An act of remembrance

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Lives of the Family - Denise Chong

Book Review
Lives of the Family: Stories of Fate and Circumstance
By Denise Chong
240 pages
Random House Canada


Denise Chong compiles and animates faces of migration in Lives of the Family: Stories of Fate and Circumstance, an intimate documentation of the lives of Chinese families that resided in and around Ottawa during the middle of 20th century.  It is the face of the ageing bride from Hong Kong who, in loneliness, sequesters herself from the in-laws, and it is the pages of letters that crumple in the hands of husbands that have known their wives for mere months before migrating for dreams of better lives. These are also the families sieved at borders by Exclusion Act of 1923 and the Chinese Head Taxes.

But of course, these stories of “men and women of flexible ages and names” are not just about stories of loss, uprooting, and tragedies. The collection also brims with tremendous courage required to self-form one’s identity, often times from bottom up starting with names, whose compromised beginnings leave readers grappling with the bigger question of belonging in mid-century Canada.

Rosina Sim marries Jack Sim. She is born to Alberta, but had been taken back to China at a young age. Her entry back to Canada, upon marriage, is inflected with ambivalence, since her citizenship is not hailed as a right to return, but a special exemption to the racist blockade of the Exclusion Act. These are the moments of history that flag how citizenship is not the same, and that they are given to undercurrents of politics, whether racial or economical. The perpetuity of the flux surrounding citizenship, sense of belonging, and homecoming, is what this omnibus collection does best to elucidate.

The book is reportage-like and blends the macro-historical backdrops and micro-personal histories and fleshes out the details in memoir-precision. But it also qualifies and contextualizes the greater historical backdrops that are less talked of—i.e. Japanese Colonialism—within the conventional historical imagination of Canadiana.

The focus, albeit squarely on Chinese migration of the early to mid-twentieth century, is on the narratives of the minority, the persecuted, and the ridiculed. Chong’s framing would find solidarity between the Jewish, Irish, and Chinese migrants, and the tacit understanding of each other’s difficult niche position in the new world culminates in a quite jocular scene whereby Chinese restaurateurs would aid and abet with Jewish patrons who broke kosher with bites of the public secret of eggrolls with pork. Even when Doris (nee Fong Johnston), the second daughter of Mabel Johnston (the matriarch of the Johnston household and the proprietor of Harry’s Café in Perth, Ont.), defends a neighbourhood boy who is mercilessly teased and bullied by other children by remarking that, “[those bullies] are awfully ignorant,” Doris is not simply talking about schoolyard politics. She gestures, through Chong’s skilful framing, towards the greater culture of racism and intolerance that many of these minorities and the immigrants faced.

To talk of small-town Chinese restaurants as part of contemporary Canadiana, one is reminded of Judy Fong Bates’ novel debut, Midnight at the Dragon Café, which chronicles a fictional family’s (Su-Jen’s) immigration to a small town Canada, and the family secrets that unfold in the titular cafe. Unlike it, Chong’s book also furthers the cause of exploring the almost myopic, inward look at the migrant maladies of loneliness, isolation, and familial secrecy that are exposed and aired. To not be recognized is a horrendous fate; however the further perfidy of being out-casted on these streets of Chinese restaurants that serve westernized cuisines and its above-the-restaurant-flats is in realizing that you are not being reflected in the society that you so desperately wish to belong.

The book packs tremendous amounts of vibrancy and details that other fictional endeavours, whether it be novel or short story, would have shied away from or trimmed away, citing excess. But that, perhaps, is the beauty of capturing and recapitulating the lived lives, that these details come and go, attenuate who we are and augments who we want to be. This is a collated narrative bursting with aspirations and hopes of the “sojourners.” Whether it be fighting against the racist blockade of exclusion immigration policies or running from the clutches of Communist retribution, or even dwindling into onset of depression as one ages in a town one’s likeness is only to be found in speckled mirrors, these are the lives that were lived and loved.

In ending her collection with the words of LeGuin, who herself had borrowed her words from an unnamed boy, Chong remarks upon the process of remembering as an act of ownership. But of course, this is not simply grasping and locking up the new spoils. The gesture is open-palmed, extended. It is one of giving and of presenting “tributes” as Chong so aptly suggests. You cannot present something that you do not own yourself. The primary act of remembering precipitates the subsequent process of presenting, retelling, and that of sharing. Canadian landscape has proven to be an exceptional case in point of a land occupied with “sojourners,” whether it be by intention or by force of the historical tides. In such world, Chong’s insight that perhaps we ought to start owning our histories by remembering and then retelling, especially those glossed over in mainstream discourse, is of utmost importance.


Note: If Denise Chong’s focus on small-town Chinese restaurants interests you, Lily Cho’s Eating Chinese: Culture on the Menu in Small Town Canada provides further examinations of the intersection of Chinese-Canadian identity and the reception of Canadian culture.

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