CM . . .
. Volume XII Number 15 . . . . March 31, 2006
The quintessential Canadian immigrant experience, Midnight at the Dragon Café delicately traces the life of particular Chinese girl and her family in 1960's small town Ontario, but it also paints the broader picture of the difficulties faced by all newcomers, from casual racism to struggles with language acquisition and the balance between accepting new culture and not forgetting one's own heritage.
Six-year-old Su-Jen and her beautiful mother, Lai-Jing, arrive in Canada, escaping from Communist China into the arms of their much older father and husband, Hing-Wun and his oldest friend Doon-Yat Lim, owners of the Dragon Café in Irvine, ON. Su-Jen quickly picks up English at school, where, known as Annie, she makes a mark for herself as a straight A student and meets her best friend, Charlotte. When her stepbrother, Lee-Kung, her father's son from his first marriage, arrives from Owen Sound where he has scraped together enough money to buy out Uncle Yat, Annie's world gradually begins to unravel. She forces herself to keep secret the love affair between her mother and Lee-Kung, protecting her father and their family's reputation. Carlotte's welcoming, loving mother provides the only moments of warmth and relaxation that Annie experiences. While Annie goes through all the ups and downs of a typical 1960's childhood, from botched friendships to yearning to be the star in the school play, she also moves carefully, gingerly around the thick tension of hidden glances and simmering anger, through cigarette-blue smoke in the greasy restaurant air and sticky-hot summer nights. In spite of the silent denial of the truth, Annie gradually realizes how much her parents have sacrificed and continue to sacrifice for her. As she matures, she accepts and begins to understand their regrets, losses and fierce determination to survive and to save face.
Su-Yen (Annie) tells this story in the first person, which creates a child-like tone of limited understanding, although clever use of foreshadowing lets Annie's adult voice provide sad, spooky premonitions that clutch at the reader's heart. Dramatic irony infuses this novel as Annie's reactions to situations that are already clear to the reader unfold and drag her into adulthood. As Annie ages, her parents slowly reveal to her their past losses, helping her to accept their present behaviour.
Annie's family's isolation in the WASP Irvine and their insistence that Annie integrate while they remain on the sidelines of Canadian life contrast with the centrality of their restaurant where the white people, the lo fon, come to visit over coffee, eat their dinners or flirt over snacks and the juke box. At once the owners of the meeting place and the most left out people, Annie's family, like all immigrant families, learn to accept reality and to get on with whatever life dishes out. Annie attends functions on her own and is her family's connection to Canadian life.
Small-town, 1960 WASP Ontario comes alive with its tight, controlled teachers, scornful, conceited girls and hours of aimless bike riding. The steep steps up to the tiny, crowded restaurant quarters, the endless arranging of sugar and cream on tables and the scraping of dirty plates create a fascinating picture of the Chinese restaurant in post-war Canada.
Bates is a master at characterization, using details to create unforgettable people who rest in the reader's mind, jostling preconceived thoughts and ideas about race and culture and family. Charlotte's mother rolls cigarettes from butts that the girls are sent out to scavenge. Lee-Kung resembles a Chinese Elvis. Uncle Yat's toothless face is always happy, and Charlotte's brooding, artistic temperament alienates teachers but attracts Annie.
Older teenagers who can sustain interest in theme, the development of a child's personality over an eight year period and the interplay of adult relationships set in a time period well in the past, will be attracted to this powerful novel.
Joan Marshall is a retired high school teacher-librarian and busy bookseller in Winnipeg, MB.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.