Qíhǔnánxià mâ
One who rides the tiger, fears to dismount.
—A Chinese proverb


Greenwood, Mississippi, 1934

Every man who leaves his native country thinks he will return.

Even as he toils in lands where he will always be a stranger, that man believes he can find his way home again. If not to stay then to marry a wife, conceive a son, to buy a piece of land he might one day live upon. To honor aged parents if they remain. To revere them as ancestors if they have gone to Afterlife.

This is what sustain us in the fields and camps and sweatshops. Memory is a cloth of comfort to wrap the sweaty brow when we take up tools. It cools our head as we chop the cane, hoe the cotton, break up land and build it into farms and bridges, roads and railways.

Any man who tries will tell you, home is no easy place to return. Even if he finds the means to make it back, it won’t be same as before, and neither will he be. Yes, some of us return but I will not be one of them.

If that old me, Li Keung Man of the East met this me, Kong Man Lee of the West, I doubt he would even know himself. I will die among those who love me, but can never know me. Not daughter of my dead son, that beautiful and strong head girl mixed with so many people, she is of no people. Your mother’s scattered blood calls her everywhere but home.

I shall neither be known to you, great grandson who will grow up adrift from your ancestors. No one knows my full story, not even wife of these fifty years who insisted to call you after me though family name should pass only from father to son, not from great grandfather to maternal grandson. In old China you would belong to the family your mother married into.

Yet that mother of yours never married your father. Or should I say, he never married her. That is why, Kong Man Lee Junior, you belong to us.

“Baby, you’re still fooling with those papers.” Wife comes in fussing, like she would scold a child. “You need to eat some food then lay down and rest.”

“Yes, Vera, my Lì-lì. One more set of words to write and then I will sleep.”

She brings food from kitchen to tempt me into health: green tea, congee and Cantonese light soup I can smell is made with wrong spices. Moving around sickroom with towels and tonics, medicine bottles and hot water bags, she does in my aged sickness what I did in her youthful wellness.

She does for me even more, since I never had to clean up any food hurled out from belly, never had to push a rolling chair or empty any chamber pot. Vera used to whisper “baby” to me as a loving word. Now I am bigger infant than even you, siyun jang. Your lamp wick is just catching light as mine is burning out.

Living here at backside of old grocery store we do have indoor tap and good kitchen. No need to pump water or draw from well. No chopping wood to fire outdoor stove as I did in 1882. It is no disgrace when a man cooks food for wife, you know.

What else was there to give? I had no money to court a bride, no land or betrothal gift. All I had was strong arms to pump water and heat my Li-Li’s bath. To wash her clothes, to stock her cupboard with food. Every penny in my pocket was hers for the asking. If she wanted I would even give my bones.

Back in old China people called the Blacks lo mok. Some of them here still do, while the White man is also having bad names for them. I used to say this word myself, before I traveled west. Before I understood Chinese were not the only civilized people, and Negroes weren’t “black ghosts.” Before Peter, before you and Vera Lee Freeman Lee, my own “Li-Li,” I would have uttered this insult.

Those who walk a road know where the ruts are deepest. Some Mississippi Chinese still shun me for loving a Black woman, but they have never walked my road. In those days the Whites didn’t allow women to come here from China, and never let you near their own. We were a village of bachelors, pouring loneliness into hard labor, fantan gambling, opium and payday prostitutes. Some of us died from overwork. More of us died from homesickness and heartbreak. I never wished to live my life, or die my death this way.

What these Chinese people wanted me to do, live with no wife to warm my skin, no child in my house? A hundred men may make a camp, but it takes a woman to make a home. Chinese woman were not coming west, not those early days in the Delta. Travel is no good for women anyway. Better they stayed caring for young children and aged parents at home, not being abused like fathers and brothers and sons in the Overseas.

I study you closely. Child that you are, man you will become. Your hands are big and strong like shuai jiao wrestler, legs already hard with muscle. You use my rolling chair to raise yourself to standing, staring in my face like a soldier.

