Family Trust by Kathy Wang

This book appealed to me for several reasons.

– it’s set in the San Francisco Bay Area and perhaps more importantly, not just the city itself but also the rest of the Bay Area. Don’t get me wrong, I like the city (well parts of it at least), the husband works there and all, but we live in the East Bay and it’s nice to see other parts of the area talked about.

– it’s a story about East Asian immigrants. They are originally from Taiwan, as are many of those in the Bay Area and I’m always interested in stories about immigration, particularly from Asia.

Also it opens with a whopper of a first sentence.

“Stanley Huang sat, naked but for the thing cotton dressing gown crumpled against the sterile white paper in the hospital room, and listened to the young doctor describe how he would die.”

He’s been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and this is the story of how he and his family deal with it.

He has a son, Fred, Harvard Business School grad, who’s been trying to make it big in the fintech industry but hasn’t quite yet. His daughter Kate is doing well at a well-known Silicon Valley company but is struggling with the balance of home and work. Also something seems to be up with her husband who is trying to get his start-up going.

Then there is their mother, Stanley’s ex-wife, Linda, perhaps a less-than-usual Asian woman of her time, one who continued working for decades, and yes, even divorced her husband. She’s even been thinking of dating again!

“What was one supposed to say, when one’s now-ex-husband of thirty-four years was struck with such a diagnosis?”

Stanley’s current wife Mary is 28 years younger than him. She’s a former waitress and has devoted her new life to caring for Stanley but now with Stanley dying, his family is suspicious of her motives.

For Stanley has often hinted at his riches – in the millions! Who deserves it more, the one who’s been caring for him in recent years? His children? Linda is determined to make sure her kids get their fair share.

Family Trust is a Silicon Valley story. It is also an Asian family story. It is also an American story. It’s a story about the pursuit of success, about money, about family obligation. There probably will be Crazy Rich Asians comparisons but as someone not a fan of that series, let me just say that Family Trust is better. Its characters are complex yet relatable, its observations of Silicon Valley life and family relationships are astute and witty. A great debut!

Honestly, Linda has some of the best lines.

“The woman likely didn’t even think she spoke English, regarding her as just another sexless Asian dotting her periphery – someone who could be ignored at will, like a houseplant.”

 

And here’s another – apparently there are differences according to where you landed up as an immigrant.

“Everyone knew that the best Chinese immigrants of their generation were settled in California, and mostly in the Bay Area. There were some in Los Angeles, but then you ran the risk of ending up with some sleazy import/exporter. And Linda had no intention of being matched with some grocery store operator in, say, Reno.”

 

“She knew exactly how Americans saw women like the Mercedes driver – as indistinguishable from herself. An Asian lady consumed with the creation and consumption of money, who neglected to hug her children. Why did white people like to pick and choose from cultures with such zealous judgment? Of course they just loved Szechuan cuisine served by a young waitress in a cheap cheongsam, but as soon as you proved yourself just as adept at the form of capitalism they had invented? Then you were obsessed. Money crazed. Unworthy of sympathy.”

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The Lost Garden by Li Ang

“Although I spent so much of my life at Lotus Garden, it was only recently that I was deeply moved by the many wondrous scenes, a result of learning to observe the garden in its minute details. The world is filled with boundless mysteries and wonder; everything is possible and nothing is tenable.”

I really need to start writing down how I come across certain books. I can’t remember the exact details for this one, possibly that it came from a list of books in translation written by women. I definitely hadn’t heard of Li Ang before this. She is a Taiwanese writer, her real name is actually Shih Shu-tuan. And her major work is The Butcher’s Wife. Unfortunately my library only had this book of hers so I made do.

The main character in The Lost Garden is Zhu Yinghong, an only child, the last generation of an old family in Lucheng, Taiwan. The family’s home is known as Lotus Garden, a sprawling estate, very much the pride of the family, and which, in the prologue we are told is being opened to the public.

There are two important men in her life. One is her father, Zhu Zuyan, part of the old guard, who speaks to her in Japanese, calls her by her Japanese name Ayako, and was once arrested for dissent, then returned to his family due to his old age. He then devotes his life to photography and to his beloved garden – replacing foreign trees with native Taiwanese plants

The other man is Li Xigeng, a real estate mogul, filthy rich, powerful, materialistic, and fond of the seamy nightlife of Taiwan.

