Tiger Girl: a Kung fu Story for Children and Adults
There is a Chinese superstition: Girls who are born in the Year of the Tiger are dangerous, wild, carriers of calamity. Nobody wants to marry a tiger-girl, because she might beat up her husband, or her mother-in-law. Folks who have daughters born in such a year, often either subtract or add a year to their age.
This is a story about a girl named, Liz Ying Lee, (Ying stands for brave). She lived in Chinatown, New York City with her family. Liz's mother claimed she was born in 1987, a Year of the Rabbit, but judging by her combative behavior and tomboy-like character, she definitely was more like a tiger than a rabbit. She was not gentle, furry and fluffy always hopping about. Instead she was more known for her brave fearless behavior.
Many of the people in the surrounding community thought the Lee family was lying about the girl's age saying that she was not born in 1987, but actually born in 1986, which is a Year of the Tiger. Luckily her grandmother was a Tiger-girl; so, whenever people started bad mouthing her granddaughter, the grandmother would leap forward and say, "Look at me. I'm a real Tiger-girl. What kind of trouble did I bring to my family?"
A fortune teller had told Liz's mother that her daughter possessed two invisible fortune stars, one on her nose and the other on her forehead, which meant she would bring luck and fortune to her family. That was good news. It did make Liz's mother feel better about her youngest daughter. But Liz was still a problem child, a real tomboy. Her mother often complained to their relatives, "Listen to that noise. That is Little Ying drilling her battalion. All she wants to do is fight, fight, fight. Listen to her voice, it's louder than a gong." Aiiie! her mother screeched. "She rips her cloth shoes apart every other month from scaling brick walls. Her hair is always a mess. How do you educate or tame this wild girl? She is only seven, and she eats two and a half bowls of rice at each meal." (A strong or healthy person is measured by how many bowls of rice he or she eats per meal So, my reader don't get insulted if someone asks you, "How many bowls of rice do you eat?)
Hong Lee, the mother, wanted a good explanation for her daughter's unruly behavior, which nearly drove her crazy. "My Little Ying is supposed to be a rabbit-girl, but she is noisier, and more aggressive than her two older sisters. There's no rabbit-spirit in her at all." Liz's older sister tried to teach her how to embroider, but she made a mess with needles and threads. Liz had no patience with house chores either. She would rather twirl the broomstick like that storybook hero, the fleet-footed trickster, the Monkey King.
When Liz was eight, she got into big trouble. She thought that at 6:30am in the morning, no one would notice her walking on her hands across a scaffold hanging in front of her building. (At that time of the day most of the workers were sound asleep in their beds.) Liz loved the thrill of teetering on the edge of the fifth story building on Pell Street, one of the shortest and narrowest streets in Chinatown. Liz's Uncle Ting and her mother were the owners and cooks of the eatery, which was barely big enough to seat ten people. Still, the Lee's called it, "The Four Seas Restaurant." The Lee family lived above their business.
As Liz was having this fun, Liz's cousin, Peter, poked his head out of the widow to check the air-conditioner. He caught the sight of her. "Liz, you crazy girl," he yelled. "Get off that scaffold now." Within few minutes Peter dragged Liz's whole family out on the street, and they all yelled up at the girl.
From that height, Liz could make out everyone perfectly: her mother's new perm looked impressive, she was waving a white dish cloth in one hand. Her grandmother, with snowy white hair, with a bald spot in the middle of her head, shook her finger in the air. Uncle Ting, his clean shaven head looked as shiny as a small gong, and he was talking on a cellular phone. (Could he be phoning the police?) When Uncle Ting got off the phone, he too yelled at Liz, "Little Ying, you're testing our patience. Get down, now!"
When Liz got down safely, Uncle Ting approached her with a bamboo pole. He was all red in the face, as he scolded, "That girl, she needs a beating! Someone's got to teach her!" Liz's grandmother put her arms around the girl and pleaded with the angry Uncle Ting. "She's only a child. I promise, she'll never try a thing like that again."
