The Dream of the Red Chamber Book Club
I’m looking out the window of my quarters, the Writer-in-Residence suite, on the second floor of the college residence hall, watching the snow covering lawns and trees and thinking about my childhood home in sunny southern California. My fourth book project is not going so well, and recently I’ve been remembering how it all began.
I was a recent journalism graduate of California State University in 2003, working at the San Gabriel Valley Tribune, but I wanted to be a fiction writer and not a journalist. Fortunately, I didn’t have a student loan to repay, because during my student years I got paid enough from working in my parents’ business and living at home. As a graduation present, my parents had given me a summer creative writing workshop at Iowa State University, which I really enjoyed. But I still needed an income in order to be a writer, so I had been glad to land the newspaper job.
My parents operated a copy and printing shop in Alhambra. They weren’t always shop keepers. My father was an editor of a provincial newspaper in Hubei Province, in China, and my mother was a high school teacher of science. My father was hopeless at dealing with clients, partly because of his limited English and partly because he wasn’t a retail person. He mostly avoided contact with people. On the other hand, my mother had superb personal relations skills. She came from a family of some wealth before the Chinese “liberation”, and she spoke English quite well. They arrived in 1978, shortly after the end of the Cultural Revolution in China. I was born two years later.
I started at the very bottom of a newspaper career on low pay, so I had to watch my expenses. My “beat” was a cluster of towns: Monterrey Park, Alhambra, South Pasadena, San Gabriel, El Monte, Rosemead, in the San Gabriel Valley, in California. These towns were home to many waves of Chinese immigrants to America.
I often went to a restaurant in Monterrey Park called “Eats Street” after a famous Hong Kong street of small restaurants. Mrs. Wong was the proprietor. I’d gone often enough that she knew I worked for a local newspaper. She herself told me that she followed the old Hong Kong tradition of selling her dim sum at half price after 3:00 pm, so I ate late lunches there a lot.
Mrs. Wong and I began to chat casually whenever I came in to eat a mid-afternoon lunch. Early on, she told me a few things about her family—for instance, I learned her husband Charlie ran another restaurant in nearby Pasadena. She knew I was interested in writing, and one day she told me with great enthusiasm that she was going to start a book club. She was excited about the upcoming inaugural meeting. The club was to be for Chinese women she knew from a mahjong club and other social contacts. Most were immigrants like my parents, but one was born in America after her parents arrived—like me. For days she talked about her plan, so the day after the scheduled meeting I made sure I could go to her restaurant because I was curious to hear how it all went. I wanted to write a story, with the graduate seminar still in echoing in my mind.
The First Meeting
At 10 am on Monday, Mrs. Wong gathered her friends at her house. It was a very large bungalow with spacious living and dining rooms, a separate kitchen, and four bedrooms, located near the golf course in San Gabriel. The ladies settled down in the living room, which looked through sliding glass doors to a well-groomed garden.
The first thing on the agenda was to decide how to address one other. In the Chinese way, they figured that since the average age of the five women was 71.2 years, they should address each other as Lao Taitai (Old Wife), which in English translates to “Mrs.” That was agreed quite satisfactorily, until Mrs. Yang objected to being called “missus”. She was a well-known real-estate agent in the area, handling upscale residential properties. “Ms. Yang” was not only her name but her brand. She wished to keep her name, Yang Xiaojie (Little Sister Yang). The four other women were puzzled, until Ms. Yang explained, “When you want to buy an upscale handbag, you don’t say, ‘I want a handbag’. You say, ‘I want a Louis Vuitton.’” A brand takes a long time to cultivate, according to Ms. Yang, and therefore she wanted to be consistent in the use of her name which was also a brand.
The second item, which everybody agreed upon, was to appoint the officials in the club. Mrs. Wong was the Chair. Mrs. Gu was the second chair, in case Mrs. Wong had to be away. Ms. Yang became the PR person, because she had a widely known name. Mrs. Fong became secretary, and Mrs. Li was agreed by all to be treasurer. There were no funds to be managed in this club, and any public relations needs were unknown to any of them, but they liked having a proper slate of officers in the American way.
