Monday, June 23, 2008

Birthday Banquet

I went to my aunt’s ninetieth birthday party last night at her restaurant in San Francisco. You measure the size of a Cantonese celebration in tables (10 people each around a circular table with a lazy susan in the center) rather than by counting the number of guests. There were fifteen tables last night which is significantly smaller than her family celebrations in the past. The last really big one was for my uncle’s seventy first birthday around 1984. Danny Kaye who had befriended my uncle when his company helped build a kitchen for him was there and made a speech. The celebration filled both floors of the restaurant and accounted for more than a hundred tables. My father used to tell me that Chinatown used to have banquets so big that the guests had to eat in two shifts.

There were eight brothers and sisters in my mother’s family, a least eight who made it to adulthood. My mother who at 78 is the youngest and her sister who happened to be the oldest are the only two left. For most of my life, my mother and my aunt were unusually close. I finally did the math and came to understand why. My grandfather whom I never met came to San Francisco first then sent for my grandmother. At that point, they already had four children together. They couldn’t bring all four children with them, so she brought my two uncles and left two oldest daughters with relatives in Southern China for what turned out to be several years.

My aunt was almost eleven when she came to the United States, a year or so before my mother was born in San Francisco right at the start of the depression. My grandmother had a breakdown, too many kids in a strange country in very few years, and it was my aunt who new to the country and about twelve years old found herself looking after my mother and to a great extent being the one to raise her. Purely by accident, my aunt and my mother married men who happened to be first cousins to each other (my father’s mother and my uncle’s mother were sisters). No, this was nothing like West Virginia, though I’ve gathered that my father’s people were somewhat similar to Chinese hillbillies, their dialect is often characterized as being mostly swear words. In those days, there weren’t that many complete Chinese families in California and within Chinatown most everyone was connected to everyone else in some way.

My grandmother’s family (my dad and uncle’s side) had a long history of feuding. One of my theories is that my great grandparents had something like half a dozen unusually beautiful daughters (my paternal grandmother being one of them) in a time when Chinatown was largely a bachelor society. The result was something like Chinese Helen of Troy. As a result both my mother and my aunt married into versions of the same mildly insane family and they apparently shared that bond as well.

Through and odd set of circumstances, my aunt wound up estranged from her own mother for many years. My grandmother had forbidden one of her daughters to marry a guy whom she had heard was a gambler and a womanizer. My aunt, then married, stepped in and took the other sister and her fiance in. My grandmother found out and disowned her too. It was my mother who brokered my aunt’s return to the “family” when my grandmother was quite elderly. I was a teenager at the time, but it seemed then that the tie between my mother and her sister was exceptionally strong.

I’m not sure why or how these things happen as people get older, but my mother and my aunt haven’t been especially close for the last decade or so. For whatever reason, we wound up at a slightly distant table and my mother and her sister barely visited with one another. Somewhere between the peking duck and the lobster or was it the mushrooms with emerald greens in clear sauce, I decided to go say hi to my cousin and his wife and wound up at the head table somehow with my aunt, my three cousins and two spouses, and my aunt’s accountant and his wife. Her doctor and his wife hadn’t shown so I happened into their empty seats. For years my aunt also had a personal “priest” who disappeared from the mix about fifteen years ago.

Much to my shock, my ninety year old aunt started talking about John McCain. Years ago, my aunt and uncle were more or less Democrats then moved rightward with Ronald Reagan well after they became wealthy. I imagine that this horrified my cousin who started as a social worker and worked for the democratic mayor of San Francisco. I was fully expecting my aunt to say that she admired John McCain, but instead she said “What kind of idiot wants to keep us in Iraq for four more years? Why are we sending our young people over there at all?”

My cousin and the accountant’s wife (not young herself) then jumped in and said “It’s not four years, he wants us to stay for a hundred years). My aunt nodded her head and it struck me as more than a little amazing that a whole family of wealthy Chinese were happily going to vote for a black man for president of the United States. I don’t know how to put this, but there were definitely members of my family who were more than a bit openly prejudiced for many years. Instead, my other cousin was marveling about Tiger Woods and the fact that he’s made everyone else on the PGA tour wealthy. This was followed by a third of the table objecting to my cousin calling Tiger “black”. “He’s Asian,” we said “At least as Asian as he’s black.”

For one thing Tigers come from Asia not Africa. They don’t have tigers in Africa except in zoos.

Somehow this spun into conversations about the lives of Anna May Wong (the American born Chinese film star from the twenties) and how she degenerated personally after she was denied the lead in the Good Earth (there was a recent documentary on PBS) and Victor Sen Yung (Hop Sing from Bonanza and one of Charlie Chan’s sons) who couldn’t get cast after Bonanza. This was one of those weird signals from the cosmos to me. I’d written a short story based on Victor Sen Yung and it turned out that someone at the table really did know the guy, one of the “fictions” in my story. This segued into George Takei’s, Sulu from Star Trek, who recently made the news for being one of the first prominent Californians to apply for a marriage license to validate his same sex marriage which precipitated talk of is Sulu the wife or the husband and comments about the fact that the other Mr. Takei isn’t Asian.

