On Rediscovering SKY Lee’s Disappearing Moon Cafe

Lately, I’ve found myself taking the later bus home: almost empty, the rhythmic whir of the engine- just enough to match my energy levels. And yet I find some of my most honest writing done here, in transit, never having enough time in the day to actually sit down and commit pen to paper. And slowly, the personal has begun to bleed into the academic- some of my favourite form of writing. It’s a little strange to explicitly share and put personal aspects into words, but here it is: an assignment (?) that was enjoyable to do. The perfect ease into academia after having taken a somewhat hiatus. A reminder to self to start writing again. It’s been awhile. 

Rediscovering SKY Lee’s Disappearing Moon Cafe

SKY Lee’s Disappearing Moon Café (DMC) follows the lives of the Wong women across times and space, their lives converging at the family’s Disappearing Moon Café located in Vancouver’s Chinatown. This family narrative explores the relationships the Wong women have in their localized society through a historical fiction based on Chinese- Canadian history. Wong Gwei Chang, the family patriarch arrives to BC as a labourer, and establishes relationships with the local community: both the First Nations people and in Chinatown. One of the main plots of the story is based on Kae Ying Woo’s attempt to make sense of her family history. In the process of recalling encounters with her mother and other family members, she is confronted by the secrets and scandal of the women in her family that have earnestly tried to remain buried. A complex series of family relations begins with Gwei Chang, who arrives to BC with the task of bringing the bones of Chinese labourers who have fallen before him back to their respective villages in China for a proper burial. His arrival to a foreign land leads him to interact with an indigenous community, specifically Kelora, a woman who he has extra-marital relations with. This relationship is the starting point for the hidden scandalous relationships that proliferate generations of the Wong lineage. Gwei Chang’s Disappearing Moon Café in Chinatown becomes the backdrop to where the women in his family engage in everyday interactions, hidden relationships, and family politics while confronted by the real experiences of being Chinese- Canadian in a Eurocentric Canada.

Entering my final year of undergrad as an English major, I was keen on exploring more contemporary forms of literature to complete my degree. An Asian diaspora literature class caught my eye. I was so intrigued by the course as it so explicitly addressed topics that deeply resonate with me on a personal level and here was translated into an academic context. While reading the novel, we were assigned to visit one of the places Lee describes in the book and compare the description of such space then to how it appears it present day. Much of the novel is located in Vancouver’s historic Chinatown, and I was happy to visit the neighbourhood.  51 East Pender is the address in the novel of the renowned Disappearing Moon Café, and interestingly, home to the Chinese Benevolent Association in modern day. Lee could not have selected a more substantial location to reflect the location’s significance to the Vancouver Chinese community- fictionally and in reality.

Reading DMC and visiting 51 East Pender was most enjoyable as it took me away from the classroom and challenged me to relate my studies beyond the book’s context. I appreciated the opportunity to apply the discussions we had in class about Chinese- Canadian immigration, and see how such issues were being address in today’s Chinatown at the Chinese Benevolent Society, for example. As a child, I had visited Vancouver’s Chinatown during the summertime for its then popular night market. Over time, the community has faced a dramatic shift in its demographic makeup as a result of a modernizing society. Since re-engaging myself with the community, I have become more aware of the new tall condominiums that are being constructed despite growing needs for seniors and affordable housing. I have noticed new modern stores popping up: European-esque cafés, hobby shops, and eclectic boutiques. Interestingly, these new developments differ aesthetically from the traditional face of such a historically significant area- a neighbourhood that was born out of racist exclusion. Reading DMC was an opportunity for me to become more engaged with local current events, and I took time to consider the varying perspectives on Chinatown’s development and its implications on the community.

From an identity standpoint, I became more curious about what relevancy the politics of Vancouver’s Chinatown had to me: someone with Chinese ancestry, a student, a Vancouverite and Canadian. Even after the literature course ended, and even today, I continue to engage with the Chinatown community. I enjoy speaking with elders and hearing their stories as they reminisce about happier and more difficult times. Their stories are humbling- how they have faced limitations for the colour of their skin and their last names, but triumphed for generations to come, for people like myself. Their stories are inspiring- how they continue to fight for equality and share their culture with those who may not share the same values they do. Being exposed to such histories that necessitate preservation led me to graduate from UBC with an Asian Canadian and Asian Migration Studies minor- a program dedicated to community engagement and preservation of community history.

