The House of Wang

By William Wetherall

A Japanese woman finds her place in the home of her husband,
born in Japan to the mistress of a Chinese father with a dream

Began 1988, last revised 1988 (5,590 words)

Placed 3rd in 1988 Asiaweek Short Story Competition.
Anthologized in Prizewinning Asian Fiction (Comber 1991).

Prizewinning Asian Fiction
(An Anthology of Prizewinning Short Stories from Asiaweek 1981-88)
Edited and introduced by Leon Comber
Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 1991, pages 329-343

The gyoza machine became part of our life from the summer of the fight. Kohei wanted one but Wang, his father, didn't. Masako, his stepmother, implored him to think of Wang's weak heart, while I tried my outsider's best to stay neutral, though Kohei, my husband, bought me two summer dresses, and Wang slipped me some pocket money, and both gave little Bunroku, my son and their heir, more pecan cookies in a week than he had eaten in all his five years.

Kohei badgered Wang about his old-fashioned ways until he let him run the gyoza shop as he pleased. Wang never actually gave Kohei his permission to buy the machine; he simply didn't interfere. He ignored the machine when it came, and he himself kept making gyoza by hand until his death a few months later.

Wang Chun had been an immigrant dishwasher, cook and restaurateur. His big meaty hands had made the best gyoza in Chinatown, but now his mastodonic flesh was an urnful of bony ash. His memorial photo stared at us from the altar in the corner of the family room. The thin brows of his broad, round face sternly knotted one night when Kohei and Masako began to argue over the inheritance tax. The corners of his down-turned mouth flipped up when Bunroku asked why the gyoza machine had broken down and Kohei attributed the bad luck to Wang's ghost. His heavy jaws gaped ear to ear when Masako took out a photo album, turned to the pictures that Wang had taken of the last New Year's parade, and reminisced about the dragon and lion dances that he had loved to watch from an elevated chair in front of the restaurant while dropping strings of firecrackers at the feet of the people who walked by.

The candle on the altar was flickering in the breeze of a fan on the humid evening when Kohei poured even Bunroku a glass of beer and solemnly announced his decision to sell the gyoza machine. To help pay the tax, he said. Masako's lips parted as though to say something but closed. Bunroku, on her lap, screwed up his face and began to cry. She pulled him across the tatami to the altar and helped him light a pair of incense sticks with the candle. Wang's hooded eyes smiled and his gold teeth flashed in the unsteady flame. Somewhere in the maze of the yellow springs, a gallant man knew that his heart still beat.

It was not, afterall, madness that had made me marry Wang's son, a Chinese man no matter that, until recently, he had called himself Oh Kohei, the Japanese dub for Wang Xiaoping, born and raised in Japan the only son of Wang and a mistress, but raised by Masako. In those first years, though, I had often wondered if my parents had been right in their initial objection to the marriage, and my doubt especially deepened that night when Kohei had blackened Wang's eye and gotten a swollen lip in a quarrel about the gyoza machine.

They were sitting downstairs in the kitchen at the back of the restaurant, drinking beer and talking about Kohei's dream. I was upstairs in the bedroom putting Bunroku to sleep after our bath.

"This is the most popular gyoza house in Chinatown," I heard Kohei say. "We're listed in every Yokohama restaurant guide. People come all the way from Sendai, Niigata, even Kyoto to eat our gyoza. Think of the thousands who would like to enjoy it in their own homes. So why not make that possible by mass producing it? All we have to do is buy a machine. We can distribute the gyoza through franchised shops. We call the chain Jolly Wang and have a friendly logo for product identity -- a portly cook with a mien like yours and a pigtail for ethnic distinction. We use an impressive slogan -- Finest Potstickers Since the Great Kanto Earthquake -- to remind everyone that the first House of Wang was built in 1923. Everyone loves a success story."

Kohei's jubilance echoed through the house like the peal of a bell in a mountain temple.

"Well, what do you think?" he asked when a minute had passed.

A few more seconds went by before Wang spoke.

