quinta-feira, 26 de outubro de 2017

104 ~

Pag. 104

Of course, we didn’t always have to steal leftovers to fill our stomachs. Sometimes our performances ended early, giving us the chance to wander through the park, spending our bus money on the wide array of goodies available. Of course, this meant that we would have to walk six miles back to the academy—but for the treat of a sweet bean bun or sugar rice cake, it was worth it.

One day, one of our more friendly instructors, a hearty middle-aged man who taught us martial arts, told us a secret: his son worked as a driver at the bus company. If we ever found ourselves in need of a ride, we could say that our father was “Tsui Luk, employee number 1033,” and the ticket vendor would let us on the bus for free as a family member.

We looked at one another in glee. All the snacks we wanted, and we’d never have to walk again!

The following afternoon we gorged, confident that we would ride home in luxury, courtesy of the bus company.

“You sure this is going to work, Biggest Brother?” I asked, a little dubious.

“Of course, dumbass,” he said. “Teacher wouldn’t screw us over. You just make sure you remember what to say.” And when the bus arrived, Yuen Lung stepped smartly into the stairwell, nodded his close-cropped head at the ticket taker, and told him that his father was Tsui Luk, employee number 1033.

The vendor looked up and down at Biggest Brother, appraising him. Finally he nodded back and sent him into the interior of the bus.

It worked. Our hearts leapt in our chests. Free fares, anywhere we wanted, anytime we chose!

Then it was Yuen Tai’s turn. “My father is Tsui Luk, employee number 103.” He, too, was allowed in.

But the ticket taker was beginning to get suspicious. By the time Yuen Biao, last in line, stammered his “father’s” name and number and boarded, it was clear that something was wrong. No driver as young as Tsui Luk could have so many kids, all boy, and all with their heads shaved clean!

Cursing his own gullibility, the ticket taker stomped toward the back

Pag. 105


Pag. 193


The backbreaking work at the construction site took up my days, and kept me from thinking too much about my failures while the sun was up. Nighttimes, though, were still long and painful. I thought of what I’d left behind in Hong Kong, and I thought of Oh Chang and her kindness. I thought about the promise that my life had once held. Even after my hours of hard labor, it was difficult to sleep. Rather than lie awake, turning in bed, I took a second job, working as a kitchen assistant in a local Chinese restaurant. I didn’t know how to cook, despite my dad’s talent, but I knew how to chop vegetables, and restaurants always needed a strong back around. My life turned into a never-ending whirl of work, exhausted sleep, and more work. I stopped thinking about my troubles. I stopped thinking at all.

My father was happy that I was at least staying out of trouble. My mother, on the other hand, knew that something was wrong.

After I’d spent several months at this breakneck schedule, Mom confronted me, late at night, as I walked in from my second job.

“Jackie,” —even Mom had taken to calling me by my adopted name now—“it is nice to have you here with us.  We’re happy, but I think you aren’t happy.”

I sat down in a chair and lay my head back on the headrest. “I’m happy,” I said, without much conviction.

She came over and put her hand on my shoulder. “Jackie, I am your mother. I know you better than you know yourself, and even if your father is willing to look the other way when you lie to him, I cannot. I know this is not what you should be doing with your life.”

“What can I do?” I shouted, sudden feelings of bitterness welling up in my heart. “I spent my entire life learning a useless profession. I’ve got nothing left.”

My mother hugged me and reassured me that I had much more than I thought. I had the love and faith of my parents, I had my health, and I had my youth. “Remember, Jackie, you came to us the Year of the Horse,” she said. “You were born to be a great man, and you will go on to do great thing. But you can’t do them here. This is not where you belong. 

segunda-feira, 16 de março de 2015

Pag 100 a 103

Pag 100


My years at the China Drama Academy went by with surprising speed. I went from boy to teenager, barely noticing as I added birthdays, inches, and pounds. Though I’d gotten bigger and taller, I hadn’t changed much in personality. I was a mischief-loving boy, and I became a spirited and rowdy adolescent, always popular among the younger boys and still the nemesis of the older ones.

And life at the academy, formerly just a series of long, dull days spent in practice and short nights spent in exhausted sleep, had gotten much more exciting since we’d begun performing. It seemed like a day didn’t go by when we didn’t have some sort of adventure, with me generally right in the middle.

Not that our life had become too complicated. The joys we had continued to be small ones—bits of space time spent playing marbles or other games, until we were interrupted by one of the instructors; surreptitious catnaps taken during lessons, with one eyes open in case Master suddenly made his presence known; and, of course, food, always food.

As we grew up, were increasingly given our independence. Often, we’d be sent to perform at the amusement park on our own, while Master taught the younger students at the academy. When we got this kind of freedom, we took advantage of it to indulge ourselves in the best way we knew how: by filling our stomachs. The snacks that were denied to us when Master was around were ours for the buying when he was away, and before our shows, we’d gorge ourselves on the best delights the amusement park had to offer.

The problem was that, after our long and strenuous performances, we’d always be hungry again. Even if we still had any money, all of the glorious food stalls were usually closed before we’d finished changing and cleaning our faces. So we walked through the deserted park discouraged, with nothing to look forward to but a long bus trip and then the hard practice room floor, since the kitchen cabinets were always locked tight against our prying fingers.

“Damn, I’m starved,” moaned Yuen Kwai. “I can’t believe the stores are closed! I’m dying for a bean bun.” Yuen Tai chimed in his own food

Pag 101

wish, lotus seed cake, followed by Yuen Biao’s plaintive expression of lust for sponge cake, and Yuen Wah’s rhetorical inquiry regarding roast pork buns.

