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Written by Timothy Sexton
The Jade Peony
At the dawn of the 20th century, the peony was declared to be the National Flower of China. Jade is the gemstone most associated with Chinese cultural artifacts. Together, the combination of peony and jade make for perhaps the quintessential symbol of Chinese history and heritage. That the titular symbol is most strongly associated with the grandmother fighting against assimilation into Canadian society, it takes on even greater meaning.
In a way, Shirley Temple is the perfect symbolic counterpoint to the jade peony. Liang’s obsession with the talented young girl who was the most popular movie star in the world in the 1930’s is authentic. The grandmother’s resistance to anything having to do with such an icon of western culture is perfectly understandable. Jade is ancient and peonies are eternal. By the 1940’s, Shirley Temple’s movie career was over and she becomes a symbol—for the grandmother at least—of the emptiness and ephemeral quality of western culture.
Grandmother’s fervent and very real belief in the existence of ghosts is presented as far less a superstition of ignorance than as a commentary on the permanence of Chinese culture. The existence of ghosts is commensurate with the existence of history. These spectral figures are post-mortem resurrections of those who actually lived as flesh and blood people contributing to the construction of the heritage and culture that the old woman prizes so greatly.
Enemies of Free China
The game was made in Hong Kong and was considered to be as much a tool for political propaganda as an item for leisurely enjoyment for children. The real symbolic value here is not even its political dimension, however, but rather to point out how a game with real-world political implications is the means by which Chinese immigrant children in Canada fight for freedom and heritage. They are removed geographically, socially and politically from the reality of their homeland, yet still find a way to connect back to it through the game. The game becomes a symbol of the very nature of their cultural exile.
The wind chimes are instruments not of music, but of navigation. The sound of the chimes helps those ghostly spirits find their way back home. For a story set in Canada about Chinese immigrants dealing with assimilation into western culture, the symbolism is manifest.
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The problem for the rest of the family was in the fact that Grandmama looked for these treasures wandering the back alleys of Keefer and Pender Streets, peering into our neighbors’ garbage cans, chasing away hungry, nervous cats and...