In the tradition of The Concubine's Children and Paper Shadows, a probing memoir from the author of the acclaimed novel Midnight at the Dragon Cafe.
An elegant and surprising book about a Chinese family's difficult arrival in Canada, and a daughter's search to understand remarkable and terrible truths about her parents' past lives.
Growing up in her father's hand laundry in small town Ontario, Judy Fong Bates listened to stories of her parents' past lives in China, a place far removed from their every-day life of poverty and misery. But in spite of the allure of these stories, Fong Bates longed to be a Canadian girl. Fifty years later she finally followed her curiosity back to her ancestral home in China for a reunion that spiralled into a series of unanticipated discoveries. Opening with a shock as moving as the one that powers The Glass Castle, The Year of Finding Memory explores a particular, yet universal, world of family secrets, love, loss, courage and shame. This is a memoir of a daughter's emotional journey, and her painful acceptance of conflicting truths. In telling the story of her parents, Fong Bates is telling the story of how she came to know them, of finding memory.
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JUDY FONG BATES is the author of the critically acclaimed short-story collection China Dog and other Tales from a Chinese Laundry, and the novel Midnight at the Dragon Café, which was the 2007 Everybody Reads selection of Portland, Oregon, and an American Library Association Notable Book for 2006. She lives with her husband on a farm outside of Toronto.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
I would have preferred something a little more subtle, but the pink geraniums were past their prime, the leaves beginning to brown. The red ones, however, had leaves that were new and green, with clusters of buds yet to blossom. There was a limited selection of plants at the greengrocer’s, and I had walked up and down in front of the racks outside the store several times. I had contemplated other flowers this year, but for as long as I could remember, whenever my family visited the graves, they took geraniums. It was hard to know whether they had been chosen because of their low price or their symbolic value or because of superstition. Like so many rituals from my childhood, the longevity of the tradition had taken on a significance of its own, and to depart from an established way of doing things might pose a risk. We had always done it this way. And nothing bad had happened. So why change? Why risk the wrath of the gods? I picked the four best plants, and my husband put them in the back of our station wagon.
Michael and I had just picked up my brother Shing from his suburban home north of Toronto for the annual visit to my parents’ graves at Mount Pleasant Cemetery. On that particular day in early June of 2006, the sky was cloudless and the air in the city felt thin. I noticed that every year, no matter which day we chose for the grave ceremony, the sun shone. I no longer bothered to check the weather forecast.
Shing is actually my half-brother, a son from my father’s first marriage. He is a gentle man who possesses a quiet dignity. When he left China for Hong Kong in 1950, he was twenty years old. A year later, when he arrived in Toronto, a village uncle who owned a restaurant gave him a job as a waiter. Eventually he found a position at the post office sorting mail. He regards himself as fortunate to have a government pension that has given him and his wife a modest retirement. I have a photograph of him taken in the early fifties. Dressed in a pale summer suit, he is leaning against a shiny, black car, a beaming smile on his face. I once asked him if the car belonged to him or a friend. He laughed and said he had no idea who owned the car.
My parents’ plot is marked by a pink granite headstone, with their names boldly engraved in English and Chinese. Unlike the older, established part of Mount Pleasant, where the graceful canopies of tall, elegant trees provide shade and refuge, the area where my parents are buried is like a suburb on the edge of town, with sun-baked expanses of lawn, trees and shrubs not yet mature. The graves have names like Wong, Lee, Choy, Seto and Fong.
Shing and I had filled our watering cans at the nearby tap. Michael was crouching in front of the stone, digging two holes with a trowel. As soon as he finished, he poured water into the holes and waited for it to soak in. He then removed the two geraniums from their pots and planted them. He rinsed the gravestone with the leftover water, and with a small twig he cleaned out any moss that had grown inside the engraved characters. Lastly, he pruned the conical cedar bushes on either side of the grave. Every year my husband performed this custodial role for the graves of people who weren’t his parents while their children watched. Once Michael completed the tidying, my brother and I arranged the offering of oranges, dumplings and cups of tea on the grass. I had never been able to do this without thinking of it as a picnic for the dead. Shing then handed me a sheaf of spirit money, which he had purchased in Chinatown. Every colourful bill was printed with denominations in the millions and billions, money needed for bribing evil spirits in order to ensure safe passage into the afterlife. I stuffed the paper inside a large coffee tin while Shing made up three bundles of incense sticks. Michael struck a match, lit the sticks, then tossed the match into the can, igniting all those bills.
