Wednesday, March 28, 2007

The End of East by Jen Sookfong Lee

Category: Fiction

Sub-Category: Immigration, Family, Asian-Canadian

Format: Hardcover, 256 pages

Publisher: Knopf Canada












If you visit Vancouver, British Columbia's most bustling city on the west coast, one place most people will recommend that you visit is Vancouver's Chinatown. The Chinese started arriving in Vancouver as far back as 1858 to work in the gold mines. Many of them hailed from the Guangdong province in southern China.

From 1880-85 thousands of Chinese workers were employed by the Canadian Pacific Railway to work on the construction of railway tracks, but after the railway was completed, the government of Canada introduced the "Act to Restrict and Regulate
Chinese Immigration into Canada", which required Chinese people
entering Canada to pay a head tax of $50 per person...it was also commonly known as the Chinese Head Tax. In 1903, the head tax was raised to $500. To add to their misery in 1907 an anti-Chinese sentiment took root in Vancouver which swept through Chinatown, damaging scores of Japanese and Chinese businesses.

So, when our protagonist, 18-year old Seid Quan Chan, arrives in Vancouver from his rural village in China in 1913, he arrives into a Canada that is hostile to him. With hardly any luggage, except for the burden of his family's dreams on his shoulder, he is fortunate to find work with a barber in Chinatown and soon saves up a little money enabling him to get married. But owing to a Canadian govt law that prevents wives and families from joining their husbands, he has to live alone, managing to see his wife back in China only once every 13 years or so. Seid Quan is a worn out old man by the time he is allowed to bring his wife, Shew Lin and son, Pon Man over to Canada to live with him.

Seid Quan's story is a sad one, but his son Pon Man, his daughter-in-law Sin Song and their four girls Wendy, Daisy, Jackie and Samantha (born and brought up in Canada) don't seem to fare that well either. Although beautifully told by first time writer Jen Sookfung Lee, you get the impression that the hardship of immigration leaves its stamp on a family for generations.

I think part of the problem with immigrant communities is the isolation they suffer. Lacking a command of conversational English many of them are unable to assimilate into mainstream society and remain cloistered in "Chinatowns" or "Little Indias" as the case may be. I know of several Indian women who don't speak a word of English and as a result they can neither work, nor drive and are confined to their homes. Depression is rife among these women and because of their limited abilities they don't command respect from their husbands or children.

Jen Sookfung Lee's book explores the effects of immigration and racism on a culture through three generations of the Chan family using Seid Quan and his granddaughter Sammy Chan as the main narrators. This is an emotionally-charged book with some very interesting character studies, a beautiful exploration of family dynamics and romps through the history of the Chinese people in Vancouver. However, I couldn't help noticing that the author does't always tie up threads neatly and consistently. For instance, I kept wondering what had happened to Seid Quan's daughters. We were introduced to them briefly and never hear about them again. Also troubling is Sammy Chan's affinity for masochistic sex...we never hear why or how that comes about. We have to imagine that her tortured body is the result of a tortured mind, I suppose. However, that aside, this novel is most readable and if you enjoy multigenerational sagas, this one's for you. Also, it's always very exciting to read a new writer and his or her fresh and different approach to storytelling.

Jen Sookfung Lee will be reading at the Harbourfront at 7:30pm tonight. If you live in Toronto, you might want to go across and listen to her. Readings at the Harbourfront are always a nice evening out.

42 comments:

Les said...

Lovely, thought-provoking reveiw, as usual! Welcome back, Lotus!!

Asha said...

That lady there is beautiful on the cover!
Honestly,I am tired of reading immigrant stories.Every other Indian writes a book about what they went thru' after coming US etc.Boring!!:D

Lotus Reads said...

hi, Les!

Thank you, it's wonderful to be back. Are you going on hiatus soon too? I haven't been very active in the blogosphere recently, I hope to play catch-up soon! Thanks so much for stopping by!


Hi, Asha!

Yes, I know what you mean. The immigrant story, especially when it comes to the Indian immigrant, has been milked for all it is worth. This book, however, was unusual in that it tells us the story of some of the first Chinese people in Vancouver. I know they suffered some unspeakable cruelties in the form of racism and the Chinese head tax, so it was interesting and informative to read a little of their history.

Sanjay said...

Welcome back!! It is indeed nice to read your lovely book reviews once again.

