Monday, August 20, 2007

Midnight at the Dragon Café by Judy Fong Bates

Imagine, if you can, what it would be like to find yourself in a new country, unable to speak the language, unable in some deep sense to ever be at home, and yet to realize at the same time that what was your home is now closed off to you forever. This is just the condition that six year old Su-Jen and her mother find themselves in when they immigrate to a small Canadian town in 1957. Su-Jen’s father has lived in Canada most of his adult life, having arrived before the second World War to do whatever work the lo fons (white ghost people) would not do, and send money back home to his family in China. Unable to return to China or to get his family out when the Japanese invade China, he returns home after the war just long enough to marry for a second time, this time to a woman who has lost her husband in the war, both of them with children from their previous marriages. The above description is just a sketch of the complicated circumstances and family tangles described in Judy Fong Bates' novel, Midnight at the Dragon Café.

In many ways this book is very plainly, even simply written. I have become so spoiled by the intricate word-weaving of so many wonderful writers that I almost skipped over this little book after giving it the rather cursory fifty to a hundred page trial I give to most books that do not immediately grab my attention. I had read other books about Chinese immigrants in both Canada and the U.S.; I understood something about how difficult it would be to be a child suspended between two worlds, expected to succeed in a new language, a new world, expected to accommodate, even to be assimilated into the new culture, and yet also expected to remain true to the values of another time and place. Maxine Hong Kingston in Woman Warrior had given me some sense of how it would be to live in that tension between two worlds, expected to belong to both. But what Fong Bates does in this novel is to bring the reader closer to an understanding of what it must have been like for the parents of such children to, in a real sense, sacrifice their own lives in order to make a new life possible for their children.

Even while in China, Su-Jen’s mother marries for a second time to a much, much older husband not out of love nor even out of a need for companionship, but in order to provide for her son from a previous marriage. She then convinces her new husband that he must return to Canada while he still can when the new Communist government begins to make it more and more difficult for citizens to immigrate, deciding not to tell him about his child she is carrying, fearing that he will then refuse to leave. Finally, almost seven years later, she follows him. This move, too, not for herself, but for her daughter, Su-Jen. Had the two remained in Toronto, with family who had immigrated before her, at least there would have been a sizable community of Chinese with whom the mother could communicate, talk with about home, commiserate with about the hateful lo fans, but instead she is immediately whisked away to a tiny town, Irvine, fifty miles outside Toronto where the only other Chinese people are her husband and his brother who have bought and now run the café. Su-Jen will go to school in Canada, will learn the language quickly. As she says, “I played, thought, and dreamed in the language of the lo fans.” But her mother insists that she is too old to learn a new language. “Whenever she talked about happy times, they were during her childhood in that distant land.”

In the café, they make food for white people that they, themselves, would never eat—not only the egg rolls and bland chow meins and other so-called Chinese food, but French-fries and club sandwiches, big slabs of beef and mashed potatoes. And only after all the customers leave, after they close for the night, do they prepare for themselves the food that their customers never see.

But while her mother protects her from the insults and bullying of the sei gew doys (dead ghost kids), exhorts her to stay away from the poison food that they eat and the money they waste on worthless toys, nevertheless everyone in her family realizes that it is the lo fans who have the money and the power.

The adults in my family were always comparing Chinese people to lo fons. While we made fun of them, we all knew how powerful they were; they were the ones who lived in houses with backyards and drove cars. They were the important people in town, the teachers, the policeman, and the doctors.
And although in one breath her mother would show her contempt for the ghost children, she could in the next say, “Su-Jen, she is almost a hoo sung, a Canadian-born. She speaks like she was born here and she reads many thick books.”

Difficult, indeed, to be caught between two worlds, admired because of her success among the lo fans, and yet criticized for abandoning the values of her own people. But worse for her mother who exclaims over and over, “I’d be better off in China fighting for my life, here I just die a slow death.” Although still a beautiful and relatively young woman, in this small town her mother is simply the Chink’s wife, and if her beauty is ever noticed or remarked on, it is only by drunk lo fans who see her as a sexual object. Because of her mastery of English, Su-Jen sees and hears what her parents do not, hears her father called Charley, and burns with shame at the wide smile he gives in response.

When I was a child living in Irvine, I had wanted so much to have what other children had: piano lessons, to be sent to camp, to be taken on a holiday, all things that cost money. I thought my parents gave me so little. It has taken many years for me to realize how wrong I was, to understand the depth of their sacrifices.

At the time I was blind to how they tried to protect me in what must have been for them an alien world ... For my mother the act of living here was in itself an act of love, my mother had given up her own life out of love for me ....
When Su-Jen, at about twelve or thirteen, asks her father how he can stand the daily insults from his customers, the grinding hard work that never seems to get them ahead, his response is simple, “I tell myself that this is not my home. They are not my people.”

I have not yet mentioned that besides the difficulties for this family living always as strangers in a strange land, there were also secrets—secrets that Su-Jen could tell to no one, not even her best friends. I don’t intend to tell you those secrets; you must read the book to discover them, but the secrets add another layer of meaning to this novel, and to the bitterness her parents, especially her mother, had to swallow daily.

To the people in Irvine, we must have seemed the perfect immigrant family. We were polite, hard-working, unthreatening, and we kept to ourselves. As far as the townsfolk were concerned, there was nothing about us that would upset the moral and social order that presided over them. Even when things started to go wrong, we blended so seamlessly into their everyday life, we remained invisible.
You must read the book in order to discover the secret. Once I gave this story a chance, allowed the plain language to accomplish its understated ends, I literally raced through the second half of the book. I’m glad I stayed with it; I think you will feel the same if you read it.

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