1930, Shantou, China
On a winter night shortly after the New Year festivities, Chen Kai sat on the edge of the family kang, the brick bed. He settled the blanket around his son.
“Gwai jai,” he said. Wellbehaved boy. “Close your eyes.”
“Sit with me?” said Chen Pie Sou with a yawn. “You promised . . .”
“I will.” He would stay until the boy slept. A little more delay. Muy Fa had insisted that Chen Kai remain for the New Year celebration, never mind that the coins from their poor autumn’s harvest were almost gone. What few coins there were, after the landlord had taken his portion of the crop. Chen Kai had conceded that it would be bad luck to leave just before the holiday and agreed to stay a little longer. Now, a few feet away in their oneroom home, Muy Fa scraped the tough skin of rice from the bottom of the pot for the next day’s porridge. Chen Kai smoothed his son’s hair. “If you are to grow big and strong, you must sleep.” Chen Pie Sou was as tall as his father’s waist. He was as big as any boy of his age, for his parents often accepted the knot of hunger in order to feed him.
“Why . . .” A hesitation, the choosing of words. “Why must I grow big and strong?” A fear in the tone, of his father’s absence.
“For your ma, and your ba.” Chen Kai tousled his son’s hair. “For China.”
Later that night, Chen Kai was to board a train. In the morning, he would arrive at the coast, locate a particular boat. A village connection, a cheap passage without a berth. Then, a week on the water to reach Cholon. This place in Indochina was just like China, he had heard, except with money to be made, from both the Annamese and their French rulers.
With his thick, tough fingers, Chen Kai fumbled to undo the charm that hung from his neck. He reached around his son’s neck as if to embrace him, carefully knotted the strong braid of pig gut. Chen Pie Sou searched his chest, and his hand recognized the family good luck charm, a small, rough lump of gold.
“Why does it have no design, ba?” said Chen Pie Sou. He was surprised to be given this valuable item. He knew the charm. He also knew the answers to his questions. “Why is it just a lump?”
“Your ancestor found it this way. He left it untouched rather than having it struck or molded, to remind his descendants that one never knows the form wealth takes, or how luck arrives.”
“How did he find it?” Chen Pie Sou rubbed its blunted angles and soft contours with the tips of his fingers. It was the size of a small lotus seed. He pressed it into the soft place in his own throat. Nearby, his mother, Muy Fa, sighed with impatience. Chen Pie Sou liked to ask certain things, despite knowing the response.
“He pried it from the Gold Mountain in a faraway country. This was the first nugget. Much more was unearthed, in a spot everyone had abandoned. The luck of this wealth brought him home.”
It was cool against Chen Pie Sou’s skin. Now, his right hand gripped his father’s. “Where you are going, are there mountains of gold?”
“That is why I’m going.”
“Ba,” said Chen Pie Sou intently. He pulled at the charm. “Take this with you, so that its luck will keep you safe and bring you home.”
“I don’t need it. I’ve worn it for so long that the luck has worked its way into my skin. Close your eyes.”
“I’m not sleepy.”
“But in your dreams, you will come with me. To the Gold Mountain.”
Chen Kai added a heaping shovel of coal to the embers beneath the kang. Muy Fa, who always complained that her husband indulged their son, made a soft noise with her tongue.
“Don’t worry, dear wife. I will find so much money in Indochina that we will pile coal into the kang all night long,” boasted Chen Kai. “And we will throw out the burned rice in the bottom of that pot.”
“You will come back soon?” asked Chen Pie Sou, his eyes closed now.
Chen Kai squeezed his son’s shoulder. “Sometimes, you may think I am far away. Not so. Whenever you sleep, I am with you in your dreams.”
“But when will you return?”
“As soon as I have collected enough gold.”
“Enough . . . at the first moment I have enough to provide for you, and your mother, I will be on my way home.”
The boy seized his father’s hand in both of his. “Ba, I’m scared.”
“That you won’t come back.”
“Shh . . . there is nothing to worry about. Your ancestor went to the Gold Mountain, and this lump around your neck proves that he came back. As soon as I have enough to provide for you, I will be back.”