Anti-chinese laws were common in the US as well, particularly when we were done using their cheap labour for construction of railroads as the expansion in to the West happened. Actually that law is the only one that targeted a particular nationality from the immigration perspective.

re your note.. However, I couldn't help noticing that the author does't always tie up threads neatly and consistently.

Perhaps it is a stylistic thing with some authors? Depending on the time and place it may or may not serve a purpose. Perhaps it reflects our lives in that often open threads do not always neatly and consitently get tied up?
I guess one can only speculate?
Again Sammy Chan's affinity for masochistic sex maybe one more instance of untied threads?

You also rightly point out the multiple levels of isolation that immigrant families often have to encounter. Although I do think there are a lot of agencies that help with integration in to society here no?
Perhaps their inability to speak the language is another tool in the hands of men to retain their sense of power?
Sorry about the long comment.
It is good to have you back and you come back with an excellent review..Loved it! :-)

danielle said...

As Sanjay mentioned the same thing happened here on the west coast and as the railroads were being built. I think even today many immigrants are faced with the same sort of discrimination--perhaps not so blatant, but then these days maybe so! It's a pity, since we are all immigrants really--at some time in our history. It's so easy to forget these things, I guess. The book sounds quite interesting--thanks for the review.

ML said...

Great review, Lotus, and welcome back to the blogging world!

The story sounds really interesting and it's amazing how many races have stories like that to tell. Makes you wonder about the world we live in.

Wendy said...

Fabulous review, Lotus! What an interesting history. I have been reading alot of stories lately about immigrants, and I agree with you - the isolation is fierce.

Parth said...

As an aside, Vancouver has a couple of very good Indo-Chinese restaurants if anyone ever visits there. The first is Green Lettuce and the other I can't quite recollect :-)

Radha said...

Hey, welcome back!! Finally !!
The review is great, thanks!
So whats your final verditc? Is it worth a read, or worth a miss?

jenclair said...

Another title worth investigating. Glad you're back!

Beenzzz said...

Hi Lotus! Beautifully written review! We are actually thinking of going to either Toronto or Vancouver this summer. I will keep this book on my "must read" list! Racism seems to be the first thing immigrants experience. It's unfortunate, but I also think its a natural human reaction to what is perceived as " the invaders."

Les said...

Lotus, we thought we were going to be heading out of town next month, but the trial has been "continued" once again until mid-October. So we're here until July when we go cruising the San Juan Islands. Not sure which of these trips you were referring to (I can't keep up with whom I've told about the trial...).

Hollydolly said...

Anjali:

Welcome back. Missed you. Great review, also Sanjay's comments. I have this book on hold out at the library.Looks to be a great read.

Anali said...

Welcome back! The story sounds so sad. I often wonder about the state of mind of the author when writing. In Ms. Lee's daily life while writing this, I wonder how it impacted her.

J at www.jellyjules.com said...

This post brought up a not so nice memory for me...we went to Toronto on a short vacation in '95, and though we had a lovely time (LOVED Toronto), one evening we ended up talking to a drunk guy in a bar (we weren't terribly sober ourselves, but at least we weren't STUPID), and he was talking about how Vancouver has so many Chinese, they call it Hongcouver. Nice, huh? He then went on to criticize the immigrants for being on the dole, and then went on to talk about how he waits for HIS dole check every month, so he can go out drinking. Luckily, I was tipsy enough to tell him off, not so tipsy that I let him get away with it. And don't worry, though I remember him and his idiocy to this day, I don't hold it against Toronto. Every place has them, and if you hang out in bars, well, what do you expect?

Anoc said...

welcome back. you were sorely missed. Sookfong Lee would be a most welcome author to look out for - the only Chinese author i've read so far is Amy Tan, and i adored her.

Shripriya said...

Interesting. I watched "Long Life, Happiness & Prosperity" a couple of nights ago. It is about the Chinese immigrant community (also based in Canada) and while it is a much more positive, happy story, what really struck me was how little interaction anyone had outside the community.

Amazing how that happens.

Lotus Reads said...

Hi, Sanjay!

THank you for your comment and don't worry about the length of it, the more you have to say, the better! :)

About the author not always tying up the threads neatly, yes, it could be her writing style, but it leaves the reader hanging. The author introduced so many fascinating characters to us, but apart from the 4 main characters, she didn't flesh the rest of them out completely. I guess there is only so much you can do in 256 pages, huh? I am not a fan of big books, but I do think this book would have benefited from a few more pages! I can't believe I am actually saying that! lol

Yes, there are organizations (government and charitable) that do try to help immigrants assimilate into mainstream society but I am not sure they are advertised enough or that they are proactive enough. Recently I got in touch with one and offered to be a "Host" to newcomers from India...I will tell you how that goes.