I look for any Chinese in your face, the indio and Spanish. Yes, that wide forehead is mine, the curly hair your mother’s. But Black blood is so strong in you, it may edge away all else.

A child’s life is piece of paper on which each person leaves a mark. So let my mark be 李強曼. Li Keung Man, or Kong Man Lee, so they say it here. I may not live to hear you call me taigong, great grandfather. Shabby Chinese grocery store and old Chinese name is all I have to give you, those things and these words.

Let them be your staff when life takes you into manhood. May you grow like the bamboo which bends, stronger than the oak which resists. But if a man brings you fighting words, be more like the oak that resists, and not the bamboo which bends. Do not allow some to say lo mok, and others to call you Celestial Monkey, Chink, or Bamboo Nigger.

They must call you by your rightful name, or do not call you at all.

“Have you reached 100 yet, Mr. Kong?” People seeing an aged Chinese like me will always want to know my age. When you are old man, people never speak face to face. They bend down to rolling chair to shout in the face, like you are child.

I do not know how many years I have. Maybe 100, maybe more. I am old enough for four lifetimes: my boyhood days in China, my twice-suffered sojourn in Cuba, my years in Mississippi, where I write these words from the bed I will die upon. The years behind me are like a book of many chapters, but the pages ahead are few.

Ailing as I am, I resist too much resting. When I close my eyes the memories come, flickering and fading like candlelight. But palest ink is better than the sharpest remembrance. I must capture these memories on pages you will read one day yourself. In that way you will know who I am, and also find a hidden part of you.


Guangzhou, China, 1861

There is someone I wish you could meet, Kong Jr. though I know you never will. He was already a big man back when I was barely out of childhood. Has it truly been over 90 years? I am leaning toward the afterlife, so perhaps I will be seeing him soon.

It is good to know a thing by its rightful name, even if others misspeak it.

White man called our city Canton, but we knew it by its true name, Guangzhou. Before the old foreign quarter burned to ashes, I was but a ragged coolie boy washing clothes, carrying water, and running errands for the “white devil” gweilo. Though I was born Li Keung Man, Peter Van Wagener was the first to call me Kong, this name that you also bear. My regard for the man I met made me cling to the mispronunciation.

I first saw him lying beneath a tree near the fence of the American Garden, a flat sailor’s hat covering his face. He seemed to be sleeping, though he might have been drunk or overcome with summer heat. Maybe he had lain down there and died. It wouldn’t be the first time such a thing had happened.

The legs stretching long and thin before might have been stilts for the Lantern Festival. His face was hidden, though his head was propped on folded arms that were dark as a moonless night. I thought he was wearing long black gloves.

I had seen many dark-skinned people in Guangzhou—the Hindus and Malay, the Macanese seamen that spoke patuá, a kind of Portuguese patois. Some of our own people were nearly as dark. But I never met any American Negro up until that time.

We Chinese are a curious people, especially about strangers. So naturally, I stopped to watch. When the man did not move, I crept closer to see if he was breathing. I reached a hand through the fence and touched a finger to his arm.

“It doesn’t rub off,” a deep voice spoke from beneath the hat. “Blackness is a permanent stain upon the skin.”

The man took the hat from his dark brown face, opened his eyes and shaded them from the sun. I backed away a careful distance, dropping to kowtow before him.

“Boss, me no sabi this talkee-talk.”

“Come up off your knees, boy. I am not your boss and I don’t ‘sabi’ that broken English. It sounds like that ignorant ‘Bama bunkum I used to hear. Speak to me straight, or do not speak at all.”

“But all gweilo man, he talkee so.”

And it was true. Foreigners had the languages they spoke among their own kind. Sometimes they used pidgin with other gweilo, but always with the Chinese. Peter Van Wagener refused. He thought it degrading for grown men to be speaking “baby talk.”

