The heavy scent of dust, mildew, and old China permeates the air. Dried up wallpaper, its pattern indistinguishable, curls itself from paint-chipped walls. A pile of splintered wood, flecked with cobwebs, consumes one corner. This room had been waiting, gathering dust, undisturbed for years.
That afternoon I saw a couple of pigeons fly through a window of Great-grandfather’s noodle house. Knowing from experience the havoc and damage the birds and their avian residue can do to our historic buildings, I knew that window needed to be repaired immediately. A flurry of phone calls and exchange of keys ensued, then Steve and I rushed into the building hoping no additional pigeons had made their way in.
They had, but we managed to chase them out of the building. While Steve secured the window, I settled back and took a look around. It had been some time since I had been in Great-grandfather’s eatery.
In hazy sunlight poking through dirt-encrusted windows, I took silent inventory. A collection of battered and stained tables and chairs shoved up against one wall. Wooden crates and cardboard boxes filled to the top with timeworn, musty papers, and books in Chinese and English piled haphazardly on the floor. Wooden mahjong tiles. A rusted Prince Albert tobacco can. Chinese teapots and crockery.
In a corner, a crate packed with dishes. Shaking off the filth, I carefully examined one of the plates. Delicate porcelain, a creamy soft white trimmed with gold and dainty garlands of pink roses embellishing the center. Intrigued by the plate, I studied more of the pieces.
Plate in hand, I caught whiffs of incense, camphor, and sandalwood. The room’s quiet thrummings turned into a myriad of sounds – voices, murmurs, whispers. Noises glided like clouds, wrapping ever so gently around me.
I stood and walked, my steps slow and dreamlike to the doorway. I turned back, bracing against the frame and surveyed the room. Images floated through my mind in a sepia haze. Noises, whispers, images – all grew stronger. I understood them. I not only heard the words but saw them, felt them, as though I were a part of them, remembering, seeing through Great-grandfather’s eyes. I closed my eyes and in my mind, I saw red silk waving in the wind. The red Chinese silk of a wedding gown emblazoned with the colorful symbols of marriage – the phoenix and the dragon intertwined. I held that image and saw him jump into the Pearl River. He knew he would never see his wife again.
Then the moment had passed and I knew why I was in that building that afternoon. Great-grandfather had called me. In order to escape political persecution, he had a rather hasty departure from China. He was a well-known political rabble-rouser with strong anti-Qing dynasty sentiment. Attending a political rally in Canton (Guangzhou), Qing henchmen chased him. Great-grandfather ran until he came to the Pearl River and could run no farther. He dove into the water to escape, knowing he could never return. He’d had to leave a wife and five sons behind. And I do not know their names or their stories, except for Grandfather, the one son who left China – by choice – to live in Hanford to help Great-grandfather run his China Alley noodle house.
When Auntie Harriet and I visited our family village in Fa Yuen, I was introduced to cousins, but I was so overwhelmed I can remember only one of their names and I’m not sure how we were related. It’s time to meet the rest of my clan, time to learn their stories.
I opened my eyes and stared at the plate still grasped in my hand. I returned it to the crate and walked over to the window. Outside it was dusk, the sky above China Alley an ash orange, the time of half-light. There were still a few remainders of the recently celebrated Chinese Moon Festival here and there. A piece of “lucky lettuce” from the Lion Dance was caught in a sidewalk crack. A single paper lantern hung above the doorway next to the Tea Room.
An early autumn breeze rippled along the sidewalk, stirring up the remains of red celebratory confetti. The streetlight blinked on, casting a soft spotlight on the blur of red. Shreds of paper fluttered and danced down the Alley, like red silk waving in the wind across time and space, healing a piece of my soul, showing me a necessary path forward as well as backward.
In homage to Great-grandfather’s noodle house, this week I’m sharing a recipe for Chinese chicken noodle soup. The weather is perfect for enjoying this comforting, soul-satisfying soup.