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Fiction Literary

Disappearing Moon Cafe

by (author) S.K.Y. Lee

NeWest Press
Initial publish date
Apr 2017
Literary, Family Life, Asian American
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Apr 2017
    List Price
  • eBook

    Publish Date
    May 2017
    List Price
  • Downloadable audio file

    Publish Date
    Aug 2019
    List Price

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Disappearing Moon Cafe was a stunning debut novel that has become a Canadian literary classic. An unflinchingly honest portrait of a Chinese Canadian family that pulses with life and moral tensions, this family saga takes the reader from the wilderness in nineteenth-century British Columbia to late twentieth-century Hong Kong, to Vancouver's Chinatown.

Intricate and lyrical, suspenseful and emotionally rich, it is a riveting story of four generations of women whose lives are haunted by the secrets and lies of their ancestors but also by the racial divides and discrimination that shaped the lives of the first generation of Chinese immigrants to Canada.

Each character, intimately drawn through Lee's richness of imagery and language, must navigate a world that remains inexorably "double": Chinese and Canadian. About buried bones and secrets, unrequited desires and misbegotten love, murder and scandal, failure and success, the plot reveals a compelling microcosm of the history of race and gender relations in this country.

About the author

SKY Lee is a feminist writer and artist. Her short stories have been published in one anthology, Vancouver Short Stories, and in numerous periodicals, including West Coast Line, The Asianadian, Kinesis, and Makara. She has illustrated one children's book, Teach Me How to Fly, Skyfighter.

S.K.Y. Lee's profile page


  • Winner, City of Vancouver Book Award
  • Short-listed, Governor General's Award

Excerpt: Disappearing Moon Cafe (by (author) S.K.Y. Lee)

Search for Bones

Wong Gwei Chang


He remembered that by then he was worn out from fighting the wind. He had to stop and rest in a shaded spot, so he found a smooth, flat stone to sit on, beside a stream that meandered off around a sharp bend. He was bone-tired from all this walking, watching the land dry out and the trees thin out. He wasn't thirsty; he was hungry, the last of his provisions gone days ago. So very hungry, so very tired of quenching his thirst on cold mountain water, sweet as it was

He wanted to complain out loud, "Why send men out to starve to death?" But the wind snatched the words out of his mouth, and even he couldn't tell if he had spoken them or not. He looked up at the unsettled sky and realized that if a freak storm should happen, he would be finished. He slapped his knees and shook his head. Ill-equipped, ill-informed, he was doomed from the start.

Ha! he thought. A bone-searching expedition! We'll find bones all right, gleaming white, powdery in the hot sun, except they'll be our own. His feet ached relentlessly, throbbing cold from wading through ditches and icy creeks. Already, holes in the thinned soles of his borrowed boots.

"I suppose I should be damned grateful I am still alive to feel the ache!" he cursed out loud. Then there was the loneliness. He didn't want to think about the loneliness; it was the most dangerous struggle.

He didn't know why he'd been chosen. Perhaps because he was young and big, and had muscular shoulders. Maybe because his hair was thick and smooth, and not just black but blue-black. He had two whorls on the crown of his head-- the sign of a nonconformist. He also had very big hands. Most likely the old men had liked his face and its look of kind innocence.

They said, "This youth has a tender face, but he has the look of an old soul."

"An old soul?" he asked when they leaned close, looking for promises.

"Yes," they replied, "you have been reincarnated many times. You have lived many lives fruitfully and have a deeper understanding of many things." They told him that he must believe.

"Believe what!" he demanded.

"In your mission."

"My mission is to search out the bones of those who have died on the iron road, so they can be sent back home . . . by you, the Benevolent Associations."

"No!" the old eyes commanded brilliantly. "It is more than that. To believe is to make it live! You must make your mission live, or else you will not succeed."

Thus, they sent him into a trance. Around him, the mountain barricaded with trees reaching into the eternal mist, and the rain pressed down from the heavens. He felt totally hemmed in. His eyes untrained to see beyond the wall of wilderness, his heart unsuited to this deep, penetrating solitude. Hunger had already made him hallucinate, afraid of the rustling leaves and whistling animals.

So he thought she had to be a spirit when he met her. In this dreamlike state, he thought maybe he had died and she was another spirit here to guide him over to the other side.

"Look, a chinaman!" She crept up behind him and spoke in his language. He whirled around and his knees buckled under, the last of his strength not enough to contain his furious trembling. Meanwhile, she darted back into the safety of the underbrush and hid. He couldn't see her, but he could hear her laughing at him; the sounds gurgled like an infant's blown back and forth by the wind. The whole landscape winking and flashing at him.

"You mock me, yet you don't dare show yourself to me," he challenged, peering into a shimmering sea of leaves. "Come out now!" he barked with bravado.

"Ah, so he speaks chinese," the voice observed. Finally, a brown face peeped out of the stems and brambles. She was an indian girl, dressed in coarse brown clothing that made her invisible in the forest. Her mouth did not smile, but her eyes were friendly--a deer's soft gaze. He was astonished when she stepped out onto the tall grass.

