Let’s begin here: on the sand. Or, rather, on the slabs of wood above the sand. On June 26, 1870, the Atlantic City boardwalk opened to the public. Sixteen years earlier, the first tourist train had arrived on the newly minted Camden and Atlantic Railroad. Tourists came to stick their toes in the Atlantic—steel blue, the color of whales they’d never see. They came to lean against each other in the high dunes and make promises they couldn’t keep. They let the wind lift those promises up, to be caught in the chandeliers of expensive hotels or the beaks of passing seagulls. The women who came held frilled umbrellas—jellyfish along the shore. And when they returned to their jobs and errands and thumb-sucking babies, they carried sand with them, making the train car a beach in and of itself. Glitter of the sea. This is how the boardwalk came to be: a fed-up railroad conductor and simply too much sand for his own sweeping sanity.
Just to be clear: this is not our story. Not yet. Our story moves across that steel blue world, from another continent, from a place where there is no such thing as “vacation.” My ancestors would repeat that word, 假期, as if it were a cloud and could disappear at any point. On this continent, there are herds of oxen and lily pads the size of unkeepable promises. As a small child in central New Jersey, I dreamt of this story. Of oxen, my mother riding the back of one, the hair on its hide so coarse, it makes your throat hurt. Our story, our history, holds a different version of Atlantic City.
In 1988, my mother was still dreaming in Cantonese—not a single word of English wormed its way through her open-mouthed sleep. My brother Steven had just been born, howling like a wolf who knew he was a boy. Four years earlier, when the nurses placed me in my mother’s arms, my mother says I stared at her silently. She held me up to the fluorescent light and declared: “I’m afraid. She knows too much.” By 1988, my father had been holding mahjong gambling circles for five years, in the basement of my grandparents’ apartment in Matawan and then in our house in Tinton Falls, where my parents had settled that year. Cigarette smoke escaped like doves from underneath the floorboards. And the shuffling. The shuffling sound of mahjong tiles, a porcelain earthquake. I learned later that these tiles used to be made out of bone, backed by bamboo. Now: Bakelite, plastic. My father always invited the same people to play: Uncle Jimmy, the Chicken Bone Man, and Balding Uncle.
Just to be clear again: our story is not about small enterprises. Our story goes beyond the little batons of twenty-dollar bills, passed around the mahjong table. Beyond the table’s green felt, stained with cheap Tsingtao and sky-high piles of gnawed bones from the Chicken Bone Man’s eponymous pastime.
At twenty-six, my mother was all pink lipstick and confused by the attention, but knew to accept gifts from white people.
Our story is Atlantic City. We are talking Taj Mahal, Caesar’s Palace, Bally. Casinos depicting worlds my father couldn’t fathom, but kept returning to, like a moth drawn to a blinding bulb. At Caesar’s Palace, there were towering white columns so extravagant, they held up nothing at all. There were white statues of horses braying, a ceiling painted like the sky with white clouds, the busts of white people we assumed were famous but were really just white. My parents didn’t even know where Rome was on a map, or that Rome existed. But Caesar’s Palace was irresistible in its whiteness. Who could say no to the patina of wealth? This is how we arrived: on that Chinese tourist bus where you have to fan yourself with your ten-dollar gambling voucher and put your cigarette out in a Dixie cup. Or, if you hit it big like we once did, you can arrive in the dolphin-colored leather of your BMW, before you inevitably crash it into the Parkway median. No air conditioning and the windows down, to save on gas mileage, of course. We arrived over a century after those first tourists, to a boardwalk full of nonwhite faces. Shoulder pads, pinstriped suits, and an amalgamation of languages punctuating the salty air. The poor, the working class, the hopeful, in red-tag sequin dresses from Marshalls. Here we are! Yes, here, with self-serve wine and crab legs at the Palace Buffet—all of which we marveled at, but never touched.
The boardwalk was strictly a summer affair. In the 1870s, it was broken down for safekeeping during the winter. The boards stored like quilts packed in a trunk, like pickled radishes, like a family who won’t look each other in the eye.
For repeat patrons—the ones who threw enough money away—casinos offered free hotel stays for the whole family. Each Christmas, Thanksgiving, Valentine’s Day, Memorial Day, July 4, my father disappeared into the red velvet of spinning roulette tables. We made other plans. Steven and I tested the structural soundness of hotel beds by jumping on them. Once, a cockroach flew out of the mattress, disturbed in its sleep. “How is this fancy?” my mother moaned. She was used to crushing cockroaches, and punched its antennae lights out. K.O. Game over.
