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Chinese Ghost Story

China Men

by Maxine Hong Kingston
Knopf, 308 pp., $10.95

Although Maxine Hong Kingston’s China Men is partly about the tense and ambivalent relations between women and men, its main theme is the experience of becoming Chinese-American, a process as filled with risk and ambiguity as the relationship between the sexes. The very title of the novel is calculated with this ambivalence in mind. As Kingston wrote in an essay published several years ago:

In the early days of Chinese-American history, men called themselves “Chinamen” just as other newcomers called themselves “Englishmen” or “Frenchmen”: the term distinguished them from the “Chinese” who remained citizens of China, and also showed that they were not recognized as Americans. Later, of course, it became an insult. Young Chinese Americans today are reclaiming the word because of its political and historical precision, and are demanding that it be said with dignity and not for name-calling.1

Kingston’s China Men are the protagonists of that effort to become Chinese-American: first as sojourners, then as settlers, and finally as citizens.

Like her first book, The Woman Warrior, Kingston’s China Men is a mixture of myth, history, and recollection. Of these, the myths seem at first the most striking element, and they become the most perplexing. As Kingston herself has admitted, many of the myths she describes are largely her own reconstruction.2 Often, they are only remotely connected with the original Chinese legends they invoke; and sometimes they are only spurious folklore, a kind of self-indulgent fantasy that blends extravagant personal imagery with appropriately völkisch themes.

Yet this sort of self-resurrection is an important way for Kingston to establish a link between her present Americanness and the China of her ancestors’ past. Toward the end of the novel, for instance, she inserts a chapter on the legendary ‘Ch’ü Yuan, the third-century BC poet whose suicide by drowning is celebrated in South China by the yearly Dragon Boat festival. To Kingston, the tragic figure of Ch’ü Yuan epitomizes the eternal male sojourner, longing for home while unable to return. But he is far more for her than just a symbol of exile. By telling his story through a series of successively expanded images, each more ornate than the other, Kingston seems to be trying to enlarge the pathways connecting her self, as the daughter of a Chinese-American laundryman and a Cantonese midwife in Stockton, California, with the high culture of classical China.

To be Chinese, she claims at one point, is to know that culture at birth, without instruction. “All Chinese know this story,” her father says of the Ch’ü Yuan legend. “If you are an authentic Chinese, you know the language and the stories without being taught, born talking them.” Yet he himself does not speak of the past; he does not even seem authentically Chinese to his own daughter, who tells him:

You say with the few words and the silences: No stories. No past. No China, You only look and talk Chinese. There are no photographs of you in Chinese clothes nor against Chinese landscapes. Did you cut your pigtail to show your support for the Republic? Or have you always been American?

Her father’s sullen silence permits Kingston to claim the right to tell his own story, even if that story is imaginary: “I’ll tell you what I suppose from your silences and few words, and you can tell me that I’m mistaken. You’ll just have to speak up with the real stories if I’ve got you wrong.” With this special poetic license, she proceeds to portray her father in the first of many guises: the mythical father from China.

Kingston’s mythical father—BaBa—is born near Canton toward the end of the nineteenth century. As she imagines his birth in China, Kingston is really remembering the birth of her own brother in Stockton. The two births, hundreds of pages, thousands of miles, and five decades apart in China Men, are described in almost identical images:

The Father in China

The brothers balanced the teaks and pines in a stack under their parents’ window and climbed it like acrobats. By the time they reached the curved sill, the baby had been born. They saw its foot sticking out of a bundle tied to the hook of the rice scale…. They cheered, jumped up and down. ” ‘Jump like a squirrel,’ ” they sang. ” ‘Bob like a blue jay, tails in the air, tails in the air.’ A baby is born. A baby is born.”

The Brother in America

Each of us carried a crate or a stool outside and lined it up on the porch under the window…. We climbed up in a row and saw the doctor lift a white bundle like a snowdrop on a hook. A foot stuck out. The baby had been born. He was being weighed…. ” ‘Jump like a squirrel. Bob like a bluejay. Tails in the air. Tails in the air.’ ” We added our own lines, “The baby’s born. The baby’s born.”

These recurrent images sharpen the mythical quality of Kingston’s family history.

After a youthful marriage, the father from China is selected by his parents to train for the imperial civil service examinations. The last traditional exams were held in 1905, and although Kingston’s real father would have been far too young to have sat for those, her mythical father takes them. His examination ordeal (which is fancifully described) does not lead to a civil service post, but it does land him a job as the village schoolmaster.

The job is a thankless one, and BaBa’s tribulations in the one-room schoolhouse are hilariously described:

The students ran amok. They stole vegetables from the neighboring gardens; they played war; they staged shows on top of the tables. He tried locking the door on the late boys and got some satisfaction from their shadows bobbing and passing like puppets at the windows, but they worried him when they disappeared. Where did they go? The school looked like a crazy house, like a Sung Dynasty painting of a classroom showing kids putting boxes over one another’s heads, drawing cartoons of their teacher, lying on their backs and spinning chairs and tables with their feet.

