No one knows just how the historical Yut Ho and Lee Yong met. Perhaps, as in our story, it was in the course of their daily routines. Yut Ho would almost certainly have lived a secluded life with her new husband. In Chinese immigrant society, most women worked alongside their menfolk. As a wealthy married woman Yut Ho had the uncommon luxury of staying home, but in practice, that luxury probably felt like a gilded cage. Chinatown was the most violent part of a violent, dangerous town, and Hing Sing’s close relationship with Sam Yuen meant that Yut Ho was automatically a target for Yo Hing’s machinations.
The politics of LA Chinatown were much as Lee Yong describes them in this episode. I have changed a couple of names for clarity: After the split in the Sze Yup Company, Sam Yuen’s faction did not actually retain the original company’s name. They started calling themselves the Nin Yung company- I thought it was too confusing with all the names changing, but I did decide to call Sam Yuen’s store Nin Yung (It was actually called Wing Chung) because of the importance of that name in the history.
As Lee Yong tells Yut HO in the story, Yo Hing’s company was really called the Hong Chow Tong. He was popular and charismatic, with a knack for getting out of trouble. The piece about Opium is my own invention, though it is not historically improbable. Opium was accessible to Chinese immigrants, who used it to varying degrees. It would not be much of a stretch for an enterprising polyglot like Yo Hing to open a line of business selling it to western doctors; this was Civil War era medicine, and painkillers were essential to the primitive, unsanitary and invasive practices of frontier medical men.
Yut Ho mentioned the (first) Opium War in Episode 2 because it was a direct cause of the Taiping rebellion. Though less bloody than the domestic conflicts that followed, the Opium war was the tipping point after which the Qing government descended into chaos. The fact that China was too large and too rich in human and natural resources to make outright conquest practical means that the impact of Colonial forays such as the Opium wars is often understated in the west. The period following the British wars is one of the most violent and tragic epochs in human history; Fighting continued in China until the communist victory in 1949, and was followed by the terrible famines of the Great Leap Forward, and the trauma of the cultural revolution. All told, well over 100 million people lost their lives during the collapse of Imperial China-nearly 20 times the number killed in the Holocaust or (estimated number) transatlantic slave trade.
To this day, many Chinese and Chinese Americans maintain a negative view of drugs, and opiates in particular because of the consequences of the very first Drug War: The one where the British told China to “Just Say Yes.”
In the Story, Sam Yuen’s decision to sell Opium in Chinatown is indicative of his hyper-competitive, myopic mindset. His disregard of Chinatown and its people would ultimately cost him his position as Company Headman, as well as causing the spillage of a large quantity of other people’s blood.
For more in-depth on LA Chinatown and the causes of migration, check out Scott Zesch’s thoroughly researched book, The Chinatown War.
Blood on Gold Mountain is brought to you by The Holmes Performing Arts Fund of The Claremont Colleges, The Pacific Basin Institute of Pomona College, The Office of Public Events and Community Programs at Scripps College, The Scripps College Music Department, The Entrepreneurial Musicianship Department at The New England Conservatory, and our Patreon patrons.
Blood on Gold Mountain was written and produced by Yan-Jie Micah Huang, narrated by Hao Huang, introduced by Emma Gies, and features music composed by Micah Huang and performed by Micah Huang and Emma Gies. A special thanks to Kusuma Tri Saputro for the amazing artwork, Sheila Kolesaire for her critical PR guidance, Muqi Li for her brilliant guzheng playing, Rachel Huang for her editing prowess, and Evo Terra from Simpler Media Productions for his immense expertise and support.
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Previously on Blood on Gold Mountain: Yut Ho and Ah Choy completed their journey, and arrived in Los Angeles. After an encounter with the notorious gangster Yo Hing, Ah Choy gave Yut Ho a parting gift, and asked her forgiveness for leaving. Yut Ho assured him that she was ready for anything.
Before long, that claim was put to the test. Yut discovered that her husband Hing Sing was not the prosperous merchant he had claimed to be. Instead, she found herself plunged into a dark and dangerous world full of vice and intrigue.Hao:
Every morning when he arrived at work, the first thing Lee Yong did was check the Jook.
It had to be the right consistency–perfectly smooth and even. With body, but refreshingly light.
