Asian Heritage Month: Starting points

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Throughout May, CBC Books will be highlighting great works of Asian-Canadian literature as part of Asian Heritage Month. CBC producer and Asian-Canadian history enthusiast Adrian Ma looks at some novels he found to be influential and inspirational.

Starting Points

adrian-headshot-70.jpgThis week, I'd like to mention a few specific novels that I think serve as great entry points into learning more about Asian-Canadian history and the experiences of earlier immigrants. These books focus more on Asian-Canadian experiences leading up to, and including, the Second World War.



Tales from Gold Mountain by Paul Yee

During the mid-19th century, China was in a constant state of upheaval. Tens of millions died during this period because of civil wars, droughts and famine, particularly in southern China. But news came from across the ocean that gold had been discovered in western North America. Many villagers, mostly men, took the long and unpleasant voyage with the hopes of striking it rich in "Gold Mountain," and then returning home to their families. Another, bigger wave of Chinese came when the Canadian government needed its national railway built. Thousands arrived in British Columbia and spread throughout Canada. Most of them probably never went back to their homeland.

tales-from-Gold-Mountain.pngOne of the best books I have come across about this early period of Chinese immigration is Tales from Gold Mountain, a collection of eight original folktales by historian and award-winning author Paul Yee. I guess it's technically a children's book, but it's just so poignant and wonderfully written, and it contains beautiful illustrations by Simon Ng. It's also, at times, haunting, as in the story about a young man, Chu, who leaves China to search for his father in Canada. Chu finds work on the railway, which was gruelling and dangerous, but later speaks to his father's ghost and learns of his sad demise. He's also able to help him rest in peace. Yee is a stellar researcher and writer, which helps to imbue his work with an honesty that makes his stories even more compelling.

Disappearing Moon Café by Sky Lee

moon-cafe.jpgThis layered, multi-generational story about the Wong family, a prominent Chinese-Canadian family in Vancouver's old Chinatown, tackles many of the themes I've come across in researching Asian-Canadian history. There's the conflict between old world values and new world values, the racial tension between Caucasian Canadians and Asian-Canadians, and the insular, protective nature of ethnic communities like the Chinatowns of old.

But what I found particularly engaging about this novel was that it drew attention to how Chinese women coped with life in Canada. After all, the vast majority of Chinese immigrants during this time were men, who had come to work, and bringing anyone over cost an exorbitant amount of money. The women who did manage to arrive in Canada came from an already patriarchal society to a place with even fewer women. Lee explores this experience through several female characters, including Lee Mui Lan, the dominant and often cruel Wong family matriarch; Fong Mei, the put-upon young bride who hardens herself against her family; and eventually Canadian-born Beatrice and Suzanne, who grapple with their identity and independence in what turns out to be a pretty messed-up, dysfunctional family. While some have critiqued Lee's novel as being overly melodramatic, I saw the story as emulating a typical Cantonese opera, which often deals with family sagas and revolves around themes of love, betrayal and fate.

Obasan by Joy Kogawa

Obasan-cover.jpgOne of the saddest chapters in Canadian history was the internment of Japanese-Canadians during the Second World War. Under the War Measures Act, more than 20,000 Canadians of Japanese heritage (the majority of them Canadian-born), were forced out of their homes, fingerprinted and placed into camps, out of speculative fear that some were collaborating against the country. Joy Kogawa was a young girl when she and her family were interned in Slocan, B.C. She drew upon those experiences, and the complicated feelings they inspired, when she wrote her acclaimed, semi-autobiographical novel Obasan. Told from the perspective of Japanese-Canadian Megumi Naomi Nakane, the story shifts back and forth in time, revealing painful secrets about her life in flashbacks, dreams and found letters. As the protagonist revisits these memories and seeks to learn the truth behind the disappearance of her mother, Kogawa shares historical details about issues like the terrible conditions in the internment camps and the racism faced by Japanese-Canadians (and the activism by Japanese-Canadians against it), as well as the devastating consequences of war. It's a haunting, beautiful novel.

The Jade Peony by Wayson Choy

This family saga is also set around the time of the Second World War, both before and during, which was a particularly dramatic and transformative period for Chinese-Canadians. Canada and China were allies against the Empire of Japan, and China had a very long and brutal history with Japan, and the horrific Nanking Massacre was still a raw wound for most Chinese. The Jade Peony unfolds through the eyes of three young Chinese-Canadians siblings -- Jook-Liang, Jung-Sum and Sek-Lung -- and is an incredibly rich and vivid re-creation of Vancouver's Chinatown in this era, where Choy grew up. It's full of nostalgic references to Chinese culture, like the famous Monkey King folktale that every Chinese kid knows, but also confronts the darkness of the times, and the racial tensions with not only Caucasians but Japanese-Canadians. In the story, Kiam, the oldest sibling, is eager to join the military so he can kill Japanese troops. Meanwhile, a Chinese neighbour's daughter named Meiying has a secret relationship with Kazuo, a Japanese-Canadian boy. It was during the Second World War that public perception of the Chinese in Canada largely changed for the better, although it came at the expense of Japanese-Canadians. The Jade Peony, at times winsome and at times grim, is a novel that brilliantly captures this complex period of our history. And if you're interested, Choy also wrote a wonderful memoir of his Chinatown childhood called Paper Shadows.

Next week, we venture into the latter half of the 20th century! And please keep your book suggestions coming.

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Thank you!

Adrian Ma is the author of
How the Chinese Created Canada. You can follow him on Twitter @adrianma.


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