Monday, May 18, 2009

"Night of Many Dreams" -- Some in California

Five women stand out in Night of Many Dreams by Gail Tsukiyama, a novel of Hong Kong and California. Two sisters, Emma and Joan, their mother, their aunt (a very successful business owner), and the family cook each try in her own way to achieve their dreams. Part of the plot is that the mother's dreams are about what her daughters should do, rather than what they want to do. The father is an absentee -- he's almost always away on business, making this a women's story.

Much of the book's action takes place in Hong Kong and Macao during the Japanese occupation in World War II. Eventually, the younger daughter Emma, who is studious and adventurous, goes to San Francisco for college, and stays there, making an independent life for herself.

In the context of my current reading project, I see this as a story of a California immigrant, fluent in English (Hong Kong, don't forget, was a British colony) but dealing to an extent with cultural differences and human differences between her two homes. She makes friends in college with a local American of Irish descent, but ends up working as a clerk in a social agency in Chinatown, with an idealistic young man who wants to keep immigrant Chinese kids off the streets -- part of her job is to talk to parents who don't speak English. She marries a young man whose parents were a Chinese man and a Portuguese woman. I wish that the part of the book about her adjustment had been more fully fleshed-out: some of this part was a bit sketchy, compared to the earlier chapters about the sisters' relationship to their mother and their aunt.

Emma seems to lose her adventurousness as she adjusts to life after college; she stays in the not very challenging job in Chinatown, and doesn't exactly know why. In a way, just getting out of Hong Kong and adapting to San Francisco is enough adventure for her -- in contrast to her sister who refuses to marry into Hong Kong society life, and becomes an actress in the Hong Kong film industry -- much more glamorous. Emma's art studies don't go anywhere, she just sketches rather than maturing as an artist. There's something realistic about this portrayal of an essentially ordinary woman living a fairly ordinary life in California.

The description of the life and cooking skills of Foon, the family's loyal servant, make a particularly interesting part of the book. Emma and Joan love her, and feel a great deal of empathy, although they never question her place in life as a cook, living in a pantry with almost no possessions and no life outside her duties. For a while, she teaches Joan to cook many home-made Chinese dishes, and she's an expert in the use of herbs and exotic ingredients. However, this isn't a California theme: I talked about it in my food blog: The Cook.

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