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
Kingston’s memories of Stockton are sometimes recollections of older relatives: grand-uncles like Say Goong (Fourth Grandfather) and Sahm Goong (Third Grandfather) who drive a vegetable wagon drawn by enormous black horses. After Say Goong’s death, his ghost returns to haunt Third Grandfather, who has to tell it to leave him alone and go back to China. The ghost disappears, but soon Third Grandfather dies as well; and even though Kingston imagines that his ghost might have gone back to China too, the two deceased men have become American ancestors to the relatives left behind: “When their descendants came across the country to visit us, we took them to the place where two of our four grandfathers had had their house, stable and garden…. They took pictures with a delayed-shutter camera, everyone standing together where the house had been. The relatives kept saying, ‘This is the ancestral ground,’ their eyes filling with tears over a vacant lot in Stockton.”
Her American father’s way is paid from New York to Stockton by a fellow-villager who is now one of Stockton’s wealthiest Chinese-Americans. The benefactor is repaid with personal service: Kingston’s mother irons his family’s clothing and bathes his children; the father manages his gambling house and allows himself to be arrested in place of his patron whenever the house is raided. During World War II, however, the gambling parlor is closed, and BaBa—the American father—loses all drive to work and becomes listless and cranky. He moans and screams in his sleep; in the daytime he sits by himself and curses, ignoring his children. This is the silent father, whom Maxine Hong Kingston has earlier so bitterly addressed: “Worse than the swearing and the nightly screams were your silences when you punished us by not talking. You rendered us invisible, gone.”
Desperate for attention, the children become uncontrollably wild, attacking each other physically and goading their father until BaBa bursts out of his torpor and attacks them in a rage. He smashes down a door and beats his daughter with a wire hanger; and, in some inexplicable way, the violence redeems him. Soon afterward he invests in a laundry, and “at last owned his house and his business in America.” He is finally the American father his daughter has always wanted: a BaBa who buys her pets, tells her stories, sings her Chinese poetry, and plants for her “many kinds of gourds, peas, beans, melons, and cabbages—and perennials—tangerines, oranges, grapefruit, almonds, pomegranates, apples, black figs, and white figs—and from seed pits, another loquat, peaches, apricots, plums of many varieties—trees that take years to fruit.”
The author’s Stockton childhood coincided with World War II, and many of her relatives were drafted or enlisted. One even went to China to help fight the Japanese, who looked to her, in the propaganda posters directed against them, like beings from outer space. The Chinese-American GIs, on the other hand, “looked like the good soldiers in the movies,” wearing campaign hats and helmets in the snapshots sent back from overseas. After they first returned from wartime service, her uncles and cousins continued to resemble their photographs, seeming very American, and not at all Chinese. “But then they put on their regular slacks and white shirts. Their hair grew out, and their wives trimmed it with home clippers. Then noses rounded out, the bridges receding, and their tight jaws softened. They did not walk from the shoulders like football players and boxers anymore. They started speaking Chinese loud again.”
Soon enough there was a new enemy, just as inhuman as the Japanese from outer space: the Communists. The Communists had once been Chinese, of course, but now they were “people who had gone crazy and perverted.”
The Communists were monkeys trying to be human beings; they were pretending to explain and reason, putting on serious faces. They were saying nonsense, pretending they knew the classics when they were not teaching from real books. Communist schools, Communist books, Red art work, Red courts, theaters, customs were almost like real ones but off. The shrewd villagers were not fooled. The Japanese had tortured people for the fun of it; the Communists wanted something else: their monkey civilization. Neighbors informed against one another to prove they were true Communists. The number of people the Communists killed was 60 million. After the uncles were killed, the aunts fled to Hong Kong, Canada, and the United States. That the Communists were holding their distant cousins as hostages did not deter them. “I wish the Japanese had won,” my mother said.
Though drawn from childhood memory, this is not only parody. Time and again in China Men, Kingston mentions the Chinese-Americans’ fear of the Communists, though once when a great aunt returned to Canton after 1950 because she was estranged from her husband in America, Kingston notes that this “was a clue that Red China couldn’t have been as horrible as everyone made out.”5 But then the Vietnam war begins, and because the government claims that the Viet Cong’s weapons come from China, Chinese-Americans in Stockton fear that they may end up having to fight against the Chinese.
Kingston’s last China Man is the brother whose birth is earlier foreshadowed by that of the father in China: “Jump like a squirrel. Bob like a bluejay. A baby is born.” Like the mythical father, the brother born in Stockton has a dreadful experience as a schoolteacher that may owe as much to Kingston’s own experience teaching English in Hayward, California, as to her powers of imagination.
