Choose up to 3: Xenophobia, Choices
Choose at least 1:
· Location : Whorehouse, Church, San Francisco
· Situation: Journey, Church Social
· Threat: Fire
Word count: 13,115 excluding title
Notes: 1. Dupont Street is now known as Grant Avenue; 2. liang cai is pronounced lyang-tsai
Beautiful Wind by Margaret P
“Looking good, Longwei,” Murdoch hailed the diminutive Chinaman perched astride his roof ridge. Setting the reins aside he helped Teresa down.
Longwei descended by ladder, a gentle breeze catching at the long black queue that hung down his back. He bowed to his visitors. “Honourable gentleman and lady are most welcome.”
“We’ve come to buy fruit and get more vegetables before you leave, Longwei. We can’t have all your delicious peaches ending up in those fancy houses in San Francisco,” laughed Teresa. “And I have been longing to see how your house is coming along. Will you have it finished in time?”
Longwei bowed low and ushered his visitors into his new home, devoid still of furniture but neat and in every way ready for use except for the final roof tiles that he was currently fitting to its ridge. The next day he would transport the bulk of his peach and apple harvest, onions, squash, and melons to San Francisco accompanied by Scott Lancer, who was also going to San Francisco on business.
Six years ago Murdoch Lancer and Zhang Longwei had become friends when, through a strange combination of events, they had been stranded together in the badlands. They had helped each other to survive. In recognition of his friendship and respect for the resilient little Oriental the towering Scotsman had leased the younger man land at the Green River end of the Lancer spread. This was a godsend for the Chinaman. Xenophobic legislation prevented him from buying land, and most landowners wanted premium rents and short-term leases. In exchange for a regular supply of fresh vegetables and a rental equal to the taxes payable, Murdoch Lancer had offered Zhang Longwei an unheard of fifty year lease along with right of renewal and even purchase if that should ever become legally possible.
Through hard work and ingenuity Longwei transformed the arid ground into a fertile oasis in a remarkably short period of time. His orchard and market garden now not only supplied the Lancer ranch and Green River with fruit and vegetables, but for the past three years it had resulted in a surplus to take to San Francisco where traders would pay even a Chinaman top dollar for high quality produce.
The fact that Murdoch, and now one of his sons, escorted Longwei on these deliveries was no coincidence. Prejudice against the Chinese was rampant in California, and Murdoch felt it unwise for his friend to travel so far alone. It was no hardship for him to arrange his business to fit in with Longwei’s annual trip. The mere presence of an armed white man clearly travelling amicably with the Chinaman had proven to be enough to ensure Longwei and his goods arrived safely. Once there the two men parted company and met up several days later for the return journey, Longwei’s wagon laden with whatever equipment or seed he had invested in.
This trip was somewhat different however. This trip it was not tools or fertiliser, seed or saplings that Zhang Longwei intended to bring back. He had saved his money carefully and made arrangements with a respected gentleman in Chinatown on his last visit. He had been content to live in a shanty constructed of adobe bricks built up in the opening of a small cave for most of his time at Lancer, but for the past few months he had been building himself a proper two room cottage with a lean-to kitchen at the rear.
This trip he intended to bring back a wife.
Entering Chinatown with its twelve blocks of crowded brick and wooden houses, businesses and temples Zhang Longwei headed down Dupont Street and turned left into a bustling side street. He had delivered his produce and received payment and was now about his other business. Knocking at a hole-in-the-wall door he was ushered into a lavishly furnished sitting room by a bowing servant. The matchmaker soon appeared and offered Longwei tea and traditional courtesies before getting down to business. He was very sorry. Due to increasing xenophobia within America, a law had been passed since Longwei’s last visit, which prohibited Chinese women from entering the country. The matchmaker had not, therefore, been able to arrange a bride for Longwei. He would of course refund the bulk of Mr Zhang’s money, but there was nothing he could do.
It was bitter news. After seventeen years of toil and discrimination in America he was finally in a position to acquire a dutiful and hardworking wife from his Cantonese homeland, but he had been thwarted again by injustice. A wife would help him till the soil, harvest his crops, look after his house and honour him with children, who in their turn would grow his business and care for him and his wife in their old age. Now due to bigotry and ignorance his hopes were dashed.
Taking leave of the matchmaker Longwei wandered aimlessly. Street venders cried out for his attention but he barely noticed them. He stood and stared with nonsensical longing at a mother fussing over a small child until she became aware of him and ushered her off-spring back inside. Too poor and lowly he would never be able to secure one of the few Chinese women born in America to good families. No white woman would have him, and even if that was permitted by law–which it was not–he did not like the idea. With the immigration doors now firmly shut what was left for him; death as a single man uncared for and alone?
“Shit, shit, shit!” Longwei swore in Cantonese as he paced up and down a narrow alley. Smashing his fist against a large crate, he dropped to the paving with his head in his hands. “Shit!”
Zhang Longwei sought temporary solace at a bordello on the other side of Chinatown. A prosperous industry had arisen within Chinatown during the previous decade to service the needs of the ‘coolies’ who worked on the railroads, and in the factories and mines. Passing the street cribs, he headed for one of the higher class establishments.
During his annual visits to San Francisco Longwei visited this brothel daily. He did not analyse the rights or wrongs of prostitution. It was necessary. Because he now had a steady income he chose to spend a little more to ensure the girl was clean, but he had used the street cribs in his time. For the past two years he had asked for Li Meifeng. Her name meant ‘beautiful wind’ and to Longwei she was a breath of fresh air after a year of hard labour. She had been indentured into prostitution by her impoverished family. She was a dutiful and humble servant who tried her utmost to give pleasure to Longwei, whom she liked. Unusually she had been converted to Christianity by the evangelists from St Mary’s Presbyterian Church, and after their lovemaking was over, in the short time remaining to them, she and Longwei would discuss religion and their hopes and dreams for the future. Meifeng hoped one day to earn release from the brothel.
Zhang Longwei bowed low to Mamasan and requested to spend time with Li Meifeng.
“I am sorry honourable sir, but Li Meifeng is not available. May I suggest Yip Jinjing?”
“I will wait for Li Meifeng.”
“No, you cannot. Li Meifeng no longer entertains honourable gentlemen. She had an accident and is no longer fit to be seen.”
Longwei was upset by this news. “How was she injured?
“Li Meifeng was helping with the New Year preparations. Some fireworks stored too close to the fire exploded–it wasn’t my fault. Her clothes caught alight. We beat the flames out with blankets but she was badly burned. We did all we could. The doctor was called. Herbal creams.” Mamasan sounded as though she was trying to absolve herself of responsibility. “Viewed from the right Meifeng is still beautiful, but from the left …. She can no longer entertain here.”
“May I see her?” Longwei asked.
Mamasan was reluctant, but Longwei persisted. She eventually sent for Meifeng.
Meifeng entered the room dressed in coarse cotton not her beautiful sapphire blue silk pyjamas. Her head was bowed with her left side in shadow and Longwei did not immediately see the awful truth, but when she looked up—Longwei was so shocked he allowed his face to show his distress. Seeing the horror in his eyes Meifeng burst into tears and ran from the room.
Disturbed greatly by what he had seen and learnt of Meifeng’s plight Longwei returned to his rooming house. An idea began to form in his mind which he hardly dared consider. It would answer two problems but was it the right course of action?
On the journey to San Francisco he had started to get to know Scott Lancer, who had been newly reunited with his father. He seemed an intelligent and well-educated young man, who shared his father’s unusual tolerance of other cultures. He had expressed an interest to see and experience Chinatown, and Longwei had promised to meet him in St Mary’s Square outside the church that evening and from there take him for an authentic Chinese meal. In the absence of his normal advisor Longwei decided he would ask the advice of the son.
