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Chapter 16: The Tribulations of a Chinese


In the evening of that same Saturday, Quiroga, the Chinese, who aspired to the creation of a consulate for his nation, gave a dinner in the rooms over his bazaar, located in the Escolta. His feast was well attended: friars, government employees, soldiers, merchants, all of them his customers, partners or patrons, were to be seen there, for his store supplied the curates and the conventos with all their necessities, he accepted the chits of all the employees, and he had servants who were discreet, prompt, and complaisant. The friars themselves did not disdain to pass whole hours in his store, sometimes in view of the public, sometimes in the chambers with agreeable company.
That night, then, the sala presented a curious aspect, being filled with friars and clerks seated on Vienna chairs, stools of black wood, and marble benches of Cantonese origin, before little square tables, playing cards or conversing among themselves, under the brilliant glare of the gilt chandeliers or the subdued light of the Chinese lanterns, which were brilliantly decorated with long silken tassels. On the walls there was a lamentable medley of landscapes in dim and gaudy colors, painted in Canton or Hongkong, mingled with tawdry chromos of odalisks, half-nude women, effeminate lithographs of Christ, the deaths of the just and of the sinners—made by Jewish houses in Germany to be sold in the Catholic countries. Nor were there lacking the Chinese prints on red paper representing a man seated, of venerable aspect, with a calm, smiling face, behind whom stood a servant, ugly, horrible, diabolical, threatening, armed with a lance having a wide, keen blade. Among the Indians some call this figure Mohammed, others Santiago, we do not know why, nor do the Chinese themselves give a very clear explanation of this popular pair. The pop of champagne corks, the rattle of glasses, laughter, cigar smoke, and that odor peculiar to a Chinese habitation—a mixture of punk, opium, and dried fruits—completed the collection.
Dressed as a Chinese mandarin in a blue-tasseled cap, Quiroga moved from room to room, stiff and straight, but casting watchful glances here and there as though to assure himself that nothing was being stolen. Yet in spite of this natural distrust, he exchanged handshakes with each guest, greeted some with a smile sagacious and humble, others with a patronizing air, and still others with a certain shrewd look that seemed to say, “I know! You didn’t come on my account, you came for the dinner!”
And Quiroga was right! That fat gentleman who is now praising him and speaking of the advisability of a Chinese consulate in Manila, intimating that to manage it there could be no one but Quiroga, is the Señor Gonzalez who hides behind the pseudonym Pitilí when he attacks Chinese immigration through the columns of the newspapers. That other, an elderly man who closely examines the lamps, pictures, and other furnishings with grimaces and ejaculations of disdain, is Don Timoteo Pelaez, Juanito’s father, a merchant who inveighs against the Chinese competition that is ruining his business. The one over there, that thin, brown individual with a sharp look and a pale smile, is the celebrated originator of the dispute over Mexican pesos, which so troubled one of Quiroga’s protéges: that government clerk is regarded in Manila as very clever. That one farther on, he of the frowning look and unkempt mustache, is a government official who passes for a most meritorious fellow because he has the courage to speak ill of the business in lottery tickets carried on between Quiroga and an exalted dame in Manila society. The fact is that two thirds of the tickets go to China and the few that are left in Manila are sold at a premium of a half-real. The honorable gentleman entertains the conviction that some day he will draw the first prize, and is in a rage at finding himself confronted with such tricks.
The dinner, meanwhile, was drawing to an end. From the dining-room floated into the sala snatches of toasts, interruptions, bursts and ripples of laughter. The name of Quiroga was often heard mingled with the words “consul,” “equality,” “justice.” The amphitryon himself did not eat European dishes, so he contented himself with drinking a glass of wine with his guests from time to time, promising to dine with those who were not seated at the first table.
Simoun, who was present, having already dined, was in the sala talking with some merchants, who were complaining of business conditions: everything was going wrong, trade was paralyzed, the European exchanges were exorbitantly high. They sought information from the jeweler or insinuated to him a few ideas, with the hope that these would be communicated to the Captain-General. To all the remedies suggested Simoun responded with a sarcastic and unfeeling exclamation about nonsense, until one of them in exasperation asked him for his opinion.
“My opinion?” he retorted. “Study how other nations prosper, and then do as they do.”
“And why do they prosper, Señor Simoun?”
Simoun replied with a shrug of his shoulders.
“The port works, which weigh so heavily upon commerce, and the port not yet completed!” sighed Don Timoteo Pelaez. “A Penelope’s web, as my son says, that is spun and unspun. The taxes—”
“You complaining!” exclaimed another. “Just as the General has decreed the destruction of houses of light materials! And you with a shipment of galvanized iron!”
