Daughter of the Mob Part 2
My father came with his parents, seven sisters and two brothers to the United States through Ellis Island in 1975 like thousands of other families had done after China became communist. They had come to America to escape the extreme poverty they faced in Hong Kong, where all 12 of them had lived in a tin-roofed shack. By age 13, my dad had already made a home away from home, slumming with his older friends in Hong Kong. But when his family decided to come to America, he came with them. As legend has it, the family split into two lines at immigration because there were so many of them. That’s how half of them are Chiu’s and the rest are Chu’s.
My grandmother found work at a clothing factory in the garment district snipping thread tails. My grandfather became a local grocer on Mott Street in New York City’s Chinatown, where he worked until he had a stroke 13 years ago. Like many other immigrant families, they worked tedious hours around the clock and had limited time to make sure their children were doing what they were supposed to be doing, things like going to school and staying out of trouble. My father briefly attended American public schools, but dropped out as soon as he legally could. Truant, defiant and certain that school was not his calling, my father at age 17 made his way to Maryland, where he worked as a dishwasher at a Chinese restaurant that some of his friends from New York owned. When his friends sold the restaurant to Sui Hung Lui, my maternal grandfather, he remained employed there. My parents met at my mother’s Sweet Sixteen birthday party, which some family friends had organized. On that night, she saw in my father’s rogue façade a tender heart, one with which she fell in love. Having grown up in the United States since she was six years old, my mother had always struggled to make peace with her traditional identity. Marrying a Chinese man would bring my grandparents so much joy that she forfeited a full scholarship to Loyola College’s business school to marry my father. My parents began building a new life together and it was a happy ending for two lost souls who had found one another.
My mother was crying, not out of desperation, but because she was sorry I was watching them fight again. I was nine years old when my parents were in the early stages of their separation. Tonight, my father was threatening to saw the furniture in half. My mother took me to my room, gave me a portable phone and told me not to come downstairs under any circumstances. “If I’m not back in ten minutes, call the police. Call the police. I love you, sweetie,” she said as she closed the door behind her and left. Muffled shouts and Chinglish insults drifted through the floorboards and I felt tense. I wanted to disappear and pretend this wasn’t happening but I knew I had to be brave. Lost in my own thoughts, I curled myself up in a ball on my bed until I suddenly noticed silence. Dead silence. The fighting had stopped. Footsteps echoed from down the hall and my mom was coming for me. She held me and told me that everything was okay—no one was hurt. As in the case of many unsalvageable marriages, no one was hurt because everyone was numb, but no one won either.
The divorce was finalized in January of 1993 after a year of separation and my mother was awarded full custody of my sister and me. She had sufficiently shown the judge that my father’s double life was taking its toll on the family. Dad never even signed the divorce papers. Knowing he would never pay a dime of the agreed upon child support, my mother took my sister and I under her wing and figured that any clean, legitimate life was better than living on blood-money, or worse, finding ourselves caught up in his business when shit really hit the fan. Just five months later on the Fourth of July, dad had someone “taken care of.”
My mother looks back and doesn’t blame people for thinking she was crazy for leaving my father. “I walked away from everything that I knew. I felt like I was jumping off a bridge,” she said recently. To this day, she wonders how she raised two mostly-normal girls, while going to college full-time in her 30’s and working two part-time jobs. She’s thankful. My most cherished childhood memories come from the conversations we’d have at dinner, which we had together as a family almost every night. We talked for hours, exchanging news of what we had learned in school that day. I’d talk about photosynthesis and she’d tell me about plays, philosophy and women’s liberation. These are the moments I remember best—they are imprinted into the fabric of my being and are so lucid that I could never fully separate myself from them.
I spent the years between the divorce and my father’s incarceration growing close to my mother and harboring resentment toward my father. On the fringes of adolescence, I was inclined to feel invincible and superior to parental authority figures, and so I reveled in my anger, wanting nothing more than to somehow hurt him back. Many Saturday and Sunday afternoons were spent at Pizza Hut and the local Sizzler’s (a buffet chain) in complete silence. I pretended I didn’t understand and stared through him when he spoke Chinese to me. People have told me more than once that I have a dead cool glare that could kill from across the room. Thanks, dad. It’s all because of you.
Weekends with dad were always interesting. I was ten years old when my father once took me to a luggage store at a mall in Park Heights, a notoriously seedy part of Baltimore. He took me by the hand to the back room of the store, through to the stock room where I was greeted by cackling old men who had gathered around a table to catch up on “business.” Uncle Kwon sat in a corner smoking a cigarette, grotesquely exhaling through his nose, slouched back with his legs open, and peered at me through his gold-rimmed aviator sunglasses. Trying to avoid making eye contact with him, my eyes quickly darted elsewhere, anywhere, only to find what I thought were crated guns on an upper shelf. I shook my head and told myself it was my imagination. Poof. Out of sight, out of mind. Dad brought me outside, gave me $5 and told me to wander around the mall for the next 30 minutes while he was at his meeting. He told me not to tell my mother.
I never saw Uncle Kwon again until I visited dad at a so-called detention center in New York before their first trial. He was still devoid of emotion and wore a chilling smirk of indifference—his wife reached over for his hand. Next to him was a big black guy whose girlfriend/wife/whatever was rubbing his balls through his blue uniform. I wanted to throw up. My attention soon returned to my father, even though I couldn’t have known for sure what was proper protocol. Talking about the weather usually breaks the ice nicely with strangers, but he hadn’t been outside in days. I was tempted to just forget that he was a deadbeat father for all those years, but I couldn’t. Still, you can’t help but feel a little sorry for a guy in his situation. At the end of visitation hours, we wished him well on his trial and drove home. I went to school the next day as if nothing had happened.
Two long weeks passed and our well-wishing didn’t do him any good. Maybe if I had wished him luck more whole-heartedly things would have been different, though I doubt it. The truth of the matter is, dad wasn’t very far up on the totem pole in the scheme of mob life. He was the president of the Baltimore chapter of the Chinese Masons Association, a social gambling parlor, but only because most of the truly powerful Chinese men who had once had their heyday in the city left for the suburbs. His mob “family” had long ago abandoned him, which turned out to be a death sentence, almost literally. Uncle Kwon and my father were convicted of all conspiracy charges. Extortion. Racketeering. Robbery. Gambling. Murder. Dad would serve out a life term in jail, plus five years for the illegal gun the police seized when they searched his apartment. Though he appealed the ruling, the sentence remained. His first destination was a United States maximum-security penitentiary in Lewisburg, PA.