"No pigtail," Wang said in his deep, raspy voice, after a long silence that had come to be filled with the rhythmic breathing of Bunroku's sleep.

"Okay, no pigtail," Kohei said without hesitation.

"No Jolly Wang," Wang said in the same firm voice.

"We'll think of something even catchier," Kohei said, an octave lower but still confident.

"No machine," Wang said more firmly than before.

"Why not?" Kohei pleaded.

"No robot can make my gyoza."

"The ingredients would be exactly the same!"

"They wouldn't be made by hand."

"You could still touch them. They'd be popping out ten times faster than you can make them now with us helping you. But you'd still have time to squeeze each one as it went into the plastic box."

Kohei sounded more hopeful.

A fist struck the table.

"No plastic boxes!" Wang shouted.

"The plastic would look like wood!" Kohei snapped. "Anyway, your fingerprints would be on each gyoza. So if anyone doubts that he's eating a genuine House of Wang potsticker, all you have to do is show him your Alien Registration Card and let them compare the whorls, arches and loops."

Kohei laughed but abruptly stopped.

"No machine!" Wang thundered and then nearly whispered: "House of Wang makes only real gyoza!"

They went back and forth like this, their voices growing angrier each round, until Kohei exploded in a volley of profanity that crashed like canon shot into the bedroom. Bunroku stirred as though in a nightmare. Then came the thumps and grunts of a scuffle and the sound of breaking glass. Masako, in the next bedroom, had begun to weep but stopped the moment Wang started up the stairs, his footsteps firm on the creaky treads, his head, I knew, unbowed.

Kohei stumbled up at midnight, threw off his tanzen, and fell on his futon. He lay on his back a while before he turned his head and caught me staring at his bulging lip. I met his eyes and watched the emptiness in them fill with lust. He crawled into my futon and fumbled with the top of my pajamas while grumbling about Wang's old ways. I cradled his head between my breasts and plugged his puffy mouth with a nipple, and soon he was snoring.

My pulse was slower to calm than his, but slumber finally quieted my thumping chest, still beneath his warm ear and bristly cheek. My pajamas were buttoned when I awoke at six, an hour after Kohei had left for the produce market with Wang.

Kohei and Wang didn't talk much at breakfast or during the morning preparations in the kitchen. Kohei wore a white gauze mask and feigned a cold. Wang told his cooks that his eye had struck the corner of the counter when he slipped on some vegetable oil that had spilled. Kohei whispered the translation to me and said that he and Wang had worked it all out on the way back from the produce market.

The kitchen was a thick dialect soup with chunks of Japanese thrown in whenever Chinese characters traced with rigid index fingers on stiff palms or chopping boards failed to bridge the accents. Wang spoke in the Wu brogue that he had been weaned on in a village near Changchow at the turn of the century. The day-shift cook from Taiwan had learned Fukienese at home and Mandarin at school. His helper was a college student from Hong Kong who spoke Cantonese but had learned to survive in Mandarin and now Japanese.

Wang repeated the same story in Japanese, to the waitress who came in to help Kohei and I with the lunch crowd, and to the evening-shift cook. Their Chinese, like mine, was limited to the menu items, the kitchen cant, and several ways to count cups of tea, bowls of rice, servings of gyoza, and chopsticks.

By mid afternoon Kohei had taken off his mask. He and Wang talked baseball while they took stock and planned the next day's purchases. No one mentioned the gyoza machine until after the last diner had paid his bill, the floors had been mopped and the shutters drawn, and the evening-shift cook had gone home.

We were sitting in the restaurant doing our evening chores. Wang and Kohei were sharing a beer at one table. Masako and I had a carafe of roasted barley tea with ice at another. Bunroku sat at a third with an empty carton of apple juice.

Bunroku had spread out his crayons and was drawing a picture. I was filling the shoyu and rayu dispensers. Masako was sorting some bills and receipts, and Kohei was doing the books.

Wang was slipping disposable chopsticks into thin paper wrappers on which had been printed "House of Wang" and nothing else.