When Zhang Longwei arrived at St Mary’s it was after dark and he could not immediately see Scott. He soon spotted him however, a full head height above the throng, gazing mesmerised at the lantern lit streets and colourful shop fronts. Longwei joined him outside a restaurant where cooked ducks hung on hooks in the window and mouth-watering smells emanated from within.
“You have chosen well. This is an excellent eating place. Shall we go in?”
Scott turned at Longwei’s greeting. “This place is amazing,” he said indicating with his hand that he was talking about Chinatown as a whole. “What do the dragons signify? They seem to be everywhere.”
“They are an ancient symbol of good luck and power. Come, I will tell you more about them while we eat.”
The two men entered the restaurant. Scott ducked slightly through a doorway clearly designed for its Chinese patrons. Longwei lead the way past the sparsely filled tables near the door where Chinese gentlemen negotiated business with their American counterparts, and up some stairs to a much larger room. Scott was overwhelmed by a cacophony of sound as he entered the room packed full of animated Chinamen all talking at once in different dialects seated around circular tables filled with the most exotic dishes Scott had ever seen. A waiter showed them to one of the smaller tables on the far side of the room, bowed low and then spoke in rapid Cantonese as he took Longwei’s order.
Longwei was clearly enjoying his young friend’s wonderment. He ordered tea and a selection of dishes for Scott to try, naming and explaining each one to him as it arrived. He showed him how to transfer his food from the larger dishes into his own bowl and how to use the thin bamboo sticks called chopsticks to get the food from there to his mouth. Scott struggled to get the hang of chopsticks at first but a quick survey of the room showed that many of the diners were not too worried if they dropped a bit of food here and there so he relaxed, and in doing so found he managed the task more often than not. By the end of the evening he thought he would be an expert.
The food was delicious. He had never enjoyed vegetables more, and noodles were completely new to him.
“I must bring Murdoch and Johnny here. Do you think that would be all right on our own, sir?”
Rather taken aback at being addressed in such a manner, Longwei hesitated for a moment before replying, “Yes, yes. I will introduce you to the owner before we leave. Then you will get served with authentic Chinese dishes. You may need to eat downstairs; that is where the waiters who speak English usually work.”
Longwei steeled himself to broach the matter of his failed match and Li Meifeng. He ordered pinyin. “Chinese grape wine. See how you like it.” He poured Scott a generous glass. “I would like your advice. It is a rather delicate matter.”
Scott listened respectfully as Longwei began. “You know I came here expecting to return with a wife sent from my homeland?”
“Murdoch did explain how it was arranged, yes.”
“The American law makers have prevented it. Last year–there is no longer any chance of obtaining a wife from China,” Longwei stated with resignation.
“The Naturalization Act. I remember reading about it. I never thought … I’m sorry, Longwei.”
“I have been in the habit of visiting a brothel when I visit San Francisco,” Longwei continued.
“Oh, well ….”
“No, let me finish.” Longwei held up a hand. “For the past two years I have asked for the same girl. I like her. Not just … we talk ... we laugh together. I did not think I would visit her again, but when I got the news … well, I needed …. When I asked for her I was refused. Mamasan told me Li Meifeng had been burnt in a fire and that she no longer entertained customers.”
“Is she all right?” Scott enquired with genuine concern.
“She is badly scarred but she is lucky, the owner has a soft spot for her. She is still at the brothel but as a domestic. That is not as good as it may sound to you. She will never pay off her family’s debt working as a domestic. She will be like a slave and there is a danger that the owner will sell her contract to one of the street cribs. Prostitutes do no live long in the street cribs.” Longwei paused and took a deep draught of wine before continuing. “I have been thinking …. In her damaged state I might just be able to buy out Meifeng’s contract. It may be possible for me to marry her in place of my intended bride.”
Marriage had never been a matter of personal attraction for Longwei. As he explained to Scott the fact that he actually knew and like Meifeng was an unexpected bonus.She had been a prostitute and that was certainly not ideal, but he had decided that for him that was not an insurmountable obstacle. Her damaged face while no asset was also upon reflection of no great disadvantage to him.Looks in the wife of a working class man were not essential. Meifeng was strong, could cook, clean, bear his children and show him obedience: “What more should I desire?”
Any bride was going to have the challenge of living in Green River, isolated by language and culture. “Being a Christian might help her.”
Longwei enjoyed discussing religion, but he himself was not Christian and had no immediate intention of becoming one. He had no issues with Meifeng being Christian however, and was quite prepared to marry in church as long as he didn’t have to convert.
“What if the good people of Green River find out that Meifeng was once a prostitute though? How will they react to her injuries?”
Both men sat silently sipping at their wine, staring at the table as they considered these questions.
“The brothel owner seems prepared to keep her there as a domestic servant. It might be kinder to leave her where she is. At least there she is surrounded by her own people,” Longwei reasoned. “Even in Green River where I am generally accepted, there are those who hate Chinamen. I will not be able to shield her entirely from the hate.”
Longwei ended with a sigh and swallowed more wine. Looking up from his glass he surveyed Scott with doubtful hope in his companion’s understanding and ability to unravel the confused state of his own mind.
“So what you are asking Longwei, is do I think you should attempt to buy Meifeng’s contract and offer to marry her, and whether that would be best for Meifeng or would she be better left where she is?”
The little man nodded solemnly and waited while Scott considered the issue. Several minutes elapsed.
He began hesitantly, “I see no problem with buying the contract if you can afford it as long as you understand that you would be buying her release not buying her.”
“I don’t see you need to tell your neighbours that she was once a prostitute. It’s not the sort of thing they are ever likely to ask or find out about—she has only ever worked in Chinatown.”
Leaning back in his chair Scott looked about for a few moments trying to find the right words to continue. “I’ve never really experienced prejudice so I don’t feel qualified to comment on that aspect except to say I’ve observed my brother and you, and you both seem to find the strength and the strategies to deal with the problem.”
Scott paused again and considered for a moment how best to make his next point. “As far as whether you should make the offer, I can again only tell you what I have observed. You know some of our family’s recent history. You know Murdoch offered Johnny a choice between his old life and life at Lancer. Becoming Johnny Lancer was actually a harder road than staying a gunhawk. He had to conform to a whole new set of expectations and learn how to lead a completely different life. Much as he wanted Johnny to stay, Murdoch didn’t try to make it easy for him. I didn’t understand that then, but now I think it was what was needed. Johnny struggled to make his new life work and his old life kept – keeps - nudging him every now and again. I had it easy by comparison. Some of the local people did not approve of him because he was part Mexican and others because he was part white. An awful lot of people were scared of him because of his background, and I still don’t think he has been accepted by some of our more respectable neighbours. To go through all that he had to decide he really wanted what Lancer had to offer. He had to weigh up the good against the bad of his new life as well as his old one. He had to be prepared to put the effort into making Johnny Lancer work and to decide whether the sacrifice of the good and familiar things about Johnny Madrid’s life was worth it. Not everything about being Johnny Madrid was bad. I know the circumstances are somewhat different, but I think your and Meifeng’s dilemma is still in many ways similar to Murdoch and Johnny’s. From what you have told me about Meifeng’s life, I think the challenges she may have to face if you do this could be even greater, but maybe you can take something useful from their experience in making your decision. I will say that if you do decide to go ahead everyone at Lancer would support you and Meifeng one hundred per cent.”
Longwei thanked Scott for his thoughtful response. He would consider what had been said overnight and make his decision in the morning. They would meet again on Friday morning for the return journey to Green River with or without Meifeng.
Zhang Longwei spent a restless night, but by morning his decision was made. At the earliest possible hour he went directly to the brothel and asked for a private interview with Li Meifeng. He of course paid for that privilege.
