You may notice the more-than-usual number of books included this issue. With Christmas giving around the corner and the snowy winter approaching, China Insight thought these titles may provide gift ideas or just material for a “good read” in front of the fireplace.
“Chinese Brothers, American Sons,” by Ed Shew
Reviewed by Dale Singer, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Aug. 1, 2020
Reprinted with permission from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Author: Ed Shew
Publisher: Earnshaw Books
Publication date: June 2020
Softcover: 316 pages
Ed Shew grew up in St. Louis, hearing stories of the Chinese migrants who helped construct the Transcontinental Railroad in the 1860s. After retiring in 2011, he took on writing about two Chinese brothers, their lives and experience as railroad workers in America. Shew admits the two brothers were “somewhat based upon my brother and me.”
What was to be a six-month project took more than eight years! Now, in his spare time, Shew engages in social justice activities for his church and the community in his spare time.
n the middle of the 19th century, when gold was discovered in California and construction of the Transcontinental Railroad provided a link across the United States, crowds of American workers heeded the advice to “Go West, young man.”
From China, thousands of men decided to travel east to the same destination, to make their fortune in a land where gold was rumored to be so easy to find that nuggets were lying in the street, just waiting for someone to pick them up.
That rough-and-tumble time is the subject of the first book by St. Louisan Ed Shew, who combines fiction with fact to tell the story of two Chinese brothers, Li Chang and Li Yu, who journey far from their home to seek their fortune.
Their golden dreams quickly collide with reality, but their innate optimism and strong character help them over the roughest patches and through the seemingly impervious mountains. Readers of “Chinese Brothers, American Sons” will travel the dangerous and sometimes deadly journey with them, learning about both Chinese culture and American history.
On the ship, Li Chang tells his brother: “’When we get to Gold Mountain, all will be better, you’ll see.’”
From the epigraph, a quote from the Chinese philosopher Confucius, Shew sets a tone of humility and brotherhood, two virtues that were not always present in the brothers’ harsh American lives:
“A man of humanity is one who, in seeking to establish himself, finds a foothold for others and who, in desiring attaining himself, helps others to attain.”
The brothers decide in 1854 to journey from their home in Kwangtung province, searching for a better life in the United States. They leave behind their mother, Li Yu’s wife and soon-to-be-born child, intending to stay for only a few years, send money home and finally return to reunite their families.
But like many assumptions the pair has made about life in America, what they experience is far different from what they had planned. First in the search for gold, then on the work gangs for the railroad, they face trials they never dreamed of. Not the least of their troubles come from strong prejudice against men seen as interlopers from across the Pacific whose only aim is to steal American jobs.
A newspaper at the time, published as the railroad gangs move eastward through unyielding terrain, puts it this way:
“Beware, the Chinese are outwardly quiet and submissive but are inwardly sinister and cunning. We’re sure the Chinese railroad workers are part of a secret plan to invade and take over the government of the United States replacing American culture with that of the Chinese. … The United States must not allow the Chinese to contaminate our society and must enact exclusionary immigration policies to keep these yellow people out.”
In telling the story of what the Chinese brothers endure, Shew has essentially combined two books. One is the novel, as Li Chang and Li Yu gradually make their way through American culture and prejudices. The other is history, first of the search for gold, then of how railroad crews — Chinese and otherwise — laid track in impossible conditions to unite America in the wake of the Civil War.
And the story is obviously very personal for Shew, a native St. Louis and with family roots in Hop Alley, the old local Chinatown that was torn down for construction of Busch Stadium downtown. He doesn’t always write with the most polished prose, but the novel shows obvious pride in his heritage, and the book is enriched by sketches done by his own brother, John Shew, a retired Post-Dispatch artist.
In the end, readers of “Chinese Brothers, American Sons” will learn, if they didn’t know it already, what Shew says was his lesson behind writing the book: that discrimination may target different groups, but the impulse behind it and the effects it has are universal.
In an afterword, he writes that “the fundamental elements of fear, ignorance and arrogance are common to all such racial tragedies. No one is better than anyone else. To rank historical struggles by one’s race is not purposeful, but respect is an absolute requirement.”
Dale Singer retired in 2017 after a 45-year career in journalism in St. Louis. He lives in west St. Louis County.
The following two books are part of the six-book Hong Kong Literature Series. According to John Minford, the series’ editor, the project provides a glimpse into the “extraordinarily warm and ‘human’ city … at this time when Hong Kong is the focus of attention all round the world, to give those people a deeper sense of those hidden depths of the Hong Kong soul.”
“The Drunkard” by Liu Yichang, translated by Charlotte Yiu
Author: Liu Yichang
Publisher: Chinese University of Hong Kong Press
Publication date: September 2020
Hardcover: 388 pages
Liu was born in Shanghai in 1918. He left China in 1948 and, in 1957, settled in Hong Kong editing literary supplements for various newspapers.
In 1985, he launched Hang Kong Literature, a literary magazine. He published 30 books and was mentor to a whole new generation of writers.
Liu passed away six months before his 100th birthday.
Charlotte Yiu who translated the book, is currently studying for her doctorate I Asian Languages and Culture at the University of Michigan.
First published in Chinese in 1962 and set in Hong Kong in the 1960s, this book has been called “the Hong Kong novel.” The narrator is at odds with a “philistine” world. He withdraws to his drunken world: his descent through the seedy bars and nightclubs, his encounters with bar girls.
The novel captures the essence of Hong Kong in the early 1960s – the culture of rampant capitalism of postwar Hong Kong. The novel was made into a film in 2010. It was also an inspiration for HK director Wong Kar-Wai’s “In the Mood for Love.”
“The Teddy Bear Chronicles” by Xi Xi, translated by Christina Sanderson