Mui Tsai

Part one of a story about a mui tsai, an indentured servant girl, in Hawaii in the early part of the 20th century.

Also some additional episodes to the novel.

Mui Tsai, Part One

“Don’t hit me any more.  I won’t forget.  Next time I’ll come straight home from school,” She tried to roll herself into a ball so that the blows landed on her back and not her arms or legs. Whack.  Yuk Fah bit her tongue; I won’t let her hear me cry she thought, even though she was only ten.

“I’ll make sure you remember this so, you won’t ever forget,” Mistress Lee said as she took aim and whipped the thin bamboo rod down on Yuk Fah’s upper arm.  Whack.  “All you servant girls are like gongs.  You must be hit to work properly.  You’re lucky the law says we have to send you to school.  We didn’t save you from famine so you could play.”  Whack.  “Now get to work.”

Yuk Fah slowly got to her feet, wiped her eyes with the backs of her hands, and glared at her mistress.   

“And don’t you dare give me that look unless you want more!”

She had cried though, when she was bought and taken from her mother two years before.   Although the money would keep her parents and two brothers from starving, at least for a while.

“Mama, Papa, please don’t send me away.“  She clung to her mother’s black trousers.

“Oh Yuk Fah, I wish we could stay together, but there is no food, no money.  We are starving.  You will be going to the Islands of the “Fragrant Mountains” with Master Lee.  There you will have food to eat, if you work diligently for his wife.”  Her mother gently pried her fingers loose.

Mr. Lee had bought fake papers stating she was the daughter of a non-existent wife in China and that, he hoped, would get her into Hawaii.  “She will be taken care of,” he said to her parents.  “As long as she works hard.”

“When she is old enough to marry, please marry her to another Punti,” her father asked.

“I will try to do it,” said Mr. Lee.  “But she is still too young to worry about that.  Now we must go.  The boat will not wait.  Say goodbye to your parents, girl.”

She hung back and he had to pull her out the door. 

“Mama, no, Mama, no – – -,” her voice trailed behind, becoming ever fainter to her family, as she was tugged along the muddy path, past the flooded paddies with another ruined harvest, away from their cottage and out of their lives.

On the steamship carrying her far from China forever, she wept for days, and would not eat.  Master Lee worried that she would sicken before they docked in Honolulu.  After all, he had gone through a lot of trouble to obtain her, spending hard-earned silver, and in Honolulu would run the risk of taking her through immigration with false documents.  He had to threaten her before she would swallow some rice and pickled vegetables.

She was seventeen now, older than when she’d arrived in Honolulu to serve the Lee family.  Therefore she was no longer beaten.  But Mistress Lee’s tongue was as sharp as a sword and she was quick to slash when displeased.

It was six-thirty on a routine morning for her as she walked to City Market on Kekaulike St.  She moved quickly, glancing neither right nor left, ignoring the thin, deeply tanned porters in soiled white undershirts and baggy pants who called out to her, as they crouched with their wooden carrying poles beside cages crammed with chickens and woven baskets heavy with vegetables, “Hey pretty miss, look over here.”  The rancid-sweet smell of rotting fruit and vegetables thrown carelessly into the street was familiar.  She stepped over and around the moldering heaps, making her way over the uneven cobblestone pavement, still wet and slippery from an earlier rain.  Stray dogs wandered among the shoppers, sniffing for scraps, and she watched carefully for their feces.  That would be hard to wash out of the slippers she had sewn for herself out of denim cloth scraps.

  Her mistress’ instructions were explicit as what vegetables and fish to buy for the family dinner.  The daikon was to be small, not old and tough, the bitter melon of medium size, fish — but only mullet or uhu.  And be sure to press the eyes to check for freshness.  If they weren’t fresh, then don’t buy; they’d do without fish.

Yuk Fah, she thought, as she neared the market.  “Jade Flower.”  What a pretty name her mother had given her.  So full of hope for a prosperous future.   That was before poor harvests forced her parents to sell her when she was eight as a mui tsai, practically a slave girl, for fifty silver dollars.  I was worth less than ten dollars for each year of age.  They wouldn’t think of selling one of my brothers. 

At seventeen she had grown into a flower.  Sleek, shiny black hair, a smooth oval face, even arcs of eyebrows above large eyes.  Tall for a woman, and slim.  Her hips had become more womanly; able to some day bear children for some man.  But how could she, a mui tsai with no family, no talent for anything except being a servant, ever find a husband?  And where was the Yuk—the precious jade, the prosperity—promised by her name? 

