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Nineteenth-century Chinese Canadian-American writer Sui Sin Far, whose works were rediscovered by Asian American activists some one hundred years after she completed them, has long been a controversial artistic personage. Born Edith Maude Eaton in 1865 to an English trader and a Chinese missionary, Sui Sin Far grew up in Montreal and worked as a reporter, publishing stories about the city’s Chinese community. After a brief stint in Jamaica, she moved to the United States, where she began writing about the Chinese American experience.

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Although Sui Sin Far rejected racist expectations that she wear “Chinese costume” in her own professional life, later authors still criticized her for “the stereotype of the Chinese as laundryman, prostitute, smuggler, coolie” in her articles and stories, as well as for portrayals of “‘John Chinaman’ as little more than a comic caricature.”

“Despite her best efforts, in other words, Sui Sin Far could not quite write as a Chinese American even though she was herself of Chinese descent,” writes literary scholar Min Hyoung Song. “[A]s a result, she could only be sympathetic (as opposed to empathetic) with their lives as a concerned outsider.”

But, wading into the debate between cultural nationalist and feminist interpretations of Sui Sin Far’s legacy, Song suggests that she can also be read against another literary tradition: Christian sentimental fiction, a genre focused on “public displays of private pain” popular at the time.

Sui Sin Far’s hit short story collection Mrs. Spring Fragrance often showcases characters’ emotional responses “in the face of grievous loss,” which Song notes “might be seen as the unfortunate result of the popular-culture mentality encouraged by sentimentalism.” On the other hand, “sentimentalism enabled Sui Sin Far to posit alternative modes of existence that run counter to accepted, and mostly masculinist, assumptions about individual subjectivity and capitalist practice.”

Scholars of sentimental fiction have hotly debated whether the overtly Christian genre redirects readers away from actively advocating social change toward a focus on passive relief efforts or if the genre can be used in a more sophisticated way, to mobilize readers on a mass scale.

As Sui Sin Far’s stories “draw heavily on a recognizable sentimental literary tradition,” writes Song, they “provide us with an opportunity to assess the different views” of American sentimentalism. For instance, in the mawkish six-page tale “The Chinese Lily,” Lin John must choose between saving his disabled sister, Mermei, and his romantic interest, Sin Far—who shares her name with the author’s nom de plume—when their apartment block goes up in flames.

In the “explicitly didactic” story, Sin Far and Lin John are lauded “because family is valued over romantic love and, if read in the over-arching moral framework of Mrs. Spring Fragrance, because Sin Far’s physical sacrifice recalls the death of Christ,” Song explains.

One possible interpretation suggests that Lin John and Mermei will live out their days isolated and discouraged, “while their basic desire for a more middle-class mode of existence goes unfulfilled.” However, Song argues that Sui Sin Far presents a “pragmatic and conservative” middle-class vision where “survival would have appeared the paramount good” for the siblings.

“Though the story does not offer her characters a way to struggle against their oppressive conditions,” he explains, “it does offer them something tangible to hold onto—each other’s company—when the alternative seems too futile or too dangerously utopian to imagine.”

So, even though stories from Mrs. Spring Fragrance may show “neither the desire to go beyond the constraints of sentimentalism nor the willingness to tap into its radical possibilities,” they still prioritize a social world of interpersonal connection, where grievous loss can both be experienced as a separation from community and reforge the community through shared pain.

In the context of sentimentalism, which is closely associated with women’s writing, Song suggests Sui Sin Far’s fiction offers a new way to understand “the feminization of Asian American culture.”

He adds, “Sentimentalism is the language through which Sui Sin Far speaks about the pain of separation from a community and the desire for an alternative kind of communion.”

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Legacy, Vol. 20, No. 1/2, Special 20th Anniversary Double Issue (2003), pp. 134–152
University of Nebraska Press