Introduction to "The Son of Chung Wo," by Sui Sin Far [Edith Maude Eaton]

Article excerpt

The sisters Edith and Winnifred Eaton made every effort, throughout their lives, to be heard. Twenty years ago, despite Edith's years of steady labor as a journalist and short story writer and despite Winnifred's widely popular novels, they were virtually forgotten. Today, through the work of an extended and continuing network of researchers, both their biographies and many of the literary works they published__under various names, but most recognizably as Sui Sin Far and Onoto Watanna__have been recovered and have become part of literary and cultural history.

This republication of Sui Sin Far's "The Son of Chung Wo," which originally appeared in the 16 June 1910 issue of Leslie's Weekly, is a small contribution to that project. In this introduction, I offer a brief sketch of what we know about the Eaton sisters and some reflections on this critical history, and make some preliminary comments on the story itself. Most immediately, this newly discovered tale gives us for the first time some evidence that can plausibly be interpreted as indicating Edith's reaction to her sister's career. Most broadly, it demonstrates how much more we have to learn about__and from__this author and how intimately archival and interpretive work depend on each other.

Edith Maude Eaton was born in 1865, in Macclesfield in the English Midlands, the second child of an English father and a Chinese mother. Edward Eaton belonged to a silk manufacturing family. Grace Trefusis was the adopted daughter of English missionaries and had been educated in England; she returned to China probably as a missionary herself. They were married in Shanghai while Edward was there on business, and Edith's older brother was born in China. The family's third child was born in Jersey City, after the Eatons had immigrated to the United States. Subsequently, they returned to England for some years, then moved to Canada, settling in Montreal in about 1873. Winnifred Eaton was born there in 1874, the eighth child of an eventual fourteen (of whom twelve survived). This story already begins to suggest the complexity of the family's national and ethnic affiliations. At different moments, various Eaton children presented themselves as white, Eurasian, Chinese American (a term Edith seems to have invented), English, Spanish or Mexican, and Japanese or Japanese-Canadian.(1)

The Eatons' class identity was also not simple. They sometimes claimed aristocratic connections, and Winnifred in particular consistently represented herself as a descendant of Isaac Newton. But the family was very poor and lived__frequently changing their lodgings__in Hochelaga, a mostly French working-class quarter of Montreal. Edward worked as an artist and occasionally at other jobs; he did so less often as the children began, as early as possible, to earn money. Neither the boys nor the girls in the family received much formal schooling, but they were well educated, in the English tradition, at home. Winnifred's biographer (and granddaughter) Diana Birchall offers the image of a household that was "big, impoverished, noisy, artistic," and "bohemian" (15).

As the eldest daughter, Edith worked especially hard, and she carried a heavy sense of responsibility to her family to the end of her life. She not only did domestic work and baby-minding at home, but also from the age of ten was sent to "tramp around" selling lace and paintings (Sui Sin Far, "Leaves" 222). By age eighteen she was working as a compositor at a newspaper; she soon taught herself shorthand and began to submit her own writing. By the time she turned thirty in the mid-189os, she had opened an office in Montreal as a stenographer and type-writer, was working as a freelance journalist, and had a substantial record of publication. Around the same time, with her mother, Edith became involved in mission work in Montreal's rapidly growing Chinatown. This was a turning point; she began to specialize in reporting on, and became an advocate for, the Chinese community. …