More interesting facts based on my latest historical novel, The Depth of Beauty…
D IS FOR DONALDINA
If I were naming a fictional character, I wouldn’t name her “Donaldina.” The name sounds as if a girl’s parents were totally bummed that they didn’t have a boy. Yuck! But Donaldina Cameron was a real person who in fact ran the Presbyterian Mission House in San Francisco from 1899 to 1934. She’s a key player in The Depth of Beauty; her mission, in both the story and in life, was to rescue Chinese immigrant girls from lives of prostitution and forced servitude. She really was known as the “Angry Angel of Chinatown” and helped more than three thousand girls during her long career. During the Great Earthquake of 1906, the Mission House was totally destroyed, but Donaldina apparently risked her life to save documents that proved she was the guardian of the girls in her care, thus protecting them from having to return to their previous oppressive conditions and “heathen” lives. Donaldina was a nice looking woman, but she never married. A native of New Zealand, she considered herself a dedicated missionary called to work amidst a foreign population – it’s just that the foreigners she ministered to were living in San Francisco!
E is for ELOCUTION
It may not count for as much today, but generations ago, the way a person, dressed, walked, and especially talked, said bundles about them. For better or worse, men and women were sized up and pigeon-holed by those superficial attributes.
Mandy Culpepper, the heroine of The Depth of Beauty, is a poor, hard-working country girl and her manner reflects that. Once she becomes a ward of the mega-wealthy Firestone clan, she’s got to learn how to act properly in the upper reaches of San Francisco society. One of the areas she has to change is her “elocution,” or the way she speaks. Elocution includes factors like how you pronounce words and the use of proper grammar. God forbid you should speak the kind of terrible English in which sentences end in prepositions, and other faux pas that I’m speaking of (!). Think “My Fair Lady” and you’ll know that about which I am writing.
Mandy soon learns that words she uses every day and that bring her comfort are no longer “appropriate” for polite society. Instead she’s told she should use more elevated terms, such as “limbs” instead of “legs,” and “dining” instead of “eating.” I imagine her teachers admonishing her with, “Miss Culpepper, your parents should be referred to as ‘Mother and Father,’ ‘Mater and Pater,’ or even “Mummy and Daddy,’ but never “Ma and Pa.” I can just picture the two biddies shuddering delicately as they say those dreaded words.
Luckily, Mandy takes a more pragmatic approach, reasoning that it’s inefficient to speak two syllables when just one will do. Still, her “new and improved” manner of communicating does serve her well as she grows older, so I think on balance, she’d say she was happy that her “elocution” had improved.
F is for Fan Tan
You’ve probably heard of the Chinese gambling games called “Pai Gow” and “Mah Jong,” but in turn of the twentieth century San Francisco, another game was wildly popular, call “Fan Tan.” in
The Depth of Beauty, Will Firestone goes in search of a young immigrant and stops by a Fan Tan gambling house, one of dozens in Chinatown. It’s filled with tables around
which the patrons (all men) gather. In the middle of the table is a square frame, whose sides are labeled one, two, three, and four. The croupier, or dealer, puts a large handful of buttons, beans or other markers on the table and covers them with a bowl. In a moment he will begin to sort those markers into groups of four. But before he does, the gamblers place bets as to how many markers will be left over in the last group. For example, a player might put $5 on side #3; he’s betting that after all the beans are lined up in groups of four, three will remain. The dealer then lifts the bowl and begins sorting. At the end of the process, when all the markers have been arranged in groups of four, those that are left will determine who won the round. If three markers were left, the player who bet on #3 will win three to one odds, or $15, less a slight commission for the dealer. The game offers more complicated bets using combinations of numbers, but in essence, the game is all about luck. These days, you can play Fan Tan online, but if you want to play it at a real live casino, you’ll have to travel to Macau, a city on the southern Coast of China