Midnight at the Dragon Cafe


Set in the 1960s, Judy Fong Bates’s much-talked-about debut novel is the story of a young girl, the daughter of a small Ontario town’s solitary Chinese family, whose life is changed over the course of one summer when she learns the burden of secrets. Through Su-Jen’s eyes, the hard life behind the scenes at the Dragon Café unfolds. As Su-Jen’s father works continually for a better future, her mother, a beautiful but embittered woman, settles uneasily into their new life. Su-Jen feels the weight of her mother’s ...

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Set in the 1960s, Judy Fong Bates’s much-talked-about debut novel is the story of a young girl, the daughter of a small Ontario town’s solitary Chinese family, whose life is changed over the course of one summer when she learns the burden of secrets. Through Su-Jen’s eyes, the hard life behind the scenes at the Dragon Café unfolds. As Su-Jen’s father works continually for a better future, her mother, a beautiful but embittered woman, settles uneasily into their new life. Su-Jen feels the weight of her mother’s unhappiness as Su-Jen’s life takes her outside the restaurant and far from the customs of the traditional past. When Su-Jen’s half-brother arrives, smouldering under the responsibilities he must bear as the dutiful Chinese son, he forms an alliance with Su-Jen’s mother, one that will have devastating consequences. Written in spare, intimate prose, Midnight at the Dragon Café is a vivid portrait of a childhood divided by two cultures and touched by unfulfilled longings and unspoken secrets.

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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
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781417697786
  • Publisher: San Val
  • Publication date: 3/28/2005
  • Format: Library Binding
  • Pages: 317
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 1.20 (d)

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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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.

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Interviews & Essays

McClelland & Stewart (M&S): Midnight at the Dragon Café is both a portrait of an immigrant family and the unique story of a young girl. In the novel, complications arise within the family due to tensions often linked to resentment over personal sacrifices. This creates terrific narrative tension. Can you discuss the theme of sacrifice within the novel, and how it comes to eventually redeem and connect the characters?

Judy Fong Bates (JFB): Like most children growing up in immigrant families Su-Jen is aware of her position in the family and the sacrifices her parents have made for the sake of her future. At first she tries hard to live up to their expectations by being a model Chinese daughter: quiet and obedient. But as Su-Jen watches the secret alliance between her mother and her brother deepen, she becomes increasingly angry, not just with them, but with her father. It isn't until she unwittingly betrays her family by revealing their secrets that she begins to understand the many faces of sacrifice – in the nobility of her father's behaviour, in the cost of this new life on her mother, in her brother's inability to escape his own fate – and become able to forgive.

M&S: There are characters in your novel that seem to be pulled in different directions, caught between responsibility and desire, or between traditional and new world ways. Can you tell us the differences, as you see them, in the situations of Lee-Kung, the older son, and Su-Jen, the young daughter?

JFB: The most obvious difference is, of course, their age. In immigrant families in which there are linguistic and cultural dividesbetween new world and old world, the chances for integrating into mainstream society are always best for those who are born in the new country or arrive early enough to be a part of the school system. The lives of siblings can differ drastically between those who arrive as adults and those whose arrive as children. When Lee-Kung comes to Canada he is already an adult, raised in China, bound by traditional values of duty and filial piety. With little formal education and only some spoken English, his options in his adopted country are relatively narrow and his responsibility is the financial security of the family. Whereas for Su-Jen who will probably go on to higher education, the possibilities for her future are limitless. The danger, though, for her, being raised in western society is that her understanding of Chinese traditions and its labyrinth of unspoken yet expected social behaviours is only partially developed, which ultimately leads her to confront her family in a way that a " good Chinese girl" would never do. Ultimately the conflict is between one culture that emphasizes the family above all else while the other emphasizes the individual.

Further to the question above, Su-Jen is the only member of the family to have a daily life that plays out both within and beyond the restaurant. She seems to have a foot in two worlds, and is not entirely comfortable in either. And while Su-Jen has formed ties to the community, she lacks someone who can relate to her experiences. Can you discuss this division within Su-Jen and the effect it has on her and the decisions she makes?

JFB: As a child growing up in two cultures, 1960s Canadian at school and traditional Chinese at home, Su-Jen's search for place is both difficult and circuitous. Although the values of the two cultures overlap in many ways, the differences are significant and Su-Jen's situation is compounded further by the fact that there is so little understanding between them. In her desire for acceptance by her friends at school, she makes decisions that perhaps a more secure child would not make. And because of her lack of fluency in the complexities of her family, she inadvertently betrays them by speaking the truth out loud. It is only at the end of the book when she decides to join her mother in Toronto that we see a glimpse of someone beginning to make sense of her two disparate worlds and learning to find her way in both, of someone beginning to understand the uniqueness of the space she inhabits, and perhaps ultimately finding comfort in being neither "fish nor fowl."

Secrets play a large role in your novel, among members of the family, about the family's past, between Su-Jen and her friends. Please discuss the prominence of secrets in the book and why you have tied them so closely to the concept of 'face' in Chinese culture.

JFB: I have always been intrigued by the role that secrets play in Chinese families. When I was young it seemed that face was maintained, within the family and externally, by not publicly acknowledging things that might cause embarrassment or anger or a loss of respect. In certain situations, living with deception was preferable to dealing with the truth.