She was careful not to let her mistress see her stealing glances at herself in the hall mirror, since she would get a sarcastic sneer if that happened.  “What are you looking at?  Do you think you’re good looking?  You’re just a mui tsai.” 

“You looking at your eyes again?  You think they’re beautiful?  They’re so big you must be a mixed breed.”

Well, she had peeked at pictures of her Mistress as a young woman, dressed up in a formal Chinese gown, and Mistress Lee had not been as pretty as she.  And certainly wasn’t today, since she had grown pudgy with middle age.

Yuk Fah had felt Master Lee’s eyes on her recently.  Should I encourage him; get him in bed? she wondered.  That would show the Mistress!  But what if she had a baby?  Who would want to marry her then?  She would be forever a mui tsai with the Lees.  Or worse, thrown into the streets by Mistress Lee.  No, better not.  It was not worth the risk just to spite her Mistress.  Besides Master Lee was old as his wife.  Not to her taste.  Yuk Fah became careful to avoid being alone with the Master, to avoid looking directly at him.                   

At the market, she headed to her favorite vegetable stall.  A Babel of loud voices mixed in the air.  Different Chinese dialects—Punti, Hakka, Sai Yup–and Hawaiian and pidgin.  She pushed her way through the crowd, using her straw basket as a wedge.  The cement floor was still wet in places from an early washing before the market opened.  There was the smell of fresh fish from iced tubs on the end aisle mingling with that of ripe bananas from produce stalls.

A Chinese man with a receding hairline stood behind a green wooden stand piled with vegetables and he smiled when he saw her.  “Ah Yuk Fah.  You like one fresh flower in this place.  You even smell good.  What you like today?”  He was a little shorter than she.

“Good morning Mr. Wong,” she said, pleased that he had noticed.  She fingered the small wooden capsule on a black cord that she wore around her neck holding fragrant bak lan blossoms she had picked from the Lee’s garden.  “You get good daikon and small kind bitter melon?”  They used pidgin since they spoke different Chinese dialects.  She thought he was kind and friendly with a nice smile but old, certainly in his thirties.  Still, he probably provided well for his children since his vegetable stall was always busy.

“For you, daikon too tough.  But bitter melon good.  Come this morning.”

Fingering the long, wrinkled melons, she picked six that were a fresh light green, the right size, and nice and firm.  “How much?”

She handed him the coins that her mistress had given her, and put the change back into the drawstring denim pouch hanging from her waist.  Her mistress would count the coins carefully on her return.

“How your kids?” she asked.  She had seen the girl and boy helping their father when school was out during her other visits. 

“Oh my son Moses, him stay third grade, study hard.  Grace, my daughter, she real good student.  Maybe two years more, she go McKinley High School.”

“How come she no come work with you?”  Yuk Fah was surprised and a little envious.  A girl!  And her father was sending her on to more school instead of working?  The Lees had been taken her out of school as soon as she turned twelve and was no longer was required by law to go to school.

“More better she go school.  She can be teacher, nurse.  More better than sell vegetables.”

“Your daughter lucky she get father, think like that.  I hear Dr. Sun Yat-sen say in new China, women should go school too.”  Master Lee had raised money to support Dr. Sun’s revolution, but didn’t agree with him that women should be educated—at least not her, she thought.  “I see you next time, Mr. Wong.  Thank you, ah?”

“See you again soon, Yuk Fah.”

She checked through daikon at several other stands before finding the ones she needed. 

Then it was over to the tubs and trays of fish on ice.  She glanced sideways at Wai Fat, the young fish monger.  So good looking and well built.  What thick black hair.  But she’d heard from some of the other servant girls that he was a womanizer and that he liked to drink and gamble besides.  She picked the mullet up out of the ice to sniff and pressed their eyes.

“No need to do that,” said Wai Fat.  “For good looking girl like you, I only sell fresh kind fish.”  The fishmonger wrapped the two she picked in sheets of the Sun Chung Kwock Bo or New China News.  “You get time off, you come see me,” he said, voice lowered. “No just come here for fish.”   

She hurried off without replying  He had noticed her!  She was at a loss to know what to say, but flattered by his attention.   

Besides she had to get the fish home before they warmed up too much.  It was five long blocks to the Lee’s home on School St. and the sun was up and getting hotter by the minute.

To be continued

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