He opened his eyes and noticed that the thing one of the fifteen-year-olds cradled in her arms wasn't a cloth bundle but a baby girl.
Five months, the auctioneer said.
Not much bigger than a skinned rat, a customer opined.
Look how pretty she is, a perfect oval face, the auctioneer shot back.
What did you pay for her, Third Uncle? A dime? Twenty cents tops!
Twenty cents? Just look at those eyes--they'll be hooking men before she's three!
I'm just afraid, Ah Ding said, that she'll hook my dog and he'll carry her off and chew her up. Straight-faced, he watched everyone else laugh.
It was Fusang's turn. She showed the crowd her open palm, on which her price was inked: one thousand.
Amah stood behind her, lips tight, scanning the crowd.
The auctioneer shouted, Opening at a thousand!
Amah stood on her toes to reach up and swipe Fusang's hair loose and then led her through a turn by the hair clenched in her hand.
The auctioneer shouted, That's real hair!
Someone called out, Eleven hundred!
Amah pried open Fusang's lips to show off the perfect teeth. A man came up and patted Fusang's cheek. Amah said, What are you doing? She doesn't have bad breath!
The man stuck his nose up to Fusang's open mouth and said, I wouldn't quite call it good.
The auctioneer shouted, Do I hear fifteen?
Amah pulled off one of Fusang's shoes and walked the crowd with it displayed in her palm, saying, These genuine four-inch golden lotuses are really three-point-eight.
A madam in her thirties, a melon seed shell flying from her mouth, asked, If she's so great, why are you selling her?
You don't know? the madam sitting beside her said. She won't hawk herself. She can't even earn her keep. Forget about her size, she hasn't got a nickel's worth of brains! Eleven hundred fifty!
Ah Ding stopped swinging his crossed leg and asked, Amah Mei, how old is she?
She's twenty and she's a virgin, Amah replied.
Twenty? Ah Ding chuckled. If she's still a virgin, she's probably rusted shut.
Amah said, Ah Ding, a thousand lashes!
Ah Ding, still chuckling, raised a hand and bid, Nine fifty.
Amah looked at Ah Ding, then looked at the auctioneer and whined, This girl's from the inland! Pointing at the brood of naked bodies, she continued, Not like these port and delta girls! How many foreign sailors on the docks? You think any of these girls is still clean? This girl's different, she's inland, and if I say she's a virgin, then she's a virgin!
Ah Ding said, Nine hundred. To the dumbstruck faces around him, he repeated, Nine hundred!
The auctioneer scratched his chin and shouted, Twelve hundred! An inland girl, from a good home! She cooks, she embroiders, and she plays the flute! Twelve hundred!
Ah Ding said, Eight fifty. He licked his lips. They were big and thick; every smile burst open his face for a long time before finally seeping down to his mouth.
Everyone looked away. All the brothels had lost a girl or two and it was common knowledge they had been stolen. Yet no one dared accuse Ah Ding. No one around here wanted to offend him; he had a couple of dozen hatchet men at his command and all he had to do was whistle and they'd come running. And his reputation wasn't confined to Chinatown--whites had heard the stories about him too. It was said that the time forty Chinese men had their queues cut off, slashes appeared on the backs of a hundred whites the next day. The knives had cut through coats, vests, and shirts, but never once broke skin. It was as if on the way to stabbing they had suddenly decided against it.
Ah Ding pulled out his purse and began counting out his money.
Pouting, Amah watched him. The stolen girls would reappear in little towns near the gold mines, but no one ever managed to pin anything on Ah Ding. His numerous enterprises included both the illegal and the legal--loan- sharking, an aphrodisiac factory, shipping tons of dirty clothes back to China to be laundered. But they did not include speculation in women. The stealing and selling of prostitutes was strictly entertainment for him, a diversion for his mischievous streak. As Ah Ding was counting out his money for the third time, the lookout came in and said the cops were coming, and they'd already blocked off the streets.
From The Lost Daughter of Happiness, copyright (c) 2001, Hyperion Press. Reproduced with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.
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