Author:
• Friday, December 14th, 2018

Amy Tan was born in 1952 and grew up in Oakland, North California, USA. She is the second of three siblings born to Chinese immigrant parents. Her father was an electrical engineer educated in Beijing and a Baptist minister and her mother was from a high-class family in Shanghai.

Tan first attended Marian A. Peterson high school in Sunnyvale California for one year. After her father and elder brother both died of brain tumours within six months of each other in 1966, Tan moved to Europe with her mother and younger brother. She finished high school at the Institut Monte Rosa in Montreux, Switzerland.

She studied English and linguistics at San Jose State University and the University of California, Berkeley from which she received a B.A. Degree in 1973 and an M.A. Degree in 1974. In 1987 she also worked successfully as a freelance business writer.

After her father’s and brother’s demise, Tan was told about her mother’s former marriage in Shanghai to a Chinese man and having had twin daughters from him who were left behind when she emigrated to the USA. In 1987, Tan travelled with her mother to China to see her twin half-sisters for the first time.

This event inspired the last chapter in Amy Tan’s first novel, The Joy Luck Club, published in 1989, which received the Los Angeles Times Book Award and was translated into several languages. It was also made into a film, directed by Wayne Wang and released in 1993.

Tan has written several novels, children’s books and non-fiction books and has received many awards. She lives with her husband in San Francisco.

After emigrating from China to San Francisco in 1949, Suyuan Woo, one of the main protagonists of the novel, remembers her idea of a Joy Luck Club from the days of her first marriage in Kweilin, before escaping the advancing Japanese troupes during the second world war. With the help of three Chinese ladies in San Francisco, she creates the American version of the Kweilin Joy Luck Club of Mah Jong.

The four ladies, all first-generation Chinese immigrants, meet in each other’s homes. They play Mah Jong for money as well as unleash some nostalgic, preciously accumulated memories from their native land, brought with them to exile after fleeing either the Japanese invasion of the second world war or the later Chinese communist revolutionary, Mao Zedong.

In their pleasurable meetings, the ladies enjoy gossiping about their children, while gorging on elaborate home-made Chinese food, prepared with great care and thought by their hostess. Later the club expands to include the husbands, represented in the novel as inept fathers as well as husbands and no better than the daughters’ American scheming partners.

The story begins with Jing-Mei Woo, who is asked by her father to be the fourth corner at The Joy Luck Club as a replacement for her mother who died two months earlier.

The novel consists of four parts; like the four hands that each Mah Jong player plays in turn; two parts (the first and the fourth) dedicated to the mothers and the two other parts (the second and the third) to the daughters. Each part is divided into four to keep the Mah Jong symmetry going and all these parts together form sixteen connected chapters, narrated by the voice of the character to whom the chapter is assigned.

The author moves back and forth between the lives of the four mothers and the lives of their four daughters, as well as alternating the mother’s present existence in the USA in juxtaposition to their pre-nineteen forty-nine lives in China with its good days and difficult, turbulent times before their exile.

The story is funny in parts and moving in others. It is written in parallels and from a feminist standpoint, between Chinese born mothers and their complicated relationships with their Chinese-American daughters. These mothers have carried with them all the traditions and superstitions they grew-up with to the new world.

They are always hoping to be able to instil their Chinese culture and beliefs into their daughters while disregarding their daughters’ different mentality, education and affinity to their surroundings and the country they have grown up in, which creates the conflicts between the two generations. The mothers being adamant that: “Chinese thinking is best” and wise and the daughters, who want to break free from their parents stifling insular customs and commence a carefree American life, unconstrained by old Chinese practices and traditions.

Nevertheless, the Chinese mothers are finally proven correct as referred t o in the last chapter: A Pair Of Tickets, when Jing-Mei Woo mentions what her mother told her when she was in her teens, revolting against her Chinese origins, she remembers her mother saying to her: “Once you are born Chinese, you cannot help but feel and think Chinese. Someday you will see, it is in your blood, waiting to be let go”.

When, after her mother’s demise, the thirty-six-year-old Jing-Mei Woo goes to China with her seventy-two-year-old father to meet her half-twin sisters for the first time, she realises how Chinese she is. She says: “the minute our train leaves the Hong Kong border and enters Shenzhen, China, I feel different. I can feel the skin on my forehead tingling, my blood rushing through a new course, my bones aching with a familiar old pain. And I think, my mother was right, I am becoming Chinese”.

In her novel, the author is addressing the problems and dilemmas of the first-born generation of immigrant parents, depicting how they feel torn between two cultures with different values, conflicting outlooks and different habits and customs. A masterfully well written and narrated novel, weaving some stories told by the author’s mother with some fictional ones.

The book is dedicated to the author’s mother and in memory of her grandmother. Amy Tan writes in her dedication: “You asked me once what I would remember. This, and much more”. That sums it all up.

Category: Book Reviews
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