A Bitter Feast
“You really think there’ll be trouble?”
I stood on the comer where Canal crosses the Bowery in the middle of a morning in the middle of May. The sun was bright and the sky was one of those radiant blues that people who paid more attention in high school English than I did probably know the name of. As I turned to Peter Lee, standing beside me, the soft breeze mussed my hair, but good-naturedly like a boyfriend, not pesteringly like a brother.
Peter, who to me is neither, just a Chinatown lawyer I’ve known since first grade, shrugged his broad shoulders at my question. “Not if we’re lucky,” he said, taking a gulp from the cup of tea loosing trails of steam from his hand into the fresh spring air. “But anytime people get arrested, there could be trouble.”
I sipped at my own tea, handed to me by Peter when I’d first arrived. This was my reward for giving up part of a beautiful spring Sunday to stand on a noisy, traffic-scented street corner as a potential witness to potential trouble.
The tea was delicious, and perfect for the day: an astringent, fresh-tasting green. I didn’t recognize it, but I knew the cup: it came from Ten Ren, a classy tea importer on Mott Street. Say what you will about Peter, about his distracted approach to his clothes (mismatched) and his car (wheezy), about his weakness for lost causes–he’s an immigration lawyer, mainly–but this is a man who knows his tea.
“Look,” he said in the unexcited and matter-of-fact voice he used to use, when we were kids, to propose the most outrageous mischief. “Here they come.”
I peered where he pointed, down the slope of the Bowery past the woman frying scallion pancakes in hot oil on a cart and around the jade-and-Rolex vendors yelling their broken English into the crowd. Kaleidoscopically shifting groups of people swarmed the sidewalks, but through them, three blocks away, I could see what Peter wanted me to see.
A small but purposefully moving platoon of men carrying a banner and a large black box were parting the sea of startled pedestrians as they marched up the sidewalk in our direction The men were dressed identically, in black slacks and white shirts; one of them pounded a red-lacquered Chinese drum. I could hardly hear the eerie rhythmic thump of the drum over the traffic’s roar, over the honking horns and rumbling trucks around me, but I could sense it, up through the soles of my shoes. It felt like the early beginnings of an earthquake, first small but an undeniable hint that soon everything will change, enormously and irrevocably.
People in the path of the marching men stared from in front, beside, and behind them, trying to make out the words on the banner and the meaning of it all. The men were Chinese, the banner was red, and the brush-painted words were Chinese, too, at least on one side. As the men advanced, the wind picked up, flapping the banner around. Then I could see the English on its other side: JUSTICE AND A LIVING WAGE, it said. The Chinese, though as usual more poetic, was similar. At the bottom of the banner, on both sides in both languages, were the words CHINESE RESTAURANT WORKERS’ UNION.
I stared, too, but not at the banner. My attention was mostly on the box. It was a coffin.
I’ve seen coffins before, of course. I’ve even seen one or two dead bodies, which is one of the things my mother hates most about my job. She doesn’t think people should be around dead bodies; she doesn’t trust the dead, not one bit. This coffin was empty; I knew it was, Peter had told me. Still, seeing it move slowly up the Bowery to the beat of a soft, deep drum sent a shiver up my spine in the bright May air.
“Do they really think this is going to work?” I asked Peter, surprised to hear myself whispering.
He glanced at me, lifted an eyebrow. “It’s working on you already.”
I made a face at him for being right and went back to watching.
The men with the drum and the banner and the coffin crossed the street to the block we were on. They brought themselves to a halt a few doors down. In front of the glittering marble-and-chrome entrance to Dragon Garden, a hugely popular dim sum restaurant and banquet hall, they took over the sidewalk. They stood in ranks, twenty men in four neat rows, with the banner whipping in the breeze. The drum kept up its steady, pulsing beat as the pallbearers detached themselves from the rest. They carried the coffin as far as Dragon Garden’s doors and stood it upright against the plate glass window beside the entrance.
The pallbearers returned to their ranks; then the men spread out. They held their banner high, they established a circle, and they began to march. One intense-looking young man with wire-rim glasses and hair so short you could see his scalp lifted a megaphone and led some slogan shouting while they handed flyers to passersby. People took the red-paper flyers and read them; but even people without flyers were staring at the coffin, at the restaurant’s doors, pursing their lips, and walking on.
“Would you look at that,” I said. “It’s working. When you told me about it, I wasn’t convinced.”
“Really?” Peter flicked his eyes from the marching men to me and back again. “Your mom has an altar at home.”
“Well, sure. And your Uncle Liang has one in the shop. But that doesn’t mean. . . ” I let my words trail off as a bent old woman grabbed the hand of the little girl she was walking with and pulled her over to the curb, as far away from the coffin as they could get without plunging into the Bowery traffic. I wasn’t sure what it didn’t mean.
