Thursday, October 30, 2003

An Interesting Night

After work last night I went uptown to attend the wake of Song Meiling, better known as Madame Chiang Kai-shek. Growing up in China, I knew surprisingly little about Song Meiling, despite her status as a significant figure in modern Chinese history. The only things I knew about her were that 1.) she was very beautiful and capable; 2.) she was the wife of Chiang Kai-shek, the head of the corrupt Nationalist Party that was driven out of China and to Taiwan by Mao's Communists; and 3.) she bathed in milk while most of the country starved. While some of the negative things I heard and read about her were probably false propaganda spread by the Communist government, I still believe that Song played no small role in the looting and corruption that took place in pre-1949 China. Even the US Congress stopped giving aid to Chiang's Nationalist Party as a result of concerns about corruption.

Although I read about Song's death in the NY Times, I didn't know that there was going to be a public viewing until Dad told me on the phone on Tuesday night. Both Dad and Mom encouraged me to go because, according to them, regardless of what character flaws she might have had when she was alive, she was still a figure of tremendous significance in our culture during our life time.

The wake took place at the Frank Campbell Chapel on 81st & Madison. When I walked up to the chapel, I saw a police barrier blocking cars from turning on to 81st St. from Madison. There were 3 or 4 cops standing by the barricade. I guess the Song/Chiang family were worried about rabble rousers making trouble. Besides the cops, there were also some well-dressed Chinese people standing outside the chapel. I'm not sure if they were relatives or just curious strangers like me.

I followed a middle-aged couple into the viewing room and waited as they walked in front of the coffin. As they took their bows, I looked around the room. To be honest, I was pretty disappointed that there wasn't a bigger crowd or local luminaries present. Of course, I also didn't get there until around 7 pm, when the public viewing was scheduled from noon to 8 pm. I did not see anything unusual, just 10 to 15 flower rings (not sure what the exact English term is) with long strips of paper expressing condolences encircling the room; 15 to 20 pews, Song's coffin (I guess there's no open-casket viewing, for the public at least); a poster-sized color photo of her; and finally a few well-dressed Chinese people standing next to her coffin, including a man who recorded the whole proceeding with a camcorder. Actually, I did see one white person standing with the others, who I assume were her relatives. I have no idea if the white dude is part of the family, but I think it would be pretty funny to have a "foreign devil" (what we Chinese used to call white people) infiltrating the ranks of the NATIONALISTS.

After the couple in front of me left, I stepped up and took more time checking out everything. I guess I must have taken a little too long, because one of the guys standing next to the coffin stepped forward and politely requested me to take 3 bows, which I obliged. Then I put back on my jacket and stepped out of the chapel. All in all, I was there for less than 3 minutes after spending almost 15 minutes waiting for and riding the subway to get to the chapel.

On the way out of the chapel, I saw a sign on the wall which stated that the Frank Campbell Chapel is a subsidiary (or franchise) of Service Corporation International, which reminded me of the "Six Feet Under" evil funeral home empire Kroehner. In fact, the whole experience felt like a scene from an episode of "Six Feet Under," with me as some minor character that fortunately didn't die in the beginning.

After I walked into the subway station on the way back, I was waiting in line about to buy a ticket when some kid on the other side of the turnstile said he could let me go through. Then he swiped his card and let me through. Of course he wanted $2 after I went through. I was pretty amused and somewhat surprised because I wondered how much he's profiting from all this. Then all of a sudden, someone grabbed my backpack from behind and yelled, "Where are you going?" The kid that let me through yelled back and said, "It's ok, he's paying."

As soon as I hopped on the train, I started thinking about these kids' business model. I figured that the only way they can make any money is by using an unlimited-ride monthly pass, which costs $70. However, they have to wait a minimum of 15 minutes between swipes at the same station, since the MTA doesn't want one person to buy an unlimited ride pass and then swipe through all of his buddies too. So, the most they can make in an hour with one pass is $8, since a single ride costs $2. That is assuming that they could persuade 4 people per hour to let them swipe them through. I did see that the kid had 3 passes in his hand, which I'm assuming belonged to him and his two enforcers, but the per person cost/earning comes out the same though. Eight dollars an hour isn't too bad for a high school kid, I guess, but I don't think I could bear standing around in a subway station for hours every day. I would be bored out of my mind. Besides, don't these kids have homework or parents that would get on their case?