CM . . . . Volume XVI Number 37. . . .May 28, 2010.
Henry Chow and Other Stories from the Asian Canadian Writers’ Workshop.
R. David Stephens, editor.
Vancouver, BC: Tradewind Books, 2010.
120 pp., pbk., $12.95.
Canadian fiction (English)-Asian Canadian authors.
Young adult fiction, Canadian (English).
Short stories, Canadian (English).
Canadian fiction (English)-21st century.
Grades 8 and up / Ages 13 and up.
Review by Huai-Yang Lim.
Then he tells me, “You know, I’ve never dated a Chinese girl before, but you don’t really seem Chinese.”
My glassy sunrise eyes blink at him, then crack; he’s saying something else now but I can’t hear him, because I’m pleased and mortified all at once. I’m thinking about some of the ESL kids at school, the one with geeky clothes who seem to always be studying diligently together, and how I don’t want to seem Chinese if that’s what it means. Then I realize that’s not what it means, although I’m not sure what it does mean. I just know it shouldn’t matter, or maybe that it should, but in a different way than it does. (From “Bad Poetry.”)
Shelley handed her a twenty. Karen pulled a pack of cigarettes crammed with twenties and fifties and stuffed the bill inside.
“Made a lot of cash today.”
“No, I work—you know—the streets, dummy. Don’t you?”
“It’s better than living in a crap group home. Once in a while you get an old man for a date, but sometimes you get some cute young ones too. And it’s easy money.” (From “Working the Corner.”)
Every Saturday morning, as I walk across the Montego Bay post office parking lot to my dad’s grocery store, there’s a scrawny guy with a boom box playing that Yellowman song.
Wha’ happen to the Red Stripe Beer and Lion Stout?
I hate that song. There are so many Chins in Jamaica they call everyone who looks Asian Chin.
“Eh, Chinaman! Mek sure deh Pepsi cold deh next time me come by yuh store.” (From “Mr. Chin.”)
Growing up as a person of Asian descent today is complex and, at times, confusing because of the myriad of issues and the pressure of other peoples’ expectations that may be encountered daily. In part, this uncertainty arises because the process of growing up involves the development of one’s personal views and negotiation of one’s place in relation to the surrounding community. With contributions from both emerging and established writers, Henry Chow and Other Stories includes 13 short stories selected by the Asian Canadian Writers’ Workshop and Ricepaper magazine. The stories encompass different countries and teens from various cultural, economic, and social circumstances, through which they depict what it means to grow up as a young person today. In these stories, growing up involves dealing with unpredictable situations or circumstances beyond one’s control. Although many of the stories’ protagonists share a common desire for certainty and security, the achievement of this state is never fully realized or is only temporary.
The stories range from those that take place over an extended period of time to those that focus on a specific situation or a fleeting moment in the young protagonist’s life that is, nevertheless, significant for the protagonist’s subsequent development. A key theme in these stories is the desire to belong in one’s community and the tensions that impinge on a teen’s existence. The nature of this “community” ranges from the immediate surroundings of the protagonist’s daily life to the larger community in which the protagonist lives. Each story depicts a young person who must also come to terms with his/her own perceptions and attitudes about the world around him/her. Some of them realize the limitations or biases of their views, whereas others do not seem to have the same critical self-consciousness because of a lack of objectivity or, perhaps, an inability to distance themselves sufficiently from their current circumstances.
A significant aspect of this search or desire for belonging is the protagonists’ cultural heritage and physical difference, both of which may impede their integration into their community or its acceptance of them. At the same time, it is this inability to integrate or the lack of desire to attempt to do so that facilitates the detachment and alienation of the protagonists from their community. Both of these aspects are explored in this collection’s stories.
For example, some of the stories explore what it means to belong in the context of racial and cultural tensions that impinge on their protagonists’ lives and self-perception. Tony Wong’s “Mr. Chin” gives a snapshot of the life of a Chinese boy in Jamaica where his family runs a grocery store. He is caught between the society in which he has grown up and the homeland from which his parents have come, such that he does not quite know where he fits in. Although he has grown up in Jamaica, he is sensitive to the community’s attitudes towards Asian people and feels like he does not quite belong: “There are so many Chins in Jamaica they call everyone who looks Asian Chin.” At the same time, he does not share his parents’ affiliation with their Chinese heritage and feels detached from his parents’ references to China.
Fiona Tinwei Lam’s “Air” depicts a single-parent family that is not financially well-off, and one in which an overprotective mother continually warns her daughter Jenny daily to be alert because of the threat of rape. In contrast to “Mr. Chin,” it is not her heritage from which Jenny feels detached, but rather the dangers that her mother warns her about. These immediate dangers are as distant to her as her understanding of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II, which she heard about at school and at home. At the same time, Jenny is similar to the male protagonist in “Mr. Chin” in that she feels socially marginalized because of her physical difference, and she endures racial taunts at school. Instead, she can only escape the physical and psychological confines of her daily existence temporarily in her dreams.
