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 In her first book, Chong reconstructs the story of her mother's Chinese and Chinese-Canadian family, skillfully mixing social history with family biography. Using letters, public archives, interviews, and her mother's own memories, Chong creates a history rich in physical detail and emotional nuance. She begins in 1924, in Canton, when her grandmother, May-ying, a 17-year-old servant, was sold into concubinage to Chan Sam, a Chinese laborer in Vancouver. Chan Sam (Chong's grandfather) already had a wife back in Kwangtung, but he was lonely living abroad. To pay off the cost of May-ying's passage to Canada, Chan Sam indentured her to two years of work as a waitress in a teahouse in Vancouver's Chinatown. Though at first this was a sharp indignity to May-ying (waitresses were regarded as little better than prostitutes), it taught her a skill, and throughout her life she was able to find work, which Chan Sam often could not. This economic independence gave her a measure of control over, and eventually a way out of, her unhappy concubinage. Chong takes us through the couple's brief stay in China and return to Vancouver; May-ying's separation from her two oldest daughters, Nan and Ping, who were left with Chan Sam's first wife to be educated in China; the estrangement of Chan Sam and May-ying; youngest daughter Hing's often-neglected girlhood with May-ying; and the eventual reunion of Hing and Ping in China. Chong provides clear historical context. We understand Hing's painful childhood in terms of Chinese culture's ancient contempt for girl children; a seer had predicted that Hing would be a boy, and her mother was always openly disappointed. Despite her meticulous historicism, though, Chong is always attuned to the complexities of individuals, never wholly reducing anything to politics or economics. An eloquent, unsentimental act of love, prompted by the writer's contagious desire to make sense of her origins. (16 pages b&w photos, not seen)

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 1995
ISBN: 0-670-82961-7
Page count: 288pp
Publisher: Viking
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15th, 1994


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