Ping had only come back to see him burned. Dead but not gone, her father’s presence was embalmed in the house. Ba, who rubbed menthol oil hourly into his chest, had left his cool scent still touching the TV remote, the hard pillow he prayed into, the figurines in the red altar. Beginning with Guanyin, the altar’s pantheon also included Jesus, a Happy Meal collectible and a Snoopy cast in brass.
Her family preserved him, too, in the seating arrangement at the dinner table that night. His power seat was kept empty. Ping’s youngest sister, Sarai, said they’d promised Ba to take his ashes back home.
‘He is home,’ said Ping.
‘Chaozhou, the ancestral home,’ said Bo, middle sister. ‘He wanted it to be you.’
‘Stop it. Stop using his words,’ Ping said. ‘There is no house. Let the family myth die with him.’
She should have known not to return – even dead, he had expectations for her.
After dinner, she went out onto the small bedroom balcony to wait for sunset. Ping’s childhood was stretched in her memory into a single twilight, an amber dusk suspending old Bangkok. She remembered the canal behind the houses, with the long-tail boats dragoning past, prompting roars from kids at the fence. And behind the fence, their newly constructed neighborhood. The developers had understood that creating order (the houses came in three uncompromising varieties) meant walling out the city’s gleeful chaos. But, efforts at an imagined first-world neatness only lasted through the initial wave of home sales, after which that golden, evening light on the estate billboard had begun to grade into night.
Before Ping was born, her father, Narong, had seen in his neighborhood the decline of his own life. Narong subscribed to an ideology peppered with the Confucianism that survived among the Teochew diaspora. Coming of age in the era of home appliances and their myriad enhancements and appendages, he believed in self-betterment, the notion that a person could be upgraded. And so when Ping was born in ’92 her father viewed the inadequacies of his first child (that she was she) as a mere deficiency of bits.
‘Firstborn. But new generation, new opportunities,’ he told his wife Manee. He took to beginning sentences, ‘Even a woman can . . . ’
This optimism was a symptom of money. His family had fled with it from the purges of the Cultural Revolution that drove the clan down along the Mekong. Only Narong’s generation of immigrants had come late to the game. Bangkok’s Chinese neighborhoods were already bursting, the many lords of old-world Guangdong born again, eating elbow-to-elbow in noodle houses. And so Narong’s family’s wealth went into a house on the outskirts of the city and an assortment of import-export businesses. These businesses failed and the parents died. The money parceled out to twelve children, tapped by wily relatives, was soon gone. For Narong, the golden age was a light behind him.
When Ping and Bo were born, Narong was working at a hotel in the heart of Chinatown called The Supreme Dragon. He saw the hotel as a display of the tastelessness of the newly wealthy Chinese. It wasn’t lost on him that the people he waited on, arriving for business conventions, belonged to the new generation of China’s millionaires, to the ‘classless’ society founded on the very rubble of his own family’s home, his family’s vanished class. These card-carrying members of the Chinese Communist Party who, having checked with Narong that the shark fin soup included in their meal was in fact bona fide, asked for extra portions in to-go containers. So that they might eat the stuff gloopy and disintegrated in their rooms later? No matter the painstakingly low heat the fin had been cooked on in order to serve it up, as custom dictated, warm and whole. No matter that a status symbol taken in the privacy of one’s room no longer carried much meaning.
‘Cultureless pigs,’ Narong complained to his co-workers. ‘They have sold our gods and traditions. What do they even know of opera? Or poetry? But they can still quote the dead chairman.’
Narong curated the audiences for his rants, performing these lines on the most impressionable ones, those children of immigrants, Thailand born, Thai cultured. He knew not to risk a real immigrant who might call out his own ignorance. Those people, after all, had former lives. A stunning array of former acupuncturists, former chess champions, former folk musicians. The old bellhop still composed ballads for the koudi, a small flute the man had fashioned from PVC piping.
Then came the 1997 financial crisis and the streets of Yaowarat were lined with the newly unemployed. Narong lost his job. In his shame he couldn’t bring himself to visit his brother’s business. He waited weeks, by which time his brother’s offices had already been stripped, the capital doled out.
That day, as his wife Manee went to the Chinese temple, an ominous gust kicked a calendar page down the street. Manee clapped it in her hands and made a worried assessment of the zodiac box. At the temple, she played a siam si set twice. Each time returned the same fortune. On her third trip to the desk, the woman who kept the scrolled prophecies said, ‘This isn’t the lottery! Take your fate and go.’
