In the early part of the twentieth century, Chinatown was entirely contained within twenty-four airless square blocks of South Square bounded on the east and west by Hidalgo and Harrison Streets, and north and south by Davidson Street and Washington Square South. In all four directions Chinatown stopped at the curb’s edge, so that the thoroughfares themselves remained wholly American, and for cars passing through or pedestrians on the far side of the street the buildings fronting the Chinese side were as impenetrable as medieval castle walls, and the asphalt as effective as any moat. To casual observers, the perfectly gridded streets that passed through Chinatown were almost invisible, hidden behind the lights and streamers and signs and commotion of that wall.
Racist zoning practices coupled with the immigrant instinct to huddle for safety conspired to quickly overcrowd the neighborhood, and so the buildings of Chinatown grew taller, and the apartments inside them were subdivided with an intensity that violated all of the city’s tenement laws but went unnoticed by city officials and unreported by Chinatown’s citizens.
This city-within-a-city was an amalgam of early industrial America and the waning Chinese empire that would later serve as a source of intoxicating nostalgia but which at the time was considered both a mystery and a nuisance. It was accepted as fact by children outside of Chinatown that the Chinese had even moved into the sewers and built small cave-like apartments just above and around the effluence. (In truth, many of Chinatown’s manhole covers were missing, but this was more the result of municipal neglect than anything else–the value of scrap metal in those days was such that manhole covers were stolen all over the city, even in the more genteel parts, but the city was quick to replace them.)
Within this community people lived and grew and married and died, and dramas large and small were seeded, flowered, and withered. The stories rarely if ever attracted notice beyond the imaginary boundaries of Chinatown, but with those twenty-four blocks the stories were common knowledge, the names and dates passed around like precious heirlooms, and the repercussions studied with exquisite scholarship.
Helen Fan was born in a fourth-floor apartment on Belgrano Street in 1894. She attended Public School 18 on Moreno Street, which still stands as Dr. Sun Yat Sen Elementary School; and the adjacent High School 9, which was torn down in the 1960s. Her parents worked at a shop on Belgrano Street, and she married a butcher from Santander Street and they moved into an apartment next door. This was the extent of her world, entirely contained in within a five minute walk.
It was in 1915 on Belgrano Street that she saw Hsiao Ling murder Ta Ling. It happened in broad daylight in front of at least a hundred open windows but somehow by the next day Hsiao Ling had deduced that Helen Fan on Santander Street was the only person who could probably clearly identify him as the murderer. And so that morning Hsiao Ling went to the butcher shop and spoke to her husband, who assured him that Helen had seen nothing, and even if she had she would never say anything.
But she didn’t need to. Everyone else spoke for her. Within a few days Hsiao Ling returned. A few days later the butcher shop burned down. A few days after that Helen’s husband was found dead on Belgrano Street. The following day Helen visited Hsiao Ling’s offices on Davidson Street. She didn’t need to say anything: the guard recognized her and led her down. Officially, David Ling Tsai operated a drug store and a laundromat in this building; his office was in the basement, behind the steam of the laundry machines. Helen’s escort led her through warrens of heavy machinery and smaller rooms to an unadorned room in the back. Here she met Hsiao Ling and swore she had seen nothing and would testify as such if the law ordered her to.
Three days after that she gave birth to her first and only son.
She rebuilt the butcher shop; though without her husband’s help it floundered until she abandoned raw meat entirely in favor of baking, a craft for which she had respectable skill. As gestures of goodwill she hired workers connected to Hsiao Ling, refused service to men connected to his enemies, and duly made pilgrimages to the offices on Davidson Street to pay tribute, a small amount of money to protect her and her son from any further recrimination.
The financial stress was such that Helen struggled to break even, and many times failed outright. Even as memories of her offense faded and business began to grow, the weight of debt kept her and her son near poverty.
Hsiao Ling was never prosecuted for the murder of his rival, or for any of his crimes, and his position in Chinatown was secure. He kept Helen down to serve as an example to others, and in time she realized that he would never consider her debt repaid. As her son grew older and their poverty more acute, Helen decided that she must do something, somehow, to break free. Only Hsiao Ling’s death could free her.
