The Bukowski Agency - Paper Shadows - Excerpt
Paper Shadows
A Chinatown Childhood

a memoir by Wayson Choy


I THINK IT rained for two weeks.

Every night at bedtime, I told Mother how my castle would look exactly like the one I saw in the Robin Hood movie, a building even more handsome than the best one I saw at English Bay. When he was home for two days, I told Father, too.

One day I awoke to sunshine. After I ate all my porridge and willingly swallowed a spoonful of cod liver oil, Mother let me go out to play in the backyard. First, she put me into a pair of my oldest, ill-fitting, unmended pants and buttoned me up in an old shirt she had been intending to tear up for house-cleaning rags. I gathered the castle-sculpting tools I had been saving, day after day, for this moment—a pair of chopsticks, a variety of blade-like wooden staves pulled off an orange crate, a collection of wooden cigar boxes, a bent fork and a spoon, an empty Campbell’s Soup tin that Father had opened at both ends and hammered away at to blunt the sharp edges.

Outside, I knelt down around a swampy mud hole between our back fence and the woodshed. Scooping up the wet black earth with the empty soup tin, I started to make round mud forms that would stand up on their own. I had no idea there would be any difficulties. I thought all wet ground—loam, silt, beach sand, mud—was pliant and amenable to a boy’s dream. My fingers were alive with the swish and slosh of thick, sucking mud as I pressed handfuls of the fragrant muck into cigar-box moulds. Out slurped five rectangular blocks to be textured with fingers and sticks and fork tines. The slabs were too soggy yet to be shifted or raised, but, with the sun beaming its heat down. I could wait. I was flushed with confidence.

I remembered the lady at the beach telling one boy how, in half an hour, he could lift with a plank a single roof-like slab and slide it off in one piece wherever he wanted.

My first idea was to put five or six soup-tin cylinders on top of each other, to build castle towers from which my toy Indians could rain down their arrows upon tanks and horses. But no more than two round clumps would stand on top of each other. A third cylinder would send the bottom two slumping down in slow motion. It was frustrating. No matter how careful I was, no matter how gently I banged to guide the cylinder of mud into place, the bottom two would gradually sag, split open, collapse.

Everything went wrong.

I tried to move one of the “walls.” It, too, split, cracked, fell apart. Maybe everything was too wet. I waited. I tried again. Split. I waited more minutes. Crack. Collapse.

Mother came out and jammed a straw hat on my head. She looked at the mess around me and said nothing. I lost track of time.

When Mother called out to me from the kitchen window, I was nearly in tears and called back to her to come out. I wanted her to explain why my castle was not working out, why things fell apart. But she only stood behind the screen door and kept calling me to come in. I refused to move. She called me five times, banged the back door loudly, then finally stepped out onto the porch, waving the business end of a bamboo flyswatter menacingly in the air.



Back to top