(The Chinese Rat and Jockey Girl)
Inspired by a family story
Sugar Plantation, Havana, Cuba. 1927
“Ho gwui ah!” an irritated grumble resounded through the dense bushes. It was four in the afternoon and Ng Wai hadn’t had breakfast yet.
“Shush, Choi-gor, he’s gonna hear us,” Wai injected a hushed plea, ruffling the sugar canes to prevent his whiny companion from being heard.
“Don’t worry, Ah Wai, the gweilo won’t hear us. He’s too busy smoking cigars,” Wong Choi retorted. As if in protest of his friend’s good-natured reprimand, he threw down his cane knife and sat down with a thud.
“Choi-gor!” Wai hissed, streams of sweat flowing down his neck. The dutiful youth stepped in front of Choi to hide his insolence from view and continued hacking at the canes. The older man stretched out his chocolate-brown arms and sighed. It was a long, wistful sigh. Almost enough to shame the Cuban sun into retreating from scorching the fields.
“Ah Wai,” Choi said softly, his previous indignation subsided. “Why on earth did we come here in the first place?”
The frantic bustle of leaves stopped.
“I mean sure, the pay they give you here is decent when compared to what you get in Hong Kong, but to endure all of this hard work? To be under this deathly heat ten hours a day, living on an empty stomach except for the occasional cup of rice? Constantly bowing our obsequious heads to those gweilos and saying ‘perdón, señor’ for things we didn’t even do wrong? Is that fair to you, Ah Wai!”
Discrete yet piercing, as if it were mimicking the rustle of cane leaves, Wai uttered, “Anything for my family.”
Amazed and perhaps a little bit offended by his obstinate ignorance to their foul working conditions, Choi trailed into a chuckle. The chuckle amounted, and exponentially transformed into howling laughter.
“Look at this deen lo! He thinks nothing of selling his soul to gweilos for four pesos each month,” Tears of frenzied sarcasm started to seep through the corners of his eyes, “And he acts all dignified by saying it’s for him family! What a lad! Hey, Wai-zai ah, let’s be honest here. You’ve been in Cuba for six years. Six years! Your children don’t even know what you look like and your wife has probably slept with —”
What had formerly been a hare had metamorphosed into a tiger in an instant, pouncing on the inflammatory jester. Locked in fury, he pinned down his prey and mutilated the face with his vengeful claws.
“Puk gaai zai! How dare you slander my wife’s name! Yuk-ying would never do such a treacherous act! You son of a bitch, I’ll kill you!”
Other species in the animal kingdom looked on with a hint of amusement as this timely relief provided entertainment to their otherwise mundane day; yet nobody dared to step in for fear of consequences sure to come.
“CÁLLATE!” the sound of thunder ripped through the fields, sending the animals scurrying back to their respective dwellings. Even the two ceased their fighting.
The king of the forest came striding with a cigar hanging from his mouth. Physically, he wasn’t intimidating, barely over five foot; but with his puffed-out chest and well-ironed suit, he emanated the imposing demeanor of a boss.
At his arrival, Wai and Choi both shot a terrified glance at each other. There might have been mutual consent to kill a moment ago, but they were now united in suffering at the executioner’s mercy.
“Tell me, who started this?” Señor Rodriguez was surprisingly calmer than expected, nonchalantly caressing his moustache as he looked down on the two scruffy laborers.
Fully expecting a beating, neither of them replied, mouths slightly ajar.
“He — he hit me! The maniac just pounced on me without warning!” Choi blurted out a reply after what seemed like a decade of silence.
“He insulted my wife first! That lazy son of a bitch was complaining about the heat and the menial pay, and he even dragged my family into this!” Wai quickly came to his own defense. “Señor, por favor…” He trailed off when he noticed the gaze of sheer fury descend upon him.
Gracefully, Señor Rodriguez closed his eyes and let out a long sigh. He removed the carefully fitted from his lips and reached into his English-imported suit jacket, revealing a slick long cuerazo.
