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Bowl of Secrets

By Janet del Castillo

 

Prologue

May 1887- Port of Hoi An, Viet Nam
     

Her last wish was a whisper. “Tell them” is all she said.

Time had run out for both of them when he left behind a bowl of secrets. The woman draped in a long Chinese silk robe came from a land far from the port of Hoi An Viet Nam would have a proper
burial. The young man a successful sea trader stood watching the fading light play upon the silk
embroidery could not wait for her death. Glancing at the empty bowl, he hung his head at the foot of the bed. He would honor her, and in his native language told his dying mother he would leave behind the ancient recipe.

 

May 2012- Port of Hoi An, Viet Nam

“Bring me noodles”, he heard her before words crossed her pale thin lips. He had been up sewing in the light of the lantern. His cup of tea now cold brewed when the moon shone bright in theWestern sky; the village still asleep, quiet and still. No one asked anything of him then. “Bring me noodles” he heard her say again silently in his thoughts when he stopped pumping his feet. He checked the seams along the chalk line of the suit and adjusted his glasses. “Good enough” he mumbled getting up from the sewing machine. He was tired now and made his way to the porch.

At first light vendors walked silently by their wares balanced along bamboo poles. They were on their way to market across the river. He nodded to the young boy herding his geese to the canal and for a few brief moments the air was filled with dust and the sound of honking.  Soon the streets of Hoi An would be bustling with people but not yet. It was a time of distant calls from the fish mongers or the flight of birds overhead. He sat content his arms folded across his chest when his eyes closed.

He heard the motor bike first and waited for the familiar smell of the fresh noodles. For on the table
of his youth, his mother served heaping bowls of it. In his dream China, was not a distant place. His
elderly grandmother had made sure of that. He heard his name.

“Good morning, Mr. Wong noodle delivery”.

The tall thin delivery boy stood glancing inside for his daughter Ming Loa handed over the
freshly made noodles. He knew the boy liked her as he dropped the money into his hand. Fully awake now he stood up, worried. Was he respectful? Young people were always in such a hurry these days.

The boy’s family was well known in Hoi An. They made rice noodles for a dish called Cao Lau. It had made the town off the coast of Viet Nam famous. Funny his old Chinese mother would like them so much. He didn’t mind paying the delivery charge as nothing else seemed to calm her down like the steamed noodles. Besides he had a feeling the boy didn’t mind either. Still this was something he had to think about. Their families were very different from each other.

Ming Loa appeared at the door and bowed with a respectful pause, “Good morning, Father. How was your sleep?”

He grinned as he saw her look at the boy from under her sweep of dark hair. She was beautiful when
she smiled. He let them talk briefly as they did every morning until he fussed at her.

“The noodles are getting cold. Go now Ming Loa, grandmother is calling”.

“Meet me at Mr. Chan’s” the boy called to Ming Loa.

“I heard that” said Mr. Wong as he turned and looked directly at his daughter. Ming Loa waved as the boy looked back and smiled on his motor bike. She giggled as he steadied himself amid the disgruntled shoppers and puttered along until he disappeared around the corner. She sighed and looked back at her father. Ming Loa knew first dates were never allowed until permission was granted. She knelt down at her father’s feet.

“You know, Ming Loa,” he started to say when she touched her small soft hand on his arm. He paused then and grew silent.

“Father, I have been going to market every day since I was a little girl, first behind grandmother, and then as her helper. Now she is unable to go. Where do you think your black sesame pudding comes from?”

“Humph”, he sat quiet his lips set firm in his face. Her words were true. She had taken care of him
and the house with no mother. Now she had matured into a woman before his eyes. She lifted her face and, true as the sunrise, he felt love radiate from her smile.

He said firmly but with a gentler tone, “I have known Mr. Chan since before you were born. I will ask him for his consult. He will tell me what he thinks of this boy’s family”. They smiled at each other as grandmother called out for her noodles from within the simple house.

Ming Loa was surprised to see grandmother sitting up in bed. The small thin woman spoke in spurts
her breath shallow and voice raspy. But instead of noodles her grandmother wanted Ming Loa to get a box from the dresser.

