BONES OF THE CHINAMEN
The entire play takes place inside a barracoon, an enclosure to hold slaves.
Narrator - Li Tong as an old man.
Li Tong - Chinese man who works in a barracoon as an employee of foreign slave traders. He is in his late 20's.
Armindo DaCruz - Portuguese ex-seaman who rents barracoons and charters ships to make profit from the Chinese coolie trade to Peru and Cuba. Known and feared for his cruelty. Age: Middle-aged
Dr. Murray - dissipated and alcoholic English doctor well paid to certify that Chinese coolies are fit for their grueling sea voyage. Age: About 50
Captain Elliott - Once proud American clipper ship captain now reluctantly involved in the coolie trade. Age: Late middle age
James Turner - corrupt British harbour master. Age: 30's
Mr. Anderson - incorruptible emigration agent: late 20's, early 30's
Ah-fuk - chief Chinese crimp, one who specializes in kidnapping or otherwise inducing Chinese coolies into the barracoon
Brother - A Chinese from a scholar gentry family kidnapped and brought into the barracoon. Age: late teens/early 20's
Sister (Tiang-si) - Captured while trying to free her brother. Mid 20's
Three Chinese musical players - er-hu, gong, cymbals
Chinese male prisoners
Chinese and Eurasian male guards
(Musicians can double as prisoners, etc.)
DOUBLE ISLAND, SWATOW, CHINA, LATE 1800s
At rise the stage is completely dark. From the darkness is heard the sound of a two-stringed Chinese fiddle, an "er-hu." The pentatonic melody it is playing is painfully beautiful, almost heartbreaking.
Suddenly, as the music stops and a glimmer of light fades in, we hear a sound and even catch a glimpse of a naked or nearly naked CHINESE MALE running across the stage. In the style of the Ch'ing Dynasty (1644-1911) most of his head has been shaved and the remaining hair at the back of his head has been braided into a long pigtail (queue). The CHINESE MALE performs in response to commands of an O.S. VOICE.
Run!..Turn! Flap your arms! Bend over!..Jump about while turning!..Duck walk!..Stoop!..Jump about! Quickly! Do not make the foreign-devil angry!...Enough! Spin your queue!..Enough! Now sign the paper and rejoin the other coolies upstairs! Do as you are told or you will be beaten!
(The CHINESE MALE, panting heavily, then
runs off the other side of the stage)
(After the COOLIE exits, we again
hear the sound of the er-hu. Gradually,
a spotlight comes up on the MUSICIAN
(NARRATOR)and his er-hu. He is dressed
in a nondescript Chinese jacket and
baggy trousers and wears soft felt or
cotton shoes. His hairstyle is also
that of the Ch’ing Dynasty. He is
sitting on a low support playing his
instrument. Behind him is a rattan
or wicker stool which he occasionally
(He faces the audience from extreme stage
left and throughout the play will be clearly
separate from the action he describes
- except near the end. He should sit a
bit higher than the stage so there might
be a few steps leading down from his
position to the rest of the stage)
(After 20 or 30 seconds pass, the
NARRATOR stops playing and, still
holding his instrument, looks out at
the audience. He smiles slightly.
He is a very elderly man and when he
speaks there is an undertone of sorrow
and melancholy in his voice)
I am Li Tong, a Canton man of the clan Loi. I was born in Goose Run Village during the year of the dragon, hour of the tiger. This is a barracoon. I play music here; with this: a two-stringed fiddle. We call it an er-hu. The foreign-devils say the melodies I play are almost painfully beautiful, melancholy, plaintive and heartbreaking. My father always said it was the perfect instrument to express emotions. I have learned that it is certainly the perfect instrument to express pain.
(The narrator glances toward the semi-
dark stage where Chinese and men of
mixed Chinese-Portuguese blood are
lighting the wicks of tallow candles
and oil lamps. The stage should,
however, remain quite dark)
I will play music here until I die. That day will not be far off; but before I journey to the Land of the Yellow Springs I want you to know the truth about what happened when I was still young. When I worked in a barracoon as a free man. I have much to apologize for. That much is clear. And as you will see my crimes were horrific. But please know I neither sold coolie slaves nor was I a coolie who had been enslaved. I simply served the various foreigners who ran the barracoons and sailed the coolie ships. I had learned English well from missionaries and in my father's shop I had worked with numbers and an abacus. These skills made me valuable to the foreigners who derived their profit from the coolie trade.
(The NARRATOR plays several notes, smiling
at the memory of happier times. The shadow
of the Calvary might briefly appear when
appropriate in the speech below)
As a boy, I used to love to sit under the shade trees and listen to the itinerant story tellers who traveled from village to village filling our eager minds with outrageous gossip and tales of adventure and news of outside-the-province people. And one day a foreign-devil storyteller with long nose and green eyes dressed all in black with high black hat and silver cross and holy book with red letters spoke of his three-in-one-god and how the son of his god who was mocked and murdered would return and we should be ready. When I saw that even the Manchu soldiers would not disturb the temple he built to his god, I did the great washee and I too wore a cross.
(At the sound of a whip and a scream
the narrator pauses to look toward
the stage, then continues)
My father was very angry but when the Taiping rebels came they spared me and my family because they too were of the cross. And I met a woman I loved very much. And for a few years I was very happy…But that is all gone now.
(Not without difficulty, the NARRATOR
gets up and sits on the stool)
The time came when China was once again plunged into chaos and many had little or no food. In that turmoil, my father lost everything, and I was content to make money as I could; I was not one of those known as a 'crimp,' a Chinese who kidnapped his own people and sold them to foreigners. And so I could live. And I could live with myself. Then, one day, on the 15th day of the seventh month, during the time of year we call Cold Dew, everything changed. And yet, except for the storm, known today as The Great Storm, it was a day which began much as any other. I had overslept but it was still early morning when I made my way on foot from my one-room lodging at a cheap Swatow inn, fighting the howling wind and heavy rain every step of the way.
(At the sounds of pounding on the barracoon
door, the NARRATOR stands up and faces the
I arrived soaking wet and still flustered from my ordeal and pounded on the door until the guards finally let me in. Even these burly men had some difficulty in shutting the door against the fury of the wind and torrential rain. It was at Armindo’s urging that I had changed my outside rainwear from the coconut fibre typical in the Swatow region to the attire of Westerners.
(LI TONG, as a young man, enters the
still quite dark barracoon as described
above. His actions continue as the
NARRATOR continues to speak)
(At the sound of hammering, LI TONG
pauses and looks up and back to
where the sound is coming from)
(The light on him dims a bit and
is now crossing him in streaks,
suggesting prison bars. The
hammering stops and LI TONG unties
his queue holding his tarpaulin hat
in place and strips off his coarse,
thick, double-breasted pea coat)
(He places them on a wall peg then
adjusts the wicks on an oil lamp)
(He walks to a tiny kitchen and
prepares water for tea. He places
wood under a clay stove and an iron
kettle upon it, first shaking the
kettle to ensure it has water. While
busy with his kitchen chores he soon
infuses the water with tea leaves.
He also brings out a saucer for winter
lichees and dried melon pips, prepares
congee and vegetables, etc.)
Yes, that's right, I remember now - the wooden venetians at the windows had been nailed shut to prevent coolies from escaping. And so inside the barracoon daytime was hardly distinguishable from the night. There were about three hundred men in the barracoon. All Chinese coolies. Not counting their jailers, of course. They were as they are now - Portuguese and mixed-blood Chinese-Portuguese from Macau. And some, I am ashamed to say, were pure Chinese. The coolies thought they were waiting for a ship to take them to "Gum San - the Gold Country... California;" but they were not. And that is why the door was locked and barred and the venetians were nailed shut and the keepers had keys...and guns and knives and swords and rattan rods and leather whips...
(The NARRATOR is now clearly embarrassed)
I apologize for the odor. The only ventilation we had was through the crevices of the venetians and of the thick, pitch pine door when it was open. The door at the rear was always locked except when the outside kitchen staff carried in the baskets of coarse rice and poor quality tea in narrow-mouthed earthen pots. And when the tall jars overflowing with urine and excrement were removed from the terrace through the same door. The only other door was upstairs; it opened onto a terrace and the terrace jars were all the coolies had for a privy. The terrace was, of course, too high for a coolie to jump down and escape...Although some tried. Although I did no cooking for the coolie slaves or crimps, I would sometimes prepare fruit or congee or even dumplings for Armindo, Dr. Murray and Captain Elliott. On cold winter days I also placed lumps of heated charcoal inside small brass and copper braziers so that our feet and hands might stay warm.
(A CHINESE MAN appears and begins
swishing lighted incense sticks about
as he crosses the stage and exits
during the next speech. While he does
this, MEN continue to light candles
and turn up the oil lamps)
(slight smile) Despite all that he was, Armindo was the only one who cared about the smell. So every day just before he arrived, one of the guards lit joss-sticks - sticks of incense; and soon the sandalwood aroma hid the offensive odors...as the music was used to hide the screams of coolies being whipped.
(As the NARRATOR says this three Chinese
coolie musicians – gong, drum and er-hu –
appear and take their place on stage)
(Cont) (lost in memory)
Armindo was the only man I knew about whom I could say that, whatever he was, he was to perfection. Some of the foreign-devil slave sellers who came to the barracoon were the cruelest, most dangerous men on earth. Men who had survived only by making certain that those opposing them did not. And yet I never failed to see Armindo intimidate such men and impose his will on them. It was not simply that they knew he feared nothing; it was as if they sensed that whatever it was that inhabited his tortured soul was not quite human. If I had to sum him up in one phrase, it would be an intensity of purpose. His anger, his laughter, his indignation, whatever it was was somehow more absolute, more focused – I almost want to say more pure – than that of other men. Armindo-
(LI TONG suddenly stares at the audience)
Armindo DaCruz...Forgive me; I see from your lack of reaction that you do not know that name. Consider yourself fortunate. But, believe me, had you lived in southern China when I was a young man, you would have known it then. And had you displeased him in any way, it would have been the last sound in your consciousness before you slept and the first sound in your consciousness before you woke.
(There is the sudden and very loud sound of
pounding and the spotlight on the NARRATOR
immediately dims while the lighting of
of the stage setting immediately lights up.
Throughout the play – except when the spot
intensifies as he addresses the audience –
the NARRATOR observes the play in profile)
The frightened CHINESE MUSICIANS rise quickly
- with the docile air of men desperately
afraid of being beaten. The MAN with the
drum stands over it ready to begin. The MAN
with the gong holds out his stick and gong in
preparation to beat it. The MAN with the
er-hu holds up his two sticks)
(Suddenly, there is an enormous crack of
a whip on flesh and the sound of a blood-
curdling scream. As lights come up on the
barracoon, the MUSICIANS begin franti-
cally playing their instruments. The
music now is loud and discordant and
(Thanks to the increased lighting, we now
see that in addition to the one large room
there are stairs leading to a cockloft
above, where there are still more CHINESE
COOLIES. The COOLIES milling about the back of
` the rooms are not shackled in any way but have
obviously been told precisely what area of the
barracoon is theirs to move about in.
(Their space has no lamps or beds but only
a scattering of straw and gunny bags to
serve as sleeping mats)
(Throughout the play we see the - often distorted -
shadows of these MEN moving about in the background;
emaciated apparitions flitting between
lanterns and candles and absorbed by the darkness)
(A CHINESE coolie has his queue and thumbs and
large toes bound up together and is hanging
from a ceiling beam just inches from the floor's
(ANOTHER COOLIE wearing nothing but a kind
of loincloth stands against the far wall.
His hands have been bound behind him and
he is tied by his queue to a wooden wall peg.
