Fiction / April 2018 (Issue 39)


by William Masters

Following the same intuition that helped him survive his first eleven years in China and the written instructions he had memorised, Yung Choo jumped ship at dawn, hitting the water with a tiny splash, and swam to shore. As he pulled himself out of the water, he heard the Coast Guard ship's siren, followed by a loud, artificially enhanced voice in Chinese ordering the other ship to stop and be boarded for illegal entry into San Francisco Bay.

Wet and shivering from the icy water, Yung Choo's first thoughts were, "I'm cold. I'm so cold." His tiny duffel bag, wrapped in plastic as planned for protection against this circumstance, contained his only possessions: a towel, two pairs of thin, cotton trousers, two shirts, a quilted jacket and cap, slippers, ten American twenty-dollar-bills, a photo of his family, his three swimming medals, a picture of his old dog, Yam Yam and two postcards of San Francisco: a Chinatown view of Grant Street and a picture of the Golden Gate Bridge. 

Quickly stripping off his wet clothes, he towelled himself dry and changed into another pair of trousers and shirt. With the fortuitous assistance and directions from a pair of surprised-looking joggers who had witnessed his emergence from the water, Yung Choo found his way to Chinatown. He felt a surge of joy as he surveyed the small area, carefully examined shops, read signs written in Chinese and looked at newspapers (dated October 11th, 1989) locked in yellow boxes as he scouted for lodging near the Grant and Stockton Street area.

For a $1.50, he could shower at the Chinatown Youth Centre, but for $5 per day he could use all its facilities, and sleep in his own bed in a dormitory with other Chinese youths.

After a day of rest during which he stuffed himself with noodles and pork buns, he began to observe what other Chinese boys, approximately his age, looked like: their gait, their clothes, their haircuts and the machinery they wore on their heads. Yung Choo thought these boys walked as if they followed the beat to the music. He noticed differently coloured school uniforms and odd-looking haircuts. He listened to the strange language and soon picked up a foreigner's observational vocabulary: pizza, more money, dollars and a few simple greetings.

By searching trash cans, he found an empty, yellow Sony Walkman case and a pair of discarded headphones which he wore over the unmarked cap on his head.

In an effort to blend in his appearance with the other boys, Yung Choo visited a barber shop, carefully explaining the style of haircut he wanted worn by other boys, and energetically bargained for the price. The barber, sizing up Yung Choo's circumstance while tying a white cloth around the boy's neck, used his left hand to gently support the boy's head while his right hand moved the tool of transformation. Yung Choo felt the slight pressure, pleasant vibration and warmth from the clippers on the back of his head and then on each side. The barber switched from clippers to scissors and snip, snap, snap, he finished and turned the chair around, so Yung Choo could see his reflection in the mirror.

"Ha, ha, very nice. Welcome to America," said the barber, refusing to accept payment.

In an astonishing display of good luck and happy circumstance, Yung Choo found work at a succession of part-time jobs offered by local shopkeepers: he swept floors and emptied trash cans; he restocked store shelves with hot merchandise from China and Singapore and helped display it on tables located on the sidewalks fronting the stores; he washed windows and made lunch runs for proprietors too busy to leave their shops during business hours. On weekends, he helped wrap merchandise purchased by the onslaught of tourists. 


Many shopkeepers sensed Yung Choo wouldn't cost much because they instinctively guessed his circumstance. Following the unctuous custom of many greedy, immigrant bosses, they always paid Yung Choo with one-dollar bills to make him think he earned more money than he actually received.

During the time-off between his casual, part-time jobs, Yung Choo felt the crush of isolation and the oppressive weight of loneliness like a door closing against his body. At such times, he often slipped into the empty yards of Chinese schools, cautiously hiding in the corners of playgrounds until recess or lunchtime, and then emerged to play with the other children, temporarily relieving his sense of isolation and diluting his loneliness.

On such days, for the few minutes during which he kicked around a soccer ball, ran a race, sat on a swing or listened to the chit-chat of other boys speaking Chinese, he felt the momentary comfort of belonging and a lull from his sense of dislocation.

Once, while playing in a neighbourhood schoolyard, a little girl recognised Yung Choo as a stranger. Following the school's protocol, she reported his presence to the volunteer playground monitor. The monitor, an old Chinese woman, took one look at Yung Choo and shrewdly appraised his status. She walked over to him and asked his name. His body tensed. She laid her right hand on his shoulder. He froze.

