The Concubine’s Children

Denise Chong


Welcome to the journey through “The Concubine’s Children” by Denise Chong 📚! This remarkable book, penned by the acclaimed Canadian author, dives into the heart-wrenching narrative of Chong’s own family, spanning generations and continents. Denise Chong, an economist turned writer, brings to life the complexities of her Chinese-Canadian heritage through this narrative.

Published in 1994, “The Concubine’s Children” is a non-fictional work, often categorized under memoir and biography genres. The book stands out as a vivid portrayal of the Chinese immigrant experience in Canada, delving deep into the themes of family, identity, and the quest for a better future.

Chong’s narrative beautifully weaves together the past and present, creating a bridge between her ancestors’ experiences and her own life. The author’s meticulous research and dedication to storytelling shine through, making this book a compelling read for anyone interested in the intricacies of family legacies and cultural identities. So, let’s embark on this enlightening journey through Denise Chong’s “The Concubine’s Children,” exploring the depths of familial bonds and the immigrant odyssey. 🌍

Plot Summary

“The Concubine’s Children” is the tale of Denise Chong’s family, spanning generations and geographies. The narrative oscillates between China and Canada, focusing on the life of Chong’s grandmother, May-ying, a concubine, and her husband, Chan Sam.

Exposition: The story begins with May-ying’s life in China and her arrangement as a concubine to Chan Sam, who travels between Canada and China for work. May-ying’s journey to Canada marks the beginning of a life filled with struggle and resilience.

Rising Action: In Canada, May-ying and Chan Sam’s life unfolds with hardships and cultural clashes. They have children, but May-ying’s life is marked by loneliness, gambling, and the complexities of living in a foreign land, leading to strained family relationships.

Climax: The pivotal moment occurs when May-ying’s daughter, Hing, confronts the realities of her mother’s choices and the impact of these decisions on the family’s dynamics. The emotional intensity peaks as family secrets unravel, revealing the challenges and sacrifices made by each family member.

Falling Action: After the climax, the narrative shifts to reconciliation and understanding. Hing’s journey to comprehend her mother and grandmother’s decisions leads to a broader understanding of her family’s history and struggles.

Resolution: The story culminates in the blending of past and present, as Denise Chong, the narrator, ties together the threads of her family’s history, offering a reflective look at the legacy of sacrifice, resilience, and identity.

This detailed plot structure of “The Concubine’s Children” reveals the complexities of immigrant life and the deep undercurrents of family bonds across generations, painting a vivid picture of endurance and cultural continuity.

Character Analysis

In “The Concubine’s Children,” Denise Chong provides a deep dive into the personalities, motivations, and evolutions of her family members, painting a comprehensive picture of each character’s journey. Here’s an analysis of the main characters:

May-ying: She is the resilient yet troubled concubine of Chan Sam. May-ying struggles with her identity, often caught between her desires and her duties. She grapples with addiction and the harsh realities of life in Canada, leading to a complex relationship with her family.

Chan Sam: The patriarch, Chan Sam, is a man of duty and responsibility. He bridges the world between China and Canada, working tirelessly to support his family. Despite his traditional values, he faces the challenges of maintaining family ties across continents.

Hing: The daughter of May-ying, Hing undergoes significant development throughout the story. From a child who yearns for her mother’s love to an adult who seeks to understand her family’s legacy, Hing’s journey is one of discovery and reconciliation.

Denise Chong: As the narrator, Denise offers a reflective and poignant view of her family’s history. Her quest to understand her roots and the choices of her ancestors drives the narrative, providing insights into the immigrant experience and the complexities of family dynamics.

Here is a summary table of their character development:

May-yingResilient, troubledSurvival, identity struggleEvolves from a determined survivor to a complex figure with vulnerabilities
Chan SamDutiful, traditionalFamily responsibility, cultural preservationMaintains his traditional values while adapting to life’s challenges
HingInquisitive, reflectiveUnderstanding, familial connectionTransforms from a curious child to a woman seeking familial reconciliation
Denise ChongReflective, investigativeRoot exploration, storytellingBridges past and present, offering deep insights into her family legacy

Through these characters, “The Concubine’s Children” paints a vivid tableau of the immigrant experience, family bonds, and the eternal quest for identity and belonging.