I am not a religious woman. Nevertheless, as a good Chinese daughter, I have performed these rituals every year since my father’s death—but I have never left with a sense of peace, unable to escape the fact that unhappiness permeated my parents’ marriage. No contented sighs over lives that had been filled with challenges but were ultimately well lived. It was impossible not to think about their loneliness and about my father’s sad end. After all these years, I still tasted a residue of shame in my mouth. As I watched Shing bow three times in front of the headstone, with the incense sticks still in his hands, I wondered if he was thinking the same thing. The memories that no one in my family dared to voice. I watched Shing as he jammed the smouldering incense into the earth next to the flowers. Was he also haunted by our father’s death? Or was he thinking ahead to China, a land we had not seen for more than fifty years?
Earlier in the year, my half-sister Ming Nee, my mother’s daughter from her first marriage, had proposed a family trip back to China that would include her, our brothers Shing and Doon—another son from my father’s first marriage—and me. Her husband was a university professor, and through his work they had travelled frequently over the years to the Far East. She had been back to visit our family in China several times. Although Ming Nee had initiated this journey home, it turned out that she would be unable to accompany us, as our needs and her husband’s schedule were incompatible. Nevertheless, her suggestion had planted an idea that my brothers and I could not ignore: we knew that the time had come for us to return. I wanted to be with my brothers for this homecoming, and the trip would also include Michael and Shing’s wife, Jen, and Doon’s wife, Yeng.
When Shing and Doon had left China, they were young men looking to the future. How vivid were those memories of growing up across the ocean? My brothers had left behind in China a sister in her early twenties and an older brother in his early thirties, each married with young children. The brother was now dead and the sister was seventy-six and widowed. The last time we saw each other, I was three. It was shocking how little I knew about these half-siblings. If my sister had passed me on the street, I would not have recognized her.
Shing and Doon, though, sent money to the family in China every year. They were close in age to this sister and had grown up with her in a village I had never seen. They watched out for each other after their mother died during the Second World War and their father was stranded on the other side of the world. I knew that my role in this return journey would be peripheral. They were returning to a homeland; I would be exploring a foreign country, a place of great curiosity but no real emotional attachment. My home was here. I was a happily married woman, with a teaching career that had lasted more than twenty years and had achieved some professional success as a writer. I had raised two healthy, independent daughters, the oldest married and expecting her first child. I owned my own home. I had survived my parents’ unhappy marriage and my father’s tragic death. In China I would be more like my Anglo-Canadian husband—a tourist, sitting on the sidelines, watching someone else’s momentous occasion.
Shing finished paying his respects and indicated to Michael and me that it was our turn to pray. I bowed three times, but I was no longer thinking about my parents. I was thinking of the deep anticipation that my brother must have felt when he first decided to make the journey to China. It was an anticipation I would never know. A twinge of envy pricked at my heart.
The food that we had set in front of the gravestone was packed away in a cooler and stored inside the station wagon, ready to take back to Shing’s house. We climbed into the car and drove across the cemetery to where Second Uncle was buried. His grave is marked by a tiny, rectangular grey stone, chiselled with just his name and date of death in Chinese characters. This area has only small, flat memorial markers, and like my uncle’s the inscriptions are all in Chinese. Every year we needed to wander for several minutes to find his marker because it was always overgrown with grass. But this year we found it quickly; Michael had remembered that there was a yew tree nearby, with a distinctive shape. Second Uncle had brought no children to the Gold Mountain, no son or daughter to honour his grave. Other than the fact that he was an older brother who had come to Canada with my father in the early part of the twentieth century, as a child I knew almost nothing about him, not even his name—and by the time my mother joined my father in Canada, this man had been dead for several years.
But every year Shing reminded me to buy flowers to plant for Second Uncle. I stood looking at his gravestone and thought about my parents’ resting place—their upright, shining, granite headstone proudly proclaiming their status in Canada. And yet it was Second Uncle’s humble marker that spoke the truth. I was only too aware of how sad and difficult my parents’ lives had been in this country that remained foreign to them until they died.
