Legend of da River Street Gambler

Presenting the grand prize-winning story from the 23rd Annual HONOLULU Magazine Starbucks Coffee Hawai’i Fiction Contest. The full list of winners can be found at the bottom of this page.

Gung Gung get one problem; he get too much money. I know, sound like one good problem for have, but trust me, it’s not. Popo look like she not going be wit us for much longer, so Auntie Stella sez Gung Gung’s best financial strategy is for sell his Liliha house dat him and Popo had since da forties. Popo wuz always proud of Gung Gung, cuz he no mo’ da education, but yet he wuz able for work hard, save money and buy dat house. I still remember how she would always remind us grandkids every chance she had, ‘You Gung Gung no go school, but he alright though.’

Da doctor wen put Popo in da nursing home down by Wahiawa General. While da realtor lady showing people da Liliha house, Gung Gung living with me and my parents up Mililani Mauka so he can be closer to Popo. Out of his three daughters my mom is his favorite. I dunno why, cuz to me my mom is kinda yelly, but I guess if Auntie Stella and Auntie Liza is super spicy yelly, den my mom is only mildly yelly. According to Auntie Stella, or "The Chinese Suze Orman," as she calls herself, Gung Gung gotta spend his money soon, like ASAP kine bumbye da government going take choke. And so now das why our family having all kine arguments on how Gung Gung should spend his money. Tonight dey all coming ova and having one big meeting at our house for try figgah out da plan.

Lee Tonouchi is well known for his work on behalf of pidgin. You may also remember him from his 2004 grand prize-winning story, "Seven Deadly Local Sins." Tonouchi has a master’s in English. This semester, he’s teaching a 300-level class, Pidgin Literature, at Hawai’i Pacific University. He also teaches at Kapi’olani Community College, and co-edits a literary magazine, Hybolics.

"Everything I do revolves around writing," says Tonouchi.

"I like seeing that joy in students, the joy I felt first coming to college, and finding they had pidgin at the University of Hawai’i. I thought, You gotta be smart, brah, to study pidgin. Up until then, everything had been British literature. I realized, there are people writing in the Islands. We have worth, too."

Tonouchi says that his winning story, "Legend of da River Street Gambler," began life as a poem when he was working on a poetry collection. "The grandfather character and the young boy were in the poem, and I thought there was more to them." Tonouchi is also the author of a short story collection, Da Word (2001, Bamboo Ridge Press); Living Pidgin: Contemplations on Pidgin Culture (2002, Tinfish Press) and Da Kine Dictionary (2005, Bess Press).

His advice to next year’s contestants? "Keep writing. Use the contest as an incentive–$1,000 bucks! If you don’t win, it doesn’t mean your story is junk. Try to find a home for your story."

-Kathryn Drury Wagner

I can tell Gung Gung not enjoying his time so far away from town. He makes ’em especially evident wen he tells me, "Mililani junk" pretty much everyday since he wen move in. He been going for walks around da block, not cuz he all into health and fitness, but he like try make friend, he sez. But he sez Mililani Mauka, no mo’ nobody around wen he go walking. I tell ’em dey probably all go 24 Hour Fitness. Still yet dey gotta go outside, he tell, and he know people work, so he time his walks around pau hana time, hoping for catch somebody watering da grass so he can stop, talk story. But he wen find out dat da houses, dey all get sprinkler. And da ones dat no mo’ dey wen all concrete da yard. Even on weekends he still cannot make friends cuz all da houses with somebody lawnmowering da grass, das all yard man. He wen notice dat da yard man nowdays is mostly Filipino. He sez befo’ time wuz all Japanee. Yesterday, outta curiousity he wen go try ask one Filipino guy down our block how much he charge for pull weed. Come to find out da Filipino guy who wuz cutting da tree, wuzn’t yard man, dat wuz da guy’s house. Funny, ah? Now our neighbors going tink Gung Gung is racist.

I take Gung Gung out early to visit Popo cuz he sez he wants to go marketing before da dinner at our house tonight. I ask Gung Gung how come almost all da nurses is Filipino. Gung Gung gives me a stink look. I hope today tings might be different wen we see Popo, but Popo still doesn’t recognize us. I sit next to Gung Gung as he stares at Popo. I know he misses her. I tink he misses her sticking up for him. I no tink Gung Gung likes it dat my aunties ack like dey know mo’ than him, especially his youngest daughter. Popo wouldn’t stand for any of Auntie Stella’s lack of appreciations. My mom’s da oldest, so she had for work cannery and teach sewing classes for help pay for her own community college, and she had to chip in and contribute to Auntie Stella’s Ivy League university fund. I guess Gung Gung should at least consider whatever Auntie Stella advises cuz she must know what she talking about, cuz her and Uncle Steven’s Kah-ala house is humangous.