Lotus Reads said...

Hi, Danielle!

Lovely to see you here! Yes, I think every wave of immigration has met its fair share of resistance from people already living in the country. I remember from Annie Proulx's book "Accordion Crimes" how the Irish, Italians, the Poles, Germans etc.had it so hard when they first came to the US and how their "American Dream" went up in smoke because of the resistance they met (btw, that is a beautiful book on Americana).

Thanks for stopping by Danielle!

Lotus Reads said...

Hi,ml!

THank you and I am so glad you enjoyed the review! I think we always fear competition and sharing our limited resources with other people....immigration is never easy so hat's off to those that attempt it and make a success of it against all odds!

Hi, Wendy!

I have always been fascinated with the "Immigration" genre, there are some very inspirational stories there!

Hi, Parth!

Thanks for the recommendation...it's been a while since I was in Vancouver last, but I will have to look up the restaurant you speak of when I am there next!

hi, Radha!

With so many,many good books hitting the bookstores every week, I find myself getting more and more discerning about what i read because there so many books and so little time. To answer your question, I wouldn't classify this as a "must read" , but if you like multi-generational stories of immigration and culture, this is a very readable book.

Hi, Jenclair!

Thank you!!! I'm happy to be back!

Hi, beenzzz!

Wow, this is great news! If you guys do decide on Toronto, you will have to let me know. I would love to meet you!

Sanjay said...

about the length of it, the more you have to say, the better! :)
Are you sure? Be careful what you wish for. :-). Just kidding!

I guess there is only so much you can do in 256 pages, huh?
You know I wonder about that and how much editorial influence plays in to that. It is possible the other characters were more fleshed out but could have been nixed or edited out? That or I am just imagining it but marketing concerns do a play a role as well.
But you maybe right about a few more pages having helped matters, based on how you describe it all.

Recently I got in touch with one and offered to be a "Host" to newcomers from India...I will tell you how that goes.
Sure thing, and you know that is very nice of you to offer your time.

sasgirl said...

Great book review! Now that I'm home for a year, I'm looking forward to catching up on my reading. And I have your blog to point me to which books are good too! :)

Still pregnant! Due date was yesterday, looks like baby decided not to come out yet! You can check my updated blog for more info.

Optimistic Guard said...

what a wonderful blog, i'll bookmark it so I know how to get back here.

gs said...

hi lr
what a pleasure reading your review.i can empathise with the main characters, as i have heard of somewhat similar situations from indians who have gone to canada or usa.particularly the women who are not sufficiently literate or those who lack minimal language and social skills.i would love to read this book and will keenly lookout for its avilability in india.thanks once again for the lucid review on jen sookfung lee's book.and do you know we have small chinatowns in kolkata and mumbai too!

diyadear said...

thanks for a nice review :)

Bookfool said...

Yay, Lotus, you're back!! I haven't read your review, yet, I'm just so darned excited to see you. I missed your posts!! :)

Lotus Reads said...

hi, Les!

Cruising the San Juan islands sounds wonderful! I have never been on a cruise, but it's definitely on my "to do" list. Glad you're still here, hope everything works out well with the trial!

Hi, Sylvia!

How are you? Yes, we have such a great heritage of Canadian writing with new writers being added all the time...I thought it would be fun to explore some of these new writers from time to time.

Hi, Anali!

Great question...I, too, wonder that about writers and especially poets. I keep wondering how much of their work is observation and how much autobiographical. I tried reading more about Sookfung Lee and the impetus for writing the book, but I didn't unearth too much. I know she was pretty much known for her poetry and "End of East" is her first foray into prose.

Hi, J!

I'm so glad your encounter with that very drunk and small minded person hasn't put you off Toronto or the Torontonians. Canadians are truly lovely people, but yeah, sometimes there exists an undercurrent of racism here as with almost anywhere else. My friends and I always say that with our caste and class system, we East Indians are probably among the most racist (for want of a better word) in the world, so I dare not point fingers at anyone else. But, theh way I look at it, racism against immigrants exists only because of our fear of people we don't know or understand.

Thanks so much for your comment and for stopping by!

Lotus Reads said...

Hi, anoc!

THank you, glad to know I was missed! :) I can send you my copy of this book if you would like, just buzz me if you want it. *hugs*

Hi, shripriya!