Meifeng entered the parlour reluctantly. She bowed politely and stood staring at the Persian rug, mutely counting the seconds in time with the ornate clock on the mantelpiece. Why had Zhang Longwei insisted on seeing her? She blinked back tears as she recalled his reaction to her scarred face the day before and waited for him to speak.
Longwei greeted Meifeng kindly. Taking on board what Scott had said about his brother having to make a conscious choice with full understanding of all the implications, he begged her to sit before beginning, but then he laid out his plan with brutal honesty. He told her of his idea and the reason for it. He explained what he wanted from her and what he could offer. He pulled no punches when describing what she should expect from the town she would be going to live in and the world at large if she accepted his proposal.
“I am not offering you an easy life, Meifeng,” Longwei stressed, “I hope a better one, but I cannot promise even that. We would be together and I would honour you as my wife. The past would be the past, but the future, good or bad, would be what we make it and what fate brings to us.”
Meifeng raised her eyes to this man who would be her husband. She knew him to be kind and intelligent, but was the acquaintance of only a few hours in such circumstances enough? Much as she hated life in the brothel and dreaded a future of misery within its walls, it was at least now familiar. Chen Huang was not the worst employer; she was reasonably confident that he would not change his mind and sell her onto the streets. She had friends here. They spoke the same language and shared a common experience. Could she abandon that security for the unknown dangers of a foreign world; her only companion a man she hardly knew?
“If you accept my proposal, I will approach Chen Huang and try to negotiate your release. I must warn you, I cannot be certain of my success. That is also a reality we must face,” Longwei concluded shaking Meifeng from her reverie. “I do not expect an immediate answer. You need time to think. I will return tomorrow morning to hear your decision.”
Originally Longwei had envisaged speaking with the brothel owner first, but when back in his room he considered Scott’s advice he realised that if he did that and was successful, it would leave Meifeng with no choice. Chen Huang would see the transaction as settled and what Meifeng wanted would no longer count. It had to be done the other way round.
Li Meifeng returned to her duties in the laundry as soon as Zhang Longwei departed. As she scrubbed at soiled linen she recalled how terrified she had been to leave her home in China more than three years earlier. Virtually kidnapped by her uncle she had been traded like so much meat for the money needed to keep her newly widowed mother and younger siblings alive. Her beauty had been her fortune then. It had enabled her uncle to broker a better deal with the brothel owner, one that gave her some hope of eventually earning her freedom, but that had been of little consolation at the time. She remembered how sick she had been on the voyage to San Francisco, packed below decks with other weeping girls, some who had not even reached womanhood. It had taken days to find her sea legs and her misery at being apart from her family and the small Guangdong village where they lived was palpable. Then they had arrived in San Francisco—an alien world, so big, so noisy, filled with giants, strange sounds and smells. She had been brought to this place, trained in arts she would have rather not have learnt and prepared for a life she would have given anything but her life not to have endured. The fine silk dresses did not compensate for the degradation. At sixteen her maidenhood was sold to the highest bidder. Her survival she attributed to two things. Firstly, she had learnt quickly the art of a prostitute to shut her true self deep inside her mind while men used her body. Secondly, she had had the good fortune to meet a young missionary within the first months of her arrival. He had been able to share his passion for his God. She had eagerly latched onto concepts like the forgiveness of sin and a god who loved even his poorest disciple, and had drawn hope from stories about Mary Magdalene and the slaves of Israel escaping bondage. There was so little choice in her life; and ironically baptism was a choice that the brothel owner did not prohibit. Meifeng and two other prostitutes were among the first to join the slowly growing congregation of St Mary’s Presbyterian Church in Chinatown. She remembered sharing her enthusiasm with Longwei soon after during his annual visit to San Francisco—her hopes of future redemption. Somehow he was a man who encouraged such confidences. In the last hour before daybreak he had just held her; he had listened to her—respectfully—even though she was what she was.
Upon his return the following morning Li Meifeng was waiting for Longwei in the same small parlour. Bowing to each other he invited her to speak.
With eyes lowered in respect she began. “Honourable gentleman does Li Meifeng a great honour. I humbly thank you for your offer of marriage—and for giving me a choice.” Hazarding a glance at Longwei’s face she swallowed nervously and almost whispered her answer. “If it still pleases you, Li Meifeng accepts the honourable Zhang Longwei’s proposal.”
Longwei smiled and clasped her hands in his. “I must meet with Chen Huang. I will go to Mamasan now and arrange it.”
An appointment with the owner was organised for that afternoon. Longwei was ushered into a sumptuous office and offered the usual courtesies. The prosperous businessman was elderly but astute. He listened respectfully to Zhang Longwei’s proposal and considered it carefully. Li Meifeng had generated a lot of income in the time she had been at the brothel, but he would need to factor in his expenses: the high cost of acquiring her and bringing her to San Francisco, her keep, clothes and the cost of medical treatment. Since her accident Meifeng had worked for room and board as a domestic; she had earned him nothing but she had cost him nothing either. He would overlook the loss of earnings, because what Longwei proposed had advantages to him. It freed him from the responsibility of Meifeng without the guilt he acknowledged he would feel if he disposed of her in any other way. Taking up his abacus from an ornate sideboard he began to calculate rapidly sending the small beads backwards and forwards at high speed. Finally he presented Longwei with a figure.
It was high. Longwei blanched slightly when he heard it. He had been expecting to haggle, but he had hoped for a lower starting point.
“Your price is too high,” Longwei bluffed boldly. “I could not afford such a sum even if I thought the girl was worth it.”
“I paid a premium for her beauty and had the cost of bringing her to America,” replied Chen Huang leaning back in his chair.
“You are an honourable man; I am sure you could teach me a lot about business,” Longwei flattered,” but please give me credit for some business acumen myself. Li Meifeng has worked for you for more than three years. She was offered for hire as one of your more expensive courtesans. She is indentured; she has paid off at least some of her family’s debt. You have already made much more from her than she has cost you.”
“You know Li Meifeng to be a dutiful and compliant servant. You have tasted some of her many virtues.”
“She is no longer beautiful,” countered Longwei, “You can no longer sell her ‘many virtues’ to your customers because of that.”
“She is still healthy and strong. She will make a good wife,” the owner argued. “Those attributes do not diminish because of her burns.”
“If this house had been damaged in the fire, would you expect to sell it for its previous valuation?” Longwei enquired. “What is more, she has worked as a prostitute. Her value as a wife in the eyes of the world is low. I saw an opportunity to acquire an obedient Chinese wife, but I am not a fool, Chen Huang. Necessity forces me to consider this arrangement. I would never have considered it otherwise. Chance alone led me to consider Li Meifeng. Now I have reconciled myself to the idea of marrying a prostitute, perhaps I should shop around at other brothels. After all I would not wish to deprive you of a possession you still value so highly.”
Chen Huang raised his hand in surrender. “There is no need to go elsewhere, Zhang Longwei. I am sure we can come to an agreement. You make some valid points. I will recalculate.”
Half an hour later their business concluded, the two men parted company amicably with mutual respect. Longwei had managed to bring the price down to one he could just afford and still buy the essential supplies he needed for Green River. He would bring the money with him the following afternoon; the owner would ensure the papers were ready to be signed and Li Meifeng would be free to leave.
Breathing a sigh of relief he stepped out into the crowded street. Pausing for a moment to let his success sink in Longwei then hurried off to make arrangements for the wedding and to purchase the goods he needed for the return journey. He had held off buying anything until he knew how much Li Meifeng would cost him. Luckily he would still have enough to buy some tools for the market garden and a bed for the house. They would have to make do with the cooking utensils and bedding he already had for the first few weeks, and he would need to make or acquire other furniture over time as he received payment for his fruit and vegetables locally. Meifeng would only have the clothes she was permitted to take with her, likely only what she stood up in, but it was enough that a bargain had been reached. Longwei was a happy man.