A betrayal that occurs early in this novel becomes an open secret for Su-Jen's family. In this particular situation, the desire to maintain this secret and save face has to do with culture, but it also has to do with the family's isolation. Exposing the truth would mean a dismantling of their lives, and, for most of the characters, the thought of having to start again in the outside world is terrifying. For the father, the desire for face extends beyond his immediate world at the Dragon Café. What is most important for him is the preservation of the family, whatever the personal cost. All considered, there is little choice but to pretend and to obey the unspoken rules that maintain order. It is Su-Jen, with a foot in each world and lacking a clear understanding of either, who upsets this precarious balance.
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Reading Group Guide

Set in the 1960s, Judy Fong Bates's much-talked-about debut novel is the story of a young girl, the daughter of a small Ontario town's solitary Chinese family, whose life is changed over the course of one summer when she learns the burden of secrets. Through Su-Jen's eyes, the hard life behind the scenes at the Dragon Café unfolds. As Su-Jen's father works continually for a better future, her mother, a beautiful but embittered woman, settles uneasily into their new life. Su-Jen feels the weight of her mother's unhappiness as Su-Jen's life takes her outside the restaurant and far from the customs of the traditional past. When Su-Jen's half-brother arrives, smouldering under the responsibilities he must bear as the dutiful Chinese son, he forms an alliance with Su-Jen's mother, one that will have devastating consequences. Written in spare, intimate prose, Midnight at the Dragon Café is a vivid portrait of a childhood divided by two cultures and touched by unfulfilled longings and unspoken secrets.

1. With Midnight at the Dragon Café, Judy Fong Bates produces a work that is both quintessentially Canadian and yet powerfully conveys the Chinese immigrant perspective. What makes the novel feel as classically Canadian as anything by Margaret Laurence or Alice Munro? Consider setting (where the story unfolds) and character.

2. What details does Bates use to allow the reader to fully enter the particular point of view of a newly settled Chinese family? How does the mother, Lai-Jing, view her new surroundings? How does she feel about her neighbours, the lo fons (white people), of Irvine?

3. How does Su-Jen see her new community? The school, the river,the stores, her father's restaurant and her schoolmates? Are your feelings about small-town Canada modified in any way by experiencing it through the eyes of the Chou family?

4. What overt acts of racism does Su-Jen endure among her female peers? What are the more subtle forms? Consider the school play: Was it realistic or racist for Su-Jen's friends to dissuade her from auditioning for the lead role? Why? How do name-calling and racist assumptions affect Su-Jen?

5. In what ways is Su-Jen a child caught between two cultures? How does this affect her world view?

6. By what means do Su-Jen's father, Hing-Wun, mother, Lai-Jing, and Uncle Yat keep Chinese culture alive in Canada? Consider their beliefs, values, and daily activities.

7. What role do the arts -- stories and music -- play in the novel, particularly in the lives of Hing-Wun and Su-Jen?

8. Sacrifice is an important theme in the novel. How does each character's understanding of sacrifice affect the lives of Su-Jen's father, mother, and brother? How does Su-Jen's own understanding of sacrifice change over the course of the novel?

9. How are the events in the story influenced by the Chou family's isolation from the larger urban Chinese community?

10. Why do the Chinese characters in the novel seem so obsessed with money? Give some examples from the novel of the characters' absorption with money and status. Consider Aunt Hai-Lan and also the Chongs (the family interested in arranging a marriage for their daughter). What does this tell the reader about how the Chou family sees itself in their new home?

11. What are some of the ways in which the Chou family reveals their preoccupation with money? How do these concerns shape their lives? Are their fiscal and social concerns realistic? Is the Chou family more money conscious than their Canadian-born neighbours? To what extent are the residents of Irvine also conscious of money and status?

12. What qualities draw Su-Jen to Charlotte Heighington? What does this tell us about Su-Jen?

13. Su-Jen is attracted not only to Charlotte, but to the entire Heighington household, particularly Charlotte's mother. Why might the Heighingtons be considered odd by the rest of the town? In what ways does Mrs. Heighington differ from Su-Jen's mother? What qualities, if any, do the two women share?

14. A love affair between a married woman and her stepson would be shocking regardless of the circumstances. What makes it feel even more so in Midnight at the Dragon Café? How does the inclusion of Lai-Jing and Lee Kung's affair allow the novel to transcend the category of "immigrant story"?

15. Does the affair cause you to identify more with the family, or less? Do you sympathize with Lai-Jing's behaviour? How do you feel about Lee-Kung? Is anyone to blame? Does Hing-Wun deserve a portion of the blame?

16. Did the affair cause you to question Lai-Jing's love for Su-Jen? Are these two separate but parallel kinds of love, or two competing ones? Is Lai-Jing really as trapped as she feels?

17. In what very specific ways do politics and history influence the Chou family? Consider World War I, World War II, Canada's immigration policies, and Japan's 1937 Invasion of China. Has coming to Canada freed the Chou family from its past? Is anyone ever free of the past?

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 1, 2006

    A Treasure

    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.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 25, 2005

    fasinating read

    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.

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