Fifth Chinese Daughter
is a 1945 autobiography by Chinese-American artist and author Jade Snow Wong, who wrote the book when she was just 24 years old. It is an account of her childhood and young adulthood being raised by a fiercely traditional Chinese family in San Francisco in the early 20th century, and her struggle to attain an education despite her family’s staunch opposition. Using the third person despite the intimate nature of the subject matter allows Wong to distance herself from her own life, creating a powerful sense of objectivity despite the subjective nature of telling your own life story while also aligning with a traditional Chinese sense of humility and decorum. The book was immensely popular and was sponsored into multiple translations by the United States government in an effort to prove a lack of racial prejudice against Asian cultures in the U.S. after World War II.
Wong begins with her early childhood in San Francisco’s Chinatown; she is the fifth daughter in a family that will eventually grow to nine children. Only Chinese is spoken in the house, and her father is very strict. Her earliest memories center on the monthly arrival of the rice barrel. Not only is rice their primary food staple, the barrel provides her father with switches which he uses for corporal punishment on his children. This punishment is brutal and constant, and rarely accompanied by any sort of explanation; the children, boys and girls alike, are often confused concerning why they are being punished at any given time. Wong notes that she eventually learned to skip meals to delay the arrival of the next barrel.
Wong’s relatives are not all frightening, however. Both her grandfather and her uncle are kinder to her, and each impresses on her the value of knowledge and education. Her Uncle Kwok studies the works of Confucius on his own in hopes of improving his life and position, a concept that Wong takes to heart.
When she is in the third grade, however, her father informs her that since she is a girl he will not be paying for her to go to college. Her father blames this on financial necessity and priorities: Her brothers, being male, will carry on the family name and legacy, and since her father is not wealthy enough to send all of his children to college he will only send the male heirs. He does, however, tell Wong that if she has “the talent” she might be able to fund her own college tuition. Wong is filled with bitterness about this disparity, but it is implied that this anger is not expressed outwardly and that Wong continues to behaves as a proper Chinese girl in front of her father.
Wong reports that her family also teach her nothing aside from obedience to her family and proper behavior. Her school achievements are ignored or ridiculed. All that matters is that she behave as a traditional Chinese girl would, quiet, respectful, obedient. Outside the home, Wong encounters a more chaotic world and is influenced by her American friends and their looser, more liberal attitudes and assumptions. She attends a public school but has Chinese-specific instruction in the evenings and on weekends, where she observes more of the required mindless obedience and again sees the girls punished more severely than the boys. She is exposed to a broader range of American culture, however, and discovers a love of writing, where she can be truly creative and free.
Wong works nearly full-time throughout her high school years to be able to afford Junior College after graduation. Still shying away from any serious rebellion or public rebuke of her family, she has a very successful academic career, joins the Honor Society, and wins many honors. As opposed to her friends who leave school, Wong works diligently to continue her education, winning a scholarship from Mills College which allows her to keep going.
In college, Wong struggles at first because she is finally truly separated from her Chinese culture and family, and the “American Way” she finds at the college is disorienting. Her family continues to be a destabilizing force; her father is impressed by her professors and eagerly interacts with them while ignoring his daughter and remaining ignorant of her accomplishments, and her mother does not even attend her graduation. Wong discovers an artistic outlet, however, when she takes a ceramics summer course, and she graduates Phi Beta Kappa. While her father poses for photos not with his daughter but with the college president, Wong mentally breaks from her family and revels in the pride she feels at having achieved something with no help from her family, without any debt, and completely on her own merits.
Wong launches a ceramics business in Chinatown, and it is remarkably successful, gaining media attention that astonishes her family, and her father finally acknowledges that she is more than just a daughter, but someone he can be proud of.Fifth Chinese Daughter
sought to bridge American and Chinese culture through subtle techniques like Wong’s use of the third-person in an autobiography and sought to put American readers at ease by explaining much of the daily life and culture of Chinatown in exhaustive detail, from the cooking to the interactions of the people in the neighborhood. As such it is not only an important work of memoir but also an important cultural touchstone that captured a moment in time now forever lost.