Mrs Sen & Mr Chen
Two strangers meet in a foreign land. What bond connects them?
Emerging from the apartment building, Gita walked briskly to the restaurant, drawn by a force she couldn’t resist. Maybe she just needed to know what was going on—or maybe it was something else. Had there been a break-in last night? No alarm had gone off, as far as she could tell, and Monica had said robberies were uncommon in this area. Approaching the police cruiser, she heard the crackle of the radio inside, though nobody was there. This side of the shopping plaza was quiet—it was too early. But she could see some cars parked near the supermarket.
Gita wanted to check if Wok Man’s door was open, but she desisted. If it opened, what would she find there? And how would the police officer, who was presumably in the restaurant, react to her unexpected appearance?
And then she saw this writing: “GET OUT . . . YOU DON’T BELONG HERE!”
She gasped. Her attention had been on the door, making her miss—at first—the big ugly words scrawled in red on the restaurant’s wall. Reeling, Gita kept walking and didn’t stop until she reached the supermarket. Walking in after the doors opened automatically, she shivered. Usually, because the air-conditioning in the buildings was too much for her, she carried a light jacket or sweater. But now, Gita realized, she didn’t have a mask either.
“Morning, ma’am,” said a young employee who was stacking up shopping baskets. “You’re early today. Do you need a mask?”
“Yes, please,” Gita said, smiling in embarrassment. “Thank you. Forgot my mask when I left in a rush to get milk for my morning tea.”
“No worries, ma’am. Just a minute. I’ll get one for you.”
Gita lingered in the supermarket, trying to calm her nerves as she wandered from aisle to aisle. And then she remembered to pick up a carton of milk, which she didn’t need, before heading to the checkout lane.
Although the police cruiser was gone, there were a few parked cars now on that side, indicating that a new workday was beginning. Were those hateful words still on the wall? Cutting through the parking lot, she glanced in the direction of the restaurant and saw what seemed like thick brown paper covering the vandalized section of the wall. Again, squelching the temptation to see if the door would open, she kept walking towards the apartment building.
Should she call Monica? She’d be busy, so bothering her now wasn’t a good idea. What would she tell her, in any case? The words that had made Gita’s stomach churn seemed imprinted on her mind, not just the wall. Seeking distraction, she tidied her room and then took a long hot shower, which calmed her, as if she’d taken a refreshing nap.
Emerging from the steam-filled bathroom, Gita remembered that she hadn’t checked her email over the weekend. On the day she’d talked to Peter Chen, she called her elderly uncle in Kolkata to check on him and ask if he’d been to the Chen family’s old restaurant.
“The man I met told me that his parents had owned a famous Chinese restaurant,” Gita said. “But they had to shut it down abruptly. He didn’t give a reason.”
“Did he give a name?” her uncle asked. “I recall going to more than one restaurant. That area was livelier back in those days, with a small but thriving expat community.”
Gita was heartened by the conversation. Her uncle, who’d been doing poorly for a while, was alert and in good spirits. His mind was still sharp, which meant he’d made good progress after his surgery. It also helped that now he was using his earphones regularly.
“Calcuttan?” she said. “I think that’s what he said. The Calcuttan. But he said it fast . . . and I didn’t ask him to repeat it. I’m not—”
“How about Cal Canton? Now that was a famous restaurant. I went there as a young man. I may even have a picture somewhere.”
“Yes, Kaka, that sounds right! I think he said Cal Canton.”
“Well, let me look through one of my old albums,” he said. “I’ve been going through them. If I have a photo of Cal Canton, I’ll send you an email.”
Now, picking up her phone, Gita scrolled through her inbox. There was junk mail, yes, but also a note from her uncle saying he’d found a picture of Cal Canton. Clicking on the attachment, Gita saw a grainy black-and-white image of the restaurant. Without the faded sign, which was still readable, Cal Canton could have been any nondescript building from a bygone era. Her uncle, looking impossibly young, stood in the foreground of the vintage photo.
Excitedly, she walked up to the living room window to look out. Wok Man was open now, and customers were entering and exiting with their bags of food. What about that frightening message on the wall? Gita couldn’t tell if it was still covered up, though the wall didn’t seem to be drawing anybody’s attention.
Gita waited for the post-lunch lull before heading out again, and this time she remembered to take her mask and phone. Why was she so pleased that now she’d a good excuse to walk into the restaurant? What would Gita say if, instead of Peter Chen, she saw the woman who’d been there the other day? She could start with a question: “Are you Peter Chen’s wife?” No, that would be terrible! Too blunt. The woman may look at her coldly. For all Gita knew, she was only an employee.
Nearing the entrance of Wok Man, Gita saw that the ugly scrawl had already been painted over. The brown sheet was gone, and only a closer look made the touch-up job apparent, showing a white patch that was still fresh, as if a crack in the wall had been sealed. But what had been covered up was worse than a crack. It would need healing, not sealing.
Pushing the door open to the sound of a chime, Gita walked into the cool and somewhat dim interior. The restaurant was small but cosy and inviting. Two tables, presumably for customers, were on one side—and while there was space between them, two other tables, clearly marked for takeout orders, were stuck together against the wall on the other side. Paintings of a soaring mountain, with its gushing waterfall, and the lush countryside adorned one wall, and another wall had a framed picture of what seemed like the Hong Kong skyline. A potted Lucky Bamboo plant stood next to a board displaying the menu, and near the cash register, which was behind a glass shield, Gita saw a ceramic Buddha and a cat figurine with its paw waving.
