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From The Asian Reporter, V17, #3 (January 16, 2007), page 15.
The truth about our family
Midnight at the Dragon Café
By Judy Fong Bates
Paperback, 315 pages, $14.95
By Josephine Bridges
To the people in Irvine, we must have seemed the perfect immigrant family," notes Su-Jen, the young narrator of Midnight at the Dragon Café, Multnomah County Library’s "Everybody Reads" selection for 2007. Judy Fong Bates, the author of this unsettling novel of a Chinese girl’s coming-of-age in a small town in Ontario in the 1960s, has a gift for writing that seems straightforward enough on the surface, yet draws the reader in deeper, down to where things aren’t at all what they seem. Even the title is ambiguous, with its reference to the café run by Su-Jen’s father and mother, and eventually her half-brother, which is closed and quiet at midnight. It’s on the floor above, where the family lives cramped among boxes and jars, that disturbing things are happening in the dark.
Midnight at the Dragon Café is jam-packed with eccentric, lively characters, including Su-Jen, but Su-Jen’s mother stands apart: beautiful, damaged, isolated, superstitious, implacable, and tense almost to the breaking point. Yet so many people tell Su-Jen how lucky she is that she finally comes to believe it. Near the end of the novel, she writes, "I watched my brother curled in my mother’s arms and I began to understand how much she loved us and how much she had sacrificed when she arrived in Canada; what she meant when she claimed that her life had been over the moment she stepped off the plane. For my mother the act of living here was in itself an act of love, my mother had given up her own life out of love for me and would do the same for Daniel."
For the reader, it’s like watching the unsuspecting heroine climb the creaking stairs, the flame of the tightly clutched candle about to fail. "Get out of there while you still can," you want to yell, and then the screen goes black.
Fortunately, there is genuine warmth and comic relief from the repressed emotions lurking under every table at the Dragon Café. Uncle Yat may have a strange appearance — "the bottom half of his face had completely collapsed, his cheeks and chin looked as if they had been sucked into a hole below his nose" — but Su-Jen likes him right away, and so does the reader, when he tells her, "If you forget my name, just call me Toothless Uncle." When Su-Jen’s misfortune-obsessed mother wants to know if a freckled girl has a disease, Su-Jen’s father shushes her and explains, "Some lo fons are born like that." Of her first-grade teacher, Su-Jen reports, "Everyone in my class loved Miss Hinckley; we were too frightened to do otherwise."
Readers will anticipate descriptions of food in a novel set largely in a café, but Judy Fong Bates lavishly exceeds our expectations. A wedding banquet boasts "shark’s fin soup, whole steamed fish, stir-fried lobster with scallions, crispy skin chicken, braised duck, scallops and vegetables, fried rice, noodles, and sweet soup," and in Su-Jen’s mother’s garden, "winter melons, or cold melons as they were called in Chinese, grew well into October and the silvery-green skin had a look of being dusted with frost."
While there is very little outright racism expressed in Midnight at the Dragon Café, good manners mask a discomfort that stirs just below the surface. "My mother also complained that the lo fon aunts and uncles smelled different, stronger than we Chinese," notes Su Jen. "My father said that it was because they drank too much milk and their bodies had more hair." One of Su-Jen’s favorite merchants, who leaves a sign on his door that reads, "I’m having coffee with the Dragon. Back in ten minutes," when he takes his afternoon break at the café, turns out to be a Jew. "I didn’t understand why she spoke in such a secretive tone, as if it was something to be hidden," says Su-Jen of the friend who passes on this information. And when one of Su-Jen’s classmates tells her, "I’ve never heard of a musical with a Chinese person," Su-Jen gives up on trying out for the lead.
There is also tragedy, relentlessly foreshadowed yet still a shock when it finally occurs. The first and last paragraphs of Midnight at the Dragon Café are Su-Jen’s poignant reflections on a fate she thinks should have been hers, and the closing sentence in which the narrator, now a woman, reinvents that fate, is as breathtaking as it is modest.
"Midnight at the Dragon Café provides readers with a look at the culture and traditions of Chinese immigrants as well as a compelling personal story that will present many opportunities for rich discussions in our community," said Molly Raphael, director of libraries. "Each year, Everybody Reads participants tell us that sharing ideas and experiences is one of the most rewarding aspects of this project; we look forward to continuing this tradition."
To learn more about local events related to "Everybody Reads," visit <www.multcolib.org/reads>.