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The Chinese Knot

and other stories

Lien Chao
Spacing Magazine
In her introduction to these eight stories about Chinese-Canadian women living in Toronto, Lien Chao calls herself a kind of urban photographer, roaming the city's physical and human geographies in search of a telling snapshot. Chao finds her inspiration in the experiences of women she's met, and through their stories of unlikely friendship, immigration aftershock, and splintered identity. These tales unfold and shift frequently in time and space, moving forward and back to detail moments of decision, crisis, and clarity. Chao tells these women's lives like hymns sung to the multicultural city, which, though not without its trials, emerges as a space of hope and acceptance in a treacherous world.

Chao is at her best when unravelling images playful and poignant: a middle-aged woman hangs motionless from monkey bars; a well-loved cactus comes to stand in for an absent friend. Often her small-scale plots are enlivened with revelations of secret love, reversals of fortune, or improbable triumphs. Not all is well in the Toronto of Chao's heroines, who must stand witness to racial slurs in "Under the Monkey Bars," or intolerance for single mothers in "Neighbors." Families are ripped apart and romance is crushed by the rigours of the immigration process and the harsh job market New Canadians face. Since they never seem contrived or filled-out just for effect, these trials ring with respect for and fidelity to her real-life source material, if not in every detail, then in spirit. These are stories full of gratitude and wonder, as compelling as a good friend's tale of love lost or won.

Moments of didacticism or over-exposition do sometimes intrude in Chao's prose, as though because she imagined her audience as a city ignorant of or resistant to certain Chinese customs and perspectives. When Chao allows for some ambiguity in the life lessons of stories like "Rose," "The Cactus," and "The Chinese Knot," both her characters and readers have more room to breathe.

Praise for our multicultural city is common enough, but the truly hones assessment of the work Toronto has done and the work it still has to do towards being fully tolerant and welcoming don't come in self-satisfied sound bites, but instead sound together with full-blooded critiques like Chao's.

---David Ritter
Maple Tree Literary Supplement

In “Under the Monkey Bars,” the first story in Lien Chao’s stunning collection of short fiction, The Chinese Knot and Other Stories, Wei Ming wonders “how to get inside” the “fenced enclosure” (1) of the children’s playground at Monarch Park. Once inside, she subjects her body to a painful yet therapeutic exercise regimen, stretching her muscles, tendons, and ligaments to “work through the pain” (3) of “what the Chinese call ‘fifty-year-old shoulder’” (2). Wei Ming’s story is the perfect introduction to a book about the multiple kinds of stretching Chinese immigrants living in Canada must perform daily; in her collection, Chao’s characters stretch physically, linguistically, culturally, and emotionally as they learn to navigate their new national milieu.

Chao describes her volume as an assemblage of “inner-city snapshots [. . .] based on real-life models” (vii) she encountered in the heterogeneous cultural landscape of Toronto, Ontario. Each of the eight stories focuses on a single female character as she creates for herself a life in an in-between zone of rooting and uprooting, belonging and non-belonging. For all of these women, this zone is at once one of loss and acquisition. In both “Water and Soil” and “The Cactus,” regenerative possibilities of cultural uprooting emerge, paradoxically, in instances of botanical death. Judy, the protagonist of the latter story, learns to appreciate her friend in a new light at the same time that his fifty-year-old cactus “dries up and dies” (102). Shirley, the protagonist of the former piece, feels, for the first time in her life, “completely at one with the ground under her feet” (77), even as she learns that a tree planted at the grave of her beloved former English teacher has not survived its own uprooting. Such moments underscore, certainly, the traumas of migration; yet they also remind us that what is lost in acts of cultural translation cannot be separated from what is simultaneously gained.

Characters in Chao’s Toronto gain new relationships as old ones break down, acquire new experiences as previous ones fade into the past, and form new habits of being while memory fights against a tide of forgetting. This dynamic exchange between multiple vectors of influence means that identities are never fixed, but are instead malleable and open to infinite permutations. After witnessing first-hand her friend’s surprising culinary aptitude, Qing tells Rose, the title character of Chao’s second story, “I thought we would make some exotic Italian food today to amuse you. And now I am showing off in front of an Italian chef!” (20). Even national identities are up for grabs as individuals adopt the cultural traditions of others as their own. Chao is careful, however, not to exaggerate the ease with which such adoptions take place; throughout her stories, characters encounter racism, struggle to adapt to an alien economy, and work to maintain linkages between their present selves and the lives they once lived. Of course, such battles are never fought without attendant rupturing. However, as Chao says in her introduction, such struggles define and contribute to “the tapestry of a better society, more intense in colour and complex in texture” (viii).

Chao’s great triumph in this collection is that her stories are at once simple and resistant to simplification, fragmentary yet never incomplete. Like the society she imagines, her collection benefits from all of its component parts, each of which enriches and enlivens the whole in unique and frequently startling ways. If The Chinese Knot and Other Stories is a book about the experiences of Chinese immigrants living in Canada, it is equally a book about those of us welcoming them. In her celebration of cultural cross-pollination, Chao reminds us of the manifold potentials to living in Canada, and encourages us all to participate in its increasing multiplicity.

Justin Pfefferle

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Lien Chao explores a wide variety of social conundrums—knots of connection and conflict—in her first collection, The Chinese Knot and Other Stories. At times lyrical and somewhat documentary in tone at others, the stories are intricate weavings of personal histories, politics, social relationships and cultural challenges. Chao describes her approach in the introduction to the collection as that of a “mental camera.”

In this short-story collection, Chao has devoted herself to the task of transforming as she transcribes: She has listened to the stories of single Chinese women who had emigrated to Toronto from mainland China, and she has subsequently created fictions that most likely mirror their lives quite closely.