Me and Gung Gung get back home early so I kick it in front da TV for little while. I falling asleep wen Gung Gung announces he get da idea. He tells me instead of market, he like me go drive him go Chinatown for buy some roast duck for wen everybody come ova tonight. I not sure if he like get duck because das my mom’s favorite or because Auntie Stella is allergic.

Gung Gung changes outta his stay-at-home, white V-neck shirt and his tan khaki pants dat Popo wen hem cuz da ting wuz always too long. I wait for him while he puts back on his go-out, holoholo clothes. He wears his button-down Mark Raysten shirt wit da crane designs, his fake kine alligator slippahs, and his straw weave fedora hat wit da feather ting wrap around da middle. He tink da hat look sharp. I tink makes him look gangsta.

"Gung Gung, you no tink da hat make you look like one hoodlum?"

"Me no crook."

"You look like you going chicken fight you wear dat kine hat."

"Dis not chicken feddah. Quail feddah. Shome kine bird. From Brajil. You Popo choose." His voice comes sad for one moment. I scold myself for reminding him of da last trip him and Popo took togeddah before she had her brain aneurysm.

Popo wuz most proud of Gung Gung. And Gung Gung wuz most proud of his children. He would always tell, "Me no mo’ education, but all my children, I send ’em go college." I tink Gung Gung little bit shame he nevah go school, but Popo used to use dat as one selling point, "You Gung Gung no go school, but he alright though." Popo used to brag dat Gung Gung had da magic touch. None of his friends thought opening up his Lucky Seven Inn wuz going be one good idea, but turned out winnahs. Popo would joke, "He get da best restaurant. Wife, too, best one he get." Popo kept her steady job at da hotel, so she liked dat Gung Gung wuz gutsy. Her favorite story is about Gung Gung wen he used to drive da ice truck for Santoki Ice Factory, dropping off ice to all da houses for people’s iceboxes. One day, da boss, ol’ man Santoki, found out Gung Gung wen go buy one electric refrigerator for Popo’s wedding anniversary present. Ol’ man Santoki wen fire Gung Gung on da spot cuz made da company look bad. Gung Gung wuz afraid Popo wuz going yell at him for losing his job, but she wuz pleased dat he wen take a chance just to make her happy.

I park in da municipal lot by da Empress movie theater. I remembah aftah Gung Gung wen sell da Lucky Seven Inn and retire, he had planny time for watch me on da weekends. He used to take me Chinatown and treat me go see all da Shaw Brothers kung-fu movies. Most my friends would tease me cuz dey got for see da real kine movies like at da Pearlridge 4-Plex, but I nevah care, to me kung-fu movies wuz mo’ bettah anyway cuz those kung-fu guys wuz nuts. Dey could do all kine kicks and flips. Wuzn’t all geriatric, like da kine Chuck Norris action movies.

As me and Gung Gung walk around da side of da Empress I look at da posters on da wall. Look like dey get one Alexander Fu Sheng festival. Today dey reshowing Five Shaolin Masters. Das one classic. Had Fu Sheng, David Chiang, Ti Lung, Chi Kuan Chun, had all da big names.

"Gung Gung, wen you going teach me kung-fu? Mom says you know little bit."

"Too ol already."

"Why how young I supposed to start?"

"Not you too ol’, me too ol’."

"But how I going learn?"

"Next time I see, I ask my friend. My friend, famous sifu. Famous his horse stance."

Horse stance? I like learn Dragon style or Tiger style, not no Mr. Ed style.

Befo’ we go get da duck, Gung Gung wants for go Chinese Cultural Plaza side. He no say why. I tink maybe he like go get dim sum or someting. I make myself little bit hungry wen I imagine grinding some pork hash. We get little bit sidetrack wen Gung Gung runs into some of his friends playing mahjong down by River Street under da pavilion in front da old Japanee Theater. I vaguely remembah meeting some of these guys before. First ting I notice wen he introducing me is all these guys get nicknames. Short Fuse, Crew Cut and Big Mack. Kinda sounds like dey could be characters from da GI Joe cartoon.

