The Jade Peony
|Cover artist||Jessica Sullivan|
|Followed by||All That Matters|
The novel features stories told by three siblings, Jook-Liang, Jung-Sum and Sek-Lung or Sekky. Each child tells their own unique story, revealing their personal flaws and differences.
Set in Vancouver's Chinatown, the novel takes place during the 1930s and 1940s and among other events, explores the ways in which the Chinese and majority of Canadians once viewed the Japanese, especially during Japan's occupation of China during the Second World War and in the events following Pearl Harbor.
Other issues dealt with in this novel include the sense of belonging to a nation, and how young children of immigrants felt at this time, trying to find their identity when they were alien residents in Canada, but were not born in the same country as their parents were. They are working to find their identity as Chinese Canadians, and find either embrace being Canadian, or keep the Old China ways alive. This issue becomes especially important in the wake of their grandmother (called Poh-Poh or the Old One)'s death.
|This section requires expansion. (June 2013)|
The Jade Peony is divided into three sections, with a different child of the Chen family narrating his or her experience growing up in Vancouver's Chinatown in the early 1930-40s. Throughout the novel, the children's grandmother and family matriarch, Poh-Poh (the "Old One"), influences them with her own life experience and passes to them their cultural heritage of the "old ways" of China that they must maintain and balance with assimilating into the new world culture. The three children are Jook Liang or "Liang-Liang", followed by Jung Sum, and finally Sek-Lung or "Sekky".
Jook-Liang, Only Sister
The first section is narrated by Jook-Liang, the only sister in the family and the first child born to Father and Stepmother in Canada. She wishes to be a performer like Shirley Temple and forms an unlikely friendship with Wong Bak, an elderly man who is a family friend to the Chens. As the only daughter in the family, Liang struggles against her dreams of fame and escaping the old ways of her family, as well as the old Chinese convention of placing boys before girls. Her story concludes with Wong Bak returning to China to repatriate the remains of Chinese men who died in Canada but had wished to return home to China.
Jung-Sum, Second Brother
Jung-Sum, the second son, narrates the second section of the novel. Adopted into the Chen family after his birth parents die, he is hesitant to accept his new family after enduring neglect and abuse at the hands of his biological parents. However, he finds a sense of belonging with his new family as they welcome him with kind yet subtle gestures. Jung-Sum constantly seeks approval by attempting to prove himself to his family as well as his peers. Furthermore, he struggles with his sexuality and feelings for Frank, an older boy who has lost his parents, in a way that is somewhat similar to Jung-Sum's situation. He and Jung-Sum bond as Frank mentors him through boxing.
Sek-Lung, Third Brother
Sek-Lung, the third son, is the youngest child of the Chen family and the second child born to Father and Stepmother. Because he tended to be sickly, he becomes close to Poh-Poh, who spends most of her time taking care of him. When she passes away, he becomes obsessed with the war games that have emerged with the impending Second World War and finds his world increasingly confusing when his babysitter, Meiying, begins an illicit relationship with a Japanese boy.
- Jook-Liang - Only Sister - Born in Canada. She is the first child born to Father and Stepmother and the only girl in the family. She narrates the first section of the book.
- Jung-Sum - Second Brother - Born in Canada. When his parents died in a town in the interior of British Columbia, he was adopted into the Chen family at the age of four as the second son. He narrates the second section of the book.
- Sek-Lung - Third Brother - Born in Canada, and the last surviving child born to Father and Stepmother. Because he is very sickly, he is not allowed to go to school until the age of 7. This shapes many of his experiences and ideas due to spending more time with Poh-Poh than his older siblings. He narrates the third section of the book.
- Kiam-Kim - First Brother - Born in China. He is the only child by Father's first wife. Kiam is a peripheral character in the book, and his perspective is addressed in All That Matters.
- Poh-Poh - Also known as the Old One, she is the paternal grandmother of Kiam-Kim, Jook-Liang, Jung-Sum, and Sek-Lung. However, she is addressed by the honorific of a maternal grandmother to conceal the circumstances which allowed her, her son, and Kiam-Kim to immigrate to Canada.
- Father - Came to Canada with his mother and young son after the death of his first wife. Helps his uncle run his business.
- Stepmother - Father's second wife, and actually the mother of Jook-Liang and Sek-Lung, but upon Poh-Poh's suggestion that their names be kept simple in Canada, she is referred to by all as Stepmother. Her given name, as revealed in All That Matters, is Siu-Diep.
- Mrs. Lim - Poh-Poh's close friend.
- Meiying Lim - Mrs. Lim's adopted daughter, and also Sek-Lung's babysitter.
- Third Uncle - A relative from the Chen family, a moderately successful businessman in Canada who sponsors the father, Poh-Poh, and Kiam-Kim as his "paper family." While altered immigration papers say that Third Uncle and Father are brothers, in truth they are distant relatives.
- Dai Kew
- Old Yuen - A tenant of the Tong Association, infamous in Chinatown for being an alcoholic and often beating his wife during her lifetime. Jung-Sum comes to own a nice heavy jacket that used to belong to him.
- Frank Yuen - Old Yuen's son, a fellow in his early twenties who, despite tendencies to drink and gamble, is looked up to by both Kiam-Kim and Jung-Sum, as they are all into boxing.
- Wong Bak - Old friend of Poh-Poh, he is wise and has a monkey face, but becomes a good friend to Jook-Liang. He returns to China when he can afford to go back home in Mainland China.
All That Matters is a sequel to The Jade Peony. It tells the story of the Jade Peony from the point of view of the three siblings' eldest brother, Kiam-Kim.
The book was selected for the 2010 edition of Canada Reads, where it was championed by academic and activist Samantha Nutt. It did not win, however. In 2002, The Jade Peony was also selected as the inaugural book for the One Book, One Vancouver program for the Vancouver Public Library.