Ah Sing was not his real name. Ah Sing was the name of his paper father, the man from whom he had purchased the identity that would allow him to immigrate to Canada. The Benevolent Society, to which both his family and that of the real Ah Sing belonged, had negotiated the transaction. For Ah Sing, a native of Hoiping, was retiring from Canada to Sze Yap, and the new Immigration Act permitted only those Chinese with relatives living in the country before 1923 to enter.
“Ah Sing does not wish to die in the barbarians’ land, leaving his bones to moulder seven years in a foreign house of the dead before they can be returned to the ancestral graveyard,” his relations explained. “He prefers to bring his bones back himself.”
Everyone agreed that, truly, it would be the worst kind of joss for Ah Sing to leave his bones in a strange land and forgo the veneration owed him by subsequent generations. To avoid such a misfortune, the Chinese in America and Canada and Australia had established dead houses in which they interred their departed for a period not to exceed seven years, after which the bones were scraped clean of what particles of flesh and portions of queues and matted hair still adhered to them and then were shipped back to their former owner’s place of origin in ceramic pots.
Besides, his relatives proudly continued, Ah Sing was well able to afford the passage home . . . and more. For twenty years, he had travelled up and down Vancouver Island in an old wagon, selling vegetables and battered fruit from door to door, enduring the savage taunts of barbarian children and living no better than a dog or a pig but always saving his money in an old tea chest, until now he had at least seven hundred dollars. By Kwantung standards, Ah Sing could be counted a rich man, and he was ready to come home to sire a son and to die.
This was the false Ah Sing’s ambition – to make his fortune in Canada and return to his village of Yanping in silken robes. Better that than trying to scratch out a living on his father’s farm, where the soil was too leached out to grow anything but some rice and a stand of poppies for opium, and where there were always too many people needing to be fed. No, like an alien bent on plundering a distant planet, the false Ah Sing planned to descend upon the rough, barbarous place called Canada, take all he could and fly away.
His real name was Tai Soong, and he had turned nineteen the day he crept into the hold of the big steamship bound for British Columbia. It was just before dawn, bitingly cold, and the ship’s hold stank of coal and rot and bilge and fish. To the fragile youth squatting in the recesses of the vessel so that the boiler men would be unable to distinguish him from its other cargo, it seemed like the cold, resonant belly of a whale.
It took the false Ah Sing three and a half years to work his way across Canada as far as Timmins, Ontario, a city not a decade old and the beating heart of the Porcupine country. He worked on the Canadian Pacific most of the way, riding boxcars east when he wasn’t laying track or setting dynamite to blast rock.
It was hard work the Chinese did on the railway. MacAuliffe, the Scottish foreman, viewed them as just so much human flotsam: the Yellow Tide, he called them. They were so clearly of a grosser, inferior race – not only were they impervious to fatigue and hunger and pain (“It’s because their nerve endings aren’t as close to their skin as Europeans’ are,” MacAuliffe maintained. “Scientific fact.”), but they also appeared to be completely insensible to personal danger. Because of this, and because there were so many of them competing for jobs on the railway, MacAuliffe saw the Chinese as an infinitely renewable resource and so assigned to them all the most perilous jobs. Accordingly, in the course of his employment by the CP, the paper son saw three of his fellow Chinese railway workers blown to bits, one dismembered, one buried alive through a miscalculation, one fall to a terrible death in a deep gorge, and two drowned in a raging river and then battered against big rocks until there was very little left of them to send back to the house of the dead in Vancouver. Fortunately for Ah Sing, he was a methodical youth, careful to a degree that irritated MacAuliffe and made him bluster and yell, “What the hell are you doing up there, Chinaman? Just light the damn thing and let’s get on with this!” Still, the paper son survived, and that, he wrote his family back in Yanping, was something.
When he arrived in Timmins, however, he discovered to his great distress that there was no work for him in the mines. He went to work in a laundry on Third Street instead.
“This is how it happened,” explained Du Quong. Du Quong was the owner of the laundry; he had bought it with money earned at the Hollinger mine before the Chinese were excluded. “Once the shafts were blasted into the veins and the struts and beams safely installed, once the narrow-gorge track lines were laid, well, then the whites took over and we Chinese . . . we were no longer welcome in the mines.” Du Quong shrugged. He was probably not as old as Ah Sing’s father, but he looked like a grandfather. His white clothes clung to his shrivelled body; his sweat-bathed face looked like an over-boiled polyp. It was the steam. Despite the fact that the thermometer hanging outside the door registered thirty below and the wind howled up and down the street like an enraged demon, the laundry was stiflingly hot, its big plate-glass window perpetually fogged. “Then the unions stepped in and made it final,” Du Quong continued. “No more Chinese. It’s the law. Still, Ah Sing, there are other ways to get rich.”
Excerpted from The Uncharted Heart by Melissa Hardy. Copyright © 2002 by Melissa Hardy. Excerpted by permission of Vintage Canada, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.