DRAGONíS FIN SOUP PAGE
This is a story I wrote several years ago for the ULTIMATE DRAGON anthology.
The story was eventually nominated for the WORLD FANTASY AWARD, much to
my gratification. It is the opening tale in my new short story collection,
DRAGONíS FIN SOUP, which was just published by BABBAGE
YOU CAN ORDER THE BOOK BY CLICKING ON THE IMAGE ABOVE
Dragonís Fin Soup
by S.P. Somtow
At the heart of Bangkok's Chinatown, in the district known as Yaowaraj,
there is a restaurant called the Rainbow Cafe which, every Wednesday,
features a blue plate special they call dragon's fin soup. Though little
known through most of its hundred-year existence, the cafe enjoyed a
brief flirtation with fame during the early 1990s because of an article in
the Bangkok Post extolling the virtues of the specialite de la maison. The
article was written by the enigmatic Ueng-Ang Thalay, whose true
identity few had ever guessed. It was only I and a few close friends who
knew that Ueng-Ang was actually a Chestertonian American named Bob
Halliday, ex-concert pianist and Washington Post book critic, who had fled
the mundane madness of the western world for the more fantastical,
cutting-edge madness of the Orient. It was only in Bangkok, the bastard
daughter of feudalism and futurism, that Bob had finally been able to be
himself, though what himself was, he alone seemed to know.
But we were speaking of the dragon's fin soup.
Perhaps I should quote the relevant section of Ueng-Ang's article:
Succulent! Aromatic! Subtle! Profound! Transcendental! These are but a
few of the adjectives your skeptical food columnist has been hearing from
the clients of the Rainbow Cafe in Yaowaraj as they rhapsodize about the
mysterious dish known as Dragon's Fin Soup, served only on Wednesdays.
Last Wednesday your humble columnist was forced to try it out. The
restaurant is exceedingly hard to find, being on the third floor of the only
building still extant from before the Chinatown riots of 1945. There is no
sign, either in English or Thai, and as I cannot read Chinese, I cannot say
whether there is one in that language either. On Wednesday afternoons,
however, there are a large number of official-looking Mercedes and BMWs
double-parked all the way down the narrow soi, and dozens of uniformed
chauffeurs leaning warily against their cars; so, unable to figure out the
restaurant's location from the hastily scrawled fax I had received from a
friend of mine who works at the Ministry of Education, I decided to follow
the luxury cars ... and my nose ... instead. The alley became narrower and
shabbier. Then, all of a sudden, I turned a corner, and found myself joining
a line of people, all dressed to the teeth, snaking single-file up the
rickety wooden steps into the small, unairconditioned, and decidedly
unassuming restaurant. It was a kind of time-travel. This was not the
Bangkok we all know, the Bangkok of insane traffic jams, of smsrgåsbord
sexuality, of iridescent skyscrapers and stagnant canals. The people in
line all waited patiently; when I was finally ushered inside, I found the
restaurant to be as quiet and as numinous as a Buddhist temple. Old men
with floor-length beards played mah jongg; a woman in a cheongsam
directed me to a table beneath the solitary ceiling fan; the menu contained
not a word of Thai or English. Nevertheless, without my having to ask, a
steaming bowl of the notorious soup was soon served to me, along with a
cup of piping-hot chrysanthemum tea.
At first I was conscious only of the dish's bitterness, and I wondered
whether its fame was a hoax or I, as the only palefaced rube in the room,
was actually being proffered a bowl full of microwaved Robitussin. Then,
suddenly, it seemed to me that the bitterness of the soup was a kind of
veil or filter through which its true taste, too overwhelming to be
perceived directly, might be enjoyed ... rather as the dark glasses one must
wear in order to gaze directly at the sun. But as for the taste itself, it
cannot truly be described at all. At first I thought it must be a variant of
the familiar shark's fin, perhaps marinated in some geriatric wine. But it
also seemed to partake somewhat of the subtle tang of bird's nest soup,
which draws its flavor from the coagulated saliva of cave-dwelling
swallows. I also felt a kind of coldness in my joints and extremities, the
tingling sensation familiar to those who have tasted fugu, the elusive and
expensive Japanese puffer fish, which, improperly prepared, causes
paralysis and death within minutes. The dish tasted like all these things
and none of them, and I found, for the first time in my life, my jaundiced
tongue confounded and bewildered. I asked the beautiful longhaired
waitress in the cheongsam whether she could answer a few questions
about the dish; she said, "Certainly, as long as I don't have to divulge any
of the ingredients, for they are an ancient family secret." She spoke an
antique and grammatically quaint sort of Thai, as though she had never
watched television, listened to pop songs, or hung out in the myriad coffee
shops of the city. She saw my surprise and went on in English, "It's not my
first language, you see; I'm a lot more comfortable in English."
"Berkeley?" I asked her, suspecting a hint of Northern California in her
She smiled broadly then, and said, "Santa Cruz, actually. It's a relief to
meet another American around here; they don't let me out much since I
came home from college."
"Well, I'm a dual national. But my great-grandparents were forty-niners.
Gold rush chinks. My name's Janice Lim. Or Lam or Lin, take your pick."
"Tell me then," I inquired, "since you can't tell me what's in the soup ...
why is it that you only serve it on Wednesdays?"
"Wednesday, in Thai, is Wan Phutth ... the day of Buddha. My parents feel
that dragon's flesh should only be served on that day of the week that is
sacred to the Lord Buddha, when we can reflect on the transitory nature of
At this point it should be pointed out that I, your narrator, am the woman
with the long hair and the cheongsam, and that Bob Halliday has, in his
article, somewhat exaggerated my personal charms. I shall not exaggerate
his. Bob is a large man; his girth has earned him the sobriquet of
"Elephant" among his Thai friends. He is an intellectual; he speaks such
languages as Hungarian and Cambodian as well as he does Thai, and he
listens to Lulu and Wozzeck before breakfast. For relaxation, he curls up
with Umberto Eco, and I don't mean Eco's novels, I mean his academic
papers on semiotics. Bob is a rabid agoraphobe, and flees as soon as there
are more than about ten people at a party. His friends speculate endlessly
about his sex life, but in fact he seems to have none at all.
Because he was the only American to have found his way to the Rainbow
Cafe since I returned to Thailand from California, and because he seemed
to my father (my mother having passed away in childbirth) to be somehow
unthreatening, I found myself spending a great deal of time with him when
I wasn't working at the restaurant. My aunt Ling-ling, who doesn't speak a
word of Thai or English, was the official chaperone; if we went for a quiet
cup of coffee at the Regent, for example, she was to be found a couple of
tables away, sipping a glass of chrysanthemum tea.
