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The Concubine’s Children, by Denise Chong.

November 15, 2014

The Concubine’s Children: The Story of a Family Divided, by Denise Chong.  Penguin Books (1996), Edition: Reprint, Paperback, 304 pages.


A simply told family history, with part of the family living in China and part in Canada, separated and reunited.

Denise Chong is the granddaughter of a Chinese couple who migrated to Canada in the early twentieth century. After working as an economist in the Canadian government, she began researching her family’s history, eventually publishing this book. She writes clearly and compellingly, with little literary flourish, providing rich details of the lives of Chinese in Canada in the twentieth century and the lives of their family members left behind in China. The success and acclaim of The Concubine’s Children has led her to edit and write additional books.

The history of Chong’s family is full of drama and pain, yet she chooses to write about them as a neutral third-person observer, not a daughter and granddaughter. Her mother’s blame and shame and the emotions of others she interviews are muted, and Chong is remarkably unjudgmental about the behavior of individuals and the governments that disrupted their lives. Chong also makes good use of historical scholarship and public records to provide richly detailed accounts of events in both China and Vancouver that impact her family’s choices. She does not footnote these sources, however. Here, as on more personal topics, she remains the distant observer. The horrors of war and the Communist dictatorship in China are recounted without anger and accusations. Racism of Canada’s past is also made clear but not highlighted.

Chan Sam, Chong’s grandfather, came to Canada in 1913, leaving a wife behind in a village in southern China. He came intending to earn money and return, as his father had done. But life in Vancouver’s China Town was lonely. In 1924, he paid to have a young woman, May-ying, come from China to be his concubine. She was a total stranger, and in order to pay for her passage, he promised that she would work as a waitress in a Chinese tea house in Vancouver for two years. The tea houses were social centers in the city. She continued working in them after her passage was paid, with all her earnings going to Chan Sam. Before long, she had given birth to two daughters, and the family returned to China to visit the wife for a year. While there, May-ying became pregnant again. Sure she was carrying a much-wanted son, she was determined that he be born in Canada. She and Chan Sam returned to Vancouver where she gave birth to another daughter, Hing, who was to be the mother of Denise Chong. They left their two older daughters in China to be educated, as was customary.

Accepting her place as concubine, May-ying recognized the obligation to send her earnings to the family in China, but she was not the docile concubine that Chan Sam had expected. She was a resentful and independent woman, sociable, and able to get her own way. While Hing was still a baby, May-ying left Vancouver to escape her dull husband’s control and to work in a tea house in a frontier mining community on Vancouver Island. The couple reunited, but Chan Sam longed to return to China and build an impressive house for his wife there. May-ying encouraged him to go alone, leaving her and her youngest daughter in Canada. Her earnings provided money for the impressive house in the village. May-ying enjoyed her husband’s two-year absence and the independence it allowed her. When Chan Sam returned the couple separated, although he remained at the edges of their lives. As a single mother, she slipped into a life of alcohol and gambling. Hing grew up essentially alone. Back in China, Chan Sam’s wife had a son after her husband’s visit, but war and the take-over by the Communists brought suffering, the disruption of communication, and separation to the Canadian and Chinese parts of the family. Only after Hing’s daughter, Denise Chong, was an adult was reunion possible.

In writing this book, Chong reveals her own belief in the importance of family, although she has chosen an untraditional way of honoring her ancestors. Perhaps the formality and order with which she presents family stories reflects the Chinese practice of worshiping at family altars. Describing her family story with such distance is unusual, but it works well for Chong.

I strongly recommend The Concubine’s Daughter, especially for readers interested in Chinese or Canadian history or in intense mother/daughter stories.

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