By Margaret Woods,2014-10-03 13:42
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In the Camp

    An adaptation of James H. Chun’s “In the Camp”

     (The story takes place in a sugar cane plantation (甘蔗大農場) probably

    in the last quarter of the 19th century. The Chinese started going to the US after gold was discovered in California in 1849. Many of the

    ) were from the southern part of China, early immigrants (早期移民人士

    mainly Guangdong. Remember this was a time of unrest in Chinese history: the Opium Wars, the Taiping Rebellion(太平天國)... Many men

    sailed across the Pacific to the Gold Mountain. Some settled in California to become gold miners; others labored and gave their sweat, blood, and indeed their lives for the cross-continental railway; Some became sugar cane plantation workers there. Wong Mun Sing was one of them.)

    During the summer vacation I always returned to the country store, and often I climbed into Ah Fat's delivery wagon and accompanied him to the plantation camps. This time we were on our way to Camp 17 with a heavy load of groceries and a few letters. I took out the letters and looked over them. All the names were unfamiliar to me except one which was addressed "My son Wong Mun Sing; from mother Wong."

    Wong I remembered well, for occasionally he came down the store and brought me mangoes or papayas. He was about twenty-five, strong, good-looking, with an unusually pleasant face.

    "Here is a letter from China for Wong Mun Sing," I turned to Ah Fat beside me. "Do you remember him?"

    "Yes, everybody does. He's the best worker in the camp," he replied lazily without raising his sleepy eyes.

    "That's why he got sick," he added as an afterthought.

    "Sick?" How did he get sick?"

    "Worked too hard. Went to work during the rain storm."

    "Has he been sick long?"

    "He was in bed the last three times I was up there."

    Ah Fat was not given to talking, especially not in a hot and sleepy day. We rode on in silence; the only life being disturbed were the doves we frightened up on the lonely road.

    "We're in Camp 17," he broke the silence as we passed a sharp turn and came to half a dozen wooden buildings. The place was lifeless. No children's voices to fill the air; no women's hands to wipe away the ugliness and dirt. Only the barking of a dog greeted our arrival. Some chickens wandered about aimlessly and a few pigs

    grunted and rolled in the mire of the pen.

    Sounds in the kitchen drew us to the kitchen where we found the cook washing some cabbage for dinner. He unlocked the storeroom for Ah Fat, and took the letters I offered him. After glancing (take a quick look) at them, he said hastily, "Here, you'll find Wong in the second house," and handed one back to me.

    The second house faced the kitchen. On the porch there were some mud-caked shoes and wooden slippers ( 拖鞋 ); some old straw ( 乾草 )hats that had lost their

    shape clung to the wall, and a brown bamboo pipe rested in a corner. The interior

    (inside) was dimly lighted, hot, suffocating (causing difficulty in breathing). On both

    sides were arranged ten bunks ( 上下格床 ) covered with straw mats. On a bunk in

    one corner Wong lay with closed eyes, curled up ( 捲起 )under a thick blanket that

    badly needed washing. Before him was a tray on which a little oil lamp burned dimly, and by its side slept a dark pipe.

    As I approached he opened his eyes, and recognizing me as the storekeeper's son, he said he was glad to see me. But his voice was weak and his eyes lacked their old sparkle ( 閃爍 ).

    "Have you been sick a long time, Mr. Wong?" I asked.

    "Quite a while, but I'm getting better now," he answered weakly.

    "I'm glad you are better. Here is a letter for you," I added.

    "A letter for me?" he broke out in surprise. "From whom could it be!" "From China. From your mother, according to the envelope."

    "Mother!" and a light shone in his eyes for just a moment. "Yes, mother!" he seemed to mutter to himself. "When will I see you again?"

    Then he addressed me eagerly, "Tell me what she says, please."

    I was rather glad to have the opportunity of doing something for him, so tearing the envelope I read: "My dear son, we are all well here, so let not your heart be worried on our account. But you have been away from home, separated from us by mountains and sea for many years, and we look forward for your return. Yuk Ung has been waiting all this time and longs for you to come back to make her happy. Your expectant mother."

