In this new memoir, Judy Fong Bates returns to the lives of her parents, Chinese launderers in small-town Ontario, who also served as the inspiration for her novel, Midnight at the Dragon Café, and her collection of stories, China Dog. Here, she begins her investigation of her parents’ bitter relationship by asking a simple question: Can children ever really know their parents?
For Bates, the answer, at first, is no. Her knowledge of her father is limited to the bare facts of his life: his escape from extreme poverty and arrival in Canada in 1914, where he was forced to pay the infamous head tax and came to so despise his lowly existence that he finally hanged himself in a row house in Toronto’s Chinatown.
But her understanding of her parents’ lives is turned upside down when her elder half-sister suggests a family trip to China. Bates and her husband travel to a rural part of China where they are greeted by villagers who still remember her father’s generosity and his special status as the returning guest from far-off Gold Mountain.
Bates is even more surprised by what she discovers about her mother. A daughter from a respectable family, her first marriage was to an opium-addicted “no-good man.” She survived the Japanese invasion of China, fleeing Nanking with a two-year-old in tow, and subsequent Communist takeover. Her marriage to the widower from Gold Mountain, who had hired her more than a decade earlier to teach school in his village, was not an act of practicality, but the result of a far more interesting secret.
This is a beautiful, heart-wrenching memoir. Bates shifts masterfully between various times and places, from her mother’s arrival in Vancouver by propeller plane in 1955 to her family’s return to China more than 50 years later. She confronts her own prejudices, finally realizing that the years she spent with her unhappy parents were in fact a gift from two people who had suffered greatly.