By: Joseph Kierland
Ho Dong wasn’t his real name. It was just the name they passed from one Chinese cook to the next when they came in from Hong Kong. The new cook took the name of the old cook, exchanged jobs, apartments, and social security numbers all in a quick Ho Dong switch. The financing came from a chunky little restaurateur named Jimmy Soo who most of the cooks ended up working for anyway. Jimmy didn’t care where they came from as long as they could handle a wok and paid back what they owed with interest.
When the new Ho Dong arrived he began paying Jimmy back by working a hustle in the middle of Chinatown’s Restaurant Row on Mott Street. All he had, or needed, were some walnut shells, a black folding table, and a piece of jade the size of a pea. He’d start his hustle right after his shift ended or during his afternoon breaks, and that was when the kid ran into him on his way home from school. There are some people in Chinatown that say “it was fate” pushed the boy through the crowd to watch Ho’s hands dart across that black folding table like quick electric shocks.
The men stood three deep on each side of the table, betting on which shell the piece of jade would be under. Ho gave two to one on a dollar, three to one on five dollars, swept the winnings into a sack on his belt, and started the same ritual over again. Men drifted in and out and Ho’s dark eyes glistened in the late afternoon light, waiting for the next bettor to drop his money and pick a shell. Standing directly in front of the table, the kid could see just over the edge and the bottoms of the moving shells as Ho’s flashing hands moved them across the table. It wasn’t long before Ho noticed the boy in front of him and warned the kid to “Go way” but he didn’t move.
An old gray stubbled man laid a five-dollar bill on the black table, grinned at the kid, and said, “You pick, son!” The kid nodded and looked up into Ho’s dark intense eyes staring down at him over the walnut shells. Some of the crowd began to argue over which shell they thought the piece of jade was under, but from the kid’s low vantage point he could see exactly where the pea had ended up.
Ho leaned forward, extended his long, thin fingers over the edge of the table, and waited for the kid to make his pick. All eyes went to the little boy’s index finger rising toward the line of shells, and then pointing at the shell on the left. There was a sudden movement and the new Ho Dong’s fingers blurred for an instant, then lifted the shell the kid had picked. It was empty. Then Ho raised the middle shell and showed everyone where the piece of jade had been all the while. The crowd applauded and Ho swept the old man’s five-dollar bill into his black bag, snapped the table shut, nearly taking the kid’s nose with it. Then he bowed graciously to the crowd and headed up Mott Street with the black folding-table tucked under his arm.
The old man rubbed the boy’s head and said, “Next time,” but sensed the kid’s disappointment over picking the wrong shell. “I let you pick because I thought you could see from below,” the old man said with a laugh. “He’s the fastest I’ve ever seen. I wait for him to slip but he fools me every time.” The kid smiled but the old man could tell he didn’t believe a word he’d said. No matter how fast Ho had moved his hands, the kid was convinced that no one could move faster than all those eyes watching him.
The very next morning, on his way to school, the kid saw the new Ho Dong slip into an alleyway on Mott Street just behind Jimmy Soo’s Green Dragon Restaurant. Moving like a two-legged cat, Ho skipped down the stairs and disappeared behind a door at the bottom. The boy followed and stopped to listen to the loud rattle of dishes on the other side. Then the door flew open and someone yelled, “Why you following me, Brat?” and when the kid looked up he saw those same dark eyes staring down at him again.
Ho growled, pulled the kid inside, took a platter of Egg Foo Yong from the fat laughing cook at the stove, and poured himself a mug of coffee. He growled again and sat down at a small table in the corner to eat his breakfast. The boy followed and Ho Dong yelled, “Can I get another plate over here,” to a man putting dishes away on the other side of the kitchen. “Want to taste the best Egg Foo Yong you ever had in your short-brat-life?” he asked the kid. By this time, the transfixed boy nodded and sat down across from him. “You nearly ruined my game yesterday,” Ho said, and an empty plate slid onto the table. Ho flipped one of the egg patties onto it, slid the dish over to the kid, left the pair of chop sticks on the plate, and pushed his cup across the table in one easy motion. “Sip the coffee as you eat the egg. The aroma brings out the taste of my sauce.” The kid broke off a piece of the light Foo Yong and the egg’s incredible taste surprised him. “The secret is laced through the egg in my brown sauce,” Ho said, smiling as the kid sipped the coffee. “This is what I do. I’m the Chef here,” he said with a wave of his hand.
“I know,” the kid said. “You’re the new Ho Dong.”
Ho nodded in surprise, and they ate in silence. “What’s your name?” Ho finally asked.
“Kim Ling,” the boy told him.
“You live in Chinatown?”
“Across from the park at the end of Mott Street.”