“God, will you guys cut it out?” groaned Yuen Lung. “All this food talk is killing me. I’m never gonna make it to breakfast.”

Yuen Kwai suggested something that Yuen Lung could eat, which led Biggest Brother to roar with indignation and chase him around the empty park. The chase didn’t last long; both pursuer and prey were too weak with hunger.

I eyed the shuttered stalls, my stomach grumbling as loudly as those of my brothers. The stalls were ramshackle contraptions; just clapboard walls, chicken-wire windows, and an open roof—when it was wet, the vendors would provide scant temporary cover against the rain by draping plastic sheets across the tops of the walls.

We’d worked hard that day, and our performance had brought plenty of people into the park. We deserved better than without supper. And since there didn’t seem to be anyone around…

Without a word, I ran over to the nearest stall, a baked goods vendor, and peered through its chicken-wire window. “Hey, Yuen Kwai—give me a boost,” I shouted, leaping up and grabbing the upper edge of the wall by the fingertips.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” said Yuen Lung nervously.

His eyes scanning the horizon for cops, Yuen Kwai moved over to my hanging legs and grunted as he pushed me up and over the stall wall. I landed lightly on the inside of the stall, and began searching around for anything that might be considered edible.

Despite their fear of being caught, the call of the belly was more than the other Fortunes could resist, and soon their faces were pressed up against the wire, watching me search.

The owner of the stall had done a good job of cleaning it out; everything of any resale value had been locked up or taken home.

“Look over there,” said Yuen Lung, pointing through the screen at an alcove set into the back of the structure. It was a rubbish storage area. Considering where I spent a good part of my childhood, I probably should have recognized it immediately.

Well, no harm in checking. I poked my head into the storage bin and found

Pag. 102

“What are we gonna do with this bread?” asked Yuen Tai. “I mean, it’s as hard as a rock.”

“Hey, food is food,” said Yuen Kwai, hiding the bag under this shirt.

“You give me something edible, I’ll find a way to eat it.”

All the way back to the academy we whispered different ideas on how to eat the bread.

“Maybe we could toast it,” said Yuen Biao.

“Yeah, right, you already could break your teeth on this stuff, and you want to toast it?” snorted Yuen Tai.” We’re trying to make food, not pottery.”

“I think we should just toss it,” said Yuen Wah. “Who knows how old it is?”

“Aw, it can’t be that old; they throw trash out every day at that place,” said Yuen Lung, thinking with his stomach. “Hey, I just thought of a great way to cook this stuff.”

Back at the academy, we crept through the hallway on tiptoe and sneaked our way into the darkened kitchen. There, Biggest Brother began boiling a pot of water, into which he poured a double handful of sugar. After a short time, the water began to boil, thickening to a syrupy consistency. Then he threw in the in the bread crusts, which absorbed the sugar water and puffed up into a kind of sweet bread pudding.

I gathered some bowls and set them out next to the stove, inhaling the sweet aroma of the boiling bread. Soon Yuen Lung pronounced his dish done. The finished delicacy was ladled into bowls, and we greedily consumed the results of our nighttime scavenging.

“Hey, this ain’t half bad,” said Yuen Kwai.

Yuen Biao smiled and held out this empty bowl. “More!”

After a strenuous day, the soft, delicate pudding was soothing, and more important, filling. And the adventure of breaking into a locked stall to harvest the bread crusts gave the dish a special zing. I still remember that meal as being one of the best I’ve ever had.

We each had several helpings, laughing to ourselves and imagining we were conquering warriors, raiding helpless villages for our food. Today it was bread crusts; tomorrow, the world.

And then the kitchen lights come on. It was Master, awake, and as usual, enraged.

“What are eating?” he said.

“Bread and sugar water, sir,” said Yuen Biao, nearly dropping his bowl.

“And where did you get the bread?”

All of us fell silent.

“We didn’t steal it, we found it!” I said defensively. “It was going to be thrown out anyway.”

Master tapped his cane against one foot. “Whether it was going to

Pag. 103
be thrown out or not doesn’t matter. Do you think I want people to believe I don’t feed you? That you have to go through garbage bins to eat?” he shouted. “How much shame do you want me to feel?”

That night, each of us received five hard strokes of the cane, except for me; I got ten because I was the “prince.”

But you know what? The next night, and for many nights after, we turned to the scene of the crime. Only, from the on, we made sure we didn’t get caught.

quarta-feira, 11 de março de 2015

92 a 99

pag 92


Besides the occasions on which we were hired to perform off-site, usually in odd locations with makeshift stages, we put on most of our shows at the stage where we’d had our first taste of the opera, the theater at Lai Yuen Amusement Park. After a few months of performing, we had gained enough of a following that we would occasionally be recognized in public—pointed to on the street, or even approached by fans. This would always put Master in a terrific mood, and didn’t hurt our egos either, through after the incident after my debut, all of us were careful not to show our pride too much.

But it is Chinese tradition that every period of good fortune is always followed by an equal and opposite stretch of bad. Our months of seemingly effortless perfection lulled us into a false sense of confidence. Chinese opera is so complex that there are literally thousands of things that can go wrong. Well, several months into our show business careers, it seemed like all of them began going wrong at once.

I remember when the bad luck started. I’m not the most superstitious guy in the world, but I have to say, I began to believe in spirits—and their temperamental—after our miserable run began.

And of course, it all turned out to be my fault.

