Here is my latest book review for the SF Chronicle.
‘Bury What We Cannot Take,’ by Kirstin Chen
March 21, 2018
China in the late 1950s was replete with political and social tumult. Following the Hundred Flowers Campaign, the Anti-Rightist Campaign started; by the end of 1959, more than half a million “rightists,” mostly intellectuals, were purged. Then a widespread famine, euphemistically called the “Three Years of Natural Disasters” by the government, killed tens of millions.
Numerous writers have described this period, among them Yang Xianhui, whose “Memory of Jiabiangou” is a tragic portrait of 3,000 rightists in a remote Chinese province.
Kirstin Chen’s second novel, “Bury What We Cannot Take,” is set in early Maoist China, in 1957. But it tells a different story, a lesser-known but engrossing account of people escaping to Hong Kong from mainland China.
Taking place on Drum Wave Islet, an island off the southeastern coast, and in Hong Kong, Chen’s book is an engaging account of the Ong family’s escape to freedom at the height of political oppression. It has an arresting opening: Siblings Ah Liam and San San, 12 and 9, from a once-wealthy family, discover their grandmother, Bee Kim, destroying a portrait of Chairman Mao with a hammer. Ah Liam, eager to join the Party’s Youth League, reports the incident to the authorities. Suspecting the family’s loyalty to Mao, officials inspect their house. The children’s mother, Seok Koon, has devised a secret plan to procure permits for her children, the grandma and herself to visit Hong Kong, where her businessman husband lives. Now, with the party’s unexpected investigation, she is forced to leave a child behind as proof of the family’s plan to return. San San remains on Drum Wave Islet, while the rest of the family joins the father, Ah Zhai, in Hong Kong, to stay.
The subsequent story switches mainly between Seok Koon’s desperate efforts to rescue San San through trusted friends and a priest and San San’s attempts to escape on her own. Besides these two principal themes, subplots involve Seok Koon’s relationship with Bee Kim and her estranged husband, Zhai’s love for his mistress, the Ong family’s servants and old friends, and the people San San meets while on the run from the authorities. These subplots, despite sometimes risking being cumbersome and distracting, broaden the story’s scope, and add more layers to the main characters.
The book’s most memorable character is San San, described by her mother as “intelligent and mature for her age.” After her mother, brother and grandma flee to Hong Kong, she must write a self-criticism essay, which she reads it aloud to her class, denouncing herself as “the child of capitalist, bourgeois landlords,” and her family as “the running dogs of the Americans and the British.”
When her first attempt to escape fails, San San goes into hiding and plans her own escape. She steals a boat from a fisherman, befriends a boy and his mother, street performers, for food and shelter, and disguises herself as a boy. Her action-packed story is a delight to read.
Chen, a Singapore native who now lives in San Francisco, left her birth country to study in the U.S. when she was 15. Preferring the label of Singaporean writer to that of Asian American writer, she cherishes her Chinese and Singaporean roots. In “Bury What We Cannot Take,” the dialogue and historical details reflect her knowledge of Chinese culture and history, gained through both her upbringing and research. The cursing phrases like “Turtle eggs” and “you son of a dog” lend authenticity and playfulness to the language.
Toward the end of the book, Seok Koon, after almost losing her son, questions herself: “What if a mistake was too grave to live with? What if the guilt wormed its way deep into the flesh and grew more and more potent, devouring tissue and fat and skin, until one day, you looked down, and your whole self had been ravaged and nothing remained.” That’s what “Bury What We Cannot Take” ponders: mistakes and consequences of those split-second decisions.
Taogangzhe, the Chinese who escaped to Hong Kong from the 1950s to the ’80s, is now a term that lives in Chinese memory. Though we the reader may yearn for a richer political and social landscape and a more convincing ending in Chen’s book, it provides a rare glimpse into the little-documented history of such people during Mao’s era.
Fan Wu is the author of “Beautiful as Yesterday” and “February Flowers.” Email:firstname.lastname@example.org
Bury What We Cannot Take
By Kirstin Chen
(Little A; 287 pages; $24.95)