by Vanessa Hua
Following is an excerpt from the book A River of Stars by Vanessa Hua, released this week. Copyright (c) 2018 by Vanessa Hua. Reprinted by arrangement with Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House. You can read our previous interview with Vanessa here.
The tasseled lamp was hers for the taking. The stack of cookbooks, the cracked radio, and wooden chair, too, if Scarlett wanted. All were heaped on a corner at the edge of Chinatown. The selection was best at the end of the month, Old Wu explained, when people moved out of their apartments, leaving couches, computer monitors, microwaves, and dumbbells in their wake. If you knew when and where to go, you could find treasures daily.
They were on their way to the Pearl Pavilion, a banquet hall whose manager welcomed skimming, side deals, and other loose interpretations of the rules.
“Can’t we come back for this?” Scarlett didn’t want to try to sell the stolen van while carrying a lamp like an itinerant peddler. She draped her hand on her belly, where her daughter was drumming out the song of her arrival. Soon. Soon. Soon.
“It’ll be gone,” Old Wu said. You had to be prepared, willing to snatch something up no matter where you were going. You wouldn’t have a second chance. Blink, hesitate, and the treasure would disappear into the hands of the decisive.
She tucked the lamp under her arm and followed Old Wu, who crowed about his top finds: outside of a luxury mattress store, he’d once discovered crumpled twenties, eighty dollars total. After testing out mattresses, a rich shopper must have been so relaxed that the bills tumbled out of his pocket! Another time, Old Wu spied a baggie full of green leaves, oily and densely packed, pungent as a skunk—da ma! Marijuana. He didn’t have much use for it, but he made sure it didn’t fall into the hands of a child or an addict. He smiled slyly. He’d given it to their neighbor Joe Ng. For all his boasting talk, Joe lived with his mother at Evergreen Gardens, and the rascal benefited from da ma’s relaxing medicinal qualities.
Only the poorest and most desperate in China picked through trash, grannies searching for glass bottles and aluminum cans to redeem. Wearing thick gloves, sticky with spilled juice, they batted aside wasps to fill clanking burlap bags. At the parks, some of them hovered nearby, taking the empty can from your hand.
Old Wu took the lamp from her. After retiring from the restaurant trade, he’d turned scavenging into an art, transforming the streets of San Francisco into a shopping spree. You had to see possibilities where others did not, he told her. Maybe you never imagined yourself with a chrome stool, topped with a red leather cushion, but you understood how it might fit into your apartment or your neighbor’s. You couldn’t be greedy. Just as you were to leave a few grains of rice at the bottom of your bowl to seed your next meal, you shouldn’t rake the sidewalk clean.
They skirted the edge of Chinatown, quicker than fighting the crowds on Stockton Street, and passed a narrow house, trimmed in gold and purple, where toys were arrayed on the front steps beside a sign, free! Wooden puzzles with missing pieces, nested cups, a plastic pail and shovels, and a green striped caterpillar. She’d seen that caterpillar—many, in fact—at the toy factory where she used to work.
Not long before she turned sixteen, she’d been struck with dread that she was bound to repeat her mother’s life, lacking in adventure, luxury, and love. She wanted to extend her world beyond the reach of her fingertips, and factories were hiring, if you were strong enough and could brave the journey hundreds of kilometers south, to the land of rice eaters, bandits, and barbarians.
Factories shut down during the two weeks of the Spring Festival, and after the holidays, workers switched jobs and scores of newcomers took their places. It was the best time of year to get hired. By the light of the full moon, she had slipped out of the bed she shared with her mother. She dug up the clay jar buried in the floor and stole their savings, a fistful of soiled bills and grimy coins. Ma wouldn’t have any expenses for a while; with one less mouth to feed, their stores would last longer and soon the spring vegetables would be ready to harvest. By the time Ma needed money, Scarlett would have sent back everything she’d taken, times ten.
She had hesitated at the doorway. The bed was warm with sleep, the embers glowing in the stove, and their ramshackle home almost cozy. Ma’s sleeping face was open and vulnerable. Snoring softly, Ma stirred, her arms reaching for the space Scarlett had vacated. She had groaned and Scarlett held still until Ma’s breath deepened again. Ma had called the migrant workers unfilial. She kneeled and rested her head beside her mother for a few breaths, which amounted to the closest physical affection that had ever passed between them. Scarlett drew the comforter over her mother’s shoulders and left. She walked all night to the provincial capital, following signs and tracks to the train station.
To stay awake, she’d sung quietly to herself, revolutionary songs celebrating heroes who could stop a gun with their chests, hold a bomb in their hands, and stand in a fire without moving. The Party taught her the lowliest could make the country great, but the factories promised independence and a future different than the one handed down to her. She rode for three days, dozing in a smoky, packed train on a wooden bench beneath a bare lightbulb, harsh as an interrogation chamber. She had ignored passengers who spit watermelon seeds and chicken bones onto the floor and played raucous card games. As the train moved south, more and more teenage passengers boarded, also in search of work. The air was thick with sweat and possibility. Upon arrival, she bought a fake identity card with the last of her money. You weren’t allowed to work in the factory until you were sixteen, a month away, a month Scarlett couldn’t wait. She’d started on the assembly line of a shoe factory, living in a dormitory, twelve girls to a room, in a village made vertical, suffocating in summer and freezing in winter. Her pay was docked if she talked back to her supervisor, if she fell behind production goals, and her schedule—to shit, to shower, to work, and to eat—was timed to the minute.
She quit that factory and joined another girl whose friend promised a job with good wages. When they arrived at the squat concrete building, however, an oily man locked them into a room on the second floor. Scarlett had climbed out of the window and dropped into a trash bin to escape, while that girl remained behind, afraid to jump and unwilling to believe she had been tricked. Scarlett no longer remembered her name, only that she’d been pretty, apple-cheeked, and nervously tossed her head like a mare.