“They speak to you this way because they want to keep you ignorant. The White man doesn’t want you to have his native tongue. Master the language and you will master the man.”

Even the gweilo that laughed to hear me repeat the coarsest oaths and lowest profanity in their language, never liked hearing proper English from the boy who emptied their chamber pots and washed their breeches.

“Oi, listen to this celestial monkey trying to parlee the Queen’s English,” one sailor grumbled. “Don’t go giving yourself airs, chinaman.”

In the time his ship was blockaded at Guangzhou, Peter often came ashore. He wanted to learn as much as he could about the place he called Canton. I taught him words in Cantonese, even though it was forbidden for gweilo to learn it. In turn he taught me how to speak proper English, and later how to read and write it.

I showed him the best places for porcelain and rice liquor, making sure the shopkeepers didn’t cheat him. I took him to the public baths and an opera on the life of Lin Tse-hsü. I even offered him bunches of fresh rhubarb, the vegetable we thought all the gweilo couldn’t live without. He seemed neither interested in eating rhubarb, nor visiting the Tanka flower girls.

“I have a wife waiting,” he said, “who is respectable and clean. I won’t be bringing back to her any dose of the pox.”

Peter was a deck hand aboard an American opium runner. He often complained about his White crew members, how cruel and unfair they were. Sometimes though, he seemed proud to be American.

He would frown at the shops on Hog Lane, or point to the foreign warehouses lined along the riverfront, each one flying flags of their nations. “You think these Thirteen Factories are something to see? New York City is the grandest market of all. Anything you want, you can find a seller. Whatever you want to sell, there will be a buyer.”

The First Opium War had been fought and lost before I was born though operas still sang the deeds of the Qing emperor’s commissioner. Lin Tse-hsü, the man they called “Clear Sky,” seized shiploads of opium, then burned and dumped it into the sea. He composed a poem to the god of the ocean, begging forgiveness for despoiling his waters.

In return the foreign warships came to attack our city and ravage our shores. By the time the First Opium War was over, foreigners had set up their outposts in Hong Kong and all along the coast.

I didn’t know it at the time, but a new war was brewing. A Chinese coastal patrol had seized a British pirate vessel, and Royal Marines crowded Ling Ding, blockading the shipping lanes and trapping the merchant vessels and their crews in the anchorage. The Second Opium War was coming.

Whenever I saw Peter reading, I begged him to tell me what the words were saying to him. He bought me a writing slate, and set me to work copying newspaper stories and Bible verses. In time I slowly learned to understand them. Once he recited a poem he said he had written himself, then made me repeat the words. I still remember them.

Get me to my home, that’s in the far distant west,
To the scenes of my childhood, that I like the best;
There the tall cedars grow, and the bright waters flow,
Where my parents will greet me, white man, let me go!

Let me go to the spot where the cateract plays,
Where oft I have sported in my boyish days;
And there is my poor mother, whose heart ever flows,
At the sight of her poor child, to her let me go, let me go!


It did not seem, for all his mastery of language that Peter Van Wagener was the master of his own fate. A person whose heart is not content is like a snake which tries to swallow an elephant. Discontent seemed to shadow him, riding him like a ghost. One night while drunk on plum wine, Peter told me he planned to jump ship again. He was weary of living in bondage, and feared conscription into the coming war.

Foreigners were not allowed beyond the city gates, especially with the drums of war beginning to rumble. Perhaps a few White men had managed to stow away, or disguise themselves as missionaries to sneak upriver. But how could a Negro man six and a-half feet tall hide himself? I might have helped smuggle him into Portuguese Macau or British Hong Kong, but those places were swarming with Whites. If Peter was ever recaptured, his punishment would be severe.

“Any man can take a beating,” he boasted. “It wouldn’t be my first.”

Peter told me that regular floggings weren’t the worst part of being held captive shipboard. It was the confinement, the inability to do as one wished, to go where one wanted. It was being without a woman or family to soften the burdens of life.

