The Reproduction of Dominant Discourses in Jade Snow Wong’s Fifth Chinese Daughter

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“As If They Thought She Were Deaf or Dumb”
The Reproduction of Dominant Discourses in Jade Snow Wong’s Fifth Chinese Daughter

Karsten H. Piep

First published in 1945 and reissued with a new introduction in 1989, Jade Snow Wong’s Fifth Chinese Daughter is an autobiographical account of a young girl’s twofold struggle to free herself from the patriarchal binds of her ancestral Chinese culture while claiming her place within Anglo American mainstream society. Fifth Chinese Daughter’s enduring popularity, most notably among European Americans, rests primarily on its picturesque rendering of ghettoized Chinese immigrant life — “a guided Chinatown tour,” according to Sau-Ling Cynthia Wong — and its valorization of the liberating aspects of Western thought, emphasizing individualism and self-reliance. Wong’s “success story,” then, caters to the tastes of a white readership by perpetuating myths about the “inevitable progress” of the immigrant family and “the Asian model minority.” 1 Unlike Asian American writers such as John Okada and Louis Chu, Wong’s selfprofessed attempt “to contribute in bringing better understanding of the Chinese people, so that in the Western world they would be recognized for their achievements,” consciously refrains from overtly attacking racism or interrogating the exploitive capitalistic foundations of the United States.2 Instead, like Monica Sone in Nisei Daughter (1953), Wong emphasizes the possibility of cross-cultural understanding and gradual assimilation in Fifth Chinese Daughter. The frequently polarised critical reception of Wong’s book since the 1950s provides a telling case study in the changing thrusts of socio-political discourse within the United States. Whereas early reviewers praised Wong’s “notable intelligence” and commended Fifth Chinese Daughter for trying to find a “middle ground” that reconciles “two modes of living,” critics of the late 1960s and 1970s charged her with presenting a distorted, stereotyped view of Chinese American life. In the early 1980s, the critical pendulum swung once again, as feminists began to exonerate Wong, claiming that her autobiography presented a valuable “document of Asian American social history” which paved the way for more “complex” explorations of “a racial and gendered consciousness.” 3 Following the postmodern turn in literary criticism, younger scholars such as Karen Su and Leslie Bow have recently begun to explore the book’s “repressed histories that

threaten to rupture the surface narrative and force the text to reveal its ideological contradictions.” 4 Until recently, a discussion of the ideologically constrained U.S. literary market that pressured Asian American authors into reproducing the dominant discourse on Americanization while avoiding open criticism of racial discrimination has been conspicuously absent from most readings of Fifth Chinese Daughter – arguably under the impression of the patronizing praise white reviewers had bestowed upon it during the Cold War period. As Jinqi Ling has shown, the social and political marginalization of Asian Americans during the 1950s not only denied them aesthetic expression, but also frequently limited them to producing biographical narratives of cultural integration. “Reduced to making sociological documentation of immigrants’ struggles and their children’s accommodation and assimilation,” Ling notes, “Asian American writers found that autobiography was almost the only commercially publishable form available to them.” 5 This meant that those Asian American writers of the late 1940s and early 1950s who felt the need to make their voices heard usually had to do so in relative compliance with the reigning discourse. Hence, it is hardly astonishing that Wong’s Fifth Chinese Daughter was among the first commercially successful books ever published by a Chinese American. By 1975, over a quarter of a million copies had been sold and Fifth Chinese Daughter was regularly used in American junior...
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