From the Publisher
“I devoured this book in one sitting...alternately cheering, laughing, cringing, and gasping in horror. Lui captures the complexity of a mother-daughter relationship that is both complicated and beautiful. Poignant with a bare honesty that may make you think (and rethink) your own relationships.” —Jenny Lawson, #1 New York Times–bestselling author of Let’s Pretend This Never Happened
I’m an avid reader of Elaine Lui’s blog because of her intelligent, funny and distinctive voice. So of course, her memoir was a must-read. By turns hilarious and moving, it tells the story of her charismatic mother – her difficult childhood in Hong Kong, immigration to Canada and tiger-mom style of raising her daughter Lainey to be the outspoken success she is today. Along the way we learn a lot about Mah Jong and Feng Shui (two of her mother’s obsessions), but most of all about the intense love between mother and daughter. I was spellbound from start to finish! —Jennifer Ross, People.com
“Listen to the Squawking Chicken is authentic, heartbreaking, and funny. Lui writes with the truest form of humor, grounded in pain, honesty, and insight, and despite everything, Lui’s love for her mother shines true. This is a book that will challenge and resonate with mothers and daughters everywhere.”—Jean Kwok, New York Times–bestselling author of Girl in Translation and Mambo in Chinatown
“Elaine Lui has written one remarkable and dangerous book. It had me laughing till I rolled off the bed, rearranging my living room furniture in a panic at three a.m. to achieve proper feng shui, and calling my mother out of pure guilt. The Squawking Chicken could eat any Tiger Mom for lunch.” —Kevin Kwan, author of Crazy Rich Asians
“Readers will find an affectionate tribute to her tough, powerful Chinese mother… Lui's memoir demonstrates an undeniable mother–daughter bond that leaves readers with one overriding lesson: ‘[L]isten to your mother.’” —Kirkus Reviews
“A sparkling new memoir…hilarious.” —Bookpage
“Bold and fresh, Elaine Lui’s writing took me on a journey filled with bittersweet verve and breathtaking grace. Forget what you think you know about life, and enter the world of the Squawking Chicken. This is a love story you won’t soon forget.” —Ami McKay, author of The Birth House and The Virgin Cure
“What an incredible character is the Squawking Chicken—she’s a movie, an Amy Tan novel, and a sitcom all rolled into one. By turns deeply moving, shocking, and hilarious, this is a story of atypical parenting, cultural complexities, and one daughter’s capacity for forgiveness, compassion, and love. I didn’t want it to end.” —Lisa Gabriele, author of SECRET and TV producer
“Once I started reading, I couldn’t stop. I read it compulsively, wide-eyed, and devouring: Lui’s writing is sharp, humorous, and deliciously readable, like a long, insightful letter from your best friend. Listen to the Squawking Chicken asks you to reflect on what you think about loyalty, shame, pride and love—themes that all mothers and daughters know deeply. This book made me rethink what it means to be a daughter. I loved it. I can't wait to give it to my mother.” —Sarah Seleky, author of This Cake Is for the Party
A peek inside the book...
If the world operated on mute, my ma would seem to you like any other Chinese lady on the short side of average, small-boned, but obnoxiously dressed. Think rhinestones everywhere, and if not rhinestones then sequins, and if not sequins then feathers. Sometimes all of it at the same time. Her favourite outfit is a denim suit, with rhinestone encrusted patches on the back and up and down the leg. She purposefully wears it with the collar turned up. Like the irresistibly catchy hook in the worst song you’ve ever heard, she finishes her China Woman Elvis ensemble off with a pair of gold and silver Coach runners. If I’m really lucky that day, it’ll be sunny out when we go for dimsum. And she’ll keep her shades on as she walks into the restaurant, her entire head hidden underneath one of those massive sun visors regularly seen on Asians. People will wonder: is it a movie star or a bag lady who’s pillaged a donations bin in Vegas? The face that appears when she finally removes the sunglasses and the hat is so pretty it’s almost ornamental. In other words, by appearance only, ma seems harmless.
Turn up the volume and everything changes. As soon as you hear her, you’ll never forget her. It’s the voice, a voice that earned her the nickname “Tsiahng Gai”, Squawking Chicken, when she was growing up in Hong Kong. The volume is jarring, yes. You can’t imagine that something so loud can come out so effortlessly, and without warning. The Squawking Chicken doesn’t give you time to acclimate to her levels. It’s one level, and it’s all-out assault. But it’s also the tone sharp, edged, and quick, not so much a booming roar that leaves silence after it lands but a wailing siren that invades your mind, kind of like acid on the brain that results in permanent scarring.
