Two novels over half a century apart give a flavour of changing Chinese experiences in Britain.
Mr Ma and son
Lao She (1899–1966) wrote Mr Ma & Son: a sojourn in London in the 1920s—while he was a young lecturer at SOAS, indeed. At a time when Chinese in the West were represented by “yellow devil” stereotypes like Fu Manchu and Anna May Wong, he evokes the difficulties of mutual comprehension, and the gulf between Chinese workers in the East End and patriotic students trying to negotiate their place in the world—all still ongoing issues.
Back in China, after leading the All-China Resistance Association of writers and artists during the Japanese occupation, Lao She enjoyed another sojourn in the USA until returning to Beijing in 1949. He perhaps made a more inevitable recruit to the political cause after Liberation than the great musicologist Yang Yinliu, but all such intellectuals had to negotiate a tortuous path. In the 1950s he got to know the Hrdličkas in Beijing.
Lao She’s Afterword (“How I wrote Mr Ma & Son”) is full of sophisticated and modest reflections on the encounter between of classical and vernacular style—all the more impressive in view of the later indignities inflicted by the simplistic prose style of Maoist ideology, not to mention his own brutal fate at the outset of the Cultural Revolution.
Timothy Mo’s 1982 novel Sour sweet is a brilliant evocation of the insecurity of newly-arrived Cantonese immigrants to the UK in the 1960s. Concerned with a different set of questions to intellectuals like Lao She, they seek to survive with their little takeaway business. Little by little, ineluctably, the seemingly separate family worlds of innocent domesticity and Triad brutality clash in shockingly graphic violence.
It’s also very funny. Mo captures the language of new arrivals brilliantly. They put up notices in the restaurant:
MANAGEMENT NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR COOK’S COOKING
TRESPASSER WOULD BE PROSECUTED
Seeing that Mui and the lorry driver have brought a crate of Coca Cola: “Ah,” said Lily, “Whore Lock!” (or a close phonetic representation to that effect), identifying one of the products in question by its Cantonese name.
‘Eh?’ said the driver, considerably startled.
Lily smiled her charming (for westerners) smile. “You like Whore Lock all the time, too, hah! It’s the real thing!” she quoted enthusiastically. Mui averted what might have turned into major embarrassment all around. “My sister not understand English too much,” she explained. “you please excuse.”
Reminiscent of my mentor Paul Kratochvil’s story is an exclamation that Mui hears from one of the truck drivers:
Far kin aid her!
for which she supplies a suitably Confucian interpretation:
May distant relatives come to her assistance.
(Despite a thorough trawl, I haven’t retrieved the original quote, so this is my memory of it. Anyone?)
And Lily’s alarm when she learns of the Terror Pin at her young son Man Kee’s school:
Lily was horrified but not basically surprised. Typical of the English: their discipline was either lax to the point of non-existence or ferocious—like beating Hong Kong factory workers senseless with truncheons and then giving them free medical treatment. The Terror Pin was kept in a glass box of its own. (Display of force often eliminated need for its exercise.) Occasionally, it was brought out when as an additional refinement of torture the children was actually allowed to handle it! She discovered it when she saw Man Kee taking some winter greens in his satchel, obviously as some kind of propitiatory offering, similar to the symbolic offering of lettuce (money) to the New Year dragon. Concerned, as what mother wouldn’t have been, Lily examined Son’s adorable arms for tell-tale puncture marks but hadn’t found any. Good boy.