A Chinese immigrant to Peru refuses to give up tradition in this short story by Siu Kam Wen.
When Lou1 Chen, loan shark and owner of a fleet of eighteen urban minibuses, managed to amass his first fifteen million, he had a luxurious mansion built in Monterrico and moved there with his Peruvian wife, their two sons, and his elderly mother. The two-story house measured 2,300 square feet and included a spacious front yard and a backyard with a pool. Two imposing German shepherds guarded the house against thieves from the rooftop, given that Monterrico was at that time a recently developed area and thus lacked adequate police surveillance. The household duties were performed by two housekeepers: Arminda, a hefty forty-something chola,2 who had been in charge of the kitchen at the old house, and Julia, the former’s niece, a blossoming young woman. A part-time gardener came every Saturday to cut the grass, trim the bushes, clean the pool, and court the girl, who had caught his eye.
Mercedes, Lou Chen’s wife, a robust mestiza who was talkative and generous at heart (although due to her irritable temperament she tended to make her husband’s life difficult), set about ordering new dresses made in honor of her move to the glittering new mansion. Every weekend, she drove downtown in her Fiat, returning each time with a new hairdo and smelling strongly of shampoo and hairspray. As for Juan Carlos, the firstborn son, always in style when it came to clothing, it did not take long for him to be seen strolling around with a new girlfriend. She was a plump, dark-skinned girl, the daughter of a lawyer who lived just a few yards from the mansion in a smaller and less ostentatious bungalow. The younger son, Francisco José, preferred to continue dating his girlfriend from before, a Nisei.3 He made a habit of borrowing his mother’s Fiat whenever it was available and picking up his girl in Lince, bringing her out to the mansion to swim in the pool on the weekends. Of course Lou Chen would not be left behind in a situation like this. Two weeks after moving to the new house, Lou Chen, who had begun to go gray in the last few years, appeared one morning, to the disbelief of many of his friends, without a single gray hair on his head. The elegant mansion, the luxurious swimming pool, and the certainty of being the envy of his neighbors must have exercised some psychological effect on the profiteer’s state of mind. Otherwise, how would one explain the dying of his hair or the recent attention to his wardrobe? His three-piece suits no longer looked as if they had been fashioned in the fifties; they were now more fitted, with bell-bottom trousers..
In a word, the occupants of the elegant new mansion were in harmony with their surroundings, or strove fervently to be so; the only exception was Ah-po,4 Lou Chen’s mother, who clashed like a dissonant note in the midst of such style and luxury. Apparently, she had not realized that there was a certain moral obligation (not written, but understood) that the owners or occupants of a new house (especially when dealing with a true mansion) would honor its appearance in kind. To not comply with such an obligation was tantamount to the unforgivable sin of blasphemy within the confines of a church; it resulted in desecration.
Ah-po had turned seventy-two the previous August. She was a short, thin elderly woman who wore her gray hair in the traditional way of the Hakka,5 up in a bun. Her dresses were old-fashioned, even when compared to those of other women her age. She preferred trousers to skirts. Her Chinese-style pants were narrow at the bottom and always looked two inches shorter than they should be, revealing part of her white cotton socks. These pants had been fashioned some ten years prior, before arthritis had impeded her use of her old German sewing machine. The old woman refused to wear any clothing she had not sewn herself, and since she had been physically unable to do so for some time, all of her dress clothes looked worn out and faded, though admirably clean. Years before, Lou Chen, somewhat embarrassed by the sad state of her clothing, had ordered the purchase of several dresses in the downtown department stores and given them to her on Mother’s Day, but Ah-po had never worn any of them. This refusal to wear any Western-style clothing caused her son more than a few headaches. He felt ridiculous each time he went out in public with his mother. The elderly woman’s appearance was at odds with the flashy Mustang in which she rode, with her daughter-in-law’s fur coats, and with her son’s recently acquired bourgeois air. It had the deplorable effect of reminding Lou Chen of his humble origins as an upstart and proclaiming said beginnings to the whole world.
