Wednesday, March 28, 2012
Gold Mountain Blues
In 1879, sixteen-year-old Fong Tak-Fat boards a ship to Canada determined to make a life for himself and support his family back home. He will blast rocks for the Pacific Railway, launder linens for his countrymen, and save every penny he makes to reunite his family - because his heart remains in China.
Did Ling Zhang plagiarize the works of Wayson Choy, Sky Lee, Paul Yee, and Denise Chong for Gold Mountain Blues? My answer: no.
The preface kind of sets the reader up to think that maybe the accusations of plagiarism are warranted. Ling Zhang comes off as trying too hard to explain how she came up with the premise for the book. It as if she's trying to convince herself and her readers that she did not plagiarize.
After reading all 519 pages of Gold Mountain Blues, as well as the four books she accused of stealing from, I'm convinced that Gold Mountain Blues is all Ling Zhang. It doesn't hold a candle to Wayson Choy's Jade Peony, Sky Lee's Disappearing Moon Cafe , Paul Yee's Dead Man's Gold, and Denise Chong's The Concubine's Children. They are all vastly superior works of literature.
Gold Mountain Blues chronicles the lives of five generations of Fongs, starting in 1872 with Fong Yuen Cheong and his wife Mrs.Mak. Although from the dominate/primary family in the village of Spur-On in Guangdong Province they are poor. They have no land and Yuen Cheong is barely able to eek out a living as a butcher until one day he comes across a windfall in gold and is able to build a huge compound for his family, buy land... and develop an opium addiction. That opium addiction leads to his family losing their new-found wealth, his premature death, and forces his oldest son, Fong Tak Fat, to seek out a living in Gold Mountain (Canada's West Coast).
A lot of the 'plot pushers' in this epic tale seem poorly thought out.
Yuen Cheong gets gold from a couple of criminals fleeing the law. It's worth so much and the villages are so close together it seem unlikely that these criminal wouldn't go after him in search of their loot. Another example of this poor planning is when Tak Fat gets into an argument with the foremen on the railway who are trying to leave the Chinese work crew stranded on the mountain and he just happen to be carrying around a bottle of horse piss that he can pass off as nitroglycerin - the lethal, fast-acting chemical used to blast through rock. Or how about Tak Fat's wife, Six Fingers. Her parents are so progressive they teach her to read but then abandon her to the care of her older sister's in-laws for fear that because of her six fingers they won't be able to find a husband for her...Seems contrived to deliver Six Fingers to the Fong household as a literate bride who's had a tough life.
The story is told by going back and forth in time and place. It's hard to tell what's occurred already and what hasn't. In one section the reader will learn about one of the main characters' life in 1930 and then in the very next chapter we're back in 1924 and witnessing the story from the prospective of another family member.
And then there are the sections that read like short stories. In the middle of the book there's a feeling of being re-introduced to some of the main characters.
Gold Mountain Blues vs. Dead Man's Gold
In Gold Mountain Blues, Yuen Cheong 'steals' a bag of gold from some criminals on the run. His family's happiness is short lived as he develops an opium addiction that eventually kills him and bankrupts his family. His wife goes blind and is forced to sell their only daughter to a wealthy family in another village. His youngest son drowns during an epileptic seizure and his oldest son in forced to seek out a living in Gold Mountain.
In Dead Man's Gold, two best friends from the same village go off to Gold Mountain in search of gold. One is successful and the other one is not. The unsuccessful one kills his friend, steals his gold and returns to China to spoil his family with his new found wealth. His family ends up suffering; his mother goes deaf, his father becomes paralyzed and his sister's son becomes mute.
Gold Mountain Blues vs. The Jade Peony
In Gold Mountain Blues, Tak Fat develops a life long friendship with his white foreman from the railway, after he saves the foreman's life. The friendship leads to Rick Henderson, the white foreman, employing Tak Fat's youngest son, Kam Ho, as a house boy.
In The Jade Peony, Frank Yuen's father gives Jung-Sum a coat the was gifted to him by a white foreman he worked with on the railway. The coat was meant to express his gratitude to Mr. Yuen for saving his life during their days on the railway.
Gold Mountain Blues vs. The Concubine's Children
In Gold Mountain Blues, Kam Sham takes Cat Eyes, a former child prostitute, as his common-law wife. Although they never legally marry she ends up being the sole breadwinner for his family in Spur-On Village, his father, himself and their daughter, Ying Ling. Cat Eyes earns her living by working as a waitress in a Chinese restaurant.
In The Concubine's Children, May-ying is Sam Chan's concubine. She works as a
Gold Mountain Blues vs. Disappearing Moon Cafe
Gold Mountain Blues chronicles the lives of five generations of Fongs. There is a hint that Six Fingers may have had an extra-martial relationship with Mak Dau, her servant, out of loneliness due to her husband being away in Gold Mountain indefinitely.
Disappearing Moon Cafe tells the story of four generations of Wongs. Chan Fong Mei has an affair with her servant, Wong Ting An.
Of all of the books, Gold Mountain Blues is the only one to feature yeung fan (white people) prominently.
Rick Henderson, the white foreman from Tak Fat's railway days remains a life-long friend. He helps Tak Fat out of many binds and eventually employs Kam Ho as his houseboy. His wife, Phylis, carries on a clandestine affair with Kam Ho and leaves her entire $5,000 estate to Kam Ho. After Phylis' death, Rick confesses that he's gay and attracted to Kam Ho.
Yin Ling is only attracted to white men and tries to distance herself and her daughter, Amy Smith, from the Chinese heritage. The story takes us through a couple of her encounters with these white men.
Coincidentally, there is an elderly white nurse who's married to a Chinese man, who appears in both The Jade Peony and The Concubine's Children. Did Wayson Choy plagiarize from Denise Chong? I think not. I think this debate comes down to the fact that a lot of Canadian-Chinese families have similar stories so it's kind of hard, at this stage in the game, to come up with a story that is completely original.
Gold Mountain Blues is a really long book. It's not bad but I can think of at least three other novels that do a better job of telling the story of Gold Mountain's first Chinese inhabitants.