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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Social Realism Sui Sin Far (Edith Maud Eaton) (1865-1914)

[6169] Anonymous, Chinatown, New York City (1909), courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-72475].

Writing around the turn of the twentieth century, Sui Sin Far, or Edith Maud Eaton, challenged entrenched social and political discrimination against Chinese immigrants and Chinese Americans by publishing eloquent stories and articles about Chinese culture in North America. Her goal was to encourage mutual understanding and respect between the Anglo and Asian communities. As she said, “I give my right hand to the Occidentals and my left to the Orientals, hoping that between them they will not utterly destroy the insignificant ‘connecting link.’ ” With her cosmopolitan background and mixed ethnicity, Sui Sin Far was an excellent spokesperson for these multicultural ideals. Born in England in 1865, she was one of fourteen children raised by a white English father and a Chinese mother who had been educated in England. Because Sui Sin Far’s father, Edward Eaton, was a struggling landscape painter, the family moved frequently and was always financially unstable. Eventually settling in Montreal, the Eatons raised their children to be creative, individualistic, and self-sufficient. Sui Sin Far started earning money to contribute to the family’s finances while she was still a girl, selling crocheted lace and paintings on the street, publishing poetry, and eventually undertaking stenography and office work. Later, she supplemented her income by publishing articles and stories in magazines and newspapers.

Although she was educated in British and Canadian schools, spoke only English, and could easily “pass” as white, Sui Sin Far chose to embrace and emphasize her Chinese heritage. Soon after she began publishing, she adopted the name Sui Sin Far in place of her English name, Edith Maud Eaton. The Chinese name translates as “fragrant water flower” and signifies “dignity and indestructible love for family and homeland.” Sui Sin Far began her writing career in Montreal but later moved on to a variety of urban centers with large Chinese immigrant communities. Over the course of her career, she lived in eastern and western Canada, Jamaica, California, the Pacific Northwest, and Boston. In both her fiction and her journalism she worked to make the lives of Chinese immigrants understandable and sympathetic to a white audience, often highlighting the home life and domestic occupations of her Chinese women characters. Her presentation of Chinese characters who shared many of the same joys and concerns as European Americans was part of her ongoing effort to combat stereotypes of Chinese immigrants as “heathen,” unclean, and untrustworthy. But even as Sui Sin Far dwelt on the similarities between Chinese and European Americans, she also used her stories and articles to document traditional Chinese customs and to provide her readers with insight into the unique culture that had developed in America’s Chinatowns.

Sui Sin Far published nearly forty short stories and more than thirty articles about Chinese life in prominent national magazines. Near the end of her life she published two autobiographical accounts and collected some of her stories into a full-length book, Mrs. Spring Fragrance, which was well-received by critics. When she died in Montreal, the Chinese community there erected a memorial to her inscribed with the characters “Yi bu wong hua,” which translates as “The righteous one does not forget her country.”

Teaching Tips

  • The original 1912 edition of Mrs. Spring Fragrance was published with an elaborate scarlet cover and “oriental” motifs inscribed on each page. Ask your students to consider the effects of this physical presentation, and why Sui Sin Far’s book was bound this way. Why might the elaborate, ostentatiously Chinese-looking design have appealed to the white audience to whom the book was marketed? Ask your students to discuss how the experience of reading “Mrs. Spring Fragrance” might change if they read it in the original edition rather than in The Norton Anthology of American Literature.
  • Although Japan had been open to the West since 1853, “the Orient” remained a place of great mystery, reverence, and intrigue for modern Americans. Readers revelled in the exotic paraphernalia of Japanese daily life in works such as Matthew Calbraith Perry’s The Americans in Japan: An Abridgement of the Government Narrative of the U.S. Expedition to Japan, and fascination with the Orient spilled over into U.S. architecture and literature, particularly in the poetry of Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams (see the Core Context on “Orientalism” in Unit 10). Postcolonial theorist Edward Said has argued that for Westerners the Orient was “almost a European invention”: the Orient becomes an “other” against which the West defines itself, rather than a place with its own reality. Have your students test whether Sui Sin Far’s fiction breaks down or reinforces this “otherness” by having them diagram what constitutes Western and Chinese culture and identity in Sui Sin Far’s work.
  • At one point in the story, Mrs. Spring Fragrance recites lines from “a beautiful American poem” by a “noble American named Tennyson.” Of course, Tennyson, the poet laureate of Great Britain, was not an American. Ask your students to think about the function of this mention of Tennyson in the story (Mr. Spring Fragrance crucially misunderstands the meaning of the lines and becomes suspicious of his wife’s affection and fidelity). Is the joke here on Mrs. Spring Fragrance for mistaking a British poem for an American one? Or is this a commentary on the state of American poetry and American literature generally? How does Mrs. Spring Fragrance’s conflation of British and American culture compare to many Americans’ inability to distinguish among various Asian cultures?

