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Midnight at the Dragon Cafe: A Novel

Midnight at the Dragon Cafe: A Novel

4.0 2
by Judy Fong Bates

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The life of a young Chinese girl is torn apart by dark family secrets and divided loyalties in a small Ontario town in the 1950s. Judy Fong Bates's fresh and engaging first novel is the story of Su-Jen Chou, a Chinese girl growing up the only daughter of an unhappy and isolated immigrant family in a small Ontario town in the 1950s. Through Su-Jen's eyes we see the


The life of a young Chinese girl is torn apart by dark family secrets and divided loyalties in a small Ontario town in the 1950s. Judy Fong Bates's fresh and engaging first novel is the story of Su-Jen Chou, a Chinese girl growing up the only daughter of an unhappy and isolated immigrant family in a small Ontario town in the 1950s. Through Su-Jen's eyes we see the hard life behind the scenes at the Dragon Caf, the local diner her family runs. Her half-brother Lee-Kung smolders under the responsibilities he must carry as the dutiful Chinese son. Her mother, beautiful but bitter, lays her hopes and dreams on Su-Jen's shoulders, until she turns to find solace in the most forbidden of places, while Su-Jen's elderly father strives to hek fuh, swallow bitterness, and save face at all costs.

Editorial Reviews

Ron Charles
The sexual crime at the center of this story is almost Sophoclean, but Bates's unpretentious prose keeps the potential melodrama in check. By the end, when Su-Jen looks back at her parents and the small, painful world they created to give her a "lucky" childhood, she realizes how truly costly their efforts were. Everyone's life, she reminds us, is a story of immigration, a bracing journey to new perspectives that make home "a distant place."
— The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
In this deeply affecting debut novel by the author of the short story collection China Dog, intrepid Su-Jen Chou, the only daughter of parents who flee Communist China in the 1950s to become proprietors of a Chinese restaurant in an isolated Ontario town, watches as her family unravels. In Irvine, it is "so quiet you can hear the dead," and Su-Jen's mother, Jing, beautiful and bitter, laments her imprisonment in an unfamiliar country. To Jing's chagrin, Su-Jen's father, Hing-Wun, much older than his wife, believes in the traditional method for obtaining wealth: endless hard work. When Su-Jen's handsome older half-brother, Lee-Kung, comes to live with the family and help out in the restaurant, Su-Jen is happy, but soon she notices her mother and Lee-Kung exchanging veiled glances and realizes they're keeping some dangerous secret. Increasingly, Su-Jen finds herself caught between her parents, who have "settled into an uneasy and distant relationship... their love, their tenderness, they give to their daughter." She seeks relief in books and in the Chinese tales her father loves to tell, but the trouble festering comes to a head when a mail-order bride arrives for her brother. Bates conveys with pathos and generosity the anger, disappointment, vulnerability and pride of people struggling to balance duty and passion. Agent, Denise Bukowski. (Apr.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
When Su-Jen and her mother, Lai-Jing, left Communist China in the 1950s for Canada, they spoke no English, and Su-Jen had never met her father. In Ontario, they are the only Chinese family, set apart but for the fact that Su-Jen's father owns the local Chinese restaurant, The Dragon Cafe. Su-Jen's elderly father and beautiful young mother live unhappily as strangers, not even sleeping in the same bed. Su-Jen's mother is miserable with their poverty in this new small town. The balance of this family shifts when Su-Jen's half brother, Lee-Kung, comes to live with them and work in the restaurant. Soon Lai-Jing no longer shares her daughter's bed, as she and her stepson begin a torrid affair to which Su-Jen is the only witness. As Su-Jen's family unravels before her eyes, she is rapidly adapting to life in Canada. She becomes fluent in English; she is given the school name of Annie; and she develops friendships among the Canadian girls. The best of these friends is Charlotte, a spirited girl who behaves in a way that is older than her years. Little does Annie realize that the fate a fortuneteller predicted for her would befall her best friend. Midnight at the Dragon Cafe is a quietly lyrical coming-of-age novel about a young girl who is adapting and thriving while watching her family struggle to maintain their cultural identity as they impotently fight against racism and poverty. The writing in this novel is beautifully simple and perfectly complements the out-of-context Chinese culture, which exists at the heart of the story. The style is accessible, and although the character of Su-Jen is young, the portrayal of her disenchantment with her family as well as her awkward assimilationof Canadian culture will ring true with the older teens to whom this book might appeal. KLIATT Codes: SA—Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2005, Perseus, Counterpoint, 315p., Ages 15 to adult.
—Heather Lisowski
Kirkus Reviews
First-novelist Bates (stories: China Dog, 2002) explores the Chinese immigrant experience in Canada in a heartbreaking but muted love story. Su-Jen Chou is seven years old in 1957 when she and her mother come from China to join her father, who has bought into a small restaurant in a town near Toronto. Su-Jen, who becomes Annie when she begins school, narrates the story of her parents' lives and her own developing awareness with an eye for the telling detail, though her understanding evolves with appropriate slowness. Annie quickly assimilates, making friends and becoming a star student, but her still young and beautiful mother, who speaks no English, is deeply unhappy, missing China, where her family had wealth and prestige before the Communist takeover. She argues constantly with Annie's elderly father, who has lived on and off in Canada for many years. The two share no affection, sleeping with Annie in the bed between them until her father eventually moves into another room. After Annie's much older brother, Lee-Kung, who has been working elsewhere in Canada, comes to help run the restaurant, Annie learns that both parents had previous marriages and children who died, that Lee-Kung is only her half-brother, and that his mother may have committed suicide. Inevitably, Annie's mother and Lee-Kung are drawn toward each other. While Annie witnesses the affair with disgust, she's also caught up in the less interesting complexities of her own pubescent life, particularly her friendship with Charlotte, one of those golden children doomed in fiction to early death. Annie's mother becomes pregnant around the same time that Lee-Kung's bride arrives for the marriage arranged at his father'sinsistence. Annie sees looks exchanged, hears snatches of conversation. What in lesser hands could have become overwrought remains bittersweet and elegiac as the family struggles to maintain dignity and unity. Deeply satisfying: a lovely sensuality pervades in spite of the harshness of the world Bates portrays so eloquently. Agent: Denise Bukowski/The Bukowski Agency