The contrast between the two men is stark, representative of the old vs new, culture and tradition vs development and modernisation. It’s a story full of symbolism.

The narrative moves from past to present and back again but what takes some getting used to is the occasional switch from third-person to first-person (from Yinghong’s POV). It can sometimes be a bit too jarring.

The Lost Garden would please plant lovers as Li Ang is adept at writing about the garden and all its wonders.

“Cape lilacs were overtaken by a blanket of misty white flowers in the spring, like a lost cloud pausing at the green leaves; it was the kind of mysterious illusion that could only be embodied by a string of lithe, tinkling notes plucked by the nimble fingers of a harpist.”

Despite having traveled to Taiwan a couple of times – once as a kid with my family (my father used to travel to Taipei for work quite often) and then once again about 12 years ago for my own work when I used to be a research assistant and was working on a project about creative clusters in Asia – I know pretty much nothing about Taiwan’s history. So to read in the translator’s note that this book, published in 1990 (3 years after martial law was lifted), was the first to re-create in fictional form the “White Terror Era”. I of course had to go google that and learnt to my surprise that martial law in Taiwan lasted for 38 years and some 140,000 Taiwanese were imprisoned during this time with around 4,000 executed.

It seems that the following books also feature the White Terror Era and if you’ve got any Taiwanese author recommendations, please let me know!

The Third Son – Julie Wu

The 228 Legacy – Jennifer J Chow

Green Island – Shawna Yang Ryan

I believe this book works for the Reading Women Challenge – about nature.

An Excess Male by Maggie Shen King

I first heard of this book in an article about recent dystopian fiction written by women. It stood out, as I tend to be drawn to books written by Asian women, and the premise was especially of interest. Set in a near-future Beijing, affected by the one-child policy which has resulted in far too many males, An Excess Male is the story of a family. May-Ling has two men in her life – Hann and Xiong-Xin or XX. They’re not exactly a typical China family as Hann is “Wilfully Sterile” (the official term for gay), and XX is a “Lost Boy “, socially awkward but brilliant and probably on the autism spectrum. They have a young child together.

We are also introduced to Wei-guo, a personal trainer in his early 40s, a single man whose two fathers have saved up in order for him to finally be able to join a family (at least one that they can afford to join, for it is very expensive to join good families). And he wants to be part of May-Ling’s family. But something happens during a battle at the Strategic Games – this is one part of the book I didn’t quite understand, to be honest, it’s a kind of state-sponsored live-action role-playing game and I think Wei-guo didn’t want to follow some new regulations that were being put in. Anyway, it’s a government thing and he pretty much went against the government, throwing himself and his almost-family into jeopardy.

I went into this book expecting dystopia and dystopia I definitely got, but I loved how the story was so much about family. How a family can consist of one woman, one child, and three men. How there can be love, romantic love, familial love, friendship, in this less-than-typical family.

What We Were Promised by Lucy Tan

In the first chapter of this book, I learn a surprising fact about China – it has one standard time zone, despite it spanning five geographical time zones! How confusing is that?

Luckily this book, despite its interweaving stories of an expat family, a long-lost brother, and a housekeeping staff-turned-ayi, isn’t confusing at all.

Sunny is from rural China. She works as a maid cleaning rooms and serviced apartments at a hotel in Shanghai. Her name isn’t Sunny of course – it’s just a name tag she picked out of the bin, finding something that seemed right about the name, although she couldn’t even read it herself.

“Chinese names were too difficult for foreign residents to pronounce and carried too much meaning to be revealed to the Chinese speakers. When characters in a name were combined, they produced a complex of feelings and images. That was no good; the best thing for a housekeeper to be was forgettable. Better to take on the blankness of American names.”

One of the apartments that Sunny cleans belongs to the Zhen family, an expat family returned to China after a decade in the US. Lina and Wei have had a long history, having been betrothed since they were young. Wei works long hours at his advertising job, Lina is one of the many taitais in the hotel – “ladies of luxury who could not be called housewives because, aside from cooking the occasional meal, they did no housework at all”.