His queue has been shortened in length by
being wrapped about the peg so that he cannot
sit down without painfully pulling his hair)
(WELL-ARMED MEN - both Chinese and mixed
blood Portuguese-Chinese - are observing
a furious PORTUGUESE whip a naked Chinese
who is hanging by his thumbs from ropes
tied to wall pegs. The COOLIE's back is
crisscrossed with welts. Blood runs freely
down his buttocks and legs. The long, black
objects hanging from the Portuguese's belt
are the severed queues of Chinese men)
(These CHINESE MEN also have their hair set in
the fashion of the Ch'ing Dynasty and their
queues are either wound around their heads
or else down in back reaching to their calves)
(Non-Chinese and mixed Portuguese-Chinese are
wearing mainly seamen’s clothes of the mid-
1800's: pea jacket, guernsey, bell-bottomed
duck trousers, boots. The weapons at their
belts are knives and flintlock pistols)
(Not far toward the rear of the room, a few
Chinese CRIMPS and GUARDS are engaged in a game
of dice for money, occasionally letting out
groans of "Aiiyaahh!" when luck is against
them. They take no interest in the beatings
as the beatings are nothing new to them)
(A CHINESE GUARD opens the door and we hear the
sound of wind and driving rain. A swarthy
Portuguese somewhere in his early 40s enters
(ARMINDO). An ex-seaman and an expert at
surviving in a very dangerous world. His
flat-brimmed tarpaulin hat, monkey jacket
and boots are wet, shiny and dripping from
(He wears a black-and-emerald green flannel
shirt, black leather vest and striped merino
trousers. He wears no pocket watch but his
knife is sheathed at his belt and a small
cross hangs about his neck from a silver chain.)
(LI TONG has rushed out to offer him a towel
with which to dry off, but ARMINDO ignores
him and brushes by him to stand near his
PORTUGUESE EMPLOYEE whipping a CHINESE COOLIE)
(At each enormous crack of the whip on the
man’s flesh, the sound of a blood-curdling
scream is lost in the loud and discordant
and cacophonous music. The screams soon
cease. After observing the whipping for
several moments, ARMINDO moves quickly to
the MAN WITH THE WHIP, spins him about and
grasps his wrist)
What the devil you whipping him for?
MAN WITH THE WHIP
(to the musicians)
Stop that infernal noise, you heathen devils!
(The light on the THREE MUSICIANS
immediately dims as the music stops
and the men rush off into the darkness)
I said, what the devil you whipping him for?
MAN WITH THE WHIP
Bloody heathen's still refusin' to sign his contract!
(ARMINDO grasps the man's face with both
hands and pushes it near the face of the
COOLIE on the wall)
The Chinaman is dead, you damn fool!
MAN WITH THE WHIP
...What's one coolie more or less?
(ARMINDO draws his sheath knife with
amazing speed and shoves him hard)
That's thirty Spanish dollars I lost! I ought to cut your heart out! If you don't know how to whip coolies without killin' 'em, get the hell out!
(ARMINDO tosses his knife from
hand to hand with obvious skill
and sneers malevolently)
Unless you'd like to try me.
(The MAN hesitates)
MAN WITH THE WHIP
I got no quarrel with you.
You will have, if you ever kill one of my Chinamen again.
The MAN moves quickly away. ARMINDO
gestures to his CHINESE EMPLOYEES who
cut the COOLIE down and prepare to
take the body out by stuffing him in
a sack. He replaces his knife, takes
off his jacket and hat, and looks about)
Li Tong...Li Tong!
(LI TONG appears from out of the
darkness, as always eager to please
ARMINDO. He rushes to ARMINDO and
takes his hat and jacket. He
hangs them up carefully on wall
I'm chilled to the bone. Hurry up with the tea.
Yes, sir. I'm sorry. I overslept.
And add a bit of ginger to it; it’s bloody cold out there.
I have done that, sir, it is all prepared.
(LI TONG obediently brings fruit and
tea while ARMINDO removes his two
pearl-handled pistols from his belt.
As he speaks, he carefully examines
the powder in the pistols' priming
pans, then changes the flint in each
cock. He might also clear the barrels
with his ramrod, etc.)
And how many times have I told you: when we got a storm, we don't need the damn heathen music! Nobody out there can hear anybody screamin' in here during a typhoon! Tell the buffle-headed musicians not to play except when they're needed or I'll ship them out!
I am sorry, sir. It won't happen again.
The storm smashed open the shed door. Tools are gone. Most likely blown out to sea by now.
Yes, sir, I know. Even the barracoon was barely visible until I was almost upon it.
Aye. A black silhouette that bids no one welcome. Sheets of rain sweeping from one end of the roof to another and the tempest winds battering its China fir frame. It was moaning, Li Tong, almost like a living thing.
Yes, sir, I heard it. I thought it sounded like an enraged beast maddened by the fury of the storm but unable to escape.
Well, maybe that’s what it is.
(The door opens and a BRITISH PHYSICIAN enters.
We again hear the sounds of the storm outside)
(As the CHINESE carrying the coolie's body move
past him they collide with him. DR. MURRAY
manages to clutch his leather bag but his walking
cane is knocked from his grasp. He utters an
oath but he steps aside to let the guards pass
with their burden. A GUARD picks up the cane by
its ivory handle and holds it out for him. The
COOLIES exit with the body.)
(The PHYSICIAN removes his peacoat and LI TONG i
mmediately takes it from him and hangs it up)
(He is a rotund man, about 50, rather shabbily
dressed, whose red face shows unmistakable signs
of a life of dissipation. His silver-rimmed
spectacles are propped halfway down his
protuberant nose. His round, oily face is
framed by curly white hair and long sideburns,
and, regardless of his choice of apparel, never
fails to appear rather shabbily dressed. His
black frock coat is well worn and his old serge
trousers and gray flannel shirt are far from new.
(He attempts to retain his dignity but appears a
bit unsteady on his feet and has difficulty
repressing a bad cough)
Mornin', Li Tong. Glad to see you here. The other so-called interpreters know about as much English as I know Chinese.
Thank you, Dr. Murray. I arrived late because of the storm. But I’ll get you a brazier. You'd better dry off.
(LI TONG hands him a towel. DR. MURRAY
rubs his face and arms)
I wager this weather'll be the death of me yet. And the lightning’s in the north sky, so we can expect a lot more of this misery before it’s over. (motions toward the door) What was that about? Not dead of disease, I hope. If so, I need to examine him.
No, sir, he died of a beating.
Well, that’s a relief; no contagion for us to worry about and no more hell on earth for that poor creature.
(He returns the towel to LI TONG then
takes his bowler hat out of a
leather sack. He carefully examines
the hat for damage while speaking)
DR. MURRAY (cont)
The rains loosened the sand. Bones of Chinamen are exposed all along the north shore of the island. The lucky ones had coffins. But now their coffins are bein' swept out into the river. Poor bastards had no peace in life and now-
You're late, Dr. Murray.
I was detained.
By a bawdy house bottle and a more-than-willing chick-a-biddy, I'll wager.
(He places his hat on his head and
carefully adjusts it to his satisfaction)
DR. MURRAY (cont)
At my age I consider myself fortunate if I manage to enjoy a few moments pleasure with a wrinkle-bellied hedge whore. But, no, my dear Armindo, I was in point of fact detained by the emigration agent.
What the bloody 'ell does he want?
He boarded the clipper and ordered your crew to reland the pork.
Reland the- What the hell is wrong with the pork?
(ARMINDO replaces the pistols in his belt
and stands up)
Maggots. Small maggots, to be sure, but it seems he has discovered them in the deepest recesses of the joints and he wishes me to remind you that according to the Chinese Passenger Act-
(While he speaks the following, ARMINDO
snatches an iron-handled whip from the
I don't want to hear about the bloody Chinese Passenger Act! Of course the bloody pork has maggots: The chuckle-headed Chinamen dry salt it instead of keeping it in brine.
(The PHYSICIAN places his leather doctor's
bag on a table and sits in a chair behind
it. LI TONG approaches him with a cup of
tea but DR. MURRAY waves it away)
I gave up that scandal broth years ago, Li Tong. Give it to your boss.
(While LI TONG gives the cup of tea to ARMINDO,
DR. MURRAY pulls out a flask of Brandy and a
glass. He polishes the glass with a small
towel then carefully pours the brandy)
DR. MURRAY (cont)
Soaked to the bone, I am, Li Tong, but my tongue feels like the skin of a dried shark; a most unpleasant sensation that I shall endeavor to remedy immediately.
(He holds up the glass)
DR. MURRAY (cont)
To those dear friends who refuse nothing: the gallows and the sea.
(He drinks it down and clears his throat. DR.
MURRAY looks about for a spittoon and LI TONG
quickly moves the spittoon closer to DR. MURRAY'S
feet. DR. MURRAY expectorates into the spittoon,
then primly wipes his mouth)
The whole blooming lot of them get the mulligrubs from their own addle-pated stupidity and some beetle-browed emigration agent relands my pork!
Be that as it may, as your designated ship surgeon, I concurred that we have no choice but to replace the pork or else-
Replace thirty casks of pork!? Over my dead body! You can doctor it up by runnin' pickles over it. That'll take care of the bloody maggots.
Long enough until we get out to sea!
(ARMINDO places his face close to the
PHYSICIAN's and speaks in a threatening
You best not be forgettin' you work for me, Doctor Murray.
I...never...forget I work for you. And you should never forget that without my attestation as to the good health of the coolies, you don't receive permission to sail.
(ARMINDO stares at the PHYSICIAN
for several seconds, then moves away.
LI TONG refills his tea cup)
(ARMINDO angrily drinks some tea, then
stares into his cup)
Strong taste, this. This Hyson?
(DR. MURRAY leans close to ARMINDO’s
cup and inhales deeply through his
Shade of primrose and a brisk, agreeable flavor. Just what I used to drink before I gave up tea in favor of something a bit more fortifying to my system.
(ARMINDO stares into his cup
Scarcely any color at all.
My dear Armindo, many of China’s finest teas barely color the water.
Aye, some do not. And many aren’t teas at all.
True. If anyone knows how to pull the wool over a tea drinker’s eyes it is the Chinamen. They give the poorest quality tea to their Manchu overlords because the Manchus add milk, and in restaurants they serve rotgut known as foreign-devil tea to us because they think we would not know a fine quality tea if it bit us on our behinds.
Is that a fact?
Indeed, sir. Of course, such chicanery is not limited to transactions in tea. Ducks being weighed by the pound, I will not deign to describe the manner in which pebbles are shoved down the poor birds’ gullets to cheat the foreign housewife. But with tea their manner is far more subtle.
(ARMINDO’s stare never wavers. The spot
gradually intensifies on the NARRATOR
who sits on his rattan stool observing
Aye. I’ve heard plenty of gup about how John Chinaman adulterates the tea and makes a profit while passing off sloe or ash as tea leaves. And of course he is clever enough to add Prussian blue and other trickery to the coloring.
(DR. MURRAY runs one chubby hand through
the white hair of his ring beard, looking
from ARMINDO to LI TONG and back to ARMINDO)
What the deuce! Surely you are not suggesting that Li Tong is adulterating our tea?
I suggest nothing. But I did once spot such trickery in a barracoon in Macau. The Chinaman that done it got himself shipped out along with the rest.
(ARMINDO turns and stares at LI TONG)
Li Tong, pour this water out of the pot and get me a plate.
During the time I was in the tiny makeshift kitchen, Dr. Murray did not say a word. I think he understood that Armindo now suspected me of substituting poor quality tea and selling the better grade for profit. It was not uncommon among my people to do so. I suppose I should have been indignant but I did as he asked. I had never had the courage to oppose him. Nor had any other man. The most frightening thing about him to me were his eyes. They were a charcoal gray, the same cold shade of gray as the ash left by the joss-sticks my father burned in his village temple.
(ARMINDO speaks as he carefully removes
the leaves from the kettle and arranges
them on the plate)
Our bill for tea has doubled since the arrival of our young friend here. Did you know that, Dr. Murray?
Well, of course it has; it has everywhere in southern China and the port cities. The Taiping rebels have seized the tea growing provinces and blockaded the trading routes.
(ARMINDO continues to stare at the leaves)
Aye, that they have.
(THE MEN stare at the leaves in silence.
The only sounds in the barracoon are the
hawking and spitting of the COOLIES and
the GUARDS and the creaks of the roof and
walls in protest of the wind’s fury)
And just what are you hoping to discover, sir?
If the tea is genuine, the leaves will retain their color. If they’re sloe or ash or something else, the false coloring will be carried off in the water. And these leaves will be black.
Another minute went by. I had done nothing wrong, but I had no idea if that could be proved to Armindo’s satisfaction. I knew it was absurd but as each second passed I felt a guilt rise up in me, as if I had something to confess. I knew it was my own weak nature and Armindo’s strong character which made me feel that way. My nerves were being strained as if I were about to be found guilty of a crime. And I think at that moment to please Armindo I would have confessed to that which I had not done.
As we would soon be examining coolies, I thought I should use the time to nib the quills, but the quill needs to be held as steadily as possible and I was afraid my hands might shake exposing my anxiety. Which might be mistaken for guilt. And so I sat and stared at the leaves, knowing my future depended on their ability to retain their color… And the leaves did retain their color.
