This is an excellent and affecting portrait of growing up Chinese in Vancouver in the 1920s, through the Great Depression and into World War II. It’s one of those books I didn’t know I wanted to read until I read it, having only picked it up because I was aware he won the Order of Canada and felt I should probably read something by him.
The book is pretty episodic, both jumping throughout the majority of the first 20+ years of the protagonist’s life and also jumping through the periods it focuses on. Though this is a little weird and disorienting at first, it actually feels a lot like memory or a memoir. Choy is to be commended for how authentic this feels given that he clearly didn’t live through most of it and would have been too young to remember the part he did live through.
The book is occasionally funny but, more often, is very affecting. This is a world I don’t know at all, despite growing up not very far away from one of Canada’s largest Chinatowns (and growing up with a few). And Choy does an excellent job of capturing the struggle of immigrating to a strange place, getting ghettoized, and fighting to balance the traditions of home and the traditions of a new place. He also does an excellent job of capturing childhood wonder and teen angst. His protagonist is perhaps a little too self aware but, because it feels like a memoir, you can sort of forgive that.
I found the romantic conflict a little forced, for some reason. I understand that this stuff is common but the book felt complete to me without it. It also made Kiam feel a little too good compared to everyone else around him. But this is basically my only nitpick with the novel.
On the whole, it’s an excellent story and it’s of the type I need to read more of, exposing me to an experience that I hadn’t thought about. It’s also a perspective on a war I (used to) know too much about, that I have never encountered.
Well worth your time.