Laineygossip.com blogger Lui strikes a discordant note with the title of her memoir, but readers will find an affectionate tribute to her tough, powerful Chinese mother. When the author was young, an unnaturally loud voice earned "Ma" the sobriquet Squawking Chicken. It's an "all-out assault…sharp, edged and quick," writes Lui, who felt the sting of her mother's tongue many times. After her parents divorced when she was 7, the author spent the school year in Toronto with her low-key father and vacations in Hong Kong with her demanding mother. Ma's child-rearing techniques included telling ghost stories that warned against behavior that brings bad luck, using feng shui edicts to control decisions and strict rules of comportment. Readers may laugh at the embarrassing-moments-with-Mom stories and also squirm at Ma's verbal cruelty. In contrast to a permissive, childcentric parenting style so pervasive in Western culture, Ma abhorred praise as a motivator and discouraged unrealistic aspirations. Bragging and rebellion were met with public derision, and shaming and demeaning were the preferred forms of punishment. Though open affection was rare, her love was indisputable. Ma's harsh ways reflected a determination to spare Lui the hardships she had to endure. At 15, she quit school and went to work at a restaurant to support her siblings while her unemployed parents "slept off all-night mah-jong sessions." Then, while walking home after work, she was raped. With no sympathy from her parents, she voiced her shame, anger and frustration by screaming all night. That was the birth of Squawking Chicken. Thereafter, she used her voice to protect herself and others. For all her in-your-face tough love, baffling and amusing rules, and opinions about people and situations, Ma has been, more often than not, uncannily right-on. Lui's memoir demonstrates an undeniable mother–daughter bond that leaves readers with one overriding lesson: "[L]isten to your mother."
Read an Excerpt
“You look like dried monkey flakes.”
That’s what my ma, the Chinese Squawking Chicken,
tells me when she thinks I look like shit on television.
Monkeys are skinny. A poorly moisturized monkey is not
only skinny but brittle. No one wants to look like dried
monkey f lakes. Most people think I’m exaggerating at first
when I talk about the Squawking Chicken. But once they
actually do spend some time with her, they understand.
They get it. Right away. She’s Chinese, she squawks like a
chicken, she is totally nuts, and I am totally dependent on
her. If she says I look like dried monkey f lakes, even if everyone
else thinks I’m camera-ready, I believe that I look
like dried monkey flakes.
This is how it’s been for me my whole life: every thought
has been shaped by the Squawking Chicken; every opinion I
have is informed by the Squawking Chicken; everything I
do is in consultation with the Squawking Chicken. I navigate
my life according to the subliminal map she’s purposefully
programmed into my head so that I can’t tell the difference
anymore whether it’s my own choice or her choice. And that
was probably her objective all along.
The Squawking Chicken has engineered my entire life,
completely intentionally. She has always known who I was
meant to be; I am who she’s always wanted me to be. And
she has spent my entire life pushing me in that direction,
taking credit for it along the way. If I am happy and successful,
it’s because she guided me there. If I am unhappy and
unable to meet challenges, it’s because I didn’t listen. Teng
means “to listen” or “to hear” in Chinese. The expression
for “obedience” in Chinese combines teng with the word for
“speak,” which is wah. Teng wah literally means “listen to
what I say.” I have been listening to the Squawking Chicken
for forty years.
Is it self-fulfilling prophecy that I did indeed fail, and
sometimes disastrously, on the occasions when I disregarded
her instruction? One night she told me, after I’d come home
from college and finished all my exams, that I was too tired
to go out to see my friends, that my friends would still be
there tomorrow when I’d had a good night’s sleep, and, most
ominously, that I would regret not staying home. Half an
hour later as I was backing the car out of the garage, I realized
too late that I’d forgotten to close the rear door. It
caught on to the wall while I was reversing and, as I hit the
gas, the entire door came off. I didn’t listen to the Squawking
Chicken and the Squawking Chicken was right.
“You are controlled by your mother,” a colleague told me
recently. It was said with a mixture of fascination and pity,
mostly pity. Indeed, some who have observed our interactions
do shake their heads, feeling sorry for me that I’ve been
held hostage, emotionally and mentally, by a mother living
vicariously through her daughter. They’re not wrong about
the control, but they are definitely wrong about living vicariously.
The Squawking Chicken has her own story, and
I’m just a part of it.
I decided to write this book during Ma’s recovery from a
long and potentially fatal illness. At first, I wanted to give
her something to look forward to, something to get better
for. But in telling her story, I realized that I was actually
doing it for me—which is what always happens when I think
I’m doing something for her. It turns out I’m the one who’s
benefiting. In this case, it’s to convince myself that even if
the squawking stops, I will always be able to hear it.