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Tea That Burns

Tea That Burns

A Family Memoir of Chinatown

Bruce Edward Hall may have an English name and a Connecticut upbringing, but for him a trip to Chinatown, New York, is a visit to the ghosts of his Chinese Ancestors -- Ancestors who helped create the neighborhood that is really as much a transplanted Cantonese village as it is a part of a great American city. Among these Ancestors are missionaries and reprobates, businessmen and scholars. There is the patriarch with three wives (two in China, one in New York), who arrived in Chinatown just as it was beginning to take shape, and who eventually became a key player in the infamous Tong Wars that ravaged the neighborhood at the turn of the century. There is the grandfather, whose nickname, Hock Shop, bespoke his reputation as Chinatown's favorite bookie. There is the dashing aviator whose dogfight in the skies over Brooklyn made him Chinatown's first hero in the way against Japan, and the matriarch who was purchased as a bride for $1,200 when the ratio of Chinese men to women was two hundred to one. And all of them shared the experience of the great-aunt who emigrated to New York at the age of eight months, but lived in fear of deportation for the next fifty years because this country refused to allow Chinese to become American citizens.
In Tea That Burns, Bruce Edward Hall uses the stories of these and others to tell the history of Chinatown, starting with the tumultuous journey from an ancient empire ruled by the nine dragons of the universe to a bewildering land of elevated trains, solitary labor, and violent discrimination. The world they constructed was built of backbreaking labor and poetry contests; gambling dens and Cantonese opera; Tong Wars, festivals, firecrackers, incense, and food -- always food, to celebrate every conceivable occasion and to confound the ever-meddlesome "White Devils" as they attempt to master the mysteries of chop sticks and stir-fry. A vivid and tactile story, rich with the sights, sounds, and sensations of Chinatown then and now, Tea That Burns reads like a novel, but is history at its best.
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  • Free Press | 
  • 320 pages | 
  • ISBN 9780743236591 | 
  • January 2002
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1
There are ghosts in Chinatown. They're all there, lined up, waiting to see me whenever I venture down Mort Street, squeezing past the crowds inspecting the sidewalk vendors' fruit or firecrackers or windup birds that really fly. There are ghosts of men and women, some in exotic clothes, some gambling, bent over little ivory tiles, some eating. No, everyone's eating. Inside a certain shop, there is the ghost of a man in a broad-sleeved jacket, with a long braid, working on an intricate work of art. On a tiny street, a vintage black Cadillac, driven by a little man with a big cigar, careens away from the curb, full... see more

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