Steven and I traded the remote back and forth like a secret, marveling over the gluttony of cable television. We spent hours watching channels we didn’t have: Nickelodeon, MTV, Disney. We made up a dirge for basic television and sang it over and over: Rest in peace, you piece of shit. Rest in peace, you piece of shit. In the afternoon, we walked the boardwalk back and forth with the other Chinese American kids who were never allowed to play that water-gun race game, even though we knew there had to be a winner. No stuffed dinosaurs for us, no Dippin’ Dots. The game operators, home from college and tipsy on Pabst, were always shouting at my mother, words she didn’t understand. “Hey gorgeous, lemme get your number while the brats play!” and “I’d let you play for free any day, baby!” and “Hey pretty lady, you speakee any Englishee?” At twenty-six, my mother was all pink lipstick and confused by the attention, but knew to accept gifts from white people: an ice-cold Coke pressed against her cheek, a stuffed orca whale for Steven.
Here is one scene, on a shore of many: on the way back to Caesar’s, my mother sits on a boardwalk bench, the dune grass behind her like the back of a throne. From her purse: bread rolls stolen from the Palace Buffet. She chews out all her anger on those rolls, on the gnarls in the crust. Soft middles demolished by her patent leather heels as they dig into boardwalk cracks. Seagulls swarm near her in full praise. Glitter of the boardwalk.
“I’m tired, Mommy,” I whine, pulling on her earrings with my sandy hands. Next year, both her earlobes will split open from too-heavy earrings. The infections will heal and yield scars I will grow jealous of.
“Tell that to your father.”
The sky is lavender and dragon fruit. Everywhere around us, people marvel at the swirling sunset and take pictures. Later, when I ask my mother for baby pictures of me, she’ll tell me we were too poor to have a camera. She’ll simply repeat: “I held you up. You didn’t blink and you had the biggest eyes I’ve ever seen.” I’m afraid. She knows too much.
I lean my head against her sharp shoulders, which will always vacillate between sharpening and softening. Steven joins the seagulls and starts eating breadcrumbs off the ground.
“What’s it like in there? Where daddy goes?” I ask her.
My mother stares at my brother. He has my father’s eyes—big and shining like a dying flashlight. He will grow to be as tall as my father: six feet, to be exact. He will be a handsome man and he won’t know it. A man who has to shave every day. But at this moment, his tongue is speckled with sand and gluten. “Stop that right now,” my mother screams at him. “Stop that, stop that!” Soon, Steven is wailing, and that unrelenting sound stops all my questions. Meanwhile, an off-duty clown strolls down the boardwalk with his date for the night. She is holding one of his oversized juggling pins and laughing like something is stuck in her belly. The boardwalk shifts underneath our feet. Is winter coming? Yes, but not now: the woman’s hair is coiled cotton candy. “Show me that new trick,” she sings in the dwindling light.
I did not know, at that time, what my mother thought of Atlantic City. What she thought of that fake blue sky at Caesar’s, of transparent lettuce with Russian dressing, of my father—a man she barely knew—throwing money on a table to prove his worth, to show he could do whatever he wanted. Not long ago, she’d been a farm girl, sucking on sugar cane after hiking up the mountains to gather wood for the stove. This was before she was arranged to marry my father at nineteen. My father: a tall stranger who moved to a country where a piece of plastic could buy a car. My mother would follow him soon after. Their names, because they are real: Jin Ai and Hung Foo.
Another scene, this one for Jin Ai but not for us: at 6 a. m., my mother wakes up in our comped room from a dream in a language she doesn’t understand yet. Hey gorgeous, hey pretty lady, my baby. She walks past our sleeping forms—consumed in white down feathers—and puts on her heels. With purpose, she takes the elevator down to the first floor. She walks into that red velvet world and follows what her heart does not desire. My father is whiskey-eyed and half-asleep—hunched over the blackjack table like a drowsy raccoon. His shirt is unbuttoned one too many and his wallet is an open window. My mother clenches her fists and imagines raising them to the false sky above. Her eyes swirl like a crystal ball. No one will ever know if she’s crying.
My father doesn’t say her name or look up. “One more game.”
Dozens of floors above, we are still dreaming. K.O. K.O. K.O.
Remember: this story is not about small enterprises. This story expands like an oil spill; it touches the fins of every faraway shore. This is a story poor immigrants share, like those packed bunk beds shared with false uncles and aunts. We are targeted. This is no mistake. This can’t be boiled down to “cultural proclivity for luck.” Casino buses roll into Chinatowns across the country like ice-cream trucks for a reason.
