Can’t Miss CanLit with a Side of Magical Realism

Hallow Bamboo book cover and headshot of William Ping

There is much to love – and relate to – in the beginning of William Ping’s novel Hollow Bamboo, when the main character meets his girlfriend’s family for the first time, desperate to make a good impression. He knows to hand over exactly the right cheesecake as a gift, to be respectful, to not drink too much and definitely not mention that they have been traveling together as a couple. The first few chapters of the novel are charming and so funny, an opportunity to get to know William.  We learn that although his grandfather (he was actually named Seto Pong but his name was changed to ‘William Seto Ping’ by immigration officials) is known as Chinese-Canadian ‘royalty’ by his girlfriend’s family, he died before William had a chance to know him and his biracial identity is something he struggles with. These pressures, combined with too much wine, cause him to hit his head and he wakes to see an amorphous jade-coloured spirit, who calls himself ‘Mo’, that takes William throughout time and space to learn about his grandfather’s history. 

Mo uses tough love to force William to engage with the facts of his grandfather’s immigration to Canada, moving through decades to show his childhood in rural Guangdong Province, and forward in time again to his journey to Canada on the Heian Maru. Throughout these ‘memories’, William and Mo, develop a hilarious banter that could only be written for an omniscient green cloud and a slacker millennial with a head injury, but it helps William know more about his grandfather’s life and those of other Chinese-Canadians who built the community of Newfoundland. His complaints about the discomfort of travel throughout China 100 years ago begin to wear on Mo, until he revokes William’s first-person narrator privileges and the story is entirely told from the perspective of the grandfather.

This switch to Seto’s point of view comes just as he prepares to travel to Canada, leaving his young family behind. Absent of the voices of young William and Mo we are a part of his long ocean voyage and train journey to work in a laundry in St. John’s where he experiences the first (of so many) acts of racism, xenophobia, and cruelty. It’s painful and visceral to read, especially as Seto and his friends Hogzhi and Shaowei, are working 20-hr days at a relentless pace with no opportunity to connect with family and little hope of ever returning home. There is violence between the men who work at Seto’s laundry and another laundry in town, fueled by a gambling club which they frequent on their single evening off each week.  It’s hard not to imagine those scenes looking a bit like a black and white gangster film, especially as the author has the characters using language like “taking care” of a person who is no longer wanted in the laundry, but it all flows together perfectly. Seto is able to prosper in St. John’s, eventually marrying the woman who is his English-language tutor and starting a family together. The novel ends with a return to the present day and a reunion between Mo and William.   

This entertaining novel is creative, funny, and completely immersive. After I finished reading it, I was disappointed that my time with those characters was coming to an end. William Ping’s grandfather is also in a film called ‘The last Chinese laundry’ and Memorial University has made it available through their archives so I watched it right away. William Seto Ping seemed familiar – the novel built up an idea of a person who lived a full life and had a grandson who wove a compelling story about their family history and it was a pleasure to have this extra time with him. This is a can’t miss piece of Canadian fiction/memoir/history (with a bonus translucent green cloud named Mo).

Hallow Bamboo by William Ping is a Spring 2023 Waterloo Public Library Featured Read. You can explore this title, plus current and past Featured Reads by visiting

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