In the preface to Paper Teeth, Lauralyn Chow describes the types of menus you might find in a Chinese restaurant. These menus hint at the complex themes that follow.
First, the standard menu: “A multi-page English language menu (sometimes bilingual with Chinese writing), plastic laminated, offering forty-seven, eighty-eight, one hundred and twenty-nine, different Chinese dishes, all listed by number. Sometimes, one printed page in the menu for Western cuisine.”
Then, a menu not everyone sees: “A Chinese language menu (never bilingual) written on pink paper, sometimes in a plastic pocket inside the English menu, sometimes in a plastic page protector given only to certain guests, listing at most seven dishes.”
Finally, the hidden menu: “An unwritten menu of non-replicable Chinese dishes, food that no other table is served, after Dad goes into the kitchen, only with his son, to visit with his friends, the cooks.”
Paper Teeth presents a “menu” of ten connected but non-chronological stories to choose from, most about the Lee family, spanning from the 1920s to the present day. The Lees are: father Wing, who immigrated from China as a child; Calgary-born Mumma; and their four children, Lizzie, Pen, Tom, and Jane. Wing and Mumma never taught the children to speak Chinese, only using it when they wish not to be understood.
Apart from a few side trips to Calgary and Saskatchewan, most of the action takes place in Edmonton. The Lees own a store on Rice Avenue (before it was Rice Howard Way), go to church in Chinatown, and have a memorable day at the races at Northlands. In the first story, the Lees drive over the Rat Hole, walk past the hardware store that became The Hardware Grill, and marvel at The Coffee Cup Inn, a mug-shaped cafe that sat where the Shaw Conference Centre sits now.
A sense of place is important to Chow and the way she tells a story, but she doesn’t think the reader needs to know what the Rat Hole was to appreciate Paper Teeth. She expects that local readers may identify some places in the book with certain memories and experiences, but she hopes that “readers unfamiliar with Edmonton and Calgary in the times portrayed in the stories, can still identify with the sense of place, without knowing it personally.”
Paper Teeth is more than a “local” book, though. The stories take on universal themes like race, language, and family, and Chow plays with form in a way that’s sure to interest readers who find traditional novels a bit boring. Consider the better-traveled routes Chow could have gone with the Lees’ story: Paper Teeth could have been a historical novel about early Chinese immigrants to the prairies. It could have been a coming of age story focused on baby Jane, who struggles to fit in, with a side plot about her favourite Auntie Moe’s interracial relationship. It could have been a quirky family comedy, full of misunderstandings fed by the intergenerational language barrier and culture clash. It could have been the story of Wing and Mumma’s marriage. Instead, Chow tells all of these stories and more in an economical 250 pages.
Readers who balk at heavy themes and non-traditional formats will find plenty to enjoy in frequent funny moments and asides. Mumma’s misadventures with a rogue sanitary napkin will make any reader who’s dealt with the “capital C, Curse” wince in recognition. Auntie Li-Ting is everyone’s eccentric aunt, with her medicinal-smelling homemade bandages, refusal to wear closed-toe shoes, and horror upon finding that her niece doesn’t own a proper tea ball. We only get one chapter with Uncle Malmo, but his quest to install an in-floor koi pond in the kitchen of his already over-the-top mod house (the clean lines and white fixtures remind him of living in a “goddamn toilet bowl”) make him one of the most memorable characters.
When asked about Paper Teeth’s rejection of traditional forms of storytelling, Chow says it was important “to not freeze these characters into a nostalgic time capsule, or thaw them out gradually from the past into the present.” And it works. The Lees feel like a real family, because the way the story is told is probably the way the story of your own family is told: in memory and anecdote, in stories shouted across a big table laden with many dishes, and in whispered asides from the person sitting next to you. Whether you sample one or take in all ten courses, Paper Teeth is sure to satisfy.
By Lauralyn Chow
NeWest Press, 240 pp, 19.95
On sale Sept 1