The Sing Song Girl

Present Day.

      Sounds of children laughing.  Adults speaking Chinese.  Cars roaring by outside.  Aromas of classic Chinese dishes.  These vibrant sounds and smells awakened me and aroused my senses, as I lied alone in the dark basement.  Soon there were sounds of piano playing and girls singing.  I recognized the song as “The Wandering Songstress,” a Chinese folk song classic, that made me nostalgic.  I began to sing along but soon found my voice trail off.  Something gave me pause.  Something in the air.  Something familiar, but not in a good way.  My breathing became more labored.  I closed my eyes and took a slow deep breath.  Incense….

1920. San Francisco Chinatown.

      The fragrant incense mixed with opium had never bothered me before, but for some reason tonight it made me ill, yet I still needed to work.  Never in my 22 years of life had I imagined my life to be like this:  In San Francisco, in this parlor, surrounded by well-dressed Chinese men smoking opium pipes made of jade, ebony, gold, ivory, and mother of pearl.  I was brought here with other Chinese girls between the ages of 13 and 25 catering to these men, serving them food and drinks and massaging them.  We all dressed elaborately and in heavy make-up, wearing big, heavy jewelry.  We were known as the “sing song” girls. 

      The opium smell was making me sick tonight – both physically and mentally.  Maybe I was homesick, or maybe the smoke reminded me of my father who died in the Boxer Rebellion in 1900.  I never knew my father, but from what my mother told me, he would have turned in his grave knowing how widespread opium and foreign influences remained.  What would he think if he knew I was now in the West?  I think he might be ill too.

      I was born Lili Lee at the turn of the century in Peking, China.  My mother named me Lili, meaning beauty.  To her disappointment, I was not born beautiful even though I considered myself adorable and funny.  But to my mother, that was not enough.  According to her, a woman needed to be physically beautiful to be desired by men and marry well.  My father died shortly after I was born, leaving my mother to raise me by herself.  As her only child and one who lacked beauty as she so often reminded me, she tried to teach me skills that would make me attractive to men, like cooking, sewing, and singing.  I had fond memories of those early, formative years, because I enjoyed the affections from my mother.  When I was eight, my mother remarried.  That was when my life began to change.

      My stepfather was a farmer.   He did not like me from the start, because I was a girl.  I didn’t regard him as my father, because he never treated me as one.  My mother could not say anything in my defense, because the first time she did so, he hit her.  I remembered my mother’s shrill cry after the abuse, and it was heartbreaking.  I supposed if she really wanted to, she could have continued to defend me, but I could not blame her for choosing to be silent for her own and my survival.  As soon as my mother gave birth to two boys, life improved for her, and they paid less attention to me.  I became an indentured servant in my own home, the ugly stepchild.  I often dreamed of being swept away by a nice man so I could start a nice family of my own and get away from this family into which I was born.   

      In fact, I dreamed of the boy who lived across town who was a year older than me.  Zhu Fang was his name, which meant honest and upright which he was.  He was the only person who was nice to me, but his family didn’t want him socializing with me.  We were from different socio-economic backgrounds – his father owned the land on which my stepfather worked.  Fang was a studious boy, and he was going to be a scholar.  He did not mind my peasant background.  He liked my wit and sense of humor.  I would tell my family I was going across town to buy produce and meats, when in  actuality I would steal some of that time to secretly meet with Fang to play his flute and sing together, and he would teach me to read and write. 

      I thought the day I turned 16 was the day my dream would come true.  That day was forever engraved in my memory.  It was a Tuesday.  I had just finished cleaning the entire house and was making dinner, setting aside a small bowl of my favorite beef noodle soup that I had made just for myself, when my stepfather came into the kitchen.  I quickly hid the bowl of noodle soup thinking I was going to be reprimanded for making something special for myself.  My stepfather had a tendency to criticize everything I did.  To my surprise he was very pleasant that night.  He even smiled at me.  He told me to go ahead and enjoy my noodle soup, because afterwards, he wanted to take me Master Zhu’s house.  My heart skipped a beat, because that was Fang’s house.  My mother then brought me a beautiful, silk embroidered dress and told me to clean myself up and put it on.  I still could see the expression on her face:  she looked like she had been crying.  There was a look a tenderness that I had not seen since she remarried.  She must have been sad, because it was time for her to give me away to another family.  I did not have time to feel sad, because all I could think about was how I was finally being rewarded for being a good girl and I was going to finally marry the boy I adored.