After cooking all night over the embers in the iron stove, the Jook pot was still warm. Lee Yong threw on a couple of logs, so that it would get hot. Not boiling. Not simmering, just hot enough to make thin slices of fresh-picked scallion turn an even deeper shade of green when sprinkled over each steaming bowl.
Jook was an art and a philosophy for Lee Yong. An alchemical process by which a handful of rice and a pot of water were transformed by the powers of heat and darkness to become a satisfying meal for the entire household.
And then, of course, there was the tea.
The first cup was always a special time for Lee Yong, who took it alone in the kitchen before anyone else was around. Today, it was even more special than usual. A shipment of Bou Lei had just come in from Hong Kong. There were several cakes of the stuff sitting on the rough wooden counter, like a stack of fat saucers wrapped in paper.
Lee Yong tore one open without ceremony, and broke off a piece from its edge. Each cake was made out of a thousand tiny tea leaves, compressed to form a solid disc and then dried. This one was hard as rock, but Lee Yong was pretty strong.
He took the broken piece, placed it in a teapot and rinsed it with a splash of scalding water. Then he reached into his pocket, and withdrew a folded piece of paper. Inside were six little white flowers. They were chrysanthemums, grown during the rainy season by Lee Yong himself, and dried during the long, hot summer which was finally coming to an end.
He looked at them lovingly. Then, he tipped them into the teapot and poured in the hot water.
The air was filled with a scent like sun and raindrops, with a hint of spring. Lee Yong closed his eyes.
The lady of the house was up earlier than usual. She was sitting at the dining room table when Lee Yong brought in the tea. He poured her a cup, and asked her whether she would like any breakfast. The Jook, he assured her, was ready.
“Honestly,” said Yut Ho, who had not slept and had no appetite, “I think I’d rather have you tell me what the hell is going on around here.”
Lee Yong looked at her. She was drawn and pale, with her hair tied back in a loose ponytail instead of her customary bun. Her outfit was one he had never seen before: a travel-stained tunic of roughspun cotton, with matching trousers. She looked smaller than usual, more compact and solid. Her eyes had the aspect of coals that had smoldered through the night: dark and silent, but so hot that anything they touched was liable to burst into flame.
“I’ll tell you what I know,” said Lee Yong, “just give me a minute.”
He went into the kitchen, picked up his teacup and poured himself a bowl of Jook. This was shaping up to be an unusual day, and change is best faced on a full stomach.
“So,” said Yut Ho, “It looks like I’m married to a pimp, and I live above his brothel.” Her voice was steady, almost casual, but her teacup shook slightly as she raised it to her lips. Lee Yong hesitated.
“Yes. Well, I don’t know if I’d call Hing Sing a pimp, exactly.”
“Oh no?” Yut Ho’s tone was cold, and sharper than any knife in Lee Yong’s kitchen. “What would you call him? Does living in Gold Mountain make people afraid to call things like they are, or are you just ashamed of talking about the skin trade in front of a woman?”
The vehemence of her response seemed to take Lee Yong by surprise. He managed to keep his expression neutral, but one of his eyebrows crept up a fraction of an inch, and Yut Ho noted it with satisfaction. It’s not going to be that easy to make a fool out of this country girl, she thought.
“It’s not really that,” Said Lee Yong. “It’s more that Sam Yuen collects the money from the girls, and then pays Hing Sing a stipend for managing the house. That makes Hing Sing more of a…”
He looked up, as though he hoped the word he was looking for might be written on the ceiling.
Yut Ho felt a stab of remorse. Perhaps he wasn’t trying to make a fool of her, after all.
“Pimp’s secretary?” She offered.
The two of them looked at each other. Then Lee Yong started to laugh, and Yut Ho raised her teacup again to hide her smile. “Sam Yuen,” she said after a moment. “Phoenix mentioned that name last night, and I’ve heard it somewhere else as well. Who is he?”
“So you’ve met Phoenix.” Lee Yong made no attempt to conceal his expression of distaste. “Well, it was bound to happen sooner or later. Sam Yuen is the leader of the Sze Yup company. That’s one of the so-called benevolent associations in town,” he added in response to Yut Ho’s questioning look.
