Writing Chinese Diaspora

  • Yan Li (Author)
    Lily in the Snow. Women's Press Literary
Reviewed by Shao-Pin Luo

Chinese Canadian literature may be divided into two categories: works by the children of earlier immigrants and those by recent immigrants from China and elsewhere. The first has been documented by critical works such as Lien Chao’s groundbreaking book, Beyond Silence: Chinese Canadian Literature in English (1997), which introduced into the Canadian literary canon writers such as Paul Yee, Jim Wong-Chu, Fred Wah, Wayson Choy, Denise Chong, and Sky Lee, and defined Chinese Canadian literature as a collective voice, whose “interior landscapes are emotionally connected with the historical Chinatowns in which the stories and characters are situated.” In narrating the experiences of Chinese railroad workers and representing life in Chinatowns, the main literary strategies had been to anthologize and mythologize in order to construct identities that “abrogate the existing racial stereotypes and to appropriate them by constructing the heroes and heroines of the community.” Susanne Hilf ’s Writing the Hyphen: The Articulation of Interculturalism in Contemporary Chinese-Canadian Literature (2000) shifted from an articulation of distinctive traditions of the historical experience of the community, the search for a collective voice and its distinct themes and motifs, and the emphasis on race and ethnicity, to reading the intercultural elements and individual and hybrid identity in works such as Sky Lee’s Disappearing Moon Cafe, Larissa Lai’s When Fox Is a Thousand, and Fred Wah’s Diamond Grill.

The Chinese Canadian community has been undergoing rapid change with the influx of new immigrants from Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, and Mainland China. While still concerned with immigration, displacement, the politics of identity, and cultural clashes, literary writing by recent Chinese immigrants has become more diverse in terms of subject matter, genre, and style. For example, Lien Chao (born in 1950 and came to Canada in 1984) published a bilingual narrative long poem, Maples and the Stream (1999); Ting-Xing Ye (born in 1952 and moved to Toronto in 1987), after a memoir, Leaf in a Bitter Wind (1998), writes young adult fiction; Ying Chen (born in 1961 and emigrated to Montreal in 1989) writes in French. What distinguishes Yan Li, who came to Canada in 1987, is that she writes fiction in both Chinese and English. Her first English novel, Daughters of the Red Land, was a 1996 finalist for the Books in Canada First Novel Award and was subsequently translated by Li into Chinese. Her Chinese novels include Married to the West Wind and The Lambs of Mapleton.

At the centre of Li’s Lily in the Snow is the tension between Grace and Lily, mother and daughter, who quarrel as soon as Grace, retired from her editorship at a Beijing magazine, lands in the small town of Mapleton, Ontario. At her mother’s question, “‘What’s good about Canada?’” Lily finds herself at a loss for words. Inspired by “the spirit of Norman Bethune” to come to Canada, with her two Master’s degrees and a background as a journalist in Beijing, Lily, after having had Baby, has been unemployed and she makes her daily trips, dressed in jeans and old sneakers, to the government Human Resources Office. In this opening chapter, we already detect the deep differences between mother and daughter in their ideas about career success, child rearing, and love. Interlaced with Lily’s life in Canada is a parallel history of her mother’s eventful life in China.

Yan Li portrays with sympathy and humour a range of immigrant characters, and the difficulties and disappointments they encounter in their new life in Mapleton. Besides Chinese figures, we come across immigrants such as an Indian woman who works at a clothing factory; a Jamaican lady who works with Lily as cleaning woman in a hotel, who studied child psychology “back home” and wanted to be a teacher; and a Vietnamese grandma who lives in Lily’s building nicknamed the “refugee camp,” as it is full of recent immigrants. Yan Li displays her sharp observational powers through the amusing and colourful way she names her characters: the penguin-shaped minister in a snow-white shirt and ink-black suit; an Egyptian seahorse; a brandy-nosed immigration officer; and a pretentious martial arts instructor, Grand Master Iron. Yan Li describes thus the tenants in the building: “Besides Master Iron, there were a few other Chinese men in the same building. Lily didn’t know their names, but remembered a few who had unique features. One man has two protruding front teeth in his sun-tanned face, so she silently named him Beaver-teeth. Another one impressed her deeply with his sharp chin on a narrow pale face so she nicknamed him the Mouse” (48). The names not only capture vividly the characters’ physical attributes but also convey their sorry stories of immigration. It turns out that Mouse-colonel fled to Canada after embezzling money from the Chinese government and now operates a restaurant; while Beaver-teeth had to tunnel into Canada by paying smugglers to transport him circuitously first to Vietnam, then to the jungle in Thailand for months, and finally to Spain for two years before he eventually landed at Pearson International Airport in Toronto.

Yan Li writes with insight about the important role religion plays in the Chinese immigrant community. The church acts as community centre for those who feel alienated from mainstream society and need practical help in settling in a new land, notwithstanding the zealous proselytising efforts of Mrs Rice from Taiwan of the local Chinese Christian Church, a character who is generous not only in spreading the word of god, but also in dispensing tips on personal appearance, morality, and relationships. “How did you turn into a Christian after being a staunch Communist Party member,” Lily asks former colleague Jade, a news editor at Radio Beijing, who escaped to Canada after the “June 4th Incident” in Tiananmen Square in 1989. It is perhaps not so surprising that Jade and others find in the church a strong sense of fellowship: “Just like me, Lily thought, Jade was brought up in the collective-styled communist society. Though we all had a hard life and wanted, at least theoretically, to get rid of the dictatorial system, we had actually become accustomed to its life style: a life of unity, collectives, instructions, orders, control, and mass mobilization. Psychologically, we were still afraid of being isolated and being independent” (91). Even Lily, once secular and privileged in her native land, now impoverished and struggling in Canada, overrides her scepticism about the dogma of the church and gradually embraces the Christian faith, which ironically rejects her because of her divorce.

What sustains Lily ultimately, and staves off her sense of loneliness and homelessness, is her writing: “Literature was a holy and magic world. She could not find any other field where she could create and feel great” (53). Yan Li’s English is simple and direct, crystal clear and lively, albeit laced with Chinese imagery and expressions: something is “soft and gentle as silk and over-cooked noodles”; Lily’s slow progress in her writing is compared to “a snail crawling persistently searching for something unknown on the other side of a peaked mount.” In the end, Lily survives and finds strength and beauty in the snowy Canadian landscape: “The snowstorm was over and the whole world was tranquil. The meadow under the bright moonlight shone like a crystal garden. The big cedars by the house breathed silently as they stooped under the heavy snow bending their limbs. She caught her breath, entranced, as a red fox snuck out from behind a tree and jumped onto the fountain edge. Looking around, it caught sight of the figure inside the window. Startled, it fled. A trail of footprints was left on the snow.”

This review “Writing Chinese Diaspora” originally appeared in Canadian Literature 214 (Autumn 2012): 172-74.

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