Monday, March 5, 2012

TONG by F. Sionil José

Conrado Lopez fell deeply in love for the first time when he was thirty. It was one of those beautiful things destined to bleakness and from the very beginning, he had an inkling that this was how it would be. And all because Alice Tan was Chinese.

When he first saw her, it seemed as if she had blossomed straight out of a Chinese art book; she had a complexion as clear as it was fair. When he got to know her better, he used to trace the blue veins in her arms, the blood vessels in her cheeks. Her nose was perfect, and her Chinese eyes had a brightness that could dispel the gloom which came over him. Long afterwards, when he remembered her eyes, how she looks, how she smiled, an intense feeling akin to physical pain would lance him.

Alice Tan’s parents used to run a small grocery store in Ongpin; both came from Fookien and Alice could trace her family back to Amoy. Conrado Lopez did not know his lineage beyond his great grandfather and not interested in the Chinese traditional kinship system. But he got so interested afterwards, he started to delve into his own background. He lived with his spinster sister, Remedios, in a small house in Makati, a sidestreet parallel to Rizal Avanue in Santa Cruz. He had inherited the house with its pocket-size yard from his parents. The lower floor which had its own entrance was rented out to a lawyer who was adept at fixing things at City Hall. He and his sister lived in the second floor which had two bedrooms, a living-dining room and a toilet and kitchen with antique fixtures. His sister looked after the house, his clothes and his general well being. Conrado had finished accounting at one of the Azcarraga universities and would have accounted to something more than being an accountant in Makati and his older sister whom he supported. It was because of such a responsibility that he had never really been serious with any girl.

He was unprepared for Alice Tan; in fact, in the beginning, he was not sure at all about his feelings for her. It started in March when brownouts were frequent so that when the lights went out that early evening, he thought it was another brownout. But he noticed that the lights in the other house were on so he immediately concluded there must be something wrong with the fuse so he threw the main switch off and change it. But he had hardly thrown the switch on when the line on the ceiling started sputtering. Then a loud report and darkness.

By now, Meding was alarmed but Conrado assured her the house would not burn down as long as the switches were off. He dashed off to Bambang two blocks away to one of the electrical shops there.

He had passed the New Life Electrical Supply a few times but had rarely looked in; for once, he never bought electrical supplies in the neighborhood as he always bought them in the supermarket in Makati. It was then that he saw Alice Tan; she was in jeans and a katsa blouse with a high, lace collar and long sleeves that imparted to her an appearance at once regal and demure.

It was not a big shop. It carried hardware, nails, ropes, flashlights, but mostly electrical goods. She sat behind the glass counter and when he came in, she put down the weekly women’s magazine she was reading.

“I don’t think I would need an electrician,” he said. “It is just a burned line, I think. I put the switch off.”

“That is the first thing one should do,” she said with a professional tone. “I think you will need rubberized tape, and a pair of new fuses.”

“I am sure of that,” he said. “But how do I go about fixing it?” He was not sure now, having forgotten most of his physical classes in high school, the positive, the negative . . .

“Simple,” she said, bring out a roll of blue tape from the counter. “The lines should never get mixed up. When the covering is worn out and they cross each other, that’s when the trouble starts.”

“It is like a boy and a girl then,” he said with a laugh. “If they really get mixed up, there’s bound to be some result . . .”

She smiled at his little joke. “I hope you are not fooling me.” She said

“You can come to my house – its close by, in Makati,” he said. “It is dark.”

“I believe you,” she said. “Well then, first see to it that the main switch is off. Then look for the line that was burned. Sometimes rats gnaw the line. If you touch it and it is live . . .”

“I will not forget that,” he said.

“Clean the wires, then tape them individually. See to it that they do not meet. That they do not touch.”

“No touch, no fireworks,” he said. “Thanks for the lesson.”

In three months, Conrado Lopez learned a bit more about electricity and a lot about Alice Tan. She was studying in one of the Recto universities in the morning and in the afternoons, immediately after school, she came to the shop where she had lunch, usually cooked by her aunt. At eight in the evening, she walked to Avenida for her ride to Ongpin and the apartment she shared with her brothers. She seldom went out even on the Sundays when the shop was closed. She looked at televisions or play Ping-Pong in one of the Chinese clubs in Binondo.