“Yes,” rejoined Don Timoteo, “but look what that decree cost me! Then, the destruction will not be carried out for a month, not until Lent begins, and other shipments may arrive. I would have wished them destroyed right away, but—Besides, what are the owners of those houses going to buy from me if they are all poor, all equally beggars?”
“You can always buy up their shacks for a trifle.”
“And afterwards have the decree revoked and sell them back at double the price—that’s business!”
Simoun smiled his frigid smile. Seeing Quiroga approach, he left the querulous merchants to greet the future consul, who on catching sight of him lost his satisfied expression and assigned a countenance like those of the merchants, while he bent almost double.
Quiroga respected the jeweler greatly, not only because he knew him to be very wealthy, but also on account of his rumored influence with the Captain-General. It was reported that Simoun favored Quiroga’s ambitions, that he was an advocate for the consulate, and a certain newspaper hostile to the Chinese had alluded to him in many paraphrases, veiled allusions, and suspension points, in the celebrated controversy with another sheet that was favorable to the queued folk. Some prudent persons added with winks and half-uttered words that his Black Eminence was advising the General to avail himself of the Chinese in order to humble the tenacious pride of the natives.
“To hold the people in subjection,” he was reported to have said, “there’s nothing like humiliating them and humbling them in their own eyes.”
To this end an opportunity had soon presented itself. The guilds of mestizos and natives were continually watching one another, venting their bellicose spirits and their activities in jealousy and distrust. At mass one day the gobernadorcillo of the natives was seated on a bench to the right, and, being extremely thin, happened to cross one of his legs over the other, thus adopting a nonchalant attitude, in order to expose his thighs more and display his pretty shoes. The gobernadorcillo of the guild of mestizos, who was seated on the opposite bench, as he had bunions, and could not cross his legs on account of his obesity, spread his legs wide apart to expose a plain waistcoat adorned with a beautiful gold chain set with diamonds. The two cliques comprehended these maneuvers and joined battle. On the following Sunday all the mestizos, even the thinnest, had large paunches and spread their legs wide apart as though on horseback, while the natives placed one leg over the other, even the fattest, there being one cabeza de barangay who turned a somersault. Seeing these movements, the Chinese all adopted their own peculiar attitude, that of sitting as they do in their shops, with one leg drawn back and upward, the other swinging loose. There resulted protests and petitions, the police rushed to arms ready to start a civil war, the curates rejoiced, the Spaniards were amused and made money out of everybody, until the General settled the quarrel by ordering that every one should sit as the Chinese did, since they were the heaviest contributors, even though they were not the best Catholics. The difficulty for the mestizos and natives then was that their trousers were too tight to permit of their imitating the Chinese. But to make the intention of humiliating them the more evident, the measure was carried out with great pomp and ceremony, the church being surrounded by a troop of cavalry, while all those within were sweating. The matter was carried to the Cortes, but it was repeated that the Chinese, as the ones who paid, should have their way in the religious ceremonies, even though they apostatized and laughed at Christianity immediately after. The natives and the mestizos had to be content, learning thus not to waste time over such fatuity.
Quiroga, with his smooth tongue and humble smile, was lavishly and flatteringly attentive to Simoun. His voice was caressing and his bows numerous, but the jeweler cut his blandishments short by asking brusquely:
“Did the bracelets suit her?”
At this question all Quiroga’s liveliness vanished like a dream. His caressing voice became plaintive; he bowed lower, gave the Chinese salutation of raising his clasped hands to the height of his face, and groaned: “Ah, Señor Simoun! I’m lost, I’m ruined!”
“How, Quiroga, lost and ruined when you have so many bottles of champagne and so many guests?”
Quiroga closed his eyes and made a grimace. Yes, the affair of that afternoon, that affair of the bracelets, had ruined him. Simoun smiled, for when a Chinese merchant complains it is because all is going well, and when he makes a show that things are booming it is quite certain that he is planning an assignment or flight to his own country.
“You didn’t know that I’m lost, I’m ruined? Ah, Señor Simoun, I’m busted!” To make his condition plainer, he illustrated the word by making a movement as though he were falling in collapse.
Simoun wanted to laugh, but restrained himself and said that he knew nothing, nothing at all, as Quiroga led him to a room and closed the door. He then explained the cause of his misfortune.
