A painful past paved with good intentions

January 22, 1995|By Judith Wynn

Is it any coincidence that literature by and about Chinese people attracts major attention in the United States whenever we're having major economic troubles? The Depression of the 1930s saw West Virginia-born novelist Pearl Buck win best-sellerdom and the Nobel Prize with her "Good Earth" trilogy despite indignant howls from American belletrists that the woman couldn't write her way out of a paper bag.

In this era of recession and layoffs, the hardships endured by the characters of Amy Tan ("The Kitchen God's Wife") and Lilian Lee ("Farewell to My Concubine") capture the popular imagination. Perhaps we're drawn to the writers' emphasis on the importance of emotional bonds during hard times.

Vancouver economist Denise Chong also writes about families and the ties that sometimes bind cruelly enough to ruin the best intentions. Her simply narrated but nevertheless compelling family memoir, "The Concubine's Children," tells how her maternal grandparents tried to make their fortune in the wide-open frontier society of early 20th-century Canada while clinging to ancient Chinese notions about a woman's proper place.

When 23-year-old Chan Sam went to Vancouver in 1911, he meant to stay just long enough to earn some money to buy farmland back home in China for his growing family. Twelve years of menial, backbreaking work later, he was still poor. He needed a helpmate, so he took young May-ying as his second wife -- his concubine. May-ying's function was that of a moneymaker, not a sexy status symbol.

Chan Sam put his new bride straight to work as a waitress in a Chinatown teahouse. Thanks to Canada's anti-Asian immigration laws, Chinese men outnumbered Chinese women 10-to-1. May-ying was a rarity among Vancouver Chinese, and her doll-like beauty won her so many tips that the couple were soon able to visit China in high style, buy land and leave their two little daughters to get a traditional education from Chan Sam's loyal "first wife."

Back in Canada in the 1930s, May-ying resented Chan Sam's sending all her money to his family in China. The couple had one more daughter -- the author's mother, Hing. Then they separated for good.

The most vivid part of "The Concubine's Children" describes May-ying's sorry slide from top-paid hostess to homeless alcoholic and compulsive gambler. Readers will root for daughter Hing as she gets herself through high school with top honors and into nursing college despite brutal beatings and verbal abuse by the increasingly desperate May-ying.

The author's mother, Hing -- like the heroine of Amy Tan's "The Joy Luck Club" -- eventually visits post-Mao China in search of her long-lost sisters. But where Ms. Tan ends on the threshold of what promises to be a happy reunion, Ms. Chong explores the bitterness and loss of long separation. "The Concubine's Children" leaves us feeling awed by the small and heartbreakingly expensive victories of immigrants such as Chan Sam and May-ying.

Ms. Wynn is a writer who lives in Massachusetts.

Title: "The Concubine's Children: Portrait of a Family Divided"

Author: Denise Chong

Publisher: Viking

Length, price: 266 pages, $21.95

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