Life aboard his old whaling vessel had been once so intolerable that Peter jumped ship at the first opportunity. But after living peacefully on Pitcairn Island for years, marrying a local woman and fathering a child, his past came forward to meet him. He was recaptured, his contract converted into indenture, a kind of working imprisonment. Peter was afraid to even write back home to his mother.

“How can I tell the woman who fought so dearly for my freedom that her only son is re-enslaved? Better she thinks me dead and buried at sea.”

One day when I carried boiled water to the bathhouse, I saw Peter removing his clothes. His naked back was crisscrossed in a web of scars. I lifted my top to show my own.

“You see? Your skin, same as mine. How you get your scars?”

Peter said it was nothing for crew to be flogged shipboard. “Flogged with many stripes, then made to arise and swab the deck of your own blood. But truthfully, my whippings began as a child in Alabama.”

“I thought you were a New York man. What is this Alabama? And why were you there as a child?”

“I was born up in Ulster County, not New York City.” Peter turned and looked westward, as if searching out the place of his pain. “Alabama was punishment of the highest order.”

“It is where they send children for reprimand?”

Several expressions rippled across his face, like waves on a tidal river. Irritation, sadness, a sour smile. “I suppose one could say so. It was the place of my enslavement.”

I thought about my mother, sold into a Táishān merchant’s household. “Slave? Smart man like you, how can you be slave?”

“I never said I was a slave,” he corrected. “I was enslaved, sold down the river as my people say.

I hadn’t been to Cuba yet. I didn’t know that some Blacks lived in cruel captivity, even in New York itself at one time. As slavery there was coming to an end, Peter’s slaveholder had stolen his freedom and sold him in Alabama where Blacks were yet unfree.

“Completely illegal, of course. But White men believed themselves above the law. Who would oppose him? My mother, a poor, unlettered, ex-slave herself?”

“So how did you get away?”

“My mother’s name was Isabella, though everyone called her Belle. Maum Belle could be stubborn as a mule when she wanted to. She went all around Ulster County, asking people to help her. A kindly family came to her aid and helped her take my case to the courts. I was five, maybe six at the time. Certainly no older.”

“Only God can know a mother’s love. She brought you back home?”

“Yes, but I had been away for over a year, subject to the slave master’s cruelest whim. He whipped and flogged me unmercifully. Sometimes even worse.”

At the time I could not imagine anything worse than beating. Now, of course, I know. After his mother got Peter back, they moved to New York City. She saw that her son learned reading, writing, and figuring his sums, so that he could have a better life than she had.

“Maum Belle wanted to help people, as she herself had been helped. But she couldn’t help me,” Peter admitted. “A seed was planted during my time in Alabama, something so wild and unruly I could scarcely contain it. In short, I became a rogue.”

“What is rogue?”

“It means I did very bad things, Kong. My mother did not rescue me from slavery only to lose me to the streets. I’d be dead or in prison if she hadn’t signed me onto that whaling vessel. I thought it was because she was ashamed of me, a preaching woman with a criminal son. She wanted to send me away.”

“When she fought to get you back?” This was before my own mother found the thing she loved more than me. “Going away on whaling ship was best thing for you, not so?”

“It probably saved my life. You are close to the age my son would be now. I cannot teach him any lessons from where I stand in life. I can only ask that you become a better man me. Can you promise me this, Kong?”

I raised my hand and swore it to him. “Yes, I will.”

When the foreign quarter caught fire, the gweilo and Chinese worked together, ferrying water from the river in buckets and using pumping engines trying to extinguish it. When this failed, the factories and Chinese shops burned to ashes. The merchants and ship crews escaped to their vessels but Peter Van Wagener could not be found. Perhaps he died in the fires. Perhaps he found his escape. Whatever became of him, I would never see him again.

In the end I could not keep the promise I made to my old friend. I grew up to be much like him, great grandson. In good ways, also bad.