One of the chores we did at the school was the tending of the ancestor shrine. The shrine, which contained tablets and statues dedicated to relatives of Master Yu, as well as opera performers long past, was in a position of honor at the far end of the practice hall. Before each performance, Master would have us bow and shake incense before the shine, appealing to the ancestral ghosts to look favorably upon our efforts and to give us luck and skill and easily impressed audiences.

Taking care of the shrine was an honorable duty, but a painstaking one. There were dozens of small icons to dust, and old incense to dispose of, and offerings to place in properly respectful position. Everything had to be arranged just so, or there would literally be hell to pay. Because I’d been adopted by Master, he soon decided that it should be my special responsibility to care for the shrine; as he reminded me, these were my ancestors too, even more so than the rest of my brothers and sisters.

I knew I should have felt fortune, but the truth was, I thought that the entire job was a pain in the ass. The tables and statues and incense

Pag. 93

pots were sacred items, and it was essential that they be treated with appropriate reverence. But after sitting for a week or so in the practice hall, they were inevitably covered with dust, and to clean them properly meant getting on your knees, leaning down, and brushing them off gently with a feather duster.

As the of the students were ordered to go clean up the courtyard—it was a nice sunny day, so outdoor duty was almost a pleasure—I was left on my own in the hall, duster in hand, and facing a task that would take hours to complete.

I sighed, and evaluated the job at hand. My attitude toward the objects in the shrine was a practical one. Sure, they were sacred and everything, but they were also dirty, and they needed to be made clean. There was a quicker way of getting this done, and I wouldn’t have to break my back or bruise my knees to do it, either.

I headed for the kitchen and got a damp rag, and then carefully removed all of the icons from the shrine and stacked them in a pile on the floor. Whistling while I worked, I gave each statue a good scrubbing down, spit-shining them to a polished. And then I heard footsteps behind me. It was our new tutor, arriving early at the school to discuss our progress with Master.

“What are you doing?” he shrieked, seeing me sitting cross-legged on the floor, wiping an ancestral tablet like it was an old pot or pan. “Put those down at once!”

I nearly dropped the tablet, then set it down next to me and scrambled to my feet. “I didn’t mean it!” I said, looking wildly around for signs of spiritual disapproval. For some reason, the shock in his voice had triggered a flood of guilt in my conscience. “I’m sorry! I’m sorry!”

The teacher began lecturing me on the need for respect, while looking nervously out of one eye at the scattered statues and tablets. I dropped to my knees and began putting the icons back in place.

“Teacher, please don’t tell Master,” I said to the tutor in a frightened voice. It was bad enough to have heaven and hell angry at me; I didn’t want the powers of Earth on my back, too.

The tutor agreed, wanting to get away from the shrine as soon as possible. Once the icons were back in place, I made a deep and heartfelt bow to the shrine. Accept my apologies and forgive me for treating you with such disrespect, I pleaded silently. And please don’t let Master find out, or I could be joining you up there a lot sooner than you’d like.

Teacher made good on his word and didn’t tell Master, but the ways of the spirit world are mysterious and subtle; the ancestors found other means of expressing their displeasure.

Ironically, in our next performance, I was assigned to play one of a set 

Pag 94

of five hosts—a small but crowd-pleasing supporting role. Makeup alone wasn’t enough to express properly the ghastliness of the undead, so each of us had to wear a wooden mask that completely covered our faces. The problem was, the masks were really made for adult performers, not young prodigies like us. They fit loosely on our heads, no matter how tightly we tried to tie them, and the tiny eyeholes were set a little too widely apart for us to see properly. When the performance was already under way, and our cue was about to come, I was still fiddling with my mask, trying to get it to stay in place.

“Sheesh, Big Nose, what’s your problem? Stop screwing with your face and get over here!” said Yuen Lung, standing with the other four ghosts at the entrance to the stage. The music that signaled our supernatural arrival began, and I scrambled to my place in line, willing the mask to hold.

No such luck. As we walked out into the lights, our arms extended, I realized that the mask was slipping down—completely blocking my vision. I couldn’t adjust the mask while onstage, so I whispered a brief prayer to whatever stage gods there might be that I’d be able to perform the scene blind. And for the first few steps in our routine, everything seemed to be going okay, until a move in which all of us ghosts were supposed to turn around and jump forward in unison.

The leap seemed to take longer than expected, and I nearly fell over as my feet hit the ground. I heard muffled gasps around me, and I realized in horror that I’d jumped entirely off the stage, almost into the laps of the front row of the audience.

Adjusting my mask with one hand, I quickly scrambled back up, hoping against hope that Master had not noticed.

On our way offstage, the other ghosts refused even to look in my direction, and even after the performance they wouldn’t talk to me. I understood the reasons: not only had I messed up a perfectly good scene, but I’d broken our string of performances without errors. I’d snapped the good-luck chain. No one wanted to get too close to me, because my aura of misfortune might rub off, infecting the entire troupe. Even Yuen Biao seemed scared to get too close to me, though he whispered a word or two of sympathy from several arms’ lengths away.

Besides, standing between me and Master’s eventual explosion of rage was probably unhealthy. Each night, after our performance, Master would tell us to sit on the edge of the stage as he discussed the evening’s show with any of his friends who had attended. This was a nerve-racking time for us, since any offhanded mention of a flaw in the program would result in Master pushing back his chair, ordering the sinner into his presence, and instantly delivering retribution with his cane, with the number and severity of the strokes proportional to the degree of the crime.

Falling off the stage was about as big a mistake as one could make, so I sat alone on the end of the line of students, my heart in my throat, waiting 

Pag 95

for the moment when Master would back his chair and call out my name.

