Set in the post-slavery years of the 19th-century, this is a story about a young boy, Song who travels from China to British Guiana to seek his fortune. He begins his new life as an indentured labourer on a sugar plantation, eventually finding success as a gold prospector. Yet not all his dreams are realised; he never succeeds in sharing his wealth with his family back in China, nor is he accepted into the ruling colonial class. He is between places, between peoples, and increasingly aware that his circumstances of birth carry more weight than his accomplishments or good deeds. He will forever live as an outsider.
In many ways, Song’s story is a contemporary one. He travels half-way around the world searching for a better life. We live today during the greatest movement of people made up of individuals such as Song. For many of these economic migrants, as it was for Song, they never find a place they can truly call home.
Through my father’s line I am descended from indentured Chinese immigrants who journeyed to British Guiana in the mid-1800s driven by the desire to improve their lot. My father grew up there but left in the 1960s — searching for a better life in England. I began my career writing for Newsweek magazine in New York before moving in the 1990s to China — where there seemed to be the most opportunities for a young journalist. My migration, inadvertently, brought my family story full circle.
The crowd started to grow agitated. Song felt someone shove him from behind. There was pushing and shouting as they were hustled towards the carts. A family was being split. An elder brother was yelling. The Englishman was telling him to shut up but the brother was panicking. He pushed the Englishman away from his family. Three Englishmen moved in and one hit him with the butt of his shotgun. The brother slumped to the ground. Everyone fell silent climbing quickly on to the carts.
“Name?” A man was taking note of each passenger. He looked down at Song. “Name?”
“Forty-three,” the man said.
Song used the spokes of the wheel to climb into the back of the cart. They pulled away. The bumping of the wheels on the uneven road felt good after the swaying motion of the sea. Song hung on to the side studying the tall trees and spotting colourful squawking birds flying in pairs. He sniffed the dusty heat of the earth and the freshness of leaves. A man rode by in the other direction on a bicycle with a basket of okra and squash. There were odd ramshackle houses and children playing out front. Some pointed at the cart. Song and the others stared back unsmiling.
The roads widened and there were trees planted neatly on both sides of the street. The grand whitewashed homes resembled those Song had seen in Guangzhou with their large windows and wraparound porches. There were rattan lounge-chairs and knotted hammocks on either side of the front door with gardens of rolling green lawns and beds of red and pink flowers. Song saw a young man in sky-blue clothes trimming a bush with clippers and thought how he would like such work.
On the pavements women dressed in soft colours carrying parasols walked with men in pale suits wearing hats. They looked away as Song’s cart rolled past.
The tree-lined streets narrowed and houses bordering the road became more modest. Paint was peeling off the walls. The front-yards were filled with junk. Men slept in hammocks in the shade. An old woman rocked in a chair.
As the cart rolled on the sugar plantations came into view, just like Song had imagined. The cane fields spread out as far as he could see, rising and dipping like a swell, revealing huge stretches of cultivated land beyond. The sugar cane was tall and green and dense. It whispered with the same sound Zhu Wei had described. Song allowed himself a smile. It was as beautiful as he had hoped.
The cart stopped at a clearing beside the road where there were several wooden buildings. Song was taken to the one furthest away.
Inside there was a row of bed mats running along each wall with a number painted above. At the foot of the mats was a metal bowl. Song looked for his number 43 and lay his jacket down on the mat.Read more...
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