In some cultures, ghosts don't haunt places, they haunt people. In Midnight at the Dragon Café by Judy Fong Bates, the deaths of two sons, a mother, and a husband haunt the members of an immigrant Chinese family running a restaurant in a small Ontario town.
Such restaurants were fixtures in many towns across Canada, with a single Chinese family making a life far from their home culture. The shape of that life is explored in this novel through trips to Toronto's Chinatown for a taste of home, the incidents of racism directed at the family, and the different reactions of each member of the family to living so far from where they grew up.
Fong Bates tells the story through the eyes of the young daughter in the family, Su-jen, given the Canadian name of Annie (chosen by the hardware store owner). The story follows her adaptation to school and life in this foreign town. At a teenager, she uncovers the secrets that haunt her parents, ghost-memories that threaten to tear the family to shreds.
The book explores the nature of home and friendship, what it is like to live where a person does not belong, and how in the end, we make a life for ourselves.
Midnight at the Dragon Café by Judy Fong Bates begins with the main character arriving in Canada from China with her mother. Six-year-old Su-jen is shocked by the cold and snow but welcomed by her aunt and uncle who live in Toronto's Chinatown. There, the language, the food, the culture feel familiar, but this won't be where they live. Soon, they leave the city for the town of Irvine where her father has bought a restaurant. From the moment they arrive, her mother feels the painful difference between living in the rooms above the restaurant and the China she knew and loved.
Inside the Dragon Café, Su-jen speaks Chinese and follows the customs of China. But the cafe is only part of life. Su-jen goes to school, where she is called Annie. With no English, she is thrust into a grade one class. Learning the dynamics of the classroom is a challenge. Learning English and Canadian customs is a struggle. Befriended by the daughter of the bake shop owner, she learns to adapt.
Through the years, Su-jen/Annie negotiates a dual identity and the challenges of a deeply unhappy family. She develops strong friendships, which ground her in the community, making her feel as if she fits in. Because she is so comfortable with her friends, the moments when she realizes that others see her as "a chink" shock her. And in the end, her closest friendship leads to tragedy.
Because Su-jen/Annie thinks of herself as belonging in Irvine, she is shocked when she realizes others see her as foreign. When she goes to audition for the school play, her schoolmates insist that there are no "chinks" in the story. She does not try out for a part, though she sings in the chorus. Her parents do not come to the production, insisting they would not understand a word.
When Su-jen's mother first sees the shabbiness of the rooms they will live in above the restaurant, she weeps. She hates having been torn from home. As her sadness deepens, the comfort she seeks threatens to tear the family apart.
Su-jen's father is a much older, upright Chinese man clinging to tradition, sometimes lashing out when his wife complains.
Her older brother is suave, an amazing cook, and acclimatized to Canadian culture, but he harbours resentment that sparks dangerous issues in the family.
Each of the characters in Judy Fong Bates' Midnight at the Dragon Café comes to life through the incidents of ordinary days that she describes. We can picture Su-jen/Annie's family and her Canadian-born friends. We want their dreams to flourish, even though we see that the situation is tight with tension, too fraught for that to be easy.
The issues that Judy Fong Bates explores in Midnight at the Dragon Café expose small town tensions and difficult family dynamics.
After restaurant patrons make fun of Su-jen's father, she asks how he can stand it. “'I tell myself that this is not my home. They are not my people.' He touched my cheek and smiled sadly. I didn’t know what to say. I had no memories of China anymore. Irvine was all I knew." (p. 287) This incident exposes the prejudice of a small Ontario town and the question of what makes for home and belonging.
Also in this moment, we see that Su-jen is at home in the town while her parents will never be. It is only on visits to relatives in Toronto's China town that her mother is at ease. There her laughter was "never edged with bitterness or sarcasm, her laughter was spontaneous, tumbling out like notes in a song. She belonged." (p193)
All her life, Su-jen knows that both her parents had sons from their first marriages who died. These deaths are shrouded in mystery. The moment, late in the book, when her father tells the story of her mother's son opens Su-jen to the losses that haunt her parents.
Restaurants like the Dragon Café were fixtures in many Ontario towns. Though the story told by Fong Bates is particular to this family, she also exposes the tensions and prejudices of rural Ontario and explores the nature of home.
If you haven't read Midnight at the Dragon Café by Judy Fong Bates, pick it up. It is a book not to be missed.
In my university residence in the late '70s, out of eighty women, there were seven Cathys and one Chinese-Canadian women who came from a small town where her parents ran a restaurant. I fit in. I assumed she felt the same. Having read this story, I wish I could go back and ask her more about her life.
In Owen Sound, there were always two Chinese restaurants, and I hope the families were able to support each other. Now, there are two Japanese restaurants where a series of Japanese men and women come and work. They seem to have a community that looks out for each other, and some have settled in to stay. I worry, however, that the kind of cultural divide described by Fong Bates is being repeated.
Midnight at the Dragon Café isn't just about culture. As Fong Bates delves into the tensions of a teenage girl with very different experiences than her parents, she explores what it is like to grow up in an unhappy family haunted by buried secrets.
In the opening of the story, Su-jen describes the three books she has held onto from her childhood. As she tells her story, each has a place. With Midnight at the Dragon Café, Fong Bates invites the reader to ponder what has shaped their lives and what they have held on to. It is a story that will stay with you.
Five local celebrities will advocate for five locally-authored books in Grey County Reads, a county-wide reading program involving seven Grey County libraries, including Grey Highlands, Hanover, Meaford, Owen Sound, Southgate, Town of Blue Mountains and West Grey.
Each celebrity will advocate for one Canadian book over five published installments, covering plot, character and theme analyses as well as introductory and summary arguments.
Readers are encouraged to follow along with the contest, consider each book and it’s celebrity endorsement. Pick up your own copy of one or more of these books and give us your opinion too. Books are available in limited quantities from your local public library or may be purchased from your favourite local bookstore.
Celebrity installments will be posted to SouthGrey.ca weekly through to February, 2020. Read any or all of the Grey County Reads books and/or read each of the book synopses and celebrity installments to play along. Then vote for your favourite book and community library. Voting begins in February.
After the start of voting, one book will be eliminated weekly until only one book remains. At the end of the contest, three people will be chosen at random, from amongst all who have voted, to win a total of $100 worth of gift certificates from Speaking Volumes Books and Audio. Also, based on votes counted, one community library will win $200 worth of books for their community!
Previous book winners:
2019: Moon of the Crusted Snow by Waubgeshig Rice, advocated by Steven Morel.
2018: Crow Lake by Mary Lawson, advocated by Sharon Sinclair.
Grey County Reads is supported through advertising by these local businesses:
The Bicycle Café
Chapman's Ice Cream
The Colour Jar
ColourPix Graphic Design Services
Grey County Public Libraries
Grey Roots Museum and Archives
John Tamming Law
Alex Ruff, MP Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound
Nature's Path Osteopathy and Alternative Healing
Owen Sound Transportation Company
The Restaurant - Leela's Villa Inn
Speaking Volumes Books and Audio
Bill Walker, MPP Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound
West Grey Chamber of Commerce