“CHINOS COCHINOS! How dare you make a mess in my sugar field? Dirty Chinese rats, I’ll cut a month of your pay!” he spat, raising his whip so high that it almost scraped the blazing sun.
Upon hearing Señor Rodriguez’s words, Wai’s countenance snapped into a sanguine red and dropped groveling on the ground, “Perdón, perdón, I’m so sorry! I’ll do anything, I’ll work for twenty — no — twenty-four hours a day! I don’t need sleep, please just don’t cut my pay!”
He felt Choi’s scornful eyes fall on him, but he paid no heed.
“Twenty-four hours huh,” Señor Rodriguez gave a contemplative scoff, grooming his greasy moustache, “Are you sure you can do that?”
Wai nodded furiously like a bobblehead.
The mayoral blanco’s lips curled up on the side to reveal a sadistic grin, “Well, I guess I’ll accept that half-hearted apology. Harvest my entire plantation and then we’ll talk.”
Choi peered up from his obsequious fetus position and scanned the fields that appeared as if they covered the entire island. He can’t help but let an incredulous “bullshit” escape his breath.
“Don’t let me see you drop your cane knife until you’re done with everything,” Señor Rodriguez continued to address Wai yet he was glowering at Choi.
“Sí, Señor. Thank you so much for your grace,” the enormity of his task hadn’t dawned on the poor man yet, so he thanked the overseer as if he were his savior.
Repulsed by his former friend’s quick disposal of dignity, Choi mumbled, “Just cut me a month’s pay, perdón for the ruckus, Señor.”
“Ptsui!” the man-child in a suit spat loudly onto the ground in front of Wai and Choi, taking great care in ensuring that the ball of spit landed right between the two.
Taking one last glower at the tenuous and battered men, Señor Rodriguez turned and walked back to his Spanish-style hut, muttering, “Chinos Cochinos.”
Barrio Chino, Havana, Cuba. 1928
Wai looked down at his tattered breeches and up at the gray archway looming above him.
“Wah… yan… gai,” the characters imprinted smack in the middle roused his slumbering Cantonese literacy, which had barely scraped the standards of an elementary schooler to begin with.
If not for the Western-styled cars and out-of-place Spanish cathedrals, the Barrio Chino of Havana could very well pass for a street in Hong Kong. The familiar smell of rice and chao fan resounded throughout the neighborhood, along with cries of agitated mothers hollering at their children to stop running around naked.
The sight of this familiar scene caused a deep yearning to form in Wai’s stomach, but along with it came melancholic lamentation.
Staring intently at the mother and child, he bit his lip, “I wonder if my children know my name…”
He had left his wife and newborn six years ago, lured by the prospect of Carribean riches. With demands for equality stemming from the European mainland, African slavery was discouraged and subsequently outlawed in the Americas. However, a shortage of plantation workers persisted, and Spanish companies began to import Asian coolies to fill the demand. These workers, mainly originating from India and China, were bound to white patronos by eight-year contracts. Receiving four pesos a month, a mattress, a towel and some food, they were slaves in all but name.
Trudging across Chinatown, Wai found it increasingly hard to categorize his feelings. Children’s thrilled screams came across as discordant music to his ears, powdering the narrow lane with color. “Mai lei tai, mai lei gan!” the plump and gruff butcher called, beckoning customers to visit his rather unsanitary char siu shop. Inside an herbal tea store, a man in his thirties was nonchalantly sipping the black substance from his ceramic bowl. His round glasses sat at the very bottom of his tall nose bridge, and his fair skin convicted him as out of place in the dwellings of yellow people.
Wai was completely mesmerized by the blanco; perhaps not so much by the man himself, but by his bowl of leung cha.
After volunteering to harvest Señor Rodriguez’s entire sugar plantation without rest, the superman predictably fell from exhaustion. The white patrono fumed red upon hearing this and wanted to throw him out, but thanks to recent outcry from Catholic priests, reluctantly provided medical care which was stipulated in the contract.
“Choi-gor, can you pass me some water?” the emaciated Wai let out a frail cry to his former friend, his bony hand shaking from the mere act of lifting it.
