It began with an excited phone call from Su Lin in New York to her Uncle Jimmy Wong, her father’s surviving brother, the youngest, retired from the East Coast to San Diego.
“Uncle Jimmy, guess what? When they were cleaning up father’s house in preparation for sale, they found an old file cabinet in the attic and in it were some stock certificates that he must have bought in the 1920’s and 1930’s!”
“Don’t get your hopes up too high, Su Lin. Have you or anyone else looked at them closely? Many of the companies may have gone bankrupt in the Great Depression and the certificates would be worthless now.”
“Uncle! Yes, I got to look at them and among the certificates were shares of Coca-Cola and IBM! There were others that I didn’t recognize of course.”
Sun Lin kept Uncle Jimmy informed of the progress in appraising the find. When all was said and done, the total value of all the still negotiable stock came to a little over 1.7 million USD.
“That’s great news, Su Lin, and quite a windfall for you and your half-brothers Nathan and Paul, to share.”
“Uncle, I don’t think they get to share this.”
“I know your father died 15 years ago and his will was read then, but it was quite specific about giving equal shares of the remaining estate to the three of you once your father’s second wife, Er Mei passed on. Although his affairs were considered settled then, I think that the terms of the will would still apply to any additional parts of his estate that were uncovered later like this.”
“Uncle, you know I thought that the will was very unfair at the time. I was his only child by my mother who was his first wife, his Number One wife. As such I should have received more. At the very least, one half. And besides, Er Mei got to live in the house with those two kids of hers till they left home and until she died last year.”
“Your father spoke with me about the details of his will several times, Su Lin. He wanted me to fully understand why he set it up as he did. Since your mother had died first, and you were already through college and university and married, he felt that Er Mei with two younger children would need help and, as Nathan and Paul grew, would need money for schooling. And he was very clear about his intent.”
“They are done with their schooling and are both into their careers, so needing extra money no longer is a reason.”
“Su Lin, I know you never liked Er Mei or Paul and Nathan, but Er Mei was your father’s legal second wife and Paul and Nathan are his children.”
“It was so unfair and wrong to Mom when he took a second wife and then had kids by her.”
“It was a different time and place. He married Er Mei in Chungjing in 1944, during the war while you and your mother were in Beijing under Japanese occupation. He didn’t know if you were still alive. It was a legal second marriage in China. Er Mei was his wife and not his concubine.”
“Uncle Jimmy, she was 29 years younger than father! She’s only 10 years older than me! It wasn’t right. She tempted him into marrying her.”
Uncle Jimmy sighed. “Su Lin, I know how you have always felt. Your father was a strong man; he wouldn’t have been tempted into anything that he didn’t want. Er Mei always honored your mother as your father’s first wife. Your mother was always clearly the first wife and Er Mei the second. In Beijing after the war and before the family had to flee the Revolution and come to America, Hong Kong or Taiwan, the servants always treated your mother as your father’s Number One wife.”
“Then why didn’t father treat me as his Number One wife’s child? If I were a son, he wouldn’t have treated me the way that he did.”
“My brother, your father, was very western in his thinking. Maybe ahead of his time. I doubt that it would have made a difference if you had been a son. He loved all three of you and wanted to provide equally for you. And I realize it may be hard for you to believe, but your father cared for both your mother and Er Mei.”
“Some way to show love for my mother, to take a second wife.”
“Oh Su Lin, it was another culture. In China multiple wives were legal and accepted. You can’t apply the norms of this country to those of China in your father’s and my generation.”
“So why didn’t you ever take a second wife?”
“Su Lin, I’m much younger than your father. Different times; customs and expectations change. Besides, Auntie Ruth is quite enough for me.”
After finally hanging up, Jimmy spoke to Ruth. “I’m sorry that Su Lin can’t let go of her anger with my brother’s second family. Su Lin’s mother Zhu Li actually appreciated the help that Er Mei provided, both domestically and maritally, especially after they came to America and there were no more servants. I think the wives had a good understanding and relationship. But Su Lin can’t see that.”
“Jimmy, I don’t think you can change Su Lin’s mind,” said Ruth. “Best you stay out of it.”
“I know. It’s just that my brother tried so hard to take care of his children equally, and Su Lin can only feel that she was treated unfairly.”
“Well, she’s a big girl. In her sixties. You can listen to her ventilate, but she will think and do as she pleases as she always has, and you can’t do anything about it.”
“I just hope that she doesn’t do anything rash.”
But of course, she did.
Su Lin called again from New York, “I just wanted you to know, Uncle Jimmy, that I am going to challenge my father’s will with respect to this find. The stock was bought before he was married to his second wife, and so I feel it should be outside of the terms of his will and therefore rightfully mine since Mama is no longer here. Besides, bigamy is illegal in this country.”
“Your father would be very disappointed in what you are doing, Su Lin.”
“And you, Uncle Jimmy? Are you?”
Uncle Jimmy said, after a long pause, “Yes, and me.”
“I am doing what I think is right. To rectify what must have been the result of Er Mei’s undue influence on my father in drawing up his will.”
“Influence? She was his wife! So he certainly may have discussed it with her. No matter what you think, Er Mei was no Svengali. After your mother died, she took very good care of your father. You may not want to hear this, but your father really loved her, and she loved and respected him, age difference or not.”
