Long before the wealthy discovered the lovely coastal enclave of the Pebble Beach Golf & Country Club on California's Carmel coast, the early Chinese pioneers of the 1850s Gold Rush era settled there and fished the waters of Monterey Bay for its plentiful squid. Eventually, the original Chinese inhabitants were forced off the land by the Del Monte Fruit Company, that wanted to develop it, and today there is nothing there to testify to the fact that this beautiful section of some of the most exclusive coastline in the whole state was once the property of poor immigrant fisherfolk from China.
Rabbit Moon, Tiger Moon
"We had much to do
The sky-earth spins
and time is short.
Ten thousand years is long
and so a morning and an evening count.
The four oceans boil and clouds fume with rain.
The five continents shake in the wind of lightning.
We wash away insects
and are strong."
-Mao Zhedung, 9 Jan 63
Old Yao waded into the lapping froth of spent surf. It was not yet fully dark as the faded imperial ochre of the dying sun flared out upon the rocky sand. Yao did not notice the futile explosion of color, for his thoughts were racing ahead to more practical things. Soon it would become very cold without the brittle rays of the slanted sun for warmth. Yao did not have to remind himself of this obvious fact as the dark and frigid waters of the Pacific Ocean penetrated his tattered old boots. Thinking vividly of the cold expanse of unfriendly water stretching out before him, he glanced back at the beach before nimbly pulling himself up and over the side of the small fishing boat.
On the shore, standing mutely in a quiet row just beyond the water's reach, Lee's three remaining children watched their father intently. He smiled a brief, inner smile to himself. It was always thus, he thought as he turned his attention to the matter of getting the small craft underway. Each night the children saw him on his way as he set forth on the lonely emptiness of the big Monterey Bay. Soon they would grow up and be forced to deal with the same problems of living that he and his wife faced. It was not a happy, fulfilled life, he reflected, but it was as good as any. The squid were still plentiful, and the decision to fish at night had for the moment resolved the bitter unpleasantness with the dark-skinned Guai-Loh who resented Chinese fishing boats competing with them during daylight hours.
Fishing at night, in the frigid waters of the winter ocean, was hard enough on the younger men of the village, Lee knew, but on the older men such as himself and his cousin it was a continuing ordeal that tested the most hearty to their limits of endurance. Still, what must be done…the reflective fragment ended itself as he allowed himself another brief, ironic thought: there was always a way if one searched diligently enough, and when that diligence was encouraged by the need to provide for a family of ten hungry people—three of them young, growing and unable to help provide much toward the family's upkeep—it was strong motivation to come up with solutions.
He lingered a moment over this, realizing that he was not being entirely fair in this assessment of his children, for they were not yet adults and they did contribute considerably toward the overall maintenance of the family in their inconsistent, childish ways. He paused. They did not have much time to play, for all the small tasks mother had them busy doing. Perhaps in a better life such things as play might be understood and relished. Under the circumstances, however, childhood was brief and maturity came rapidly, out of necessity.
He glanced back quickly at the shore. The rough-planked shack which the Lee family considered their fortunate abode sat among the others, crowded onto the higher plateau of the beach. From the flimsy tin stack protruding from the roof a wispy tendril of smoke issued, proclaiming the fact that his family was about to sit down to the evening meal of fish juk, which was the regular fare.
He had had some already, of course, to prepare for the coming cold of the night. Overhead he noted the moon, looming largely on the horizon like a luminous specter. He shivered involuntarily. In a few more days the new lunar year would begin. Almost unconsciously, he found himself thinking about the family debts, some of which would have to go unpaid. A sharp pang of unhappy thought speared him for a second. His wife...so smart, too smart! Even her resourceful, clever intelligence with money could not solve that one. If there was no money, there was no money, and the family's needs battled in his mind with the prospective shame he faced. The family had to have first priority, he finally decided, as the brutally cold of winter in this new land bullied them. If there were no family, the debts could not be paid anyway, therefore the family had to come first. The very strong sense of shame which accompanied this last thought made him grip the oars of the boat more firmly and set his back into rowing out onto the yawning waters off the stony beach. The small boat's wake caught up the moonlight and dispersed it like quicksilver as each oar gouged the seaweed-choked spume.
