inspiration/reflection from Shanghai Girls … including “Chinese Exclusion Act”

Originally an email written on Dec. 26, 2009:


Not sure whether you’ve got back from Lake Tahoe or …. ??
I’m basically a bookworm and seldom engage in any physical activity (probably taking in less O2 and releasing less CO2 and probably die quicker –> reduce the world population by 1 … how "environmentally savvy" I’m !).   I’m either with books, computer screens or TV …

This morning (Sat.) I’ve finished another novel called "Shanghai Girls" (by Lisa See) which I have a few points to talk about.  I don’t remember reading any English novel mainly involving Chinese characters.  I saw this book in the NY Times best-sellers’ list some time ago but my awareness of it has been much more enhanced by my Mom who noticed this book a few times when we went to some bookstores.  (I went to bookstore quite a bit but I’ve virtually never bought anything.  I just check what’s new so that I can borrow in our public library or ask them to buy one.  ) My Mom could understand the title "Shanghai Girls" very well and also the book has painted two Chinese girls’ faces which seemed to appeal my Mom the most among other books.

Lisa See is apparently only 1/8 Chinese but she seems to have been involved very intimately in the LA Chinese community (ChinaTown).   She’s written a few other (English) novels with stories all in China.  I’ve finally decided to pick this one up because a large portion of the story happened in US after the two sisters travelled all the way from Shanghai through countryside and HK in early WWII.  She’s used a lot of transliterations of Chinese words (in Wade-Giles) probably mainly in Sze Yup or Cantonese (less in Mandarin or Wu).  She actually would explain it in English by "–" or ‘()" and so even you can’t recognize it, you may still understand.  As someone who actually know/speak/write Chinese, I’m not sure what these transliterations offer me.  My taste of it is not entirely fake but I wonder about its necessity at times.  I’m glad ~70% of the time that I recognize those terms but it doesn’t always make me feel more intimate with the story/character.  I could read Chinese novel if I really want Chinese intimacy, right ?!