How easily Scarlett also could have been lost. No one in this world understood the journey she’d taken, the threats and disappointments she’d overcome, and how thin the line between survival and failure. Exaggerating, lying her way into a clerk’s job, and later still into human resources and sales while taking classes in English and negotiating skills. During those years, she’d taught herself how to accumulate seconds in which she might breathe. In which she might dream but also scheme.
She poked the caterpillar, which seemed brand new, straight out of the box, soft and cuddly, not a thread frayed, the colors bright after its long journey: rolled off the assembly line, packed onto a cargo ship, off-loaded onto a truck, and driven to a store here. Not a trace left of the factory’s harsh chemical reek of plastic and rubber, the dizzying paint fumes, the stink of the industrious. Maybe she knew one of the women whose hands had touched this caterpillar, stuffed in the fluffy fibers, attached the shiny eyes, and sewed the body closed. Did Scarlett process her paperwork, or eat with her in the factory canteen?
She tucked the caterpillar under her arm—her daughter’s first toy. Long before she’d known she would come to America, her touch had rippled across the ocean. The goods had been designated export-quality, unavailable for sale within China—too expensive, too fine for locals—but she had never considered the endpoint. She had often puzzled over the exact purpose of the items they manufactured. Did the strange objects—green plastic bowler hats, necklaces of bunny-shaped beads—fill a pressing need or create one by coming into existence? This house must bulge with plenty, shelves, bins, and boxes overflowing with toys.
Back in Chinatown, they slipped through an alley on cobblestones slick with garbage, and passed a market where turtles and frogs flopped in plastic buckets. The bubbling tanks sounded like beakers boiling over in a mad scientist’s lab. They were a block away from the Pearl Pavilion. According to Old Wu, legions of tourists ordered neon orange chicken and heaps of fried rice during the day. At night, at its banquets, the restaurant served shark’s fin soup, chewy slices of abalone, and hand-pulled noodles.
He asked a bus boy where they could find Manager Kwok. In the back, in his office. A dirty dish cart sat by the kitchen, piled with scraps grander than any feast Scarlett’s village had ever celebrated. Fistfuls of rice, beef, bell peppers, and bean curd sat untouched. Hunger dug at her. As a child, she’d eaten meat only once a year, and this much wasted food made her want to cram the leftovers into a take-out box so she and Daisy could feed themselves for days.
Manager Kwok, slouching in a baggy pin-striped suit, looked up from his paperwork and smiled. “Sifu! You’re too late for lunch, but we can find something in the kitchen.”
Old Wu had explained to Scarlett why the manager owed him. Years ago, he’d worked as a busboy at a restaurant where Old Wu, the cook, kept the staff well fed. “I didn’t come for the food—I came for you,” Old Wu said.
“Don’t believe everything you hear,” Manager Kwok told Scarlett. He had the uneasy swagger of a man in charge in practice though not in name, at the whim of an absent master. She’d heard the rumors: the owners of the Pearl Pavilion lived in Hong Kong and used the restaurant to wash dirty money clean. Manager Kwok’s mildewy office, cramped and dim compared to the immense, brightly lit dining room, had fake wood paneling and a stained swamp-green carpet. A cigar humidor and a model of a motorcycle, with swooping fenders and bulbous tires, perched on top of a liquor cabinet. Old Wu shifted the lamp from one arm to the other.
“You lift that off the back of a truck?” Manager Kwok asked. Old Wu set the lamp onto the floor and pulled out a chair for Scarlett, who awkwardly cradled the caterpillar in what remained of her lap. In the toy’s midsection, bells tinkled.
“You want to book a red egg and ginger party?” he asked, referring to the meal that celebrated a baby’s survival and marked his first hundred days.
“We can do any menu you want. Roast pig? Roast duck? We’re using the recipe that Sifu taught us! How many? Ten tables, we’ll get you a discount.” He nodded at Old Wu. “In addition to the discount we reserve for our friends.”
“Don’t you need a second delivery van? I have a bargain,” Old Wu said.
Scarlett bristled. For all his kindness, she’d had enough of other people speaking on her behalf.
Manager Kwok leaned back in his chair, the leather squeaking under him. He tented his fingers together, his nails buffed to a shine, the pinky on his right hand kept long as a talon. “I don’t have the budget for it.” The cost of food had gone up and banquet bookings had gone down.
“The engine’s powerful, very powerful,” Old Wu said.
The manager checked his phone.
“Built like a tank. Hit by another car, won’t get a scratch. The other car will crumple.”
The manager laughed politely. He didn’t look up from the cracked screen of his phone.
“I’ll try the Jade Dragon,” Old Wu said. “But I wanted to give you the first chance.”
The seat dug into the back of Scarlett’s thighs. Old Wu had told her the manager wasn’t above serving stolen liquor at banquets, and she had to appeal to his greed. “The van’s old, probably older than the one you have.”
Manager Kwok studied her. “That’s not much of a sales pitch.”
“It’s reliable and roomy. Sell the one you have and buy mine. An easy profit.” She’d let him realize that he could pocket the difference.
“No profit comes easy.” But he rubbed his chin, considering.
Vanessa Hua is a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle and the author of a short story collection, Deceit and Other Possibilities, and a debut novel, A River of Stars. For two decades, she has been writing, in journalism and fiction, about Asia and the Asian diaspora. She has received a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award, the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature, the San Francisco Foundation’s James D. Phelan Award, and a Steinbeck Fellowship in Creative Writing, as well as honors from the Society of Professional Journalists and the Asian American Journalists Association. Her work has appeared in publications including The New York Times, The Atlantic, and The Washington Post. She lives in the Bay Area with her family.