Amy Tan The Joy Luck Club The Kitchen God’s Wife

Article Posted in: Research Articles

Hope Against Hopelessness: A Study of Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club and The Kitchen God’s Wife

Ashvamegh : October 2015 : Issue IX : Research Papers

by – Dr. C. Isaac Jebastine and Sweta Ravindran

The Joy Luck Club (1989) and The Kitchen God’s Wife (1991) written by the Chinese-American novelist, Amy Tan, portrays the lives of the Chinese migrants in the United States. She delineates the diasporic experiences of the Chinese-American women protagonists of these novels. These Chinese families face a lot of difficulties in the host land the United States, but instead of lamenting their plight they try to find a little joy and luck in their endeavour. By forming traditional Chinese Mah-Jong clubs, wearing Chinese traditional clothing, and eating Chinese traditional food they try to preserve certain aspects of their national tradition. They are eager to preserve the little Chineseness left in them.

The Joy Luck Club consists of sixteen intermingled stories of four mothers and four daughters.  The four mothers, Suyuan Woo, An-mei Hsu, Lindo Jong, and Ying Ying St. Clair form a club called the Joy Luck and they have a get-together once in a week wearing traditional Chinese dresses and playing the traditional Mah-Jong game while gossiping about the other Chinese families. The daughters Jing-mei Woo, Rose Hsu Jordan, Waverly Jong and Lena St. Clair do not understand the efforts of their mothers to preserve the Chinese tradition and are not appreciative of their mothers’ obsession with the native culture. Jing-mei Woo, Suyuan Woo’s daughter says: “I never thought my mother’s Kweilin Story was anything but a Chinese fairy tale” (15). The American-bred Chinese daughters are ashamed of their native culture. Jing-mei Woo, Suyuan’s daughter in the novel says that “In those days, before my mother told me her Kweilin story, I imagined Joy Luck was a shameful Chinese custom…” (19).

The Kitchen God’s Wife deals with the diasporic experiences of Winnie Louie, a first-generation Chinese-American, and her daughter, Pearl Louie. Winnie Louie and her friend Helen, who are first-generation immigrants from China, live in a place called Rose Alley which is filled with Chinese people, Chinese shops and Chinese restaurants. In order to preserve their native culture and tradition in the host country, the first-generation emigrants, Winnie and Helen, live with other migrants as a community but Pearl Louie wishes to lose her Chinese identity as she is attracted more to the Western ideals. Pearl talks to herself while walking through the Chinatown as if she is not part of the town. And Pearl further says that even a Chinese girl looks at me “as if I don’t belong here, which is how I feel” (18).

Martin Livingston in his article “Hope and Hopelessness in Group Psychotherapy” says:

Hope and hopelessness are inherently related feeling states. They are intense, serious, meaningful, and a key part of any growth process -in fact, of life itself. They must be faced and experienced. In the end they are simply feelings –experiences to be stayed with, expressed and explored. In time, like all feelings, they pass or transform. (15)

The Chinese immigrants live with the hope for a better future, a future without wars. Life cannot be lived without hope and these Chinese emigrants have a strong desire to live life with hope even though they frequently encounter distressing situations and hopeless circumstances.

In the novel, The Joy Luck Club, the characters, Suyuan Woo and her friends, host a party every week in order to instil hope into their despairing spirits. Suyuan Woo says, “And each week, we could hope to be lucky. That hope was our only joy. And that’s how we came to call our little parties Joy Luck” (14). To the Chinese, to be in despair is to wish to get back something that is lost. Therefore, they try to forget their miseries by remembering the joyful moments that they had in the past.

In The Kitchen God’s Wife, Winnie tries to forget Wen Fu, but she is reminded of him every time when she looks at her daughter, Pearl, and wishes that her daughter Pearl does not inherit the characteristics of her biological father, Wen Fu, her first husband. But when Pearl is young she rebels against Winnie and Winnie sees Wen Fu’s character imbibed in Pearl. Winnie says to Pearl, “ ‘You were like a wild person,’ she said. ‘You stamped your feet, and yelled at me, shouting, ‘Beach! Beach!’ I said to myself, Where does this temper come from? And then I thought, Ai-ya! Wen Fu!’ ” (400).

