Gregarious. Kind. Curious. Great sense of humor. Generous. Vibrant. Adventurous. Literate. Gracious. A pure delight. My brother, Damon, tells me that there is a relevant Japanese word, “genki,” which has a lot of meaning, like healthy, happy, full of life or energy.
I’m trying to find some suitable words to describe Aunt Harriet. Many of you have been fortunate enough to know her, not only in the restaurants of the Imperial Dynasty and the Chinese Pagoda, but also in her whole life outside of the family business. However, it has proven difficult to find those few words to describe Harriet Wing to those who have not had the opportunity to know her. But I will try.
In short, it was a good egg.
In the 1990s, I started recording interviews with my family about their life in China Alley in Hanford. I recently discovered a long forgotten microcassette recorder and transcripts of those interviews, and a few columns ago, I shared excerpts from my parents’ interviews. I’m keeping an eye on the transcript of the interview with Uncle Richard. I know it will be a big file because I spent two or three days with him.
But I just ran into Aunt Harriet’s case this morning and spent some time lost in my many memories of her and how she filled her life. In this particular interview, I asked Aunt Harriet to talk about her childhood, and I would like to share some snippets with you.
“My childhood in Chinatown, well, I know we were poor, very poor. Only we didn’t know it because everyone else was too.
“We’ve definitely had our fair share of pranks. In the Chinese school, the teacher would ring a bell when school started. One day Lillie Lee Lew and I decided it would be a good idea to hide the school bell. The professor couldn’t find him. Later, when the bell was found, we were questioned, but said we had not. We pointed at another boy and he was blamed. Later I felt so bad, I still do.
“I remember JoMac and Thomas Chan, your grandmother and your grandfather. They started English lessons in Chinatown, none of the adults spoke English. Classes were held at the Mission, it was a building in the parking lot of the Imperial Dynasty. Your grandmother was such a graceful, tall, slender and sweet person. She recited and demonstrated Shakespeare (aunt stands up and begins to recite): “The quality of mercy is not strained. It falls like gentle rain from heaven on the earth below. ‘ (Aunt raised her arm and slowly pulled it down.) When I studied Shakespeare in high school, I wanted to stand up and recite it like she did. Everyone loved her, she had so much compassion for us.
“My mother could read, which was unusual since most women in China did not have the opportunity to be educated. She had a library with piles and piles of books and papers. All the ladies in Chinatown came to visit them, and she read them stories and newspaper articles. This is how I first heard the fairy tales of Chinese folklore.
“My father never raised his hand towards us, he might raise his voice, but my mother was the disciplinarian. She was the one who spanked us every time we did something wrong. Most of the women never walked the Alley except to do business or to visit the Temple. The mother felt that it was not respectable for a woman to be in the open, especially in an area of gambling and prostitutes. So every time mum came to punish me I would run down the alley, stand by a playroom and yell at mum, ‘Nyah, nyah, you can’t come and get me!’
“But I have to tell you about your father’s bear costume.” (Aunt stops and laughs for a few moments.) Mum took us back to our village in China in 1937, she thought we were getting too westernized. We were to stay a year. It was my job to make sure Freddy had warm clothes to wear during the harsh winter. We went to the tailor and I chose the thickest fabric available. Once the costume was finished, we went to get it. Your father tried on the costume, when he came out of the dressing room he could hardly move, the fabric was so thick. Freddy was so angry with me. But I couldn’t stop laughing. I thought he looked like a little bear.
Aunt Harriet. It was a good egg. And she was all of these other things that I wrote at the start of the review too, besides having an effervescent quality impossible to name. Yes, it was a good egg.
Even if it has nothing to do with eggs, the dish I am sharing this week is good. Not good in the way Aunt Harriet was, but good in the cooking and the ways of eating. This is a very easy ramen salad recipe. A friend sent it to me, noting that she particularly enjoyed this recipe from Chrissy Teigen’s cookbook, “Cravings”. I added ground ginger, Chinese five spice powder, and sesame oil to complement it with the flavors we love. Baked, non-fried ramen noodles can be used, as well as ramen wrappers with low sodium seasonings. Enjoy!
Arianne Wing is co-author of “Noodles Through Escargots” and co-owner of the LT Sue Co. Tea Room and Emporium, benefiting the restoration and preservation of China Alley. She can be reached at [email protected]