"Look at these!" he said, holding up a stick of plain wood that a machine had split three-fourths of the way from the tapered end toward the thicker end. He pulled the two halves and they came apart, until a turn in the grain at the thicker end caused one of the halves to break off short and leave the other with a barb.

"Made by a robot," he said, looking at Kohei.

"Another lecture about how un-Chinese the restaurant has become?" Kohei asked as he put down his pencil and switched off the calculator.

"What self-respecting Chinese would eat food with splinters like these? Its like eating ice cream with a wooden spoon. Too short. No body. Feels dry and coarse against the tongue. Tastes like cedar."

"How would you eat Chinese ice cream, Papa?" Masako asked.

Wang's features softened when he saw the mirth in her eyes.

"With a Chinese spoon, made of anything but plastic," Kohei said.

Wang mopped the beads of sweat from his face with a washcloth and scowled.

"It would have to be porcelain, made by a Chinese potter from Chinese clay in a Chinese kiln fired by Chinese wood," he said.

"You used to say that about chopsticks," Kohei said.

"'Ivory chopsticks carved by a Chinese craftsman from the tusks of a Chinese elephant shot by a Chinese hunter using Chinese gun powder' were his exact words," Masako said, mimicing Wang's Wu accent.

Wang laughed.

"We switched to bamboo for a while because good ivory cost too much and the cheaper stuff stained and cracked," he said. "Next we tried plastic because it looked like ivory but was tougher and easier to wash. Then all but the classiest Chinatown restaurants began to use waribashi to allay Japanese worries about Chinese hygiene. Many people have told me that the same thing happened on Taiwan."

Wang wiped his brow again.

"The longer bamboo waribashi are okay but they're too expensive. These wooden ones are convenient with box lunches on trains, but they make us look like a fast food palace."

"We do run them through pretty quickly," I said as I cleaned the lid of a shoyu dispenser. "Five turnovers an hour at lunch time."

"That's just it," Wang smiled. "Five diners in each of thirty chairs per hour for two hours. That's two gross just for the midday stretch, three gross for the whole day. That's how many are here."

Wang's arms embraced the piles of waribashi on the table.

"Last year we went through a thousand gross, and they all ended up at the dump."

Wang picked up an unsplit waribashi and held it in the air.

"Each one of these is twenty centimeters long. Over a centimeter at the wide end and less than a centimeter at the narrow end. About half a centimeter thick. Now I ask you, how many trees is that?"

Wang drained his beer glass in one gulp. Kohei looked at his calculator but he kept his arms crossed and returned his gaze to Wang's perspiring face.

"So here we are," Wang continued, "feeding Japanese hypochondria with the forests of the world."

"It's either that or slaughtering elephants, huh?" said Kohei.

Wang looked at him, sighed, and rubbed his eyes.

"And these, too," he continued, waving the washcloth in his hand. "I heard they're common in Taiwan, a holdover from the colonial days, but I never saw any when I went back to China, at least not in mom and pop eateries like ours."

"We Japanese like to clean our hands before meals, right, Yumiko?" Masako said, looking at me and putting on mock airs.

"We Chinese are taught not to get our hands dirty," Wang said, showing us how clean his fingers and nails were.

The bath was ready and Wang got up to take his first.

"What's this?" he asked as he passed Bunroku's table. Bunroku had fallen asleep. Wang had picked up the picture Bunroku had been drawing and was holding it up for us to see.

"It looks like some kind of machine," Masako said. "Could those white lumps be gyoza?"

Kohei averted his eyes. The apple in his throat bobbed.

"I ordered a catalog," he explained. "It came the other day and Bunroku saw me reading it. He wanted to know what it was. I told him."

Wang just grunted and shambled toward the bath.

A few months passed. No more was said about the machine.

One winter night, on Kohei's thirtieth birthday, Wang announced that he was retiring. Kohei could run the restaurant.

Wang passed Kohei the black lacquer box with the bank books and seals, and the ledgers that he had taught Kohei how to keep.

