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Book Review: Midnight at Dragon Café by Judy Fong Bates

March 10th, 2008 (12:16 pm)
current mood: accomplished

Yeah, so I'm a little late on my book review promise. But hey, the review is extra long this time so... Hopefully it makes up for it. XD

So, I’m now giving my first review of what is considered to be and marketed as an ‘adult’ ‘literary’ novel, from the eyes of a girl in her late teens with some Chinese heritage in the background. As all my reviews, it’ll be largely informal and splashed with random thoughts I had about this book as I read it. You’ve all been forewarned.

The book: Midnight at the Dragon Café, by Judy Fong Bates. I remember coming across it while I was browsing the bargain shelves in a nearby bookstore, just hanging around because I didn’t feel like hitting home early that day and my craving for booksbooksbooks was too compelling for me to resist. It was obvious from the cover, with a box that was intricately drawn with typical Ancient China art style designs and the telltale dragon poking in from the top right corner of the cover that it was yet again, one of those books where Chinese culture was key. And from the word ‘Café’, I had a hunch it was probably another story about Chinese immigrants working to death in some restaurant in some part of Northern American and usually in the eyes of a teenager or child that has to deal with the culture clash between their Chinese parents and their Non-Chinese peers. Now, there’s nothing wrong with this type of scenario. I’ve read books that deal with this culture clash beautifully (Child of the Owl by Laurence Yep is classic and genius. Never disagree with me on this point.) but it’s been done so many times throughout the ages that the concept wears thin. I’m sick of seeing the rebellious Asian teenager fighting against their parents to let go of some of their strong Asian cultural values, usually about the parents insisting they get into Harvard and study study study while said teen wants to become an artist or something. Oh! And the whole going out with a non-Chinese guy/girl and trying to hide that fact from your parents. Point is, I’ve seen about every bit of this kind of story in all its forms, and unless your name is Laurence Yep my childhood hero whom I’ll read each and every single book that ever comes out by him regardless of clichés etc, there better be something More. (I liken my feelings to those who are deeply entrenched in the Fantasy/Supernatural/etc genre and seeing yet another Vampire story. It’s. Been. Done. )

I was tempted to just bypass the book. But, as I’m a glutton for punishment and my eyes caught the price tag that sang to me about books that only cost $5.99 I picked it up and decided to read the cover flap, telling myself to be optimistic. The summary wasn’t very striking. Girl moves to Canada at a very young age with Mom to be reunited with Dad, tries to balance life between her family in the restaurant and school, yaddya. Mom’s discontent and wants to move back to Hong Kong, Dad’s just working like a dog to get by, Half-Brother feels smoldered by his Duties, and Narrator is just trying to find her own way. Nothing remarkable there. But there was a promise of secrets (I quote from cover flap “the story of a young girl whose life is changed over the course of one summer when she learns the burden of secrets and, ultimately, something of forgiveness.”) and tragedy was mentioned towards the end of the novel, and the combination of the two, along with the fact that it takes place in a small Canadian town (which I moved to recently) and the lull of $5.99, made me pick up the book and tell myself, “Well, I’ll just read the first page and if I’m not impressed, I’ll just drop it, $5.99 or not.”

And, you guys, Bates’ language is pretty. Simple, artfully done. The book opens with a description of books. “The first is a coil-bound sketch pad with a cover made of heavy cardboard, a muted olive grenn.” I was lured. I was drawn. And there was another book, one that predicts the narrator’s future, a tiny book a fortune teller from Hong Kong wrote for her that details her life story, a story that makes her mom frown with worry and warn her against water without ever letting her daughter read it with her own eyes. It was an unconventional enough of a beginning, a description of the setting to start things off. And for the life of me, I couldn’t predict what was in the book by the fortune teller. The story has the façade of the typical formula I see all the time, yet there’s always a hint of something hidden, something veiled and just out of my reach. It taunted me and I knew I had to read the book to unravel its secrets. And, let me tell you, this is a nice feeling. It’s been a long time since I came across a book dealing with Chinese Culture Clash when I couldn’t completely predict the story from beginning to end and I suppose that I’ve been unconsciously looking for a book like this all this time.