It was Bob who taught me what kind of a place Bangkok really was. You
see, I had lived until the age of eighteen without ever setting foot outside
our family compound. I had had a tutor to help me with my English. We
had one hour of television a day, the news; that was how I had learned
Thai. My father was obsessed with our family's purity; he never used our
dearly bought, royally granted Thai surname of
Suntharapornsunthornpanich, but insisted on signing all documents Sae
Lim, as though the Great Integration of the Chinese had never occurred and
our people were still a nation within a nation, still loyal to the vast and
distant Middle Kingdom. My brave new world had been California, and it
remained for Bob to show me that an even braver one had lain at my
doorstep all my life.
Bangkoks within Bangkoks. Yes, that charmingly hackneyed metaphor of
the Chinese boxes comes to mind. Quiet palaces with pavilions that
overlooked reflecting ponds. Galleries hung with postmodern art.
Japanese-style coffee houses with melon-flavored ice cream floats and
individual shrimp pizzas. Grungy noodle stands beneath flimsy awnings
over open sewers; stratospherically upscale French patisseries and Italian
gelaterias. Bob knew where they all were, and he was willing to share all
his secrets, even though Aunt Ling-ling was always along for the ride.
After a time, it seemed to me that perhaps it was my turn to reveal some
secret, and so one Sunday afternoon, in one of the coffee lounges
overlooking the atrium of the Sogo shopping mall, I decided to tell him the
biggest of all secrets. "Do you really want to know," I said, "why we only
serve the dragon fin soup on Wednesdays?"
"Yes," he said, "and I promise I won't print it."
"Well you see," I said, "it takes about a week for the tissue to regenerate."
That was about as much as I could safely say without spilling the whole
can of soup. The dragon had been in our family since the late Ming
Dynasty, when a multi-multi-great-uncle of mine, a eunuch who was the
Emperor's trade representative between Peking and the Siamese Kingdom
of Ayuthaya, had tricked him into following his junk all the way down the
Chao Phraya River, had imprisoned him beneath the canals of the little
village that was later to become Bangkok, City of Angels, Dwelling Place
of Vishnu, Residence of the Nine Jewels, and so on so forth (read the
Guiness Book of Records to obtain the full name of the city) known
affectionately to its residents as City of Angels Etc. This was because
the dragon had revealed to my multi-great-uncle that the seemingly
invincible Kingdom of Ayuthaya would one day be sacked by the King of
Pegu and that the capital of Siam would be moved down to this
unpretentious village in the Chao Phraya delta. The dragon had told him
this because, as everyone knows, a mortally wounded dragon, when
properly constrained, is obliged to answer three questions truthfully.
Multi-great-uncle wasted his other questions on trying to find out
whether he would ever regain his manhood and be able to experience an
orgasm; the dragon had merely laughed at this, and his laughter had caused
a minor earthquake which destroyed the summer palace of Lord
Kuykendaal, a Dutchman who had married into the lowest echelon of the
Siamese aristocracy, which earthquake in turn precipitated the Opium War
of 1677, which, as it is not in the history books, remains alive only in our
Our family tradition also states that each member of the family may only
tell one outsider about the dragon's existence. If he chooses the right
outsider, he will have a happy life; if he chooses unwisely, and the
outsider turns out to be untrustworthy, then misfortune will dog both the
revealer and his confidant.
I wasn't completely sure about Bob yet, and I didn't want to blow my one
opportunity. But that evening, as I supervised the ritual slicing of the
dragon's fin, my father dropped a bombshell.
The dragon could not, of course, be seen all in one piece. There was, in the
kitchen of the Rainbow Cafe, a hole in one wall, about nine feet in
diameter. One coil of the dragon came through this wall and curved
upward toward a similar opening in the ceiling. I did not know where the
dragon ended or began. One assumed this was a tail section because it
was so narrow. I had seen a dragon whole only in my dreams, or in
pictures. Rumor had it that this dragon stretched all the way to
Nonthaburi, his slender body twisting through ancient sewer pipes and
under the foundations of century-old buildings. He was bound to my family
by an ancient spell in a scroll that sat on the altar of the household gods,
just above the cash register inside the restaurant proper. He was
unimaginably old and unimaginably jaded, stunned rigid by three thousands
years of human magic, his scales so lusterless that I had to buff them
with furniture polish to give them some semblance of draconian majesty.
He was, of course, still mortally wounded from the battle he had endured
with multi-great-uncle; nevertheless, it takes them a long, long time to
die, especially when held captive by a scroll such as the one we possessed.
You could tell the dragon was still alive, though. Once in a very long
while, he breathed. Or rather, a kind of rippling welled up him, and you
could hear a distant wheeze, like an old house settling on its foundations.
And of course, he regenerated. If it wasn't for that, the restaurant would
never have stayed in business all these years.
The fin we harvested was a ventral fin and hung down over the main
charcoal stove of the restaurant kitchen. It took some slicing to get it
off. We had a new chef, Ah Quoc, just up from Penang, and he was having a
lot of trouble. "You'd better heat up the carving knife some more," I was
telling him. "Make sure it's red hot."
He stuck the knife back in the embers. Today, the dragon was remarkably
sluggish; I had not detected a breath in hours; and the flesh was hard as
stone. I wondered whether the event our family dreaded most, the
dragon's death, was finally going to come upon us.
"Muoi, muoi," he said, "the flesh just won't give."
"Don't call me muoi," I said. "I'm not your little sister, I'm the boss's
daughter. In fact, don't speak Chiuchow at all. English is a lot simpler."
"Okey-doke, Miss Janice. But Chinese or English, meat just no slice, la."
He was hacking away at the fin. The flesh was stony, recalcitrant. I
didn't want to use the spell of binding, but I had to. I ran into the
restaurant -- it was closed and there were only a few old men playing mah
jongg -- grabbed the scroll from the altar, stormed back into the kitchen
and tapped the scaly skin, whispering the word of power that only
members of our family can speak. I felt a shudder deep within the
dragon's bowels. I put my ear up to the clammy hide. I thought I could
hear, from infinitely far away, the hollow clanging of the dragon's heart,
the glacial oozing of his blood through kilometer after kilometer of leaden
veins and arteries. "Run, blood, run," I shouted, and I started whipping him
with the brittle paper.
Aunt Ling-ling came scurrying in at that moment, a tiny creature in a
widow's dress, shouting, "You'll rip the scroll, don't hit so hard!"
But then, indeed, the blood began to roar. "Now you can slice him," I said
to Ah Quoc. "Quickly. It has to soak in the marinade for at least twenty-
four hours, and we're running late as it is."
"Okay! Knife hot enough now, la." Ah Quoc slashed through the whole fin in
a single motion, like an imperial headsman. I could see now why my father
had hired him to replace Ah Chen, who had become distracted, gone native
-- even gone so far as to march in the 1992 democracy riots -- as if the
politics of the Thais were any of our business.
