G is for Guandong
In the Depth of Beauty, most of the Chinese immigrants hail from Guandong province, and the novel touches upon the stirrings of revolution in China. Guandong province lies on the coast of the South China Sea in the People’s Republic of China. Its capital, Guanzhou, (known to westerners at one point as “Canton”) was an important trading port for rice, opium and silk, among other goods, which meant that the Chinese people who lived there were more accustomed to westerners than those living in the interior of the country.
In the mid-nineteenth century, the California Gold Rush, and later the building of the transcontinental railroad, enticed many Chinese men to migrate to America. The majority of them came from Guandong province, and spoke a dialect of Chinese called “Cantonese.” Today, more Chinese people speak Cantonese outside of the country, than inside of it, where Mandarin is the official language.
Guandong’s connection with the West helped fuel anti-imperialistic feelings among the entire population, leading ultimately to the overthrow of the last dynasty in 1911. The leader of that revolution and the first president of the Republic China, was Sun Yat-sen, who was born in Guandong Province.
H is for Haberdasher
Okay, I love this word. I was thinking it originally meant someone who chased after a haber (whatever that is). But no. Apparently the word stems from an old Anglo-French word hapertas which referred to a cloth of some sort. Eventually, Middle English turned it into “haberdash.” Back in the thirteenth century, a haberdasher was someone who sold all sorts of goods, like a peddler or a tinker. You know – bird cages, bolts of cloth, daggers, stuff like that. Eventually, however, the term grew narrower in scope. And for some unknown reason, it ultimately came to mean something different in England than it does in America. So in The Depth of Beauty, when Will Firestone goes to see the Chinese haberdasher Suen Lok Choy, he’s not buying buttons, needles and other sewing notions (that would be a “haberdashery” in England). He’s buying what we now call “men’s furnishings.” A haberdashery in early twentieth century America sold shirts, suits, socks, ties, hats, and so on. A Men’s Warehouse would be considered a haberdashery today.
I is for Inoculation
Today in the U.S. we take inoculations for granted. We get a flu shot, smallpox vaccine or other injection—usually containing a very mild form of whatever disease we’re protecting ourselves against— to help us create our own immunity. Side effects are rare, maybe a sore arm and that’s about it.
We didn’t always have that luxury. Around the turn of the twentieth century (the time period of The Depth of Beauty), the bubonic plague hit Chinatown. City officials tried quarantining the entire community, but that was a disaster, so they decided to mass immunize them using the only known inoculation, called the Haffkine vaccine. Basically, they injected a small amount of plague bacteria into a person to trigger an immune response. The problem? The shot hurt like hell and there were side effects, including pain, swelling, fever, general sickness and, oh yeah, even death.
Plus, the protection apparently didn’t even last that long. Is it any wonder the residents of Chinatown rebelled? In the novel, Mandy recounts the story of a Chinese girl who actually broke her legs because she leaped out of a window to avoid a doctor who was attempting to inoculate her. That really happened. Fortunately more sensible heads prevailed and the forced inoculations were halted.