Tea That Burns: A Family Memoir of Chinatown
Bruce Edward Hall
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Bruce Edward Hall, who describes himself as a "Chinese-Scottish Protestant," turns to the Chinese side of his family in Tea That Burns, a memoir of New York's Chinatown so named for the teapots filled with bootleg Scotch that were as common as teapots filled with tea in Mott Street's all-night restaurants during Prohibition.
"Chinatown was the only constant in my life," Hall explains, "...the only spot to which I could always return to familiar surroundings and see the thumbprints of generations that had died before living memory." It was there, in "a place that America hadn't homogenized out of existence," a place where he could "almost smell the beginning of time," that the author discovered "generous doses of magic, and poetry, and the exquisite, mystical beauty which was never to be found in the bland, white-bread towns of my youth.... Our house," he notes wryly, "was the ethnic neighborhood in Madison, Connecticut."
Against a backdrop of Tong (transplanted Cantonese gangs) wars and truces, festivals and feasts, opium dens and mah-jongg games, the reader follows the inevitable Americanization of the Hor family — which, for obvious reasons, changed its name to Hall in 1950. There is Great Grandfather Hor Poa, who arrived in the United States in 1873 with a queue he wouldn't cut for 22 years and a wife whose feet were bound — "two fists of flesh, with seemingly one toe each."
Grandfather, known by all as Hock Shop, earned a reputation as Chinatown's preeminent bookie. "To stop the Chinese from gambling would be like stopping the Chinese from eating," the author notes. By the age of 17, Hock Shop had already "developed the suave swagger that would distinguish him for the rest of his life. He liked sharp suits, good cigars, and a stiff drink with his buddies."
Hall's father, the youngest of Hock Shop's five children, went with his siblings to be raised by an aunt in Brooklyn when his mother died. At the age of 3, "he takes the first step on his long march away from the ancestral neighborhood," writes Hall of his father. Unlike his son, "he will not often look back." Auntie didn't want him to. She insisted that the children speak English — and proper English. When Hall's father was 10, Auntie sent him to speech class to get rid of his Brooklyn accent. "He emerges," writes Hall with typical dry humor, "sounding like Edward R. Murrow."
For a boy who grew up in suburban Connecticut with a father who is an "Episcopalian, golf-playing junior corporate executive with the beautiful blonde wife" and a penchant for Kelly green pants and dry martinis, Hall is able to make Chinatown as vividly real to the reader as if he'd lived there since the time of his great-grandfather.
With affection rather than mockery, the author describes the superstitions that are a way of life for these gentle people — gentle when they're not involved with one Tong war or another. Explaining the goldfish tank at the top of the staircase at a restaurant called the Port Arthur, the "Best Restaurant that Ever Was" — unfortunately gone today — Hall writes, "Goldfish weren't, and still aren't, merely decorative. They keep out the evil spirits who, as all the world knows, have a tendency to rush through doors and straight up stair- cases to wreak havoc with whatever is found at the top, like sleeping children — or cash registers."
Those same lurking and demonic spirits are the reasons that Chinatown's "tiny lanes squirm around in curves and sudden, switchback turns, because, of course, evil spirits can only travel in straight lines and so will come to grief against a wall before crossing some family's threshold."
Food finds its way frequently onto the pages of Hall's book — not surprising since eating is the "principal Chinese means of celebrating any conceivable event." Explains Hall, "China's, after all, was a culture where the natives greeted each other not with 'Hello,' but with 'Have you eaten yet?'"