by Aimee Liu

Appears in Other Voices #41

On November 17, 1997, retired career intelligence officer Dean Shaughnessy died of natural causes at his home in Greenwich, Connecticut. Mr. Shaughnessy’s sole survivor, his son Ben, discovered the following statement among his father’s papers. He has contributed this document to the Millennium Asia History Project, for publication in its entirety.

* * *

I was one of her nighttime customers in Hong Kong during the fall of 1941, just before the evacuation. We relied on her services. SOE and OSS agents passed her notes in cypher, scripted inside SenSen wrappers, stuffed into discarded condoms. Some of her customers were the enemy, and she would pick their pockets for useful details, names, addresses, shopping lists. Hours later, we would come to complete the relay—she called us her morning customers, no matter what time we saw her.

I never slept with her. I may have been the only one who didn't. "Why not?" my counterpart from the SOE, T. L., used to nudge me. "She loves us. We're not the enemy." Maybe. But maybe not. In any case, I found her too beautiful, in a shipwrecked sort of way. She reminded me of a figurehead with her defiant, sea sprayed pride intact but stripped of all color and gloss. I admired her and, yes, desired her more than I probably admitted even to myself. But what I loved about her was something entirely different.

I loved the way she picked up her child, squatting first in the corner like a peasant, plucking him out of his padding. She would lift him in the crook of her elbow, swaying just so slightly, that wobbly head of thick black hair feathering her naked arm.

The baby was three months old and slept in a white wicker bassinet in the same room where she serviced her customers. One night she told me, "He knew we would have a son." I asked her to tell me her story.

She asked if she could trust me.

I gave her my promise.

The ruse was old, familiar, continues to this day. Her family was war-struck in Korea, father and brothers all vanished, she, her mother and sisters subsisting on rainwater and roots. Faith was not her name then, but she acted on it nonetheless. When she was fifteen the rumor passed around her village—strong girls could make good money doing factory or domestic work for the Japanese. Her mother and sisters would have one less mouth to feed. She could send her good money home.

She stood in the bed of a truck with twenty other girls from the village, not one of them waving goodbye. A neighbor man she had known her whole life drove the truck to the port. The girls were herded onto a black painted ship and shut into rooms like prison cells. No windows, air or water. The sea was rough, and many sickened. They could not tell day from night, which direction or how far from home they traveled.

When they were finally allowed on deck, the ship had docked in a large, bustling city which, they were told, was Shanghai. Another truck took them from the pier to a big house that looked like an image from the British picture books the nun had shown Faith in the Catholic school she attended until she was nine.

She could read, you see. She was not stupid, only poor and trusting. In the picture books the British houses had wide green lawns and chimney pots, square windows and pitched roofs and vine-covered walls. Inside, they had great rooms with polished floors and chairs that looked like soft, panting animals, beds that floated high off the floor under tents the nun called canopies. The house to which she was taken in Shanghai looked just right on the outside, but inside, the great rooms had been sliced into cells even smaller than those on the ship. Some of the walls were of wood, some merely fabric partitions. There were no chairs or floating beds, only thin cotton mattresses flat on the floor. A sign above the door read in Japanese: "Comfort Station."

She was placed in one of the partitions and raped the first night by four young sentries taking turns until she fainted. The next morning she was slapped awake at six a.m. and fed a breakfast of gruel by an elderly Chinese man who whispered that she would be bayoneted if she tried to escape—he promised he had seen it happen. At nine the soldiers began forming queues outside the partitions. Each held a ticket and a condom. The first to come told her he loved her. She spat in his face, and he broke her jaw. He and forty others used her that day. Each ticket entitled them to fifteen minutes. Sleep was the first basic function she missed.

She stopped fighting. She was not allowed to speak to the other girls, but she knew when one of them died. Some of the soldiers gave them opium. The girls would save it up until they had a lethal dose, then swallow it whole. Some hung themselves in the toilet, or stole the soldiers' knives. One killed two soldiers before a third shot her.

On days the soldiers returned from the battlefields, they would take the women from behind, call them pigs and pin their arms, refuse to use the condoms. But on the nights before they fought, they would fall on the women as if already wounded, holding them tenderly, desperately, clutching. Then they would stroke Faith's cheek and ears and eyes, weeping over her beauty. They would beg her to pray for them, tell her they loved her. They would knead her lips with kisses.

