CM . . .
. Volume XXIV Number 3. . . .September 22, 2017
Chinese New Year: A Celebration for Everyone. (Orca Origins).
Jen Sookfong Lee.
Victoria, BC: Orca, October, 2017.
88 pp., hardcover, pdf & epub, $24.95 (hc.).
ISBN 978-1-4598-1126-3 (hc.), ISBN 978-1-4598-1127-0 (pdf), ISBN 978-1-4598-1128-7 (epub).
Chinese New Year-Juvenile fiction.
Grades 4-7 / Ages 9-12.
Review by Huai-Yang Lim.
Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy.
When I was a child, my sisters and I were responsible for helping my mother make the tay, the snacks that our family would eat through the Chinese New Year week. These tay were often dumplings, filled with sweet red bean paste or a savory stir fry of pork and vegetables...
Over fifty million people with Chinese family history live in countries other than China. Many of them live in other Asian countries such as Singapore or the Philippines, which often hold elaborate Lunar New Year celebrations every year as well. There are large Chinese communities in other parts of the world also, including Australia, Trinidad, the United States, and Canada. Some of these communities are hundreds of years old...
Historically, the representation of Asian communities in Canada has been problematic as they have been misrepresented, stereotyped, or otherwise excluded in the mainstream media. Instead, a long-standing problem with mainstream representations of Asian culture is the problem of Orientalism whereby a foreign culture is viewed as an exotic entity. Although this may be regarded as a positive representation, it is still problematic because it renders that culture as something that is separate from our own lives and that we cannot relate to.
Part of the “Origins” series, Janie Chang’s Chinese New Year: A Celebration for Everyone provides a satisfying, well-rounded account of Chinese New Year that focuses not only on the celebration, itself, but also the historical, political, and cultural contexts that have shaped its significance and how it has been celebrated in China as well as in other countries over time. As a result, readers will learn about specific cultural traditions and practices related to the holiday, itself, as well as the broader contexts that shape it and that are, in turn, informed by that celebration.
As mentioned on the publisher’s website, editor Sarah Harvey comments that the books in the “Origins” series are “built on the bedrock of personal stories, enhanced by careful research and illuminated by stunning photographs.” Indeed, Chang achieves that goal with a well-rounded discussion of Chinese New Year that avoids portraying it as a static cultural tradition that is preserved in the present by Chinese communities around the world. Instead, her book conveys that Chinese New Year evolves continually over time and is shaped by the historical, cultural, and political contexts within which it is celebrated. As such, this book is not simply about Chinese New Year, but also about Chinese history and culture. In this sense, the topic of Chinese New Year becomes a locus around which the rest of the book is structured.
Readers will be attracted to the book as it offers a good balance between factual information about Chinese people’s history and more experiential descriptions about Chinese culture and communal life. Chang provides an interesting compilation of factual information and experiential stories about the history of Chinese people in China, the reasons for their immigration to Canada and other countries, as well as historical events that reveal systemic discrimination against them in their host countries. She gives a sobering account of the difficulties that Chinese immigrants faced in Canada and other countries due to racism and feelings that they were not welcome in their host societies. As an example, Chang mentions Canada’s head tax that Chinese immigrants had to pay. The Chinese immigrants’ cultural traditions became a means for them to cope with their difficult circumstances by fostering a collective identity and sense of belonging.
Besides discussing the history of Chinese immigrants, Chang considers what it means to be Chinese today. The evolution of Chinese New Year and Chinese culture as a whole is highlighted effectively in the section “The New Diversity,” which explains how intercultural marriages have transformed what it means to be Chinese. Furthermore, the spread of Chinese culture to other countries has led to a process of cultural fusion between it and the cultural traditions of its host countries, thereby resulting in something that is culturally unique. Historical and contemporary developments have also shaped the evolution of Chinese New Year and how it is celebrated today. For example, Chang mentions that businesses have accommodated people’s new interests in giving gifts during the holiday.
The book interweaves broader Chinese history and personal stories about Chinese New Year, along with recipes for foods such as Chinese date cake and sesame peanut brittle. The personal accounts include an intimate description of the author’s own life as a child, along with accounts from other people about their childhood memories of Chinese New Year and its significance in their adult lives. These individual stories add a personalized touch to the book with which readers can identify.