      I was so excited that I did not even finish my favorite noodle soup.  I quickly freshened up and brushed out my long, black hair so it looked nice and shiny.  When I put on the dress, I felt the prettiest I had ever been. 

      I remembered the feeling of floating on air when we arrived at the Zhu residence.  It was a palace compared to the small, modest brick home where we lived.  When the door opened, I had expected to see Fang there to greet me dressed in an equally beautiful silk garb, but instead I saw the servant and Fang’s father, a big, bearded, harsh-looking man.  He eyed me up and down.  I remembered feeling very uncomfortable.  He then led us down a hallway to a room.  I recalled passing by a room of young girls around my age who were also dressed in beautiful, silk attire.  I sensed something was amiss. 

      When we reached Zhu’s office, he asked my parents whether I was “pure.”  My parents said I was, but I did not understand the question.  A woman then came to take me to an adjacent room, which was the size of a closet.  She began patting me down.

      “Hey!  What are you doing?!”  I said sternly she reached in between my legs.  I tried to pull myself away from her, and in doing so, my left hand accidentally brushed her face, which she misunderstood as a slap, and she smacked me hard on my cheeks and buttocks.   My eyes welled up in tears.   I had endured spankings from my stepfather, which I could anticipate and mentally prepare myself, but not this.  No young girl my age would have expected what happened next from a stranger.  Suddenly, the woman pulled down my underpants and started touching my private part.  I was shocked and quivered with fear.

      My vision was blurred by my tears, so I couldn’t see exactly what she was doing.  But I did not need to see.  What I felt was enough for me to know that I was being violated.  After what felt like an eternity, she pulled my underpants back up, straightened up my dress and brought me back out to the room where my parents were with Zhu.  The woman nodded at them in confirmation of my purity status. 

      The first thing I did was look at my mother with my fearful and pleading eyes.  I held back tears and tried to reach out to her.  I noticed she had shed a few tears herself, so I thought I could hold onto her, and she would protect me, but she would not even look at me.  I could hear her sniffles.  Then she turned away from me.  I was devastated. 

      The next thing I knew, Zhu presented my parents with money, and my parents turned to leave.  I called out after my parents with tears running down my face.  As bad as the past few years had been, and I had wanted to be out of that house, I now wanted more than anything to go home with them.  Even if I had to clean their house everyday and cook for them the rest of my life, I wanted to be there.  I wanted a life of familiarity and certainty.  Now everything seemed uncertain.  I did not know what this meeting and the exchange of money meant, but I knew it was not for anything good.

      My stepfather stepped out of the room first.  As my mother was about to follow, I cried out, “Ma!!! Mama!” with tears streaming down my face.  My mother paused at the threshold of the door then finally turned to me.  She too was crying.  That look of grief, regret, fondness, love and guilt was so pure and deep that it would forever be etched in my mind.  She quickly removed the jade necklace around her neck.  As she placed the necklace around me, I felt her teardrops fall onto my face.

      “Mama, please don’t leave me…  I will be good.  I promise!”

      She gave me the same pained look then said, “Mama so sorry,” then turned and ran out, despite my cries for her that turned into mutters, as I realized she was not coming back.  As I started for the door, Master Zhu’s lady pulled me away as I kicked and screamed.  I heard her say to Zhu that I was a feisty one.  I kicked and screamed some more as she threw me into the room with the other girls.

      I soon learned from the girls that we had all been sold into what was called a “yellow slave trade.”  An older girl explained what that meant:  That we would be resold to the mafia and enter into a life of prostitution.  I told them that was not going to be my fate.  I explained to them about my friendship with Fang and that I was going to be rescued.  Unfortunately, I found out shortly after that Fang was away in a calligraphy workshop and would not be back for a few weeks.  Nobody was going to save me. 