More tea if you please, Li Tong.
Replace the pork?! Next they'll be demandin' we provide every Chinaman wot goes on board with his own concubine!
An interesting thought. But I dare say we may have some trouble with this particular agent.
I never met an emigration agent that a stack of silver dollars couldn't buy.
This one won't be any different. One way or another, I always bring them to their bearings. And what about Captain Elliott? Did he say the ship is ready to sail?
Oh, yes. The clipper is all shipshape and Bristol fashion. The ship isn't the problem. It's the acting harbour master. Elliott's on his way over with him now.
Doesn't he know the arrangement we had with Nicholson?
We'll soon find out. And, if I were you, I'd cut those Chinamen down and get them out of sight.
What the bloody hell for?!
Because the acting harbour master is a fellow named James Turner and I heard when he was at Ningpo he was the sort who worried about how Chinamen are treated.
Turner. Aye. I know that name. Damn his eyes! Li-tong! Get those Chinamen cut down and put 'em with the others. And get Ah-fuk over here.
(As other CHINESE begin untying the COOLIES,
LI TONG walks to a group of armed CHINESE
CRIMPs and GUARDS absorbed in a game of dice)
Where is Ah-fuk?
(ONE of the MEN points to a sleeping
figure. LI TONG walks over to him and
lowers his voice)
Ah-fuk...Ah-fuk! Wake up! Armindo wants you.
(The man rolls over)
Ah-fuk was bundled up like a child inside a worn wool slate grey blanket. At the center of the blanket I could make out the black letters USM. I had heard Ah-fuk boast of having snatched it on the streets of Hong Kong from a drunken American marine. As I shook him, a pair of dice fell from his sleeve to the floor: The red aces seemed almost to glow in the semi-darkness like a tiny pair of angry eyes.
(AH-FUK rolls over and grunts)
Ah-fuk was one of the most repulsive looking men I knew and on occasion when speaking with him I had been unable to repress a shudder. He had prominent, feral eyes set into a thin dark lupine face and even his most relaxed expression seemed to suggest that sudden violence was just below the surface. On the orders of a magistrate, part of his upper lip had been cut away. It was the Manchu government’s way of discouraging inveterate opium smokers from continuing with their habit. In addition to disfiguring his face, the punishment had also affected his speech. He compensated by raising his upper lip when he spoke and moving his lips in an exaggerated way. He had also once contracted smallpox and his deeply pitted face was what we Chinese call a “chop dollar face,” because the Mexican and Spanish silver dollars introduced by the foreign devils were tested for purity so often by our merchants that the tiny testing implements left a myriad of small holes on the faces of the dollars. I knelt beside him, steeled myself to look upon him at such close range, and lowered my voice still more.
Did you take care of that thing we discussed?
As was his habit, he inhaled noisily and widened his mouth before speaking. His upper lip raised up as if it were some living thing which moved independently of his will.
LI TONG (cont)
Ah-fuk, Did you take care of that thing we discussed!
Don't worry. It is done. But the storm-
The storm what?
We will talk later.
He snatched up the dice and placed them inside his sleeve. Before I could pose another question he leapt to his feet and hurried over to Armindo. I followed quickly after him. He placed one fist inside the other as we do in greeting and gave him a slight bow. I remember how his long, thin queue always hung down his back, its natural hair oil already having permanently stained his tunic.
You bring the new coolies?
Hab got. First chop coolies. Number one.
First chop?! You bracket-faced, buffle-headed loon, half the bloomin' coolies you bring me are so sick they die before they reach Peru. I'm within an ames ace of buyin' all my Chinamen from somebody else.
Ga la! First chop! You looksee! You catchee plenty dolla'!
That better be right. Bring 'em out!
(As the CRIMP obeys, ARMINDO sits in
a chair beside the BRITISH PHYSICIAN.
He places his pistols on the table and
wraps his whip around his wrist. He
brings out a snuff box from inside his
jacket and smears a pinch of snuff on
his nostrils and sniffs. He sneezes)
(LI TONG brings over a pot of tea, tray of
cups, sheaf of paper, quill pens, an abacus,
and an ink container. HE sits beside ARMINDO,
uses a small knife to sharpen the point of
the quill pen, then dips it into the ink)
Dr. Murray had wanted to change over to steel pens but Armindo insisted we stay with quills. He claimed the steel pens lasted only ten days, that they corroded, that their ink flowed poorly and the needle-like nibs scratched the coolie contracts to shreds. And so we continued to use a feather from the wing of a goose as our writing instrument.
(The light of an oil lamp reflects on the
foolscap and on the barrels of ARMINDO's
two flintlock pistols lying beside it and
on the cross about his neck)
(AH-FUK and his ASSISTANTS bring six
frightened CHINESE COOLIES from out of the
darkness. They lead them out by walking
behind them and holding their queues.
The COOLIES are naked or nearly naked)
(to the first enslaved Chinese)
Move about to show the outside barbarians that you are healthy. Otherwise, you will be taken outside and left to starve on the island. And don't think anyone will take you to the mainland. They are too afraid to interfere with the foreign-devil business. So do as I say. Run!..Jump!..Turn!..Bend over!
(ARMINDO and DR. MURRAY watch closely as the
first CHINESE is forced to run about and flap
his arms and leap and stoop and jump)
He looks strong enough to me. 'Ave 'im duck walk again.
Walk like a duck again! Quickly! Before the foreign-devil is angry!
(The COOLIE obeys. ARMINDO looks toward DR.
MURRAY who nods)
All right! Sign.
(LI TONG employs his quill to make notes on
sheets of foolscap before him and noisily
slams beads on his abacus)
Sign the contract.
(The COOLIE walks forward and LI TONG
roughly grabs the COOLIE's finger and
pushes it onto a kind of ink pad then
presses it down onto the contract. He
then places a cord around the COOLIE's
neck which has a number on a bamboo tag)
LI TONG (cont)
This is your number. Number two-nine-zero. When you go on board the black-sided coolie ship, a foreign-devil will call out your number. You will walk forward and he will ask you if you go on the voyage willingly. You say 'yes,' understand? Anyone who says 'no' will be beaten and dragged in the water from the rowboat! You understand?!
(The COOLIE nods)
LI TONG (cont)
Now go upstairs! If you cause trouble you will be whipped and left to hang by your thumbs.
(the COOLIE obeys)
(Much the same action is carried out with the
LI TONG (cont)
Jump! Squat! Flap your arms...Duck walk...Now, the other way.
(LI TONG looks to ARMINDO and DR.
MURRAY. Both men nod)
LI TONG (cont)
Enough! You are number two-nine-one. You heard what I said. When you are asked if you want to go, you say, 'Yes.' Otherwise you will regret it.
(The COOLIE walks forward and LI TONG
places the cord with number around his
Please, I am a charcoal seller. Some men told me where I might find better employment. But when I went with them I was gagged and tied and taken here.
I would rather die than go on the outside barbarian ship. Others say it has no shrine to the heavenly goddess. How will it find its way in a storm?
(LI TONG grasps the coolie’s arm and
gestures toward it)
You were burned by joss-sticks before. Do not cause more trouble or you will receive even worse! Here! Sign!
(LI TONG dips his finger in ink and presses
it to the contract. The COOLIE moves off
and the next COOLIE attempts to move about
Hurry up! Flap your arms about and run!..All right, now jump up and down!..Now duck walk!..Stoop!..Enough! Now, spin your queue! Quickly, you coffin chisel, or else the red faced barbarians will whip you again!
(As the COOLIE spins his head sending his
queue flying about, we hear the sound of
a coin as it is flung against the wall.
AH-FUK walks to the coin and picks it up)
Hiding coins in your queue! For that you will be beaten! And lose your queue. All of you had better remember what I told you: If you cause trouble you will be beaten! Go to the back! Wait there!
Ah-Fuk walked to me while still intently studying the coin. I suspected the man was a triad member and that it was a coin issued by one triad or another. But when I saw what it was, my pulse raced. I turned to Armindo.
This is a coin of the Taiping rebels. Tai ping tien guo. Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace.
(ARMINDO studies it in silence then
rapidly turns it over in between his
fingers as a gambler might do. A
nervous tremor has crept into DR.
The rebels are getting stronger all the time. Rumor has it Frederick Ward was killed fighting them at Tse-kie. And now one of the Taiping armies is said to be heading this way.
We all knew what Taiping rebels did to anyone involved in opium or prostitution or in any religion other than their bizarre form of Christianity. Or even to anyone subjecting himself to the Manchu hairstyle. No doubt they would have nothing pleasant in store for anyone involved in the slave trade. Ah-Fuk had had a narrow escape from them and I could tell he was becoming excited. His men had also grown very quiet. He spoke hastily and his deformed upper lip jumped about.
Plenty piecee bad man Taiping hab got this side, too muchee likee cut throat pidgin.
Tse-kie is only some ten miles from Ningpo, is it not?
Yes. Just a short ride inland. And not that far from here.
(ARMINDO stares at the coin)
Well, let’s hope if one of their mobs is heading this way it’s one of their all-women outfits. I wouldn’t mind a tryst with their so-called silken army. I hear they look right proper flash packets in those silken gowns of theirs.
Aye, silk they looted from Hangchow. But I hear they fight more bravely than the men.
(ARMINDO slaps the coin on the table.
He raises his voice)
Well, Dr. Murray, I have no interest in rumors. Li Tong, have our best men question that man carefully and thoroughly. Now bring in the next coolie.
(AH-FUK takes a step toward Armindo)
But what if-
Be quiet, you bullet-headed fool! We’ve all smelt powder and heard ball. If the bloody long-hairs want a fight, they’ll find one waiting for them here. Now bring up the next man.
Jump! Run! Squat!..Duck walk and flap your arms!
(While the next coolie is leaping and duck-
walking and flapping his arms, he begins to
cough and stumble. DR. MURRAY rises and looks
into his eyes and mouth and runs his hands
along the man's body as if checking the health
of an animal)
This man is sick.
No sick. It too much laining. Him hab cold.
No, not a cold. His teeth are discolored and his cheeks are sunken. His skin is withered and chalky pale. And he’s short of breath. The man's an opium smoker and he’s at death's door.
(ARMINDO walks to the CRIMP and slaps
his face. The CRIMP reaches for his
knife but then thinks better of it)
You no 'cassion makee so-fashion!
I warned you not to bring me anymore like that. One more time and I'll find another crimp. You savvy?!
Take him out.
He'll die out there.
He'll die where 'e's goin', so what's the bloody difference?
(DR. MURRAY reaches for his doctor's bag)
I might be able to save him with-
He'd be shark meat before we were three days sail out of Swatow. (to the CHINESE) Take 'im out!
(As the CHINESE ASSISTANTS take the COOLIE
to the door the man begins shouting to the
At least I will die with my bones in Chinese soil! You are not going to the Gold Country. You are going to hell! Escape while you can!
What did he say?
He...he just said his life is hell and he knows he will die soon.
(ARMINDO makes a very fast movement, grabbing
LI TONG behind his head, pulling it down by
his queue, very close to the candle. LI TONG
is very much afraid)
The missionaries taught you good English. And you're smart. All that makes you useful to me. And the Spaniards say even the lie that lasts only half an hour is worth telling. And that may be. But, so help me God, you lie to me one more time, and I'll ship you out on the next coolie ship! You savvy?
I savvy! I savvy!
Now. What did he say?
He...he told these men they are not going to the Gold Country. They are going to hell and they should try to escape.
(releasing LI TONG)
(to his ASSISTANTS)
Bring him back.
(The ASSISTANTS force march the COOLIE to stand
in front of ARMINDO. ARMINDO puts down his
whip and picks up a pistol)
Ask him if he's afraid to die.
The foreign-devil wants to know if you are afraid to die.
The next world will be much better than this. My spirit will rise to the Jade Heaven in the Western Paradise. I will be with the immortals. These foreign barbarians are like the silkworms which blight our mulberry leaves. Heaven will not endure men such as these and you - for helping such men - you will go to the Land of the Yellow Springs!
He says the next world will be better. That you are like silkworms destroying the mulberry leaves. And he damns me for helping foreigners.
But is he afraid to die?
He says he is not.
(ARMINDO stares at the COOLIE for a few
moments then stands up)
A man who's not afraid to die deserves a chance to cheat death.
(He moves one of his flintlock pistols
closer to the COOLIE, and places the other
near himself on the table)
Tell him the pistols are loaded. If he can kill me I order that he be let go.