Gita was wondering if she should have worn her mask, when the door behind the counter opened and a man stepped out. Only then did she notice, with a jolt, the framed picture on the wall above the door leading to the kitchen. It showed a youngish couple standing in front of what looked like, even from where Gita stood, Cal Canton.
“May I help . . . oh, how are you, Mrs. Sen?” Peter Chen said.
Though still friendly, he seemed less effusive now, as if her sudden visit to his restaurant had thrown him off balance. No doubt he was still recovering from the traumatic incident.
“I’m fine, Mr. Chen. Sorry, I don’t know if you’re busy—”
“No problem. It’s not busy now. Would you like to order something?”
“No, thank you. I already had lunch. I wanted to show you something.”
When Gita clicked on the image and held up her phone, Peter stepped forward. She saw his eyes widen and heard the sharp intake of his breath.
“That’s the restaurant my parents owned,” he said. “Amazing! Do you know this man?”
“My uncle,” she said with a smile. “When I mentioned the restaurant, he remembered and sent me this. Cal Canton was famous, he said, but short-lived. He didn’t say why it closed.”
She noticed how Peter’s face became sombre, though it was only for a moment.
“I can tell you why it closed, Mrs. Sen,” he said. “How about jasmine tea? I’m going to have some. Please join me. And how about ice cream?”
“Tea sounds good, but no ice cream for me. Thanks. Please call me Gita.”
“And I’m Jiang,” he said with a chortle. “But either name is fine. Did you see the picture on the wall?”
“Yes . . . how wonderful!” she said. “They’re your parents, I presume.”
“Indeed. They ran the restaurant before I was born, as I said. Please have a seat. I’ll be right back.”
At the table where they sat across from each other, Jiang poured the light brown tea from a kettle into two porcelain cups with a flowery pattern in blue. Holding the warm cup with both hands, Gita savoured the fragrance of the steaming liquid as she took a sip.
“Pete . . . Jiang, I know what happened,” Gita said, looking at him after she put the cup down. “Somebody vandalized your restaurant. I saw the writing on the wall. Are you okay?”
Looking stunned, he simply said, “How did you know?”
“I walked by this morning. The restaurant wasn’t open, so I was alarmed to see a police car. Then I saw the scrawl . . . those horrible words. But I didn’t—”
“Don’t worry about it, Mrs. . . . I mean, Gita. I’m fine. But thanks for checking. It was a minor incident . . . happened before. No damage to the property. Fortunately, I have good friends in the police department. They—”
“But why, Jiang? Why would somebody write something awful like that on your wall?”
Jiang looked at her, and then turned away. Gita wondered if he thought she was clueless.
Pointing at the mask on the table, he quietly said, “Because of this. But it’ll pass. It’s temporary . . . that’s my hope.”
Confused at first, Gita thought that somebody got angry over the mask requirement. But then she realized the restaurant didn’t have a mask policy. Neither of them was wearing a mask as they talked. Then it struck her—he was referring to the bigotry fuelled by the virus.
“Yes, it will pass,” she said. “But I’m sure it’s a terrible, frightening experience.”
“A war could be worse. That’s why the restaurant closed. My parents had to deal with the consequences of a war.”
“What do you mean, Jiang?”
“You asked me where I was born,” he said, pouring more tea into their cups. “Well, I was born in an internment camp. A prison, basically. Not in Calcutta, but in Deoli.”
“Deoli? I don’t understand. Where is that?”
“In the western part of the country. A dusty town, I believe. You see, Gita, when the Sino-Indian war broke out in the Himalayas, emotions ran high. My father wasn’t an activist, but he was concerned about hate crimes. So, in their restaurant, he put up a sign calling for peace. It said that both sides should settle their differences diplomatically.”
“And he got into trouble because of that?” Gita said, staggered by this revelation.
“Yes, but even those who didn’t say anything got rounded up. About 3000 people were sent, supposedly for their own protection, to an internment camp in Deoli. My parents were among them. I was born there, but don’t recall anything. I was still an infant when my parents, after being released, made their way to Hong Kong.”
Still in a daze, Gita was too ashamed to say she hadn’t learned this slice of history. When she looked up, Jiang’s expression was neutral, as if the shock of this searing family experience had long been absorbed. Then, remembering a documentary she’d watched on TV, she said, “So this was like the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War Two.”
“Indeed. There were parallels, but there were also differences between . . . excuse me.” Getting up quickly to answer the phone, he added, “Sorry, my employee is not here yet. Let me get this. I’ll be back.”
Was the employee the woman Gita had seen the other day? It was still early for dinner, but customers were apparently already placing their orders. Watching Jiang as he rang up the items on the cash register, Gita wondered when he’d come to this country. He was just a few months younger than her. What had brought him from the other side of the world? Did he have family here? These questions would remain unasked for now, she thought, rising to leave.
But she did want to make a request before leaving.
“Gita, please order something before you go,” Jiang said after hanging up. “On the house, of course. It was great to hear about your uncle and his connection to Cal Canton. Maybe we can chat more another time.”
“I’d love to, Jiang. Let’s talk again when it’s not busy. As for ordering food, I don’t want anything now. But perhaps you can make one of those famous Cal Canton dishes another day. That would be wonderful. My daughter’s birthday is coming up.”
“Of course, I’ll be glad to,” Jiang said with a laugh. “I still have some of the old recipes. Let me know when you want it.” Then he turned to pick up the phone when it rang again.
Pushing open the door to step out from the dim interior, Gita was, for a moment, disoriented by the bright sunlight that greeted her.