Themes and Symbols

“The Concubine’s Children” by Denise Chong is rich with themes and symbols that enhance the narrative and provide deeper insight into the characters’ lives and the broader historical and cultural context.


Identity and Belonging — The book delves into the complexities of identity, exploring how the characters navigate their roles within the family and society. The struggle for a sense of belonging is a central theme, particularly through the lens of immigration and cultural heritage.

Sacrifice and Resilience — Chong’s narrative highlights the sacrifices made by individuals for the sake of family and future generations. The characters’ resilience in the face of hardship underscores the immigrant experience, revealing the depth of their strength and determination.

Cultural Clash and Integration — The story captures the tension between maintaining one’s cultural identity and integrating into a new society. This theme is especially evident in the contrasting lives of May-ying in Canada and her family in China.


Jade Bracelet — The jade bracelet in the book symbolizes the cultural and familial ties that bind the characters to their heritage. It represents the continuity and change within the family and their connection to Chinese tradition.

Photographs — Photographs in the narrative serve as a bridge between past and present, offering visual evidence of the family’s journey and the changes over time. They symbolize the preservation of memory and the importance of understanding one’s history.

Letters — The exchange of letters between family members across continents signifies the longing for connection and the effort to maintain relationships despite physical and emotional distances.

Through these themes and symbols, Denise Chong weaves a narrative that is both personal and universal, offering readers insight into the enduring impact of family, culture, and history on individual identity and collective experience.

Style and Tone

“The Concubine’s Children” by Denise Chong is characterized by a writing style and tone that deeply reflect the book’s emotional and historical depth. Here’s how these elements contribute to the mood and atmosphere of the story:

Writing Style:

  • Narrative Structure: Chong uses a non-linear narrative, intertwining past and present to create a multifaceted view of her family’s history. This approach allows readers to see the cause and effect of events across generations.
  • Descriptive Imagery: Her use of vivid imagery brings the scenes to life, helping readers visualize the settings, characters, and emotions in a rich and detailed manner.
  • Authentic Dialogue: The dialogue in the book often incorporates elements of Cantonese language and Chinese cultural references, lending authenticity and depth to the characters and their experiences.


  • Reflective and Introspective: The tone of the book is largely reflective, as Chong delves into her family’s past to understand and portray their struggles and achievements. This introspection invites readers to consider broader themes of identity, legacy, and cultural heritage.
  • Empathetic and Compassionate: Chong’s tone is also empathetic, capturing the hardships and triumphs of her ancestors with compassion and sensitivity. This approach fosters a deep connection between the reader and the characters.

The combination of Chong’s writing style and tone in “The Concubine’s Children” not only makes the narrative compelling and engaging but also enriches the reader’s understanding of the immigrant experience and the complex dynamics of family and cultural identity.

Literary Devices Used in The Concubine’s Children

In “The Concubine’s Children,” Denise Chong employs various literary devices to enhance the narrative and deepen the reader’s engagement with the text. Here are the top 10 devices used:

  1. Metaphor — Chong uses metaphors to draw comparisons that reveal deeper truths about her characters’ experiences and emotions. For instance, the journey from China to Canada is often depicted as a voyage across vast, tumultuous seas, symbolizing the perilous and uncertain journey of immigration.
  2. Simile — Similes are used to create vivid imagery, making the reader’s experience more relatable and tangible. Descriptions like “she worked like a machine” convey the intensity and robot-like efficiency of May-ying’s labor in her new life.
  3. Imagery — Through detailed and evocative imagery, Chong paints a vivid picture of the settings and emotions in the narrative, helping the reader to visualize and feel the world she describes.
  4. Symbolism — Objects and actions in the book often symbolize larger concepts and themes. For example, the jade bracelet represents the connection to heritage and the weight of family expectations.
  5. Flashback — Chong frequently uses flashbacks to provide background and context to the current events in the story, enriching the reader’s understanding of the characters’ motivations and histories.
  6. Foreshadowing — Subtle hints and clues are provided throughout the narrative, hinting at future events and building suspense for the reader.
  7. IronyIrony is used to highlight the contradictions between the characters’ expectations and reality, often revealing deeper truths about their experiences and circumstances.
  8. Personification — Inanimate objects and abstract concepts are occasionally given human characteristics, which helps to emphasize the emotional landscape of the narrative.
  9. Allusion — References to Chinese history and culture provide a deeper layer of meaning, connecting the characters’ personal stories to broader historical and cultural narratives.
  10. Parallelism — Chong uses parallelism to draw comparisons between different characters’ experiences, highlighting the similarities and contrasts in their journeys.