As for the name of the group, Mrs. Wong looked at Mrs. Gu, a one-time professor of Chinese literature. Mrs. Gu immediately announced that the club would be appropriately named after the eponymous Chinese novel, The Dream of the Red Chamber. The novel was the work of Cao Xuejin set in the late Ming dynasty and written in the mid-18th century. It was written in the contemporary Beijing dialect, and that novel changed the course of Chinese literature.
The suggestion from Mrs. Gu was to begin with this novel, and follow it with three other classical and much-read Chinese novels: The Tale of the Three Kingdoms, The Journey to the West, and The Water Margins. The books are lengthy and take some time to read, so they decided to meet once a month, on the first Monday, at 10 am. They further decided to meet at Mrs. Wong’s house, and she insisted she would supply lunch (surplus from the dim sum at her Eats Street restaurant). As the clock struck twelve, they all went to the dining room, where a round table was set up with dim sum items on a lazy susan. Mrs. Fong had brought a tin of very good green tea, and the five ladies enjoyed a satisfying lunch.
At that time, Mrs. Wong introduced a new ruling: no book club matters would be discussed during the lunch. After all, numerous tales of the five ladies and their 26 children and 32 grandchildren were in the offing. There would be plenty to gossip about.
The Second Meeting
Before the second meeting took place, Mrs. Wong rearranged the furniture and made a more intimate space for the club. She also set a portable white board in front of the fireplace, because she felt that gave an appropriate seriousness and dignity to the meeting. She brought it in from her husband’s restaurant, where business meetings often take place in a private dining room.
Mrs. Wong and her husband Charlie owned two restaurants. Charlie ran the one in Pasadena, called simply ‘Jade’. Its interior was large and sumptuous with carved rosewood tables and chairs, silk hangings, Chinese scroll paintings on the covered walls, large red lanterns, and vermillion and gold colours. The floor had a thick dark carpet. Their daughter, an interior designer, acquired the fixtures, based on extensive research of what American expected a Chinese restaurant to look like. Local elite businesspeople, politicians, and civil servants frequented it. The food was modified Chinese dishes served in the Western style. Charlie had long ago discovered that a dish prepared in front of customers and flambéed with cheap liquor could command a price three times that of the same food served in an ordinary style. He was a third-generation Chinese American, who started with a hole-in-the-wall restaurant and who flourished as he learned what American customers wanted from a Chinese restaurant. He cultivated geniality, a good memory for names and faces, and an air of discretion.
On the other hand, Mrs. Wong managed the Eats Street place, with a large clientele among Chinese Americans, in Monterrey Park, a small city with a large percentage of Chinese. She named her restaurant Sikah, “Eats Street”. It is a barn of a place, with plastic tables and chairs and no decorations on the walls. It offers excellent dim sum and other Cantonese dishes and does a brisk business. Once a tourist asked Mrs. Wong why there was no décor at all in her restaurant. Her reply: “You come here to eat or to look? If look, go to the Norton Simon Museum!”
The second meeting of the Dream of the Red Chamber Book Club began with Mrs. Fong reading the minutes of the previous meeting. Mrs. Fong’s late husband was a professor of economics in California State University, Los Angeles. Mrs. Fong herself was a substitute teacher for years in high schools in math and science. A widow, she had recently moved into a small apartment, helped by her three adult daughters.
She arrived late at the second meeting, breathless and anxious with urgent news. She wanted to tell the members of the group that her second daughter, an MBA graduate from Stanford University working in a big management company, had told her something she needed to pass on. Even before she read the minutes, she blurted out that in a conversation with her second daughter, she had mentioned the newly formed book club, with pride. Her daughter immediately asked what the group’s mission statement was. Mrs. Fong was quite confused and flustered by this odd, unknown thing.
Although nobody in the club knew what a mission statement was, they all felt a comment coming from a Stanford MBA was not to be dismissed lightly. Then Ms. Yang said, “It’s for the PR. We have to have a Mission Statement.”
Then again, there were a lot of things the old ladies did not understand in America. Children running around without any manners or discipline was an example or having to put your hand to your heart when the national anthem was played. They put such mysteries down to God’s will, or the Constitution.
Mrs. Gu suggested they write a mission statement in Chinese and then translate it into English for the record. If someone asked the meaning of the statement, Mrs. Gu hinted, they could always claim it had been lost or altered in translation.