Yao reflected a bit more on this unfortunate situation as his sinewy arms stroked the boat beyond the small surf line. He could see a few lights now among the scattered shacks on shore. The sun had finally given up its struggle to stay afloat and was now nothing more than a dull red memory in the thin black line of clouds hugging the distant horizon. Already the moon, pale and swollen as a winter melon, rose into the sky to oversee all as ruler of the night. It was a weary moon, Lee Yao thought. There was no moon bright and promising enough to erase the shame he felt over being unable to pay off the family debt prior to the imminent journey of the kitchen god to make his heavenly report on their household.
The depressing thoughts were no good, he decided. It would serve no practical purpose to sit and mope about over misfortunes like old grandmother. He was out here to fish, to catch food for the family, and that is what he would dedicate his energy toward this evening.
Glancing forward into the shadowed prow of the small boat, he sought the shape of the small padded clay bottle which held precious hot tea. His wife had filled it from their rapidly diminishing supply, knowing how vital it would be to help preserve his warmth on the chill, dark ocean waters of the bay. She had thoughtfully included several small, home-made chau-siu-bao, amazingly, although where she had managed to find the pork he had not the slightest clue.
Lee Su-Ling, his wife, the mother of his children, and his companion in this life's struggle to make ends meet—how strong, how uncomplaining and how important she was to him! Despite the stoic hardness of many years of unceasing labor and effort, he permitted himself the briefest of tender feelings for the part she had played, as always, in his life.
She had been one of those rarest of creatures in the life of young Chinese men sojourning in this new land: a Chinese woman, young herself, almost too good-looking to be lucky, and as time had proven again and again, an abnormally intelligent woman as well. Of this last qualification, Yao had decidedly mixed feelings. It was not, in his opinion, good for a woman to be too smart, for smart women often had too many strange, untraditional ideas. Not good for the family, as Lao Gung's ascendant status in such a family was not as exalted or as assured as traditional values required that it be. It had caused many small, awkward moments of minor irritation in past years; but to be fair, her native intelligence had proven to be a resource and asset of great value in circumstances which might have otherwise proven severely trying.
Her ample mettle had risen to the challenge of trying to bring up a family on this rugged but strangely beautiful coast. Through the worst of it, through the times when there was little food to be had, when the racist prejudice of the guai-loh had damaged their pride just as thoroughly as their property, when they had lost their second-eldest son, she had not just remained steadfast and calmly impervious to the insults and pain, she had actually managed at times to be cheerful!
What inner reserves did she draw upon at such moments to meet the bitterness with renewed energy and resolve, he wondered? He knew she had felt the sharp, stabbing prick of pain just as keenly as had he, for he had found her privately convulsed with silent tears not long after their son had been lost overboard, the innocent victim of a collision with a boat full of drunken Portuguese fishermen who had run his small boat down with deliberate intent. He had seen the tearless tears of heated anguish, and had wondered at the shame in her face to have been thus caught by her husband in a rare moment of visible personal pain. He had glared at her flushed face in the surprise of the encounter, some distance from their house, and hardly breaking stride had continued walking along the shore in embarrassed silence. Oh yes, she could keenly feel and share his pain.
The moon, ever rising higher, was now full up in the night sky. The water around the boat shimmered, catching the reflected light and breaking it up into so many dancing points of brilliance. Yao lit the punk of the stern lantern and hung it up so that it stood above the water, casting light and shadow to chase the moon's rays in a race across the misted wavelets.
Su-Ling had turned his head the first day they had met, for she was a rare jewel of a woman among many ordinary stones. He couldn't at first believe that she appeared to be attracted to him as well. For all intents, the marriage had been arranged by the families, as all were, according to ancient custom. Before the actual ceremony, Yao found himself marveling at the fact of her beauty and how rare it was to be doubly blessed with a wife whose beauty was as obvious as her ability to bear strong sons and provide a good home for husband and family.
Intoxicated by her fairness, he had only later discovered, to his mild discomfort, that she was a literate, somewhat educated woman, with a keen and penetrating intelligence of her own. He himself had taken the civil service examinations and had held some small post in China before coming to Gum Shan—a testament to his own literacy. But to find himself with a woman who was clearly his equal in many things--that took a bit of getting used to. Still, she had fulfilled her wifely duties with aplomb, and clearly was a valued asset to the welfare of the family in so many ways which could be neither counted nor enumerated.