Not a Christian himself he approached St Mary’s Presbyterian Church with some trepidation, but he was welcomed with respect and genuine interest. The Reverend Minister was most willing to marry the couple on Friday morning before they departed for Green River. God had been merciful. One poor girl would escape the deplorable existence of a prostitute or a life in extreme poverty. Influential in Li Meifeng’s conversion the Reverend had prayed for her daily since her accident. God had smiled upon them with this joyous news and he would do everything in his power to help. This included offering Meifeng a bed for the Thursday night and a letter of introduction to the minister in Green River.
When Scott Lancer approached the appointed meeting place early on Friday morning he was saddened to see Zhang Longwei standing alone by his well-packed wagon. He had not felt it his place to make the decision for Longwei, but Scott had secretly hoped Longwei would go ahead with his plan. Lancer had already proved itself a land of second chances, and from what he had been told, Meifeng deserved a second chance. The misconception could not last long however. Longwei greeted his friend with a broad grin and much bowing as he asked Scott to serve as witness to his marriage to Li Meifeng at nine o’clock at St Mary’s Church.
Longwei had paid and collected Meifeng as arranged the previous day and escorted her to the manse where the minister’s wife had taken her into her care. As predicted Meifeng left the brothel with nothing more than the clothes she was wearing, but the minister’s wife had been active and had acquired a few more items including a near new silk dress.
“You shall have it as our wedding gift and wear it when you exchange vows with Zhang Longwei,” she declared enthusiastically as she pressed the red silk garment into Meifeng’s grateful hands.
When the two men arrived at the church, therefore, Meifeng was waiting ready for the ceremony. Scott was at first stunned by her youth and beauty and then dismayed by her disfigurement. His heart went out to the couple as he did his duty as witness to their marriage, and then helped Meifeng up into the wagon beside her new husband.
The wagon rolled into Green River just as the congregation emerged from the whitewashed chapel on the edge of town. The parishioners stared with undisguised curiosity at Mr and Mrs Zhang as they drove by. They could see very little of the bride because she wore a large Chinese hat secured by a scarf as protection from the sun. Scott Lancer rode along side, but bid the couple goodbye at that point and steered his horse towards the church. Teresa stood next to Murdoch waving from the top step.
“Oh, why didn’t they stop, Scott? I wanted to welcome them. What is she like? I couldn’t see her clearly from here.”
“Give them the chance to settle in, Teresa. It’s been a long journey in more ways than one. I think Longwei wants some time to show Meifeng her new home without other people about. I’ve said we’ll visit them tomorrow afternoon.”
“Welcome home, son,” smiled Murdoch Lancer clapping Scott affectionately on the back. “How about we head home for dinner and you can fill us in.”
Over brisket and dumplings Scott explained to his family everything that had happened in San Francisco and how the wife Longwei had intended to bring back with him was in some ways significantly different from the wife he actually brought back. He had agreed with Longwei that he should tell them the entire truth. It was not for general knowledge, but they had agreed that it would be too difficult for Scott and Longwei to keep it from Murdoch and ultimately had decided that Johnny, Teresa and Jelly should know Meifeng’s history too. The only other people to learn the full story would be Josiah Appleby, the Presbyterian minister to whom the letter of introduction from St Mary’s was addressed, and necessarily his wife, Rebecca. These six would be trusted to keep Meifeng’s background a secret, and to act in the couple’s best interest.
Meifeng gazed out over the neat rows of plantings. There were root vegetables, beans, onions, cabbages, bell peppers, tomatoes and so much more, some companion-planted with marigold or nasturtium around the edges. They spread in four large blocks divided by well-maintained dirt paths to the bank of a small stream. Rough-sawn timber bridged the steam at its narrowest point, and beyond that she could see the original shelter Longwei had lived in with its sun-baked brick frontage and canvas door disappearing into the side of the rocky hillside. He had told her that he now planned to use it as a root cellar. At the eastern end of the market garden the stream followed the foot of the hill and snaked back upon itself to border a young orchard on two sides. Longwei had planted peach and apple trees in long straight rows. Bee hives were positioned in their midst to encourage pollination. Across the stream behind was a small orange grove clinging bravely to the stonier hillside soil.
Taking his wife almost bashfully by the hand, Longwei lead Meifeng down the central path explaining what he had planted and why, how he irrigated, when he was expecting to harvest and how he would rotate crops to ensure the ground remained fertile. Skirting the stream they wandered through the orchard before turning back towards the little house and its out-buildings; privy, packing and tool sheds and chicken coop. A small horse paddock could be seen in the background.
Longwei had warned Meifeng that he had only just finished the house and it had no furniture, but she was charmed by its appearance both inside and out. She became very excited when she saw the water pump; never dreaming she would have an inside water supply, she had not counted on Longwei’s ingenuity and desire to please.
Together they managed to get the painted iron bed frame into the house and put together. The horse hair mattress caused them some difficulty due to its bulk, but with a lot of pushing and shoving they finally got it through the front door. Collapsing on top of it in the middle of the floor they laughed like children before attempting the final effort of getting it into the bedroom and onto the bed. Meifeng made the bed up as best she could with their limited linen supply while Longwei unloaded the rest of the wagon.
It was a wonderful day of quiet getting to know each other. With Scott Lancer with them there had been no opportunity on the trail back from San Francisco to talk as husband and wife. Though they were grateful for his escort and enjoyed his company, his presence and sleeping rough on the ground around the camp fire together had not allowed for intimacy. Longwei had used Meifeng’s services in the brothel, but somehow they knew that this first night in their new home would be different. Both a little shy they explored each other in the gentle darkness of a summer’s night like storybook lovers and were content with the choices they had made.
Green River was abuzz with the news that Zhang Longwei had brought home a wife, one a lot younger than he and curiously disfigured, though beautiful at the same time. At first everyone just wanted to get a good look, but it wasn’t long before the gossips and the xenophobic began to sour the waters.
Josiah Appleby and his wife did their best to draw Meifeng into the Green River Presbyterian community, and encouraged Longwei’s presence at church without pressure to convert so that she would feel confident to attend. They had visited the couple the day after their arrival to welcome them and invite them to service. Scott had given Josiah the letter of introduction from the minister at St Mary’s, who had thoughtfully included a pamphlet designed for missionaries working amongst the Chinese.
“It explains something of the culture and will provide you with some basic words phonetically-written in English to help with communication,” the Reverend wrote. “You should also know that Li Meifeng understands more English than she speaks. Using gestures and voice intonation, I am confident you will be able to communicate with her. She was brought to God by a missionary proficient in Cantonese but since then through bible reading and services her English comprehension has definitely improved.”
Murdoch Lancer’s ward, Teresa O’Brien, was a godsend in ensuring Meifeng went to church despite the stares and whispers. On that first Sunday after their arrival, Scott had to clear a rock fall from the river on the Morro Coyo side of the Lancer ranch with his younger brother, Johnny, so he could not attend church. Longwei had a lot of deferred work to catch up on in his gardens so he was unwilling to spare the time. Josiah felt sure Meifeng would not have had the courage to come if Teresa and Murdoch had not driven over to fetch her. Teresa whirlwinded Meifeng up into the buggy between her and Murdoch, and then ushered her protectively into church. Apprehensive and head bowed Meifeng heard little of the service, but Josiah greeted her kindly as his parishioners left the building and his Rebecca and Teresa introduced her to some of the more broad-minded church goers. None of them could speak Chinese and she could not speak English, but with smiles and gestures Rebecca, but mostly Teresa, managed to extract a small smile and a few words of Chinese from their new friend.