She prayed for his death but he was young and healthy and so would not go so quietly. He taught himself to stay away from the actual violence of the streets, and so the odds of being gunned down on Belgrano Street were low. In fact, it wasn’t clear to Helen that he ever left his offices on Davidson Street.
For Hsiao Ling to die, he would have to be murdered, and that murder must take place inside his own office, deep in the bowels of a building he owned, filled with his own men. Even if Helen could succeed in killing him, she would never make it out of the building alive, and she had her young son to consider.
What she needed was to come up with what they called in the movies ‘a perfect murder.’ She needed him to die without anybody suspecting her. Helen dug through her mind for months to find a solution but could not come up with any scenario that involved him dying and her living.
Until she reflected on the death of Ta Ling and came to a realization: a perfect murder isn’t one where nobody knows the assassin. It is instead one where everybody knows, but nobody tells.
Armed with this insight, Helen began to plan.
On or around June 9, 1920–only a few neighborhood sources suggest a different date but they are quite emphatic about it–Helen Fan took a deep breath and walked up to the building on Davidson Street. She carried only her usual handbag filled with tribute money.
The guard at the door was Michael K’eung Ch’en, known locally as Tall Mike or Kao K’eung. He frisked Helen as he had done over the years, and checked her bag carefully before sending her in. She would walk herself to the back by now, and she did.
At the top of the stairs that led down to the basement stood Eddie Cheng, Hsiao Ling’s most trusted lieutenant. He was in charge of the daily operations of the various illicit enterprises that took place in the little rooms in the basement. Here she could not go unescorted, so he guided her through this subterranean labyrinth to the heavy door of Hsiao Ling’s office. He knocked and Helen was pleased that Jimmy Renshu Hsieh answered. She had arrived on her regular day because she knew Jimmy would be working today, If he hadn’t answered the door, if any of the other bodyguards had been there, she would have had to cancel her plans, and she didn’t know if she had the stomach to go through this sort of preparation again in a month’s time.
Hsiao Ling sat behind his desk. “Mei Fan,” he smiled, using her Chinese name. “How is business?” he asked.
“Times are hard, sir, but we continue to grow.”
“Excellent. And how is your boy?”
Hsiao Ling had a way of asking this that always made her imagine her young son in his clutches. The effect was no doubt intentional.
“He is in good health,” she answered.
“Excellent. Health is the most important thing.”
As per the prescribed ritual, she would now stand awkwardly while Hsiao Ling looked up and down her body. She always came wearing a traditional dress–since the death of her husband it was the only time she ever wore it–and it flattered her.
“What can I do for today, Mei Fan?” he asked when he was through.
She approached his desk and carefully put the bag on it. Normally, at this point, she would begin by thanking him for his contributions to the community and to well-being of her family. Then she would humbly offer him the equivalent of half of her profits, counting out the dollars one by one onto his desk. So when she did not begin this way, Hsiao Ling leaned forward with an amused smile on his face.
“Yesterday I went on quite an adventure, sir. I went up to Washington Square Park. My husband and I used to go there, to walk through the Japanese Garden. Have you been, sir?”
He nodded. Washington Square Park was only four blocks from where they stood; he had been often. Remarkably, she could almost count the number of times she had gone.
She continued. “I passed through it and crossed Washington Street and went into Northeast.” Northeast was the government district, part of the elegant old city of Leigh. It was a place where Chinese rarely went. Hsiao Ling and Jimmy Hsieh both imagined this Chinese woman walking down the street, gawked at by hundred of white people. Jimmy Hsieh even imagined her in traditional dress, and added in the detail of her son in a pigtail following close behind.
She paused, and eventually Hsiao Ling urged her on, bored now of this waste of time. “Where were you going, Mrs. Fan?”
