The parable that precedes the second section of the novel deals with an American-raised daughter’s conflict with her mother. The mother does not want her seven-year-old daughter to ride her bicycle around the corner because her daughter will suffer an accident when she is out of sight and earshot. The mother explains that a book, titled The Twenty-six Malignant Gates, details the dangers that can befall her child when she is away from the protection of the home. The daughter cannot read the book because it is written in Chinese, and when her mother will not tell her what the dangers are, the girl becomes angry and rushes away on her bicycle. She falls before she reaches the corner.
Lindo’s daughter Waverly Jong says that when she was six, her mother taught her “the art of invisible strength,” a lesson that helped her to become a child chess prodigy. She then begins the story of how her talent emerged: at Christmas, one of the members of the Jongs’ church in Chinatown dressed as Santa Claus and handed out wrapped Christmas gifts, the donations of members of another church. Waverly got a multipack box of Lifesavers, and one of her brothers got a secondhand chess set that was missing two pieces. By offering two of her Lifesavers to stand in for the missing pieces, Waverly convinced her brothers, Winston and Vincent, to let her play. The winner could eat both candies. Awestruck by what she deemed to be a sort of hidden power within each piece, Waverly closely studied the dog-eared instruction booklet and borrowed chess strategy guides from the Chinatown library. She soon learned that the game hinged on invisible strength in the form of secret traps and keen foresight. After her brothers lost interest in the game, Waverly began playing with Lau Po, an old man who played chess in the park. He taught her many new strategies.
Waverly began to attract attention because of her young age, and she became a celebrity within San Francisco’s Chinatown community. She played in tournaments, and by the age of nine she had become a national champion, 429 points away from grandmaster status. Lindo took great pride in her daughter’s talent, and although she gave her daughter preferential treatment, she also made use of Waverly to feed her own self-pride. She would force Waverly to come to the market with her, presenting her in all the shops. One day, exasperated, Waverly yelled at her mother in the street, telling her that she was embarrassed by her constant bragging. Waverly ran off, ignoring her mother’s shouts; when she returned later that night, Lindo said that because Waverly had no concern for her family, the family would have no concern for her. Waverly went into her room, lay down on the bed, and envisioned a chess game in which her mother was her opponent. Lindo’s pieces were advancing across the board, pushing Waverly’s pieces off; Waverly felt so dislodged that she had a feeling she would fly away; she felt she had lost her anchor. Waverly ends her story with the statement, “I closed my eyes and pondered my next move.”
Lena St. Clair says that her mother, Ying-ying, never spoke of her life in China. Lena’s father, a man of English-Irish descent named Clifford, says he saved Ying-ying from a terrible tragedy that befell her in China, about which she could not bring herself to speak. Clifford knew only a few phrases in Mandarin, and Ying-ying never learned English very well. Thus, she spoke using gestures, glances, and halting English. Because he couldn’t understand her, Clifford typically would put words into his wife’s mouth. Although Lena understands her mother’s words in Mandarin, she hardly ever understands her meanings, often considering what she says to be crazy or nonsensical. When she is forced to act as a translator for her mother, she often alters the English meanings of what others say so as to trick her mother into acting in more conventional-seeming ways; conversely, she translates her mother’s odd expressions into English words that convey more mainstream thoughts.
When Clifford received a promotion, the St. Clairs moved from Oakland across the bay to an Italian neighborhood in San Francisco. The apartment, built on a steep hill, disturbed Ying-ying, who continually rearranged the furniture, claiming that things were not “balanced.” Through the walls in her bedroom, Lena often heard the girl next door, Teresa Sorci, arguing with her mother. She imagined that Teresa was being killed or beaten, but whenever Lena saw her on the staircase of the building, she could never see a trace of blood or bruising on her. Soon after moving to the new apartment, Lena’s parents announced to her that Ying-ying was pregnant. But although Lena’s father looked forward to the baby with happiness, Ying-ying did not express joy or hope.
Ying-ying’s baby, a boy, died immediately after birth from severe medical complications. Lying in her hospital bed, Ying-ying blamed herself, speaking incoherently of another son that she had killed sometime in the past. But to her father, Lena translated her mother’s words into expressions of hope and consolation. After coming home, Ying-ying soon began to fall apart psychologically. Lena comforted herself by thinking that the girl next door was more miserable than she was. One day, however, Teresa knocked on the St. Clairs’ door, went straight to Lena’s room, and climbed onto the window ledge. She explained that her mother had locked her out and announced her intention to sneak back through her own bedroom window and shock her mother, who would be waiting for her to knock on the front door and apologize. Later that night, Lena heard Teresa and Mrs. Sorci yelling after Mrs. Sorci discovered her daughter’s prank. They were screaming accusations and sobbing, but also laughing with strange joy and love.