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Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Dragon's Child A Story of Devilment on Angel Island

I've often wondered if God forgot to give me the geneaology gene so prevalent in other Mormons. I mean, my mom and her twin sister haunt cemeteries, spend hours on the computer, and pore over musty records just to find the names and dates of our ancestors. For me, that's drudgery. I'm much more interested in the stories behind the names and numbers. Give me a journal or a biography or a historical novel - a story - and I'm in heaven. Laurence Yep, Newberry Honor-winning children's author, seems to agree with me. In the introduction to The Dragon's Child, he says, "Historical fiction is more than a record of dates and statistics: it should be a dialogue with the dead" (ix). This is what intrigues me - the conversations, the experiences, the stories of people long gone.
When Yep's niece presented him with transcripts of interviews taken with his father, he couldn't resist entering his own "dialogue with the dead." The papers recorded an interview conducted when Gim Lew Yep was a 10-year-old boy seeking entrance into the U.S. At that time, many Chinese men immigrated to America to earn money for their families in China. Each time the men travelled between the two countries, they had to pass a test before they were allowed back into the U.S. According to Yep, the immigrants had to answer detailed questions about their families, villages, and neighbors. In the Afterword of The Dragon's Child, he explains:
"To understand just how detailed these records were, try drawing a map of the block on which you live. List all the people in each house and what they do, and also list all their pets. Then record the births, deaths, and marriages of all your immediate family - including uncles and aunts, parents, brothers, sisters, and grandparents - for three generations and describe what the current living relatives do and where they live. Finally, write down how many windows and doors the houses have and in which direction they face. That will give you some idea how much a Chinese immigrant was expected to know" (113-114).
The purpose of these tests was, of course, to prevent Chinese people from settling permanently in America. However racist these exams were, the recovery of the transcripts granted Yep the opportunity to "speak" with his father about his experience coming to America. As a result of this conversation, he created The Dragon's Child, a fictional look at his father's fight to get to the place the Chinese referred to as The Golden Mountain. Yep wrote the book for children (ages 8-12), but it offers valuable insights for us all.


The Dragon's Child revolves around 10-year-old Gim Lew Yep, whose father lives and works in San Francisco. Because of the money Lung Gon sends home, the Yep Family enjoys a wealth virtually unknown in their small Chinese village. As the son of a Guest from The Golden Mountain (the villagers' term for a Chinese person living in the U.S.), Gim Lew's actions are expected to be above reproach. He tries and tries, but just can't make himself use his right hand (left-handedness is considered odd and unlucky) or banish the stutter that overttakes his tongue whenever he gets nervous. Gim Lew's classmates find his frustration hilarious, while his futile attempts at speaking clearly only make his teacher angry.

When Gim Lew's sister fetches him from school one day, she brings news that sets his stutter into quick motion: their father has returned from America. Gim Lew barely knows the man, who has been abroad for most of his life. Because he is wealthier than his neighbors, Lung Gon is a village VIP; Gim Lew feels like "an ant in his great shadow" (10). Even more unnerving is his father's news - when Lung Gon returns to California, Gim Lew will be going with him. Not only does he have to leave his family and his village behind, but he will also have to face the American officials at the detainment center on Angel Island. He will have to hide his stutter well enough to pass their "test." Failure will mean returning to the village in shame.

After months of memorizing the teeniest details of his life, Gim Lew departs with his father. Before he has even left the village, he feels the people he's known all his life distancing themselves. Becoming a "Guest" makes him different, special. But that doesn't stop the fear that overwhelms him every time he thinks about the test he must pass. In Hong Kong, he receives a set of Western clothes, but they only increase his discomfort. As Gim Lew clings to his Eastern childhood even as his father tries to mold him into an American, he begins to experience the identity crisis so common in immigrants. At last, he understands his father's explanation that they are not wholly Chinese or American. "We," he explains, "belong to both countries ... so that makes us something new" (51).

Throughout Gim Lew's incredible journey, he must face his fears as well as some startling truths about the father he barely knows. It's an adventure that strikes fear in his heart, opens his eyes, and brings him to the shores of the gleaming Golden Mountain, where a whole city of new experiences awaits.
Although I've read many immigrant stories, I had never heard of Angel Island before reading The Dragon's Child. It fascinated me to read Yep's tale of hope, opportunity and flagrant prejudice toward another race. Experiencing the grand, frightening adventure through the eyes of a 10-year-old boy makes it a surprisingly unique story. The part I found most interesting about this book was actually not the tale itself, but the Foreward and Afterward which sandwich it. In these sections, Laurence Yep talks about his family, the plight of all Chinese immigrants and the laws which allowed them to be interrogated like criminals. Considering today's controversies over illegal aliens, it makes for very interesting reading.

I doubt younger readers will find the real facts as thought-provoking as I did, especially since the Afterword seems to be written more for adults than kids aged 8 - 12. However, I think young readers will find Gim Lew a sympathetic, interesting character with whom they can relate. His adventures will keep them turning pages to find out what happens next - along the way, they will learn a subtle lesson about racism, acceptance and the importance of family. Yep's writing can be a bit lackluster, but I think the story is unique enough to eclipse anything else. Historical fiction lovers of all ages should find this one engrossing.

Grade: B


  1. My husband and I watched The Chinese American Experience on PBS a few years back and were amazed and shocked to find out about Angel Island. My husband was born and raised in Hong Kong, one of the first in his family to come to the US and found it facinating to find out what it was like for Chinese people imigrating to America so many years ago. Thanks for the review!

  2. I really found this topic interesting, too. Everyone's heard of Ellis Island - I don't know why the happenings at Angel Island aren't more well-known. I'm on the look out for more books about it, so if you find any, let me know.


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