Book review of The Jade peony

The book The Jade Peony is a historical fiction novel which is based on the background of Chinese immigrant experience in Vancouver’s Chinatown before and during the Second World War. The book represents the Chinese immigrants struggling to earn the respects from the constraints of history and culture heritage from the “white nation”.
Chinatown, Vancouver, in the late 1930's and '40s is the setting for this novel told through an immigrant family with three children. Each one of them has a very different experience while they are living in the new country. The book combines the stories of three Chinese-Canadian siblings Jook-Liang (little sister), Jung-Sum (second brother), and Sek-Lung (third brother) in their lives. As all new immigrant children, they are trying to identify themselves in the new society. Jook-liang, a young sister in the family and try to stand up against unfairness about boy above girl tradition, since her Poh-poh always said girls are useless. Jung-Sum the second brother, who is adopt from a family back in China and sent to live with this family. Even though he is not blood related to the family, he is taking cared by the family and find out the true connection with the family. And he also find his true interest in boxing and become really good at it. Sek-lung who is the youngest child in the family, he has a weak body and always sick. Poh-poh always taking care of him and he really love her and enjoy spending time with poh-poh listen to the story about poh-poh’s childhood.
The stepmother is not an important figure in the book, but I would like to write about her!
Stepmother— an ordinary woman with dramatic life
In the history of human being, female are seems less important as male. However, under the thousands years of male dominate society; female has the same importance part of involving the progress of developing society. Female’s contribution to the world often ignored by the arrogant male. Even the history fails to present the truth, female’ wisdom and intelligent are contributed in various aspects. Like the character—stepmother whom introduced by Wayson Choy in the novel Jade penny and All that matters. The stepmother has outstanding life experience and vivid description to show her ability and cleverness. As a stepmother of the family, she understands the family status; fulfil the duty of being a wife and take care of the family. Any of the accomplishments cannot be done without wisdom and smoothness.
The stepmother’s name is Chen siu die[1], an ordinary woman who comes from the Guangdong province located in Southern China. Even thoughshe has limited education and little wealth, she still plays a very important role in Chen’s family.Being a stepmother, she has to bear criticise from the “old one” or as known as “poh-poh”. The traditional culture of Chinese society considers the stepmother to be an underclass people.As a stepmother of Chen’s family, she know her position and never makes any direct conflict with the “old one”, even the “old one”treat her as a servant. On the contrary, she deals with problem wisely, as Choy writes, Poh-poh asks step-mother to fold the stuff in the way she wants, but stepmother does not want to follow her way.Instead of saying “No” to the old one, she says “Yes” to poh-poh and keeps folding the stuff on her own way. At last, poh-poh has no way deal with stepmother, the old one finally relies she has to complete the folding by herself. Stepmother is using her own way fighting against the old tradition but never arise any family conflicts. It is quite smart move due the situation between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law. If the stepmother has not chosen the right method to deal the stress with her poh-poh, a family crisis is unavoidable. Consider her family stats; she will get no help from other family member. Because poh-poh is the oldest member of the family, in tradition Chinese family, any member from the house should show their respects to the elder. Any disrespect movements are unacceptable. Besides, stepmother is the second wife of the family, even after the first wife dies, she can never replace the place of the first wife to the family. Choy describes in the novel “All that Matters”[2], Father told the first born son that he likes stepmother but love the first wife. It is unwise to fight with poh-poh and knowing she has no support.
To be considered as a traditional satisfactory Chinese family, there must have both husband and wife. In Chinese society, women are often become the figures who looking after the family. They should take care of the children elder and husband’s daily life. A qualified housewife can never let their family member be treated inappropriate. All the Chinese eldest want their sons and grandsons pervaded the hall in order to show the prosperity of their family.In order to expand the size of the family, it has to involve with a female figure. Stepmother finished her roleof the family quite well; she gives birth of two children for Chen’s family and takes care of the family. Choy put stepmother into his novel to vivid the colour of the family. No one can denial stepmother is a pretty and intelligent woman. As an important role, stepmother beyond the traditional model of Chinese housewife, she not only put the house in order, but alsoworking outside the house. An important notice is backing to that period of time. The westernworld still dominated by white males. There are barely chances for a non-white malegets a job, further than non-white female. But stepmother accomplished the impossible mission, which again indicates her wisdom. As book “Jin Guo”[3] points out, many white females still cannot work outside the house, because they have limited education to work in the office or physically fit to be a labour in the field.