      So that was my 16th birthday that forever changed my life.  Instead of a dream come true, it was a nightmare.  The next week, the girls and I were transferred into the hands of the mafia, and we were smuggled onto a ship, where we traveled in tight, secret quarters for weeks without seeing daylight.  We all experienced severe seasickness, and some of the girls did not make it.  While I almost wished I was one of those who perished, I somehow found the strength to live by telling jokes, mostly at these men’s expense, and singing.  The first time I sang was when I was lulling a scared girl to sleep.  The girls told me I had a good singing voice and asked me to teach them.  I was not a trained singer, but I thought if I could help these girls and myself by singing, I would do it.  So we would spend most of our days singing different songs, and that helped us pass the time.  My voice somehow became source a comfort to the girls, and I in turn found strength in my newfound friends, and the friendship sustained me.  I supposed my survival instincts came from my strong desire to one day return home to China.

      When the ship finally docked, there was a sense of relief.  But it was short lived.  We had arrived on foreign soil in this place called San Francisco.  The local Chinese men had to sign some paperwork for us, and my name became Lily instead of Lili, because either these men could not spell, or they wanted to “Americanize” my name.  The city looked nice enough, but it was the people that made life rough.  They spoke in a language I did not understand, and they looked different than me.  I would learn from overhearing conversations that we were smuggled here, because the Chinese Exclusion Act was in effect, and the Chinese men here in America needed Chinese women to meet their needs. 

      Now, six years later, as I looked at these men in the room who were smoking opium, perhaps what was making me sick was not the smell of the drug itself but the disdain I felt for these men.  They were the kind of men we had been brought here to serve?  For what purpose?  What value were they adding to society anyway?  The one question I had stopped asking was “why me,” because I knew I would never have a satisfactory answer for that.  I had accepted this life as my fate. 

      “Lily, keep singing,” Madam Liang said to me.  Madam Liang was a well-put-together Chinese woman in her forties, once a stunning sing song girl herself.  She ran this house and paid, fed and clothed us, but she hardly cared for us.  All she cared about was herself and money.  She took “care” of us to help her look good to her patrons so she could get paid handsomely. 

      “Lily!  Sing!”  Madam Liang demanded again.

      Reluctantly, I cleared my throat and resumed singing, but not once taking my eyes of the men and women in the room.

      Madam Liang was catering to Ming Chen, a dashing but weathered-looking Chinese man in his forties who was puffing a pipe.  They were secret lovers, but that did not stop his lustful eyes from wandering.  I could feel Ming’s eyes on me, because he was enthralled with my singing.  And other men’s and girls’ eyes were also on me but it was due to jealousy, because I had the attention of a powerful man.  But I did not care for Ming or any of the men who patronized the parlor.  I only cared to be free.  And freedom I felt as I let my own singing transport me back to China to be reunited with my mother and my old flame Fang.  I tried to get lost in the singing so that I could ignore Ming’s lascivious looks, as Madam Liang continued to please him.

      Everyone seemed deferential to Ming, because he was a powerful merchant in Chinatown.  But it was Li Bai, a chain-smoking, twenty-something year-old lad with tattoos all over, that people feared.  Li worked for Ming and was the head of the opium trade tong called the Bai Duck Tong.  Li did all the dirty work for Ming and was paid generously to offer Ming protection.  The term tong, meaning a hall or a meeting place, referred to secret societies or fraternal organizations that were initially organized in their early days in the 17th century as charitable organizations to protect Chinese immigrants from lawless members of their own society as well as discrimination and criminal acts by the white population.  Gradually over time, new, specialized tongs of merchants, craftsmen and tradesmen developed, followed by societies of organized criminals involved in specialized activities such as gambling and opium.  Criminal tong derived revenues from prostitution, such as from Madam Liang’s parlor, and selling protection to Chinese merchants.  There were several tongs during this time in San Francisco Chinatown, giving rise to several territorial and operational feuds resulting in violent clashes.

