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Denise Chong explores the loneliness of Chinese immigrants in Lives of the Family

The two-time Governor General’s Literary Award finalist chronicles the lives of three Chinese families who leave their home country and settle in the Ottawa region in Lives of the Family: Stories of Fate and Circumstance. Read an excerpt from the book below.

Author Denise Chong is best known for her nonfiction depictions of the lives of Chinese immigrants living in Canada. Her latest book continues this tradition as the two-time Governor General’s Literary Award finalist presents stories from three different families. The book follows them from their origins in China to the very different communities they find in Canada. Chong, herself a third-generation Chinese-Canadian, gives voice to those who are rarely heard.

What we don’t know is behind the façade of the lettering in the café window, or the Chinese spoken behind the counter when someone gives your order for a hamburger, or the waitress who speaks English to you and then Chinese to her parents,” said Denise Chong in a recent interview with the CBC’s Jeanette Kelly. “What we don’t know is the life that went on—the loneliness and the adjustment and the pain—in the living quarters, behind the café and upstairs on the second and third floors of the café where there would still be bachelors who couldn't afford to bring their wives and children from China.”

In Lives of the Family: Stories of Fate and Circumstance, Chong explores the immigrant experience and tells the stories of three Chinese families who move to Canada and establish themselves in the Ottawa area.

Below an excerpt from one of the many stories told in this book. It introduces us to Chung-foon/Harry and the many twists and turns of his life between China and Canada

Lives of the Family: Stories of Fate and Circumstance
By Denise Chong

Lim Jim financed young Chung-foon’s ship fare to Canada (once in Canada, the boy adopted the name Harry) and arranged payment of the five hundred dollar head tax due upon entry. It was a formidable sum, equal to two years’ wages for a Chinese labourer in Canada. The boy proved industrious. From a labourer’s job in a sawmill on the banks of the Fraser River, he moved to a job as a cook at a chop suey house in Vancouver’s Chinatown and, in recognition of his talents, was promoted to head chef.

After a decade, Harry had savings enough to visit China and stay for about two years. He took as a wife a delicately pretty girl named Chung Yee-hing. Her well-to-do parents owned a successful garlic-producing farm and had promised their daughter, a beloved and only child, to the son of a wealthy family. But after the obligatory background check by a match-maker to confirm the suitability of the union, the young man’s parents, suspecting mixed blood in the girl’s ancestry, called off the arrangement. Yee-hing’s parents had little choice but to settle for a lesser match. Which was how Harry Lim, born into a poor family, came to marry above his station.

With her first pregnancy, Yee-hing delivered the all-important son necessary to continue the lineage. Besides “watering the roots,” Harry achieved the peasant’s dream of “tiles over one’s head.” His house, the first to be raised in Golden Creek in his generation, spoke well of his sacrifice of toil abroad. Two and a half stories high and built of brick, the house had modern touches like glass in the windows and tiles on the floors—red clay tiles to warm the first floor, ceramic tiles on the second to keep it cool underfoot in the intense summer heat. A second set of stairs from the master bedroom on the second floor led to the rooftop terrace, which spilled over with potted chrysanthemums. From there, one could enjoy the sunrise and sunset and marvel at the orb of the sun reflected in the wide tranquil river. At the nearest bend in the river, a ten-minute walk away, one could catch a ferry going upriver to the district market town or down- river to the coast, where farther to the west lay Hong Kong, the departure point of ships bound for Vancouver.

Soon after his son, Min-hon, was born, Harry left his family and began his second sojourn in Canada. By now, part owner of a café in Chinatown, he diligently sent money to help support his family. He kept Yee-hing in the style to which she had been accustomed: besides the usual personal girl servant for a wife (even poor women had such servants; to be sold into servitude was often the best a girl from a destitute family could hope for), she had a woman servant who did the housekeeping, washed the laundry, shopped and cooked. And he made sure that Min-hon received a good education, sending him to a school in the district town.

In 1930, Canada began a slide into what would become the Great Depression. China, owing to its silver-based currency, was spared—for the moment. Harry decided to pack in his life abroad; a dollar could be stretched many times further in China than in Canada. In the way a gambler might cash in his chips, Harry sold his share in the café, bid his goodbyes and left for China. As Harry liked to say, “Life is a gamble.”

Excerpt from Lives of the Family: Stories of Fate and Circumstance by Denise Chong. Published by Random House Canada. Copyright © 2013 by Denise Chong. Shared here with permission from the publisher.


Denise Chong is best known for her family memoir, The Concubine's Children, a finalist for the Governor General’s Award for Nonfiction. She also published Egg on Mao: A Story of Love, Hope and Defiance. Lives of the Family: Stories of Fate and Circumstance is her most recent book.

Photo credit: Bill Grimshaw


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