"You speak chinese," he said, indignant, unwilling to believe what he saw before him.

"My father is a chinaman, like you. His eyes are slits like yours. He speaks like you." She spoke deliberately and demonstrated by pulling back the skin beside her dark, round eyes. He saw that she was wearing a crude cape made of a worn animal skin. A long blanket served as a skirt and covered her bare feet. A small basket hung across her chest and made her look stooped over. Yet she moved gracefully, swaying from side to side, small intense movements like a little brown bird. He stared like a crazy man, because he thought she would disappear if he didn't concentrate on her being.

"But you're a wild injun." He spilled out the insults in front of her, but they were meaningless to her. In chinese, the words mocked, slanglike, "yin-chin."

"You look hungry, chinaman." She tipped her head to one side as she looked him up and down. From her clothing, she drew out coiled strips of some kind of substance and held these out to him. "My father tells me chinamen are always hungry."

"I am not hungry," he shot back. He could tell she was teasing him, and he was o¤ended that she knew more than he did. She could tell he was hungry, that he had no more power left, that in this wilderness he was lost.

"Ahh, he has no manners," she exclaimed. He could only blink, astonished by this elegant rebuke from a "siwashee," a girl, younger than he. It made him feel uncivilized, uncouth; the very qualities he had assigned so thoughtlessly to her, he realized, she was watching for in him.

It was then he recognized familiar features on her dark face. A melon-seed face, most admired in a beautiful woman. Her hairline high, inkstrokes by an artist's brush down both sides of her face. Cheeks caressed.

Ah, he thought, why be afraid of her! What was she but another human being? Why should she mean him harm? He stepped up to take whatever it was from her hand, but as he reached out, she sprang back, dropping the strange food behind her like one of those shy creatures who sense no great danger but move prudently out of range just in case. Again, he was surprised to see that she was wary of him. It emphasized the distance between them, as if she was not a human being as he was, or . . . as if he was not a human being as she was.

The food was seaweed, both crunchy and rubbery soft. As he chewed hungrily, she watched him and he watched her. After a while, she hoisted a heavily laden basket of freshly dug-up roots and bulbs up onto her back. She secured it with a wide band across her forehead. Her hand carried a slim stick, one end of which was dirtied, perhaps from digging the roots, and the other end of which was carved, perhaps bone. This she waved at him and called out, "Come and sit!" nonchalantly as if the invitation was for any time, as if in a day or two he would not be dead of exposure. "My father enjoys the company of his own kind. And he will be glad to help you find your way."

"Yes," he answered, his mouth full of gracefulness, "perhaps I should have a word with your father."

Then, as if the barren wasteland around him had magically opened and allowed him admittance, he followed her through dense thickets, up hills and down through ravines, a respectable distance between them. He marvelled at her bare feet, which padded softly along the forest floor without injury. Many times he sank to his knees, soaked in sweat, so tired he could hardly hold up his head. He was fearful that she would abandon him, but she paced her steps according to his strength and smiled encouragingly.

They followed the big river until they finally arrived at her home, which stood high up on the cli¤ side of a mountain overlooking the water. By then darkness had fallen and the wind was blowing fiercer than ever, the first raindrops of a storm about to descend.

He knew it was on a cli¤ because he could see the wide expanse of stars beyond the immediate trees, and he could hear rushing water far below them. She ran into the little cabin first, then a man and a woman came out and stood beside the door. They peered excitedly into the night, looking for their visitor.

"Come in!" said the man.

It was so dark, he couldn't see their faces. He just got the idea that they were older by their voices and the placid way they both moved.

"My name is Chen Gwok Fai. Come in and rest, sir! What is your precious surname, sir?"

"Wong," he said, "Wong Gwei Chang."

Chen put his hands on Gwei Chang's shoulders and led him into the tiny cabin. Beside a small fire in the fireplace, Gwei Chang saw the girl kneeling, her hands in front of her, reaching for warmth. He noted the intelligence in her face, ignited by the firelight; hers was a beautiful face full of vision. He didn't remember anything else, because he fell unconscious right on the spot, and he slept for a long, long time. By the time he awakened, he had stayed for three years.

Editorial Reviews

Praise for Disappearing Moon Cafe:
"A feisty, complex, and award-winning first novel."

"This ambitious and vastly entertaining first novel follows four generations of a troubled Chinese-Canadian family through its gradual and often painful assimilation and eventual disintegration . . . The lively, often riotous spirit of Disappearing Moon Cafe is never lost in the epic sprawl. This is a moving, deeply human tale about the high price of assimilation, the loneliness of being of two cultures but no longer really belonging to either and the way in which the sordid secrets of the past can cast long, tragic shadows . . . If Gabriel Garcia Marquez had been Canadian-Chinese, and a woman, A Hundred Years of Solitude might have come out a little bit like this."
~Washington Post Book World

"Powerfully and elaborately wrought, Lee's first novel traces generations of a Chinese-Canadian family and their ties to (and clashes with) one another, their culture, and their land in China and North America . . . the layers of experience, emotion and cultural identity of succeeding generations build to an abundantly detailed story."
~Publishers Weekly

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