Out of earshot of the women Josiah heard some far less savoury comments.
“Disgraceful!” pronounced the Widow Taylor as she exited the church building. “Shouldn’t be allowed, Pastor Appleby. You should have some consideration for the decent folk in your congregation—inviting heathens into our midst.”
“Mrs Zhang was brought to God by missionaries and was baptised at St Mary’s Presbyterian Church in San Francisco two years ago, Widow Taylor. She is as Christian as you or me – perhaps even more so judging by today.”
“Hmmpf, well don’t say I didn’t warn you when the ‘Yellow Peril’ come in their hordes up the valley. I bet they’ll breed like rabbits and then where will we be?”
Dire warnings about the ‘Yellow Peril’ were heard a great deal among the town gossips during the following few weeks. This unpleasant and emotive phrase whipped up a lot of latent bigotry. Reports in the Daily Alta California about anti-Chinese incidents throughout the state did not help matters; nor did the news that San Francisco had introduced a city ordinance to ban queues. Longwei had left the city just in time.
While a few tradespeople who did regular business with Longwei were inclined to be tolerant and accepting of the little Oriental and his new marital status, many in the community saw his marriage as the forerunner to a plague of Chinese taking over the area, multiplying and spreading disease, stealing white men’s jobs as they knew for sure was the case in other places.
“What Green River needs is an Anti-Coolie Club,” asserted the mayor pompously to the general approval of the men propping up the saloon bar. “I’d stand as chairman, and Zeke, you could be secretary.”
“Now wait just one minute,” Doc Jenkins protested pulling the hot towel off his face and thumping it into the barber’s hands. “Zeke, if you go along with scaremongering like that I’ll take my business elsewhere. And don’t any of you come looking to me to fix you up unless you’re on death’s door.”
“Now Doc, we’re only tryin’ to protect the interests of our fair city.”
“They run their own business—a market garden. How many market gardeners do we have here? —No, I didn’t think so. And more than a few of you are Longwei’s customers. You would have to grow your own fruit and vegetables if you drove him out, or pay much higher prices, because there is no one else locally who grows such a range of crops.”
“But they multiply. Look at what happened in Sacramento,” blustered the mayor.
“This is not Sacramento or San Francisco for that matter. There are only two of them,” Doc spelt out impatiently. “It’s a bit of a stretch to suggest two Chinese are undermining the local labour market.”
All concern for keeping Meifeng’s past life secret seemed ludicrous in the face of a large portion of the population’s view that all Chinese women were prostitutes or at the very least promiscuous and contaminated. Didn’t that explain the horrible scars on one side of her face? Punishment from God, that was.
Josiah and Rebecca Appleby spent a large amount of their time pleading Christian tolerance and understanding. Josiah got downright angry with Matthew Beecham and Andy Jones when he caught the boys slinging stones at a bemused Meifeng as she came out of the hardware store with Teresa O’Brien one morning. From their hiding place behind a hay wagon they had an easy shot.
“Nearly took her eye out, Jake, and I expect you to do something about it,” he protested to Matthew’s father.
“Well now preacher— only boys having a little fun. No harm done.”
“You make me ashamed to be your minister. I don’t know how you have the gall to call yourself a Christian!” Josiah stalked off in disgust. He had marched the boys off to their fathers expecting they would get a whooping only to be faced with this, belligerence from one father and now indifference from the other.
Events started to turn really nasty about eight weeks after the couple arrived. Longwei and Meifeng went into Green River to make deliveries and for supplies. Longwei had sold enough produce that they could now afford to buy new bedding in addition to the barrels he needed for his second crop apples and root vegetables. Having accompanied Meifeng to the General Store, he left her there to purchase the linen and basic dry goods like rice and flour, while he crossed the road to visit the cooper.
Longwei waited until Tom Skinner finished taking an order from Jelly Hoskins. The two men greeted Longwei genially and continued their business. Jelly was a trusted hand and a family friend of the Lancers and he had a long list of items needed by the Lancer ranch.
“Now I hope you are writing all this down Tom ‘cause I ain’t wantin’ to repeat myself,” Jelly declared importantly. “We need a new butter churn–Maribel done kicked the last one to glory. Maria wants three new buckets for the house–one with a lid, and gotta get another for the yard, as well as those ten casks I told ya about earlier. And we need you to make a big water butt for the new bathhouse that Mr Lancer is building for the hands.”
“A bathhouse is it?” chuckled Tom, “Well now, ain’t we gettin’ fancy. I wonder how old Pedro will take it when he is expected to use the bathhouse. How big does this water butt need to be?”
Jelly pulled out a piece of paper with the measurements and handed it to the cooper so he could work out the materials and calculate a price and date of delivery.
Longwei waited his turn patiently, and then began to place his own order with Jelly’s help. Longwei’s English was fairly good but still tripped him up occasionally so he was grateful that Jelly stuck around. He hadn’t quite finished placing the order when they heard a shot.
The Saunders brothers ran a small ranch about five miles south of Green River. They had come into town for supplies and a few beers. Emerging from the saloon they spotted Meifeng waiting for her husband on the boardwalk outside the General Store.
“Well, looky here, Jed, it’s that chink female – one side pretty and one side ain’t.”
“Turn the other cheek darlin’, the pretty one this away, like the good Christian we hear tell you is,” coaxed Jed stretching out a grimy hand towards a frightened Meifeng. “We’ll have a little fun. I bet you know all the tricks to make a man feel good.”
“Yeah,” leered Bart Saunders, crowding Meifeng between the apple barrel and the bench seat “I done heard you yellow ladies can be real friendly with a little encouragement.”
Bart made a grab for Meifeng as she tried to escape past the bench but her way was blocked by the other brother.
“We caught ourselves a little mouse, brother,” Jed laughed closing in from the other side and pawing at their prey. “Listen to her squeal.”
Bart manhandled her against the wall of the shop and pressed against her breathing beer into her face, while his brother watched with lascivious anticipation.
“Come on sweetheart! Give a real man a kiss.”
Meifeng kicked out and struggled to escape, but Bart forced her back against the wall and kissed her hard rubbing his stubble across the tender new skin of her damaged face. She scratched him and attempted to scream, but he rammed his kerchief into her month and started to fondle her breasts through the cotton cloth of her tunic. Jed egged him on getting more excited by the minute.
What was most terrible about all this was that there were town folks who witnessed everything and did nothing. Some disappeared inside where they could pretend they did not know what was going on in broad daylight in the open street, while others watched on with lewd or vindictive pleasure. It was just by chance that Val Crawford glanced out the sheriff’s office window as he went to refill Johnny Lancer’s mug with coffee. The two friends were having a catch up while Jelly ordered the barrels.
Val grabbed his rifle and was out the door in a split second with Johnny not far behind, at that point not knowing exactly why.
Val shot into the air. Bart let go of Meifeng and turned with Jed to face the sheriff but kept her hemmed in with his body so she could not get past.
“Drop those guns and move aside boys. Let the young lady pass,” Sheriff Crawford ordered, aiming his rifle at Bart.
“We’re only havin’ a little fun, sheriff,” smirked Jed.
“Besides if ya think we’re droppin’ our guns with him pointin’ his at our guts, think again,” added Bart nodding in Johnny’s direction. “We ain’t stupid.”
“Put your gun away, Johnny. I’ve got this under control,” Val instructed. “These boys are going to be sensible—now, aren’t you, boys?”
The retired pistolero holstered his gun and eyed the two ranchers with obvious dislike.