Aunt Ling-ling had the vat of marinade all ready. Ah Quoc sliced quickly
and methodically, tossing the pieces of dragon's fin into the bubbling
liquid. With shark's fin, you have to soak it in water for a long time to
soften it up for eating. Bob Halliday had speculated about the nature of
the marinade. He was right about the garlic and the chilies, but it would
perhaps have been unwise to tell him about the sulphuric acid.
It was at that point that my father came in. "The scroll, the scroll," he
said distractedly. Then he saw it and snatched it from me.
"We're safe for another week," I said, following him out of the kitchen into
the restaurant. Another of my aunts, the emaciated Jasmine, was counting
a pile of money, doing calculations with an abacus and making entries into
a leatherbound ledger.
My father put the scroll back. Then he looked directly into my eyes --
something he had done only once or twice in my adult life -- and,
scratching his beard, said, "I've found you a husband."
That was the bombshell.
I didn't feel it was my place to respond right away... in fact, I was so
flustered by his announcement that I had absolutely nothing to say. In a
way, I had been expecting it, of course, but for some reason ... perhaps it
was because of my time at Santa Cruz ... it just hadn't occurred to me that
my father would be so ... so ... old-fashioned about it. I mean, my God, it
was like being stuck in an Amy Tan novel or something.
That's how I ended up in Bob Halliday's office at the Bangkok Post, sobbing
my guts out without any regard for propriety or good manners. Bob, who is
a natural empath, allowed me to yammer on and on; he sent a boy down to
the market to fetch some steaming noodles wrapped in banana leaves and
iced coffee in little PVC bags. I daresay I didn't make too much sense. "My
father's living in the nineteenth century ... or worse," I said. "He should
never have let me set foot outside the house ... outside the restaurant. I
mean, Santa Cruz, for God's sake! Wait till I tell him I'm not even a virgin
anymore. The price is going to plummet, he's going to take a bath on
whatever deal it is he's drawn up. I'm so mad at him. And even though he
did send me to America, he never let me so much as set foot in the Silom
Complex, two miles from our house, without a chaperone. I've never had a
life! Or rather, I've had two half-lives -- half American coed, half Chinese
dragon lady -- I'm like two half-people that don't make a whole. And this
is Thailand, it's not America and it's not China. It's the most alien
landscape of them all."
Later, because I didn't want to go home to face the grisly details of my
impending marriage contract, I rode back to Bob's apartment with him in a
tuk-tuk. The motorized rickshaw darted skillfully through jammed
streets and minuscule alleys and once again -- as so often with Bob -- I
found myself in an area of Bangkok I had never seen before, a district
overgrown with weeds and wild banana trees; the soi came to an abrupt
end and there was a lone elephant, swaying back and forth, being hosed
down by a country boy wearing nothing but a phakhomah. "You must be
used to slumming by now," Bob said, "with all the places I've taken you."
In his apartment, a grizzled cook served up a screamingly piquant kaeng
khieu waan, and I must confess that though I usually can't stand Thai food,
the heat of this sweet green curry blew me away. We listened to Wagner.
Bob has the most amazing collection of CDs known to man. He has twelve
recordings of The Magic Flute, but only three of Wagner's Ring cycle --
three more than most people I know. "Just listen to that!" he said. I'm not
a big fan of opera, but the kind of singing that issued from Bob's stereo
sounded hauntingly familiar ... it had the hollow echo of a sound I'd heard
that very afternoon, the low and distant pounding of the dragon's heart.
"What is it?" I said.
"Oh, it's the scene where Siegfried slays the dragon," Bob said. "You know,
this is the Solti recording, where the dragon's voice is electronically
enhanced. I'm not sure I like it."
It sent chills down my spine.
"Funny story," Bob said. "For the original production, you know, in the
1860s ... they had a special dragon built ... in England ... in little segments.
They were supposed to ship the sections to Bayreuth for the premi*re, but
the neck was accidentally sent to Beirut instead. That dragon never did
have a neck. Imagine those people in Beirut when they opened that crate!
What do you do with a disembodied segment of dragon anyway?"
"I could think of a few uses," I said.
"It sets me to thinking about dragon's fin soup."
"No can divulge, la," I said, laughing, in my best Singapore English.
The dragon gave out a roar and fell, mortally wounded, in a spectacular
orchestral climax. He crashed to the floor of the primeval forest. I had
seen this scene once in the Fritz Lang silent film Siegfried, which we'd
watched in our History of Cinema class at Santa Cruz. After the crash
there came more singing.
"This is the fun part, now," Bob told me. "If you approach a dying dragon, it
has to answer your questions ... three questions usually ... and it has to
answer them truthfully."
"Even if he's been dying for a thousand years?" I said.
"Never thought of that, Janice," said Bob. "You think the dragon's
truthseeing abilities might become a little clouded?"
Despite my long and tearful outpouring in his office, Bob had not once
mentioned the subject of my Damoclean doom. Perhaps he was about to
raise it now; there was one of those long pregnant pauses that tend to
portend portentousness. I wanted to put it off a little longer, so I asked
him, "If you had access to a dragon ... and the dragon were dying, and you
came upon him in just the right circumstances ... what would you ask
Bob laughed. "So many questions ... so much I want to know ... so many
arcane truths that the cosmos hangs on! ... I think I'd have a lot to ask.
Why? You have a dragon for me?"
I didn't get back to Yaowaraj until very late that night. I had hoped that
everyone would have gone to bed, but when I reached the restaurant (the
family compound itself is reached through a back stairwell beyond the
kitchen) I found my father still awake, sitting at the carving table, and
Aunt Ling-ling and Aunt Jasmine stirring the vat of softening dragon's fin.
The sulphuric acid had now been emptied and replaced with a pungent brew
of vinegar, ginseng, garlic, soy sauce, and the ejaculate of a young boy,
obtainable in Patpong for about one hundred baht. The whole place stank,
but I knew that it would whittle down to the subtlest, sweetest,
bitterest, most nostalgic of aromas.
My father said to me, "Perhaps you're upset with me, Janice; I know it was
a little sudden."
"Sudden!" I said. "Give me a break, Papa, this was more than sudden. You're
so old-fashioned suddenly ... and you're not even that old. Marrying me off
like you're cashing in your blue chip stocks or something."
"There's a world-wide recession, in case you haven't noticed. We need an
infusion of cash. I don't know how much longer the dragon will hold out.
Look, this contract...." He pushed it across the table. It was in Chinese, of
course, and full of flowery and legalistic terms. "He's not the youngest I
could have found, but his blood runs pure; he's from the village." The
village being, of course, the village of my ancestors, on whose soil my
family has not set foot in seven hundred years.