Conrado Lopez took to having a late merienda at the shabby Chinese reataurant across the street. The restaurant was never full – there was always an empty table dirty with noodle drippings and dried blobs of beef, the loud of jeepney drivers who frequented the place, and the juke box oozing Rico Puno and Nora Aunor songs. It was a good place to watch Alice Tan as she went anout her chores.

Many a night, too, he would return to the restaurant for a cup of bad coffee and wait for her to leave and walk the short stretch to her jeepney stop, sometimes with him just a few steps behind.

In three months, too, Conrado could have opened a small shop for electrical supplies. He was buying yet another light bulb when Alice finally accosted him.

“I will not sell it to you,” she said simply.

He was taken aback

“I don’t know what you are trying to do but I know that you are not buying the goods to use. You don’t need all those bulbs. I have been counting them. A light bulb lasts more than six months. You have bought more than a dozen in a month.”

“I like changing them, you know different watts.”

“Mr. Lopez, tell me the truth.”

“I also like collecting lengths of electric wires, sockets, rubber tapes. Have you heard of Thomas Alva Edison? Maybe, I am an inventor . . .”

“You are a liar,” Alice Tan said, her eyues crinkling in a smile.

Conrado Lopez melted. “Yes, a terrible liar, am I not?”

“What are you really trying to do?”

Conrado Lopez stammered. “I . . . I wanted to talk to you. I want to see you. I enjoy talking with you. That’s the simple truth. Believe me. And I don’t mind buying all this useless stuff as long as I can see you . . .”

“But you can talk with me anytime as long as there are no customers. My uncle does not mind . . .”

He sighed. “That is good to know. But I was not sure. You are Chinese . . .”

“I am a human being.” She said. “Will you stop buying things then?”

“No, I cannot come here without a reason. I must talk with you again even if I have to spend doing it . . .”

She appeared thoughtful. “All right, as long as it is not too often. And there are no customers . . .”

The door at the rear opened and Alice’s uncle came into a cup of coffee. He looked at Conrado without a flicker of recognition then sat before his table, impassive and still.

“Thank you, Miss Tan,” Conrado said gratefully.

The following night, he finally found the courage to walk up to her. She thought, perhaps, he was one of those bag snatchers who had became a blatantly open, her first impulse was to hold her bag tightly and draw away when he moved closer to greet her.

“You frightened me, Mr. Lopez,” she said.

Bambang was never brightly lit. They walked slowly. “I would to take you home,” he said. “But I don’t have a car. We can take a taxi if you like.”

“I prefer calesas,” she said,” but it is such a fine evening, can we walk?”

Indeed, an evening washed with rain, the street glistening. Home was quit a distance but it pleased him nonetheless for they would have a lot of time to talk.

He asked how long she had lived in Ongpin and she said, all her life, that she was familiar with its alleys, its shops, just as he knew Makati and Bambang and Misericordia – these were the names of the streets of his boyhood as he remembered them.

“We are Ongpin Chinese,” she said. “Do you know what that means?”

He shook his head.

“That means we are not rich,” she said. “The rich Chinese are in Greenhills. That’s where they live anyway. Before the war, they said it was in Santa Mesa.”

He did not realize there were social Distinctions among the Chinese, too; he had always thought they were all same class, that they were all Fookienese, and that to a man, they lokked down on Filipinos, what with their Chinese tong associations, their schools.

He wondered if this was the time to bring out his clinché sentiments and he eorried that if he did, he would be creating a barrier between them. He decided it was better to be frank, to be honest.

His difficulty was that he could not quite trust his feelings no matter how strong they were; he did not know enough about the Chinese really. “I must just as well admit, Alice,” he said, “that I have some views on our Chinese problem. I am really glad that the Chinese schools should have been closed a long time ago . . .”

“What don’t you like in us?” she asked, looking at him briefly, a smile darting across her face, a smile so prêt that it disarmed him completely.

“Your clannishness, for one,” he said.

“But you are clannish, too,” she said. “Look at all the people in power, they are either Ilokanos or from Leyte.”

“Chinese girls never marry Filipino Boys. It is always the other way around.”

“You call us Intsik Baboy.”

“Because it is true – you are filthy. No, not you personally.”

“And the Filipinos are stupid. Not you personally,” she mimicked him.