“The Club, hereafter referred to as The Dream of the Red Chamber Book Club, has no issue with either worldly or unworldly concerns. It focuses on the study of Chinese literature, both in English and in Chinese.”
The five ladies had spent a good deal of time coming to this Mission Statement. Various discussions had taken place. For instance, the word “unworldly” was suggested by Mrs. Li, the treasurer. She said it was because she did not want the mission statement to offend some unknown spirit.
“What ‘unknown spirit’?” asked Ms. Yang. Mrs. Li responded, “You know…ghosts, fox spirits, kitchen gods, and so on.”
Ms. Yang said, “There’s no kitchen god in a modern American kitchen!”
“That’s why they always overcook the chicken,” Mrs. Li replied.
After much more discussion, the Mission Statement was approved.
The clock struck twelve, whereupon they all proceeded to the dining room. They were proud of their Mission Statement and seemed not to mind the fact they hadn’t discussed the Dream of the Red Chamber at all.
The Third Meeting
The Sunday before the third meeting of the book club, Mrs. Gu had a ritual to perform: visiting her son, his wife and children in their gated community mansion. Mrs. Gu really enjoyed driving. When she first arrived in America, her son—who had come earlier to attend university and had stayed—bought her a small car and provided her with driving lessons. At first she hesitated, but then after a few lessons she discovered she loved the car and loved driving it. For the first time in her life, she had the feeling of being in control. She loved the steering wheel, gas pedal, gear shift. Sometimes she drove into the mountains, avoiding the freeways. But she always dreaded having to drive to visit her son. Fortunately, on this Sunday her son, a hedge fund manager, was away attending a money conference in San Francisco.
Her son’s wife, called Agatha, was from a wealthy east coast American family. She was a lawyer, a graduate of Harvard. More specifically, she was a human rights lawyer—defender of the poor and immigrants. She had a storefront law office in East L.A. where the underclasses congregate. The office was small with a front room and a back room and had parking behind it. The back room was her private space, where she changed her Ralph Lauren into K-Mart, her Louis Vuitton bag to a tote, and her Jimmy Choos into sneakers. She hopped into a 10-year-old Volvo station wagon to go to court.
Mrs. Gu passed the gate, giving the guard her name and the home she was visiting. He looked disdainfully at her beloved Suzuki. She made her way to the parking in front of her son’s mansion.
Once inside, she was led to an uncomfortable stool in a sun-drenched, modern kitchen with everything concealed behind doors. Agatha was preparing some foreign dish with an unpronounceable name. Mrs. Gu felt uncomfortable. For years she had been watching films and TV in order to absorb how to be an American grandmother. Somehow, it didn’t work very well for her. She never could bring herself to perform hugging rituals comfortably. Now she felt it was not quite suitable to be on her stool. The outspoken children seemed to view her as an exotic bird, somewhat slow-witted and needing instruction from them, and they sometimes embarrassed her. Today they seemed to be running excitedly in and out of the kitchen. Meanwhile, Agatha had immersed her gloved hands in an acrylic salad bowl and was tossing exotic leaves. Mrs. Gu loathed raw vegetables and had already prepared an excuse to leave before dinner.
“How is your book club going?” asked Agatha casually.
“Oh, very well,” Mrs. Gu replied. “We get along well. We recently adopted a Mission Statement. We wrote it in Chinese first and translated it into English, which went into the record.”
“Your club is all Chinese women, right?” Agatha asked.
“Yes,” Mrs. Gu answered, thinking of pride about having a chance to mention the Mission Statement. She was glad to be able to show her American behaviour.
Her ten-year-old granddaughter suddenly piped up: “Isn’t your club sexist AND racist? It’s all Chinese and all old women.” Agatha turned away to hide her smile. She was proud her daughter had picked up her talk about those issues, however misapplied. Mrs. Gu, however, found this to be zong yan—weighty words. In fact, Mrs. Gu was shocked and troubled. She soon returned to her beloved Suzuki.