Cache Creek Casino in Brooks, California, as John M. Glionna reports in a 2006 article for the Los Angeles Times, has a tank that holds a two-foot-long dragon fish named Mr. Lucky. Dragon fish have round scales like coins, and are purported to be worth upward of $300,000. The owners’ apparent vision: Chinese gamblers rubbing the cool, blue tank with dollar signs in their eyes. Glionna quotes Wendy Waldorf, a spokesperson for the casino: “Asians are a huge market. We cater to them.” According to NBC News, approximately thirty thousand Chinese gamblers take cheap buses from New York City’s Chinatown to casinos in the surrounding tristate area, including Atlantic City. In 2011, a bus on a return trip from the Mohegan Sun in Connecticut crashed and killed fifteen passengers. After the accident, the New York Times reported, police officers who spoke Chinese visited the survivors to speak with them about the disaster. With mangled limbs and empty pockets, whose grandmother was lost, whose father?
In “How I Got That Name,” poet Marilyn Chin writes of her own father’s gambling addiction:
While my father dithers,
a tomcat in Hong Kong trash—
a gambler, a petty thug,
who bought a chain of chopsuey joints
in Piss River, Oregon . . .
In a 2012 MELUS interview with Ken Weisner, Chin speaks about her “gambler bigamist father,” about her siblings and the necessity of humor in her childhood home: “We had to laugh deep from our guts to keep from crying.”
Across the country, mirroring Chin’s Piss River, Portland, my father played all night in Atlantic City. He did not stop to eat or go to the bathroom or ask where his family was. My father owned a Chinese American take-out restaurant on the Jersey shore, and he’d disappear from work for days, sometimes a week. My mother ran the restaurant without him, her arms scraping the fryer, grime peeling like bark. Her anger: strips of wonton wrappers seething in the hot oil, slow and dangerous. She was a motionless alligator ready to strike. We avoided her gaze during those days. Years later, in 1997, the restaurant finally closed its doors. Eventually it would become Panda House, a new Chinese restaurant run by a new family that looked remarkably like mine.
As we drove home from Atlantic City together, my father would glow over his winnings. He’d flail an arm back in that poorly won BMW and toss a couple of twenty-dollar bills at us. “Liar,” my mother would say, staring out the window. “You lost. You always lose.” The new leather burned our thighs as we watched the Parkway smokestacks grow bigger and closer.
My father always lost in the end. We all lose in the end. The next year was when he rammed the BMW into a median on his midnight way to Atlantic City. What he would lose beyond money—his job, family, sobriety—would not be clear to him until much later. Perhaps it’s still not clear to him; I wouldn’t know. Underneath the boardwalk, there is so much rotting trash.
His brown leather jacket slumped around his shoulders as if he was unable to shed his own hide.
In his article “The Vulnerable Faces of Pathological Gambling,” published in Psychiatry in 2005, psychiatrist Tim Fong takes a close look at gambling and its impact on communities of color. “Specific reasons for why certain minority groups are more vulnerable,” he writes, “may be related to higher group gambling participation rates, location of gambling establishments (they tend to be in urban settings), and relationships to lower socioeconomic status.” Fong homes in on immigration and gambling in particular. Requiring no English skills and offering the possibility of quick money, gambling has a problematic allure in new immigrant communities. It could seem like a source of confidence, of hope. Did my father hope for all of us, or just for himself? One truth: the sky was always blue at Caesar’s. A director at the NICOS Chinese Health Coalition, Michael Liao explores the relationship between immigration, gambling, and social status. From his article “Asian Americans and Problem Gambling”: “Studies have often pointed to decision-making opportunities as motivation for gambling—particularly among marginalized populations who feel a lack of control over their daily lives.” My father could ask a blackjack dealer to hit him with another card. But he couldn’t ask for a cup of hot water instead of ice water because he didn’t have the language for it.
After we lost the restaurant, my father was unable to hold a steady job. He would spend a few days working for someone else as a cook, only to storm out shouting and throwing spatulas. His apron tossed in the trash, ties dangling in the wind like snakes. It was the same story at that factory job, that A &P job, that dim sum waiter job. “I’m the boss,” my father would snarl beneath a plume of cigarette smoke. His brown leather jacket slumped around his shoulders as if he was unable to shed his own hide. I always found it funny that, below the brand name, his jacket’s interior label read: i don’t want to go to work. And so he didn’t. My father rarely spoke to us, even more rarely in English, and this is what we remember him saying the most. I’m the boss. Translation: What can I hold on to?