And returned to the mainland. Unharmed.
Damn your eyes! Clap a stopper on your tongue!
The foreign-devil has told the others that if you can kill him, you are free to go. No one will harm you.
(The COOLIE stares at the flintlock nearest
him. There is no sound in the room except
for a few moans in the darkness from Chinese
who have been whipped or beaten. ARMINDO
steps away from the table, tempting the
Go ahead. Grab it. Maybe you're faster than me.
(After several seconds the COOLIE quickly
reaches for the pistol and grabs it. He
rapidly points it at ARMINDO. ARMINDO
has not moved. The COOLIE is puzzled but
he pulls the trigger. There is only a flash
in the pan holding the powder. The COOLIE
stares at the the flintlock, then lowers it)
Well, look at that. The Chinaman had the nerve, after all. The rain must have made the bleedin’ powder damp. When that happens, powder only flashes. A flash in the pan.
(He walks forward and reaches for the
This one, though, I expect the rain didn't get to quite so much.
You are a turtle's egg!
What'd he say?
He said you are the egg of a turtle.
What the hell's that mean?
The turtle lays its eggs, then leaves. The turtle baby...does not savvy who is its baba.
(ARMINDO laughs uproariously)
Do you hear that, Dr. Murray? The Chinaman called me a love-begotten child! A bastard!
(DR. MURRAY chuckles, but nervously)
Li-tong, tell him I’m not going to kill him.
(ARMINDO throws the pistol to LI TONG
who fumbles it, but manages to hold on)
...I cannot kill someone.
Sure you can. Killing a man is just a question of what’s in it for you. In this case, it’s your life or his. You don’t take his, I’ll take yours.
Armindo, there’s no call to-
Shut your trap! (To LI TONG) I’ll count to ten. You use that barking iron on him, or, by Christ, I’ll load this one and use it on you. One! Two! Three! Four!
(LI TONG hesitates and then points
the pistol at the coolie. His hand
LI TONG (desperate)
I cannot kill someone!
You’ve been killing men for years! Helping me send them to the Chinchas to work themselves to death. We’re one and the same kind, Li Tong. Haven’t you figured that out yet? (beat) What is it? You can send men to a slow death but you can’t give a brave man a quick one? Seven! Eight!
(LI TONG pulls back the cock
from the safety position)
(LI TONG pulls the trigger. There
is another flash in the pan)
(LI TONG stares at the pistol, then
slowly hands it to ARMINDO. LI TONG’S
hands are trembling)
Well, I’ll be damned! You see that, Dr. Murray? Our interpreter has what it takes to kill another man. That beats the Dutch and the Dutch beats the devil! I better bear that in mind.
(LI TONG starts to walk away)
Li-Tong, Get me the cleanin’ oil and powder horn! Ah-fuk! This heathen celestial has guts. Have your men take him the hell out of here. Into town. No harm is to come to him.
(ARMINDO reaches into his pocket and
pulls out several Mexican dollars)
(He hands the dollars to the surprised
ARMINDO (cont) (to AH-FUK)
And I better not find out later that these dollars Mex found their way into your pocket. Savvy?
(The COOLIE stares at the coins and
then throws them to the ground)
I will not take devil-faced money!
(In the silence that follows, one of
the CRIMPS quickly retrieves the coins.
ARMINDO stares at LI TONG)
He says he will not take your devil-faced money.
(ARMINDO steps forward, standing just
inches away from the COOLIE, and stares
into his eyes. He reaches out and takes
the coins from the CRIMP)
Tell him he can use the devil-faced money to buy medicine or, if he likes, to buy more opium. But if he’s smart, he’ll use it to buy arms; weapons powerful enough to drive men like me from his land.
He says for you to use the money to buy weapons to drive men like him from China. Take it and leave!
(ARMINDO is holding the coins in his
hand, palm up. The COOLIE looks at
the coins, then reaches over and takes
them. He stares at LI TONG)
I will buy weapons to fight men like you.
Enough gab! Now escort him into town.
(The CHINESE ASSISTANTS comply. ARMINDO
again sits down. LI-TONG hands him
the gun-cleaning oil and powder horn.
ARMINDO begins cleaning and reloading
his flintlock pistols. LI-TONG stands
nearby staring at the pistols. DR.
MURRAY pours himself a drink.)
No guarantee his pistol's powder was too damp to fire. You took a hell of a chance.
We take a hell of a chance the day we're born.
I never thought I’d live to see the day you be giving silver to John Chinaman.
That John Chinaman has as much hate inside him as me. Why kill one of my own kind? He knew what he was made of; Li Tong here is just finding out what he’s made of, isn’t that right, Li Tong?
(LI TONG continues staring at the
pistols. Suddenly, he needs to
relieve himself urgently. He grabs
a whale oil lamp and rushes to the
privy and slams the door)
(All light blacks out except for a
spot on LI TONG. He has for the first
time in his life almost killed a man
and he is sweating profusely. He barely
avoids throwing up. As he settles
himself he stares at his shaking hand.
He then throws water onto his face and
uses a towel to dry off. He unlatches
(He suddenly and briefly seems to be
looking back at the NARRATOR whose
position is near the privy)
(As he emerges from the privy, lights
in the barracoon are again as before)
Li Tong, are you all right?
Yes, sir. I am fine.
(DR. MURRAY offers him the flask
and a glass)
No thank you, sir. I will be fine now.
(When the CHINESE ASSISTANTS open
the door and take the COOLIE out,
we hear - in addition to wind and
rain - the loud sounds of horns,
cymbals and drums)
What in damnation is that infernal noise?
(DR. MURRAY pours himself another drink)
Tonight'll be a full moon. The seventh of the year. The Chinamen believe hell opens up and the spirits of the dead are allowed to visit earth. Starting tonight. That's their welcome. (to LI TONG) That right?
Yes. The spirits are allowed to stay for one month. But many of these spirits are the restless ones.
Because they died violently and cannot rest until the person responsible is punished.
Just like a Chinaman to risk his life in a storm to welcome dead spirits.
(AH-FUK appears from the interior)
Boy say yes he spy looksee foreign-devil pidgin for Taiping. But
Taiping no can come this side. Hab too muchee afraid devil
But surely, Armindo, you would not have wanted them to attack us.
The Taipings are a brave army fighting the god-rotting Manchus. I
have wanted to test their mettle since I came to this got-rotting
All right, put him with the other coolies.
(DR. MURRAY holds out his glass, says his
toast and drinks his brandy down)
Very well, then, sir, a toast to the Taipings! All hands forward to splice the main brace!
Easy on that! I don't want you full as a fiddler's bitch before Turner even gets 'ere.
(saluting with his glass)
Aye, aye, sir! But this storm reminds me of action I was in on the coast of Chusan during the China War. Hell of a storm then, too.
Are we in for another of your yarns then, Doctor Murray?
(In response to ARMINDO’s question, DR.
MURRAY simply raises his walking stick
as if to say it will not be a long one)
I had been sent ashore to find some provisions. We were at war with the Chinese in the north but the southerners would ready enough sell us what they could for Spanish dollars. What we really needed was eggs. But I was having a devil of a time making myself understood to the villagers. So I took my handkerchief out of my pocket like this, and rolled it up into a ball. Then I stooped down like this, held the handkerchief down here, then made like a chicken laying an egg.
(DR. MURRAY does a kind of duck walk of
his own for several steps before nearly
toppling over. He raises his voice to
a high pitch)
(DR. MURRAY looks so ridiculous the MEN
cannot help but laugh. Even ARMINDO
And they understood?
(DR. MURRAY climbs back up into his chair)
Oh, yes. And once they stopped laughing, they rounded up all the eggs we needed.
(The levity is quickly dispelled
when ARMINDO turns to AH-FUK)
Bring the last one.
(The last COOLIE is a YOUNG MAN. His clothes
and manner suggest he is from a higher class
than the other coolies. The border of his
crown has been neatly shaved in the manner of
a scholar or a man-about-town. Unlike the other
coolies, his queue is loosely plaited and black
cord tassels have been affixed to it to give the a
ppearance of greater length. He is sobbing)
(DR. MURRAY's speech is slightly slurred as
he speaks to the boy)
Here, here, lad. The more you cry, the less you'll piss!
Tell the Chinaman to shut his bone-box or he'll end up in 'is eternity box.
Keep quiet or the foreign-devil will make it worse for you!
My father was taken by crimps and sent on board a foreign ship. He never returned. My mother has no other sons. If I am taken abroad who will burn incense before our ancestral shrine?
What's his problem?
He says he is his mother's only son. If he is sent away who will carry out his duties to his ancestors?
Bad luck, that. But if 'e don't shut 'is rice-trap, she won't have any son!
(Prodded by AH-FUK's threatening gestures,
the MAN goes through the standard degrading
Run! Flap your arms! Faster!..Duck walk!..Bend over! Squat!..Enough! Sign the contract!
(The MAN looks at the contract)
I can't read it in this poor light.
You don't have to read it! Just sign it!
(LI TONG roughly presses the MAN's finger
down on the contract. AH-FUK leads the
(There is banging on the door and Chinese
guards open it. TWO CAUCASIANS enter.
The American clipper ship captain (CAPTAIN
ELLIOTT) is tall, distinguished looking and
his sea-beaten, light brown face is framed
by the whitest of mutton-chop whiskers. He
is seldom without his short nut brown pipe
pressed to his thick lips. He is in late
(He is dressed in a black beaver overcoat,
well worn trousers and black boots)
(The acting British harbor master (JAMES
TURNER) is about forty. He is plump and
squat with an abundance of curly black hair,
well trimmed black sideburns and a short
bristly mustache. His pale, unnatural,
almost ivory, complexion would remind
Chinese of a type of bean curd prepared at
festivals. He wears a coarse blue jacket
with black horn buttons, too short for his
body and bell-bottomed duck trousers)
(He seems a man who, in normal times, would
not be hesitant in his manner or vague in
his demands. But whatever he has witnessed
on his way to the barracoon has obviously
(We again hear the sounds of a storm. Guards struggle
to close the door. If anything, the squall is worsening)
(The men remove their dripping pea jackets
while adjusting their eyes to the dim
interior light. As LI TONG places their
jackets and flat-brimmed rain hats on wall
nails, the men walk toward the table)
(ARMINDO rudely shoves a CHINESE CRIMP off
a chair to make room for the acting HARBOUR
MASTER. The CAPTAIN stands nearby)
Anchor your ass to a chair, Mr. Turner. I'm Armindo DaCruz. You already know Dr. Murray. Li Tong will get you tea.
(TURNER does not immediately respond to ARMINDO
as he is still stunned by the sight outside.
He begins rubbing his shoulder)
I've never seen anything like it.
Like what, Mr. Turner?
All the sand is being blown away by the storm and the bones of the Chinamen are coming to the surface. They're swirling about like leaves. One of them hit my shoulder. It felt as if I'd been clubbed.
Let Dr. Murray have a look at your-
Some of the poor buggers never had a coffin to begin with. Some were never even buried, just left to rot. And the storm has exposed their corpses and dead men are dancing about as if the wind were blowing life into them. The dogs and swine got hold of some. I saw a dog with the bones of a human hand in his mouth. And the way some of the bones were being blown along the ground, it almost looked like...like-
White birch twigs. That's what they looked like to me. I never saw so many-
(The CHINESE playing dice suddenly grow
loud and argumentative)
Goddamn ye! Stop your heathen gabble or I'll cut your heathen tongues out! You got nothing better to do, go check the Chinamen to see what they're hiding in their pigtails. And check their mouths and assholes!
Quiet down and earn your pay! Inspect the Coolies closely for anything hidden! Queues! Mouths! Ears! Assholes!
(LI TONG serves tea and busies himself
about the area)
(The CHINESE move off into the darkness
to carry out the order. Meanwhile, the
CAPTAIN is tamping down the tobacco in
the bole of his pipe prior to lighting it.
TURNER takes tea, ELLIOTT does not)
The wind is blowing them here.
Blowin' what here?
The bones of the Chinamen. They're being blown about like chain-shot. And there's a flotilla of coffins rushing down the river, like some kind of well rehearsed water-borne procession: each coffin stays perfectly in its place as if it was being expertly guided.
Dead men at the helms, is it? Sounds much like a well-spun galley yarn to my ears.
This is no galley yarn, sir. A devilish night, is what it is.
Well, it's some squall, all right. Anyway, do sit down. I'm real sorry to hear about Mr. Nicholson. Cholera, was it?