His desperate plea for help was met by an apathetic snicker from the coward who elected a pay-cut instead. He gave the dying man patronizing eyebrow raise, as if saying “I told you so”, and walked out of the five square-feet room for ten.
At that moment, Wai wished with all his heart that Yuk-ying was there to make his favorite chrysanthemum tea.
“What are you looking at, chino cochino?” a harsh voice wrung him back to reality. The man had noticed him staring and was obviously quite disturbed.
“Perdón,” Wai bowed an apology and quickly shuffled away before he could object. He had spent enough time in Cuba to know the consequences of disobeying a white man.
As he continued to walk down the street, a brightly colored sign reading Teatro Shanghai caught his eye. Written beneath it was entry for sixty-five cents only.
Digging out a few coins from his pocket, he counted a total of six pesos, or six weeks worth of wages. After his valiant attempt at harvesting, Señor Rodriguez showered him with coins, as well as granting him leave for the New Year. Working almost every waking moment, the three-day break was the only respite he got every year.
Should I spend some money on a good ol’ opera performance? He swallowed hard, furiously employing his brain juices to weigh his options. After all, I’ve never kept a cent for the past six years, I’m sure Yuk-ying will forgive me…
As he stood outside the luxuriously decorated theater debating with his conscience, a pair of white men brushed past him and disappeared into the theater. Their eyes sparkled with excitement, gesticulating wildly. They paid no heed to the tan Asian coolie and fired away in supersonic Spanish. Wai’s foreign ears barely caught anything except “whorehouse of the Carribean”.
“‘Whorehouse of the Carribean?’ What does that mean?” he muttered to himself. Despite living in Cuba for seven years to come, Spanish remained an undeciphered tongue to him.
But as he reflected back on the men’s jittering excitement, he couldn’t help but wonder what enchanting songs were being sung in the theater of Shanghainese opera. Clenching his pesos hard, he walked in.
Teatro Shanghai, Havana, Cuba. 1928
“Vámonos, Pilar. Curtains up in ten,” Conchita lightly tapped her friend on the back.
“Por fa, Conchita,” Pilar hissed irritably. “Don’t touch me when I’m putting on makeup. You’re gonna mess up my mascara.”
She continued to carefully thicken her eyelashes with black liquid, making them appear thrice as luscious as they actually were. The rest of her caked face contributed to her extravagant look, cheeks smothered with blush and lips slathered in red.
“Acere, why are you always so slow?” Conchita whined, squeezing her breasts to accentuate her cleavage.
Unwilling to give up, the talkative performer continued to initiate conversation, “Hey, wonder what kind of caballero will show up tonight? I hope there are some hot yumas from Florida, they’re the wildest! Imagine my fair white prince, riding me into the night…”
“You always have so much fun,” Pilar couldn’t help but tone down her harsh reprimand and soften into a wistful smile.
“Because it is fun!” Conchita bared her polished teeth into an even wider smile. The Teatro Shanghai is where men from all around the world, from Spain to England, come to have fun—”
“AHEM,” an intentional throat-clear pierced the air and silence immediately befell in the dressing room.
“I’ll get ready on stage,” Conchita’s formerly boisterous voice shrank into a hushed whisper as she scurried out of the room. Pilar also finished the last stroke on her lashes and started packing up her supplies.
“Pili,” the same voice cooed, leather footsteps clanking against the marble floor as he edged closer. “Today is New Year’s. We’re expecting a lot of guests.”
“Sí, Señor García,” at surface level, Pilar continued organizing her makeup kit with her head down, assuming a nonchalant and professional demeanor. Yet on the inside, she was terrified of the spectre that was approaching from behind.
“Pili…” his leather shoes placed themselves next to her pompous golden heels.
“You know you’re the best girl I have…” three icy fingers landed on her bare shoulder and slowly ventured down her arm.
“Don’t let me down,” his foul breath slithered down her eardrums as his thick lips stood a millimeter away from her neck. All things considered, the voice could’ve passed as soothing hypnosis, had not the owner of it been a paunchy bald fellow with three chins instead of one.