Uncle Ting dropped his weapon and shouted at Liz's mother, "You better keep that girl locked up somewhere. I'm not going to be able to keep my eyes on her. She's acting like a wild Tiger-girl. She doesn't have any good sense."
That night Liz overheard her grandmother praying in the bedroom, "Pity me, oh my ancestors in Heaven. Give me some advice in raising a such a tiger-girl. Who's going to marry her?"
The mother, Ah ("Little") Hong tried to talk some sense into her daughter: "Ah Ying, what are you up to? Are you reading those kung fu comic books? That's bad for you. Read some real literature instead. Smart girls will get ahead if they do well in school. This is America. You can get a good job when you grow up. You don't have to toil in the kitchen all day long like your mother and your aunts. And you don't have to depend on the luck of your future husband, either. A woman can hold up the sky, too."
Her daughter wanted to say, "Mother, you have told me that a thousand times. I want to be a brave woman who performs brave deeds. And I don't need a husband." But being a child still, she only knew how to complain, "I hate being a girl. I hate being sweet." And then, Liz rolled her eyes, arched her eyebrows, twisted her jaw like those mean characters with painted faces of red, blue and black, she had seen in the Chinese opera movies her grandmother loved to watch. And she practiced operatic expressions such as, Hei, hei, hei, sa-a-a ("Hey you, what's up - kill, kill, kill"). She thought if she mastered those expressions, she would definitely scare away all the future husbands.
The mother thought that probably everything about her daughter was predestined. She told their relatives, "I think Little Ying is a real Tiger-girl. I remember even when she was in my stomach. She kicked harder than any of my other two children. In the old days, she would dress-up like a man, and become a woman general, pretending she was the likes of Hua Mulan. What is such a fighter woman going to do in modern times?"
"How about a movie star," one aunt kidded. But another older woman said," "A good daughter wouldn't become a movie star, like a good son wouldn't join the army."
Meantime, ignoring all that, Liz practiced with a broomstick, and excelled in all the after-school karate and kung-fu classes she could sneak herself into. Whenever she saved a few coins, she usually spent them on kung-fu comic books. "Ice-maiden-part twenty-eight." "Revenge of the Black Wind Rider-part sixty-seven."
"Little Ying? Where are you hiding?" grandmother usually called for Liz around supper time. When she saw her granddaughter leaning outside the grocery store reading comic books, she would scold her, "Your mother would get mad if she knows that you're reading those cheap books."
Mother Hong later lectured the girl: "Life is not a dream, Little Ying. If I had dreamt away all my hours like you, do you think there would be rice and vegetables on the table?" The grandmother agreeing with the mother, expressed her wisdom, "We women measure our lives with the rice scoop. If you are truly brave, you first feed your children and your people."
Liz thought the two older women's talk was boring. She preferred her dreams and comic books. She read about mystical, wizard-like monks, who would go house to house searching for youngsters that had the potential to become warriors. She also learned that there were monks who had mastered the 365 transformations: Like creating something out of nothing, appearing in others' dreams, walking on water, passing through a solid wall, leaping up ten or fifteen feet from the ground, and causing voices to resonate from objects.
According to folklore, ordinary human eyes usually cannot detect the true identity of wizards, because they are usually disguised as beggars, puppeteers, rag collectors, or blind street musicians. So whenever Liz spied a raggedy man or woman walking by the front of her building, she would rush to take a sharp look at them. To her great disappointment, none of those raggedy people ever begged to take her away. But Liz waited patiently and kept dreaming that one of these days a wizard-monk would pick her up and take her to the mountains. For years this saintly teacher would train her in secret ways of warriors. Housed in their dark dank caves, she would learn how to dream the animal spirits who would strengthen and protect her in battles. Didn't the masters claim that special instructions were hidden in dreams?
When Liz was eleven, practicing in a nearby park showing other kids how to do double somersaults in the air, she saw an old man with a bald head and a goatee. The short muscular guy watched Liz's stunts and laughed. "Hey! What is your name?" he asked her. The girl said, "Liz Ying Lee." The stranger said, "I'm Sifu Chen. Please, come to my studio tomorrow after school. I'm auditioning girls for an upcoming kung-fu movie." He handed her his business card. Liz raced home to tell her mother and grandmother about the lucky encounter.
