A review of Chinese Fish by Grace Yee

Reviewed by Beatriz Copello

Chinese Fish
by Grace Yee
144 pages, Paperback, June 2023, ISBN: 9781922725448

Usually, when I receive books to review, I hold them in my hand and wonder whether I will enjoy it or whether I would suffer reading it. When Chinese Fish by Grace Yee arrived I did that and the first thing that surprised me was the title, because when I started to read the book I became excited. Why excited? Because I was expecting the usual poetry book with poems in different styles, but what I encountered was quite unique, unusual, extraordinary and I loved reading it.  The book contains lists, poems in two different styles, one style is always in italic and written in a way like if the person writing the piece doesn’t have full command of the English language, the others are normal poems, some of the poems as well as the narrated pieces include some words in Chinese characters. Furthermore, the reader will encounter short dialogues, archival fragments, old policies, lists, eight pages (eight is considered a lucky number in Chinese culture) containing the pictures of a Chinese doll and some political comments.  Chinese Fish is narrated in various voices.

The section titled “Happy Valley” provides genealogical details of the Family Chin, from the great-grandfather to his four great-grandsons and one great-granddaughter, a family we get to know throughout the pages. The list not only gives the name and rank/position of the member in the family but also personal characteristics:

Stan, Number Two Son:
avid consumer of Whittaker’s peanut slabs, horse racing, harmonicas, Old Spice aftershave, born 1935.
Wife Ping
grew up in (San Ning in Chinese characters) Canton, accomplished mahjong cheat,
face like a (Pork bun in Chinese characters)
Offspring: Cherry, born in Hong Kong, Leonore, Joseph, Starlit born in New Zealand.

The main two narrators in this beautiful book are Ping, the mother and Cherry her daughter. This family’s story, set in New Zealand, commences with the birth of Cherry. The following poem tells us about Cherry’s birth:

soon as you born
grandfather and Aunty May (Chinese character for grandfather)
push the door come
in see my everything
so embarrassed! they
wish you was boy
of course but you
ok so everybody
happy I so hungry
past the lunchtime
only got the (Chinese character for rice Porridge/Conge Chinese)

The story of this family is not different to that of other migrants who migrated to Australia and New Zealand in the 50s and 60s, racism, stereotyping of different races, class differences and abuse were a common thing. Also, these were difficult times, it took many countries years to recover from World War Two, everyone had to struggle to survive.  Ping moved to Aotearoa with her husband Stan and baby Cherry, there she struggles with working in their fish shop frying fish most of the day and looking after her children, three more were born in New Zealand. Her life is not a happy one her husband disappears sometimes and returns home drunk.  Poor Cherry also struggles with the difficult life and looking after the children as well.  

The descriptions in Chinese Fish are very vivid and the stories told in an engaging way, some stories funny others sad.  I was saddened by the stereotyping and abuse of the children by the New Zealander children. 

Migration politics and past policies in Australia and New Zealand are brought up as well also how some of the citizens thought about immigrants. The following poem illustrates the attitude towars migrants in general and Chinese in particular:

                                                                                             If we must have immigrants
         let them come from Britain.
   I have no ill feeling whatsoever against
                       the colour of a man’s skin,
                  but we must face facts.  Most
                            New Zealanders do not 
                   want foreigners.
       Look at what the large importation of aliens
                        has done to Australia. Ask
  any real Australian what
        he thinks of the New Arrivals. Let’s fill our
                                                                                                        lovely country with our own
  Yours, etc. A STERLING KIWI. 

I identified with many things raised by Ping, I used to give my children sandwiches with ham or salami and they cried because they wanted Fairy Bread (The title of my new book is No Salami Fairy Bread). Ping struggled because her children wanted ‘sandwichee’ (Ping spelling). 

Reading Chinese Fish we learn about Chinese culture and the strength for survival of women, the author once again demonstrated her writing skills, she is an award winning poet who also has taught Writing and Literature at Deakin University in Melbourne, where she currently resides. Put Chinese Fish on your list of ‘books to read’.  

About the reviewer: Beatriz Copello, D.C.A. Creative Writing and award-winning writer, is a former member of NSW Writers Centre Management Committee. She writes poetry, reviews, fiction and plays. The author’s poetry books are: Women Souls and Shadows, Meditations At the Edge of a Dream, Under the Gums Long Shade, Witches Women and Words and Lo Irrevocable del Halcon and Renacer en Azul  (In Spanish). Other books by Copello are: A Call to the Stars, Forbidden Steps Under the Wisteria and Beyond the Moons of August (Her Doctoral Thesis).