“Aren’t you supposed to be in school?” Ho asked, pointing at Kim’s books. The kid nodded. “So what are you doing here?” Kim answered by moving his hands across the table in a bad imitation of Ho moving the shells. “Ahhh, you want to learn bad things?” Kim smiled. “I can’t teach you bad things,” Ho said. “You have to practice bad things by yourself until they’re part of you like breathing. Besides, it’s against the law.”
“Where did you learn?”
“In Chongqing where I was born.”
“That’s in Sichuan,” the kid said.
“Smart boy,” Ho said. “After that I went to Canton where I learned to cook Cantonese.”
“Are you on the run?” the kid asked.
“You’re not supposed to ask questions like that.”
“What’s your secret to the shells?”
“No secret,” Ho said quickly. “You move your hands faster than the eyes can follow them.”
“The old man that lost the five dollars said you were the fastest he’d ever seen.”
“No one is faster than me.”
“Show me,” Kim said.
Ho laughed, and said, “You pay for lessons like that.” Kim pulled out his lunch money and Ho stared down at the few coins the kid had thrown on the table. “That’s only enough for a lousy hotdog. Is that all you get for lunch?” Kim stared up at him. “You don’t eat enough,” Ho said. “What does your father do-”
“He was a Ho Dong before you,” Kim blurted.
Everything in the kitchen stopped and Ho noticed the other two men look away. “What does your father do now?”
“He left before I was born,” the kid said.
“Did he go back to China?”
Kim started to answer, but shrugged and got up.
“It’s important you go to school. You do that and then we’ll see about the shells, eh?” Kim took his books and the lunch money, waved half-heartedly at Ho and the men, and went off to school.
Ho picked up the empty dishes and brought them over to the man working the washer. The man smiled and asked, “You know boy?” Ho shook his head. “Boy’s father worked here long time.”
“And then ran back to China to get out of paying Jimmy Soo, eh?”
“No,” the man said. “They found him with his head in that oven over there.”
“That’s bad joss,” Ho said, shaken.
“Before boy was born so bad joss went on mother.”
“That’s even worse,” Ho said, and headed for the door.
“Hey, you forgot your stuff,” the fat cook at the stove yelled, pointing at the black folding-table against the wall, but Ho had already gone.
Jimmy Soo’s office was in an old building at the top of Mott Street. His accountant had finally convinced him he could deduct the rent and the phone because of the increased earnings from his new Red Dragon Restaurant. Overjoyed, Jimmy splurged on some cheap modern furniture and ordered chairs with no armrests, a fancy see-through desk, and Blue, Gold and Red Chinese Dragon wall hangings for each of his Restaurants, leaving enough space for the fourth Dragon yet to come. Jimmy Soo had hit the big-time, and was just about to pick up the phone and hire a pretty secretary when the new Ho Dong arrived for his appointment.
Jimmy’s accountant had also informed him that it wasn’t just his new Red Dragon Restaurant making all the money; it was his old Blue Dragon Restaurant that had brought in the biggest sales increase of all three. The Red Dragon did well but had high maintenance and a large staff, his Blue Dragon had low maintenance and its sales had more than doubled since the new Ho Dong arrived as its Chef.
“Come in, come in” Jimmy said. “Very important you here. I’m throwing big New Year Party in a few weeks for Year of Dragon. Want you to be Boss.”
Ho laughed, slid out of Jimmy’s fancy chair with no armrests, and started for the door.
“Where you go?” Jimmy yelled.
“I’m Red Board Chef, cook Hue and Chuan,” Ho said. “You need a White Board Chef for pastry dishes.”
“No, no, no,” Jimmy said. “Sit down! I want you to make your sauces and be Kitchen Boss for big party. White Board…Red Board, I don’t care.”
“You pay extra?” Ho asked.
“I buy everything,” Jimmy said with a flickering glee in his eye, knowing he could now deduct all his costs under “promotion and advertising.”
“You pay extra for me,” Ho said.
“You’re new Ho Dong,” Jimmy said. “I already pay plenty for you!”
“Special New Year Party isn’t in agreement.”
“You owe so you work for me plenty,” Jimmy said in an angry rush, dropping the smile.
“No, you pay extra and deduct from my expenses and interest, otherwise no sauces.”
“You already get extra. Policemen don’t arrest you for gambling in street.”
“Ohhh, so that’s how it goes, eh?”
“I pay them off and add to your expenses.”
“You like money, eh?” Ho snapped.
“I have plenty money,” Jimmy Soo said, waving his hand at his three new wall hangings…and the space between.
“I mean real money,” Ho said. “Those restaurants make you rich but I can make you wealthy. There’s a difference.”
Jimmy stared back at his new Ho Dong for a long time, and then asked, “How you do this wealthy thing?”
