1930, shantou, china
On a winter night shortly after the New Year festivities, Chen Kai sat on
the edge of the family kang, the brick bed. He settled the blanket around
Gwai jai, he said. Well- behaved boy. Close your eyes.
Sit with me? said Chen Pie Sou with a yawn. You promised . . .
I will. He would stay until the boy slept. A little more delay. Muy Fa had insisted that Chen Kai remain for the New Year celebration, never mind that the coins from their poor autumns harvest were almost gone. What few coins there were, after the landlord had taken his portion of the crop. Chen Kai had conceded that it would be bad luck to leave just before the holiday and agreed to stay a little longer. Now, a few feet away in their one- room home, Muy Fa scraped the tough skin of rice from the bottom of the pot for the next days porridge. Chen Kai smoothed his sons hair. If you are to grow big and strong, you must sleep. Chen Pie Sou was as tall as his fathers waist. He was as big as any boy of his age, for his parents often accepted the knot of hunger in order to feed him.
Why . . . A hesitation, the choosing of words. Why must I grow big and strong? A fear in the tone, of his fathers absence.
For your ma, and your ba. Chen Kai tousled his sons hair. For China. Later that night, Chen Kai was to board a train. In the morning, he would arrive at the coast, locate a particular boat. A village connection, a cheap passage without a berth. Then, a week on the water to reach Cholon. This place in Indochina was just like China, he had heard, except with money to be made, from both the Annamese and their French rulers.
With his thick, tough fingers, Chen Kai fumbled to undo the charm that hung from his neck. He reached around his sons neck as if to embrace him, carefully knotted the strong braid of pig gut. Chen Pie Sou searched his chest, and his hand recognized the family good luck charm, a small, rough lump of gold.
Why does it have no design, ba? said Chen Pie Sou. He was surprised to be given this valuable item. He knew the charm. He also knew the answers to his questions. Why is it just a lump?
Your ancestor found it this way. He left it untouched rather than having it struck or molded, to remind his descendants that one never knows the form wealth takes, or how luck arrives.
How did he find it? Chen Pie Sou rubbed its blunted angles and soft contours with the tips of his fingers. It was the size of a small lotus seed. He pressed it into the soft place in his own throat. Nearby, his mother, Muy Fa, sighed with impatience. Chen Pie Sou liked to ask certain things, despite knowing the response.
He pried it from the Gold Mountain in a faraway country. This was the first nugget. Much more was unearthed, in a spot everyone had abandoned. Th e luck of this wealth brought him home.
It was cool against Chen Pie Sous skin. Now, his right hand gripped his fathers. Where you are going, are there mountains of gold?
That is why Im going.
Ba, said Chen Pie Sou intently. He pulled at the charm. Take this with you, so that its luck will keep you safe and bring you home.
I dont need it. Ive worn it for so long that the luck has worked its way into my skin. Close your eyes.
Im not sleepy.
But in your dreams, you will come with me. To the Gold Mountain.
Chen Kai added a heaping shovel of coal to the embers beneath the kang.
Excerpted from The Headmaster's Wager by Vincent Lam. Copyright © 2012 by Vincent Lam. Excerpted by permission of Hogarth Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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