Linguistic Regionalism and the Emergence of Chinese American Literature in Sui Sin Far's "Mrs. Spring Fragrance"

Article excerpt

"I think," said Co Ek ]u, "that when I return to China I will write a book about the American people."

"What put such an idea into your head?" I asked.

"The number of books about the Chinese by Americans," answered Go Ek Ju. "I see them in the library; they are very amusing."

"See, then, that when you write your book, it is likewise amusing."

"No," said Go Ek Ju. "My aim, when I write a book about Americans will be to make it not amusing, but interesting and instructive. The poor Americans have to content themselves with writing for amusement only because they have no means of obtaining any true knowledge of the Chinese when in China; but we Chinese in America have fine facilities for learning all about the Americans. We go into the American houses as servants; we enter the American schools- and colleges as students; we ask questions and we think about what we hear and see. Where is there the American who will go to China and enter into the service of a Chinese family as a domestic? We have yet to hear about a band of American youths, both male and female, being admitted as students into a Chinese university."

Sui Sin Far, "A Chinese Book on Americans" (1)

Sui Sin Far (Edith Maude Eaton) readily fits none of the categories scholars of Chinese American literature have identified, in that she belongs neither to the group of writers who were born in China in the twentieth century, emigrated to the United States, and write and publish in Chinese, nor to the group of Chinese American writers who were horn in the United States and "write in English about things (Chinese) American" (Shan 117). (2) Born in England in r865, Edith Eaton grew up with an English father and Chinese mother and later described herself as "Eurasian." The family moved from England to North America in 1873, first arriving in Hudson, New York, then settling in Montreal, where the young Edith attended school and, as she writes in an autobiographical essay, where she first discovered discrimination when her schoolmates learned that her mother was Chinese. (3) Nevertheless, as an adult Edith adopted the Chinese name Sui Sin Far and moved to San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Seattle, where she wrote journalistic pieces and fiction based in the Chinese immigrant experience (White-Parks, Sui Sin Far 9).

Neither does her fiction reflect the limitations writing in English has typically placed on Chinese writers. In describing the difference between "characteristics of Chinese-language literature in America" and "writing in English by Chinese-American authors," Xiao-huangYin identifies as a "hallmark" of Chinese-language literature in America the freedom such writers have from the restraints of the "social codes of mainstream society" ("Worlds" 177). Yin observes that while American-born Chinese writers "tend to delve into the broad issues of ethnic identity, cultural conflicts, and sentiments of the native-born," what distinguishes Chinese-language writers "is their persistent focus on immigrants" (178). Yet the stories from Sui Sin Far's only book, "Mrs. Spring Fragrance," a collection of short fiction published in 1912, manage at the same time to critique the "social codes" and the political constraints the United States placed on immigrant Chinese in the late nineteenth century, to focus on the complex responses of various Chinese immigrants to their immigrant experiences, and to reflect on the issue of ethnic identity for persons of biracial origin, such as herself.

Sui Sin Far remains unique among Chinese American writers. According to Annette White-Parks, Sui Sin Far perhaps used the term "Chinese-American" for the first time in print in the series of sketches of Chinese life in America she published in the Westerner in May 1909 ("Introduction" 174). (4) In other ways as well, critics have considered her unique. Yin, among others, identifies her as the first Chinese American woman writer ("Worlds" 176); S. …