Writing Vancouver – The Fire Before

Writing Vancouver is a bi-weekly section that highlights local talent in the literary arts. Over the coming weeks, Spacing Vancouver readers will be treated to a selected number of poems, stories and essays from the recently released  V6A: Writing from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside

We invite our readers to submit their own pieces for publication. We look forward to helping spread the word!

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The Fire Before

MADELEINE THIEN

Long ago, my father wanted to become a priest. As a young man in Malaysia, he had left his home and walked many miles to a monastery, believing that his purpose in life was to serve God. In the dense humidity, he climbed uphill, away from the lowland town of his childhood. But at the monastery, for reasons never explained or understood, he was refused. My father turned around and began walking home again, descending slowly to the level of the sea. His life veered in another direction: to my mother, to Canada, and three children who would eat him out of house and home.

“Oh,” he would say, caressing my cheek. “Life was so easy before you were born.”

Religion came with my family to Canada; it sent us to the Chinese Catholic Church in Vancouver’s Strathcona neighbourhood and to my elementary school on nearby Pender Street. From a young age, I lived in equal fear of the confessional and eternal damnation, in fear for my father’s soul because, every Sunday, he committed a mortal sin by missing Mass and attending to his stall at the Vancouver Flea Market, selling trinkets and inexpensive clothing. I prayed that his devotion, as a young man, would save him; I wondered how a person earned both forgiveness and a paycheque in these complicated times.

Vancouver’s Strathcona, Chinatown, and Downtown Eastside were the places where my family worshipped, ate, came of age, and first belonged to this new country. “Goddammit,” my father would mutter, and “Stupid idiot drivers,” as he waited behind the triple-parked vehicles and rivers of shoppers. Bereft of Hakka, his mother tongue, and Malay, his national language, my father was skilled at cursing in English, especially while driving, as he attempted to navigate us from safety to safety. My mother, my sister, and I were always late for Mass.

Shame-faced, we would clamber into the back pews while the priest belittled us with his eyes. In that church, among the bilingual hymnals, I first began to disbelieve.

When Mass ended, we bought our groceries from a vegetable stand on Hastings Street where produce lay dishevelled on the sidewalk. My mother would buy my favourite treat, dai bao, literally, “big bread.” My sister and I would stare through the shop windows, coveting the toys that came direct from Hong Kong. I yearned to see this fantastical city where my mother had grown up, where, according to satellite Pearl Television, gangsters thrived and assassins prowled the rooftops. I longed to see Melbourne, Australia, where my parents had received their college and university educations; among their cherished possessions was a small, brown, decorative kangaroo.

One Sunday, we were with my mother when she accidentally reversed her car into a bicycle that had been left lying, completely flat, on the road. Immediately the bicycle owner, a young blond man, was beside us. He demanded cash, up front, right away. The bicycle, he said, was worth more than a thousand dollars. My mother was shaking. She did not have the money, she said. He said he would call the police. My mother wrung her hands. He said he would accept a cheque for $300. On the spot, my mother wrote him one. I will remember this moment forever. The way she handed it to him apologetically. The way the young man spoke to her as if she were a child.

We got back into the car. “I didn’t even see it,” my mother said, almost weeping.

I thought about the bike lying in the road, the shifty eyes of the young man. My sister and I exchanged looks. Slowly, carefully, my mother put the car in reverse.
“Don’t tell your father.”
We promised that we wouldn’t.

An EIGHT-ROOM, shell-pink, stucco building at the corner of Pender and Campbell housed our school, run by the Grey Nuns associated with to our church. Every morning, the concrete playground filled with nearly 200 children dressed in blue tunics or trousers and white shirts. My mother sewed our uniforms herself. After the first day of classes, my sister wept in her bed, dismayed by our asymmetrical collars and the too-wide pleats of our tunics, by the slew of tiny details that set us apart from our classmates. (In an effort to further economize, one year, my mother even knitted our stockings.)

We grew accustomed to weekly confessions, to the way in which our fellow students belted out their prayers, to the grisly stories of Christ’s suffering walk to Golgotha. I admired the piety of the other girls and imagined that, if I joined a nunnery, my father would be pleased. I tried to find my own way to God but succeeded only in developing a fixation on fires. For months, I read obsessively about spontaneous combustion—the phenomenon in which a person inexplicably bursts into flames—and considered the argument that such a death was punishment from above, divine retribution. I was a demon with an angel’s face, my mother said gently. I had things inside that were eating me up. I wanted to tell her that the clutter in our house might one day burst into flames, that we were living on a thin line, that heat and burning were the worst way to pass from this life. “Some say the world will end in fire,” we had learned, “and some say ice.”