"What do you mean, not the youngest, Papa?"
"To be honest, he's somewhat elderly. But that's for the best, isn't it? I
mean, he'll soon be past, as it were, the age of lovemaking ..."
"Papa, I'm not a virgin."
"Oh, not to worry, dear; I had a feeling something like that might happen
over there in Californ' ... we'll send you to Tokyo for the operation. Their
hymen implants are as good as new, I'm told."
My hymen was not the problem. This was probably not the time to tell my
father that the deflowerer of my maidenhead had been a young, fast-
talking, vigorous, muscular specimen of corn-fed Americana by the name
of Linda Horovitz.
"You don't seem very excited, my dear."
"Well, what do you expect me to say?" I had never raised my voice to my
father, and I really didn't quite know how to do it.
"Look, I've really worked very hard on this match, trying to find the least
offensive person who could meet the minimum criteria for bailing us out
of this financial mess -- this one, he has a condominium in Vancouver,
owns a computer franchise, would probably not demand of you, you know,
too terribly degrading a sexual performance --"
Sullenly, I looked at the floor.
He stared at me for a long time. Then he said, "You're in love, aren't you?"
I didn't answer.
My father slammed his fists down on the table. "Those damned lascivious
Thai men with their honeyed words and their backstabbing habits ... it's
one of them, isn't it? My only daughter ... and my wife dead in her grave
these twenty-two years ... it kills me."
"And what if it had been a Thai man?" I said. "Don't we have Thai
passports? Don't we have one of those fifteen-syllable Thai names which
your grandfather purchased from the King? Aren't we living on Thai soil,
stewing up our birthright for Thai citizens to eat, depositing our hard-
earned Thai thousand-baht bills in a Thai bank?"
He slapped my face.
He had never done that before. I was more stunned than hurt. I was not to
feel the hurt until much later.
"Let me tell you, for the four hundredth time, how your grandmother died,"
he said, so softly I could hardly hear him above the bubbling of the
dragon's fin. "My father had come to Bangkok to fetch his new wife and
bring her back to Californ'. It was his cousin, my uncle, who managed the
Rainbow Cafe in those days. It was the 1920s and the city was cool and
quiet and serenely beautiful. There were only a few motor-cars in the
whole city; one of them, a Ford, belonged to Uncle Shenghua. My father
was in love with the City of Angels Etc. and he loved your grandmother
even before he set eyes on her. And he never went back to Californ', but
moved into this family compound, flouting the law that a woman should
move into her husband's home. Oh, he was so much in love! And he
believed that here, in a land where men did not look so different from
himself, there would be no prejudice -- no bars with signs that said No
Dogs Or Chinamen -- no parts of town forbidden to him -- no forced
assimilation of an alien tongue. After all, hadn't King Chulalongkorn
himself taken Chinese concubines to ensure the cultural diversity of the
highest ranks of the aristocracy?"
My cheek still burned; I knew the story almost by heart; I hated my father
for using his past to ruin my life. Angrily I looked at the floor, at the
walls, at the taut curve of the dragon's body as it hung cold, glittering
"But then, you see, there was the revolution, the coming of what they
called democracy. No more the many ancient cultures of Siam existing
side by side. The closing of the Chinese-language schools. Laws
restricting those of ethnic Chinese descent from certain occupations ...
true, there were no concentration camps, but in some ways the Jews had
it easier than we did ... someone noticed. Now listen! You're not listening!"
"Yes, Papa," I said, but in fact my mind was racing, trying to find a way
out of this intolerable situation. My Chinese self calling out to my
American self, though she was stranded in another country, and perhaps
near death, like the dragon whose flesh sustained my family's coffers.
"1945," my father said. "The war was over, and Chiang Kai-Shek was
demanding that Siam be ceded to China. There was singing and dancing in
the streets of Yaowaraj! Our civil rights were finally going to be restored
to us ... and the Thais were going to get their comeuppance! We marched
with joy in our hearts ... and then the soldiers came ... and then we too had
rifles in our hands ... as though by magic. Uncle Shenghua's car was
smashed. They smeared the seats with shit and painted the windshield
with the words 'Go home, you slanty-eyed scum.' Do you know why the
restaurant wasn't torched? One of the soldiers was raping a woman
against the doorway and his friends wanted to give him time to finish.
The woman was your grandmother. It broke my father's heart."
I had never had the nerve to say it before, but today I was so enraged that
I spat it out, threw it in his face. "You don't know that he was your father,
Papa. Don't think I haven't done the math. You were born in 1946. So much
for your obsesssion with racial purity."
He acted as though he hadn't heard me, just went on with his preset
lecture: "And that's why I don't want you to consort with any of them.
They're lazy, self-indulgent people who think only of sex. I just know that
one of them's got his tentacles wrapped around your heart."
"Papa, you're consumed by this bullshit. You're a slave to this ancient
curse ... just like the damn dragon." Suddenly, dimly, I had begun to see a
way out. "But it's not a Thai I'm in love with. It's an American."
"A white person!" he was screaming at the top of his lungs. My two aunts
looked up from their stirring. "Is he at least rich?"
"No. He's a poor journalist."
"Some blond young thing batting his long eyelashes at you --"
"Oh, no, he's almost fifty. And he's fat." I was starting to enjoy this.
"I forbid you to see him! It's that man from the Post, isn't it? That
bloated thing who tricked me with his talk of music and literature into
thinking him harmless. Was it he who violated you? I'll have him killed, I
"No, you won't," I said, as another piece of my plan fell into place. "I have
the right to choose one human being on this earth to whom I shall reveal
the secret of the family's dragon. My maidenhead is yours to give away,
but not this. This right is the only thing I can truly call my own, and I'm
going to give it to Bob Halliday."
It was because he could do nothing about my choice that my father agreed
to the match between Bob Halliday and me; he knew that, once told of the
secret, Bob's fate would necessarily be intertwined with the fate of the
Clan of Lim no matter what, for a man who knew of the dragon could not be
allowed to escape from the family's clutches. Unfortunately, I had taken
Bob's name in vain. He was not the marrying kind. But perhaps, I reasoned,
I could get him to go along with the charade for a while, until old Mr. Hong
from the Old Country stopped pressing his suit. Especially if I gave him
the option of questioning the dragon. After all, I had heard him wax poetic
about all the questions he could ask ... questions about the meaning of
existence, of the creation and destruction of the universe, profound
conundrums about love and death.