His students stole anything. They shot up bowling alleys, and beat up hippies and whores (“Hors Welcome” they painted on their cars). One boy collected German helmets, bayonets, knives (“with real bloodstains”), swastikas, atrocity and Hitler photos, flags, iron crosses, grenades…. One boy had three babies by three different girl friends, and persuaded all of them to keep the children; the brother gave him three Doctor Spock books. One student was a vampire boy, who wore a cape and would not go out into the sun…. One, Benjie, lowered his heavy head snarling over his papers, peeped and spied over his left arm so nobody could cheat off his poor paper. He held his pencil straight up and down in a fist that stuck out of an unraveling sweater sleeve. His eyebrows jerked; growls came from inside his arms. Whenever his pencil broke, he walked all the way around the room to the sharpener, and wrote fuck and chink on the blackboards.
As the war in Vietnam intensifies and his own students drop out to enlist, the brother considers evading the draft by fleeing to Canada. But because this would mean leaving America, “the only country he had ever lived in,” he instead enlists in the Navy for four years, believing that aboard ship he least risks the danger of having to kill someone.
“A gook [sent] to fight a gook war,” the brother sees his tour of duty in the Far East as an opportunity to search for his Asian identity, reversing the direction of his ancestors’ quest. As he stops over in the Philippines, in Korea, and in Taiwan, however, the greeting from Asians is always the same: “You’re a Chinese American. You’re lucky.” In Taipei, he feels more at home inside the American military base than on the city streets, where he seems to stand out as a foreigner. At sea in the Gulf of Tonkin aboard the USS Midway, he tries to protect his pacifism by keeping himself detached from all the military activity, but in his bunk underneath the roaring rocket launchers, he can feel no separation from the war. Still, even though he flies along on one bombing raid over North Vietnam, he turns down a flattering promotion to flight school and remains a bluejacket. Harder to refuse is an invitation to enter the Monterey Language School—partly because this accompanies a security clearance which certifies “that the family was really American, not precariously American but super-American, extraordinarily secure—Q Clearance Americans.” But to learn Vietnamese is to risk becoming an interrogator-torturer, and that he cannot stomach. In the end he rejects this promotion too.
Toward the end of his tour, the brother goes to Hong Kong on R and R, and he decides to look up some of his relatives there. When he goes to the street address given to him by his parents, he finds no one of their name, nor do any of the neighbors know of them. He leaves the presents that he has brought them by a stranger’s door, and soon is on a cargo plane, flying home to America and civilian life. Despite the war, he has managed to preserve his pacifism honorably; he has killed no one. But he has not discovered a different and foreign Asian self. Rather his quest has led him to a sharper recognition of what it means to be a third or fourth generation American of Chinese descent. “Chinese Americans talk about how when they set foot on China, even just Hong Kong, their whole lives suddenly made sense; their youth had been a preparation for this visit, they say. They realize their Americanness, they say, and ‘You find out what a China Man you are.’ ”
In the end, then, Maxine Hong Kingston is impelled to transcend her own myths and let her China Men become Chinese-Americans. The myths—which by their very nature mediate the irreconcilable—initially make it possible for her to rediscover an otherwise lost China, and by then summoning it, lay that spirit to rest. Yet precisely because the myths are usually so consciously contrived, her pieces of distant China lore often seem jejune and even inauthentic—especially to readers who know a little bit about the original high culture which Kingston claims as her birthright. Paradoxically, the myths which were ideally intended to aggrandize the history of her family actually draw their authenticity from the tangible evocations of her own childhood. It is the private world of her Stockton relatives—the aunts weeping over a dead ancestor’s vacant lot, the sons and husbands driven half-mad by the continual clamor for help from kinsfolk in Canton—that truly commands our attention, and into which we feel privileged to be admitted. Less fanciful and flamboyant than her first book, China Men is a much more authoritative personal reflection than The Woman Warrior. This is because Kingston is finding a surer voice as an American writer of Chinese descent: the daughter of migrants but not an emigrant herself.
In the final scene of her book, she describes a Filipino scholar telling her and some young Chinese-Americans conflicting and contradictory stories about the Chinese diaspora. By now the myths have become tales to recount, stories to be written. As the Chinese-Americans cluster around the scholar to hear their legends told by another, Kingston senses her own liberation from self-doubt. “Good,” she thinks, “I was free to watch the young men who listen.” Finally confident of her own identity, she is secure enough to be capable of detachment. “Good,” she repeats, “now I could watch the young men who listen.”
August 14, 1980
Maxine Hong Kingston, “San Francisco’s Chinatown: A view from the Other Side of Arnold Genthe’s Camera.” American Heritage, December, 1978, p. 37. ↩
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. ↩
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. ↩
Maxine Hong Kingston, “San Francisco’s Chinatown,” p. 37. ↩
Maxine Hong Kingston has never visited the People’s Republic of China herself. “My friends know how many years I have been on the verge of deciding whether or not I really want to apply for a visa to China, a country that may not be there at all, you know. They send me clippings to show how real it is, how benign or dangerous.” Maxine Hong Kingston, “Reservations about China.” Ms., October, 1978, p. 67. ↩