Our shared story moves away from the past and closer to the present. In 2016, the Lucky Dragon Casino opened in Las Vegas, an “Asian themed” paradise of gambling. A 1.2 ton gilded dragon hangs from the ceiling, its scales glimmering. David Jacoby, the casino’s chief operating officer, was clear when speaking to the Los Angeles Times about its target market: the larger Asian diaspora, particularly the Chinese. Modeled after street markets in China and Taiwan, the food court, Dragon’s Alley, features a brick wall taken from an alleyway in Beijing. If you touch the wall, you could practically go home. “This place is heavily feng shui’ed,” Jacoby told the Times. I haven’t visited the Lucky Dragon or any of these new casinos—now that I can choose not to, I will never find myself in one again. Newspaper reports are as close as I need to get. But I know Jacoby is right: the kitchen is blessed in the sheen of the American dream. Cleansed in luck, in that steel blue water we all traversed.
My mother tried to leave many times. She woke up in the middle of the night and packed a suitcase, folding each dress like a present for no one in particular. Each time, she failed to get out the door. My brother wouldn’t leave his dinosaur blanket behind and refused to pack it. I begged for us to go, to walk out into the blinding snow. I dreamt of the icicles stinging my cheeks: relief. By the door, my grandmother crumpled like a poorly made bed. If she had to endure her arranged marriage, why couldn’t my mother?
It was my father who ended up leaving. That day was like any other ordinary day. I went to school, my mother slept since she worked night shift for the postal service, and there were lunches and leaves falling from trees and ants crawling through a maze in my brother’s classroom. We got home and he was gone. Just like that. Breaking down the boardwalk for the season. Except this was a perpetual winter, and we were thankful for it. That week, my mother opened the windows of our house, to let the cigarette smoke out. To air out each promise, each day my father had disappeared in Atlantic City. She changed the locks. She surveyed the brilliant brass doorknobs in her hands and maybe she thought: These would make beautiful earrings. All three of us carried the dirty floral armchair replete with cigarette burns down to the basement, and shoved it into a corner we could all forget. Disappearance is a strange choice; I would grow to learn this as an adult, when a parade of men would suddenly leave me and each, then, try to reconnect. My father made one attempt, in the months that followed. He broke into the house through the basement window and left half a rotisserie chicken, a red packet with five dollars in it, and a note: happy birthday, jane. My birthday had been months ago. I thought of the Chicken Bone Man as I tore the glistening skin from the leg; yes, I ate it. I was grateful, even for this. I wondered how my father, at six feet tall, had climbed into that tiny basement window. He must have finally transformed into a raccoon.
One summer when my father had taken us to Atlantic City, my mother bought us hermit crabs on the boardwalk. After trip after trip of no ice cream and no boardwalk games, which truly were a scam, this was a sign of utter generosity. We loved the crabs dearly. We kissed their shells and let them strut along the hotel room floor. In the morning, my father was passed out in bed, still in his cheap button-down shirt and too-big slacks. He had been gambling again all night. My brother and I watched, our hands over each other’s mouths, as one of the hermit crabs crawled all over his back. Manifest destiny.
Decades later, when I asked my mother why she bought us those hermit crabs, she talked about waiting. “I remember standing outside of the gambling floor, watching you both run around. And I remember looking around me—at the other wives and husbands waiting with children. How I looked just like them. Tired. And thinking: Why? Why am I standing here?” She paused, removing the daggers from her eyes, thrown in the direction of my father. “I felt bad for you both. I bought you hermit crabs.”
In Seattle, where I currently live, it’s the Snoqualmie Casino. The casino buses are luxury coach, with toilets and air conditioning. They pick up patrons in the International District, right behind Uwajimaya. When I’m grocery shopping for anything that reminds me of home—persimmons, sour dried plums, Chinese pickled vegetables—I swear I see my father boarding that bus, loafers polished in kitchen grease. I take one step closer to see better, hugging my groceries to my chest. But then: another. He looks like my father too, leather jacket and all. In this misty city, it’s hard to tell. They’re all my father. Do I care if they are? Regardless, I wish they’d look at me. This is what I think, as these aging Asian gamblers take the vouchers from the casino bus driver and hold them tightly in their hands. Do you see me?
