My thanks to Penguin Press UK for a review copy of this book via NetGalley.
Lao She was an author I first ‘met’ when I read John Fletcher’s Wuhan last year where he was a character and one of the narrators, and that book had left me wanting to explore She’s writings, so when this book appeared on NetGalley, of course I had to request. Mr Ma and Son, first published in 1929, is Lao She’s third novel, a tragicomedy based on his own experiences in London.
In the book, Mr Ma a widower in his fifties, travels to London with his young son, Ma Wei (about twenty-one or twenty-two) where they have been left an antique shop that Mr Ma’s older brother ran. Reverend Ely, their former pastor in Beijing encourages them to travel, excited in a way to have one of his Chinese parishioners come to England. He undertakes to arrange lodgings for them, but the strongly racist attitudes prevalent in the country at the time, worsened by popular depictions of the Chinese in films and books, mean that people believe:
… every one of those five thousand yellow-faced demons will smoke opium, smuggle arms, commit murder … rape women … and commit an endless amount of crimes, all deserving, at the very least, gradual dismemberment and death by ten thousand slices of the sword.
No one will let them a place, and the few who do
… realise there’s money to be made and so bring themselves to put on a good face and make the best of dealing with a bunch of yellow-faced monsters.
Rev Ely does however manage to convince a widowed lady, Mrs Wedderburn who lives with her daughter Mary, and has rooms to let to at least give the Mas a chance. The Mas arrive and almost from the start face culture shock and outright racism, from being expected to pay for their meal when Rev Ely welcomes them at the railway station to the Wedderburns not allowing them to use their bathroom, to endless racist comments by Mary, for
It didn’t seem to occur to her that she could be insulting Ma Wei.
Father and son are both upset by these but take it quietly, Ma Wei angry internally, while Mr Ma trying harder and harder to please. Meanwhile, they take over the shop, where the assistant Li Tzu-jung has been managing things well. Mr Ma has false notions of grandeur, his ideal being a government job, and looks down on commerce, as a result almost divorced from what is needed to run the shop, not only expecting things to run by themselves, but many times creating obstacles when either Ma Wei or Li Tsu-jung suggest or try something. Alongside, Ma Wei is adjusting to life as a student, while also balancing the demands of the shop, and to add to his woes falls rather head-over-heels in love with Mary. We follow them as they navigate this new world, amidst acquaintances old and new, facing mostly every day, but also some different situations.
Mr Ma and Son is a tongue in cheek, slice of life novel, which through the premise of two immigrants arriving in London explores a rather wide canvas in terms of the themes and aspects it deals with, bringing out even its most severe critiques through humour or satire. Racism and relatedly colonialism are prominent among these, with their experiences ranging from casual insensitive comments from Mary, or young shouts of ‘Chink’ from young urchins on the street to slightly more serious encounters involving some violence. And the racist and colonial ‘superior’ attitudes mean that untoward incidents are interpreted against only one party or seen in a certain colour.
Through these encounters between the Mas and those they meet, She also brings out cultural difference for instance, strong individualism on the one side, and filial piety on the other;
So mother and daughter fought like cat and dog, in accordance with that English independence of spirit whereby each person must have his own idea and never yield to the other, which results as the argument proceeds in an ever-increasing distance of opinion between the two parties.
But his critique of English ways does not mean that She was blind to what was appreciable, for instance when Ma Wei, thinking back to his days protesting holding up a paper flag in China, realises
the strength and prosperity of England was in large measure due to the fact that the English don’t shout battle cries, but put their heads down and get on with it.
Or that it isn’t simply military strength but also knowledge that is relevant to Empire-building. Likewise, London, to him may be ‘noisy, bustling and chaotic’ but it has its ‘calm and beautiful’ parks ‘providing a refuge where people can take a breath of fresh sweet-scented air’.
She is also scathing when it comes to the shortcomings of his own country and people
All things Chinese bow down at the foot of face. As long as face can be maintained, who cares about reality?
One fears, though that our four hundred million compatriots are, like the elder Ma, both too ambivalent or too listless to fire up and take action. The attitude of just living and making do is the most useless of outlooks, and a disgrace to the human race!
But it isn’t just these broader issues and attitudes that are explored but personal equations and relationships as well; Mr Ma has conventional attitudes, attaches much to face, has a false sense of grandeur, and is always out to please unlike Ma Wei who is more practical, willing to do what it takes to make the business a success, but at the same time struggling with matters of the heart and also notions of filial piety he has been brought up with. There is a generational difference no doubt (also brought out amongst the English in terms of the changed social mores in the post-Great-War period, accepted if not welcomed by some while causing others much consternation), but also their own natures come into it, for the elder Mr Ma is one who seems to care for only grandeur and comfort, whether it was back home where he seemed to live on money sent back by his brother or here, where he expects this to magically keep appearing while he is lost in dreams of that idea government job!
The book through the interactions, and even threads of romance that develop between characters does also explore whether getting to really know each other as people, changes things. We see that it does in a sense, at least at the individual level, but more broadly the outlook remains more cynical (and sadly we see this continue to this day, so She is perhaps not wrong).
Mr Ma and Son isn’t a novel about any grand resolutions or answers, but one that paints a picture of a world at a time when She experienced it—interactions between two cultures, each of which had their problems (racism and the almost dehumanising of ‘weak’ nations whose people’s worth is equated with that of the places they belonged to being the worst)—but also of the immigrant experience, made up not only of these broader aspects but also much that is individual and personal.