Surprisingly, it never came. Master‘s friends had nothing but compliments to offer about our show, and so, after bidding them farewell, Master contentedly told us to line up and march back to the bus station.

No one would sit next to me on the bus, so I was left to puzzle out what had happened on my own. I’d never escaped punishment for a mistake before. It seemed like a stroke of good luck, but I knew better. A feeling of dread came over me as we took the long ride home.

Something awful was about to hit. And I was right there, at ground zero.

By the time we set off for the amusement park the next afternoon, I was a mass of anxiety. Would the bus drive off the road, or explore? Maybe I’d struck down by a falling set, or take a mistimed leap onto someone’s outstretched spear. There seemed to be a shadow over everything I did. The spirits were toying with me now, but their ultimate revenge was sure to come sometime soon.

Well, that day’s opera featured me in only a very small role—a one-line cameo, in which I would enter, shout a command to the troops, and then exit grandly offstage. Maybe I’d dodge the bullet again.

Once I got backstage, just to make sure that my performance would be perfect, I prepared everything in advance. There would be no mistakes tonight, if I could possibly help it.

My part was small, but my costume was complex: an ancient and splendid set of robes, embroidered with dragons. Once I’d put them on, they were difficult to take off. So, a good hour before the show began, I went and relieved myself, and began the arduous process of getting into character. I carefully shook out the robes, counted the pieces, and checked for stains and funny smells. I stretched myself out and examined my ears and teeth. And I painted my face carefully, making sure there were no stray streaks or unusual splotches.

Satisfied that everything was in order, I got into my robes and headdress. The only thing I didn’t put on was the elaborate beard that completed the costume, because it was so hot and itchy.

Finally ready, I sat stiffly in a chair, waiting for the show to begin. Just one line. What could go wrong?

And then there was a tap on my shoulder. I shook my head, realizing that I’d fallen asleep. I hadn’t gotten to bed until late the night before, worrying about the state of my soul. The heat and pressing weight of the heavy robes must have put me out like a light. I looked up, and saw Yuen Tai, fully dressed for his entrance, his eyes wide with panic in his painted face. “The curtain is open, dammit!” he whispered through gritted teeth. “Get out there!”

I struggled upright and calmed my nerves, and then strode regally

Pag 96

onto the stage. “Go!” I shouted in a deep, warlike voice. “Kill them!” And I spun on my heel to make my exit, stroking my beard for effect.

My beard? There was nothing there! I’d forgotten the beard backstage!

Sweating profusely beneath my robes, I lifted the hem and hustled off into the wings.

This time I’ll be pounded for sure, I thought. It was almost a relief.

But once again, after the performance, Master failed to pull me out of line.

Worse luck yet! I’d escaped two beatings in a row. It was clear that disaster was looming, somewhere right around the corner.

“Students, today we will premiere a new opera: one that you have practiced often, but never had a chance to perform in public,” said Master, his voice booming through the practice hall. “Yuen Lo—”

I froze at the sound of my name.

“—this will be your chance to impress us all!” he finished, smiling in my direction.

Oh no! We were going to be performing an opera about the God of Justice, the judge whose wisdom was so great that his decisions were sought out by god, devil, and man alike.

It was a wonderful opera.

And it starred me.

Justice was indeed at hand, and there was no doubt in my mind that the spirits had been waiting for this moment of maximum irony to strike.

Well, I resolved, I’d show them! Just because they were dead didn’t mean they could push me around. I’d somehow manage to escape their vengeance, even if it killed me.

All the way over to the theater, I recited my lines to myself and reviewed the preparations I’d have to make. The outfit worn by the God of Justice was even more complicated than the one I’d had to put on the day before. In addition to the heavy robes and thick face paint, the costume included four pennants attached to my back on stiff rods. These pennants made it almost impossible to sit down once the costume was put on. It was a blessing in disguise; there’d be no sleeping on the job this time. As I struggled into my outfit, Yuen Lung grabbed me and swung me around. “Listen, asshole,” he growled. “You’d better not screw up tonight. I don’t know how you got to be so lucky, the last two days. But if you make another mistake, I won’t wait for Master to give you your medicine. I’ll doctor your ass myself.”

I couldn’t deal with his threats at that moment, and so I impatiently waved him away with one hand as I applied makeup to myself. When I was finished with my paint and my costume, I put my hands on my hips and looked at myself in the full-length backstage mirror. I looked fearsome, 

Pag 97

my pennants streaming behind me, my face perfectly painted, and my thick black beard lending my face an appropriately impressive demeanor. The final touch was my tablet of office, a carved slab of wood carried in one hand that indicated my status as a high-level scholar.

I was convinced. Tonight would be perfect; I would avoid my fate after all. And with that, I carefully removed my beard and placed it back in the properties box, setting the tablet down near the stage entrance, where I wouldn’t misplace it.

I had two major scenes in the opera, the first of which was a long song of fifteen minutes, followed by a half-hour break in which other stuff was happening onstage, and then a climactic final scene in which, with my tablet of office, I, as God of Justice, would render a wise decision to end the conflict. I had had trouble with the first song in the past, so I used the time before the play began to review the lines in my mind.

“Yuen Lo, curtain’s up. It’s your cue,” whispered Yuen Biao, shaking me from my reverie. Prepared and refusing to rush, I walked toward the stage door, remembering to retrieve my beard from the prop box first. As I entered the wings, I pulled the thick clump of hair around my face, adjusting it so as not to block my mouth, and hooking the earpieces behind my ears.

The spotlight came on, and I raised my hands and began to sing. But the front-row audience looked puzzled. What was wrong?

