Midnight at the Dragon Café
is Chinese-Canadian author Judy Fong Bates’ debut novel. Bates moved to Canada from China as a young girl and grew up in several towns in Ontario. Her background greatly informs her subjects and style. Her previous work is a short story collection titled China Dog
. Bates’ novel details the life of Chinese immigrants in Canada during the late 1950s and 1960s. Much of her own experience informs her narrative. Publishers Weekly
states that Bates’ novel “conveys with pathos and generosity the anger, disappointment, vulnerability and pride of people struggling to balance duty and passion.”
The novel begins in Ontario in 1957 and is narrated in the first-person through the eyes of seven-year-old Su-Jen Chou. Su-Jen is an only child, daughter of Lai-Jing and Hing-Wun, who separately flee communist China in the 1950s. Hing-Wun left China first, and when they join him in the small town of Irvine, Ontario, it is Su-Jen’s first time meeting him. Their family owns a Chinese restaurant, the Dragon Café
. Her father, who is much older than her mother, upholds very different beliefs and is difficult to connect with. Hing-Wun’s ethos is to put in hard work and the possibility of earning your own wealth. Lai-Jing, on the other hand, feels trapped in this foreign country and resents her new life. This contrast begins their rift. They start by sleeping in separate beds, which eventually leads to separate rooms, and fail to connect affectionately as a family.
When Su-Jen comes to Canada, her name is changed to Annie, after Annie Oakley, representing a significant change to her Chinese identity. She begins her life there, attends first grade in Ms. Hinckley’s class, and starts adjusting to the new culture. Annie learns fluent English. She struggles to immediately connect with her non-Chinese peers at first, but befriends Charlotte Heighington, who shows great maturity and teaches Annie a lot about life. Overall, Annie is enjoying her new life and is well adjusted, despite occasional acts of racism, both subtle and overt. For example, Annie is cautioned by her schoolmates not to audition for the lead in the school play because the lead is not Chinese. Annie is also occasionally called by racial slurs. Annie’s general happiness is shattered as the reality of her mother’s situation takes hold and darker transgressions follow.
Annie’s mother continues to struggle and fails to adjust. She speaks no English and laments for her home in China where her family is wealthy under communist rule. She continues to fight with Annie’s father. Everything gets worse when Annie’s older half-brother, Lee-Kung, moves from another part of Canada and joins them. Annie learns that both her parents had previous marriages and both experienced the death of their previous spouses. It is implied that Lee-Kung’s mother (Hing-Wun’s first wife) committed suicide.
Lee-Kung resents the duties forced upon him as the elder son and ultimately is drawn to Annie’s mother. Their relationship becomes incestuous, although they are not related by blood. Annie catches them together and is scarred, wishing to escape this unpleasant reality. Lee-Kung works hard and makes money for the family at the restaurant but resents his father and often rebels. Lee-Kung and Lai-Jing’s affair continues, and while the family knows exactly what is going on, they all pretend to be unaware, which further frustrates Annie. Annie retreats to books and comics and spends much of her time at Charlotte’s house during these harder times. She does not wish to face their secret relationship head on. Things become even more complicated when a mail-order bride named Mai-Yung arrives. Lee-Kung is to marry her, an arrangement made by his father, to uphold his traditional Chinese values.
Lai-Jing becomes pregnant with Lee-Kung’s son. They both wish to hide their affair from the public. In the end, Lai-Jing moves to Toronto and has her baby. Charlotte suffers a tragedy that takes a massive emotional toll on Annie. Before Annie moves to Canada, a fortuneteller predicts a terrible fate. Her mother won’t let her read the full fortune but warns her to stay away from water. Annie comes to realize that this fortune applies to Charlotte, who ends up drowning.
Bates’ book is written in a sparse, minimal style and focuses on the immigrant experience, uniquely situated within the Chou family. There is more inter-familial struggle sparked from the change in culture rather than struggle with society at large. Chinese history, such as the aftermath of WWII and Canada’s immigration policies, also plays an important role in understanding Annie’s family. While Annie experiences casual racism, this is often a backdrop to the pain she faces within her own family. In many ways, Annie embraces Canadian culture and society and uses it to escape the darkness she faces at home. Money is also an important motif in the novel. How each character relates to money—whether to save or spend or work hard for it—reveals their cultural influence and represents the varying values Chinese immigrants place in money’s ability to lead to happiness.