The End of East
by Jen Sookfong Lee
Published by Knopf Canada
256 pages, 2007
Buy it online
East Side Story
Reviewed by Cherie Thiessen
It's 1913 and eighteen-year-old Seid Quan Chan, like so many other Chinese men, is on his way to Vancouver, Canada, his passage paid by the village he is leaving behind. A common practice at the time, the villagers gamble on their disappearing young men, counting on them to send money back to help their impoverished communities.
What a frightening and lonely experience for a teenager, to be trundled off to an alien and unfriendly world where he can't speak the language, where prejudices abound and where he must work at menial jobs and live in poverty in order to pay back an enormous debt. Seid never complains, however, even when he returns home three years later to marry. He says goodbye to his bride a few weeks later, when he leaves for Canada.
It gets worse. He returns to China two more times and manages to impregnate his wife on each visit. Ultimately two daughters and a son, Pon Man, are added to the list of the family he gets to leave behind. They grow up without him, while he continues working and living alone, dreaming of the day he can bring them over.
It's a long time coming. His daughters marry. Pon Man, the son he longed to share his life with, finally arrives at 15, when he's too old to understand or bond with his father. They never become close and Pon Man has no interest in taking over his father's barbershop.
This sad story of a young, lonely immigrant is only half of the misery. The novel begins in the drizzle of modern-day Vancouver with Chan's youngest granddaughter, Samantha -- Sammy -- as narrator. Vancouver-born Sammy does not bring any hope to the future. She lacks the motivation to finish school or even to sustain a relationship, leaving behind what appears to be a loving and supportive partner in Montreal in order to return without job prospects to a city she hates, a widowed mother she doesn't like, four sisters she hardly sees, and a future that fills her with dread: being the caregiver to her cantankerous, ageing mother. Sammy appears to be very much alone. She seems almost suicidal, leaving her sister's wedding in order to drink and have degrading sex with a brutal, lurking stranger who puts her in the hospital with his special brand of "hot sex."
As the book jumps back and forth from the present to the past, filling in the family history, I found myself gripping the previous pages tightly, not wishing to be dragged back into Sammy's dead-end life. At least in the beginning her grandfather had hope for the future.
This is Lee's first novel. She lives in East Vancouver, and is herself one of five daughters. I only hope this is not her biography! Her short fiction, poetry and articles have been published in several magazines, and she has been writing since her first horror tale, penned at 10. You could say in a way that this is a horror tale as well. There is no moment of clarity or hope, no sense that this depressing immigrant experience could ever be worthwhile. Surely this unloving, messed-up family would have been happier if they had been allowed to stay together in their homeland. One hopes the third generation will be successful. The earlier ones have been undone by the distances between their dreams and their instilled old world values.
Poor Seid Quan -- who did everything that was expected of him -- is lonelier when his family arrives then he ever was by himself, and is virtually ignored by his granddaughters, son and daughter-in-law. It's one of his daughters who ultimately takes the old man to live with her, a man she could scarcely have ever known. Up until this point, his daughters seem to have no place in his life or in this story. Happiness and dreams are not part of life's plan for this immigrant family, and that's part of the problem. If one looks continually backward when in a new place, how can she see where she is? The End of East should naturally become the beginning of West, but in the Chan family, this is never allowed to happen.
Lee is a sketch artist, the way she skips over things like those two daughters, and Sammy's Montreal life. I was frustrated because, without the details, I could never see the picture. It's a measure of this young writer's skill, however, that I wanted to. Because the mood and sense of place in this work are so strong, you feel the tragedy strongly. Prepare yourself for depression. | May 2007
Cherie Thiessen has been a scriptwriter, playwright, creative writing instructor and -- for the past 10 years -- a travel writer and book reviewer. She was the review columnist for Focus on Women Magazine for eight years and has also written numerous reviews for magazines including BC Bookworld, Monday Magazine, Pacific Yachting, Cottage Magazine, The Driftwood News, Linnear Reflections and Douglas College's Event Magazine.