In Wing-Wa Village, Moon Chin grew up with his mother, sister, and brother behind the dingy, sun-seared, windowless exterior walls of a single-story, mud-brick house slowly crumbling back into the earth from which it had been raised. Crunchy lichens sprouted from the roof tiles. The interior was much more cheery, built around a large cistern in an open courtyard, and aunts and cousins inhabited adjacent houses. A few elderly men lazed about the village, whiling away their retirements, but the village was almost entirely devoid of adult, working-age men. For several generations, “old” and “new” Wing-Wa villages had subsisted largely on money sent home by men who worked in Hong Kong, Macau, Canton, or the United States.
The clayey soil around the village wasn’t particularly fertile. Families raised vegetables in small, carefully cultivated plots worked by women and children wearing conical sun hats of woven bamboo, and they manufactured their growing soil by mixing sand and “night soil” fertilizer – human excrement they assiduously refused to let go to waste. A low mud brick wall surrounded the village, built more to pen in pigs and chickens than it was to keep bandits or wild animals at bay, and a small tree- and weed- covered hillock rose behind the hamlet. It was a thoroughly unremarkable place.
Moon Chin started school at age nine, attending class in a one-room building. He studied Chinese characters and began learning to read, but halfway through the year, Moon’s mother received a letter from her husband that changed Moon’s landscape entirely. Penned by a Chinese scribe in America since Joe Chin could neither read nor write, and read aloud by one in China since Moon’s mother was similarly illiterate, the letter announced that Joe Chin would come home in the spring of 1923, and that Moon Chin would return with him to the United States the following year.
Day after day, Moon Chin asked when Father would arrive. Mother had no idea. She only knew he was coming, the letter hadn’t said when. Moon Chin wondered what his father would be like, and what it would be like to cross an ocean. Time stretched into weeks, then months, but one day Moon Chin’s father was home, a grown man leaving large footfalls on the tile floors and basking in the glory of being home from Gum Shan, the Gold Mountain. Moon spent the next year pleading for stories about the strange land peopled with red-haired foreign barbarians. His father waxed on and on about the economic opportunities he’d discovered in a place called Baltimore.