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Global Becomes Local: 15 Books for Celebrating Asian Culture

May is Asian Heritage Month in Canada, and there’s no better way to learn about the diverse culture and rich history of Asian communities than through reading / BY Nathalie Atkinson / May 19th, 2023

Whether it’s through intimate memoirs of familial bonds, historical fiction or deconstructions of pop culture and the K-beauty boom, these reads perfectly fit the theme of the month

Obsessive Book Buyers: Zoomer editors have carefully curated our book coverage to ensure you find the perfect read. We may earn a commission on books you buy by clicking on the cover image.

1Paper Names by Susie Luo

The New York lawyer and investment banker’s debut follows three New Yorkers over the course of two decades — a Chinese American family and a white lawyer, via three different perspectives — is full of dark secrets, the trials of falling in love with someone you know you shouldn’t and reimagining the American dream. (Bonus: It was just named a Good Morning America ‘Buzz Pick’.)

2Fortune’s Bazaar by Vaudine England

The journalist and historian charts the social history of Hong Kong through stories of newcomers (Jews, Armenians, Indians, Malays, et al.) who were attracted to the port city across centuries and generations in this illuminating excavation, with a particular focus and insight into the lives and work of Eurasian entrepreneurs.

3Natural Beauty by Ling Ling Huang

One of several new novels whose setting in the beauty world explore issues of racism, sexism and class, this bracing near-future fiction about ‘tweakments’ probes the effects of toxic beauty ideals. (Crazy Rich Asians actor Constance Wu has already optioned it for television.) The Portland-based author — also a Grammy-winning classical violinist — briefly worked in the wellness industry and in a recent interview with Vogue, admits that at the time she “drank the Kool-Aid.”

4Unearthing by Kyo Maclear

The family secrets revealed by a DNA test she did in 2018, following the death of her father (documentary filmmaker Michael Maclear) — and the lessons learned in its aftermath through a complicated relationship with her mother — power this transformative, fragmentary memoir about storytelling, lineage and love (and gardening!) by the award-winning, Toronto-based Canadian novelist and children’s author.

5I Went to See My Father by Kyung-Sook Shin, trans. by Anton Hur

For her follow-up to the international bestseller Please Look After Mom (winner of the 2012 Man Asian Literary Prize), one of South Korea’s most celebrated novelists offers this tale of parenthood, guilt and regret following the narrator’s returns home to care for her elderly father and what happens as she learns about his life through correspondence. As she begins to solicit an oral history from those around him, the story offers a window into the evolution of South Korean culture — before democracy — and through to the political upheaval of the 1980s and ’90s.

6Oh My Mother! by Connie Wang

Journalist Wang (a former Refinery29 editor) takes her mother Qing Li to a Magic Mike strip revue in Las Vegas and of course hijinks eventually ensue. If that’s not enough to pique your reading, the eight other essays in the book explore the complex bond with her stubborn mother in a variety of travels around the world that Oprah Magazine describes as “Eat Pray Love meets The Amazing Race.”

7Flawless by Elise Hu

Bookended by her arrival and departure from Seoul in 2015/2018 (during which time the Korean beauty industry quadrupled and became the third-largest beauty exporter in the world), TED Talks Daily and NPR host Hu dissects the industry through a combination of international reporting, cultural commentary and memoir. It’s billed as an exploration of beauty, consumerism and womanhood. (May 23)

8Hulaby Jasmin Iolani Hakes

The ancient and often sacred dance native to Hawaii was revived by King Kalākaua when he assumed the throne in 1871, after indigenous Hawaiian culture had been severely restricted by Christian missionaries (and its population decimated by Western disease). Set in Hilo, Hawai’i, the Hilo-raised, California-based author’s coming-of-age story recounts how people are shaped by the continuing history of trauma through Laka, a champion hula dancer in the 1960s, and moves back and forth in time to tell the story of several generations of both Laka’s foremothers and daughter.

9The Comeback by Lily Chu

Canadian writer Chu is the USA Today bestselling author whose 2021 debut The Stand-In was originally released as an Audible Original. By popular demand, both it and her new novel now come in print editions. The relatable romantic comedy, set in Toronto, is about what happens when an ambitious young lawyer finds herself falling for a cute guy who turns out to be the most famous celebrity in K-pop. The romance provides a deep dive into the industry around K-pop fandom; read it ahead of BTS’s upcoming blockbuster oral history in July.

10Superfan by Jen Sookfong Lee

Now in her 40s, the Vancouver novelist and broadcast journalist looks back on her experience as a Chinese Canadian woman searching for identity while growing up immersed in North American pop culture. The eleven essays form a reflective love letter to pivotal cultural phenomenon like reality shows, Anne of Green Gables, boy bands and Les Miz that blends pop cultural analysis with frank personal musings on grief, belonging and family.

11Orphan Bachelors by Fae Myenne Ng

Following an influx of Chinese workers to Canada to build the Canadian Pacific Railway in the 1880s, the country enacted a period of legislated anti-Chinese racism through a head tax and later, the 1923 Chinese Immigration Act, which virtually restricted all Chinese immigration. In her much-anticipated memoir of San Francisco’s Chinatown in the 1950s and ’60s (where her family operated a grocery store), novelist Ng considers the effects of similar American anti-immigration policies (like the Chinese Exclusion Act from 1882) on generations of her family.

12A History of Burning by Janika Oza

Worth mentioning again from the Zed Book Club May Novel Encounters column: when 13-year-old Pirbhai inadvertently migrates to England for a job to help support his family and escape poverty, his act of survival has a profound impact on subsequent generations. Beginning in 1898 Gujarat, India, the Toronto-based writer’s multigenerational epic spans England, Uganda (through the regime of Idi Amin) and Canada to weave a story of colonialism, family and inheritance.

13The Story of Us by Catherine Hernandez

The third novel by the acclaimed Canadian author of Scarborough (a previous CBC Canada Reads finalist that was made into a movie in 2021) is the affecting story of Mary Grace Concepcion, a Filipino personal support worker for an elderly Canadian woman living with dementia. Told from the point of view of Mary Grace’s infant daughter, it chronicles a woman who lives a life of sacrifice and battles injustice. It’s a wrenching novel of hard emotional truths, chosen families and finding belonging.

14Have You Eaten Yet? by Cheuk Kwan

Kwan’s award-winning 2006 documentary series used the trope of Chinese restaurants around the world as a conceit to investigate the Chinese diaspora. Through the lens of family-run diasporic Chinese restaurants, the Hong Kong-born, Toronto-based writer and documentarian’s new book is a personal, global narrative that chronicles the chefs, entrepreneurs, labourers and dreamers who resist complete cultural assimilation.

15The Lost Century by Larissa Lai

In case you missed this Hong Kong family saga by the research chair in creative writing at the University of Calgary’s Department of English, it was one of our favourite CanLits from autumn. The historical novel recounts and unravels one specific family’s secrets. But by chronicling events in the underground resistance that test personal loyalty during the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong in the Second World War, Lambda-award winning author Lai (of The Tiger Flu) also explores colonialism, queer Asian history and the rise of modern China.

16Deep as the Sky, Red as the Sea by Rita Chang Eppig

The San Francisco Bay Area neuropsychologist and writer makes her debut with a swashbuckling historical fiction about ‘flower boat girl’ turned legendary Chinese pirate queen Sek Yeung. The fearsome leader is a fascinating figure even without the lyrical naval battles, action-packed combat and political intrigue — together, they add up to a riveting read that probes the role of women and mothers in the early 1800s as China’s political landscape shifts when she tries to hold onto power. (May 30)


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