Grandmother wasn't that optimistic. She said, "Don't build up your hopes, Little Ying. That sifu will watch how you do tomorrow. He won't take you if you have no talent or special qualities." Her mother studied the business card and added, "I think this is a famous director and kung-fu master from Hong Kong. I've read about him in the Chinese newspapers."
That night the Lee family all sat on a couch in their small living-room and listened to the Grandmother. She spoke slowly, "Little Ying, try to calm down your little hot head. Try to become a real Tiger-girl tomorrow, not an alley cat. First, show me your warrior walk."
Liz was confused so she asked, "Grandma, what is this warrior walk? What kind of stunt is that?" And so grandmother explained to her, "Little Ying, try to concentrate on your feet and spine. Let your ten digits feel the power of the earth. Try to root yourself like a straight pine. This is taming the tiger." Nobody had told Liz this before. Anyway, she jumped up, sticking her chest out and marched across the room. Grandmother called out, "You're not getting the power of walk!"
Then the girl hunkered down, feeling frustrated. She tried to recall if she had ever read about "taming the tiger" in one of those kung-fu comic books. Her mind went blank. When she looked up, mysteriously her attention was somehow directed to a large black and white photograph hanging on the wall. It was of her great-grandmother. Her feet were deformed, all bound up with yards of gauze. Each of her feet were no more than four inches long. The toes had been broken by the binding done when she was five or six years old. Liz thought this poor woman must have dreamed of walking, climbing, running free.
Grandmother somehow knew what Liz has thinking and nodded and said, "Now Little Ying, try the warrior walk, again."
At that moment, certain powerful images flashed across Liz's mind as she stood up and walked across the room and down the narrow hall into the kitchen. She felt the pain of her great-grandmother's feet and all the other women before her. Each of Liz's toes suddenly became alert to sharp cruel pain of an inflicted deformity.
It felt like she was walking on fire. She heard ten thousand cries of tormented young girls. But never stopping she walked on struggling with each step, breathing deeply, trying not to be overwhelmed by sadness and anguish.
When Liz turned around and walked back towards the living-room, tears flowed down her cheeks. This "Warrior Walk" was the hardest exercise that the girl had ever practiced; walking the path of fire and then water; at last, her ten digits rooted like a tree, and she felt the power of earth.
Her grandmother and mother, looking like two old wizards, approvingly nodded their heads and smiled. "Little Ying, you did it," announced her grandmother. "You walked so powerfully I know you will be able to win Sifu Chen's heart."
Liz questioned, "Grandmother, how did you get so smart?"
"Oh, that's not so hard. Try to live my bitter life, you'll either become wise and strong or bitter and miserable," she proclaimed.
The next day Mother Hong took her daughter to Sifu Chen's studio for the audition. Liz was surprised when Chen asked her to walk across the huge room that had all kinds of weapons, punching bags, wooden bars for stretching, and mats for tumbling. She replayed the images from the night before and felt the power of her walk—not something to display, but something she carried within her.
When she twirled the Shaolin fighting sticks, she felt the tiger-strength in her arms and feet. For the first time Liz realized the flexibility of her movements were also something her mother and grandmother had; but they displayed their strength not in fights but in the calm and graceful ways they toil all day. They must have dreamed the tiger-girl's skills into her before she was even born.
Later, she overheard Sifu Chen say to her mother, "Liz Ying Lee is the most concentrated, grounded girl I have ever met."
"You're too kind. She is a very wild, and stubborn girl," her mother reply. "You have to discipline her."
Liz Ying Lee did get the part in the movie, and later had many more roles in other kung fu movies, even on television.
She travelled many times during a year with her mother to Hong Kong and back to the States for the making of such films, and her life was transformed in more than 365 ways.
—2017 Linmin Mo
A footnote from the author: Although this story is mostly fiction, it is based on actual occurrences and experiences that I had living in Shanghai, Taiwan, and New York City. And added to that, I have always been a "Tiger-girl," or at least often have been called one.