“Technically, Sam Yuen is the proprietor of the Nin Yung store, but he’s got a hand in every line of business that goes on in Chinatown. He leases this house, and another one over on Alameda street which caters to Gwailo. I’ve actually heard that he owns that one, but I don’t think the Gwailo are allowed to sell property to Chinamen. Anyway, Sam Yuen is a big figure around here, and he’s dangerous. The only reason he’s not totally in control of Chinatown is–“
“Yo Hing,” said Yut Ho.
This time, she derived genuine pleasure from watching the astonishment spread over Lee Yong’s face. “How did you know?” he asked.
“I saw him,” said Yut Ho simply, and took another sip of tea. Then she relented, and told him about her encounter with Yo Hing: the unaccountable fear she had felt, and the way he had seemed to sense it, like a tiger smelling blood.
“Tong Won said he was the most dangerous man in Chinatown, except for Sam Yuen. There! I knew I had heard that name before!” She smiled triumphantly. Lee Yong looked thoughtful. “Tong Won would know. He’s one of very few people who are on speaking terms with both Sam Yuen and Yo Hing. They put up with him because he’s the only decent Erhu player in town, but he’s got to be careful. Those two are always at each other’s throats, and Tong Won would be in trouble if either of them thought he was passing information to the other."
“What do you mean?” asked Yut Ho.
Lee Yong Sighed. “Sam Yuen and Yo Hing used to be partners. They worked for the Sze Yup company, back when it was a real benevolent association. The company used to help new immigrants with food and housing, and sometimes even lend them money to start a business.”
“The Huiguan!” exclaimed Yut Ho. “That was the first place my brother and I went when I arrived in San Francisco. Ah Choy went in to talk with the Elders, and they lent us a Horse and carriage, which we rode to get here.”
She decided not to mention how while she was waiting, an old woman had tried to to trick her into coming to work at a brothel. After hearing what Lee Yong thought of Phoenix, Yut Ho was keen to distance herself from anything prostitution-related.
Lee Yong had perked up at the mention of San Francisco. For a moment, it seemed like he was about to ask a question, but something made him change his mind. Instead, he let out a low whistle. “Sounds like your brother owes the Huiguan a pretty big favor,” he said.
There was something in his tone that Yut Ho did not like at all. “I’m afraid I don’t quite follow you,” She replied, allowing a note of steel to creep back into her voice.
“Please,” Said Lee Yong, “There’s no need to take offense. I don’t know much about you, but you seem like a strong, intelligent person, and I promise I mean you no disrespect. What I meant was this: The Huiguan is the San Francisco branch of the Sze Yup Company, and these days the Sze yup company doesn’t do anyone favors without expecting something in return.”
Yut Ho looked at him.
He was very young, she realized. Certainly no older than her own 19 years. His build was short and stocky, with the corded forearms and broad hands of a peasant or laborer, but his gold-brown skin was as smooth as a child’s. The shadow of a smile seemed to cling to the corners of his long, dark eyes. His white cotton sleeves were rolled up to the elbow, and his lower body was concealed behind a slightly oversized gray apron. He had fine black hair, which he wore in a style Yut Ho had never seen before– not long and wild like Ah Choy or short and severe like a Gwailo, but somewhere in between. It flopped down over his ears and forehead in an attitude of carefree relaxation.
I believe you, she told him with a silent lift of her lower eyelids. He smiled.
“So Yo Hing and Sam Yuen used to be partners,” she prompted.
“Right. They were both sort of Lieutenants in the Sze Yup company, which was led by an older man named Sing Lee. Sing Lee was a decent person, and a good leader, but a couple of years ago he went back to China. This place has been going downhill ever since.
When Sing Lee left, he handed over control of the company to Sam Yuen. It seemed like the logical choice. Sam Yuen had seniority, and he had been managing the company’s business for years. Everyone thought that with him in charge, things would continue the way they had been going before. It was common knowledge that Yo Hing had was pursuing some unorthodox business ventures of his own on the side, but no one thought he would cause any trouble, least of all Sam Yuen. They couldn’t have been more wrong.
Yo Hing is incredibly charismatic. Rumor has it that he first came to Los Angeles to work as a servant in a Gwailo household. Now he’s friends with a bunch of influential Gwailo. They praise him in their newspapers and bail him out of jail anytime he gets himself into trouble. It’s not just the Gwailo either. You’d be hard pressed to find anyone more popular than Yo Hing on the streets of Chinatown. He’s always ready to buy a round of drinks, or to back up a friend in a fight. His Guanxi is through the roof, and he’s got the business sense to back it up. Some people call him crazy; he certainly takes a lot of risks, but even when things blow up in his face, Yo Hing always seems to land on his feet.