She answered dreamily. “To the offices of Stanley Meyers. Do you know him? He is a lawyer, with Meyers, Jackson, and Hugh. Their offices are behind City Hall. I had never seen City Hall, only in pictures. To think it is so close. I went to Mr. Meyers because I saw in a newspaper that he sometimes takes cases for little pay.”
Hsiao Ling stood and walked around his desk, coming closer to her. Almost dazed, Helen did not back away, but kept her hands clutched to the bag on the desk.
“What did you want from the American lawyers, Mei Fan?”
“Insurance,” she answered quietly. “Insurance only. I have a boy to look after, you know.”
Hsiao Ling laughed. “You should have come to me! You know I offer insurance here. At rates that we,” and by ‘we’ he clearly meant the greater Chinese community of Leigh, “can afford, with policies that take into account our own traditions and needs.”
She clutched her bag and nodded, then continued speaking as if she had not heard him. “I spoke with Mr. Meyers and gave him a package. I told him that I would call on him again today, in the evening, and that if I failed to do so then he should have that package delivered on my behalf.”
Hsiao Ling, believing he understood everything, laughed. “You try to blackmail me?”
“No,” she said truthfully.
He stopped. “To whom did you address this package?”
She took a long time before answering, but when she did she came out of her fog. “Walter Carlisle,” she said, and the name hung in the air for a few moments.
“The Negro gangster?” Hsiao Ling said, and then burst out laughing. “Do you I am afraid at all of Jeremiah Carlisle? He and I are partners, and have been for years. In fact, I am to have dinner with him this Friday. He wouldn’t lift a finger to help you against me. Besides, he hates Chinese people. Even me.” As he spoke he went back behind his desk, though he remained standing.
Helen didn’t lower her voice or back down. “He became a grandfather this year to a sweet little girl. He’s very young to be a grandfather, don’t you think? My package gives him some information that he doesn’t have. Unless I go pick it up from my lawyer.”
The facts, of which Hsiao Ling was completely ignorant, were as follows: Hsiao Ling supplied narcotics to a club across the river. The club was owned by Walter Carlisle, whose seventeen-year-old daughter Eunice often did small errands for him. One of those involved making a regular cash delivery to the Chinese gangs. She travelled to Washington Square Park, where she met the dapper Jimmy Hsieh. The unhurried transaction provided time for conversation, and in the mysterious ways in which these things happen the pair fell in love, and in time that love produced a child. Walter was enraged but Eunice never revealed the father. It was to all of their good fortunes that the child took her mother’s complexion, and if her eyes were somewhat Chinese, well, eye shapes in the Negro community run a fun spectrum, and the shape of hers, especially as an infant, were not so remarkable.
At least for now. But would things change as she got older? To make matters worse, Jimmy remained deeply in love with Eunice and hopelessly devoted to their daughter. He visited as often as possible, and they had begun making plans to leave together, to escape to California perhaps, or maybe even Canada or Europe.
Perhaps if Walter Carlisle learned the truth of Jimmy and Eunice he would be accepting. But most likely not.
How Helen caught wind of all of this is unknown, though it was a matter of fact that she baked a decorated a cake for Jimmy that he gave to either his lover or his daughter. Did he reveal to Helen whom it was for?
Or maybe during one of her very rare forays into Washington Square Park she had seen the young lovers on a bench together. They did prefer to have their meetings in the famed Japanese Gardens, which Helen so loved.
What evidence there was in Stanley Meyers’ office was also never revealed. But undoubtedly Jimmy understood that it was something that could alter his life forever, and that what stood between him and this secret was Hsiao Ling.
“I don’t understand what you are getting at, Fan Mei.” The subtle change in her name–Chinese word order, not American–was, one supposes, meant to remind her that in America she, as a Chinese, was alone, and no white lawyer was going to protect her. But this was lost on her. She was focused on her bag, which she opened now.
It was filled with money, as expected. It had been searched, and she knew that it would have been. At the very bottom of the bag, though, two stacks of bills had been taped together around a small pistol. A very careful search would have revealed it, but she knew she was not going to be subjected to a very careful search.
