Icy Smith, illustrated by Gayle Garner Roski,
Mei Ling in China City
East West Discovery Press, 2008.
Mei Ling in China City transports readers to 1940’s Los Angeles where a young girl experiences the loss and hardship that attend wartime. Twelve year old Mei Ling corresponds with her Japanese American friend, Yayeko, who is held at the War Relocation Camp at Manzanar. Through the girls’ letters and Roski’s detailed watercolors, the harshness of Manzanar’s physical environment and the sadness of separation from home are conveyed. Left behind in Los Angeles, Mei Ling moves through the streets of China City, preparing for Chinese New Year’s Moon Festival and selling opera tickets and American flags to raise money for war relief efforts in China.
First time children’s author Icy Smith draws attention to the intense racism and severe deprivation of Asian and Asian American communities in America during World War II. Descriptions of life in China City, a neighborhood designed essentially for the amusement of tourists after the construction of Union Station demolished the Old Chinatown, reveal that rickshaw rides, fried rice and fortune-tellers were mostly established for visiting crowds of Americans. One revealing illustration of Chinese American children in traditional dress peddling American flags to white visitors enjoying some “authentic” Chinese food and entertainment points openly to the tired stereotypes. Dubbed “Chinese Movie Land,” China City’s residents were fodder for Hollywood casting agents too, and young Mei Ling is mindful of the artificial buildings. ‘In China City, it is interesting to see the traditional Chinese operas performed in English only, because most of the audience do not speak Chinese,’ she observes.
Based on a true story, Mei Ling in China City presents a slice of American history, but from the perspective of two distinct Asian communities - the Chinese and the Japanese. The extensive Author’s Note provides over 25 historical photographs of China City, many of which inspired Roski’s illustrations. It also gives a detailed history of China City, the Manzanar War Relocation Center and the United China Relief.
Younger children will likely focus on the girls’ friendship and the colorful descriptions of Moon Festival preparations, but the book’s subtlety will prompt older readers to explore more deeply the relationships between different countries and ethnic groups during the war.
Mei Ling in China City is available in English, bilingual English/Chinese and English/Japanese editions.
Kristen O. Daniel