These literary devices are integral to the way Denise Chong tells her family’s story, adding layers of meaning and enhancing the reader’s engagement with the text.

Literary Device Examples

Here are examples and explanations for each of the top 10 literary devices used in “The Concubine’s Children” by Denise Chong.


  1. Example: “Her life was a tapestry of hard times woven with the threads of perseverance.”
  2. Example: “May-ying’s hands were the map of her journey, each line telling a story of struggle and survival.”
  3. Example: “The family’s history was a river, flowing through the landscape of time.”


  1. Example: “She worked like a machine, tirelessly and without complaint.”
  2. Example: “His memories flooded back like a tidal wave, overwhelming and all-consuming.”
  3. Example: “The coldness in her voice was like the ice of winter, freezing and sharp.”


  1. Example: “The scent of jasmine tea lingered in the air, mingling with the aroma of incense from the altar.”
  2. Example: “The bustling streets of Chinatown were a cacophony of sounds, from the chattering of vendors to the clinking of coins.”
  3. Example: “The stark landscape of the Canadian winter painted a bleak picture, with snow covering the world in a blanket of white.”


  1. Example: “The jade bracelet, passed down through generations, symbolized the family’s enduring legacy.”
  2. Example: “Photographs in the old album served as windows to the past, each capturing a moment frozen in time.”
  3. Example: “The split between East and West in the family’s life was symbolized by the two-sided door, one facing each world.”


  1. Example: “Through Hing’s eyes, we travel back to May-ying’s youth in China, revealing the origins of her dreams and despair.”
  2. Example: “The narrative shifts to Chan Sam’s early days in Canada, illuminating the sacrifices he made for his family.”
  3. Example: “Memories of the festive New Year celebrations in their homeland brought a bittersweet nostalgia to the immigrant family.”


  1. Example: “The darkening sky hinted at the coming storm of family conflict.”
  2. Example: “May-ying’s cough, subtle at first, foreshadowed the illness that would unravel her strength.”
  3. Example: “Hints of discord in the letters from home suggested the brewing unrest that would later erupt.”


  1. Example: “Despite seeking a better life in Canada, May-ying found herself ensnared in a web of gambling and hardship.”
  2. Example: “Chan Sam’s journey to wealth ended in a twist of fate, with his fortune lost to the very ventures that built it.”
  3. Example: “The freedom sought in the new world bound them in chains of isolation and cultural dislocation.”


  1. Example: “The old house seemed to sigh with the weight of untold stories.”
  2. Example: “Time whispered secrets of the past, revealing the hidden layers of family history.”
  3. Example: “The wind carried the tales of ancestors, whispering through the leaves like voices from the past.”


  1. Example: “The Great Leap Forward was a backdrop to their personal struggles, mirroring the tumultuous changes in their lives.”
  2. Example: “References to the Cultural Revolution colored the characters’ understanding of sacrifice and resilience.”
  3. Example: “The story of the Silk Road trade embodied the family’s entrepreneurial spirit and journey across continents.”


  1. Example: “May-ying’s struggle in Canada paralleled her daughter’s efforts to find her place between two cultures.”
  2. Example: “The narrative draws parallels between Chan Sam’s sacrifices and Denise’s search for her family roots.”
  3. Example: “The dual existence of the family, living between the traditions of the East and the realities of the West, reflected the parallel paths of their lives.”

These examples show how Denise Chong utilizes literary devices to enrich the storytelling in “The Concubine’s Children,” adding depth and nuance to the narrative.

The Concubine’s Children – FAQs

What is the primary setting of “The Concubine’s Children” by Denise Chong? The primary setting of “The Concubine’s Children” alternates between China and Canada, highlighting the family’s connections and transitions between these two worlds throughout the 20th century.

Who is the main narrator of the book, and why is her perspective important? The main narrator is Denise Chong, the granddaughter of May-ying. Her perspective is crucial as it bridges the past and present, offering a deep personal and historical insight into her family’s story and the broader immigrant experience.

