‘I’m probably half Chinese, which means you’re one-fourth. You should know. Sorry I haven’t told you before.’
Irene’s father squeezed her hand hard when he uttered these words, as if he’d gathered his last ounce of strength to do so. Irene sat by the hospice bed, stunned. She stared at him. After his hair had turned grey in his seventies, he could almost pass as white – even more so now as his head had been bared by chemotherapy.
Ever since Irene could remember, her father had told her not to be troubled by her origin and to think of herself as British, which she did. Now, with days or even hours of his life remaining, he was telling her this. Irene didn’t care whether he, or herself, was Chinese or not. She only saw her dearest old man shrunken like a dried plum, getting smaller and smaller each minute until there would be nothing left of him.
Getting no response from Irene, her father stroked the back of her hand pleadingly. ‘I know this is not a good time, but please listen. I want you to know.’
‘I’m here, Dad. I’m listening,’ she said. She’d listen to anything he had to say, because soon she’d never hear his voice again.
‘You’ve no idea how happy I was, when you grew up looking exactly like your mum. I knew no one would look at you and say “Ni Hao” or “aninhasayo.” I get those sometimes. Got “chink” once when I was fourteen. I was speaking like any Scouser but those boys still called me “chink.” After that, I said to your grandparents I wanted to know more. I thought they’d be upset. But they were so good. They went to the orphanage with me. A nurse told me my birth mother looked like a local working-class girl. Pasty-faced like she was sick. Just left the baby there and said nothing about her man. Didn’t even give a name.’
The old man’s eyes lost focus, searching for his birth mother in the cloudy past. His breaths got shorter.
‘Dad, are you ok?’ Irene put her hands around his face. ‘You’re tired. Take a break.’
But he continued like he was talking to himself, ‘My birth mother did leave me a suitcase, though. It’s been with me since the orphanage in Liverpool. Don’t know why she did that. Maybe cuz it’s pretty. There are some Chinese characters in it. That’s why I think my birth father might be Chinese.’
‘Have a look at the suitcase later. It’s under my bed. The Chinese words – I got someone to translate them a few years ago – they say “respect the elders and care for the young; work hard, and stay prudent.” Well, the man who fathered me never cared for his own. Still, I think you should know. It’s wrong to withhold this information from you.’
There lay Irene’s father, the loving, witty man she’d known her entire life, but also someone else, a half Chinese whose loss and struggle she might never understand.
Two days later, he passed away. Only a month after the funeral did Irene get herself together to go to her parents’ house in Chiswick. Her mother had died three years ago. Now this beautiful red-brick house with a white-paned bay window was truly alone.
Irene walked into her parents’ room, quietly, afraid of waking up unwanted memories. After removing a few paper boxes and plastic suitcases, she managed to drag out an antique-looking suitcase covered by dust. The leather creased and stuck up, untamed by its stitches. A blotch of mould crawled on the faded maroon surface. Rust spread all over the metal buckles. The lid felt heavy with regret when she lifted it. Inside, there were pen marks at the bottom-right corner on the yellowed lining: eight characters in two vertical lines. She couldn’t make sense of the pictograms at all, but nonetheless marvelled at these flimsy marks. Without them, the suitcase would have been swept into a limbo where no historical narrative existed. Shame suddenly overwhelmed her: she taught early modern English history at UCL, but didn’t even know her father’s story. Her story.
She looked at herself in the mirror. Truly, she’d got her mother’s fair skin, bony nose, and curly brown hair. But her eyes were dark brown like her father’s. She didn’t know if those eyes were ‘Chinese’ or not.
‘I’ll find out, Dad,’ she whispered.
She would go on to research the Chinese immigrants in Liverpool. She would go to the site of the orphanage which had been closed for decades. She would reach out to a whole community of Liverpool-descended half and one-fourth Chinese joined by the endeavour to uncover their past. She would find out about the Home Office file HO/213/926 and consult it in the National Archive. There would be lists of Chinese names in the documents, but she wouldn’t be able to make any connection between them and her father. She would see a photo of a Chinese man and think, ‘Dad looked like him.’ But nothing more.
Wong Kwai walked into The Nook in Chinatown. Behind him a delivery truck full of beer barrels stopped on the street. He was in high spirits and ready for some pints. Three days ago, his wife gave birth to a son. Kwai hadn’t left their side. When the baby wasn’t crying or asleep, his dark-brown eyes gleamed peacefully, and Kwai could just gaze at those eyes until the end of the world. Sometimes he lulled the baby to sleep and put him back on the bed by his mother who was taking a hard-earned nap. Kwai would gently stroke her blonde hair and kiss her on the forehead. No words in the world, whether Chinese or English, could express his gratitude and love for her. She’d married him, a drifting seafarer, an immigrant stuttering at every sentence, even though the country had revoked her citizenship, even though her parents had disowned her. She’d given him a family on this faraway island, and now she’d given him a beautiful son. Kwai made a promise in his heart to work hard and acquire British citizenship. He’d win back his wife’s citizenship by proving his worth to Britain.
