a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
In which Jillian travels to the precarious city and encounters the ghost of her great-grandfather, among others.
Angie O’Malley and her daughter Jillian Guzman are on a plane, its shadow skimming the clouds below them all the way to San Francisco, a city Angie considers precarious, as in “an earthquake could happen at any moment.” She’s been worrying for weeks that the big one will hit while she and Jillian are there. The history of San Francisco, at least for her, is bound up with her mother who grew up across the bay and now lives near Telegraph Hill. San Francisco! — where her grandfather had a mistress for thirty-five years before leaving her grandmother who was the mother of his nine children.
This, according to Angie, is how the leave-taking happened. Her grandmother got a bill from the cleaners for the other woman’s drapes and so, feeling ill, she climbed the long curving flight of stairs to her bedroom—the house was a Victorian, Angie tells Jillian, just as her grandparents themselves were Victorians of a sort, born in the days of Queen Victoria, formed by those morés, his infidelities, therefore, however sordid and secret, a fact of life—still, her grandmother felt disturbed and this disturbance was wrenching unto the very cells of her brain and so she lay down on her bed and had a stroke. Her husband found her there and sat by her side all night. He sat there, waiting patiently for her to die, calling no one, even though his son the doctor lived in a house nearby. When, by morning, his wife had turned blue but was still breathing, he went downstairs, knocked on his oldest daughter’s door and said, “Your mother is ill. She needs you.” And then, free of the burdens of his life, he disappeared with his mistress into the precarious city forever.
Angie has told Jillian about her great-grandfather before but, of course, because Jillian is mute, Angie has told her lots of things in long convoluted monologues that Jillian allows to drift through her mind like clouds streaming across a summer sun, like geese flying south, like dark fish beneath the surface of a pond in winter.
Jillian looks out the window of the plane. They are above a layer of clouds dense as cotton batting. She can’t see through them. Is this heaven?
Even so, Angie continues, my mother, your grandmother, the youngest of the nine, adored him. Adored him! Even though he left her mother when she was eighteen. Even though he was the kind of man who found it amusing to use his fountain pen as a spear which he chucked with surprising accuracy into the scalp of a bald student who sat in front of him. Even though he bragged that the Chinese laundryman always put exactly the right amount of starch in his shirts because he’d threatened to cut off his ponytail if he didn’t, which meant, Angie explains, depending on whose story you believe, the laundryman would either never get to heaven or could never return to China.
Ha! Jillian thinks, rolling her eyes at her mother, that shows you how much your grandfather knew! Han Chinese men hated to wear queues—they had been forced to shave the front of their heads and braid the remaining hair into a queue in the 1600s by the Manchus in the Qing dynasty; to rebel was a sign of treason, punishable by death, death by beheading. And thousands—tens of thousands? hundreds of thousands? does anyone know for sure?—lost their heads—literally—rather than put their hair in a queue. Blood had run in the rivers, as they say, soaked the thirsty earth.
Jillian knows this because in those moments when she was first born, in those few precious moments of omniscience, the universe had downloaded into her brain all sorts of random data. Her hard-drive is wired wired wired: it’s her retrieval system that lacks some precision. For instance, when she thinks “queue,” she thinks “Qing,” and when she thinks “Qing,” this catchy little saying starts playing: “keep your hair and lose your head, or keep your head and cut your hair.”
Of course, if you were Chinese in America and didn’t have a queue, you couldn’t go home to your family in China, but by 1911 and the Xinhai Revolution, all that had changed and so she can just imagine the laundryman looking up at her great-grandfather, all six feet four inches of him, and thinking WTF? Dude. It’s the 1920s. Even the Emperor has cut his queue.
At that moment, Jillian’s own faulty brain is flooded with images from Bonanza. The little Chinese cook—what was his name?—he had a queue. And a cleaver. Hop Sing. Oh, how she loves Little Joe.