Loss, misfortune, delay. Manee had stayed the mulish course of her days through the downpour of grim news and economic forecasts, but the headwinds of the siam si were too much. And she was pregnant again. Her third child in three years. Please, a boy, she prayed. In the middle of the 1997 crisis, the week after the baht floated, she gave birth to her third girl.
The manager of The Supreme Dragon, a man of old China who had taken the loss of his restaurant as a captain does his ship, had produced for each of his staff a stack of photocopies of his hand-written reference letters. These letters Narong kept in his weatherproof satchel, flat between the pages of Ping’s favorite picture book, The Generous Elephant. Having signed the reference letters with the house phone number, Narong slipped them under the doors of the city’s finest Chinese establishments in the safety of dawn’s shuttered hours. He skirted the streets he knew, that knew him, bypassing banter from the father-son soymilk vendor.
When he did find work again, it was at a restaurant locals called ‘that Chinese place behind the car park.’
Through these years, Ping and her sisters were raised speaking not only Thai and chatty Teochew, but also the Queen’s English. Their grandfather had endowed a British international school with the land for its inception, ensuring the girls an education beyond their means, and Narong prized the Western pedigree of his daughters’ schooling. His own clan had been brought down by Maoist anti-intellectualism. Nightly he stood his eldest before him to chatter away in English. When she was old enough to understand that he didn’t understand a word of it, she spoke song lyrics, nursery rhymes, taking delight in belittling her father. Always she managed to keep the melody from her voice.
‘Mary, Mary, quite contrary. How does your garden grow? With silver bells, and cockle shells, and pretty maids all in a row.’
Math, however, Ba knew. She was quick, but whenever she stumbled, he grabbed her around the thigh, and with his other hand pinched her, high up beneath the skirt where the bruise wouldn’t show.
‘We are a family of achievement,’ he said before releasing the girl.
But already the shoots of Ping’s rebelliousness surfaced. She topped her classes but denied Ba the score cards. It wasn’t for him she had aced those tests. One evening, she responded to her father’s math quiz in English, daring the old man to admit his ignorance or respond in kind. Her eyes flashed victory.
He beat her. Properly, with the cane of bamboo he had stripped from the garden years back as an instrument only of fear. He whipped it on the backs of her knees and chased her into the bathroom. She slipped and screamed on the white tile.
‘I MADE YOU,’ he shouted.
‘I don’t know you!’ she cried back.
‘I don’t know you! I don’t know you –’
‘I SAID SHUT UP.’
And when she didn’t he turned the cold hose on her, wilting her school uniform against her body. Ping was swallowed by her fear and a detached stillness came over her, an animal certain of its fate. She saw the episode, as she would later remember it, from the eyes of the others. From her mother and her sisters, framed in the hallway door, and her father himself, bearing down.
The deadening in Narong’s firstborn made him furious. The cane snapped. He dropped it and began to tear Ping’s clothes. The wet cotton uniform shrieked as it was rent apart. What did he hope to achieve? He lost sight of it as he bared his daughter’s body, not seen since she was a toddler and he had bathed her, in this corner, in this bathroom, soaping skin the coveted color of pearl, of ivory, those symbols of wealth and status.
Narong mounded the soaked fabric and returned to the dinner table to pick the delicate bones from the fish on his plate.
The next day the welts were red worms creeping across Ping’s flesh. Her English teacher, a Filipino man, asked her what had happened to her arm. Ping replied that her father had beat her.
‘You should try not to disappoint him,’ the teacher said matter-of-factly. Which the seven-year-old knew as a grave misreading of the situation. It was she who was disappointed.
She saw her father from new distance. His antics, once spectacular, were now clownish. Take Ba’s dinnertime prophesizing, as he foretold their imminent return to being a family of means. His brother’s import-export business, into which Ba had invested his share of family wealth, would surely pick up, and the clan would rise anew. For his children, Ba demonstrated with two finger-legs riding an elevator. (For years afterwards, Ping would envision class as a winch system: with the correct understanding of its mechanics and access to the right levers, you could propel yourself to a higher floor.) The ultimate goal of this elevator was to return them to China (here, he pointed up at the ceiling), where they would at last rebuild the family home.
‘How many bedrooms?’ Sarai prompted.
