In my Women and Literature class, we recently read Amy Tan’s novel The Joy Luck Club. The novel, published in 1989, centers around four sets of Chinese American mothers and daughters: Suyuan Woo and Jing-mei “June” Woo; An-mei Hsu and Rose Hsu Jordan; Lindo Jong and Waverly Jong; and Ying-ying St. Clair and Lena St. Clair. The story is set in San Francisco in 1949, but Tan gives her readers plenty of flashbacks set in 1930 China. The novel consists of four sections, and each mother and daughter has two chapters told in her perspective.
The plot begins in June’s point-of-view after her mother Suyuan passes away from a brain aneurism. As she attempts to take her mother’s place at the mahjong table, the other women in the Joy Luck Club quickly show June that she much to learn about her mother. Amy Tan continues to focus on the bond between mother and daughter as well as the struggle to reconcile two cultures. Ultimately, Tan examines the difference between the Chinese-born mother and American-born daughters, reveals a multitude of secrets about each woman, and sets her readers on a journey to unravel the truth about the life each woman lives.
Amy Tan’s book has been a major hit, achieving fame for its portrayal of Chinese-American culture as well as its feminist focus. The Joy Luck Club has even been made into a film and play. I fully enjoyed Tan’s book, and yet, I find it extremely intriguing that while the novel centers around Chinese immigrants, it never mentions the actual process. At the same time that I was reading The Joy Luck Club in my Women and Literature class, I was reading Mae M. Ngai’s book Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America. In Ngai’s book, I learned—for the first time—about Chinese exclusion laws and quotas set by the American government to keep Chinese immigration to a minimum. It was astounding to me that I had never learned, or really heard, about the Chinese exclusion laws that “barred all Chinese from entering the United States save for merchants and their families, students, treaty traders, and diplomats” (Ngai 2004, 204). The laws existed from 1882-1943, and yet the consequences lasted far after 1943.
In fact, American attitudes toward Chinese immigrated fluctuated from the 1930s to 1960s. Yet, even when the American people and government felt sympathetic toward Chinese people, the government held strong to a quota that limited the number of Chinese people. Interestingly, most quotas would limit the number of people from a certain country. However, this precedent did not apply to the Chinese. Instead, it did not matter whether Chinese immigrants were from China or Great Britain; the quota limited all Chinese people and not just people from China. Therefore, because of the Chinese exclusion laws and quota, many Chinese immigrants had to enter the United States using illegal means.
I find it so interesting that most textbooks and books in literature fail to mention this event in American history. Amy Tan’s novel highlights many provocative issues—divorce, abortion, rape, arranged marriages, the choices one must make to survive the second Sino-Japanese war, the culture of Chinatown in America, daughterly duty, and more. Yet, while the novel is set in San Francisco and focuses on Chinese immigrant families, we never once hear about the aftermath of the Chinese exclusion laws. Tan never mentions the words “Paper son,” “the San Francisco Chinese Six Companies,” or “quota.” This lack of reference is not uncommon. Yet, I ask the simple question, why do we not hear more about the Chinese exclusion laws? Do you think books need to emphasize it more? Are there other ways to portray this time in history? I think it is extremely important to explain this time in history, as well as other margalinized events in history, and I think authors such as Amy Tan can help accomplish this task.