Jing-mei’s father asks her to be the fourth corner at the Joy Luck Club mah jong table.
She is going to replace her mother, Suyuan, who founded the club. Suyuan’s seat at the table (on the east side) has been empty since she died several months ago.
Suyuan died of a cerebral aneurism – that’s when a vessel in your brain swells and pops – and her long-time friends at the Joy Luck Club say she died with unfinished business.
Now Jing-mei needs to fill her mom’s shoes, or rather her mom’s position in the Joy Luck Club.
Jing-mei tells us a bit about her mother: Suyuan arrived in America with only fancy silk dresses.
In San Francisco, Suyuan was welcomed by American missionary ladies from First Chinese Baptist Church, where she met the Hsus, Jongs, and the St. Clairs.
Suyuan Woo invited the women of these families to form the Joy Luck Club, and the four of them became BFF as well as WEE (Worst Enemies Ever – more on this later).
Jing-mei always thinks of the origin story of the Joy Luck Club as her mother’s Kweilin story.
Jing-mei recalls how her mom told the story, so let’s enter into Suyuan’s story as if it were a flashback.
Here it is:
Suyuan’s husband (an army officer) brings her and their twin daughters to Kweilin for their safety during the second Sino-Japanese War, and then he leaves for Chungking.
Thousands of people pour into Kweilin to escape the Japanese (who are winning). The crowded city now stinks and is generally uncomfortable – because hey, they also have bombs being dropped on them.
Suyuan comes up with the idea of the Joy Luck Club, a gathering of four women to fill each corner of her mah jong table. Suyuan asks three girlfriends to join the club – no boys allowed.
Each week, one of the women hosts a banquet with lots of yummy, celebratory food meant to bring good fortune.
During the club meetings, they eat, play mah jong (with gambling involved), eat more, then tell stories, and congratulate themselves on how lucky they are.
The people in Kweilin think the Joy Luck Club ladies are kind of crazy for celebrating while many people are starving on the streets and dying from bombs. But Suyuan and her friends see no point in being miserable and waiting to die from the bombs, they’d rather create their own happiness and live their lives to the fullest.
The flashback into Suyuan’s life ends.
Back in the present, Jing-mei notes that her mom always ended the story of the formation of the Joy Luck Club by bragging about her skill at mah jong.
Jing-mei says she never took her mother’s Kweilin story seriously (she thought it was like your grandfather’s "walked to school barefoot in a blizzard and it was uphill both ways" kind of story).
But then one day her mother tells her a new ending to the story.
Here’s the flashback Jing-mei listening to her mom telling the story:
Suyuan says that the Japanese were about to march on Kweilin, and her husband sent a messenger, asking her to move to Chungking, ASAP.
There were no trains, but she managed to get a wheelbarrow, which she loaded with her possession and twin baby daughters, and proceeded to push to Chungking.
Suyuan pushed the wheelbarrow until the wheel broke. Then she put her babies in slings over her shoulders and carried her luggage by hand.
Suyuan walked until her hands were bleeding so badly she couldn’t carry anything. By the time she arrived in Chungking she’d lost everything except for three fancy dresses.
Jing-mei interrupts her mom’s story. She’s shocked: what did her mother mean by "everything"?
Her mother replies that Jing-mei is not those twin babies, and that Jing-mei’s father is not the husband in Chungking. This would be a perfect movie moment for that dramatic dun dun dunnn sound.
End flashback and background story telling.
Jing-mei arrives late to the Joy Luck Club meeting, held at the Hsus’ apartment, nervous to be taking her mother’s place.
The Hsus’ house is just like it was when Jing-mei was a little girl – fragrant with the smell of Chinese food and decorated with plastic-covered furniture.
Unlike when Jing-mei was a little girl, the Joy Luck Club’s main event has changed from playing mah jong to buying stocks, since the same people kept winning at mah jong and taking the other players’ money all the time. Now with the stocks, they all win or lose together. They still play mah jong, but only bet trivial amounts of money.
Jing-mei chats with Auntie An-mei ("Auntie" just means that An-mei is a really good family friend), who is making wonton. She remembers her mother’s constant criticism of An-mei and others.
Jing-mei describes her mother’s version of categorizing people’s personalities. It’s a system based on five elements.
Suyuan believed that An-mei lacks the element wood in her character, leaving her unable to stand on her own.
Jing-mei, according to her mom, has too much water so she "flows in too many directions," as exemplified by studying too many different things in college and then never even graduating.
Speaking of Suyuan criticizing everyone, Jing-mei remembers a time when she told her mom that parents should encourage their kids, not criticize them. Her mom says that if she encouraged Jing-mei, the girl would be lazy and wouldn't rise to the occasion. Ouch.
Everyone wolfs down all of the delicious food that An-mei has made and then the women play mah jong.
Jing-mei sits at her mom’s seat, the one on the East side of the table. She recalls how her mom used to say, "The East is where things begin."
The ladies are horrified that Jing-mei has only ever played mah jong with Jewish friends. Auntie Lin says that Jewish mah jong involves no strategy.
The women begin to play and chat as they go. They speak in a combination of broken English and Chinese and topics of discussion include: bargain-priced yarn, returning a skirt with a broken zipper, gossip about mutual acquaintances, etc.
Jing-mei thinks back to a story her mom had told her about An-mei’s last trip to China. An-mei had brought a bunch of stuff from America for her brother, as well as $2,000 to spend on him. But when she got there, her brother’s massive extended family greeted her (like his wife’s step-siblings) all scrambling to get stuff from the Americans. An-mei and her husband end up down $9,000 after buying stuff for her brother’s greedy relatives.
In spending time with her mother’s friends, Jing-mei continues to stumble across the realization that she and her mom didn’t know each other very well.
Jing-mei describes Auntie Lin, who was best friends and arch enemies with her mother. The two women used to compare their daughters (Auntie Lin’s daughter is Waverly), but Auntie Lin always had more material to brag about because Waverly was a chess prodigy.
Jing-mei tries to leave, but Auntie An-mei accidentally blurts out that they have something to tell Jing-mei about her mother.
Remember how the JLC ladies said that Suyuan died with unfinished business? We know find out what that "business" is: the Suyuan’s twin girls have been found in China.
Suyuan had apparently been looking for the twin girls for years.
After Suyuan died, the aunts wrote to the twins.
Now the aunts give Jing-mei $1,200 to travel to China and meet her sisters and tell them about their mother.
Jing-mei says she doesn’t know anything about her mother.
All the aunts freak out at this idea.
Jing-mei realizes that they fear that their own daughters don’t know them, so she promises to tell her sisters everything about Suyuan.
Jing-mei once again realizes that she’s at her mother’s seat of the table, "on the East, where things begin." So Jing-mei’s adventure beings, and so does the book.