One of the strongest themes running through Chinese Knot is the power of friendship: how deep connections with others allow new perceptions and experiences to develop in the women’s newly adopted country, Canada. In “Under the Monkey Bars,” Wei Ming befriends some children at a playground while encountering racist remarks from a Chinese parent toward black and South Asian children. “Water and Soil” is a poignant tale of grief and loss, balancing feelings of regret with passionate expressions of loyalty as Shirley travels between China and Toronto and between past and present.

Chao displays a wry sense of humour, creating scenarios where women decide to step outside of social norms and expectations, such as by refusing to accept a nice but insipidly boring man in “African Lion Safari,” or by gleefully surrendering to lesbian love in “A Wanton Woman.” The stories are full of heart for women and their immensely rich lives.

Lydia Kwa is the author of The Walking Boy (Key Porter, 2005).

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Now Magazine
Knot ropes you in
Fiction works when it has a unique perspective, and Lien Chao’s slim volume certainly has that.
All these stories are told from the point of view of single Chinese-Canadian women, who make up an intriguing demographic. Many of them came to Canada in the 80s and 90s only to experience painful family conflict – usually ending in divorce – once they got here.
In African Lion Safari, a single mother struggles with feelings of loneliness, to the point that she’s close to accepting a relationship with a man who’s nice but kind of dreary.
In another story, a woman discovers that an old friend in China could be much more.
The title tale, the strongest, is about an English teacher who keeps getting hit up by her students for false documentation so they can stay in Canada. Here Chao uncovers the fascinating culture clash between desperate immigrants and those people comfortable with their landed status.
There is good energy in these stories, and they give insight into experiences that might be new to many readers.

  Susan G Cole

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The Georgia Straight

Find love, face loneliness, and confront death in The Chinese Knot

“If you plant a melon seed, you will harvest melons; but if you plant a thorn, you may have roses, or you may have only thorns,” Rose’s husband chides her after years of separation.

This line from the short story “Rose” evokes the acidic relations between husbands and wives during times of migration and upheaval, a recurring theme in Lien Chao’s new collection The Chinese Knot.

Based on real-life accounts by Chinese immigrants whom Chao has met in Canada, the stories weave together vignettes of their experience in present-day Toronto, redrawing these encounters and building characters who find love, face loneliness, confront death, and deal with racism.

The protagonists are disillusioned females who have spent years struggling to adjust to a new home only to see their marriages dissolve. While Rose’s husband and daughter distance themselves from her after they arrive in Canada, Katherine’s husband, in “African Lion Safari”, walks out on her despite years of hardship together.

In “A Wanton Woman”, Yi Mei and Ai Hua’s disappointment with marriage becomes not only a bonding experience but the source of a romantic relationship between the two women.

The final story in this collection, “The Chinese Knot”, ties all of the book’s themes together and is the most memorable piece of all. Its central character, a teacher and divorced single mother named Luanne Lu, faces a slew of moral dilemmas when her ESL students, out of desperation to stay in Canada, request one by one that she help them cheat the Canadian immigration system.

When Mr. Zhong, her brightest pupil, asks for her hand in marriage for the sole purpose of obtaining citizenship, “Teacher Lu”, as she is affectionately known, comes to an impasse in which she searches for her own reasons to be proudly Canadian and yet dutifully Chinese.

Chao is already an eminent figure in Asian Canadian literary circles, particularly for editing 2003’s Strike the Wok. With The Chinese Knot, she has established herself as an emerging author in her own right.

  Allan Cho

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carp(e) libris

Life as an immigrant is filled with challenges–learning a new language, living in a different culture, being far away from home. The Chinese Knot is a series of short stories by writer Lien Chao, focusing on Chinese immigrants in Canada.  Chao’s own experiences as a Chinese-Canadian in Toronto is one major influence on these stories, although for the most part she based the stories on the experiences of the people within her community.  

The Chinese Knot offers the reader a realistic view of the Chinese immigrant, making it a great resource as either a study guide or a way to find a sympathetic voice for anyone who has ever moved their entire life to new surroundings.  Heartfelt and provocative, it opens the way for discussions on multicultural issues and racial stereotypes.


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Out of the Blue
This collection of short stories focuses on single Chinese women living in Canada as immigrants.

In Under the Monkey Bars, Wei Ming finds alone ina public payground, where she observes the racial prejudices at work between parents and children. In Rose, the main character Rose reflects on what brought her from China to Canada as an immigrant and the strained relatiosnhip with her family afterwards. In African Lion Safari, Katherine reflects on the possibility of spending a lonely life or marrying a Chinese suitor whose food tastes are from a different region. In A Wanton Woman, Yi Mei, after making an impulsive phone call to China discovers her love for "wanton woman" Ai Hua. In Water and Soil, Shirley mulls over her relationship to the Chinese and the Canadian soil. In Neighbours, Sally observes her neighbourhood in Toronto's multiracial environment. In The Cactus, Judy recounts her friendship with Mark and Pierre. In The Chinese Knot, Teacher Lu is an advisor, refuge, and even a prospective bride to her various students.

The female protagonists of these stories are all single women who find themselves in Canada as strangers. They find love, overcome crises, face loneliness, and confront racial stereotypes as they grow in Canada's increasingly multiracial scenario.

I rarely read collections of short stories, but I found this book appealing and interesting. The characters are taken in
significant moments of their lives, in which they must resolve a problem or discover something new about themselves. Author Lien Chao explores their lives as they face prejudice, loneliness or life crises.

I would recommend this book to those who want to know more about Chinese immigrants in Canada, or more in general about the condition of being an immigrant in Canada.


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