Canadian Identity: Maples and Chinatowns
- Lien Chao (Author)
Maples and the Stream: A Narrative Poem. TSAR Publications (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Jennifer JayIn Beyond Silence: Chinese Canadian Literature in English (1997), Lien Chao walked us through the growing field of Chinese Canadian writings. With Maples and the Stream, a bilingual poetry collection inspired by Ma Peng’s painting of maple leaves partitioned by a stream, she now adds her autobiography and voice to the Chinese Canadian experience.
Lien Chao’s twenty-five bilingual narrative poems, roughly evenly divided between Chinese and Canadian spaces, are poignant recollections of a life from birth, youth, marriage, and divorce against the backdrop of China’s turbulent politics, to the continuing process of forging a new life and identity as a Chinese Canadian academic in the field of Canadian literature. The landscape of this free verse collection is marked by the reassuring presence of the maple tree, together with its seasonal changes, and water, which accompanied her pursuit of dreams removed from the bitter political campaigns in China, campaigns that pitted people against her and denied her freedom and a university education.
Living in Toronto since 1984, Lien Chao has been confronted by the challenge and uncertainty of academia as a vital component of her resettlement and assimilation in a new country, where Canada geese and Chinatown icons intersect and pull her towards different centres of gravity. In "Canada Geese" she wants "to belong" to the majority community, but she finds in "Ivory Tower" that even professors and students deny her entry and associate her with the landscape of Chinatown. But in a Chinese Canadian history long dominated by Cantonese culture and dialects, Lien Chao’s Mandarin-speaking background makes her an outsider much like her "white friend" because "[t]he truth is, I don’t understand a word in Cantonese." Curiously, Lien Chao is quick to identify with the majority community; anyone with rudimentary Chinese can function in Chinatown by writing out Chinese characters. How could she have lived in metropolitan Toronto and shopped in Chinatown for sixteen years without learning a word in Cantonese?
Lien Chao’s poetry collection may be an honest lyrical memoir, but one should exercise caution if using it as an accurate reflection of Chinese Canadian history. She indicates that the wives and children of the Chinatown bachelor society were allowed to come to Canada only in the 1960s ("Gold Mountain Dream"), but in fact they began arriving in the late 1940s after the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed in 1947. The racism that she describes in current Toronto Chinatown seems outdated and exaggerated. As someone who was a Chinese social worker in Toronto Chinatown in the 1970s when the use of "Chink" was already rare, I find it difficult to believe that she was verbally abused as a "Chink" in the multicultural 1990s that produced a Chinese Canadian governor-general ("Who Can Resist Chinatown?"; "Gold Mountain Dream").
These twenty-five poems were written first in English and then rewritten in Chinese, but the two versions seem to be free translations of each other. The Cultural Revolution poems are particularly well done in terms of rhythm, pace, and imagery. The other poems, both in the Chinese and English versions, are uneven in quality. The Chinese poems should have been more rigorously edited. The poet and the editor made a decision to use unsimpli-fied characters, perhaps in the hope of attracting a larger readership from the Chinese community. But readers from Hong Kong and Taiwan are sure to note that almost every page in the Chinese version has at least one of the following writing errors: simplified and unsimplified characters are used inconsistently; the simplified and unsimplified characters are used interchangeably; wrong characters are used; and lack of knowledge of Cantonese pronunciation produces wrong characters. One wonders what could be the jupi ya (chrysanthemum skin duck) hanging in the Chinatown barbecue shops; this term makes absolutely no sense in Chinese cuisine unless it refers to cuipiya (crispy skin duck). Could the confusion of characters in the Chinese version reflect the confused landscape of hybrid identity for the poet who, in the process of assimilating with the majority and Chinese communities, risks losing her native voice and script?
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MLA: Jay, Jennifer. Canadian Identity: Maples and Chinatowns. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 21 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #172 (Spring 2002), Auto / biography. (pg. 155 - 156)
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