      As I sang, Li was smoking opium and groping girls.  He particularly enjoyed the under-aged girls.  As this moment, he was groping May Yang, a 16-year-old who looked no more than 13 or 14.  May quivered with trepidation.  This was her first time at a place like this.  She had just arrived a few days ago, fresh off the boat from China.  I could relate all too well to how she must be feeling.  I abruptly stopped singing to reach over and grab May away from Li.   The other girls gasped at my audacity. 

      Suddenly several men barged in with knives, hatchet and guns.  I froze.  The other girls screamed.  These men were from the Wah Sing Tong.  They were in a bitter feud with the Bai Duck Tong.  Wah Song, the leader of the Wah Sing Tong, slapped Madam Liang then pointed a gun at Li, as Li pointed his gun back at Song.  Li pushed Ming out of the door with two escorts.  Madam Liang looked to Ming with pleading eyes, imploring him to take her with him.  Ming did not once look back, devastating Madam Liang. 

      All eyes were on Madam Liang.  Why?  Because her relationship with Ming was a problem.  The problem was not that they were secret lovers; that was not really a secret.  The problem was that the Wah Sing Tong owned the parlor, and therefore all the revenues from the parlor belonged to the Wah Sing Tong, yet Madam Liang was sharing the revenues with her lover Ming, which went to help fund the Bai Duck Tong.

      With the gun still pointing at Li, Song started counting the girls in the room in Chinese. “Two, four, six…. Thirteen.  Plus $7,354 for the amount this old hag gave you.  Settle the debt tonight, and I might consider letting you go alive,” Song calmly said to Madam Liang and Li.  The girls trembled with fear.  I held onto May tightly.  I eyed the doors to determine the best way for a fast exit.

      Li stared at Song then began laughing.  Madam Liang smiled nervously and offered Song a drink and a pipe to smoke, then tried to sweet talk him.  “You are all too tense.  Why don’t you let me take care of you?  Lily, sing.” 

      I was unsure what to do.  Seeing how scared the girls were, my instincts kicked me into singing.  Then gunshots rang out.  I could not tell who fired the first shot, but everything quickly became a blur.  As chaos and bloodshed ensued, I grabbed May’s hand and ran down the hallway for the back door.  I could hear Madam Liang and the others girls screaming as the men killed one another.  The girls were safe as they were considered “assets” and in short supply.  

      “Come back here, Lily!  May!”  We heard Madam Liang called out to us.  We kept running.  We made it outside.  It was dark and drizzling.  The streets were empty.  May and I hid in a dark alleyway. 

      “I want to go home,” May began to cry.  I wiped her tears away with my sleeves.  “Mei mei,” meaning little sister, “we won’t be able to go home for some time.”  On hearing that, May cried harder.  I felt that giving her the truth was better than giving her false hope. 

      Suddenly we heard fast footsteps on the street.  Men going door to door, yelling, “where are the girls?”

      May’s eyes widened with fear.  I squeezed her hand assuringly and urged, “be strong.”  We hid in a rickshaw in the dark alleyway.  As the fighting, gunshots, killings took place on the  street, I held May and began humming to comfort her, but in truth I was trying to drown out the deadly sounds and comfort myself.

      After what seemed like hours, there was finally quiet.  May had fallen asleep in my arms.  I stared at the sky.  I found the twinkling stars to be beautiful.  I looked down and touched the jade necklace my mother gave me on my 16th birthday.  I wondered how she was doing.  I wondered if she thought  often of me as I did of her.  I wondered how Fang was doing.  My thoughts was punctured by a woman’s hand grabbing and pinching my ear.  It was Madam Liang.  “Xiao ya tou, you’ve ruined everything for me.  You’ll pay for this!”  Xiao means “little” and “ya tou” is a deprecating term meaning “servant girl.”  Caught with nowhere else to go, May and I had no choice but to head back with Madam Liang.  I gave May a look to reassure her that I would take care of her. 

      “You know how much damage you caused tonight?  I’m docking your pay for a month.”  Madam angrily yanked and dragged us back towards the parlor.

      “But we didn’t—” I tried to argue, but Madam Liang cut me off and pinched me harder.

