Reading Disappearing Moon Cafe by Vancouver author Sky Lee kind of drove me crazy…but then I realized that might be the point. Reading Lee’s bio (she identifies as a feminist) and the description of the story on the back cover (which refers to, amongst other interesting plots, “the passionate loves of the women of the Wong family through four generations”) had me sold on the spot.
The book seemed easy enough – it’s divided into seven chapters with a few characters featured in each. As I went through it, however, I realized it wasn’t going to be a simple tale of three or four characters; the voices, stories, ghosts, and desires of Kae Ying Woo, Hermia Chow, Lee Mui Lan, Fong Mei, Choy Fuk, Ting An, Beatrice Li Ying Wong, Keeman, Morgan, Suzanne Bo Syang Wong, and many others, crowd the pages. It’s rather dizzying to keep track of so many people who have so many different things (such as incestuous longings that would make the Lannisters blush) happening in their lives.
Despite all the seemingly disparate narratives and characters, I want to focus on the theme of community, even though the novel seems to question whether that very concept may just be a lofty dream.
The novel is based in our very own Vancouver Chinatown and other areas around British Columbia, making it super-local. Vancouverites will know how big our Chinatown is (that is, not very big at all), and Lee’s novel shows with heartbreaking poignancy how very lonely things can be even when you’re supposed to be “home” or are assigned by the status quo ruling class to stay within the confines of your community of Others.
Something that comes across loud and clear in this novel is the impenetrable division of the binary sexes, which emphasizes the public and the private: men like Choy Fuk and Gwei Chan are free to go out and about and meet up with other men to smoke and gamble and generally catch up on neighborhood gossip. They actually have a community of peers they regularly interact with, and all seem happy enough with this fraternity.
However, it’s the bitterness and rage that binds them together, not luxurious discussions about sports or stocks as, “under the strain of bigotry, they were outlaws. Chinamen didn’t make the law of the land, so they would always live outside of it [….] the result was submerged, but always there: violence, with the same, sour odour of trapped bodies under duress.”
With the women of Chinatown a similar story is told in a different way. Where the men are muttering curses under their breath at one another and falling neatly into a hierarchy where important matters can be discussed and debated, the women have their claws out in something near to a stereotypical cat fight of petty concerns and girl hate. All their drama further seems to take place within their homes, and they don’t seem to talk to one another much at all unless they are related.
One of the characters, Hermia gently explains, “Grown women are orphan children, are we not? We have been broken from our mother’s arms too soon and made to cling to a man’s world – which refuses to accept us – as best we can, any how we can. And of course, let me tell you, many of us are just barely hanging on by the skin of our teeth.”
The tyranny of overbearing mother-in-laws like Mui Lan, and the long-simmering hostility of Fong Mei show that such poison is the result of a different sort of division where women of colour are left with a lot of rage and confusion since their society cares little about the struggles and heartache of racialized communities. But unlike their male counterparts they have nowhere to throw those feelings but at each other. The result is not a close-knit, all-knowing community in the sense outsiders imagine (you know, the people who say dopey stuff like “Oh you’re Chinese? Then you must know my friend Jessica Chan”).
Experiences over generations only increase this divide within Chinatown communities and families, and too many individuals seem to get lost in this story. Where the men must turn outwards and fight against police brutality and systemic racism in the judicial system, the women seem to go further inwards.
It is especially poignant that the one suicide in the book is committed by a woman – aren’t Asian women cold and used to despair while labouring their entire lives? Read Disappearing Moon Cafe to hear a resounding “NO”.
Elsewhere, traps are laid for the women of the novel to fail and fester. For the character Beatrice, belonging somewhere is nearly impossible as “racial prejudice helped disconnect Beatrice from the larger community outside Chinatown. Then, the old chinamen added their two cents’ worth by sneering at the canadian-born: ‘Not quite three, not quite four, nowhere.’ Everyone had a hand at drawing circles around Beatrice and telling her to stay in.”
A trap was laid for me, too, as a reader. I mentioned that the beginning that I was excited to read about, “the passionate loves,” of the women who starred in this book. As such, I expected some Catherine-and-Heathcliff type exchanges. I might have been chasing a vision of a hybrid Amazonian-Chinatown community, where women are as fierce as they are supportive of one another, all while busying themselves with heady love affairs.
Beatrice fell for it too, though, as she admits, “perhaps, as Hermia suggested, they were ungrounded women, living with displaced chinamen, and everyone trapped by their circumstances. I prefer to romanticize them as a lineage of women with passion and fierceness in their veins. In each of their woman-hating worlds, each did what she could. If there is a simple truth beneath their survival stores, then it must be that women’s lives, being what they are, are linked together.”