A moving portrait of three generations of the Chan family living in Vancouver’s Chinatown
Sammy Chan was sure she’d escaped her family obligations when she fled Vancouver six years ago, but with her sister’s upcoming marriage, her turn has come to care for their aging mother. Abandoned by all four of her older sisters, jobless and stuck in a city she resents, Sammy finds herself cobbling together a makeshift family history and delving into stories that began in 1913, when her grandfather, Seid Quan, then eighteen years old, first stepped on Canadian soil.
The End of East weaves in and out of the past and the present, picking up the threads of the Chan family’s stories: Seid Quan, whose loneliness in this foreign country is profound even as he joins the Chinatown community; Shew Lin, whose hopes for her family are threatened by her own misguided actions; Pon Man, who struggles with obligation and desire; and Siu Sang, who tries to be the caregiver everyone expects, even as she feels herself unravelling. And in the background, five little girls grow up under the weight of family expectations. As the past unfolds around her, Sammy finds herself embroiled in a volatile mixture of a dangerous love affair, a difficult and duty-filled relationship with her mother, and the still-fresh memories of her father’s long illness.
An exquisite and evocative debut from one of Canada’s bright new literary stars, The End of East sets family conflicts against the backdrop of Vancouver’s Chinatown – a city within a city where dreams are shattered as quickly as they’re built, and where history repeats itself through the generations.
From the Hardcover edition.close this panel
At first, what frightened her about this place was the drizzle – the omnipresent grey of morning, afternoon, nighttime too. She was afraid that she would slowly be leached of colour and that, one day, while she was combing her hair in the mirror, she would see that her reflection was as grey as the sky, sea and land that surrounded her. Everything she saw as she moved about the city was filtered through the mist – dampened, weighed down, burdened.
She would come home after a day in Chinatown and find her wool pants covered in tiny drops of water – cold, as if no human being had ever touched them before. If she didn’t brush them off, they would seep into the fabric until they chilled her skin and she shivered into the night, long after the dishes were washed and everyone else had gone to bed.
In the summer, the sun finally emerged, dried up the puddles, opened flowers that had cowered in the rain. Buttercups shone in the light and multiplied in the lawn faster than she could dig them out. Children spat watermelon seeds over the porch railing, laughing at the squirrels who scurried across the lawn in fear. But every year, as winter returned, these days slipped from her memory. Too good to be true, perhaps. Too few to be important.
One morning, she woke and realized that she had come to accept the drizzle, that she had grown resigned to the squelch of rubber boots, the smell of damp wool on the bus. She walked around the park in the mornings, a film of fine water on her cheeks and eyelashes. Soon, she could not start her day without washing her face in the mist, letting the coolness do away with the bad dreams from the night.
And the halflight that lingered throughout the day let her believe that she was somewhere else, a dream-like netherworld in which anything might happen. Men could become lovers again. Women could be ageless. Children might even come back home.
But what she settled for was the cool, wet breeze that came in through the windows, the air that straightened her spine as she walked. The way the drizzle stayed with her, soaked into her hair, her clothes, her sheets. It pushed itself onto her skin, huddled with her when she cried, remained cool even as she cooked at a blazing stove. Unshakeable. Like family.
"It is time," my mother says as she pulls me from the cab, "to run that oldman smell out of my house."
As I haul my luggage out of the trunk, the smell of smouldering dust and gas fills the air, burning my nose and mouth. I follow my mother’s rapidly retreating body around the side of the house to the backyard, wondering if she has finally snapped and set one my sisters ablaze.
In the driveway off the lane, she pokes angrily at a crackling fire with a metal garden rake; I catch my breath, holding my suitcase in front of me like a shield. Piles of my grandfather’s old, woolly clothes line the backyard and spill into the gravel alley, waiting to be tossed into the gassy flames. A light rain begins to fall, generating puffs of smoke that blow into my face. I cough, but she doesn’t seem to hear me above the snap and sizzle.
Waving the rake in my direction, she shouts, "Take your suitcase upstairs and go help your sister." As I turn back toward the house, she slaps down a stray spark that has landed in her permed, greying hair.
Once inside, I scan the front hall. The same rubber plant behind the door. My old slippers by the stairs. I breathe out, and cobwebs (suspiciously familiar) sway in the corners.