Frustrated to the point of rage, Kingston’s mythical father decides to give up his job, and joins the other China Men of his clan to talk about leaving their village to migrate to America.

Many of these Cantonese “ocean men” (so different from the landlocked northerners) have already crossed back and forth between China and America. Bak Goong (the Great Grandfather of Sandalwood Mountains) is such a heroic “Gold Mountain Traveler.” Recruited by an agent of the Royal Hawaiian Agricultural Society, Bak Goong sails for three months locked below deck, where the berths are stacked “like coffins in a death house.” Disembarking in Honolulu, he is marched by white overseers into the overgrown back country, where he clears the lush land, plants sugar cane, and harvests the thick stalks before finally returning to his family in China. Another epic figure is Ah Goong (the Grandfather of the Sierra Nevada Mountains), who travels to Gold Mountain (San Francisco) three times. Kingston’s descriptions of his construction work on the transcontinental railroad contain some of the most arresting prose in China Men.

Then it was autumn, and the wind blew so fiercely, the men had to postpone the basketwork. Clouds moved in several directions at once. Men pointed at dust devils, which turned their mouths crooked. There was ceaseless motion; clothes kept moving; hair moving; sleeves puffed out. Nothing stayed still long enough for Ah Goong to figure it out. The wind sucked the breath out of his mouth and blew thoughts from his brains. The food convoys from San Francisco brought tents to replace the ones that whipped away. The baskets from China, which the men saved for high work, carried cowboy jackets, long underwear, Levi pants, boots, earmuffs, leather gloves, flannel shirts, coats. They sewed rabbit fur and deerskin into the linings. They tied the wide brims of their cowboy hats over their ears with mufflers. And still the wind made confusing howls into ears, and it was hard to think.

By the time the railroad over the Sierra is finally finished, Ah Goong has won his American citizenship—if not altogether legally, then quite deservedly. Later, when he returns to Canton after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, it is in the author’s imagination as “an American ancestor, a holding, homing ancestor of this place.”

The closer Kingston moves to the present, the more history displaces myth. At first, for example, she tells how the father from China was smuggled to New York in a nailed-down crate, hidden in a ship’s hold. But then she quickly adds that “of course, my father could not have come that way”; and she describes how he arrived at Angel Island, across the bay from San Francisco, where he was detained until he could persuade the US immigration authorities that his papers were genuine and that both his father and grandfather had been naturalized citizens.

The historical father becomes part-owner of a laundry in New York, along with three other China Men who spend their salaries on $200 suits, dime-a-dance girls, motorcycles, and flying lessons. This is very much the bachelor’s dream world, and it is followed in China Men by a brief and powerful retelling of the classical Chinese ghost story about a hauntingly beautiful woman who beguiles a handsome traveler until he loses nearly all memory of his family back home. Eventually, the woman turns out to be the spirit of a noblewoman long dead, and the man is released from her spell to return to his wife.3 In the same way the father from China turns away from the lure of his three high-living friends, and puts the temptations of bachelorhood behind him after his wife joins him in New York. But as soon as he stops spending time with them, the three partners cheat him out of his share of the laundry. It is then that the historical father and mother leave New York for California, where Maxine Hong Kingston was born.

The author’s own childhood memories are present throughout the book, and even though the imagery of the mythical and historical passages is usually vivid, I found myself more affected by the recollections of her San Joaquin Valley childhood in Stockton’s Chinatown, which is very different from San Francisco’s Chinatown.

San Francisco Chinatown shows off for the tourists; our Chinatowns blend into the Valley towns and cities. Our businesses and houses are spread out, not concentrated into a few blocks. Yet our communities are more tightly knit. We speak the peasant dialects. We know one another. Gossip gives each person a reputation…. It’s not only the older generation which sees differences between the Big City Chinese and the rest of us in Stockton, Sacramento (Second City), Marysville (Third City because it was the third largest in Gold Rush days), Lodi, Locke, Watsonville, Tracy, and other central California towns. My own scholarly friends have complained how the Big City Chinamen refuse to share research work, whereas we Valley Chinamen will help each other get ahead.4

  1. 1

    Maxine Hong Kingston, “San Francisco’s Chinatown: A view from the Other Side of Arnold Genthe’s Camera.” American Heritage, December, 1978, p. 37.

  2. 2

    The way I keep the old Chinese myths alive is by telling them in a new American way. I can’t help feeling that people who accuse me of misrepresenting the myths are looking at the past in a sentimental kind of way. It’s so easy to look into the past. It is harder to look into the present and come to terms with what it means to be alive today.” Timothy Pfaff, “Talk with Mrs. Kingston.” The New York Times Book Review, June 15, 1980, p. 26.

  3. 3

    Kingston intersperses mythical interludes throughout the book. Some of these passages (which are on the whole less overdrawn than the more florid episodes of The Woman Warrior) are not always effective. The coy retelling of the story of Robinson Crusoe (Cantonese: Lo Bun Sun) and Friday (Cantonese: Sing Kay Ng), for example, seemed particularly forced.

  4. 4

    Maxine Hong Kingston, “San Francisco’s Chinatown,” p. 37.

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