"I know all the students here. This is not your school." The monitor's left hand grabbed his other shoulder. Shaking him she said, "This is not your place. It's too crowded here. Go back to China."

Then, removing both hands from Yung Choo's shoulders, she slapped him hard across his left cheek. The sound of the slap turned the heads of nearby students who refocused their attention on the pair. Yung Choo felt a sustained sting on his cheek, a ringing in his ears and a brief loss of balance.

"Don't come back here or I will call the bad police who will send you back to China where the authorities will put you in an orphanage. You will work hard all day and at night; they will chain you to a wall with the other orphans."           

As Yung Choo pushed the old lady away and bolted from the schoolyard, the bodies connected to the nearby heads that had heard the slap and witnessed the scene, surrounded the old woman. A tall, eighth-grade boy stepped forward. His body towered over the old woman.

"We don't want you on our playground anymore. Go home."

The next morning, Yung Choo awakened with a black eye, but had regained his equilibrium and returned to his many, part-time jobs, grateful that his maturing judgment led him to choose between the mean, greedy shopkeepers and the kind, good-hearted owners who often bought him lunch.

Often, at the end of each day, Yung Choo bought a $0.99 ticket to the nearby Times theatre to watch an American movie. At each performance, he recognised the sounds of two or three English words. From watching the action, he attached the correct meaning to the words, slowly building his English vocabulary and self-confidence.

On the fifteenth evening of Yung Choo's arrival, one of the Centre's administrators asked Yung to join him in his office.

"Officially, there is a twenty-day maximum that you can stay here at the Centre without furnishing us with identification and proof of legal entry into the country before we must report you to the INS. We follow this rule, otherwise, the City would close us down and we couldn't help boys like you … who have sneaked into the country and have no relatives or official identification."

That night, Yung Choo slept uneasily. Worry and fear intercepted and blocked his nightly dreams of wish fulfillment. By the next morning, he felt the welcoming hand of the warm Indian summer weather of October surrender its grip to the chilly fingers of November.

"I'm cold. I'm so cold," he thought.

On the morning of his eighteenth day, while performing his ritual search of public trash cans before reporting for work, Yung Choo found a discarded October fast pass, still good for the rest of October and the first three days of November. Knowing how it worked, he boarded a 38 Geary bus and rode it to the end of its run, a block from Ocean Beach.

Off the bus, Yung Choo walked across the Great Highway to the beach. Removing his worn slippers, he walked barefooted in the sand and fondly remembered former times with his family: vacationing on the banks of nearby rivers in Yunnan Province, covered with a soothing light green coloured moss, and the trips taken with his father and older brother, during which they'd lowered their bodies into the steaming waters of Zaotang Hot Springs in Baoshan or viewed the Rhododendron blooms on Gaoligong mountain before visiting the markets near Baihualing City and stuffing themselves with soup dumplings.

Then Yung Choo's recent memories bluntly cut short his reverie to remind him that he no longer had a family.


Packed with predominantly Asian passengers, Yung Choo began to ride the Geary and Clement buses for the sheer pleasure of hearing Chinese spoken. Looking out from the bus windows, he wondered why more people did not ride bicycles. In San Francisco, almost everyone drove a car or rode a bus.

During one such ride on the Geary Street bus, Yung Choo overheard some young men pointing and speaking about new, abandoned apartment buildings on Geary Boulevard.

Yung Choo got off the bus at the next stop. He discovered several abandoned buildings. All bore the same red coloured sign: "Danger, No Admittance; Scheduled for Demolition." Yung Choo did not understand the English words. He thought the red sign, like a red door, meant good luck. He found entry to one of the buildings through a break in the fence.

Into this deserted building, Yung Choo moved all his accumulated possessions. Although he still paid the daily $1.50 fee to use the shower facilities at the Chinatown Youth Centre, it was here, in the darkness of this deserted apartment building, that Yung Choo slept alone each night without the misery of hearing the half-strangled cries, the snores and the muffled, nightmare gasps of the other illegal boys from the Centre.

His new home stood surrounded by the packed apartments of the Geary Corridor, in which lived the children from the various schoolyards in which Yung Choo often played without discovery. Each night these children, whose parents tucked them into warm beds after buttoning their flannel pajama tops, festooned with pictures of favourite cartoon characters and beloved pets, would awaken the next morning to loving parents, warm bathrooms and hot breakfasts.

