Originally published in 1945 and now reissued with a new introduction by the author, Jade Snow Wong's story is one of struggle and achievements. These memoirs of the author's first twenty-four years are thoughtful, informative, and highly entertaining. They not only portray a young woman and her unique family in San Francisco's Chinatown, but they are rich in the details that light up a world within the world of America. The third-person singular style is rooted in Chinese literary form, reflecting cultural disregard for the individual, yet Jad Snow Wong's story also is typically American. We first meet Jade Snow Wong the child, narrowly confined by the family and factory life, bound to respect and obey her elders while shouldering responsibility for younger brothers and sisters - a solemn child well versed in the proper order of things, who knew that punishment was sure for any infraction of etiquette. Then the schoolgirl caught in confusion between the rigid teaching of her ancestors and the strange ways of her foreign classmates. After that the college student feeling her was toward personal identity in the face of parental indifference or outright opposition. And finally the artist whose early triumphs were doubled by the knowledge that she had at long last won recognition from her family.
And like in Family Trust by Kathy Wang, a book I was also reading at around the same time, it’s a book set in San Francisco. Unlike the 2018-published Family Trust, Fifth Chinese Daughter by Jade Snow Wong was originally published in 1945, and it’s quite telling of its time, with a 73 year difference between publication of these two books.
Fifth Chinese Daughter is an autobiography but is written more like a novel. And it has a rather educational tone to it, like it’s trying to teach the (presumably) white person reading it. So as a modern Chinese-Singaporean reading this book, it sometimes is amusing but more often it feels a bit heavy-handed and didactic.
I must admire Wong’s life and her determination to be educated and find a career. It wasn’t easy at that time for women, and I must imagine, even more so for a Chinese woman living in the US. Her father, while pushing education, especially Chinese-language education, when she was younger, is unwilling to pay for college, as he’s already paying for her brother’s medical school.
“You are quite familiar by now with the fact that it is the sons who perpetuate our ancestral heritage by permanently bearing the Wong family name and transmitting it through their blood line, and therefore the songs must have priority over the daughters when parental provision for advantages must be limited by economic necessity. Generations of sons, bearing our Wong name, are those who make pilgrimages to ancestral burial grounds and preserve them forever. Our daughters leave home at marriage to give sons to their husbands’ families to carry on the heritage for other names.”
She then begins working as a housekeeper for various families and manages to also find herself a scholarship to a college.
It’s an interesting account of various Chinese traditions, such as a funeral, a baby’s first full month with red eggs (which is something that Chinese families in Singapore still do) and pickled pigs’ feet (that was new to me).
Fifth Chinese Daughter may be a bit dated but it does offer an insight into the life of a young Chinese-American growing up in San Francisco at the time and trying to find a balance between her traditional Chinese upbringing and the more American lifestyle she’s becoming accustomed to as she goes to school and finds a career for herself.