Product Details

Counterpoint Press
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x (d)

Read an Excerpt

I HAVE KEPT ONLY three possessions from my childhood. Each one is a book. The first is a coil-bound sketch pad with a cover made of heavy cardboard, a muted olive green. The pages are filled with drawings – of trees and flowers, of animals and soft nudes, but also of fantastic creatures, some beautiful, some hideous, entwined and growing out of one another, out of eyes, bellies, tongues, mouths. As a child I found the drawings magical, yet they unsettled me, pulling me into a world I did not understand. When I look at them now, many years later, they disturb me in a different way; I am left feeling hollow and haunted.
The other two books are from China, handwritten with red cloth covers, bound with red string. One book is thick with pages of line drawings of Buddha­shaped faces, dotted with moles. A mole in a certain place on a cheek might be lucky, my mother once told me, but in the same place on the other cheek could spell a life of tragedy and pain. In the rows of faces, the noses, eyes, lips, and ears are drawn in different shapes. Long, fleshy earlobes mean longevity and wealth; thin lips mean poverty. Whenever Chinese visitors came to our restaurant, I would catch my mother secretly studying their faces. Once, there was a Chinese man who passed through our town and had supper with us. He kept trying to engage my mother in conversation, but she took an instant dislike to him. Afterwards she said, “Syah how, sei gnun, that’s what he is. A serpent head with dung­filled eyes.” His narrow eyes were shaped in an evil way, she told me, a bad person, not to be trusted. Later we found out the man was a notorious gambler and womanizer inChinatown in Toronto. Sometimes her face readings were more direct. “That man, he has ears that are too small and thin. No matter how hard he works, he won’t amount to anything.” She once said to me about my grown­up brother, “The shape of his face and nose are strong. He will eventually be rich, but he will always have to work hard. His mouth is too full. He wants so much, yet nothing in the first half of his life will be easy.”
The second book from China, though it looks similar on the outside, holds other secrets. It holds the story of my life, my destiny. Before leaving Hong Kong, my mother took me to a fortune teller to have my I Ching read and my fate revealed. I have no memory of what the fortune teller looked like, only of watching his long, slender hands lay out narrow sticks of different lengths. The smell of incense had filled the air. My mother paid a handsome price for the book. Each page was filled with black hand­brushed characters, on the front was a single column of elegant black calligraphy. The characters held such power and mystery, all the more so because I could not read them. When I touch the pages, I can almost sense the heat of the fortune teller’s hand moving down the rice paper with the bamboo­handled brush in his fingers. As a child, I often found myself with the book upside down, turning the pages backwards; I had to remind myself to open it left to right, opposite to the way I opened books at school.
Whenever I asked my mother what was written inside, she seemed to hesitate. Her unwillingness made me uneasy. She told me that I would live in more than one country. She told me that until the age of thirteen, water would be my danger sign, that I was never to trust it. I would beg her for greater details about my future, but she would only shake her head and say there was nothing else in the book that mattered.
Several months before my mother and I came to Canada, my father, Hing-Wun Chou, and his oldest friend, Doon­Yat Lim, bought the Dragon Café in the town of Irvine, not far from Toronto. They considered it a good buy, as it was already a Chinese restaurant, with woks in the kitchen and a rectangular sign with gold Chinese-style script above the front window. But most important for them, an enterprise in a town the size of Irvine cost less money than one in a bigger place. At the time I didn’t realize that my father’s business was typical of so many Chinese restaurants in small towns across Canada, often known as the local greasy spoon, every one of them a lonely family business isolated from the community it served.
While my mother and I were still in Hong Kong, we visited a tailor; he made each of us a woollen coat and several cotton dresses. But for my mother he also made a dark green travelling suit and a beautiful rose-coloured cheongsam. She packed our new clothes in a large brown leather suitcase, smoothing them carefully around bolts of material, folded sweaters, packages of medicinal herbs, small gifts for family, and our few personal belongings.
As I stood beside her in a long line to board the airplane, it was hard to believe that the beautiful woman in the lo fon – style suit and black high­heeled shoes was my mother. Until then, I had only seen her in cotton pyjama suits that fastened up the side or a light dress with a loose skirt. She had told me that we were going to a country called Gun-ah-dye, a land that was cold and covered with snow, a place where lo fons lived, a place where only English was spoken. She had pointed them out to me in the streets of Hong Kong. “They don’t speak Chinese,” she had said. “But soon you will learn English, and talk just like the lo fons. I am too old to learn, but you, Su­Jen, you will be just like them.” I wondered what English sounded like. I didn’t understand why it would be easy for me but difficult for my mother.