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: In what ways is Mrs. Spring Fragrance “Americanized”? What traditional Chinese values and customs does she retain?
  2. Context: How does Sui Sin Far portray Mrs. Spring Fragrance’s domestic activities and home life? How do her relationships with her neighbors and her husband compare to European American norms? How does Sui Sin Far’s description of Mrs. Spring Fragrance’s attachment to her home compare to Anzia Yezierska’s portrait of Hanneh Hayyeh’s joy in her kitchen?
  3. Context: In “Mrs. Spring Fragrance,” Sui Sin Far twice alludes to Mr. Spring Fragrance’s brother, who has been detained in a “detention pen” at the Angel Island Immigration Center in San Francisco. Why does Sui Sin Far include these references to Mr. Spring Fragrance’s brother, who is, after all, not an actor in the story? How does his immigration experience complicate the tone and resolution of the story?
  4. Exploration: How might Sui Sin Far’s work have influenced later Chinese American women writers, such as Amy Tan or Maxine Hong Kingston? Do these three authors deal with some of the same issues? How are Tan’s and Kingston’s concerns different from Sui Sin Far’s?
  5. Exploration: Could Sui Sin Far be considered a “regional realist,” like the writers featured in Unit 8? Why or why not?

Selected Archive Items

[1111] Anonymous, In the Heart of Chinatown, San Francisco, U.S.A. (1892),
courtesy of the Library of Congress, American Memory.
Thousands of Chinese immigrants were hired to work on the transcontinental railroad and were often given the most dangerous jobs. While discrimination, biased immigration policies, and other hardships limited the rights of Chinese Americans well into the twentieth century, they nevertheless established vibrant communities which preserved many of their traditional ways, such as Chinatown in San Francisco. Cathy Song’s poem “Chinatown” depicts her view of this neighborhood. Early examples of Chinese American literature include the poems from Angel Island and the works of Sui Sin Far.

[6164] Arnold Genthe, Street of the Gamblers (By Day) (1898),
courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division [LC-USZC4- 3890].
Photograph of pedestrians in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Writing at the turn of the twentieth century, Sui Sin Far (Edith Maud Eaton) combatted stereotypes of Chinese immigrants as heathen, unclean, and untrustworthy and provided insight into the culture of America’s Chinatowns.

[6169] Anonymous, Chinatown, New York City (1909),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-72475].
Chinese immigrants brought their traditions and customs to America, where they established strong communities to provide familiar support in an otherwise unfamiliar world. Author Maxine Hong Kingston has written personal and deeply reflective portraits of Chinese immigrants’ experiences.

[6171] Arnold Genthe, Children Were the Pride, Joy, Beauty, and Chief Delight of the Quarter, Chinatown, San Fransisco (c. 1896 -1906),
courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division [LC-USZC4- 5265].
Four children in traditional Chinese clothing on a sidewalk in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Writing about the time this photograph was taken, Sui Sin Far (Edith Maud Eaton) sought to make the lives of Chinese immigrants understandable to white audiences.

[8183] Anonymous, The Voyage, No. 8 (c. 1920), reprinted in Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island, 1910 -1940,
courtesy of the University of Washington Press.
“How has anyone to know that my dwelling place would be a prison?” asks this poem, one of many written on the walls of the Angel Island Immigration Center by Chinese immigrants held there by U.S. authorities. Examples of these poems, which play a role in Maxine Hong Kingston’s China Men, can be found in the archive, [8184] through [8191].

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American Passages: A Literary Survey


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