My mother steps through the door after me, her hands on her wide hips. "What’s taking you so long? I thought I told you to run upstairs."
"I’m jetlagged," I mutter, kicking off my shoes.
She inspects my face closely, staring at me through her thick glasses. "Jet-lagged? Montreal is only three hours ahead. Go. Penny is waiting." She spins me around with a little push and pokes me in the back with one sharp fingernail.
I trudge up the stairs to my grandfather’s bedroom, where my sister is on her hands and knees, ripping out the nubby red carpet he brought over from his small apartment in Chinatown. Her long black hair drags on the sub-floor.
"Samantha," Penny says, pushing her bangs out of her eyes. "I feel like I’ve been waiting for you forever."
My hands shake. I try to tell myself that it’s only the dampness in the air that’s causing this deep bone shiver. But, really, I am simply afraid. When I was sitting in the airplane, the idea of coming home didn’t seem so real or so final, and I could pretend that I wasn’t passing over province after province. Standing here, in my grandfather’s old room, with my mother’s footsteps coming up quickly behind me, I know that I have irrevocably returned.
"We have to get rid of your grandfather’s junk before the wedding. We’ll need his bedroom for the tea ceremony," my mother says, pushing me aside to inspect the closet. She turns to Penny: "I don’t know why you have to get married so fast. I’m too old to run around like this. Inconsiderate girl." She lets out a loud breath, punctuating her rapid, angry Chinese with a huff.
"Grandfather’s been dead for ten years, Mother," Penny says quietly in English, as usual. "And we’ve been engaged for almost a month. You’ve had plenty of time."
She waves her hand. "Why do I think you’ll understand? I’ve had other things to do, like look after all you girls by myself."
Penny looks at me with her round, seemingly innocent eyes and shrugs.
From the Hardcover edition.
Jen Sookfong Lee was born and raised in Vancouver’s East Side, where she now lives with her husband. Her poetry, fiction and articles have appeared in a variety of magazines, including The Antigonish Review, The Claremont Review, Horsefly and Jasmine. She was a finalist in the Stephen Leacock Poetry Contest and is included in the poetry anthology From this New World.
From the Hardcover edition.close this panel
An impressive debut novel that delves into the immigration experiences of three generations.
Delivered in lyrical language radiating with apt metaphors, the story alternates between Sammy Chan’s modern-day life and her family’s past… An enrapturing exploration of identity that proves that family is unshakeable.
- Kirkus Reveiw
“Impressive, both in terms of its accomplished prose and its ambitious three-generational scope. . . . Lee’s talent is undeniable.”
“Poetic. . . . Jen Sookfong Lee is aware of the dark side of mythmaking, its distorting and even parasitic price. It’s one of many things that make her a novelist to watch.”
“An accomplished and complex story about the intricate set of issues that surround Chinese-Canadian identity,
a story that will ring true for Canadians of other backgrounds.”
–The Gazette (Montreal)
“Richly layered . . . there is much to admire. . . . Jen Lee shows off a confident style, investing The End of East with rich imagery and well-wrought characters and deftly handling the complexities of the various storylines.”
––The Vancouver Sun
"In this powerful first novel Jen Sookfong Lee moves fluently through the life of an immigrant family, speaking what remains unspoken between the generations. Observant and humane, The End of East shows us that within a family nothing ever really ends."
–Thomas Wharton, author of Salamander
"From China to Vancouver, past to present, The End of East beautifully guides us through the heart of the Chan family and the Chinese immigrant experience – charting dreams, regrets, hopes and triumphs along the way. Jen Sookfong Lee’s storytelling instincts are honest, unflinching and fearless."
–Ami McKay, author of The Birth House
"I am awestruck by Jen Sookfong Lee’s ambition in this, her first novel, an ambition that is fulfilled with power and grace. Whatever assumptions I had about Vancouver’s Chinatown have been supplanted by Lee’s vision of a world where family obligation is passed on through the generations, where personal dreams are sacrificed for family goals as a matter of course. It’s a world that is different, and yet so terribly similar to my own. The End of East is a wise, challenging and heartbreaking novel. And Jen Sookfong Lee is a novelist with the eye and ear and soul of a poet."
–Gail Anderson-Dargatz, author of The Cure for Death by Lightning and A Recipe for Bees