Lovely to see you here. The documentary "Long Life, Happiness & Prosperity", sounds fascinating, I'd love to have seen it! Did you rent it or was it on TV?

tanabata said...

Welcome back! How was your break?
This book sounds interesting, but then I'm always intrigued by immigrant stories, and especially Canadian ones!

Shripriya said...

It is actually a narrative feature, not a documentary. It was part of a movie club mailing, but should be available on Netflix. It was a Sundance selection and features Sandra Oh.

Shripriya said...

Oh, and besides the connection to the immigrant experience (which is interesting), the movie is just "above average" :)

Sai said...

Hey Lotus:
So nice to see you back. Love your review about the book and the sensitivity in which you have tried to put things in perspective.

Beloved Dreamer said...

My sweet lotas, just got out of hospital and not up to much. Oh, how I've missed you my dear. Soon I will be up to posting and writing again and reading your ever wonderful blog. Hope you had a wonderful time.

love-db

Nabeel said...

well if they are feeling isolated, then what do many do about it? nothing. I have known people that have been living here for a decade and still can't speak english properly. And the fact is that they never tried to learn it. Many do learn the foreign language and prosper. There should be a "will" in their hearts to do things that seem tough and impossible. Because where there's a will, there's a way.

Milan-zzz said...

Oh it’s great to see you back :)

Yeah it’s strange how all those top preachers in 'Multinational-Community-Know-How' have past filled with racism and force you (possibly with bombs) to play on how they are playing to create their "multicultural" vision. (sorry that was personal view on personal issue)

It does look interesting; I didn’t know about those restrictive laws; I guess that has historical background.
Another great review, as usual :)

Olivia said...

Gosh, do you read for a living? If not, where do you find the time to devour so many?

Lotus Reads said...

@sasgirl ~ Yeay, I am so happy you'll have a whole year home to read the books you love...we'll have a field time exchanging book recommendations...you have probably had your baby by now...can't wait to find out! ;)


@optimistic guard ~ Thank you for your visit...I look forward to exploring your blog as well!

@gs~ thank you so much for hte visit. Sorry I haven't been stopping by your blog...I haven't been very active in the blogosphere recently, but I intend to amend that. I so appreciate you continuing to check my blog!

@Diyadear ~ You're so welcome!

@Shripriya ~ Appreciate the information, thanks a bunch!

@Nancy ~ DELIGHTED to see you here, thanks so much for the welcome back comment. I will be visiting you shortly....do put the coffee on, won't you? :)

@Nat ~ Thank you for stopping by! I think I am still on a bit of a break...I haven't been able to catch up on my reading like I had intented to, but it's ok, a break from reading can be helpful every now and again! :)

Lotus Reads said...

@Sai ~ What a nice thing to say, thank you!

@Nabeel ~ You are right. Learning the ways of your adopted land, starting with the language makes it so much easier to assimilate. I'm not sure why people resist becoming a part of the melting pot?

@Milan ~ Thanks for stopping by, always happy to have your perspective on a book and the themes it covers. You're so interesting and I love listening to your views.

@Olivia ~ I don't read even half as many as I used to! ;) I think I just have a voracious appetite for the written word and can usually read a book in a week. Would be lovely if I could get paid for this some day, lol!

Olivia said...

I used to read a lot more than I do now, sometimes devouring a whole book in an afternoon or a few days. I loved books so much, my mother used to ban me from them for the summer holidays (it never worked).

Suddenly, as I start to run out of classics, I find I lose interest within the first few chapters and end up reading many books at one time, or abandoning them halfway through.

I have postponed a collection of fairytales, am halfway through a book about the conscious mind, and am currently reading Devil Wears Prada, which I have to finish to return to my aunt.

Lotus Reads said...

@Olivia ~

I know exactly what you mean...I was in a reading funk for many years before I re-discovered my love of books. I am sure you will, too. It's only a question of having the right book to trigger off your love of reading which has always been there. The problem I am finding is that there are so many books around, it is really difficult to know which one of them is going to tickle your fancy. Good luck, I hope you discover that special book, and soon!

Aneeta said...

At the recent KL International Literary Festival, we got a chance to meet Camilla Gibb. She spoke of this very issue but in the context of her new book, Sweetness in the Belly. She touched upon the migration of Asians into Canada and this book you've reviewed will be one I will look out for! Thanks

Lotus Reads said...

@Aneeta ~

How thrilling you got to meet Camilla Gibbs, I have that book sitting here, I really need to get to it and soon! It has won a number of prizes too, hasn't it?