Sheltered only by the walls and roof of the abandoned, unheated building, Young Choo slept fitfully each night on a sofa in what formerly served as the rental office for the building. Although covered with two blankets, he often awakened in the middle of the night, shivering.

"I'm cold. I'm so cold."

One night about a week later, just after Yung Choo had fallen asleep, a female voice speaking in his local dialect awakened him.

"Wake up, Yung Choo. Get out. Hurry. Danger! Danger! Leave the building."

Startled, Yung Choo sat up. Trembling and frightened, he realised that he wasn't dreaming.

"Faster. Get out. Run. Run Yung Choo!"

Still shaking with fear, the boy hurriedly stuffed all his accumulated belongings into his duffel bag and got dressed. Aiming the bright beam of his flashlight in front of him, he ran down the hall as wall plaster split and floors shook. He carefully avoided stepping on the accumulating debris and exited through the now broken front door outside to the sidewalk. Sleepy, and tightly gripping his bag and two blankets, Yung Choo crossed the street and sat down on the opposite curb. Still shivering, he wrapped the blankets around himself, and silently gave thanks to the Goddess Guan Yin for her warning.

To the astonishment of a growing crowd of onlookers, the building continued its systematic collapse: fuses blew and water lines cracked; improperly installed windows buckled, shattering their glass in aesthetically pleasing designs framed by exploding gas lines and bursting light fixtures. Staircases folded and walls collapsed. By the time the fire and police departments arrived, the building had crumbled to the ground, a heap of improperly mixed concrete, unsound bracing, below code wiring, imitation drywall and degraded plumbing.

Yung Choo, now fully awake, was just about to begin his search for a new hideout when a pair of blue, uniformed arms picked him up from his sitting position. Police Officer Albert Wong had been observing this child, along with the collapse of the apartment building, for several minutes. Guessing that the boy didn't speak English, he questioned him in Chinese.

Yung Choo feared this uniformed person would take him away and lock him up. Panicked, he tried to pull away.

"Let me go!"

"Go where? Where do you live?"

"Over there," Yung Choo lied, vaguely pointing to an avenue full of row houses.

Now, I've got you, thought Officer Wong. "What's the street number of your house?"

"It's a secret. I'm not supposed to give my address to strangers."

Officer Wong recognised the signs of displacement in this wily, undernourished-looking, smelly boy. Besides, Officer Wong had just emerged from the all-night café directly across the street from the collapsed apartment and had witnessed the boy's escape from the building.

By now crews from local news stations had arrived and the regular, on-duty policemen, walked over to Officer Wong, to thank him for calling in the incident. The other policeman looked suspiciously at Yung Choo.

"Don't worry," Officer Wong said to the other policeman. "I'm just about to return him to his home. Had a fight with his parents and ran away," he explained while gently patting Yung Choo's head. Grabbing an arm, Officer Wong led him to his parked car. As he opened the car door for Yung Choo, he felt the boy pulling away.

"Don't do that. The police are still watching us. I'm not going to turn you in. Stay calm."

The officer drove for about five minutes and then turned into a sidewalk facing a garage. Yung Choo watched Officer Wong pick up a metal box from the side pocket of the driver's door and press a button. A giant door opened in front of them, and Officer Wong drove his car inside a garage. Yung Choo heard the door shut behind them.

Yung Choo's father and brother had warned him about kidnappers who snatched small boys and the terrible things the snatchers did to the boys before selling them on the black market. Why had this uniformed person brought him here? Sweat rolled down Yung Choo's forehead, and he felt like he was trapped in a closed pot.

"Here we are. My house."

Yung Choo got out of the car and followed the officer to another door. Officer Wong pressed some buttons. A green light flashed on a panel above the door. It popped open onto a staircase occupied at the bottom by an excited golden retriever, tail wagging furiously and loudly thumping on the floor. "Woof, woof. Grr."

"Hello Sam. How's my boy?"

"Woof, woof," Sam replied looking suspiciously at Yung Choo.

"Sam, I brought home a guest."

"Woof, woof, grr," replied Sam, happy to see his pal, but rudely ignoring the guest.

Officer Wong, determined to get this smelly boy into a bath, grabbed his hand and pulled him down the hall into the guest bathroom. Filling the tub with water, he dropped a couple of foaming cucumber bath beads into the water and pointed to a washcloth and a bar of soap in a tray next to the tub.