He checked himself. “Hey,” he said, “on our first time together – and look, we are quarreling.”

“You started it,” she petulantly.

“I don’t like quarrels. Can you imagine how it would be if we are married?”

“You are going too fast,” she said. “Now, you are talking about us being married. We barely know each other.”

“After all those things I bought from you? I could start another store . . .”

“I don’t want you money wasted,” she said.

“Give them back to me and I will sell them for you.”

They had reached Recto and had crossed over, the air around them now thick with the scent of rotting vegetables and chicken droppings as they passed the public market. They walked on through a dimly lit neighborhood, the street pocked with craters, the gutter slimy with refuse and mud. Beyond, the lights of Ongpin shone. Chinese characters in red and blue. Now, the sidewalk was red brick, the shops bright with red candles, gold leaf pictures. Calesas jostled each other on the street and the uneven sidewalk was crammed with fruit stalls. Around them, the smell of Chinese cooking, of incense and acrid oils, the wail of Chinese flutes. They went beyond a stone arch, bright green and red, and creek which befouled the air, then turned right and after a few steps, she stopped. “This is as far as you go. I live over there,” she said, pointing to an alley.

“But I want to see you to your door. I am not hiding. I am a bachelor. My intentions are honorable. I would like to visit your house, maybe not tonight, but someday, meet your parents . . .”

“I have no parents,” she said. “I have three brothers and I am the youngest. My uncle – Mr. Tan, you have seen him in the store, he is our guardian; he took care of us when we were young . . .”

“I still would like to see where you live.” He said.

“No.” she was firm and there was an edge to her voice. “This is as far as you go, or you will not walk me home again.”

He did not argue. “Is it because I am Filipino?” he asked dully, as she turned to go. She took three, four steps, and then she turned, and shook her head.

He watched till she entered the alley and disappeared in its black maw. He stood there for a while, taking in the huddle of houses, the people talking in a language he could not understand, absorbing the feet of exotic distances. Then it started to drizzle.

* * *

The following evening, Conrado Lopez passed by the shop before proceeding to the Chinese restaurant across the street. Her uncle was not there but Alice was and as he passed, their eyes locked. He positioned himself in the restaurant, toying with his cup of coffee, and watched her reading a magazine. Soon it was time to close. Mr. Tan went out to close the steel accordion door shut, and it was then that Conrado noticed the black Mercedes in front of the shop to which, as if she was in a hurry, Alice went. She sat in front with the driver and as they drove off, in the soft dark, he could see her turn and take a last look at him.

He now realized with some apprehension, of panic even, that she was being cordoned off, and he wondered if this was her doing, if she did not really want to talk with him again. He reproached himself for having talked so openly when what he should have done was to say the usual niceties. In his office that Saturday, he asked to be excused in the afternoon. He proceeded to Bambang at once; he must see her, apologize to her, anything to have her talk with him again, walk with him again.

She was at the store and he was vastly relieved when he saw that her uncle was not at his table. The moment Conrado went in, however, her eyes told him that this was not the time to talk. “I am sorry,” he said, barely raising his voice above a whisper, “but I would like to see you again.”

He could not continue for the door at the rear opened and Mr. Tan came in, a coil of electric wiring in his arms.

Without telling her, Alice stood up, got a bulb from the shelf and tested it. “It is three pesos and eight centavos,” she said, wrapping it in a sheet of old newspaper. She took some time writing receipt while Mr. Tan brought down another roll of writing from the rack and started measuring a length.

“It is in the receipt,” she told Conrado, handling him the receipt. “The receipt,” she repeated with a smile.

That evening, as he and his sister sat down to dinner, he told her about Alice Tan. “I have been thinking about our life,” he said. “I don’t think we would need to spend much more if I got married . . .”

Meding looked at him; she was fifteen years older but she had taken good care of herself and really looked no older that forty or so. She could have easily got married – there was still that chance if she had a mind to – but she had been reclusive. It had often bothered Conrado to think that she had not got married so that she “could take care of him.”

“And if I go get married, you will continue to live with us, of course, like it always has been. How does the idea look to you, Ate?”

He had expected her to sulk and was pleasantly surprised when she beamed. “I have often wondered when it would be,” she said. “I am sure by now you know the right kind of girl . . .”

