men got beef jerky and rice gruel to eat. Chen Pan ate, although the taste
of the food sickened him. It was oversalted, and the lack of adequate
water made him desperately thirsty. Hour after hour, he thought more of
his shoe-leather throat than of the life awaiting him in Cuba. Those who
demanded more water were answered with blows. Chen Pan watched men drink
their own urine, lick moisture from the walls of the ship. A few swallowed
seawater until their stomachs swelled and they choked in their own filth.
A squat melon-grower from T-- announced that he would throw himself into
the ocean to end his torment. Chen Pan crept on deck with two others to
watch him jump. The melon-grower didn't shout or linger but simply stepped
into the breeze. A moment later, the furling waves received him with indifference.
The melon-grower had been an orphan and a bachelor. No destiny would be
altered but his.
The ship continued to plow south into the hard-gusting wind. Chen Pan
covered his ears so they wouldn't blow away altogether. He asked himself
four questions: What was the last sound the melon-grower heard? The last
color he saw before he died? How long would it take for the fish to devour
him? Would this death complete his fate? "Show me the person who doesn't
die," shrugged a short-legged man next to Chen Pan.
This was something Chen Pan's father used to say, that death alone remained
impartial. All the towering men, all the great beauties with kingfisher
plumes in their hair-not a single one expected to grow old. But they,
too, would return to dust. If it was true that man had two souls, one
of the body and the other ethereal, then they would merge with the earth
and the air after death.
Chen Pan knew that he didn't want to fade away slowly, like a dying candle-one
day no different from the next; the dirt etched in his hands along with
his fortunes. No, he would rather live in a blaze of courage and flame
like Li Kuang, the ferocious warrior who'd battled the Huns, or the heroes
in the stories his father had recounted to him.
Chen Pan's father had been as restless as these heroes, never reconciling
himself to a life on their farm. He'd recited the Songs of Wu as he'd
absentmindedly hoed the wheat fields, grew devoted to the poetry of the
deserted concubines of the Han court. He'd referred to the sun as the
Lantern Dragon, the Crow in Flight, the White Colt. The moon was the Silver
Dish or the Golden Ring.
Father had taken the Imperial examinations for twenty years without success.
He'd been a good poet but incapable of composing verses on assigned subjects,
as was required by the examiners. He'd blamed his absorption of useless
knowledge for overburdening his imagination. Before picking up his brush
to write, he would rub his inkstick on a whetstone for a meditative hour
as Chen Pan watched.
Chen Pan's mother ridiculed her husband as she hobbled from room to room
on her lotus feet. "Ha! Everyone calls him a scholar, but he hasn't found
a position yet. And in winter he wears a thread-bare robe. This is how
books fool us!" Chen Pan's mother was from a family of well-to-do farmers,
and far from beautiful. She knew little poetry, but used to repeat the
same line to nettle her improvident husband: Poets mostly starve to death
embracing empty mountains!
After ten days of cramped, stinking squalor, a fight erupted belowdecks.
A city man named Yang Yün, contrary as a donkey, shoved a quiet farmer
out of his bunk. "Son of a whore!" the farmer shouted, punching Yang Yün
in the chest. The city man pulled a knife from his vest and silvered the
air with reckless slashing. The farmer disarmed him in no time, then promptly
broke his nose.
Chen Pan watched the fight from behind his tattered book of poems, a last
gift from his father. He decided that if Yang Yün or any of the other
city cocks so much as jostled his elbow, he would knock them unconscious
with a blow.
The captain's guards chained the troublemakers to iron posts. Others who'd
cheered them on were flogged to intimidate the rest. When the stubborn
Lin Chin resisted, the guards kicked him in the ribs until he spat blood.
The next day he died and his body was dumped in the sea. It was said that
Lin Chin didn't sink at first but floated alongside the ship for hours,
his eyes fixed on the sky. Chen Pan wondered if the dead man's ghost would
find its way back to China. Or would it wander forever among the unvirtuous
and the depraved?