‘Twelve bedrooms, and that’s not even including where the servants slept. We had two courtyards where I would play with my older brothers. The space of the upper floors – you wouldn’t believe it.’ Their father rose and loped around their dining table, staring at the walls but seeing a vast enclosure. ‘You could wander an entire afternoon and not encounter anyone else.’
What followed was a blueprinting of the house. The house changed according to the contours of Ba’s imagination, but this was another effect of wealth, that a bedroom could be added or subtracted without consequence to the whole.
Ping cut holes in her father’s design. ‘I thought the stairs were marble?’
Well, there were many staircases.
‘What about the rock garden? What about the brook running through it and the plum blossom trees?’ Ping had seen such domestic scenes stitched into the tacky drapery at the market. She had a handle on the truth: his memories were a table runner.
In the back kitchen, Ma passed Ping the bar of hard soap, a baton of dishonor.
‘You can’t talk to him like that.’
‘Why not? Who is he? Some nobody with no money.’
Her mother slapped her. ‘Concerning our family, nobody is more disappointed than your father,’ said her mother.
A malleable woman with a round face, Manee was also Teochew Chinese, but of peasant stock. Whereas Narong as a boy had been fed a history of riches, weaned on resentment, his usurped station, Manee’s fixations were earthly. When rice was scarce, she stretched it into porridge. She had an ear for the weather and a pedantic manner in the kitchen. Without telling her husband, she had started a washing business, mixing the neighbors’ linens in with their own and pocketing enough to supplement the groceries. She learned to wring her worry out with the grey water, distracting herself, a technique she perfected to the point of forgetting to listen for her husband.
One day Narong discovered his wife ironing rich, red linens, the bedsheet trailing from the table like the train of a gown. A sheet the color of good fortune. The iron sat too long and hissed. Manee snatched it up, but already it had marked the fabric.
The children returned from school. Ping kicked aside the screen door, explaining to adoring Bo and Sarai how she had pummeled this kid into weepy submission after he mocked her lunch kit. She halted, her story piled up against her surprise at the beautiful red sheet spread on the white linoleum. There followed an instant in which images of stories flashed through Ping: she saw Chinese New Year, a wounded animal, Snow White’s lips, a fruit basket. Then she saw her father standing with his back to her. He didn’t turn. She saw her mother in the corner, the corner of the red fabric between Ma’s clenched teeth; Ma in the corner on her hands and knees. Ma spat and stood.
Ping tried again to understand the situation. She took in the overstuffed furniture, the staticky TV, the rosewood dining table, as if by triangulating these objects and the positions of her parents she might navigate the mystery here. Her sisters flanked her, their sweaty fingers fluttering in her hands. What must they be thinking? Sarai, only four, sucking in solidarity the hem of her own shirt.
‘Continue,’ her father instructed.
Her mother returned to her corner. Without looking at her girls she again wadded the fabric between her teeth. Slowly, because her hands caught the sheet when she rushed, she transported on her knees the corner in her mouth to its opposite. Ma made another trip, each fold shrinking the remaining red. Hair webbed her wet face. With four more folds she had the fabric to the size of the parcels she wrapped, ready to return to the neighbors, a final task that was Ping’s. For Ping was as complicit in Ma’s business as she was in her father’s punishment. Seeing her mother kiss the final corner flat onto the fold would fuel Ping’s anger into her adolescence.
Any money Ba earned went into pretense. He maintained the appearance of being middle-class. He bought rounds for his co-workers. He gave money to someday revive his brother’s business. He made sure the girls’ clothes were immaculate. But inside their neat shoes, the socks had frayed.
Once, he went so far once as to afford the family a meal at his restaurant.
They sat in the air-conditioned back room, its walls papered over with travel-agency posters advertising trips to southern China. Ping turned her scrutiny from the white-capped mountains of Yunnan to the menu. The outing was a mistake. Her father, coming to the same conclusion, toyed with his uncertainty. He was a tossed coin, two faces alternating to catch the light. One was authoritative and its obverse, which Ping didn’t recognize, congenial and simpering.
‘Narong!’ said their waiter. He opened his body to the whole table. ‘Narong’s family! Welcome. You want ice or no ice with the water?’
‘Ice!’ said gleeful Sarai.
‘No ice,’ their father said.
‘No ice,’ the waiter agreed, and grimaced sympathetically at Sarai. He handed a notepad and pen to Narong. ‘Cook says the crabs are sweet and meaty today.’
