Category Archives: Chinese American

Bird by Crystal Chan

BirdIn the small town of Caledonia, Iowa, Jewel stands out: she’s “‘half-Jamaican, a quarter white, and a quarter Mexican.’” As if to provide a physical embodiment of Jewel’s hapa background, the audible producers cast Amandla Stenberg, who played the heartbreaking role of young Rue in the film version of The Hunger Games. No doubt, Stenberg’s nuanced narration is a literary gift.

While Jewel’s appearance marks her as different in Caledonia, her family’s tragedy is what most circumscribes her young life. On the day she was born, her 5-year-old brother John – called Bird for “the way he kept jumping off things” – plummeted off a nearby cliff as he “tried to fly.” With his death, Grandpa stopped talking. Birthdays, understandably, were the most difficult of all: “I’ve always had to share my special day with the silence behind Grandpa’s closed door and the silence at the cemetery and the silence that hangs thick between Mom and Dad’s words.”

On the night of her 12th birthday, Jewel finds a stranger in “her” tree: a boy named John who is as “dark as the night sky,” who introduces himself as a neighbor’s visiting nephew from Virginia. He bluntly explains his lack of family resemblance: “‘I’m adopted. Raised by white people. It’s not as bad as it sounds.’” As the two become fast friends, Grandpa becomes agitated to the point of violence; he’s convinced that John is a “duppy” – an evil spirit from Caribbean folklore that Grandpa and Jewel’s father believe caused Bird’s death. Yet John’s possible resemblance to a brother she never knew makes him that much more intriguing to Jewel. For the rest of her family, John’s presence is both threatening and comforting, and eventually forces the too-many secrets to break through their silent surface.

Debut author Crystal Chan clearly shares a Midwest, small-town, mixed-race background with her protagonist: in addition to her bio, her author website offers a fun FAQ page with the question “What mix are you?” Her answer, complete with two photographs as a child with each parent, is: “My dad is from Hong Kong, and my mom is from Wisconsin and is of Polish descent. So I grew up eating pierogies, along with stir fry.”

Chan writes deftly not only about being different surrounded by homogeneity, but the conflict within those differences for both Jewel and transracially adopted John. Bird proves to be an empathetic, resonating read, full of wisdom, grace, hope, and – of course – the greatest love.

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 2014

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Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, African American, Carribbean American, Chinese American, Hapa, Latino/a

The Year of the Baby and The Year of the Fortune Cookie by Andrea Cheng, illustrated by Patrice Barton

Year of the Baby and Year of the Fortune Cookie

When I read Andrea Cheng‘s The Year of the Book almost two years ago, I had no clue it would turn out to be a series! Such staying power bodes well that later printings of Book have been fully corrected; click on The Year of the Book post for details. And although original illustrator Abigail Halpin is missing from these subsequent two titles, Patrice Barton‘s similar style is just as whimsically entrancing.

In the second of the series, The Year of the Baby (2013) – the paperback edition pubs today! – Anna Wang is a year older and in the fifth grade. Her best friends are still Laura and Camille. She continues with her Chinese school, but Laura is now taking classes, too, even though “[s]he’s the only one in the whole school who’s not at least half Chinese.”

The biggest change in Anna’s life is the eponymous ‘baby’: Kaylee is Anna’s new sister, recently adopted from China. As adorable as she is, Kaylee is also stubborn – and getting her to eat is especially difficult. Even the doctors are worried that she’s not thriving, so Grandma arrives from San Francisco to help. Anna “[s]eems to have the magic” and, with Camille’s help, she figures out how to combine science and song to get Kaylee to open wide.

Next hitting shelves – in May – is The Year of the Fortune Cookie, in which Anna starts middle school (already!) as a sixth-grader. Laura’s moved to a nearby private school, leaving Anna convinced that Camille is her “only friend.” While Anna adjusts to the new year, her fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Sylvester – who was so thrilled and inspired to meet Kaylee in Baby – calls to say that she and her husband have been approved to pick up their new daughter in China. Although Anna and her mother had initially planned to join the Sylvesters together, Mrs. Wang’s schedule and finances don’t allow for the trip; instead the Sylvesters arrange to take just Anna as their cultural and conversational helper.

