Thursday, January 26, 2012

Book Review: Wayson Choy, The Jade Peony

Written in a memoir-like fashion, Wayson Choy lays out a life and time of Vancouver’s Chinatown before and during the Second World War in The Jade Peony that is as beautifully lyrical as it is educationally dignified. Choy’s narrative spikes with moments of sympathy that cross gender, race, sex, and ethnic lines that shade in the boundaries of generational gaps and experiences. It also digs deep to explicate rather than exploit the delicacies of familial intra-relationships and the legacies imprinted in our psyche by each and all connection.

In one sense, The Jade Peony is a collective of ideals and individualization of desires. The triptych comprising Choy’s narrative spans three siblings living in the same immigrant household in Vancouver’s Chinatown. In another, it is a fragmented view into the dignity and pride that govern struggles for autonomy and personal identity amidst the broad strokes of collective heritage and experience.

Jook-Liang, the little sister, longs to be a performer in the vein of Shirley Temple. She finds a supportive and encouraging audience in family friend Wong Bak, a deformed elderly man from the old country. Jung-Sum, or second brother, is adopted from China and arrives in Vancouver weighed down by childhood traumas. He finds a sense of belonging and peace through boxing. Third brother Sekky is often plagued with illness and retreats within himself to cope. His witness to the forbidden relationship between a Chinese girl and Japanese boy forefronts the frightful and devastating consequences only intolerance can justify.

The binding for all these narratives is that of Poh-Poh, the “Old One” or Grandmother. It is she who bestows the jade peony to the children as their inheritance. More significantly, she bestows an even greater inheritance, that of a rich cultural heritage and the importance and necessity for holding on to the “old way."

Discrimination and poverty stream through the Choy’s prose not unexpectedly when one is attempting to convey early immigrant experiences. Choy tempers this pulse by aligning hope and wit parallel, refusing to allow his story and its readers to give into despair. His representation of a proud people struggling against financial, gender, ethnic, and sexual constraints is what truly makes The Jade Peony heart warming and dignified.

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