Masako set out the glass tumblers. Kohei and I spooned crystals of sugar into all but the two that Wang and Bunroku would use. Wang then poured some warm raochu into all the tumblers except Bunroku's, which I filled with apple juice.

"Ganbei!" Wang cheered.

Before the flask was empty, Wang's big mouth was a slice of melon and Kohei's eyes were moist. "Now you can get the machine, Papa," Bunroku said.

Wang's melon disappeared.

"Do what you want," Wang said while looking at Kohei. "But make Wenlu proud of you."

We all looked at Bunroku, whose name Wang had said in Chinese.

On a fine spring morning the following year, a Wednesday when the restaurant was closed and school was in recess, Kohei came down to breakfast and said that the gyoza machine would come around noon.

Wang said nothing but his nostrils flared his annoyance.

Wang's silence spread through the house like a cold fog that chilled our tongues and made even gossip difficult. Masako and I finished the morning chores in record time. Kohei re-measured the space where the machine was to go. Only Wang ignored the door when it opened and someone called "Gomen kudasai!" But it was only the miller with some flour and a bill.

Wang joined us for tea but no one talked. The place was so quiet that we could hear the people on the sidewalk in front.

A truck pulled up at the corner. Kohei jumped to his feet and listened. He bounded for the side door the instant he heard it backing into the alley.

Wang put on his brown windbreaker and started out the front door.

"I'll celebrate in the park," he said when I told him that Masako had made some red-bean rice for lunch.

It took an hour to install the machine and another hour for the serviceman to show Kohei how to run it. "It can make fifty perfect gyoza a minute!" Bunroku bragged to the dozen school friends who he had invited to witness the unveiling.

When Wang had failed to return by three, I walked down the street to Yamashita park on the bay. Wang was sitting on his favorite bench near the seawall. His arms were stretched out on either side and his right hand held a can of beer. He was gazing at a loaded freighter that was heading away from the tugboats that had eased it into the main channel. Two office girls in short blue skirts and breezy white blouses and lips as red as the masts of the tugboats then chugging back to the quay strolled by, but Wang didn't turn his head.

I sat down on the bench beside him. He looked at me but said nothing as he passed me the half-full can of beer and offered me the last rings of smoked squid from the bag on his lap. I washed the chewy squid down with the beer and picked up the empty cans and bags that had spilled from the bench to the ground.

Wang's eyes were still on the freighter.

"I came to Japan on a bucket like that," he said at length. "It was smaller but just as rusty."

I had heard the story before, but he was so bent on telling it that I sat there and listened to it again, as capitivated as ever.

"I was sixteen years old. The first world war had just ended. I had heard there were jobs in Japan so I went down to Shanghai and got a berth as a galleyboy on a British cargo ship carrying raw cotton to Kobe. I skipped ship in Kobe and became a dishwasher in a third-class whore house. I slept in the store room and kept out of sight of the police who visited the girls each afternoon to collect their graft in kind before the paying trade came, when the girls had just returned from their bath, the fresher to keep the nose of the law from smelling the opium."

He scratched the back of his neck and continued.

"One day a fire broke out in the store room. I took advantage of the chaos to run off with an apprentice geisha whose father had sold her into bondage when she was just nine. Masako was fourteen then. We made our way to Yokohama with some money she had grabbed when the old geisha who ran the house went mad and jumped into the flames.

"In time we got jobs at the same noodle shop near the North Gate. The shop was owned by a widow and she lodged us in the back room. Xiaoping's brothers were born in that room. I got a forged passbook which showed that I had come to Japan from Taiwan, then a Japanese colony, though of course I had come from Kiangsu. Masako and I got married and the twins had a father.

"Three years later the waterfront was flattened by the Great Kanto Earthquake. This park sits on the rubble that was dumped in the bay. The noodle shop was badly damaged. The widow agreed to rent us the land if we built a new place. She let me call it the House of Wang and I started making jiaozi.

