The Jade Peony is a 1995 novel by Wayson Choy. The book is divided into three parts, each with a distinct narrator. Each narrator is a child belonging to a Chinese-Canadian family; the novel is set during the escalation of World War II. The book follows each of these characters in a fully developed plot arc. Together, the parts form a tapestry that provides the reader with an incisive and insightful emotional, historical, and sociological portrait of mid-20th -century Chinese-Canadian life. Part 1, narrated by Liang, the family’s only daughter, chronicles her profound and enduring friendship with an elder named Wong Suk. One of many bachelor-men who is moored in Canada due to the country’s harsh immigration laws, Wong Suk is a man battered and bruised by poverty, racism, and marginalization.
However, he is also a highly-compassionate, sensitive, and kind man who takes an immediate liking to the brash and impetuous Liang. Together, they form a beautiful bond which bridges the gap between Old China and the West. Part 2 is narrated by Jung, who is older than Liang. It depicts the young man’s turbulent pre-adolescence. Struggling to find his place within his immediate community, Jung takes up boxing as a hobby that satisfies him and allows him to express his masculinity. Through training for boxing, he meets Frank Yuen, the resident Chinatown bad boy. Frank’s brash and rebellious masculinity enamors Jung, as he comes to see Frank as both someones to be emulated, and, ultimately, the object of his romantic and sexual passion.
We witness Jung struggling with his blooming sexuality, which he immediately knows marks him for humiliation and subjugation. Jung’s story is, therefore, a close study and sociological portrait of a young, gay Chinese man in the West. Sekky, the family’s youngest child, narrates Part 3. His section of the book is consumed mostly by explicating his deeply-intimate and enduring bond with his grandmother, whom he calls Grandmama.
Upon his birth, Sekky becomes Grandmama’s favorite because of his frail health. His persistent lung problems keep him away from school during what would be his first- and second-grade years, and he instead spends that time under the wing of his grandmother. Grandmama, for her part, teaches Sekky the intricate ways of Old China through her stories, traditions, and traditional herbal remedies. She also teaches Sekky how to fashion wondrous windchimes out of discarded objects. She profoundly shapes his consciousness and identity, as he looks to her as a guardian and source of strength and wisdom. After her death, she returns to Sekky in spirit form, and enacts many mischievous hauntings of the family, until they pay her spirit proper respect, after which she departs in peace. Sekky grows into an intelligent and emotionally-complex boy who, due in large part to his deep relationship with his grandmother, carries multitudes inside of him.