________________ CM . . . . Volume IX Number 15 . . . . March 28, 2003


Dead Man’s Gold and Other Stories.

Paul Yee. Illustrated by Harvey Chan.
Toronto, ON: Groundwood, 2002.
210 pp., pbk., $12.95.
ISBN 0-88899-475-3.

Subject Headings:
Chinese-Canada-Juvenile fiction.
Ghost stories, Canadian (English).
Children’s stories, Canadian (English).

Grades 6 and up / Ages 11 and up.

Review by Mary Thomas.

*** /4


In the mid-nineteenth century, when rumours of faraway gold rushes reached Big Field village in South China, many men decided to go to the New World, including Yuen and Fong. Born in the same month and same year, these two friends had chased tadpoles through ponds and played at the same school as children. Although both inherited plenty of farm chores, Yuen was the only son of poor peasants who owned a single pot to cook all their meals, while Fong's father had several fields, seven sons and two wives to manage his kitchen. (“Dead Man’s Gold”)

When Chung was born, his parents exploded long strings of red firecrackers to celebrate, having waited many years for his birth. Because he was an only child, his mother fussed endlessly. She laced shoes on him when all the other boys ran barefoot, halted rough playing in the cobblestone lanes, and forbade him to approach the peddlers traveling from town to town with trinkets and toys. (“Digging Deep”)

In 1914, the Year of the Tiger, a man named Ko made the most difficult decision of his young life. He said farewell to his sweetheart and journeyed alone to Canada. ... In Canada, he paid the head tax with borrowed funds, approached a Chinatown job broker, and landed in the kitchen of a downtown restaurant. (“Alone No Longer”)


Young men came to the Gold Mountain---Canada---from China from many different backgrounds but all for reasons based on some version of escape. They wanted to get away from poverty, from destiny, from bad luck, from demanding family members, from uncongenial jobs; they all hoped Canada would be the solution to their particular problem. Paul Yee has written of some of these men in Dead Man's Gold. Very few of them find what they are looking for, and many of their spirits continue to haunt the vicinities of their failures.

     Am I suggesting that these are ghost stories? Yes, but in general of a very gentle, unterrifying variety. Shu, for example, in "Sky High" was a poet who became a lumberjack, until the sight of tree stumps crying their tears of dripping sap made him take his own life in order that his spirit be able to haunt the neighbourhood of his favourite forest giant and thus preserve it from destruction.

     In some of the stories, the man manages to succeed in his life in the New World, but even that does not guarantee his happiness. The Canadian government, having welcomed cheap labour for some time, suddenly took a racist stance and decided to curb further immigration from China by imposing a head tax on all new Chinese arrivals. The cost of bringing the family to join even a successful man thus skyrocketed. A number of the stories in this collection reflect the bitterness concerning this unjust tax.

     On the whole, these are not happy stories, but they are the sort of stories of which myths are made. There is the man who murders his best friend for his gold, only to have it curse his life until he commits suicide; the one who brings his wife and son from China without having told them that he has taken a second wife and has a Canadian family as well; and so on. They are very much history, in spite of being fiction, and read that way, they form a valuable insight into a piece of Canada's past. They would make really gripping reading perhaps only for those who share in their background, but for anyone who has an interest in our multicultural heritage, they are quite fascinating. This means they are not really children's stories, in spite of being simply written, but that is not a fault. They are well worth reading.


Mary Thomas is presently living in Oxford, Eng., on leave from her job in elementary school libraries in Winnipeg, MB, and finding ghosts up creaky spiral stairs in an old college library where she sometimes helps shelve books.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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