"Most eateries in those days were grease pits which served charred jiaozi that you chewed while the roaches ventured out on the table like a pack of hyenas waiting for a lion to abandon a carcass.

"The House of Wang was different. I kneaded the jiaozi jackets myself from the best wheat flour and stuffed them with the freshest meat. Masako kept things clean, and word got around. Business got better even during the depression. The widow sold us the lot and she lived with us until her death shortly before the start of the second world war. Food became scarce as the war got worse, and for the first few years of the occupation we were at the mercy of the black market. Inflation wiped out most of our savings but we had enough by 1954 to take out a loan and build the present restaurant.

"Xiaoping was born in 1948. His mother was a woman we employed during the hardest times after the war. She became my mistress. The twins were killed in the Philippines. I wanted a son. Masako was too old. She understood. She raised Xiaoping when the woman returned to her home in the country and never came back."

Wang still gazed at the place where the freighter had gone out of sight. We sat there in silence for several minutes before he stood up and started walking toward the North Gate. I dropped the garbage in a refuse can and hurried after him.

Soon we were back in Chinatown. As we neared the restaurant he took my arm. Then he smiled and said: "Some morning your Oh Kohei will wake up and realize that his name is Wang Xiaoping."

Wang died that autumn.

One morning he was sitting in the kitchen making gyoza. Kohei was running the machine. The machine made too much noise for them to talk so they worked in silence. Only when Kohei had shut the machine off and started to clean it did he notice that there was no sound from where Wang had been working.

Kohei found him face down on the table. His hands clutched his last gyoza, and it was still there when his coffin went into the oven.

Masako was shattered but supervised the funeral with the devotion of the wife she still was. Kohei put on a mask of strengh that came off on the seventh night of mourning.

Kohei told me to go up to bed. He wanted to read a book, he said. Instead he went into the family room, sat before the altar, and opened a bottle of brandy. I was still awake when he started up the stairs, his footsteps firm like Wang's, I thought, until I heard him stumble and fall on the landing.

I got up, steered him into the room, undressed him, then helped him into his futon. He pulled me into it with him, buried his face between my breasts, and sobbed. When I awoke, the top of my sleeping gown was still damp with his tears. It was the first morning for him to go to the produce market alone.

Later that morning Bunroku came down the stairs and found Kohei sitting at the table making gyoza by hand just like Wang had. The machine stood silent.

Bunroku walked over to the machine and touched its metal shell. Inside were the motors and gears and cams and pins and pulleys and belts that he had helped Kohei clean so often.

He had been the envy of his friends that day the truck had brought the machine. The men had cut the plastic straps around the carton, pulled away the cardboard, removed the plastic wrapper, and exposed the gleaming stainless steel as he and his friends had watched with bated breath.

Bunroku ran into the back room and came out lugging the toolbox.

"I'll fix it, Papa," he said.

Kohei said nothing.

Bunroku took out a wrench and tightened a loose bolt on the shell. He flipped the toggle and the amber lamp on the control panel came on. The small motors whirred. The orange needle was right in the middle of the meter. He yanked the green lever and the conveyor belt moved. Then something in the bowels of the machine began to grind and a red light started to flash. Buroku's mouth and eyes popped open. He panically threw the lever off and glanced toward the table.

Kohei was still making gyoza. Bunroku walked over to his side.

"It's broken, Papa."

Bunroku was quivering.

Kohei just kept making gyoza.

Bunroku watched him make two more.

Suddenly Kohei wiped his hands on the towel in his lap and put them on Bunroku's shoulders. He remained silent for several seconds while searching Bunroku's urgent eyes.

"From now on your name is Wenlu," Kohei said. "And I'm Xiaoping."

Bunroku just nodded.

"But what about the machine?" he asked.

"I'm going to sell it," Kohei said.

Some tears formed in Bunroku's eyes. Kohei took the boy in his arms and squeezed him until the tears rolled down his cheeks. When Bunroku's eyes were dry, Kohei turned back to the table and started making a dumpling. Bunroku watched and Kohei explained each step.