Beginning to perspire, I surreptitiously reached for the front of my costume, and suffered a minor heart attack. It was the beard! Somehow, while sitting in the prop box, it had gotten tangled with a second beard, with the result that the combined length of facial hair stretched almost to my knees.

Worse yet, the part I’d actually placed over my face wasn’t the  carefully cleaned and groomed one I’d chosen before performance; it was an old and unclean one, carrying the horrible stink of dried saliva. Every note I sang brought more of the stench into my lungs, and I had to use all of my self-control not to gag onstage.

When the scene ended, I marched offstage and nearly collapsed. I tried untangling the beards, but they were knotted tight, and the other fake beards were all being used. I would have to finish the show wearing an absurd length of facial hair.

Yuen Lung and Yuen Tai gaped at my long-bearded face as they marched onstage in their soldier outfits. “Oh, man,” I heard Yuen Tai whisper to Biggest Brother. “He’s done.”

Onstage, the battle commenced. Unable so sit down because of my pennants, I leaned against the prop shelves to catch my breath and attempt to calm my tattered nerves. Somewhere in the distance, I imagined I could hear the vengeful laughter of ancestor ghosts.

But I had little time to ponder the perversity of the spirit world; the 

Pag 98

battle was finished, and it was once again my cue. All eyes would soon be on me, the God of justice, as I brought peace to the bloody field of war.

What else could possibly go wrong? I sighed to myself.  

I picked up my wooden tablet and adjusted my ridiculous beard, and then walked as solemnly and magnificently onto the stage as I was able. As soon as reached the lights, I began to make my pronouncement, raising one arm dramatically in the air.

And then I dropped my tablet.

It fell to the stage with a heavy wooden thunk. The noise seemed to echo around the theater. For a performer, there is no more horrible sound than absolute silence. It generally means something has gone terribly wrong. Embarrassingly wrong.

But that wasn’t the end of the matter. I leaned over with as much grace as I could muster to pick up the fallen tablet, only to hear a sudden explosion of laughter.

What was going on? My mistake was tragic, but not particularly funny. Peering upward at the crowd, I caught a glimpse of something waving out of the corner of my eye. It was hanging down over my shoulder, and its size and color made it clear that it wasn’t part of my costume.

I stifled a scream. Somehow, while I’d been leaning against the prop shelves, one of my pennants had hooked a pair of jeans, which was now flapping idiotically behind my back.

There was no avoiding it now. Tonight, I knew I would get the beating of my life. And undead justice would finally be served.

I thought I’d seen Master angry before, but I hadn’t seen anything yet. As soon as I bolted offstage, I nearly ran into him, his body coiled like a giant spring, and his face so red that he looked like he was wearing opera makeup. He’d not been so humiliated in many years, and as a result, he’d never been so infuriated.

He didn’t bother sitting us on the stage or talking to his friends. There was no need. This was simply the most catastrophic performance any lover of Chinese opera had ever seen, and the audience had cleared out of the theater long before Master emerged from the wings.

Once I was back in my street clothes, the other students gave me a wide, wide berth. I couldn’t have been less popular if I were radioactive and stank of piss. Yuen Lung and Yuen Tai could barely restrain their laughter.

“Everyone on the bus!” Master shouted, waving his came wildly around him. The ride back was utterly silent, though the gleeful grins of the big brothers made it clear that they couldn’t wait to see what would happen next. When we got back to the school, Master grabbed me by the ear, threw open the academy doors, and walked directly to the ancestor shrine, shaking with fury.

I didn’t struggle. I’d decided to face my doom like a man.

Pag 99

“Ghosts of my ancestors!” shouted Master. “Do you see this pile of dog excrement here before you? This absurd mockery of an opera performer?”

I winced as he twisted my ear between his thumb and forefinger.

“This useless trash is my godson!” he roared. “I present him to you, to do with what you will.” Jerking me down, he made stumble to my knees.

“Recount your sins,” he said, waving to the shrine.

I swallowed. “The tablet,” I said. “And my beard…and the pants…”

The students behind me burst out in laughter.

Master looked toward the shrine, which somehow seemed unsatisfied. “Is that all?” he thundered.

There was no helping it. You couldn’t lie in front of the ancestors.

“Well…yesterday, I forgot my beard completely,” I admitted. “And the day before that, I fell off the stage.”

Master raised his eyebrows. “Oh, you did, did you?” he said. “I missed that.”

I squirmed. So much for honesty.

Master motioned me forward. “Bow down before your ancestors.”

I let my body drop into a prone position before the shrine. Master yanked down my pants. “Begin apologizing!” he said, lifting his cane.
I started offering up pleas for forgiveness. “I’m sorry.” Whack! “I’m sorry!” Whack! “I’m sorry…!”

After twenty strokes, Master turned away, bowed to the shrine, and left the hall.

“Get to bed,” he shouted out behind him, and turned off the lights. “Tomorrow we practice without meals, since it is obvious you have all become too satisfied with your skills.”

We groaned. But the tide of bad luck had been broken—across my butt—and the fearful wall that had stood between me and my brothers and sisters was now gone. Once again I was one of many. And finally getting what was coming to me took a load of worry off my mind. As I shifted on the floor, attempting to find a sleeping position that didn’t cause me pain, I sent a short mental message in the direction of the ancestor shrine: Now, we’re even. Right?

As sleep closed my eyes, I thought I could see the statues gleam. 

sábado, 7 de março de 2015

86 a 91

Pag 86


In the small world in which we traveled, we Fortunes were stars. Not only were we the academy’s elite, acknowledged by all as the best and the brightest, but we also bore the responsibility of keeping the school alive, because it was our performances that generated the academy’s only revenue. And so, being selected for the troupe was an unquestionable honor, a status that carried no negative—unlike being the master’s godson and prince of the school.

