Writing Home: Commentary

9. Sui Sin Far (Edith Maude Eaton)

Sui Sin Far (1865-1914), the first Chinese woman author in the United States, was a significant if often overlooked contributor to the literature of the Pacific Northwest. Born Edith Maude Eaton to a wealthy British father and a Chinese mother, Sui immigrated with her parents and siblings from England to eastern Canada in 1873. She grew up in Montreal and found work as a stenographer, typist, and free-lance journalist. By the 1890s her journalistic writing had begun to focus on the racist laws and practices that Chinese Canadians and Chinese Americans were subjected to. “I meet many Chinese persons,” she later wrote, “and when they get into trouble am often called upon to fight their battles in the papers. This I enjoy” (quoted in White-Parks 1995:30). She also adopted the name Sui Sin Far (“Narcissus” in Cantonese) and began to write short stories with Chinese American characters and Chinatown settings for publications such as the Land of Sunshine and the Overland Monthly. After working as a journalist for a year in the British colony of Jamaica, Sui decided to resettle in the United States. Her search for a healthy climate led her to California, and in 1898 she found a home in San Francisco’s Chinatown and employment as a typist. A year of homesickness led Sui back to Montreal for a short stay, but she returned west when a friend suggested that she could find lucrative work as a legal stenographer in the “old Siwash town,” Seattle (White-Parks 1995:41). Between 1900 and 1910, Sui continued to travel extensively—working under advertising contracts for the Canadian Pacific Railway, writing for Chinese American newspapers, gathering material for her short stories, and visiting her family in Montreal—but she spent most of her time living in Seattle’s small but growing Chinatown.

During these years of travel and writing, Sui produced dozens of articles and stories, many of which dealt with issues of acculturation and cultural conflict that she faced in her own life as a Eurasian woman—one who could have "passed" as white had she chosen to but instead insisted on finding her place and making her home within the Chinese American community. Sui had a deep interest in the everyday lives of the Chinese American residents of Seattle, San Francisco, and elsewhere, and she wanted to inject sympathetic stories about them into American literature. Writing at a time when most of the reading public knew Chinese Americans only through the sensationalist "Chinese stories" that presented "John Chinaman" as dirty and degraded if not sinister and evil, Sui's male and female characters were realistic and multi-dimensional. As literary historian Xiao-huang Yin argues, her stories, "composed in an intimate, descriptive tone and based on what she learned among Chinese immigrants, provide a panoramic, realistic view of the Chinese American community at the turn of the twentieth century." They explore "the issue of Chinese American identity, the contradictions between Westernized and tradition-oriented Chinese immigrants, the self-protective aspect of the Chinese community, the mental torment of Eurasians, and interracial marriage and its consequences. . ." (Yin 2000:86). Contemporary critics and scholars since have concluded that Sui's stories tackled these issues yet also attained a great degree of literary merit. Her writing style was simple and direct, her plots were neatly arranged, and her characters were compelling. The Chinatown settings of Sui's stories also achieved a degree of verisimilitude largely unmatched by contemporary white authors or even the handful of elite Chinese-American male authors who published books around the turn of the century.

The two stories we have included here, “Mrs. Spring Fragrance” and “The Inferior Woman,” reveal Sui’s life-long interests, literary abilities, and roots in Seattle’s Chinese-American community. Like Sui herself, the central character in these stories lived in Seattle and counted Chinese and white Americans among her friends and neighbors. More important, Sui Sin Far and Mrs. Spring Fragrance both cultivated strong, independent personalities and voices at a time when neither was expected of or attributed to Chinese American women.

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