Whereas “Mr. Chin” and “Air” conclude without fully realizing or hinting at the possibility of their respective protagonists’ complete integration into their respective communities, Kagan Goh’s “The Boy Who Faked Kung Fu” evokes a more uplifting vision of personal empowerment and communal acceptance, albeit through unexpected means. When Kagan is uprooted from his home in Singapore to attend school in England, he encounters racial hostility and derision from his new peers. However, Kagan acquires a semblance of power by taking advantage of the stereotype that all Chinese people know karate. Paradoxically, it is Kagan’s reclaiming of this ethnic stereotype that leads his white peers to accept him as part of their community, even when his inability to live up to this stereotype is exposed.
Besides portraying how young people cope with prejudicial and racist attitudes, this collection briefly explores how they deal with their own prejudicial attitudes towards other people. For example, the protagonist, Jess, in Linda Mah’s “California Dreamin’” must deal with parental expectations surrounding her use of spare time as well as with her own biased views of geeks and jocks. When she and her friend look for schoolmates to join their band, they initially agree to exclude any geeks or jocks from their consideration. However, Jess reevaluates her views when she finds a “science geek” who may be a great addition.
Evelyn Lau’s story “Working the Corner” is the most hard-hitting and gritty among this collection’s stories with its evocation of a young teen’s desperate circumstances and her life on the streets. The story’s inconclusive and uncertain ending emphasizes that this story is but a snapshot of a teen’s constant struggle for survival on the streets and that the threat of violence lurks just beyond the immediate sphere of her daily existence. Indeed, the open ending emphasizes the senselessness of the violence that street teens may experience and does not provide any satisfactory closure. Indeed, readers will get the sense that this teen’s life will continue day by day as she ekes out an existence.
Other stories deal with more mundane circumstances, such as family and school, but which nevertheless hold some significance for the young protagonists involved. For example, the unpredictability of life is portrayed in Kwai-Yun Li’s “The Handwriting Expert.” The story focuses on a girl and her two friends in Calcutta, all of whom aspire to specific occupations. Desiring certainty about their future, they get their fortunes told by a fortune teller, but they ultimately discover that their futures are not what they may wish or predict. The simmering of a family feud in Kellee Ngan’s “The Fan Family Orchestra” erupts and disrupts Stevie’s life, although this is represented in a semi-comical fashion. During the resurfacing of the feud, it is ironically Stevie who is the more mature person, as opposed to the adults who appear to be fixated on and stuck in the past.
The unpredictable and ambiguous world of teenage romance is another major topic explored in this collection’s stories. Annie Zhu’s “Henry Chow” deals with the infatuation of a teen and the shattering of the illusory image of a girl that he has built up in his mind and the actual nature of his circumstances. Kentaro Ide’s “Physical Attraction” is similar to Annie Zhu’s, except that it deals with a brief encounter between a boy and girl on the train. The more detached narration in Ide’s story, in contrast to Zhu’s, leaves the narrative more open to readers’ interpretation. Readers are left to wonder whether a momentary sense of connection actually occurred between the boy and girl in Ide’s story, or whether it was simply imagined in the boy’s mind.
Hanako Masutani’s “Bleached” and Taien-Ng Chan’s “Bad Poetry” examine how teenage romances can be further complicated by their protagonists’ cultural heritage and other people’s expectations about their relationships. In “Bleached,” Eriko, of Japanese heritage, and her Caucasian friend Amy are both attracted to the same Caucasian boy, whereas the female protagonist Li in “Bad Poetry” must contend with other people’s perceptions about what Chinese girls are like and how they should behave. Besides comments from a white boy that she does not really seem Chinese, Li must also contend with negativity from a Chinese peer because she is dating outside of her ethnic community.
Marty Chan and Paul Yee are noteworthy contributors as they have both written numerous books for young people. Both Chan’s “Driven” and Yee’s “The Dark Room” differ from this book’s other stories because both are not wholly based in reality and incorporate otherworldly elements. In contrast to the other stories in this collection, Chan’s and Marty’s stories do not deal with themes such as romance or racism. Instead, they are simply engaging and well-paced tales that will interest readers. Chan’s story about a teenager’s driving lesson has an element of horror that focuses on a specific moment in time during which the protagonist escapes a near brush with death. As for Yee’s story, it is about a photographer and draws upon the Chinese cultural context for its impact. The photographer assists a seemingly innocuous customer, but the visit ultimately reveals something that is unexpected. Yee’s story differs from the others in the collection because the main protagonist is an adult. Nevertheless, the story’s ghostly element will be attractive to readers.
Teen readers will enjoy this collection’s engaging stories, even though they may not necessarily be familiar with the stories’ references to particular cultural and historical circumstances. The language of the collection is appropriate for the age group, and the volume can be used in the classroom as part of a thematic unit about growing up. Alternatively, these fictional tales can be used to spark class discussion about problems that people of Asian descent may face in contemporary society, such as social marginalization, economic difficulties, and cultural disorientation. Due to its themes and intended readership, this collection will be a good addition to a school or public library as well as an academic library’s secondary education collection.
For more information about the collection, readers can visit the publisher’s official website at http://www.tradewindbooks.com/new/henrychow.html/.
Huai-Yang Lim has completed a degree in Library and Information Studies and currently works as a research specialist. He enjoys reading, reviewing, and writing children’s literature in his spare time.
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