The Chinese Letters

A childhood friend heard I lived in Mexico. He knew I wrote stories. His children had had a nanny, a Mrs. Li. When Mrs. Li died, she left her papers to my friend. Among them, was a packet of letters written in a hesitant, primitive English by Mrs. Li’s mother, one Gu Taiquing, a person who, it seems, felt compelled to leave nothing out. My friend asked me if I would be interested in looking at the letters? I said I would.

Mrs. Li’s mother, Gu Taiquing, as a young woman, slipped out of Shanghai after being ostracized for daring to write a novel in a men’s literary world. A wealthy patron of the arts, who had encouraged her writing, took Gu Taiquing along as her personal maid, on a voyage to San Francisco.

The wealthy patron, Madame Chen Shouli, was a widow, and because she missed her husband next to her at night, she asked Gu Taiquing to sleep next to her. And because she missed her husband’s smooth skin next to her at night, she asked Gu Taiquing to sleep next to her, without clothes.

When the widow’s icy fingers began to creep over the places that Gu Taiquing considered special, she rolled away, coughed, and began batting at imaginary spiders. Rather than endure the cold fingertips and because of the U.S. Immigration Exclusion Act of 1882, primarily aimed at Chinese, she selected a few pieces of the madam’s jewelry as compensation, dressed herself in men’s clothing, and took the train south – until she arrived in Torreón, Mexico. Once in Torreón, she took off her men’s clothes and married a fine young Chinese banker, a Mr. Li, whose fingertips flowed over her like warm water.

Mr. Li was in Torero because he had arrived at Mazola much earlier as a cabin boy on a ship from Hong Kong. There he met a member of the Bao Huang Hui organization, a kind of liberal international Chinese Chamber of Commerce, that promoted democratic impulses in an imperial world, made loans to young Chinese entrepreneurs, and generally fostered civic responsibility. The man gave him a train ticket to Torreón and a letter of introduction in Mandarin to a relative who was a banker in that town.

This was a period when Porfirio Díaz encouraged Chinese labor, with the idea they would bolster the economic development of Sonora and Chihuahua with cheap groceries, laundry and shoes for American and European miners, railroad builders and their underpaid workers. But as the Chinese prospered, working class hatred toward the Americans and Chinese grew. When the patrician revolutionary Madero crossed into Chihuahua, with his ragtag army, and talked about nationalism, social justice, and parasite foreigners, the poor knew whom he meant. The people saw the Chinese grocery stores and businesses, even trolley companies and banks, and they felt resentment.

The Chinese people dressed differently, spoke a different language, learned an incomplete Spanish, and kept to themselves. Given the propaganda, it was easy to see, Gu Taiquing wrote, how she and her husband could be seen as foreigners who had taken wealth that wasn’t theirs. Never mind all the foreign owned mines and foreign owned haciendas, with their millions of acres, or the impunity of the northern railway companies, or all the hidden capital that made little profit for the working poor. In fact, only about 10% of Chinese were shop owners. The great majority were day workers, cooks, bakers, and truck farm laborers. Increasingly, there were cartoons and posters of the Chinese as cruel, lazy, criminal, and smokers of opium.

In May of 1911, there were 30,000 people living in Torreón. It was an industrial town and the junction of the Mexican Central from Ciudad Juarez to Mexico City, which arrived in 1883; and the International Railway from Monterrey to Mazatlán, which arrived in 1888. 700 of the 30,000 residents were Chinese. Gu Taiquing’s young husband was a clerk in the Chinese-owned bank.

On May 15, 1911, at 2 am in the morning, General Lojero marched the Federal troops out of Torreón, leaving the town to the mercy of the advancing Maderista revolutionary forces. A mob of some 6,000 poor people had gathered on the nearby slopes, waiting to enter the town right behind the revolutionaries. Gu Taiquing and her husband listened to the swelling excitement, when news spread that the Maderista scouts had arrived. And then there was a sustained howl, like the approach of a great storm, as the mob poured into the center.

They smashed their way into the Chinese Bank Building, first. Gu Taiquing’s young husband was on the third floor, along with five officers of the bank, who had gathered to discuss bank security. Men grabbed them and threw them through the windows onto the pavement below, where the mob kicked and stamped the survivors to death.

For three hours, before Francisco Madero’s brothers Castro and Emilio arrived and halted the mayhem, the mob rushed from one corner of the town to the other, smashing and burning and killing. Chinese women and children were thrown up against walls and shot. Mounted troopers dragged Chinese men through the streets at the end of ropes attached to their long knotted hair, while the rabble, young and old, threw rocks and bricks at the moving target and ran along behind the increasingly bloody drag mark, cheering. In the end, the dragging victims were leaned up against a wall in the plaza and shot at close range or hacked at with machetes by anyone who wanted to participate.

Gu Taiquing had stood in the shadows and watched as the third floor candle-lit windows of the Chinese Bank Building shattered and bodies hurled out – when someone picked her up, threw her over his shoulder and began running. One of the teachings of the Bao Huang Hui organization included martial arts training and strategies for survival. The man was very strong and ran quickly. She saw other men running beside them, heard muffled words exchanged in her language. The rescuers ran along in a dry stream bed until they came to a building far outside of town. They gathered women and children into the building, a strongly built wooden icehouse. They slid aside slabs of ice, shoveled away sawdust, and opened a trap door. They lowered some twenty people into the space beneath the floor, handed down sacks of food already prepared, and replaced the sawdust and ice.

Gu Taiquing was 19 years old and pregnant with my friend’s children’s nanny, Mrs. Li.

Mothers held their hands over children’s mouths so they would not cry out. The only speaking was mouth to ear. They sat in the dripping darkness throughout the day, shaking with cold and fear. When night fell, an escort of Bao Huang Hui rescuers and trustworthy Maderista officers led Gu Taiquing and the others to a refugee train, which left almost immediately for San Antonio, Texas and safety.
In the end, 303 Chinese died at the hands of the mob in Torreón on May 15, 1911, including Gu Taiquing’s young husband, whose fingertips had flowed over her like warm water.

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