Book Report, The Jade Peony By Wayson Choy Essay, Research Paper
Written By: Andrew Mar 1999 Wayson Choy’s first novel The Jade Peony is a revealing tale of growing up in Vancouver’s early Chinatown. It is told through the reminiscences of three children in a first generation immigrant family. This revelation of life in Canada is colorfully illustrated throughout the novel with more than a hint of traditional Chinese family values and beliefs. Not only is this a descriptive novel but also an entertaining one that is leavened by magic and ghosts, by the secrets and stories of their grandmother, Poh-Poh. The novel is written in three parts; the first one is narrated through Jook-Liang, the only sister of the family, the second part was told through the second brother, Jung-Sum, while the last narration was through the third brother, Sek-Lung. Through the use of this narrative combination Wayson Choy is able to weave a varying blend of children’s viewpoints into his novel. He distinguishes male and female characteristics as well as their age differences when he portrays the children going through the complexities of life. These children face a myriad of situations such as birth and death, love and hate, war, filial piety and prejudice. Wayson Choy’s novel of Vancouver Chinatown during the Second World War began with Jook-Liang revealing how her mother had come to Vancouver as her father’s concubine and grandmothers house servant. She also revealed why she and her two elder brothers began calling her own mother “Stepmother.” Poh-Poh, grandma, wanted to keep things simple and orderly, thus both father and mother did not protest out of respect, “that was the order of things in China.” (Pg.14) This first chapter introduced that respect and the acknowledgement of the “old ways” were very important aspects of their household. Jook-Liang met her best friend, Wong Suk in this chapter. He was originally from the same district as Poh-Poh, thus the Tong association asked if the family would help out the old man with a few meals now and then. On Wong Suk’s first visit ” I sensed from Father’s over preparation and nervousness” that he “was indeed not an ordinary human being. He was an elder, so every respect must be paid to him, and especially as he knew the Old One (Poh-Poh) herself.” (Pg.18) Grandmother cannot lose face in his company, the children had to be in excellent behavior and the family had to pay perfect hospitality in order to signal family respect and honor for the old ways. The First chapter also set the tone that China was in constant turmoil and that it was dependent of contributing remittances from overseas Chinese people. There were the growing war efforts against the Japanese, political strife and starvation. As an editor of the news sheets of those Depression years, Jook-Liang’s father noted “how much the Chinese in Vancouver must help the Chinese. Because no one else will.” (Pg.17) There was even a game which Jook-Liang’s elder brothers played that was created as a fund-raiser for Free China. Third Uncle Lew imported the game “Enemies of Free China” from Hong Kong so that he could sell them in Chinatown. This game depicted the Chinese people’s hatred towards three common enemies: the warlord, the communist and the Japanese soldier named Tojo. This game was a violent propaganda tool that saw the heads of the enemies being decapitated by sword’s which the children struck with. When Jook-Liang met Wong Suk for the first time she behaved like a typical six year old and pictured Wong Suk as a character right out of a fictional story. She saw his old twisted up and crooked features and pictured him as a “Mau-Lauh Bak” a “Monkey Man” from one of Poh-Poh’s stories. Jook-Liang was not afraid of Wong Suk and immediately after he became her best friend. He constantly took her to exciting places, bought her gifts and candy and also to watch cinemas. In Chapter three Jook-Liang found out about Wong Suk’s many forged papers and how many of the Chinese people had to pay Head Taxes to immigrate. She overheard that Wong Suk’s papers must be in perfect order, and if they weren’t maybe they could negotiate with the Tong. Unfortunately, the following day Wong Suk was late to pick up Jook-Liang to go to the cinemas. She later found out that Wong Suk was what they called a “Sojourner”, he was boarding the Empress ship to bring back the seven year old bones of the dead Chinese to Hong Kong and Mainland China, and he wasn’t going to come back. China’s “old ways” always lingered within the family. There was no escaping from Poh-Poh’s belief that Jook-Liang was mo yung, a useless girl. Poh-Poh constantly reminder her that if she wanted to “have a place in this world, do not be born a girl-child.” (Pg.31) Poh-Poh tries to explain to her why she and her brothers are so foolish, how Jook-Liang always wants to be Shirley Temple, while the second grandson always wants to be a cowboy and the first grandson wants to be Charlie Chan. They were “All stupid foolish! In China, you no play-act anything.” (Pg.40) Jook-Liang and her siblings constantly snapped back at her saying that they were in Canada and not “Old China.” Kiam