Reading Response to Joss and Gold by Shirley Geok-lin Lim
photo credit: Shirley Geok-lin Lim
Ellen is not a protagonist in Joss and Gold, but she does play a very crucial role as the story unfolds. Without a doubt, Shirley Geok-Lin Lim paid particular attention to the construction of this character, as we can see how dramatic transformations have taken place by looking at the changes of Ellen’s life trajectory throughout the story. Although Ellen was depicted quite differently in Crossing and Landing, the first and the last parts of the story, it does not affect readers’ general understanding of the plot. In fact, it is the distinction of Ellen in each part of the book that has helped readers in grasping the panorama of the conflicts between the major characters. More importantly, Ellen herself is a very complex character, which successfully reflects the social context of Malaysia and Singapore in a vivid and authentic way.
Playing the role of both father and mother, Ellen, who made the family stable and complete, was indispensable despite the fact that she had neither blood connection nor a legal relationship with any of the family members. Ostensibly, Ellen treated Suyin as her niece since she deemed Li An as her sister. However, Ellen was far beyond an Aunt— “An aunt had many responsibilities and no claims.” She acted like a real mother since Li An was not able to take care of her daughter due to her heavy workload. In the meantime, Ellen also played the role of a father when Suyin required but did not have one, as we can tell from many facts demonstrated in the story: It was Ellen who took Li An and Suyin back home when Henry abandoned them in the hospital when Suyin was just born. It was also Ellen who took care of the family by supporting Li An, Suyin as well Grandma Yeh economically and psychologically before and after the weird family moved to Singapore.
Without Ellen’s network to find her friend a decent job, Li An would probably remain an uninitiated little English teacher who did not know much about the society and could hardly stand on her own feet. It is also surprising that Ellen treated Suyin so strictly by devoting her life that full of love. Not to mention her relationship with Grandma Yeh, who was traumatized by the 1965 Riot and thus did not dare to stay in the house alone at night. Ellen’s presence in the family was so natural but should never be taken for granted. It is important to know that no one imposed any family responsibilities to her, nor did she have any moral obligation to the family. But still, Ellen was both sister and husband to Li An, both aunt, and father to Suyin, both son, and daughter to Grandma Yeh, notwithstanding she was just a friend, a friend that could have been indifferent.
People might explain Ellen’s life choice by emphasizing the selflessness that existed in her personality. Nevertheless, I do believe that Ellen had something more than simply being helpful and responsible. While living as an indispensable member of Li An’s family, Ellen also emotionally attached herself to the people of whom she was taking care. “In fact, she is grateful to Li An for handing her this responsibility…she was living it the way she wanted to.” Even Ellen’s mother could not understand why Ellen was content with her life, perhaps nobody else either except herself. Ellen was not lonely at all after filling up her time by giving all her love to Suyin. She did nag a lot about Suyin’s rebellious behavior in her early adolescence, but she never actually complained. Instead of fulfilling the ‘responsibilities’ of Li An’s Family, I would rather believe it was Ellen herself who chose to live without getting married. She used to be a very attractive girl, and “men usually stared at her with a watering mouth.” She just never met the one in her life, exactly like she never liked any of the boys in the university. However, Ellen’s emotional needs were satisfied by taking care of Li An’s family that she loves, and being loved by, the family that she cares. Both the responsibility she shouldered and the love she received made her sacrifice worthwhile and meaningful.
Ellen and Li An’s relationship, which went further beyond sisterhood, was one of the most significant keys in the story. As I mentioned above, Ellen was both sister and ‘husband’ to Li An. “Ellen was happy to be needed; her usefulness was a great part of Li An’s love.” Li An even expressed her gratitude with love to Ellen directly, although Ellen never admits that women can love each other. ‘Protector’ is probably a better word to describe Ellen’s role in her interactions with Li An, no matter in mid-60s Malaysia or Singapore twelve years later. Ellen foresaw that Li An’s sightseeing motor ride with Chester would eventually lead to an inevitable love affair, as she reminded Li An with a joking tone, “You’d better not see any sights at night. At night all colors look the same”. Needless to say, how greatly has Ellen suffered from the pain of losing her best friend Gina, it is possible that Ellen fully devoted herself to Li An’s life because she does not want to see Li An’s collapse after Henry refused to take the baby home. Therefore, she rearranged Li An’s life by bringing her to Singapore and found her a job to survive. To protect Li An, Ellen was very cautious when Chester turned up again. She was worried that Li An would get hurt by Chester, as she warned:”Now she (Suyin) will simply meet this romantic man, her American father, who walks in so late, and she will never come back to us!”