"Are you hungry? You look very skinny, and you smell bad. Please take off your clothes and climb into this tub. How old are you?"

"Thirteen," the liar replied.

"Oh really? You look like you weigh about as much as a nine-year-old. Just get in the tub while I find some food for you.  Sam, don't let him out of the bathroom."

Then Officer Wong left the bathroom and headed for his kitchen.

Sam sat down, blocking the bathroom door, but Yung Choo made no attempt to escape. He stripped off his clothes and slippers, climbed into the tub, and soon surrendered himself to the sensation of warm water and the prospect of food, dry clothes and sleep.

Sam remained seated with his back against the bathroom door watching this strange boy, so skinny and bony as he sat in the tub; even though he could smell the boy, so stinky and filled with unpleasant cooking aromas; even though he could hear the boy  breathing, then gurgling with pleasure from soaking in the warm, scented water as he used the soap to wash. Sam sensed instinctively the boy must be valuable; otherwise, why should his pal add him to the household? He didn't know yet whether or not he liked this boy.

"Woof, woof," he barked.

Allowing himself to fully relax, Yung Choo fully surrendered to the therapeutic effects of the warm water and the seductive fragrance of the cucumber-scented bath water. He began some modest splashing, enjoying the size of the tub and the rub of the washcloth against his skin. Feeling suddenly playful, Yung Choo lifted his left hand from the water, aimed and successfully shot a spray of water at Sam's face.

With water still dripping from his nose, Sam growled, as he rose and walked to the lip of the tub. He stuck his freshly sprayed nose right up to the formerly stinky boy's face to determine his true scent. Yung Choo impulsively bent his head down and planted a kiss on Sam's nose.

As Sam remained close to the tub, Officer Wong opened the bathroom door and entered with a steaming cup of hot cocoa, and a grilled cheese sandwich on a plate.

Officer Wong gave Yung Choo the cocoa first. "Blow on this before you drink. It’s hot." Then Officer Wong pulled the stopper from the tub, replacing the now room temperature water with a warmer refill.

Yung Choo had never tasted hot cocoa, but liked it immediately and held the mug's handle tightly in his hand as he picked up half a grilled cheese sandwich with his other hand and took a bite. Officer Wong turned off the water and gently tapped Yung Choo on his shoulder.

"Now, it is time to tell me your story."


Yung Choo's Story

Although Yung Choo's mother had died in childbirth, everybody still thought that he came from a lucky family because it had two sons. Yung Choo's older brother, Zhao Choo, had originally purchased the contract from the smugglers for his illegal passage to America. However, before his brother left, he decided to visit his best friend, Xiang Wang, who had gone on a hunger strike with other university students in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. But on June 3rd, 1989, during an action to clear the square, the army shot and killed many protestors, including Yung Choo's brother.

No longer did anyone say that Yung Choo belonged to a lucky family. Instead, everyone now whispered that he belonged to a revolutionary family. Neighbours no longer talked to or wished to be seen with the remaining family members. Grief and heartbreak visited Yung Choo's father who contracted pneumonia and died. The authorities forced Yung Choo's uncle to offer him a place to live, but the uncle would not allow him to bring his dog, Yam Yam, because his daughter had a cat. His uncle promised to find a home for Yam Yam, but instead secretly sold him to an underground dog meat operation.

When Yung Choo discovered what his uncle had done, Yam Yam had already been killed and butchered. Angry and wild with grief, Yung Choo waited for an afternoon during which his uncle's house was empty of occupants and burned it to the ground.

Yung Choo took his brother's contract to the smugglers and insisted that they substitute him for his brother. They refused. When Yung Choo asked for a refund of his brother's money, the smugglers, amused at his presumption, smiled, winked at each other and threatened to spank him if he didn't leave immediately.

Yung Choo threatened to expose the smugglers to the local authorities if they didn't accept him and warned them that if he suddenly disappeared or didn't come home today or failed to survive the voyage to America, his brother's friends, who knew of this visit, would cut their throats.

The smugglers laughed at these ridiculous threats. They playfully slapped and punched him. After knocking Yung Choo down several times, they agreed to take him.

Yung Choo then relayed his recent history in San Francisco.

"And now I am washing in your water."

After a moment of silence, Yung Choo tapped Officer Wong on his shoulder.

