Dad is the baby of his family.
He was born in Wenzhou, China.
He witnessed the Japanese soldiers storm his village as a little boy. His mother used to hide him in the Buddhist Temple, Behind the Buddha to keep him from being killed.
Dad used to tell me about the Japanese soldiers storming the village. Stabbing pregnant women through the belly and killing all the young boys.
There was a strange lesson he seemed to be teaching me when he told me these stories too.
Dad is always teaching, because he always makes you think.
He makes you think in a way that you automatically ask questions and he nurtures your curiosity in the manner in which he so openly becomes the same as you.
I was always raised to respect all cultures.
I really loved Japanese Culture, because I love Japanese food.
So when dad would tell me his stories about WWII and the Japanese that stormed his village I asked “Do you hate the Japanese?”.
It made sense in my my mind, as a child, to lump a group of people together, but mostly because I was American.
America the Great, but also divided because of what makes it great.
Even though I was raised in NYC’s West Village, I was very aware that I was Chinese, I looked different and my mother used to always marvel at the blond hair, blue eyed babies which I looked so different from. She never made me feel less beautiful, but it made me notice my differences more and I used to silently hope inside that I might grow up and have beautiful blond hair and those blue eyes my that used to captivate my mother’s attention. Perhaps it is a testament for the ability of American Culture to mesh us so uniquely that made me color blind about race in this way.
It wasn’t race to me, it was just color and I could be any color I wanted to be.
“Do you hate the Japanese?”, dad’s tone never changed. He has this nurturing quality in his voice where you sense zero prejudice or judgement, you just feel purity. He said “Why would I hate the Japanese because of what the soldiers were ordered to do?”. I just sat quiet and he let me digest what he said and then he explained.
“The soldiers were doing their job for their country. They believed that what they were doing to be right, the same way that what they were doing was also thought to be wrong, by the people who thought it was wrong. It depends on which side you happen to be on. The side you are on, you believe is the side that is right. The soldiers had families too that they were fighting for, the same way my mother tried to protect me. War is different, but family is always the same. You can’t blame an entire Country for the problem at the time. The same way you can’t blame the soldiers for protecting their family. It’s difficult for everyone at the time. War is tough. You can only try to protect the people you love.”
This is my memory of that explanation, I played over and over again in my head for my whole entire life, whenever I would try to understand things I didn’t understand, this has always been my bible.
Dad even had a Japanese girlfriend before mom and the funny thing was, Professor Cheng was mad at dad for that, because the War affected him differently, but not because he was at all racist in this manner.
Eventually my Grandma Chen put dad on boat as a small child, for safety, all alone to Taiwan.
Dad had 3 sisters and a brother. His love and respect for his mother was something I always felt my whole entire life, even when mom would tell me stories about how dad talked about his mother and how he would promise to always love my mom, because he saw what hurt his mother and would never want to hurt anyone the way he saw his mother had experienced pain growing up.
Years later, dad’s brother, my Uncle Chen would return home.
He was a spy for he Chinese government and finally been released from captivity, which includes torture, things my mother has told me about and I still, to this day shocks me to hear. There was a James Bond flare to it all, but I don’t think with Sean Connery or Pierce Brosnan looks and undeniable aesthetic appeal, obviously, these guys are my favorite Bonds.
In my father’s village there is a way of eating raw crab, a delicacy, one of my favorites and dad’s favorites too.
The crab is soaked in a mixture of wines for a period of time and that’s all.
My Grandma Chen found live crab that morning at the market and bought them for the feast she was planning for her oldest son’s release from captivity.
Dad didn’t eat much of the crab, when I asked him why, he just said he just didn’t feel like eating it that night for some reason.
His brother and his mom ate the crab.
The next morning his brother didn’t wake up and his mother was deathly ill.
It turns out this crab was by nature poisonous, cooking would have perhaps broken down some of the poison, but eating it raw kept the poisonous nutrients intact.
This was just one of my father’s life tragedies.
His remaining three sisters.
One sister was given away at birth to an Aunt and Uncle who could not bare children. She was given to then to raise as their own. This was a common custom amongst families of wealth. It was about keeping “the blood” in the family. However, the wealth was gone when WWII hit and the family lost from each other.
Another sister, with two small children fell off her balcony while hanging laundry to dry. The husband disappeared at this time too.
The next sister, dad would find laying unconscious on the floor of her apartment, he ran to her and immediately tried to give her CPR, but when dad retells the story, he even said he knew it was too late.
Just after giving his sister CPR he became very ill. He said it felt like Pneumonia.
He went to doctor after doctor and just grew worse and worse. Loosing weight. Loosing life.
Finally he went to go see the fortune teller his mother and everyone in the village believed in and patronized.
She never took money for her services, only accepted small gifts of food.
She told him his sister’s spirit was trapped in his physical form and was trying get out. I believe his illness was a way of breaking the physical form (death) so that the spirit form can be released.