This is a story of lost enterprises. I was thirty-one when my grandmother passed away. She had dementia for years and only remembered two people toward the end of her life: my father and me. She’d repeat the same story about taking me to the swing set at a park. “Jane wouldn’t get off the swings, not even when the sun went down.” I imagine that when my father listened to that story, it was as if he were on that swing set, playing with his mother as a child. Underneath this story is my father’s story: his love for his mother, the only person he never left. Layered on one another like mud, these stories of care and comfort overlap. When my father abandoned our family, he moved in with my grandmother and stayed with her for as long as he could. He peeled her grapes; he brushed her hair; he cupped her feet in his hands and clipped her toenails. When he was a child, my grandfather and my uncles left home and moved to Hong Kong; my grandmother raised Hung Foo back in the village, the baby of the family. When my grandmother died, I was visiting Shanghai to read from my first book of poems. As she was lowered into the dirt, 7,403 miles away in New Jersey, I was restless from jet lag and staying in a hotel that smelled like recycled air.
A couple of months later, when I returned to Jersey for the holidays, my father called my mother out of nowhere and asked if I was coming home. “I can’t remember the last time he called. Something’s not right,” she said, half laughing, half suspicious. “He said he wanted to see you. I told him it was up to you.”
How the scene goes, after all is lost: my father arrives through the garage door as if he’s lived here all along. It’s been many, many years since I’ve seen him. My father has grown old. He’s not how I remembered him as a small child or teenager. All his rotten teeth have fallen out. One golden crown hangs in his mouth like a crescent moon. He is in sweatpants and holding a gift of four giant oranges—the size of small planets. We sit awkwardly at the kitchen table. My brother weaves his hands together as if they were glued. My mother peels her own orange—an orange she bought—and nurses a slowly brewing growl. My father, all laughter, tells us how he makes his own wine. That it tastes terrible, like dirty feet. He announces in mixed Cantonese and English: “I can do whatever I want now.” None of us say it out loud, but we all wonder if he’s drunk. My mother feels like she needs to use a knife and begins beheading apples. It’s time for my father to go.
Steven, now twenty-eight and fully bearded, bought a bottle of merlot when he heard that our father was coming. As our father puts on his shoes—stained white sneakers covered in grass cuttings—I watch as Steven offers him this gift. Steven laughs, deep from the gut, to stop himself from crying. He is sweating and I hope that the bottle slips right out of his hands and breaks open in the hallway, sputtering everywhere like pomegranate seeds. At least, then, our father won’t take it. When I ask my brother why he gave him the bottle, he says in the gentlest voice: “To pass the time.”
As I watch the NBA playoffs, I think of my father drinking too much and watching them too. Of drinking himself to sleep and dreaming about his mother, her purple jade bracelet shining deep within the earth. Of how he needs to see his daughter, right this instant. He’ll remind himself not to talk about how much money he won or how she hasn’t grown or any memories really. Maybe, he’ll think, I’m better now. And the giant oranges. Don’t forget the oranges.
This is a story of lost enterprises. Of boarded-up pizza joints, lonely stuffed animals sans tipsy game operators, echoing parking lots with floating trash, and neon lights toppled over like sand castles. A ghost city. In 2012, the Revel, a $2.4 billion casino, opened. This was a most anticipated undertaking in Atlantic City; the Revel’s entire exterior was built with glass so that it would discreetly disappear at night. A casino that disappears into thin air—which it did, just two years later.
It’s fair to say that the Revel did not have luck on its side. During construction, lightning struck a worker’s bucket and killed him. Six construction executives died in a freak plane crash. Another world my father could have dreamed in, abandoned in rotting, unlucky luxury. Hotel rooms with punched-out windows. Echoing concert halls with families of soprano rats. Seagulls building velvet nests, declaring their own American dream in feathery glory. “I always say Atlantic City is like Dracula,” Jim Whelan, former mayor of Atlantic City, told NorthJersey.com. “You can’t kill it, no matter how hard we try.” These days, if I close my eyes, I can hear Bruce Springsteen playing in Tony’s Baltimore Grill, a surviving Atlantic City pizzeria, or maybe in our old Chinese American take-out amid the hiss of the wok firing: Everything dies, baby, that’s a fact. Maybe everything that dies someday comes back. The hope for resurrection, for return. Sometimes I imagine my father in the future: in his nineties, strolling along an empty boardwalk with me. We walk, and he points out how the waves sound just like they do in the South China Sea. What kind of luck do I need for this to come true?