Mao Sun Lao-ming was born on February 14, 1858 in Shanghai. His father, Mao Li Wei, was a successful artisan with a talent for mechanical engineering, and his mother, Mao Baozhai, was a student of Confucian philosophy, and a brilliant (although publicly unrecognized) scholar, the youngest daughter of an assistant district magistrate. As one of the Treaty Ports forced upon the Chinese Government in the wake of the First Opium War (1839-42), the Shanghai of Sun Lao-ming’s youth was a booming, vibrant, cosmopolitan city that benefited from the foreign concessions to the British, French, and Americans in terms of western industrial and scientific advancements. These benefits came at a high price however. While silk, cotton, and tea were major exports to the West, the British-imposed import of opium to China to counter the balance of trade was a scourge. Moreover, the colonial powers brought with them their racist attitudes and policies, making the native Chinese feel like second class citizens in their own country.
Nonetheless, for a skilled and clever man such as Sun Lao-ming’s father, opportunities abounded, and his facility with machinery was quickly noticed by the Europeans and Americans. Li Wei prospered, and his son was able to attend Western missionary schools and to work with his father, soon showing an even greater ability with machinery than he did. Indeed, working with his father as a boy brought Sun Lao-ming to the attention of several European and American employers of his father, and their inability to pronounce his name, quickly led to the bastardized nickname of “Solomon,” which stuck fast. While Mao Li Wei was a modernist (as a young man he had even cut off his queue, viewing the style as a regressive, barbaric, and foreign [Manchu] imposition), Mao Baozhai believed deeply in the value of Chinese culture and institutions. So she made sure that Mao Sun Lao-ming received a thorough Confucian education, and insisted on having her son trained by a Shaolin master to strengthen his body, mind, and spirit – not to mention that as Shanghai was attacked and occupied by the Small Swords Society in 1853, and attacked with much destruction by the Taiping Rebellion in 1860 and 1862, the martial arts skills provided by his Shaolin sifu might help Sun Lao-ming to survive in a violent world.
After the Great Quake of 1868 in America and the discovery of Ghost Rock, the economy of Shanghai had begun to change. Ghost Rock became even more valuable of an import than opium, but this time, the Tongs of Shan Fan and Chinese like General Kang ensured that much of the Ghost Rock coming into ports like Shanghai was in Chinese hands all the way. The combination of Chinese ingenuity and a blooming knowledge of western industry and science began to change the balance of power in the city, and in China as a whole. While the foreign powers still hold sway, their grip is not what it once was, and there are stories of a revival in certain ancient arts combined with new technologies that have the folks in the Foreign Concessions more than a little nervous. In 1876, when Sun Lao-ming turned 18, his father was looking forward to him joining the family business, but Sun Lao-ming chose a different path. A recruiter for General Kang’s Iron Dragon Railroad Company hired him as a mechanic and engineer, and after tearful farewells, Sun Lao-ming boarded a ship to Shan Fan and America, the heart of all of the changes that were spreading throughout the world. Sun Lao-ming spent five years with Iron Horse, and learned much about railroad engines, laying track, and more than he wanted to about the darker side of things in the Great Railroad Wars. He also became increasingly uncomfortable working with Ghost Rock. Despite its undeniably superior energy, the howling as it burned sounded more like human screams than gases escaping pockets in the rock. It just felt wrong.
Having saved up a decent grub stake, Solomon, as by now even his fellow Chinese called him, left the Iron Horse and struck out on his own, working his way from place to place, moving roughly south and east. About 10 months ago, he arrived in Brimstone, NM. His cash supply somewhat depleted, Solomon decided to stay for a while and earn a little money.
Like Deadwood in the Sioux Nations, Brimstone is a boomtown fueled by the Ghost Rock and copper mines nearby, and the railroad that takes the produce of the mines to buyers throughout the country, and brings the country to Brimstone in turn. As in every boomtown, immigrants make up a sizable minority of the population, and nowhere is this more evident than on the western side of town, where many Chinese have made their homes in a section inevitably called Chinatown. Just behind the main thoroughfares (such as they are) of western Brimstone, Chinatown is a small but confusing maze of alleyways, livestock pens, market stalls (both wet and dry), shanties, tents, and buildings where much of the work that keep Brimstone running is done, and where many of the workers who keep it booming live. Alongside legitimate workers and businesses, almost any vice one might desire can be found in this little tangle. Opium, prostitutes, and darker services are all available – for the right price.
Zhou Jiang’s Brilliant Laundry keeps the linens of the Turquoise Sky Hotel, Diamondback Hotel, and Clear Springs Inn clean and fresh, while also catering to individuals in need of personal laundry services. Zhou is also the Chairman of the Purple Yarrow Benevolent Association tong, which helps support the Han Chinese community, and acts as an unofficial mediator in community disputes and even as internal community law enforcement. If Zhou Jiang is the respectable face of Chinatown, the diminutive, grandmotherly Madame Luli is the real power there. She owns or takes a cut from every opium den, brothel, market stall, restaurant, landlord, and worker in Chinatown, directly or otherwise. She also has business interests in the Silver Palace, Gammon’s Undertaker Service, the Bank of Brimstone, and at least two Ghost Rock mines. While the Purple Yarrow tong mediates and enforces the law among the Han community, Madame Luli makes the law. She is said to be a major player in a powerful new triad emerging in the middle of the country that stretches from the Sioux Nations through southern Texas, connected by a web of steel spun by the Iron Horse Railroad.
She can usually be found in her restaurant, the Celestial Café, right across the street from the mayor’s office, where she serves lunch and dinner to the best sorts of people in Brimstone, and where the waiters and busboys tend to be very fit, very serious young men. Solomon too, settled in Brimstone’s Chinatown, renting a room above a traditional apothecary shop run by Li Yu, a septuagenarian whose traditional herbal remedies for everything from broken hearts to malaria are strangely effective. A grump and a tireless nag, Yu is constantly bemoaning the loss of the old ways and the lack of filial piety among the young Han of today. As part of his rent, Solomon also gets the use of a horse-stall sized room off the front of the apothecary which he has turned into his workshop.
Here, Solomon stores his tools and works on smaller projects. His skills are regularly in demand, particularly when it comes to gunsmithing and repair. Indeed, he has an arrangement with O’Hara’s General Store and Morton’s Mercantile to handle their gun and small device repairs, and he also does a good business as a tinker, repairing pots and pans, etc. for which he sometimes pays Wang Bao, the blacksmith, for the use of his small forge and tools. It’s a decent enough life, and the hot and sour soup from the Celestial Café is even better than his mother’s, but Brimstone is fueled by the shrieking Ghost Rock in one way or another, and many of his fellow Chinese are either oppressed by the whites or preyed upon by the criminals among their own people – or both. With the Ghost Rock boom, things are getting meaner in Chinatown, and in Brimstone as a whole, and Solomon knows it’s only a matter of time before his sense of right and wrong get him into some kind of trouble.