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"Taichi: The Story of a Chinese Master in America." - Book Excerpt
March 6, 2016
Here are the first two introductory pages to my new novel Taichi: The Story of a Chinese Master in America:
Emerging from a bank of wet fog in the predawn hour, a merchant ship quietly chugged its way to a slip in New York Harbor with only a few family members and dockhands to greet it. Chinese families swarmed the decks from the stifling holds below, pressing their chests against the railings to catch a firsthand glimpse of this wondrous new land that cost many of them their savings and some their lives. Bedlam broke out almost immediately as excited and frightened passengers scrambled to stay together, clutching at children and meager possessions, which for some amounted only to a bag of sundries and a few pots and pans tied with string to their backs. Amidst all the shouting and mayhem stood a serene figure in a shabby brown raincoat and torn fedora. He was tall for a Chinese man, six feet, but possessed of a calm air and dignified manner that set him apart from his fellow travelers.
This was not my uncle’s first trip to America. Thanks to one special visit accompanying the wife of Chiang Kai-Sheck as a personal bodyguard and two others in the service of the U.S. Ambassador to China, Uncle Kuo was in possession of one of those most rare and prized commodities in the Chinese world at the time of the Cultural Revolution; a diplomatic passport issued to him by the consulate in Beijing. The precious leather-bound item he took no small pride in flashing before the eyes of awestruck New York Customs officials. For despite the important government titles my uncle held, he was a simple man who preferred to dress in plain peasant cloth with only a modest wool overcoat for protection against the elements and who often traveled third class or even steerage, which he called “fourth class,” during voyages on Chinese steamer ships. His unassuming manner and no frills appearance belied the fact that he was also rumored to be a descendant of royal blood through ancestral ties to the Manchurian courts. I thought he looked a bit weary and pale as he joined the strange procession down the gangway clutching a weather-beaten suitcase. It wasn’t the claustrophobic accommodations, lack of decent food or exposure to unsanitary conditions that Uncle minded so much on these crossings as the intrusions on his privacy, which he found at times almost impossible to bear. He remarked on more than one occasion that his fellow passengers were an unsavory lot and that he had even come to blows with some of them. The joys he felt during past visits to New York had all but been eclipsed by the ordeals of these tiresome journeys but this time was different. This time he would be staying.
It was important to note that within my Uncle Kuo’s shadowy past lurked yet another persona, one that was kept secret from the general public and rarely discussed even among closest members of his family. He was, in fact, a pugilist of sorts; someone that Westerners referred to as a Chinese boxer. The prestigious title bestowed to him by elders at the Beijing Academy of Martial Arts was “Gatekeeper,” a moniker, which to the best of my recollection in those days, meant someone who was appointed to safeguard and represent the traditions of a family martial art. Over time this became the main focus behind his decision to settle and establish himself in America. Kuo revealed to us that he wished to open a school in New York City offering to train students in a highly developed “soft fist” style of martial art previously unknown to Westerners. A school that he hoped, somewhat ambitiously, would foster improved relations between the Chinese and American communities. Unfortunately no one in my family at that time had a single clue as to what he meant but we trusted him and loved him and that was enough.
By coming to America in the early sixties, Uncle would find himself trading one Cultural Revolution for another, albeit a more benign one whose consequences would be considerably less rough on its population.
My family and I watched the gate from a distance as the long queue of Chinese families began to form behind it. I tried to wave at my uncle to get his attention but we were too far away and so had to wait patiently behind the barricade. We were at the mercy of a lone customs official sitting behind his desk, slowly unwrapping a sandwich and pouring himself a cup of coffee from a large thermos. He chewed and slurped noisily, staring straight ahead at the clock on the opposite wall, ignoring the long disheveled line beginning to settle in behind him. My uncle had been waiting patiently too and was chafing to get into a hot bath and put on some clean clothes but the customs official never looked up and continued chewing unfazed between more slugs of coffee. Finally after a long time had passed, uncle felt unduly humiliated by the fellow’s insolent behavior and could stand it no longer. He pushed his way in front of several of the ragtag passengers who had by now become a protesting mob and addressed the agent loudly in his best English.”Excuse me sir!”. No answer. “I said, excuse me!”. The official looked at him as if he’d interrupted the deciding shot in a billiard game. “If you please sir, my friends and I have made a long journey to this shore and we are tired. Will you open the gate and let us through?