At the end, I had my reservations about this book, but for those moments when she describes, with no sentimentality whatsoever, the feelings of the girl floating between two worlds, the childlike observations of the world around her, how she interacted with other people, how real she was, for all that, it was worth the read, and worth the money too.


The most unconventional aspect of this story was definitely the love affair between the girl’s mother and her half-brother. It disturbed me, to say the least. Not just the whole incest overtones, (no they’re not actually blood related, but it doesn’t make it right.) but how this affair ruins the family on so many levels. Yes, the public never finds out, but think of the damage it does to the kid! I felt sick and so sorry for the girl when she caught the two of them sleeping together. She cannot tell others, and she has to hide it to ‘save face’. I was mortified. I was disgusted. I felt so sorry for the father who we find out figures out what’s going on and angry at him at the same time, for knowing what’s going on and doesn’t stop it. And most of all, I was furious with the mother. Already I was annoyed with her spoiled princess attitude and always pining for Hong Kong. I mean, there’s this thing called ADAPTATION, you know. Then she goes and has an affair with a younger man. Not just any younger man, but the son of her husband! I was infuriated. Does that woman have no shame at all? I’ve read commentaries about this novel, where people praise the ‘torrid love affair’ between two people who wanted more out of life that the small town they live it, but I refute. She has a responsibility to her husband, her daughter! She doesn’t even try to make her life easier for herself, interacting with the townspeople. No, she just hides behind the counter and smile while insulting every foreigner in their face every time they enter the restaurant. I hate her, and I don’t care how much she ‘wants more out of life’ and ‘loves her daughter so much’ and how she ‘sacrificed herself’ for all this, to come to Canada. She was being irresponsible, selfish, and acting disgustingly childish.

And I haven’t even gotten started on the half-brother yet! Gawd, how can you hit on the woman that you call ‘mom’ on like, the first day you meet her? I don’t care how beautiful she looks, there’s this thing called ‘respect’!! Admittedly, I sympathize with him more, because, well, he’s younger and therefore a tiny bit more forgivable, and he actually tries to adapt to Canadian society, pushing hard to make more money, etc. But it disgusts me how he treats his own dad. Calling him ‘old man’ and stuff, no respect whatsoever. I actually like the father. Yes, he’s weak and old, but he has morals and works hard and does his best for his family. The father puts those two irresponsible adults to utter shame.

In the end, I thought the two idiots who call themselves lovers got off way too easy. No one outside the family figures it out, and the mother gets what she always wanted and moves to Toronto, where all the other Chinese people were and still keeps the baby. The book ends with how the narrator realizes how much she ‘sacrificed’, as if that’s enough for forgiveness, but I personally don’t forgive. Maybe it’s because of my personality. I hold on to the responsibilities I owe to my family, my friends as tight as I can, and I have strong beliefs about what’s wrong and what’s right. What the mother and the half-brother did to their family violates all that, and it shocked me, and I find it revolting. I do not forgive, even if that’s the lesson the author tries to send at the end of the novel. Maybe I would have if the mother suffered more for what she has done, or something, but she practically gets off scot-free! In my opinion, just because you love your daughter immensely doesn’t forgive you of all the crimes you’ve committed. It just doesn’t.

Another tiny issue I had was the way Bates handled the narrator’s family life and her school life. While both were done beautifully on their own, somewhere towards the late middle of the story things started to fall apart as the story becomes too caught up with the family life and the school life fades into the background. I know finding the balance it’s hard, and Judy Fong Bates made a remarkable effort for her first novel, but to me, since the school life has a lesser impact towards the end, the whole school tragedy itself lessened as well. It just paled next to the family secret. Well, this didn’t bother me too particularly while I was reading it, and I don’t know, many others won’t feel the same way. It’s just how I felt when I read it.

Well, in the end, despite my scruples with the family secret and etc, I have to say I love the emotions and interactions the narrator experiences and observes. It’s understated, unsentimental and rings of Truth. Midnight at the Dragon Café is definitely worth the read, even for the most sated of us on the subject of Asian Culture Clash.