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July 17, 1980 - Image 8

Resource type:
Michigan Daily, 1980-07-17

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Page 8-Thursday, July 17, 1980-The Michigan Daily
America and its,'China

It has become increasingly difficult
to adequately label some books as fic-
tion or non-fiction. The works of Nor-
man Mailer and Tom Wolfe, among:
others, come to mind. To include
Maxine Hong-Kingston's "China Men"
(Alfred Knopf, 1980) in the group can
mislead more than it can aid. Wolf's
sassy, adjectival indulgences, for in-
stance, bear little resemblance to Ms.
Hong-Kingston's simple, direct prose.
But both writers delve into the myths
that shape American life, different as
their approaches may be. They want to.
understand how the stories, dreams,
and delusions of Americans become
inseparable from actual experience.
Ms. Hong-Kingston confronts a sub-
set of American culture, the Chinese-
American immigrants, and more
specifically, her own relatives. From
her youth, she listened to their stories
detailing the trek from China to
America, the Gold Mountain, the
proverbial land of opportunity: "The
explorers who plotted routes to avoid
sea monsters had found gold as surely
as the ones with more scientific
worlds." America could accommodate
both the old and the new.
AND SO the men left China, not to
gain wealth as they thought, but to
slave in Hawaii's fecund and suf-
focating fields of sugar cane or the
ominous underbelly of a mountain
building the transcontinental railroad.
Many died, none became rich.
Many stayed, however, or returned
only briefly to China. The author's
father, a frustrated scholar-turned-
schoolmaster, leaves his poetry behind
for a chance on the Gold Mountain. The
stories men told "were not fabulations
like the fairy tales and ghost stories told
by women. The Gold Mountain Sojour-
ners-were talking about plausible even-
ts less than a century old." But these
"plausible events" do turn out to be

fairy-tales. America is no land of
riches, but only the inspiration for
wondrous fabrications-the letters the
men send home to falsify their suf-
Ms. Hong-Kingston never loses sight
of the significance of these fabulations,
Her own narrative is a pastiche of
stories and fables, many contradictory,
which she must piece together or invent
herself: She tells her father that he'll
"just have to speak up with the real
stories if I've got you wrong." She gives
three different accounts of her father's
entrance to the U.S. This mystifies the
reader, but themystery is appropriate.
It allows both reader and author to
make a start at understanding the lure
of America. Dream and reality never
cancel each other out.
THIS WOULD BE the perfect oppor-
tunity for a lesser writer to fall prey to
the hackneyed "oppressed immigrants
survive" syndrome. Ms. Hong-
Kingston is hardly tempted. A striking
braid of folk tale, family history, youth-
ful perception and adult re-examination
mark the best sections of the book.
Simple and direct, her prose st times
assumes the style of the Chinese folk
tales whose contents she employs
elsewhere in "China Men" more over-
tly. She masters the subtle and ironic
possibilities in the juxtaposition of sen-
tences-and with an eye for detail
reminiscent of Chinese lyric poetry.
In this manner, Ms. Hong-Kingston
does not ignore her Chinese heritage as
some of her relatives did. In the finest
section of the book, "The Father from
China", she traces her father's life up
until the arrival of his wife in New York
City. The wife restores the traditions
her husband and his three friends (who
had come over many years earlier)
ignored. The friends quickly seize the
father'sshare of the laundry on a legal
technicality. Before the wife's arrival,
the four friends partake of all the

freedoms that newcomers to the Gold
Mountain could. They had no wives, no
families to restrict them. Dressed in
spiffy zoot suits, they bought tickets to
dance with American women
("Everything's possible on the Gold
Mt. I've danced with blondes," her
father says), misread others' cruelty as
American custom, and proudly
displayed the white scarf and goggles of
the air ace in the photographs they sent
home. The author takes this snapshot
-Maxine C
Hong H
from everyone's photo album and em-
bellishes it with greater meaning-the
picture emptomizes the rejection of
Chinese tradition and masks the suf-
ferings and ridicule these men ex-
perience on other occasions.
Ms. Hong-Kingston returns to her
father's story, but not before recoun-
ting the stories of other ancestors: The,
determined great grandfather, not
allowed to talk during work,
"coughing" in Chiese his hatred for his
oppressors; the grandfather called

crazy, admiring the American stars in
the sky and weaving fables about the
constellations to divert attention from
his life-endangering labor; the uncle
obsessed by Communism and wheat
germ. Others receive briefer treatment
with no less intensity.
WHEN WE RETURN to the father,
he has become "The American
Father." Having moved to California
after losing their share of the laundry,
the author's parent slave under the
wealthiest Chinese American in their
town, he as a gambling house operator;
she as a maid. The father, a poet in his
youth, now supervises a new kind of
poetry-gambling with word com-
binations rather than numbers. The
mother, trained as a medical doctor,
employs her skills only to show her
husband his dirty fingernails under a
When the gambling racket fails, the
father does nothing. The young
daughter, seeing her chance to help
him, anxiously writes for Charles Atlas
pamphlets. She does not succumb, for
money is short. They would help little
anyway, she says naively, because
there "seemed to be no preliminary
lessons on how to get up (out of the
chair in which her father always
sat)." Inexplicably, he rises one day
and buys a laundry, while the mysteries
The author invokes Charles Atlas and
other banalities of American life
unerringly, without any sappy devotion
to a television culture. They mesh well
with the Chinese folk tales, which she
has Americanized to a limited extent.
For ultimately, neither China nor
America is entirely good or bad.
Chinese people also suffered in China
while some made it in the States. Ms.
Hong-Kingston preserves both sides, a
Chinese-American engrossed and
mystified by the two cultures which
comprise her heritage.
With this in mind, the last major sec-
tion, on the brother who goes to Viet-
nam as an American, is a fitting con-
clusion. Here, Chinese-Americans must
fight Chinese. Hong-Kingston fails to
explore this conflict as deeply as she
detailed similar conflicts elsewhere in
the book. None of the sections, in fact,
approach the stylistic virtuosity of the
first on her father. But this is a minor
point of criticism. This complex ex-
ploration of Chinese-Americans, in its
mastery on diverse literary forms and
personal experiences, has much to offer
to all Americans.
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