The girl is different. Even I can see that. She must be 9, maybe 10, almost as tall as her mother, and yet she sits there looking out the window at the bridge, drawing like a much younger child, while her mother and grandmother drink tea. Lois, her grandmother, my boss, insists on calling me María. This has been going on for years. ¿Por qué? Marisol is too hard to remember?
The girl’s mother smiles at me apologetically when I set the tea before her but then, just as quickly, she drops her smile and I am left wondering if I am seeing things. These people. A cloud across the sun, that quick they change, fickle as weather here in the area of the bay.
Later, she—the mother, Angie—she says to me, “Where did you learn to make scones like these? I didn’t know scones were Mexican.”
This is a joke?
Lois, she talks about her other daughter, the one with the broken heart whose husband absconded with the teenager from his morning math class, she says, “And what is the common denominator? She is. She drives them all away.”
“Mom,” Angie says, and I know what she is thinking because I’ve heard it all—the first one liked to powder his nose, coca, the second one, too fond of drink, and this one, the third, according to Lois? Not marriage material. Or not the marrying type? How does she say?
La Angie, she motions with her head towards the girl. Why? Because she thinks she is too young to hear of such things as an uncle who likes girls her age? I can tell you this girl, as all girls do, knows of such things about men. Why pretend otherwise?
“He’s a p-e-d-o-p-h-i-l-e.”
“You can’t keep a man with vinegar.”
“Oh, Mom. But why would she want to keep him?”
“I’m just saying. My brother was seventeen years younger than his wife. Who happened, also, to have been his teacher in high school. A lovely woman.”
The girl looks at her mother and then at her grandmother and then at me. She isn’t an imbecile, this girl. In fact, like me, she sees and hears everything. She’s maybe too smart, this girl. On her paper she is drawing the ocean and the sun but I don’t know if it’s the view out the window or my name, mar y sol, sea and sun, that she’s drawing. Maybe, since she can’t talk, it’s her way of saying my name in Spanish because she follows me into the kitchen and gives it to me but when I put it on the refrigerator with a magnet, she takes it off and folds it up and puts it in my hand. And then she sneaks another scone.
When Lois says, “Thank you, María. What would I do without you, María?” I know it’s my cue to go to the foyer and get my bag. I hear her whisper to Angie, “What will I do if we get a law like that one you have in Arizona that makes all the Mexicans go back to Mexico? I can’t afford an Oriental, not one that speaks English.”
And then she calls, “Take the leftovers home, María, to your little ones because we, here, we do not need to eat sweets and those scones are loaded with butter and we are watching our girlish figures, aren’t we girls?”
I know she is looking at the girl, Jillian, who is at that age where the chubbiness has not yet become breasts or hips and at her daughter whom she thinks is not doing a good job because she let the girl eat four scones—not counting that extra one in the kitchen—and drink two cups of hot chocolate with lots of whipped cream but, of course, the chocolate is very good. It is from Mexico.
Jillian has stopped in front of a store called the Memory Gallery. She is gazing at white cartons like take-out containers for Chinese food, there are lots of them and they are suspended from the ceiling by invisible strings and so they seem to be floating in the air. Jillian studies her reflection in this store-front window, which is a gloss over the white containers hanging inside, the scrolls and the mannequin in the red Chinese dress, the photographs of old Chinatown which are propped up in the window and seem eerily familiar. In the reflection, she sees behind her Chinatown in the morning, the street nearly empty, and her grandmother pushing her walker. Hunched over, she looks just like a little Chinese lady, even her tightly-permed black hair, even her red sweater, and the walker makes the walking so slow that Jillian has time to look at herself in the windows, at the dragons on the light posts, at the bins full of vegetables she’s never seen before, light green and looking like large sea cucumbers or fantastic turds of fantastic lizards, maybe of komodo dragons or Gila monsters, and the dried brown things in bins that look like the husks of cicadas and might cure anything if they didn’t stink so much. Will someone make her drink tea? It is a possibility.
