By Joi Yan Johanna Chan
In Chinese Fish, Grace Yee challenges preconceived notions of a community that both threatened New Zealand with the racist symbolism of ‘yellow peril’ and set public expectations of a ‘model minority’. The seven prose poems in the collection follow the story of the Chin family from Hong Kong moving to New Zealand from the 1960s to the 1980s. The poems are narrated mainly by two women, Ping and her teenage daughter Cherry. Throughout the narrative, Ping is shown to work hard to cook, to take care of her children and family, and to help her husband with his business. Her story is told alongside Cherry’s, who faces racism and prejudice at a young age and longs to fit in with those around her.
Chinese Fish is adapted from the creative component of Yee’s PhD thesis ‘Beneath the Long White Cloud: Settler Chinese Women’s Storytelling in Aotearoa New Zealand’, and parts of the poems are interjected with references to scholarly articles about the era and legislation. The prose, facts and Chinese words are interwoven into a beautifully crafted narrative through the seven poems.
The use of Cantonese and Taishanese phrases throughout the poems force non-native speakers to tiresomely flip through pages to find translations – a close demonstration of having to understand a different language and culture. The constant code-switching also shows the juxtaposition of displacement with home and family, as the immigrants find themselves in a place between.
Yee was born in Hong Kong but has lived most of her life in New Zealand and Australia. As a writer, researcher and a teaching associate interested in women’s storytelling, colonialism and the Chinese diaspora, she does not shy away from difficult discussions on race. In Chinese Fish, she writes the Chin family’s narrative with honesty about the situation at the time, from routine check-ups in the family’s shop by police officers, to the white neighbourhood boys who pick on Ping’s children. The feelings of displacement are contrasted with the family’s community – a Chinese community that keeps mainly to itself.
Moreover, there is a spotlight on women in the narrative that seeks to discuss the role of Chinese women in the era and their changing views over family, home and identity. Yee interlaces scholarly writing with Ping and Cherry’s experiences as first and second-generation immigrants in a smooth lyrical manner.
I said what’s
I put up? how
I put up? but
I put up
Yee crafts the narrative with raw language and puts readers in a position to observe their day-to-day interactions.
Cherry’s peeling the banana leaves off the 糉 in her lunchbox, first hidden under the lid, when the seagulls land –
Yougotfriedrice?chowmien?wheresyachopsticks?wewannaseewewannaseewewannaseewhatsthat? Steamed rice… Whatsthatpinkthing? Lup cheong 臘腸… Lupwhat?!gizalook! ewww!yuck!urrrgh!ewwwwwww……! They all fly away and the sky too-blue too-ewwwwwww!
By the end, readers are presented with a dilemma of immigration and what it means – whether that be in terms of culture, gender or race. As Yee interjects in her poem:
What is the point of this anecdote? Is this a story
or – god forbid – miscegenation? This
doesn’t seem very … Chinese.
Chinese Fish deals with an intersectionality that is relevant today more than ever. It brings to light the points of view from Chinese immigrants from the 1960s to the 1980s and gives them a voice. It explores the identity struggles of immigrants and third-culture individuals in a way that creates plenty of room for reflection and discussions over race and culture.
Chinese Fish was first published in 2023 by Giramondo Publishing. It is available on the Giramondo Publishing website and most online and local retailers.
Joi Yan Johanna Chan is currently studying creative writing and publishing at the University of Melbourne. She enjoys stories of all forms and genres but takes particular interest in topics like identity, grief and culture.