Anna arrives in Beijing with a “perfect” empty journal to fill from Camille, and 12 paper fortune cookies – to be opened each day she’s away from home – from her new buddy Andee. Between exploring Beijing with the Sylvesters, Anna makes a new Chinese friend and at visit’s end, miraculously visits the orphanage where Kaylee once lived. She also experiences defining moments in better understanding and appreciating her hybrid identity. Like the fortune cookie, she might be considered Chinese, but she’s actually an all-American multicultural creation.

Although all three Anna Wang titles thus far celebrate girl-powered fun, Fortune Cookie presents some challenges with basic plausibility: that the Sylvesters would choose an 11-year-old with limited Chinese proficiency to be their cultural emissary seems far-fetched (fluent Camille would have been the better choice); that Anna – herself a first-time visitor to China – seems to have so much freedom to roam the hotel, visit her brand-new, older friend’s family alone, not to mention to wander the streets without any supervision, feels fictional at best, downright irresponsible in reality. That Cheng’s younger readers might choose to emulate such adventures in any new city seems a reckless and dangerous possibility.

Potential overreactions aside, Anna has plenty of tween insight to share about friendships, siblings, school, and negotiating new experiences, both far away and closer to home. She – and the series – have plenty of room to grow. We’ll definitely keep watching … and reading!

Readers: Middle Grade

Published: 2013, 2014

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Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, .Drama/Theater, Chinese American

The Great White Way: Race and the Broadway Musical by Warren Hoffman

Great White WayTheater producer/critic/playwright Warren Hoffman (The Passing Game) insists that audiences have been “duped” into believing that the Broadway musical “is the most innocent of art forms when, in fact, it is one of America’s most powerful, influential, and even at times polemical arts precisely because it often seems to be about nothing at all.”

Filtering many of Broadway’s beloved spectacles through a race-sensitive lens, the author eschews complicit complacency: sing, dance, and clap along, he says, but open your eyes and see that Show Boat, for instance, “validate[s] and rationalize[s] the ‘inferiority’ of blacks and the ‘superiority’ of whites”; Oklahoma! erases the Native American experience in their own Indian Territory; and Annie Get Your Gun puts Native Americans center stage only in “stereotypical if not downright racist” characterizations. The multicultural A Chorus Line, the author says, ironically ends with the bittersweet elision of individuality into “One,” and 42nd Street is little more than revisionist “pure white fantasy.” While Hoffman’s ideas are important, his execution is rife with repetition, inflammatory rhetoric, and surprising lapses (e.g., Miss Saigon‘s yellowface casting controversy).

Verdict: While all culture aficionados should read this book – indeed, a condensed version of it should be inserted into every musical’s playbill – few may reach the final page.

Review: “Arts and Humanities,” Library Journal, March 1, 2014

Readers: Adult

Published: 2014

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Drama/Theater, .Nonfiction, African American, Chinese American, Jewish, Native American

Avatar: The Last Airbender | The Rift (Part One) created by Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino, script by Gene Luen Yang, art by Gurihiru, lettering by Michael Heisler

Avatar Rift1Although our son incessantly watched various versions of the Avatar series on television and even more often on DVD, I had little knowledge for years of who’s who or what’s what. The casting controversy of the 2010 film version disastrously directed by M. Night Shyamalan is what actually made me take close notice (not to mention the ridiculously official email requests for assistance with finding the nameless “Asian-looking” faces for the anonymous large crowd scenes; nasty replies flew back!). And then 2006 and 2013 National Book Award finalist Gene Luen Yang took over the printed storyline in 2012, and I’ve been utterly hooked since!

