By Jen Sookfong Lee. Knopf Canada, 245 pp, $29.95, hardcover
Recent media attention has focused on the obvious injustice of the Chinese head tax, which imposed a $500 fee on Chinese immigrants beginning in 1904. (In 1923, Ottawa prohibited entry from China altogether.) But what of the emotional life of the men who came to the West Coast during those two decades, who gambled on a better fate in Vancouver's ramshackle Chinatown?
East Sider Jen Sookfong Lee takes up the story with her accomplished first novel, The End of East, studying the life of one such immigrant, Seid Quan, who arrives in 1913 with the burden not only of his own hopes but those of his entire village as well. Can he make a life in this new country? Pay back the men who sent him across the sea? One day earn enough to bring over the wife chosen for him and the children he conceives during his brief visits home?
The End of East mixes eras: Seid Quan's early struggles; those of his son, Pon Man; and the modern challenges his five granddaughters face—especially the sympathetically drawn youngest, Sammy. A stoicism runs through the generations. Pon Man, for one, is skeptical about head-tax redress: “?”˜How silly that anyone should think that we will ever get that money back,' he says to himself. ”˜I don't want it, anyway. It's just blood money—pure and simple.'?” More complex are the women of the story: the seemingly shrewish matriarch Shew Lin; and Pon Man's wife, Siu Sang, who sees that invisibility can lie not in ducking responsibility but in overachieving. Lee is at her best portraying the persistence required to endure when there are no alternatives.
Immigrant narratives often stress the opening of possibilities: We struggled so you could have choices. Yet The End of East convincingly chronicles why obligation cannot always be so easily set aside.
Jen Sookfong Lee reads with Shaena Lambert (Radiance) and Andrea MacPherson (Beyond the Blue) at the Silk Purse Arts Centre (1570 Argyle Avenue, West Vancouver) on April 2, beginning at 7 p.m. For details, call 604-980-9032.