You are small and standing in the small park off Gore Avenue. Down the hill you can see Chinatown unrolling before you, fading at the edges. It’s the streets that are not-quite Chinatown, not-quite Skid Row, that fascinate you, that you squint to see more clearly. There are no walls, no borders, only a porous, invisible line. Even at five years old, you know of here and there, us and them, but the in-between is something else, a netherworld where no one belongs, or where everyone belongs. You do not know how to tell the difference.
You walk with your mother down Hastings toward the pawn shop, the big one with a wide, lit sign like a movie theatre’s, where the words change every week: gold chains army knives discount bridal. On the corner, your mother runs into an old friend who sailed to Canada on the same boat twenty years earlier, both young women who were coming to marry men they had not met. They talk of sons and daughters, rising bus fares, and the man they know who drives a cab and gambles away all his wife’s money. You edge away until your feet have crossed the worn weather strip and you are in the pawn shop. The smell is old, like the smell of your grandmother’s knitted vest, dust and wool and traces of skin, the miniscule flakes embedded in spaces too small to be seen. You run your hands over the glass display cases, stopping at the pocket watches and brooches, the little, shiny things that you imagine would be heavy in your closed fist. The art hangs haphazardly. A seascape in watercolours next to stiff, blonde children in an oil portrait next to an owl knitted in macramé. Perched on a shelf, a ventriloquist’s dummy, mouth hanging open. A cheongsam gleaming green in the dim.
A man behind the counter is weighing a pile of gold jewellery, looping necklaces into neat circles, separating the rings with big jade stones and diamonds from the rest. Even you know that is wedding jewellery, the kind your mother keeps in a four-tiered box in her bedroom, the kind she is supposed to keep in case she needs to run away from your father, the kind she can sell if she finds herself without a husband and with children to feed. You look. There is no Chinese woman in the shop, but you know she must be sad, somewhere counting her money, calculating how much rent she can afford, how many packages of instant noodles, before she must find a job, a daycare, a new husband.
Through the picture window, you see your mother looking for you, her body turning in circles. You run out and, when she grabs your arm, she shouts, You scared me, where were you, don’t you ever do that again, and you wish you could tell her you had found the exact place where Chinatown and not-Chinatown meet, where everyone’s lives leave evidence behind, where people sell their talismans for cash because they are running away or trying to stay or stopping for a moment to lift the weight of their pasts, but you don’t, you don’t, because her panic is receding and now she is angry, so you say, I’m sorry, I wasn’t thinking.
She pulls you through an alley, where the seagulls call to each other from the power lines above. They know, don’t they, where the people hide, where they discard the precious objects that can be sold or trashed or eaten. You hurry with your mother to the car and you will drive away, fast in the rain now falling, Chinatown like a ghost, falling further and further behind.
Jen Sookfong Lee was born and raised in Vancouver’s East Side, and she now lives with her son in North Burnaby. Her books include The Conjoined, nominated for International Dublin Literary Award and a finalist for the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize, The Better Mother, a finalist for the City of Vancouver Book Award, The End of East, and Gentlemen of the Shade. Jen cohosts the Can’t Lit podcast, appears regularly as a contributor on The Next Chapter on CBC Radio One, and teaches fiction at The Writers’ Studio with Simon Fraser University.
the Tuesday poem is curated by rob mclennan