Set in the 1960s, Judy Fong Bates’s much-talked-about debut novel is the story of a young girl, the daughter of a small Ontario town’s solitary Chinese family, whose life is changed over the course of one summer when she learns the burden of secrets. Through Su-Jen’s eyes, the hard life behind the scenes at the Dragon Café unfolds. As Su-Jen’s father works continually for a better future, her mother, a beautiful but embittered woman, settles uneasily into their new life. Su-Jen feels the weight of her mother’s unhappiness as Su-Jen’s life takes her outside the restaurant and far from the customs of the traditional past. When Su-Jen’s half-brother arrives, smouldering under the responsibilities he must bear as the dutiful Chinese son, he forms an alliance with Su-Jen’s mother, one that will have devastating consequences. Written in spare, intimate prose, Midnight at the Dragon Café is a vivid portrait of a childhood divided by two cultures and touched by unfulfilled longings and unspoken secrets.
About the author
- Winner, ALA Alex Award
Judy Fong Bates came to Canada from China as a young girl and grew up in several small Ontario towns. She is the author of a collection of short stories, China Dog, and a novel, Midnight at the Dragon Café. Her stories have been broadcast on CBC Radio and published in literary journals and anthologies.
Judy Fong Bates lives in Toronto.
Excerpt: Midnight At the Dragon Cafe (by (author) Judy Fong Bates)
I HAVE KEPT ONLY three possessions from my childhood. Each one is a book. The first is a coil-bound sketch pad with a cover made of heavy cardboard, a muted olive green. The pages are filled with drawings – of trees and flowers, of animals and soft nudes, but also of fantastic creatures, some beautiful, some hideous, entwined and growing out of one another, out of eyes, bellies, tongues, mouths. As a child I found the drawings magical, yet they unsettled me, pulling me into a world I did not understand. When I look at them now, many years later, they disturb me in a different way; I am left feeling hollow and haunted.
The other two books are from China, handwritten with red cloth covers, bound with red string. One book is thick with pages of line drawings of Buddhashaped faces, dotted with moles. A mole in a certain place on a cheek might be lucky, my mother once told me, but in the same place on the other cheek could spell a life of tragedy and pain. In the rows of faces, the noses, eyes, lips, and ears are drawn in different shapes. Long, fleshy earlobes mean longevity and wealth; thin lips mean poverty. Whenever Chinese visitors came to our restaurant, I would catch my mother secretly studying their faces. Once, there was a Chinese man who passed through our town and had supper with us. He kept trying to engage my mother in conversation, but she took an instant dislike to him. Afterwards she said, “Syah how, sei gnun, that’s what he is. A serpent head with dungfilled eyes.” His narrow eyes were shaped in an evil way, she told me, a bad person, not to be trusted. Later we found out the man was a notorious gambler and womanizer in Chinatown in Toronto. Sometimes her face readings were more direct. “That man, he has ears that are too small and thin. No matter how hard he works, he won’t amount to anything.” She once said to me about my grownup brother, “The shape of his face and nose are strong. He will eventually be rich, but he will always have to work hard. His mouth is too full. He wants so much, yet nothing in the first half of his life will be easy.”
The second book from China, though it looks similar on the outside, holds other secrets. It holds the story of my life, my destiny. Before leaving Hong Kong, my mother took me to a fortune teller to have my I Ching read and my fate revealed. I have no memory of what the fortune teller looked like, only of watching his long, slender hands lay out narrow sticks of different lengths. The smell of incense had filled the air. My mother paid a handsome price for the book. Each page was filled with black handbrushed characters, on the front was a single column of elegant black calligraphy. The characters held such power and mystery, all the more so because I could not read them. When I touch the pages, I can almost sense the heat of the fortune teller’s hand moving down the rice paper with the bamboohandled brush in his fingers. As a child, I often found myself with the book upside down, turning the pages backwards; I had to remind myself to open it left to right, opposite to the way I opened books at school.
Whenever I asked my mother what was written inside, she seemed to hesitate. Her unwillingness made me uneasy. She told me that I would live in more than one country. She told me that until the age of thirteen, water would be my danger sign, that I was never to trust it. I would beg her for greater details about my future, but she would only shake her head and say there was nothing else in the book that mattered.
Several months before my mother and I came to Canada, my father, Hing-Wun Chou, and his oldest friend, DoonYat Lim, bought the Dragon Café in the town of Irvine, not far from Toronto. They considered it a good buy, as it was already a Chinese restaurant, with woks in the kitchen and a rectangular sign with gold Chinese-style script above the front window. But most important for them, an enterprise in a town the size of Irvine cost less money than one in a bigger place. At the time I didn’t realize that my father’s business was typical of so many Chinese restaurants in small towns across Canada, often known as the local greasy spoon, every one of them a lonely family business isolated from the community it served.
While my mother and I were still in Hong Kong, we visited a tailor; he made each of us a woollen coat and several cotton dresses. But for my mother he also made a dark green travelling suit and a beautiful rose-coloured cheongsam. She packed our new clothes in a large brown leather suitcase, smoothing them carefully around bolts of material, folded sweaters, packages of medicinal herbs, small gifts for family, and our few personal belongings.