A few months after moving to the new house, while the family ate in the spacious dining room illuminated by large picture windows, Ah-po announced to everyone’s surprise that she was going back to live in the “old house.”
Lou Chen raised his head from his plate, finding it hard to believe his ears. “What did you say, Ah-má6?”
“I said I’m going to move back to the old house,” answered the elderly woman.
“But what old house are you talking about?” continued Lou Chen, still perplexed. “Remember that we rented the apartment where we lived before to Lou Choy.”
Ah-po’s daughter-in-law and grandchildren listened to the conversation with curiosity, but did not understand a single word that was said, since the two spoke in Hakka.
“I am not talking about where we lived before,” explained Ah-po. “I want to go live with your brother Ah-Seng.”
“And can you tell me why you want to go live with Ah-Seng?” Lou Chen started to lose his patience. “Isn’t this house better than that big old adobe house where he lives like a rat?”
Lou Chen suddenly felt humiliated. “So,” he said to himself, with a tinge of bitterness, “in the end my brother is still the favorite son. My fortune has done me little good.”
His wife set her fork to the side and wiped her mouth with anapkin. “What’s going on with Ah-po?” she asked, intrigued.
“She wants to go live with Ah-Seng,” Lou Chen replied gruffly in his broken Spanish.
“And why does she want to go live there?” asked Mercedes. Lou Chen shrugged his shoulders in response. “Your brother lives alone and has no domestic help. Who will take care of her?”
“That is precisely what I’m thinking.” said Lou Chen “Try talking some sense into her, if you can.”
Lou Chen’s wife tried to change the old woman’s mind with a few isolated words that the latter somewhat understood. But Ah-po stubbornly stuck to her guns, shaking her head back and forth in response to all the arguments and pleas of her robust and loquacious daughter-in-law.
Mercedes finally surrendered.
“If she insists on going to live with your brother,” she said to her husband, “what can you do but let her leave? I really can’t see what that poor clod Ah-Seng has to offer her that we can’t. We women tend to be capricious when we are pregnant, but I never imagined that this could also happen to us when we reached a certain age.”
Lou Chen’s wife, who deep down was goodhearted, had truly not wanted to be sarcastic; but what else could she have thought of a decision that obviously made little sense?
Ah-seng, Lou Chen’s younger brother, lived in Rímac, in one of those big old adobe houses built some fifty or sixty years ago. The house was spacious, just one story, and with one lone window, which usually remained closed. The interior of the house was dark and humid,and if it were not for the typical skylights of that period, which in each of the rooms provided the only source of light and ventilation, the house would have felt like an enormous and depressing basement. Ah-po and her husband had lived in this house, the family’s first possession, for fifteen years. Upon her husband’s death, Ah-po went to live with her eldest son, who was at that time a humble shopkeeper and lived above his shop (located exactly five blocks away, close to what years later would be the entrance ramp to the Santa Rosa Bridge).
Ah-po’s younger son was a quiet individual who preferred to keep his mouth shut as long as there was no need to open it. He only did so on occasion, in order to smoke, eat, or drink, of course. Nonetheless, despite the fact that he was a gentle and mild-mannered man, at times he did strange things, actions that earned him the nickname Tin-Seng (Crazy Seng). Once, for example, Ah-Seng, who bought his groceries at the Baratillos Market, walked home with a freshly slaughtered chicken dangling from one of his hands and dripping blood the whole way.
Ah-Seng worked in the kitchen of the Tung Po chifa7—before it went out of business, that is—and lived completely alone until Ah-po returned to live with him.
The same afternoon that Ah-po moved out of her older son’s mansion and went to live with her younger son, the old woman ate lunch, took a nap, and then walked five blocks down to the Choys’ store to announce her return.
The Choys rented the small grocery and secondhand store from Lou Chen, who had worked there for a decade before discovering that there was much more money to be made in urban buses and, later, in moneylending. The Choy family included Don Victor Choy, his wife, and three daughters ranging in age from seven to thirteen. They lived crammed together in the living quarters behind the store until Lou Chen had the infamous Monterrico mansion built and vacated the apartment above the store. Don Victor then rented the second floor, and his wife and daughters finally had room to stretch out a bit.