Before migration, the characters, Suyuan Woo, An-mei Hsu, Ying Ying St. Clair, and Lindo Jong, in the novel, The Joy Luck Club, constantly hope to escape from their war-ravaged homeland. Likewise, in The Kitchen God’s Wife, Winnie hopes to escape from the war-torn China as well as from her sadist husband. And eventually, when the characters do get a chance to migrate to the United States, they hope to provide their children with a better living place, filled with successful dreams. The part titled “Feathers from a Thousand LI Away” in the novel, The Joy Luck Club, begins with a small story of a woman, migrating to America filled with hope and she expresses her optimism as follows:

In America I will have a daughter just like me. But over there nobody will say her worth is measured by the loudness of her husband’s blech. Over there nobody will look down on her, because I will make her speak only perfect American English. And over there she will always be too full to swallow any sorrow! She will know my meaning, because I will give her this swan –a creature that became more than what was hoped for. (5)

Suyuan Woo loses her twin babies in the war in China while trying to escape to the United States. Her search for her children never comes to an end. She keeps on sending letters to her relatives in China asking them to help her locate her lost children, and she is doing it till her death with unfailing faith. While explaining this to June Woo, Auntie Ying says, “She knew they were alive, and before she died she wanted to find her daughters in China” (33). The Chinese women, even during a phase of utter hopelessness, do not lose hope. Suyuan Woo, after losing everything, including her babies, cries to Canning Woo, her future husband:

“Look at this face,” she said, and I saw her dusty face and hollow cheeks, her eyes shining back, “Do you see my foolish hope?”

“I thought I had lost everything, except these two things,” she murmured. “And I wondered which I would lose next. Clothes or hope? Hope or clothes?” (346)

Even when she is in a state of absolute hopelessness, she keeps a family photograph, with a message written on it asking the one who finds the babies to take care of them with the valuables and money that she has left behind. Although there is no guarantee that she herself will be alive till then, her hope makes her act in this manner.

The mothers, Suyuan Woo and her friends in The Joy Luck Club, and Winnie in The Kitchen God’s Wife who are the first-generation emigrants, speak broken English, and therefore, they are not able to communicate effectively with their daughters June Woo and Pearl. They hope for a future in which they can speak good English, so that they can narrate to their daughters their past. The dream of building a better and more prosperous future for their daughters in their country preoccupies the minds of the first-generation immigrant mothers. They expect their daughters to rise in status and excel in every walk of life. There is always hope for a much better status.

In the novel, The Kitchen God’s Wife, Winnie finds out that her daughter is suffering from Multiple Sclerosis, and so she plans for a trip to China, hoping to find a cure for her daughter pearl’s disease. Even though Pearl reveals that there is no cure for Multiple Sclerosis, Winnie strongly believes that the Chinese traditional medicine would cure her daughter’s disease. The reason for her ailment, according to Winnie, is the identity crisis in Pearl’s life. Winnie and Helen plan for a trip to China to obtain Chinese traditional medicine to cure Pearl’s sickness. Helen reveals this plan to Pearl: “We are going to buy Chinese medicine,” … ‘Chinese medicine can cure anything’” (407).

The same kind of undiminishing hope is not found in the second-generation American-bred daughters. The Western lifestyle has made them cynical about everything. The daughters are not concerned with the truths of the past and the hopes of their mothers. Their inability to understand their mothers’ struggles in America leaves the first-generation mothers filled with fear. June Woo, in The Joy Luck Club, talks about the fear that the mother figures have, as follows: “They see that joy and luck do not mean the same to their daughters, that to these closed American-born minds “joy luck” is not a word, it does not exist. They see daughters who bear grandchildren born without any connecting hope passed from generation to generation” (35).

The first-generation women protagonists have undergone so much suffering before and after migrating to the United States. The will-power to endure the suffering while hoping for a better future is a remarkable characteristic of these Chinese women. Even amidst adverse and inimical circumstances, the first-generation Chinese mothers hope to find a little joy and luck for a better life that is, for a brighter and more prosperous future. As the daughters are more inclined to Western ideals, they disregard their native culture and tradition. The mothers, throughout the novels, are hopeful that one day the daughters will understand the value of their native tradition and culture and come back to the roots.


Works Cited


Livingston, Martin. “Hope and Hopelessness in Group Psychotherapy.” Group28.1 (2004):

15-29. jstor. Web. 3 Sept. 2015.

Tan, Amy. The Joy Luck Club. New York: Putnam’s, 1989. Print.

—. The Kitchen God’s Wife. New York: Putnam, 1991. Print.

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