Summary – Chapter Four, ‘At the Western Palace’
Brave Orchid waits at the San Francisco International Airport for her sister, Moon Orchid, when she is about 68. They have not seen each for 30 years and it is at the time of the Vietnam War. Brave Orchid splits her attention between her son who is there and her sister who is travelling to see her. Her other children say he is in the Philippines, but she does not believe them.
Her sister arrives and at home she takes out the presents such as sweets, shoes and paper cut-outs. Brave Orchid later talks with her sister and niece about letting her brother-in-law know she is in the United States. Moon Orchid has not seen her husband for 30 years and has been brought over by her daughter who is married to a Chinese-American man and was able to sign the papers for her.
Moon Orchid’s husband now has a second wife and three children and is living in Los Angeles. Brave Orchid tells her to claim her rights and advises her to go to him and claim his family (which includes two sons) and demand her rights as ‘First Wife’.
It is explained that Moon Orchid and her daughter have been separated for five years after Brave Orchid mailed the daughter’s photograph to a ‘rich and angry man with citizenship papers’ and who turned out to be a tyrant.
Brave Orchid advises her sister again to turn the second wife out and Moon Orchid says she would not mind if she stayed as she could take care of the house and care for the boys.
At the laundry, Moon Orchid tries some of the jobs such as ironing, but is unused to working. After lunch, Brave Orchid takes her to Chinatown and introduces her as her sister who has come to ‘Gold Mountain to reclaim her husband’.
It is then described how Moon Orchid and her daughter go to Los Angeles with Brave Orchid and Brave Orchid’s son who drives them. Moon Orchid is going to see her husband and her daughter is returning home.
When they reach the address, Moon Orchid is too afraid to go in the building and so Brave Orchid goes in for her. She goes up to the sixth floor, according to the address she has, and realizes this must be his business address. She goes through the door and her hesitation with the receptionist is thought of as her not understanding English. Another woman comes out to her and explains in poor Chinese that her husband is a brain surgeon and does not treat flu (which is what Brave Orchid has said she has wrong with her). Brave Orchid, ‘who had been a surgeon too’, thinks how clever her brother-in-law must be as she could not set up a practice as he has done, because of the different training required and the need for English: ‘He was smart enough to learn ghost ways. She would have to be clever to outwit him.’ She thinks she must come up with a new plan and goes back to the car and tells them she has met the second wife, and that she is young and pretty and works as his nurse.
Moon Orchid says she cannot go back up with her, so Brave Orchid orders her son to go up and tell his uncle that there has been an accident and a woman has broken her leg.
Her son does as he is asked and Moon Orchid’s husband comes running and gets in the car. He looks younger than them and looks and smells like an American. He sees that there has not been an accident and says, ‘“What is it, Grandmothers?”’ Brave Orchid shouts that this is his wife and she is his sister-in-law. He recognizes Moon Orchid then and his eyes widen and he asks what she is doing there. She does not answer, but Brave Orchid says how she got her name from the Red Cross list and sent her the plane ticket and did what he should have done. He stares at Moon Orchid and asks what she wants, and says she was not supposed to come here and she does not belong: ‘“You don’t have the hardness for this country. I have a new life.”’
Moon Orchid whispers, ‘“what about me?”’ and he says he has a new wife. He tells her to live with her daughter and says he will mail her the money he has always sent her. He also says he could be arrested if the Americans knew about her (as he is only supposed to have one wife).
Brave Orchid accuses him of making Moon Orchid live like a widow and he denies it. He says she would not fit into an American household and would not be able to talk to his ‘“important American guests”’ as she can barely talk to him. He says he would not wish going back to China on her, but wants her to stay with her sister or daughter and does not want to see her again.
His nurse taps on the car window and he gestures quickly to the ‘old women’ to not say anything. He has not told his second wife about his wife in China, and they must not do so either. When she leaves, and they have told her nothing, Brave Orchid asks him why he never told Moon Orchid he was not going back for her. He replies that it is as though he has turned into a ‘“different person”’ and they became ‘“people in a book I had read a long time ago”’. He takes them to luncheon on Brave Orchid’s insistence and later Brave Orchid’s son takes his aunt and cousin to his cousin’s home. Moon Orchid never sees her husband again even though they live in the same city.
Several months pass and Brave Orchid receives no letter from Moon Orchid even though she used to write from China every other week. Moon Orchid’s daughter explains that her mother has ‘become afraid’ and thinks ‘Mexican ghosts’ are ‘plotting on her life’. Moon Orchid now has an apartment on the other side of Los Angeles and is hiding. Brave Orchid tells her niece to send her mother north to her. She says the fear is an illness and she will cure her.
Moon Orchid comes to her and Brave Orchid meets her off the greyhound bus. They hold hands as they walk home as they did as girls. Brave Orchid tries to find out about her fear and holds her sister’s earlobes and begins the chant to heal her, ‘for being unafraid’. Moon Orchid explains she heard Mexican people plotting against her and her sister says she does not understand Mexican words. Moon Orchid says they were speaking English words, and her sister says she does not understand these either. Brave Orchid says she miraculously did this time and ‘“decoded their speech”’.
Brave Orchid cares for her and sleeps with her at night and tries to ‘anchor her sister to this earth’. Each day she sees Moon Orchid slip further away, though. One day, she closes the drapes and blinds and locks the doors as she thinks the Mexicans have traced her. She takes down photographs and cries when people leave the house as she is afraid they will not return. Brave Orchid sees, as her husband says, that Moon Orchid is ‘mad’ as she sees that all ‘variety’ has gone from her. Eventually, Brave Orchid gives up and finally calls her niece who puts Moon Orchid in a California state mental asylum. Brave Orchid visits her twice and although her sister is thinner, she is happy and tells her how nobody ever leaves and they are all women there. She introduces the others on her ward as her daughters, and is described as having a ‘new story’, ‘and yet she slipped entirely away, not waking up one morning’.
Brave Orchid tells her children to help her keep their father from marrying again as she does not think she could cope with this any better than her sister did. He says he has not done this so far and is almost 70 now. Her daughters ‘decided fiercely’ that they will not let men be unfaithful to them and all her children decide to major in science or mathematics.
Analysis – Chapter Four, ‘At the Western Palace’
Moon Orchid’s story dominates this chapter, as her descent into madness is outlined. Her stay in the asylum is seen to come about with a breakdown that is precipitated by fear and rejection once she comes to the United States. The asylum is seen to act as its name implies as here she at least finds refuge in the all-female company of women she refers to as daughters. This ‘new story’ is a fiction, but is one that allows her to be happy at least for a short time before her death.