Jade Snow Wong 1922–
With the release in 1950 of her autobiography, Fifth Chinese Daughter, Wong became one of the first Chinese-American women ever to be published. When her book first appeared, Wong was praised for her candid descriptions of the problems she faced growing up between Chinese and American cultures. Her parents were Chinese immigrants who raised her in strict accordance with their own upbringing, yet she experienced constant pressure to assimilate and deny her heritage. Eventually she learned that "my background as a Chinese was my particular asset, a point of distinction not to be rejected." Her resolution of the conflict between her need for her family's culture and her desire to be accepted as an American forms the core of the book. More recently she has been criticized for her reluctance to blame racist attitudes and policies for some of the hardship she and her family endured, a defense which she rejected as "false comfort … to excuse personal failure." However, her importance as a groundbreaker for Chinese-American writers cannot be denied. Although Fifth Chinese Daughter achieved popular success and was translated into several languages, Wong's primary occupation has been as a potter. She has published only one other book, No Chinese Stranger, a volume of memoirs covering the second twenty-five years of her life.
[Fifth Chinese Daughter] is like one of those enticing oriental sets of boxes, one inside the other. There is more to it than its gravely simple and humorous anecdotal story of Mr. Wong's fifth daughter…. Inside its autobiographical form, told in the third person as is the Chinese custom,… it is full of provocative comparisons of cultures, and testimony on changes-in-progress, on conflicts between East and West, men and women, on education, art and industry, and for good measure, cooking! It is very seldom that so much sheer entertainment, unforced exotic scene, and cast of memorable characters, comes in a single book; or that any book on its last page invites at once to re-reading, and a wish for conversation with the author.
It is a family story of how a young Chinese with his wife and children settled in San Francisco, bringing across the Pacific the manners and disciplines of an old civilization….
The narrative follows every step of Fifth Daughter's education, at home, in the American school, under Father's tutelage in history and calligraphy, in Chinese night school. Grandmother's lessons on growing plants and people are among the most illuminating passages in the book. Grandmother, transplanting the best of the plants would say: "We will discard the weak ones, just as in life those who do not try are left behind."…
As the suspense in the story mounts, and the reader shares with...
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Writing an autobiography at the age of 27 is a rather amazing thing to do. Jade Snow Wong's ["Fifth Chinese Daughter"], though, is not so much the story of her life as it is a story about San Francisco's Chinatown. Because she writes about herself in the third person …, she achieves a nice impartiality about her very unusual environment.
Miss Wong was raised in strict Oriental tradition, with unquestioning obedience to her father and no individual rights to speak of at all….
The world outside Chinatown was a curious thing to Miss Wong. Her gradual acquaintance with the Occidentals and their customs and her reactions to them make wonderful reading. Rather than choose between two modes of living, she tried to find a middle ground.
Owing to the objectivity of the writing, one is inclined to judge Miss Wong's book more as a novel than an autobiography. She writes very well, and her writing exudes the delicate femininity only the Asiatic women possess.
Joyce Geary, "A Chinese Girl's World," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1950 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 29, 1950, p. 27.
[Fifth Chinese Daughter] is a study of the conflict in the lives of Chinatown's younger generation—a conflict between the weight of Chinese tradition and the freedom of American ways. In deference to Chinese literary usages, the story is told in the third person which, in English, unfortunately makes it seem self-conscious. Jade Snow must be a fine and serious young woman, but the imagination which must be present in her pottery is not discernible in her writing. Nor does humor seem to be part of her Cantonese heritage.
E. V. R. Wyatt, "Books: 'Fifth Chinese Daughter'," in Commonweal (copyright © 1950 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), Vol. LIII, No. 7, November 24, 1950, p. 182.
The substance of Fifth Chinese Daughter is concerned with the conflicts and subsequent drama of the collision of worlds within the Chinese-American girl. At first, in the excitement of having discovered the new world, she tried to change the old ways of her family, but her efforts were unappreciated. This discovery becomes the turning point in the life of any member of the second generation as he asks, "Am I of my father's race or am I an American?" Since the familiar pattern has been made part of his emotional fiber, his heart may ache with the decision. Everyone is liable to make mistakes before he finds his own right answer. To what degree should he reject the old to make room for the new? In other words, it is not easy to find yourself even in this country of multiple opportunities. (p. 442)
The book I wrote not only emphasizes the specific and philosophic differences between the old world and the new. It tries also to tell that the greatest values are the same in both worlds. Honor, courage, honesty, uncompromise in the face of personal conviction, service to fellow man—these do not differ.
My story was written during many hours when I unhappily asked myself why I ever chose to write it. Of course, I knew that the English-reading public had rarely had a clear picture of Chinese-American family life as a Chinese saw it. Other writers had been neither conscientious nor accurate in their various concepts of San Francisco Chinatown as a wicked, dangerous place, or in their classification of the Chinese as characters of evil or...
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[Fifth Chinese Daughter] is an enchanting record of Chinese customs and celebrations as well as the gradually unfolding talents of young Jade…. Her happy adjustment to the dual demands of her Chinese-American life makes this an unusually significant book. (p. 228)
May Hill Arbuthnot, "Transitions from Juvenile to Adult Reading," in her Children's Reading in the Home (copyright © 1969 by Scott, Foresman and Company; reprinted by permission), Scott, Foresman, 1969, pp. 211-41.∗
Fifth Chinese Daughter—still in print after 25 years—was a deceptively simple memoir of childhood and adolescence in San Francisco's Chinatown during the '30's and '40's. The sequel [No Chinese Stranger], which takes Jade Snow Wong and her husband through four children, a satisfying joint career and extensive travels, shows only intermittent flashes of the old charm. The first part is narrated like Fifth Chinese Daughter in the third person; the death of Jade Snow's father effects a clear psychological break indicated by a switch to the first person. What follows is somehow incomplete and unassimilated: family activities, changes in the Chinese-American community and a visit to the People's Republic arouse moments of remarkable perception but also long stretches of undigested events. Jade Snow herself is somehow lost in the shuffle—we see odd and not altogether attractive fragments that never coalesce into a whole person. The China trip is especially unsatisfying. It is treated as a reverent homecoming, yet the main approach is that of tourists—as concerned with the vagaries of hotel accommodations or the quality of Chinese champagne as with Jade Snow's response to the new accomplishments of her ancestral land…. One comes away from the book not quite sure what sort of person Fifth Daughter grew up to be. Her most attractive self is still the filial: the portraits of her parents are the most solid and the most moving part of this chronicle—touchstones of stability in a curiously over-crowded, uncentered field of vision.
"Non-fiction: 'No Chinese Stranger'," in Kirkus Reviews (copyright © 1975 The Kirkus Service, Inc.), Vol. XLIII, No. 8, April 15, 1975, p. 507.
[Jade Snow's] varied interests stimulate some fascinating insights about people and things Oriental [in No Chinese Stranger]—on the unexpected artistry of hotel tea trays and potted plants, for example, or on the delectable cuisines or impressive old palaces, or on confidence and vigor she found in many Chinese today. Running through the narrative is Jade Snow's growing awareness of her identity as a Chinese-American, achieving a sort of balance within her dual heritage. The lively, forthright prose makes for delightful reading. (p. 1212)
Elizabeth A. Teo, "Book Reviews: 'No Chinese Stranger'," in Library Journal (reprinted from Library Journal, June 15,...
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