Jing-mei's sixth and final interrogation fell on August 12, 1940. Sunlight cut through the Angel Island fog and streamed through the window directly into her eyes. She blinked but dared not move. One slip meant deportation back to China. The moon-faced officer approached her, and his shadow blocked out the sun.
"Name?" The interrogator had near-perfect almond-shaped eyes. His nose, broad like a frog's webbed foot, glistened when he turned towards her, and his flushed face seemed too big for his army hat.
"Sir, my name is Wong Jing-mei." The name still felt funny on her lips. Sweat settled on her nose, and she wiggled her toes in her shoes. She remembered her auntie's motto. Show no weakness. She patted her nose with the handkerchief embroidered with a "J" and a "W." It was given to her by the Angel Deaconess, and Jing-mei always carried it with her.
"Your father's name and age?"
"Sir, my father's Chinese name is Wong Chen-li. His American name is Charlie Wong. He is 34." Jing-mei swallowed a smile at an unexpected thought. Her paper father had two names, just like her.
"Where are you from? Toisan?"
"Peking, sir." She was really from Sutzo.
"That explains your accent." The interrogator switched from Cantonese to Mandarin Chinese. "What brings you to Angel Island? To America?"
"Sir," when she switched to Mandarin, she was careful to emphasize a round Peking "whrr" instead of the flatter Sutzo accent, "my father requested I bring myself and my younger brother and sister to America after..." The thought of Auntie Yu-hwa brought a sharp pain to her forehead, even after two months. Jing-mei pressed her lips together and blinked to stop the tears from escaping. She finished, "after my mother died." She missed the sewing lessons and the poetry discussions. But most of all, she missed...
"Your siblings' names and ages?"
"Sir, my younger brother is Wong Bao-bao. He is seven years old, born the year of the rooster. My younger sister is Wong Li-an. She is four years old, born the year of the rat." In China, they were her cousins for whom she embroidered silk shoes. On Angel Island, they were her siblings, now being questioned down the hall. Thankfully, they did not have to lie about their identities, just about hers.
The interrogator bent over his desk. Normally, there were three men, one to ask questions, one to translate from English to Chinese to English, one to write. Today there was just one man, the one who spoke both Chinese and English. Perhaps the other two were expiring from the hot weather, though shouldn't a man with a moon-face retreat from the heat? His writing sounded like mice scratch-scurrying across the floor, and the words looked like mice footprints. American written characters were so plain, so small and ugly. Instead of an elegant brush and ink stone, the interrogator used a sharp pointed stick. He wrote across left to right instead of the proper way, down right to left. He looked up. Sweat trickled down his face as he squinted at Jing-mei.
The questions continued, and she replied carefully from memory. The day before her boat reached Angel Island, she had secretly dropped Charlie Wong's book into the ocean, but many facts were still fresh in her mind, even after a month of interrogations on the island. She must show no weakness. One slip meant deportation back to China.
"How old are you again?"
"I am sixteen years old today, born the year of the rat." Finally, a true statement. Her age and her first name were the only pieces of her old life Jing-mei could keep.
"You're tall for sixteen." The scratching stopped. The writing stick came down. "Taller for fourteen. You will tower over all the girls in Chinatown."
"Yes, sir," said Jing-mei. She had always been normal height for her age, but the Toisan-Chinese who settled in Chinatown were much shorter those from Peking or Sutzo. Yet another way she will be different. She crunched her toes one by one. The interrogator stood and lit a cigarette. Its end glowed orange as he inhaled.
"Sixteen is a good year. I have a daughter a little younger than you back in China. I'm bringing her over in a few months. So she can find a husband, bear children." As he exhaled, he looked her up and down. "Not a beauty, but not too plain, either. Too bad your ears stick out like a monkey's. Like a fourteen year-old monkey."
Why was he repeating the age fourteen? Jing-mei disliked attracting attention. Especially from men. She wanted to fade into the wooden walls. She felt again the stale air of Sutzo, the leering glare of her suitor Pan Chi-Tze, his fat lips smashing into hers, his long pinkie nails pinching into her waist, his alcohol breath enveloping her face as he laughed and said she would make a barely satisfactory fourth wife.
The interrogator sniffed. "Girl, has your father found you a husband?"