A young man chewing melon seeds called out to him, ‘Bing-gui! Boy or girl?’ Bing-gui, the Chinese word for refrigerator. For the last two years, Kwai had been working as a refrigerator engineer on reefers shipping supplies to Britain. His Chinese peers who mostly worked the deck, shovelled coals, or greased the engines found his job enviable. Now they all called him ‘Bing-gui’.
‘A son!’ He threw his bowler hat on the table triumphantly – today he had come in his best suit. ‘First round on me!’
The Chinese men burst into cheers. Everyone in the pub stood up to hug him, shake his hands, and clink glasses with him.
‘Congratulations! You’ve carried on your family name!’
‘Brother Bing-gui has got a little Bing-gui!’
‘Does he look like you or his mother?’
Kwai bubbled with happiness and babbled to answer every question. Although he hadn’t been able to tend to his elderly parents, there was now a little one with Wong blood flowing in his veins. His parents would be proud.
‘Will you throw a one-month banquet for your son?’ a man asked while passing him a cigarette.
‘I’m not sure,’ said Kwai, lighting the cigarette up. ‘It depends on my next job. Any news from the dock?’
‘Plenty, but take your mind off that shit, ok? You really should stay longer this time. There should be more jobs now, easier jobs, since the war’s over and the German U-boats are no longer threatening to blow us up. Come on, let us have a banquet!’
‘I really should stay. If possible, I’d get a job on shore, so that Maria—’
The door was banged open. A squad of policemen in black tunics stormed into the pub, shouting and rushing the Chinese men out. Wong Kwai heard ‘opium’ and ‘illegal’ and the rest he could not understand.
‘No opium! No opium!’ he protested but they didn’t seem to care. His tongue writhed for all the English words he’d learned, but they had slipped away and turned into a deafening buzz in his ears. He started to yell in Chinese, ‘We’ve done nothing wrong!’
A policeman tried to twist his arms to his back. Kwai tussled with him, until a baton landed on his shoulder. At this point he told himself, Be prudent. Be prudent. You’ve kept your head down. You’ve worked hard. This must be a misunderstanding. Don’t give them any reason to convict you. His fellow seamen seemed to have reached the same conclusion. They all stopped resisting.
The policemen kind of wished the Chinese had put up a fight. That would offer more justification for deporting them. But it didn’t matter. Now that the war was over and the Chinese coastline was finally accessible, it was time to dump them back. These bloody chinks. Hooking up with white women and stirring for equal pay with British workers.
‘Into the truck!’ The policemen pushed the Chinese, who still had no idea what awaited them and relented. They sat mutely in the truck because they knew their questions wouldn’t be answered, only occasionally mumbling between themselves. One man tutted when he realised his suit jacket had been ripped in the fight. Another unbuttoned the top of his shirt before buttoning it again. The truck drove to a port. They were herded across the sand and forced onto a ship floating on the turbid water. Sullen frowns on their faces turned into widened eyes and gaping mouths.
‘Where are they taking us?’ First it was whispers. Then they cried in despair, ‘Where are you taking us? What’s this all about?’
A father had picked up a suitcase from Wing On Department Store. Shining leather on the outside, soft cotton lining on the inside. It was worth putting his wife’s woollen coat and his watch in hock. It was the least they could do for their son, who would soon board a British ship bound for Liverpool as a deck boy.
Their son was barely sixteen. He’d started apprenticing at the printing press factory his father worked at and everything would have been perfect – had it not been for the war. The factory was bombed. Their home was bombed. They were lucky to make it out alive, but found themselves among hundreds of thousands of refugees crowding into the foreign enclaves, the only place in Shanghai not under Japanese fire, yet. Everyone was fighting for a roof and a job. Last winter, dozens of paupers froze to death by the roadside overnight. This winter, it could be them.
The parents felt a heart-wrenching pride in their son’s resolution to seize that job on the ship. He was young and astute, his life full of possibilities. It was for the best to get away from this war-torn land.
Walking up the steep, narrow staircase, past the toilet and kitchen his family shared with five others, the father reached his home, a dim attic filled with the smell of mould and soot. His wife, crocheting like always, looked up from the stool she sat on.
‘So you got the suitcase?’ she said. Tears welled up in her eyes.
‘What’s the matter with you? I told you to stop crying.’
The mother nodded silently and wiped her eyes with her sleeves.
The father sighed and his voice softened. ‘Sorry. You know what I mean. After everything we’ve said to him – “don’t worry about us,” “settle down somewhere else if it suits you”– we can’t appear devastated. We mustn’t lose it.’
He bid her to come near the window, so that she could see the suitcase under the last glow of the day. Electricity was expensive. They tried not to turn on the lights at all.
‘Look. It’s good-looking and strong,’ said the father.
‘It’ll serve him well,’ said the mother. ‘He’ll be all right. He will be all right.’