    As Wong listened, an expression of pain passed over his worn face. For some moments he stared dreamily across the room.

    "Damn all this!" he burst out suddenly. He grasped (抓著 )the edge of his bed tightly,

    his eyes became hard and desperate ( 絕望 ), and the blood rushed to his face.

    "Damn this rotten work; and the cursed (詛咒)luck!"

    "It must be a hard life," I said.

    "It's a ceaseless (non-stop) grind (long tiring job) that squeezes the life out of you. Seven years have I been here and I'm not free from it yet." After a little while, losing his fire, he advised sympathetically, "My friend, you are young. Make use of your opportunity and get all the education you can and then you won't have to drudge

    (做苦工) like us old people."

    "Why don't you save some money and get out of this?" I asked.

    "I can't. I've saved every cent I could. Altogether it amounted to six or seven hundred dollars all these years. I thought two years more I will be able to see her and mother again."

    "Two years is not so bad."

    "But the trouble is-"


    "Now I can't get away in two years. This illness put me back more than a hundred and it'll be a long time before I can save that up again," and his eyes again had that hopeless stare.

"You'll have to wait longer, dear girl," he groaned (deep sound made when in pain).

    Noticing my puzzled look, he made an effort to edge closer to me and spoke very softly. "I have a mother and a wife back there-the sweetest girl-we were married just before I left for this cursed place. She is a faithful girl. But I never imagined I would be away so long."

    He again fell into a spell of silence.

    Finally he burst out again. "She must not wait too long."

    "I don't believe you took opium ( 鴉片) before," I glanced at the tray and pipe by

    his side, knowing that a man in his position could not possibly save up and get away if addicted to the habit.

    "No!" he said with anger and shame in his voice. "No, only during my sickness, for it allays the pain in my head." After a while he added, "Let me tell you what. I'm going to cut this out as soon as I get well-as soon as I'm well."

    I pitied him as I looked into his tired face-a young man in his prime, separated from his home and loved ones and unable to get back to them. By this time Ah Fat had finished a cordial pipe with the cook, had gotten his next order, and had discussed the price of the pigs, so he came in to say it was time to leave. All I could do was to bid farewell to the unhappy Wong, and went out again to the open air. On the way home, I sat depressed beside Ah Fat and rarely spoke to him, for my heart was full of grief (sadness) and sympathy.

    I did not see my friend again until a very, very long time after. But I learned from Ah Fat sometime after my visit that he was well again and working in the fields. When I asked if he was still taking opium, Ah Fat said, "Of course he does. Don't expect anybody to give it up once he's gotten into it, especially when everybody else is smoking it. And he joins in a game or two occasionally on a Sunday. Don't blame them. That's the only recreation those people have up there."

    As time passed I almost forgot about him and the camp. And the next time I went there was some twelve years later, after I had finished a medical course in the mainland and made some success as a doctor. Ah Fat was still driving his one-horse wagon back and forth, but the changes of years were marked clearly on his tired features and form.

    "I'd like to take a look at the old camps," I told him on a Sunday. "Jump on," he answered.

    "We're going to Camp 17," he said. "Don't remember which one? Well-er-let me see, the one where Wong Mun Sing is. Don't remember him? Why, the one whom you saw sick one time."

    "Oh, I remember. Is he still there? I thought he's gone to China by this time." "He always wanted to go, but couldn't get enough money. Frequently he gets letters from China. I think I have one for him now."

    As we talked, we noticed that the weather was changing. Thick, dark clouds were gathering which soon covered the earth. The storm was approaching rapidly. By the time we reached the camp, the rain was sweeping down from the far away mountains. We went into the nearest house. A confusion of noise and human voices met our ears. Around a large table, engaged in a game of pai gau, sat and stood a group of men.-men in blue shirts and black shirts, men in khaki trousers, men with wooden slippers or dirty shoes or men barefooted, men with overgrown hair and unshaven faces, men with pipes or without pipes, old men and young men, tall men and short men, but all with hard, sun-burnt faces. They did not pay much attention to us as we entered.

