Somewhere towards the end of Lan Samantha Chang’s third novel, The Family Chao, I kept thinking about the first story in Maxine Hong Kingston’s seminal work The Woman Warrior, where a woman takes her own life by jumping into the family well, just hours after giving birth in a pigsty. She was Kingston’s aunt back in China, during the Warlord Era in the 1920s, when the country splintered into regions controlled by local leaders, after the fall of the Qing Dynasty. The suicide was the culmination of an insurmountable implosion, after Kingstyon’s aunt was shamed and attacked by people in her own village, for "allowing” her body to be touched by another man. Her husband had sailed for the Gold Mountain across the Pacific with other men from their village, guided by myths about America, as a place where fortunes are made.
Leo Chao is the patriarch of the family in The Family Chao, a kind of latter-day version of Kingston’s uncle who left China in 1924. Leo leaves China in 1972, a landmark year in Sino-American relations, when U.S President Richard Nixon made an official visit to the People’s Republic of China, to re-establish diplomatic ties with the PRC, after twenty-five years of diplomatic silence between the two countries. But whatever good tidings and forced camaraderie passed between Nixon and Mao Zedong that year, goodwill has no bearing on the way Leo managed to leave China by himself. In many ways, Leo’s departure is a result of a robbery. He robs his wife of a chance to immigrate to America. And readers can safely surmise that the couple had planned to leave China together. Unfortunately, husband and wife lack the funds to secure payment to enter the U.S. together, and only have enough for one person. Indeed, Leo’s assertion to make himself the suitable party to leave for America, since, obviously, he’s the breadwinner, which underlines a glaring coarseness in Leo’s character, utterly determined to get what he wants, by any means necessary. The novel doesn’t quite elaborate the details of this assertion, though it wouldn’t be farfetched to assume that he was devious in bending his wife’s protests to submission, both mentally and physically, to secure his trip across the Pacific.
As expected, Leo’s arrival in America creates a rift between the couple. He widens that gulf by ignoring his wife’s letters from China, begging for money, desperate for food, trying to raise their child alone. Eventually, Leo’s wife dies of poverty, hunger, and bitterness, though her craving for vengeance against Leo lives on through their only child, a daughter named Olan. Olan inherits her mother’s “desire: to ruin her father, to make sure he would not live, to still that endlessly healthy blood,” his wife’s euphemism for Leo’s excess physical vitality, full of life, full of himself, and categorically selfish if he needs to be. Olan arrives in America as an adult via Singapore with a singular, sinister plan. She knows where her father lives in the Midwest with his second wife, Winnine, and their three grown sons. Olan ends up working for Leo’s restaurant. In the first half of the novel, Chang wants her readers to know that Olan’s knowledge of the English language is minimal, making her lurk in the background like a character without import and consequence. This fake language barrier enables Olan to distance herself from the rest of the Chao family, to create an impression she doesn’t understand English well; this allows her to be a diligent listener, and spy on the whereabouts of her father’s second family. Now even though Olan appears to exist on the fringes of the novel, she is, nevertheless, a large figure, the one who secures the frame of the story with the weight of family history breathing on the ghosts of her father’s past in China. In fact, she is the connective tissue that holds the novel together, and, more so, the mysterious elephant in the room readers will likely ignore as a minor character, or an amusing grace note in a family drama infused with orchestrated, individual passions.
But without a doubt, Leo drives the momentum of the novel, propelled by a personal belief about the promise of America as a place to colonize, own, and “break ... land” with a pioneering spirit. Leo’s success story as a businessman starts at a gambling table, where his wits work to his advantage, once again, to secure the means to start a restaurant, as though luck is truly on his side, since this is the first time he wins a poker game. Over the years, Fine Chao Restaurant becomes an institution in the Chinese-American community of Haven, Wisconsin, the town’s destination for authentic Chinese food, especially for new arrivals from China.
On the other hand, the Chao brothers (Dagou, Ming, and James) hold the spirit of the novel, wherein Chang considers the longings of second-generation immigrants in one Chinese-American family, their sense of loyalty to their parents, their culture, and the extent in which they internalize the need to replicate their parents’ modest achievement, or maneuver their own aspirations far beyond their parents’ level of prosperity, made possible by dedication, luck, and certain allowances in the stratified social milieu unique to the United States. Of the three brothers, James appears to be the most inert, and slightly dull. His personality is a kind of doldrum compared to other members of the Chao family, who are emotionally expressive, ready to rock the boat, if necessary, to uphold the pulse of personal convictions; in a conversation with his father, James tells him: “I’m not ambitious like Ming,” ... I don’t want to be super rich or buy expensive real estate. I’m not ambitious like Dagou, either. I don’t need to be as creative as he is, or to make people happy.”
James’ sedate temperament offers an illuminating contrast to the kind of “inner chaos” everyone appears to be going through in his family, especially Dagou, the eldest son, the one who most resembles their father, both physically and mentally. That’s why it’s easy to eliminate James as a suspect of murdering his own father. Yes, Chang has embedded a murder mystery out of an immigrant story, wherein the spirit of punishment courses through the plot like a spy, making the death of Leo look like an accident, and not the terminus of a calculated strategy, generated by rage and revenge. And so, I invite the sleuth in you to investigate Chang’s deftly plotted whodunit that, like her other novels and stories, also meditate on matters immigrant families live and die for.