“I’d kill a Chinaman as quick as I would an Indian and I’d kill an Indian as quick as I would a dog.” This chilling remark, recorded in a police report, was made in 1884 by a man who had taken part in the lynching of Louie Sam, a fourteen-year old indigenous boy from the Fraser Valley in British Columbia, Canada. He had been waiting to be tried for murder in New Westminster when he was kidnapped by an American mob, taken across the border and lynched, presumably because the alleged murder had taken place in Nooksack, Washington. It later transpired that two members of the lynch mob were likely responsible for the murder.
Before I read this wonderfully quirky book of stories, I had never given much thought to such things as trainer bras or lucky dry fruit, both of which feature in two of May-Lee Chai’s stories about Chinese immigrants and their reactions to their experiences in new countries.
Resting together after an afternoon climb to the hillside Kyoto grave of her father’s great benefactor, the school principal who provided for the 90-year-old Anglican minister when he was just a penniless, fatherless newspaper boy, Joy Kogawa brought herself to speak: “Dad, I know what you did.”
One might be forgiven for thinking “Oh no, not another book on modern China… What could anyone possibly have left to say about it?” But Alexandre Trudeau does not simply write about what he observes, but, like all good travel-writers, shows us what effect the journey had on him. And he does so without thrusting himself into the foreground; there is no large talking head loudly proclaiming “look at me” in the foreground and with tiny buildings in the background incidentally pointing to a foreign location.