She turns from the window and across the street, there is a building like a huge pink pagoda and a Chinese girl is leaning out of an upstairs window and she is brushing her teeth and Jillian looks at her and wonders if she’s just been imported from China or if she is a ghost who is always hanging out that window, brushing her teeth. The world swirls, a kind of upside down whoosh like when you look up too quickly and the buildings topple in and the clouds move fast and inside you are falling, like that, a whoosh! her insides swirled upside down, and when she recovers her balance, there, on the walk in front of her is her great-grandfather. Does anyone else see him? Her mother and grandmother have walked on, the grandmother who adores him lifting her walker, lifting her walker slowly in front of her, methodically in front of her, she seems to see nothing.
Her grandmother and her mother and herself—Jillian looks at her own hand—they are the only ones who are still in color. Everyone else is like a photograph from the Memory Gallery come alive, her great-grandfather and the other men, some kind of officials with their black coats and little square hats, and the Chinese women dressed in long dresses just like Kitty in Gunsmoke, well maybe not so much cleavage, and the men are asking for the women’s papers because, as her great-grandfather tells her, they all look alike, those inscrutable Chinese, those clever Chinese, and so they have to carry papers. The yellow hordes, the Mongol hordes—he goes on and on—they take all the jobs and smoke opium and gamble and sleep with prostitutes, they bring their ways which are not our ways across the ocean and really, bring the mice and the lice and the plague and take over all the gold claims and do we want miscegenation? No! he says. It should be illegal! If a white woman marries a Chinaman, she will lose her citizenship. If a white man kills a Chinaman, over a gold claim, say, another Chinese cannot testify. We cannot have, in a court of law, a Chinaman testifying against a white man. If a Chinese doesn’t have a resident pass, he will be arrested, sentenced to one year of hard labor, and then deported and made to pay for his deportation. Thus sayeth the Workingman’s Party and the Golden State of California.
Thus sayeth her great-grandfather who was born six years before the Exclusion Act and so believes it is as natural as breathing to want to cut off a man’s pigtail. Her great-grandfather is standing before her and seems to recognize her because he holds out his hand and says, Jillian! I’ve been watching you. Why you are your grandmother’s granddaughter! You have the same twinkling brown eyes and the same fanciful imagination! Let us go and drink the tea that is made from dried ginseng that looks, a little, yes, like the dried husks of cicadas, but is not. Ginseng and ginger will do you good, my dear girl. Why did your mother marry that Mexican? And why did they ever take you away to the desert?
But Jillian sees her grandmother and her mother far up the sidewalk now, up near the crest of the hill, and she does not want to be left behind at the turn of another century where there is no such thing as the Good Old Days no matter what Netflix shows on Bonanza or Rawhide or Gunsmoke, it’s all the same as now, just ask Marisol, she thinks, who has fled Mexico and the rolling of heads there, and so she runs up the hill to her grandmother’s red sweater but when her grandmother turns around, it is not her grandmother, it is a little old Chinese lady with freckles dusting her flat face, and she seems to be glaring at Jillian. It’s a glare, Jillian is sure, she is sure this little old lady does not like her.
And then she looks up to see if her great-grandfather has followed because she suddenly needs to know: did you really want my great-grandmother to die? Was that what you were waiting for? Why you let her turn blue? She remembers the dark eyes and deep dimples of her great-grandmother in the picture on her mother’s dresser and she remembers the ponytail, that switch of her thick black hair, her beautiful hair, that her mother keeps wrapped in silk in a special box in a special drawer. Did you?
But he is gone and instead, Jillian sees a church and on the church these words: observe the time and fly from evil and the little Chinese lady is still glaring but now, she is no longer Chinese, she is Jillian’s own fierce grandmother with her sharp nose and precise lipstick. Lois. Glaring. Because Jillian has nearly knocked her over and one broken hip is all it would take.