Opening the ornate wooden box grandmother pulled out a pair of jade earrings. She smiled and handed them to Ming Loa. She tried to give them back but grandmother took her hand and told her “No, no, Ming Loa, you take it”. Ming Loa bowed low to show respect. When she lifted her head grandmother held up something else. Tied in a braid of multi colored threads she held out a small scroll. Her eyes shone like mirrors. Once Ming Loa accepted grandmother motioned for the warm plate of steamed noodles. By then, Ming Loa knew any questions about the unexpected gifts would have to wait.

Ming Loa hurried to her room to deposit the treasures. Chores would have to be done quickly. Everyone knew the best time to go to the market was early. Today, she would make a special purchase. Bending down she reached under the bed for her jewelry box. Placing the scroll inside for safe keeping, she found the coins she had been saving .

She thought about Thao and put on the jade earrings. The sweeping would have to wait.  On the way out the door she reached up to feel the jade, it was cool and smooth. She imagined her grandmother wearing them to market. Who knew how old the earrings might be she thought walking along the river road. Was she ready to be a responsible wife and mother? Would it really matter to her father if Thao was Vietnamese? She only hoped her father would understand how they felt about each other.

Ming Loa made her way through the streets of Hoi An when she found herself in a river of people
blending into the flow of market banter and piped in music from the packed stalls that lined the street. She lifted the flap on her purse to feel the coins. Would she have enough to buy her very own umbrella? She knew Mr. Bind would write something in beautiful Chinese characters. She liked that. Liked to think her name meant something. Maybe it would help her in marriage she thought now that she was of age. And what would it be like to join a family of such importance? Not all families had a secret recipe, especially a recipe that brought good fortune and good health. It had certainly brought good fortune to Thoa’s family.  She hoped it would continue and pushed her way through the heat and dust on to her next stop Mr. Chan’s.

“How much do you have?” said old Mr. Chan, his two black umbrellas flapping in the warm breeze. Min Loa was familiar with the question he asked. It was his way of asking how the family was doing. Wanting to be respectful but eager to leave she would answer. “Thank you, Mr. Chan, we have everything we need”. And with that he would smile and hand the small box of pudding over to Min Loa.

Some days the cost would be slightly more, sometimes slightly less. She didn’t have the courage to ask why. He was her father’s beloved friend.

“My father asked if you have any pants that need mending?”

Mr. Chan smiled, “Tell him I will be by later.”

Ming Loa knew that was their way of communicating when father wanted to see Mr. Chan. She
glanced down and saw he had returned all the money she had paid him for the delicious sticky pudding. He sat without any expression. She glanced again at her hand and back again when she saw a slight smile rise on his lips. “Good day” he said, as he turned to greet another customer. She shook her head aware she still did not understand all the customs of her father’s generation.

Ming Loa passed the string of red lanterns to the familiar shop always crowded with tourists. Usually she tried to avoid this part of the market. She respected Mr. Bind. He had kept the art of calligraphy alive by writing the ancient Chinese characters on souvenirs. This time she would buy one for herself.

“Come in. Come in.” he was saying to the tourists in the doorway when she snuck past. Seeing her he immediately began speaking Mandarin Chinese “How long has it been? Look at you now all grown up? I am getting too old”.

She waited until he was through helping a woman purchase a beautiful umbrella. Mr. Bind
wrote her name using Chinese characters. “For fortune and long life.” he said handing it back to her.

“And now what can I do for you?” he looked at her with old eyes. She lifted a light green umbrella with pink fuchsia flowers amongst green leaves and handed it to him.

“Please, Mr. Bind, write my name” as she reached into her pocket for the coins.

He looked seriously at her for a moment when he put his hands together as if in prayer. She felt
butterflies in her stomach as she knew he was about to write something very special for her. He chose a brush carefully dipping it into the black ink on the counter behind him and set to work. When it was done the Chinese characters stood out clear and well defined on the lacquered paper. “You have a powerful name” Mr. Bind said at last. “Use it well”. He took the money and she bowed in thanks.

She tucked the prized umbrella under her arm and tried to look over the crowd for Thoa. She knew if they met it would be just by chance. He had to deliver noodles and work another job unloading spices at the docks downtown. He often smelt like cinnamon, cloves, or pepper, ingredients all found in Chinese Five spice used in local food dishes. Sometimes he gave her a small cloth sack of it. She liked the mixture of sweet and spicy. It seemed to sooth her grandmother when she cooked with it, and for a little while she would stop asking for noodles.

