Sub-Category: Immigration, Family, Asian-Canadian
Format: Hardcover, 256 pages
Publisher: Knopf Canada
If you visit Vancouver, British Columbia's most bustling city on the west coast, one place most people will recommend that you visit is Vancouver's Chinatown. The Chinese started arriving in Vancouver as far back as 1858 to work in the gold mines. Many of them hailed from the Guangdong province in southern China.
From 1880-85 thousands of Chinese workers were employed by the Canadian Pacific Railway to work on the construction of railway tracks, but after the railway was completed, the government of Canada introduced the "Act to Restrict and Regulate
Chinese Immigration into Canada", which required Chinese people
entering Canada to pay a head tax of $50 per person...it was also commonly known as the Chinese Head Tax. In 1903, the head tax was raised to $500. To add to their misery in 1907 an anti-Chinese sentiment took root in Vancouver which swept through Chinatown, damaging scores of Japanese and Chinese businesses.
So, when our protagonist, 18-year old Seid Quan Chan, arrives in Vancouver from his rural village in China in 1913, he arrives into a Canada that is hostile to him. With hardly any luggage, except for the burden of his family's dreams on his shoulder, he is fortunate to find work with a barber in Chinatown and soon saves up a little money enabling him to get married. But owing to a Canadian govt law that prevents wives and families from joining their husbands, he has to live alone, managing to see his wife back in China only once every 13 years or so. Seid Quan is a worn out old man by the time he is allowed to bring his wife, Shew Lin and son, Pon Man over to Canada to live with him.
Seid Quan's story is a sad one, but his son Pon Man, his daughter-in-law Sin Song and their four girls Wendy, Daisy, Jackie and Samantha (born and brought up in Canada) don't seem to fare that well either. Although beautifully told by first time writer Jen Sookfung Lee, you get the impression that the hardship of immigration leaves its stamp on a family for generations.
I think part of the problem with immigrant communities is the isolation they suffer. Lacking a command of conversational English many of them are unable to assimilate into mainstream society and remain cloistered in "Chinatowns" or "Little Indias" as the case may be. I know of several Indian women who don't speak a word of English and as a result they can neither work, nor drive and are confined to their homes. Depression is rife among these women and because of their limited abilities they don't command respect from their husbands or children.
Jen Sookfung Lee's book explores the effects of immigration and racism on a culture through three generations of the Chan family using Seid Quan and his granddaughter Sammy Chan as the main narrators. This is an emotionally-charged book with some very interesting character studies, a beautiful exploration of family dynamics and romps through the history of the Chinese people in Vancouver. However, I couldn't help noticing that the author does't always tie up threads neatly and consistently. For instance, I kept wondering what had happened to Seid Quan's daughters. We were introduced to them briefly and never hear about them again. Also troubling is Sammy Chan's affinity for masochistic sex...we never hear why or how that comes about. We have to imagine that her tortured body is the result of a tortured mind, I suppose. However, that aside, this novel is most readable and if you enjoy multigenerational sagas, this one's for you. Also, it's always very exciting to read a new writer and his or her fresh and different approach to storytelling.
Jen Sookfung Lee will be reading at the Harbourfront at 7:30pm tonight. If you live in Toronto, you might want to go across and listen to her. Readings at the Harbourfront are always a nice evening out.