~ B E G I N N I N G S ~
When I hear the sea wind blowing through the streets of the city in the morning, I can still feel my father and the Old One — together — lifting me up to perch on the railing of a swaying deck; still feel the steady weight of Father’s palm braced against my chest and Poh-Poh’s thickly jacketed arm locked safely around my legs. I was three then, in 1926, but I can still recall their shouting in the morning chill, “Kiam-Kim, Kiam-Kim,” their voices thin against the blasts of salty wind, “Hai-lah Gim San! Look at Gold Mountain! Look!”
I saw in the distance the mountain peaks, and my toes curled with excitement. As I pressed a hand over each small ear to dim the assault of squawking gulls, fragments of living sky swirled and plunged into the waste spewing from the ship’s belly, and the sun broke through.
All at once, the world grew more immense and even stranger than I could ever have imagined; I ducked my head to one side and burrowed blindly into Poh-Poh’s jacket. Father plucked me off the rail and put me down to stand up by myself.
Poh-Poh did not stop him.
“We are near Gold Mountain,” she said, her Toishan words shouted above other excited voices. “Straighten up, Kiam-Kim!”
I watched as Father clutched the rail to hold our place against the surging crowd: he looked ready for anything.
I put my own hands around the middle rail and threw my head back, and tried to look as bold and as unafraid as Father. Poh-Poh glanced behind her. A wrinkled hand shakily held on to my shoulder. I shouted to her to look at the swooping gulls, but she did not hear me.
As the prow rose and crashed, and the Empress of Japan surged into the narrow inlet, gusts of bitter wind stung my eyes. At last, to greet the approaching Vancouver skyline, the ship blasted its horn.
“Look there, Kiam-Kim!” shouted Father. “Way over there!”
I looked: along a mountain slope, a black line was snaking its way towards the city.
“See?” Father said, kneeling down to shout above the chaotic machinery clanking away in the ship’s belly. “I told you there would be trains.”
I laughed and jumped about until the sea air chilled my cheeks. The Old One bent down to lift a thick coat collar around my neck. The air tasted of burning coal.
“Listen carefully, Kiam-Kim,” Father said. “Can you make out the train whistle?”
I listened. But I was not thinking of trains.
Grandmother had told me the story that dragons screeched and steamed out of hidden mountain lairs: sweating, scaly dragons whose curving bodies plunged into the sea and caused the waters to boil and the wind to scorch the faces of intruders until their eyes, unable to turn away, burned with tears.
The wailing finally reached my ears. The black line turned into freight cars headed towards the city’s row of warehouses and jutting docks.The train engine gave another shriek.
In response, the ship blew its horn again. A shawl of sea birds lifted skyward. Ship and train were racing to reach the same point of land. People behind us applauded.
Father raised his hand to shield his eyes against the dancing sunlight.
“We’re here, Mother,” Father said to Poh-Poh.
I said to myself, “ . . . here . . . ,” and gripped the rail even harder.
The long train now disappeared behind a shoreline of low buildings. With my eyes following the great billows of smoke, I heard clearly the echoing screech of wheels.
“The cries of a dragon,” said Poh-Poh.
Father said, “Just the train coming to a stop, Kiam-Kim.”
But the Old One’s voice was so certain that I held my breath.
~ O N E ~
When I was three years old, Father, Poh-Poh, and I were sent away from our Toishan village to Hong Kong, sent away by the Patriarch Chen, who was recently a Mission House convert and the head of our clan. As a demonstration of his Christian charity, the old Patriarch had agreed to clear the way for Third Uncle to sponsor us to come to Canada, so that Father, Grandmother, and I, First Son, would have a chance to escape the famine and the civil wars raging in the Pearl River Delta of Kwantung province. Those who could leave Sze-yup, the Four County village district in Southern China, would have a chance for a better existence. Those who settled in Gold Mountain might find work and send back remittances to help the ones left behind; every sojourner would return home when life improved in China.
Much later, I learned that before he had put up the money and bought the documents for us to join him in Vancouver, Third Uncle had to consider the feelings of his dead wife. He consulted Chinatown’s Madame Jing, who set up her fortune-telling table in Market Alley and had known him since he first arrived in Gold Mountain. She interpreted the final toss of the I Ching coins.
“The spirit of your dead wife approves,” she said.
Soon after this sign of approval, American gold and large Mexican silver coins were paid into various hands. Six months later, we sailed on an Empress steamer and landed in Victoria, then headed to Vancouver to settle in the Chinatown rooms that Third Uncle had rented for the three of us in a building on East Pender Street, just half a block from his warehouses on Shanghai Alley.
Third Uncle was not my father’s brother. In fact, he was a very distant cousin from Sze-yup, connected to us only through our mutual clan name of Chen; his own blood brother had died years ago in the interior of British Columbia. Over fifty, and successful as an import-export warehousing merchant, Third Uncle had been shocked into acknowledging his own mortality. In less than a month, five of his Chinatown associates had died, two from heart attacks, two from the coughing sickness, and one from a stomach tumour. He confronted a chilling fact: he had no family members in Gold Mountain to carry on after him. What legacy, then, had thirty years of his work and investments built? He promptly decided to sponsor a “namesake family” from Old China, a maaih-gee ga-ting, a “bought-paper family” that would replace what he himself had tragically lost.