Before Bunroku went to school, Kohei took him to the family room and they put a fresh gyoza on the offering stand in front of Wang's portrait on the altar.

The machine collected dust for months before Kohei found a buyer. By then its shell was blotched with spots of rust that made me think of the liverworts on Wang's face.

Five years have passed. Masako has followed Wang into the great labyrinth. She smiles from the altar as though she has found him. Both of them seem to know everything that happens in the House of Wang.

Now Xiaoping puts two fresh gyoza on the offering stand every morning, except Wednesday, when the restaurant is closed. On Wednesday mornings Xiaoping walks through Chinatown and pays his respects to old and new benefactors and suppliers, just like Wang did. He eats lunch with other members of the Chinatown Merchants Association and comes home late in the afternoon, full of regional spirits and ready for a nap before dinner and an evening of Japanese TV. Just like Wang did.

One Wednesday, though, Xiaoping stayed home to clean out the back room. It had been a kind of museum for Wang, who hated to throw anything away. For Xiaoping it was only a clutter of rusty pots, chipped dishes, soiled aprons, old menus, and other relics of Wang's long life. Xiaoping had left the room untouched since Wang's death, but when he got up that Wednesday, he put on some old clothes and declared that he was going to liberate the closet of its ghosts.

Xiaoping's whistling cut through the din of junk being put into piles to throw out, piles to keep, and piles to trade to the scrapman for some toilet paper.

The first thing to go on the pile to throw out was a portrait of Mao Zedong. It was one of the mementos that Wang had brought back from China from his visit to Changchow a round sixty years after coming to Japan. Xiaoping still poles the flags of both Chinas in front of the restaurant during the New Year's parade, just as Wang had. Nostalgia rather than political zeal had moved Wang to keep the portrait of Mao on the kitchen wall, but Xiaoping had put it in the back room when the kitchen was repainted at the time the machine was sold.

I was coming down the stairs after hanging out some laundry on the roof when I saw Xiaoping sitting on an old cash register in the corner of the closet and flipping through some dusty pamphlets.

"Papa used to read these catalogs and dream of the day he could buy this cast-iron till," he said to me without looking up.

Xiaoping knelt in front of the register, punched in some figures, and turned the crank until the drawer sprang open.

"I remember the day Papa got it," he said. "I brought all my friends by to see it."

Xiaoping pretended to count out some change from the empty drawer before closing it. "The electronic register's not as much fun," he said as he tossed the catalogs on the garbage pile. Then, very gently, he picked up the old register and carried it over to the scrapman's pile.

The whole day went this way. Xiaoping whistled and hummed and sang to himself until he found something from Wang's life that moved him to quiet reflection. The room got emptier and the piles got higher. Some things had a way of changing piles.

At lunchtime the old register was beside the pile to be kept. By mid afternoon it was back on the scrap pile. Come evening when the room had been cleaned and the things to be kept had been returned to the shelves, the register was still on the scrap pile.

The srapman came early the next morning and gave us ten rolls of toilet paper for the dishes, pots, and register. But as the truck was pulling away, Xiaoping chased after it and brought back the register.

Wenlu does not yet understand why Xiaoping sold the gyoza machine. I tell him that Papa just wants to make gyoza the way Grandpa did. But he argues that the machine was faster.

The other afternoon Wenlu came back from school, rushed into his room, and pulled an old magazine out of one of his drawers. I had seen it somewhere before. It was not a magazine but the catalog of kitchen machinery that Xiaoping had called his dreambook. He had thrown it away a few days ago. Wenlu must have salvaged it from the trash. When he showed it to me, his eyes were bright like Xiaoping's had been that day it had come in the mail.

Wenlu likes to look at the catalog. He brings it to me and asks what some of the words mean. He intently listens to my explanations. Then he points to the picture of the gyoza machine. And he tells me that when he gets big, like Papa, he's going to get one just like it.

Wenlu wants to make lots of House of Wang gyoza.

Enough for the whole world, he says.