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Book Reviews

China Dog and Other Tales from a Chinese Laundry

by Judy Fong Bates

Canadians have long been familiar with the Chinese hand laundries and restaurants of the hinterland, owned and operated by a few isolated Chinese families, connected to urban Chinatowns only by kinship ties and supply lines. In China Dog and Other Tales from a Chinese Laundry, Judy Fong Bates offers an eclectic collection of eight short stories from this peripheral world.

Three of the stories present vignettes from the early days of Chinese settlement in the hinterland. The descriptions of hand laundries and 1950s-style Chinese diners are so vivid that one can virtually touch the starched collars and taste the chop suey. “Eat Bitter” is a stock portrayal of the lonely bachelor existence of laundrymen who suffered not only the hardships of long hours and meagre earnings, but also the indignities of living as sojourners in a hostile host society. Though historically accurate, this is the weakest piece of writing in the volume. “The Gold Mountain Coat” and “My Sister’s Love” provide richer depictions of how the arrival of wives and children from China in the post-Second World War period breathed new life into these micro-communities.

“The Good Luck Cafe” and “China Dog” are contemporary folk tales in which unexplained curses cause grotesque and inescapable consequences. Though the coincidental endings are rather unsatisfying, there is an important underlying message: For better or for worse, Chinese cultural traditions continue to haunt Chinese-Canadians. The mantra “we’re in Canada now” is not enough to stave them off.

The author is at her best when describing the relationships between Chinese-Canadian mothers and their daughters. In “The Lucky Wedding,” a Canadianized daughter clandestinely marries a white guy and stresses over how to break the news to her mother. In “The Ghost Wife,” Chinese mothers vie with each other in boasting about their children’s accomplishments. Arguably the best story in this volume, the latter includes a ghost story that conveys a mother’s fear of losing her daughter to interracial marriage and cultural assimilation.

Judy Fong Bates is a skilled storyteller whose stories shine a light on a remote corner of the society where Chinese diaspora meets Canadian mosaic. The reader, whether Chinese or not, will find in these delightful stories many familiar faces and compelling voices.