“Now let’s be havin’ them guns and let Mrs Zhang pass.”
Bart moved aside and Meifeng escaped into the arms of her anxious husband now waiting with Jelly and Tom at the end of the boardwalk. Longwei didn’t wait to see what happened next. He ushered Meifeng away as quickly as he could, all thought of barrels and buckets driven from his mind.
Val indicated to Johnny to gather up the discarded weapons while he trained his rifle on the two larrikins.
“An hour or so in jail to sober up, boys and then you’ll be gettin’ on your horses and riding straight home, you hear?”
Throwing Johnny some cuffs he headed over to arrest Jed. As Johnny stepped up onto the boardwalk he heard Bart sneer under his breath, “Won’t make no difference. We’ll have our fun another day – somewhere more private.”
Johnny calmly cuffed Bart’s hands behind his back then grabbed him in by the shoulder real close. Gently trailing the barrel of his gun up and down Bart’s neck, he let silence do some talking. When words finally came they were low and venomous, “Touch her again, Johnny Madrid comes a callin’. Understand?”
Pushing him roughly down from the boardwalk to the dusty road below, Johnny sent Bart stumbling towards the jailhouse. As Val Crawford locked the two brothers into the cell Bart looked like he might say something to the sheriff, but Johnny touched his finger to his lips, stared at Bart with a knowing smile and then calmly pointed his finger forward. Bart paled. He understood all right. He was a coward. Meifeng would be safe from him for a while at least.
Johnny did not mention his few words with Bart Saunders when he got back to the ranch, but he did tell his family about the events of the afternoon and expressed his concern about how the unpleasantness was escalating. “Something’s got to be done to calm things down.”
“I know, brother, but the question is what,” responded Scott. “I’m beginning to feel guilty now for being part of bringing Meifeng here. I saw it as a second chance for her, but instead it is turning into a nightmare. She may have been better off in Chinatown after all.”
“I’m away for the next week in Sacramento, but when I get back I think we should invite the Applebys over for a meal to discuss the problem,” Murdoch declared. “If all of us who know the full story and who care about Longwei and Meifeng put our heads together, we must be able to work out a way round this.”
“Good idea,” Scott replied. “I’ll ride over tomorrow and invite them to join us for dinner after service next Sunday. If we all put our thinking caps on in the meantime, perhaps we will have some decent ideas to consider.”
Before that could happen, however, there was another act of terror.
Longwei raced through the long lines of vegetables with hoe and knife in hand when he heard his wife’s screams. Turning the corner of the house he saw the packing shed ablaze. With the dryness of the weather, tufts of grass dotted over the yard were catching alight too. Meifeng was crouched with arms over her head shrieking in terror in the middle of these small fires, which by then stretched almost to the house; all the memories of her accident flooding back to her.
Stamping out the smaller fires and using his hoe to cover the rest Longwei was eventually able to gather a sobbing Meifeng into his arms and lead her back to the safety of their house. The packing shed was too far gone to be saved, but it could be rebuilt. His only concern at present was for his distraught wife.
Later that afternoon, Longwei sifted through the wreckage with Sheriff Crawford and the Lancer brothers, who had seen the smoke from where they were working and had come to investigate. Scott had gone for Val Crawford while Johnny doused the smouldering embers. The aroma of still baking apples and roasted vegetables melded with the acrid odour of incinerated timber and scorched earth as they surveyed the devastation.
“Not a lot left.” Sheriff Crawford kicked at a charred barrel of apples and stepped back quickly as the timber gave way and over-cooked apple oozed out. “What could have started it?”
“Did you keep anything flammable or combustible in here, Longwei; anything that would catch fire easily or could cause everything else to catch alight? Maybe something like glass reflecting onto straw?” Scott suggested.
“No, nothing,” replied Longwei shovelling ash and still smoking debris into the handcart he was using to transfer his unexpected fertiliser to the compost heap and orchard.
“No kerosene?” Johnny sighed holding up a blackened can. He had been looking more purposefully than the others. He had seen this sort of thing before. Hell, he had done this sort of thing before—another life.
“Aagh! Who did it?—Find out who did it Sheriff Val and arrest them. You arrest them or Zhang Longwei will show Green River what the ‘Yellow Peril’ is capable of!” Longwei was furious. “My wife! She couldn’t talk, she couldn’t move, she was so frightened. I had to almost carry her inside the house.”
Packed fruit waiting for delivery, vegetables ready for transfer to storage, his sorting tables, barrels, boxes, scales and packing materials all burned to a crisp, but nothing compared to Meifeng’s trauma— and the inferno had been deliberately started! If Meifeng had seen anyone, she had not said so and Longwei was certainly not going to ask her. She had been coming back from the henhouse when something had exploded in the shed and flaming splinters had rained down upon her. It was like the brothel incident all over again. Panic overwhelmed her and all she could do was curl up in a ball and scream. More than an hour after Longwei had rescued her she was still keening quietly like a wounded animal. He had put her to bed and watched over her patiently until exhaustion had brought a welcome release from her misery, and she had finally fallen asleep.
“How can people do things like that?” exclaimed Teresa shaking her head. “They are such a nice couple. I just don’t understand how people can be so cruel.”
“Nothing the law says or does seems to make any difference. Sheriff Crawford has had one or two cooling off behind bars for pranks and threatening behaviour, but he has not found the culprits who torched the packing shed and I don’t think he will,” bemoaned Josiah Appleby accepting the offered coffee. “To his credit Judge Bates punished the Saunders brothers severely at Friday’s court session, but you wouldn’t believe how many people I’ve heard trying to justify what they did.”
The seven friends settled into the comfort of the Great Room in the Lancer hacienda to discuss Longwei and Meifeng’s situation in more depth. Teresa kneeled on the carpet while she served coffee and Murdoch poured brandy for those who preferred it.
“That was a delicious meal, Teresa,” smiled Rebecca Appleby. “You really shouldn’t have gone to so much trouble.”
“We need to think of something!” Scott cried in exasperation. “This has got to stop!”
“Mostly it’s just malicious gossip doing the damage,” responded Rebecca. “I was thinking if we could turn the tide on that the violence might stop too.”
“What do you suggest?” Murdoch asked. He had a lot of time for Rebecca Appleby. She was an intelligent, down-to-earth sort of person who seemed to be able to see the wood from the trees.
“Well, I do have one idea, but you all might think it’s a little too simple.”
“Simple is good,” encouraged Johnny. “I did some of my best work keepin’ it simple.”
Scott shook his head impatiently; the stress of the situation was getting to him. “We’re not aiming to shoot anyone, brother.”
“Some folks got no imagination if they think the art of the gunman is just shootin’ people,” Johnny retorted indignantly. “Let’s hear your idea, ma’am.”
“A church social.”
“Now, ma’am, I enjoy a get together as much as the next man, but I don’t see how a church social is going to help.” Jelly spoke the words but the others nodded agreement.
“Well, you see I’ve been reading more about Chinese culture and I found out that the Chinese don’t consider themselves truly married until they have a feast and gift giving. Like our wedding breakfast, I suppose. Longwei and Meifeng didn’t have that, did they? There was no time and no family. That made me think that our congregation could be their family – a very Christian concept, don’t you think? And if we could persuade enough people to come and bring gifts it would break the ice, they would start talking to them and start seeing them as people just like them. If we made it an official church social, even the most hostile parishioner would feel obliged to come.”
Josiah looked doubtfully at his wife. “You really think that would work? I can’t imagine Widow Taylor bringing a gift.”
“Oh, but think of it if she did, Josiah. Martha Taylor is a very influential woman. Her views sway a lot of the women and, let’s face it, when it comes to public behaviour the women of Green River have a lot of power. Their husbands and sons will do as directed if their wives and mothers are the ones doing the telling.”
