Midnight at the Dragon Cafe
by Judy Yong Bates
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars
As a small child, Su-Jen arrives in a small town outside of Toronto to live with her father, whom she has never met. She and her mother have immigrated from Hong Kong, much to her mother's dismay. Su-Jen (or Annie, her Canadian name) feels completely caught between cultures as the only Chinese child in her small town in the 1960s (her parents run the one Chinese restaurant). She's constantly walking the fine line between being a good Chinese girl and growing up as a Canadian.
Bates based her story on her own life experience...she too came to Canada as a girl. As she drove through Canadian small towns, she couldn't help but wonder what life would be like as the only Chinese family in town.
When Su-Jen's brother comes to stay, the family's staid but settled life gets thrown into disarray. Her mother's deep unhappiness comes to light, in addition to her father's willingness (and the Chinese cultural approach) to overlook unpleasant things to maintain peace and face.
Bates beautifully describes the life of an immigrant child who is always caught in the middle, feeling as if she never fits in anywhere. She desperately wants to try out for the lead role in a school play until one of her friends tells her that a Chinese person would never get the lead role. She opts to be in the chorus instead of trying out.
Su-Jen's mother is a woman trapped by her beauty, bitterness, and lack of choices. A woman with a child in the 1960s--either Chinese or from another country--did not have many options beyond finding a man to take care of her. Stories about people feeling trapped in their lives, deeply unfilled and unhappy, make me sad.
Ultimately, the secrets fall out, as they always do. Su-Jen realizes that secrets can cause anguish and pain, but so can revealing them.