She told dad to go to the corner of the room she had died in, on a certain night, at a certain time. He was to take a chinese coin, the kind that had a hole in the middle, attach a red string and pee on the coin, then just discard the coin on the string in the street and he would recover…
His health was back.
His poor mother who also suffered a broken back would visit this fortune teller too.
Although Medical Doctors told her she would be dead in just a few months after the crab incident, the fortune teller told her she wouldn’t pass on until she met my father’s wife. She went on to live for many, many years.
Dad becomes interested in Martial Arts, after all it is part of our Chinese Heritage and I think every boy’s fantasy to be a real live Super Hero.
My Grandfather Chen did not live at home with the family in the suburbs, he lived where he worked primarily.
Grandpa Chen was childhood Best Friends with Professor Cheng Man Ching.
And this is where the Tai Chi would begin.
Dad would live with the Professor and become a nanny of the household too.
He changed diapers was picked on as an older brother and would be and smiled when he told me stories of how my Aunt Marina would get all her brothers and sisters to gang up against dad when they would disagree, but that that’s what part of being a loving family is all about. Unconditional Love.
His combat skills were widely talked about all over Asia and on one particular occasion he was about to find out how talked about.
I believe he was in Malaysia.
You know that communal style eating, the long tables which seat more than one party?
This is how it was always done in old school Asia and you’ll see it depicted in old school Kung fu movies, my favorites were always the Jet Li movies of Wong Fei Hung. Even the movie’s soundtrack melody was just as infectious as that of The Godfather’s.
Dad goes to have a meal and this group of martial artists invite him to sit with them, cause you never leave a martial arts brother to sit alone, no matter that he isn’t from your school.
Dad joins them.
They ask him:
*MAB-Martial Arts Brothers
MAB: “Have you heard of this new martial artist with lightening skills who’s beating up everyone?”
Dad: “No, what can he do?”
MAB: “He shoots lasers from his eyes and he can throw you without touching you”
Dad: “Really? Where does he train, what school?”
MAB: “We’re not sure, but just the other day he destroyed 6 guys who attacked him all at once and walked away without a scratch, he moves so fast nobody could see him, until they were down and he just walked away”
Dad: “What’s his name?”
MAB: “Chen Chi-Cheng” (along with the description of his Tai Chi background and the fact that dad did train standup with boxers. All the facts about dad that were accurate, with a few exaggerations at this serendipitous kind of meeting.)
Dad: “What? No it’s not. That’s me!”
MAB: “What, you’re supposed to be 6 feet tall. You don’t look threatening. You’re voice is so gentle. How can he be you?”
Dad: “I’m not 6 feet tall and I don’t shoot lasers out of my eyes and 6 guys didn’t attack me the other day.”
MAB: “How could he be you, you seem so gentle?”
Dad: “It is me”
This story is just so sweet and wonderful.
So years would pass and dad would be dubbed “The Baby Master”
Asian cultures regard their teachers with the highest esteem, and dad was among the most respected at a very young age.
He was flown all over the place to teach private clients with very esteemed society rankings.
Eventually he entered Hawaii University, following his teacher’s instructions of the need to pursue a higher education.
The Professor would then send for dad to join him in NYC.
Dad worked teaching Tai Chi to pay for school and send home money to his mother, helping support her as she was also raising her two orphaned grandchildren when her daughter plummeted to her death and their father ran off.
Dad’s name and reputation were already very well recognized, especially in NYC’s Chinatown, which was its own little country within our country.
This was NYC Chinatown’s more authentic days.
Days of the Snakeheads, most notably Sister Ping.
If you have a name people will always look to exploit it and everyone wants to be your friend.
While teaching to pay for school dad got an offer from “friends” who offered to pay him to hangout at their “joints”.
They paid dad and fed him and dad used to tell me:
“They were so nice, they were helping me out because I was new to this country and I got paid to just visit them. I would do my homework for school and study for class and go home.”
Mom would always say:
“William, how naive are you, those were illegal gambling halls and they paid you, to use your name to keep away other gang members from raiding their joint. They were using you for the good and honest reputation you built, they weren’t your friends”.
I was a kid and just confused when I would hear this come up. I heard dad’s good side. I heard mom’s bad side and I just kept both perspectives in my head, hoping it might make sense when I got older.
So during the days of illegal gambling halls and a Snakehead Chinatown, mom and dad would eventually meet.
I mention this only to bring up their honeymoon, which was when my mother would meet my Grandma Chen.
Remember the fortune teller telling my Grandma Chen that she would live, only to meet her only living son’s wife, because she could only go in peace knowing he was going to be looked after by a good woman?
My Grandmother Chen did live to meet her daughter-in-law and would also die on their honeymoon, in my mother’s arms as my parents were taking her up to see her favorite mountain that my father could never afford to take her to visit before.
She passed in the most perfect moment I believe she could have ever hoped to have ended up in, with the people she loved most in her life, she could go, because now she was at peace and knew in that moment what a lucky man my father was for having finally ended up with my mother.