Asian Women's Sorrows in "The Joy Luck Club"
Asian Women's Stories
The stories of the book actually cluster around first Generation Chinese American Jing-mei Woo's journey of discovery to China to meet her half-sisters, the twins Chwun Yu and Chwun Hwa.
Suyuan Woo, her mother, could no longer carry the babies along the road to escape from the WWII Japanese Invasion and the rise of Chinese Communism and felt that she had to leave them by the side of the road for some kind stranger to find and raise. Syuan immigrated to America to San Francisco and never learned the fate of the babies left by the side of the road.
She organized the weekly mahjong games among her compatriots in San Francisco's Chinatown and died first among the four. She died before she could fulfill her wish to find her abandoned twins. Jing-mei, born to another father in America, agreed to take Suyuan's place at the mahjong table. There, she was forced to listen to stories of the past.
These stories were not easy to hear. Syuan had always compared her to other women's children feeling that Jing-Mei refused to meet her potentials. She provided her daughter with IQ tests and piano lessons, but Jing-Mei was never good enough; she always felt like a failure. She dropped out of college to become a freelance writer and her work was rejected by other daughters of the Joy Luck Club. She was embarrassed by the "too-Chinese" club itself until she took Suyuan's place at the gaming table.
It is then that she realizes both the duty and joy of preserving native traditions. Finally, she travels to China to find her half-sisters.
The Women of Joy Luck Club
Amy Tan describes four Chinese women in this book. These women are brought together by a shared past in China and live near one another in San Francisco. In America, they rely on their First Generation Chinese American daughters to learn the ways of the mother country and Chinese culture and to preserve them and pass them on to future Chinese Americans in San Francisco's tightly knit Chinatown community.
The four women friends meet regularly in order to play the traditional Chinese game of mahjong in a weekly game that began in back in China. In America, it was begun again among the four friends by Suyuan Woo as a touch point for keeping the old ways alive.
While they play, the women recite the stories of the Chinese past, like an ancient oral native tradition that is to be kept alive for history's sake. They do this as long as all four continue to live.
The four families reside in Chinatown purposefully; all have joined the First Chinese Baptist Church in SF in order to improve their lives somehow in becoming part of this one church community and of Chinatown. They feel that they must stay together, united, and preserve Chinatown against being swallowed by western ways. The first Generation American daughters have difficulty in accepting this, wishing to become more "modern", meaning "more Western."
These four families are the Woos, Hsus, Jongs, and St. Clairs and they first met in 1949 during the Cold War and the rise of Communism in China, after feeling China during Japanese Occupation in WWII.
An X-Ray of a Bound Foot
Centuries of Chinese cultural traditions, along with a history of human rights violations and the onslaught of the strictures of Communism in the mother country have affected the lives and the psyches of all four mahjong women in an American Chinatown with sorrow as they recall their joys in China.
The Joy Luck Club is the name of their mahjong club as well as a collection of 16 short stories that depict the tensions and conflicts among these four mothers raised in China and their First Generation daughters raised in San Francisco.
None of their feet were folded and bound, as shown in the pictures above, but their hearts and minds were certainly bound by many things.
Suyuan began the Joy Luck Club in Kweilin, in the Second Sino-Japanese War. Japan was always attacking China. She and others evacuated to Kweilin to escape bombing. They needed a diversion to raise morale and Suyuan invited women to play weekly mahjong, raising money besides, and enjoying special foods. it lifted their spirits during the war. People spoke ill of the Joy Luck Club, though, saying they were wasteful and frivolous, but the women continued. They said that their hope for luck in life was their joy.
Suyuan had to flee the Japanese again, however, to Chungking. She went on foot with a wheelbarrow and twin infants in heavy slings over her two shoulders. She had to start leaving her worldly goods by the side of the road, because she could no longer push the wheelbarrow. She also left the infants as well, with a note, when she culd no longer continue to carry anything. She arrived in Chungking half dead from dysentery and learned that her husband had just died.
However, she remarried and went to America. She and her new husband met other couples at church and she started a new Joy Luck Club in 1949. She has just died at the beginning of Amy Tan's book.
Sorrow and Survival
One of the mahjong players, An-Mei, teachers her First Generation daughter, Rose, to stand up for herself in America. She leaves behind the submissive behavior of Chinese women in the old country and raises Rose to be independent. Rose's grandparents disinherited her mother for such actions and took over young Rose's upbringing. However, there is reconciliation as An-Mei returns just as her own mother is about to die. An-Mei then continues to teach Rose to defend herself against injustice, helps her avoid an unfair divorce settlement, and helps her to keep a faith in God.
A third mahjong player is Lindo Jong, whose daughter is Waverly. She tries to impart to the younger woman a sense of obedience as well as self-worth. She tells her daughter about "American circumstances and Chinese character" and Waverly cannot understand. A marriage was arranged when Waverly was two years old and when she was twelve, she had to go live in his house. She saw that he would be abusive, but did not disobey her parents in the arrangement. At 16, she married, but Lindo invents a way for her in-laws to release her without losing face. She fakes a dream in which the ancestors - her husband's ancestors - prophesy that their marriage is doomed and she is thereby freed. She immigrates to America and weds, having three children and raising them as Western. However, Waverly shows a respect for Chinese culture that her mother did not expect -- having loudly told her mother off in public, Waverly thereafter was able to become the "inscrutable Chinese" hiding emotion like a poker player.
The fourth for mahjong is Ying-Ying St. Clair, Lena's Chinese mother, always depressed and paranoid. She blames her Severe Mental Disorders on a ceremony she was forced to attend at the age of four. She fell off the boat during the Moon Ceremony and was lost. Suddenly she was confronted by the Moon Lady, who tells her a depressing tale. As a wish to the Moon Lady, she asks that her parents find her and learns that the Lady is a man in costume. Confused, she is found, but never believes her parents really begot her. Later, she marries an abusive man and aborts a child. Remarrying, she is remains depressed. However, when her daughter Lena experiences pain in her own marriage, Ying-Ying is able to come out of her depression and be of support.
A film of The Joy Luck Club was released by Hollywood Pictures in 1993 (rated R), including many but not all of the 16 stories. It was written by Amy Tan and Ronald Bass, directed by Wayne Wang and produced by Oliver Stone.
The stars of the film include Frances Nuyen (Star Trek®, Medical Center, The American Standards), Rosalind Chao (Star Trek® Deep Space Nine), Ming-Na Wen, (Mulan)and Lauren Tom (The Facts of Life, Friends, Futurama).
Mother and Daughter, Luck & Joy
© 2008 Patty Inglish MS