Thursday, February 15, 2007

Everybody Reads Midnight at the Dragon Cafe

This year our library's Everybody Reads event features Midnight at the Dragon Cafe by Judy Fong Bates. Every book group hosted by the library this month is reading this novel about a Chinese family of immigrants in Canada. They live in a small town, and own and run the one Chinese restaurant that also doubles as the greasy spoon diner. The author gives a glimpse of what it is like for a girl to grow up straddling two worlds: her isolated Chinese-speaking family, and her English-speaking friends and classmates. Her mother's faith speaks in signs and prophecies, her friends' faith, in church. Cramped by secrets at home, Su-Jen (aka Annie after Annie Oakley) finds some ease in the free-flowing household of her best friend. Family dynamics play out in a tragic Sophoclean destiny, at the center a little girl who may yet outwit any Eastern or Western channeled destiny.

Book groups at book stores and elsewhere are also reading this book this month. My library branch's paperback copies (with no due date) were snapped up within days. Related events pulled in participation by Portland State University, Barnes and Noble, and the Portland Chinese community. Do check out the events link if you're in Portland, there's still some great stuff for thinkers and for families. I hope to attend one of the author's lectures, among others.

I went to the panel discussion called Chinatowns in the Pacific Northwest.

Marie Rose Wong came down from Seattle, author of Sweet Cakes Long Journeys: the Chinatowns of Portland, Oregon. She shared slides from Seattle's International District. When asked why she wrote about Portland, she told us she started looking at the prison records, I guess due to the Chinese Exclusion Act. Portland's records were made public before Seattle's. She meant to spend a day and a half, and descended from the archives two and a half years later. Everything was so well catalogued it became a rich source of history of the Chinese people.

Marie told us there are clues you can look for for the 'real Chinatown' like old buildings with the shadows of signs leaving their imprint. She advised when you do go to an ethnic community, get off the main drag, find the side streets and alleys...that is where you find the real flavor of the community. We learned that what we think of as typical Chinese architecture, the pagoda, is actually a complicated religious structure; Chinatowns don't always look like Chinatowns

In Seattle many buildings are being renovated, and the whole International District is historic landmark, so buildings can't be changed outside, as well as a certain percentage inside. She would like to see more market level housing, not just low income housing, which is what is happening. "We need their money!" she said. I thought about that. This is probably happening because not enough low income housing exists in the first place? And nimbys won't let it in their already gentrified parts of town? That seems to me an astute economic steering. She mentioned mixed use, but she was talking about not just mixed use, but mixed income neighborhoods. Plan for that and more of the money can flow in a neighborhood. That makes sense, but for the nimbys that won't want the working class and poor in their hoods.

The first person to speak was Chet Orloff, director emeritus of the Oregon Historical Society. Some bits I remember:

  • evolution is a story of immigration and migration, so the story of the Pacific Northwest immigration goes back 14,000 years
  • John Day, Oregon. A Chinese doc set up shop, including his pharmacy. During the great flu epidemic none of his patients who drank his medicinal tea died. His pharmacy is preserved there.
  • After the railroads nobody wanted the Chinese, they literally went underground, built a town under the town of Pendleton (A bit of syncronicity...this tidbit reinforced by the teen fiction book I just started reading, fantasy about the Shadow City under Manhattan. The girl studies and learns of all these other underground cities around the world....but her Manhattan city is never mentioned.)

The second person to speak was Carl Abbott, professor of Urban Studies at PSU. Carl liked the numbers. 33 percent of Toronto is Asian. In the novel, Toronto was the one place where the Mom from China felt at ease, among family and people who shared her culture and language. He compared 18 percent in San Francisco, 11 in LA, 24 in Vancouver BC (or did i get couv and toronto switched?)

A final question related back to the book...how did people fare when they were all alone in the small town. Chet Orloff's answer, they became "distinguished." they stood out. Could they make a better life without the competition? Not answered. My thought, no. More businesses all around encourages commerce, and in the novel, Toronto sounded more prosperous than the little town. Marie Rose Wong said there are 90 restaurants in the international district, and they are all open, doing well.

1 comment:

justwhen aka rachel said...

25% (give or take) Asian is the right percent for Vancouver, according to my googling just now.

I felt obliged to check for you, since we lived there a couple of years, and I OUGHTA know! I so, SO miss the human diversity that makes that place so vibrant. Ethnocentricity can't help but breed around here, where I live now...suburban Long Island... : (