“Fifth Chinese Daughter” Inspires Renewed Interest in Chinatown

 When I looked at the list of recommended books that my granddaughter and I could read in preparation for our Road Scholar Grandparent Adventure in San Francisco, I was immediately drawn to Fifth Chinese Daughter by Jade Snow Wong. My curiosity was further piqued when I discovered that it was published in 1945, when I was two years old, and has remained in publication as an example of early memoir written in third person, a Chinese literary style that eschews the importance of the individual. It has also stayed relevant because it is a coming-of-age story from the 1920s and ‘30s — a story about struggle, rebellion and finding one’s path. To top off my interest, I write memoir, and here was a memoir in a different form! I found a well-thumbed edition of the book at our local library, with a card pocket still in it, and started reading.

Though the first few chapters had little action and no reflection, something that I associate with good memoir writing, I persisted because I wanted to discuss the book with my granddaughter. But soon I found myself fascinated by Chinese child rearing during this era. I had to work to get past the physical punishment for even small offenses. I wondered how a child could grow up in such a system without bitterness toward one’s parents.

The protagonist, Jade Snow, is a fifth daughter of immense courage and character. Her curiosity about the world and her ambition cannot be thwarted by a system designed to teach a girl her place in the family hierarchy (to cook, sew, clean and raise children). The themes of self-discovery, which are still so much a part of growing up, play out on every page and are contrasted with Chinese cultural expectations of the time.

I had set myself a goal of reading two chapters a day to finish in 14 days, but I soon found myself wondering what Jade Snow would do about some of the obstacles that beset her — housework, the limitation of never going anywhere without an adult, the belief that girls need only a minimal education and no financial support for her ambitions — and I started to race through the book. Two chapters was simply not enough. Jade Snow is indomitable but with a remarkable humility. Her struggles are the stuff of any female finding her true calling in a system that favors men. I grew up in the 1940s and ‘50s, so this system was not unknown to me, and here it was from the lens of a different culture.

Throughout the story, there are many examples of life in Chinatown and the racism that Chinese people experienced at this time. There’s a subtext about how the Chinese worked within the system to create a community of their own. Descriptions of businesses and practices are written on a young teen level, and these made me curious to see how Chinatown functions today.

I have been to San Francisco numerous times for conferences, and I’ve often walked through Chinatown. I am always daunted by the press of sights, sounds and activity. I’ve sampled soup from a pot with an entire duck in it, which was so rich that I couldn’t keep it down. But my knowledge of Chinatown is limited and somewhat limited and biased. Fortunately, Fifth Chinese Daughter has reawakened in me an interest in learning more.

Having finished the book, I am excited about the discussions it will spark between Maggie and me. Maggie is studying the Chinese language in school, and she has learned some about Chinese culture. We can contrast growing up for Jade Snow with Maggie growing up today, and we can consider how Chinese culture and the uniqueness of Chinatown contributed to her life path.

I can’t wait to share this book with my granddaughter and then roam the streets of Chinatown as part of our Road Scholar Grandparent Adventure; we might even try some duck soup!


 

Elena JunesAbout the Author:

Minnesota natives Karen Storm and her granddaughter Maggie are the winners of the Road Scholar Grandparent of the Year Video Contest. Visit  https://www.roadscholar.org/ageadventurously to follow their Road Scholar journey.

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