In the weeks before we left, she didn’t seem excited about going to this new place, yet she took care to show me how to print the letters of the English alphabet, combining circles and sticks and half­circles. I traced the letters on the window of the airplane and remembered what she had told me about the missionaries, that when she was a child, they had taught her how to write the ABC’s but not to read the words.
Whenever I looked out I saw clouds above and below and wondered if we were really moving through the sky. It seemed that our journey would never end.
My mother said that we were lucky my father already lived in Canada, otherwise the Communists would never have allowed us to leave China. She said that we were going to Canada because of me. There I would have a better life, I could go to school and our family would be together. But I knew if she had her way we would stay in China despite her fear of the Communists. When­ever I asked my mother who the Communists were, she was unable to explain in a way I understood; I only knew that in Canada, we would be safe from them.
The only thing about Canada that my mother seemed to look forward to was reuniting with Aunt Hai­Lan, her mother’s youngest sister. Before the war, Hai-Lan had married Uncle Jong, who was from my father’s village in Hoi Ping County. They had two sons before Jong returned to Canada. When the Japanese attacked, she and the other villagers fled and hid in the hills. My mother told me that she and Hai­Lan and Hai-Lan’s sons were the only ones in her family who had survived the war. When it was over, they had found each other, and Hai-Lan had taken her in and cared for her. When my father returned to the village from Canada, she introduced him to my mother, and then left for Canada herself soon after my parents were married.
I stayed close to my mother after the airplane landed in Toronto, fearful of being lost in this crowd of strangers. We stood in a long line and waited for a lo fon man in a dark uniform to look at some papers that my mother thrust at him. She seemed nervous, even when the man smiled at me. The man finally gave back her papers and my mother quickly grabbed my hand and followed the crowd into another room. She was busy struggling with our bags when I saw a man and a woman rush toward us. They were a funny-looking couple – he was short and round while she was tall and thin with a head full of tight black curls. My mother looked up from her bags and held out her arms toward Aunt Hai-­Lan. They embraced each other, laughing and crying at the same time. Afterwards Aunt Hai-Lan bent down and pressed me to her chest, speaking in our Four Counties dialect. Uncle Jong smiled and told me how grown up I looked for a six-year­old. He picked up our large brown suitcase, while Aunt Hai­Lan took the smaller one, chattering and hugging my mother with one arm. We walked through a large bluish­green room with narrow wooden benches. I saw a lo fon man pushing a broom and some lo fon women working behind a counter.
There were many lo fon men and women outside the building, waving and shouting in their strange language, some of them getting into cars lined along the road. My cheeks tingled with the cold. Uncle Jong led us to a taxi and spoke easily in English to the driver. I sat in the back seat, squeezed between my mother and her aunt; I leaned against my mother’s arm. When I peeked up at the window, I saw only darkness.

Meet the Author

Judy Fong Bates came to Canada from China as a young girl and grew up in several small Ontario towns. She is the author of a collection of short stories, China Dog, and a novel, Midnight at the Dragon Café. Her stories have been broadcast on CBC Radio and published in literary journals and anthologies.
Judy Fong Bates lives in Toronto.

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Midnight at the Dragon Cafe 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I had never heard about this book or its author and picked it off the shelf just because the title and cover were intriguing. What a treasure it turned out to be! Now I am eager to read Bates' China Dog stories. She is a master of character development, which is a 'must' for me. I lived the novel as I read it it captivated me. I especially appreciated her subtleties and understated-ness. The reader needed to infer and read between the lines, often. I do agree with the previous reviewer, however,in that I felt unfulfilled at the end, not knowing what transpired in the years to come with the different family members.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I really enjoyed this. The writing was simple but beautiful. Annie lives in a restaurant with her parents. They have to work hard to make a living. Annie's future is their dream. Annie's mother is bored and lonely and develops a friendship with her stepson. Annie has friends at school and one of her friends died tragically. the only problem with this book is I would have like to learn more about Annie's future life.