When Faith was deemed docile enough she was taken by car certain evenings to entertain Japanese officers at another house. There she lay in beds and rooms like those she had seen in the nun's picture books. But it was still not the same. She could no longer recall the nun's face, or her mother's or sisters'. She forgot her Korean birth name. She was seventeen when Colonel Taro first slept with her. He was more than twice her age, and he kept her with him all that night.

The following week the company of soldiers was to be sent several hundred miles east. The girls from the comfort station were to follow. They belonged to the company now, Col. Taro told Faith. They would service the men within smell of the fighting. Outside the mud hut where the girls lay, wild dogs would carry off corpses and the streams in which they were expected to bathe might run red with blood. When he asked if she loved him, she told him that she did. Then she accompanied him to war.

As her reward she did not have to share the mud hut with the other girls, but remained all day and night in the governor's yamen that had been seized for the use of officers. Taro was no different to Faith than the other soldiers, but she knew how to make him feel that he was. In exchange, she could sleep—in his arms. Dreams, she had long since abandoned.

By the spring of 1940 Faith had belonged to Taro for half a year and was pregnant with his child. Then Taro was wounded. A bullet through the calf left him so hobbled that he was ordered back to Tokyo to await reassignment. His eyes when he looked at her clouded with tears. He spoke in clichés she despised, comparing her skin to that of a peach, her eyes to stars and her hair to silk. She had learned the secret of becoming a wall on which he could paint his fantasy.

He loved her, he said. He could not take her to Japan because he was married, but he would send her to Hong Kong where she could wait for him in safety at the home of a friend. He confided that soon, within months or weeks, Hong Kong would fall into Japanese hands. He would take his reassignment there, and they would be together again with their child—a son, he knew it would be a son.

He put her on a sampan with invented papers, the disguise of a fisherman's widow, and he told her to be brave. She noticed as the boat pulled away that he had an unusually large nose for a Japanese, with a bony bridge and eyes too closely set together. His ears were almost completely flat along the sides of his head. She thought this must be the first time that she had ever truly looked at him. His homeliness surprised her.

She meant to get rid of the child as soon as possible, but Hong Kong changed her mind. It was a city still brimming with life. The evacuation of westerners had begun. Boatloads of white women and children were leaving for India and Australia, but for the rest, these days seemed deceptively normal. The streets were filled with Communist and Nationalist propagandists, Western sailors, soldiers and marines. And, through them, opportunity.

She did not go to Taro's friend, instead took a job at a bar on the Kowloon side of the harbor. Her belly was big but her face was good, and she was tall and had strong arms, so the proprietor told her she could work behind the bar until the child came, then go out front when her body returned. As if, she thought, my body itself is an occupied country.

Upstairs from the bar there were rooms where the other girls took their customers. One night a Hong Kong Chinese with a British accent asked her if she had any Bombay gin. She raised her arm in the mirror-tinted gloom and traced a finger across the labels. Gilbeys, Tanqueray, there was Bombay. The owner was a connoisseur of labels, whatever the bottles might actually contain, and he charged accordingly. The customer, who called himself Tom, watched her closely and commented on her ability to read English. She told him she once had been taught by a nun, a long, long time ago. Tom finished his drink and another, continuing to chat with her when she was not serving other customers. When her shift ended he asked if she would take him upstairs. She stood on tiptoes to show him her belly, thinking him daft for not noticing. But he whispered he would pay her fifty Hong Kong dollars. She took him upstairs.

Tom had figured her out. She was just what the SOE needed. Men would come to this bar, he told her. Chinese, Filipino, even Sikhs and Muslims would ask for “a taste of Bombay.” She would lead them upstairs for whatever was her customary amount of time. When they paid her the fold of bills would contain a slip of paper. It might look like an ordinary sales invoice—a flat of canned lychees, so much. A tin of coffee, a crate of tea. Sometime later she would receive an American or British officer who would call her by a code name, and when he paid her she would return the slip with his change. In exchange, she would be paid more than double her normal rate and her child would be taken care of.

She would also have to entertain any other men who wanted her, or else it would look suspicious. But, Tom asked, wasn't that what she intended to do in any case?

When he finished this proposition she found herself sitting on the end of her bed. A mirror hung on the facing wall. She stared at her reflection, but all she could see was her lover Taro, gazing back at her and laughing.