was the eldest son in the family, when he watched Stepmother trying to give birth to her second child in chapter five, he wondered in contrast how happy his own birth was back in Old China. Kiam was the eldest son born to the First Wife of his father. Poh-Poh was ecstatic with his birth, but she didn’t dare speak his name above a whisper. According to Chinese superstition the gods might have been jealous. Poh-Poh said that “Kiam-Kim was perfectly shaped, strong and bawling. So she shook her head sadly, as if he were not so.” (Pg.98) If they didn’t keep quite about Kiam’s birth, “the god’s from Jealousy would strike the baby dead.” (Pg.98) As Kiam was the first son, he had to behave and act much more responsibly as compared to his younger siblings. He had to behave more like a man than a boy. Father and Third Uncle taught Kiam as much as possible how to behave responsibly. He was expected to stay away from the influence of the women. Kiam belonged more and more to Father, to Third Uncle, to the men of Chinatown who knew the worth of a well-trained and well-mannered First Son. Already, at only ten years old, Kiam was doing odd jobs at third Uncle’s warehouse, and he had shown an interest in helping with the careful business of entering numbers onto long sheets of papers printed with columns. Kiam made Father proud. (Pg. 98) Kiam was supposed to grow up and step into his father’s shoes and perform sensible adult duties. He associated more with Father and Third Uncle whereas Jook-Liang, Jung-Sum and Sek-Lung spent more time with Stepmother and Poh-Poh. He spent more time with the men because he was the First Son. Jung-Sum, the second brother, began the narration to the second part of the novel. As Jook-Liang had Wong Suk to fall on as a special friend and Shirley Temple to admire, Jung-Sum found his older brother’s lao kwei to be his special friend and Joe Louis to admire. Jung Sum found the turtle by itself in their shed, and was both fascinated and startled by it. Poh-Poh told him that the turtle is stinky and bites, yet it still brings very good fortune and long life. She told him that the lao kwei wouldn’t be lonely because it talks to ghosts, “all the time, ghost talk!” (Pg.74) Jung-Sum decides to take care of the lao kwei but he didn’t have a proper English name for it. His friend Bobby Steinberg said that lao kwei sounded disgusting because it was not a Chinese turtle. Bobby suggested that Jung-Sum name it Hopalong, but he protested saying that it sounded American, his turtle was “a Canada turtle”, (Pg.77) thus he named it King George. Jung-Sum began his fascination of boxing when Frank Yuen and Kiam brought him to the Hastings Gym on his twelfth birthday. He became friends with Max who took the liberty of teaching him how to box. Jung-Sum soon admired Frank Yuen for his independence, street-smarts and boxing prowess. Frank bought Jung-Sum a pair of second-hand boxing gloves and occasionally sparred with him in the Tong assembly hall. On one occasion, Frank Yuen was drunk and in a foul mood, he challenged Jung-Sum to a fight. After Frank beat Jung-Sum he picked him up and cradled him in his arms, rocking him like a child till they collapsed on the floor where Frank kissed him on the forehead.
As I, too, moved to get up, my whole body suddenly lit with an unbidden, shuddering tension; a strange yearning awoke in me, a vivid longing rose relentlessly from the center of my groin, sensuous and craving, rising until my hands unclenched, throwing me forward, soundlessly, until my fingers tingled and stretched to grope the raw tactile air. (Pg.117) Frank called Jung-Sum champ for the first time that day, and Jung realized that he was being referred to as a champion. Frank Yuen was the “sun”, and Jung-Sum remembered that Poh-Poh had once told Mrs. Lim that Jung was the “moon.” After that day Jung-Sum never felt the same about anything anymore, was he experiencing a homosexual awakening? “It was not courage I desired most It was Frank Yuen.” (Pg.122) Sek-Lung was the youngest and sick child of the family, thus Poh-Poh devoted most of her time to his attention. Sekky , had experienced a stubborn lung infection when he was young. Since he was always sick everyone feared that he had Tuberculosis. If Sekky had died, the family house would have been condemned by the Vancouver Health Inspection Board. His illness kept him from attending school in the early years, therefore Poh-Poh and the rest of the children contributed to his education from home. Poh-Poh always said that Sekky was mo no, no brain, because of his lung infection that kept him out of school early and the fact that he always stumbled over calling his adopted uncles their proper names. Sek-Lung realized that every Chinese person “had an enigmatic status, an order of power and respect, mysteriously attached to him or her.” (Pg131.) Although Sekky was a boy, father had once told him that Jook-Liang was better because she was older. “The older one is always better than the younger one” (Pg.131) interrupted Jook-Liang. She was always jealous of Sek-Lung because Poh-Poh had spent so much of her time with him. She often recalls how Sekky