Thus it was that Bob Halliday came to the Rainbow Cafe one more time --
it was Thursday -- and dined on such mundane delicacies as beggar
chicken, braised sea cucumbers stuffed with pork, cold jellyfish
tentacles, and suckling pig. As a kind of coup de grâce, my father even
trotted out a small dish of dragon's fin which he had managed to keep
refrigerated from the day before (it won't keep past twenty-four hours)
which Bob consumed with gusto. He also impressed my father no end by
speaking a Mandarin of such consonant-grinding purity that my father,
whose groveling deference to those of superior accent was millennially
etched within his genes, could not help addressing him in terms of deepest
and most cringing respect. He discoursed learnedly on the dragon lore of
many cultures, from the salubrious, fertility-bestowing water dragons of
China to the fire-breathing, maiden-ravishing monsters of the West;
lectured on the theory that the racial memory of dinosaurs might have
contributed to the draconian mythos, although he allowed as how humans
never coexisted with dinosaurs, so the racial memory must go back as far
as marmosets and shrews and such creatures; he lauded the soup in high
astounding terms, using terminology so poetic and ancient that he was
forced to draw the calligraphy in the air with a stubby finger before my
father was able vaguely to grasp his metaphors; and finally -- the clincher
-- alluded to a great-great-great-great-aunt of his in San Francisco who
had once had a brief, illicit, and wildly romantic interlude with a Chinese
opium smuggler who might just possibly have been one of the very Lims
who had come from that village in Southern Yunnan, you know the village
I'm talking about, that very village ... at which point my father, whisking
away all the haute cuisine dishes and replacing them with an enormous
blueberry cheesecake flown in, he said, from Leo Lindy's of New York, said,
"All right, all right, I'm sold. You have no money, but I daresay someone of
your intellectual brilliance can conjure up some money somehow. My son,
it is with great pleasure that I bestow upon you the hand of my wayward,
worthless, and hideous daughter."
I hadn't forewarned Bob about this. Well, I had meant to, but words had
failed me at the last moment. Papa had moved in for the kill a lot more
quickly than I had thought he would. Before Bob could say anything at all,
therefore, I decided to pop a revelation of my own. "I think, Papa," I said,
"that it's time for me to show him the dragon."
We all trooped into the kitchen.
The dragon was even more inanimate than usual. Bob put his ear up to the
scales; he knocked his knuckles raw. When I listened, I could hear nothing
at all at first; the whisper of the sea was my own blood surging through
my brain's capillaries, constricted as they were with worry. Bob said,
"This is what I've been eating, Janice?"
I directed him over to where Ah Quoc was now seasoning the vat, chopping
the herbs with one hand and sprinkling with the other, while my two aunts
stirred, prodded, and gossiped like the witches from Macbeth. "Look, look,"
I said, and I pointed out the mass of still unpulped fin that protruded from
the glop, "see how its texture matches that of the two dorsal fins."
"It hardly seems alive," Bob said, trying to pry a scale loose so he could
peer at the quick.
"You'll need a red-hot paring knife to do that," I said. then, when Papa
wasn't listening, I whispered in his ear, "Please, just go along with all
this. It really looks like 'fate worse than death' time for me if you don't. I
know that marriage is the farthest thing from your mind right now, but I'll
make it up to you somehow. You can get concubines. I'll even help pick
them out. Papa won't mind that, it'll only make him think you're a stud."
Bob said, and it was the thing I'd hoped he'd say, "Well, there are certain
questions that have always nagged at me ... certain questions which, if
only I knew the answers to them, well ... let's just say I'd die happy."
My father positively beamed at this. "My son," he said, clapping Bob
resoundingly on the back, "I already know that I shall die happy. At least
my daughter won't be marrying a Thai. I just couldn't stand the thought of
one of those loathsome creatures dirtying the blood of the House of Lim."
I looked at my father full in the face. Could he have already forgotten
that only last night I had called him a bastard? Could he be that deeply in
denial? "Bob," I said softly, "I'm going to take you to confront the dragon."
Which was more than my father had ever done, or I myself.
Confronting the dragon was, indeed, a rather tall order, for no one had done
so since the 1930s, and Bangkok had grown from a sleepy backwater town
into a monster of a metropolis; we knew only that the dragon's coils
reached deep into the city's foundations, crossed the river at several
points, and, well, we weren't sure if he did extend all the way to
Nonthaburi; luckily, there is a new expressway now, and once out of the
crazy traffic of the old part of the city it did not take long, riding the
sleek airconditioned Nissan taxicab my father had chartered for us, to
reach the outskirts of the city. On the way, I caught glimpses of many
more Bangkoks that my father's blindness had denied me; I saw the Blade
Runneresque towers threaded with mist and smog, saw the buildings
shaped like giant robots and computer circuit boards designed by that
eccentric genius, Dr. Sumet; saw the not-very-ancient and very-very-
multicolored temples that dotted the cityscape like rhinestones in a
cowboy's boot; saw the slums and the palaces, cheek by jowl, and the
squamous rooftops that could perhaps have also been little segments of
the dragon poking up from the miasmal collage; we zoomed down the road
at breakneck speed to the strains of Natalie Cole, who, our driver opined,
is "even better than Mai and Christina".
How to find the dragon? Simple. I had the scroll. Now and then, there
was a faint vibration of the parchment. It was a kind of dousing.
"This off-ramp," I said, "then left, I think." And to Bob I said, "Don't worry
about a thing. Once we reach the dragon, you'll ask him how to get out of
this whole mess. He can tell you, has to tell you actually; once that's all
done, you'll be free of me, I'll be free of my father's craziness, he'll be
free of his obsession."
Bob said, "You really shouldn't put too much stock in what the dragon has
to tell you."
I said, "But he always tells the truth!"
"Well yes, but as a certain wily Roman politician once said, 'What is
truth?' Or was that Ronald Reagan?"
"Oh, Bob," I said, "if push really came to shove, if there's no solution to
this whole crisis ... could you actually bring yourself to marry me?"
"You're very beautiful," Bob said. He loves to be all things to all people.
But I don't think there's enough of him to go round. I mean, basically, there
are a couple of dozen Janice Lims waiting in line for the opportunity to sit
at Bob's feet. But, you know, when you're alone with him, he has this
ability to give you every scintilla of his attention, his concern, his love,
even; it's just that there's this nagging concern that he'd feel the same
way if he were alone with a Beethoven string quartet, say, or a plate of
exquisitely spiced naem sod.
We were driving through young paddy fields now; the nascent rice has a
neon-green color too garish to describe. The scroll was shaking
continuously and I realized we must be rather close to our goal; I have to
admit that I was scared of out of my wits.
The driver took us through the gates of a Buddhist temple. The scroll
vibrated even more energetically. Past the main chapel, there were more
gates; they led to a Brahmin sanctuary; past the Indian temple there was
yet another set of gates, over which, in rusty wrought-iron, hung the
character Lim, which is two trees standing next to one another. The taxi
stopped. The scroll's shaking had quieted to an insistent purr. "It's around
here somewhere," I said, getting out of the cab.