She drew the gun and, a little embarrassed, peeled off the money that she hadn’t been able to shake free. She lifted the gun and fired, and through her nervousness the bullet completely missed Hsiao Ling and slammed into the wall behind him. At this he sprang into action and ran towards her. She fired again, this time hitting him in the shoulder.
“Get her!” he shouted at Jimmy Hsieh, but Jimmy for the moment was paralyzed. Helen Fan took a deep breath, leveled her gun at Hsiao Ling’s chest, and fired. Nerves and inexperience caused her hands to move the slightest bit, and the bullet tore through Hsiao Ling’s head instead.
She put the gun on the desk, picked up her bag, and faced Jimmy Hsieh.
“I will go to Mr. Meyers today if I can make it,” is all she said to him. He looked down at the body of his dead boss, and up at the impoverished baker who had killed him, and said nothing. On legs made of rubber she walked out of the room, and after a few heartbeats Jimmy Hsieh followed.
The three shots had been clearly heard throughout the building, and in the criminal labyrinth people poked their heads out to see what had happened. Helen had made no effort to close the door, and all present could see Hsiao Ling face down in a pool of blood and the murder weapon on his desk. The fact was the Helen was in shock at this point, but the effect was that she appeared far more dangerous than she actually was.
Eddie Cheng stood at the foot of the stairs, his hand on his gun. When he saw Helen he was incredulous, and it was a while before he thought to point his weapon at her. She said nothing, merely kept walking towards him, her eyes locked on his. As children they had been neighbors on Belgrano Street. His mother fell ill, and Helen’s mother, who had experience in traditional medicine, cared for her. She brought young Helen along as well, for Helen was her favorite and she loved the girl as if she was her own daughter. It was Helen who comforted the woman as she drew her final breaths, and though he moved away afterwards to a basement apartment on Davidson Street–not in the sewer but appallingly close–he remembered the girl’s kindness when she suffered her later misfortunes. He never said as such, but Eddie Cheng purchased bread from her bakery almost daily, paying in full each time even though Hsiao Ling’s men expected a steep discount, and even though the bakery in his own building made better bread that she did.
She intuited that he felt guilty about the abuse heaped onto her, and as she strode past him she tried to register this on her face. It must have worked, because he let her pass, and when Jimmy Hsieh followed, Eddie Cheng joined the procession.
The last obstacle was Tall Mike. Try as she might, Helen had found no advantage over Tall Mike. She knew nothing about him. He didn’t appear to have a any sort of compassion towards her. He was ambitious and ruthless, but he was young and had no power base. She hoped that if she made it this far she would be able to figure something out. It was lucky that Jimmy and Eddie were following her. Mike had heard the gunshots, and seeing the two top lieutenants escort her out, he calculated that whatever had happened it was best for him to stay out of it. So he stepped aside and let her pass.
All three men stopped at the door, and Helen turned left onto Davidson and then up Santander to her own house. Only when inside did she start shaking. And later that evening, she and her son walked the ten blocks to the offices of Stanley Meyers and retrieved their package, paying him from the bag of money that would have been Hsiao Ling’s.
It was a perfect murder. Although everybody in Chinatown knew what had happened, the police were never notified. Hsiao Ling was never even properly buried. Later that day a fire broke out that completely gutted the building. From the safety of the American half of the street firefighters sprayed their hoses onto the building but it was a total loss, and for nearly a year stood as a gap in the fortifications of Chinatown.
For the next few days Chinatown was a lawless place, as it was unclear who, if anybody, was providing protection in exchange for tribute. The gangsters didn’t know around whom they were supposed to coalesce, and the district teetered on the brink of chaos.
Five days after the murder an old man appeared in Helen Fan’s bakery and approached her counter. He had a red envelope of money which he slipped across the counter to her without explanation. She took it and put it in her apron. By the end of the day three others had done the same. By the end of the week Tall Mike had, without being asked, stationed himself at the front door, and when word slowly began to trickle outside of Chinatown, gangsters from across the city paid visits to the little bakery on Santander Street.