Over the years, the ranks of the Seven Little Fortunes constantly changed. Students came and students left, and Master filled the absences according to his whims. Soon after we were chosen, Master quickly selected seven students as alternates, who would fill in for our roles when we were sick or when we formed a traveling company. (Unspoken, but understood, was the fact that if any of us well and truly screwed up, there were always seven eager bodies right behind us, waiting for their own turn in the spotlight.)

Upon our being named to the Fortunes, a new phase in our training began. All of our practice and working out was just the raw material of our art—a basic foundation. We had learned very little about opera itself and had never been given parts to play or roles to inhabit. But even as we sweated out our exercises, Master and the other instructors had been observing us carefully, noting subtleties in style and form, evaluating our body types, and imagining the result that puberty might have on our voices. A husky student like Yuen Lung was destined to portray kings and warriors, like the great General Kwan Kung. My moderate build and agile reflexes made me a natural for roles like Sun Wu Kong, the Monkey King. And a thin, delicate boy like Yuen Biao might be doomed to play female roles, which historically had always been filled by men. Times had changed; though there were still many more boys than girls at the academy, the days when women were considered a curse and banned from the stage were gone, and Master had accepted progress with relatively good grace. However, boys still had to be girls when necessary, since the Fortune were chosen for our talents rather than our gender. With his bulk, Biggest Brother would have made a ridiculous—or rather, terrifying—girl, so

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he dodged the bullet. And my voice, though considered one of the better ones at the school, was luckily of the wrong range for female songs. We mercilessly teased Yuen Biao and others who were stuck with feminine parts, telling them how pretty and sexy they were until they cried or threw fists.

The truth was, though, that the chance to play any starring role—even in woman’s clothing—was a thrill that exceeded anything we’d experienced to date. But there were other fringe benefits to being a Fortune. On days when had pleased Master with a particularly outstanding rehearsal, he would take us out for a meal of dim sum. For those of you who don’t know Chinese food, dim sum, which means “a little bit of heart,” is a wonderful way of eating. Instead of ordering food from menus, you sit at your table watching as silver carts roll by, loaded with small dishes, dumplings, cakes, sweet buns, and bowls of mixed delicacies. If you see something you like you simply point, and it’s placed on your—no mess, no fuss, no waiting. It’s a glutton’s paradise: immediate gratification of your appetite, without even having to move from your seat. The food comes to you, you pick it, you eat it. It’s that simple.

And compared to the bland stuff served at the academy, anything different was as good as a feast. Of course, anything we did with Master, even dim sum, had its own set of disciplines and rituals. The first time Master treated us, we sat enthralled at the sight of the rolling food, eager to grab anything that came within range. But when Yuen Kwai reached out his hand to point to a tasty-looking dish of dumplings, Master dew his chopsticks like a sword and rapped him lightly on the knuckles. “I will order for you,” he said.

Yuen Kwai winced and sat back, subdued.

Master waved a waiter over and told him to bring seven bowls of roast pork over rice. The waiter nodded and glided off to the kitchen. Meanwhile, Master began selecting his own meal from the splendid array of dim sum specialties that paraded by us, a look-but-don’t-touch vision.

We knew better than to complain, and roast pork with rice was better than nothing at all—a lot better, because as far as I’m concerned, Chinese roast pork is one of the great culinary treasures of the world. Marinated in barbecue sauce and five special spices and roasted in long strips, it comes out of the oven moist and flavorful, with a deliciously sweet red glaze. We never got it at the academy, where meat was as rare as a day without practice.

So when we got our heaping bowls of steamed rice, crisscrossed with slices of pork, lightly crisp on the edges and so tender inside, our mouths watered. We took our chopsticks and lightly 

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of pork aside, preferring to eat the rice, rich as it was with inherited flavor, before consuming the delicacy. Then, a slice at a time, we ate the pork, savoring each chew as if it were the most precious of gourmet foods.

As usual, there was never enough. And through the remainder of lunch, we were expected to sit quietly, drinking tea and watching Master eat his fill. My belly was outraged that I had stopped putting food into it, and I stared glumly at my empty bowl, wishing for a miracle. Then I realized that a miracle wasn’t necessary: after all, I was in a restaurant. And even if Master wouldn’t let me order any of the treats that continued to circle us so temptingly, he couldn’t possibly object to my getting another bowl of rice. At the school, the prepared dishes were gone by the time they reached the littlest of our brothers and sisters, but rice was the one thing that never stopped flowing. It wasn’t uncommon for us to make a meal out of just steamed white rice and soy sauce.

And so I did something that seemed very normal at the time. I raised my hand and signaled a waiter, pointing to my empty rice bowl. The other students looked at me like I was crazy, but Master said nothing as the waiter came and padded a large, fluffy scoop of rice into my bowl. I mixed the rice up carefully, to soak up any last bits of roast pork gravy, and ate it quickly and happily. Yuen Lung and the others looked on with envy, but none of them had the guts to ask for their bowls to be filled, too. As a result, I was the only one to go home to the academy with my hunger satisfied and my stomach full.

“You little pig,” said Yuen Lung, as we prepared for afternoon practice. “I can’t believe you ate two bowls.”

“Ah, you just wish you’d had the balls to ask for seconds yourself,” I said.

