Sunday, September 6, 2020

Book Review - The Jade Peony by Wayson Choy

I found this short novel surprisingly touching. It tells what life in Chinatown Vancouver was like in the years leading up to the Second Sino-Japanese war (1937 – 1945) for a Chinese immigrant family, whose children were born on Canadian soil.

Seen through the eyes of three young children of this family, Liang (a girl), Jung (a boy) and Sekky (a boy), everyday life with all its joys, worries, cultural and language conflicts, juvenile mischief, generational squabbles and wistful homesickness emerges vividly with bits of puerile logic and humor.

The senile but sharp-minded grandma is at once loved for her mesmerizing China stories and feared for her ability to see through the young minds. The straitlaced and erudite father is given due respect for his head-of-family status and forgiven for his occasional angry outbursts out of growing anxiety about the onslaught of war in his homeland. The mother plays her submissive wifely and motherly roles with grace and tolerance, but whose opinions are always valued by family members in precarious situations.

Through the three children’s perspectives, readers also see them caught between the contrasting Western and Chinese cultures, and how they eventually adapt to the identity challenge and make the best of it. Also woven into the narratives are hardships of first-generation Chinese immigrants in scraping a livelihood in mining and railway construction projects that were fraught with danger, as well as all-round discrimination that Canadian-born Chinese suffered (they were stamped as “Resident Alien” on their birth certificates, meaning they could not become Canadian citizens) and effects of the prohibitive 1923 Chinese Immigration Act.

It was overall an educational and poignant read. I’m giving it 4.4 stars.

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