It is a precarious city. At any moment, the earth could shrug and the tall tall buildings would topple, the glass falling in sheets and shards, shattering bones, shearing flesh from bones, heads lopped off neatly. Or not so neatly. The ocean could rise, fire could rage as it did after the 1906 quake when all that saved little Italy was blankets soaked in red wine. This is what Jillian is thinking, although not in these exact words, no, she is thinking in images and impressions. Glimpses of disaster come to her and she is momentarily dizzy with the precariousness of it all and therefore, with the brazen courage it must take to live in such a place, and therefore, when she rides the cable car with her mother and hangs off the side, she laughs at the smiling Chinese students in their neat school uniforms as they hang from the other cable cars coming from the other direction. She holds out her hand for a high five. They are all laughing as they slap at one another’s hands. Because: why not?
~ ~ ~
In which, Dear Reader, your narrator meditates upon the fear of the yellow peril and, by extension, the browning of America.
My grandfather did sit on my grandmother’s bed, waiting for her to die of a stroke. “He waited until her skin turned almost blue,” Aunt Dorothy told me, “and then he came downstairs and knocked on my door and said, ‘Your mother needs you.’ And then he left the house and went to live with his mistress.” By my calculations, this happened in 1938, when my mother was 18, Dorothy, 28, and their mother, 63. “I’ve never told your mother this story,” Aunt Dorothy said, “because she adored him. But what was worse? To tell her the truth or to allow her to believe the lie?”
According to my mother, my grandfather, who was 6′4″, would threaten the Chinese laundryman, not enough starch—or too much starch?—and he’d cut off his pigtail.
“He had such a presence,” she would marvel. “When he entered a room, people noticed.”
The Han Chinese, traditionally, did not cut their hair. Confucius said, “We are given our body, skin, and hair from our parents; which we ought not to damage.” As a result, the Han, both men and women, wound their hair into a bun. In fact, for men, hair was seen as a sign of virility. The Manchus from the north, however, shaved the front half of their heads, braiding the rest of their hair into a long queue and, in the 17th century, when the Manchus conquered the rest of China thus establishing the Qing dynasty, they ordered the Han Chinese, among others, to follow northern customs by shaving the front half of their heads and adopting the queue as a sign of loyalty—or, as the Han saw it, submission. Some say it marked the Han as livestock. The edict, which was called the Queue Order or tonsure decree, gave the Han Chinese ten days to shave their heads and braid the remaining hair into a queue or they would face death. “Off with your hair or off with your head” is one way the saying has been translated and, according to oral storytelling, armed barbers carried the severed heads of resisters through the streets on bamboo poles.
Although most Chinese men in San Francisco were Han, they viewed their queues as part of their heritage and Chinese identity. After all, their ancestors had adopted the queues two centuries earlier and until the early 1900s, to go back to China without it, would mark one a traitor. To cut someone’s queue was a symbolic act of castration.
In a Horatio Alger novel from the 1870s, The Young Explorer: Or Claiming His Fortune, one character fights another to prevent him from cutting off a Chinese miner’s queue. In a Bonanza episode, town bullies cut off Hop Sing’s queue and he says he will not be able to join his ancestors in heaven, but later, after proving that Little Joe is not guilty of killing the perpetrator, Hop Sing is able to weave his queue back on.
In 1873, the Pigtail Ordinance was passed in California, which required the forcible shaving of the heads of those in jails. It was over-turned by the Supreme Court in 1879.
In April 2010, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signed Senate Bill 1070. Section 2(B), aka “show me your papers,” which requires police officers to determine the immigration status of anyone they arrest or detain and allows them to stop and detain anyone they suspect might be in the country illegally, whether or not they have committed a crime. This bill has resulted in racial profiling and anyone who appears to be Hispanic or “foreign,” whether a citizen or not, needs to carry ID at all times. My husband, Fernando, a fourth generation Tucsonan, would grab his wallet whenever we left the house for even a short walk in our own neighborhood. After SB1070 was passed, two dozen copycat bills were introduced in several other states.
