For his part Chen was ignorant of the effect he had on them. And though the girls in their combined anticipation incited each other to a far greater degree of excitement than Lily had ever known on her own, she was now actually less dependent on Chen. Then he had been the focus of her day, the point around which she organised herself and through which her activities took on meaning. Now she was using Chen. There was a subtle change. Her services had not changed nor had they deteriorated. But their point had altered. Unknown to Chen whole new outlooks were developing behind his back, potentially disruptive of family harmony and his hitherto unchallenged position as leader of that unit, except that both girls were far too loyal to let things get to that stage.
Lily started to experiment with a series of different addresses to the father of her child. "Husband," her habitual usage, a simple descriptive term after all, implied respect as well as a salutary recognition of the status quo and all that it traditionally implied. Lily used the term as recipient of obligations which were bilateral. There was also 'Ah Chen', more familiar, used as a summons to ordinary household occasions, notably those through which Lily would be fulfilling a onesided part of the marital contract. "Ah Chen" was also a distancing term. Being Chen's family name, it also implied a reversion to the state of affairs prior to the marriage and separated Lily Tang from the Chens. To refer to her spouse by this alias was also suddenly to look upon him as an individual, whereas his importance really consisted in his role, his rank -- if you like -- of husband. Thus: "Ah Chen! Ready to eat now." But: "Husband, the door is stuck!" when Chen would be expected to shift it from its stiff hinges, something Lily could do more easily than her husband.
The two girls' lives still centred around a male principal but there had been a major re-allocation of parts in the domestic drama, the lead now taken by a juvenile, Man Kee, whose persistent demands, irregular tantrums, and constant need for attention and physical reassurance from his supporting cast of adults far exceeded any ever made by the placid and equable Chen. Through no fault of Chen's, the transference of the centre of gravity in the household had resulted in a dirninishing of his own stature in the eyes of the two females who, having a small and helpless child to succour during the day, had to make an effort to see Chen as an adult representative of his gender had as it were to blink imaginatively before seeing him according to his true scale. Despite this, they still had a tendency to confuse his behaviour with Man Kee's, a hallucination which gained a subjective reality in time. Lily had to make a conscious effort not to burp Husband and, after Man Kee had passed beyond this stage, not to pat Husband on the back and stroke his stomach when he had finished soup. She still stood over him to make sure he drank it all, would dearly have liked to feed him herself a little faster. And perhaps, after all, that was just a diversion of the maternal instinct, as was the gentleness with which Lily washed Chen's greasy hair for him in the sink in the plastic washing-up bowl. Chen still sat unchallenged in his armchair and had the lion s share of food, but there was a novel layer to the girls' abstinence which had become self-aggrandising, an exercise in controlling and developing the self rather than the tribute of natural respect. Under these manipulations it was difficult not to think of Chen as a greedy little boy. Of course, the girls forgave him, never allowed themselves to see it in quite such terms, but there was no doubt Man Kee had undermined his father's authority in the most innocent way possible, by analogy. [40-41]