“Why you asking for my secret sauces for your dumb New Year Party anyway, eh?” Jimmy gave him a blank look, but knew exactly why he’d asked the new Ho Dong to make his secret sauces, and by the way the new Ho Dong smiled back at him…he knew too. “The Blue Dragon is making money again because of my sauces,” Ho went on. “You know this and I know this, eh? Now’s the time to open a restaurant uptown for my special sauces. Not down here in Chinatown. This is small time,” Ho Dong added with a swipe of his hand. “Open the restaurant uptown on the Eastside where the money is,” Ho went on, and started pacing. “Medium-size place so we can expand. It can even look modern if you want. I’ll make you a quick fortune. That’s how you become wealthy.”
“And what do you get?” Jimmy asked, sliding past his see-through desk to close the door.
“I become famous,” Ho said.
“And take special secret sauces when you leave.”
“No. I stay and cook, you handle the business.”
“Furniture alone is big investment,” Jimmy said.
“Furniture Company will give you tables and chairs for advertisement an promotion. The waiters can even take orders for the stuff…an you can get the commission.“
“You one smart fella,” Jimmy mused. “All the answers.”
“Been thinking about this for a long time,” Ho said, and his dark eyes stared down at Jimmy behind his see-through desk. “We got a deal, or not?” Ho snapped.
“Uptown rents too high. I want to open new restaurant in Chinatown across from Manhattan Bridge on Broadway. For time being, you make your special secret sauces for my New Year celebration. Then we see about new restaurant.”
“You tell Chinatown businessmen at New Year Party that you’re opening a new restaurant and Ho Dong will be the new Chef. Then I make my secret sauces.”
“You smart businessman,” Willy said, sitting back in his swivel chair. “I like that.”
“But you like money more,” Ho said.
“Maybe,” Willy giggled.
“You already make big money in the Blue Dragon because of me. That’s the real reason you tell Cops to stay away.” Jimmy stared coldly back at him. “And why didn’t you tell me that an oven in Blue Dragon is haunted with bad joss?”
“No. Bad joss on woman so I help her.”
“How you help woman?”
“Not your business! Cooking your business!”
“How you help this woman?”
“Not what you think. And call me Mr. Soo!”
“How you help woman, Jimmy?”
“She worked as waitress in my Gold Dragon. Now she’s hostess in my Red Dragon. She not allowed in my Blue Dragon because of bad joss. Has son and I help-”
“Son only gets hot dog for lunch. Not enough.”
“How you know things like this?”
“You tell me when you’re ready for New Year Party, Mr. Soo. We talk then,” Ho said, heading for the door. Jimmy got up to stop him but he’d already disappeared down the hall, and Jimmy stood in the open doorway trying to figure out who this new Ho Dong was and what he’d do next.
Jimmy Soo’s New Year Party was a big success, and it made the Blue Dragon even busier. Crashing dishes and waiters yelling orders were its sounds of success. The new Ho Dong created Sichuan and Cantonese dishes with magnificent flavors and crispy crusts. Five mushrooms in light ginger sauce, crispy chicken and shrimp eggrolls, succulent new Sichuan fish and beef dishes flew onto the menu. Word spread about the new Ho Dong’s Egg Foo Yong, shrimp and black bean sauce, spicy Sichuan pork rolls, special sweet and sour soup, and his sharp ginger-garlic carp. Chinatown began to eat well again and the lawyers, judges, and politicians from nearby City Hall drifted back into the Blue Dragon, lured by Ho’s wonderful sauces.
But questions began to hum through Chinatown’s streets when Jimmy didn’t open his new restaurant across from the Manhattan Bridge. Why was the Chinatown Bank holding back its loan, or was it that the Chinatown Businessmen had become reluctant to invest with Jimmy Soo? A lottery even started in the bakery, side bets were made in teahouses, and fights broke out in the streets over whether the new Ho Dong’s restaurant would ever open.
Bursts of new dishes continued pouring out of the Blue Dragon and little Kim practiced with Ho’s walnut shells in the kitchen’s corner table. Even Ho was impressed with the kid’s progress and encouraged him to work harder and longer. Kim’s small hands hovered over the shells and darted in an array of mesmerizing moves until he’d created his own deceptive style.
Ho never dreamed the kid would progress so fast, or that he’d reach a crucial point with just a minimal amount of adjustments. Kim had practiced and practiced until the eye watched the shells and not his hands and his quick progress left just one thing to learn and that was the one thing Ho had avoided teaching him. Over and over he’d tell the boy how wrong it was to take money using the shells even though he had done it to pay back Jimmy Soo. But the boy just laughed and kept practicing while the weeks rushed by like winds through the Chinatown streets.
It had gotten so busy in the Blue Dragon that no one noticed when she came into the kitchen. Like a beautiful statue magically appearing in a jade gown with her long black hair pinned up in a large gold dragon burette. She stood in the center of the clattering dishes and shouting waiters, and by the time Ho realized she was even there his entire staff had run out the back door into the alley. He watched the beautiful intruder’s dark eyes run the now silent room and land on the kid at the corner table practicing the shells.