“Screw off,” Biggest Brother said, throwing a punch in my direction. I weaved past him, laughing. Things could have gotten uglier, but Master had arrived at the practice hall, and we hastily separated, running to our assigned positions.

The workout that day was grueling. Master ran us through every routine in our repertoire, throwing in sudden “freezes” or calling for us to practice at double time, then triple time. There were no breaks, and every group of moves we completed led immediately to a new and more difficult set of commands. Finally, Master waved his cane, signaling the end of the workout.

“Damn, that was crazy,” said Yuen Kwai, breathing heavily. Yuen Biao slumped to the floor cross-legged, too tired even to talk. I, meanwhile, had built up a raging appetite, despite my double portion at lunch. Diner awaited; there was no time for rest or idle conversation.

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Then Master tapped me briskly on the shoulder with his rod. “Yuen Lo, you continue practicing,” he said. “After all, you ate more at lunch, and so now you should be stronger than the others. Everyone else, join me at the dinner table.”

I gasped. The other Fortunes smacked me on the back as they passed. “Food’s gonna taste great after all that sweating,” shouted Yuen Tai.

“More for the rest of us,” said Yuen Kwai.

They were heartless.

“Yuen Lo, I would like to see some high kicks. Begin,” said Master as he took his seat at the head of the table.

And then he turned to the cook, who was laying plates of food down and arranging chopsticks, and said, “Please make sure there is plenty of rice.”


If there’s one thing you can say about Master’s brand of discipline, it’s that at least you were rarely tempted to make the same mistake twice. But it wasn’t as easy to learn from example. If it was difficult enough for me to resist temptation when so much food was around, for Yuen Biao, the dim sum outings were like extended torture. He would watch the carts pass with the eyes of a drowning man catching sight of land, or a dying desert survivor spotting an oasis. In particular he was tormented by the trays of pastries and other sweets, so close and yet so far.

One day it all became too much: as cart loaded with sponge cake passed, he involuntarily yelled out an order. The waiter placed the cake on the table and moved on, as all of us, even Master, looked at Yuen Biao in shock. Realizing the enormity of what he had done, he burst into uncontrollable tears and wouldn’t stop even when we returned to the academy, despite the fact that the cake sat at table uneaten. For a change, Master didn’t even have the heart to punish him.

As Yuen Biao sniffled, sitting by himself in the corner, Yuen Kwai shrugged without sympathy. “He should have at least eaten the cake,” he said. I punched him in the shoulder and went to comfort Little Brother.

But as I mentioned before, the best thing about being part of the Fortunes was simply getting the opportunity to perform—to revel in the joy of the spotlight and drink in the appreciation of the audience.

Because my voice was fairly good, after a few performances in which I took supporting roles, I soon began training for my first lead part: a star turn in an opera performed only on special occasions, such as weddings or birthdays. It was a showcase role, and one that I learned with relish,

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since when I performed it, all of the other stars in the troupe were forced to act as my subordinates. Even Biggest Brother and Yuen Tai were just soldiers in my army, while Yuen Wah played the squire who held my horse.

Because this opera was performed so rarely, it was a while before I had the chance to do it live. When the day finally came, Master told me that I shouldn’t feel nervous, that I was very well prepared for my debut, and that the audience was sure to be appreciative. I didn’t need him to tell me that. My entire body was charged with excitement; the lines blazed in my head like letters of fire, and my voice sounded strong and loud as I warmed up backstage. I was so deep in character that I took to gesturing importantly at my servants, demanding my robes and my headpiece and admonishing Yuen Kwai for not finishing his makeup earlier.  Yuen Lung, adjusting his armor, looked like he was considering clobbering me with his spear, but the backstage of an opera is crowded and busy, and the curtain was about to rise. There wasn’t time or room to beat me properly; that would have to wait until after the show.

And then Master stage-whispered the order to be silent. My big turn, my premiere as the king of the theater, was about to begin. Holding the hem of my robe to my hip, I marched out of the wings, my other arm before me in a martial stance, and walked out before the lights.

I sang, and the audience roared. I ordered my armies to charge, and all the big sisters and brothers rolled from the wings in response, obeying without question. When I shouted “Halt!” they stood in formation, shouting “Yes, sir!” in unison. And when I reviewed my troops, they bowed down before me, me, the king of the theater. Whatever I did, people clapped and cheered. I was a hit!  

And then I looked offstage, and saw Master standing stiffly in the wings, his cane in hand, an expression of mute disapproval on his face.

What did I do wrong? I thought to myself. Suddenly, I didn’t want to leave the stage—not just because I was enjoying myself so much, but because I knew that Master had found fault with me, and as soon as the curtain went down, I would pay for whatever error I’d made. But I couldn’t delay the inevitable, and after I’d sung my last note, and the armies at my command rode off into the sunset, the curtain came down.

The king of the theater was gone. Long live the once and future king, my master.

“Come here, Yuen Lo,” he said, his voice icy.

“You’re gonna get it now, Big Nose,” said Yuen Lung, poking me with the butt of his spear as he passed. I winced and walked over to Master.

“Hands out, palms up,” he said. And then he hit me, five sharp blows.

“Master, what did I do wrong?” I said plaintively, reviewing my performance in my mind.

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“Nothing,” he said. “You were very good. But I want you always to remember this: no matter how well you perform, you must never become too proud. There are others on the stage with you, and you are as dependent on their abilities as you are on your own.”

And with that, he left me standing, still in costume, to direct the breakdown of the set and the storage of our props.


