Choy’s second novel, about growing up Chinese in Canada, is a companion piece to his prize-winning debut (The Jade Peony, 1997).
In his debut, Choy focused on three children in Vancouver’s Chinatown before WWII; here, he revisits that family, the Chens, from a different perspective. Narrator Kiam-Kim is only three in 1926 when he arrives in Canada with his father and his grandmother, Poh-Poh; they are fleeing famine and war, and the disintegration of China will form the story’s backdrop. They have been sponsored by Third Uncle, a prosperous warehousing merchant who finds them accommodations. Kiam’s mother died young. Father must not marry again, to avoid upsetting his wife’s ghost (“Ghosts and Old China haunted us”), but a companion is arranged for him, to be known as Stepmother. She will give birth to a girl and then a boy; along with an adopted orphan, they form the trio of The Jade Peony. Superficially, this is Kiam’s story, the First Son who must set an example, and who has an unusual best friend in Jack O’Connor, the white boy who lives next door. Kiam experiences the familiar adolescent rites of passage, such as the showdown with a deadly street gang and heavy petting with Chinese neighbor Jenny, though no actual dates, for they would involve older escorts (“Chinatown’s idea of birth control”). Bound by this web of family and neighbors, Kiam’s questioning of traditional mores is limited, even as he is upstaged by Poh-Poh, who dominates the novel; Father and Stepmother are ciphers beside her. Not only does she decide Stepmother’s duties, she inculcates in the children the significance of ghosts and curses (her own curses are legendary). Before her death, she tells Kiam the painful secret of how Father was conceived, and it takes a full-dress ceremony to exorcise her ghost.
A pleasant but unremarkable work of immigrant literature.