“How the hell did you get in here?” Ho yelled.
The woman held up a shiny brass key, and said, “Time to go home, Kim.”
The kid looked up in surprise and immediately began packing Ho’s shells into his little black bag.
“He hasn’t finished his lessons,” Ho yelled, coming from behind the stove.
“There’s a trick to it, isn’t there?” Kim snapped, catching Ho by surprise. “That’s how you beat me and the old man that day. You moved the piece of jade!”
“No, no, you don’t move it! You hold it so you can put the pea where you want!” Ho answered in a rush, and it all suddenly made sense.
“You keep the pea in your hand and then drop it where you want!” Kim shouted.
Ho smiled at his prize pupil, and said, “It’s all in the wrist and thumb.”
“EMPTY YOUR POCKETS,” the woman ordered, and the lesson stopped abruptly.
“Yes, Mamma,” Kim said.
“Your the bad joss lady?” Ho asked, edging between her and the stove. The woman smiled at his gentleman’s gesture but remained ramrod in front of the little boy with her hands extended. Kim pulled out a ballpoint pen, a roll-in-the-hole toy, a rubber snake, a computer adding device, and then a large roll of bills from his back pocket and put them all into her outstretched hands.
“There’s also some coins under my bed,” he confessed.
“Where’d you get all that money?” Ho asked.
“It’s lunch money he took from his classmates.”
“I won that money.”
“See what you’ve done?” she said, giving Kim back the toys and keeping the roll of money.
“You used my shells?”
“Parents in Chinatown have gone crazy and the School Principal wants to expel him.”
“I told him it was against the law,“ Ho said.
“But I didn’t cheat,” Kim insisted.
“That’s ridiculous,” the woman said, grabbing Kim and heading for the door. “YOU MUST GIVE THE MONEY BACK!”
“You can’t make him do that,” Ho yelled.
“YOU”RE WORSE THAN THE CHILDREN!”
“But he’s right,” Kim answered, and ducked just as her open hand whizzed past his head.
“Give the money to the Principal and he can give it back to the children,” Ho said, moving to stop her from swinging at Kim again. For a moment, they stood locked together staring at each other.
“Did you teach my son to do this?” she asked, and Ho let go of her. “What kind of a man are you?”
“I was just having fun, Ma!” the boy said.
There was a sharp banging on the door. “WHAT GOING ON IN THERE?” an angry Jimmy Soo yelled from the other side before Ho could even get the door open. “CUSTOMERS ARE WAITING OUT ON MOTT STREET TO GET IN AND-“ Ho nodded toward the woman and when Jimmy saw her he pushed past him. “You’re not supposed to be here, Li,” he said.
“Bad joss in here for you.”
“I don’t care about joss. I came for my son.”
When Jimmy saw Kim in the corner he turned on Ho. “I SEE HOW YOU FIND OUT THINGS! MAKE TROUBLE!”
“THERE’S NOTHING TO SEE,” Ho yelled back.
“HO DONGS DON’T YELL AT ME!”
“WHY DO YOU TREAT HIM LIKE ONE OF YOUR RESTAURANTS?” Li yelled. “YOU’RE EVEN A BIGGER FOOL THAN HE IS!”
“WHO YOU CALLING FOOL, WOMAN?” Jimmy commanded, glancing around to see if anyone else was there.
“YOU WORSE THAN FOOL,” she laughed, imitating him. “YOU FAT RICH FOOL!”
“BOTH YOU FIRED!” Jimmy yelled. “GET OUT!”
“I WON’T COME BACK,” Ho said, throwing his chef’s hat on the floor.
“NOWHERE ELSE TO GO,” Jimmy said, waddling back into his staff of cooks and waiters listening in the alley.
“Jimmy picked the wrong shell!” Kim yipped. “Now the bad joss is on him.”
“Those people out front aren’t his customers. They’re Chinatown people waiting to make a deal with you,” Li said, taking a stack of legal documents out of her jade purse and shoving the roll of money back into it.
In that quick uncertain moment, Ho realized that there was no Principal, no angry parents, or money lost.
“I just played for fun,” the kid giggled. “Shell games are against the law.”
“People outside are there to invest in your new Restaurant,” she told him. “Don’t keep them waiting!”
“You can use your real name now,” Kim shouted.
“I don’t have a real name,” Ho said numbly.
“Well you can’t be the new Ho Dong anymore.”
“You can give me a new name,” Ho said, shifting the black folding table under his arm, as they made their way out of the Blue Dragon and into the crowd of Chinatown bankers, businessmen, judges, accountants, lawyers, and gamblers, waiting to follow the Sichuan Chef and the lady in jade to the little park at the end of Mott Street so they could buy shares in the new Ho Dong’s restaurant.