Yes, she answered. Yes, of course, that was what she intended. Would Tom pay her extra for information she picked up from those other customers? Japanese, for instance? That depended, said Tom, on the value of her intelligence.

My intelligence is good, she shot back.

He grinned, slid a hand through his shiny black hair. "Prove it," he challenged her. "Pick your code name."

"Faith," she said promptly. Only, she pronounced it Fate.

I met her not long after this, but it took several months before she would talk about Col. Taro, and even then I was not sure if I entirely believed her. She never returned his affection, she told me. Though she was a good actress, she hated the Japanese with such venom that she would give her life to defeat them.

She had not thought she could love this child, either, but she took too long to kill it. Once it started moving she saw that to destroy the invader she would have to destroy what little good was left in herself.

My tour ended just a week before what would be the fall of Hong Kong. At the last minute I figured out a way that I might take her and the baby to America.

The night I proposed this escape she sat holding the child on her lap. I watched her nurse him. The lamplight in that room was the color of a ripe apricot, and it made them both look warm, though in fact the whole building was unheated and a cold rain was falling outside. The infant sucked with such greedy intensity that he seemed intent on swallowing her soul. Her skin and his mouth glistened with milk. The whole room smelled of it, sweet and thick. She didn’t answer my proposal, just shifted the baby after a time onto her other side. The used nipple hung distended like a handle from the globe of her breast.

Faith made no attempt to cover herself. Her life had rid her of modesty. I was ashamed of admiring that.

The child fell asleep still attached to her. She gently pried open his jaws, replacing her nipple with her forefinger. He sucked with unconscious vigor.

"Carry a small vial of syrup," she said. "If he cries, coat your finger with the sweet and place it in his mouth."

Without waiting for my startled reply, she stood up, tucking the white of her blouse back into her skirt and returned the baby to his basket, then wrapped him like a parcel in the pale blue wool blanket, a present from one of her other OSS officers. "I have studied all of you," she said. "You are the only one I know to keep the secret."

For several minutes she went on leaning over the bassinet, staring at her child. "Give him a name. I must not know it. Never tell him, or anyone, who are his parents. You are his father now. Your wife his mother."

All I could think to say was, "I don't have a wife."

She turned. "Take one."

"You, then."

I withered under the look she gave me. It was like a ray of sunshine magnified through glass to the point of combustion.

She hoisted the basket onto her hip and gestured with her chin toward the door. I opened it. She put the basket into my arms with one last glance at her son. When I started to speak, she shook her head. Her eyes were glassy as an opium addict's, though I was sure she didn't smoke. Yet.

"I promise," I said anyway, as the door swung shut. "You can trust me."

Outside, the wind slanted the rain into my face as I looked back up to her window. I expected to see her looking out, silhouetted by that apricot glow, but the room was dark, a black rectangle set into the damp gray wall. If she watched, I couldn't see her. I bought a bottle of cane syrup on the way back to my flat, a case of formula for a considerable fortune before boarding the ship the next morning.

I named the baby Ben.

On Christmas, the day Hong Kong fell to the Japanese, I landed with Ben in Calcutta. It took another two months to negotiate the rest of our journey home and nearly a year after that for my adoption of Ben to be legalized. When I married, the following year, my bride understood that I’d found the child, abandoned, in the ruins of a Kowloon factory. She was a nurse from Poughkeepsie, willfully oblivious to race, and said she saw in me the gentle father her own dad never had been.

In 1943 T.L. turned up in Washington. We met at a bar on Dupont Circle, and I asked if he knew what had happened to Faith. Neither of us mentioned her son.

T.L. said she’d been arrested within weeks of the fall of Hong Kong. The Japs had caught her with one of the S.O.E.'s Communist agents. They found the cypher message in a bill for baby clothes. The two were tortured with electric prods. The Communist agent was eventually shot. Faith died in custody, which I hoped meant that she’d committed suicide.

I went home and brought Ben into bed with us that night. "You adore him, don't you?" my wife asked.

Two years old, he still smelled of sweet milk. "I do," I said.

I will always believe, though I have no proof, that Faith had two executioners. One was Colonel Taro, her savior, her protector and her lover. The other rescued her son.

* * *

Ben Shaughnessy today is an optical engineer living in La Canada, California, and working for Jet Propulsion Laboratories. Mr. Shaughnessy declined The Millennium Asia History Project’s invitation to contribute a postscript to his father’s story.

MAHP March 13, 2000