Reviews / December 2015 (Issue 30)

Redefining "What Any Daughter Would Do": C. Fung Hsiung's Picture Bride

by Kerri Lu


C. Fong Hsiung, Picture Bride, TSAR Publications, 2014. 172 pgs.


C. Fong Hsiung's first novel Picture Bride is an immersive exploration of Hakka Chinese cultural perspectives in 1960s India, addressing the themes of marriage, family, ethnicity and the complex ways these can intertwine and conflict with one another. The "picture bride"[i] is Jie-Lan, or Jillian, the twenty-year-old daughter of the Wu family; the book chronicles her two engagements. Hsiung shares an identical background with her protagonist: she herself was born to Hakka Chinese parents in Kolkata and moved to Canada where she started a family, became an accountant and settled down. The novel, while not autobiographical, nevertheless shows the author's intimate knowledge and confident portrayal of her narrator's experiences.

Jillian's first engagement is to a stranger, a young immigrant in Toronto named Peter Chou, whose parents still live in Tangra, the district in Calcutta (now Kolkata) that is home to Jillian's close-knit and overbearing Hakka Chinese community. The story begins in 1975, thirteen years after the India-China War. Racial and ethnic hostility remains strong between Chinese and Indians, and many Chinese families wish to emigrate, with hopes of marrying off their daughters abroad. The ethnic prejudices exist in marriage as well: Hakka Chinese can only marry within the community, something that matters to everyone except Jillian. It is revealed right away that Jillian's younger sister Lee-Lan, or Lillian, was inexplicably killed by her Indian boyfriend only six months earlier. Lillian's death and forbidden courtship is brought up constantly as a tragic lesson, as well as an "embarrassment" to the Wu family's reputation. By marrying Peter, Jillian is in a prime position to restore her family's reputation, or at the very least, divert the neighbourhood gossip away from Lillian.

At the centre of the family drama is the tension between Jillian and her father. As she prepares for Toronto, Jillian is excited to finally leave the "watchful eyes" of the judgmental Hakka community and "Papa's domineering, protective patriarchy," which rules over the Wu family, including Jillian's mother, younger brothers and grandmother. From the outset, however, Jillian's ambivalence towards her marriage and new life are evident. She notes, upon her arrival, that she serves as but a "lovely picture to decorate Papa's living room, and a trophy for a husband," who turns out to be controlling and disrespectful.

However, Jillian is in a difficult position and accepts her own role: she understands that her father, at his core, wants the best for her. Her father's own experiences as a wrongfully detained political prisoner during the India-China War have polarised his views and solidified his hardline resentment of all foreigners and his oppressive parenting. As an obedient daughter, Jillian empathises with his views and marries primarily to please him. The rest of the novel is an unfolding of her departure from her father's control.

Even after leaving Tangra, Jillian's life choices are often dictated by how she thinks her actions will affect her family name in Tangra and the Hakka community in Toronto, especially how her father will react. The communal expectations continue to weigh heavier on her mind than her own desires. Shortly after her wedding, Jillian discovers that Peter is gay. Homosexuality is a secret, just as taboo to their community as marrying a foreigner. For Peter, the marriage arrangement is purely functional: Jillian cleans and does housework for him and validates his status in the community, while he provides the immigration status for her to remain in Canada.

At one point, he threatens Jillian, forcing her to stay, and then continues to mistreat her. Jillian's initial instinct to fulfill a daughter's duty renders her impotent and indecisive about her next steps. This shocks Wendy, Jillian's white friend and colleague whom she confides in. "In my culture, divorce is a bad word," she explains to Wendy. No matter the reason, she would be "seen as a failure and used goods." Without the support of Hakka Chinese in Tangra and Toronto, she is stranded in both cities and hopeless for future marriage prospects with Chinese men, who are the only acceptable candidates for her family. She is likewise concerned about her own status within these communities which make up her entire social life. Through Jillian's dilemma, Hsiung brings to light this defining characteristic of the first-generation immigrant experience. 

After Jillian confirms her parents' refusal of her wish to divorce Peter, she decides to take matters into her own hands, in a significant first attempt to gain control within an environment in which she is often merely reacting to situations around her and making compromises not in her favour. It is during this peak of Jillian's empowerment, however, that the story reveals the full extent of her lack of control. After she succeeds in photographing Peter in his lover's bed—as proof of his homosexuality and her own exit ticket from the marriage—she is punished physically for it in a harrowing attempted rape by Peter. She narrowly escapes, due not to her own defenses but Peter's flaccidity. 