“Well, she clearly won you over too. And I know you see Nathan from time to time since he also lives in San Diego. Just don’t get yourself involved in this, Uncle, whether you approve of my actions or not.” And she hung up.
Jimmy turned to Ruth who had put down her reading to listen in. “You were right, Ruth. Su Lin is going to challenge my brother’s will over this stock find. She is just still so angry. The legal fees will eat up whatever is there and no one will win except the lawyers.”
“She will never change, Jimmy. Don’t get your blood pressure up over something you can’t do anything about.”
“You know, if my brother wasn’t so westernized, all the estate would have gone to his first-born son who was Nathan. That was the way it was in China. And it would not have mattered whether that son was from a first or second wife. In fact trying to have a son was often the reason for taking a second wife when there was no son by a first wife. And Su Lin, though first born from my brother’s first wife Zhu Li, would have had nothing.”
“Well good luck telling that to Su Lin and convincing her that she’s been lucky,” said Ruth.
Jimmy heard nothing more for a week, until he got a call from Nathan. “Have you heard, Uncle Jimmy, that Su Lin has retained a lawyer to contest our father’s will in the case of the newly discovered stock certificates?”
“She told me that was her intent, but I didn’t know that she had actually done it.”
“Paul and I have been forced to consult a lawyer too. It’s a shame that it’s come to this. That we couldn’t have just divided it three ways as my father planned for his estate.”
“True, but I guess Su Lin feels very strongly about this, whether or not I agree with her thinking.”
“Paul and I don’t want to drag you into this if it can be resolved without you. But our lawyer thinks that you may be asked to tell the court about Chinese law at the time our parents were married, and explain the cultural differences. And also what you remember about our father’s intent when he wrote his will.”
“Nathan, if asked, I will tell the truth as I know and remember it.”
“Even if it—ah—impacts your relationship with Su Lin?”
“I can only speak the truth. How others react to it is up to them.”
“Thank you, Uncle Jimmy. That’s all we can ask, but I hope that it will not necessary to involve you.”
Su Lin next called four months later. “My case is going to be heard before a judge here in New York. I just wanted to let you know.”
“No, I didn’t know that it was coming up. It will be without a jury?”
“Yes. The judge will determine the outcome. I hope that you will stay out of it.”
“Su Lin, you know how I feel about what you are doing. But I will not involve myself unless I am required to do so.”
But of course, he was.
He called Su Lin. “I just wanted to let you know that I’ve been subpoenaed to testify in your case. It’s not something that I am anxious to do, but your brothers’ lawyer felt that I could help to clarify situation of the family in China. I did not want to get involved, but now I must.”
“Uncle, then I will see you in court.” And she hung up.
“Jimmy,” said Ruth after he told her about Su Lin’s reaction to his call. “If she loses, I’m afraid that she is going to resent your part in this. Su Lin is not a very forgiving person and she has a long memory for slights.”
“You are right. Although I am being compelled to testify, that wouldn’t matter to her. Well, I guess I’d better arrange for my ticket. Do you want to come along?”
“No, you go. I’ll stay home and take care of the dog. But if you see any of our friends while you are there, say hello for me.”
Two weeks later, Uncle Jimmy found himself in Judge James Black’s courtroom.
“Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?”
“You are James C.T. Wong?” asked Judge Black.
“Yes, your honor.”
“And you are the brother of C.L. Wong, the father of Su Lin Wong Chu and Nathan Wong and Paul Wong.”
“Yes, your honor.”
“Could you please explain to me the legal status of multiple wives in China? Specifically as regards C.L. Wong’s second wife, the mother of Nathan and Paul.”
“When my brother, C.L. married his second wife in 1944, it was during the war. His first wife, Su Lin’s mother, was in Beijing with Su Lin at the time and there had been no communication with them.”
“Was that because it was not possible or because he chose not to communicate?” asked Judge Black.
“Because of the war, it was not possible. He did not know if she was still alive.”
“That’s interesting, but peripheral to this case. Was his marriage to his second wife considered to be a legal marriage in China at that time?”
Jimmy could see Su Lin staring at him before he replied. “At that time, Chinese law permitted and recognized multiple marriages. Of course the law has since been changed and they are no longer allowed.”
“When second marriages were legal, how were the children of the second marriages considered?”
“Although first wives were in most cases regarded as the primary wife in terms of status, the children of second wives had the same legal rights as the children of first wives, your Honor.”
“And this applied to property rights and inheritance?”
“I am not a lawyer so I cannot give you an unequivocal answer, but yes, as far as I know.”
“And how do you know that, Mr. Wong?”
He could see Su Lin’s face become grim as he answered, “I know of a number of families where that was the case.”
“Thank you for helping to clarify the situation, Mr. Wong,” said Judge Black. “I must admit this case is a first for me. You may be excused.”
“The court is now adjourned until tomorrow while I review all that has been presented.”
The following day’s session was brief. Judge Black found Su Lin’s complaint to be baseless. She huddled briefly with her lawyer before gathering her papers and, without a glance at her family members, walked towards the courtroom door. Nathan and Paul came to Uncle Jimmy to thank him for testifying. Nathan said, “I’ll give you a call back in San Diego.” Then Jimmy too left the courtroom.
As Jimmy walked down the steps of the courthouse, he saw Su Lin walking ahead of him towards the subway entrance. “Su Lin,” he called out.
She did not turn but quickened her pace and disappeared down the subway stairs.