The third and latest three-part adventure from Yang and company, The Rift, hits shelves mid-March – get your pre-orders in now! To find out how the city of Yu Dao – which both the Fire Nation and Earth Kingdom cohabit peacefully – has become “the example” that the other colonies are all trying to emulate, you’ll first have to read The Promise and then The Search to get the full picture – highly encouraged!

While celebrating the announcement of Yu Dao’s new coalition government, Aang is visited by the spirit of Avatar Yangchen, Aang’s predecessor “four Avatars ago.” She’s obviously in distress, but Aang is unable to hear her warnings. He later realizes that he’s being called to observe the Yangchen Festival, “one of the highest holidays on the Air Nomad calendar,” which “hasn’t been celebrated in over a hundred years.”

Gathering Katara, Sokka, metalbending buddy Toph Beifong, and three Air acolytes, Aang flies Appa (their fluffy mode of transport) to “a cliff overlooking the ocean” where the festival traditionally begins. As the motley crew parades down to the meadow, what they see, smell, and experience is not the “sacred place” it should be: “This is what Yangchen was trying to tell me,” Aang comes to understand her silent entreaty. Keeping the newfound peace here is going to be quite the challenge.

Yang makes Rift especially contemporary, adding environmental health to issues of loyalty, power, parent/child filial duties, sacred bonds, gendered expectations, and (of course) much more. Intertwined with all that swashbuckling flying and bending entertainment are always subtle reminders to think and act beyond one’s comfort zones. Lessons to be learned for us all.

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 2014

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Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Graphic Novel/Manga/Manwha, Chinese American, Pan-Asian Pacific American

The Undertaking of Lily Chen by Danica Novgorodoff

Undertaking of Lily ChenBefore Danica Novgorodoff‘s story even begins, her dedication page offers crucial tidbits: in paying homage to her grandparents, she reveals both her Chinese heritage and inspiration ["To my grandparents, Eugene and Ellen Chen Novgorodoff"]; in quoting a July 2007 article from The Economist (we’re talking pretty much now!), she prepares readers with an introduction to “a burgeoning market for female corpses, the result of the reappearance of a strange custom called ‘ghost marriages,’” in which parents of unmarried dead sons hold posthumous ‘weddings’ to prevent their progeny entering the next world alone. [Might I suggest Yangsze Choo's The Ghost Bride as a most ingenious companion text?]

Wei Li, the favored older son of the Li family, is dead. Accident though it was, his younger brother Deshi remains responsible. Following a tradition that possibly began in 208 AD when a powerful warlord demanded “the body of a woman” to “lie with [his dead young son] in the dark eternal bedroom,” the Li brothers’ parents give Deshi a bag of cash, a beast of burden, and demand he return in exactly a week with a wife for Wei.

Following advice from a dwarfish matchmaker who sends him to skeezy Mr. Song, Deshi searches for a suitable spouse, even if that means digging six feet under. When a love match doesn’t turn up, Deshi goes in search of a fresher candidate. He meets Lily, the obstinate, feisty daughter of a remote villager mired in financial woes; Lily impulsively steals Deshi’s ride forcing him to give chase. Their unexpected journey together begins – Deshi trying to get to that wedding on time with the perfect guest, Lily intending to escape her provincial life for a new beginning in the big city. Sunday’s deadline (couldn’t resist) looms … and somehow Deshi must fulfill his filial duties, even if that means, uh … dying for love.

Corpses and ghosts aside – not to mention that not-so-subtle skull on the book’s cover – Undertaking is quite the heartstrings-pulling story for this Valentine’s Day. No, really! Novgorodoff’s original narrative and her can’t-turn-away-from-the-action-packed-art definitely trump chocolate and flowers any day.

