Chinatown as Storybook-Or as Immigrant Prison

Tea That Burns: A Family Memoir of Chinatown , by Bruce Edward Hall. Free Press, 308 pages, $25.

Aunt Thelma Fung put it this way: “He can give himself an English name, but he can’t change the color of his skin!” Maybe so. But in 1950, Bruce Edward Hall’s father–a Chinese-American Episcopalian with a beautiful, blond and blue-eyed wife and a recently changed name–was basking in the considerable pleasures of successful assimilation. Settling into a house in suburban Connecticut, he had gone as far as he could go from Hor Lup Chui, the family’s ancestral village in southern China.

The long journey had been accomplished in only two generations. Had the successfully assimilated Chinese-American brought his late grandfather to the golf course, the other corporate executives might have been distracted by the sight of the patriarchal Hor Poa with his shaved head and the long queue hanging down his back. These were signs of the old man’s allegiance to the Manchu Emperor in Peking. In suburban Connecticut, signs of allegiance to the American dream included madras jackets, Kelly green shirts and ritual reading of The Wall Street Journal over gin-and-tonics.

In Tea that Burns , Bruce Hall sets out to separate himself from his father’s “white bread” world and to recover his Chinese heritage. In Manhattan’s “old” Chinatown–”those few blocks of Mott Street from Canal south to Chatham Square, and then up Bowery to Doyers and Pell Streets, then west back to Mott”–he finds his great-grandfather’s China in miniature. Although Mr. Hall has never lived there, Chinatown becomes the force field that holds this rambling memoir together. “Chinatown was the only constant in my life, it seemed, the only spot to which I could always return … and see the thumbprint of generations that had died before living memory.” With consistent narrative exuberance, Mr. Hall weaves the human story of four generations of his family into an often captivating tale.

Dwelling in his imagination, he wants everyone else to join him. “I want the reader to be able to know what it felt like to live in Chinatown through the years, what it looked liked, what it smelled like …” He concentrates on storybook detail, paints a Chinatown of narrow streets lined with strings of painted lanterns, a place where merchants took their songbirds for a morning walk, festival celebrants posed in colorful, embroidered silks, and opium merchants, smoking long pipes, reclined on porcelain pillows. At the Chinese General Store, the patrons bought dried sea horses for the kidneys and rhododendron blossoms for asthma. So that their ancestors would bring them good fortune, worshipers tempted them with offerings of delicious, sugary dumplings.

Like stock characters in a Chinese opera, the members of Mr. Hall’s family move through that Chinatown playing out their well-defined roles: his great-grandmother Gon She, his “bookie” grandfather Hor Ting Pun (a.k.a. Hock Shop), his father Herbert Sing Nuen who changed his name to Hall. So small is Chinatown, that everybody knows everybody else: Uncle Duck, for example, who never says a word because he doesn’t speak much Cantonese and has never learned to speak English. On this storybook level, the memoir serves as Mr. Hall’s celebration of the richness of Chinese life. Who would not choose this downtown Eden over a bland, suburban limbo?

Like most romantic visions, Mr. Hall’s view of the Chinese-American experience includes not only nostalgia but danger, suffering and evil. Beneath that bright surface texture–the world of painted flowers, mooncakes and golden dragons–lurks a darker reality. Carefully folded into the pages of the memoir are the somber facts of Chinese-American history. Mr. Hall’s family makes its way in the face of the Exclusion Act–an unpardonable piece of legislation, in force until 1943, which prohibited Chinese naturalization and restricted the immigration of laborers. At that time, Mr. Hall tells us, there were “no restrictions of any kind on the millions streaming into the United States from every other nation on earth.”

Now the immigrant’s determination to prevail in America–and on the other side, the country’s intention to thwart him–becomes the memoir’s more profound concern. Again, like those one-dimensional opera characters, Mr. Hall’s relatives become emblems, representations of the Chinese experience in America: Hor Poa’s perilous journey to California, his back-breaking work for the “White Devils” building the Central Pacific railroad, his migration to Mott Street where he allies himself with the Tong, the draining battles with isolation and loneliness, his marriage to “the Belle of Chinatown,” and his final years as the unofficial “Mayor of Chinatown.”

Seen through this lens, Chinatown acts as more a prison than a sanctuary and Hock Shop, Mr. Hall’s colorful grandfather, is clearly a victim. In the 1920’s, this smart, talented man has almost no choices. He can become a shopkeeper or a laundryman, or he can work 14 hours a day in a restaurant (at the Oriental on Pell Street, say), waiting on tables for about $100 a month. Nothing else is open to him. How else can he support 12 family members and pay the rent on the three rooms in which they live? Hock Shop will end his days running lottery tickets for the Tong and hanging out in a noodle shop, smoking cigarettes with his familiar gang. Yet to most Chinese in the “old” country, the members of Mr. Hall’s family are rare “Celestials” favored by the gods. (When someone faces impossible odds, they say he hasn’t “a Chinaman’s chance,” a reference to the likelihood of being maimed or killed while handling explosives during the construction of the railroads.)

With his romantic vision, Mr. Hall creates a seductive, dream-world Chinatown–but grounded in history. As long as he knows the difference between myth and history, the memoir works. But the line blurs. Is it possible that Uncle Duck really stopped speaking because he’d forgotten his only language? Perhaps it was something else, another trauma–or merely a family legend.

Often I have a sense that something is missing. More troubling than what Mr. Hall creates from his imagination is what he simply does not see. He remains an observer, a distant recorder–a man who manages to elude the burden of writing about emotion. As he moves his characters through Chinatown, their bouts with poverty, opium addiction and even death are given no more emotional weight than eating a roast pork bun at a New Year’s celebration. How much more interesting if, for example, he had shown us Chinatown through his father’s ambivalence about being Chinese-American–or even Hock Shop’s despair at being excluded from this country’s economic possibility.

In this memoir, where attitudes toward ethnicity are central, Mr. Hall seems shockingly unaware that his point of view is limited by the prejudices of his own age. He can’t see that the dominant Anglo-Saxon culture seems bland because it’s most familiar. (It would look mighty exotic to the folks back in Hor Lup Chui.) Does he really think that there’s no culture at all in WASP American life? Mr. Hall won’t allow himself even a passing interest in his own WASP mother’s ancestors. Presumably, their milquetoast ghosts wander undisturbed from one end of the Scottish Highlands to the other.

Perhaps it’s not just tunnel vision that determines the choice of focus. A memoir about the descendants of “John Chinaman” now has more literary cachet than one by a writer who counts John Alden or even John Adams among his forbears. Had Mr. Hall written in midcentury and sniffed the postwar 50’s Zeitgeist, he might well have found deliverance in the tale of his family’s migration to Connecticut’s greener pastures. But in the 90’s, the country’s engagement with multiculturalism has devalued the American currency of the once-reigning WASP.

It’s out of this change that so many engaging memoirs are coming. If we don’t get a complete portrait of how America’s ethnicity works, or even Mr. Hall’s, at least, we are getting to see a previously hidden part of the picture. Instead of English breakfast tea and the Boston Tea Party, there’s Tea That Burns , a spirited salute to multiculturalism and to America–Mei Guo, the “superlative country”–from one of its own.