Wednesday, September 30, 2009
The Mysteries of Chinatown Revealed
As a native San Franciscan, I have always loved visiting Chinatown, with its storefronts crowded with cheap consumer goods and its grocery stores beckoning with the glistening brown bodies of roasted duck.
When I was growing up my father used to take my brothers and me to the Hang Ah tea room on Pagoda Place every Sunday for dim sum. It was in that crowded restaurant that I first developed a taste for fried taro root and ginger infused pot stickers.
I am familiar with Chinese restaurants, fortune cookies, and firecrackers. But I regret to say that I still feel ignorant about the character of the Chinese. I see the elderly Chinese men and women in their blue silk Mao jackets reading Chinese newspapers and can’t reconcile them with the hip, impeccably dressed Chinese artists and engineers who make up much of the younger generation.
That was until I read Kathryn Ma’s excellent collection of short stories, All That Work and Still No Boys.
In this short story collection, which won the Iowa Short Fiction Award, Ma peels back the curtain of the Chinese culture to reveal its humorous, exasperating, and moving forms. She is in a perfect position to serve as an ambassador between the two worlds; her parents were born in China and immigrated to the United States while Ma practiced corporate law in San Francisco for years before pursuing writing.
In the story that gives the collection its name, Ma tells the story of a woman who needs a kidney transplant. Of her four children, only her son is a match, but the woman cannot imagine asking such a favor from her only male heir. So she keeps on pestering her daughters for one of their kidneys. Her mother’s preference for her son – which is completely acceptable in Chinese culture – seems sexist in modern California and Ma weaves this dichotomy into an absorbing and moving story.
Not all of Ma’s characters are Chinese-American and she shouldn’t be pigeonholed as an ethnic writer. Her use of words and the tension she draws in her descriptions of family transcend any label. Race is just one theme that Ma explores in this winning collection.
All That Work and Still No Boys has been widely praised. Bestselling novelist Curtis Sittenfeld wrote on the Daily Best website that the collection was “completely wonderful.”
Ma will be speaking at Mrs. Dalloway’s Books in Berkeley on October 1 at 7 pm. She will also speak at 2:30 pm on Saturday Oct. 3 at the Chinatown branch of the San Francisco public library. Ma will also participate in Litquake, the city’s foremost literary festival, at a forum for first time authors. That event will be at 5:30 pm Oct. 12 at The Foundation Center at 312 Sutter Street.
Now that I have read the book, I feel I have a slightly better understanding of this group that has been so essential to the development of California. I will also never take my kidneys for granted again.