The school did not let us out until five in the afternoon, after our Chinese lessons were done. Despite years of classes, my sister and I proved resistant to the language: we spoke an accented Cantonese, in tones that our teachers complained were “completely crooked.” Our parents were no help; they spoke to us only in English. In any case, our schoolwork was of secondary importance to them; they were busy trying to stave off bankruptcy and recover from their foreclosed mortgage. We were left to our own devices. Night after night, I read about the lives of the saints, martyred in increasingly terrible ways— fed to lions, submerged in hot oil. As the stories of the Grey Nuns took over my dreams, Jesus seemed as real and as tragic to me as my own family. I could not bear the thought of someone dying for my sins. My parents’ arguments grew increasingly brittle. I imagined schemes in which I could produce money, lots of it. When my sister moved on to high school, I continued at Strathcona Elementary, walking in loops through Chinatown and the DTES, past the crumpled men and wizened women living in the streets and alleyways. It was as if they, and we, had all been collected here, and we were parts of the same branch. I, too, spoke to myself and to imaginary people. I, too, was hungry and longed for things I could not obtain. When street fights happened, as they sometimes did, it was like a sudden thunderstorm, a buildup of frustration and rage, let loose finally, so that normalcy could resume.

At the time, I did not know what Ray-Cam was (a community centre, in fact, to serve the parents and children of this neighbourhood); I only knew that I stood outside its doors for years of my life, waiting for buses so packed and heavy their carriages nearly scraped the ground. There was a gene, kids in my school said, peculiar to everyone in our neighbourhood, which made us all susceptible to alcohol. This gene would make us turn red, stumble, fall down, move in a dream state from corner to corner until, having lost our dignity and all our money, we resorted to Chinese cooking wine. This was our alternate future, the one that awaited us if we wandered too far from the schoolyard fence. We had to be careful, we were told, not to touch the used condoms in the schoolyard or pick up the needles in the grass.

Meanwhile, my mother volunteered at Bingo Night in the school basement, volunteer hours that were then credited to our tuition. It frustrated her to see people spending their last dollars, smoking their last cigarettes, in hope of a big payout, and she always came home in a foul mood, her hair reeking of smoke. My father also had a weakness for the lottery. Every Saturday, we held our breath as the 6/49 numbers tumbled out of a giant plastic ball. Once, he won a thousand dollars. My mother gambled on other things: she enrolled us in piano, ballet, tap dancing, acrobatics, Chinese painting, and calligraphy. My sister and I danced in city parades, at Lions Club dinners and multicultural celebrations, dressed as peasant girls or peacocks or tea pickers, our hair swirled into enormous Star Wars buns. We studied with teachers who had been principal dancers in China’s pre-eminent dance company, and whose daughter, Chan Hon Goh, would spin infinite pirouettes for us on the rickety, chalky floor, before going on to greater things. Through culture, my mother believed, we might break the cycle of our present lives.

“You’ll be grateful for all this,” my mother told us, “when you’re older.” And it was true. After she died in 2002, I sought consolation in drawing, in dance, in art. I drew endless pictures for my nieces and nephew. For hours, I watched videos of Martha Graham, Rudolf Nureyev, and Margot Fonteyn, comforted by the yearning and strength they projected with their bodies, the lightness of their steps—as if they could defy mass and endings. This was the only means I knew to armour myself against the grief that had grown too large, too wordless.

WHEN SHE PASSED AWAY, at the age of fifty-eight, my mother had moved fully away from the Catholic Church. In the shock and devastation of her passing, we gave her a secular service, a Mass, and a Buddhist prayer cycle. My father, who by that time had not seen her in over a decade, did not join the line that approached her coffin. He sat, stonefaced, in the first row, staring straight ahead. We were estranged by then, and I thought a great deal about forgiveness. Where would we find it, now that the confessional box had closed its doors, now that God no longer spoke to us? Religion had carried my parents through their own childhoods; in the missionary schools of the East, they had both been educated by nuns and brothers. But here, in Canada, their faith faltered. When my mother, unable to pay our tuition, had appealed to the school for a few months’ grace, the church authorities had slammed the door on her. She had felt humiliated. She took out another loan, paid our tuition, and said nothing.

By the age of eleven, I no longer considered joining the nunnery. God’s love seemed tenuous and unforgiving; it demanded untold faith, it taught us to be humble and patient, to accept the travails of life. But when I took the bus outside our neighbourhood, when I saw the other sides of this city, I felt a growing anger. There was a fire, here, in our streets—did they think it would burn itself out? Did they know how many lives it was taking with it? Meanwhile, the Chinese culture told us we must not give outsiders an excuse to judge us and find us lacking. We had to prove, my mother believed, that we deserved to be here. If our families had secrets, we must, at all costs, protect them. We must be better, in order that we might be equal.