It was then that he told her she was Chinese, that he was interested in having them meet . . . he did not realize till then the depths of his ignorance about his sister’s feelings, but from the expression on her face, he knew at once that Alice Tan – if and when the moment came – would have difficulty living in the same house with her.

Through the night, he could not sleep, wondering how he would be able to talk with her, to see her without that Mercedes tailing them, without Mr. Tan eavesdropping on them. Sunday morning, he decided to go to Ongpin, to the maze of wooden houses and shop that made up Chinatown. He went up the alley where she had disappeared in the nigh; it was a dead-end, a dark and dispirited place, flanked by decrepit apartment houses, with laundry in the window and a pile of garbage at the end. Children were playing in the alley, and the houses were filled with people who did not once look at him as he passed. He peered briefly into open doorway, and soon reached the dead-end without seeing her. He walked back to the main street clogged with calesas and vehicles and entered the first movie house he passed. It was a Kung Fu movie in Chinese, without subtitles and he could not understand a word but with all that action, dialog was hardly necessary. It was when he finally went out long past noon, that he remembered how Alice gave him his receipt. She had repeated, “the receipt,” Then, it struck him, what she was trying to say. He grabbed a taxi and hoped to God that his sister had not emptied the wastebasket where he had thrown the piece of paper. Breathless, he dashed to his room and was greatly relieved to find the receipt still there. Sure enough, in her legible penmanship: “Rizal Park Post Office, Sunday four p.m.”

He looked at his watch; it was three fifty. By no miracle could he get there in ten minutes by just the same, he raced down to Avenida and told the taxi driver to hurry, in heaven’s name. it had started to rain when they crossed the Pasig and it was really pouring when he reached the Park Post Office in front of the Manila Hotel. He was also fifteen minutes late. He dashed from the cab to the shade of the Post Office marquee. He cursed himself not so much for not bringing an umbrella but for being so stupid not to have understood what Alice wanted to know. She must have got tired waiting and had left. He sat, wet and forlorn, on the stone ledge. Maybe, if he went to her apartment – that was what his sister always said that a man whose intentions are honorable should always visit the girl in her house.

The rain whipped the Park in gusty sheets. It was stormy weather and beyond the Park. The Walled City and all of Manila seemed enveloped with mist. But in half an hour, the rain diminished, then stopped altogether and in the direction of the Bay, the dark clouds were rimmed with silver.

It was Alice Tan who was late and it was good that he did not leave; he saw her get out of her taxi and his heart leaped and pounded so hard he could hear it. He ran to her and hardly heard her apologies, how she had difficulty leaving; he was aware of nothing else but this creature who had come bringing light to this dismal afternoon.

They walked to the sea and now, with the rain that still threatened the city, they had the whole sea-wall to themselves.

“I am stupid,” he said, “for not having understood when you said, it is in the receipt.”

“I was worried about that,” she said, sitting close to him so that their arms touched. “Filipinos are like that, anyway. Gong.”

“What’s that?”

“Stupid, like you said.”

“Now,” he said. “I hope we will not start an argument again. What don’t you like in us, anyway?”

“First,” she said, “you are lazy. You don’t know what industry is – and this is why, no matter what your leader say, you will never amount to anything.”

“You don’t know what you are saying. We work very hard.” He said. “Our farmers work very hard.”

“My father used to wake up at four in the morning.” Alice Tan said with pride. “And we never went to sleep earlier than eleven o’clock at night.”

“Many Filipinos are like that.”

“Show me,” she said. “And then, you are so corrupt. Why, almost every week, someone goes to the shop – policeman, revenue agents, all of them. All they want is money. My uncle always gives of course. And every time, he increases the price of what we sell. In the other end, it is the customer who suffers.”

“He is just as then,” Conrado told her.

“My father had to pay a bribe of ten thousand pesos – way back in 1950 – for his citizenship. It almost broke him.”

“So you are a Filipino citizen then,” he said. “This is where you make your living, where the rich Chinese and your uncle make their money, exploiting the country, its resources, and its people. If you don’t like it here – why don’t you go back to Peking or Taipei, whichever you choose?”

