- Breaking the “Chinese Habit”: Jade Snow Wong in First Person
Ever since the 1970s, as writers and critics began to develop an Asian American canon and search for role models for their own writing, Jade Snow Wong and her 1950 autobiography, Fifth Chinese Daughter, have been forcefully criticized. Comparisons of the book to contemporary writing took place at Wong’s expense, and she was accused of capitulating to her readers’ tastes for exotic stereotype in an era that prized overt resistance to such demands.1 Scholars continue to debate Wong in these terms, whether by attempting to recuperate her reputation2 or by cautioning that Wong’s accommodations of her white majority audience are still reason for concern.3 This debate focuses not only on the text itself, but also on Wong’s “personal integrity,” to borrow a phrase from Sau-ling Cynthia Wong’s account of the “pen wars” concerning Maxine Hong Kingston and The Woman Warrior (29). Elaine H. Kim, for example, grants that the book “is valuable as a document of Asian American social history” but considers the author herself “psychologically vulnerable” to racist demands and ultimately, “in light of today’s changing attitudes, rather pathetic” (72). Similarly, Frank Chin questions her integrity both as a writer and as a Chinese American, stating in the introduction to Aiiieeeee! that she was “obviously manipulated by white publishers to write to and from the stereotype” of Asian Americans (13). Wong’s own (perceived) personal failings have been integral to criticism of her book.
Because Wong’s accommodation of a white readership is central to her reputation, it is surprising that no critic has yet examined her writing leading up to Fifth Chinese Daughter—writing that offers clues about the nature of that accommodation. Her earlier essays, published in the magazine Common Ground in 1945 and 1948, provide a kind of fossil record documenting the evolution of her self-presentation. If judged along the lines of the old resistance/accommodation framework, these early works do not vindicate Wong; at times, they demonstrate that she provided an increased level of exoticism in writing for a broader audience in Fifth Chinese Daughter. However, they also show the complexity of Wong’s position as an Asian American author in the postwar era, and an understanding of that complexity may lead to a more sympathetic reading. Based on her distinct personae in the Common Ground essays, in Fifth Chinese Daughter, and in her life following the book’s publication, I suggest that [End Page 61] Wong’s construction of different selves for different audiences indicates her artistic and psychological strength. By creating the figure of “Jade Snow,” Wong is able to meet the orientalist expectations of her world in order to be published and, simultaneously, to separate herself from those expectations at a personal level. Rather than being “pathetic” or “manipulated,” she found ways to maintain control of her texts and her self-image, even in the face of external pressure.
A comparison of Wong’s Common Ground essays and Fifth Chinese Daughter sheds some light on the issue of whether, how, and why Wong made adjustments based on editors’ and readers’ preferences, as both contain similar material reworked for different audiences. Although Wong later claimed in an interview that her book “didn’t duplicate any previously published material” (“Witness” 12), and none of the three Common Ground essays appears in its entirety in the subsequent book, Fifth Chinese Daughter does draw on and adapt much of this material and therefore carries the additional copyright years of 1945 and 1948. In the book, Wong’s stories about her family and about San Francisco’s Chinatown are expanded, contracted, recast, and recontextualized; some take center stage in the book, while others are eliminated entirely. Perhaps most surprisingly for those who have read Fifth Chinese Daughter first, the personal essays in Common Ground are narrated in the customary first person, rather than the third person of her 1950 book. In the book’s preface, she explains her unusual choice to narrate her autobiography in third person as “Chinese habit. . . . Even written in English, an ‘I’ book by a Chinese would seem outrageously immodest...