3.5 of 5 stars
This is one Chinese immigrant family’s experience in Vancouver during the late 1930s and into the 1940s during WWII. The three youngest children of the family alternate points of view in the first person aging from about 6 to 10 in their individual sections. The oldest of the three is Jung who is adopted by the family. Liang, the only daughter was born in Canada as was Sekky, the youngest boy. The story chronicles their struggles to juggle the old ways that their parents and elderly Grandmother espouse and the new, modern ways of English Canada.
Fitting in isn’t always easy and each of the three has their challenges. As the only girl, Liang often is made to feel less worthy than the favoured boys, especially by her grandmother. She dreams of following in Shirley Temple’s tap shoes and wants to be a modern girl. Jung is haunted by a traumatic childhood, before he was adopted. He finds boxing is the way to fit in for him and then realizes he’s attracted to entirely the wrong person. Sekky, born in Canada and sickly as a small child, is later entranced by the War and he and his friends play war games all the time but the realities of the consequences of this war are a bit more profound than anyone expected.
All of the characters are written very well. It’s interesting to read about the immigrant experience, and a little sad, too since at that time, the Chinese were not considered good enough to be in mainstream society, marginalized and isolated. The older generation clings to the traditional “Old China” ways while the new, (mostly) Canadian born generation leans into the modern world. They change their names, they dare to dream to find their place in Canadian culture and society. The grandmother spends most of her attention on the youngest boy, Sekky, who is sickly and they become very close. It’s not surprising then, that amidst all the traditional stories about ghosts and spirits that he’s the one that can see her after she dies.
The racism that the Chinese have for the Japanese is highlighted when the war begins and the neighbours are following the Japanese attacks on their homeland overseas. Sekky’s war games are always about beating the Nazis and the Japanese. He is fervent about his “enemies” until he’s shocked when he discovers that his babysitter’s boyfriend is Japanese. Liang’s section, the first one, is shorter than the others and revolves around her relationship with an older family friend who treats her with respect, something she doesn’t get a lot of from her grandmother who is the driving force behind the family.
I did find that once each of the first two sections was finished, we really didn’t hear much more about those two children, other than in the perifery of Sekky’s world and it felt like things were left hanging. Even Sekky’s section, which I did enjoy, ended in a tragedy and there wasn’t more than that. There is now a sequel about the oldest brother, which I may seek out at some point. This is a debut novel and it wasn’t bad. The writing and the world and their family through the eyes of the children was well thought out and depicted. The book is fairly short and I think it could have used a bit more to tie it all together at times.