Today was her lucky day for she saw the familiar smile coming towards her on his scooter. He
grabbed her around the waist and pushed her gently onto the seat behind him. All the noodle packages were gone.

“I am all done. Come on and let’s get something to eat” he said when he felt her chest hug against his back. He felt happy and excited at her presence and he wanted her to know how special and beautiful she was to him. He had been planning for a long time for the day they would be together, but first he had to talk to her father, Mr. Wong.

After stopping for food, they made their way to a green boarder of vegetation along the river, and then a patch of sand next to the water. They snuggled in the warm sand and kissed almost forgetting lunch over their hunger for each other when he looked deeply into her eyes. “I am worried Ming Loa”. He continued on. “What will happen if our family is forced to give up our recipe?” 

Times were changing in Hoi An, Viet Nam, in ways they both knew were inevitable some good, some not. This change seemed to threaten the way things had been for hundreds of years. “I always thought I would have good fortune” he said.

Ming Loa lifted her umbrella off the sand and opened it. The writing was beautiful, as she looked up through it in the light. “Everything will be ok. I told Mr. Bind to write my name, he said a prayer and told me my name was powerful”.

“And so what did he say it meant?”, as he looked up at the letters.

Ming Loa laughed and hugged him, “I don’t know.” And then seriously, “Do you think we could live under this umbrella?

Thoa lifted her chin and kissed it. “Yes” he said, “we could live under your umbrella”.

When she arrived home, Mr. Chan and Father were on the porch smoking their long clay pipes,
speaking Mandarin. When Ming Loa was little she would play games sitting at their feet listening.  Mr. Chan was always laughing and smiling, but today both men sat talking seriously. She stood listening when both turned their attention to her. “Join us, Ming Loa”, said father.

She set her packages down when Mr. Chan noticed her umbrella. “Lucky umbrella”, is all he said.

Father stopped puffing his pipe and turned an inquisitive eye towards her. Before they had a chance to answer Ming Loa had it setting high on her shoulder twirling the colors in the afternoon light.

“Mr. Bind wrote my name on it for me”.

Mr. Chan looked closer, “and so he did” he said smoothing his long beard.

“Sit down Ming Loa” said father “we have heard news from the council that you must know”. He cleared his throat and proceeded, “Mr. Chan said the council wants Thoa’s family to share their
recipes for Coal Lou noodles”. Ming brought her knees up to her chest, bracing herself. “Mr. Chan says he knows the family very well, and the recipe has been passed down for four generations. They have kept the noodle recipe a secret, but now the town council thinks they need to share their secret. If something happened to the recipe it would mean financial ruin for the local economy.” Ming Loa gave a quiet sigh, relieved the topic of conversation was not about her and Thoa.

“Cao Lou is so different from other Vietnam dishes” said Mr. Chan “but secret is not really secret”.

“What do you mean, Mr. Chan?” said Ming Loa. “Although it may be true recipe is unknown it has ingredients that are not exactly like anything else in Viet Nam”.

“Like what then,” said father. “Just like most things, even your umbrella, it comes from China and the sea trade”. He puffed little puffs blowing the smoke from the corner of his mouth, and smiled. “Is that where your pudding recipe came from?” asked Ming Loa.

Mr. Chan’s eyes became little creases in his face as his smile widened, showing his missing teeth.
“Truth is truth” is all he said then. Ming Loa didn’t know what to say wondering what all this meant for her and Thoa.

The sound of the geese could be heard returning from the river when Mr. Chan leaned over, “Truth is we cannot stop change. Secrets are manmade. Truth is recipe. Truth is it is successful because of the balance of all spices and all flavors together, sweet, sour, salty, spicy, and bitter. That is yin and yang”.

Mr. Chan got up and emptied his bowl of ash on the porch rail. “Your umbrella speaks well of you”, he winked at Ming Loa. “I must be going” he said stepping carefully on to the street. “Don’t get run over by the geese” said father waving goodbye.

Ming Loa wondered if father had his answer about Thoa, when she followed him inside. She started the evening meal thinking quietly to herself about the day’s events. She wasn’t sure what was going to happen.

Ming Loa awoke the next morning wondering about the scroll. Grandmother had told her one morning the earrings once belonged to her great- great grandmother brought to Hoi An from mainland China. Her son was a sea trader. But what did the old piece of paper say when she had an idea. She would take it to Mr. Bind. He would know what the ancient Chinese characters said. And when she reached under her bed she grasped the box with the scrolland made plans to carry it along to the market.