However, the relationship between the two sisters also changed slightly as Li An grew up and mature into a more independent professional woman. “Sometimes Ellen was impatient with Li An for being a dreamer,” while “Li An was tired of her nagging.” This was particularly so in dealing with Chester’s showing up when Li An revealed her ‘not-so-secret self’ as a woman “to be withholding, withheld from everyone” and confused by Ellen’s incredulity. It seemed that to some extent, Ellen needed Li An so much more than vice versa. Ellen’s mental pillars of being generous and sacrificing largely based on Li An’s dependence, obedience, and even cowardice—“Ellen knew cowardice and dreaming were not very different from each other, but she preferred Li An as a coward. She presented fewer problems then.”
Ellen’s love to Suyin could be regarded as the extension of her love to Li An—she tried very hard to prevent Suyin from getting injured by any possible hazard. Ellen guarded Suyin so carefully whenever she could, especially in the meeting with Chester, as we can tell that Ellen became ridiculously talkative to get avoid of direct conversations between Chester and Suyin. Moreover, Ellen made great efforts to let Suyin live a normal life by any means just like other children in ordinary families. This is why she always picked Suyin up from school and paid a lot of attention to not only Suyin’s study, but her healthy growth as well. It is so striking that Ellen once asked Li An not to intervene Suyin’s life when Suyin was discriminated in a school play: “Don’t fight Suyin’s battles for her…she will always be treated as different!”
Ellen is also a great representation of the dual identity of overseas Chinese. In the Malaysian chapters, Ellen was portrayed as a spoiled and deeply westernized girl from a wealthy Chinese merchant’s family. She could not read Chinese, but longed for the American way of life and was very eager to imitate French accent. Ellen drank beer, read Western magazines, flirted with Western customers in her father’s bookstore and kept changing her jobs—all these characteristics constructed a wild image which was unacceptable in traditional Chinese culture. “Gina was so Chinese,” it was how Ellen summarized her best friend’s death, which precisely demonstrated her understanding of ‘Chineseness.’ By contrast, Ellen’s ‘Chinese’ side was highlighted in the Singaporean chapters of the book. So loyal was Ellen to her favorite Cantonese shows, and it was even more noticeable how Ellen explained Chinese ancestral worship to Suyin by introducing the hungry ghosts and spirits in the Seventh Month. Ironically, it was also Ellen, the bad-temper Auntie Ellen who “had grown up reading all the comics and Western magazines,” threw out Suyin’s Seventeenth magazines—Ellen adopted the Chinese way to educate Suyin, didn’t she?
The title ‘Joss and Gold’ only appeared once in the book, which was narrated by using Ellen’s perspective at the time when she went to clean the ancestral grave sites with her own family on Ching Ming. Burning joss and gold papers is a ritual conducted by Chinese families to commemorate their ancestors. Undoubtedly, such kind of ritual practice has a strong implication of kinship. However, as it was indicated in the chapter, “she (Ellen) was no longer curious (about the ancestors’ names). She was satisfied to know them only as past relations.” Yes, this was so true for the four women’s family as well, as we can make a direct projection from the gradually fading sense of ancestral worship: it doesn’t matter who is or is not living in the family, perhaps the genetic connections are not that important either. People should be content with their life as long as they are bonded with each other by shared love and responsibility. It is just like what Ellen said to Suyin:”What do you want with ghosts and spirits and ancestor worship? We are modern, Suyin. Now we have the right to live our lives exactly the way we wanted to.”