September 10, 2016
The X-Files 3.19, Hell Money: Another Swing and a Miss for Cultural Sensitivity
Summary: There’s a celebration going on in San Francisco’s Chinatown. A man ducks into an alley and finds Chinese characters freshly painted on the door he wants to enter. He ends up in what looks like an apartment, where a man confronts him. The second man pulls a knife, but the first man attacks and slashes the second. In a funeral home, a security guard spots people in masks and finds the crematory…thing…on. That wouldn’t normally be strange in a funeral home, but it is pretty strange that the person inside it is still alive.
Scully’s the lucky person who gets to examine the body of the not-dead-at-the-time-but-definitely-dead-now victim. This is the 11th Chinese man killed in this manner across the country. A local detective thinks they were lucky to get the body before it was too burned to examine. The detective tells Mulder that they haven’t been able to tie the deaths to anyone or any group.
Mulder finds a character written in ashes in the crematory and asks the detective if there’s someone who can translate. Luckily, the San Francisco P.D. employs Detective Glen Chao, who’s fluent in both Chinese and English. Chao translates the character as “ghost.” Mulder finds part of a piece of paper inside the crematory, and Chao identifies it as hell money, an offering used during the Chinese Festival of the Hungry Ghosts. It’s given in exchange for good luck.
Since there aren’t a lot of places in Chinatown that sell hell money, it doesn’t take long for Mulder and Scully to trace it and determine the identity of the burned man. He’s Johnny Lo, and he moved to the U.S. from China just six months ago. Scully thinks he was killed by a gang, but Mulder thinks they should focus on the ghost aspect of the crime.
The agents meet up with Chao at the place where Johnny was attacked the night before. Mulder asks Chao to get the characters on the door translated, since Chao doesn’t recognize them himself. Scully thinks things have been taken from the apartment. The agents note that there’s new carpeting, but it was laid down quickly. They find herbal medicine and charms, including a dried frog, used for prosperity and luck. Mulder finds blood under the new carpet and notes that the good-luck charm didn’t come in very handy for Johnny.
Elsewhere, a man named Hsin makes tea for his daughter Kim, who’s sick in bed. He tells her he needs to go see someone so he can make money and pay for her to get better. Kim worries that the operation she needs is too expensive, but Hsin doesn’t want her to think about money. Hsin then goes to a crowded backroom location where people place tiles inside a vase. One is drawn, and the person it belonged to gets to draw another tile from another vase. Hsin isn’t pleased with the results.
Chao takes Mulder and Scully to an herb shop, telling them about all the different things that can be purchased there. A woman in the shop identifies Johnny’s herbs as painkillers and remembers selling them to him. She tells Chao that the characters from Johnny’s door mean someone branded his apartment a haunted home. It’s connected to the Festival of the Hungry Ghosts. Believers leave hell money outside their homes to keep ghosts from entering.
As the man whose tile was drawn is examined by a doctor, Chao says that some spirits ignore the offering. The really vengeful, powerful ones find doomed men and drag them to the Chinese version of Hell. Chao tells the agents that he’s not really a believer in Chinese traditions like offering hell money, but he doesn’t bother arguing about them.
A night watchman at a cemetery spots men in masks and calls the police. Mulder and Scully check out the burial plot where the men were seen, wondering why he was hanging around an empty grave dug in advance of a funeral. Mulder jumps in and does a little digging, finding a body in the dirt. It looks like it belonged to the man whose tile was drawn.
Scully examines the man, who has undergone a number of surgical procedures for seemingly no reason. She thinks he was selling his body parts for money. Scully cuts open the man’s sewn incisions, remarking that he left his heart in San Francisco. Just then, a frog crawls out of the incision. Mulder isn’t nearly as freaked out as he should be. Hsin attends another meeting of the Tile-Drawing Club, and this time, he’s the big winner.
The agents take the frog to Chao, wondering if it’s a symbol of something other than luck and prosperity. She asks if Chao has heard anything about people selling body parts on the black market. Chao doesn’t have much information to give the agents, and they’re not sure he actually wants to help them. Is he resentful that they’re on his turf, or is he trying to protect the local Chinese community?
Chao says that the people who live there see him as white, not Chinese, and a white cop at that. He may speak both languages, but speaking Chinese isn’t very useful when no one will talk to him. He gives the agents the name of the company that installed Johnny’s new carpet, telling them he’s been working on the case even if they think he’s been sitting around, doing nothing.
Chao and the agents end up at the apartment of the man who installed the carpet: Hsin. He has a bandage over his eye and explains it away as a workplace injury. Since Hsin’s boss doesn’t have a record of the work order for Johnny’s apartment, Hsin must have taken the job on the side. As Scully questions Hsin, Chao tries to ease Kim’s fears. Hsin denies knowing anything about Johnny or the circumstances of the job.