“Be careful now,” she told him. “You misunderstood me completely. My oldest brother – he was very impressed with what the communists were doing in Peking. He went there and returned, disillusioned. It was not so much that the life there is harsh . . . it was that he did not feel at home. Can you not see, Conrado? Our home is here. China – it would be foreign to me, although I could get sentimental about it. I just want this country to have better things – less corruption, less enmity, less poverty . . .”

He realized then that he had spoken again in a way that wouldn’t endear him to her. He was determined to salvage the afternoon. “It is just as well that we have our arguments now. For when we get married . . .”

The waves lapped on the rocks below them. She turned to him, wonder in her eyes. “Please don’t talk about something impossible,” she said. “Let us just be friends . . .”

“But I am serious,” he said. “a am not making a lot just a thousand and a half a month. Plus that four hundred pesos rent from the house. I can support you, not in style. But I have a career still ahead of me. You can go on with your schooling if you want to. We may have some problems with my sister but she will adjust. Why don’t we go and meet her? There’s just the two of us . . .”

It was then that she told him. “It cannot be, Conrado. I have been promised in marriage to someone already. There is just a little time for us . . .”

* * *

For the rest of his life, Conrado Lopez would never really know why Alice Tan saw him again, and still again, every Sunday at four p.m. in the park. When he took her back to Ongpin that evening, she had extracted from him a promise that he should never go to the shop again, or sit like some corner thug in that restaurant across the street where it was obvious to her uncle even that he was watching her. He got her address in Ongpin and he promised too that he would never go there unless it was for some very, very serious reason. She would see him again that Sunday and the Sundays thereafter. Now, at least, Conrado Lopez had something to look forward to. He went eagerly back to his history books, to the references on the Chinese, Limahong, the Parian, the galleon trade which carried Chinese silks and other luxury goods to Mexico thence to Europe. He asked the Chinese embassy in Roxas for handouts and in the bookshops in Avenida, he searched for pocketbooks and other bargains that described China. He even fancied himself learning Mandarin and going to a Buddhist temple although Alice Tan had told him that she was Protestant.

On the next Sunday, the sun was out; a storm had just blown over and the grass was soggy. Alice Tan arrived in a blue print dress; it was the first time he saw her in a dress and her legs, as he has always suspected, were shapely. They went to the Manila Hotel for a cup of coffee – that was all that he could afford when he studied the menu and he warned her about it. This time, they did not argue. Instead, she told him about herself, that it was her dream – as it was the dream of most Chinese girls – to get married and raise a family. She had gone out with Chinese boys to discos in Makati and had exchange confidences with her Chinese girlfriends who had dated Filipino boys and they were all agreed that their Filipino dates were more interesting, for the Chinese dates talk nothing but business. And yes, she said with a slight laugh, they told her, too, that Filipino boys were quicker and that they made better lovers.

“And now,” he said, “you would like to find out for yourself.”

She unwrapped her special hopia that she had brought while an amused waitress looks on. A couple of Chinese boys passed; they stared at her so she whispered to him: “See?” they never like Chinese girls to date Filipino boys. They think Filipino boys are just making fools of us . . .”

“Am I?” he asked.

She reached across the table and almost spilled the goblet, held his hand and pressed it.

On the fifth Sunday, Conrado Lopez took Alice Tan to one of the motels on M. H. del Pilar. The August sky was threatened with rain clouds, it had become dark and they had embraced behind the palms near the sea-wall. He had told her simply that he wanted to hold her, make love to her and she had not replied but had, instead kissed him with passion. They walked to the boulevard and hailed a taxi. She sat wordless beside him, and even when they had finally entered the motel garage, and the door had shut behind them, still, she did not speak.

Only when they were finally in the room, her face flushed, his hands eager and his whole being inflame, did she tell him that she had expected this to happen, but not too soon.

She was a virgin and the sheet was soiled. They lay together for a long time and he told her what he knew of the old days, how the Filipino groom would hang the blood-stained blanket by the window the following morning for all his relatives to see. And she said it was the same Old China.

It was when they made ready to leave that she started to cry, the sobs torn out of her in pain and trembling. He embraced her, kissed her cheeks wet with tears, her hair.

“We will get married in the morning – if this is what worries you,” he said. “Now – if you wish, we can walk to Malate Church and ask. I did not do this to take advantage of you, to fool you . . .”

“I know,” she said, pressing closer still to him.

“Then what are you crying about?”