    "Curse the luck!" swore he with the long hair.

    "Luck! Wong's having all of it!" said he.

"I'm about cleaned up," added another.

    "By the way he's going, he'll clean us up in no time," someone else put in. "He must have cleared a couple hundred last night," observed the careless one with the pipe.

    Sure enough, with a pile of bills and silver before him, sat Wong Mun Sing. But what a change! His face was lean (thin) and wrinkled ( 皺紋 ), his cheeks hollow, his

    eyes sunken ( 凹陷 ), and his hair gray. It seemed that he was only thirty-five or forty, but he appeared to be fifty or sixty.

    "You fellows keep on going," he addressed the crowd. "I want to see somebody," he said, glancing toward me and putting his winnings into his trouser pockets. "Wait a while there! Give us a chance to get even," they all complained. "I'll be back in a while," he said and came toward me. His shoulders stooped slightly. He was no longer the young and strong man he used to be.

    He said he was surprised to see me, but glad nevertheless. "And by Jove," he cried happily, "I've cleaned up quite a bunch these two days. Never had luck like this in my life before. I'll quit now, I guess."

    Outside the rain was pouring. It beat upon the roof, dripped into the cracks and wet the walls within.

    Inside the men were immersed in their game, unmindful of the storm outside. What is a little rain, anyway! Are they not used to it? But it must be a desolate (lonely)

    life these people are leading. Work, always work, and little pleasure! It was work under the burning afternoon sun and work amid the chilling rains of winter. There was no chance of a change, of going anywhere, enjoying any pleasure, no chance of seeing anybody but the same dirty companions. It was a hopeless job and in their hearts they knew it. They aged and sickened before their time. Their lives were mouldering (衰退)away.

    It was now nearing supper time, yet the rain continued its downpour. Suddenly voices across the yard rose. "Some one get the doctor quick!" Ah Fat rushed over bare-headed and pulled me to the second house.

    "What's the trouble?" I demanded.

    "Wong's gone crazy," he panted.

    In the corner where I saw him before, lay Wong writhing (roll because of pain) on

    his bunk. He sent a terrifying cry that drew everybody in the camp to his bedside. "I told you I was coming. Now I am coming, right away. I have the money." He cried With difficulty we succeeded in quieting him down. But his heart was beating

    weakly, and he was sinking. The effects of alcohol and the long use of opium were telling on him.

    "It happened this way," one of the men explained, handing me a letter. Ah Fat brought this to him today. After he read it, he bought five dollars worth of opium and a bottle of liquor-he won plenty of money and could afford it. He must have taken the whole thing."

    I took the letter. It was from China, not from his mother, but from someone unknown to me. The contents were very brief and ran something like this: "I am sorry to inform you that as a result of a long sickness, your wife has passed away." Some of the men stood unmoved; some bent their heads in sympathy. Some of them knew that the same fate was awaiting themselves. Gradually the crowd dispersed. The rain had now stopped; the gloom (sadness) was deepening.

    The eyes of the man on the bunk, too, lost its little remaining light. The heart that had borne so much grief beat no longer, and the body lay motionless.

    And from across the yard the clatter of cards and the jumble of voices again disturbed the stillness.


    1. The two characters: the narrator “I” and the worker “Wong Mun Sing”

    represent two different types of Chinese. In what ways can they be contrasted?

    (e.g. in the respect of their background, jobs and their future) 2. The story has a clear two-part structure. Each part records the

    narrator's journey into Camp 17 and his encounter with Wong Mun

    Sing. Can you identify the two parts?

    3. What changes have these two characters experienced in the second

    part of the story?

    4. What feelings did you have when you finished reading the story? 5. This story is a good example of what some people would call "fiction as

    history". What did you learn about the conditions of the early Chinese

    immigrants to the United States in the last century?

    6. Make sentences with the following words:

    Sparkle, wander, creaseless, desolate, desperate, suffocating, grief

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