Officer Wong's Story

"Twenty-five years ago, I left China and worked my way on a tramp steamer to Honduras, then worked myself through Mexico and entered America riding in a truck, hidden in a wooden freight box, nailed shut. Suddenly, I felt someone push the box off the truck. For many hours, I sweated and choked, afraid the box would become my coffin before I heard the laughter of someone opening the lid. As the box lid opened, I glimpsed a huge, black iron staff. As I arose from the box, I heard laughter and saw the backside of an ape running away.

"My contacts in San Francisco offered me temporary shelter and food. Most illegals like me worked for cheap in restaurants or laundries in exchange for food and lodging and paid high prices for English lessons, so they could pass the postal examination test or work as a bus driver. I had dreamt of America and looked for the fabled sidewalks paved with gold. I didn't find any gold. I found dirt. I swept the dirt and dust from many sidewalks just to eat. Impatient to succeed and learn English, I joined a Chinese gang. I did terrible things and hurt many people in order to earn money for expensive English lessons, buy counterfeit identification papers and a copy of the Policeman's entry examination.

"I bribed the police officer who administered my oral examination by persuading him that I would murder his family if he didn't pass me. In those days, Chinese gangs wielded great power and influence. Now I am an American citizen, a detective and have been with the force for 23 years. I consider myself a loyal citizen, and I no longer fear the number four in my address or believe I need a red door on my house for luck."

Detective Wong wrapped Yung Choo in a giant beach towel, carried him to the guest room and laid him on one side of the bed as he pulled back the blankets, making room for Yung Choo to move over and pull up the blankets and bedspread.

"Don't worry. I won't turn you in. Just sleep now, and we'll make plans tomorrow."

Sam, who had followed them both to the guest room, jumped up on the bed to pay his respects to this boy.


The next morning, after breakfast, Detective Wong took Yung Choo shopping. He bought two pairs of Levi's. He bought socks and T-shirts and underwear. Detective Wong had a salesperson expertly fit Yung Choo with two pairs of running shoes. Then he paid a barber to modify Yung Choo's haircut, after which he bought a Sony Walkman. After placing the Walkman on Yung Choo's head, he snapped his photograph with a Kodak Instamatic. After a minute and a half, they both admired the result.

After buying tapes for the Walkman, they returned to Detective Wong's house. The detective taped the photo of Yung Choo to the inside of the guest room door.

"I'm going to make lunch now," he lied, intending to call North Beach Pizza for delivery. "Why don't you put all your new clothes away in this chest and hang up anything you want in the closet?"

Detective Wong laid one hand on Yung Choo's left shoulder. "I really think you should stay here awhile." Yung Choo's body tensed. Then Detective Wong laid his other hand on Yung Choo's right shoulder. He froze. Before Yung Choo could pull away, Detective Wong matter-of-factly planted a kiss on his forehead.

As soon as Detective Wong left the guest room, Yung Choo began to stuff all his clothes and possessions into his duffel, preparing to run away. Only a small portion of his new clothes and possessions would fit. Frustrated, Yung Choo sat on the bed. He began to cry. His cries grew into sobs.

Yung Choo slid off the bed, walked over to the door and looked at his photograph. He stood transfixed for almost a minute. Then he opened the door all the way, stepped into the hall and shifted his gaze across the hall through the glass center of the front door down the steps to the street.

Closing his eyes, Yung Choo heard the familiar sound of rushing water. Suddenly, eyes open, the sidewalk and street transformed into a wide river on whose bank Yung Choo now stood. He saw his school friends sail slowly past him in a boat. His friends raised a banner saying "Goodbye Yung Choo. Live a Happy Life." A second boat appeared carrying his father and brother who stood up, waved and raised a banner saying "Make Us Proud of You."

As Yung Choo raced down the riverbank to his father's boat, a jogger ran in front of him, pulling the sidewalk and street back into view as he felt a tongue vigorously licking the fingers of his left hand, and Sam's mouth gently dragging him back from the hall into the bedroom.

Yung Choo turned around and lifted his duffel from the bed and dumped out all the new clothes he had stuffed inside. After carefully folding the new merchandise, he loaded it into the bureau drawers. Then he sat on the bed and surveyed his room. Leaning back against the headboard, Yung Choo decided he should move the bed to the other side of the room and paint the existing white walls a pale green. Sam jumped up next to him.

"Pizza?" asked Yung Choo, firmly stroking Sam's back.

"Woof, woof. Grr," barked Sam, slamming his tail on the bed in agreement.  

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