This is a terrific, page-turner of a first novel from Judy Fong Bates, who has previously published a book of short stories. Set in the 1950s, the novel tells the story of a young Chinese girl, Su-Jen, who immigrates with her family to a small Ontario town where they open a Chinese restaurant. Su-Jen gradually integrates into her adoptive society, learning perfect English, befriending local girls, and doing well in school.
Her happiness is sullied, however, when she discovers that her lonely, embittered mother has sought solace in unspeakable places. Tortured by the knowledge of her mother’s transgression, Su-Jen buries herself in the world outside the café. Eventually tragic circumstances force her to confront her family and break with her father’s entreaty to hek fuh (swallow bitterness), which has perpetuated the cycle of anger and lies threatening to tear the family apart.
Su-Jen’s guilelessness and reluctant awakening to the dark realities around her are utterly believable. And in spite of the sometimes heinous acts they commit, Su-Jen’s family members still manage to evoke our sympathy.
Midnight at the Dragon Café thwarts the narrative conventions of both the immigrant story and the coming-of-age tale. Racism exists more as a backdrop to the larger conflict within the family itself, rather than between the family and the society at large. Although she is occasionally attacked and slandered for her minority status, Su-Jen finds that the sting of these episodes pales in comparison to the heavy burden of knowledge about her family. She longs to confide in her friends but fears that doing so will endanger the delicate, hard-won status she has gained in a new society – a society she loves. Ultimately, Su-Jen’s family exists as a microcosm within a microcosm, and their emotional and physical isolation is deftly contrasted with the legacies of the culture that they left behind.