The courtyard we found ourselves in (the sun was setting at this point,
and the shadows were long and gloomy, and the marble flagstones red as
blood) was a mishmash of nineteenth-century chinoiserie. There were
stone lions, statues of bearded men, twisted little trees peering up from
crannies in the stone; and tall, obelisk-like columns in front of a
weathered stone building that resembled a ruined ziggurat. It took me a
moment to realize that the building was, in fact, the dragon's head, so
petrified by time and the slow process of dying that it had turned into an
antique shrine. Someone still worshipped here at least. I could smell
burning joss-sticks; in front of the pointed columns -- which, I now could
see, were actually the dragon's teeth -- somebody had left a silver tray
containing a glass of wine, a pig's head, and a garland of decaying jasmine.
"Yes, yes," said Bob, "I see it too; I feel it even."
"How do you mean?"
"It's the air or something. It tastes of the same bitterness that's in the
dragon's fin soup. Only when you've taken a few breaths of it can you
smell the underlying sensations ... the joy, the love, the infinite regret."
"Yes, yes, all right," I said, "but don't forget to ask him for a way out of
"Why don't you ask him yourself?" Bob said.
I became all flustered at this. "Well, it's just that, I don't know, I'm too
young, I don't want to use up all my questions, it's not the right time yet ...
you're a mature person, you don't --"
" ... have that much longer to live, I suppose," Bob said wryly.
"Oh, you know I didn't mean it in quite that way."
"Ah, but, sucking in the dragon's breath the way we are, we too are forced
to blurt out the truth, aren't we?" he said.
I didn't like that.
"Don't want to let the genie out of the bottle, do you?" Bob said. "Want to
clutch it to your breast, don't want to let go...."
"That's my father you're describing, not me."
Bob smiled. "How do you work this thing?"
"You take the scroll and you tap the dragon's lips."
I pointed at the long stucco frieze that extended all the way around the
row of teeth. "And don't forget to ask him," I said yet again.
"All right. I will."
Bob went up to the steps that led into the dragon's mouth. On the second
floor were two flared windows that were his nostrils; above them, two
slitty windows seemed to be his eyes; the light from them was dim, and
seemed to come from candlelight. I followed him two steps behind -- it
was almost as though we were already married! -- and I was ready when
he put out his hand for the scroll. Gingerly, he tapped the dragon's teeth.
This was how the dragon's voice sounded: it seemed at first to be the
wind, or the tinkling of the temple bells, or the far-off lowing of the
waterbuffalo that wallowed in the paddy; or, or, the distant cawing of a
raven, the cry of a newborn child, the creak of a teak house on its stilts,
the hiss of a slithering snake. Only gradually did these sounds coalesce
into words, and once spoken the words seemed to hang in the air, to jangle
and clatter like a loaded dishwasher.
The dragon said, We seldom have visitors anymore.
I said, "Quick, Bob, ask."
"Okay, okay," said Bob. He got ready, I think, to ask the dragon what I
wanted him to ask, but instead, he blurted out a completely different
question. "How different," he said, "would the history of music be, if
Mozart had managed to live another ten years?"
"Bob!" I said. "I thought you wanted to ask deep, cosmic questions about
the nature of the universe --"
"Can't get much deeper than that," he said, and then the answer came, all
at once, out of the twilight air. It was music of a kind. To me it sounded
dissonant and disturbing; choirs singing out of tune, donkeys fiddling with
their own tails. But you know, Bob stood there with his eyes closed, and
his face was suffused with an ineffable serenity; and the music surged to
a noisome clanging and a yowling and a caterwauling, and a slow smile
broke out on his lips; and as it all began to die away he was whispering to
himself, "Of course ... apoggiaturas piled on appogiaturas, bound to lead to
integral serialism in the mid-romantic period instead, then minimalism
mating with impressionism running full tilt into the Wagnerian
gesamtkunstwerk and colliding with the pointillism of late Webern...."
At last he opened his eyes, and it was as though he had seen the face of
God. But what about me and my miserable life? It came to me now. These
were Bob's idea of what constituted the really important questions of life.
I couldn't begrudge him a few answers. He'd probably save the main course
for last; then we'd be out of there and could get on with our lives. I
settled back to suffer through another arcane question, and it was, indeed,
Bob said, "You know, I've always been troubled by one of the hundred-letter
words in Finnegans Wake. You know the words I mean, the supposed
'thunderclaps' that divide Joyce's novel into its main sections ... well, its
the ninth one of those ... I can't seem to get it to split into its component
parts. Maybe it seems trivial, but it's worried me for the last twenty-
The sky grew very dark then. Dry lightning forked and unforked across
gathering clouds. The dragon spoke once more, but this time it seemed to
be a cacophony of broken words, disjointed phonemes, strings of frenetic
fricatives and explosive plosives; once again it was mere noise to me, but
to Bob Halliday it was the sweetest music. I saw that gazing-on-the-
face-of-divinity expression steal across his features one more time as
again he closed his eyes. The man was having an orgasm. No wonder he
didn't need sex. I marveled at him. Ideas themselves were sensual things
to him. But he didn't lust after knowledge, he wasn't greedy about it like
Faust; too much knowledge could not damn Bob Halliday, it could only
Once more, the madness died away. A monsoon shower had come and gone
in the midst of the dragon's response, and we were drenched; but
presently, in the hot breeze that sprang up, our clothes began to dry.
"You've had your fun now, Bob. Please, please," I said, "let's get to the
business at hand."
Bob said, "All right." He tapped the dragon's lips again, and said, "Dragon,
dragon, I want to know...."
The clouds parted and Bob was bathed in moonlight.
Bob said, "Is there a proof for Fermat's Theorem?"
Well, I had had it with him now. I could see my whole life swirling down
the toilet bowl of lost opportunities. "Bob!" I screamed, and began
pummeling his stomach with my fists ... the flesh was not as soft as I'd
imagined it must be ... I think I sprained my wrist.
"What did I do wrong?"
"Bob, you idiot, what about us?"
"I'm sorry, Janice. Guess I got a little carried away."
Yes, said the dragon. Presumably, since Bob had not actually asked him to
prove Fermat's Theorem, all he had to do was say yes or no.
What a waste. I couldn't believe that Bob had done that to me. I was going
to have to ask the dragon myself after all. I wrested the scroll from Bob's
hands, and furiously marched up the steps toward that row of teeth,
phosphorescent in the moonlight.
"Dragon," I screamed, "dragon, dragon, dragon, dragon, dragon."
