Chapter 13: Mai Le’s story / disk one
First, Ford, I’m sorry I didn't get to know you better. We're family and I should have made a greater effort, but that's water under the bridge. If you’re watching this it means that fate has caught up with me. This video is my effort to make sure that you know the full story of the events that are confronting you.
My tale of our history has lovely come down to me. Passed from mother to daughter with all the intimacy a child’s questions can bring forth.
It started decades ago with my grandmother, Tu Thi. She was born into an ethnic-Chinese clan, one month after the Japanese invaded Vietnam. The Vichy French were officially still in charge but the Japanese military did what they wanted when they wanted. The Sino-Japanese War was still raging and the rank and file of the Japanese military viewed all Chinese as enemies.
Unfortunately for the Japanese most of Indochina's commerce was in the hands of the accursed Chinese merchant class. To further their war efforts the Japanese were forced to tolerate their activities. The merchants were allowed to continue conducting their business affairs, albeit now for the benefit of his imperial highness, Emperor Hirohito.
The clan's leadership had followed the events of the Second World War II and were wary. Terrified of what had happened in Nanking and fully aware of the multitude of atrocities that had occurred around the Japanese line of march, they made plans to safeguard the clan's wealth. At the insistence of their astrologer, six weeks before the fall of France they secreted away there most liquid assets in a number of clan affiliated rice hamlets scattered throughout the Mekong Delta.
Grandmother’s birth was a moment of great joy, at a time of mounting fears. Celebrations were deferred in favor of sequestering her and Great-Grandmother in the remotest hamlet the clan had sway with. Their journey began immediately, hoping to skirt harsher supervision that would surely follow once the troops were more conversant with local comings and goings.
After several months, the idyllic village's remoteness was both an advantage and hindrance. By the time the clan leaders learned of Great-Grandmother's illness, she'd already moved on to the next plane of existence. And unfortunately, Tu Thi was without a firm hand.
Born in both the hour and year of the Dragon, it was foretold that Grandmother’s life would be eventful and filled with the specter of strife. Beautiful, willful and savage when her will was thwarted, the golden child of our clan was the pinnacle of years of planning and decades of breeding. Her ethnic Chinese ancestors had come to Saigon generations earlier. After much striving, they were finally in a position to assure the clan's eminence for decades to come, and Tu Thi was the keystone of their plan.
In March 1945, the Japanese imprisoned the Vichy Authorities and things turned even darker for the ethnic Chinese. At that point, the Japanese realized that they had to redouble their efforts or the war would be lost. Like the Nazis, the Japanese viewed brutality as the great motivator. In this vein, they executed my great-grandfather and three grand uncles for failing to meet their rice production quota. They were whipped and then beheaded in the public square as a further motivation and inducement for the local populous.
But by September, Japan had surrendered, and for a couple of months it looked like Vietnam and the Vietnamese people might gain their independence. The clan was preparing to be expelled as hated foreign interlopers. At that point in time, more than eighty percent of Vietnam's wealth and property were in the hands of the ethnic Chinese, and that was the source of great resentment among the Vietnamese people. But early in 1946, the French, aided by their wartime allies. returned and along with them the clan's fortunes.
At this point, my grandmother was six years of age and her training needed to begin. She had spent years in the countryside in the company of peasant farmers and their children, watching them work the rice fields, but it was now time for her to become aquatinted with her destiny. Since both her parents were dead, and since much of the clan's leadership had been decimated by the Japanese, those who remained were in a quandary as to who to trust with my grandmother's tutelage and edification.
After much debate, an unmarried great-grandaunt was selected to take my grandmother under her purview and develop her into the poised weapon of beauty that the clan required her to be.
Some in the remaining upper echelon of the clan thought of her as a harbinger of misfortune, referring to her as White Silk Rustling, an epithet for the coming of unseen and unexpected death. But the majority just thought of her as merely an eccentric old maid who dressed in the color of death to commemorate an unknowable loss. They thought all she really needed was the right task to bring her back to the living.
She was answerable for the golden child's instruction and for making sure that she was cloistered to ensure that her virtue was strictly monitored. Unlike the golden-child tradition of all the other clans, the future of Luru clan rested on a female and her unblemished maidenhood.
These duties elevated White Silk Rustling into a position to exact payment for the wrongs done to her as a young woman. Wrongs that were compounded when the family set her on a path of years of lonely servitude. To exact this overdue retribution she was prepared to pay any price, no matter the consequences to herself or others.
With spurious care, she initiated Tu Thi in the essential feminine arts, skills and mysteries, while secretly nurturing Tu's growing obsession with everything new, glamorous and Western.
The growing hope for a life in the West was like opium to the young ingenue. She wanted freedom. She wanted to dance with abandon, to bob her hair like Louise Brooks, live a life devoted to the arts and self-expression with the freedom to speak her mind without censorship.
By happenstance, the perfect linchpin for Great-grandaunt's plan of revenge materialized in the form of a newly posted French diplomat, Bernard Martin Patti. After just one glimpse of his jaunty demeanor and movie star looks, Great-grandaunt knew he would be the perfect lure.
White Silk Rustling’s plan was simple, an accidental meeting, then a series of flirtations, then a secret wooing and, finally, an impregnation that would put an end to all the clan’s aspirations.
