CM . . .
. Volume XII Number 12 . . . . February 17, 2006
The recent proliferation of Chinese Canadian literature has represented Chinese Canadian experiences and heritage in positive ways for a wider audience. Many authors have represented Chinese Canadians' experiences in adult-targeted works of fiction, autobiography, short story collections, and even anthologies devoted specifically to Chinese Canadian work such as Swallowing Clouds and Many-Mouthed Birds. However, the body of works by authors of Chinese Canadian descent is still relatively small. Day's Lee's The Fragrant Garden is an engaging story for young children that is both an individual narrative about a young Chinese girl's attempts to help her father as well as a communal narrative about the day-to-day running of a Chinese restaurant. In depicting these two aspects, Lee creates a positive representation of Chinese Canadian experience that goes beyond the stereotypical representations that have historically informed the public's perceptions of Chinese Canadians.
Written in the third person, Lee's story depicts a determined and strong female protagonist, Jade, who takes the initiative to assist the other adult employees in her father's Chinese restaurant. Readers will be able to identify with the story's protagonist and the difficulties that she encounters when she tries to help. The familiar adult phrase, “You're too young,” will resonate with kids who want to help, but who have parents who say that they are too young or that something is too much responsibility for them to handle. While Jade is allowed to help out with setting the tables and packing customers' take-out orders, her father tells her that she is too young to use the cash register because it involves a lot of responsibility. As a result, Jade tries to show her father that she is old and responsible enough in the rest of the story. She fails in her first two attempts to do so, but she succeeds in a third attempt that arises out of an unforeseen situation. Lee's positive portrayal of Jade, who saves the restaurant from catching fire, is believable and within the limits of what a child of her age can do.
Josée Bellemare's colour illustrations effectively complement the story that unfolds both for Jade and the other restaurant workers. Some illustrations are close-up shots of Jade that bring readers closer to her reactions and encourage them to identify with her feelings of frustration and enjoyment throughout. Other illustrations provide more expansive shots of the restaurant, particularly the cooks who are working in the kitchen, and these help to convey the hectic and communal atmosphere that Lee establishes throughout her story. The attention to detail, such as in Bellemare's illustrations of the street surrounding Jade's father's restaurant as well as the various items in the restaurant's kitchen, all contribute to the illustrations' sense of realism.
Overall, Lee's story provides a good introduction to the experience of working in a Chinese restaurant. The book's suggested age group is for ages five and up. While the language would be easier for older kids, younger kids can still follow the general thread of the story's plot. Teachers could use this book as part of a broader unit on minority cultures in Canada to introduce students to contemporary Chinese Canadian life and culture. However, it would be important for teachers to locate these representations of Chinese Canadians alongside other ones that have persisted in Canadian history and, to some degree, in the present. Literary and media representations of Chinese Canadians have not consistently acknowledged their diversity and have had racist undertones historically. For instance, they have homogenized and stereotyped Chinese Canadians by portraying them in reductive ways and within restricted settings such as the restaurant, laundromat, and convenience store. Lee's story does take place in an identifiable occupational setting that has historically been associated with Chinese immigrants and their descendants, but Lee does present her characters as individuals rather than as a homogenous group. Nevertheless, it would be important for teachers to highlight the diversity of occupations in which contemporary Chinese Canadians are engaged. The presence of Chinese Canadians, and Asians in general, in television shows and movies today remains relatively small and, more often than not, continues to portray them in ways that do not adequately represent their population's diversity. As a result, kids may potentially harbour misconceptions about what Chinese Canadians do that teachers, librarians, and even parents could address in discussing this book with a young audience.
Huai-Yang Lim is currently pursuing a degree in Library and Information Studies at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, AB.
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