The elderly woman entered the store at the precise moment that Don Victor raised his myopic eyes from the Chinese newspaper he was reading. At two in the afternoon, other shopkeepers less interested in reading set about killing the flies that landed on the sugary mouths of empty soda bottles.
Don Victor was a man of about fifty, with thinning hair. He was short in stature and wore thick metal-rimmed glasses, which gave his chubby face an intellectual air. He greeted Ah-po warmly and invited her to the living quarters in the back of the store.
“What brings you around here, Ah-po?” he asked, smiling, then called his wife to take his place in the store for a while.
“I just moved in with Ah-Seng,” responded Ah-po, not knowing exactly where to start.
Don Victor, who had attended the housewarming party at the mansion and had been dazzled at all that he saw, now looked at the old woman with curiosity.
“Why, Ah-po?" he said, surprised. “Is it possible that you didn’t like the new house?”
“Oh, no,” she answered, surprised. “How could I not like the house? But I haven’t been able to get used to it . . . the house is for youngsters . . . not for an old woman like me.”
“I still think it’s a marvelous place to live,” sighed Don Victor, thinking about how wonderful it would be at that moment to swim and float in the cool water of the pool, instead of sweating in his dustcoat.
In the rear quarters, the shopkeeper’s wife and her three daughters, who were on vacation, gave Ah-po a warm welcome. The three girls studied at the Sam Men, the Chinese school, and spoke fluent Cantonese, not because they were obligated to learn it in class, but rather because Don Victor was adamant that they receive a good Chinese education. He had strictly forbidden them from speaking any language other than Cantonese at home. As a result of such harsh discipline, the girls only spoke Spanish outside their father’s earshot, and of course only among themselves. Ah-po, with whom the girls conversed easily tended to compare them to her grandchildren, lamenting that they were not more alike; neither Juan Carlos nor Francisco José understood a lick of Cantonese or Hakka.
Don Victor responded, trying to be conciliatory, “You can’t expect otherwise from them; after all, their mother is a kuei8 and they resemble her more than their father.”
Ah-po shook her gray head in discouragement and sighed.
“It’s true,” she conceded. “But Ah-Men should have at least put them in the Sam Men, so they would not be completely ruined.”
Ah-Men was Lou Chen’s first name.
Ah-po stayed at Don Victor’s store until after six in the evening, until the bells rang at the San Francisco de Paula church. The bells always rang at that hour and reminded her that she had to go cook dinner for Ah-Seng and herself.
From that day on Ah-po took daily walks (five blocks there and another five back) with her somewhat deformed feet in order to spend the afternoon at Don Victor’s store. She had spent her time this way before moving to the mansion in Monterrico; back then she did not need to take such long walks, she had merely to descend the short stairway that connected the store with the second floor.
She usually stayed in the back of the store while Don Victor or his wife was out tending to customers. She would make herself comfortable on one of the three wooden stools, leaning back against the crates of soda. The shopkeeper’s wife, who was raised in the countryside like Ah-po, generally kept the conversation going. Both women would tell stories of the Japanese Occupation, when the lack of food forced many to resort to cannibalism. The young women, like Don Victor’s wife, who had been about sixteen at that time, would hide in rice fields and forests whenever the “carrotheads” (their name for members of the Japanese Imperial Army) came into the towns looking for food. It was rumored that the Japanese would take more than just pigs and eggs on such excursions. Don Victor would rarely involve himself in such conversations, since he had spent that period working in his older brother’s butcher shop in Pueblo Libre.
When the conversation wound down, or when she simply felt too tired to keep on talking, Ah-po would remain seated on her stool, watching Don Victor and his wife deftly serve their neighborhood customers. At times, when her hands would allow, she would help package the sugar in kilo and half-kilo bags and sporadically tend to minor sales.