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2014

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Graphic Novel/Manga/Manwha, Chinese, Chinese American, Hapa

Images of America: Chinese in Hollywood by Jenny Cho and the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California

Chinese in HollywoodIn spite of a history that spans centuries – especially in California – Hollywood has long remained an elusive destination for Asian Pacific Americans seeking not always celluloid glory, but at the very least, mere participation and fair representation. From immigration restrictions, limited casting opportunities, miscegenation laws, and blatant racism, even in the 21st century, APAs in Hollywood remain rare.

Part historical record, part neighborhood photo album, this slim volume provides an introductory, skeletal overview of Chinese Americans in front of as well as behind the camera. From the early 1900s through Ang Lee’s stupendous second Best Director Oscar in 2013, “[t]his book … examines how Hollywood functions not only as a geographical area but also as a conceptual idea as the entertainment capital of the world,” the two-page “Introduction” opens. Over 200 black-and-white photographs are divided into chronological chapters, beginning with the silent “Early Years” featuring Marion Wong, the first Chinese American woman who wrote, produced, and directed her own films, to the first Chinese American movie star Anna May Wong, to the opening of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre (which has since morphed into TCL Chinese Theatres, complete with IMAX 3D).

“1930s and 1940s” introduces the one of Hollywood’s most respected cinematographers, 10-times nominated, twice Oscar-winning James Wong Howe, who also ran the Ching Howe Restaurant in North Hollywood. Benson Fong also did double duty as restaurateur and Hollywood icon as “Number Three Son” in the era of Charlie Chan yellowfacing: Walter Oland and Sydney Toland were not Asian. Neither were Paul Muni and Luise Rainer who starred in The Good Earth, based on the Nobel Prized Pearl S. Buck novel; in spite of the unconvincing makeup, the 1937 film was a multi-Oscar winner, including Best Actress for Rainer and Best Picture.

“Gotta Dance and Sing” opens with Nancy Kwan in the film version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical Flower Drum Song, stops briefly at her birthday on the set of The World of Suzie Wong, and ends with her practicing high kicks with then-stunt advisor Bruce Lee. “New Generations” features an iconic shot of Lee as the unparalleled martial arts legend, includes APA theater history with the founding of East West Players and the early success of David Henry Hwang, the seminal founding of Visual Communications. The chapter moves quickly through to contemporary Chinese American media achievements from Wayne Wang’s The Joy Luck Club, to crossover stars Jackie Chan and Chow Yun-Fat and directors John Woo and Wong Kar Wai, to (almost) household names Lucy Liu, B.D. Wong, and Justin Lin.

Ironically, although not surprisingly, the shortest chapter is the last – “Academy Awards” – but Ang Lee’s gratitude to the heavens filled with such joy is also a hope-filled final image surely promising more achievements to come.

TidbitChinese in Hollywood makes for a perfect companion title to Arthur Dong’s extensive documentary, Hollywood Chinese: The Chinese in American Feature Films.

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, ..Middle Grade Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Nonfiction, Chinese American

Songs of Willow Frost by Jamie Ford

Songs of Willow FrostHere’s what a fairly recent (pubbed September 2013) bestseller looks like. It hasn’t gotten any major nominations or awards (perhaps I should add ‘yet,’ as author Jamie Ford‘s debut, Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, garnered a few nods); nevertheless, it’s certainly sold plenty of copies in the few months since it hit shelves.

In 1934, 12-year-old William Eng is the “only Chinese boy left” at Seattle’s Sacred Heart Orphanage. Although he has only vague memories of his mother, he remembers enough to recognize her on the silver screen during a rare outing to the theater. With the help of his closest friend – a motherless blind girl named Charlotte – William goes in search of the Chinese American movie star, Willow Frost, who was once Liu Song, his beloved ah-ma. A double narrative unfolds, weaving William’s maternal quest, with Liu Song’s difficult experiences during the Depression and her eventual transformation into Willow Frost. What William eventually learns about his mother, his own past, and their short time together, prove difficult truths to face.