When the man left, Ba thrust the pad and pen at Ping. ‘Write down what I say. Black-pepper crab, stir-fried pak kwangtung, palo duck tongues…’
Between words Ping glanced up at her father, seeing him clearly: a person still uncomfortable with his station, language, and nation. A man far from home. He could read, but he had never learned to write Thai propferly.
The waiter came back and checked the order. He smiled. ‘Your daughter’s handwriting is excellent, Narong.’
It was an uneasy feast. The girls responded to the friendly attention of the waiters and turned their eyes from their father’s diminished person, loyal to him in this moment, only this, to spare him his own shame, which was also theirs.
‘Finish that,’ he said. ‘You think this food comes cheap?’
The food was abundant and the bill, when it came, too small. The waiters had covered much of the meal. Ba turned red. He bought a round of beers for the entire staff and then hurried his family out.
Bo grew into a badminton champion on the local circuit. Ping attended her competitions in place of their parents. Bo’s opponents were lithe and controlled, their game a dance. But Ping had heard the coaches describe Bo’s ‘unusual strength’ and ‘muscular style of play’. What they meant was Bo was a bull. She made those waifs eat it.
Sarai, fifteen, had suitors. She leveraged their jealousies to get what she wanted: clothes, make-up. She kept a make-up kit on her person, lest their father discover it. She also carried a thumb-sized bottle of remover in her purse. Riding the bus home would blot the colors from her face.
‘You don’t think they would love you without the makeup?’ Bo asked, her head on Sarai’s shoulder. She was speaking to their faces in the pocket mirror.
‘Some of us like to look good. Even Pì Ping uses some, don’t you?’ Sarai pointed her cotton wad at Ping.
Ping blinked. It was true she drew a line under her eyes. ‘I don’t wash it off for Ba’s sake though.’
‘Sometimes it just helps to keep him happy. I don’t think either of you have ever appreciated that.’
Sarai with her fresh face; she always knew what words to use with boys, including their father. Bo had a different fluency, an ease that came from her court confidence, a conviction that she would land the shot.
What did Ping have? She felt that she was the only one still rooting around in the junkyard of her skills. Her anger was her guide. She had good grades but was hobbled in the footrace that was the university entrance exam. Her competitors were cram-school automatons, kids with the middle-class privilege of knocking their knees and repeating-after-me before computer screens. Kids in after-school cubicles with their instant noodles bloating in a cup, trying to remain awake in the face of six hours of prerecorded lesson. Even if the students dozed they did it with headphones on, and Ping for one believed in sleep hypnosis.
‘Firstborn,’ her father threatened, ‘education is your ticket out.’ Ping could finally agree with him. She had a routine and some textbooks she had lifted from the teachers’ lounge and was closing in on her classmates. Her night desk was a stool on the balcony, a mosquito sheet draped around her, a necessary configuration to keep the light from waking her sisters in the room they shared. She snacked on coffee-flavored caramels and muttered snatches of English music or movies in her prim Commonwealth accent
Around midnight, Ba returned from the evening shift. She switched off her light and watched him take the path across the patch of garden – long since turned to mud and paved with rotting planks – that led up to their shabby townhouse. From this vantage point, she had watched her father arriving in every shade of mood and moonlight.
Tonight, she saw his child’s glee, his arms weighed down with two plastic bags, the remains of the day. He would insist they eat it hot.
‘Ping!’ he called up, spotting her. ‘Get your sisters.’
In the room, her sisters had burrowed into the sag at the center of the old mattress.
At these witching hours a truce emerged. It was likely traceable back to some feudal custom, a protection afforded dinner guests, but Ping was convinced it had to do with the hour: midnight. At the change of day, the way between past and present grew short, requiring less to knock her father backward into history, his childhood wafting to him from something as simple as a soy-based broth. A sudden bite of ginger might release an essence of a day when he was eight and the path to the future was yet paved with gold.
It was noodles. Ba spun the revolving middle of the table, acting the role of a game show host. ‘What’ll it be tonight? What’ll it be?’
He gave his firstborn the first pick. Ping chose wontons, knowing that Bo favored the porkballs while Sarai had earlier whispered, in English, ‘I want the fishballs.’ The broth was lukewarm but rich.
‘You won’t find a better prepared broth in the city,’ Ba boasted. ‘Not in this city. Not even in those stuffy hotels.’