Night after night, I stood on Hastings Street, watching headlights sail by, waiting for the bus that would carry me home. When I walked down Main Street, this is what I saw: secrets spilled all over the streets. I saw old women riffling through the garbage and Chinese storekeepers shooing the derelict from their premises. I saw that anger was present, day in and day out, in every person that I knew. In those years, two people whom I loved attempted suicide and, already, it had begun to seem a natural response to life. Abuse was common. The adults around me seemed to have lost their footing and to have lost hope that they could ever regain it. Still, in another few years, their determination would pay off; these families would move away, out to the suburbs of Richmond and Coquitlam. At fourteen years old, many of us would get our first jobs, hungry for money in our pockets, for something of our own. Around that time, I began skipping school and spending long days in Central Park, in Burnaby. My father became convinced that I was coming to a bad end. He put up a notice on the fridge that said, “No drugs! No opium!” I wanted to tell him that, from the age of nine, I had seen what drugs could do. I understood that, if I took drugs, every secret of mine would spill out; I could never allow that. To lose control, to be so vulnerable, would spell my end. A year later, my father declared bankruptcy and disappeared back to Malaysia. I thought of him as a young man at the doors of the monastery, seeking some certainty in this life. I thought of his childhood, when his town was bombed until nothing remained, and his father was executed at the close of World War II. Within the strictures of the church, the contained world of the monastery, perhaps he had hoped to find some necessary freedom, some peace. I promised myself that, one day, I too would journey back. One day, I would begin my own life and put out this fire that was burning, steadily, and wearing me down.

JUST AFTER my father’s departure, I was caught shoplifting. I did not steal necessities, but pretty things: earrings, a clip for my hair, a necklace. My mother decided I needed solace in my life, and settled on tai chi as the perfect solution.

In MacLean Park, men cradled their liquor and children gathered around me. Together they followed the movement of my fake sword as it cut through the air, and my steps, so divorced from time, I made as if I moved underwater. My tai chi teacher spoke to me in Cantonese, and I answered in English. Sunday after Sunday, I perfected the thirty-two forms. When September came, my teacher filmed me. “You should continue,” she said approvingly. “You should do demonstrations. You are both fragile and strong.” The glinting sword, a jian, was heavy in my hand. It was, according to the Chinese, the Gentleman of Weapons. My mother beamed.

Now, too late, I wish I could ask her what she saw in me, how she recognized the anger I carried like a pebble in my throat, and why she, the child of a businessman who let his nine daughters struggle for their survival, doting only on his eldest son, knew that meditation and dance could bring me comfort. I remembered how, when I was a child, she flew back to Hong Kong to see her parents. “Never go back,” she told us, when she came home, “to a place that never wanted you to begin with.” The next night, my mother took my sister and me into Chinatown, to a restaurant called the Shangri-la. While she met with an old friend, my sister and I sat at the window, staring down at the neon happiness of Pender Street. We ordered Shirley Temples, and the drinks came with paper umbrellas, which we both swore we would keep for the rest of our lives.

I want to tell my mother that I have been back to the old playground, that the schoolyard is empty and the building abandoned. Two months ago, I returned to the apartment where we used to live, the one from which my father fled. It was the first time I had returned to Vancouver in five years. Amidst the rusting banisters and yellowed curtains, I thought I could see her a little more clearly. Versions of her, of us, had taken our places, living in the cramped rooms, imagining better days. I saw how religion had faded away with the old country. Perhaps my parents and I came to the same conclusion; even now, when I stand in a church, the smell of incense and holy water brings me back to another world. I visit it as one does a place of childhood, a place that I cherish but that cannot sustain me.

Among the many gifts my parents gave me, I am most grateful for this one: they never stopped me from pursuing my desire to write, to risk being poor, as they had been, to struggle as they had done, in order to find my own peace. They did not ask me to live an easy life. They did not ask me to live any life but my own. I imagine that this must be one of the hardest gifts to give your child: the freedom to feel pain, to fall, to make a new life in a new country.

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Madeleine Thien is the author of three books of fiction, including Simple Recipes, a collection of stories, and her most recent novel, Dogs at the Perimeter. Her work has been translated into more than sixteen languages. Between the ages of nine and thirteen, she went to elementary school in Vancouver’s Strathcona neighbourhood. She now lives in Montreal.

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V6A: Writing from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside is a record of this community’s self-determination via the poems, stories, essays and experimental writing of 32 authors, who have all been members of the DTES community in some way, at some point in their lives.

Published by Arsenal Pulp Press, the contributors feature in the book are: John Barry, Elisabeth Buchanan, Wayde Compton, Henry Doyle, Daggar Earnshaw, Albert Flett, Patrick Foley, Angela Gallant, Gary Geddes, Anne Hopkinson, Jonina Kirton, Don Larson, Gisele LeMire, Robyn Livingstone, Stephen Lytton, Don Macdonald, Muriel Marjorie, My Name is Scot, Lora McElhinney, James McLean, Brenda Prince, Antonette Rea, Rachel Rose, Sen Yi, Irit Shimrat, Kevin Spenst, Loren Stewart, Madeleine Thien, Michael Turner, Phoenix Winter, Cathleen With, Elaine Woo and Daniel Zomparelli.

 V6A is for sale at People’s Coop Bookstore, Little Sister’s, Chapters/Indigo, SFU Bookstore Downtown, Hager Books and online at amazon.ca also as an ebook and available internationally as of September 2012. Partial proceeds benefit Thursdays Writing Collective.