We’re a superstitious bunch, we Chinese, putting our faith in signs and wonders and the helpful and unhelpful interference in our daily lives of a teeming multitude of gods and ghosts. Not that anyone in my generation really believes any of this, of course, especially not ABCs like Peter and me, American-Born Chinese, as American as the next guy. Even some of my mother’s friends scoff at the old ways-the different gods for different needs and the different tricks to get in touch with them and win them over. But still, my brothers and sisters-in-law and niece and nephews and I all troop out to New Jersey with my mother to sweep winter’s debris from my father’s grave at Qing Ming, and people bring one another oranges on New Year’s Day.
Just in case. It’s all just in case. And the Chinese Restaurant Workers’ Union was gambling that, just in case, no Chinese person, food-obsessed though we tend to be, would deliberately cross in front of a coffin just to get some lunch.
And it was working. A well-dressed, heavyset Chinese couple whispered to each other, smiled maybe just a bit shame facedly, and walked on. A large family, grandma in that two-piece heavy silk outfit westerners call pajamas, held an agitated sidewalk conference in which grandma did not participate but only stonily shook her head. They walked on, too. Even a young, hip, uptown Chinese man–he could have been one of my brothers–took his slim blond girlfriend by the elbow and, over her pouting protests that the food was so good
here, gallantly but firmly guided her away. Another relationship doomed, I thought to myself. ?
A few of the potential Dragon Garden customers drifted only as far as Happy Pavilion Restaurant, another enormous dim sum palace down the street. Others went farther, as though no restaurant on a block with a coffin was good enough for them.
I looked at Peter, impressed. He looked at his clients, waiting.
This was a job action; this was a picket line; this was a strike. Well, no, not really a strike: there were only two men in this marching, shouting circle from Dragon Garden, and they no longer worked there. They’d been fired, according Peter, for trying to bring the muscle of organized labor to the busboys, waiters and kitchen help, dim sum ladies and dishwashers, even the chefs at Dragon Garden. They’d been fired by the restaurant’s owner, H. B. Yang, for organizing on behalf of the Chinese Restaurant Workers’ Union, and the Chinese Restaurant Workers’ Union–tiny, newborn, and untested though it was–was a client of Peter’s.
The wait was not long. “Look,” Peter said, still deadpan, echoing himself. “Here they come.”
This time, “they” was the police.
They didn’t come roaring up in squad cars; the Fifth Precinct was only two blocks away, and even the police have trouble maneuvering cars through the streets of Chinatown. Four local cops, one of them Chinese–Kenny Bao, a Division Street kid so spectacularly skinny we used to call him “Bean Thread”–came quick-walking around the corner, swung right past us, and planted themselves between the pickets’ circle and Dragon Garden’s doors. The sergeant among them ordered the marching men, whose chants of “Living wage!” and “Union yes!” had grown louder at the arrival of the police, to remove the coffin from the premises and move the whole picket line in an orderly fashion back to the curb, where last week’s picket line had been, so as not to interfere with the lawful conduct of business.
He shouted that twice, in a voice that sounded like he was calling through an invisible bullhorn. He turned to Kenny Bao, who, looking uncomfortable but determined, repeated the order in Cantonese. When the circling, chanting men responded not at all, the sergeant nodded to one of the junior cops, a policewoman who spoke into a police radio.
Briefly, nothing happened. For what was probably a minute, the men continued to march and the cops continued to watch them. Peter and I continued to watch everyone. No one touched the coffin.
Then, from down the hill, from the same direction on the Bowery where the marchers had first appeared, an NYPD bus, wire mesh over the windows and black smoke puffing from the tailpipe, came rolling toward us. Kenny Bao stopped traffic so the bus could U-turn in the middle of Canal Street and pull to a halt at the curb by Dragon Garden.
“That was quick,” I said.
“What was?” Peter was preoccupied, his eyes on the police and his clients.
“How fast that bus got here. You’d think it was just waiting around down there.”
“It probably was. The cops knew these guys were coming. They said they’d be back last week as they dispersed.”
“Dispersed. Only a lawyer would actually say that word in a sentence. Anyway, Peter, last week they dispersed. How’d the cops know they wouldn’t disperse this week?”
Peter’s eyes roved the scene as though looking for something. “They probably got the word that this was going to be bigger. In fact, I wouldn’t put it past one of our guys to have leaked it to them.”
“Why would they do that?”
“To impress our guests with all the police attention. Although our guests don’t appear to have shown up.”
I squinted at Peter in the sunlight. “Guests? What guests?”