At her small apartment once more, Mrs. Gu felt a bit calmer. In her closet, behind the sliding doors, on the third shelf at eye-level, she had installed an old, yellowed photograph of her husband taken in a studio 40 years earlier, in a Mao jacket, looking up as if toward a promising future in China. On the 4th of June, a fatal day, her husband was run over by a tank in Tiananmen Square. She had seen something like the widow’s installation on her closet shelf in a Japanese film. She subsequently felt she needed more items on the shelf. In a $2 store she found a plastic bonzai pine tree, which looked good on the shelf. In order to balance the aesthetics, she also put a fresh orange on the shelf. Frequently she opened the closet, faced the shrine, and had conversations with her husband. She sought comfort from a chat that evening, and after some quick noodles, she went to bed. Sleep was difficult. The accusation of her granddaughter bothered her a great deal.
The next day, she arrived at Mrs. Wong’s home half an hour before the meeting time. She told Mrs. Wong about the charge levelled against the book club, and subsequently, when Mrs. Wong said they would share it with all the club members, she felt better.
After the minutes were read, Mrs. Wong carefully introduced the subject of the accusation. She mentioned the Harvard lawyer, which added weight. All the members expressed shock, indignation, and dismay. None had ever been accused of racism before. They weren’t quite so sure, however, whether Americans might view their traditional, apparent submission to husbands, as sexism.
Everyone began talking at once. First, they expressed denial. “I’ve never been racist!” Mrs. Wong declared. “I’ve never been accused of sexism in my restaurant, either!” Everybody affirmed that.
Mrs. Wong continued, “It isn’t that any club member is being accused, it’s the club that is in the wrong.” The members liked that distinction.
Ms. Yang pointed out, “It’s not how you are, it’s how people perceive how you are. If the word gets around you are sexist or racist, then people think you are.”
Mrs. Li, added: “Old Heaven! My granddaughter is an influenza, and she has 300 followers! If she tells her followers her grandmother is sexist and racist, then we are boiled!” Ms. Yang chimed in, “No, she’s not a virus; she’s an influencer.” Mrs. Li cast her a disparaging look.
Mrs. Li continued: “In my lifetime, I’ve been called everything. But not sexist or racist! Once I was even called a husband-killer.” Silence, as all four pairs of eyes looked at her intently. Big question-marks hung in the living room. Mrs. Li was happy to explain.
“A long time ago my husband was flirting with my best friend, and I was so angry. At night I waited until he was asleep, then got up and went to the kitchen and grabbed something to put at his throat. He woke up and was frightened.”
“Did you kill him?” Mrs. Fong asked?
“How could I? I used a spatula!” They all laughed.
Mrs. Li went on, “My husband was frightened at first, but then he started laughing. He thought it was a big joke. He told all his friends, and that’s how I got the name ‘Husband Killer.’”
As they calmed down, they began looking at each other for a sign of any idea about what to do. Mrs. Wong, who had been thinking, spoke. “What we need is to invite a white male member to join the club.” She rose and went to the whiteboard, where she wrote “Male. White. American.”
Mrs. Li asked, “How do we know who is male and who is white?” The other women looked at her in puzzlement. “What do you mean? Isn’t it obvious who is male?” Mrs. Fong asked.
“Don’t people sometimes change in America?” asked Mrs. Li.
“Don’t complicate the issue!” Mrs. Wong replied. “We’ll just look at their driver’s license!” Everyone nodded in agreement.
Mrs. Gu slowly spoke, “How do we know who is white in America? How white is white?”
Mrs. Li said, “My grocer is Lebanese, but I don’t think he’s white.”
Ms. Yang offered, “My hairdresser is from Colombia. Some people don’t think he’s white.”
This went on for some time, as they found “white” was hard to define. Finally, Mrs. Fong offered a solution. She had been educated from kindergarten to university in the United States, and sincerely believed that American wisdom had two giant pillars: “Common sense” and “Face the facts.” She had learned in the 1970s and 1980s that the standard by which to measure whiteness was WASP. Mrs. Wong wrote it on the blackboard:
W – white
A - Anglo
S – Saxon
P – protestant
The ladies responded with sounds of relief. This seemed authoritative, a standard that white people used. Now they could go forward. Some of them weren’t sure about anglo or saxon. Those words sounded somewhat English to those who had lived in Hong Kong. The term “protestant” was familiar to Ms. Yang, who had had a Catholic education. It was she who offered the next step.
