Jessie Kuei-yi Chu
Dr. Kate Liu and Wen-chi Lin
Postmodern Film and Fiction
Reconstructing Chinese Canadian Women's History in
Sky Lee's Disappearing Moon Cafe
Disappearing Moon Cafe represents another form of immigrants' history narrated by Chinese Canadian female writer, Kae Ying Woo in the novel as well as the author of Disappearing Moon Cafe, Sky Lee. Both Kae Ying Woo and Sky Lee re-investigate and re-write the official document about Chinese Canadian history; moreover, they interweave the public history with the private history in order to present another view, a subversive view of the marginalized other in the white people's history. Besides, the mixed genres of melodrama, fiction and history claim the in-between position of Chinese Canadian and confirm their hybridized identity of both cultures.
First of all, I would like to discuss the significance of searching bones. The story begins with Wong Gwei Chang's seeking for bones in order to send them back to China for a proper burial. Bones buried in the native land is the traditional idea to return back home. For the first-generation immigrants, it means for them to go back to China and to reunite with their family. It also shows the first immigrants' deep-rooted Chinese identity. The second significance of searching bones is to praise and confirm Chinese labor's hard working and endurance during building Canada Pacific Railroad. The third significance is that searching the fragments of bones juxtaposes with Kae Ying Woo / Sky Lee's searching the fragments of memory and stories in order to construct a Chinese Canadian history.
After the discussion of searching bones and reconstructing history, I would like to elaborate the mergery of family history and official history. There are two important historical events in Disappearing Moon Cafe; one is Chinese Exclusion Act in 1923, the other is the death of Janet Smith in 1924. Due to Chinese Exclusion Act, there were few women in Chinese community in Canada. The subsequent controversial event of the murder of Janet Smith reinforced Canadians' xenophobia of Chinese. These two historical events make the Chinese community a secluded and alienated society. Chinese women became a "valued possession" in the community. Both Mui Lan and Fong Mei reveal women oppressed by Chinese men and relevant political policies. It is described vividly in Mui Lan's reaction when she firstly came to Canada,
And Mui Lan's nightmare was loneliness. She arrived and found only silence. A stone silence that tripped her up when she tried to reach out. Gold Mountain men were like stone. She looked around for women to tell her what was happening, but there were none. By herself, she lacked the means to know what to do next. Without her society of women, Mui Lan lost substance. Over the years, she became bodiless, or was it soulless, and the only way she could come back was by being noisy and demanding-because if nothing else, she was still the boss's wife, wasn't she? (26)
The passage depicts Mui Lan's diasporic experience in Canada not only for the unknown language but also the lack of companionship. There are few conversations between her and her husband, Gwei Chang. She is nagging and demanding in order to assure her existence because she knows that her identity is based on her son and her husband, she actually has no individuality. Even on her official document of entry, she is not identified as Lee Mui Lan, "she was simply the mother of Gwei Chang's only son. Stamped on her entry papers: 'a merchant's wife.' A wife in name only, she relied heavily on him for her identity in this land, even though the hard distance remained on her husband's face. And this she could only bear in silence" (28). Resulted from her life experience, Mui Lan uses the same criteria to demand her son and her daughter-in-law, Fong Mei. Having a son to inherit the family name is a priority for traditional Chinese women. After five-year marriage, Fong Mei still has no offspring, Mui Lan even threatens to send her back to China. (58-9) In order to survive in the male oriented family lineage, Fong Mei seduces Ting An to have sex with her. She then gives birth three children (Suzanne, John and Beatrice) and stabilizes her position in the Wong family. On the other hand, Mui Lan arrange a girl, Song Ang, to be Choy Fuck's concubine in order to have a son for the Wong family. Then the truth of Choy Fuk's impotency uncovers through his relationship with Song Ang. Choy Fuk becomes a joke in Chinatown, at last, he begs Song Ang to be pregnant to save his face. So Song Ang has a son, Keeman with Woo. The sophisticated relationships lead to the young generations' incestuous relationship and identity problem within this enclosed community. As the narrator comments, "[s]ince 1923 the Chinese Exclusion Act had taken its heavenly toll. The rapidly diminishing chinese-canadian community had withdrawn into itself, ripe for incest" (147). It reflects on Kae Ying's aunt, Suzanne and Morgan. They have the same father, Ting An Wong, but they are not aware of it and fall in love with each other. For this traumatic experience of incestuous relationship with his sister and Suzanne's committing suicide, Morgan begins to unravel the secrets of the secluded Chinese Canadian community.
As for the structure of the whole work, I would like to discuss the diverse time period, the frame structure and the mixed genres. Firstly, the diversity of time breaks the linear history and demonstrates the fluidity of history in woman's narration. Secondly, the frame structure of prologue and epilogue presents Wong Gwei Chang's reminiscence of his life. It is a typical form of history, memoir or biography; however, the body of the fiction portrays four-generation Chinese Canadian women's lives in Canada via Kae's narration. It is woman's constructing and speaking their own history within the frame of Chinese male history (family lineage book) and Canadian official history. Thirdly, the mixed genres of melodrama, fiction and history, enable Sky Lee to unravel the repressed history of Chinese Canadian men and women. The hybridized genres reflect Chinese Canadian's rejecting to categorize to either Chinese culture or Canadian culture but claims a in-between identity.
To sum up, Disappearing Moon Cafe elaborates early Chinese female immigrants' peripheral position under the double oppression of Chinese men and the white's political policy. Although the structure of the work seems to be a traditional form of Gwei Chang's memoir or biography, the author subverts within this genre. Lee and the writer in the novel, Kae, constitute the work of four-generation Chinese Canadian women's lives. In this way, it is Sky Lee's deconstruction and reconstruction of collective Chinese immigration history and Chinese Canadian women's history. By intertwining family stories and public history, Lee and Kae traces the past history to place the self in the present. For the arrangement of structure and subversive form, and the harmonious ending, both Kae and Lee assert a hybrid identity of Chinese Canadian who inherit both Chinese and Canadian cultures, languages and histories.
Chao, Lien. "Constituting Minority Canadian Women and our Sub-Cultures: Female Characters in Selected Chinese Canadian Literature."
Henggan, Graham. "The Latitudes of Romance: Representations of Chinese Canada in Bowering's To All Appearances A Lady and Lee's Disappearing Moon Cafe." Canadian Literature 140 (spring 1994): 34-48.
Lee, Sky. Disappearing Moon Cafe. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 1990.