This time the sounds of the market didn’t penetrate her thoughts and even though she had no more coins to offer she knew in her heart Mr. Bind would help her. The shop was unusually quiet only a hint of movement could be seen from the assortment of umbrellas hanging from the ceiling, the familiar scent of incense thick in the air when Mr. Bind appeared. “You have returned” he said with a wide smile.

Ming Loa approached the desk. “Good morning, Mr. Bind,” lifting her box onto the desk she pulled out the scroll and handed it to him.

“What’s this?” he said.

“Mr. Bind I think it may be important information, but I have no money to pay you”.

At once, Mr. Bind reached under the desk for some jade blocks and placed them on the edges of the scroll. Once laid out he used a lens to examine the Chinese characters. He motioned for Ming Lou to look into the glass. Unable to contain his excitement any further, “What you have here is recipe for Cau Lou Noodle”.

Ming Loa held on to the counter staring at Mr. Bind in disbelief. “You have in your possession an official document stamped and signed dated April 12th, 1887. The name is Wong, no doubt.”
Ming Loa held onto the counter staring at Mr. Bind, when they both realized a connection to the town’s famous recipe had been found.

That night fixing dinner in the small kitchen she waited until her father sat down at the low table to tell him about the contents of the scroll. But unknown to Ming Loa, Father had already prepared his own speech. “Although I am only a tailor,” he began. “I have spent much time imagining the life my grandfather had as a sea trader. Exploring distant ports, experiencing new ideas and seeing distant lands he had a very different life than I have had spent over a sewing machine.”

His expression changed after that and she knew he was thinking of her mother. Unable to speak her name they looked at each other knowingly. Her mother had died when Ming Loa was very young. That was all she knew. He continued, “But I think now we all have the potential to enjoy life and experience harmony. It is all things together that make that possible.”

Ming Loa felt something shift inside of her as she knew what her father was about to say. “You see I know what is written on your umbrella,” he said. Ming Lao felt the hot tears. She knew he was about to tell her it was OK to go. That it was OK to fall in love. He was ready. Ming Loa turned to get the tea cups not wanting her father to see her tears. He spoke then in Chinese, telling her to come and sit by him. As she sat down on the large silk pillow, he took her hand in his this time.

“Mr. Bind was right to have written the five virtues on your umbrella”.

Ming Loa felt like she was floating on the large silk pillow. She sat up right wanting to show her father she was ready to hear what he was about to say.

“I give you my blessings, for you have blessed me richly. Mr. Chan is right. Truth is truth. We only think we are different from each other. That one race is better than the other. That one recipe is better than the other. One uses sauce one doesn’t at all. Truth is it all comes out the same in the end”. Ming Loa held her hand over her mouth and giggled when they both laughed out loud.

“Bring noodles” grandmother called from her bedroom.

“Father” said Ming Loa now I have a secret to tell you

“Bring noodles” grandmother called again from the back bedroom.

“You better get those noodles to her or we’ll never have a moment of silence”. Father smiled up at her, “Go ahead Ming Loa, whatever you need to tell me can wait a few minutes. Take grandmother her noodles”.

Moving towards the bedroom door Ming Lou felt the warm bowl cupped in her hands. How long had father known about her and Thou, and did he already know about the contents of the scroll?  The jade earrings bumped gently against her skin as she imagined a woman looking out to sea under beautiful umbrella a very long time ago.

                                                                                 

Epilogue

She left this world during plum blossom time in early spring when ice crystals still whirl about in the high clouds dropping snow on new buds. Spring petals along a green path were her last memories of a distant past. She had arrived at the port of Hoi An, Vietnam, the wife of a wealthy spice trader. No plum trees or their blossoms existed there. She kept an umbrella with painted flowers to remind her of her homeland in China. Young and beautiful then, she had adjusted to living in a different world and different culture. And just as she knew her life would change stepping off the boat, she had no clear picture of what her life would be like. 

“Go” she had said, “I know the life of a sea trader. Make sure to eat right. It will keep you well.” He left the recipe and pouch of Chinese spice to the local cook and his family but by then it was no secret. For at the foot of the bed he realized her home had become the faces of those around her; faces that were much different than his own.

He knew then her bowl would never be empty.