Of Cowherds and Wagers: A Poetics of Chinese-Canadian Family Histories

  • Vincent Lam
    The Headmaster's Wager. Random House (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • May Q. Wong
    A Cowherd in Paradise: From China to Canada. Brindle & Glass (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Irene Gammel

“My parents’ unique voices are an integral part of me.” With these words, May Q. Wong begins her literary journey of self-discovery through a century of family history. Encompassing fascinating stories of love, loss, and identity, Wong’s memoir A Cowherd in Paradise: From China to Canada, her first book, is an intercultural conversation between China and Canada played out in the everyday life of her family, giving accounts of the chafing foot-binding of her great-grandmother, the arranged marriage of her mother, and the impoverished life of her father. Wong’s search for and reconstruction of family is assembled from fragments of memory and conversation. Her narrative incorporates photos and other material objects, such as her mother’s homemade Chinese dictionary, a single leaf of which is reproduced generously across two pages of the memoir, paying tribute to the cross-cultural tools that helped in the navigation of this journey.

Prompted by the discovery of family secrets, the memoir is the story of the author’s parents. Her father, Ah Dang (Wong Guey Dang), born in 1902 into a landless peasant family in southern China, was sold by his biological father, a gambler and opium addict, to a family who wanted to replace their dead infant. Her mother, Ah Thloo (Jiang Tew Thloo), born in 1911 into a traditional rural family in pre-revolutionary China, grew up taking care of her family’s treasured cow (hence the titular “cowherd”), and married Ah Dang at the age of 18 through a blind arranged marriage. Within a year of their marriage, Ah Dang leaves China for Canada, and so begins the painful story of the couple’s twenty-five year separation, with the young Ah Thloo abandoned in China because of Canada’s notorious head-tax that discriminated against Chinese immigrants. A copy of the 1930 Head Tax Certificate is reproduced as a chilling image of this politically charged family history.

Left alone with her mother-in-law, and later with two children, Ah Thloo evolves into a heroine who single-handedly takes care of the entire family even during times of natural disasters, communist revolutions, and wars in China. Meanwhile, Ah Dang supports his family from Canada, visiting China only twice during a quarter-century of marriage. It is not until 1954 that the couple reunite in Canada, making a home in Montreal, where Ah Dang runs a successful café. Throughout her memoir, Wong intentionally emphasizes vernacular, and the in-between of languages and culture that her parents embodied. “Canada peacefoo place,” her father reflects, continuing: “But I don’t forget, I Chinee, my famly Chinee. I still love China. But now Canada my home.”

Like May Wong, Vincent Lam, winner of the 2006 Scotiabank Giller Prize for his short story collection Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures, turns to family history for inspiration in his novel, The Headmaster’s Wager. Set in Saigon during the Vietnam War, the story is told through the eyes of Percival Chen (Chen Pie Sou), a Chinese expatriate from Shantou, Guangdong. As the eponymous “headmaster” he runs an English school, the Percival Chen English Academy in Cholon, the Chinese area of Saigon. Percival is cast in the role of unlikeable hero: an inveterate gambler, he is deterministically marked by his addictions, much like a fatalistic hero in a Thomas Hardy novel, unable to escape the cycle of bad habits. Percival’s pride in his Chinese heritage casts shadows of radical prejudice.

Through the prism of Percival’s life, the novel deftly explores the problematic of “Chineseness” in Vietnamese culture during the war. Despite the success of his English school, Percival, caught between Vietnamese and American positions, is unable to prevent the war from intruding into his life. His son Dai Jai is arrested, forcing Percival to send him back to China at the critical time of the Cultural Revolution. During his son’s absence over the war years, Percival turns to gambling, and at the mah-jong table he wins Jacqueline, a Vietnamese-French prostitute. The offspring of their liaison is a son, Laing Jai, born in 1968 at the time of the Tet offensive, one of the largest military campaigns of the Vietnam War. In The Headmaster’s Wager, as in A Cowherd in Paradise, family relations, separations and reunions are key themes, conjuring up traditional values of Chinese collective culture. Ultimately, though, Percival is an outsider—situated in between cultures, he is culturally and spiritually lost. In contrast, Wong evokes possibilities for connection and forgiveness.

“Gan-na-aie [Canada] is known as a fair country,” says Ah Thloo at the end of Wong’s memoir and continues: “To keep being fair, Gan-na-aie must recognize its wrongs and apologize.” In 2006, four years after Al Thloo’s death, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government apologized for the Head tax, making payments of $20,000 each to Chinese-Canadian immigrants and their surviving spouses who had paid the tax. In May 2014, British Columbia Premier Christy Clark apologized for B.C.’s historical wrongs against Chinese immigrants. These political gestures recall a historical past of marginalization and inhumane treatment of Chinese residents in Canada.

Lam and Wong take their place beside other Chinese Canadian writers, such as Fred Wah, Denise Chong, Sky Lee, and Wayson Choy, all of whom draw in their work on their family histories ultimately to address the lives and experiences of second- and third-generation Chinese diaspora in Canada. Within this emerging tradition of Chinese Canadian literature, Lam and Wong juxtapose different geographies and negotiate distinct cultures. Both address the problem of “Chineseness” outside of China’s geography—and explore how this “Chineseness” is performed and received, and ultimately negotiated. By doing so, they offer nothing less than a Canadian ethnic and multicultural history, in which the changing social image of Chineseness is embodied in the existential shifting of individual and family identity.

This review “Of Cowherds and Wagers: A Poetics of Chinese-Canadian Family Histories” originally appeared in Science & Canadian Literature. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 221 (Summer 2014): 187-89.

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