Lives of the Family by Denise Chong – book review

by Edith Cody-Rice

Lives of the FamilyIn Lives of the Family Ottawa author Denise Chong has written an informative and important book for the history of Canada. Author of the best selling  The Concubine’s Children, (1994) about her Chinese family’s experience in Canada, The Girl in the Picture (1999) about the life of the young girl  in the iconic photo of her fleeing Napalm in war torn Vietnam, and Egg on Mao, (2009)about an ordinary man who defaced an icon and unmasked a dictatorship, she has now turned her attention to multiple Chinese families who emigrated to Canada from the 1920’s to the 60’s. Many of the families that she chooses to describe lived and live in and around Ottawa.

For those of us who grew up in small towns, where there was always one Chinese restaurant, we enjoyed the novelty of the food (in those that served Chinese-American food) but never asked ourselves about the discrimination and agonies of the people who ran them. Ms. Chong outlines the difficult dual lives led by those lucky enough to end up in Canada, although luck is a relative term. For the early “pioneers” as they were called, they endured isolation, loneliness and discrimination for the sake of returning, relatively wealthy, to their Chinese villages. They kept entire families and numerous extended family members going with their significant remittances from Canada , and if they were fortunate and worked hard, sometimes, after 20-30 years, they could retire to a respected existence in China, before the Japanese invasion and the Communist revolution, that is. Separations of  20-30 years were not uncommon sometimes due to the expense of bringing relatives to Canada, particularly when the $500 head tax was in effect and sometimes due to the Exclusion Act which kept Chinese relatives out of Canada for a significant part of the 20th century. Subterfuge in the form of “paper families” was common, a practice a claiming another person’s  child as one’s own in order to facilitate immigration. Cash on delivery brides were also a common feature of a people who were fleeing grinding poverty at home. Poor their Chinese homes may have been, but the new immigrants longed for them and the familiarity of their villages. Trapped in a culture without Chinese books, cinema and few Asian cultural amenities, they worked extremely hard in laundries and restaurants to eke out a living for themselves and their families back in China.

Chinese families in Canada, as in Asia had a great sense of family obligation and children often sacrificed their own independence to help out their parents. They also had their own community among which they socialized and married, but they were largely cut out of the larger culture.

We Caucasians in Canada were largely oblivious to the extended families and to the traffic to and from China. The Communist revolution tragically destroyed the properties that many had laboured in isolation in Canada to acquire. How isolated they were is illustrated by a Chinese restauranteur in Perth, Ontario, whose husband died, leaving her to manage a 7 day a week business with only her children to help. Although her husband had contributed generously to the community in Perth, she noted with some bitterness that no one stepped forward to help her at this very difficult time.

Although they enjoyed their gambling dens, the Chinese were and are industrious, entrepreneurial and great savers, and that industrious small town restauranteur ended her days a millionaire.

The Chinese experience in Canada is a vital part of our cultural heritage and we have few writers to tell us about it. Denise Chong writes well and tells a compelling story. She does a great service by bringing that experience to the fore.