Thursday, 7 February 2019

Chinatown Girl

Chinatown Girl
The Diary of Silvey Chan, Auckland 1942
Eva Wong Ng
Scholastic, 200 pages, paperback, NZ$18
ISBN 978 1 77543 577 8 

 Reviewed by Trevor Agnew

Surprisingly, the best account of NZBC (New Zealand Born Chinese) children adjusting to life within their two cultures is a work of fiction. Chinatown Girl (2005) by Eva Wong Ng has just been released in its second (2019) edition with an eye-catching cover. It is rare for young adult novels to be re-issued but Chinatown Girl has captured readers of all ages as it introduces them to life in war-time central Auckland, as seen through the eyes of Chan Ngun Bo, known to all as Silvey Chan. The oldest reader I know of is in his nineties and he declared that it brought back all his memories of Auckland’s Chinatown in the 1940s.

Silvey is an ordinary twelve-year-old Auckland girl. She has just been inspired by Anne of Green Gables to start keeping a diary. Her first entry is 1st January 1942  and the first words are ‘Anyone reading this without permission risks blindness or worse: YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!!’

Silvey is part of a tightly-knit Chinese community. As she works on her family history project for school, Silvey, who was born in New Zealand, learns about life in China, and why her family members came to New Zealand. Meanwhile events around the world have their effect, with the fall of Singapore and the arrival of American troops.
The diary is rich in tiny historical details, such as the tricks the schoolchildren play on their teacher on April Fool’s day, or Silvey watching Ah Yeh (her paternal grandfather) rolling his own cigarettes from a tin of Silver Fern.

Chinatown Girl is also a great introduction to city life in the 1940s, with Lofty Blomfield, five shilling postal notes, sugar rationing, and air raid rehearsals. The bag is to hold a cork to put between our teeth, and cotton wool to stuff in our ears to stop us going deaf if a bomb explodes. Modern readers will find school life in the 1940s a very strange world, while Silvey also has to cope with Chinese School at least twice a week.
In the same way that she attends two schools, Silvey is aware of the two ways of looking at events and people: the way of China and the way of Sun Gum Sarn (New Gold Mountain: New Zealand). She emerges as a lively, intelligent observer, able to cope comfortably in both cultures.
The diary’s emphasis is domestic but there are small excitements (Silvey’s accident with a fish hook) and more dramatic moments (a burglary followed by an identity parade) to make Silvey’s account of daily life at 45 Greys Avenue into a real page-turner. The official celebration of Double-Ten (October the 10th) 1942 by the New Zealand Government is an important event for the Chinese in New Zealand. Silvey’s parents make it clear to her that Prime Minister Peter Fraser’s announcement is a turning-point in NZ Chinese history Nevertheless when she attends the Chinese National Day Banquet she still notes that we…listened to lots of boring speeches.’

Readers of all ages will find much to delight them. For example Sylvie’s mother represents the older generation’s determination to eventually return to China. Thus she insists on showing Sylvie how to kill hens - because she will need to do it in China. 

Despite the shortages and fears of wartime, this is a delightfully readable account offering many insights into two cultures.

NOTE: Teachers will find useful background material in the school bulletin compiled by Eva Ng and Jane Thomson. Amongst Ghosts: Memories and Thoughts of a New Zealand-Chinese Family, (Learning Media, Wellington, 1992, ISBN 0 478 05523 4), which includes an account of the lives of Eva’s parents.

Trevor Agnew
8 February 2019

Below is the original
2005 cover of the first 
edition of Chinatown Girl:

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