Dey invite Gung Gung for play couple hands mahjong wit dem. Dey play for nickels and pennies. I remember seeing da kung-fu movie guys playing mahjong, but I could nevah catch on to da game. I guess it’s kinda like dominos, but not like I know how play dominos either. At home I get dominos, but I only wanted ’em cuz I seen da guy on TV line up like a billion dominos, den knock ’em down so da ting fall down one by one for spell out "That’s Incredible."

I watch dem play, but I dunno what dey doing. Plus dey go pak-pak-pak-pak, so fast. No can catch on. I cannot tell if Short Fuse squinting cuz he giving dirty looks or if cuz he old and cannot see so good. He look like one mean bugga. I figure dey call him Short Fuse so he must get one bad temper, so I whisper to Gung Gung if das how come he’s called Short Fuse.

"Eh, go tell my grandson, hakum you name Short Fuse." Short Fuse gives me one glare. I look at Gung Gung, like why you toll him for? Short Fuse ups his chin at me and asks, "You know da university, wea da parking structure get?"

I nod my head, yeah.

He says, "Me, used to work in da rock quarry befo’ o’dea. One time I no lellago da dynamite stick in time. Das how I lose my hand, cuz da fuse no good wuz." I wuz wondering why he only used one hand for look at his tiles. I thought wuz for good luck or someting.

Today’s da first time I see Gung Gung gambling. I always figured he wuz into gambling cuz after all, his restaurant wuz da Lucky Seven Inn, but Popo sez it’s cuz Gung Gung always wanted for be gambler, but she nevah used to let him play. Cards no can. Mahjong no can. Bumbye da children come gambler, she sed.

photo: Getty Images

I count as Gung Gung loses his fifth hand and I start to believe in my Popo’s wisdom. Gung Gung looks at his watch. He sez he only get time for one mo’ hand. Dey all wager until only Gung Gung and Short Fuse stay in da game. Da pot kinda big. I dunno if what Gung Gung get is good or junk or what, but I guess must be good cuz he raises. I look at Gung Gung like, you shua? Duck kinda expensive y’know. Wot if we gotta bring home box manapua cuz das da only ting we can afford if you lose?

I see Short Fuse stay sweatin now. But his hand must be not bad. I guess he tinking if Gung Gung bluffing or what. He glances at me, for get one tell from reading my face. But not like I even know how play their game, so I tink my face only makes him more confuse. Just den I notice dat all these guys get nicknames, but how come Gung Gung no more. I imagine Gung Gung’s nickname is "Da River Street Gambler" and his exploits is legend around these parts, or at least around da immediate A’ala Park area. Gung Gung probably honed his skills by sneaking outta da house and going to those illegal Chinatown gambling dens like how dey get ’em on da TV. Aftah all, Gung Gung gotta be gambler; he even get his gangsta hat.

I know Gung Gung going win da pot. Maybe wit da extra winnings he going buy me some ‘onolicious rice cake for just us two for celebrate, secret, shhhh, no tell Popo. Den before I can finish my sugar-coated dreams, I see Short Fuse extend his good arm in one cradle for scoop up da pot. Short Fuse wen defeat my Gung Gung. Short Fuse wen defeat da River Street Gambler.

For some strange reason, I notice Gung Gung smiling. For why he smiling, I dunno. Gung Gung look my face cuz mines not smiling, and he tell, "No worry. Even though me lose, today me win." I feel like questioning his fortune-cookie remark, but wen I tink fortune cookie, it reminds me of all da desserts we ain’t gonna get, so I jus turn my head away and roll my eyes, wotevahs, Gung Gung, we go get jus da duck and go home.

At dinner Auntie Stella looks irkatated dat da main course is not her favorite fowl, so she retells da story about what happened to her da last time she ate duck tinking it wuz chicken. Auntie Stella is always very particular about her food. Wenevah we go Eastern Garden she gotta call ahead make shua da numbah one cook, Wong Tak, stay working. If only get da numbah two chef, Marn Sung, den she no like go.

"How could you forget I’m allergic to duck?" Auntie Stella asks Gung Gung.

"Oh, me coming ol’ already. Sometime forget." Gung Gung sez ’em with such one straight face dat even I dunno if das fo’ real.

At dinner, my mom and dad say dat Gung Gung should just spend da money on tings dat he likes. I see Gung Gung wince at dat suggestion. Gung Gung is expert on saving, I no tink he would have one clue what for buy. Auntie Stella and Auntie Liza wuz probably tinking da same ting I wuz tinking, so dey tell all their spending ideas.