I was, and continue to be moved by Disappearing Moon Café for the way that Lee subverts dominant narrative through multiple lenses: history, culture, and gender. From an academic perspective, the narrative form of historical fiction is a genre that I had not previously engaged with. Lee’s usage of Vancouver’s Chinatown as the setting for a fictional family created a space for a realistic imagination to engage. Having grown up in Vancouver, it was fascinating to recognize specific parts of Vancouver’s Chinatown described by Lee to be appreciated by a select few “insiders” of her readership. Bringing my own knowledge of the Chinese- Canadian history combined with the lives of the Wong women, it seemed plausible that these women could have truly existed within the context of Vancouver’s Chinatown in the 1920s ridden with racism, intrigue, and struggle. Lee also uses this opportunity to do a creative rewrite of Vancouver’s Chinatown that is normatively presented. Chinatown is often essentialized as a place to visit during Chinese New Year, to enjoy dragon dance and dim sum. But what about the everyday lived experience of Chinatown- a neighbourhood that was forced into creation as a result of blatant discrimination by Eurocentric Canada. Lee uses Chinatown as a space where it is possible for new narratives to be born, looking far beyond just highly-celebrated exoticized Oriental features.

As a self-identified feminist, Lee writes DMC from a strong female perspective. In particular, Kae, the youngest and arguably most contemporary voice in the text, has a curious desire to uncover secrets, to make sense of a complicated family lineage, and to discover a sense of identity. She and I share the same sentiments. Readers are presented with a handful of strong female characters that undermine female expectations of subservient docile behaviour.  Again, I appreciate Lee’s subversion of the status quo, this time in regards to norms of femininity.

SKY Lee is a Chinese- Canadian feminist writer and artist born in Port Alberni, BC.  She moved to Vancouver in 1967 and graduated from UBC with a degree in Fine Arts, then obtained a nursing diploma from Douglas College. Disappearing Moon Caféwas published in 1991 by Douglas & Mcintyre – a Chinese- Canadian novel published by a mainstream press. Lee, along with other local Vancouver Asian writers (Paul Yee and Jim Wong-Chu, to name a few) formed, the Asian Canadian Writers’ Workshop (ACCW), in the 1960s. The small collective was formed out of a need to establish an avenue for Asian Canadian writers to express themselves and support their community of Asian Canadian literature. ACCW has its beginnings in local activism as its founders attempted to establish themselves in a Eurocentric society, and Lee herself was no stranger to being the voice of a non-dominant lesser- known narrative just as she demonstrates in Disappearing Moon Café.

In a rare occasion where she comments about her intentions behind DMC, Lee explicitly states that the novel is not to be read as an autobiographical account (Lacey, 1990). Instead, she writes to entertain herself and her readers (Lacey, 1990). Still, it is possible Lee wrote DMC with general questions of identity and heritage in mind. She translates her insider knowledge of Vancouver into the text by referencing certain locations and the highly controversial Janet Smith case. Moreover, she translates her own cultural knowledge into DMC by referencing Chinese values of gender ideals, family practices and superstitions, and use of Cantonese terminology. Lee has acknowledged that the language in DMCmay offend some- “a ‘white person’ is a ghost” (Lacey 1990). She writes with “almost documentary-style reporting” that reflects how those around her growing up would speak (Lacey 1990). In another interview, she admits that she is “often ashamed to say that [her] voice is in [the] colonizer’s language, in English”… and that she is unfortunately not fluent or literate with her heritage language (Andrews 1990).  Despite this admittance, it is significant to Lee that as a Chinese- Canadian, she writes. She argues that there few Chinese- Canadian writers who have dared to write about their experiences because of the “very blatant, very violent racism the Chinese in Canada have endured”… that “the line of trust, in terms of communication, has been broken too often. Publishers have chosen white writers writing about [Chinese-Canadian] culture” (Andrews 1990). Still, she identifies with a generation that finally has been able to “regain a voice” (Andrews 1990), and that voice is present in DMC.

