GATES OF GRACE by Evelina Chao


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Throughout this generally bland but not unappealing first novel about the Chinese-American immigrant experience (1949-1968), there are moments of acute and biting commentary on the wispy insidiousness of prejudice and its psychic impact on a young Chinese-American, as well as intimate, lively glimpses of Manhattan's Chinatown--from a steaming cacaphonous restaurant kitchen to crowded urban landscapes--contrasted with an antiseptic Washington, D.C., suburb. Mei-yu, a scholar's daughter, disowned when she marries a ""peasant,"" flees Canton with her husband Wong Kung-chiao, just in advance of Mao's army. Their daughter Sing-hau, given the ""American"" name Feradina, is born in San Francisco and raised in Manhattan's Chinatown, where scholarly Kung-chiao studies and Mei-yu struggles to adjust to poverty and a faintly hostile lower-class milieu. But on the very night Kung-chiao celebrates passing his exams with American classmates (whose mask of friendliness drops in an alcoholic orgy of crude insult), Kung-chiao is murdered, innocent victim of a conspiracy apparently engineered by a Chinatown mob boss. Mei-yu is then ""rescued"" by Madame Peng, an old, exquisitely accoutered Elder, who arranges a position for her as overseer of seamstresses in a Washington, D.C., suburban shop, where Mei-yu meets Madame Peng's lawyer son, Richard Peng. Mei-yu and daughter ""Dina"" will meet prejudice in a white world for the first time, but it is in the career of Richard Peng, an ""assimilated"" grey-flannel-suit man, that prejudice is at its most silken and subtle: ""There's something visceral. They would like to like me, but they don't."" Then from her Manhattan aerie, Peng's mother will expose an old and terrible Chinese past, destroy a love match, force a marriage. In the most successful, concluding section of the novel, young college student Dina rails against both mother and stepfather and disavows her Chinatown childhood, but as Mei-yu herself learns the dreadful circumstances of Kung-chiao's murder, Dina, a student at Columbia, will find her way at last--back downtown. At its best in segments dealing with the energetic self-scrutiny of young second-generation Chinese-Americans, this popular treatment of an immigrant family story may do well.

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1985
Publisher: Warner