Wayson Choy's beautifully written debut novel, The Jade Peony, is a poignant examination of the Chinese immigrant experience in Vancouver’s Chinatown before and during the Second World War, and its consequence on collective ideals as well as the immigrants’ personal identities. It is a representation of a proud, dignified people struggling to regain autonomy from the constraints of history, intolerance, destitution, and cultural heritage.
True to memoir-like fashion, The Jade Peony consists of three individual manuscripts, written from different perspectives. Three siblings in the same household of Chinese immigrants, eking out a meager living in Vancouver’s Chinatown, combine their accounts in one volume to compile a narrative of different acculturation effects within the family and the Chinese community itself. These three very different life experiences and vantage points bestow an accurate sampling of a new generation desperate to adjust and assimilate the new world culture, often at the sacrifice of the “old ways”…much to their elders’ dismay.
Little sister Jook-Liang, who longs to be a performer like Shirley Temple, befriends family friend Wong Bak, a deformed elderly man from the old country. As the two of them form an unlikely friendship, Jook-Liang ambitiously dreams of escaping the unyielding old ways while grappling with the old Chinese convention of elevating the life of a boy above that of a girl.
Second brother Jung-Sum, taken from a neglectful family in China, is sent to live with his new adoptive family in Vancouver’s Chinatown. Besieged by childhood trauma of what he endured at the hands of his biological parents, he ultimately feels a sense of belonging within his new family and finds his niche in boxing.
Third brother Sekky, often plagued with illness (and, as a result, coddled by Poh-Poh), never quite comes to terms with the plethora of complex Chinese dialects he is forced to study. Overwhelmed, he often retreats into himself, inducing visions of Poh-Poh after she is gone and filling the void with an obsession for war games. When a forbidden relationship flourishes between Sekky’s Chinese babysitter and a Japanese boy, the lines between friend and foe are blurred by fear of frightful events happening a world away, with devastating consequences.
At the heart of each account is Poh-Poh (respectfully known as the “Old One,” or Grandmother), the mainstay and matriarch of the family who passes down vivid reminiscences of her life experiences to the children. Not unlike the jade peony, which she bestows to them as an inheritance, Poh-Poh also confers them a more valuable inheritance — their cultural heritage as a people and the necessity and importance of holding on to a measure of “old way” attitude.
Though discrimination and poverty predominated the early immigrants’ experience, Choy tempers his story with a caustic wit and a gritty humor that brings a certain hope to the often-heartrending chronicle. Given its candor and lucid voice on an important topic, it is no surprise that The Jade Peony has gained many accolades and awards and won its way to many readers’ hearts.