 Lee further comments that she feels that in her writing of DMC, she has “caught the sense of Chinatown as smalltown Canada, as a community of people” (Lacey 1990).  It comes as no surprise that she wishes to write from a voice that not only acknowledges, but brings to life the experiences of local politics in Chinatown, the community she frequently engaged with through the ACCW.  And perhaps these sentiments are alluded to in DMC, where she writes, “all my life, I have been faithfully told, and I have also respectfully remembered” (Lee 19). With this text, Lee acknowledges the importance of preserving story. However, she also recognizes an opportunity to explore what she has been told, asking questions and retelling her knowledge based on her own understanding.

In a particular passage, Lee has imagined all four generations of Wong women gathered together in a rare opportunity to discuss issues and experiences that they have witnessed. It comes as no surprise that there is a lack of male presence in this imaginary situation. At this part of the novel, Kae, the youngest Wong female, has begun to piece together fragments of whispered stories about her different relatives in an attempt to make sense of her family narrative, where she comes from, and her identity. In a moment of realization, she remarks that identity is collectively constructed and to be considered beyond just the individual. Kae ponders:
“Do you mean that individuals must gather their identity from all the generations that touch them—past and future, no matter how slightly? Do you mean that an individual is not an individual at all, but a series of individuals- some of whom come before her, some after her? Do you mean that this story isn’t a story of several generations, but one of individual thinking collectively” (Lee 189)?
 The first time I encountered this passage, it highly resonated with me; it reveals a unique perspective toward identity. Even as a young adult, I am still constantly negotiating my identity: the person I am, and coming to terms with the person that I want to be. We are constantly told that every individual has their own story- so what is mine? How much of my own story is truly my own, untouched by external forces or subconsciously reflecting tinges of those around and those before me?

 I have noticed that race and ethnicity play a large role in one’s identity, and is arguably the distinguishing factor that most tend to use when identifying oneself- a single word that can be used to explain the colour of one’s skin; it’s that straight-forward for most to understand. However, after reading this particular passage, my own idea of identity began to complicate itself. From a purely biological racial standpoint, I have Chinese blood coursing through my veins, but considering the generations that have gone before me and influenced my life as it is presently, then “Chinese” is not enough. As I go about my daily interactions and meet new people, I often hear myself identifying myself based on my family’s story. I begin with my paternal grandfather leaving his village in Fujian to escape communist China, sailing across the South China Sea and arriving on the sandy shores of the Philippines. I tell about my grandparents adapting to the conditions of a foreign culture and country, and attempting to blend in with the rest, alter our family name so that generations onward might have a brighter future. I talk about my own parents: they grew up speaking the village dialect of their ancestors at home, learned Mandarin by catching a weekend movie, learned to read and write in English in school, and spoke Tagalog with the rest of Manila. And when the story comes to me, I reminisce about my parents’ decision to move to Vancouver to raise my brother and me, and for me to be the first Canadian born into my family. I think about how global movement has always been in my blood, but to me, Vancouver is local, with my mind drifting always back to the places where I began: Fujian, Manila, and all the spaces in between. Whether I had meant to or not, I have been identifying myself beyond just myself, in collective identity.

I have SKY Lee and Disappearing Moon Caféto thank for playing such an unexpectedly formative and lasting role in my life. The biggest influence that I take away from the novel is Lee’s strong commitment to critically examining and reimagining a status quo that is reflective of dominant cultural and gendered historical account. She asks, “Was his story the same as my story” (Lee 66)? This question perfectly captures the text’s overall sentiment: it is a critical wondering for truth.

Works Cited
Andrews, Marke. “Breaking the Code of Silence: Vancouver Writer Sky Lee Doesn’t Expect to Win Popularity Awards with Her First Novel in which She Exposes the Open Social Sores of the B.C. Chinese Community: 3 Edition.” The Vancouver Sun: D.17. 1990. Web.
Lacey, Liam. “IN PERSON Writer Tries to make Chinatown Come Alive ‘I Write to Entertain Myself and Other People’.” The Globe and Mail: C.9. 1990. Web.
Lee, Sky. Disappearing Moon Cafe. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 2005.

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