Chinese and Japanese culture has fascinated me for quite a while – I think ever since my brother first became interesed in the samurai’s intricate code of conduct – and when I can combine it with my love of reading, I’m a very happy person indeed. For example, I devoured Cloud of Sparrows as well as Across the Nightengale Floor and Grass for His Pillow not only for their incredible storylines, but also for their insight into medieval Japanese culture. I’m also a fan of Chinese martial arts films – I think Hero is one of the most stunning films I have ever seen – but I’m always excited to find Eastern culture mixed with Canadian insights – as is found in Wayson Choy’s book, The Jade Peony.
First, I have to say that there are some parts of Canadian history that, frankly, I’m ashamed of. We have built up a world-wide reputation for being fair and peacemakers (and for apologising endlessly, but I’m digressing – sorry! 🙂 ) but parts of our history show just how intolerant we can be. The Chinese have a long history in Canada – they practically built the Canadian Pacific Railway through the Rocky Mountains and across British Columbia to the Pacific. And they weren’t valued, either – they were made to pay a $50 head tax when they came into the country, and only men were allowed at first, as they were needed to work. Wives, children, relatives – they weren’t ‘necessary’ – they might encourage the ‘Chinks’ to stay – and were not allowed into the country until much later. Even into the 1940s and ’50s a Chinese person couldn’t immigrate to Canada unless they were sponsored by a relative. And on the railroad, the Chinese were given the most dangerous jobs – placing nitro glycerin for blasting through rock, etc. They say that one Chinese man died for every mile of track laid across British Columbia. When you look at how big Canada is – that’s a lot of wasted lives.
Canada’s track record didn’t improve in the 20th Century, either. After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour during the Second World War, Canada rounded up the rather large Japanese immigrant population (and even first- and second-generation Japanese Canadians) and put them into internment camps so they couldn’t pass information onto the ‘enemy’. Most of these people lived in British Columbia, which, remember, is just across the Pacific from Japan (cue heavily ironic tone), and they were moved inland and their homes and property sold. Their story is told in Snow Falling on Cedars – something that still is sitting on my ‘to be read’ shelf! Although this book is set in the US, the situation wasn’t much different for the Canadian Japanese. My own family experienced some of this discrimination from another cultural point of view – German immigrants weren’t especially popular either during the war, but at least they weren’t forcibly removed from their land and rounded up like cattle.
But, back to the book. The Jade Peony is the story of three younger children growing up in a Chinese Canadian household in Vancouver in the 1940s. Their father is a journalist and activist for Chinese rights, and the situation of the Chinese in the war against Japan. Their lives are dominated by Poh-Poh, or Grandmother, a formidable woman who believes strongly in the ways of Old China, where children no longer played from the age of six, but worked hard as servants, in the fields, or on their studies. She adheres to a strict code of hierarchy in their house. Father’s First Wife died in China before they came to Canada, but the mother of his two youngest children is always known as Stepmother at Poh-Poh’s insistence, even to her own children. This was to keep things simple. Poh-Poh said that girls were worthless, especially girls like Jook-Liang, whose fingers weren’t fast enough for tying silk-ribbon flowers. She coddled Sek-Lung, the youngest, because he was a boy and because he was a sickly child, and she showed a tough love toward Jung-Sum, Second Brother, who was adopted into the family after his father killed his mother and then committed suicide. These three children tell the story of growing up in a place where you didn’t belong, of a place where your enemy, the Japanese, lived down the street, where you had to reconcile the Old Ways and language (with its many, confusing dialects) with new, western ways of living in Canada.
What fascinated me about The Jade Peony was the attitude of the different cultural groups within Canada toward each other. I have always seen growing up in Canada as a positive experience, that the experience of growing up with different cultural groups – everyone in Canada, with the exception of the First Nations people, are or are descended from immigrants – helped to form my ideas about tolerance and living with one another peacefully. There are always people in any society who are intolerant of others; in Britain they are usually members of the BNP; in Canada they are colloquially known as ‘rednecks’. What was surprising to me was that members of one minority community could have so such hatred and ill-feeling toward members of another minority community. And yet, it makes sense – the Japanese had invaded China and were committing, by all accounts, horrendous atrocities against the Chinese, so why wouldn’t the Chinese community in Canada feel hostile towards the Japanese community? Despite their own persecution from the white population at large, the majority of the Chinese community felt that the Japanese deserved everything that was coming to them. And yet, the Canadian ideals of fairness and tolerance come out again in Choy’s writing through his portrayal of Lin Meiying, a beautiful young Chinese girl who falls in love in a Japanese boy. Through her tragic story we see the consequences of hatred and hostility between cultural groups. And perhaps this is Choy’s message throughout, as Meiying’s tale is the last in the book, to be told through the eyes of seven-year-old Sek-Lung, who himself is torn between the grand war-stories he makes up with his friends about fighting the Japanese and admiring the incredible baseball skills of Meiying’s Japanese lover, Kazuo.
I had a similar experience reading this book as I did the last Canadian novel I read, Monkey Beach – that of falling into a familiar world and not wanting to come out again – but such a different, and colourful one. But it has again left me with a sense of awe about the Chinese culture, almost as in a fairy tale where ghosts come to life and everything is dressed in bright colours and embroidery. And to have that Canadian tone of tolerance and acceptance thrown in gives me a sense of homecoming, but is important for everyone to hear.
This book won the Trillum Book Award