In May 1882, President Chester Arthur signed the Chinese Exclusion Act into law, which meant that all Chinese residents, citizens and non-citizens, had to carry Resident Passes. If they failed to carry them, they would be arrested, sentenced to hard labor for one year, then deported and made to pay for their own deportation expenses. Like Arizona’s SB1070, the Chinese Exclusion Act had its roots in economic hard times, when people whose labor has been necessary are suddenly seen as displacing “American” (code for “white”) workers. The signing of the Exclusion Act gave way to the first great wave of human smuggling.
The Working Man’s Party of California—not to be confused with a Socialist workers’ movement of the same name —was a labor organization founded in the 1870s by Denis Kearney, an Irish immigrant. Their slogan was “The Chinese Must Go!” Vigilantes burned the homes and businesses of Chinese residents across the state and in neighboring states. Anti-Chinese sentiments, in 1868, led to the expulsion of 44,000 people of Chinese descent from the state of California; in the late 1870s, it led to the burning of Chinese businesses in San Francisco and the threats to burn down Chinatown. Chinese leaders, however, let it be known that anyone who came into their part of the city would be met with rifles. In 1871, in Los Angeles, the fear of “yellow peril” led to the lynching and burning of twenty men, four of whom were crucified first. Chinese were displaced, persecuted, and burned alive across the western United States.
“He doesn’t stand a Chinaman’s chance,” became a popular saying and my mother said it often when I was a child, although I don’t think she was aware of its origin.
The Chinese Exclusion Act, 1882, which was not repealed until 1943, can be seen as the first of many efforts to control the nation’s racial and ethnic make-up: the war against the plains Indians culminated in 1890 at Wounded Knee; white Democrats in the south made the first steps towards legalizing segregation in 1896, and the Supreme Court made its “separate but equal ruling” the same year.
In 1906, the year of the great earthquake, Chinatown was destroyed. Even before the quake, the city leaders had talked of moving Chinatown, as it was set on prime real estate next to the financial district, to the mud flats south of the city. However, the Chinese had leverage. They knew they paid a lot of taxes and other Western port cities, they thought, would welcome their commerce, and so Chinatown was rebuilt by the Chinese, on its original site, with buildings that looked more “Chinese”—colorful pagodas with curled eaves and dragons—in order to attract tourists. Because the town hall had burned in the quake and with it, all birth certificates, Chinese-born men could claim to be American citizens, which meant they were allowed to bring their wives and children over; the children, because their documents were questionable, were known as “paper sons.”
What would my mother have thought of SB 1070? It’s difficult to know. After Fernando and I had been married for fifteen years, she had accepted him. In fact, she told my daughter, “Don’t choose anyone darker than your father. He’s a nice shade of brown.” But she was still, up until her death in 2006, afraid that China was going to take over America. It alarmed her that the United States had borrowed so much money from China and that China was buying up all the concrete and steel.
“Clever,” she would say, shaking her head at the television news, “clever, those Chinese.”
“In the Precarious City” is from Jillian in the Borderlands: a cycle of rather dark tales, forthcoming from Black Lawrence Press in October 2020. Beth Alvarado is the author of three books: Anxious Attachments (Autumn House Press, 2019), Anthropologies: A Family Memoir (University of Iowa Press, 2011), and Not a Matter of Love and other stories (Winner of the Many Voices Project Prize, New Rivers Press, 2006). Beth has lived in the Sonoran desert for most of her life. She teaches at OSU-Cascades Low Residency MFA Program. Her essays and stories have been published in many fine journals including Guernica, The Sun, The Southern Review, Ploughshares, River Teeth, Cimarron Review, The Collagist, WHR, The Drunken Boat’s Librotraficante Portfolio, and Cutthroat’s Speak Truth to Power Issue.