“The New York Labor Council,” he told me, still looking around. “The CRWU’s been courting them for months. They were going to come today, to see what the CRWU could do.”
“The CRWU is lobbying to get to be a local of some other union that’s already a member of the Labor Council. Or at least to ally with the council.”
“Why?” I asked again.
“Clout,” Peter said simply. “You ally with someone allied with the Teamsters, for example, suddenly the restaurants have trouble getting deliveries if your members aren’t happy.”
“Makes sense,” I said. “That’s what this was really about?”
He nodded. “The council doesn’t want to be involved with losers. This was as much for them as for Dragon Garden, to show them the CRWU’s legit and serious. But they didn’t come.”
I looked around, as though maybe the New York Labor Council people were in disguise and I could spot them for Peter. “Well,” I said, when I couldn’t, “maybe they’ll catch it on the eleven o’clock news.”
“Something tells me we won’t make that, either. But that’s why I wanted you to come: insurance, so I’d have a civilian observer in case they didn’t show.”
The four cops made short work of the twenty men. They were ordered once again to move, and once again they didn’t. The bullhorn-voiced sergeant yelled their rights at them, translated into Cantonese by Kenny Bao and into Fukienese by the young man with the megaphone and the wire-rim glasses. The three junior cops moved among them, cuffing them with the disposable plastic handcuffs the NYPD always brings to mass arrest situations. Some of the men, looking unsure, glanced at the megaphone man as if for instructions. In sharp, to-the-point Cantonese, and again in Fukienese, he shouted, as Kenny Bao was handcuffing him, that they should cooperate with the police but tell them nothing except their names until their lawyer arrived. Then he snapped something at Kenny Bao, maybe about the handcuffs, and pulled away from him, and I thought, What happened to ‘cooperate’?
The cops loaded the men onto the bus. The bus shifted gears with what sounded like a groan of complaint, maybe at having to work on such a beautiful day. Before it could pull away, the sergeant rapped on its closing doors. Two of the cops–not including Kenny Bao–carried the coffin across the sidewalk and shoved it into the bus.
As the bus stood idling, still pluming smoke into the spring air, my eye was caught by a glint behind the restaurant’s glass doors. A man stood looking at the cops, the waiters, the bus. Bright reflections half obscured his face. He was dressed in a serious gray suit, white shirt, red silk tie, with a gold tie clip, gold ring, gold watch. He didn’t smile and he didn’t move.
I nudged Peter. “H. B. Yang,” I said.
With a lurch that brought my attention back, the bus rolled away down the Bowery. The cops headed home, toward Elizabeth Street and the Fifth Precinct. The sergeant looked grimmer than the others, but he was probably the one going to have to do the paperwork.
The crowd that had gathered to watch the action disorganized itself into a sidewalk full of pedestrians again within seconds. Beside me, Peter sighed a sigh of resignation. “Well, I guess I’d better get downtown and see if I can start getting them out.”
“I was certainly useless,” I said.
“No, you weren’t. The cops would probably have beaten all their heads in if you hadn’t been here watching, putting fear of a civil suit into them.”
“Uh-huh, I can just see Bean Thread Bao beating people’s heads in. And does Mary know you have such a low opinion of cops?”
Peter is dating Mary Kee, my oldest friend, who happens to be a Fifth Precinct detective. I take a certain pride in having gotten Mary and Peter together–well, okay, they both had to come and rescue me from a bad situation, but anything for a friend’s romantic life–and so I give myself license to tease Peter about it. Though he blushes so easily when I mention Mary that it’s no challenge at all.
“Well, Mary’s pretty broad-minded,” he answered evenly “Like she doesn’t mind at all that some of my friends are private eyes.”
I made another face at him. “Okay,” I said. “Now, listen, Peter, and be serious. Doesn’t it make you nervous to be going up against H. B. Yang?”
Peter gave me a wry smile. “Why, you have a problem with H. B. Yang?”
“Me? We live in perfect harmony–he has no idea I exist and I like it that way. Peter, do your guys know what they’re getting into here, messing with him?”
Peter shrugged. “You have to start somewhere. Dragon Garden’s huge. It’s popular with the tourists, so it’s a visible target. And it’s rolling in money, so they can’t complain paying four-fifty an hour would put them out of business. If the union can crack Dragon Garden, they’ll have a shot at the rest of the industry. It’s worth a try.”
He grinned the funny grin again, the one that, when we were kids, meant he’d brought two loaded water pistols to school so I could shoot the gym teacher, too. “Besides, it’s not a bad time for this. H. B. Yang has other things on his mind.”
“You mean politically? Oh, Peter, you sneaky rat. You’re thinking H. B. Yang might prefer not to be embarrassed in his new role as the mayor’s adviser on the East Point project?”