As if startled, the boy opened his eyes wide and struggled with the nugget, anxious to get it off. “Father, take this with you. If you already have this gold, it will not take you as long to collect what you need.”
“Gwai jai,” said Chen Kai, and he calmed the boy’s hands with his own. “I will find so much that such a little bit would not delay me.”
“You will sit with me?”
“Until you are asleep. As I promised.” Chen Kai stroked his son’s head. “Then you will see me in your dreams.”
Chen Pie Sou tried to keep his eyelids from falling shut. They became heavy, and the kang was especially warm that night. When he woke into the cold, bright morning, his breath was like the clouds of a speeding train, wispy white--vanishing. His mother was making the breakfast porridge, her face tear-stained. His father was gone.
The boy yelled, “Ma! It’s my fault!”
She jumped. “What is it?”
“I’m sorry,” sobbed Chen Pie Sou. “I meant to stay awake. If I had, ba would still be here.”
1966, Cholon, Vietnam
It was a new morning toward the end of the dry season, early enough that the fleeting shade still graced the third-floor balcony of the Percival Chen English Academy. Chen Pie Sou, who was known to most as Headmaster Percival Chen, and his son, Dai Jai, sat at the small wicker breakfast table, looking out at La Place de la Liberation. The market girls’ bright silk ao dais glistened. First light had begun to sweep across their bundles of cut vegetables for sale, the noodle sellers’ carts, the flame trees that shaded the sidewalks, and the flower sellers’ arrangements of blooms. Percival had just told Dai Jai that he wished to discuss a concerning matter, and now, as the morning drew itself out a little further, was allowing his son some time to anticipate what this might be.
Looking at his son was like examining himself at that age. At sixteen, Dai Jai had a man’s height, and, Percival assumed, certain desires. A boy’s impatience for their satisfaction was to be expected. Like Percival, Dai Jai had probing eyes, and full lips. Percival often thought it might be his lips which gave him such strong appetites, and wondered if it was the same for his son. Between Dai Jai’s eyebrows, and traced from his nose around the corners of his mouth, the beginnings of creases sometimes appeared. These so faint that no one but his father might notice, or recognize as the earliest outline of what would one day become a useful mask. Controlled, these lines would be a mask to show other men, hinting at insight regarding a delicate situation, implying an unspoken decision, or signifying nothing except to leave them guessing. Such creases were long since worn into the fabric of Percival’s face, but on Dai Jai they could still vanish--to show the smooth skin of a boy’s surprise. Now, they were slightly inflected, revealed Dai Jai’s worry over what his father might want to discuss, and concealed nothing from Percival. That was as it should be. Already, Percival regretted that he needed to reprimand his son, but in such a situation, it was the duty of a good father.
Chen Pie Sou addressed his son in their native Teochow dialect, “Son, you must not forget that you are Chinese,” and stared at him.
He saw Dai Jai’s hands twitch, then settle. “You have been seen with a girl. Here. In my school.”
“There are . . . many girls here at your school, Father.” Dai Jai’s right hand went to his neck, fiddled with the gold chain, on which hung the family good luck charm.
“Annam nuy jai, hai um hai?” An Annamese girl, isn’t it? It was not entirely the boy’s fault. The local beauties were so easy with their smiles and favors. “At your age, emotions can be reckless.”
The balcony door swung open and Foong Jie, the head servant, appeared with her silver serving tray. She set one bowl of thin rice noodles before Percival. She placed another in front of Dai Jai. Percival nodded at the servant.
Each bowl of noodles was crowned by a rose of raw flesh, the thin petals of beef pink and ruffled. Foong Jie put down dishes of bean sprouts, of mint, purple basil leaves on the stem, hot peppers, and halved limes with which to dress the bowls. She arranged an urn of fragrant broth, chilled glasses, the coffee pot that rattled with ice cubes, and a dish of cut papayas and mangos. Percival did not move to touch the food, and so neither did his son, whose eyes were now cast down. The master looked to Foong Jie, tilted his head toward the door, and she slipped away.
Percival addressed his son in a concerned low voice. “Is this true? That you have become . . . fond of an Annamese?”
Dai Jai said, “You have always told me to tutor weaker students.” In that, thought Percival, was a hint of evasion, a boy deciding whether to lie.
