Saturday, January 19, 2013

The Concubine’s Children: The Story of a Chinese Family Living on Two Sides of the Globe, by Denise Chong. Viking, 1995

This is a family biography, the story of a family split by an ocean and by different ways of life. It’s a sad tale of prejudice, war, and brutality, as well as of love.

Chan Sam had a wife and land in southern China in the 1920s, but word was that one could make enough money at ‘Gold Mountain’- Canada or the USA- for a person to set themselves up for life. So Chan Sam went to Canada to make his fortune. He didn’t like being alone- there were very, very few women in the Chinatowns at the time. He acquired a concubine from China: a 17 year old May-ying, who was basically sold. Chan didn’t have the money to pay for her, so he made a deal with a tea house owner: the girl would be Chan’s concubine, but during the days and evenings she would work at the tea house to pay off her own purchase price. That’s not an auspicious start for a relationship.

As time went on, May-ying had two baby girls. Chan wanted them educated in China, and between the two of them they had made enough money to go home for a while. When Chan Sam and May-ying returned to Canada, her daughters remained in China with Chan’s wife. They returned just in time for May-ying’s third child to be born on Canadian soil. It wasn’t the hoped for son that would have given her some prestige in the family, but another daughter- worthless in her eyes. In time, Chan Sam returned to China without May-ying to try and sire a son on his wife. This left the young May-ying in the unenviable position of financially supporting not just herself and her daughter, but Chan Sam, his wife in China, and her two daughters over there. Not to mention the costs of the mansion (by rural Chinese village standards) that Chan Sam was building in his village. That’s a lot to expect of a young woman. Even after Chan Sam returned to Canada, but had separated from May-ying, he showed up every week to collect the money she had earned. Not that he was lazy; he did back breaking work in the shingle mills and at any other job he could find. Employment was severely limited for the Chinese in North America.

May-ying was a badly damaged person. She sought solace in alcohol and gambling, and abused her daughter both physically and emotionally. I was horrified by the way she treated her, but the circumstances of May-ying’s life might have broken anyone. Thankfully, the daughter, who took the English name Winnie, had the inner reserves to survive, concentrating on school and getting away from home. She succeeded in doing so, through hard work and marriage, and brought up a great family. The author is Winnie’s second daughter.

After 50 years, the Canadian sister and the Chinese sister finally managed to meet in a 4 day visit that brought tears to my eyes. But what really hit an emotional chord was the way the Chinese family viewed May-ying: basically ignoring the money she’d sent for years, they saw her only as a very bad wife who brought only misery to Chan Sam. They were only given half the story.

It’s a very sad story of the miserable lives the Chinese in North America lived during the first half of the 20th century thanks to prejudice, and an even sadder one that as bad as those lives were, they were considered worth while because monetarily it was even worse in China. I’ve read a number of books about the Chinese in North America, and this one is the grimmest. But it’s a story I couldn’t put down and stayed up half the night reading. 


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