Wei’s long-lost brother Qiang, contacts them out of the blue after 22 years, and comes to visit. What exactly does he want? Why did he disappear all those years ago? And it turns out that Qiang and Lina have had a history of their own.

I’ve read quite a few books by Chinese authors but this one is written from a very different perspective of a returning Chinese family. Their move from China to the US and then back to China was such a contrast – from a young couple with no money to spare, entertaining themselves by wandering into drugstores and looking at all the goods on display and not being able to buy anything, to becoming a well-off expat family living in a fancy apartment, owning Rolex watches and expensive jewelry. It was a bit hard to like Lina though, although I felt like we had plenty in common in that I am an immigrant to the US myself and while Singapore isn’t such a huge contrast from the US with all its shopping malls and what not, there were all these very “American” things that fascinated (and sometimes frustrated) me. Like the way our first apartment had an open kitchen and this combination cooker hood/microwave over the stove – how was one to get rid of all the cooking smells if that was all?

“American kitchens weren’t designed for wok use, Lina complained. She had tried the American recipes and decided people here didn’t know what real cooking was. All that boiling and baking? Those were safe ways of preparing food. Oil was meant to be splattered on walls, the wok lid held in front of your body like a shield. Cooking, she said, was an act of love and creation. Danger should be somewhere in the mix or it didn’t count. You had to put yourself on the line; you had to sweat. Chinese cuisine required more energy and a higher flame.”

What We Were Promised is a story of contrasts. Sunny’s qunzu fang, a room she shares with five others and which reeks of boiled cabbage and urine vs the large and luxurious jasmine-scented Lanson Suites she cleans. The silk factory where Lina’s father worked vs the skyscraper in which Wei’s office is located. Rural vs city life, rich vs poor.

In case you can’t tell by now, I loved this book and I am just so excited to see what else Lucy Tan writes.

#AsianLitBingo wrap-up

I didn’t do too badly this time! I got three bingos! I always enjoy this challenge and got to read some very beautiful books in May. Some of my favourites were the manga series Orange, Everything Here is Beautiful by Mira T Lee, and Lucy and Linh by Australian writer Alice Pung.

Here’s what I read for Asian Lit Bingo:

Asian Muslim MC:Here We Are Now by Jasmine Warga (own voices)

Southeast Asian MC: Miss Burma by Charmaine Craig (own voices)

South Asian MC: Don’t Let Him Know by Sandip Roy (own voices)

Asian MC with Disability: Everything Here is Beautiful by Mira T Lee (own voices)

Graphic Novel with Asian MC: Orange by Ichigo Takano (own voices)

Translated Work by an Asian Author: After Dark by Haruki Murakami (own voices)

Asian Immigrant MC:  The Land of Forgotten Girls by Erin Entrada Kelly (#ownvoices)

SFF with Asian MC:  The Epic Crush of Genie Lo by FC Yee #ownvoices

LGBTQIAP+ Asian MC: Tell Me Again How A Crush Should Feel by Sara Farizan #ownvoices

Poor or Working Class Asian MC: Girls Burn Brighter by Shobhaa Rao #ownvoices 

East Asian MC:Kinder than Solitude by Yiyun Li #ownvoices

Asian Refugee MC:Lucy and Linh by Alice Pung #ownvoices

Contemporary with Asian MC: Rainbirds by Clarissa Goenawan

Multiracial/multiethnic Asian MC Such a Lovely Little War by Marcelino Truing #ownvoices

#AsianLitBingo – Miss Burma by Charmaine Craig

Shan, Mon, Chin, Rohingya, Kachin, Karen (these last pronounced with the accent on the second syllable, it seemed to him – Ro-HIN-gya, Ka-CHIN, Ka-REN) and so on.

This book was longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction which is probably where I first heard of it.

I was curious about it as its focus is on the Karen people of Myanmar, people who have been persecuted for their beliefs, and still are today.

