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Upstairs at Wo Fat Restaurant with the Mah Jong Gang

I must have been three. Short fat legs. Chubby arms. But I could pluck each juicy mushroom, the slippery big Shitake mushrooms slick with an oyster sauce gravy, with my chopstick and plop them in my mouth. The true dexterity test of a connoisseur.

As the platters of succulent roast duck, shoyu chicken, bright green choy sum drizzled with sauce, crispy noodles and more arrived in front of us on the turntable, my grandmother served me, then herself. She had to move fast. Her mah jong group, twelve stylish grandmothers, all in cheong sams fastened with spinach green jades set in 24k gold, expected the best, the finest, and devoured with gusto. Their wrists might be weighted down by solid gold bracelets and thick jade bangles and their fingers bedecked by diamonds, rubies, emeralds and jades set in Hong Kong, but they could pluck the choicest morsels from the turntable as it spun.

“Hey, your granddaughter, she eats like a grownup,” growled Mrs. Ma, my grandmother’s best friend who sat on the other side of my grandmother. I looked up in alarm when I heard her gravelly voice which registered deeper than most men could boast. Mrs. Ma leaned towards me. Her black eyes snapped. “Your Popo feeds you too well!”

Popo smiled at me then turned to her friend. “Never mind her. Look at your plate. Eating for two?” The good-natured insults tossed from all sides of the round table. The gossip continued furiously.

Here on the second floor of pagoda-topped Wo Fat Restaurant in the heart of Honolulu’s Chinatown, the chatter grew louder and louder. Pungent smoke from the incense burning at the altar at the entrance rose in dragon-like sinews. The red-trimmed windows were flung open to the street below. Laughter and a mélange of languages, including the catch-all Pidgin, rose from the busy sidewalks and added to the cacophony.

Since I was the only girl, my grandmother occasionally took me with her to these monthly banquets. She and her friends played weekly and whenever she hosted, I was volunteered to serve. Not all her grandchildren were suited to the task, especially not her rambunctious grandsons. But I followed the rules. They were
1. Don’t talk to the guests except to greet them and to say goodbye with great courtesy
2. Don’t make any noise
3. Replenish the snack on the trays at the corner of each table
4. If guests request anything like, “More Tea!” respond quickly and quietly
5. Don’t stare at anyone’s mah jong hand
6. Don’t watch anyone’s play. It’s rude
7. Stay in the kitchen when you’re not needed
8.
Being invited to their banquet was my payment for dutiful service. How I relished it. And I saw how well these ladies knew their food. As each dish arrived, they inhaled the aroma discretely to discern what ingredients were used, what spices, and how it must have been prepared. They discussed and argued, and tasted with discernment.

I watched how Mrs. Farm, whose powerful voice rose above the fray, always disagreed with the prevailing opinion. I savored the shoyu chicken to see if I could taste anise in the loo mee herbs they said it was simmered in. I tried to imagine how the Kau yuk had been cooked, as Mrs. Chu suggested, to display its neat layers of pork, belly fat, and taro. Everyone agreed that the Peking Duck was best left to the restaurants to make—who had time at home to separate the skin from the meat and blow it up with a bellows before roasting?

I ate until my belly was so full my grandmother patted it. “Bow Bow?” she asked. Full? I nodded. Until the next feast!