Nevertheless, her most pleasant moments of the afternoon were spent with the girls, that is, when the latter were not watching television. The oldest of the girls, Teresa, was capable of maintaining a conversation in fluent Cantonese with any native speaker, and she had a way of pronouncing her words that made the dialect much more pleasant to the ear. She apparently had an innate talent in this respect; no one, not even Don Victor, had taught her to speak Cantonese in such a way.
“If I were not so old and poor,” Ah-po said once, referring to the girl, “I would have liked for her to be my goddaughter; she is so clever.”
Don Victor, who felt quite sorry for the elderly woman, quickly said,
“You are not so old yet, Ah-po, and speaking of money, you are not exactly poor either.” Ah-po shook her head with profound sadness.
“The one who has money is my son, not me,” she answered. “And when Ah-Men dies, everything . . . the house, the money . . . everything will end up in the hands of those two good-for-nothings my grandsons; they don’t know how to do anything but waste money.”
Seated on her stool or in the company of the girls, Ah-po was immensely happy. This awareness of elation was a new discovery for her. It is possible that she had felt happiness hundreds and hundreds of afternoons in the past, before they had moved to the mansion in Monterrico, but back then Ah-po was not conscious of it. Happiness is peculiar that way; we only realize we’ve felt it when it’s all over. Ah-po had needed to spend four months in Monterrico to understand that the mere act of sitting on those hard wooden stools or listening to the singsong voices of Victor’s daughters could bring her so much consolation.
The spring, summer, and fall passed, and one day in July Don Victor told Ah-po that he was going to sell the business and move to El Salvador, where he planned to set up a wholesale shop with one of his brothers-in-law. At that time many Chinese residents were emigrating to the United States, Australia, and Central America, or had returned to Hong Kong and Macau. The rumor was spreading that Peru was about to become a communist state. The Choys’ rash decision (they were about to face an uncertain future in a new and foreign country) was not an isolated case. Nonetheless, Don Victor’s announcement surprised the old woman, because up until that moment, neither the shopkeeper nor his wife had said a single word about their plans.
For a good while Ah-po did not know what to say. She suddenly felt even older than she was. When she was finally able to comment, her voice trembled.
“It’s a sensible decision,” she said. “Everyone is leaving these days. . . . I really don’t know why Ah-Men is not yet considering it, as he has more money than many of those who have already left. . . . When the communists come, they will take away everything. . . . I am happy that you can still get out while there is time.”
And one week later, two sen-haks9 arrived to discuss the details of transferring the business. They were two boastful middle-aged men with forced manners that indicated an extended stay in Hong Kong or Macau, where young recent emigrants from mainland China almost always ended up acquiring undesirable habits. The deal was closed quickly, although the price did not completely satisfy Don Victor. But he was in a hurry to hand over the business, and the new shopkeepers were paying cash. By the end of August the deal was closed, and the sen-haks appeared one morning, dressed in their impeccably starched and pressed white dustcoats, tending to Don Victor’s regular customers. They worked alone, they had no wives or children, and on their nights off they regularly visited the brothels of Callao.
Don Victor and his family had tickets to El Salvador on a Lan Chile flight. Ah-po wished them a heartfelt “good luck” and gave them various lengths of lightweight cloth, but Lou Chen, fearing that she might catch a serious cold, did not permit her to go to the airport to say her goodbyes.
Ah-po, who usually got up very early every morning (a custom she had cultivated since the time she was a peasant girl planting seedlings in the rice fields), began to lie in bed longer before getting up to prepare her breakfast. She always ate breakfast alone, since Ah-Seng worked the night shift and did not get back home until after ten o’clock. A deep depression had grabbed hold of the elderly woman, and every morning she had a harder time facing the silence and loneliness of the big old house. Yet even so, she preferred that old house to the sunny and comfortable mansion in Monterrico. At least in her younger son’s house she had things to keep her occupied. Preparing his meals, washing his clothes, and cleaning the house helped her to pass the time more easily, although such tasks also considerably aggravated her arthritis and required her to take anti-inflammatory medication with increasing frequency. Ah-po never learned more than two or three expressions in Spanish, given that she never had a need for more than that. Her case was different from that of many Chinese women who came here to join their husbands; these women generally became involved in their spouse’s business quite quickly and learned a respectable number of common expressions in order to serve their customers, even if they did mangle those expressions. In contrast, Ah-po’s late husband never owned his own business (he worked first as a cook and later as a linotypist for The Chinatown Voice), and thus she spent nearly twenty years in a Chinatown apartment without speaking to anyone but her compatriots.
