“You fix yourself in the present, but I want to hear the stories about the rest of your life, the Chinese stories. I want to know what makes you scream and curse, and what you’re thinking when you say nothing, and why when you do talk, you talk differently from Mother.”– Maxine Hong Kingston, China Men
Maxine Hong Kingston is a great storyteller and this was like no other book I’ve ever read before. It’s a patchwork of fiction, non-fiction, myths and legends, and historical artifacts that helped to shape the story of what it must have been like for her male Chinese ancestors in North America.
This book is about the immigrant experience and how the Chinese leaving their homes in China in hopes of a better financial future, found ways to make their new land their own. As most of us have read so many immigrant stories we can often guess what these stories will bring: frustration, hardships, racism, homesickness, and so on. I think the history of the Chinese in North America is quite unique because of the sex ratio disparity which meant that in many places there were very few Chinese women. It was interesting to see how the men were creative in their own lives, upholding cultures and traditions, far away from home and from their wives, children, and other relatives.
The way the Chinese were treated in the States wasn’t new to me, and they experienced similar treatment in Canada. It was interesting to compare and contrast the experiences.
The language factor definitely contributed to how poorly the Chinese workers were treated, and the frustration was evident in this book:
“How was he to marvel adequately, voiceless? He needed to cast his voice out to catch ideas.”
The frustration also came about to their being exploited by the overseers. The Chinese workers were treated terribly; hard work, dangerous work, the slowest being sent home without pay as an “incentive” for the others to work hard.
I enjoyed how myth was used in the book, how stories from China were transported and taken to another land, to a land that wasn’t theirs initially, but was soon stained with their blood. Myths were also used by the writer to fill in parts of her ancestors’ stories that were missing
One thing that’s similar between the Chinese history in America and in Canada was the building of the railroads:
“They lost count of the number dead; there is no record of how many died building the railroad. Or maybe it was demons doing the counting and Chinamen not worth counting.”
In Canada, they say for every mile of the railroad, one Chinese man died. I visited the Last Spike of the Canadian railroad (Revelstoke, BC) on a Rocky Mountain tour a few years ago. The tour guide, who was Chinese-Canadian, told us a bit about the history and then directed our attention to the painting commemorating the opening of the railway. We searched in vain for a Chinese face. This is one of the reasons I feel our cultural history has to be taught, to show us we belong in a place that might still look at us as unwelcome strangers. The following line must surely be powerful to a Chinese child:
“Once in a while an adult said, ‘Your grandfather built the railroad.’ (Or ‘Your grandfathers built the railroad.’)”
I loved this book so much. It’s one that definitely warrants a re-read.