Sean Hill

Sam Kee, I imagine…

you a daffodil against the snow
a century ago here in Bemidji
among the Norwegians, Finns,
Swedes and Germans. I only
know you as you’ve gone
down in history—a laundryman
and an opium dealer, but I don’t think
I have a good sense of you.
Did you come to the Gold
Mountain or were you born here—
moving east from the Orient
or some port—San Francisco,
Vancouver, Seattle? You know
in Vancouver there’s a Sam Kee
Building, the world’s narrowest
office building according
to Guinness, built ninety
years ago. Now Jack Chow sells
insurance out of that narrow place,
but I don’t think you’re named
for each other—Sam Kee
like Joe Smith or John Doe—
generic like Hop Sing
on Bonanza taking care
of the Ponderosa. You know
Victor Sen Yung also played
Charlie Chan’s #2 son in eleven
of those movies. It’s all
a little weighty somehow—the way
these identities accumulate. Sam Kee
the Building is green (a shade
of jade like lake ice in spring)
with second story red
(cinnabar, red lacquer, red
envelopes of money, red dresses
at weddings, red in the house
for luck and long life, like the red
of the sunset in late summer
and lumberjacks’ suspenders) bay
windows overhanging the sidewalk—
I mean red like those suspenders
that don’t bleed or fade when you
launder them with your ancient
Chinese secrets. I know you, Sam Kee,
only because Mrs. Michael Seberger
died an opium related death,
and you were her opium dealer—
on trial for murder. The Daily
in early twentieth-century
newspaperese reports, “The Chinaman
was loud in his protestations
that opium no do it—it no killie.”
I get your voice run through their
wringer. That fall I’m sure all
the leaves turned golden, spreading
with the same force as the Yellow Peril
and acts to exclude coolies, the same
force that brought opium to China.
Sometimes I like to think, after you
were acquitted you were left
in peace to make a living getting
their sheets as white as snow.

Sean Hill
“Sam Kee, I imagine…” first appeared in New Madrid Summer 2008.