So, Ah Muoi, you've come to me at last. So good of you. I am old; I have
seen my beginning and my end; it is in your eyes. You've come to set me
Our family tradition states clearly that it is always good to give the
dragon the impression that you are going to set him free. He's usually a
lot more cooperative. Of course, you never do set him free. You would
think that, being almost omniscient, the dragon would be wise to this, but
mythical beasts always seem to have their fatal flaws. I was too angry
for casuistric foreplay.
"You've got to tell me what I need to know." Furiously, I whipped the
crumbling stone with the old scroll.
I'm dying, you are my mistress; what else is new?
"How can I free myself from all this baggage that my family has laid on
The dragon said:
There is a sleek swift segment of my soul
That whips against the waters of renewal;
You too have such a portion of yourself;
Divide it in a thousand pieces;
Then shall we all be free.
"That doesn't make sense!" I said. The dragon must be trying to cheat me
somehow. I slammed the scroll against the nearest tooth. The stucco
loosened; I heard a distant rumbling. "Give me a straight answer, will
you? How can I rid my father of the past that torments him and won't let
him face who he is, who I am, what we're not?"
The dragon responded:
There is a sly secretion from my scales
That drives a man through madness into joy;
You too have such a portion of yourself;
Divide it in a thousand pieces;
Then shall we all be free.
This was making me really mad. I started kicking the tooth. I screamed,
"Bob was right ... you're too senile, you're mind is too clouded to see
anything that's important ... all you're good for is Bob's great big esoteric
enigmas ... but I'm just a human being here, and I'm in bondage, and I want
out ... what's it going to take to get a straight answer out of you?" Too
late, I realized that I had phrased my last words in the form of a question.
And the answer came on the jasmine-scented breeze even before I had
There is a locked door deep inside my flesh
A dam against bewilderment and fear;
You too have such a portion of yourself;
Divide it in a thousand pieces;
Then shall we all be free.
But I wasn't even listening, so sure was I that all was lost. For all my life
I had been defined by others -- my father, now Bob, now the dragon, even,
briefly, by Linda Horovitz. I was a series of half-women, never a whole.
Frustrated beyond repair, I flagellated the dragon's lips with that scroll,
shrieking like a pre-menstrual fishwife: "Why can't I have a life like other
people?" I'd seen the American girls with their casual ways, their cars,
speaking of men as though they were hunks of meat; and the Thai girls,
arrogant, plotting lovers' trysts on their cellular phones as they breezed
through the spanking-new shopping mall of their lives. Why was I the one
who was trapped, chained up, enslaved? But I had used up the three
I slammed the scroll so hard against the stucco that it began to tear.
"Watch out!" Bob cried. "You'll lose your power over him!"
"Don't speak to me of empowerment," I shouted bitterly, and the parchment
ripped all at once, split into a million itty-bitty pieces that danced like
shooting stars in the brilliant moonlight.
That was it, then. I had cut off the family's only source of income, too. I
was going to have to marry Mr. Hong after all.
Then the dragon's eyes lit up, and his jaws began slowly to open, and his
breath, heady, bitter, and pungent, poured into the humid night air.
"My God," Bob said, "there is some life to him after all."
My life, the dragon whispered, is but a few brief bittersweet moments of
imagined freedom; for is not life itself enslavement to the wheel of
sansara? Yet you, man and woman, base clay though you are, have been the
means of my deliverance. I thank you.
The dragon's mouth gaped wide. Within, an abyss of thickest blackness;
but when I stared long and hard at it, I could see flashes of oh, such
wondrous things ... far planets, twisted forests, chaotic cities ...
"Shall we go in?" said Bob.
"Do you want to?"
"Yes," Bob said, "but I can't, not without you; dying, he's still your dragon,
no one else's; you know how it is; you kill your dragon, I kill mine."
"Okay," I said, realizing that now, finally, had come the moment for me to
seize my personhood in my hands, "but come with me, for old times' sake;
after all, you did give me a pretty thorough tour of your dying dragon ..."
"Ah yes; the City of Angels Etc. But that's not dying for a few millennia
I took Bob by the hand and ran up the steps into the dragon's mouth. He
followed me. Inside the antechamber, the dragon's palate glistened with
crystallized drool. Strings of baroque pearls hung from the ceiling, and
the dragon's tongue was coated with clusters of calcite. Further down,
the abyss of many colors yawned.
"Come on," I said.
"What do you think he meant," Bob said, "when he said you should slice off
little pieces of yourself, make them into soup, and that would set us all
"I think," I said, "that it's the centuries of being nibbled away by little
parasites ..." But I was no longer that interested in the dragon's oracular
pronouncements. I mean, for the first time in my life, since my long
imprisonment in my family compound and the confines of the Rainbow
Cafe's kitchen, since my three years of rollercoastering through the alien
wharves of Santa Cruz, I was in territory that I instinctively recognized
as my own. Past the bronze uvula that depended from the cavern ceiling
like a soundless bell, we came to a mother-of-pearl staircase that led
ever downward. "This must be the way to the oesophagus," I said. "Yeah."
There came a gurgling sound. A dull, foul water sloshed about our ankles.
"Maybe there's a boat," I said. We turned and saw it moored to the
banister, a golden barque with a silken sail blazoned with the ideograph
Bob laughed. "You're a sort of goddess in this kingdom, a creatrix, an
earth-mother. But I'm the one with the waistline for earth-mothering."
"Perhaps we could somehow meld together and be one." After all, his
mothering instinct was a lot stronger than mine.
"Cosmic!" he said, and laughed again.
"Like the character Lim itself," I told him, "two trees straining to be one."
And I too laughed as we set sail down the gullet of the dying dragon. The
waters were sluggish at first. But they started to deepen. Soon we were
having the flume ride of our lives, careening down the bronze-lined walls
that boomed with the echo of our laughter ... the bronze was dark for a long
long time till it started to shine with a light that rose from the heat of
our bodies, the first warmth to invade the dragon's innards in a thousand
years ... and then, in the mirror surface of the walls, we began to see
visions. Yes! there was the dragon himself, youthful, pissing the monsoon
as he soared above the South China Sea. Look, look, my multi-great-great-
uncle bearing the urn of his severed genitals as he marched from the gates
of the Forbidden City, setting sail for Siam! Look, look, now multi-great-
uncle in the Chinese Quarter of the great metropolis of Ayutthaya,
constraining the dragon as it breached the raging waters of the Chao
Phraya! Look, look, another great-great-uncle panning for gold, his queue
bobbing up and down in the California sun! Look, look, another uncle,
marching alongside the great Chinese General Taksin, who wrested Siam
back from the Burmese and was in turn put to an ignominious death! And
look, look closer now, the soldier raping my grandmother in the doorway of
the family compound ... look, look, my grandfather standing by, his anger
curbed by an intolerable terror ... look, look, even that was there ... and me
... yielding to the stately Linda Horovitz in the back seat of rusty Toyota ...
me, stirring the vat of dragon's fin soup ... me, talking back to my father
for the first time, getting slapped in the face, me, smashing the scroll of
power into smithereens.
