Set in Vancouver’s Chinatown in 1930s and ’40s, The Jade Peony combines the stories of three Chinese-Canadian siblings Jook-Liang (Only Sister), Jung-Sum (Second Brother), and Sek-Lung (Third Brother) at pivotal moments in their lives. These kinds of stories are often referred to as “coming-of-age” stories, though in this case they are much more. Appropriately enough for a story about new immigrants, the children’s stories attempt to sketch a detailed geography of identity — one that must be constantly surveyed, defined, and defended from invaders. Trying to escape the colonial Overlords of parents and culture, these fledgling nations are subject to no shortage of civil wars, and certainly, like our own country, suffer from an incoherent identity, one that shifts and evolves.
This is, of course, something common to all children, but much more so to those of recent immigrants. The children attend two schools (English & Chinese), and are bombarded by their Poh-Poh (grandmother) with ancient wisdom and tradition, while encouraged by their parents to be modern. They worship Shirley Temple, John Wayne, and Joe Louis, but also see the world through the stories told them by their grandmother — seeing the Monkey Man or the Fox Lady, mythic Chinese characters in a regular day in Canada. No one suffers more than Sek-Lung, the one most excluded from his Chinese heritage, the most desperate to assimilate, though he knows he will never be able to:
“But even if I was born in Vancouver, even if I should salute the Union Jack a hundred million times, even if I had the cleanest hands in all of the Dominion of Canada and prayed forever, I would still be Chinese.
Stepmother knew this and worried in her heart and feared for me. All of the Chinatown adults were worried over those of us recently born into Canada, born “neither this nor that,” neither Chinese nor Canadian, born without understanding the boundaries.”
Once again, identity is fraught with boundaries, with lines that the children are told should not be crossed. And even though Sek-Lung wishes to be thoroughly “Canadian” he is the one that stops his family from turning their backs on their anchor to China — Poh-Poh, who haunts the family home until she is given proper respect. In the book’s most tragic threads, Sek-Lung also witnesses the dangers of self-definition through villainizing others as he is unwittingly drawn into the local tensions between Chinese Canadian and Japanese Canadians during World War II.
In addition to living a hyphenated existence between cultures, we witness additional struggles for Jook-Liang and Jung-Sum as they try to define themselves. For Jook-Liang it is a matter of assessing the value of what she has, for as a girl she is repeatedly told by her grandmother that she is worthless. Though I found her story the least engaging (she had little of the charm or complexity I hope for in such a character), I could nevertheless sympathize with the need to strike out and conquer new territory. Jung-Sum is not told my his grandmother that he is worthless, but rather that he is different, that he is the moon and not the sun, a prophecy of sorts that comes true when Jung-Sum discovers his attraction for another boy at the boxing club.
Of course I would be remiss not to mention Chinatown as a character, for it is vividly omnipresent. Whether it is the dry cleaner’s where a gaggle of old ladies take their tea, the neighbour’s kitchen where she dries herbs and vegetables, or the back alleys where Sek-Lung hunts with his Poh-Poh for treasures for her wind chimes, Chinatown has is vividly depicted through all the five senses. And Poh-Poh herself is also wonderful – immutable, domineering and a little mysterious. (Though it must be noted that I have a penchant for bilious witch-like old women in literature — my favourite being Margaret in Shakespeare’s Richard III).
My main criticism with The Jade Peony is that the three parts didn’t cohere as well as I wanted them to. The book started as a short story, and it seems to have just become a trio of novellas. The narratives are largely limited to their own narrator’s experiences, and I was disappointed to see that the narrators played very minor roles in one another’s tales considering they all lived in the same home. The book as a whole also lacks the substantial narrative arc I would expect from a novel, settling instead on smaller developments in its characters lives, as a short story collection might. It’s a testament to Choy’s characters though, that despite a lack of major plot machinations, I wanted to keep reading (though it must be said I didn’t NEED to keep reading, as, for example in Fall on Your Knees).
As I read I kept returning to the jade peony itself, a reminder of Old China “made from bits of bone and flesh,” which Sek-Lung sees as “a beautiful, cramped heart,” and I see as a more peaceful alternative metaphor to my earlier comments on battles over territory. The peony became the pendant centre of Poh-Poh’s carefully crafted wind chimes, assembled from discarded Woolworth’s necklaces and the broken stained glass of the Presbyterian church. These disparate pieces were carefully joined with silken thread, then hung so that the wind would rattle the peony against the new pieces, releasing a delicate and unique song. And such is The Jade Peony itself, subtle, delicate, and carefully constructed. Perhaps too subtle for some who like a little more ambitious narrative (myself included), but a lovely song nonetheless, and one you might never even have known to have listened for.
More for Canada Reads Keeners:
- Wayson Choy on his novel
- An interview of and a great essay by last year’s top-notch Canada Reads panelist Jen Sookfong Lee on how The Jade Peony affected her development as a writer (an influence evident in her debut novel The End of East.
Other reviews of The Jade Peony: monnibo [Let me know if you post a review, and I'll add it!]
Previous KIRBC Canada Reads 2010 reviews (complete with pseudo-embarrassing video content!):
Annnnnd, here’s my newest video pitch! You can also check these out on the CBC Book Club blog.