“I have a perfect candidate,” she said. “A year ago, I sold a large house owned by a couple. It had been his father’s house. He was a priest in the protestant Episcopal Church. His wife is a genealogist. We became quite close friends. She told me her grandfather was a missionary in Shanghai and her father was born in China.”
The women murmured their approval.
“She traced her husband’s ancestry back to the pilgrims’ arrival in America,” Ms. Yang explained. “He is a descendant of Anglo-Saxon stock. It’s a perfect fit!” She beamed around the room.
Everyone was pleased with the ‘perfect fit’. The issue was settled, until Mrs. Fong, applying her two pillars of American wisdom—common sense and facing the facts—offered her opinion about this solution. She asked rhetorically, “Why would an elderly clergyman, very busy with his church and congregation, spend a great part of a Monday each month joining five elderly Chinese-American women to discuss an ancient Chinese novel?”
Their smiles of satisfaction faded, as they took in her words. “Ayia! Lao tian! [old heaven]” One by one they nodded.
Mrs. Gu added, “And, would he eat our Chinese lunch?” They laughed and groaned at the same time.
“He’s not going to like it,” Mrs. Li said firmly. The room fell silent.
Mrs. Gu said, “He probably would use every excuse under the sun to refuse politely to join.”
Mrs. Fong now came to the rescue. She loved to start sentences with, “My late husband the professor…” Now she added, “…from time to time I would have to help him get into his academic gown, black with gold piping and a hood. One time when I asked him, ‘What is the occasion?’ he explained how he and his colleagues all paraded onto the stage and the university president offered someone an honorary degree. We could make this WASP an honourable member. He wouldn’t have to come to any meetings.” The women looked at each other nodding.
Mrs. Li quickly supplied, “I could design a certificate, with red and gold and a wax seal, signed by all the members, both in Chinese and English.”
Mrs. Fong enthusiastically offered, “A small ceremony to go with the presentation of the certificate would be most appropriate.’”
She continued, “His name can be listed in a membership book.” All the members thought this was an excellent solution.
Mrs. Wong spoke: “This small ceremony could be held at Jade.” They all agreed with cries of, “Oh yes!” and “That food will be appropriate!” and “In a private dining room!”
Ms. Yang interjected, “We just recently have been accused of being sexist, and we are now offering only a man this honourable membership. I propose we could also offer honourable membership to his wife, my friend Jenny. Equal.” Everybody thought this was correct and appropriate.
Mrs. Wong, the Chair, stood and summarised their decisions, assigning tasks to the other members. “Ms. Yang, you will approach the priest and your friend Jenny and inform them of the forthcoming award lunch. Mrs. Li, you will design the certificates and have them printed, and Mrs. Gu will assist you with the writing of the text. Mrs. Fong can plan the ceremony and an additional gift. I will order the menu.”
They all enthusiastically endorsed this perfect solution to a tricky crisis. They adjourned for lunch.
On the way to the dining room, Mrs. Wong quietly whispered to Mrs. Gu, “Finally we can get down to reading the Dream of the Red Chamber.”
I know about this meeting, because I heard about it—and about much more—from Mrs. Wong, and subsequently, from the other members. Fortunately for me, I continued to have late lunches at her restaurant, Eats Street, and she happened to be the extroverted type who loves to tell a listener in minute detail about what she has experienced. I was the lucky listener. As Mrs. Wong talked, I realised I had some connections with several of these women.
Mrs. Gu and I shared a common interest in Chinese literature. We both were delighted to have someone to talk to about it. She even told me her secret about talking to her late husband in her closet shrine, and about her Harvard lawyer daughter-in-law. But that was much later. Mrs. Li and her husband were known to my parents, because sometimes they received small printing jobs from the Lis, and sometimes my parents could recommend customers who wanted larger print orders to Mr. Li and his wife. And I knew Professor Fong from my student days, although I didn’t have a lot to do with him.
I became very intrigued by the women in the club and how they were negotiating American life and culture. My curiosity drove me to collect much more information, and I talked with many of their family members at that time. All that research, the interviews along with the reading I did, went into my first book, which I published about 15 years ago. It had a few flattering reviews and sold surprisingly well. I’m very grateful to those five Chinese women whose stories were the gold I was able to spin into print. We are still friends, and I am bound to them by many threads. I learned more from them than I ever could have expected.