Shortly after Jillian files for divorce, her father disowns her and cuts off all contact between her and the rest of the family. She moves in with Wendy and is primed for a period of self-determination—yet her subconscious drive to fulfill her filial duties to her parents continues to drive her actions. She keeps her distance from Daniel, an attractive co-worker who actively pursues her. Wendy challenges Jillian for her "self-punishment," denying her own feelings for Daniel "for some perceived wrong" she committed towards her parents. This surprises Jillian, who replies that she is "only doing what any daughter would do."

Under Wendy's urging, Jillian begins to date Daniel, and they eventually become engaged. Jillian's complex inner struggles between her Hakka identity and her own diverging desires take the forefront. Hsiung portrays these inner conflicts delicately, balancing Jillian's own self-awareness with the difficulties of leaving her own history behind. When she finds out, many months after her divorce, that Peter was killed by his ex-lover for having left him, she is conflicted as to whether she should attend the funeral. She tells Daniel, "My Hakka upbringing urges me to attend … but an inner voice revolts at the idea." Unable to explain to Daniel her childhood "surrounded by an entire neighbourhood that knows you" and her duty to fit within it, she feels "overcome with frustration at the differences in [their] cultures, never more apparent than they are now." She decides to attend the funeral, while acknowledging Daniel's comparison of her need for maintaining her reputation as similar to that of her father's.

Soon after, a surprise invitation arrives from her father, asking her to return home now that Peter's homosexuality is exposed, and she is fully vindicated. Daniel tries to assuages her nervousness about seeing her family again by saying that it is Jillian's father that "should ask for forgiveness," rather than her. Jillian's response reveals the extent of her conflict: "I understand his opinion—although I struggle to acknowledge its truth." Her inner conflict regarding her own pursuit of and deviation from her Hakka identity is only exasperated by her self-awareness.

Jillian's final departure from continuing to obey her father's wishes comes in the form of a violent confrontation, but she denies herself catharsis through her rejection. Upon her return, Jillian's father tries to trap her in Tangra by threatening her into a second arranged marriage and withholding her passport. As she tries to find ways to escape, she inadvertently discovers her father's secret: it was he who accidentally killed Lillian when he discovered that Lillian was pregnant. Jillian decides to withhold this information from her family for their sake, but when his father shames her with slurs and claims he will never allow her to marry a foreigner while he's alive, she is no longer able to contain herself. She unleashes "all the pain of the past few years" and reveals his secret in front of her mother. Jillian regrets her outburst immediately after, "not sure who [she's] apologising to."

This final confrontation reveals the problematic lack of cross-cultural exchange and understanding that occurs throughout the novel. Without Jillian to mediate between the two cultures, the lack of change in opinions on both sides comes sharply into focus: her friends in Toronto still don't empathise with her Hakka Chinese culture, just as her father does not give any concessions to her wishes and desires which oppose her Hakka upbringing.

The central lack of resolution between father and daughter is uncomfortable, and Hsiung does not seek any easy resolutions in situations where cultural prejudices are unresolvable. Throughout the novel, perhaps in the author's attempt to contain multiple perspectives, Hsiung portrays characters consumed by their absolute cultural viewpoints. Before Jillian's final stand against her father, instead of referring to him as her father, she asks, "what kind of society imposes such restrictions on their daughters?" For Jillian, her father's identity is replaced by the cultural viewpoints he represents, and the individual is lost in the face of ideology.

It is through the character of Jillian's mother in which the reader finds some sense of closure. Seen previously in the novel as a secondary character who appears only in passing, Jillian's mother quietly supports her daughter without possessing any real power against Jillian's father. She echoes Jillian's own character development in transforming her perspective in the final scene, where she articulates her long-time sacrifice of her children's happiness in order to be a "good and dutiful wife" to her husband. She tells Jillian, "we have come to an understanding" and accepts Daniel into the family as the newly established matriarch.

This revelation from Jillian's mother mirrors her own struggle throughout Picture Bride—in order to pursue happiness, she needs to actively acknowledge and confront her own position vis-a-vis her cultural perspective. While she cannot refuse or deny her Hakka upbringing, it is only when she recognises and faces the ways she wishes to align with or refute it—and overcome the difficulty of the resulting conflicts within herself and with her family—that she is able to establish and celebrate her individual cultural identity.

[i] The picture bride system, in which a bride was chosen on the basis of a photograph provided by a matchmaker, was common among Asian immigrants in the early and mid-twentieth century.


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