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Authors: Jonathan Gash

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The Year of the Woman

The Year of the Woman

JONATHAN GASH

To the Chinese god Wei Dto, who protects authors’ manuscripts from destruction, this book is humbly dedicated.

To Mr M.Y. So and Mr Francis Sham, instructors in Cantonese at the Language School, Hong Kong University, during my years in the then Crown Colony of Hong Kong, for their teaching, and to Mr W.I. McLachlan.

Thanks:
Susan.

KwayFay hated losing sleep, but what can you say to the ghost of a grandmother she’d never even met?

“Please, Grandmother,” KwayFay whimpered. “I’m sleepy.”

“Because I am ghost,” said Ghost Grandmother, always sarcasm, “you complain, lazy girl! Lessons won’t kill you. Learning Chinese traditions didn’t kill me!” Ghost screeched with merriment then, immediately serious, asked, “Did you learn the Calendar of Festivals?”

Last night had been hell with hardly a wink of sleep. Ghost had made KwayFay go over lists of dates,
ancestors
KwayFay couldn’t believe. So many gods, and all of them trouble. Except you had to believe. Ghost Grandmother said so.

“Yes, Grandmother.” KwayFay had dozed chanting them to herself in case the old harridan came during the next night. As the crone indeed had, wasting KwayFay’s precious sleep.

“You found them interesting, dozy girl?”

“Yes, Grandmother.”

Ghost was actually more than Grandmother. She had lived north of Canton City on the great Pearl River, where the sailing junks were too many even for the Emperor himself to count. But KwayFay knew that ghosts went unquestioned, so could get away with – even without – any explanation, very like MaiLing. MaiLing lay on her back with the impossible HC Ho, her revolting boss, atop her even during noon rest when the others in the office could hear his final squawk.
Highly embarrassing.

Ghost Grandmother first appeared when KwayFay became twelve, simply suddenly there in the night with the blithe announcement that KwayFay must
never
let her hair be touched on certain days of the month.

“Why, Grandmother?” KwayFay had bleated in alarm, knowing Ghost instantly.

“Calamity follows carelessness!” Ghost Grandmother snapped. That was her first rule, watch who touches your hair at wrong times of the month.

“Don’t stupid girls know even
that
nowadays?” Ghost demanded scathingly. “Now the Emperor is almost fully grown to manhood, all China must learn these things. Modern girls are lazy! It wasn’t like that when I was child!” Ghost Grandmother went on about it while KwayFay desperately tried to sleep.

KwayFay immediately knew Ghost was none other than Great-Great-Great-Great (plus possibly even -Great-Great) -Grandmother herself, who had washed clothes in the court of the Provincial Governor of Kwantung Province in the Celestial Empire, a man of many flags. Ever since, Ghost had come, sometimes every night in a single week, rousing KwayFay to learn traditions and festivals of incredible pointlessness and ceremonies of mind-bending dross.

“You like my teaching, lazy girl?” Ghost asked slyly.

“Yes, Grandmother!”

“Lying bitch,” the ghost said, the insult making KwayFay gasp in affront. “You thought
maa-maa deiy
, wretched girl! You thought, ‘Not so much’, that’s what! Remember I am ghost and can see thoughts. Now tell me.” Ghost thought a moment, humming to herself as
she chose, for contrary to what folk assumed, spirits hated silence. “Tell me,” Ghost continued, having
chosen
, “the wedding ceremony of the Chicken Bride Marriage.”

“Please,
Ah Poh
,” KwayFay moaned, tears coming even in her doze. Never
Ah Ma
, for that would denote that the ghost was on KwayFay’s father’s ancestoral side instead of her mother’s. Ghosts were lethally particular. Use the wrong mode of address, you’d be for it. She felt like weeping at Ghost Grandmother’s theft of her
precious
sleep.

The ghost settled down to listen. “When given task by Grandmother, Chinese etiquette requires you express gratitude, KwayFay.”

“Thank you profoundly, Grandmother,” KwayFay said, miserable with Cantonese politeness, wondering how much sleep she had left before she must rise to work. “
Do jeh
,” she repeated, thank you for something given, like stealing a night’s sleep was a gift.

She lay on her side on her truckle bed in her hovel, the only sounds those of the South China Sea shushing on the stones in Sandy Bay and the sighing of the night wind in the bauhinia trees along Mount Davis Road. She did not open her eyes. Why should she, to see nothing?

Each night the mountain side cooled with dramatic swiftness, the wafer thin walls of her squatter shack shaking in the breeze that came swooping off the sea a hundred climbed paces below. All around, similar hovels stuck like crustaceans to the bare mountain’s granite and laterite surface, the lantana bushes rustling as the deep blue velvet of night rolled overhead and turned
westward
to hide before dawn burned up from the ultramarine
rim of the South China Sea.

Ghost said contentedly, “Begin!”

“The wedding of a bride when bridegroom is far away,” KwayFay said through a thin veil of sleep, “is special.”

“Why!” Ghost asked sharply in her cracked old voice.

“Another man standing proxy for husband-to-be
confuses
Chinese gods. So a living cock stands in for the bridegroom. That is why it is called Chicken Bride Marriage.”

“And?”

“First, the bride is carried to the home of her new mother-in-law, in the red chair of marriage.”

Ghost sighed. KwayFay thought, Oh, please
please
don’t reminisce or I’ll get no sleep at all. But Grandmother Ghost was already into nostalgia.

“I saw this often near Shun The. Do you know Shun The? It was so pretty! Girls nowadays have no idea!”

“Then,” KwayFay interrupted, trying to get on, “as the bride is set down by her bearers in the courtyard, a living cockerel is cast across the chair!”

