The Last Dragon Dance: Chinatown Stories by Kwai-Yun Li
Updated: Oct 1, 2020
Published by Penguin India
Available on Amazon
A collection of short stories set in Chinatown Calcutta in the 1960's. Kwai-Yun Li's Hakka parents emigrated from Moi-yen, China, to Calcutta, India, where Kwai was born. She grew up in Chattawalla Gully, in the old part of the city, and came to Canada through an arranged marriage.
About the Book
On a hot summer day in 1942, sitting outside her shoe shop in Bentinck Street, a mother fixes her six-year-old daughter’s marriage to her neighbor’s son. A widow converts a part of her house to a temple so that she can support her family with the donations. During a border skirmish in the north-east, Chinese mothers prepare packages for life in concentration camps giving special instructions to the children, lest they get separated. A gentle bookseller and his daughter disappear in the middle of the night when they are deported to China for his political sympathies. And in the delightful story ‘Uncle Worry’, Uncle Chien worries when his daughter Pi Moi forgets to call him: he worries that she and her husband, Mohamed, have had a falling out. He worries when Pi Moi does call, for she must be fighting with Mohamed, otherwise why would she call?
From crumbling shops in Chinatown to decaying tanneries in Tangra, Kwai-Yun Li’s The Last Dragon Dance: Chinatown Stories exposes us to the life of the little-known Chinese community in Calcutta. While the arrival of the Chinese in India abounds in legends, the mass exodus of this dwindling community is not as romantic: political and economic upheavals have forced them to abandon their home. Even though theirs is so much a story of assimilation and syncretism—growing up in 1950s’ Calcutta one never paid much attention to which customs were Indian or Chinese—the Chinese have often felt the brunt of their foreignness. The rift between Mao and Chiang Kai Shek led to the deportment and imprisonment of hundreds of Maoist sympathizers. This collection gives voice to such concerns without being overly sentimental or sensational; Li never fails to see the humor in the idiosyncrasies of her community. These inspired-from-life stories wonderfully capture the mood of the time with unassuming grace.
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An extract from the book
'WE HAVE TO VISIT UNCLE CHIEN.' MOTHER PUTS DOWN THE PHONE.
'His malaria's flared up again, and he fell through his neighbour's roof and sprained his wrist.'
Uncle Chien, two years older than Mother, lives above the Chinese Funeral Home in Blackburn Lane, in north Calcutta. My sisters and I call him 'Uncle Worry'. The nickname has stuck and everyone, even the servants, call him 'Worry Sahib'.
Uncle Worry worries when his eldest daughter, Pi Moi, forgets to call him. He worries that she and her husband, Mohamed, have had a falling out. He worries when Pi Moi calls, for she must be fighting with Mohamed, otherwise why would she call?
Uncle Worry worries when he receives letters from his third daughter, Mi Moi, who writes from Paris, Beijing or Cairo and tells him about her friends. He worries that she may marry her fan-qui, a foreign devil of a friend. Mi Moi works as an airline attendant for Air India.
Uncle Worry worries because the matchmakers have stopped asking for his second daughter, Yam Moi. He worries that she will die an old spinster.
Uncle Worry worries when his youngest son, Su Sen, gets bad grades in school. He worries when Su Sen gets good grades, because Su Sen may then stop studying. Uncle Worry worries when An Sen, his eldest son, roars around Calcutta and Tangra on his red Honda motorcycle and flirts with Indian girls. He worries when An Sen stays home and watches TV. Two months ago, Mother and] rushed all over Calcutta looking for Uncle Worry. Mr Wong, Uncle Worry's boss, had called Mother. Uncle Worry did not show up for work. When Mr Wong sent his servant, Feroz, to Uncle Worry's house, the servant, Ali, told Feroz that Worry Sahib had left home at eight.
Mother found Uncle Worry at the Victoria Memorial, by the statue of King George.
When Queen Victoria expressed an interest in visiting Calcutta in the ni.neteenth century, the British Raj built a white marble palace with a large reflecting pool and a formal garden. Queen Victoria never did visit Calcutta. The Victoria Memorial is now a museum with mouldy and faded British Raj memorabilia.
'I couldn't sleep last night,' Uncle Worry said and wrinkled his forehead, deepening his worry lines. 'So] took my bicycle and pedalled here to think things over.'
'You worry too much.' Mother sat down on the steps beside him. 'What's it this time?'
'I worry about An Sen's job with Mr Lim.' Mr Lim owns the largest and most prosperous tannery and leather factory in Tangra. 'An Sen told me he was manager in Lim's Tannery.' Uncle Worry waved a peanut vendor oyer and bought two bags of peanuts. He offered a bag to Mother.
'Well? What happened? Did An Sen lose his job?'