"Well, I think you’d all agree," Auntie Stella tells, "that the best answer is for Gung Gung to use the money to build an extension on our house, then he can move in with me and Steven."

Uncle Steven knows he’s only allowed to talk wen Auntie Stella cues dat it’s time for him to back her up so he mumbles in agreement. But I dunno why dey need one extension, cuz all my cousins going Mainland college now so all their rooms stay empty, so if dey really wanted Gung Gung go their house get planny space.

"You just want a free home improvement," Auntie Liza accuses before giving her own suggestion. "I think he should buy a Cadillac."

"But he can’t drive anymore," my mom reminds Auntie Liza.

Liza just wants the car for herself. She’ll probably say she’ll drive him around, but I doubt she will, seeing as how she never takes him around anyplace now. Den somehow da conversation gets into art and antiques. Dey all talk like dey forgetting Gung Gung’s even here. Gung Gung just chews on his food real quiet. Me, I no say nahting too.

Da discussion gets heated when my mom and her sisters start leaning ova da table and getting in each oddah’s faces. Like dragons breathing fire, dey argue back and forth until Gung Gung stands up and announces to da room, "I GOING VEGAS."

Get one short silence before Auntie Stella asks, "But what if you lose your money?" When Gung Gung doesn’t answer, Auntie Stella’s eyeballs come all big like she asking, "WELL?"

Gung Gung tink, den he tell real slow, "If win, win. Lose, lose. No can help."

Das all Gung Gung sez before he heads off to da oddah room. As everybody arguing again, I look at Gung Gung walk away and I all confuse. I feel like telling him no mo’ mahjong in Vegas, y’know? Da kine games dey get you gotta learn from watching James Bond 007 movies, not da kine Chinese kung-fu movies you used to take me. I know Gung Gung nevah went Vegas before, so I know he dunno how for play da kine games dey get ova dea like Keno, Russian Roulette and Baccarat or whatevahs.

Das wen I see ’em. Gung Gung turns for a second to look back at me, before he goes in his room. He get dat look, j’like da look Alexander Fu Sheng had in Five Shaolin Masters wen he had to fight Ma Fu Yi, da Shaolin traitor and master of da Plum Blossom technique. By combining da tiger and crane styles Fu Sheng was able for catch da bad guy off guard, poke out his eyeballs, and beat ’em.

I know Gung Gung get ’em figured out. I tink back to what Gung Gung sed aftah he lost at mahjong, "Even though me lose, today me win." I see what he wuz saying now. Losing can be one good ting. In Vegas dey keep track real good if you win money and how much you win. But their records on how much you lose not as detailed. If Gung Gung goes Vegas and jus pretends he lost big, den problem solve. He can say he lost thousands of dollars gambling, den how da goverment or any of my aunties can take what dey tink is all gone? I nod to myself, Popo had ’em right on da money wen she used to say, "Gung Gung, he no go school, but he alright though."

Congratulations to the winners of the HONOLULU Magazine Starbucks Coffee Hawai’i 23rd Annual Fiction Contest.
Grand Prize
$1,000 cash, plus $500 in Starbucks merchandise and publication of the winning story in HONOLULU Magazine.

LEE TONOUCHI, ‘Aiea "Legend of da River Street Gambler"


$50 cash, plus $100 in Starbucks merchandise.

JENNIFER HARADA, Honolulu "Checkpoints"
JENNIFER HARADA, Honolulu "Sugar"
TRUDI NEKOMOTO, San Antonio, Texas "Waiting for Walden Chu"
CEDRIC YAMANAKA, Honolulu "Mortuary Story"
LOU ZITNIK, Hilo "Magic Words in the Palace of Desire"
STUART CHING, Lakewood, Calif. "Lost Tribes"
LISA KANAE, Honolulu "Hoku Bright’s Whole World"
PAMELA NAKANELUA, Kane’ohe "Staying Out of the Deep End"
SUSAN MIHO-NUNES, Berkeley, Calif. "Mr. Archangel and the Lychee Trees"
SUSAN MIHO-NUNES, Berkeley, Calif. "Pau Hana Hour"
RANDY OTAKA, Mililani "Arigato: How I Transplanted the Family Tree"
SHANNON RAY, Ha’iku "Shanti’s Appeal"
JESSE ROWELL, Honolulu "What We Left"
BILL TETER, Honolulu "Cube Writing"
BILL TETER, Honolulu "The Guy Already on the Plane"