China waits in doorways. In the seaports, in the cities of the hinterland, and in the rural villages dotting the tapestry of hills and swales, the indigenous endlessly gossip, gaze, and gape, amused by the panoply of the world that spins about them. So was it in the beginning, so will it be at the end. Who am I to make such accusations? I am a gentrified crook, an elusive con artist, an entrepreneur in the opium and the hard liquor trade. Looking for a proper, refined young man to accompany your chaste daughter to some function? I am not him. I am Ivan Stone.
British by birth, Chinese by breeding, my grandfather, with his family, undertook their exodus to the Orient arriving on the heels of the Opium Wars. Before the ink on the Treaty of Nanking had even dried, my extended family holed up in Shanghai, which with the treaty, became arguably the busiest port in Asia. Of German stock and heritage, Kurt Stone was the patriarch of the family, who had impoverished scores on the European continent in accruing his fortune. He then set his sights on England, buying a small estate an hour by coach northwest of London. Everyone who knew Kurt the least bit intimately was cognizant of the lies that were his stock and trade. But the old man did manage to assemble the Fallon Holding Company, a shipping concern that traded in tea from India. Furthermore the ships of the holding company conveyed everything from dress goods to manufacturing implements in the bowels of the hulls of their ships bound for seaports that stitched the world together: Lagos, Cape Town, Bombay, Hong Kong and others that sailors had sullied on their shore leave. Among the shipments were guns and other outlawed weapons of war.
Being a shrewd man, Kurt conducted himself as a polished patrician, raising his two boys to be perfect Englishman, ones that might have been mistaken for any other Brit every bit the polished Englishman that only Eton and Oxford could turn out. Peter, older than my father, was carried away with my great grandfather in a cholera in the summer of broiling heat, and with that my father, Siegfried, resolved that someday he would run the shipping business, as soon as he could wrestle the helm of Fallon Holding Company from his father, Gunther. That was a contest that never materialized for one day my father, already in his twenties, arose to find his father had absconded with all the pounds and francs, rupees and yuan the monument of a bank safe nestled in the estate office would hold. My father was unconcerned: he had the company.
Only vaguely do I recall the Tudor mansion, for I was too young for it to make an indelible impression on me. But with the passing of Kurt and Peter in the epidemic and the midnight departure of my grandfather, my father put the estate up for sale. Taking a beating on the price, he got out right before the local sheriff came to arrest him with a fistful of complaints of fraud and embezzlement.
Leaving, scurrying in the light of day, Siegfried abandoned my mother in the streets of London with a shamefully meager amount. I can still see Greta, my mother, pleading with him on the docks to not to leave her behind. This brought peals of laughter from my father. Once on the deck of the HMS Pearl of the Orient, I queried my father, “Where are we going?”
“You’ll know when we get there, Frederic,” he replied. The wind was snapping the sailcloth like a pennant in a hurricane as we eased out into the English Channel.
“What about mother?”
“Just you worry about yourself now.”
“What if I don’t like it?”
“Then I suggest you swim home!”
This brought a guffaw from one of the sailors. “You should have been born with fins mate,” he retorted. Taking forever, the cruise anchored in the docks of so many seaport towns, that it seemed like being in heaven with civilizations floating beneath us. Only twelve when I made the exodus with my father, I gave him wide berth for he would swipe at me if I crossed his sensibilities at any given moment. Finally, we landed in Shanghai. There, with the money he had secured from the sale of our estate, he bought a handsome domicile in the French Concession and immediately went to work on the new Fallon Holding Company. In China, the Opium Wars were recent history. With the Treaty of Nanking, the imperialist countries carved Shanghai up into five concessions. On the Bund, next to the tidal bore of the Pu River, my father set up the headquarters for the company where he was more a thug than a manager. Through its doors passed the high and low that walk the earth: those with black coachmen at their side; those wearing rags, those wearing eye patches and those whittled down by war. Some came to sell, some came to buy. It was in my father’s office that they traded opium for tea and sundry things not normally available in the East. A large man, one well over two meters, with a stout frame that had not completely gone to fat, my father would physically toss clients onto the Bund’s packed earth who insulted him with low bids. And to a soul they took it from him.
Once in Shanghai, after we moved into the house in the French Concession, my father inaugurated me into St. James’s Academy to be a proper young upstart. The week after he enrolled me into the academy, he stormed into our first class of the day, and grabbing me by the scruff of the neck, dragged me out, muttering, “my son gets his religion from me and not you scalawags.” That was the beginning and end of my formal education. My father had an entirely different idea of how I was to be educated. Tagging along with him in my plus fours, I witnessed most of the transactions my father conducted. Well I remember his asides to me as we scuttled along the wharves, such as, “can you fathom why he believes me,” or “wait ’til he finds out what he signed over to me.” No one along the Bund liked my father as much as they feared him. Crowds would part for him like they would a feral feline creature of the jungles.
As time passed, my father grew richer and richer. But as human nature would have it, others seeing my father’s wealth (and that of other importers), other roustabouts tried to muscle in my father’s business. We had been in Shanghai for only two or three years that I noted certain entrepreneurs unexpectedly disappear from the shorefront of Shanghai. By this time my father had gathered a half-dozen Pretorian who accompanied us on our sojourns in the nettle of the seedier side of the city. The smell of smoldering opium pervaded the streets of Shanghai both day and night. It was a smell my father reveled in. Cecil, a friendly giant of a man from Scotland, who joined my father from almost the beginning, seemed especially affectionate as he ensured nothing troubling occurred to me. The first trader to move on was Foster Sutherland. One day my father and I encountered him walking on the Bund. My father, rather cooly, said to him, “You know there’s a lot more opportunity in Fujian or Hong Kong.” It wasn’t but three weeks later that the authorities found his body in the swamps next to the harbor. Other traders avoided dealing with my father after they found Sutherland’s body. People would whisper as my dad and I walked past them in the avenues, but no one directly accused him of having any hand in the man’s murder. Nor did the authorities manage to capture the assassin.
Like locusts in the year of a plague, other traders came to Shanghai. This time, they brought their own muscle. Though most of the traders pledged fealty to my father, Siegfried, others sought protection from the younger, heartier traffickers who moved into the concessions. Exceeding the murder rate of anywhere on the Chinese mainland, the police lost count of the bodies.
Then when I was sixteen, I was walking beside my dad down a dark alley off the Bund. He wanted to check on some opium that had just arrived. Suddenly, from a door in the brick building, out jumped a half-dozen Chinamen, their hair in queues, with their guns drawn. My father never had a chance. Nor did his two bodyguards. The Chinamen left me. I wasn’t worth their trouble.
Now, people speculate if Ivan Stone can keep the Fallon Holding Company together. But I was born to the breed. China waits for me in doorways.
By Joseph Dylan