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GATES OF GRACE by Evelina Chao (Warner: $14.95).

March 02, 1986|ELAINE WOO

"Gates of Grace" opens on a wrenching scene. It is 1949, and Mei-yu Wong, pregnant and disowned by her family for marrying beneath her class, has barely managed to squeeze aboard the last boat permitted to leave Canton before the Communist takeover. She and her university-student husband, Kung-chiao, settle in New York Chinatown, where they struggle for a place in the immigrant society. Her upper-class Mandarin background and British English set Mei-yu apart not only from the Cantonese majority living in Chinatown but from the white society that is incapable of perceiving any distinctions beyond skin color. But as she and Kung-chiao work hard and squirrel away their meager wages, their fortunes slowly rise. Then they fall victim to a tragic twist of fate. Chao's observations about the Chinese immigrant experience are acutely drawn, and she writes gracefully and with full command of the details that bring a story to life. The story falters, however, when she shifts the focus to the second generation, Mei-yu and Kung-chiao's rebellious daughter, Fernadina. Chao tries too quickly to wrap up the loose ends, awkwardly melding the elements of a murder mystery with what could have been a powerful tale of one woman's reckoning with the conflicting forces of culture and assimilation.

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