"N-no, sir." Where were the questions whose answers would flow from her tongue like water from a tipped jug? Like: "What does your father do?" Answer: "At Peking University, he studied mechanical engineering. In America, he runs a restaurant." Or: "Name your father's father and his father before him, with their birth years." Answer: "My father's father was Wong Tai-yang, born in 1875, year of the pig. His father was Wong Shi-bai, born in 1853, year of the ox." Those words and more Jing-mei had studied again and again to the rhythms of the rocking boat while the little ones slept or were sick. The answers were supposed to be foolproof. Her stomach turned. The head throbbed. Her feet prickled like they were standing in a bed of a hundred needles. Under her pants, a trickle of sweat slid down the inside of her right leg. She twisted her handkerchief behind her back.
The interrogator tapped his cigarette. Falling like autumn leaves, the ash drifted towards the floor.
Moon-face circled Jing-mei and said, "I might not have seen my daughter recently, but I do know she turns sixteen in three months. I'm her father, and I ought to know that sort of thing." He leaned into Jing-mei's face and blew a ring of smoke. A slow cloud covered her face. "So I'm curious as to why your father wrote that you are fourteen when you have just clearly stated you are sixteen today."
Jing-mei choked on the cloud. Charlie Wong thought she was fourteen? How could he have made such a mistake? She covered her mouth and inhaled through her handkerchief. Charlie Wong had never met her, and she felt like they were on opposite sides of the world. Perhaps she could use that. Show no weakness.
She carefully wiped her mouth with her handkerchief and said, "Sir, you may recall that the Chinese lunar calendar differs greatly from the American calendar, often by months. My mother used the Chinese lunar calendar, and my father uses the American calendar. That's why he gets confused. Sometimes in his letters, he says that he is coming home in September when he really means August, or even July." Jing-mei kept her eyes up. The cloud grew and passed the wisps of hair escaping from her braids. She dared not move, though her feet ached. Perhaps they would sprout wings so she could run-fly away.
"You can read?" His surprise was expected. Many men and most women in China were illiterate.
"Only a little, sir." Her education was better than most men's.
"Can you read the writings carved on the barrack walls?"
She bowed her head. "This insignificant girl can read only a few scribblings." The truth was she had read all carvings-poems in the women's barracks the first week she arrived. She had even chiseled one herself.
"What do they say?" The interrogator's brows lifted into perfect crescents.
"Sir, nothing of consequence. Only that the poets are lonely and sad." The truth was some were despairing to suicide, but most were bitter about their captivity in the land of freedom. How long did it take them to perfectly chip the hundreds of Chinese character words completely covering the wooden walls? Months? Years? Would she soon join the forgotten poets? The smoke seemed to be everywhere. Behind her back, she twisted her handkerchief into a knot.
The interrogator sniffed, then exhaled two steady streams of smoke before stating, "The amateur scribblings on this island are inferior to the great poems of China." He closed his eyes and recited:
"Before my bed, I see moonlight so white
I think it is frost on the ground.
I raise my head to look at moon so bright..."
The interrogator opened his eyes and sighed. Were there tears in his eyes?
"I bow my head, yearning for my hometown." Jing-mei finished. She couldn't help herself. She might as well have tried to stop breathing. It was the first poem she learned at the age of three.
The smoke spread over the floor like small fog. The interrogator gave Jing-mei a long, searching look. If he thought she was lying, she would be sent back to China, where the war was raging. The Japanese already destroyed Nanking, and when Jing-mei left, the rumor was they were moving on to Peking. Who knows if her beloved Sutzo was still intact. She had heard stories about the horrors of Nanking. There was nothing left of her old China. She would not go back, she could never go back.
"How does a daughter of a restaurant owner know the poetry of Li Po?"
He knew her secret. She was sure of it. Jing-mei wiggled her toes and closed her eyes. Show no weakness. She heard her auntie's voice, quiet yet firm. She fingered her American initials on her handkerchief, softer than an angel's wing. She untied the knot.
"Poetry is universal. It knows no boundaries. Old or young, male or female, rich or poor. If we are open, we can all see frost where moonlight settles." The unrehearsed words fell from her lips like rice grains spilling from a bin.
Cigarette stub hanging from his mouth, the interrogator uncrossed his arms and walked over to Jing-mei. Ash fell from his cigarette and brushed her bangs. She lifted her chin.
Moon-face's almond eyes slivered as he stared at her. They widened just as a crashing noise boomed from outside the room. A voice cried, "Fire!"
The interrogator grabbed Jing-mei's hand. She broke free, opened the door, and ran into the hallway. Smoke rolled across the ceiling. Jing-mei tripped and fell to the floor.
