Poetry Suite by Teow Lim Goh

Editor Sam Preminger, Poetry, May 20th, 2020

"Men line up around the block / and pay an ounce of gold"

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Excerpts from China Mary by Teow Lim Goh

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An Introduction From The Poet

Five years ago, I went to desert basins of southwestern Wyoming to research the story of the Chinese Massacre in Rock Springs. On September 2, 1885, a fight in the coal mines about the right to work in a particular room escalated into a deadly riot in which the white men drove the Chinese out of town at gunpoint. Many of the Chinese who survived fled to Evanston, the next town a hundred miles west, following the railroad tracks until Union Pacific sent trains to pick them up.

I visited Evanston to learn more about the Chinese community that once lived there. At the Chinese Joss House Museum, I found the story of a Chinese prostitute who moved to town with the arrival of the railroad and later helped many of the men who fled Rock Springs on that cold September night. She did not tell anyone her real name and was known, like many Chinese prostitutes of the time, as China Mary.

What fascinated me most about China Mary is that she survived as an independent woman, without madam or man, which was rare for a Chinese woman during that time. She even lived to over 100 years old; many Chinese prostitutes died young of illness or suicide.

Not surprisingly, there are not many records of her life. And the few writings that I found about her tend to sensationalize her story. I started writing poems in her voice. I drew on both scholarly research into 19th century Chinese prostitution as well as the few known details of her life to create a complex portrait of a woman who fought to survive in a society that denied her agency.

I thought I was writing history. But as the story of Robert Kraft’s arrest demonstrates, the trafficking of Chinese women is not safely confined to the past.

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From China Mary

 

San Francisco, 1855

 

During her time
girls were not shipped to America
in crates labeled Dishware

Ah, Madame.

Six years ago, she
arrived in America alone, joined
the only profession
open to Chinese women.

She saved her money
and bought this parlor house.

And she is a great beauty.

Men line up around the block
and pay an ounce of gold
just for the chance to look at her.

The city inspector is her lover.
He shields us from the vice squads.

She tells us all this
as if we could do it too,
if we worked hard enough –

 

~

The other day she said I stole
her purse, found it at the bottom
of my things. Maybe
another girl had stuck it there.

Who does she think she is – only
a madam in this outpost of the world.

She made me pay
from the wages I have yet
to make: four years I must work
to pay for this passage

I did not choose to take.

 

~

I walk down to the sea alone, away from the fury of the house, away from the crowds and the narrow, steep streets. The water is cold, but I take off my slippers and let the waves stroke my feet. Sand gathers in the creases of my toes. I watch fog burn off a peak on the other side of the bay. There, the hills are golden. I watch the water rise and ebb toward the ocean, the great Pacific, the way home. I try to remember home, the village square, the rice fields, the muddy waters of the Pearl River, but it already seems so far away.

 

 

~

 

In the day I sew
under her hovering eye, each mistake
a reminder

how much I cost her.
She makes me keep my room
unlocked, rifles

through my things.
Already she beat me for what
I write.

I cannot go out
alone. When I ran away, walked
an hour a free woman,

a merchant’s wife
told the police on me, accused me
of indecency.

They dragged me
back into this cage, watched
as her fist

slammed into my cheek.

 

~

 

                                      In the next room,
Lily is howling as the girls help her
bring her child into this world. No one knows
who is the father – maybe

                        he is the merchant
who comes on Saturdays and splurges
on wine. Or maybe he is one of the men

from the mountains, always
on the prowl for something better.

A girl! It’s a girl!             I close my eyes –

                        another girl
to cook and clean until she turns thirteen,

when Madame will dress her
in the finest silks and teach her to pose
in the parlor

and that night when she sings
in a voice that has yet to take wing

the man with the highest offer
will seal her lips
with his kiss.

 

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                            Evanston, Wyoming, 1869.

 

I didn’t talk for years after I left the house – I see now
I had to swallow so much just to survive that place

I no longer knew who I was or if anyone would
believe me. I kept walking into things – furniture,

sidewalks, thankfully not a stove – I couldn’t even see
in front of me. In San Francisco, a man said he loved me

and paid my bond and after we were married he said
let’s go to Virginia City and get ourselves a lode

of silver. He didn’t want to believe that machines had
taken over the mines and he had to work for wages

and still he dreamed that one day he would find silver
on the banks of a river. After work, he went to the bars

and when he stumbled home I had to feed him dinner
already turned cold, spooning morsels of gravy and rice

into his mouth. He wasn’t a bad man, he just liked to drink
himself into silence. In the day I had our room

to myself – I wandered among its walls, trying to find
the words I needed to tell myself I was still alive.

 

~

 

Last winter the first train arrived in town and a few
            days later, the railroad moved
its terminal to Wasatch. Now the station is coming
                        back to Evanston and the town

is bustling again. I go down to Front Street and watch
            people get off the trains, their eyes
fixed on the horizon, as if they’re still dreaming
                        of faraway lands. I stand

in the shade, shield my eyes from the glint of the sun
            in the steel. I can’t tell if
these people see me, an errant woman without madam
                        or man. I know it won’t last

but I like this obscurity – without a name I can make
            my own story and invent
a destiny. I look up      my head starts to spin
                        my heart races, I just –

The world has nothing to offer you.


~

 

A man from San Francisco
tells me the house is gone – Madame
closed it and disappeared. Some say
gangs ran her out of town
and she moved back
to China, married a merchant, and now
she sells goods from America.

I suppose
she was doing what she could
when her husband died on the ship
and she arrived in a foreign land
without money or family, only
her body. I just wish
she had believed me when I told the truth.

Why don’t you go back to San Francisco?
Your people are there.

I don’t know what to say. All these years
in the desert – I learned to live
for myself, no longer

a mannequin for someone else.

~

 

In the Comstock, I left a man for another. My first husband
drank away his paychecks and I had to go back to work,

and I went back to the only job I knew to do. He drank more
and pushed me away, saying I was lucky he didn’t try

to hit me. I didn’t want to join the slave houses in Chinatown
and with a white husband the white brothels didn’t know

what to make of me. I fell in love with a customer, a man
from my country whose wife died of fever and he only knew

when the letter came months later. He asked to marry me
and I left my husband, who went to the bars, chugged a jug

of whiskey, tried to dance with all the girls and challenged
the men to a losing game of cards. That same month,

Julia Bulette was found strangled in her room, her jewels
missing, and no one knew who did it or if he would target

the rest of us too. The men loved her. She nursed them
when they fell ill from dirty water and they made her queen

of the Virginia Engine Company Number 1. She helped me
when I needed work – when she died, we knew we had to leave.

 

~

 

Our early months in Park City were difficult.

I cried all the time and when he was even a minute
late home from the mine, I imagined
the worst and let dinner burn on the stove.

He held my head to his chest and asked,
what’s wrong, my dear?

I couldn’t answer. Each time I tried to speak
my words came out garbled and I just
sobbed more. I accused him

of being distant and he would throw up
his hands and eat the charred bits from the bottom
of the pot

in silence. I crawled into bed
and waited for him to come to me.

Outside, snow kept falling, a soft blanket
on the cracks in the land.

 

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Header image courtesy of Meggan Joy. To see more of her work, go here.

Teow Lim Goh is the author of Islanders (Conundrum Press, 2016), a volume of poems on the history of Chinese exclusion at the Angel Island Immigration Station. Her work has been featured in Tin House, Catapult, PBS NewsHour, Colorado Public Radio, and The New Yorker. She lives in Denver.

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Sam Preminger

Sam Preminger is a Portland-based poet. Their work has appeared throughout various publications and they hold an MFA from Pacific University.