Percival waved off a fly, poured broth from the urn onto his noodles, added tender basil leaves, bright red peppers, and squeezed a lime into his bowl. With the tips of his chopsticks, he drowned the meat beneath the surface of the steaming liquid, and loosened it with a small motion of his wrist. Already the flesh was cooked, the stain of blood a haze, which vanished into the fragrant broth. Dai Jai prepared his bowl in the same way. He peered deep into the soup and gathered noodles onto his spoon, lifted it to his mouth, swallowed mechanically. On the boy’s face, anguish. So it was a real first love, the boy afraid to lose her. But this could not go on. Less painful to cut it early. Percival told himself to be firm for the boy’s own good.
From the square below came the shouts of a customer’s complaint, and a breakfast porridge seller’s indignant reply. Percival waited for the argument outside to finish, then said, “What subject did Teacher Mak see you tutoring, yesterday after classes?” Mak, Percival’s most trusted employee and closest friend, told him that Dai Jai and a student had been holding hands in an empty classroom. When Percival had asked, Mak had said that she was not Chinese. “Mak indicated that it was not a school subject being taught.” Percival saw perspiration bead on Dai Jai’s temples. The sun was climbing quickly, promising a hot day, but Percival knew that this heat came from within the boy.
The sweat on Dai Jai’s face ran a jagged path down his cheeks. He looked as if he was about to speak, but then he took another mouthful of food, stuffed himself to prevent words.
“Yes, let’s eat,” said Percival. Though in the past few years, Dai Jai had sprung up to slightly surpass his father’s height, he was still gangly, his frame waiting for his body to catch up. Though everyone complimented Dai Jai on his resemblance to his father, Percival recognized in his silence his mother’s stubbornness. The father’s duty was to correct the son, Percival assured himself. When the boy was older, he would see that his father was right.
They ate. Their chopsticks and spoons clicked on the bowls. Each regarded the square as if they had never before seen it, as if just noticing the handsome post office that the French had built, which now was also an army office. Three Buddhist monks with iron begging bowls stood in the shadow of St. Francis Xavier, the Catholic church that was famous for providing sanctuary to Ngo Dinh Diem, the former president of Vietnam, and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu, during the 1963 coup. After finishing his noodles, Percival sipped his coffee, and selected a piece of cut papaya using his chopsticks. He aimed for an understanding tone, saying, “Teacher Mak tells me she is very pretty.” He lifted the fruit with great care, for too much pressure with the chopsticks would slice it in half. “But your love is improper.” He should have called it something smaller, rather than love, but the word had already escaped.
Percival slipped the papaya into his mouth and turned his eyes to the monks, waiting for his son’s reply. There was the one-eyed monk who begged at the school almost every day. The kitchen staff knew that he and his brothers were to be fed, even if they had to go out and buy more food. It was the headmaster’s standing order. On those steps, Percival remembered, he had seen the Ngo brothers surrender themselves to the custody of army officers. They had agreed to safe passage, an exile in America. They had set off for Tan Son Nhut Airport within the protection of a green armored troop carrier. On the way there, the newspapers reported, the soldiers stopped the vehicle at a railroad crossing and shot them both in the head.
“Teacher Mak has nothing better to do than to be your spy?” said Dai Jai, his voice starting bold but tapering off.
“That is a double disrespect--to your teacher and to your father.”
“Forgive me, ba,” said Dai Jai, his eyes down again.
“Also, you know my rule, that school staff must not have affairs with students.” Percival himself kept to the rule despite occasional temptation. As Mak often reminded him, there was no need to give anyone in Saigon even a flimsy pretext to shut them down.
“But I am not--”
“You are the headmaster’s son. And you are Chinese. Don’t you know the shame of my father’s second marriage? Let me tell you of Chen Kai’s humiliation--”
“I know about Ba Hai, and yes, her cruelty. You have told--”
“And I will tell you again, until you learn its lesson! Ba Hai was very beautiful. Did that save my father? An Annamese woman will offer you her sweetness, and then turn to sell it to someone else.”
Excerpted from The Headmaster's Wager by Vincent Lam. Copyright © 2012 by Vincent Lam. Excerpted by permission of Hogarth, 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.