Silvey Chan lives above a shop in Auckland's downtown Chinese district. Hers is a close-knit community with its own traditions and festivals - and even a neighbourhood ghost. New Zealand is at war when Silvey starts her diary, but for Silvey this is just a backdrop to the main issues of her world - the closure of her school and the arrival of Chinese-American soldiers.
Included in the book are archive photographs of Auckland's Chinatown during this period.
This story resonated with me because I am familiar with all the places referred to throughout the book. I lived for some time in Symonds Street, which is within walking distance of Newmarket and Greys Avenue. I had friends who lived in one of the blocks of flats in Greys Avenue and visited there on many occasions, witnessing the gradual "modernisation" of the area. Many of my friends were of Asian heritage; growing up, I was surrounded by families of different origins which inspired a lifelong interest in and respect for different cultural traditions and values. My own family included immigrants on both sides, welcoming the opportunities afforded by a new start in New Zealand, as well as Maori. And I have always been proud of my own mixed heritage.
What I really like about the book is the honesty with which the main character, Silvey, is portrayed. She comes across as a true kiwi - she talks and interacts with her friends just as any NZ pre-teen does, but also contributes the influence her own upbringing has on her world perspective. The back story is well researched, offering a glimpse into wartime Auckland which those who lived at that time will relate to. For that reason, I believe that older people will enjoy this story just as much as a young person coming across it for the first time. Although I am not old enough to remember these days, I do remember older members of my family talking about things like rationing and the arrival of the American troops.
Once I had finished reading the book myself, I asked Miss 12 to give me her opinion on it. I was in the South Island at the time and she lives near Gabriel's Gully in Otago, so she has an interest in the stories of the Chinese gold diggers who came here in the 1860s. She is also fascinated by "real-life" stories of growing up in New Zealand. I asked her if she could read it within three days so I could get her opinion to include in my review. She did better than that - it was returned next day with a request to ask for her feedback any time as she could not put it down!
Miss 12 liked the way that Silvey tells the story in her own words. She appreciated the way that the story was written in diary entries - as she said, it was just like reading someone's online blog, but you could access it offline. A very 21st-century comment, but one that is also very real because kids her age are comfortable with this format and find they respond to it on a personal level. Being the same age as Silvey, Miss 12 also liked the hint that there was a "boyfriend" around: this is also part of her world where there is just a suggestion of the adult self starting to appear. She did not have any problems with the occasional Chinese words as they were explained in context, and most of them were also included in the glossary at the end of the book as well.
Finally, the photographs and historical comments at the end of the book were most interesting. It is a shame the photos could not be enhanced more as they were difficult to see, but given their age this is to be expected. The photograph of the miners at Kyeburn could have been taken anywhere in Otago - I have seen similar prints of miners in Arrowtown and Cromwell, and many other places in this area that I visit frequently. These photos evoke an era which, in retrospect, was harsh; where life was unbelievably challenging. It is amazing to think that anyone survived this lifestyle at all.
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