“They certainly didn’t misname church congregations when they called them ‘flocks’. They often enough follow a leader dumbly,” considered the minister. “I had hoped they would follow our lead, but maybe you are right. Maybe we need the likes of the Widow Taylor to lead the way to greater tolerance.”
“Are we talking about the same woman?” Scott asked incredulously.
“Oh, we are not just talking about Widow Taylor, although she would be a prize. There’s Jemima Smith and Mrs Jackson as well.”
“What about Letitia Menzies?” suggested Teresa warming to the idea. “She is very influential amongst the younger women.”
“But all these women have made it very clear that they do not approve of the Chinese,” Murdoch said. “How are we to persuade them to see things differently, to attend this church social at all let alone give gifts to the ‘Yellow Peril’?”
“Some of us target the ones we know best, or get on with best. What is it that each values? What would make them change their views? We need to find an edge; some one-on-one persuasion. Josiah, I’m sure if you spoke with the widow privately—you know her well enough now after two years of being her minister to coax her into at least an attempt at civility. She is after all a very religious woman.”
“I have an idea that might work with Miss Menzies,” reflected Teresa.
“I could speak with Polly Jackson,” Murdoch offered. “I did her Bill a favour; she at least won’t have forgotten. I doubt if I’ll change her opinion, but I might be able to get her to attend and be polite.”
“Then I’ll tackle Mrs Smith,” promised Rebecca, “and we should have the social immediately after church one Sunday so that it’s difficult for people to escape without being noticed. All the ladies should be invited to bring a plate of food to share. They won’t want to miss out on an opportunity to show off their cooking skills.”
“Sounds tasty,” Johnny chipped in. “Maybe I’ll put in an appearance.”
“Trust you to respond to the prospect of a good feed,” teased Scott,—“But what about the presents? You can announce a church social from the pulpit, but you’ll embarrass Longwei and Meifeng greatly if you ask people to bring them gifts with them sitting right there.”
“Oh, we’ll do that privately. You only need to concentrate on making your target ladies more receptive to the idea. Josiah and I will ask everyone individually in the days leading up to the event. The wedding celebration side of things will be a surprise for Longwei and Meifeng; that way if our plan doesn’t work, not much damage will be done.”
It was settled. The last Sunday of the month was earmarked for the social and Pastor Appleby was to make the announcement at the next service, giving everyone the week prior and two weeks after that to work their magic.
The seven friends were busy over the next weeks. Even those who did not have particular targets made a concentrated effort to sow the seeds of tolerance amongst the population of Green River. By encouraging those already sympathetic to the Zhangs to be more vocal against racist comments made in their presence and by objecting more themselves, such comments and thoughts gradually became less socially acceptable.
No one ever found out what Murdoch actually said to Mrs Jackson, but whatever it was seemed to work. Without prompting she scolded her ten year old son soundly after church when she caught him and a friend trying to attach a paper bull’s eye to Longwei’s queue with a peg. She even made him apologise to “Mr Zhang”, a courtesy that was not lost on the adults in the vicinity.
Teresa was also successful. Letitia Menzies was the only daughter of another big ranch owner in the area. She had a taste for fashion and as marriage had not yet come her way she had persuaded her father to invest in a dress shop. She employed a seamstress, who also helped in the shop, and she herself acted as designer, buyer and manageress. She took great pride in sourcing quality merchandise for her gowns, which she was determined would be every bit as stylish as those in San Francisco or Sacramento: fine Spanish lace and French muslin, for example, as well as the more practical fabrics and an ever growing range of costume jewellery and accessories to adorn the female members of the community. She wielded great influence over the younger set as she had been in society back east and went regularly to San Francisco. Only the Friday before the emergency meeting Teresa had commissioned her to design and make a new dress for special occasions, and had been given some swatches of silk to choose from. As it happened she had visited the market garden on her way back to Lancer. When she had shown the samples of silk to Meifeng she had been surprised to learn how knowledgeable Meifeng was about silk. With facial expression and gesture and a few newly learnt words of English Meifeng had rejected most of the swatches as poor quality and not worthy of purchase for such an important garment. She had directed her friend to choose from only two swatches that met with her approval, and Teresa had chosen a soft blue with delicate white flowers woven into it.
With Longwei translating Teresa discovered that Meifeng’s family had been silk growers and she knew the whole process of silk production. From a very young age she had helped feed the silk worms, gather the cocoons and reel the resulting fibre into fine thread for selling to the manufacturers. Before times got really desperate she had worked in the cloth factories learning how to dye the thread and turn it into fine cloth. Even after she was sold into servitude she continued to expand her knowledge as she helped with the buying of the fabric needed for the courtesans’ fine silk dresses. She knew all the best warehouses in San Francisco. Longwei thought perhaps they might attempt sericulture themselves one day. It was still only an idea, but he was not a man to waste opportunity and he recognised his wife’s expertise as a possible opportunity for the future. Teresa hadn’t thought of it then, but at their meeting it came to her that Meifeng’s talent could also be seen by Miss Menzies as an opportunity. The dressmaker might see Meifeng in a whole new light if she realised how useful she could be to her.
“And so I choose this one, Miss Menzies,” declared Teresa the following Tuesday. “Mrs Zhang, who, as you may have heard, has family connections in the silk industry, assures me that it is of far better quality than these ones, and of those samples she did approve, I like this the best.”
“Mrs Zhang knows about silk? And has connections—how interesting.”
“Yes, I thought so. What a pity you haven’t really made friends. I am sure she would happily advise you about warehouses and give you all sorts of useful information if you were on good terms,” Teresa replied innocently before gathering up the neatly wrapped handkerchief she had just purchased and saying good day.
The following Sunday Teresa had great pleasure in introducing Miss Menzies and her father to Mr and Mrs Zhang; and even greater pleasure a few days later overhearing two giggling young ladies leaving the dress shop. Apparently Mrs Zhang was from a prominent Chinese family in the silk industry. Although her disfigurement had forced her to marry below her station, she was still much more worthy of their goodwill than they had at first imagined. It must be true if Letitia Menzies said so; she knew absolutely everything about fashion and society.
How Meifeng’s family had risen from impoverished farmers to “prominent Chinese industrialists”, Teresa cared not to imagine. If that was the story Miss Menzies chose to spread to justify her change of heart and association with Meifeng, did it really matter? She acknowledged she may have implied Meifeng’s family were more respectable in Chinese circles than was actually the case in the hope that would appeal to Letitia’s pretentious nature, but Meifeng and Longwei would not have corroborated the idea, and only a few days before any and every Chinese was dirt beneath Letitia’s feet. Teresa was amused that snobbery and, more so, self-interest had so effectively vanquished Miss Menzies’ cultural dislike.
Rebecca Appleby made less headway with Jemima Smith, but she consoled herself that Mrs Smith was a fierce proud baker and there was absolutely no way she would pass up an opportunity to show off her skills to her neighbours. She would attend the church social all right and would hopefully be too busy accepting praise for her apple pies to bother with snide comments about the Zhangs.
That left only the Widow Taylor. Josiah tried various means of attack without great success. She still dropped comment and made disapproving noises whenever she saw the Zhangs, and of course others followed her example. Nothing he attempted seemed to work. The Widow Campbell enlightened him to why that might be—apparently the late George Taylor had been a railroad worker in Wyoming. Only the previous year the newspapers had censured the Union Pacific Railroad in Wyoming for hiring Chinese workers at $32.50 per month instead of the $52 per month they had been paying whites. A lot of men lost their jobs and some of their wives still kept in touch with Martha Taylor, who had moved to California to live with her son some years earlier. Unlike the hatred of most of her neighbours, hers was fuelled by the more potent force of actual experience. Even so Josiah was determined not to give up and in a last ditch attempt he called upon the widow two days before the day of the social.
