San Francisco 1867 Xiu knew that the shadowy figures stretched out in every room were bodies. The air was thick with smoke, and all around her tiny embers were suspended magically in the air. The cinders or flames would glow brightly for a moment and then disappear again into the darkness like fiery-eyed, blinking dragons. The sight terrified her, but she said nothing as her foster mother dragged her from room to room. Occasionally someone would babble from a bunk as they passed, and Xiu tightened the grip on her mother’s hand. As her eyes adjusted, she realized Oriental screens divided the rooms, and the embers in the air came from long-stemmed, bamboo pipes the patrons were smoking. Most of the men were Chinese, but a few had white skin like her foster father, Pastor Day. The men were stretched out on beds, languidly smoking or slumped back in opium reveries. Silent Chinese attendants would glide from room to room, serving tea, cleaning tables, or selling more pipe dreams. The building had, at one time, been a run-down warehouse. It was now converted into a respectable opium den. There were many dens in San Francisco in 1867, ranging from dirty back-alley hovels to pleasure houses catering to the wealthiest of Chinese American merchants. Xiu followed her mother up some stairs and down a dark hall where she knocked on a door. An attendant came out and greeted them. She was a graceful woman wearing a satin gown and embroidered slippers. They conversed in Cantonese while Xiu watched them. The women were so different. Her mother was a petite, blonde of Swedish descent and the other woman was Chinese American, dark-haired and mysterious. Being from China too, Xiu had made this sort of comparison between her mother and herself many times. She knew the stark contrast between them was why people stared when they walked down the street. “Yes, she is growing,” her mother said looking down at Xiu. “She’s twelve now.” Xiu ran her eyes over the elegant attendant. She had seen only a handful of females from China, and none of them were this beautiful. It was usually men who made the arduous journey across the ocean to “Gold Mountain” where they panned for riches or lay track for the Central Pacific Railroad. The women talked a while longer, and the attendant started down the stairs. Suddenly Xiu’s heart jumped. There in the dim light, she saw a bulging, jagged scar on the woman’s cheek, running from her temple down to her lips. It looked terrifying and grotesque, like seeing two different people co-existing side by side in one body. One side was serenely beautiful, and the other side was horribly disfigured. Xiu swallowed hard and followed her mother. The room they entered was a small but richly decorated chamber, lit by several glass lanterns adorned with fringes. On the walls were paintings of the Guangdong Province. A desk covered with papers was in one corner, and in the other corner, there was an intricately carved teakwood screen. Xiu saw a man stand up from a divan behind this screen and close his pants. “Madam Day,” he said to her mother. “So good to see you.” He shuffled to his desk and sat down. He was short but powerfully built with a square jaw and tiny eyes. His forehead was shaved in deference to the emperor and a long, braided queue hung down his back. Xiu noticed her mother’s posture stiffen. Dolly Day was short in stature but because of her presence, she appeared taller. With a Swedish accent, huge breasts and bright blue eyes, she was exceedingly attractive to men. She had masses of strawberry blonde hair which she piled on top of her head, but most of the time it slipped from its pins, tumbling down around her shoulders in an unruly mess. She pitched a ledger onto the desk and said, “There is a matter to discuss with you.” Ming Zhang’s eyes grew large. “Who gave you that ledger,” he barked. But then he caught himself and said, “Please sit down. I see you have your lovely daughter with you today.” Dolly ignored him. “There are discrepancies here, major discrepancies. You have abused my trust.” “What is it you are implying, Madam Day?” Xiu looked nervously from one to the other. “I am saying you’re cheating me.” Zhang’s nostrils flared, and he replied, “So this is the thanks I get. I keep this business going while you go off to play pastor’s wife. I have taken nothing.” “Like hell, you haven’t!” Dolly said. “I’m taking The Five Fortunes back, and you will return every penny you have embezzled from me.” Slamming his hands on the desk, Zhang roared, “Get out!” The door opened, and two burly men stepped inside to see if he needed assistance. “Escort them back to the mission house,” Zhang ordered. Xiu pressed herself against her mother’s side. Dolly raised an eyebrow. “Very well. We will do it your way for the time being.” She took Xiu’s hand, and they swept out of The Five Fortunes. Xiu could feel the tension in her mother’s body as they walked through the streets. She looked over her shoulder and saw that the men were still following them. Although the sun had just set, this section of San Francisco was