Carol W Hazelwood

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Tiger in a Cage - Memoir of Wu Tek Ying available from

Tiger in a Cage
Memoir of Wu Tek Ying

by Carol W. Hazelwood
Chapter 1, 1914-1916
It was evening. The flickering light from oil lamps encased three generations of Wu men in light and shadows. Seventeen-year-old Pei Ching, arms stiff at his side, stood facing his seated grandfather. The nails of Pei Ching’s clenched fingers drew blood from his palms. “Yei, Yei,” he began, then faltered. “Yei, Yei, I respectfully ask you to help me get a job at the Longhua Arsenal where you work.”

Silence met that request. His grandfather turned to stare at Pei Ching’s father, who sat on a wooden stool in a shadowed corner. “You,” he pointed to his opium-drugged son, “are responsible for your son. You have thrown away your future. Once you were a scholar. Look at you now. You disgrace the family!”

Pei Ching’s father nodded, too drugged from opium to think properly, and blinked with glassy eyes. The brown-stained fingers of his trembling hand lifted a cigarette to his mouth, and he inhaled.

“ I don’t wish to cause trouble, Yei Yei.” Pei Ching protested. “Father doesn’t have the forty yuan I need for the YMCA school. I understand that. I must get a job.”

The grandfather nodded and peered through his small, round glasses at the tall, handsome boy. “I don’t like what I see of the past. I gave your father everything. Look at him!” His voice quivered. “A scholar no more. A heap of skin around an empty skull.”

The grandfather rose, his gray gown trailing from his thin frame. His half-closed eyes appeared to be imagining a different version of his sulking son. Again he pointed at Pei Ching’s father, who raised his tar stained hands to shield his face from the wrath of the older man. “I’ve had enough of your behavior,” the old man said. “You leave your son penniless. If you don’t rid yourself of your opium habit, your life here in Shanghai is ended. Do you understand? You will return to Wu Sih to be with your wife. You will be thrust out of my house.”
He turned back to Pei Ching. “I will not help you get a job at the arsenal. You must do this on your own. But you have been a filial son and may remain in my house. You are strong. Stay strong!”

Pei Ching bowed slightly and stepped away from his grandfather. His head swarmed with hope and frustration. Alone in the next room he stood very still, threw back his shoulders; his eyes steadied.

The following week he passed the test to work on the lathe at the factory and at the age of seventeen became a mechanic at the arsenal. The factory issued him one blue uniform. Every night he washed it and rose at four in the morning to hold it over a bowl of steaming water to smooth out the wrinkles. His daily neat appearance impressed his fellow factory workers. Why did he have several uniforms, and they only one?

Pei Ching worked full days, week after week, but was unable to save money. At each pay period his father asked for Pei Ching’s wages and used them for his opium habit. Despite the grandfather’s recriminations toward his son, nothing changed. Family ties were chains not easily removed and first sons were spoiled. Pei Ching’s loyalty to his father forbade a confrontation, and the Wu home in Shanghai became less a sanctuary and more a cage.

After Pei Ching’s grandmother died, his grandfather remarried. This woman was the third wife of a widower. She brought Sio Ying, the beautiful daughter of the widower’s second wife, with her to the marriage. According to Chinese culture, Sio Ying became Pei Ching’s aunt with all the taboos of a blood relationship. She was two years older than Pei Ching, beautiful, seductive and irresistible to Pei Ching. Living in the same house, the inevitable happened. They fell in love.

One morning while the rest of the house slept, Sio Ying wakened early to catch Pei Ching as he worked in the dark kitchen steaming his uniform free of wrinkles. She stood in the shadows, unsure of the way to tell her young lover her troubling news. Upon noticing her, he smiled and nodded to her, but continued his task.

Sio Ying minced forward on her tiny half-bound feet. Waiting, wanting to speak, yet fearing Pei Ching’s reaction, she at last blurted out, “I have brought great sorrow to my family because of my love for you.” Tears brimmed Sio Ying’s dark eyes. She slid her small graceful hands down the front of her gown. “I’m with child. What will I do?”

Pei Ching’s face flushed. He looked up at her through the steam curling around his face. This possibility had not occurred to him. He was mortified that their secret love would now be discovered. Before his birth, his parents had promised him to Shui Sau Yuk, a country girl from Wu Sih. His duty was to this arranged marriage, set by custom to ensure his family’s lineage.

He laid aside his uniform and drew Sio Ying into his arms. “You’re my true love, not Sau Yuk,” Pei Ching told her. Yet as he said this, he knew he could do nothing for Sio Ying.

“ My destiny is bleak if I do not marry now.” Sio Ying’s eyes searched his face. “I have dishonored my family and myself.”

He held her close, not wanting to look into her eyes. “There’s no hope for us in this world, only in the next.” Her body stiffened against him, yet he knew she understood the truth of his words. By the dictates of their culture, their marriage would be impossible, scandalous. “When I become wealthy, you and our child will share my success,” he promised, never doubting that he would attain success.

The following week Sio Ying left the Wu house and went to the door of her mother’s house; her throat tightened as she contemplated breaking her news. Head lowered she approached this formidable woman, who sat in her late husband’s house, sewing the hem of a gown. Sio Ying sat on a small bamboo stool in front of her mother. “Mma, I have come to tell you something of great importance. I . . . I . . .”

“ Yes. What is it? Don’t sit there like a toad.”

Sio Ying’s mother’s disposition made embers seem cool.

“ I’m pregnant with Wu Pei Ching’s child.”

The intake of the elderly woman’s breath was a dragon’s hiss. Her sewing dropped, forgotten upon her lap.

“ Foolish girl! What dishonor have you brought upon my head! He cannot marry you, and you cannot be his concubine. He has no money, no position. I am only the second wife here with no influence, no position of authority. I let you go to the Wu house to better yourself. Like a peasant girl you throw yourself at the young son.”

It was not like that at all, Sio Ying wanted to say, but held her tongue fearing an even greater tirade.

“ You will marry Yang, your childhood intended, as soon as possible. We will not tell him or his family of your condition. Understand? I will make all the arrangements with Yang’s mother. I will say that the Wu house is no longer a fit place for you because of Pei Ching’s father’s opium habit.” She paused to ponder her plan. “Yes. That will be convincing, for Yang has often said that he distrusts those with the habit. I will pressure for an immediate marriage. Yang’s mother may not be so easily convinced,” she said to herself while she picked at the forgotten sewing in her lap. “You’re lucky my husband is dead.”

Sio Ying could have argued that if her father had been alive, she would never have been sent to the Wu house, but again she remained silent. She was glad Pei Ching and she were lovers. In her heart she would never be separated from him no matter what custom dictated.

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