Only Ma excused herself from the night ritual, finding it extravagant to eat after dinner. In the years since the ‘97 crisis, her Buddhist zeal had advanced. She was by now at the stage of an ascetic, an artist of restraint in a family where the one thing they could agree on was excess, all of them wanting more from their lives.
Forbidden by Narong from working (‘No respectable mother is also a laundry woman, a seamstress, a vendor’), she labored instead for the temple. Ping had noticed a desperate edge in her mother’s faith. Ma spoke of a ‘pure happiness’ the way Ping’s alcoholic chemistry teacher dwelled on the distillation process of hard liquor.
On religious holidays, Manee foisted her belief on the family. They joined the queues outside a Yaowarat temple, musty incense breezing into the street where the girls stood. Ping stood with hip thrust critically, memorizing the photocopied book in her hands. She was a week from the entrance exams, but still her parents insisted on these charades. The queue was interminable.
‘I can’t stand this,’ Ping said.
‘How will you pass your exams?’ Ba said.
Ping spread her book and held it up. Factor theorem, the page read.
Ba shook his head. ‘Your gods are not our gods.’
On the day Ping received her exam results, Ba was working the midday shift so he could return to celebrate with the family. A feast was in the making: curried crab, fish and taro steamboat, oyster omelet. Her mother excused this extravagance with frequent depreciations of her own artistry.
‘I’ve tried to cook you your favorites tonight. I’ve tried but I couldn’t work in a palo with this spread. Too much egg. You’ll have to do without. And the crab isn’t as fresh as the vendor promised. And – ’
Ping, who’d only come into the kitchen to steal a branch of lychee, touched Ma’s shoulder. ‘I’ll be upstairs.’
This was the exit she had worked toward. But Ping was already feeling a pang of loss. Perhaps it was the evening’s unusual harmony, a confluence of the light and her mother’s good mood and her father, returning now with a whole duck to complete the picture. He saw her up on the balcony.
‘Ping, a duck!’ he cried with satisfaction. ‘I am coming up.’ He passed below her. Soon she heard him on the stairs, and then he was standing right beside her, gripping her by the back of her neck. His fingertips were cool with menthol oil, and he worked them into the bones of her spine, as if feeling for something she’d hidden from him.
‘Childhood hasn’t always been easy for you, I know. But soon you’re leaving us. We are proud of what we’ve made in you. Even a woman.’ Ba’s finger’s paused, as if contemplating his own words. The hand clamped around her neck and shook her. ‘You will remember me,’ he commanded her, ‘when you are gone.’
She was silent beside him. It was nightfall and the neighborhood was changing, the amber light fading off the reservoir where the conquering algae made gains from the shores, closing like stage curtains over the remaining life. Soon it faded from the water bottles fencing Ma’s plants by the curb in domino rows. It faded from the pink bougainvillea that had gone rogue, and from the top of the wall coped with beer-bottle shards. Finally, the street in front of the house was dark. In the distance, she could make out the sky train whispering past, not stopping, but announcing itself, the grim horizon streaked by its light, a last filament of gold.
Two months before his death, Ba had called her.
‘Ping,’ he said. ‘Your father.’ As if five years had been enough to forget that voice. Like old times, he drilled her with martial efficiency on the status of: her graduate degree, her relationship, and his grandchildren – were there any? No? Well it was for the best because –
‘Who gave you my number?’
Sarai, of course.
‘What do you want, Ba?’ It was the first time they had spoken since she left for university. The occasion: his diagnosis.
‘Are you trying to make me feel guilty?’
‘I’ve picked the temple. And the arrangements. The cost,’ he began, and broke off. He gave a number.
‘What do you want?’
‘I want five days on display at least. Seven would be better. I’ve chosen the temple where my own father was displayed. Those funeral rites were attended by thousands. The wreaths from the dignitaries were enough to fill a second chamber. Do you remember the place? They use real gold in the murals, I’ve been told.’
He didn’t have the money, she realized.
‘Ping,’ he said. ‘Firstborn. Please, the room must be big enough to accommodate everyone. There is your uncle’s side and the managers of the Dragon and the cousins from Ladprao. Seven days of rites. Then a waiting period before the cremation.’
And she let him speak, hearing the man from her childhood who paced circles around the dining table, telling his girls what his life would be.
Photograph © J Swanstrom