The agents leave the apartment first, so Chao gets a few seconds to chat with Hsin alone. He says he was warning Hsin about keeping a back window blocked up. Mulder shows Chao a tile he took from the apartment, and Chao says it shows the character for “wood.” The agents think it’s connected to the sudden loss of Hsin’s eye.
Kim is also curious about her father’s injury, noting that when he came home from work the night before, he was fine. Hsin tells her it has to do with getting money to heal her. He worries that their ancestors are using her to punish him for leaving China. Maybe he’s being foolish. If Kim can’t get better, Hsin is responsible. Chao goes home to find the “haunted house” characters painted on his own front door in red paint. Inside, people in masks are waiting for him.
Scully finds Mulder staking out Hsin’s apartment and tells him that Chao was attacked in his home. They head to the hospital, which means they miss seeing the supposed doctor from the Tile-Drawing Club arrive to see Hsin. He wants Hsin’s payment, but Hsin says he’s out of the game. The doctor says he just had one bad draw, and he needs to take the chance because he could win $2 million. Hsin doesn’t think he’s that lucky. He’d rather stay with Kim. The doctor tells him he can’t leave the game – if he tries, he’ll go to Hell.
The agents go to the hospital to see Chao, but he’s taken off. Mulder wants to see Chao’s chart to find out his blood type. He thinks Chao could be involved in Johnny’s death, and really has been dragging on the case to keep them from finding out. Chao’s blood type matches the blood found on the carpet in Johnny’s apartment, so Mulder might be on to something. He thinks Chao got Hsin to install the carpet, and they were discussing this during their recent visit.
Mulder and Scully go back to Hsin’s apartment, where Kim tells them she doesn’t know where her father keeps going at night. She has leukemia, but Hsin can’t afford the treatment she needs, so Kim thinks he’s done something illegal to get the necessary money. She only knows that he wants out of whatever he’s gotten involved in. Mulder asks her about the tile, and she says the character for “wood” corresponds to the eye. Other characters correspond to the heart and flesh.
Scully finds some medical paperwork and figures out that Hsin was ruled out as a donor for his daughter. A month ago, Hsin had a number of organs measured. Mulder figures out that the tiles have to do with some sort of game. While Hsin returns to the Tile-Drawing Club, Mulder and Scully meet with a woman at an organ-procurement organization. She tells them a number of Chinese men have come in for workups, but when a compatible recipient is found, the agency is told that the men have left the area.
A tile is drawn as Mulder and Scully try to find the doctor dealing with the organ-procurement agency. They spot Chao heading inside. Hsin is the tile-drawer again, but when the results come up, he tries to run. Chao’s there to see him taken away. The agents break in through the front door and find a puddle of either rubbing alcohol or sterile ice (used to preserve organs for transplantation) in the medical facility. They also find Hsin’s missing eye, just as his remaining eye is about to be removed.
Chao confronts the man in charge of the vase, but Vase Guy doesn’t have any sympathy for Hsin or his daughter. He reminds Chao that the Tile-Drawing Club has paid him well to keep quiet about their activities. Chao decides it’s time to shut things down. He smashes the vase, sees that all the tiles are the same, and shouts to the participants that the game is rigged. The participants rush to get their money back.
The agents hear the commotion and head to the backroom as the doctor prepares to take Hsin’s other eye. Hsin has a vision of Kim and asks her to forgive him. The doctor is about to take the eye when Chao bursts in and orders him to stop. The doctor won’t listen so Chao shoots him in the shoulder. As the agents arrest Chao and the medical personnel, the doctor says that Chao should have killed him. Chao tells the agents he really said, “The game’s not over.”
The doctor does his best CSM impression at the police station, telling Scully that the ghosts of the Chinese people’s ancestors show them the path to take. He insists that promising prosperity and taking lives isn’t a crime. Death isn’t something to be feared, but life without hope is “living Hell.” He gave the Tile-Drawing Club participants hope as a gift. Scully, basically: “I’m going to give you a gift, too. It’s a really, really long prison sentence.”
Kim’s been placed on a list to get a transplant, so maybe at least she’ll get a happy ending. However, the Tile-Drawing Club is keeping quiet about seeing anything illegal. Chao was supposed to testify at a grand jury hearing, but he’s “vanished like a ghost.” That’s because he’s about to become the 12th man burned alive in a crematory.
Thoughts: There are three special guest stars in this episode:
- Chao is played by B.D. Wong, AKA the best part of Mr. Robot.
- The doctor is played by James Hong, who I guarantee you have seen in at least three movies or TV shows in your life.
- Kim is played by Lucy Liu, who was apparently dating David Duchovny at the time of the episode. (I know!)
I can’t remember where I read about the idea, but burying a body in someone else’s grave is smart. No one’s ever going to find a body buried under another body.
Scully: “Do you know how much the human body is worth, Mulder?” Mulder: “Depends on the body.” Me: “Just make out already.”