The End of East
Lee’s book, first published in Canada by Knopf as a “New Faces of Fiction” novel, is her first novel, full of promise. Perhaps the story of three generations of the Chans, Chinese immigrants to Canada, is autobiographical, but it’s not a happy read. The cultural isolation caused by racist governments never is.
Seid Quan arrives in Vancouver in 1913 at eighteen hoping to make a good life for himself. He begins his life in Canada, returns to China to find a wife, spends a few happy weeks with her, then it’s back to Canada to scrimp and save so that he can pay head tax to bring her and his son to live with him. Quan dreams of his family being together, but when his son finally arrives, aged fifteen, they are two strangers. It’s heart-rending to read that passage.
As he works and waits, Seid Quan lives like a hermit in China Town, and his steady habits and determination find him working his way into a barber’s shop. He remains there for the rest of his life, saving for his wife and son, earning enough for a little house and garden away from China Town. He is respected for his determination and his discipline, but he is lonely, for his wife and son will always be close, and the family he longed for will never be his – those years apart prevent it.
The book has a present-day narrator, the mixed up young Chinese-Canadian granddaughter, who takes us between the past hell of her dreadful family life, her present hell of a life and of her grandfather’s and father’s lives. The weave didn’t quite work for me; I ended up with little sympathy for anyone except the grandfather. However, it’s a fascinating book and worth reading.