And Bob? Bob saw other things. He heard the music of the spheres. He
saw the Sistine Chapel in its pristine beauty. He speed-read his way
through Joyce and Proust and Tolstoy, unexpurgated and unedited. And you
know, it was turning him on.
And me, too. I don't know quite when we started making love. Perhaps it
was when we hit what felt like terminal velocity, and I could feel the
friction and the body heat begin to ignite his shirt and my cheongsam.
Blue flame embraced our bodies, fire that was water, heat that was cold.
The flame was burning up my past, racing through the dirt roads of the
ancestral village; the fire was engulfing Chinatown, the rollercoasters of
Santa Cruz were blazing gold and ruddy against the setting sun, and even
the Forbidden City was on fire, even the great portrait of Chairman Mao
and the Great Wall and the Great Inextinguishable Middle Kingdom itself,
all burning, burning, burning, all cold, all turned to stone, and all because I
was discovering new continents of pleasure in the folds of Bob Halliday's
flesh, so rich and convoluted that it was like making love to three hundred
pounds of brain; and you know, he was considerate in ways I'd never
dreamed; that mothering instinct I supposed, that empathy; when I popped,
he made me feel like the apple that received the arrowhead of William
Tell and with it freedom from oppression; oh, God, I'm straining aren't I,
but you know, those things are so so hard to describe; we're plummeting
headlong through the mist and foam and flame and spray and surge and
swell and brine and ice and hell and incandescence and then:
In the eye of the storm:
A deep gash opening and:
Naked, we're falling into the vat beneath the dragon's flanks as the ginsu-
wielding Ah Quoc is hacking away at the disintegrating flesh and:
"No!" my father shouted. "Hold the sulphuric acid!"
We were bobbing up and down in a tub of bile and semen and lubricious
fluids, and Aunt Ling-ling was frantically snatching away the flask of
concentrated H2SO4 from the kvetching Jasmine.
"Mr. Elephant, la!" cried Ah Quoc. "What you do Miss Janice? No can! No
"You've gone and killed the dragon!" shrieked my father. "Now what are we
going to do for a living?"
And he was right. Once harder than titanium carbide, the coil of flesh was
dissipating into the kitchen's musty air; the scales were becoming
circlets of rainbow light in the steam from the bamboo cha shu bao
containers; as archetypes are wont to do, the dragon was returning to the
realm of myth.
"Oh, Papa, don't make such a fuss," I said, and was surprised to see him
back off right away. "We're still going to make soup today."
"Well, I'd like to know how. Do you know you were gone for three weeks?
It's Wednesday again, and the line for dragon's fin soup is stretching all
the way to Chicken Alley! There's some kind of weird rumor going around
that the soup today is especially heng, and I'm not about to go back out
there and tell them I'm going to be handing out rain checks."
"Speaking of rain --" said Aunt Ling-ling.
Rain indeed. We could hear it, cascading across the corrugated iron
rooftops, sluicing down the awnings, splashing the dead-end canals,
running in the streets.
"Papa," I said, "we shall make soup. It will be the last and finest
soupmaking of the Clan of Lim."
And then -- for Bob Halliday and I were still entwined in each other's
arms, and his flesh was still throbbing inside my flesh, bursting with
pleasure as the thunderclouds above -- we rose up, he and I, he with his
left arm stretched to one side, I with my right arm to the other, and
together we spelled out the two trees melding into one in the calligraphy
of carnal desire -- and, basically, what happened next was that I released
into the effervescing soup stock the swift sleek segment of my soul, the
sly secretion from my scales, and, last but not least, the locked door deep
inside my flesh; and these things (as the two trees broke apart) did indeed
divide into a thousand pieces, and so we made our soup; not from a
concrete dragon, time-frozen in its moment of dying, but from an
insubstantial spirit-dragon that was woman, me, alive.
"Well, well," said Bob Halliday, "I'm not sure I'll be able to write this up
for the Post."
Now this is what transpired next, in the heart of Bangkok's Chinatown, in
the district known as Yaowaraj, in a restaurant called the Rainbow Cafe,
on a Wednesday lunchtime in the mid-monsoon season:
There wasn't very much soup, but the more we ladled out, the more there
seemed to be left. We had thought to eke it out with black mushrooms and
bok choi and a little sliced chicken, but even those extra ingredients
multiplied miraculously. It wasn't quite the feeding of the five thousand,
but, unlike the evangelist, we didn't find it necessary to count.
After a few moments, the effects were clearly visible. At one table, a
group of politicians began removing their clothes. They leaped up onto the
lazy susan and began to spin around, chanting "Freedom! Freedom!" at the
top of their lungs. At the next table, three transvestites from the drag
show down the street began to make mad passionate love to a platter of
duck. An young man in a pinstripe suit draped himself in the printout from
his cellular fax and danced the hula with a shrivelled crone. Children
somersaulted from table to table like monkeys.
And Bob Halliday, my father and I?
My father, drinking deeply, said, "I really don't give a shit who you marry."
And I said, "I guess it's about time I told you this, but there's a strapping
Jewish tomboy from Milwaukee that I want you to meet. Oh, but maybe I
will marry Mr. Hong -- why not? -- some men aren't as self-centered and
domineering as you might think. If you'd stop sitting around trying to be
Chinese all the time --"
"I guess it's about time I told you this," said my father, "but I stopped
caring about this baggage from the past a long time ago. I was only
keeping it up so you wouldn't think I was some kind of bloodless half-
"I guess it's about time I told you this," I said, "but I like living in
Thailand. It's wild, it's maddening, it's obscenely beautiful, and it's very,
very, very un-American."
"I guess it's about time I told you this," my father said, "but I've bought me
a one-way ticket to Californ', and I'm going to close up the restaurant and
get a new wife and buy myself a little self-respect."
"I guess it's about time I told you this," I said, "I love you."
That stopped him cold. He whistled softly to himself, then sucked up the
remaining dregs of soup with a slurp like a farting buffalo. Then he flung
the bowl against the peeling wall and cried out, "And I love you too."
And that was the first and only time we were ever to exchange those
But you know, there were no such revelations from Bob Halliday. He drank
deeply and reverently; he didn't slurp; he savored; of all the dramatis
personae of this tale, it was he alone he seemed, for a moment, to have
cut himself free from the wheel of sansara to gaze, however briefly, on
As I have said, there was a limitless supply of soup. We gulped it down
till our sides ached. We laughed so hard we were sitting ankle-deep in our
But do you know what?
An hour later we were hungry again.
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