(TURNER sits, but refuses DR. MURRAY's offer of a
drink. DR. MURRAY takes the drink. TURNER looks
about as if he's never been in a barracoon before)
He lingered between wind and water for a few days but then he passed on.
'E was a fine 'arbour master. Fine as they come.
Yes. He was.
Many fine men I've known have slipped their cables in Swatow or Macau, Mr. Turner. My own brother lies in Hong Kong's Colonial Cemetery.
Bloody pirates tortured him and chopped his head off to get the reward for foreign devils' heads. One 'undred silver dollars. Paid by the viceroy of Canton hisself. One day I hope to meet up with that heathen.
(Glares at the CHINESE)
Until then, I do what I can to pay them back. (suddenly noticing the CAPTAIN) Captain! (positioning a chair) Bring your ass to an anchor and tell me the clipper is ready to sail.
(The CAPTAIN remains standing and lights his
pipe with a friction match. Sparks fly; smoke
wreaths curl about his head)
Aye, the clipper is as sweet as a nut and clean as a dairy, but she won't be sailin' anywhere just yet.
Why in blazes not?!
You better ask Mr. Turner.
You're not ready to sail.
Not ready?! We loaded rice, salt, tea, biscuit, firewood, lard, tobacco-
Your provisions you can discuss with the emigration agent. I'm talking about the windsails.
We've fixed up a windsail!
The new regulations specify that there should be a windsail for every hatchway; and scuttles and air funnels.
And twelve feet per coolie is the minimum. As you're planning on placing three hundred coolies on board, that means each coolie will get only about eight feet.
We housed over the upper deck from the mizzen forward! That way we can carry nearly as many coolies on the upper deck as on the 'tween deck.
I already took that into account, Mr. DaCruz.
So what are you sayin'?
I'm afraid you'll just have to ship fewer coolies.
And how am I supposed to make a profit if I ship coolies below cost?
Coolies are very much in demand in the Chinchas, are they not, sir? For mining?
Not mining. Digging! The islands are covered with guano. Bird shit.
They say it's thirty times more effective than ordinary manure. The best fertilizer for agriculture ever known.
And it's makin' men wealthy beyond their dreams!
Well, then, I would think that at the going rate men are willing to pay for them, three hundred coolies would bring you a fine profit.
Aye. That they would if I didn't have to allow for twenty percent dyin' on the way there.
Aye. And that's only if all goes well: No diseases. You explain it to him, Dr. Murray. 'E's new here.
Very well, sir. My last voyage from Swatow was to Havana. The coolies weren't used to the heat of the Tropics. And in the ship's close confinement they grew weak. Then apathetic. Then they started to cough. Their skin became red and blotched. Then the eye diseases started spreading. When I saw the fever and nausea I knew the intestinal worms had arrived. And the worms started the diarrhea. And the diarrhea became dysentery.
Didn't you disinfect?
We did. And when we had nothing left to disinfect with we fumigated the 'tween-decks with boiling pitch. But nothing slowed it. There wasn't anything I could do for the poor bastards. By the time they died they were just bones covered by loose folds of shriveled skin.
How many did you lose?
One hundred and thirty-four Chinamen.
My God. So what did you do with them?
What we always do. When a man died we sewed him up in a rice sack and tossed him overboard. (laughs) Why do you think sharks follow ships in the coolie trade, Mr. Turner?
Aye! John Chinaman loves the taste of soup with shark fins and the sharks love the taste of John Chinaman!
(TURNER does not join in the laughter)
I think I'll have that drink now.
(TURNER takes the glass offered by DR. MURRAY.
DR. MURRAY says his toast, which TURNER ignores)
Never dance with the mate when you can dance with the captain!
(DR. MURRAY gulps his down. TURNER swigs some
brandy down, then returns the glass upside down.
ELLIOTT immediately walks over and turns the
Never place anything upside down before a voyage, sir! It suggests a ship capsizing.
I beg your pardon. I didn't-
So you can understand, sir, why I have to ship at least three hundred coolies just to ensure a small profit.
Well, I'm sorry, but I can't issue port clearance papers the way things are now.
(ARMINDO rises and gestures for MR. TURNER
to follow him off to the side. The MEN lower
Didn't Mr. Nicholson explain about things? How they work, I mean.
I know about your arrangement with Mr. Nicholson. Two shillings a head, wasn't it?
Aye. A florin for each coolie who leaves Swatow on any ship I charter. He got paid whether they arrived alive or not. Peru or Havana - destination made no difference.
Well, I'll tell you, sir. Ever since the British passed the Chinese Passenger Act, things have gotten tight. A harbor master looking the other way these days is taking a great risk.
And just what rate per coolie might make it worth the risk, Mr. Turner?
...One crown per man.
A crown?! (laughing) Before I'll pay you five shillings a man I might just as well scuttle the ship and sink 'er to the bottom of the harbor.
(TURNER looks at his pocket watch)
Well, I wish I could have been of more help to you, Mr. DaCruz, but Hong Kong's Governor Bowring is dead set against the coolie trade, and he's not a man to-
Wait! I'll give you a half-crown per man. That's the best I can do. Bloody Chinese Passenger Act or no bloody Chinese Passenger Act.
I won't risk the wrath of Sir John Bowring for a farthing less than three shillings per man.
(ARMINDO appears about to explode then
All right. No point in going to loggerheads over half a shilling. It's done.
Very well, sir. You have my word. Once I've received the specified sum, you'll have your port clearance papers. You do understand you'll still have to deal with the emigration agent.
Don't worry about 'im. When he smells the silver, I imagine he'll pocket 'is pride just as fast as you did yours - in a pig's whisper.
Good day to you, sir.
(TURNER turns and walks to the door;
ARMINDO imitates an elaborate
And a good day to you, sir.
(DR. MURRAY holds up his flask)
Hell of a storm out there, Mr. Turner. Care to rinse your ivories one more time before you go?
(LI TONG holds out TURNER's hat and coat.
TURNER quickly puts them on and heads for
the door. LI TONG opens the door for him,
struggling with the angry wind)
Thank you, sir, I think not.
As you like, sir. But here's to the well wearing of your muff.
(DR. MURRAY gulps down the drink. As
TURNER leaves, we hear the loud sounds
of the storm. LI TONG and an ASSISTANT
to ARMINDO push the door shut)
And may it be a good day when the next bit o' muslin you encounter leaves you pissin' pins and needles.
(ARMINDO again cleans his pistols. The spot on the NARRATOR slowly comes up)
Now, Armindo, you really shouldn't be wishin' the French disease on anyone - not even harbour masters.
(ARMINDO’s fingers caress his chin and
down along his neck)
Li Tong, I think it’s time I had a shave.
I have often wondered if the day – and my life – would have ended differently had Armindo not needed a shave. But I already had hot water boiling in the kettle so I quickly set up the porcelain basin and poured the water in. Armindo stripped to his waist, lathered his face and neck. I saw again the puckered scar of a bullet that had passed through his shoulder. He propped a copper-backed mirror on a shelf and waited for the lather to take effect. The razors of the foreign-devils are much longer than ours and narrower in the blade and when I stared at it, Armindo pretended to hand it to me and joked that someday I would no doubt cut his throat with it so why not then. When he saw how horrified I was, he roared with laughter and snatched it back.
(ARMINDO tests the blade, lets out an oath,
and stares at the blade)
Li Tong, this blade isn’t sharp. Hang up the strop.
(DR. MURRAY gets up, still holding
his bottle, and walks about, studying
the beams. He begins humming and
then singing softly)
LET GO THE REEFY TACKLE! REEF TACKLE! REEF TACKLE!
LET GO THE REEFY TACKLE! FOR MY BRITCHES ARE YAMMED!
(Captain Elliott joins in)
MY BRITCHES ARE YA-AMMED, MY BRITCHES ARE YA-AMMED!
LET GO THE REEFY TACKLE FOR MY BRITCHES ARE YAMMED IN THE SHEETBLOCK!
(ARMINDO waves his razor in time to the
music and joins in)
LET GO THE REEFY TACKLE, REEF TACKLE, REEF TACKLE
LET GO THE REEFY TACKLE, FOR MY BRITCHES ARE YAMMED!
MY BRITCHES ARE YA-AMMED, MY BRITCHES ARE-
(ARMINDO looks up and notices what
DR. MURRAY has seen - water
dripping down from the ceiling
through the cockloft)
Li Tong! I thought I told you to get a carpenter to fix that.
(LI TONG has hung the strop on the wall
and ARMINDO is about to strop his razor)
They will not come.
Carpenters won't come to barracoons anymore. Too many getting shipped out as coolies once their work is done. Some of them won't even board my ship to make repairs.
If I had a bloody ladder I’d fix it myself. Bleedin’ downdraft in here is worse than any ship I ever sailed on. And so’s the stench.
Any barracoon I’ve ever been in has had more of a stench than any ship’s reeking bilges ever did.
(DR. MURRAY is in a fine mood and
again begins to sing, although the
song is very melancholy)
THE BOATMAN SHOUTS IT’S TIME TO PART, NO LONGER CAN WE STAY
(CAPTAIN ELLIOTT joins in)
T’WAS THEN MAIMUNA TAUGHT MY HEART, HOW MUCH A GLANCE CAN SAY
T’WAS THEN MAIMUNA TAUGHT MY HEART, HOW MUCH A GLANCE CAN SAY
WITH TREMBLING STEPS TO ME SHE CAME, FAREWELL SHE WOULD HAVE CRIED
BUT ERE HER LIPS THE WORDS COULD FRAME IN HALF-FORMED SOUNDS IT DIED
BUT ERE HER LIPS THE WORDS COULD FRAME IN HALF-FORMED SOUNDS IT DIED
THROUGH TEAR-RIMMED EYES BEAMED LOOKS OF LOVE, HER ARMS AROUND ME FLUNG
(ARMINDO seems moved by this song and
joins in. At first he strops his razor
more or less in time. Then he places
it down on the table and sits on the table
facing the audience; as if remembering)
AS CLAIMS THE BREEZE ON SINGING GROVE, UPON MY BREAST SHE CLUNG
AS CLAIMS THE BREEZE ON SINGING GROVE GRIEF, UPON MY BREAST SHE CLUNG;
MY WILLING ARMS EMBRACED THE MAID, MY HEART WITH RAPTURE BEAT
WHILE SHE BUT WEPT THE MORE AND SAID WOULD WE HAD NEVER MET
WHILE SHE BUT WEPT THE MORE AND SAID WOULD WE HAD NEVER MET
(The song is over but ARMINDO continues
on alone, half-speaking, half-singing)
WHILE SHE… BUT WEPT THE MORE… AND SAID… WOULD WE HAD NEV-
(MURRAY and ELLIOTT are surprised, almost
astonished, at ARMINDO’s sudden display of
emotion. No one moves)
I had learned very little about his background from Armindo himself. But from Dr. Murray I learned that he was from the desolate mountain area of northeastern Portugal. Tray-os-montes – “back of the mountains.” While still a young man he had had to flee Portugal for killing a man. Dr. Murray knew little about the murder except that it involved a very beautiful but ultimately unfaithful woman.
(ARMINDO turns toward them and seems
about to speak but then notices the
(The CRIMP leads the YOUNG MAN back
out toward the table and stops. He
holds out two coins in his palm and
flicks the boy's queue with the other)
Boy hab one topside. One bottomside.
(ARMINDO, now himself again, wipes his
face with the towel to remove the lather
and puts on his shirt)
(LI TONG starts to collect the bowl and
brush and blade)
(ARMINDO moves to the boy)
One more Chinaman thinks he can hide money in his pigtail and up 'is arse. (nodding toward the wall) All right. Some men just don't understand who's chief cock of the walk in here until I give 'em their red-checkered shirt. Hang him up.
(While the CRIMPS tie the BOY's hands above
his head to the wall pegs, ARMINDO retrieves
his whip. He walks toward a corner of the
room and dips the whip into a bucket of brine.
He removes the whip and studies it carefully)
No call to dip it in brine. He's just a boy.
Don't be shovin' your oar into my work, Captain, and I won't shove mine into yours. The salt adds to the pain and there's nothing like pain to make a Chinaman behave.
(ARMINDO walks toward the boy
and stands near his back)
And while he's cramped in the hold of the ship on the way to the Chinchas, should anybody whisper in his ear about startin' some trouble, this young lout will shake 'is head no and steer clear of trouble. 'Cause he'll remember this!