As the ship continued to sail, Chen Pan imagined his wife pounding the
season's meager yield of grain in their yard, looking warily to the sky
for rain. They'd been married for three years but had no children. Unlucky,
despite what the matchmaker had predicted. On their wedding night, Chen
Pan and his wife had drunk pomegranate wine and she'd grazed his chest
with her soft, scant breasts. But month after month her womb spilled its
Chen Pan's mother blamed his wife for ruining the family with her persistent
barrenness. Weak and sallow-skinned, Mother ruled the farm from her bed,
knees tucked to her chest, lotus feet curled and useless from the painful
binding long ago. In her closet were three minuscule pairs of jeweled
slippers, all that remained of a dowry once rich with silks and brocades.
She also chastised Chen Pan's younger brother for spending his days writing
with his one brush and inkpot. "Even from the grave, your father has cursed
you with his useless ways!" In winter, their house grew so cold that his
small supply of ink froze.
On board, the recruits began to suffer every manner of illness. Cholera.
Typhus. Dysentery. Bad luck, Chen Pan decided, had settled into every
crevice of the ship. Nine men died the first month, not counting those
killed in fights or beaten to death by the crew. Many more might have
perished but for Chien Shih-kuang, sorcerer of herbs and roots. With his
felt bag of magic, the wry herbalist from Z-- brewed teas to mend every
imbalance, quieting fiery livers, warming cold organs, restoring the temperamental
The captain had promised Chien Shih-kuang payment of passage back to Amoy
in return for his services on board. The herbalist had agreed because
he'd heard that in Cuba men knew the secret to halting the winter retreat
of the sun. He, too, wished to learn this secret.
One night Chen Pan dreamed that bandits had set fire to his great-aunt's
farm and that he alone was battling the flames. He woke up delirious,
his skin hot and itchy. Chien Shih-kuang plastered a five-pointed leaf
on Chen Pan's forehead with a few drops of a caustic liquid. When his
fever broke, Chen Pan tried to pay the doctor with one of his precious
Mexican coins, but Chien Shih-kuang refused it. (Years later, Chen Pan
would learn that the herbalist had married a Spanish heiress in Avila
and generously cured the poor.)
But not even Chien Shih-kuang could save the poor suicides. Chen Pan counted
six altogether. After the melon-grower, another man jumped into the sea.
One more poisoned himself with stolen opium. A boy, no older than fifteen,
passed his days and nights in tears. He confided to Chen Pan that he was
in great grief over having been decoyed on board. "I'm the only child
of my parents!" he cried before thrusting a sharpened chopstick into his
ear. In this way he stopped his regretting.
A native of K-- hanged himself with strips of torn clothing deep in the
ship's hull. (The guards had beaten him savagely for siphoning rainwater
from their private barrels.) Chen Pan thought his swaying sounded like
the slow tearing of silk. With the winds stiff and the sea wide all around,
he asked himself why someone would choose to die so confined and without
air. Chen Pan wasn't certain what made a man ultimately want to live.
He only knew that he would survive unless somebody managed to kill him.
The night the Wong brothers died, a squall engulfed the sea. The ship
creaked and groaned like a sick man. The storm ripped off a mast and tossed
two officers overboard. The men feared that the brothers' ghosts had cursed
the ship, that they were causing the thunder and lightning, the wind from
eight directions, the waves as high as the Buddha's temples. But by morning
the sea was calm.
At noon, a pair of whales was spotted off the Cape of Good Hope. Chen
Pan clambered to the deck to see the breaching beasts. "Maybe we should
kill them and get some fresh meat," the lazy-eyed Wu Yao suggested. Chen
Pan looked at him incredulously. It was obvious that this city boy had
never caught so much as a pond carp.
The rumors spread with every day at sea. A bankrupt tailor pieced most
of the gossip together, all the while quoting ancient sayings. Caged birds
miss their home forest. Pooled fish long for the deep. Chen Pan listened
closely to the tailor, but he didn't circulate the man's tidings: that
their ship was headed for the Philippines; that every last man on board
would be killed there, heart scooped from his chest; that they'd be sold
to cannibals who savored yellow flesh.