Sam Yuen is another story. I’m not sure if he understands the concept of Guanxi at all. At any rate, I’ve never heard of Sam Yuen buying a round of drinks. Your husband Hing Sing spent a whole year convincing him to bring back the tradition of seasonal company banquets, and even then Sam raised the company’s membership dues because he said the members eat too much. He’ll spend money when he smells profit, and he can fight like a tribe of demons, but only when he feels like it, and only for himself. In Sam Yuen’s world, everything is a calculated transaction, and everyone is in competition with everyone else. Of course, that means that the strongest, most merciless person is destined to rule, and of course, that person is Sam Yuen.
Naturally, Yo Hing’s approach is a lot more successful when it comes to matters of public opinion. By the time Sam Yuen realized what was going on, Yo Hing had already won over more than Half of the Sze Yup company. There was a big fight– the first of many– after which Yo Hing’s faction split off and started calling themselves the Hong Chow Tong. To add insult to injury, Yo Hing went to his Gwailo friends and told them that Sam Yuen had threatened him with a whip during the fight. The police came and dragged Sam off to jail. His bail was three hundred dollars, which is about what I make in an entire year—” Lee Yong flushed, and a stricken expression came over his face. Clearly, he was embarrassed to have revealed the amount of his wages, but Yut Ho was thinking back to the old woman at the Huiguan. Ah Choy had shouted at the woman and chased her off after she offered him a sum of one hundred and fifty dollars. “for what,” Yut Ho had asked incredulously. “For you,” Ah Choy had replied.
“Don’t be embarrassed, Lee Yong,” Yut Ho said brightly. “Think of it this way: Three hundred dollars is probably twice as much as, say, Phoenix would fetch on the open market.” Lee Yong shook his head. “I don’t like Phoenix either,” he said “and I think you may be overestimating her value in the slave trade, but that doesn’t make me feel any better. Being bought and sold like a side of beef–can you imagine it? I would never wish that on anyone.” His expression was sad and strangely wistful, as though he was reliving some distant memory. Yut Ho realized that she might have come off as callous, and felt her face growing hot. “It almost happened to me,” she blurted out. “Well, my brother wouldn’t have let it happen, but there was this woman–“
A sudden burst of noise came from below, followed by the creak of Hing Sing’s tread on the stair.
“I think I should get going,” said Yut Ho, who had no desire to see or speak to her husband after the events of last night. “We’ll have to finish this conversation later.”
She stood, pushed in her chair, and turned to go with her teacup still cradled in her hand. Lee Yong watched her as she walked away, back straight, moving with a quick, sure stride. Like a soldier, he thought to himself, with all the respect due to the lady of the house in which he served. A very beautiful soldier, replied a small voice inside him, with a boldness he had never realized was there.
At the end of the hall, Yut Ho turned her head, and glanced over her shoulder. Lee Yong looked away and went into the kitchen to get Hing Sing’s breakfast, but not before Yut Ho caught a glimpse of his expression. It reminded her of the face that Ah Choy used to make when the two of them went to watch shadow-plays in the village square: A face of curiosity, apprehension, and delight. She smiled to herself as she slipped into her bedroom and shut the door behind her. Then she looked down and swore softly in a gentle, half-joking kind of way.
Her teacup was empty.
The next day, Yut Ho waited until after Hing Sing had taken his breakfast. She wore her tunic again; all of the other outfits in her wardrobe felt like costumes because, she reflected, they were costumes for some kind of political theater devised by Hing Sing and Sam Yuen. She had to find out more about her role in all of this. For all she knew, her life might depend on it.
Lee Yong was sitting at the table, trimming bean sprouts. He did it methodically, picking up one or two of them at a time and gently snapping off the ends before depositing them in a large metal bowl.
“Need a hand?” asked Yut Ho.
Lee Yong smiled. “I don’t know, is it beneath your dignity as landlady to trim sprouts?”
“Landlady?” Yut Ho snorted. She pulled out a chair and sat. “Didn’t you say that Sam Yuen or maybe some Gwailo owns this place? There’s your landlady. I’m just the latest addition to Gold Mountain’s weirdest puppet show.”