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I guess I deserved what I got. I forgave Biggest Sister later, when she helped me tie strips of cloth soaked in ice water around my hands. But it was a long time before Master let any of us forget the crime. It seemed like he’d figured out that we’d all shared in the ill-gotten gain of my thievery, and so he ran us ragged, extending our practices by hours, pushing us to the very limit of our endurance.

And then, finally months later, he made an announcement over dinner that served partly to explain why he was driving us so hard.

“Students, I have trained you for many years, and your skills have become nearly acceptable,” he said. The words were as close to words of praise as Master could come. “But you are not training in order to please me,” he said.

We looked at one another in silence. That was news to us.

“No, you are working for a much greater goal, and a much more demanding group of critics,” he continued. “The audience! Because when you make a mistake before me, you may suffer punishment, but when you make an error before them, you damage your reputation, and the reputation of the school and its master. This is not something that will heal as easily as a bruise. And that is why you have been working so hard these past few weeks. Because when you step on the stage, even for the first time, you must be perfect. And that time is coming soon.”

The dream. Applause, the cheering of the crowd, fame and glory. It was about to come true!

Master told us the date of our first public performance, which would take place at the theater at Lai Yuen Amusement Park—familiar ground. He explained that each of us would play important roles during the show—some of us behind the scenes, working the curtains and shifting props, others assisting with makeup and costumes and still others in the chorus that would play crowd scenes and fill the ranks during battles.

But a select few—the best and most skilled of us—would be placed in positions of special honor. They would be the school’s stars, performing each opera’s heartbreakingly difficult leading roles. These chosen ones would stand at that grand altar of communion between player and audience: center stage. For the brief space of an opera

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turn, they would command the attention of a mob  of rapt worshipers, becoming princes and emperors and  heroes—and gods. Upon hearing Master’s words, each of us knew in our hearts that this, and only this, was what we wanted, that any other place in the repertory would be second-best, and thus, nothing at all.

We practiced with extra determination that evening, knowing that Master would be announcing his selections in the morning. Each of us tried to catch his eye, although it was unlikely that a single night’s work would alter an opinion formed after years of observation. Afterward, we prepared for bed, cursing ourselves for mistake we remembered from months gone by, or congratulating ourselves for recollected moments when we’d brought a tiny smile to our master’s face.

“Lights out!” shouted Yuen Lung on schedule, and we settled into our blankets. But none of us could sleep.

“Hey, Big Nose,” whispered Yuen Kwai. “Who do you think got it?”

I knew what my guesses were: Biggest Brother, of course, because he was the school’s best fighter, and because he was Biggest Brother. Yuen Tai would probably be selected as well. Yuen Wah, certainly. But I didn’t want to say anything for fear of being overheard. Clustered together as we were for warmth, a private conversation was impossible. “I dunno,” I said.

“I bet you got it,” he said. “You’re the prince, right? How could he not pick you?”

I thought for a moment. Was Yuen Kwai right? I was Master’s godson. But ever since the cigarette incident, he’d barely spoken to me and treated me with no particular favor. “He’ll probably not pick me just to spite me,” I said.

I felt a sudden sharp pain in my ankle as something heavy hit me. It was Yuen Lung’s foot. “Hell!” he said. “How many times do I have to tell you to shut up when other people are trying to sleep?”

“Sorry, Big Brother.”

“Sorry, Big Brother.”

We pulled our blankets over our heads and tried to doze off. It took a very long time.

The morning sun seemed especially bright the next day, filling the practice hall with light. We stood in our rows, hands at our sides, listening to Master with undivided attention.

“I will now announce the students who have been selected for our performance troupe, which will be known as the Seven Little Fortunes,” he said.

So there would be seven lucky students. Seven chances to be a star.

Each of you, as you are called, please come to the front of the room. Yuen Lung!” he said, looking at Biggest Brother. Yuen Lung stepped forward, swaggering like there’d never been any doubt.

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“Yuen Tai!” Again, no surprise.

“Yuen Wah! Yuen Wu!” Our school’s reigning king of martial arts stances joined Yuen Lung in line, followed by another older boy who was one of the academy’s best singers.

“Yuen Kwai!” Yuen Kwai gave a jump and looked up. Grinning like an idiot, he walked up to join the line. Just two more, I thought. Two more shots.

“Yuen Biao!” As disciplined as we were trying to act, the sound of Yuen Biao’s name triggered an involuntary buzz of whispering. Little Brother was one of the youngest of our student body; for him to be selected as one of the stars of the school was outrageous. But, we had to admit, he was a natural acrobat, capable of twisting his small body into positions we could only dream of, as comfortable in the air or upside down as we were upright and on our feet.

There was just one position left, and dozens of qualified candidates. I was sure I’d lost. I was destined for a future of lurking in the wings, or carrying spears. I was going to be a nobody. And all of my father’s ambitions for me to become a great man, all of my spotlight dreams, were for nothing.

“Quiet!” shouted Master, silencing the muttering. “There is still one more member of our troupe to be named.” And we all leaned forward, our mouths slightly open, anticipating the call.

“Yuen Lo, step forward.”

My mouth dropped open. Me! He’d picked me!

I bolted from my position and ran forward. Out of sheer ecstasy, I did a forward handspring on my way to the front of the room. Master looked surprised at my impromptu stunt, but smiled benignly.

The seven of us stood proudly by Master, our backs straight, our faces fixed in wide smiles.

“Fortunes, bow to your brothers and sisters,” said Master. We bent at the waist and dipped our bodies low. “Students, welcome the Seven Little Fortunes of the China Drama Academy.”

And, as disappointed as they were, our siblings broke out into cheers. They were proud of us. They were happy for us.

It was our first moment of applause, but certainly not our last.