I remembered him as a solitary kid from high school, where he’d been a few grades ahead of me. He’d been working for the witch for a while now. He was wearing neon green sneakers, and kept tossing the top of his mohawk out of his eyes as he cracked his gum. He was the least mystical person I could imagine. I didn’t know why the witch put up with him, except that possibly he was useful for carrying heavy things.

“What’s up?” he said.

“I’m all right. You?”

“Yeah, I get by,” he said.

The Vision had her functional eye aimed directly at me. “This is the older daughter.”

“Yes,” said Aunt Monica in the half whisper she always seemed to use with the witch.

The Vision reached out and took my hand in hers. Her skin felt cool and slightly damp. The waiting room was full and I realized the Vision was going to impress us with her psychic abilities. I tried to pull my hand away but she held on and closed her eyes. She spoke loud enough for everyone to hear, “No boyfriend, husband or mate.”

My chest tightened with fear. It had been a while since I’d dated anyone. How did she know? And what was she going to say about me?

“You are without equal,” Aunt Monica said to the witch.

The Vision continued. “You must take your own blood, your menstrual blood. You take the papers you catch the blood with and wait until the night the moon disappears altogether. That night, you lay the papers on the roof tiles of the man’s house. Anchor them with a stone. Let them dry for seven days and seven nights under the sun and the growing moon. Then crumble them into ash and put them in his coffee.”

I choked and yanked my hand out of hers. Everyone around us looked impressed. The witch paused. Her eyes were open again. I managed to nod.

“When he drinks it, he will know no one but you.”

My cheeks were on fire. Obviously the witch had looked into my future and seen that the only way for me to ever get a boyfriend was for me to bespell him with a used tampon, and now half of Chinatown knew that as well. Todd chewed vigorously on the gum in his mouth, trying not to laugh.

Aunt Monica stared at the Vision. She clasped both of her hands around the Vision’s and said, “Thank you for this wisdom.”

“I could do no less for your niece,” the witch answered. “If she should need a beauty potion—”

“I have a new job,” I blurted, desperate to change the subject. I also knew how powerful the Vision was. While I’d already given up on my love life, I still had some hope for the studio now.

“I know,” said the Vision. “It will amount to nothing.”

Her words fell upon me like stones. She blinked and turned her normal eye to me. Her face cracked into a smile. “Do not take it so hard, girl. A husband is a fine thing to have. Use the spell.”

Lisa, Dennis and Uncle Henry came out of the examination room at that point, followed by their patient. She seemed to be in her late thirties and was dressed plainly, with a dirty air filter mask sticking out of her bag. I guessed she was a garment factory worker, possibly a seamstress. She bowed low to Uncle Henry. “I couldn’t move my arm without pain before I came to you. Now I’ll be able to work again. However much I owe you, it cannot repay my debt.”

Uncle Henry spoke in a voice so soft that I could only hear him because I was standing right next to them. “I know your husband just lost his job. There is no charge.”

She pressed her lips together and I was afraid she’d burst into tears. Wordlessly, she pressed his arm, then left. A few of the patients were already crowding around the Vision as I waved goodbye to Lisa and exited the office. My uncle’s patients and her clients often overlapped. While I was walking back to our apartment, I was filled with pride for my uncle. Turning over in my head the Vision’s bleak words about my future, I wished I had inherited some of his gifts.


From MAMBO IN CHINATOWN. Used with the permission of Riverhead Books, a division of Penguin Randomhouse. Copyright © 2014 Jean Kwok.

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