'No. It's really funnY.' Uncle Worry scratched his salt and-pepper crew cut. 'Mr Lim pays An Sen very well, and An Sen goes to work at funny hours. Most times he leaves home in the afternoon and comes home around four in the morning. He says he goes to parties. But every night? And Mr Lim pays him for going to parties?' Uncle Worry grimaced, his two front gold teeth flashed
A beggar woman with three children came up to Uncle Worry. She pointed at his bag of peanuts. Uncle Worry sighed and handed the bag to the woman. Uncle Worry always gives to beggars.
'Well? Are you going to tell me what An Sen is up to?'
'This morning, An Sen came home with cuts and bruises, and blood all over his clothes.' Uncle Worry pinched the bridge of his nose. 'Three burglars broke into Mr Lim's tannery. An Sen is Mr Lim's bodyguard. When Mr Lim goes out in the evening, An Sen goes with him. Otherwise An Sen patrols the tannery and factory at night.'
'Hmm. That doesn't sound good,' Mother said.
'You know An Sen practises kung fu. He's really good at it too. You remember that time when five goondas attacked him?' Uncle W orry laughed. 'An Sen finished them off in five minutes and left them bleeding on the street.'
The five Indian men had cornered An Sen in an alley. They called him 'china, china, chin, chin' and threw stones at him. An Sen beat two of the men up so badly that they had to be hospitalized. Uncle Worry had to pay for the hospital costs, and also chai money for the police.
'You also had to pay three thousand rupees to bail him out of jail,' Mother pointed out.
'Yes, well.' Uncle Worry rubbed his potbelly and sighed. 'I worry that he's going to get himself killed one of these days, or be jailed for life.'
‘No, the Li family never had a jailbird,’ Mother said, We’d better do something’.
Mother talked to An Sen. An Sen quit his bodyguard job.
‘What was Uncle Worry doing on his neighbor’s roof? I ask.
'Now, now, it's Uncle Chien. Don't be disrespectful. Uncle W orr-eh, Chien, said that his television reception died in the middle of his favourite program last night. So he climbed on to the roof to check the dish antenna, which was on Mr Liao' s roof. He fell through the roof and into the Liaos' liVing room. Uncle Chien said he scared Mrs Liao to death, she screamed and screamed and woke the neighbours and the dogs. Anyway, Uncle Chien says his malaria's flared up again.'
'Mother, Uncle Worry's malaria always flares up every time he does something silly,' I say. 'He's lucky he only sprained his wrist when he fell through the roof.'
Uncle Worry stands outside Kwan Carpentry Shop, across from the Funeral Home, talking to his friend, Mr Lin. He waves his bandaged left hand and rushes towards Mother when he sees us coming up Blackburn Lane, his flip-flops slapping the worn sidewalk.
'Are you hurt? Other than your wrist, that is.'
'I am okay.' Uncle Worry smiles. 'Let's go up to my apartment. '
We stumble up the narrow, dank stairway, single file. Uncle Worry stops by his door and unclips from his belt a thick iron ring with some twelve or fifteen keys on it.
I look at the two hinges attaching the sagging door to the rotting door frame. I look at the three massive locks that probably hold the door together.
Uncle Worry wrestles with the locks, then he lifts the door and moves it gently aside. We walk into his apartment. 'Ali, chai for memsahib,, Uncle Worry shouts.
'Accha,' Ali shouts from the downstairs courtyard.
Uncle Worry sits on the concrete seat by the window, overlooking the Lal Bazaar garbage dump. I go and stand beside him, watch the collectors rake the garbage into rattan baskets, then carry them to the truck.
'How's your wrist?' Mother looks at the bandage around Uncle Worry's wrist.
'Much better. The swelling's gone down. Mr Liao wants me to pay for the repair of the roof. But An Sen settled the matter this morning.' Uncle Worry waves his hand airily to dismiss the thought.
'How much did it cost you to fix the roof?'
'Nothing, nothing at all. An Sen told Mr Liao that he should keep his roof in better repair. It is Mr Liao' s fault that I fell through the roof. I could have died! An Sen got Mr Liao to pay for my medicine and my doctor's home visits.' Uncle Worry laughs, and his mouth opens so wide that I can see his tonsils.
'How did An Sen manage that?' I ask.
'When he went there, I heard him shouting and then a
loud crash. I think An Sen broke one of their chairs.' Uncle
Worry slaps his thigh and laughs again. 'Then Mr Liao came'
over, apologized and paid me for the medical stuff. Isn't An Sen wonderful?'
UncleWorry wipes the tears from the corners of his eye·s. Unde Worry always tears when he laughs.
'I am not sure about that,' Mother says with a frown.
'I suppose you are right. You know An Sen, well .. .' Uncle Worry shakes his head.
'Hmm. What's An Sen doing now?'
'I worry about him hanging around doing nothing: You know he bought another television set? Every day, he either goes out on his motorcycle and runs down pedestrians, or he
sits at home with two televisions and the stereo on, all at the same time. Can you find a job for him?'