Structurally, Chinese New Year is divided into four main sections that cover its cultural significance, historical origins, how it is celebrated today, and how it has become a global phenomenon. The easy-to-follow Table of Contents with section subheadings will make it easy for young readers to flip to relevant sections or subsections that interest them. Due to the format, the book can be read from start to finish, or alternatively in sections as desired. Within these sections, the information is also formatted in an attractive and organized manner, with a good balance between text and images so that pages are not overly text-heavy. For example, the “CNY Facts” columns that appear throughout the book each give a succinct overview on specific topics, such as the Chinese zodiac, numbers considered to be significant in Chinese culture, and domestic traditions associated with Chinese New Year. The advance reading copy of Chang’s book indicates that the finalized version for publication will contain a topical index which will provide another means for readers to locate topics of interest quickly.
The book’s numerous photos complement and enhance the text by providing a good visual reference which will be particularly useful for readers who have never visited China or who are unfamiliar with Chinese cultural traditions and history. These include photos of Chinese New Year celebrations and historical events. Besides these, Chang includes photos of her own family as well as those of the other individuals who are profiled, all of which will help readers to identify with Chinese New Year on a more personal level. The colourful photos are accompanied by explanatory captions which also help to break up the page visually for readers. Other explanatory aids in the book include a glossary that explains unfamiliar Chinese words, cultural traditions, and historical figures, along with a reference list of print and web resources that readers can consult to learn more about Chinese culture and history.
Chinese New Year is appropriate for the age range of readers suggested by the publisher, i.e., ages nine to twelve. Although younger readers may not fully grasp what is discussed, particularly when it refers to historical events, they will still be able to enjoy the book if aided by adult readers. This book would be a good resource for a social studies unit about Chinese or Asian culture. As a potential learning opportunity, teachers could use this book, or perhaps even other books in the “Origins” series, to get students more engaged with the topics discussed by, for example, assigning them to work on group projects that culminate in class presentations or information displays. The book’s format lends itself well to this type of activity as students could be divided into groups, each of which could be assigned to explore the topics within one of the book’s four units in detail. As a reference guide, this book could be included in an elementary school’s library or as part of a university’s nonfiction section within its children’s literature collection.
There are a couple of minor shortcomings in what is otherwise an insightful and engaging book for young readers. In terms of the book’s references to historical events in Canada, one shortcoming is that it does not mention the 1923 Chinese Immigration Act. Also known as the Chinese Exclusion Act, this was a significant piece of legislation because it specifically targeted Chinese immigrants and banned the entry of most Chinese immigrants into Canada from that point onward, with the exception of foreign students, diplomats, and merchants. This Act was in effect until it was repealed in 1947 and had lasting repercussions because the immigrants in Canada were separated from their families back home for a quarter of a century.
Related to this is another potential shortcoming in the book’s discussion, which is that it does not mention how prejudice and discrimination still persist today. In the past few decades, significant progress has been made in terms of intercultural relations between Chinese communities and the rest of society in Canada and other countries. However, it is important to recognize that prejudice and discrimination still exist today, but perhaps in less overt ways than the early twentieth century legislation that specifically targeted the Chinese population. If this book were used in the classroom, it would be worthwhile to supplement it with some information about these topics in the contemporary context.
As a whole, Chang’s book is a welcome nonfiction addition to children’s literature. Although several other books for the same readership may focus on Chinese New Year, fewer books exist that contextualize it in the same fashion as Chang’s. By situating Chinese New Year in terms of the past, present, and future, Chang’s book illustrates how Chinese culture’s historical roots are grounded in specific temporal and geographical circumstances but have evolved over time. As such, culture is represented as something that is in flux and that derives meaning and significance from the specific contexts in which it circulates In this respect, Chinese New Year, by providing different access points and perspectives, successfully avoids the trap of exoticizing Chinese culture.
More information about the author Janie Chang is available from her official website at http://www.janiechang.com/.
Huai-Yang Lim has a degree in Library and Information Studies. He enjoys reading, reviewing, and writing children’s literature in his spare time.
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