San Francisco & Sui Sin Far’s Mrs. Spring Fragrance, Part One: Chinatown

IMG_0971I was in San Francisco recently, and as I was preparing for the trip I knew I would have a few days by myself to explore the city. As a good Americanist, I thought about some literary/historical activities that I could do. A few people suggested that I check out City Lights and some of the other Beat hangouts. I did this and found City Lights to be lovely. I also made about twenty “South of the Slot” references, which were not as interesting to anyone else as they were to me. What I really wanted to explore, though, were some outings which would might assist me in teaching. I took this trip right before school started, so I had lesson planning directly on my mind. I’m teaching stories from Sui Sin Far’s Mrs. Spring Fragrance this semester, and the idea occurred to me to visit Chinatown and the Asian Art Museum. Sui Sin Far was born in England and lived in New York, Montreal, Jamaica, and Boston. But she did make a ten year pitstop on the U.S. west coast—living in both Seattle and San Francisco—so I thought I found an apt time to think about her life, her stories, and some of the places she may have experienced.

In Part One, I will reflect on visiting Chinatown and teaching stories from Mrs. Spring Fragrance in conjunction with that visit. In Part Two, I will add my experience in the Asian Art Museum into the mix.

Chinatown is a popular destination in San Francisco if the other tourists walking the streets and taking pictures is any indication. What I was struck by in Chinatown was the intricate detail on the facades on many buildings and the juxtaposition of new and old materials, signs, and infrastructure. The piercing blue sky in the photos above is not intrinsic to Chinatown but certainly had a nice effect on the reds, greens, and golds of the streets.

I enjoyed my walk through Chinatown, but I did not really leave with any understanding into how going there might help me teach Sui Sin Far. Does visiting a place an author might have been really give you any insight into the person or their texts? I’m not sure going to the Mount, for example, would really tell me anything about Edith Wharton. But I would go to the Mount if presented with the opportunity, and I would pretend I was Willa Cather if I was in Red Cloud, so what are we seeking when we visit sites connected to literature?  In The Toast (RIP The Toast), Allison O’Toole writes that we want to know that the fiction we read is “connected to our real world in some way.” As I thought about that idea, I realized that it made sense in terms of my understanding of why I planned my trip as I did. Visiting a place where an author might have been takes their existence from the theoretical to the concrete. I don’t need to visit a place to know that Sui Sin Far existed, but maybe reflecting on that place could help me and then my students draw connections between the world she presents us in her fiction and the contemporary world of our existence.

The University of Minnesota Voices from the Gaps profile of Far says that “Sui Sin Far’s literary projects examined issues of hybridity, institutional racism and sexism,” and thinking about that conception of her writing in relation to visiting San Francisco, I wonder if it is also important to bear witness to places connected to marginalized groups of people. By this I mean, that writers from dominant groups live in spaces that present themselves constantly in our imaginations. I don’t need to visit Key West to understand how Hemingway might have lived there, but seeking out Sui Sin Far helps a piece of her reality take up space in my brain in a way that I did not necessarily have room for it before. She was the “first writer of Asian descent to have work published in America” and documenting her places might help us cement that. Yes, she was here, and she is as much a part of our literary history as any more mainstream turn of the century author.

In the classroom, I will share the images I took and discuss the history of San Francisco as it relates to immigration from Asia, since such immigration is a central occurrence in many of the stories in Mrs. Spring Fragrance. I will most likely use this post on Angel Island from Ben Railton to flesh out this discussion. He also has a book on the Chinese Exclusion Act. I haven’t read it yet, but if it is anything like his work on American Studier, I imagine it is very insightful.

