(Editor’s note: This piece was first published in the South Seattle Emerald on March 16, 2022.)
To Coco, Feng Daoyou, who crossed over on March 16, 2021. Our ancestor, who left home at a young age to work in the factories and the nail salons and massage parlors. Who sent money back to build a home for your elders, one massage at a time. Who landed in New York, LA, and then Atlanta. Who died in anonymity. Whose body cannot return home, I remember you. We remember you.
Rest in peace.
If I had asked, “家乡在哪儿?” (“Where is your hometown?”), what might she have said?
She might have said she was from a small village in Guangdong province, a Southern coastal region known colloquially as “the factory of the world.” She might have shared about her youthful departure from home, to experience city lights and adventures over a lifetime of marriage and womanly duties in the village. She might have shared, too, that she dove headfirst to Shenzhen, the Pearl River Delta, the earliest special economic zone in China, to work in the many factories dotting the region as an assembly line and garment worker.
She might have added that she found her way up North to arrive in Shanghai, attending cosmetology school. Along the way, she met a 姐妹, sister, who laid out the workings of parlors in New York. It takes a particular concoction of fantasy and realism to imagine a meaningful life that is also fixated on nonnegotiable, time-draining goals — of making enough money to build a home for an ailing mother, no less, one massage at a time. Tales from New York and Los Angeles, laden with the centuries-long legacy of “Gold Mountain,” Western decadence, and wealth, would rightly conjure that imagination. And so, she arrived.
She wouldn’t have shared that many details, not in our first encounter. She could have said:
“I’m from Guangdong province.”
To which, Shuxuan, my outreach team partner, would have asked, “Oh, did you arrive in Atlanta from Guangdong?”
She might have added then, “No, I went to LA and then to New York.”
To which I might have followed with, “Oh, what made you decide to leave those cities?”
Depending on the moment when we interrupted her workday, she may or may not have responded.
If her hands were oily and slathered, palms held upright, away from the body, taking care not to stain her clothes or furniture while she leaned her body with one side on the doorframe and a slippered foot on the other, pushing against the door to stop it from closing, she might have quipped,
“小妹, 我现在有客人呀。你当会儿再来吧, OK? 谢谢喔。Bye bye.” (“My dear, I have customers now. Come back later, OK? Thank you. Bye bye.”)
The day the shootings took place, March 16, 2021, I received a text from my sweet friend Chandan, “Dear, did you hear?”
It took me a moment, in my post-vaccine drowsiness, to pull up the live reports of a gunman on a rampage to “deal” with his sex addiction by eliminating the guilty seducers, who were Asian and full of vice and lies. He was having a “bad day” and took eight lives before the day was over.
I found myself at Shuxuan’s house, a bowl of hot soup cupped in my hands. I am not a massage parlor worker, nor a rural migrant from inland China who had left everything she knew to come to this continent. I am an immigrant, a child of a masseuse, a nurse just off work, freshly vaccinated, unable to decipher where the fatigue of vaccine side effects ended and where the weight of tragedy began, seeking solace with a friend who mourns and also might know how it feels to live with the tug of homeland and the fear of a lonely, distant death.
For days, no one knew her name. Coco was what her customers knew her by. Coco, as in Coco Lee 李纹, the beautiful, sultry, Taiwanese Canadian singer who sang “A Love Before Time” in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, known for her bilingual ballads belting high notes in smooth English with no accent to betray her roots.
Or, Coco, the title of Pixar’s newish animation movie that hit the Chinese box office by storm. Who knew that the film centering Indigenous and Mexican cultural themes — of eternal bonds between family members that transcend death — would resonate so strongly with traditional Chinese norms of family, belonging, and legacies. Coco.
Coco, whose real name we did not know for seven days. Anonymity as a mechanism for traipsing through oceans and cities, and many places far from home. Home, as distinct from places. Places connected to home only through the phone’s call logs and old text messages, a thin thread of metaverses dug through by strangers seeking an origin, a name, a family to notify. Solid bonds that exist in virtual form, undetectable to the uninitiated. Her body lay in a morgue while Chinese social media frantically searched for a connection, in the current life, across the continents, for a name, a home, a household, a lineage, a tangible physicality.
It was many WeChat searches later that her name was revealed. Feng Daoyou. And more WeChat messages later, a brother was identified as kin.
“Can you tell me where we are?”
I recall the small talk that took a turn with the Chinese masseuse who rubbed soap suds into my back, vigorously exfoliating dead skin cells. Me, half asleep, settling into the ease of relaxed muscles soothed by warm water.
She whispered in our mother tongue, a language unfamiliar to the Korean masseuses and customers around us, speaking stealthily in our seemingly private code.