(As ARMINDO says the word "this," he flays
the boy's back. The BOY screams in agony)
(ARMINDO continues to whip the boy with all
his strength as he says the word, "this."
The BOY screams and begins writhing and
(This action continues several times, after
` which CAPTAIN ELLIOTT takes a step forward)
(ARMINDO lowers his whip and stares at ELLIOTT)
Listen good, Captain. We were both of us born under the gun and educated on the bowsprit. Purser rigged and Parish damned! But the day I left the sea, that's the last day I took an order from another man. You ride the high horse with me one more time, and we'll settle it.
(At the sound of pounding on the door,
ARMINDO hesitates. He nods to his
MEN to go to the door. They draw
weapons and carefully open the door)
(A WOMAN rushes in. The fury of the
storm seems to have increased. The
MEN have some difficulty closing the
door behind her. They do not notice
that one of the bones of the Chinese
dead has been blown in with her)
(The WOMAN stands surrounded by Armindo's
MEN with weapons drawn. As her eyes
adjust to the light, she spots her
brother tied to the wall pegs and
screams. She rushes forward)
(As SHE is just a few feet from her brother
ARMINDO grabs her arm and rips her head-
scarf off. He motions for LI TONG to
hold a lantern near her face. The WOMAN is
young and attractive. She is dressed in a
tunic over broad petticoat trousers. From
her dress, speech, etc., it is clear she is
from a respectable family)
Well, I'm blowed if it isn't a pretty celestial piece in full feather.
(The WOMAN spits in ARMINDO's face and
attempts to free herself. ARMINDO wipes
his face and laughs.
And spirited, too!
(He rips her scarf off and runs one hand
through her hair)
Beautiful. Feels like sable. And black as a raven’s wing.
(LI TONG moves closer to her and stares
at her. Armindo notices this)
Li Tong? What the devil is the-
Tiang-si? Is it you?
Li Tong? You are with these men?
This man is your brother?!
But he should not have been brought here.
What do you mean? What do you know of this?
What the devil is all this?
I know this woman.
In Swatow. At the missionary school, she-
What is she to you?
She...we were to be married. I wanted her to-
He is nothing to me! A man I once knew who turned his back on his own people and went to work for outside barbarians like you. The Li Tong I knew is dead! Now let my brother go!
You hear that, doctor? The celestial wench speaks the Queen's English. And from the looks of 'er, I'd say we've got us a lady of quality here, wouldn't you?
Yes, well, as Lord Byron so aptly put it: ‘A pretty woman is a welcome guest,’ but the Chinese say a woman is as dangerous as smuggled salt, so I think you might want to consider-
Let my brother go!
Well, now, I've got something you want and you...(looking her up and down) you've got something I want.
Please! I will pay you to release her. And her brother. Whatever you ask.
Well, I'll be water bewitched and rum begrudged; our heathen friend fancies the wench! Hell, Li Tong, they can both be released. But only if I get what I want from this rigged-out bit of calico.
(TIANG-SI continues to struggle. SHE
scratches ARMINDO's face)
Ow! All right, bitch, it's time to bring you to your bearings.
(ARMINDO holds the girl's wrists and forces her
up against her brother's back. The brother
screams from the pressure on his open cuts.
ARMINDO presses his body against hers and holds
his face just inches from hers)
(During his description of the Chincha Islands,
we hear intermittent and harsh sounds of the
drum, er-hu and gong where appropriate)
You’ve got a tongue like a discharge of grape and canister at close quarters, but you listen to me, you cockish wench! If your brother makes it to the islands alive, he'll soon wish he hadn't. He'll be diggin' the shit of cormorants, pelicans and gannets for the rest of 'is bleedin' life. And you know how long that'll be? Maybe two years. Maybe one. No Chinaman ever came back from the Chinchas, you savvy? Ever!
Let me go! I don't want-
(She struggles a hand free; he grasps her wrist)
Of course, your brother might do what some others do. He might throw himself over a cliff or bury himself alive in the guano or hide out in a cave until he starves himself to death.
Sister, don't give in! Get away! Never mind me! Go!
But I promise you this, little lady: while he lives, he suffers. The heat gets up with the sun and the sun on the dew releases the ammonia gas from the guano.
(The NARRATOR is deeply affected when
remembering his act of cowardice)
And he'll use 'is pickaxe and quarry guano and load it from cliffsides down through chutes and canvas hoses into squareriggers. And he'll do it while standin' in acrid clouds of dust so fine that tiny bits of guano will get into his eyes and nose and lungs until he can't breathe.
Li Tong! Help me!
(She struggles; he holds her even tighter
and stares at LI TONG. LI TONG finally
turns away in shame, as for a moment does
And if he tries to rest, he'll get flogged by the overseers, huge African negroes, blacker than the ace of spades, with cowhide lashes that cut into a man's skin like knives. He'll quarry five tons of guano a day or he won't eat. And no day off. Until he drops. And the turkey buzzards will be wheelin' overhead, waitin' to feast on 'is corpse! That's your brother's fate. Or not. It's up to you.
Or we could wait for a ship sailing to Cuba where he’ll be sold at public auction and then under the whips and pistols of the negroes and the growls of the bloodhounds he can toil seven days a week, eighteen hours a day and be penned up at night with hundreds just like him.
Sister, please don’t!
(ARMINDO suddenly whirls and, holding the girl's
wrists with one hand, brutally whips the brother
with the whip in the other - one stroke. The
No! Stop! All right! I'll do anything! Don't hurt him! Let him go!
We have an understanding, then, right?...Right?!
Smart girl. Good girl.
(As he attempts to kiss her, she moves her
head. He kisses her neck then releases her)
Jasmine...Your skin smells of jasmine, did you know that? No wonder Li Tong fancied you. I've occupied a few celestial women in my time but always they was swivel-eyed, bacon-faced strumpets; never a well-rigged China frigate like you. HOw 'bout it, Dr. Murray? You ever 'ad a celestial flash packet in full feather like this one?
Can't say that I have.
Damn right you haven't! (to the girl) Go up into the cockloft, take off your rigging and wait for me. I'll soon have you grinnin' like a basket of chips.
I don't understand.
Tiang-si. Go upstairs. Take...take off your clothes. Wait there.
(TIANG-SI walks to LI TONG)
I loved you. Even when you were a boy and you teased me so mercilessly I loved you. And when you were a man and penniless, I loved you even more...now...you disgust me.
(TIANG-SI stares at him until he looks away.
She climbs up the stairs and disappears into
the darkness. ARMINDO walks to the table and
places his pistols on the table)
My guts are so hungry they're cursing my teeth. Li Tong! Stop standing around and cook something up. I'll be even more hungry once I've finished up there.
And stop looking all in the Downs. The ladies take quite a fancy to me once they’ve got to know me. And this one smells sweeter than the sea air off Java when its perfumed with spice trees.
(LI TONG retreats toward a rear corner where
in half light we can see him steaming rice,
vegetables and pork)
You'll watch over my barking irons while I'm with the chippy, won't you, Doctor?
I will. But I wouldn't be so hasty if I were you.
What are you talking about?
The way she dresses. Her makeup. Her English. She may have been from Swatow once but not now.
What of it?
I'd say she's up from Hong Kong. And from the looks of her she's probably the mistress of some English merchant.
You sayin' she's got the pox?
No, my dear, Armindo, I'm saying that somewhere in the British Crown Colony of Hong Kong, there might well be an English gentleman that would pay a king's ransom to have her back unharmed.
...Aye. That he might.
Aye. Or he might send up well-armed men to get her back by force. And he might have done it already. For all we know-
(During the next few exchanges, ARMINDO
walks steadily closer to the CAPTAIN)
Captain, I have a recollection of tellin' you not to shove your oar into my business, do I not?
If she does belong to a Limejuicer in Hong Kong, your playing John-among-the-maids with celestial whores could place us all in danger. Including my ship!
Aye. I won't stand by while you place my ship in danger of being seized.
We have a contract to ship coolies, have we not?
You can keep your coolies. I never did fancy my clipper being used to transport Chinamen to Peru and guano from Peru to London. Slaves and bird shit! No. I'll find other cargoes for my ship.
And what cargoes would those be, Captain?
Tea, silks, whatever. Why, in the gold rush days, we-
(ARMINDO suddenly unleashes his whip, wrapping
it around Elliott's legs, sending the CAPTAIN
sprawling. ARMINDO immediately grabs him up
and throws him against the table. As HE speaks,
he forces the CAPTAIN's head back with the
barrel of one of his pistols, its muzzle placed
under the CAPTAIN's chin. He cocks the pistol)
Now you listen to me, Captain. The gold rush days are over. And there's plenty of once-proud clippers beggin' for cargo. The rates for your precious ships have gone to hell in a handbasket and you damn well know it. And your ship is so rotten it's little more than a hulk with canvas and blocks. You can forget about tea and silk. You're bloody lucky to get a cargo of Chinamen and you're gettin' that only because you were a mate of my brother's.
(ARMINDO replaces his pistol in his belt.
HE takes a bottle of whiskey and pours
himself a glass. He takes a long drink
and stares at the CAPTAIN)
And you're also bloody lucky I hired you. Nobody else will...Dr. Murray.
What is it?
Ask the good Captain to tell you about the Lion of the Sea.
(At the mention of the ship's name, the
CAPTAIN visibly cringes. He sits in
I heard something about that ship. One of the best clippers ever built. She beat Sea Witch in a race, didn't she?
...Captain! Dr. Murray asked you a question.
She almost did. A sudden squall took our studsails away at the last minute. We managed to rig up old awning and spare tarpaulin but in the end it was no use. We couldn’t catch the Witch.
Tell Dr. Murray how your precious clipper ended up, Captain...The last voyage.
(As the CAPTAIN speaks the following, we
hear the soft sound of the er-hu being
played. Very gradually increasing in
volume; the gong and cymbals might join
in, staccato-like, toward the end)
...Like he said, the shipping industry had overbuilt. Too many ships, too little cargo. So I agreed to a coolie run to Havana. We picked up over a hundred coolies at Amoy and Namoa, two hundred here and another hundred in Macao...I had a bad feeling about it from the start. Damn fool owner was a pig-headed turkey-cock; insisted we leave when we did. It was a Friday. Every seaman fears Friday's noon - 'Come when it will, it comes too soon'. But the run to St. Helena was uneventful. Not even that much sickness. Only six Chinamen died. I started to think we might be bung up and bilge-free, after all. We took on food and water then we set out for Havana. On the third day, I heard a ballyhoo of blazes coming from the main deck so I rushed out and I saw some of the crew cutting the pigtails off the Chinese. They said the Chinamen were filthy and weren't washing properly so they were cutting the vermin-laden pigtails off and the Chinamen were screaming and crying in protest. I almost stopped them but I didn't...I wish to God I had…
After about an hour, I was in my cabin when the carpenter’s mate ran in to tell me the Chinamen had grabbed a rifle and a saber from my second mate and were pelting us with anything they could rip up: belaying pins, iron rice buckets, firewood, our carpenter's hammers, anything. And they began setting fire to some of the wood. I gave the order to clear the decks and the crew began firing their rifles and revolvers and slashing out with their swords and forcing the Chinamen back. When they were all below, we battened down the hatches and sealed all the deck openings. And we bolted iron bars to the coamings. They couldn't come up but most of the provisions and water casks were down below in the lower hold. In any case...
(DR. MURRAY pours CAPTAIN ELLIOTT brandy
in a glass and hands it to him. He takes
a long drink then lets DR. MURRAY take it
out of his hand)
CAPTAIN ELLIOTT (cont)
In any case, I wasn't about to sail to Havana in that condition so I gave the order to return to St. Helena. When we got there, we summoned the local police. I thought if we got rid of the ringleaders, we'd be all right. So we opened the hatches...
(The er-hu music ceases)
Go on, Captain.
I thought...I thought the ventilation would be adequate. We had wind sails and scuttles. The ventilation trunks were...As God is my witness, I never intended...
What was down below, Captain?
...I lost all four hundred Chinamen...
(ARMINDO slams his whip on the table)
What you lost was twenty-four thousand Spanish dollars!...And the Englishman who chartered the ship went bankrupt...So if I don't hire you, who else will? So you'll say 'Yes' and 'Amen' to everything I tell you. Is that clear, Captain?...Is that clear?!
(In the silence, we begin to hear thumps
against the exterior of the barracoon,
against the door and walls)
What in blazes? (Pointing) You. And you. See what that is.
