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Book Title: The Concubine's Children: Portrait Of A Family Divided|
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Reader ratings: 7.6
The author of the book: Denise Chong
Edition: Viking Books
Date of issue: January 1st 1995
ISBN 13: 9780670829613
Format files: PDF
The size of the: 34.20 MB
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This is a family biography, the story of a family split by an ocean and by different ways of life. It’s a sad tale of prejudice, war, and brutality, as well as of love.
Chan Sam had a wife and land in southern China in the 1920s, but word was that one could make enough money at ‘Gold Mountain’- Canada or the USA- for a person to set themselves up for life. So Chan Sam went to Canada to make his fortune. He didn’t like being alone- there were very, very few women in the Chinatowns at the time. He acquired a concubine from China: a 17 year old May-ying, who was basically sold. Chan didn’t have the money to pay for her, so he made a deal with a tea house owner: the girl would be Chan’s concubine, but during the days and evenings she would work at the tea house to pay off her own purchase price. That’s not an auspicious start for a relationship.
As time went on, May-ying had two baby girls. Chan wanted them educated in China, and between the two of them they had made enough money to go home for a while. When Chan Sam and May-ying returned to Canada, her daughters remained in China with Chan’s wife. They returned just in time for May-ying’s third child to be born on Canadian soil. It wasn’t the hoped for son that would have given her some prestige in the family, but another daughter- worthless in her eyes. In time, Chan Sam returned to China without May-ying to try and sire a son on his wife. This left the young May-ying in the unenviable position of financially supporting not just herself and her daughter, but Chan Sam, his wife in China, and her two daughters over there. Not to mention the costs of the mansion (by rural Chinese village standards) that Chan Sam was building in his village. That’s a lot to expect of a young woman. Even after Chan Sam returned to Canada, but had separated from May-ying, he showed up every week to collect the money she had earned. Not that he was lazy; he did back breaking work in the shingle mills and at any other job he could find. Employment was severely limited for the Chinese in North America.
May-ying was a badly damaged person. She sought solace in alcohol and gambling, and abused her daughter both physically and emotionally. I was horrified by the way she treated her, but the circumstances of May-ying’s life might have broken anyone. Thankfully, the daughter, who took the English name Winnie, had the inner reserves to survive, concentrating on school and getting away from home. She succeeded in doing so, through hard work and marriage, and brought up a great family. The author is Winnie’s second daughter.
After 50 years, the Canadian sister and the Chinese sister finally managed to meet in a 4 day visit that brought tears to my eyes. But what really hit an emotional chord was the way the Chinese family viewed May-ying: basically ignoring the money she’d sent for years, they saw her only as a very bad wife who brought only misery to Chan Sam. They were only given half the story.
It’s a very sad story of the miserable lives the Chinese in North America lived during the first half of the 20th century thanks to prejudice, and an even sadder one that as bad as those lives were, they were considered worth while because monetarily it was even worse in China. I’ve read a number of books about the Chinese in North America, and this one is the grimmest. But it’s a story I couldn’t put down and stayed up half the night reading.
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Read information about the authorDenise Chong, writer, public servant, political advisor (b at Vancouver, BC 9 June 1953). Denise Chong, a third-generation Canadian of Chinese descent, grew up in Prince George. She earned a BA in Economics at the University of British Columbia (1975) and an MA in Economics and Public Policy at the University of Toronto (1978). Chong began her writing career as a journalist on the Ubyssey, the UBC student newspaper. Denise Chong is renowned as a writer and commentator on Canadian history and on the family.
A 1987 visit to her mother's ancestral village in Guangdong inspired Chong's best-known book, The Concubine's Children (1994). It is the story of her grandmother May Ying (the concubine) and her mother Hing, and their life in the Chinatowns of British Columbia. Much of that history had been hidden from Chong's own generation. The book also tells the story of the family members who were unable to leave China, and lived there through the Japanese occupation, civil war, the Communist takeover, land reform, and the Cultural Revolution. It is a story of courage, survival, struggle, and eventual triumph.
The Concubine's Children won a number of awards, including the Edna Staebler Award for Creative Non-Fiction and the City of Vancouver Book Award. Translated into many languages, it touched a chord among readers far beyond the Chinese-Canadian world. The book celebrates the contributions immigrants have made to a country that may not have welcomed them warmly, but did allow them to make their way in life. Chong's work has stimulated other writers to embark on family histories, giving the stories of how their families settled in Canada. Denise Chong herself is a dedicated, though not a flag-waving, nationalist; her feelings are captured in her 1994 speech "Being Canadian," which has been widely anthologized.
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