Floating in the lapping swells off shore Lee looked across the dark waters to the distant beacon of light which their fishing village had become. As his hands automatically manipulated the nets which they had become so accustomed to casting in these familiar waters, his thoughts remained focused upon Su-Ling. The peaceful expressiveness of her face manifested itself out of the darkness in his mind's gaze. It was her eyes which were so out of place in that positive, resolute and confident look she wore most of the time. The deep sadness in them was skillfully hidden, but still discernable to a husband's privileged contemplation. It was her eyes which spoke all the untellable stories, which gave mute testimony to the experiences which could never be admitted to anyone—not even to himself. Those deep brown eyes had shadows which no man would ever penetrate, depths which would never be plumbed and which contained whispered things never to be brought into the open truth of daylight. There was so much about her which she would not share with him, but this was perhaps fitting, for he knew the wisdom of the old saying which went "…that which may be easily spoken cannot truly come from the heart." Of one thing alone he was dead certain: she was the stronger of the two of them. Hers was the strength of the willow when the storms of life threatened his oaken resolve.
Su-Ling refused to vanish from his mind as he patiently ran the nets out over the worn gunnels of the wooden skiff. The knotted strands of hemp slipped smoothly from his hands into the liquid coal of the ocean's surface. The memory of a rare night they had had alone together, when Cousin Li had taken the family with him to San Francisco, returned to him from some obscure recess of his mind. It had been so strange at first, to find himself with no other noisy presences in the small shack except Su-Ling and himself. He had found the sudden intimacy uncomfortable and unusual, at first.
After he had returned from his fishing that fair summer night he had quietly cleansed himself of the fish grime and stench. Entering the two-room shack on piles—normally congested with the family's ten members—he found her awake and waiting for him in the silent darkness of the pre-dawn hour. He stood there briefly, allowing his eyes a moment to become accustomed to the indoor darkness. He could remember feeling, rather than actually seeing, her deep brown eyes upon him as he removed his worn garments and hung them by the bed, as she had long insisted he do.
The house had been somewhat muggy within, despite a mild fog which had just started to drift lazily in from the bay. He left the window ajar, welcoming the soft coolness which filtered obediently through the opening like small wraiths of chill sea mist shadow.
Wordlessly, he had gotten under the covers and found her slim body strangely cold and warm at the same time. "You stink like fish," she joked, and stifled a quick gasp as his cold leg touched her warmth. "You feel like one," he had joked in return.
After that, neither said more until much later, for the unusual and wonderful gift of such luxurious, private intimacy was far too precious to waste further words upon. His hands had closed upon her smooth, supple body with a hunger that had not be easily sated for some time. And she, in turn, had taken him into her with such a furious, consuming desire that together they had immolated themselves into spent, empty husks long before the North Star had risen above the horizon. Much later they had lain utterly drained of energy, enjoying the peace-filled quietude of the early dawn, interrupted only by the muted thrashing of the light surf upon the rocky shore below the cabin. The smell of salt air mingled deliciously with the scent of her body and the not unpleasant odors of their joining.
And now he sat, rocking gently on the waves, face outlined by the harsh glare of the stern lantern as he worked the nets. What a night that had been, and how much her woman's heart had spoken wordlessly to him in those few hours of the single night.
In amazed recollection, he marveled at the soft, yet strong sinews of her thighs and how she had wrapped her legs about his waist, pressing him into her so hard that it had surprised him. He had supposed that his wild passion would have hurt her, and yet her tearful gasps were not from the pain of his passion alone, but from the storehouse of repressed emotions which added such forceful impetus to her lovemaking, or at least so had he surmised. He had been spared the sight of her sad, ageless eyes as they melted into one another that night; but he remained certain that had he been able to catch a glimpse, it would have been the glowing eyes of the tiger into which he looked rather than the deep, brown pools of feeling which he thought he had come to know so well.
There was in fact the tiger in her, for that was her birth year, and that night she had coupled with the wild strength of such a beast in the clutch of her slender wrists and the grip of her animated loins. Yes, the tiger was within her, mostly well concealed, as was the tiger's natural habit, but lurking there, waiting to spring forth when the moment turned, it could be felt.
Lee Yao thought again of the new lunar year, and of the four offspring of his female tiger. Of the four, two had been boys, one of whom—the second eldest—was now gone. The two youngest were both girls. And although they were not as useful as good, sturdy sons, they both had their mother's look in their eyes, strong young she-tigers, he thought. That will be good for them in this strange new world, as the unknown future awaits them in perplexing Gum Shan [note: ‘Gold Mountain’, the Chinese name for America]. They would need their mother's strength to survive the hostility and hatred which would befall them as a consequence of their sex and birthright.
