Amy Tan was born in San Francisco soon after her parents emigrated from Communist China. A few years ago she joined a Writers’ Circle, which told her, as Writers’ Circles always do, to write what she had seen herself. She wrote about what she had seen herself and what she hadn’t – her own experience and her mother’s. She produced a long, complex and seductive narrative, The Joy Luck Club, which was one of the best sellers of 1989. The Joy Luck Club itself is a group of young wives, stuck in Kweilin during the Japanese invasion, who keep up their spirits by playing mah jong with paper money which has become worthless. All four of them escape to California, and one of them, as an old woman, wants to tell her Americanised daughter, who has ‘swallowed more Coca Colas than sorrows’, what happened to them, then and afterwards. But the story at best will be no more than a fragment of the whole memory – like a single feather from a swan that has flown.
In The Kitchen God’s Wife Amy Tan returns to more or less the same material, seen in a more comic but at the same time a sadder light. The Kitchen God, surely one of the most irritating minor deities ever conceived, was once a rich farmer called Zhang, with a kind and patient wife. But he chased her out of the house, spent all his substance on another woman and reduced himself to beggary. Nearly at death’s door, he was carried into the kitchen of a charitable lady who took pity on the unfortunate. Ay-ya! The lady was none other than his wife! Ashamed, Zhang tried to hide in the fireplace, and was burned to ashes. But when he reached the other world, the Jade Emperor rewarded him, because he had admitted his fault, by making him the Kitchen God and entrusting him with the task of watching over human behaviour and deciding who deserved good luck, who bad. He must always be placated, therefore, with gifts of cigarettes, tea and whisky.
No problem in buying a porcelain image of Zhang at any good China Trading Company. It is impossible, of course, to get a statue of his wife. She is not an Immortal, although she tried with her tears to put out the fire that burned Zhang. Time and history may bring her into her own, though if she were to be translated, she would be the goddess, not of independence, but of consolation and compassion.
As a writer, and a second-generation immigrant, Amy Tan wants to provide a fair hearing for the past, the present and the future. The novel is told from the viewpoint of Winnie Louie, formerly Jyang Weili. At the beginning and end we hear the voice of her daughter, Pearl. Winnie’s oldest friend, Helen – once Hulan – who followed Winnie to America, has decided (quite mistakenly) that she must soon leave this world, and in order to free herself from the burden of lies, proposes to tell everyone the never-referred-to story of their earlier life. Fear and embarrassment drive Winnie to do the telling herself. ‘I will call Pearl long, long distance. Cost doesn’t matter, I will say … And then I will start to tell her, not what happened, but why it happened, how it could not be any other way.’
It could not be any other way, not only because of human weakness and ‘the mistakes that are mine’, but because of the universal rule of luck. Chance determines your birth, luck decides your life, although it can be deflected at any moment by an unhappy word. ‘According to my mother, nothing is an accident’ thinks Pearl. ‘She’s like a Chinese version of Freud or worse.’ Winnie’s luck has been bad. Her mother deserted her father and she was brought up on an island upriver from Shanghai by an uncle and his two wives, Old Aunt and New Aunt. She is married off to Wen Fu, a brute for whom no excuses are made. ‘He would roll me over, unbend my arm, unbend my legs as if I were a folding chair.’ It is a feudal marriage and her in-laws measure her worth by her husband’s belch. In 1937, when the Japanese invade, Wen Fu begins training as a pilot in Hanchow with the three hundred strong Chinese Air Force. But his unit, with their wives, have to retreat across the mountains, first to Chungking, then to Kunming. In 1949 Winnie makes her way to Shanghai, only five days before the Communist flags go up over the city. Her little son dies of a rat-borne plague, she is arrested for deserting her husband, and after a year in jail begins the painful process of bribing her way out of China. At the last moment, Wen Fu turns up, rapes her and threatens to tear up her visa. But the Luck Dispensers cause her old friend Helen to come into the room at that moment, and between them they are able to down Wen Fu.
Evidently this could make, and does make, a long, large, engrossing, colourful, comforting, first-and-second-generation saga – comforting because Winnie marries a Baptist minister and later opens the Ding Ho flower shop in San Francisco. You expect, and get, heroic mothers, bewildered sons-in-law, bizarre relations, crowded weddings, open-casket funerals where the generations join battle, and a confusion of cultures – what to keep, what to throw away. When Helen turns out her purse she finds two short candles, her American naturalisation papers in a plastic case, her old Chinese passport, one small motel soap, knee-high nylons, ‘her pochai stomach pills, her potion for coughs, her tiger-bone pads for aches, her good-luck Goddess of Mercy charm if her other remedies do not work’. Corresponding to this mix-up are the beguiling variations of spoken English. (Timothy Mo has said that his Hong Kong novel, An Insular Possession, is essentially about language.) Amy Tan indicates particularly well the differences between Chinese speaking Chinese to each other, Chinese speaking fluent American and broken Chinese and Chinese speaking a version of the ‘funny English’ which has been the novelist’s standby ever since Defoe created it for Man Friday.
What gives The Kitchen God’s Wife its distinction is the refreshingly sweet-sour and practical attitude of the older generation. Winnie admires her preacher husband, but she feels she ought to have got him to take a different job, because swallowing other people’s troubles has changed his own luck. She herself finds forgiveness difficult. ‘When Jesus suffered, everyone worshipped him. Nobody worshipped me for living with Wen Fu.’ On the subject of Communism, she says she would have joined the Party if it was the best way out of her marriage. ‘If I had had to change the whole world to change my own life, I would have done that.’ Helen is her friend, but they tell each other lies and exasperate each other. It’s true that Pearl perceives that the lies are a form of loyalty, ‘a devotion beyond anything that ever can be spoken, anything that I will ever understand’. But there is no way for Winnie to express it, or even what she feels for her daughter.
In this tale of survival the future should rest with Pearl. She is the traditional carrier-on. But Pearl also has a secret to tell: she is in the early stages of multiple sclerosis. At the end of the book Helen and Winnie are preparing to take her on a visit to China, a journey of memory and forgetting and, they believe, of miraculous healing – all at cut-price through a Chinatown travel agency. But we are not encouraged to think that Pearl will be cured.