(As the TWO CHINESE walk to the door and
open it, ARMINDO turns back to the CAPTAIN)
Is it clear!
Aye. That's clear. But I've got a devilish bad feelin' about this business. We didn't let our anchors go to the windward of the law. Our joss is set.
You can prattle about joss all you like, just don't-
(The excited CHINESE have trouble closing
the door. As they struggle to close it,
bones blow into the barracoon. They scream)
Aiiiyaaah! The bones of the dead are hitting against the door! And the wall!
(The SECOND GUARD picks up a bone and holds
it close to a lantern, then hurriedly throws
the bone down)
Aiiyaaah! The bones are coming in!
(The CHINESE GUARDS and COOLIES become
extremely agitated; some even move
toward the door)
Aiiyaah! The bones of the dead are coming here! What is it? The bones of the dead! They're coming in! Help! The spirits are angry! The dead are rising!
What the hell?
Bones. Dead men bones from outside!
Pipe down! (drawing his pistols) Goddamn ye! I said, pipe down!
I smell hell.
Shut your potato-trap!
(ARMINDO walks to the bone. He replaces one
of his pistols in his belt and picks up the
bone. He speaks to LI TONG)
It's just a man's bone. It can't hurt anybody!
(LI TONG is also afraid)
Damn your eyes, tell them!
It is only a bone. You don't have to be afraid. Don't make the foreign-devil angry.
(ARMINDO walks toward the coolies, holding
the bone. THEY move back in fear)
This...can't harm you. (raising the pistol) This can. The dead can't come back...Translate, damn you!
The fire-stick can harm you; the bones cannot!
(ARMINDO looks up and sees TIANG-SI staring
down at the scene. He places his pistols and
the bone on the table)
Enough of this. Time to scuttle the celestial ship.
(He slowly walks up the stairs to the
cockloft while unbuttoning his clothes)
Li Tong! Untie the boy and put him with the others.
(As LI TONG unties the BROTHER, the BROTHER
winces in pain. LI TONG takes him off
into semi-darkness. The BROTHER whispers.
They speak out of range of the others)
You must help my sister!
Li Tong, we have never met, but when I returned from Ningpo, my sister told me all about you. How she had loved you and would have married you; then found out you had joined with the pig sellers!
And now she hates me!
She loves you still! You need only quit this.
Why did Ah-fuk bring you here! You were to be kept at the abandoned tea warehouse.
The tea warehouse was washed away by the storm during the night. So he and his men brought us here...But how do you know this?
It was...I paid Li Tong to kidnap you...and to send a message to Tiang Si. I thought if she believed you were kidnapped by the pig sellers she would have to come to me. But not here! You should never have been brought here; and she should never have come here!
(The BOY stares at him, then spits in his face)
You are worse than the outside barbarians!
(The BOY disappears into the darkness and
LI TONG slowly walks back toward the table,
wiping his face with a towel)
What is it, Li Tong? You look like a man sentenced to dance the Paddington Frisk...Well, my young friend, one thing I've learned in life: Whenever the blue devils come, the best thing for them is a proper English breakfast or, if available, roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. But failing those options it's always best to fight them off with a swig from the foretopman's bottle.
(DOCTOR MURRAY pours himself a drink and is
just about to take it when suddenly we hear
the sounds of a female screaming. We hear
the sounds of slaps and the screams change
to the sounds of a woman groaning uncomfortably
and rhythmically. The DOCTOR and CAPTAIN
ELLIOTT exchange furtive glances then look
away in embarrassment. LI TONG reappears
and stands motionless. DR. MURRAY takes
his drink but no one else moves)
(In the silence we hear the sound of the wind
and of bones being blown against the exterior
of the barracoon. The steam from the cooking
area is rising in hellish swirls)
(As TIANG-SI's crying and moaning rises in
volume, LI TONG moves toward one of ARMINDO's
pistols. He places his hand on one of them
while looking up toward the cockloft)
Leave it be, Li Tong.
It's a bad business.
Aye. But his getting himself killed won't help her. Li Tong: Leave it be!
(LI TONG suddenly lifts the pistol and
rushes forward. DR. MURRAY and CAPTAIN
ELLIOTT restrain him and struggle to remove
the pistol from his hand. The struggle
ends abruptly when TIANG-SI gives one final
loud cry of anguish)
(The pistol is now with CAPTAIN ELLIOTT)
(No one moves. In the silence, there is a
sudden pounding at the door. Again,
ARMINDO'S MEN draw their weapons but this
time they are obviously afraid. Some
approach the front door with caution but
others cower away from the door completely)
(The braver CHINESE throw open the door and
a CAUCASIAN MALE enters. The men struggle
to close the door against the howling wind
and pouring rain. Several more bones blow in)
(The EMIGRATION AGENT is in his late 20's or
early 30's. He is clean-shaven and very
straight-forward. He could almost be mistaken
for a missionary. His clothes are similar to
the others. He removes his wide, low crowned,
hat and frock and, crestfallen, LI TONG hangs
them on a wall nail. He then returns to his
(ARMINDO walks down the cockloft stairs while
buttoning his clothes)
Who the deuce are you?
He's the emigration agent. Mr. Anderson. I told-
Ah! The totty-headed land shark who relanded my pork.
(The EMIGRATION AGENT does not issue threats
or speak gruffly. Rather, he speaks matter-
of-factly with a somewhat prim holier-than-
thou manner. A manner which, to a man like
ARMINDO, is far more infuriating than threats)
Yes. I relanded your pork. And I may be relanding a number of other items as well if I find they're not up to snuff. And before you receive any port clearance and certificate from me, I'll also ensure that you have ample medicines and water and provisions on board.
Is that all?
Not quite. You'll supply me with a complete passenger list and the contracts for every coolie. You will also not sail until you have a surgeon on board and an interpreter; an interpreter approved by me.
The hell, you say!
The hell I do say!
You can sooner whistle up a wind in the doldrums before I'll-
You will fulfill each and every article of the Chinese Passenger Act to the letter. Or else you won't be sailing.
Is that what you came 'ere for? To fuss over the health of the Chinamen?
That. And to determine if these men truly wish to leave for Peru voluntarily.
The devil you will! That is done on board ship!
Not in this weather it isn't. It will be done inside the barracoon.
By whose authority?!
By my authority! The charter or conveyance of the subjects of China to the Chincha Islands will be carried out according to the provisions of the Chinese Passenger Act or it will not be carried out at all! And I suggest we get started.
(lowering his voice)
Your predecessor was a reasonable man, Mr. Anderson. There's no need for-
Let me make myself very clear, Mr. DaCruz. If I find that there has been any fraud or violence in your manner of collecting the emigrants, I will not merely void your contracts and let these men go, I will have you arrested.
(During the following, ARMINDO moves closer
to the AGENT but the AGENT does not flinch
and stands his ground)
You want to feel sorry for the Chinamen, is that it? Well, who the hell do you think brought the Chinamen here! Chinamen, that's who. And who do you think brings the niggers to the ships in the Bay of Benin! Other niggers, that's who. We didn't even have to go into the interior to get 'em. Black tribes brought their captives and slaves down to our barracoons along the coast. The niggers couldn't sell each other to us fast enough. And the Chinamen are no different. They're fallin' all over themselves to sell their neighbors. They're kidnapping each other by force, they're feeding each other drugged cakes, they're gambling each other out of their freedom, and they're trickin' each other into comin' here. I got two celestials came in 'ere, each thinkin' he was bringin' the other. So I took 'em both and saved the money. John Chinaman is chasin’ the dollar more than we are! So don't try ridin' the high horse with me. We're providin' men an opportunity to sell their friends and neighbors for profit! And they're jumpin' at the chance!
Your type brings out the worst in men, that I grant you. But there are placards all over southern China offering rewards for those involved in the slave trade. Some Chinese crimps have already been executed. And without you and your men, the Chinese kidnappers would have no protection.
Aye! I've seen what the mandarins do to kidnappers. They nail them up facing the sun. Then they cut their eyelids off so they can't blink. That way they go painfully blind, then die of thirst.
I warned you to clap a stopper on your tongue!
(speech somewhat slurred)
Aye. And the women have their breasts cut off as well! When I was outside Ningpo, I saw that pretty sight.
Is this man the physician who has examined these men?
At your service, sir.
(As DR. MURRAY places his glass to his
mouth, ARMINDO violently thrusts it out
of his hand. It sails across the room
Blast you! You're already three sheets to the wind and the fourth's shaking!
(waving his walking stick)
If I were a younger man I'd give you a clout on your jolly knob!
Assemble your coolies, Mr. DaCruz.
(ARMINDO hesitates then gestures to the CRIMPS
to bring out the coolies. As they bring some
of the COOLIES forward, we see shadows of others
in the background, suggesting there are many more
lined up behind the first row of five or six.
One of the COOLIES in the front row is Tiang-si’s
BROTHER. In silences of any length, there are
always a few sounds of bones hitting against the
exterior of the barracoon, no matter how faint)
(ARMINDO sits in a chair behind the table. The
CAPTAIN sits on an empty barrel or sea chest.
Only the CRIMPS and the EMIGRATION AGENT stand)
As the slaves came forward, I could see that they had become anxious and afraid, their terror and fear of the bones was growing. In the silence, I heard again the sounds of bones hitting against the exterior of the barracoon. Like dead men knocking. I was deeply immersed in my guilt and of having come face to face with my cowardice, and I hadn’t realized Armindo was addressing me.
Li Tong...Li Tong!
(LI TONG emerges from the steam-filled cooking
area and walks forward. He is still emersed
in his depression and guilt)
Your thoughts have gone a-wool gathering, have they?
(to LI TONG)
Ask this man if he knows where he is going and if he is going willingly.
The foreign-devil wants to know if you are going willingly. Remember what you have been told about how to answer.
(After a pause, the COOLIE nods his head)
Where is he going?
Where are you going?
To the Gold Country.
He says he is going to the Chincha Islands.
(The AGENT moves to stand before the next
COOLIE. It is Tiang-si’s BROTHER)
Now ask this man the same.
The outside-barbarian wants to know if you are going on the black-sided devil ship on your own.
(The BOY hesitates)
(LI TONG glances toward ARMINDO who lifts his
head up toward the cockloft. LI TONG again
turns toward the BOY)
Think of your sister.
(The BOY nods his head)
(Suddenly, we hear TIANG-SI's bloodcurdling
scream from out of the upstairs darkness)
(She appears at the top of the stairs, her
clothes and hair disheveled to the point
where she looks like a kind of shaman. She
is barefoot. She also seems to have gone
Lies! Lies! Listen to those who witness! Dead but not silent!
(In the complete stillness, no one moves.
The sound of wind and of bones being blown
against the exterior are clearly audible.
After several seconds, TIANG-SI begins
descending the stairs)
These men were kidnapped or tricked into coming here. Most of them still think they are going to the Gold Country! They do not want to go to the Chincha Islands. No Chinese has ever returned from there. I will translate for you!
(ARMINDO stands and reaches for his pistol.
HE holds it but does not lift the barrel up)
You've got enough tongue for two sets of teeth! Get back upstairs and stay there!
Who are you?
I came for my brother. He was kidnapped by these men. They have whipped him almost to death.
She's lying. No one here is-
(TIANG-SI moves quickly to her brother,
spins him around and rips off his shirt.
The EMIGRATION AGENT is horrified)
(ARMINDO moves out from around the desk,
still holding his pistol. He lowers his
We've had some problems with discipline. But Mr. Turner was reasonable and I'm sure you and I can reach an accommodation as well. Let's say three shillings per-
You'll have accommodation soon enough in Her Majesty's prison at Hong Kong. A few years walking the treadwheel will give you time to reflect on the evil you've committed here.
(The AGENT moves past ARMINDO in the
direction of his jacket)
You’re out of your reckoning…Come back here!
Indeed I shall. With officers of the law!
(ARMINDO walks after him)
I paid good money for these men and you're not leaving until you've signed the port clearance and certificate.
You'll be riding a cockhorse to Banbury Cross before you'll get any papers signed by me.
Damn your eyes! I'm not losing my investment because of-
(The AGENT picks up his hat and puts on his
jacket and turns to ARMINDO)
Men like you are poisoning the Chinese mind against all of us. Even honest tea traders are now in danger because the Chinese think all foreigners are involved in the slave trade. 'Pig sellers' they call us. In Swatow I have seen an angry crowd chase after tea traders. They were almost torn limb from limb! All Chinese denounce the selling of coolies as pig-selling and denounce the brokers in the trade as swine-herds!
