02 Dec / Listen to the Squawking Chicken: When Mother Knows Best, What’s a Daughter to Do? A Memoir (Sort Of) by Elaine Lui
Toronto-based Elaine Lui, better known as Lainey, has built one of the most powerful careers in entertainment by harvesting gossip; her immensely successful blog, LaineyGossips, is a leading industry standard, she’s seen regularly on Canadian screens (and beyond) as a reporter for etalk and co-host of The Social. Beyond rumors, trends, and hashtags, however, Lui’s unique approach to mining he-said-she-said-they-said leans more toward social anthropology than mere muckraking newshound.
Take a look at her 2013 TEDxVancouver “I talk sh*t for a living”-presentation here. Here, for example, was prime tabloid fodder in 2012: Twilight star Kristen Stewart in compromising situations. Lui saw much more: “When we were gossiping about Kristen Stewart, we were not just talking about an actress cheating on her boyfriend. Participants of that gossip conversation were sharing with each other their moralistic views on marriage and fidelity and the social expectation of females in relationships.” On Chris Brown and Rihanna, Lui comments, “in 500 years … will we be judged as the society that celebrates a guy who beats a girl, or will we be celebrated as a society that forgives a guy who beats a girl?” In less than 20 minutes, she tackles “marital convention, fidelity, feminist regression or progression, social violence, and sexual orientation.” Just another Lainey day at the office …!
As scintillating as being a self-proclaimed “professional gossip” might be, you’ll actually find little of that between the pages of Lui’s debut title; surprisingly, her “(Sort Of)” memoir has limited mention about her ‘sh*t-talking’ international success. Instead, Squawking Chicken is, at its core, a loving tribute from an accomplished, contented daughter to her domineering, complicated mother. That said, it’s not without plenty of opportunities for grave embarrassment, peppered with enough expletives to make my own potty-mouth seem amateur! And, given that Lui is in the business of outing other people’s secrets, she might have just decided to offer her own preemptive anecdotes sooner than later.
“Most people think I’m exaggerating at first when I talk about the Squawking Chicken,” Lui writes about her mother whose “jarring” voice earned her the titular nickname, Tsiahng Gai – literally ‘squawking chicken’ – while growing up in Hong Kong. “But once they actually do spend some time with her, they understand. They get it. Right away. She’s Chinese, she squawks like a chicken, she is totally nuts, and I am totally dependent on her.” So when Lui faced the possibility of losing her maternal fowl to a “long and potentially fatal illness,” she wrote this book. “At first I wanted to give her something to look forward to, something to get better for. But in telling her story, I realized that I was actually doing it for me … it’s to convince myself that even if the squawking stops, I will always be able to hear it.”
Lui has no doubts about Ma’s role in her life: ” … she’s always been the main event, dominating the spotlight no matter the setting, the ultimate scene-stealer.” As much as Lui admits that Ma has “engineered my entire life,” don’t be fooled for a second that Lui is a weak dysfunctional pushover. [Choose the absolutely fabulous audible version, which Lui herself reads, and you won’t mistake the inherited steely determination.] Even as Lui adheres to her mother’s feng shui blackmail, eats papaya daily, doesn’t do bangs, she also recognizes that her mother can’t maintain friendships, keeps an iron-clad list of “low classy” behaviors to avoid always, never mind that she eats with her mouth open and farts at will, in public. Oh, my.
Mixed in with Ma’s dogmatic do-this-don’t-do-that edicts – painfully truthful, comically real, shockingly accurate – Lui tells Ma’s “own story” with a mixture of reverent awe and eye-rolling acceptance. The oldest of six children of gambling-addicted parents in Hong Kong, Ma was perhaps the only mature member of the family. She was pulled out of school in Grade 10 to work in “a sketchy local night lounge,” and too soon was in charge of her siblings while her father went missing and her mother went philandering. She survived rape. She married the man who would become the love of her life, left all that was familiar and immigrated to Canada. She abandoned him after being abused by his family one too many times, returned to Hong Kong, and married someone else. Ten years later, she returned to her first husband and her adopted country. She raised her only child with criticism and shame, demands and loyalty, but always from a foundation of unwavering love. Somewhere between cringe-inducing gasps and guffawing laughter, you’ll witness quite the unbreakable mother/daughter bond. Move over, Tiger Mother; the Squawking Chicken will be heard!
“When a mother knows best, what’s a daughter to do?” Lui’s subtitle asks. Her answer? Listen and obey … because choice was never, ever an option.