Stepmother is an ideal model for many Chinese women in that period, no education and limited resource binding them to their house. It is wishful thinking for female to works outside of house. As a result of the Chinese Exclusion Act, the first wave of generation has been separated from their home and family. Most of them have wife and children back to China. During that dark age of China, the political upheaval in China andthe Second World War just break out, Japanese army had invited mainland China, those families without male to protect becomes extreme vulnerable to villains and  greedy people who desire to get the foreign currency which their husband sent back to support them. The book of “Excluded wife”[4] tells the true story how the Chinese wives without their husbands’ help barely survive through the time. Besides the duty of managing the housework, the helpless wives also have to find income source to keep them from starving to death. There are double burden crashed on their shoulders. Stepmother is lucky that she has been chosen to become a stepparent for Chen’s family. After the Chinese Exclusion Act[5], all the Chinese immigrants are refused by the government of Canada; the only way to get in Canada is through the false papers or forged documentswhich can be purchased from the black market. It is highly demanded and rarely supplied. When demand excess the supply, the price goes up, therefore, the poor Chinese who want to become a Canadian is dangerous and costly. Stepmother is much younger than Mr. Chen, but in order to survive, she has to marry a man she never met and try to blend into the new life.
Stepmother fulfill poh-poh’s desire for grandsons, after she married Mr. Chen, she delivered two young lives to the family. When the first girl was born, she worries poh-poh will give the young baby girl away, because in the old China, girls are unwanted by the families, they only want boys who can become a labour to work in the field. Even though poh-poh is unsatisfied, Chen’s family will not leave their blood behind, as poh-poh said in “All that Matters”: “No worried, Gold Mountainnot like old China.” They keep the young baby girl as known as Jook-Liang, the only daughter of the family. Stepmother shows us the great motherhood; it is the nature instinct of all human kinds.
Stepmother is also a hardworking people and she fit in the society quite well, she trained from Patriarch Chen’s service and doing house work without complains. She also is the symbol of brave; Choy put her in the novel to show the female can be independent from male. Stepmother comes to Canada all by herself; it is very hard for an uneducated woman takes a journey from the oriental to west Canada. Even Choy does not write any lines in the books, we can still feel the loneliness and helpless while taking a boat across the ocean to a new country and marry a husband she never met. The decision of becoming a member of Chen’s family must not be easy. When she gets off the boat, meets the “old one”, she does not seem happy, in fact, she might worry about her life of becoming a member of Chen. She marries a man who is much older than her and has born two babies to the family. To herself, she is not a person who feels wronged and never fights back. In the last scene of “All that Matters”, stepmother confronts with her husband Mr. Chen and complains with her own children calls her “stepmother”. The most intolerable situation for a mother is not gets respects from her own blood. Even though the role of stepmother is tough and wisdom, but deep inside of her heart, she is indifference with an ordinary woman who needs concern and love.
In the novel, stepmother truly trigged my mind. A young woman who has no high education, but can use her wisdom to deal with problems; a young woman who comes from countryside becomes a worker who worksoutside of house in a white male dominated society. She is incredible of being a housewife as a stepmother who handles the family issue wisely.  But, back inside, she just an ordinary woman has no difference than anyone else in the world.

[1] Author Wayson Choy, All That Matters.(USA: Anchor Canada edition 2005) 39.
[2] Author Wayson Choy, All That Matters. (USA: Anchor Canada edition 2005)
[3]Sugiman, Momoye, ed. Jin Guo: Voices of Chinese Canadian Women. Toronto: Women’s, 1992.

[4] Woo, Yuen-Fong. The Excluded Wife. London: McGill—Queen’s University, 1998.

[5]Canada. An act respecting Chinese immigration: Chinese immigration act, 1923. Ottawa: F.A.Acland, 1923.

1 comment:

  1. This looks great! I find your discussion of gender and family issues from the book interesting and enlightening, and the whole book sounds very informative. You've inspired me to get a copy, and I wonder how it compares to Denise Chong's "The Concubine's Children," which is similar in theme.