received twice as many jade and gold bracelets than she did when he was born. Sek-Lung was the least “Chinese” out of the four children. His Chinese was poor, although he understood the basic language, he couldn’t comprehend the finer points and various dialects. When he wondered whether he was Chinese or Canadian, Poh-Poh always replied that he was a “Tohng Yahn” and that Stepmother’s friend Chen Suling would one day come and teach him the right way to be Chinese. Sek-Lung eventually went back to school but her Chinese continued to be poor and she began to use a mix of both languages, English and Chinese in what we can call “Chinglish.” Poh-Poh eventually died in 1940 at the age of eighty-three. The whole family was taken aback, the Old One is finally gone, did she take along her “old” ways? The family believed that the family fortunes could be altered or threatened with her death. Sek-Lung believed that she continued to see Poh-Poh even after her death. These occurring “incidents” eventually lead the family to uneasiness. Third Uncle believed that Father hadn’t paid his respects properly to his dead mother yet. Third uncle said that he must “bai sen,” that father must “bow.” Father having no choice but to believe in the “old” ways saw no harm in paying his respects, thus he hired a Buddhist monk and a geomancer for the final ceremony for Poh-Poh. After the family “bai sen” for Poh-Poh, Sekky never saw her spirit again. As the war between Japanese and the Chinese progressed further, the tension between the Japanese and Chinese people in Vancouver also grew. Children segregated themselves from the Japanese children in school and even picked fights among the Japanese students. Sek-Lung and many of his schoolmates played imaginary war games with each other. They used toy figures and created makeshift scenarios in fights against the Japanese. The Chinese adults in Chinatown also segregated themselves from the Japanese, eventually even boycotting Japanese products. One day as Sekky was playing a game with his matchsticks pretending that he was firebombing the Japanese he accidentally set ablaze a pile of newspapers. As punishment he was grounded and he was to go to Mrs. Lim’s house right after school so that she can watch over him. As it turned out Mrs. Lim did not have the time to really care for Sekky, but rather it was Meiying, Mrs. Lim’s daughter that took care of him. In appearance Meiying was the perfect child, she obedient and beautiful. However, whenever she picked up Sek-Lung, they normally ended up in the “bad” end of Hasting’s street leading to Powell Ground. This was officially called Oppenheimer Park, or rather Little Tokyo, the enemy territory. Meiying was secretly meeting her boyfriend Kazuo at Oppenheimer Park because he was Japanese. Sekky knew that “Meiying was involved in something shameful, something treasonable. Everyone knew the unspoken law: Never betray your own kind. Meiying was Chinese” and the were their “own kind.” (Pg.214) Sek-Lung figured that they must have know each other for a long period of time. Meiying’s boyfriend was a Jap and she was a traitor, Kazuo is just “one of the enemy waiting in the dark to destroy all of us.” (Pg.214) Sek-Lung became confused, he liked Kazuo but he was one of the enemy. How could he like the enemy? One day he asked Father “are all Japs our enemy, even the ones in Canada?” (Pg.224) Father told him with great authority and finality, yes, all Japanese are potential enemies. The Japanese and Chinese tension grew worse and worse during this time and Meiying had a harder time meeting Kazuo. They finally met one last time and then Meiying became sick, she was pregnant with a Kazuo’s child. What could she have done, she was stuck in a situation were she would have been condemned as a traitor when people found out about her relationship. Kazuo’s Japanese friends would have thought the same of Kazuo if they found out about their child. Meiying was left with no choice but to kill herself and their child in Wayson Choy’s tragic ending. As the novel unfolded there was always the notion of the children being “neither this nor that” and “neither entirely Canadian or Chinese.” (Inside cover) Poh-Poh was constantly clinging to the “old” ways while Father had to juggle between the “old” and the “new” ways. Father had to tell Poh-Poh “your old ways are not the new ways. Your grandchildren have to live the new ways.” (Pg.124) Each individual child acknowledged and handled the situation differently, although they may not have agreed or liked their position. The story also opened up into an interesting world of rituals, language and food, while delving into the age-old problems of prejudice, the generation gap, and the need to belong. It even gently hinted at the homosexual awakening of one of the children. Wayson Choy provided an intriguing read not only because it was so close to home, but because of the way he so vividly painted a picture of the past which I can refer to. He hit many aspects of growing up in Vancouver which I can relate to firsthand while also opening me up to the knowledge of some of the “old ways” which I may have not known about.