Three diamond bracelets that he had secured from Simoun on pretense of showing them to his wife were not for her, a poor native shut up in her room like a Chinese woman, but for a beautiful and charming lady, the friend of a powerful man, whose influence was needed by him in a certain deal in which he could clear some six thousand pesos. As he did not understand feminine tastes and wished to be gallant, the Chinese had asked for the three finest bracelets the jeweler had, each priced at three to four thousand pesos. With affected simplicity and his most caressing smile, Quiroga had begged the lady to select the one she liked best, and the lady, more simple and caressing still, had declared that she liked all three, and had kept them.
Simoun burst out into laughter.
“Ah, sir, I’m lost, I’m ruined!” cried the Chinese, slapping himself lightly with his delicate hands; but the jeweler continued his laughter.
“Ugh, bad people, surely not a real lady,” went on the Chinaman, shaking his head in disgust. “What! She has no decency, while me, a Chinaman, me always polite! Ah, surely she not a real lady—a cigarrera has more decency!”
“They’ve caught you, they’ve caught you!” exclaimed Simoun, poking him in the chest.
“And everybody’s asking for loans and never pays—what about that? Clerks, officials, lieutenants, soldiers—” he checked them off on his long-nailed fingers—“ah, Señor Simoun, I’m lost, I’m busted!”
“Get out with your complaints,” said Simoun. “I’ve saved you from many officials that wanted money from you. I’ve lent it to them so that they wouldn’t bother you, even when I knew that they couldn’t pay.”
“But, Señor Simoun, you lend to officials; I lend to women, sailors, everybody.”
“I bet you get your money back.”
“Me, money back? Ah, surely you don’t understand! When it’s lost in gambling they never pay. Besides, you have a consul, you can force them, but I haven’t.”
Simoun became thoughtful. “Listen, Quiroga,” he said, somewhat abstractedly, “I’ll undertake to collect what the officers and sailors owe you. Give me their notes.”
Quiroga again fell to whining: they had never given him any notes.
“When they come to you asking for money, send them to me. I want to help you.”
The grateful Quiroga thanked him, but soon fell to lamenting again about the bracelets. “A cigarrera wouldn’t be so shameless!” he repeated.
“The devil!” exclaimed Simoun, looking askance at the Chinese, as though studying him. “Exactly when I need the money and thought that you could pay me! But it can all be arranged, as I don’t want you to fail for such a small amount. Come, a favor, and I’ll reduce to seven the nine thousand pesos you owe me. You can get anything you wish through the Customs—boxes of lamps, iron, copper, glassware, Mexican pesos—you furnish arms to the conventos, don’t you?”
The Chinese nodded affirmation, but remarked that he had to do a good deal of bribing. “I furnish the padres everything!”
“Well, then,” added Simoun in a low voice, “I need you to get in for me some boxes of rifles that arrived this evening. I want you to keep them in your warehouse; there isn’t room for all of them in my house.”
Quiroga began to show symptoms of fright.
“Don’t get scared, you don’t run any risk. These rifles are to be concealed, a few at a time, in various dwellings, then a search will be instituted, and many people will be [156] sent to prison. You and I can make a haul getting them set free. Understand me?”
Quiroga wavered, for he was afraid of firearms. In his desk he had an empty revolver that he never touched without turning his head away and closing his eyes.
“If you can’t do it, I’ll have to apply to some one else, but then I’ll need the nine thousand pesos to cross their palms and shut their eyes.”
“All right, all right!” Quiroga finally agreed. “But many people will be arrested? There’ll be a search, eh?”
When Quiroga and Simoun returned to the sala they found there, in animated conversation, those who had finished their dinner, for the champagne had loosened their tongues and stirred their brains. They were talking rather freely.
In a group where there were a number of government clerks, some ladies, and Don Custodio, the topic was a commission sent to India to make certain investigations about footwear for the soldiers.
“Who compose it?” asked an elderly lady.
“A colonel, two other officers, and his Excellency’s nephew.”
“Four?” rejoined a clerk. “What a commission! Suppose they disagree—are they competent?”
“That’s what I asked,” replied a clerk. “It’s said that one civilian ought to go, one who has no military prejudices—a shoemaker, for instance.”
“That’s right,” added an importer of shoes, “but it wouldn’t do to send an Indian or a Chinaman, and the only Peninsular shoemaker demanded such large fees—”
“But why do they have to make any investigations about footwear?” inquired the elderly lady. “It isn’t for the Peninsular artillerymen. The Indian soldiers can go barefoot, as they do in their towns.”
“Exactly so, and the treasury would save more,” corroborated another lady, a widow who was not satisfied with her pension.
