The “golden mountain” — this memoir’s name for America — is the place to make your fortune, at least for Irene Kai’s family. But venturing there, for women, doesn’t loosen the cords of a Chinese tradition that mandates subservience, self-sacrifice, and submission to men.

The Golden Mountain, winner of numerous awards, including 2005 Best Book of the Year by ForeWord Magazine, offers a vivid portrayal of four generations of Chinese women attempting to live within the confines of their culture.

Through her portrayal of the first three generations — the author’s mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother, Kai attests to her savvy as a narrator and offers an admirable tribute to her female ancestors. Kai’s memoir begins with the story of her great-grandmother, Wong Oi, a peasant woman who believed, for most of her life in China and Hong Kong, that journeying for a month is better than studying for three days.

With dreams of earning fortunes in the golden mountain, Wong Oi’s husband and eldest son leave her and the other children for 10 years. Wong Oi vicariously journeys with them through the elevated status that having family in the United States brings her. Knowing that her family’s lot (read: wealth and status) will improve, particularly under her guidance, Wong Oi accepts, even embraces, their departure.

The results, we discover through the stunning landscape Kai paints of her great-grandmother’s newfound lavish life, pay off.

Wong Oi, for instance, sips Jasmine tea in her new mansion’s garden while gossiping with relatives. Similarly, when rebels disrupt this life of luxury by destroying the homes and land of the wealthy, Wong Oi’s family included, we see Wong Oi’s family resettle in Hong Kong, and more tellingly, Wong Oi struggling to regain her social status. She attempts to do so, most notably, by demanding her husband take a concubine, a tradition of rich families in China. But while the concubine helps Wong Oi win back her status, she brings Wong Oi great misery: Her husband, we discover, prefers the concubine, leaving Wong Oi to retaliate in the only way she knows how: by emotionally torturing his mistress. Wong Oi’s suffering is the price she pays, Kai skillfully demonstrates, for her strict adherence to tradition and her refusal to embrace changing Chinese family expectations.

Gendering women

While Chinese family expectations may change, Kai suggests that the women in her family — beginning with her grandmother, Choi Kum — are subjected to strict gender roles. Choi Kum, for example, does not have her feet bound, inviting perpetual teasing by her cousins, who claim she will never find a man willing to marry her. Similarly, when Choi Kum expresses remorse at Chinese patrilocal marriage customs, her mother responds with the axioms: “Know your place and accept your fortune”; “Silence is a virtue”; “You will have an easier life if you bend with the wind.” Bending is exactly what Choi Kum does as she mothers 10 children, most born less than 15 months apart, and works 12-hour days — including the day after her first child is born.

Things begin to change for Kai’s mother, Margaret, who is the first to rebel against her elders’ advice. Demonstrating the significance of this generation gap / cultural tide, Kai goes to great lengths to develop this contrast between the older and newer generations. While the first part of Kai’s memoir describes the self-effacing Choi Kum and the traditionalist Wong Oi, the second part reveals that the two elder women are essentially foils to Margaret and Irene Kai. Margaret is a fighter: She loses some, she wins some. But she clearly has no intention of surrendering her voice. At 15 she pleads with her mother to let her marry for love “like the Americans,” but is promised nevertheless to James, Choi Kum’s eldest son, who sleeps around and becomes addicted to opium. Despite the gossip and shame it brings to the family, Margaret retaliates by also taking on lovers.

As we discover, the author follows in her mother’s footsteps, rebelling to become an independent woman. She seeks a master’s degree and eventually leaves her abusive and controlling husband. But it is the culmination of this rebellion — the writing and publication of The Golden Mountain — that is perhaps the greatest rebellion of all, the ultimate challenge to the taboo of revealing family secrets.

But for all of her transgressions, Kai characterizes herself in terms that are anything but defiant. Instead, Kai, in the book’s greatest shortcoming, depicts herself as a victim of life, men, and family. She recalls, for instance, being beaten with a green stick and expected to care for her younger sister. Irene’s mother, Margaret, tells others, “She just has a face that begs to be hated,” calls her “Crying bag,” and yells, “You are as stupid as a pig.” Meanwhile, Kai is used and abused by men, being sexually assaulted by her uncle and grandfather and subjected to lascivious teachers, emotionally crippling boyfriends, and a vicious husband. As her memoir reveals, neither Kai’s family nor her culture ever taught her this behavior might be wrong, even though much of this part of Kai’s life takes place during the second and third waves of the feminist movement.

Kai only makes the delineation between sexualized and gendered rights and wrongs when she is much older, despite the feminist force of her era, which asserted that domestic violence is a social problem, rape and sexual assault are crimes, and the personal is political.

The book’s flaw, then, isn’t merely the position Kai found herself in her younger days. It’s also in the telling she does as a theoretically liberated adult woman. With the majority of The Golden Mountain conveying Kai’s sorrow, the author gives preference to her own victimization by various forces such as the art industry, university students and professors, and a husband that systematically eradicates her sense of self. Although Kai was most likely both a victim and a fighter, she downplays her triumphs in The Golden Mountain. The end result of Kai’s disavowal of personal triumphs — at least for this reader — is a depressing mischaracterization of human nature, typically full of the wretched and the golden, the shadows and the lights. The ending is thus anything but cathartic — or golden.

To read Laura Madeline Wiseman’s interview with Irene Kai, please click here.

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