Review of ‘Tea That Burns: A Family Memoir of Chinatown’

Tea That Burns: A Family Memoir of Chinatown
Bruce Edward Hall
Free Press

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?'"

He tempts the reader with descriptions of "delectable steamed sea bass, and savory duck, and crabs, and spare ribs, and platters full of lobsters dripping in black-bean sauce." Along the narrow serpentine lanes of Chinatown at the turn of the century there are "fishmongers with live eels writhing in shallow tanks. In the butchers' windows hung geese and ducks and strips of sweet roast pork, dark red and juicy. And in every store, the household god presided with sticks of incense and a benevolent smile. It was a place where the smell of perfume and pig snouts filled the air." It could be a place of humiliation as well. Lots of it. The popular image of the Chinese at the time — "little brownies" as some called them — was that of "sinister gamblers and opium fiends, white slavers and purveyors of illicit puppy meat." As recently as 1932 at the public high school, Hall writes, "teachers will make a Chinese girl stand in front of the class to illustrate her 'Mongolian' characteristics with a pointer — straight hair and a 'nonexistent nose.'" Even the author is subjected to the taunt of "Ching-Chong-Chinaman!" from his grade school classmates in suburbia, "despite the fact that I don't look particularly Chinese."

During World War II, when the Chinese community protests plans by America (then still a neutral country) to send steel to the Japanese, arguing that they will use it to make planes with which to attack us, Hall writes, "the generals in the War Department in Washington just chuckle to themselves. Everybody knows that with their little slanted eyes no Orientals could ever see well enough to fly a fighter plane. On December 7, 1941," he notes wryly, "the War Department reassesses that assumption".

Hall's narrative soars with his descriptions of the annual succession of joyous parades and celebrations that are the life and breath of Chinatown. Describing a New Year's parade, he writes, "...the Lion appears, his long, twisting body trailing out behind that huge brilliantly-colored head, both frightening and fantastic with its rolling eyes, his flowing mane, and his snapping jaws ready to consume money offered by store owners eager to have the beast come and frighten those evil spirits away for another year....Maybe," recalls Hall, "the father lets the small son approach the rearing, snorting creature and reach up a hand, trembling with terror mixed with delight, to feed that gaping mouth a red envelope filled with coins. A lunge, a snap, and the money is gone, while the little boy squeals in pure pleasure."

At the beginning of his remarkable book, Hall writes, "This is a tactile history. I want the reader to be able to know what it felt like to live in Chinatown through the years, what it looked like, what it smelled like." This reader certainly did.

Reviewer Emily d'Aulaire writes from her home in Connecticut.

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