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Midnight At the Dragon Cafe [Paperback]

Judy Fong Bates
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Feb. 22 2005
Set in the 1960s, Judy Fong Bates’s much-talked-about debut novel is the story of a young girl, the daughter of a small Ontario town’s solitary Chinese family, whose life is changed over the course of one summer when she learns the burden of secrets. Through Su-Jen’s eyes, the hard life behind the scenes at the Dragon Café unfolds. As Su-Jen’s father works continually for a better future, her mother, a beautiful but embittered woman, settles uneasily into their new life. Su-Jen feels the weight of her mother’s unhappiness as Su-Jen’s life takes her outside the restaurant and far from the customs of the traditional past. When Su-Jen’s half-brother arrives, smouldering under the responsibilities he must bear as the dutiful Chinese son, he forms an alliance with Su-Jen’s mother, one that will have devastating consequences. Written in spare, intimate prose, Midnight at the Dragon Café is a vivid portrait of a childhood divided by two cultures and touched by unfulfilled longings and unspoken secrets.

From the Hardcover edition.

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From Amazon

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 Hardcover edition.

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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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars This is a fine novel! March 8 2004
A good friend told me that this was the best book she had read in years! I am in total agreement and I will be urging fellow readers to savour the delights of Midnight at the Dragon Cafe with the same fervour. Judy Fong Bates's first novel allows one to not only explore the world of the Chinese/Canadian restaurant/greasy spoons that were in every community across Canada, but also discover the loneliness, passions, joys and heartache that were experienced by those who ran the restaurants. The story of young Su-Jen and her family striving for a better life in Canada is a beautifully haunting tale told by a master storyteller. I couldn't recommend it more highly.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Recommended Reading Oct. 22 2004
By A Customer
This story provides thoughtful and compassionate insight to many challenges faced by Chinese immigrants to Canada. The story is compelling, yet simply told, and as day-to-day events progress, the characters become truly memorable.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Burns with a Gem-like Flame April 23 2006
By Lou Allin TOP 1000 REVIEWER
If Hemingway or Steinbeck had been born in the Fifties as a Chinese girl, the perfection of such prose with psychological and social insights couldn't have been more similar. There's not a wasted word here as the tragedies of a dysfunctional but survivalist family unfold in stifling small-town Ontario. Like watching a hundred-car freight train crash in accordian ribbons. A book to be savored...except that the reader must keep turning pages.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars How We Were Nov. 24 2009
I lived in the same town as the author when she was little Judy Fong, and she has absolutely nailed the town in her story. Every detail, from the small lake to the stores and their proprietors, and the stinky factory, all true. She has also totally captured the tone of the times. Although the plot of her story is fiction, it certainly could have happened. Shame on all of us who lived in small towns for our shabby treatment of the people who owned and lived in the Chinese restaurants and the Chinese laundries. Let's hope times have changed. Let's hope Judy is writing another book.
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