The Jade Peony, by Wayne Choy
The Jade Peony, by Wayson Choy. Picador USA, 1995. 238 pages.
A poignant novel narrated by a Chinese sister and two brothers growing up in Vancouver in the 1930s and 1940s.
Wayson Choy was born in 1939 and grew up in in the working-class Chinese community in Vancouver that is the setting for this book. He attended the University of British Columbia and has taught for years at Humber College in Toronto. He has published other novels and memoir about being a Chinese child in Canada.
In The Jade Peony, a sister and her two brothers each narrate a section of this account of Chinese family life in Vancouver around the beginning of World War II. Each child brings a different perspective to their shared family experience. They interact with other family members as well as neighbors, their lives enriched by elderly relatives and a young women whose refuses to obey ethnic boundaries. As the stories grow, so do the children, each slowly coming to grasp hard truths about loss and death and the approach of world war.
While The Jade Peony is written as a simple migrant story, the book’s writing raises it above most such accounts. I was struck by its contrast to the book I read just before it, Pachinko, by Min Lin Lee, a story of Koreans in Japan in the same time span. Choy has written about real people whose words and actions make sense. Each child’s story has an integrity and conclusion at the same time they are part of the larger family story. The same cannot be said of Lee’s writing.
I am impressed again by the rich Canadian tradition of diverse writing and I gladly recommend this book to a variety of readers who enjoy becoming acquainted with a wide range of authors and characters.