As I stood beside her in a long line to board the airplane, it was hard to believe that the beautiful woman in the lo fon – style suit and black highheeled shoes was my mother. Until then, I had only seen her in cotton pyjama suits that fastened up the side or a light dress with a loose skirt. She had told me that we were going to a country called Gun-ah-dye, a land that was cold and covered with snow, a place where lo fons lived, a place where only English was spoken. She had pointed them out to me in the streets of Hong Kong. “They don’t speak Chinese,” she had said. “But soon you will learn English, and talk just like the lo fons. I am too old to learn, but you, SuJen, you will be just like them.” I wondered what English sounded like. I didn’t understand why it would be easy for me but difficult for my mother.
In the weeks before we left, she didn’t seem excited about going to this new place, yet she took care to show me how to print the letters of the English alphabet, combining circles and sticks and halfcircles. I traced the letters on the window of the airplane and remembered what she had told me about the missionaries, that when she was a child, they had taught her how to write the ABC’s but not to read the words.
Whenever I looked out I saw clouds above and below and wondered if we were really moving through the sky. It seemed that our journey would never end.
My mother said that we were lucky my father already lived in Canada, otherwise the Communists would never have allowed us to leave China. She said that we were going to Canada because of me. There I would have a better life, I could go to school and our family would be together. But I knew if she had her way we would stay in China despite her fear of the Communists. Whenever I asked my mother who the Communists were, she was unable to explain in a way I understood; I only knew that in Canada, we would be safe from them.
The only thing about Canada that my mother seemed to look forward to was reuniting with Aunt HaiLan, her mother’s youngest sister. Before the war, Hai-Lan had married Uncle Jong, who was from my father’s village in Hoi Ping County. They had two sons before Jong returned to Canada. When the Japanese attacked, she and the other villagers fled and hid in the hills. My mother told me that she and HaiLan and Hai-Lan’s sons were the only ones in her family who had survived the war. When it was over, they had found each other, and Hai-Lan had taken her in and cared for her. When my father returned to the village from Canada, she introduced him to my mother, and then left for Canada herself soon after my parents were married.
I stayed close to my mother after the airplane landed in Toronto, fearful of being lost in this crowd of strangers. We stood in a long line and waited for a lo fon man in a dark uniform to look at some papers that my mother thrust at him. She seemed nervous, even when the man smiled at me. The man finally gave back her papers and my mother quickly grabbed my hand and followed the crowd into another room. She was busy struggling with our bags when I saw a man and a woman rush toward us. They were a funny-looking couple – he was short and round while she was tall and thin with a head full of tight black curls. My mother looked up from her bags and held out her arms toward Aunt Hai-Lan. They embraced each other, laughing and crying at the same time. Afterwards Aunt Hai-Lan bent down and pressed me to her chest, speaking in our Four Counties dialect. Uncle Jong smiled and told me how grown up I looked for a six-yearold. He picked up our large brown suitcase, while Aunt HaiLan took the smaller one, chattering and hugging my mother with one arm. We walked through a large bluishgreen room with narrow wooden benches. I saw a lo fon man pushing a broom and some lo fon women working behind a counter.
There were many lo fon men and women outside the building, waving and shouting in their strange language, some of them getting into cars lined along the road. My cheeks tingled with the cold. Uncle Jong led us to a taxi and spoke easily in English to the driver. I sat in the back seat, squeezed between my mother and her aunt; I leaned against my mother’s arm. When I peeked up at the window, I saw only darkness.
“A heartbreaking but muted love story… Deeply satisfying: a lovely sensuality pervades in spite of the harshness of the world Bates portrays so eloquently.”
–Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“A fascinating and finely crafted work of fiction.… Compelling.… Absorbing and alluring …”
–Winnipeg Free Pres
“In Midnight at the Dragon Café, Judy Fong Bates has created a novel that does what the very best fiction can do – take us into a world we could not have otherwise entered, put us among people we could not otherwise know. As quintessentially Canadian as Alice Munro, and equally delightful to read.”
“Wonderfully written and acutely observed, Midnight at the Dragon Café is a haunting novel.… As skilled and original as it is moving.”
–London Free Press
“A unique and imaginative drama.… Bates’s writing is smooth and simple, but powerful.”
“A terrific page-turner of a first novel.…”
–Quill & Quire
“Judy Fong Bates is an accomplished storyteller.… The tragic events that form the plot of this novel are in no way restricted to the Chinese experience. Betrayal, human frailty, lost hopes, and shattered dreams belong to all of us.… The quintessential good read.”
“Judy Fong Bates slips us past the front counter into the inner life of the Dragon Café, as if we lived there too.…. Her attention to physical detail is matched by compassionate understanding, which gives real weight to the telling of the submerged, drowning passion hidden in this household.”
“[Judy Fong Bates] has transmuted her experience into fiction that says something essential and makes wonderful reading.… [She] has been compared with Alice Munro because of her controlled prose and the currents of feeling that seethe beneath the surface of her fictional Ontario town.”
“An elegant first novel.”
“A work that often reads like the best finely crafted memoir.… If you think of the first-person narratives of Who Has Seen the Wind and To Kill a Mockingbird on the fiction side, and the memoirs Angela’s Ashes and The Way of a Boy, you’ll have something of an idea of the goals for character growth Fong Bates has set for herself.”
–Globe and Mail
“An impressive debut.”