Shenzheners. Linda Leith Publishing Inc. and
Paper Teeth. NeWest Press
Both books are collections of short stories that offer sketches of ordinary people’s lives in growing cities: 1960s Edmonton, modern Calgary, and modern Shenzhen. Paper Teeth, the first book by Alberta writer Lauralyn Chow, is about a third-generation Canadian Chinese family and its quirky neighbours in Edmonton and later Calgary. The table of contents is playfully titled “Today’s Menu,” offering up a selection of exotic-sounding names such as “Number 88. Spicy Beef in Lettuce Wraps.” Borrowing from the structure of an English-language menu in a Chinese restaurant, the book plays on mistranslations, on the humour as well as the disappointment and misunderstanding that can emerge from the intersection of two languages. Each “dish” is a unique experience, related to but distinct from the other “dishes.” Moving through the menu, we meet all sorts of characters, including an imaginative little girl who wonders what it would be like to go to Chinese heaven without knowing Chinese; a rich but ridiculous man who insists on having his very own koi pond in his kitchen in Edmonton; an aunt who wraps herself in smelly bandages because she doesn’t trust Western medicine; a neighbour who says that fatty food is an ideal thing to give up for Lent; and an enthusiastic husband who, upon seeing Chinatown for the first time, becomes excited about tai chi, dried lizards, and live chickens. The book is a lively jumble, much like the city it is based on: “Sandwiched between the bread of the Foon Kee Bean Cake Company and the Coffee Cup Inn stands the House of the Lord.”
Xue Yiwei’s Shenzheners, recently translated from Chinese by Darryl Sterk, offers a similarly diverse range of characters and perspectives. Dedicated “to the Irishman who inspires me,” Shenzheners consists of nine short chapters, each with a different character focus, which is reminiscent of the structure of James Joyce’s Dubliners. The first story focuses on a prairie-raised woman from eastern Ontario whose chance encounter with a Chinese man on a train eventually leads her to seek out a new career in Shenzhen, China. The following stories, all set in Shenzhen, weave through a vast kaleidoscope of characters, including a former soldier who, in his old age, battles energetically with schoolboys to protect his wares; a woman confident in her choice of a “reliable” husband who later becomes the victim of vicious gossip; and a young piano prodigy who keeps a painful secret.
Even though individual characters make only fleeting appearances in these two—for lack of a better word—“city-shaped” books, their footsteps seem to mark out a question: What happens to a city’s values when its population and economy grow? What does it mean to be an Albertan, or a Shenzhener, when one’s hunger and directions and desires form just one story among many? Set in urbanizing environments where so much hinges on appearances, both of these books seem to be advocating for a deeper knowledge of and compassion for people as people. The aunt with the smelly bandages turns out to be a surprisingly thoughtful person. The glamorous piano prodigy turns out to be a deeply wounded child. In the end, what really matters in the creation of a home is not having the most admired fish pond; it is to be surrounded by family and neighbours who understand and cherish you.