already filling with revelers. Seamen, dock workers, and laborers, Chinese and Caucasian alike, walked the streets. Men in fine carriages rode past, heading to opium dens or brothels, their horses straining uphill or carefully stepping downhill. Blazing torches and large Oriental globe lanterns lit the walkways. Chinese prostitutes called to prospective customers from wickets on doors. Even in the dim light, their heavily rouged cheeks and lips were apparent. “Say nothing when we turn here,” Dolly murmured. “Act as if this is the way home. Don’t worry darling. I won’t let those men hurt us.” Xiu knew her mother was upset. Her Swedish accent always thickened when she was distraught. She wondered what she was talking about. The men were only escorting them home. Dolly and Xiu had set out earlier in the day to run errands and make a stop in what Dolly called, “The Quarter.” Once a month they ventured into the Chinese section of the city. The complexion of the district was very different during the day. The streets were busy and safe, filled with shoppers and merchants. Vendors pushed carts, and storefront doors were thrown open to display baubles, fabrics, and tea from the Orient. Shops bulged with fresh seafood, vegetables, and fruits. Every time they came here, Dolly would go into a gift shop called, “The House of Five Fortunes” and Xiu would wait by the front door. She didn’t know that the gift shop was a front for the opium den her mother owned. Xiu would stand outside, passing the time trying to decide what trinkets in the window she would buy if, by some miracle, she ever had money. There were rice paper fans, hand-painted vases, bolts of silk, glossy boxes, dolls and imitation jade jewelry draped on scarves. This particular day, Dolly came out of The House of Five Fortunes with a ledger. They walked across the street and sat down on a bench outside a greengrocer while Dolly pored over long columns of numbers. Xiu noticed her mother’s face flush and heard her gasp as she examined the contents of the book comparing the Five Fortunes record with her own. It was getting dark when she finished. She stood up and said, “I never planned on staying this late, my little one. This time, you have to come inside with me.” That’s when Xiu, at last, saw the interior of The House of Five Fortunes, met the attendant, Nuan Chen and saw Dolly’s manager, Ming Zhang. Xiu looked over her shoulder again. The men were still following them. There was only one store still open on the street, and it had two globe lanterns hanging over the door. As they drew near it, Dolly grabbed Xiu’s wrist and darted inside. An old woman sewing behind the counter looked up. “We are being followed, Madam Ching,” Dolly said to her. The old Chinese woman jerked her head at two broad-shouldered men standing near the door, and they immediately stepped outside. Dolly spoke rapidly in Cantonese explaining what happened. An old man stepped up to listen as well. Dressed in loose black trousers and a tunic, he was dressed like all the Chinese men in San Francisco, but there was something different about him. Xiu heard her mother call him Dr. Sung, and she guessed that he was someone very important. The guards returned to report that Zhang’s men were gone. Two more men were summoned by Dr. Sung, who had hatchets in their belts. Dolly thanked the shopkeepers and took Xiu’s hand. The guards followed them outside and escorted them down the street. Two of them walked in front and the other two behind them. As they marched down the center of Dupont Street, Xiu heard someone say, “boo how doy” and someone else murmured, “hatchet men.” Doors slammed shut, and the prostitutes who had been soliciting disappeared inside their cribs. Several pedestrians stopped to gawk while others followed, eager for some violent entertainment. The only people who didn’t seem affected were the customers of The House of Five Fortunes when they arrived. They were too stupefied to care. In the hall outside Zhang’s door, Dolly stopped and listened. “His bodyguards are in there too,” she whispered, and the men nodded. Next, she took Xiu by the shoulders and pushed her into a tiny room, slamming the door shut and locking it. Confused and frightened, Xiu yanked on the latch, but it held fast. Her heart began to hammer in her chest, but she knew she should not cry out; it might endanger her mother. What’s going on?Why has Mama locked me in here? In the dim light, she could tell she was in a closet filled with crates and barrels. A tiny beam of light streamed through a keyhole from Zhang’s office, so she stumbled over to the door to listen. Suddenly there was a bang as if someone kicked the office door in, and there was shouting. “Mama!” she screamed. She could hear furniture being overturned. Zhang was pleading in Cantonese, “No, no please!” Then she heard a thwacking and chopping sound and shrieking. Xiu bent down and looked through the keyhole. There was another thwack, and she saw blood spatter the walls. Then everything went black.
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