“I cannot marry you,” she said.

He drew away and looked at her tear-stained face.

“Is it because you are Chinese?”

She nodded.

“But you love me, you said so. I am not rich but you will not starve . . .”

“It is not the money.”

“If it is not the money . . .?”

“Tradition, custom. Whatever you call it.”

“Hell with it!” Conrado cursed in his breath.

Then it came out. “My uncle, Conrado. He took care of us when we were orphaned. I told you. And there is this rich Chinese who live in Greenhills. He is a widower. He has helped my uncle. Given my brother very good jobs . . .”

He drew farther from her, looked at her, beautiful and true then he went to her, hugged her. “Don’t Alice,” he said in a voice hoarse with entreaty. “Let us elope. Let us go to my house now. They cannot find you there . . .”

She looked at him and shook her head. “I am Chinese,” she said simply.

* * *

When he passed the shop that Monday, he was surprised to see she was not at the counter; he hurried around the block, and when he got to the shop again, she was still not there. He returned shortly before eight when Mr. Tan would bring the accordion iron shutter down but neither the black Mercedes nor Alice were there. Every day that week, he passed by the shop. Sunday, he went to the Park and stayed there till dark.

That Monday afternoon, straight from his office, he went to see Mr. Tan. There was no hint of recognition in the face of Alice’s uncle – just this bland, expressionless mien, as Conrado introduced himself.

“Where is Alice, Mr. Tan?” he finally asked.

He replied in excellent Tagalog; Alice was no longer working in the shop.

“Where can I find her then?”

The Chinese shook his head and did not reply.

“Mr. Tan,” he said in a voice which quavered “I know you don’t like a Filipino husband for your niece. But I love her and I want to marry her. You think I am interested in her money – then don’t give her any dowry. No dowry, is that clear?” He took his wallet out and drew a calling card, laid it on the counter, “I have a good job with a big firm. I am young and industrious. A can support her and I can even continue sending her to school. I know you took care of her and I am grateful.”

The Chinese shook his head again and this time, he smiled, gold teeth flashing, and held Conrado Lopez’ arm across the counter. “Don’t misunderstand,” he said. “But you are very, very late. You must leave and don’t bother us anymore. There is nothing I can do for you . . .”

“What don’t you like in me?” he asked tersely as he backed away into the noisy sidewalk.

He had memorized the address which she had given. He took a taxi to Ongpin. It was very dark, the neon lights were on. He walked up the alley, and when he got to the door, 14-D, on it was posted a sign in Chinese. A young man was at the next door playing a guitar and he asked where the people next door were. “They have moved,” he said, “to Greenhills.” Did he know the street? The number? No. and what is this sign? “For rent,” the young man said.

For many days, it was as if Conrado Lopez was in a daze, in a limbo without rim. After office hours, he would wander around the shop in Binondo in the hope that he would see her visiting the old neighborhood. He made a list of the best Chinese restaurants in the city and on occasion, visited them especially at night when there were parties attended by the wealthy Chinese. He would wait in their lobbies, watching, searching.

On Sunday and holidays, he frequented the supermarket in Greenhills knowing this was where the wealthy Chinese shopped and many a time, he would hurry after what seemed a familiar back, a turn of the head, only to find it was not her.

He took to compulsively reading on China until he was quite familiar with contemporary happenings there. On Sundays, he made a round of Ongpin and even got to visiting funeral parlors – “La Paz” particularly, where the Chinese held the wake for their dead. And twice, he went to Benavides, to the air-conditioned Protestant chapel there, hoping that Alice would attend a service.

He no longer went to the Park except one Sunday in mid-February; it was a cool, pleasant afternoon with a pure blue sky. He sat on the stone ledge as he had done in the past. It was four and for a time, he was lost in reverie, remembering how it was the first time, the splashing rain, the anxiety that he would miss her.

It was then that he noticed the black Mercedes parked at the edge of the green and beyond it, Alice walking to the car, her arm held by a fat, bald Chinese, old enough to be her father. She was big with child and as she looked at Conrado, there was this brief, anguished look on her face which told him not to move, not to speak. She got into the car, her husband after her, and as they drove away, he still stood there reeling with emotion, knowing clearly now what it was all about, the tong that must be paid, the life that must be warped because it had to be lived.

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