Author’s note: In a recent interview, I was asked
how I became a literary legend in Asia. Below is my reply. –C.G.M.
I was a 13-year-old newspaper boy on my route one early morning when a freak snowstorm hit. A car stopped and a small Asian man rolled down the window and asked me if I’d like a ride. At least I think that is what he asked me that morning; I remember that he spoke what sounded like a foreign language. He swung open the car door. It was cold and snowing. I got in. He gave me a cup of hot chocolate to drink. Next thing I woke up in San Francisco. I left with the clothes on my back that morning. I had lost my small nest egg.
I was without any money and living in a small room in the back of a Chinese restaurant. I was forced to wash dishes. I didn’t understand a word of what was being said around me. I washed dishes until I turned 15, saving my money. One day a customer in a new BMW came to the restaurant. She pulled me outside and pointed at her car. She was Chinese and old enough to be my mother. I didn’t understand a word she said. Chinese is a hard language to learn and a dishwasher doesn’t get a lot of vocabulary thrown at him.
It didn’t matter about her lack of English, I was used to not understanding anyone around me. But I was getting good at reading expressions and body language. I got into her new, shiny car. I liked her smile. She gave me a nice drink in a bottle, and when I woke up, I was on a boat in the middle of the sea. I had again lost my small nest egg.
Three weeks later, I arrived by ship in Bangkok. I was handed over by an agent to a mamasan, and worked for the next two years washing sheets and cleaning rooms in an upscale brothel in the old part of the city. I saved every baht I could lay my hands on. The mamasan’s sister in San Francisco threatened to kill me unless I paid her an employment placement fee of three thousand dollars. I had until the end of the week. I told a GI who was on RR and a customer at the brothel that I was being held against my will. He helped me escape one night. Someone broke his nose in the fight out of the place. He held off three bouncers with a knife. I lost all of my savings. The GI promised to find me a job in Vietnam.
It was a job stacking shelves in the American PX in Saigon. I lasted almost two years. I had saved enough working at the PX to return home. Two days before I was to leave Saigon, my apartment took a direct hit from a Viet Cong shell. I later found out it was an agent of the mamasan and the woman from San Francisco who had paid the Viet Cong to destroy my place. I was supposed to be inside. I lost all of my savings.
I walked into the Canadian embassy and told them I wanted to go home but I had no money. The second secretary got me a ticket on the black market and took me aside and told me that unless I paid him back within six months he would fly to Vancouver and kill me with his bare hands. He had big hands with large blue veins like a living killing machine. I thought he might know the mamasan or her sister. I was careful not to mention names, places, and dates.
Twenty-years old, I arrived in Vancouver, promising myself never to take another free ride from a stranger, when a car pulled up and an Asian man asked me if I'd like a lift. I get in. Why? I thought the driver had been sent by either the embassy guy in Saigon, the mamasan in Bangkok, or that woman in San Francisco. One of them had sent a hitman who’d finally caught up with me. I was going to die. Accept karma, I told myself. At least I hadn’t saved anything. I had absolutely nothing to lose. But I was wrong.
The driver spoke perfect English. He’d been born in Canada and said he didn’t know anyone in Vietnam or the Canadian Embassy. So I told him my story. He asked me if I would let him make me into a literary legend. I asked him if I got to keep the money I saved. He said, you bet. I said I had no money to bet with. He said it was a figure of speech and a writer had to learn to live with it just like Hugh Hefner had learned to live with a bed full of blondes.
I said I could do that and I also told him that he was the first person since I was 12 that I’d had a real conversation with in English. He said Conrad (Joseph Conrad, not Conrad Black) had a problem with English as a second language. I said I had a problem with English as a first language. He said that he was Chinese Canadian and he fully understood and offered to be my agent. He got me a contract to write a radio play for the CBC and then a book deal in New York.
I stopped saving and spent every dime as it came in. A couple of years later, my agent introduced me to his father, an old Asian man. The father smiled, and I smiled. Even though the father was quite old I remembered him—the man who had stopped his car in a snowstorm when I was 13 and offered me a ride and a cup of hot chocolate. He winked and asked me if I’d like something to drink.
ContributorChristopher G. Moore
Christopher G. Moore is the author of 20 novels, most recently Paying Back Jack.