Sky Lee Biography
Nationality: Canadian. Born: Port Alberni, British Columbia, 1952. Education: University of British Columbia, B.A.; Douglas College, diploma in nursing. Career: Nurse and writer.
Disappearing Moon Cafe. Vancouver, Douglas and McIntyre, 1990; Seattle, Washington, Seal Press, 1991.
Bellydancer. Vancouver, Press Gang, 1994.
Teach Me to Fly, Skyfighter! and Other Stories, with Paul Yee. Toronto, Lorimer, 1983.
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In "All Spikes but the Last" (1957), F. R. Scott rebukes E. J. Pratt for failing in his epic, Towards the Last Spike (1952), to acknowledge the contribution Chinese laborers made in finishing the transnational Canadian Pacific Railway. "Where are the coolies in your poem, Ned? / Where are the thousands from China who swung their picks with bare hands at forty below?" Who, Scott asks, "has sung their story?"
A revisionist narrative returning presence to historical absence, defying silence with song and story, Disappearing Moon Cafe tells the story of Vancouver's Chinese community, whose role in British Columbia's development has, until recently, been disregarded. Sky Lee's novel is a formidable addition to the growing, though relatively small, body of Chinese-Canadian literature. Epic in scope and intent, spanning four generations and nearly a century (1892 to 1986), Disappearing Moon Cafe weighs the cultural cost of survival, particularly for generations of Chinese-Canadian women, and charts the tangled connections between Wong Gwei Chang, who is entrusted by the Chinese community with the responsibility of collecting the bones of laborers who died building the railway and returning them to China for burial, and his descendants. Great-granddaughter Kae Ying Woo, inspired by her pregnancy, narrates the story and exposes murky familial secrets. Like her ancestor, Kae searches for her family's bones. Powerful vignettes, flashbacks, multiple perspectives, and temporal juxtapositions are features of her narrative as she wrestles with the problems of knowing and representing the past. At times, though, the sameness of Lee's narration and its occasional inchoateness restrain the promising elasticity of her invention.
Lee's family saga deals with repatriation and assimilation, the tug between cultures. The young migrants maintain connections with China to protect themselves from the Canadian wilderness and nativism. But as they settle down and have families, as the Canadian government restricts passage between China and Canada, and as China is politically transformed and then isolated, their Canadian-born children forge new identities, negotiating the conflicting demands of the old world, where customs and laws are clear, and the new, where values are less certain. For some, such as relocated village teenager Wong Choy Fuk, this is easy. He proves "amazingly quick to shed his bumpkin ways in favour of a more cocky western style." Indeed, the cafe of the title is symbolically divided in two. One section, "a nostalgic replica of an old-fashioned Chinese teahouse," is very popular with "homesick Chinese clientele;" the other, a "more modern counter-and-booth section," enchants Choy Fuk: "He loved the highly polished chrome and brightly lit glass, the checkerboard tiles on the floor, the marble countertop. And except for the customers, his mother, and perhaps the cacti, there was nothing Chinese about it."
The family plays an important role offsetting the dislocations of immigration. Mui Lan, Gwei Chang's Chinese wife, expends considerable malicious energy ensuring that the Wong name does not evaporate. Although her obsession with her daughter-in-law's fertility may appear to be a traditional Chinese concern, conditions in Canada—the Canadian government imposed an expensive head tax and then prohibited Chinese immigration for many years, thus obstructing the possibility of family reunion—helped shape and exacerbate this concern also.
The genealogy of the Wong family, a potential dynasty, structures Disappearing Moon Cafe. Maintaining a pure lineage is impossible, as Kae discovers when she probes the secrets, allegiances, demands, and contradictions of family. Anything is permissible, so long as a son is born and the Wong name perpetuated. Security, honor, and prestige, for example, will be Fong Mei's reward on the condition that she let her husband, Choy Fuk, who we later learn is impotent, sleep with Song An, a waitress at Disappearing Moon Cafe. The Wong family tree prefaces the story; primarily Chinese, it includes aboriginal Shi'atko and an anonymous French-Canadian woman, although both are nominal figures. Positioning the family tree at the start of the narrative and thus disclosing the infidelities and incest that motivate various characters does, however, drain the narrative of much of its tension.
Lee's 1994 short story collection, Bellydancer, augments her range of characters, if not her colloquial prose, which favors explanation and exclamation over ellipsis. Some stories focus on Chinese-Canadian experience and expand upon themes addressed in Disappearing Moon Cafe—"Broken Teeth" is about conflict between a mother born in China and her Canadian-born daughter, and the marvelous "The Soong Sisters" revolves around a genealogy only slightly less complicated than the Wong family's. Others consider relationships: heterosexual, lesbian, and, in "Safe Sex," something mysterious that transcends gender altogether.