KwayFay found herself giggling at the silly image, but humour is dangerous in the presence of a ghost, even if she is your own ancestral grandmother. Ghosts could take umbrage, and then what?

“The relative who catches the cock gets eight-fold luck!”

“It
is
exciting,” Grandmother said as if contradicted. “Now tell me: Is it a true marriage?”

“It is a true marriage, Grandmother. All wedding arrangements must be made as if the bridegroom was actually there, and not away in Meihgwok, America,
seeking gold for his clan.”

“Bad girl!” Ghost cried. “I hate those new names! America is Gau GamSan, the Old Gold Mountain Country. That is how we speak of America, sloppy girl! Remember, New Gold Mountain Country, Australia, has not yet been discovered! Thoughtless girl!”

“I sorry, Grandmother. I am so sleepy I can’t
concentrate
.”

“Lazy girl!” The pause did not last. Ghost resumed slyly, “Tell me. If the bridegroom dies before wedding, what then?”

“Then no chicken is required, Grandmother.”

“Explain!”

“The bridegroom being dead, his stone tablet takes his place.”

“You are not bad,” Ghost Grandmother said
reluctantly
. She hated KwayFay doing well. “And then?”

“Then immediately the stone tablet ritual must
follow
. The stone tablet is married, instead of dead son.”

“Correct! The wedding now?”

KwayFay stifled her anger, for even ghosts grew tired. They tricked you into doing wrong so they could get the upper hand and impose silly penalties. Look at the
Wall-Building
Ghost, on Mount Davis Road near the Lee Yuen Garden Centre. What a creature
that
was! Malice from start to finish.

“Does Grandmother not mean the betrothal
ceremony
?” KwayFay asked innocently. “For that comes first, even if both bridegroom and bride are deceased.”

“Mind manners, rude girl!” Ghost was annoyed at being caught out.

“In that case the betrothal ceremony must be enacted
exactly,” KwayFay mumbled through her doze. “The dead bride-to-be is exhumed, and the coffin carried to the dead bridegroom’s cemetery.”

“Which cemetery?” Ghost Grandmother started to sulk because KwayFay was so good tonight. KwayFay felt proud.

“The cemetery belonging to his ancestral clan, Grandmother!”

“Yes.” Ghost stifled a yawn, KwayFay’s strategy working. “Did I ever tell you, lazy granddaughter, that I once did all the arrangements – including food! – for
sixteen
such weddings? It was in the village of Yan Ling – in Kwantung, of course, by the bend in the river where little Ah Dee drowned on Dragon Boat Festival, before the Emperor Chien Lung ascended the Throne. Substitute children can be bought from that village when a husband’s seed is too weak to form babies in his bride’s belly.”

“And they’re so expensive!” KwayFay prompted, knowing the rest of this nonsense, hurrying the ghost along so she could sleep.

“Criminally expensive!” Grandmother tutted and grumbled. “So much dearer buying children from Yan Ling than Toi Shan; the journey’s easier though, and you don’t need to hire a mule. Children cost the earth
nowadays
. Don’t you find that? And half of them turn out scoundrels. It’s all gone downhill. I honestly think the Emperor should be told. Don’t you?”

“Yes, Grandmother,” KwayFay said, wondering if the sky was now pale over the Lamma Channel. Little sleep time left, the night fast slipping away. “You’ve already told me all about the puppy.”

“That was a terrible business.” Ghost drowsily pulled herself together. “A life must be given for a life. That is Chinese etiquette. Barbarians like your English do not know this, being ignorant. A puppydog, or even a cat, must be handed over with the correct purchase money – you can’t cheat! – when buying a child from its clan. One thief – Hoi P’ing district, of course; I blame the Governor of Kwantung Province for putting that mad cousin of his in charge, a lunatic who counts butterflies – tried to give me a puppy so sick from worms it died during the feast! Can you believe it?”

“Such treachery!” KwayFay murmured. The ghost would be asleep soon.

Ghost got her words in. “There was trouble about that, I can tell you!”

With relief, KwayFay heard Ghost Grandmother snore. She slept.

The sound of traffic woke her, with televisions and umpteen radios in nearby squatter shacks creating an inordinate squalling din. She pulled aside the slab of
corrugated
tin that formed the seaward wall of her
one-roomed
shack and glanced out of the ragged hole that was her window.

Hong Kong’s mass of squatter huts, cardboard
packing
cases, ropes, and old tea chests, was crammed on the steep hillside like so many barnacles, hundreds in the early morning sunshine amid the morning smoke. Below she heard the sickening blare of horns. Headaches weren’t all ghosts, though many were.

Ships were already grappling in the harbour, American warships in the Lamma Channel blaring out
their silly messages to nobody.
Now hear this!
they bawled, as if anybody cared. Distantly she heard the sound of firecrackers, the Flower Girls down Wanchai and Causeway Bay already celebrating the arrival of yet more visiting ships filled with drunken men careless with dollars. She got her laptop computer, still not stolen, from under her truckle, grunting at its
impossible
weight, and slung it over her back as she prepared to go to the toilet. One day, she might have electricity, if she earned enough money to fund the theft of wires that would enable her to charge her laptop’s battery during the night. Perhaps, one day!

Mercifully, her water can was still partly full. She had covered it with plastic against flies and robbers, lodging her shoes on top. She always tied a string from her shoes to her thumbs, against night-stealing thieves. She looked down to the road. A queue had already formed at the water standpipe. She had to hurry.

Carrying her computer and her only towel, she
hurried
down to wash, preparing herself for the horrid day to come.

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