Lee Yong looked up from his sprouts.
Yut Ho laughed, showing her small, white teeth.
“The other night, Hing Sing came to my room,” she said. Lee Yong looked a little embarrassed. “That’s when I had the pleasure of meeting Phoenix and Jade,” Yut Ho continued. “They came in smelling of opium and offered me a deal: as long as I dress up nice and make Hing Sing look like a family man at company banquets, I get to live up here and Hing Sing won’t touch me.”
Now Lee Yong was politely trying not to look too interested. “They offered you that?” he sounded dubious.
“Well, we negotiated and that was the deal we arrived at,” Yut Ho conceded. “What I want to know is, how likely are they to respect it?”
There was a short silence. Then Lee Yong gathered up half of the untrimmed sprouts in his two hands and, reaching across the table, deposited them in front of Yut Ho. She picked one up. It was cool to the touch, soft and delicate but firm too, and bursting with life. The tail of stringy roots and bean-shell head each came off with a satisfying snap, and she tossed the smooth white body into Lee Yong’s metal bowl.
“If Jade says that Hing Sing will leave you alone, he will,” Lee Yong told her. “She’s harsh, but fair. Jade does most of the work of running the brothel, and has a reputation for reliability.”
“That doesn’t surprise me,” said Yut Ho. All the same, she felt relieved. “It seems like Hing Sing is chasing the dragon in a pretty serious way. Why would a hard-nosed thug like Sam Yuen keep someone like that around?”
Lee Yong laughed. “Hing Sing does like his opium. He drinks a lot too, but he’s really not so bad.”
“You’re not the one who’s married to him,” snapped Yut Ho.
“That’s true. Does he force himself on you?”
Yut Ho was taken aback. She made a noise that might, in a less confident person, be called a splutter.
“What about beating? does he beat you?”
“Could he?” Yut Ho thrust out her chin in defiance. Lee Yong Laughed again. “Hing Sing wouldn’t last ten seconds against you. I can see that plain enough. Watch out for Phoenix, though. I’ve seen her lose her temper, and she’s got a real mean streak. Long reach, too. Jade is probably dangerous as well.”
Yut Ho nodded. “So Hing Sing is weak and therefore harmless, is that what you’re saying?”
Lee Yong shook his head. “He’s weak when it comes to fights and arguments. When it comes to manipulation and giving people what they want, Hing Sing is strong.”
“He is a pimp’s secretary,” Yut Ho reminded him. That got a smile.
“Right. As such, his guanxi is excellent. He’s always at the brothel, pouring drinks and preparing herbal concoctions to make sure that all the men have a good time. Jade is in charge of keeping the girls safe, and Sam Yuen keeps her supplied with goons for enforcement, so Hing Sing never has to cross anyone. He’s everybody’s good time pal, always making jokes and doing people favors. Little things, mostly, but not always. This spring he acted as a go-between when one of the girls took a shine to a client. They’re married now, and run a laundry service down by Thompson’s Saloon. That kind of thing counts for a lot in a small town like this. People like Hing Sing, and that’s worth a lot more than the cost of his stipend to Sam Yuen.”
Yut Ho thought she was beginning to get the gist of the situation.
“So Sam Yuen is powerful, but unpopular,” she said slowly, “and he uses Hing Sing as a public face to make his organization seem more…friendly.”
“You got it,” said Lee Yong. He popped a bean sprout into his mouth, and Yut Ho impulsively did the same. The taste was subtle and crisp, like the smell that comes right before a thunderstorm. “At least, that’s how it used to work. Recently, Sam Yuen made some changes in the way he does business, and a lot of the company members are getting nervous. Maybe he thinks that bringing you in will boost Hing Sing’s credibility enough to bring them back around.”
“Is that likely?” Yut Ho asked.
Lee Yong looked her in the eye. “I don’t know,” he said.
Yut Ho felt a sinking sensation in her stomach that had nothing to do with missing breakfast. “What did Sam Yuen do to upset his company members?” she asked.
“He started selling opium,” replied Lee Yong.
Yut Ho sighed. Jade had told her to make Hing Sing look like a responsible husband in order to win the respect of the older and more conservative company members. However, Yut Ho knew that many of the older immigrants had lived through the horrors of the Opium War, when British cannons had forced unwilling Chinese merchants to invest in the drug. She was not convinced that her matronly charms would be sufficient to make them forget.