Although the writing is smooth enough to keep you reading, the story tends toward melodramatic and predictable. Based on the success of Hotel, however, to assume Songs will find similar support is not unreasonable. Yet what makes this novel stand out is not particularly its literary merit, but for its relentless victimization of women. Yes, historically, women suffered purely because of gender, and for minority women, the challenges were exponentially greater – but the women in Songs never rise above their victimization.

[Possible spoiler alert!] The two women closest to William are both victims of incest. Willow is raped by her stepfather, and eventually succumbs to his lurid whims to feed their child. Even when she falls in love, she is little more than a helpless vessel for empty promises. In contrast, William’s young friend Charlotte refuses to continue a life controlled by fear and abuse and commits suicide to escape.

None of the minor female characters fare better: Willow’s mother is a sacrificial shadow whose desperate submission to her evil second husband leaves her young daughter at his mercy; that cruel stepfather’s first wife abuses as she has been abused, manipulated, abandoned; the young woman chosen to marry Willow’s would-be lover never rises above heir-bearer and household manager.

Each of Song‘s women remain trapped in generalizations, stereotypes, and male fantasies. Regardless of the possibility of a better ending, after 350 pages (or almost 13 hours stuck in the ears – Ryan Gesell is more assured as young William but gratingly over-emotes as Willow), disappointment and regret are really all that remain.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, Chinese American

Kinder Than Solitude by Yiyun Li

Kinder Than Solitude*STARRED REVIEW
In her first title since she received a 2010 MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship, Yiyun Li again explores the far-reaching repercussions of a single person’s death. While her mesmerizing The Vagrants (2009) revolved around the execution of a young political victim, here, three childhood friends take the spotlight when a fourth dies after a protracted illness.

Ruyu, an orphan raised by elderly “grandaunts,” is sent to live with Aunt, Uncle, and their acerbic daughter, Shaoai, in Beijing. There, she meets Boyang and Moran, who live in the same residential compound. Just four months later, the three children are implicated in Shaoai’s mysterious collapse. Shaoai’s long-expected death after 20 years prompts Boyang – now a wealthy divorcé – to contact Moran, a Massachusetts pharmaceutical tester with a PhD determined to care for her ill Midwestern ex-husband, and Ruyu, who sells chocolates and keeps house for wealthy Californians.

Verdict: Li’s effortless ability to move fluidly in time and place – between minutes or decades and across continents – always with exacting details, gives this novel a shattering immediacy. Discerning readers who appreciated the well-traveled, multicultural virtuosity of Jhumpa Lahiri’s Lowland, Chang-rae Lee’s The Surrendered, and Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone will find rewarding satiety in Solitude.

Review: “Fiction,” Library Journal, January 1, 2014

Readers: Adult

Published: 2014

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, Chinese, Chinese American

The Year of the Horse: Tales from the Chinese Zodiac by Oliver Chin, illustrated by Jennifer Wood

Year of the HorseGet ready to ring in the new year … we might know it as 2014, but by the lunar calendar, January 31, 2014 through February 18, 2015 is also the latest Year of the Horse. Thanks to Oliver Chin, founding publisher of San Francisco-based indie press, Immedium, each lunar year gets an energetic, giggle-inducing welcome with his Tales from the Chinese ZodiacHorse marks the ninth installment (already!) in the 12-part series.

Meet Tom and Hannah – gleefully gracing that grand cover – who are new best friends who share quite the sense of adventure. When Tom’s teacher Lao Shi receives a royal summons for a new painting, she’s at a loss as to how she will deliver her art to the capital so far away. Intrepid Tom volunteers, but he can’t possibly go alone! After interviewing many possible companions, the best candidate is none other than Hannah herself. “‘Trust in each other and move as one,’” Lao Shi advises as the pair head off to make their precious delivery.

As she did in The Year of the Dragon and The Year of the Snake, illustrator Jennifer Wood continues to provide the same delightfully equitable page time for all the zodiac animals, adding another engaging level of ‘hide-and-seek’ for younger readers. Author Chin again introduces rollicking exploits to inspire and entertain, all the while celebrating the Asian culture that infuses our daily American lives.

