By Samantha Pak
Northwest Asian Weekly
Isle of Dreams
By Keizo Hino
Dakley Archive Press, 2010
Shozo Sakai hasn’t seen much change in his life.
He’s worked at the same construction firm for years, he has no ambitions of moving up the corporate ladder or pursuing a specific career, and he has lived in the same place for decades. Except for the occasional bouts of loneliness, even his wife’s death has done little to interrupt his day-to-day life.
In his spare time, Shozo likes to wander around Tokyo and admire the city’s great architecture. Eventually, the middle-aged widower discovers the Isle of Dreams. Contrary to its name, the isle is actually a piece of reclaimed land in Tokyo Bay that the city uses to dump garbage. But for Shozo, the landfill is a place of wonder. He sees every piece of garbage as being filled with life and beauty. And through his visits to this garbage paradise, he meets Yoko Hayashi, a young woman who uses the site as a motorcycle obstacle course.
As Shozo and Yoko spend more time together, Shozo begins to feel changes within himself — becoming more of who he thinks he really is, rather than the person he has been. Shozo also begins to see his city change, as Yoko shows him another side of Tokyo he’s never seen before — a Tokyo far from the high rises and dense population.
The phrase, “one man’s garbage is another man’s treasure” rings especially true in “Isle of Dreams,” as Hino describes Shozo’s observations at the landfill in great detail. Discarded mannequins, children’s shoes, and even old spaghetti can be seen as beautiful and full of life, if we just look.
Hino also shows that it is never too late to figure out who you are. His wife’s death may not have led him directly to the Isle of Dreams, but it was through the free time Shozo gained as a bachelor that brought him to that chance encounter with Yoko and on his journey of self discovery.
In the Lap of the Gods
By Li Miao Lovett
Leapfrog Press, 2010
Liu Renfu has lost all that is dear to him. His wife, unborn child, and home now lie beneath the waters of the Three Gorges Dam, and the former coal worker has been reduced to scavenging as a way to make a living.
It is through this scavenging that he comes across a baby girl, abandoned on the side of the road as a dam rises on the Yangtze River. Liu takes the baby in and begins the journey of a man struggling to make a living in modern China.
Along the way, we meet more individuals trying to move on — or not move on — after suffering their own losses: Mr. Wu, an old man trying to reconnect with a past love from a previous lifetime; Mei Ling, the young woman working to get by in the city, while sending money home to her estranged family; Rose, the confused infant with vague memories of a mother she never really knew; and the villagers who refuse to leave their family homes despite the danger of the rising dam.
Despite all that they face, the characters continue with their daily lives, reminding readers that life goes on, even if we don’t. And, while things may seem bleak, “In the Lap of the Gods” also shows us that once we work to move on, we can come to appreciate the things we have all the more.
This is what happens to Liu as he bonds with his adopted daughter Rose. Having never had the opportunity to know his biological child, Liu’s growing relationship with the foundling — after initially contemplating selling her — is the foundation of the story, showing readers some good can come from even the worst situations.
It is also a story about the culture clash between old China and new China. The story will have readers contemplating the cost of progress and wondering whether all the technological advances we have made are really worth it, if it means the loss of jobs, homes, and in some cases, humanity.
A Hundred Flowers
By Gail Tsukiyama
St. Martin’s Press, 2012
In 1957, Chairman Mao has declared a new openness in China, “Let a hundred flowers bloom. Let a hundred schools of thought contend.”
Many intellectuals are skeptical, suspecting a trick. Kai Ying’s husband Sheng, a schoolteacher, has promised to not do anything to endanger their son Tao, but just before Tao’s sixth birthday, Sheng is arrested for writing a letter criticizing the Communist Party. Sheng is sent to a labor camp for “re-education,” while his family must continue with their lives.
One year later, Tao breaks his leg while climbing the old kapok tree in front of their home.
In the aftermath of her son’s injury, her husband’s absence and the sudden addition of Sunyi, a teenage girl who unexpectedly shows up and gives birth to a baby girl at their home, Kai Ying tries to hold her family together.
“A Hundred Flowers” is the story of a family working to get through a difficult time and while the loss they feel is not through a death, the uncertainty about whether Sheng is alive, is worse. During a time when things could fall apart, the family eventually pulls together, even as guilty secrets are revealed and arguments arise.
On the surface, Kai Ying’s family seems fairly average. They’re just one of many families struggling amidst China’s Cultural Revolution. But what Tsukiyama does throughout the story is show that even ordinary, everyday people can do extraordinary things when the time calls for it. This serves as a reminder to readers that we are capable of more than we think — an inspiring message for anyone going through a hard time. (end)
Samantha Pak can be reached at email@example.com.