She was thirteen again, in her house in Sutzo. Black clouds billowed into her bedroom. Coughing, she ran to her parents' room. Flames licked up the wall hangings of her mother's tapestries and her father's calligraphy. She crawled to her parents' bed. She pushed at their bodies. They did not wake. She choked and called their names. They did not wake.
Someone screamed. It sounded like Li-an. Her mother's tapestries faded in the smoke to reveal plain wooden walls.
Jing-mei covered her face with her handkerchief.
"Li-an!" she cried. She approached the room next to hers and ran into an officer and a woman.
"Here!" Jing-mei headed towards the voice. She checked two more interrogation rooms. She bumped into two more officers and an older couple. They had not seen her cousins. The smoke grew thicker. She tripped over a fallen door. She landed on her hands and knees.
"Li-an!" She crawled into the fourth room. It was empty of people, but walls were on fire. How many more rooms?
"Here! He's hurt!"
She found them in the fifth room. She hugged them close.
"Where does it hurt?" Jing-mei held Bao-bao and looked for a wound.
"I'm fine." He wriggled and pointed to the body of a uniformed man, his leg trapped under a large wooden beam aflame. Jing-mei waved with her handkerchief at the man. The smoke parted to reveal the moon-face of her interrogator. She gasped. How did he get there? Like a hungry dragon, the flames licked at the end of the beam.
If Moon-face did not survive the fire, she could remember to be fourteen and continue her paper daughter status. Make a new life in America. She closed her eyes and swallowed. But then, she would not be any better than the monstrous Japanese. "Big Sister, he pushed us out of the way." Bao-bao tugged at Jing-mei's hand. Her eyes stung. She wiped them with her handkerchief.
"Li-an, get help. Bao-bao, grab his foot." Jing-mei tried lifting the beam. It would not budge. Jing-mei slapped the interrogator's face. "Sir, wake up." Another slap. "Sir, you need to get up." Another slap, another push at the beam.
"Big Sister, his foot!"
The tip of the officer's shoe glowed orange. Jing-mei untied the flaming shoe and tossed it into the inferno. Her fingers pulsed and stung.
Two guards arrived. One grabbed the desk. The other grabbed the arms of the moon-faced man. Bao-bao ran to help the second guard and fell on his face. His wail was the last thing Jing-mei remembered before the blackness.
"My thumb tastes like firecracker." Li-an was curled up on the bottom bunk with her new doll Mei-hwei. It had blonde curls, blue eyes, and a red-checkered dress. "Aiya. Big Brother, stop bouncing. You're giving Mei-hwei a headache." Bao-bao's middle bunk was only a few feet above his sister's.
Jing-mei stretched on the top bunk above Bao-bao's. She hung their clean clothes above her bed. She winced as her tender hands scraped against the rope and left her own shirt hanging askew. Six lines of laundry crossed the ceiling like railroad tracks. Her best gray tunic blended into the walls. The room was unusually empty. Three women were knitting. Four other women were taking naps.
No guards had come for Jing-mei. Not yet. No word about the moon-faced officer either. Perhaps he was dead. Perhaps he was snoring in a deep sleep only to wake up with no memories. Perhaps he was rising at this moment to...
Whack! Jing-mei jumped at the impact from beneath. She grabbed a clean towel and climbed down to Bao-bao's middle bunk. "Two wounds in one day, all before dinner. This is a record, even for you. Let's see Wound Number Two." She checked the top of his head. "Nothing but the tiniest bump. Now Wound Number One." She opened his jaw. Gauze white as a silk cocoon filled his mouth. Bao-bao turned his cheek from the towel.
"Aiya. Stop squirming." Jing-mei held his chin. "You were very brave to try to help." She softened her grip. "Does it hurt?" She touched Bao-bao's cheek. He shook his head, but his eyes welled with tears. She had to think of something fast before the wails began.
"I'm sure it's painful, but not as painful when the Monkey King was trapped underneath a mountain for hundreds of years."
"Really?" Bao-bao's mouth opened so wide the gauze almost fell out. Li-an climbed up to join them.
"Yes, the King of Monkeys was foolish enough to taunt the Great Buddha."
"What did he do?" Li-an brushed her doll's hair. Jing-mei undid the girl's pigtails.
"He bragged that he was greater than the Buddha. So Buddha asked Monkey to try to tumble out of his hand."