These coolies get paid for their labor.
Paid?! Aye, paid in misery and death. Even American owners of slaves have condemned the treatment of Chinese in the Chinchas as 'barbaric'!
I want that certificate; and I mean to have it.
You'll get a sailing certificate from me when two Sundays come together.
(ARMINDO raises his pistol. The AGENT
stares at him without fear but in genuine
wonder at what kind of a man he is facing))
So to your list of heinous crimes you would kill a man as well?
I have done. If you force me to I will again.
(The EMIGRATION AGENT takes several steps toward Armindo)
I have heard seamen say that what crawls over the snake’s back lies under its belly. But never in my worst nightmares, have I dreamt that a man such as you-
(ARMINDO fires. In the cloud of whitish blue smoke, the
AGENT places his hand to his chest, stares at ARMINDO in
shock, then falls to the floor)
(DR. MURRAY and CAPTAIN ELLIOTT stand up.
DR. MURRAY rushes to the AGENT and places
his hand on his neck and face)
Are you mad? You've killed him!
Every bullet has its billet. Ah-fuk, have your men bring in one of the coffins. (AH-FUK hesitates) Now! (to the PORTUGUESE and another ASSISTANT) You two go with them.
(AH-FUK quickly exits with the others. The
sounds of the furious storm are still
thunderous when the door is opened. More
bones are blown in. The door is shut.)
When news of this gets out, Governor Bowring will send every man from the Hong Kong barracks up here.
And exactly how, Captain, will news of this be getting out? You and the coolies will be on your way to the Chinchas. That leaves only Li Tong, Dr. Murray, the crimps and me. And none of us will blow the gaff, will we, Li Tong?...Will we, Li Tong!?
Armindo, you can't just murder an emigration agent in cold blood.
I can if there's no evidence of a murder. We'll put this proud fellow in one of the Chinamen's coffins then send it down river with the rest. The storm should take it out and sink it. All the way to the bottom of the South China Sea. He can spend his eternity checking ship bub and grub in Davy Jones's locker.
You have murdered an innocent man!
A man who threatens my livelihood is far from innocent, Doctor. And when a typhoon hits and the canvas is torn to shreds and the ship is adrift, sometimes a captain has to give orders to cut away the top-gallant masts to save the lower masts. Is that not right, Captain?
(A few of the coolies and even the
crimps have begun to whisper among
themselves. The fear is spreading)
Your men are not coming back. You'll have to get a coffin yourself. But it will be yours.
(From this point on, the NARRATOR edges ever
closer to TIANG-SI, more and more distraught)
(ARMINDO glares at her then at her BROTHER)
All right, you hell hound. You should have kept your breath to cool your porridge. Now you can watch while I navigate your brother's windward passage.
(He gets up and moves to her BROTHER. ARMINDO
roughly grasps the BOY and manhandles him
over to the table. The BOY is too weak to
resist. TIANG-SI rushes forward to seize
ARMINDO’s arm but ARMINDO backhands her across
her cheek, sending her tumbling backward to the
floor. She lays on her back with her eyes open
but with her stare fixed on the ceiling, as if
she no longer comprehends her surroundings)
(ARMINDO jams his pistols into his belt and
shoves everything else off the table onto
the floor – tea cups, quill pens, paper, candle,
bowl, brush, razor, bone and abacus. The abacus smashes
against a near wall where it shatters, scattering its beads
in all directions. Several of the beads strike TIANG-SI,
and the shock seems to revive her. She rolls over and
pushes herself up)
(ARMINDO throws the BOY face down onto the table.
He pulls out the severed queues from his belt and
throws them to LI TONG)
Tie his wrists to the table legs.
(HE gestures by holding his own wrist and
pointing to the BOY. LI TONG hesitates)
Damn your heathen eyes! Tie his wrists!
(LI TONG moves forward and ties the BOY's
wrists. TIANG-SI rushes in, scratching
his face, but ARMINDO thrusts her away,
sending her sprawling to the floor,
(ARMINDO pulls down the BOY's baggy
trousers and unbuttons his own. HE
begins raping the BOY. For several
seconds, there is only the sounds of
bones hitting the exterior of the
barracoon and the BOY's groaning.
Finally, CAPTAIN ELLIOTT takes out
his own flintlock, cocks it, and
points it at ARMINDO)
Release the boy.
(ARMINDO hesitates; LI TONG backs away;
The NARRATOR stares at TIANG SI with
an expression of never-ending sorrow)
Well, well, well. Silence in the court; the cat is pissing. You be givin' me orders now, is it, Captain?
Get off him or, by God, I'll send you to hell.
...By Christ, Captain, I think you mean it.
(ARMINDO withdraws from the boy and
buttons his trousers)
But what if I were to hold this man up in front of me like this, then draw my revolver and fire? Like this?
(ARMINDO has grabbed the boy's queue and
lifted him up so that ELLIOTT cannot get
a shot at ARMINDO. ARMINDO fires. ELLIOTT
is hit in the shoulder and spun about by
the bullet. He half falls, half sits into
(ARMINDO laughs and begins to speak but
TIANG-SI realizes the bone that ARMINDO
swept off the table is near her hand.
SHE grasps it then stands up and quickly
walks behind ARMINDO)
I warned you not to shove your oar-
(She strikes ARMINDO across the back of
the head with the bone)
(ARMINDO falls across the BOY, spins
and staggers, still managing to stay
on his feet. HE draws his knife from
his waist sheath)
(The NARRATOR screams at him)
No! Armindo! For the love of God, no!
You celestial bitch! I would have saved your quim for another time. But not now.
(As ARMINDO approaches her, he grabs her
by the neck and thrusts the knife into
her heart. LI TONG rushes forward scream-
(TIANG-SI falls to the floor. LI TONG
cradles her in his arms, beside himself
with grief. ARMINDO stands holding the
knife looking down at them but the
increasing loud sound of the storm and
of the bones hitting the barracoon
draw his attention)
(As he turns away, he does not notice
the change that has come over LI TONG.
LI TONG has stopped grieving and is
looking up at ARMINDO with an expression
of pure hatred)
(The door bursts open from the force of
the storm, and a shower of bones blows
into the room. Kitchen steam surges
upward, madly blown about by the wind.
Candles blow out and black smoke erupts
from the flickering oil lamps. It is a
scene from a Chinese hell. And for the
Chinese, it is as if the hungry ghosts
have finally arrived to seek their vengeance.
But the fury, power, and din of the storm
all seem to be transferred to and absorbed
by LI TONG)
(Both LI TONG and the NARRATOR stare at
Armindo’s razor lying on the floor.
An enraged LI TONG grabs the straight
razor, rises, utters a primal scream and
throws himself at ARMINDO)
(ARMINDO turns with the bloody knife in his
hand but LI TONG’s hand flies through
the air with the razor, slashing his throat)
(ARMINDO stares at LI TONG and at the bloody
razor. As he drops the knife, he grabs his
own throat. He reaches out to hold LI TONG’s
face in his hands. A ghost of a smile appears
on his face. He whispers something to him and
then falls to the floor)
(LI TONG stares at him, drops the razor, then
kneels once again to cradle TIANG-SI in his arms.
No one moves. Then, as barracoon workers and
coolies slip out the door, the storm quiets.
The lights slowly dim but not to black)
The woman I loved never spoke. She only stared into my eyes, then died in my arms. I can still see her gazing up at me. Awake or asleep. And I can still feel the warmth of her blood as it ran down her hair and along my wrists. I think I must have held her for a very long time. I was remembering the smell of her hair in the autumn rain when a hundred lanterns danced above us in the wind. We sat in the garden by the eastern gate and watched the full moon as it rose higher – a white jade disc. I was filled with joy knowing that she felt the same love for me that I had for her.
(LI TONG and the NARRATOR briefly stare
at one another)
But that was a world which would never come again.
(LI TONG again focuses his attention on
TIANG-SI. The NARRATOR walks a bit away
from them and again faces the audience)
Armindo lingered for several hours. He chose a Portuguese assistant as his successor and made him swear that they would not kill me; he did not want me sent to the Chincha Islands as death would have come too quickly for me. He wanted to make certain that I would be forced to remain inside the barracoon forever. His wish was granted... And I thought it was just. I thought if I ransomed her brother from Ah-fuk, the woman I still loved might love me again. Instead, my plan got her killed...and her brother sent to the Chincha Islands...
(As the NARRATOR describes the following
actions, DR. MURRAY and CAPTAIN ELLIOTT
disappear into the darkness; ARMINDO is
stripped of his belongings and hustled outside)
Dr. Murray and the Captain quickly moved on, fleeing a land that seemed to place a curse on all those who worked there; but once Armindo was dead, the others around him were free to express their hatred of him. Too cowardly to defy him in any way when he was alive, they stripped him of his belongings, stole his cross, knife and pistols, mocked his nakedness, then bundled him in untidy fashion inside a piece of coarse matting and left him to rot in the sand with the bones of deceased paupers he had condemned to death as his companions. After what happened, I was useless as an interpreter or anything else. The Portuguese and Brazilians and Spaniards who took over from Armindo whipped me but still I would not - could not - work as before. But in my youth I had played the er-hu. And so, when I eventually came to my senses, they allowed me to do nothing but that. Although as the years passed the men who came after them often chastised me for playing too loudly: But they did not hear the bones. Nor could they see the ghosts. Finally, they became exasperated with me and I was told I was free to go. But of course I had nowhere to go and so it was I who decided to stay. You see the irony is that I was the only one who remained faithful to Armindo’s plan for my punishment. Yes, I killed him. But I did not betray him: When others failed him, it was I who granted him his wish.
(The NARRATOR has now resumed his position
at the er-hu)
It took me years to stop hating him. I began to understand that only I – not Armindo - had been given the right to make moral choices. Armindo represented almost pure evil or perhaps, more accurately, pure amoral energy, and, as such, he never had the freedom to make a moral choice of any kind. I now understand that Armindo was the true slave. He could not change his nature anymore than could a cloud in the sky or a tree in the forest. Only I could make decisions involving conscience. Only I could seek redemption. Armindo was too pure in being whatever he was. His inner pain drove him on. He had no choices to make. But I shall never forgive him for what he whispered in my ear just before he died. He said:
ARMINDO’S VOICE (O.S.)
You see, Li Tong, I was right. You and I are one of a kind.
I have had several decades to reflect on the ironies: the what if’s and the if only’s. And, of course, I have never stopped hearing the bones. Even in my sleep they swirl about like leaves caught in a storm's fury...Over the years, ship captains and others involved in the slave trade always look at me strangely. They know me only as the man who killed Armindo DaCruz. Pity; awe; wonder. And now I have heard some of them say that the coolie slave trade may be coming to an end. Not because anyone cares about coolies, but because the guano on the Chincha Islands is almost exhausted....No matter. This is a barracoon. I play music here. I will always play music here.
(THE NARRATOR again plays the eh-hu as
at the play's opening. The stage lights
begin to fade. The music stops just as
there is the furious snap of a whip.)
The haunting music of the er-hu:
BONES OF THE CHINAMEN
1. An "upstairs" would be nice but as many theaters do not have such space, the suggestion of another room should be sufficient.
2. The clever movement of shadows should be able to suggest more prisoners than are actually on stage.
3. Sounds of men fighting and screaming and gunshots might accompany the Captain's description of the revolt on board his ship.
4. Although the role of Armindo is a powerful one, it must be made clear that the play belongs to Li Tong. This is because only Li Tong makes moral choices. Armindo represents almost pure evil or, at least, amoral energy, and, as such, makes no moral choices of any kind.
Even the act of buggery is not a homosexual act but simply a way for him to humiliate, to give pain. Only Li Tong makes decisions involving character and conscience and only he - not Armindo - can seek redemption, and Bones of the Chinamen is therefore very much his play.
5. Although the play is 80 pages, I estimate an at least 90 minute running time, no intermission.
6. Bones of the Chinamen involves 19th century seaman profanity, cruelty, whipping, murder, etc. The audience should feel as much as possible what a barracoon was like; there should be no sugar coating.
In shorter form, Bones of the Chinaman had a reading with the Vox Theater Company, NYC, and won the South Asian prize of the BBC Overseas Radio Playwriting contest, coming in among the top eight out of 1200.
Bones of the Chinamen has also been written as a novella and appears in the book
Copyright 2014 Dean Barrett