There was talk of mutiny. Should they behead the captain and crew? Set
fire to the vessel? Reverse their course to China? Chen Pan knew there
were men on board fit for murder, experienced warriors who'd fought the
British barbarians. Arrow-scarred, they'd been dragged from their prison
cells to the ship. But the ones who talked loudest were most filled with
Chen Pan grew increasingly regretful. Had he deceived himself with his
own grand dreams? How could he go home poorer than when he'd left? (Already,
he imagined his mother's rebukes.) He tried to concentrate on his return
to China a few years hence. A procession of men would follow him, triumphant
in his sedan chair, carrying a hundred chests of princely gifts on their
shoulders. Enough silk for three generations. New harnesses for the village
horses. Countless jars of turtle eggs pickled in foreign wines. The villagers
would gather around him, paying him the respect in life that his father
had achieved only in death.
Because the days were long and the men so constricted, they entertained
each other with stories about the tallest men who ever lived. Chung Lu-yüan,
who was fond of lantern riddles, reported of a man who, sitting down,
was as big as a mountain and could dam the course of a river with his
ass. Hsieh Shuang-chi, a stevedore who was tricked on board by his greedy
brother-in-law, told of a giant who drank a thousand gallons of celestial
dew for his breakfast.
Chen Pan retold the jokes he'd learned from his beloved great-aunt. His
favorite was the one about the evil warlord who'd had the length of his
penis extended with a baby elephant's trunk. Everything went well for
the warlord, Chen Pan said, until the day he passed a peanut vendor in
There was also a dwarf on board who could imitate perfectly the sounds
of a cassia-wood harp. His name was Yang Shi-fêng, and he sang of his
land, where the tallest men grew to no more than three feet. In former
times, he said, his countrymen had been sent as jesters and slaves to
the Imperial Court. Then Yang Cheng came to govern the land of the dwarves
and convinced the Emperor to annul his cruel trade. To this day every
male born in T-- has Yang in his name.
Others recounted the tale of the impudent Monkey King. Entrusted with
the job of guarding the Im- mortals' heavenly peaches, the Monkey King
heartily partook of them instead. One transgression followed another,
but none of the Jade Emperor's emissaries could catch the fearless simian.
Finally, the Buddha himself cast a powerful spell that sealed the monkey
under a mountain for five hundred years.
On a nearby bunk, a pig breeder from N-- reminded Chen Pan of his father.
His hair fluttered with unruly tufts, no matter that the air was perfectly
still. The pig breeder shared the last of his wife's pickled cabbage with
Chen Pan. The taste made them both terribly homesick. Chen Pan recalled
the long summer afternoons his father had read poems to him, their plows
left untouched in the shed. Before long the cicadas would sing, signaling
the onset of autumn.
These lovely seasons and fragrant years falling
Lonely away-we share such emptiness here
When Chen Pan was thirteen, bandits had murdered his father for protesting
the rape of the water-carrier's daughter. She was only ten, pretty and
dull, and willingly had shown the bandits inside her neighbor's granary.
Father's legend swelled and the villagers recounted his heroism, but Mother
disputed their accolades. "What father leaves his children noth- ing but
his good reputation to eat?" She scolded her sons to learn this lesson:
"Avert your eyes to the sorrows of others and keep your own plates full!"
After three months at sea, Chen Pan's arms and legs grew soft and white
as the flesh of the rich women he'd glimpsed in Amoy. Often he fantasized
about these women, inhaled the scent of their lacquered hair, slowly dared
to love them. He recalled the tales of the women of the old Imperial Court,
who were protected by the Emperor's purple-robed eunuchs. Alluring women
swathed in furs and jade, their gauze-silk sleeves blooming like orchids.
Delicate women who drank only camel-pad broth and nibbled on rare winter
fruit to maintain their complexions. Women best admired from afar, like
the mountain mist.
Sometimes the men spoke wistfully of the road- side flowers who awaited
them in Cuba, easy amber-colored whores who opened their legs for their
own pleasure, expecting nothing in return. For all that it had cost him,
Chen Pan couldn't remember his one night with the dancing girl in Amoy.
There were only the memories of his mournful wife.