"That's not so hard. I could do that." Bao-bao bounced.
"That's what Monkey thought. He tumbled for miles, days, leaving everywhere poorly written signs stating 'Monkey, the greatest being ever to live, was here.' He even pissed at the base of the tallest mountain in the world."
Li-an giggled as Jing-mei brushed her hair.
"When Monkey finished tumbling, he was still in the Buddha's palm. Monkey didn't realize the Buddha held the entire world in his hand. The silly signs were draped over his palm. And the Buddha's middle finger was wet with piss."
Bao-bao and Li-an rolled on the bed.
"Aiya. Children, be quiet," said one of the napping women.
Jing-mei wished she had the magical powers of the Monkey King. She would pluck multiple hairs from her head and fling them into the air, and they would grow to become identical copies of herself. Her multiple selves, one for each multiple name. They would fly over barbwire fences and swim for the bridge of gold, with Bao-bao and Li-an on their backs. Paper daughter, paper sister, paper self.
Hand to cheek, Bao-bao sighed. "My tooth is gone in the fire." He patted his cheek.
"You're lucky that's all you lost."
"But now Tooth Fairy Angel won't give me anything!"
The next day, Jing-mei had still not heard about Moon-face. On her afternoon walk, she asked the Deaconess, "Have you heard about the men? They saved me from the fire?"
"Well, I've heard they are all well, even the poor burnt Chinaman." The Deaconess was a thin graying blonde who wore a dark dress and white pearls. She was taller than most Chinese men and some white men. She was the sole beacon of kindness on the island. "I went to visit him yesterday, but he was still sleeping. I visited with the ferryman instead." The Deaconess paused. "I have news for you and your brother and sister. Tomorrow you will be leaving for San Francisco. Isn't that wonderful?"
Jing-mei tried to smile. "Yes, wonderful." Until Moon-face woke up.
The Deaconess stopped and patted Jing-mei's hand. "I'll miss you all so much." Was the Deaconess's smile watery?
"We'll miss you, too, Deaconess. You have been so kind with the English lessons. And your American stories." Jing-mei stopped. "Deaconess, did you tell Bao-bao about Tooth Fairy Angel?"
The Deaconess considered. "Ah, yes. When I gave him a new toothbrush, I told him he needed to use it every day or else the Tooth Fairy would not give him presents when he loses his teeth. But my dear, it is a Tooth Fairy, not an angel."
"Angel same like Fairy?"
"Oh goodness no, dearie. A fairy is make-believe, imaginary, not real. An angel is a messenger of God."
Jing-mei could not resist saying, "We call you Angel of Angel Island."
The Deaconess smiled. It was not the polite-civil smile of most people, teeth only, leaving one feeling cold or empty. When the Deaconess smiled, it started slowly in her sky-blue eyes and spread to light up her entire face through her graying blonde curls. One could bask in the warmth of her smile, it was so broad. A Happy Buddha smile. Auntie Yu-hwa used to smile like that, before she got sick.
"Thank you, my child." The Deaconess stopped to gently pat her brow with her handkerchief. "My, this heat is something unusual. No wonder we had a fire."
Next morning one hundred people stood in line to board the boat to San Francisco. Another hundred stood on the other side for deportation. Jing-mei and her paper siblings waited in the first line.
As they were about to board, a guard blocked their path. Jing-mei recognized the moon-faced interrogator, his right foot in a cast. She pulled her cousins closer. Would they be sent to the deportation line at the last minute?
The guard bowed low and offered a small package with both hands.
"Sir, I do not deserve such generosity." She made no move to take the gift. "This insignificant girl does not warrant a gift."
"Little miss, you must take it. My honor commands." He, too, made no move.
"Sir, it is really too much. You saved my younger brother and sister." Bao-bao and Li-n gripped her hands, and her rare palms stung. "That is gift enough for me."
The man bowed lower. "Little miss, I offer you a book of poetry. Li Po is the greatest of poets. May his words comfort you in America."
Of all the possible gifts. Jing-mei blinked rapidly. She had left all her beloved books in China. "Sir, I cannot accept such a gift. What would a daughter of a restaurant owner do with a book of poetry?"
"I've been pondering that same question for a couple days." Moon-face smiled, and his eyes disappeared into perfect crescents. "Let's say it's a gift to your father from an old friend, born after a great fire."
Aware of the attention forming, Jing-mei bowed and took the package. Then she and her cousins boarded the ferry to Gold Mountain America.