Basically, it was like having all the characters in one of my own stories show up in my real life for half an hour and wreak havoc with what’s left of my imagination. This is, of course, just the stuff I could include in a blog without getting too personal or identifiable. My oldest cousin, in the meantime said little. I don’t know that anyone in my life was more generous to me than my oldest cousin after my father died. When he had money, he shared it. When things went bad, he didn’t have the greatest judgment. He’s been married seven times and had a son at the age of sixty five more than forty years after he had his first child with his first wife. He’s one of the reasons people tell me my mother’s side of the family is way more interesting than my father’s side, the one which I tend to write about.

We had to leave just before the sweet bean soup (no loss there as far as I’m concerned) so I could pick my wife up at the airport. I don’t know that I’ll be to another Chinese banquet in the meantime. So it struck me that this might have been my last time with red paper packages of money at each plate, noodles, some guy getting up at different times in the meal to introduce everyone of significance, speeches in two languages that don’t match up at all, and bottles of sparking cider (a soda I've pretty much only seen at Chinese banquets). It also might be one of the last times I see my aunt, who looks to be around 70 and who still watches CNN every day.

Years ago, when I was about seven years old, my aunt took me with her to the toy counter at the old City of Paris Department store. She told me that she wanted to buy me any castle there with all the knights and peasants I wanted. They had a huge display there, possibly because it confirmed the vaguely European flavor of the store. The castles were made of painted plastic bases with plywood walls that had little nails that stuck into holes on the base.

I looked at them all, then chose the smallest one there. I think the prices ranged from sixteen dollars to something like a hundred and eighty dollars. My aunt encouraged me to think “bigger” then pushed me to at least go up a model or two, but I dug in. I didn’t want her to spend the money (though she was already fairly wealth) and it was just a “toy”. I’ve kept the castle. It’s still in my garage on a high shelf. I think my aunt was struck by the fact that I chose the least extravagant castle even when I could have had something more elaborate. I did look for quite a while, but started thinking about things like where to store the castle, what a castle was (moat, towers, drawbridge), and how long I might actually play with the thing. In other words, I couldn’t know it at the time, but I was a bit weird for a seven year old.

A fifteen table banquet would be a big deal for me at any point in my life, though I think there were maybe twenty at the banquet for my first wedding. My aunt was extraordinarily generous to me and my wife both times I was married. When I finished graduate school, I remember that she insisted on getting me a Rolex. I picked the only model they had in stainless steel (it was still seriously expensive). I keep it in a drawer in our bedroom.

My aunt has led a long and extravagant life. She may even outlive me for all I know. I’ve insisted on a sixteen dollar castle of a life. My only serious extravagance seems to be my obsession with trying to document a family culture that’s slipping away quickly. As I got my mother’s Prius from the garage beneath the motel on Broadway just above Grant Avenue, it struck me that we’d once stayed in this motel because my father found my Grandmother’s apartment too cramped and Chinatown like, so we compromised by staying in a motel almost directly behind her. My aunt’s restaurant stands in the space that used to be my uncle’s contracting shop before he broke off from his brothers and opened a business on his own. The housing project is immediately across the street. There once was a Chinese language movie theater around the corner, but the need died with the invention of the vhs videotape. It's been replaced by video stores that specialize in getting the latest movies from the homeland.

My mother gets in the car and mentions that it didn’t seem right to have a ninetieth birthday party and not serve shark’s fin soup. In my head, I see my own cousin’s seventeen year old grandson at the table with an Ipod. When I was younger, these banquets seemed endless too. I figure I’ll see two more of these in my life. The chances are good that my mother will be the last one. I doubt that she’d want a banquet or that there’d be many people to invite.



At 6/23/2008 04:43:00 PM, Blogger BeckEye said...

90! Good Lord. God bless her heart.

At 6/23/2008 11:59:00 PM, Blogger Marianne said...

Wow, this is so fascinating!

I've never ever been to celebrations as big as the ones you describe . . .

At 6/24/2008 04:58:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

I've only known two people who were 90, both of them seemed much younger mentally. I also have no idea what 90 is supposed to look like.

I'm surprised because we both come from food cultures. I think it is the one way I remember most of the people I grew up around expressing themselves. It was certainly true of my grandmother at least.

At 6/24/2008 11:29:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

cl, if you stay hooked into this trivial Bachelor treacle when you could finish Lucky Tang, I'll be giga-vexed. I've re-upped in spite of my puma monstrous grief re Hillary,so you re-up --or ELSE. Let's chronicle that slipping away family culture obsessively please. I'm mad as hell & won't take it anymore.

At 6/26/2008 08:12:00 AM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

Mr. Pogblog,
Bachelor's done in 2 weeks.


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