The ship passed through the Straits of Sunda without incident, then followed
the verdant curve of Africa before veering west across the Atlantic. In
St. Helena they stopped for fresh water, continuing on to Ascension, Cayenne,
the Barbadian coast, and Trinidad. Chen Pan heard the crew announcing
each port of call, but the longer he remained on board, the farther away
Cuba seemed. Could his eight years of servitude have elapsed already?
When the ship finally reached Regla, across the bay from Havana, Chen
Pan climbed to the top deck to get a better view. It was a hot, sunny
morning, and the city looked like a fancy seashell in the distance, smooth
pink and white. A brisk wind stirred the fronds of the palms. The water
shone so blue it hurt his eyes to stare at it. When Chen Pan tried to
stand on the dock, his legs slid out from under him. Others fell, too.
Together, he and his shipmates looked like a spilled barrel of crabs.
The men were ordered to peel off their filthy rags and were given fresh
clothes to present themselves to the Cubans. But there was no mistaking
their wretchedness: bones jutted from their cheeks; sores cankered their
flesh. Not even a strict regimen of foxglove could have improved their
appearance. The recruits were rounded up in groups of sixty-wood haulers
and barbers, shoemakers, fishermen, farmers- then parceled out in smaller
groups to the waiting landowners.
A dozen Cubans on horseback, armed with whips, led the men like a herd
of cattle to the barracón to be sold. Inside, Chen Pan was forced to strip
and be examined for strength, like horses or oxen that were for sale in
the country districts of China. Chen Pan burned red with shame, but he
didn't complain. Here he could no longer rely on the known ways. Who was
he now without his country?
One hundred fifty pesos was the going rate for a healthy chino. A Spanish
landowner paid two hundred for him, probably on account of his height.
His father had taught him that if you knew the name of a demon, it had
no power to harm you. Quickly, Chen Pan asked one of the riders for the
name of his buyer. Don Urbano Bruzón de Peñalves. How would he ever remember
Several landowners tried to cut off the queues of their hires. Those who
protested were beaten. Chen Pan was relieved that his employer didn't
insist upon this. Now there was no question of his purpose in Cuba. He
was there to cut sugarcane. All of them were. Chinos. Asiáticos. Culís.
Later, there would be other jobs working on the railroads or in the copper
mines of El Cobre, five hundred miles away. But for now what the Cubans
wanted most were strong backs for their fields.
Excerpted from Monkey Hunting by Cristina Garcia
Copyright© 2003 by Cristina Garcia. Excerpted by permission of Knopf,
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 new novelher
first in six yearsfrom the acclaimed author of Dreaming in Cuban
and The Agüero Sisters follows one family from China to Cuba
to America in an emotionally resonant tale of immigration, assimilation,
and the powerful integrity of self.
when Chen Pan signs a contract that will take him from China beyond
the edge of the world to Cuba, he has no idea that he will be enslaved
on a sugarcane plantation . . . or that he will eventually, miraculously,
escape his bonds and embark on a prosperous life in Havanas Chinatown
. . . or that he will buy a mulatto woman out of slavery and take her
into his home and heart . . . or that he will end his long days in Havana,
surrounded by children and grandchildren, as Cuban as he is Chinese.
In a vivid
tapestry of incident and feeling, Chen Pans life story is interwoven
with those of two of his descendants: his granddaughter, Chen Fang, born
in China and raised as a boy so she could be educated, her life coming
to its end in one of Maos hellish prisons, and Domingo, Chen Pans
great-great-grandson, who, with his father, becomes an American citizen
after Castros revolution, only to lose his parent to the false promises
of the American dream, and himself, finally, to the madness of wartime
wonderfully evocative of time and place, rendered in the lyrical prose
that is Cristina Garcías hallmark, Monkey Hunting
brilliantly illuminates a generations-long struggle toward a sense of
was born in Havana and grew up in New York City. Her first novel, Dreaming
in Cuban, was nominated for a National Book Award and has been widely
translated. Ms. García has been a Guggenheim Fellow, a Hodder Fellow
at Princeton University, and the recipient of a Whiting Writers
Award. She lives in Santa Monica with her daughter, Pilar.