Sterling’s first novel, Saigon Adieu, excerpt 1 (An Angry Pretty Girl)
Saigon, Adieu by Richard Sterling (excerpt 1)
An Angry, Pretty Girl
Nguyen Ai Chau, born in Saigon in 1912, was known to the French by the name Perle. She was well educated in both French and Annamite schools. She wore Paris fashions and Viet chignons with equal grace. The French described her as svelte; the Annamites as skinny and undernourished. She was a parishioner at the Huyen Sy church on the rue Frere Louis, opposite the railway terminal and near the central market, and she made regular offerings and prayers at various Viet and Chinese temples. Like many of her compatriots, she saw nothing strange or contradictory about this. Her mother was from the family that owned the art-deco flatiron building on the main road to Cholon, the rue Gallieni. People on the Saigon-Cholon tramline always watched for it as part of the scenery along the way. Its chief occupant, Uncle Nguyễn Văn Hảo, was a leader in the auto parts business. On her father’s side she was related to Philippe Lê Phát Ðạt, the builder of the Huyen Sy church. Through that connection she was distant cousin to Marie-Thérèse Nguyễn Hữu Thị Lan, wife of Bao Dai, the last emperor.
She enjoyed life, and loved dancing, but could be a bit of a prig and a snob. Christian Bardinet entertained her in the tea room of the Grands Magazins Charner one hot afternoon. Most patrons were wilting, but she was perfectly composed, only the tiniest beads of sweat forming on her upper lip. Bardinet thought it made her look even more kissable, and was contemplating that agreeable notion when the ice boy reappeared with bucket and tongs. As he made his rounds he dropped new ice into each glass on his circuit, regardless of its contents. As it cooled, Pearl’s glass of lemonade began to sweat again, like most of the patrons. With long, slender fingers she adroitly wrapped a napkin around the dripping slippery glass.
“I detest ice,” she muttered. “It’s bad for the digestion and it fails to cool you. And it makes a mess like this.”
Christian’s mind was rather elsewhere. He was thinking that anything with those long, slender fingers wrapped around it would sweat as much.
Pearl enjoyed one beer per week and one self-rolled cigarette per day, but never in public. The fact that she would go dancing in public produced enough clucking of tongues among family and friends. It was something strongly advised against in the Annamite women’s magazine Phụ nữ tân văn. She wore no lipstick when in Indochina. “It melts in this weather anyway.”
Returning from her studies in France, she did not do as most others and retrace her route, going east through the Suez and across the Indian Ocean. She continued westward, where her French and Annamite educations had left a huge gap. She stopped in Ireland where she met Fennians who told her of the struggle for independence from Britain little more than a decade before. She went to Boston, where she learned similar history from 150 years before. In Mexico the story went back to 1821. In Argentina the story was about the same, but she also took a break from revolutionary history and learned the Tango from D’Arienzo himself, “El Rey del Compás.” Gauchos taught her how to roll a cigarette and to cut a proper, i.e. a thick, steak from a side of beef. More of the same when she rounded the horn and called at Santiago, Chile and Lima, Peru. Her last stop before returning home in 1935 was in Manila. The Philippines were gearing up for their first presidential election that November. The United States of America was the only great power in the world to have set a deliberate course for the full independence of an overseas possession. She then and there decided that if she ever had a chance, privately and discreetly, she would kiss an American.
Christian had known her since August 28, 1928, the day he encountered the then 16 year-old girl storming out of the popular Dancing Restaurant L’Hermitage in the forested Tu Duc District. The owner, M. Alfred Messner, had just denied her entry to the swimming pool. “For Europeans only.”
She was wearing a cream colored Catalina swimsuit. Her rubber bathingcap was askew and whispy wings of raven hair were teasing her broad forehead. Two anxious young male relatives were in tow. As they passed one another their eyes met. And she looked daggers at him. Defiance was born into her, and her daggers were known to be sharp. But he was smiling. He was smiling because at that instant he had seen something of his future, and it was pleasing. And because he was smiling, her daggers never found their mark. They just seemed to dissipate somewhere short of any vital organs of the soul.
The impotence of her assault surprised her, but she stomped past, calling to the males to hurry up. For Christian’s part, he knew that any of that pleasing future would take a long time and much patience. Courtship at that time and place was a lengthy and laborious process. It could take years. It was not unusual. And she would require much wooing. She would not yield easily. A pretty girl, yes, but, Christian knew, “That girl is made of steel.”
Christian asked M. Messner, “Such a pretty girl. Why turn her away?”
“Even pretty girls must be European in the Hermitage, Christian. No? It was always that way. The best way. No?”
Christian countered, “But Monsieur, I’m métis, only ¾ European. Or do you forget?”
“Christian, my dear boy, that’s enough. Especially for you.” Messner began to fidget and look for a customer calling.
“My mother is half Japanese. And her European half is American at that.”
“Well, yes, of course.”
Messner had to choose his words carefully. He wanted to maintain his little corner of Europe in the Asian jungle, but one did not profit in the long run by insulting the wife of a well-connected Corsican, or her son. Especially one who had the ear of Francini, owner of the Continental Hotel, who himself was married to an Annamite. The son of a bitch.
“Of course the good lady your mother is always most welcome. I hope you and she and your father will visit together soon.”
“I would like that, Monsieur. Perhaps I’ll even bring a new friend. Or do you think it better to visit your in-town place, La Pagode. I’m anxious to try the Norwegian herring. I know Uncle Patrice would like that, too.”
Messner kept a perfectly stone smile as he contemplated another Corsican “uncle”, vice governor of the notorious Poulo Condore prison, and a potential offer he couldn’t refuse.
“Of course, of course, dear boy. As you and your dear family wish. Perhaps, perhaps you will even bring a pretty girl.”
Christian then began attending the Huyen Sy church. And M. Messner found himself the subject of a polite but too informative letter to the editor in L’Echo Annamite on September 3, 1928. The article was signed by one “John Nagasaki.”