Man Kee and Mangoes

David Chung '94, English 34, 1993

Using food as a metaphor once again, Timothy Mo addresses the issue of place and displacement through Man Kee's horticultural exploits. Mo associates vegetable growing with immigrants, and invites a discussion of the post-colonial anxiety regarding one's roots: "At home in the New Territories vegetable growing was an ignominious mode of agriculture, practised by refugees and immigrants. It was fitting he should grow them here in alien soil" (168).

To encourage Man Kee and show her interest, she gave him an old mango stone...She was explaining the basic facts of life to Son. From seed came the plant which bore fruit which in turn ripened and fell, causing the cycle to be repeated. Human life was like this, too, not that she could expect Son to comprehend these profound and peculiarly Chinese realities yet...'Clever Son! You planted it, didn't you?'(168-9).

Lily, who expresses a concern for history and origin, is delighted with Man Kee's interest in planting, which implies a desire for foundation. However, she forgets that he plants his roots in English soil, and soaks up values alien (to her) from a multicultural compost consisting of Indian friends, a Chinese family, and English schooling.

The separate shoots united into a single, thicker root. The plant was nurtured by the rotting matter around it" (169).

"Son, what did they give you?" Mince, jam tart, and custard, he told them in English...There was something new happening; something which Lily realised was beyond her experience and from which she was forever excluded; something she could give no name to; something which separated her from Son. She didn't like it at all. (171)

When Lily finally realizes that Man Kee is being separated from her, she symbolically retaliates against his gardening interests:

Lily flew into a rage. "You want to be a gardener? A coolie? Is that what you want to be, stupid boy? Do you think that's what I send you to special school for? Do you think that's what we work for?"

Chen said: "That's all right, Son. Be a gardener if it makes you happy."

Lily cuffed Son on top of his head with the flat of her palm. A few seconds later a big tear rolled down Man Kee's cheeks.

"Bad, Lily. Let him speak for himself."

"He must do what his parent says." (255).

She put her hands around Man Kee's mango plant and tugged at it. It would not come up...There was a sound of subterranean tearing, the sound of small roots, tendrils, and delicate fibres shearing and snapping...With louder vegetable groanings it began to come out of the earth. Another long tug and then the plant was uprooted with a single loud snap that seemed to come out of her own body, so that for a moment Lily wondered if she had cracked her own vertebrae" (255-6).

Man Kee is already quite rooted in England, the only home that he had known. In uprooting Man Kee's plant, Lily further severs her own ties to Son "with a single loud snap that seemed to come out of her own body."

Throughout this affair, Chen seems to be more aware of the transformation in Son. "Chen said seriously: ŚTo make a tree which produces fruit you must cut a piece from the mature fruit tree itself and graft it. Its seed will not produce fruit.' (173). The mature fruit tree must root itself in the land if there is to be any fruit, so for the sake of Man Kee, Chen must resign himself to the fact that England is their new home and that he needs to take an active part in rooting them in this new land. As Lily observes, "Husband...was watering Son's mango plant. Strange, because he had up till now made a silly point of leaving Son to learn from his mistake by trial and error for himself instead of making him learn by example" (252).

This image of dislocation and planting one's feet in some kind of foundation is a common one taken up by other post-colonial writers. What views do other postcolonial books present? For example, consider The Bone People, in which Joe returns to the heart of the land and Maori history, and Kerewin uproots her tower, "planting" a new Maori hall). Likewise, how can one compare the people of Chatwin's In Patagonia -- the exiles and refugees, dislocated monarchs, Coleridge the Śnight-wandering man' unable to sink roots anywhere. In what ways do the views of migrants presented Rushdie's Shame differ? ("What is the best thing about migrant peoples and seceded nations? I think it is their hopefulness...we have come unstuck from more than land. We have floated upwards from history, from memory, from Time." 91), Finally, what about In Custody's presentation of Urdu, Islam, and the small mosque of the nawab, rooted in Mirpore?


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