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Thursday, November 18, 2010


If you want to fulfil your dreams, you will have to work relentlessly.  At least twice as hard as any man.  You must find within yourself the necessary determination, the will and the wisdom.  And you must also cultivate intelligence of the heart.

This quotation from the New Zealand Book Awards Fiction Category Winner, Alison Wong's novel As the Earth Turns Silver, is advice given by a wise woman to a girl who is heading off to medical school in the year 1914, when girls did not usually do such things.  Change one word, "man" to "European," and it could apply just as aptly to the main protagonist of this book, a Chinese man, Wong Chung-yung, who arrived in Wellington at the age of 18 in 1896.

This is a story with two threads -- the status of women and the status of Chinese in early 20th century New Zealand.  The two strands are closely linked -- just as on the ships of the time, where Chinese men  were cooks, stewards, and laundry workers, the Chinese men of Alison Wong's story do jobs that were considered women's work.  Yung, for instance, washes carrots and beetroot, cooks meals, and scrubs out the family greengrocer shop, while Katherine, the European woman he comes to love, labors to rinse, wring, and hang out the washing, and then prepare stew for her unappreciative family.  There is the same unfairness, which disturbs them both, but which both accept as a fact of life, because that was the way things were at the time.

There are many eloquent chapters in this beautifully written book, mostly very short, as this is a story told in bytes.  It works well.  Not only does it make the book very readable, but the frequent pauses give plenty of opportunity to think deeply about whatever glimpse of life in Wellington or in the Chinese home village has just been shared by the author.

Though the theme is discrimination, the book is character-driven.  Yung and his brother, Wong Chung-shun, are particularly well-drawn, providing a remarkable insight into the racism of the time.  Katherine, whose gradually developing love affair with Yung is exquisitely described, is more blurred, often seeming more symbolic than real.  By contrast, the Chinese women who feature in the story -- the two wives of the brothers, left behind in China to eke out claustrophobic women's lives with their mother-in-law, and Mei-lin, the pretty little concubine Shun chooses to bring to New Zealand -- are almost brutally alive.

The remarkable research is a bonus.  Alison Wong is a meticulous historian, and the carefully evoked background is evidence of this.  Altogether, As the Earth Turns Silver is a book to be treasured, as it will definitely will be read more than once.

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