How does the theme of cultural identity play a role in the book? Cultural identity is central to the narrative, exploring how the characters navigate their Chinese heritage while adapting to life in Canada. The book delves into the complexities of living between two cultures and the impact on personal and family identity.

What is the significance of the jade bracelet in the story? The jade bracelet symbolizes the family’s heritage and the weight of generational expectations. It represents the enduring link between the family members and their Chinese roots, even as they forge new lives in Canada.

How does Denise Chong incorporate historical events into the narrative? Chong weaves historical events, such as the Chinese Exclusion Act and the Cultural Revolution, into the family’s story, providing context for their decisions and experiences and illustrating the impact of broader societal forces on individual lives.

What are the main challenges faced by May-ying in Canada? May-ying faces numerous challenges, including cultural dislocation, language barriers, financial instability, and the struggle to maintain her identity and dignity in a foreign land that often feels unwelcoming and harsh.

Can you discuss the development of Hing’s character in the book? Hing develops from a child who feels neglected and confused about her cultural identity to an adult who seeks to understand her family’s past. Her journey is one of self-discovery, reconciliation, and an effort to bridge the gap between her Canadian upbringing and Chinese heritage.

How does “The Concubine’s Children” address the concept of family legacy? The book addresses family legacy through the lens of generational sacrifice, choices, and cultural transmission. It examines how the actions of May-ying and Chan Sam affect their descendants and how these legacies are interpreted and carried forward by the next generations.


  1. What is the relationship between May-ying and Chan Sam in “The Concubine’s Children”?
    • A) Husband and wife
    • B) Brother and sister
    • C) Concubine and patron
    • D) Friends
  2. Why does May-ying move to Canada?
    • A) For education
    • B) To escape war
    • C) Following Chan Sam
    • D) To start a new business
  3. What does the jade bracelet symbolize in the book?
    • A) Wealth and prosperity
    • B) Family and heritage
    • C) Love and marriage
    • D) Luck and fortune
  4. Which city becomes a significant setting for the family’s life in Canada?
    • A) Toronto
    • B) Vancouver
    • C) Montreal
    • D) Calgary
  5. How does Denise Chong relate to the characters she writes about?
    • A) She is their neighbor
    • B) She is their biographer
    • C) She is their granddaughter
    • D) She is a family friend
  6. What historical event deeply affects the family’s life in “The Concubine’s Children”?
    • A) World War II
    • B) The Chinese Exclusion Act
    • C) The Cultural Revolution
    • D) The Great Depression
  7. Which character in the book undergoes significant personal growth and understanding?
    • A) Chan Sam
    • B) May-ying
    • C) Hing
    • D) Denise Chong
  8. What theme is central to the narrative of “The Concubine’s Children”?
  9. How does the narrative structure of “The Concubine’s Children” contribute to the story?
    • A) It uses a non-linear timeline to connect past and present
    • B) It follows a strict chronological order
    • C) It is told entirely from future perspectives
    • D) It uses multiple narrators from different families
  10. What does the book reveal about the immigrant experience in Canada?
    • A) It is an easy and welcoming experience
    • B) It involves challenges like cultural adaptation and identity crises
    • C) It is focused on the technological advancements in Canada
    • D) It shows no significant difficulties or struggles


Identify the literary devices used in the following paragraph from “The Concubine’s Children”:

“May-ying’s life in Canada was like a delicate thread, stretched and frayed by the years of hardship and solitude. The cold winds of change had swept through her world, leaving a trail of fallen leaves in their wake. Each leaf seemed to whisper tales of the past, carrying the weight of unspoken words and lost dreams. Her hands, once deft and agile, now bore the map of her life’s journey, etched with the lines of struggle and survival.”


  1. Simile: “May-ying’s life in Canada was like a delicate thread” compares her life to a fragile thread, emphasizing its vulnerability and the tension it endures.
  2. Personification: “The cold winds of change had swept through her world” gives human-like attributes to the wind, suggesting its transformative and invasive power in her life.
  3. Symbolism: “Each leaf seemed to whisper tales of the past” uses leaves as symbols of memories or moments from the past, implying how they carry the essence of her experiences and the silent stories they hold.
  4. Imagery: “Her hands, once deft and agile, now bore the map of her life’s journey, etched with the lines of struggle and survival” creates a vivid picture of her aged hands, symbolizing the life she has lived and the experiences she has endured.