The first meeting between my grandmother and the diplomat was so electric, an instant animal attraction so profound, that Great-grandaunt knew her trap had sprung. She magnified the effect by extolling the virtues of the young occidental and the West, interspersed with tales of romance and the ecstasies of willfulness. She also plied Tu with an erotic compound that made the teenage girl’s loins burn with desire as she slept. This continued until my grandmother became obsessed with quenching this most basic of desires.
White Silk Rustling had my grandmother secreted out of the compound over the next few months. With glee, she encouraged and aided the young French diplomat’s efforts to woo, entrancing and finally impregnate, my all-too-happy-to-help, grandmother.
When it became common knowledge that the "Gates of Heaven" had been breached and inseminated by an occidental, the clan erupted into an internal civil war. The lives of those who were charged with my grandmother's safekeeping were forfeit, especially Great-grandaunt, who laughed as she was lead away to face a most painful and undignified end.
A week later, the diplomat was kidnapped and, after several days of persuasion, he and my grandmother were married in a late night service at Saigon's Notre-Dame Basilica. A suitable house was found where the couple could cohabitate under the watchful eye of the clan until the birth. The young Frenchman continued his duties at the embassy while he kept Grandmother in a blissful state. At the Frenchman's insistence, the birth took place at the French hospital in Saigon after a very short labor. Through her father's embassy auspices my mother was granted a French birth certificate and French citizenship. This was 1956.
After their defeat at Dien Bein Phu, most of the French had left Indochina, leaving just a skeletal diplomatic staff to help oversee the agreed upon referendum that was to unite the two Vietnams. But since the Americans had decided to advise the South Vietnamese government, unification looked very far away.
Mr. and Mrs. Bernard Martin Patti and their newly born daughter, Soung, were slated to leave for France at the end of November. It was never explained to me what happened, but something did. When the SS La Marseillaise sailed, my grandmother, Tu Thi, was left behind, replaced by a wet nurse. It seemed the clan had taken their revenge, just when my grandmother's dream was within her grasp.
As fate would have it, my mother, Soung Archimedes Patti, was gifted with the life her missing mother had dreamt of.
As the only male heir of the Patti family’s bloodline, Bernard had expected a warmer welcome home. A melancholy permeated his hereditary home, and much to his chagrin, his extended family had fled to a resort hotel in Cannes, leaving only his two elderly unwed aunts to extend the family’s muted welcome.
In truth, the family was embarrassed. He'd married below his station to an unknown Vietnamese girl, fathered a Eurasian daughter and was part of the diplomatic team that had lost Vietnam. His actions were just another example of his youthful naivete and lack of regard for his family’s position in society, a serve blow to the family’s prestige.
The aunts and the household were thrown into a further tizzy when they realized that the Asian lady with Bernard was not his wife but in fact was the infant's wet nurse, Ngoc. His dower aunts were nonplused when he couldn't furnish a plausible explanation to account for the mysterious disappearance of his new bride.
Ngoc was saddened as she cradled young Soung and followed the butler up the stairs. The walls of the Patti family's home were covered in red silk brocade that made Ngoc wonder about the erratic nature of things. Red was supposed to be an auspicious color, but here in this foreign land it seemed to have become contrary.
They were allotted a spacious room on the third floor next to the attic's door. Ngoc was much relieved when she saw the room was painted a bright yellow. It would be a lucky room since, yellow was the most beautiful and prestigious of all the colors. Surely, a lucky omen for her young charge.
The years passed quickly and it took several before Soung realized that Ngoc wasn’t her real mother. Ngoc shielded her charge as much as she could from the family’s indifference and French bigotry. Soung wasn't treated cruelly by her extended family, just pushed aside and ignored, especially at formal family functions. As soon as Soung was old enough, they shipped her off to Institut auk dam Lemania, an exclusive Swiss boarding school for young ladies of means.
It was extremely hard for my mother to be parted from Ngoc. They took the train from Paris to Geneva, where the school was located. In their private compartment, Ngoc had steeled Soung against the antipathy that she was bound to encounter in her new situation. "Soung you are unique and should never give in to the taunts of those who view you as less because of the Vietnamese blood that flows through your veins."
To help assuage Soung's misgivings, Bernard used his political influence to secure French residency status for Ngoc so if she chose to, she could stay in France permanently. This would allow Soung to visit her on school breaks and holidays.
At first, her classmates viewed the new arrival as a novelty, but soon the consensus among her fellows was that she was way too smart and too exotic to be one of them. Their response was to politely but firmly shun her.
Soung was accustomed to isolation. She pushed her loneliness aside, steeling her emotions, and buried herself in her books. She was a gifted student especially in math and acquiring new languages. She effortlessly excelled in her class work, and the staff soon viewed her as something of a prodigy. Her single-mindedness in academic pursuits bordered on the obsessive. But it was all a defense against the loneliness and longing that plagued her in the middle of her sleepless nights.
She yearned to know her mother. Where was she? What had happened to her? Why had she been left behind? Her remote father was less than forthcoming, always vague and unwilling to discuss the past. Since Soung first realized that Ngoc wasn't her mother, she'd longed to find out what had happened to her. She pestered her father until he finally relented, giving Soung the last known address of the Luru family in Saigon, saying she could write and find out for herself.
Soung was diligent. Come rain or shine, she wrote Tu Thi Luru-Patti once a month from the time she was seven years old. She would forward the letters to Ngoc who would make sure her Vietnamese was unerring, then post them on to Saigon.
Soung longed for a reply, but none was forthcoming.
©2018 Ronald Gary Dunlap