“I promise I will give my absolute best, Señor. Now if you would please excuse me, the show is starting,” Pilar took a small step back and dipped her head before darting out of the room.
García’s mouth gaped and words were about to come out of his mouth, but she was already gone.
Looking down as she was walking to the stage, Pilar paid no attention to the other girls that were walking past and knocked over one of their parasols.
“Hey!” the blue-clad woman with smoky eyes protested, scrambling to pick up her prop.
“Perdona,” Pilar muttered, reaching down to mend her mistake when she stopped short of touching the umbrella. The cross that dangled from the fifty-five beads on her wrist brushed against the woman.
“Dios mío, watch where you’re going!” but Pilar was too preoccupied to respond. Solemnly, she clutched her rosary and advanced to the stage.
“Say with me now, ‘Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee…’” her voice trailed off when she noticed her daughter’s tiny pout.
“Why do I have to say ‘Hail Mary’? It’s just a waste of time,” the five-year-old whined, fidgeting with the beads on her palm.
“Because your mother in heaven is always with you,” she smiled, enveloping the little one’s hand in hers. “Remember that, Maria.”
Pilar couldn’t help but let out a small chuckle as she shrugged the episode from her mind. How long has it been since someone called her Maria? Since someone took her hand affectionately, looked her in the eye and smiled at her?
Maria was her name. Christened after the Virgin Mary, she was the eldest of eight children. Her mother had roots in the faraway land of Africa, where the people had Christianity injected into them in the name of salvation and gold. She had never met her father, nor did her mother talk about him, but she heard rumors that he was an American sailor.
Her mother often disappeared into the night and didn’t appear again till dawn, sometimes with torn clothes and a bruised eye. That left young Maria with the role of caretaker, juggling housework and meals for seven other mouths.
“Mamá, is there anything I can do to help?” she would ask every day when her mother emerged through the door.
“Take care of your brothers and sisters,” was her reply, and would always lock herself in the bathroom after delivering the less than satisfactory answer. Maria could only stand and listen as her mother wept.
Day after day, she persisted in asking the same question, and the answer was always the same until her sixteenth birthday came along.
“Maria, didn’t you say you wanted to help me out?” her mother put a hand on her shoulder as she struggled to kick off her three-inch heels.
“Por supuesto,” her face instantly lit up, a wide smile spread over it.
“Well I was thinking, since you’re a big girl now,” her mother seemed a bit taken aback by her enthusiasm and broke eye contact, turning to her side. “Why don’t you follow mamá to where I work? It’s just in the Teatro Shanghai a few blocks away.”
Pilar’s chuckle grew louder, and along with it came cynicism. Performers at the Shanghai never used their real names, everybody went by an alias. Whether it stemmed from fear of reproach by legal authorities or from want of publicity, all the girls lived and breathed their stage names.
Pilar. A pillar. Originally from Maria del Pilar. According to legend, the Virgin Mary appeared on a pillar when Saint James the Greater was in Spain.
Pilar. A penis. Seasoned mulatto showgirl. According to everyone on the streets of Havana, she could make every man stand straight as a pillar with her skillful charms.
“Curtains up in ten!” a yell sounded backstage as the seven girls fell into position.
“It’s gonna be one hell of a night,” Conchita gave her friend a playful nudge before swiftly plastering a radiant smile on her caked face.
Blackout. Fanfare. Curtains.
The obnoxious stage lights blind her eyes for a split second every performance, without exception. Even though it was her fourth year at the Shanghai, there were some things she just couldn’t get used to.
In perfect unison, the girls flung open their brightly adorned skirts, revealing panties in seven colors of the rainbow. The floor erupted, with men roaring and pointing at all kinds of places.
Pilar continued her act with an unchanging smile on her face, yet her eyes were actively scanning the attendees of the world-famous burlesque show. There were your middle-aged locals with cigars and beer, enjoying their typical nighttime entertainment away from their nosy wives. There were your curious tourists, jaws dropped and cheeks flushed at the realization of their lifelong dreams. And there was one sore thumb sticking out on the balcony, behind a pillar where the cheapest seats were. Tan, short, and having slits for eyes, the oriental man was a lost puppy in a acrowd of horny brutes. She couldn’t help but notice his unease, repulson even, at the unfiltered act on stage. His eyes were on the ground the entire time and his fingers wouldn’t stop fiddling with each other.
