friday feast: savoring ching yeung russell’s tofu quilt

Imagine a warm bowl of steamed custard so incredibly delicious, it inspires a young girl to become a writer. This is exactly what happens to Yeung Ying in Tofu Quilt, a beautiful collection of free verse poems based on author Ching Yeung Russell’s own childhood in 1960s Hong Kong.

The thirty eight luminous poems, told in Yeung Ying’s lively, engaging voice, are brimming with candid observations and telling, authentic details which reveal a young writer in the making. Russell’s lovingly crafted, spare verses flow effortlessly and resonate with simple truths.

While visiting her Uncle Five in Mainland China, five-year-old Yeung Ying reveals her startling ability to memorize and recite classical Chinese poems better than any of her older boy and girl cousins. Uncle Five rewards her with a bowl of dan lai — a rare, expensive dessert that leaves her ravenous for more.

       photo by AppleSister.

When the waiter brings us the dan lai,
it looks like a big, round moon
has fallen into my bowl.
Its surface is as smooth as
my baby sister’s bottom.
Its color is as creamy as
Pau Pau’s ivory chopsticks.
I can’t even describe
the special sweet smell,
I just keep sniffing it,
like a hungry wolf.

Yeung Ying has always heard that boys are better than girls. Fortunately, her mother, one of the few educated women in her age group, believes they are “just the same.” The family makes many sacrifices to send Yeung Ying to private school, where she discovers her love for books and studies hard so that someday she can be rich enough to buy more dan lai.

By the age of eight, Yeung Ying is the designated family letter writer, and eventually a couple of teachers praise her writing. But Yeung Ying had never entertained the thought of actually pursuing writing as a career until her conversation with Cousin Yee, who tells her that becoming a writer would give her the perfect excuse to eat more dan lai, because it’s made of brain-strengthening protein, something all writers need.

I love the elegant simplicity of Russell’s verse, the total accessibility of Yeung Ying’s inner and outer worlds, the realistic depiction of  childhood joy, fear, yearning, hope, and disappointment, and above all, the revelation, time and again, that small, seemingly inconsequential events or experiences can play a significant role in shaping a young person’s future.

From the very first poem, the words melted away; the carefully chosen images allowed me to enter the world of this tender memoir instantly. Yeung Ying’s voice rings true, and her ingenuous, oftentimes humorous remarks are irresistibly endearing and wholly childlike. As she and her cousins climb a banyan tree pretending to be Tarzan, she describes the sounds they make:

For one of us sounds like a chicken
whose neck has just been slit;
one sounds like a pig being hauled to the butcher;
one sounds like a stray cat begging for food;
one sounds like a goat running in the rain.
I sound like a chick peeping for its ma.
each claims that his or her sound is what Tarzan yells.
None of us really knows,
since my cousin only read it in a book.

Other poems describe Yeung Ying’s hardworking father, a tailor who uses fabric scraps to construct a patchwork quilt with pieces “as square as chunks of tofu.” We also meet her grandmother, teachers, and other members of the community. Especially notable are Mr. Wong, who “gives us the biggest wontons with the most shrimp inside,” and Mr. Lee, Yeung Ying’s seventh grade teacher, who praises her story about the wonton man, and tells her to keep trying because someday, she can be a writer.

photo by kattebelletj.

I think Yeung Ying’s struggles will resonate with the book’s intended audience (ages 9-12), especially her encounters with her teachers — the good ones inspire and encourage, the bad ones humiliate and demean. Even into adulthood, we remember how crucial a small crumb of encouragement can be. Tofu Quilt touches on so many important themes: self actualization/esteem/identity, family traditions, overcoming oppressive societal conventions, education, and breaking gender barriers.

As it turns out, Russell did not have her second bowl of dan lai until some twenty years after the first. In recent years, she has stunned her relatives by eating four bowls in one sitting. Just as five-year-old Yeung Ying did not drink tea or brush her teeth after that first bowl of dan lai because she wanted to savor it forever, I found myself reading and rereading these poems very slowly because I did not want the story to end. I can still picture the rows of flower stands at Victoria Park on New Year’s Eve, hear the “tak tak, tok tok” of Ma’s abacus, feel the elation of the children at the Level-Eight typhoon no school day, and almost taste Yeung Ying’s first cup of coffee (“like the flavor of dark-burned rice on the bottom of the wok”).

Tofu Quilt 
also includes a glossary and lovely Author’s Note. I give this rich and inspiring book my highest five spoon rating. I know that when you read it, you will understand why I nominated it for a 2009 Cybils Award. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to make some custard.

TOFU QUILT by Ching Yeung Russell
Lee & Low Books, 2009
Ages 9-12, 136 pages
Review copy provided by publisher

♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥

For more reviews of Tofu Quilt, visit Ching Yeung Russell’s website or check Lee & Low’s webpage.

Today’s Poetry Friday Roundup is being hosted by Greg at GottaBook.

Copyright © 2009 Jama Rattigan of jama rattigan’s alphabet soup. All rights reserved.

25 thoughts on “friday feast: savoring ching yeung russell’s tofu quilt

  1. Oh, thank you, Jama for this. I think I first saw this book when you nominated it for a Cybil, and recently ordered it. What a thing of beauty it is beside my bed. I can’t imagine a more gorgeous cover, which I’ve been enjoying while finishing up other books. I’ve turned it around and taken peeks, and one night soon I’ve going to take in the whole thing.


  2. Tanita Says 🙂
    Sounds as luxurious as the dessert itself. I looked up the ingredients, and realize it must be quite silky and lovely, a steamed pudding.
    I like how the words of the poem melt on my tongue as well.


  3. Re: Tanita Says 🙂
    Supposedly dan lai (dun lai) requires only three ingredients: egg whites, milk/cream, and sugar. The version that uses whole eggs is dun dan. Of course I’ve always loved those custard tarts at dim sum restaurants, too.


  4. Sounds like a lovely book. Thanks for introducing us!
    I adore the idea of having the moon in my bowl!


  5. I was seriously hoping for a dan lai recipe!! 🙂
    TOFU QUILT has been part of my reading marathon this week, but it wasn’t until reading your post that I realized I need to add Mr. Hon, her 4th grade teacher who introduces her class to the “three American boys from/a long time ago,/ who rode a raft on the Mississippi River” and who praises her stories and puts them up on the bulletin board “even though/I/am/just/a/girl” and Mr. Lee Lee, her 7th grade teacher to our list of 100 Cool Teachers in Children’s Literature! Thanks for the reminder!!!


  6. Oh, thank you so much for letting us have a whiff of this book. It sounds wonderful, and I loved the eager simplicity of the poems.
    The descriptions of food are making my mouth water! <3<3


  7. I love Mr. Hon and Mr. Lee. Mr. Hon, “the handsomest teacher of all,” who “opened up the world to me.” That says it all about a good teacher, doesn’t it? Love your 100 Cool Teachers List!
    Still searching for just the right dan lai recipe. 🙂


  8. “Eager simplicity” is the perfect description! (Wish I had thought of that.) Yeung Ying’s voice is so genuine. Time for some custard and shrimp wonton soup!


  9. I have this book beside my bed. I lent it to our 8th grade teacher and just got it back. I am going to review it soon. I love that bit about her cousin reading about Tarzan’s yell in a book and then all of them trying to repeat it. Perfect set up and slam!
    Great review for a lovely book. Love your yummy photos too of course. Thanks!


  10. OK, I’m not a custard person, so I can’t gush over the dish. But the poetry collection sounds delicious. Must remember to put it on reserve after my trip. Thanks, Jama!


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