It was something about their friendliness, their relaxed natures, their open courteousness, their love of life, their easy acceptance of his right to be among them, elephantine as he must have appeared in their eyes (and hopelessly dumb, miming what he wanted to purchase). He had the sense that wherever they had come from (Mongolia? Tibet?), however many centuries or millennia ago, they had long ago accepted others’ infiltration of their homeland so long as it was peaceable. Yet he also had the distinct impression that they’d never forgotten the dust of homelessness on their feet.

I have to confess that I was also interested by Craig’s own background. She is an actress and is part Karen and based much of the book on the lives of her grandmother and mother, who was actually Miss Burma and a political revolutionary.

But I felt that this book was a really difficult read. Part of it is the violence and the suppression of the Karen people. Part of it is the way the author crams so much into the book. It was very heavy, very intense, something that probably required a longer reading time than the three weeks my ebook loan allowed me.

It was one hell of a tough read.

It did however open my eyes to Burmese history, which I knew almost nothing about before this.

I realized that after writing all this I never actually talked about the synopsis.

And to be honest it’s just easier to paste the official synopsis for you. Maybe you might appreciate this book more than I did.

A beautiful and poignant story of one family during the most violent and turbulent years of world history, Miss Burma is a powerful novel of love and war, colonialism and ethnicity, and the ties of blood.

Miss Burma tells the story of modern-day Burma through the eyes of Benny and Khin, husband and wife, and their daughter Louisa. After attending school in Calcutta, Benny settles in Rangoon, then part of the British Empire, and falls in love with Khin, a woman who is part of a long-persecuted ethnic minority group, the Karen. World War II comes to Southeast Asia, and Benny and Khin must go into hiding in the eastern part of the country during the Japanese Occupation, beginning a journey that will lead them to change the country’s history. After the war, the British authorities make a deal with the Burman nationalists, led by Aung San, whose party gains control of the country. When Aung San is assassinated, his successor ignores the pleas for self-government of the Karen people and other ethnic groups, and in doing so sets off what will become the longest-running civil war in recorded history. Benny and Khin’s eldest child, Louisa, has a danger-filled, tempestuous childhood and reaches prominence as Burma’s first beauty queen soon before the country falls to dictatorship. As Louisa navigates her newfound fame, she is forced to reckon with her family’s past, the West’s ongoing covert dealings in her country, and her own loyalty to the cause of the Karen people.

Based on the story of the author’s mother and grandparents, Miss Burma is a captivating portrait of how modern Burma came to be and of the ordinary people swept up in the struggle for self-determination and freedom.

I read this for Asian Lit Bingo – South East Asian MC

Everything Here is Beautiful by Mira T Lee #AsianLitBingo

The first hospital stay, I was a compliant patient, a Sweet Asian Doll, and for this I was branded with a Severe Lifelong Mental Illness. Later, I would be told I had a twenty percent chance of maintaining a full-time job, a twenty-five percent chance of living independently, a forty percent chance of attempting suicide, a ten percent chance of succeeding.

I was twenty-six years old.

This was an exquisite book.

It’s not an easy tale to tell – one of mental illness, of immigrants both legal and illegal, of family and relationships both wonderful and strange.

Miranda, as the older sister, has always been protector, defender and the responsible one. And even more so now that their mother has passed away. Lucia brims with vibrancy and vivacity. She’s unconventional, some may say strange. She’s lived in South America and is marrying an Israeli man she barely seems to know. And worse, she’s started hearing voices.

Just as soon as she married Yonah she decides she wants to have a child and leaves him for a young Ecuadorian man, Manny, who is in the country illegally. Eventually they move back to his small village in Ecuador which soon proves a problem for Lucia’s condition.

Lee said in an interview that she has family members with schizophrenia and in the book it is clear that she’s dealt with various aspects of it, especially the way Miranda tries to handle the various hospital staff who don’t seem to understand how best to treat her sister. Miranda has done all her research and is familiar with all the problems the different drugs give her sister.

In bringing in Manny to the story, we see someone who cares for Lucia and also tries to appease her, not knowing exactly what she needs but still trying his very best to help.

Everything Here is Beautiful is a must-read. I seldom say things like that so I hope you know I mean it. It was a story gently and thoughtfully told, one that explores different perspectives, one that shows us how mental illness affects family and loved ones.

I read this for Asian Lit Bingo – Asian MC with Disability