“And now, known for her exotic beauty, the picture blend of black and white, let’s welcome the pride of the Shanghai — Pilar!” the floor hollered and whistled as she stepped into the spotlight. Conchita gave her a cheeky wink as she trod offstage, her freshly bared breasts swaying gently.
Playfully, she slid her index fingers into her panties and slowly pulled them down, teasing the lascivious guests. The crowd whistled and hooted as the garment landed on the floor. With utmost skill and lethal precision, her fingers traveled to her back and in one slick motion undid her bra. A man in the front row yelped a high-pitched “Mama mía!” before collapsing into his seat, blood pouring from his nostrils.
Amidst the applause and ten-peso notes showered on stage, Pilar stole a quick glance at the Asian man on the balcony. To her surprise, she found him staring back at her. Her eyes, and not her body.
Performer Dorms of Teatro Shanghai, Havana, Cuba. 1928
“Jeez, that was a wild show!” an exhausted Conchita plopped herself onto Pilar’s bed.
“I guess,” her more reserved companion forced a smile and sat down beside her.
“You were so good up there just now!” her eyes gleamed with admiration. “I wish I was as skilled as you.”
Pilar turned her head and muttered under her breath, “You can’t help but good at something you’ve done since adolescence.”
“Huh?” Conchita shot up, her breasts spilling out of her thin leotard.
“Nothing,” Pilar smiled. “You better get back to your room. “Señor García will get mad if you keep the client waiting.”
“Right,” her friend gathered up her belongings and headed towards the door. “Plus I wouldn’t wanna miss out on some steamy hot sex!”
Pilar couldn’t help but smile as the door creaked shut. Conchita was what you would call a free-spirit, or a jinetera. Jockey girls enjoyed riding men for pleasure and would sleep with anyone just to have a good time. The Spanish-born daughter of an aristocrat came to Cuba two years ago and was widowed not long after, her late husband dying of malaria. Since then, she had been hanging around the Shanghai, enjoying herself with white American soldiers. Pilar envied her, she also wanted to do something out of her own free will instead of working to support her ailing mother and seven siblings.
Just as she was getting lost in her thoughts, the door creaked again and an unexpected guest emerged. Tan, short, and having slits for eyes, the oriental man found himself in a room with a mulatto prostitute.
“Ah — ah —” moans of pleasure coming from Conchita’s room next door didn’t help with the tense atmosphere, as the two kept staring at each other for what seemed like a century.
Embarrassment and shame seemed to have followed the little Asian man from the theater into her room. He kept on fiddling with his fingers, yet his black eyes stared into the space above her head.
Finally unable to bear the silence any longer, Pilar heaved a long sigh and closed her eyes, sliding down a strap from her shoulder.
Taking that as an invitation, he pounced.
Clumsily and frantically, he fumbled with her scant clothing until he was able to remove them completely. His coarse hands and dry lips scoured her body, like Columbus exploring the New World. She could feel his calloused fingers probing at her sensitive areas. They dug at her just like those of white men, yet an aura of uncertainty clouded his actions.
Pilar always kept her eyes shut and body limp. Like a mannequin, she acquiesced control of herself to her client, warding off thoughts of every kind, regardless of ecstasy or excruciation. Yet she couldn’t help but lift some pressure off her eyelids when a tender touch tucked her sweaty hair behind her ear.
Here he was, the chino, staring into her eyes. His, though darker and smaller than hers, for the first time came across as something more than tiny slits. There was considerable warmth in the way they regarded her, perhaps a hint of pity was mixed in as well. She almost thought that he saw in her a person, as someone more than just a repository for semen.
Then, his noble expression deflated into a twisted expression of relief and he let out a soft, satisfied moan. She didn’t need to look to know what was trickling down her thigh.
Every night ended like this.