      “Two months!”  She yelled.

      I was so upset.  It was not fair.  But I dared not retort for I feared that if I did, she would dock another month of pay.

      As we headed back towards the parlor through the dark back streets, I asked, “Madam Liang, is it safe at the house?”

      “Stupid ya tou, would we be heading back if it weren’t?”  She shook at her.  May and I exchanged a worried look, thinking, of course she would have us go back regardless of the situation at the house.  May clutched onto my hand as if it were her sole lifeline.

      When we got back to the house, it was pitch black, quiet and cold.  We stumbled onto things and almost fell over.  When I looked down, I saw dead men.  I covered May’s eyes. 

      Madam Liang pushed us forward and down to the basement into a windowless room where were bunk beds and the rest of girls were sleeping, or pretending to sleep.  Madam Liang pushed us in then locked the door.  This was where we slept, in tight quarters, without proper ventilation.  I could hear sobs in the room.  It was heartbreaking.  I found a bed for May and tucked her in.  I then went to the bunk above hers and began to sing quietly.  Some of the girls joined in.  Together, we felt warmth.  We felt safe. 

      Soon some of the girls fell asleep.  May finally did, as I could hear her snore lightly below me.  I was wide awake.  I could still smell the residual opium stench and gunfire from earlier.  Then I smelled something else.  Smoke.  I wondered whether it was Madam Liang smoking upstairs.  But it was unusual at this hour to have the smoke odor permeate our space.  And there was intensifying heat.  Then I heard some commotion upstairs.  The girls began to wake.  The smoke and heat became more unmistakable.  It was from a fire. 

      Outside the parlor was Li throwing his oil lamp into the blazing house and his men from the Bai Duck Tong fueling the fire.  Madam Liang lay dead on the ground with burns and blood on her.  In the end, Ming apparently did not love her enough to save her.

      In the basement, the girls began to scream, as smoke crept into the room from underneath the door crack.  Some of the girls pounded on the door and screamed to be let out.  I grabbed a chair in the room and ran it into the door to try to break it open.  Other girls tried to help me pry open the door.  Some others pounded on the walls and on the ceilings for attention.  No one came.  Soon there was no further commotion upstairs.  The fire intensified, and the room got hotter.  The girls and I grew scared.  May reached for my hand.  I clutched onto it then embraced her tightly.  I began singing again to calm the girls.  But this time the singing did not help.  The fire roared into the room.  The screams and the sound of the raging fire over-powered my singing.  May was screaming in my arms like a piglet about to be butchered.  She clawed at me, causing my jade necklace to fall off.  I held her to muffle her cries.  I suddenly felt surprising calm.  I whispered in May’s ear, “we’re going home, mei mei.”  I closed my eyes as I felt the fire engulf us.  I felt no fear.  I felt free.

Present Day

      I opened my eyes and looked around.  The cacophony of contemporary sounds from the cars outside, the musical instruments and girls singing upstairs infiltrated the room.  There were no fire, no fumes, no bunk beds, no other girls in the basement room.  Just me – and May clutching onto my hand.  She was still a 16-year-old who looked like 13 with the same fearful eyes.  She pleaded again with me, “when can we go home?”  I could see my reflection in her big, teary brown eyes:  I was still the 22-year-old whom she looked up to from that fateful night at the parlor.  I did not have the heart to answer her this time.  Instead, I joined in singing along with the girls upstairs the Chinese folk song, “The Wandering Songstress.” 

      On the main floor the house, children playing marbles saw a marble roll down the staircase towards the basement.  A spirited little Chinese girl with pigtails wandered down the staircase to look for the marble.  She switched on lights and saw the marble roll under the door to the basement.  The little girl chased after the marble and opened the door.

      The room was empty except for some storage boxes.  The little girl beamed on seeing the marble.  She picked it up.  She then spotted a pretty jade necklace.  She grabbed it and ran back upstairs.

      Outside, in the hustle and bustle of San Francisco Chinatown stood this now updated parlor from which the singing emanated.  The house was now called “The Cameron House,” which served as a community center for Chinese Americans.