But beyond background, I also want to use my images to help us close read the short stories in Mrs. Spring Fragrance. For the remainder of this post, I will present an image that I took in Chinatown and link it to a story from Mrs. Spring Fragrance. I will do this for two examples, but it could be repeated depending on the structure for the class period. This process could work as an introduction to the topic. You could present one or two images and have students discuss them as a way to get acquainted with Far, and then move on to more specific close readings not connected to the photographs. Or you can extend the activity so it becomes the entire lesson for the class. You could have students write for five minutes at the beginning of class about their reactions to one or two photographs, share their reactions with the class, and then working in groups or as a class find stories and/or passages that connect to the specific photographs they wrote about. This could also be the basis for a longer writing assignment where students use photographs from their lives or find photographs online that connect to literary or thematic elements of a story and then write an essay analyzing the connections between the photographs and the texts.

img_0960I picked the first photograph because of the way the hanging lanterns emphasize the two stories of the building and the fire escape. The lanterns are the main feature of the photograph, but the way they match the red brick and mimic the white squares on the facade highlights the green of the fire escape and the white arches above the windows. This reminds me of Far’s short story “The Chinese Lily,” where the character, Sin Far, sacrifices herself in a fire to save Mermei, the sister of her love, Lin John.

This image helps us understand the story in two ways: 1) Mermei is an observer. She is described by the story as “crippled” from an accident when she was young. She does not live her life out in the world but from behind her window. This isn’t a very descriptive story, but the most description comes from Mermei staring out of her window. She sees, “two yellow-robed priests,” “a litte bird with a white breast,” “a man carrying an image of a Gambling Cash Tiger,” and girls “dressed gaily as if to attend a wedding.” Students can talk about these moments of description and analyze why Far emphasizes looking and seeing as a common feature of Mermei’s character. What value does observation have? How do we reward doing over seeing in fiction and/or in everyday life? 2) When there is a fire at her apartment, Lin John saves Mermei instead of her neighbor and his love, Sin Far. This photograph will help students visualize the moment of crisis when Lin John realizes that he can save only one. He climbs up a ladder and locks eyes with Sin Far who appears to give her tacit approval to save Mermei. The story ends with Lin John reassuring Mermei that he did the right thing; he says, “And I-I did my duty with her approval, aye, at her bidding. How then, little sister, can I be sad?” Students  can discuss sacrifice, duty, and family in this moment, and I think the image gives them support when trying to imagine the choice that the characters were making. Far describes the choice with an economy of language, so the reader needs to slow themselves down in order to consider the implications of this moment. A focus on the image allows for that slowing process.

img_0958This next photograph reminds me of the cross-dressing character in “The Smuggling of Tie Co.” The  story tells of Jack Fabian who is an “amongst the daring men who engage in contrabanding Chinese from Canada into the United States.” This story is rather short but has an intricate plot. Fabian falls into hard times as the smuggling business is not as profitable as it once was, and then a young man, Tie Co, offers to pay a substantial fee to be smuggled across the border. As they are traveling through the woods to their destination, Tie Co realizes they are being followed and flings himself into a river so Fabian will not be caught smuggling and, therefore, not go to jail. It is revealed after Tie Co’s dead body washes up on shore that Tie Co was really a woman. No one seems to have known that and all we are have at the end is Fabian who is left to consider “the mystery of Tie Co’s life—and death.”

In the image, the focus on dress is the first way that I made a connection to “The Smuggling of Tie Co.” Because all of the colors in the painting/statue are similar, the intricate details and patterns on the clothes stand out. With Tie Co in mind, we are asked to think about what clothing hides and what clothing reveals. What facade do we present to the world through our clothing? I am also interested in the juxtaposition between all of the faces on the building with the statue stands stoically in front. This makes me ask questions about the face we show to the world. I imagine all of these images as different versions of the same person. The statue is showing the visage that one would like to project, while the other images behind show potential alternate versions of the expressions the statue could wear. Finally, it isn’t noticeable from the picture, but this was on the second story of the building. I felt a slightly uncanny feeling while looking up at this statue, which was in a line with other similar statues. The statue looks stern and determined and also perched as if about to make a choice. Can we see this statue as a vision of Tie Co before making the decision to leap into the water to spare Fabian?

As I mentioned above, I think using these images will be very helpful to generate thoughts and discussions in the classroom setting. I’m glad that I planned my trip with this possibility in mind. I took all of the photos in this post with my trusty iphone. Here is a link to the rest of them which were taken on my walk through Chinatown to City Lights. If you are interested in using the images in your classroom, please feel free to do so. And if you do use them, or other photographs in a similar manner, please let us know about your classroom experience with these kinds of lessons.








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