Poor little tigers, thought Lee Yao once again, as he gathered up his nets under the glare of the stern lamp. It had been some hours now since he had ventured forth from the warm harbor of his home, and the chill of the wintry night pierced him through as it prickled the wave-tops like small spikes of wind-borne bamboo. He could see some of the other lamp-lit boats from his village slowly turning shoreward—apparently they had caught their fill of the small squid for the night. Good. There would be much to do in the morning, after a few brief hours of sleep.
Hauling his own nets back into the small craft, the smell of the squid rose about him as their small, slippery and ghostly bodies cascaded over the sides of the boat in a shower of slimy luminescence. The dank aroma of the deep and ancient ocean canyons beneath the boat welled up with them to spill into the crisp dawn air. In the watery wash of the boat's bottom, the thousands of tiny ghost-squid caught the shimmering pallor of the magnificent full moon fixed overhead.
Mindful of the arrival of the lunar new year, and of the complex, never-ending demands of his life, Yao carefully made the nets secure. Waist-deep in the load of squid, he took another swallow or two of the tea—now grown cool but still curiously refreshing even on such a cold night—and stretching out his weathered arms, pulled for shore. Perhaps with the meager return from the night's catch, and the combined savings from the past month's work, they could still honor their liabilities before the new year's celebration was ended. With this thought, a strong spirit of hope swelled up within him, like a fresh sea breeze might sweep across a breathless summer beach. With his tiger-woman's strength and perseverance, and with the help of the celestial ancestors' intercessions to influence the deities, the Lee family would persist and strive, and perhaps ultimately succeed in this daunting new land. Perhaps they might even stay here, instead of returning to China with their Gum Shan wealth! Who really could tell what the future would bring? And moreover, why worry about all that right now? The future would take care of itself if they continued to take care of the present to the best of their ability.
As he reached the shore, he jumped out of the boat and waded the remaining few yards to the sandy bar below the rock promontory. The weary moon no longer looked as weary as he had thought earlier, Lee Yao mused suddenly. Above him the cold, radiant light of the full moon flooded the coastal landscape of winter night, illuminating in shadowed relief the clustered shacks of the village above him. Tying up the boat to the iron rings he had pounded so painstakingly into the rock of the small cove, he moved up the path to obtain help in bringing the squid up to the drying racks.
Su-Ling would be awake and waiting to help warm him when he finally finished and was ready to sleep the few remaining hours left until morning light. The children would be asleep, or pretending to be. Uncle and Cousin would be politely unconscious of his arrival. Ancient Grandmother would likely be snoring, as always. And in a few days, the celebrations of the new year would sweep them all up in the many year-end rituals.
He paused to gaze one last time at the brilliant February moon overhead. A rabbit, moon-gazing, he found himself thinking, as he thrust his head up in a supposed mimicry of the old legend. A rabbit and a tiger, together facing this new world. The cold beauty of the opal moon made him shiver as he paused briefly to ruminate before his weathered door. Pulling out his prized old pocket-watch, he noted it was several minutes after midnight.
The Year of the Rabbit had begun two weeks early.
It has always struck me as the greatest irony that the actual coastal location of the historic Chinese fishing village which inspired this story is now occupied by the elite and exclusive Pebble Beach Golf and Tennis Club facility near Carmel, California.
The original Pescadero Chinese Fishing Village of the mid-1800s was located on the point protruding between Pebble Beach Cove and Stillwater Cove, and the old fishery itself today literally lies under the Seventeenth Green of that exclusively high-status golf resort.
Despite the rich cultural history of this contemporary playground for the powerful and wealthy, there exists not a single marker or monument testifying to the early inhabitants' lives on the grounds of the Pebble Beach resort. From my perspective, this remains a shameful indictment of a lingering tradition of racist disregard for the pioneering of these early Asian inhabitants of this most beautiful, serenely sited locale.
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"Rabbit Moon, Tiger Moon"
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|Reviewed by John Braswell/Kawheeta
|Thank you for reviewing "Angry Old Men" I curently reside in a nursing home and witness their anger daily.
I enjoyed this piece very much and learned from it as I was unaware of the history.