“Good afternoon, Widow Taylor. May I come in?”
“If you have come to talk more about the Chinese couple, you are wasting your time, young man. I do not approve of their presence in our church or our community, and I never will.”
“I am very sorry to hear that, ma’am,” replied Pastor Appleby gazing about the room for inspiration. “A devout lady like yourself could do so much to lead this community towards charity.”
“I believe I do that on a daily basis, Pastor. I do not accept, however, that it is unchristian to be anti-Chinese. Charity begins at home, and the interests of our own men must take precedence over foreigners who come to steal our men’s wages.”
“It was not the Chinese who made the decision to lower wages, ma’am. I’m sure they would have been more than happy to accept the going rate even if it meant fewer of them were employed. The railroad company is the one at fault in Wyoming, and yet it is the Chinamen who are being blamed. All they are wanting is to earn money for their families.”
“And where are their families, sir? In China. American wages sent to a foreign land.”
“Perhaps if they felt more welcome in this country ma’am, more would bring their families here,” Josiah responded patiently. This was at least a civilised debate, but he felt he was making no progress.
His eyes fell on the embroidery hoop by the widow’s chair. There were several examples of her fine work in the room: a piano stool with intricate chain stitch on its cover, a footstool decorated with simple cross stitch and various doilies and other linens.
“Your embroidery work is impressive,” he flattered standing up to inspect a framed ‘Home Sweet Home’ on the wall. “Did you know Mrs Zhang embroiders?”
It was true. He had observed the small intricate decoration Meifeng had added to some of her clothing and house linen. Silk cloth was still beyond their means but she made plain items more interesting and attractive with little motifs and edgings.
“Her embroidery is somewhat different from yours, but I am sure she would admire you work. What are you working on at present?”
“It is another ‘Home Sweet Home’. It passes the time and they come in handy as ….” She had been about to say ‘gifts’ but fell silent.
“I cannot believe, ma’am, that you have sympathy with the violence shown to the Zhangs recently,” he said and the widow cast down her eyes. No, she could not condone the assault. She wanted to believe that the girl had led the Saunders’ brothers on, but in her heart she knew it was unlikely. She was secretly shocked that anyone would burn down a neighbour’s property. “There is a church social after service this Sunday as you know. As I think you also know, we intend to make it a celebration of Mr and Mrs Zhang’s marriage. They have no family in America so their wedding at St Mary’s in San Francisco was a simple affair. It was Mrs Appleby’s idea, a good one. We hope that if the church community rallies behind Mr and Mrs Zhang, demonstrates they are welcome with a few token wedding gifts, they will become more accepted. They are a hardworking and peace-loving couple, Widow. There are only two of them so they are no threat to workers in this area. They need your help to be accepted in this town. You know others follow you example. I cannot force you, ma’am, but as your pastor, for the last time I ask you to demonstrate your faith.”
With that Josiah Appleby left the Widow Taylor to her thoughts and returned to his church to pray.
The church social was going to be a huge success if the numbers in church were anything to go by. Pastor Appleby surveyed his congregation with renewed faith as he bade them all rise to sing the first hymn. Josiah was not a fire and brimstone preacher, but he delivered a forceful message. His sermons for many weeks had focussed on tolerance and love for one another. He had reminded them of the story of the Good Samaritan and that they should always try to do unto others as they would have others do unto them in so many different ways now that he felt sure he must be becoming repetitive, but somehow today’s congregation felt more receptive to his message.
“In closing, as we join together in fellowship after this service, remember Proverbs 16:24 ‘Gracious words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body’. Go with God my friends and may everyone have a thoroughly good time.”
Immediately everyone began to jostle towards the exit, the men to erect the tables and the women to fill them with baking, cold cuts and all sorts of delicious smelling stews and pot roasts kept warm in the ovens of the nearest parishioners until the service was over. In addition to a selection of fruit Mrs Zhang brought for her neighbours to try. As she explained through her husband in response to several polite enquiries, it was a popular Chinese cold dish made from chopped vegetables, tofu and nuts in a simple sauce of garlic, rice vinegar, sesame oil and red pepper. She hoped very much that they would enjoy it.
“May I have everyone’s attention,” called Josiah. “Before I say grace I would like to announce the second reason for our little get together. Mr and Mrs Zhang, Longwei and Meifeng, we at St Matthew’s wanted to welcome you officially to our family and we thought we would do so by putting on this social as a celebration of your marriage as well. Some of your fellow parishioners have wedding gifts for you which they will present after we have eaten. We trust you will not be too angry with us for our little deception and accept them in the spirit of friendship that they are given.”
Longwei and Meifeng were taken by surprise, but bowed their thanks graciously. Everybody clapped and then everyone bowed their heads in silence as Pastor Appleby said grace. With a resounding “Amen” from all, the feasting and talking began.
After the first helpings, families and individuals started to approach Meifeng and Longwei with gifts. Tom Skinner led them over to his wagon to show them a planter he and his Dutch neighbours, the Van Dykes, had created from a half barrel.
“Mary’s planted it with pansies for now as you can see,” explained Tom, “but in the spring that is when you will see it in its full glory. Hans here has planted some tulip bulbs brought all the way from his homeland. It is a present from both families and we do hope you like it?”
Most of the gifts were homemade. Knowing how little furniture and kitchenware the couple had several families, including the Jacksons and Beechams, made chairs or storage boxes, shelves, wicker baskets and bowls. Letitia Menzies gifted some pretty pillow cases and Jemima Smith, upon observing the generosity of her neighbours, scurried home to return with a large jar of her finest preserved ginger. The Lancers presented them with the most beautiful quilt and the Applebys gave a large bible, which had pages on the inside to record births, deaths and marriages.
“It’s known as a family bible because you record all your family events in it,” explained Rebecca. “We thought it appropriate.”
Longwei and Meifeng were quite overcome, but the best was yet to come. From out of the happy, chatting family groups, all eyes upon her, emerged Martha Taylor carrying a small neatly wrapped parcel.
“How do you do, Mr and Mrs Zhang? I expect I am even more of a surprise to you,” she began stiffly. “I wish to apologise for my behaviour. Pastor Appleby has made me see that I was wrong, and I do hope you will accept this small gift. Can we start again please?”
Accepting the package in both hands Meifeng bowed low and looked to her husband to translate. Smiling shyly she unwrapped the brown paper and string, and gasped her pleasure. Recognising the significance of the event she raised her eyes to the widow and ventured a small amount of English, “Beautiful! Thank you.”
The Widow Taylor’s stern mouth flickered momentarily at the corners. “I’m glad you like it,” she said gruffly and then returned to her friends.
The framed embroidery would have pride of place on the Zhang family’s wall for many years to come. It was the ‘Home Sweet Home’ picture the widow had been working on but with a difference. Into the scene she had neatly embroidered two tiny dark haired figures wearing Chinese clothing and holding hands. It was Longwei and Meifeng and they were home.
A beautiful wind rippled through the congregation of St Matthew’s Presbyterian Church that Sunday afternoon. Over the following weeks it lifted closed curtains and slipped through partially open doors to bring a change to the community of Green River as a whole. Scott had been right about Lancer offering Meifeng a second chance at happiness, but more than that it had offered Longwei and Meifeng together what it had offered him and Johnny the year before, a family and a home. Yes, a beautiful wind had come to Green River, a wind of changing attitudes and greater tolerance. The storms of discrimination and hatred would rage elsewhere in California for many years, but Green River thereafter shielded the Zhangs from the worst of it. They were family and Green River looked after its own.