As she aged, and especially as she moved out of the neighborhood, Ah-po gradually lost the few friends and acquaintances she had. In the end, she only talked with her two sons and a few families, like the Choys, who had happened to be their renters or neighbors. Ah-po and her grandsons never understood one another; the boys took after Mercedes more than Lou Chen and did not put much effort into understanding their grandmother, busy as they were with mundane tasks and leisure activities.
In early December, Lou Chen, who had come to take her to dinner at the mansion, found his mother extremely weakened, downcast, and aged, and asked her if she didn’t want to move back in with them.
“No, Ah-Men,” the elderly woman responded. “I am perfectly fine with your brother. And I’m not sick, if that is what you’re thinking.”
Lou Chen, who knew his mother well, did not insist.
Although Ah-po did not like the two sen-haks who were now her renters, the old woman preferred to do some of her shopping in their store, since, for obvious reasons, the sen-haks sold her provisions at cost.
One Saturday afternoon, Ah-po set out on her five-block walk, the one she was so accustomed to a few months before. She walked with a certain difficulty. Her purpose was to pick up a few bottles of milk, which in those days had all but disappeared from the market, and which the two sen-haks had promised to hold for her. It was a gray and windy afternoon, although in theory it was late spring. Many of the occupants of the side streets and the run-down apartment buildings along the avenue had brought chairs out of their homes and sat drinking bottle after bottle of beer as they chatted. It was obvious that those were not the only men who had taken to drinking beer that Saturday afternoon. All drinking aficionados did so on Friday and Saturday afternoons. The Volkswagen driver who caused the accident probably also belonged to that brotherhood of happy men, although no one could verify his blood alcohol level, nor did anyone have the opportunity to take note of his license plate number, since the cowardly driver sped away. Ah-po never made it to the other side of the intersection. She felt a horrible blow to her left arm and side and her fragile body was flung almost ten feet toward the middle of the avenue, as if it had been charged by a fighting bull. Sprawled out in the middle of the street, facing the sky, the old woman saw the blurred silhouette of the San Francisco de Paula bell tower. Ah-po understood that she was dying, and although she could not move a single muscle in her body, she mentally extended her arms toward the angels who descended from the heavens, as a sign of welcome and gratitude.
“El tramo final” © Siu Kam Wen. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2020 by Julie Hempel. All rights reserved.
1. Lou: Cantonese term of endearment used among peers, similar to “brother” or “old man.”↩
2. Chola: In Peru, a mestiza or person of mixed European and indigenous parentage with an emphasis on the latter. For many years, this term carried a strong discriminatory, even racist, tone indicating an uncouth person. In recent years, the term has increasingly become a more positive one, identified with the less weighted term mestizo and national pride.↩
3. Nisei: A child of Japanese parents born abroad.↩
4. Ah-po: Grandmother.↩
5. Hakka: Literally, visitors. An ethnic group originating in northern China, which has since moved south but is not seen to belong in any southern province. The Hakka have been compared to the Roma and maintain their own dialect and customs.↩
6. Ah-má: Mother.↩
7. Chifa: Hispanicization of the Cantonese terms “chi” and “fan,” literally “eat” and “rice,” respectively. Together the term means to share a meal or “break bread” with someone. Common usage of the term indicates simply a Chinese restaurant in Peru.↩
8. Kuei: Literally: ghost. A slang term used by Cantonese speakers to refer to foreigners, particularly white foreigners.↩
9. Sén-hák: A very recent Chinese immigrant.↩