Here’s to a happy, healthy, adventurous new year indeed!

Tidbit: In case you’re wondering about the equine members in your stable … “People born in the Year of the Horse [1918, 1930, 1942, 1954, 1966, 1978, 1990, 2002, 2014, 2026] are energetic and animated. They are proud and love attention. But they can be impatient, hot-blooded, and headstrong. Though they are free spirits, horses are steadfast and resilient companions.” Going on a trip? Make sure to take a Horse along with you!

To check out some of the other Tales from the Chinese Zodiac on BookDragon, click here.

Readers: Children

Published: 2014

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Filed under ..Children/Picture Books, .Fiction, Chinese American

All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost by Lan Samantha Chang

All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is LostLan Samantha Chang is a literary success of countless accolades, from her Ivy pedigrees (Yale, Harvard) to coveted fellowships (Guggenheim, Stanford’s Stegner, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study) to her directorship since 2006 of what many believe is the country’s (the world’s?) top creative writing program, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Chang herself earned her own MFA there in 1993. Her debut, Hunger, was an extraordinary short fiction collection; her lauded first novel, Inheritance, won a 2005 PEN Open Book Award (called Beyond Margins Award until 2009).

Chan’s latest, published in 2010, is her first that diverges from her Chinese American background (she’s the Wisconsin-born daughter of Chinese immigrants) – no implication intended that any writer should EVER be limited in any way by their ethnicity. That said, getting through these 200 pages took such effort that I confess to quoting desperate platitudes: “write what you know,” “those who can’t do, teach.” Inexplicably, I stayed tenacious: when my errant eyeballs kept rolling off the page, I downloaded Ramon de Ocampo’s crooning narration, but even he couldn’t save the story.

Allow me to conjure the protagonist with the book’s most pithy phrase: “‘ … a monster of self-absorption.’” That pretty much describes Roman Morris, although he’s actually referring to one of his students (another unavoidable idiom: “the pot calling the kettle black”) well into the endless novel. Here I must digress momentarily about names: Roman is the German word for ‘novel, fiction,’ and Roman suggests empire, conquest; Morris sounds too close to more, more, more. And does he live up to his name? Why, yes … yes, he does: Roman conquers his mentor, gets much more than he deserves, and becomes the monstrous self-absorbed anti-hero of his own novel. Name fulfillment! Here’s how it goes …

As an MFA student at an unnamed institution not unlike the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Roman’s ultimate grad school achievement is bedding his enigmatic professor. Known for her caustic comments, Miranda Sturgis’ seminars are nevertheless highly sought after by the most promising poets-in-training. Why an independently-minded woman succumbs to such a narcissistic non-charmer is never quite convincing. For Roman, the late-night private tutoring becomes the impetus that furthers his career for the rest of his life: he wins a major poetry prize upon graduation, gets published, settles into a tenured professorship, and even wins a Pulitzer.

While Roman achieves his every ambition, his fellow MFA classmate and only friend, Bernard Sauvet, is Roman’s antithesis: Bernard remains the near-starving, never sell-out artiste who struggles for decades to perfect a single poem (drumroll, please: the eponymous “All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost”). Bernard temporarily moves into Roman’s midwest home after he loses his rent-controlled Manhattan apartment. Roman recognizes – and envies – the true genius in Bernard’s epic, but when Bernard doesn’t fawn over Roman’s latest manuscript, Roman more or less throws him out. Years later, premature deathbed confessions allow the two frenemies some semblance of peace. The end. Finally.

Personal epilogue: after forcibly finishing too many titles in a row that were clearly better left forgotten, I’ve rewarded myself with permission to close books long before the final page. I’ve since been making generous use of my new golden rule! Quitters unite!

Readers: Adult

Published: 2010

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, Chinese American, Nonethnic-specific