How does one respond? What did she not know of where she was? The exact cross streets? The city? The state? But, why did she not know her whereabouts?
I fumbled with a list of cardinal directions — we are at the Northwest of the United States, bordering the south of Vancouver, Canada, west of China, sharing the same latitude as Harbin, China, south of Seattle, west of I-5 … There are many places that any location, much less a massage parlor studded in the suburbs of an American city, inhabit.
Anonymity is a circular, self-fulfilling process — one is anonymous to, and made anonymous — for a particular kind of survival-seeking continent traipsing.
“I’m from Guangdong. I have been to LA and New York. Here in Atlanta.”
I would have tried to make small talk, asking, “How do you think the East Coast compares to the West Coast?”
But in my mind, I understand. This country is many places, not a home. The lands of the Tongva, the Lenape and the Cherokee, overlaid with suburbs and freeways, are relevant for her today, most prominently in the remittances they allow one to send back and to save up. One is not making home here, and details are mostly irrelevant.
There is home, and then there are places.
落叶归根 (“Fallen leaves return to their roots.”)
We say often that a fallen leaf returns to the root, marking a tribute to lands that once nourished us, recycled into a circuit that will birth new life. Our bones once fortified by the calcium of the water and food break down; the protein masses decompose into nitrates in the soil, carbon released into the air, cycled, churned to be inhaled and absorbed. There is a particular sentimentality in the longing for a return to the origins. Evolution has wired these traits into salmon, known to spawn in their birthplaces after a long struggle upstream, where they then die, the ultimate price to pay for a homecoming. For humans, evolution is ingrained in language and passed off as culture, left to withstand the changing landscapes of history and capital. Who gets to die at their place of origin is a navigation of history, of capital, of gender: forces beyond our biology.
Sustaining life in the afterlife in an unconscious surrender, allowing nature to take her course on our bodies. Sustaining life in the present life is a choice conducted with a relative level of agency, even if obligatory.
Filial piety is the measure of commitment to sustaining life as a Chinese daughter. It is to make the family a centerpiece and offer your joy, stature, comfort, reputation to its sustenance. Coco, Feng Daoyou, played her part by remitting $46K of her savings, acquired one massage at a time, to the family’s new home for her elderly mother to live in.
The circuit of capital smoothly cycling American greenbacks into Chinese RMB, accumulated through a body expended in labor, one massage at a time, moves with ease. Meanwhile, a body lifeless and limp, expended in labor, targeted in essence, terminated of breath, struggles to complete its circuit back home.
Coco, the newish Pixar movie with Mexican and Indigenous themes of family and belonging into the afterlife, hit the Chinese box office. Who knew that realizing such exalted values would be so arduous.
Coco, Feng Daoyou, of Atlanta’s massage parlor shooting, unable to be buried in her village because she was unmarried. There is no place for unmarried women in the old village home. Home is an origin, not merely a place, and for those who are unbetrothed, not a root-welcoming return.
Coco, Feng Daoyou’s funeral was held in Atlanta, where she was cremated. Her ashes in a pink urn. Her funeral was attended by kind strangers who had encountered her merely as a name, post-mortem. She was new to Atlanta, having just arrived from New York or LA.
The body laments how the cycle of capital accumulated through expended bodies moves, with more ease and comfort, than the body itself.
In her last conversation with her brother, Feng Daokun, he recalls that she wanted him to buy fresh flowers for 清明节, the yearly Tomb Sweeping Festival. She wanted to celebrate a day to honor lineage, ancestry, connection. In service of the future, in service of hope, stability, and health.
Our past is woven into how we imagine the future, lineages that even transpacific crossings cannot sever.
Ancestors command tribute. Ancestors once known become unknown, as bearers of the past. You can’t scold an ancestor or a spirit. You can only acknowledge, flatter, or appease them. Being a bearer of the past affords one some power and dignity and respect.
March 16, 2023, marks two years since the tragic shootings in Atlanta. Massage Parlor Outreach Project will be conducting a vigil to commemorate the lives lost then, and since.
JM Wong (they/them) is a queer child of the Chinese diaspora living on Duwamish lands (Seattle) via Malaysia/Singapore and many cities in between. They are a healthcare worker, policy analyst, and community member. They write about their time working in health care in “caring: a labor on stolen time.” They believe in the power, brilliance, and resilience of the global working class. They do outreach and organizing with the Massage Parlor Outreach Project (MPOP) based in Chinatown-International District. They are a part of the #CIDSafetyNotSweeps campaign calling for a moratorium on sweeps in the CID. More info here https://cidsafetynotsweeps.wixsite.com/home