Lee Yong seemed to read her mind. “It seems like a long shot, but you might be surprised. These Chinatown men can be a very sentimental bunch, especially when it comes to women. Most of them have wives and children back in China; the only reason they came here at all is because there aren’t enough jobs back home. Now they work their hands to the bone for slave wages so that they can send home enough money to give their families a decent life. They work as many hours as they can stay awake, doing whatever jobs the Gwailo are unwilling or unable to do. Then they go back to a shack the size of your bedroom and sleep packed head to foot with 10 or 15 other workers. If they see you at the company banquet, looking beautiful and happy, they’ll think of their own wives, and maybe that will make them think twice about making trouble for Sam Yuen. After all, what would happen to their families if they were to lose their jobs, or worse?”
Yut Ho knew the answer. After their village was destroyed, she and her parents had survived on money that Ah Choy had sent them from Gold Mountain. When Ah Choy lost his job as a gold miner, the money stopped coming and her parents starved to death.
“I don’t understand,” she said, setting aside the terrible memories through sheer force of will. “Are these the same men who drink whiskey with Hing Sing at the brothel?”
“Some of them,” replied Lee Yong, “but not all. The brothel caters more to a younger crowd; mostly refugees from the Taiping Rebellion. The older men are loyal to their families, and that’s Sam Yuen’s problem. He’s invested too heavily in vice, and he knows it, but he doesn’t have any choice because he’s lost so much business to Yo Hing.”
Yut Ho’s eyebrows demanded more information, and Lee Yong continued. “For a while, Yo Hing and Sam Yuen each had control of about half the business in Chinatown, legitimate and otherwise. Lately, though, Yo Hing has been gaining ground. He was the one who brought opium into the picture. He sells it to the Gwailo medical men, who prescribe it for everything. Toothache? opium. Melancholia? opium. They put it into pills and give it to women who don’t obey their husbands.”
Yut Ho laughed. “You’ve got to be kidding!” Lee Yong shook his head. “That’s actually one of their more effective treatments. It’s bad. Sick Gwailo have started coming to Chinatown for real medical care. Anyway, Sam Yuen doesn’t want Yo Hing to corner the opium market. So here we are.”
Yut Ho shook her head in disbelief. “This place must be cursed. Perhaps it started when the Gwailo stole this land from its original inhabitants; everyone here seems adrift, like spiritual orphans, cut off from their roots and ancestors. What a disgrace! How can it be that the whole community is held in thrall by men who deal in opium and whores!” She spat out the last word, as if it contained all the bitterness of her disappointment with the world, and with her own impossible situation.
Lee Yong opened his mouth, then shut it with a snap.
“What, are you offended now?” Yut Ho felt a surge of annoyance. “I thought you were above the influence of Phoenix and her kind. Maybe I was wrong.”
Lee Yong pushed his chair back from the table, and sat glowering at the bowl of sprouts. “I dislike Phoenix because she’s mean and vindictive, not because of what she does for work.” He said. “Being a whore is not usually something that happens by choice. It happens when somebody has no options to choose from. My…” He closed his eyes tightly, then opened them again and looked right at Yut Ho. “My mother was a whore in San Francisco Chinatown.”
If you enjoyed the show and want to hear more, tell us in a review, and become one of our community backers at www.bloodongoldmountain.com/support. Remember to follow us wherever you listen to podcasts, and reach out with thoughts and questions on Instagram and Facebook at Blood On Gold Mountain. Episode 6, “Beasts of Prey,” will be released on Wednesday June 2nd.
Blood on Gold Mountain is brought to you by The Holmes Performing Arts Fund of The Claremont Colleges, The Pacific Basin Institute of Pomona College, The Public Events Office at Scripps College, The Scripps College Music Department, The Entrepreneurial Musicianship Department at The New England Conservatory, and our Patreon patrons.
It is hosted by Hao Huang, Micah Huang, and Emma Gies, featuring original music by Micah Huang and The Flower Pistils. A special thanks to Kusuma Tre Saputro for the amazing artwork, Sheila Kolesaire for her critical PR guidance, Rachel Huang for her editing prowess, and Evo Terra from Simpler Media Productions for his immense expertise and support. Thanks for listening and see you next time.