It's 1957 and Su-Jen Chou, age 6, has been brought by her mother from China (via Hong Kong) to small-town Irvine, Ontario, near Toronto. Su-Jen's father owns a Chinese restaurant, the Dragon Café, in the town where a stinky tannery is the main industry. This is the simply told story of a schoolgirl immigrant growing up, powerless to change her world and yet stuck with keeping difficult secrets. Her lonely mother is a disappointed harpy, unhappy with their new life and filled with complaints, while Su-Jen's father is much older and obsessed with saving enough money to give his daughter a new life. The thematic Chinese phrase that informs this novel means, "to swallow bitterness": both parents have a tragic past, and when Su-Jen's older brother leaves another Chinese restaurant to work in the café's kitchen, life grows significantly more complicated and difficult.
The writing is appropriately child-like with a few odd constructions: on a hot day, "The air congealed, coating our bodies like syrup, while the smell from the tannery cloyed the air." Minor characters, such as the father's friends, Pock Mark Lee and Uncle Yat, are well drawn and the book is filled with intriguing Chinese phrases ("I don't talk fat talk. I always tell the truth.") In this novel that reads like a memoir, Judy Fong Bates has revealed a world that traditionally remained stubbornly secret, though every small town in Canada has a Chinese café in its midst. --Mark Frutkin
--This text refers to the
From Publishers Weekly
In this deeply affecting debut novel by the author of the short story collection China Dog
, intrepid Su-Jen Chou, the only daughter of parents who flee Communist China in the 1950s to become proprietors of a Chinese restaurant in an isolated Ontario town, watches as her family unravels. In Irvine, it is "so quiet you can hear the dead," and Su-Jen's mother, Jing, beautiful and bitter, laments her imprisonment in an unfamiliar country. To Jing's chagrin, Su-Jen's father, Hing-Wun, much older than his wife, believes in the traditional method for obtaining wealth: endless hard work. When Su-Jen's handsome older half-brother, Lee-Kung, comes to live with the family and help out in the restaurant, Su-Jen is happy, but soon she notices her mother and Lee-Kung exchanging veiled glances and realizes they're keeping some dangerous secret. Increasingly, Su-Jen finds herself caught between her parents, who have "settled into an uneasy and distant relationship... their love, their tenderness, they give to their daughter." She seeks relief in books and in the Chinese tales her father loves to tell, but the trouble festering comes to a head when a mail-order bride arrives for her brother. Bates conveys with pathos and generosity the anger, disappointment, vulnerability and pride of people struggling to balance duty and passion.
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