On April 6, 1914, the day my father and his older brother arrived in Canada, a Vancouver newspaper, the Daily News Advertiser, forecast fair and warm weather. Further down the front page, the mayor of Vancouver expressed concern about the large number of Chinese who were entering the country. He emphasized the uncontrollable temper of Orientals, proof of their unpredictability, making them unsuitable candidates for immigration. On the same day, the Vancouver Daily World carried a story from a canning mill about a Chinese worker who, after being criticized by his white foreman, picked up his superior and in a fit of anger tried to throw him into a boiling cauldron. However, the Chinaman—or “Celestial” as he was called—was restrained and disaster was averted. Compared to the white Canadians, my father and the Chinese men of his generation were small. When I discovered these stories in the Vancouver newspaper archives, it was hard for me to reconcile this portrayal of a violent, impulsive Chinese man with my docile father and others like him whom I had seen over the years whenever I visited Chinatown in Toronto.
I distinctly recall from my early childhood one particular customer who came into my father’s hand laundry, a giant, red-faced man who stomped through the door, stood in front of the wooden counter and banged its surface with a clenched fist until my father appeared. Waving his hand dismissively, the man leaned against the counter and boomed, “I know. No tickee, no laundree. You find, Charlie. You find.” My father untied and folded back the brown paper from package after package of cleaned and pressed garments until the man recognized his clothes. He never apologized for the extra work he put my father through. And my father never protested. Instead, he nodded his head up and down, a stiff smile plastered across his face. I peeked from behind the curtain that hung over the doorway, separating the service from the washing areas. Blood rushed to my cheeks. But the next time this man came into our laundry with his sack of dirty clothes, my father wrote a name in Chinese characters on each half of the ticket before giving the man’s portion to him. When the man returned for his finished laundry a few days later, again without his half of the slip, my father had to unwrap only one package. The man was speechless and managed to mutter no more than thank you as he left the laundry. My father later told me that he’d written the man’s name on his half of the ticket.
“But he doesn’t have a Chinese name,” I said.
“Oh, yes, he does,” said my father. “His name is Mo Noh Suk, No-Brain Uncle. I wrote it on his ticket and inside the collars of his shirts.”
My father may have loathed the lowly position that he occupied in the small towns where we lived, but he never forgot it. He was meek and fearful of authority. Any anger he felt about the treatment he received from his customers and townsfolk he kept to himself. The closest he came to an act of defiance was to bestow an unflattering name in a foreign language, which he would then inscribe in black ink with a fine-nibbed pen inside their clothes. The notion that someone like my tiny father could so much as threaten, let alone attack, a lo fon and lift him off the ground, is so preposterous the thought of it is almost funny.
But there was, in fact, nothing funny about the way that people like my father were perceived by the lo fons of that time. The Chinese were considered to be undesirable, perhaps even subhuman. When I researched the records from the ship that brought my father to Vancouver, I found that passengers who were of European descent had specific destinations: cities like Calgary, Regina, Winnipeg, Toronto, Montreal; they were recognized as individuals, and as Anglican, Presbyterian, Baptist, Roman Catholic. But the Chinese passengers were a monolithic yellow horde. Every one of them was listed as a Buddhist, and regardless of where the Chinaman stepped off the train, as far as these records were concerned, he was going to Montreal, Montreal being the train’s final stop.
Along with hundreds of other Chinese, my father and his older brother had travelled in steerage for three weeks across the Pacific on the Empress of Russia. They and their fellow countrymen were greeted by an embrace of warm, spring air and the sight of snow-capped mountains meeting the sky. But directly in front of them loomed tall white men, shouting and herding them off the ship. I can picture my father: head bent, wearing a dark, quilted jacket, gripping a bamboo suitcase in one hand, the other arm swinging, as he disembarked with all those passengers from China, huddled together, moving in a group. What did these two brothers who were going to wash clothes in the town of Timmins expect from this place that we Chinese called Gam Sun, the Gold Mountain? Surely they had heard from those who had returned to China about mistreatment at the hands of the white men. Did knowing these stories blunt the sting of the lo fons’ disdain?
My father often talked about how hard the Canadian government made it for the Chinese to immigrate. I could tell from his tone that he resented it, but at the same time, there was a sense of resignation, as if life offered no other solution. He understood his bottom-rung position in this new world and felt powerless to do anything about it. His days had become an endless cycle of laundry: sorting, washing, ironing. If there were times he might have felt rich, they were on the return journeys to his village in China, where he would have been welcomed as a Gam Sun huk, a Gold Mountain guest, whose few words of English spleen, spat out in exasperation in any restaurant, would have brought the most arrogant waiter running.
It has only recently occurred to me that because my father returned to China five times, he would have seen that long stretch between Vancouver an...
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