Wednesday, August 8, 2007

There be real dragons here...

Midnight at the Dragon Café by Judy Fong Bates (McClelland & Stewart, 2003) 315 pp.

I read this book on the recommendation of my friend 21st Century Girl. I admit that I initially thought the book was going in a certain direction: immigrant family struggling in a new environment with a sensitive young protagonist documenting its struggles in the 1950s.

I did feel that I had been here before (as a reader and as person who comes from an immigrant family) and that the book was not mining new territory even though it was about a Chinese-Canadian family, a fairly rare occurrence in Canadian literature.

But at about 100 pages, things started exploding off the page for me. Su-Jen (renamed Annie in Canada) is a young girl who emigrates from Hong Kong to Canada with Jing, her beautiful but unhappy mother to join her father whom she has never met. Her parents were separated by the Communist takeover of China in the 1940s and Jing was compelled to marry Annie's father, a much older man, after her first husband and son died. Her mother is resentful of the new life that she is forced to take on in Canada, helping to run a family restaurant in the small town of Irvine, Ontario.

Life is uneventful at first (indeed the book is fairly uneventful in this section) and initially it appears that the characters are conforming to certain well worn Asian stereotypes: the quiet, hard working immigrants; dutiful, high achieving daughter, all leading solid, ordinary lives. They face overt racism, the cold of Canadian winters, a sense of alienation from the Canadian mainstream, and, the monotony of life in a small town.

This cliched image quickly collapses with the entrance of Lee-Kung, Annie's much older half-brother, who had been working in Owen Sound until he lost his job in another Chinese restaurant. Annie then stumbles upon a disturbing family secret that only she is privy to.

Annie's father's search for a mail order bride from Hong Kong for Lee-Kung accelerates (does her father know the truth?) and Annie's mother attempts to foil his efforts. Lee-Kung floats on, seemingly neutral, but plotting his escape from Irvine. And Annie watches as the whole thing unravels and she is paralyzed to act as she is too young to prevent the impact on the people she holds most dear.

Underlying the plot is Annie's mother's incessant listening to a Chinese opera surrounding the myth of the White Snake Goddess. This bodes well for no one!

I appreciated the disintegration of certain caricatures that white Europeans have about Asians: the passive wife, the dutiful sons and daughters, the seemingly placid nature of traditional Chinese families which here, barely conceals the jealousies, angers and festering desires of its family members.

Of course, I too react in a stereotypical manner thinking "Oh Judy, what did your mother think?" when I read the novel. Perhaps we as "ethnic" writers (how dated that phrase seems now in the 21st century) whose parents may not read or speak English well feel we are insulated from recriminations and prying eyes. No one we know well (or fear greatly) will read this, we reason, as we tap away at another revealing story that we would never dare speak of in front of family.

I wonder if this thought passed through Judy Fong Bates' mind as she wrote the novel? This is not to imply that it is based on her personal history but the story does shine a light on a certain aspect of immigrant life in the Chinese community that we usually do not see and certainly most would not willingly reveal. That, in itself, takes a great deal of courage.

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