“Well, if he’s going to keep the kind of power he’s always had in Chinatown, given the way things are now, he’s going to need help. It trumps the new guys that he got next to the mayor on East Point, but if he makes Hizzoner look bad, it’s all over.”
“The new guys” were the Fukienese power structure now blossoming in Chinatown as Chinatown spread in all directions beyond its decades-old borders to absorb the new flood of immigrants, many of them Fukienese. The new guys had their own family and village associations, their own customs, and their own leaders. They had their own dialect that we Cantonese didn’t speak. Chinatown’s traditional power wielders were finding, in the past few years, that the unquestioning respect they were used to from the community wasn’t automatically theirs any longer from the immigrant-on-the-street; and, worse, that the politicians outside Chinatown, when they had favors to ask or offer, did not necessarily go where they had always gone.
It was war, in a smiling, bowing, back-stabbing sort of way, and an important skirmish had been fought over the position of Mayor’s Adviser on Community–read, Chinatown–Participation in the East Point Project. East Point was a planned commercial development on the East River, more or less under the Manhattan Bridge, which once wasn’t Chinatown but is now. Because funding for the project was coming from the state and federal governments as well as the city, the mayor wanted the community solidly behind it, no protests, no objections, no “Give us a park, not commercial high rises”; and his choice of H. B. Yang for adviser was a clear signal that he thought H. B. Yang could deliver. The face H. B. Yang would gain by buddying around with the mayor would go a long distance to maintaining his position in the community, but with it would come the responsibility, which New York politicians take very seriously (though they usually phrase it differently), of providing the mayor with some big face, too.
This responsibility would not be fulfilled by job actions against the Mayor’s Adviser’s restaurant by workers claiming to be making a dollar an hour.
“You’ve driven some of H. B. Yang’s customers into the arms of Duke Lo,” I said to Peter. “I saw a bunch of them going to Happy Pavilion.”
Duke Lo was one of the new guys, being watched closely by those who watch these things as Most Likely to Succeed. Happy Pavilion, down the street from Dragon Garden, was his base of operations, his entry in the dim sum palace horse race.
Peter shrugged, but I saw a tiny smile at the corners of his mouth. “It’s a free country.”
“It’ll drive H. B. Yang crazy,” I said. “Not only to be losing customers, but losing them to Duke Lo.”
“I can’t help where people have lunch.”
“You haven’t changed since second grade,” I said. Still refusing to speak English when the principal comes around.”
“If Miss Peters had given the class Mars Bars the way I suggested, that day wouldn’t have gone like that,” he answered, unperturbed.
“Peter, but really, H. B. Yang doesn’t worry you?”
He scratched his head and moved his broad shoulders again. “No. It’s not like it used to be. Tongs and hatchet and all that. Now men like H. B. Yang are community leaders and hang out with the mayor. It’s all done in court these days. And I’m a lawyer.” He looked off in the direction the bus had gone. “Listen, I have to get down there before Warren ends up with six months for contempt.”
“Warren Tan. From the Clinton Street buildings. The one with the megaphone. You know him?”
I thought. “Jeremy Tan’s little brother?”
“What’s he doing working in a restaurant? I thought he went to Yale.”
“He did. Honors in twentieth-century American history, with his thesis on the labor movement after World War II.”
“I can see this coming.”
“Right. Came back and got a job as a dishwasher at the Peking Duck House and helped found the CRWU. He’s the strategist for actions like this and for long-term operations. Dedicated to the struggle for workers’ rights.” Peter raised his head, suddenly sounding like a stirring documentary film. “Will stop at nothing until the battle’s won! No sacrifice too great! ” He dropped his voice back to normal. “The rest of them will keep quiet, but he’ll be on a hunger strike to protest prison conditions inside of five minutes.”
“Never pass up an opportunity. Except, wait a minute. Isn’t there something wrong with him–his heart or something?”
Peter nodded. “Apparently he’s been on borrowed time since he was two.”
“Is this kind of thing good for him?”
?”His feeling is, he’ll do whatever he wants as long as he can. It’s better than worrying all the time, he says. Luckily for ?the union, he’s brilliant. This coffin thing was his idea. Listen, I have to?go. Thanks for coming. Give my love to your mom.”
“And mine to yours, and to Uncle Liang.”
Peter was already walking away; he waved without turning back. He’d be spending a good part of the rest of this gorgeous day in the dingy corridors and sweat-scented rooms of Central Booking, bailing out his clients and arranging for their court appearances. As I watched his large form shambling down the Bowery I reflected, for a moment, on how lucky Mary was.
Then I turned and walked the other way, thinking about tongs, and hatchet men, and how things were really done these days.