China Boy is the story of Kai Ting, the American-born son of a refugee Shanghainese family. Ending an odyssey across both friendly and unfriendly terrain, the Ting family finally settles in San Francisco.
China Boy opens with Kai’s retelling of how his family—including his mother, father, and three elder sisters—fled the civil war in China, and how they came to be situated in San Francisco, specifically in the Panhandle, a tough, largely poor neighborhood. It is in this “concrete crucible” that Kai does his growing up.
The almost six-year-old Kai is his mother’s favorite child and only son, and she pins large hopes upon him. Kai’s sisters are all considerably older than he is, and he assumes the natural position of coddled youngest child. His world revolves around his mother, whose passion, charisma, and overabiding sense of family weave for young Kai a protective cocoon. In fact, until he starts school, Kai has little sense of the world outside the Tings’ home. He has even less sense of other children his age and what it will take to cross the boundary between the protection of family and the dangers of a world populated with hostile strangers.
Tragically for Kai, his mother dies. While he could previously rush home from the schoolyard and the streets of the Panhandle to the security of home, Kai is now robbed of the balance from that reality. To compound matters, his father marries Edna McGurk, who steps into her new role of stepmother with reluctance but nevertheless with draconian ideas about how to rear suddenly inherited children. From an almost idyllic existence of Chinese food, ancestral stories, the Shanghainese dialect—or “Songhai”—and the loving, doting presence of Mah-mee, Kai is propelled, within the space of months, into a subsistence that is circumscribed by a relentlessly cruel...
(The entire section is 768 words.)