One interesting piece of details is related to the "Chinese Exclusion Act" (since 1882) which severely restricted Chinese (and only Chinese !) from immigrating to USA.  I vaguely knew about it before but the consequences, the hardship and unfairness on Chinese entering & living in US was not felt by me before reading this book.  Now I become very familiar with the terms of "paper son", "paper father" etc. I know Ellis Island in NY very well but now I learn about Angel Island Immigration Station (in San Francisco) which most early Chinese have probably gone through.  The "Chinese Exclusion Act" was repealed finally in 1943 after China & USA became Allies in WWII and after Soong Mayling came to US to criticize this (the sisters met with Soong).  But then in 1943, the quota for Chinese immigrants to US was 105/year!  When I immigrated to HK, the quota of Mainland Chinese immigrants was 75/day ! (That’s ~1979 … later increased to 150 and apparently even now).  This quota was dropped only in 1965 (by an Immigration Act). 
But interesting enough, in the entire "Title 8" of "US code" which deals with "Alien and Nationality", "Chinese" is the only ethnic group that got mentioned specifically !  This historical "Act" (eg. see "Exclusion of Chinese") is now completely empty as they’ve been repealed etc. but "Chinese" is really a privileged group here !  I wasn’t aware of this "uniqueness" until I read this in Wikipedia etc.
During WWII, we all know that ethnic Japanese in US were interned … during Korean War and after, all Chinese in US suddenly became suspects of being Communists.  The characters in the book have suffered a lot from the "Confession Program" that the FBI/INS would grant you US citizenship if you could inform them who were paper "sons"/"fathers" and who were Communists !  The book didn’t mention McCarthyism but it’s obvious.  This kind of horror and fear in people is similar to what I’ve seen in Cultural Revolution (that my Dad would accuse my Mom’s colleague and therefore indirectly my Mom for saying something against 江青).
In the book, the main characters all seemed to want to be/feel Americans practically of course but also emotionally (as the author has probably implied repeatedly) even though America didn’t necessarily want them.  But I have my lunch alone, I don’t like going to any party and joining a group of friends … in fact, my happiness/easiness is probably inversely proportional to the no. of people that I know in a room.  I don’t particularly need to feel that I’m American or Chinese or anything.  I’m on my own.  Of course, I’d fight if a library doesn’t lend me books or I get lower pay because of my ethnicity.  Other than this, I don’t particularly want people to feel that I belong to their group or one of their own.  I’m happy to be/feel like a foreigner (even now I’m a US citizen) or outsider.  From Shanghai to HK, to UK and Switzerland and finally US, I’m only hoping that I can go to another place.  The fact that I’m in BNL ( but not in Harvard or Stanford ) or in US (but not in Switzerland) is not totally my choice but it’s just the best choice that I could have obtained.  Given a better opportunity, I’ll go somewhere else for sure. 
To me, especially reading all these stories, I don’t want to be emotionally attached to USA, not China, not any place !   I probably can’t change my blood or DNA but I can acquire concurrent/multiple citizenships and passports.  My relationship with a country or any society is only of mutual utility.  Of course, I only care about what the country can do for me and let the president worry about the reverse.  I’ve developed a lot of distaste against nationalism in China or US.   Each country would try to develop nationalism or patriotism almost ever since when you were born.  This of course is to the advantage of the country.  I’ve taken oath to be loyal to Queen Elizabeth II and pleaded allegiance to USA.  But, without hesitation, my benefit is obviously above any countries.  I guess most people practise this doctrine though not all would say it.  
A Chinese may get persecuted in China or a Chinese may be persecuted in USA.  It’s just a choice where you may minimize the chance.  Somebody may feel easier to live with people who look like their own.  Some people like to be born in a place and die in the same place which is fine, but it’s NOT for me.  A tourist breaking rules can be forgiven more easily than a local person and more than once I made use of this "trick".  Or even in Oxford, once or twice, people thought I didn’t say the right thing (in a physics discussion) only because of language confusion but actually I was just plain ignorant.  I like to be an outsider and don’t like/want to be attached to anybody or any place too much.  Maybe, that’s why I haven’t married.  There is something to gain and something to lose…. Here Buddhism is useful … to gain recognition, there probably is a price to pay.   And pain comes from desire … No desire may probably avoid the consequential pain.  
Anyway, I only want to have all the citizenship rights when they’re useful and I don’t give my love to any country.  I won’t be as naive as those 5 Norwegian Peace Award committee members and believe in any of those beautiful words of Obama and the like (that things are so great and the future will be wonderful) …
Back to the book, I didn’t expect so many tragedies, to feel so sorry and to shed so many tears.  But I did all that.  Probably like Ruby Lin or someone has once said, the story is fake but the emotion is real.  It’s perhaps while reading novels and watching movies, I can indulge myself fully as I feel completely at ease there.  I like imagination and virtual reality ….
Nevertheless, there are probably too many tragedies — almost like winning multiple lotteries.  The author obviously needs to get rid of somebody along the way before the two sisters arrived in US and so she arranges some events to happen in China.  But after those tragic events happened, things would become all smooth.   It’s statistically hard to swallow.  
There is a very interesting scene at the end.  The book is mostly from the viewpoint of Pearl ("jie jie") and she thought her parents favored her sister over her etc.  Towards the end, we’ve finally heard from May, her "moy moy" (the author’s transliteration).  It’s interesting to see how one matter can be so different when viewed from different perspective or by a different person.  Particularly amusing, Pearl used how her parents sat with them in dinner every night to decipher the favoritism.  But amazingly enough, May had the opposite view from the same sitting positions.  It’s like symmetry, relativity or even the principle of equivalence.  Each person’s observation can be different for the same event and we can’t tell which observation is more true than the other.  Or, how they sat in dinner is like a 2- or 4-fold symmetry …. It’s very funny to me to think in this way.
There’s one suspicion that I’ve had at the beginning and I was right Smile And obviously to all, the author is preparing for the sequel of this novel. 
One term that the author doesn’t bother to explain is "FOB". I’ve never come across it before and I wonder whether you have or not.  I had to google to find what it means … In the "acknowledgments", the author mentioned a few Chinese authors in 1920-40 whose works she’s "immersed" herself in and I was surprised not to know one of them whose name is "Luo Shu".  I’ve had to use quite a bit of my "searching" talent to dig out what the Chinese name of "Luo Shu" is …

I like reading 亦舒 (who can still write a few novels a year at the age of 60 something, amazing !) as it’s usually modern stuff and you don’t usually need to shed too many tears.  I don’t like to read miserable and tragic stories (Chinese or not) but I did learn a few things from the book.   Not a bad read, after all.


About kinyip

An experimental particle physicist ...
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