“But you must remember,” remarked another in the group, a friend of the officers on the commission, “that while it’s true they go barefoot in the towns, it’s not the same as moving about under orders in the service. They can’t choose the hour, nor the road, nor rest when they wish. Remember, madam, that, with the noonday sun overhead and the earth below baking like an oven, they have to march over sandy stretches, where there are stones, the sun above and fire below, bullets in front—”
“It’s only a question of getting used to it!”
“Like the donkey that got used to not eating! In our present campaign the greater part of our losses have been due to wounds on the soles of the feet. Remember the donkey, madam, remember the donkey!”
“But, my dear sir,” retorted the lady, “look how much money is wasted on shoe-leather. There’s enough to pension many widows and orphans in order to maintain our prestige. Don’t smile, for I’m not talking about myself, and I have my pension, even though a very small one, insignificant considering the services my husband rendered, but I’m talking of others who are dragging out miserable lives! It’s not right that after so much persuasion to come and so many hardships in crossing the sea they should end here by dying of hunger. What you say about the soldiers may be true, but the fact is that I’ve been in the country more than three years, and I haven’t seen any soldier limping.”
“In that I agree with the lady,” said her neighbor. “Why issue them shoes when they were born without them?”
“And why shirts?”
“And why trousers?”
“Just calculate what we should economize on soldiers clothed only in their skins!” concluded he who was defending the army.
In another group the conversation was more heated. Ben-Zayb was talking and declaiming, while Padre Camorra, as usual, was constantly interrupting him. The friar-journalist, in spite of his respect for the cowled gentry, was always at loggerheads with Padre Camorra, whom he regarded as a silly half-friar, thus giving himself the appearance of being independent and refuting the accusations of those who called him Fray Ibañez. Padre Camorra liked his adversary, as the latter was the only person who would take seriously what he styled his arguments. They were discussing magnetism, spiritualism, magic, and the like. Their words flew through the air like the knives and balls of jugglers, tossed back and forth from one to the other.
That year great attention had been attracted in the Quiapo fair by a head, wrongly called a sphinx, exhibited by Mr. Leeds, an American. Glaring advertisements covered the walls of the houses, mysterious and funereal, to excite the curiosity of the public. Neither Ben-Zayb nor any of the padres had yet seen it; Juanito Pelaez was the only one who had, and he was describing his wonderment to the party.
Ben-Zayb, as a journalist, looked for a natural explanation. Padre Camorra talked of the devil, Padre Irene smiled, Padre Salvi remained grave.
“But, Padre, the devil doesn’t need to come—we are sufficient to damn ourselves—”
“It can’t be explained any other way.”
“If science—”
“Get out with science, puñales!”
“But, listen to me and I’ll convince you. It’s all a question of optics. I haven’t yet seen the head nor do I know how it looks, but this gentleman”—indicating Juanito Pelaez—“tells us that it does not look like the talking heads that are usually exhibited. So be it! But the principle is the same—it’s all a question of optics. Wait! A mirror is placed thus, another mirror behind it, the image is reflected—I say, it is purely a problem in physics.”
Taking down from the walls several mirrors, he arranged them, turned them round and round, but, not getting the desired result, concluded: “As I say, it’s nothing more or less than a question of optics.”
“But what do you want mirrors for, if Juanito tells us that the head is inside a box placed on the table? I see in it spiritualism, because the spiritualists always make use of tables, and I think that Padre Salvi, as the ecclesiastical governor, ought to prohibit the exhibition.”
Padre Salvi remained silent, saying neither yes nor no.
“In order to learn if there are devils or mirrors inside it,” suggested Simoun, “the best thing would be for you to go and see the famous sphinx.”
The proposal was a good one, so it was accepted, although Padre Salvi and Don Custodio showed some repugnance. They at a fair, to rub shoulders with the public, to see sphinxes and talking heads! What would the natives say? These might take them for mere men, endowed with the same passions and weaknesses as others. But Ben-Zayb, with his journalistic ingenuity, promised to request Mr. Leeds not to admit the public while they were inside. They would be honoring him sufficiently by the visit not to admit of his refusal, and besides he would not charge any admission fee. To give a show of probability to this, he concluded: “Because, remember, if I should expose the trick of the mirrors to the public, it would ruin the poor American’s business.” Ben-Zayb was a conscientious individual.
About a dozen set out, among them our acquaintances, Padres Salvi, Camorra, and Irene, Don Custodio, Ben-Zayb, and Juanito Pelaez. Their carriages set them down at the entrance to the Quiapo Plaza.

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