In Sanniu’s Chinese village in AnHui, girls are called ‘chopsticks’, boys ‘roof-beams’. Unlike sturdy roof-beams, chopstick girls are so disposable that Sanniu’s parents have named her and her five sisters only with numbers: Sanniu means ‘Three’. Three has other 5 sisters, Sister One is married, sister Two killed herself when she is forced to engage in an arranged marriage, Sister Four is deaf and dumb, only sister Five and Six followed her to the city of Nanjing.
Sisters Three, Five and Six don’t have much education, but they know two things for certain: their mother is a failure because she hasn’t produced a son, and they only merit a number as a name. Women, their father tells them, are like chopsticks: utilitarian and easily broken. But when they leave their home in the country side to seek their fortune in the big city, their eyes are suddenly opened. Together they find jobs.
Three found job in The Happy Fool restaurant where she uses her skills to arrange vegetables for window display. Five works in the Water Dragon Cultural Palace as, a treatment spa for business man and the affluent, as the water temperature checker for sauna pools and baths. Six found a job at the Book Taster’s Teahouse, where intellectual visits the teahouse, read the books on the shelves and leaves with a poem, jokes on a guestbook.
Following Three and her sisters, who arrive as painfully naive, wide-eyed newcomers in the big city of Nanjing, Xinran evokes the multiple, layered cultures and customs of modern China with bright, memorable detail and empathy for her characters.
An imagined version of the lives of three real people, the book is light and hopeful. The afterword is written when Xinran visited these 3 girls that inspired her to write the stories, suggested the troubles as well as the successes of life in the People’s Republic of China. When Xinran tried to track down the model for one of her chopstick girls, she found the teahouse where the woman had worked closed for ‘selling banned books’.
There are some interesting observations:
- A rural woman’s fate is not her own.
- Rural Chinese haven’t seen foreigners.
- Money earn respect.
- Chinese countryside is as much as 500 years behind the city.
- When the Japanese gave gifts, she said, most bought things that were of no use at all to the owner, because the recipient could pass them on to someone else. In Japan, you didn’t open a gift in front of the giver, but the next time you saw them you had to mention the gift and express your thoughts. – Pg 134
- Romantic love is not a common notion.
The Chinese say that if Chance brings two people together but they no Time, Love will not flourish. Nor will love grow if two people have the time to spend with each other but no feeling in their hearts. The only true love is when Chance and Time are in harmony.
Xinran is a reporter, her writings feels like one, even if it is a fictional work. A lot of hyped-up and effervescent conversations which doesn’t gives the best impact of the sorrows and pain that some of these characters had to go through. The effervescence reminds me of The Guernsey Literary whatever title book and felt that while the three sisters experiences in the city is both hilarious and heartbreaking, it hasn’t got enough depth to make you want to laugh and cry with them.
The main takeaway for me from the book is: “Are chopsticks capable of earning a living for the family?” You bet!
Silly girl, if people don’t have anyone to compare themselves to, they don’t know they’re being wronged. It’s comparisons that make people unhappy: those who don’t know good fortune, don’t know poverty. Happiness is accepting your fate. Pg 188.
I came across Xinran while searching for an author with last name X.
Paperback. Publisher: Vintage Books, 2008; Length: 257 pages. Setting: Contemporary China, Nanjing. Source: Library Loot. Finished reading at: 10 June 2010.
About the writer:
Xuē Xīnrán (薛欣然, pen name Xinran) is a British-Chinese journalist and broadcaster, born in Beijing in 1958.
In the late 1980s, she began working for Chinese Radio and went on to become one of China’s most successful journalists. In 1997 she moved to London, where she initially worked as cleaner. In London, she began work on her seminal book about Chinese women’s lives The Good Women of China, a memoir relating many of the stories she heard while hosting her radio show (“Words on the Night Breeze”) in China. The book is a candid revelation of many Chinese women’s thoughts and experiences that took place both during and after the Cultural Revolution when Chairman Mao and Communism ruled the land. The book was published in 2002 and has been translated into over thirty languages.
Miss Chopsticks is her first novel published in July 2007. It explores the uneasy relationship between Chinese “migrant workers” and the cities they flock to. China’s economic reform is changing the role of its chopstick girls. Once a disposable burden, they can now take city jobs as waitresses, masseuses, factory line workers and cleaners, They bring bundles of cash home, earning them unprecedented respect in patriarchal villages, as well as winning the respect and hearts of city dwellers.