Next-in-Reading #43: Café Jause

Next In Reading

Title: Café Jause: A Story of Viennese Shanghai
Author: Wena Poon
Year: 2014
Sutajio Wena

Among the endlims of this book, Wena spoke about how she wanted to write a Cake Book in a long time. For me, it was definitely a cake book. It was also a book about humanity, identity, food, and war.

Born in the ethnic intersection of Chinese and Jewish, Philip “Pinkel” is left with the Viennese café his mother opened at his birth when she decides to flee to Hong Kong. Irma and Irene, the two Austrian women who bought the café, have no objections to letting Pinkel stay in the café, where his help in running the place and conversations with the café’s regulars come in handy.

Able to traverse between the Chinese and the European quarters without looking out of place, Pinkel’s life soon becomes embroiled in film, baking, and war. Under the same café roof, he speaks to the Chinese family living nearby, the Jewish Mr. Papp, and the Japanese officer Arthur (Asa) Hayashi and his “war wife” and ex-comfort woman, Singaporean-Chinese Sis.

Under this roof, they speak about what it is like to experience Shanghai in the 1920s, the documentaries, the war experiences, and things they read in magazines. All of this happens over a jause, a Viennese term which meant the small meal between two, usually comprising coffee and cakes – just enough to tide you over to a late dinner.

The end of the story comes around the making of the king of cakes – the German Baumkuchen – and it encompasses the cultures and identities merged and mixed into this book. Each layer can be seen to be the symbol of toil and hard work – the people who have built Shanghai, and by extension, China to be what it is. And within each layer, sweat, tears, toil, blood, memories, dreams, and many other things which make us who we are, go into it. The burnt layer in everyone’s baumkuchen at the end of the story can also showcase humanity’s pain and troubles in the greater scheme of things – it will never leave, but one can choose to ignore it, embrace it, or lament about it. Regardless, every character from different nations all enjoy a slice, burnt layer and all.

It feels good to have a story set during the pacific war which concentrates on personal history at that time. While people generally know what happened in National History, contemporary history and personal histories hardly come to light. Big things happen, but life goes on. What happens then?

Perhaps it’s because these histories become too painful to recall. Perhaps these histories remind us that like us, the “enemy” was also human, and vice versa. Perhaps it’s a stark reminder that we have to fight our own conflict (as Arthur and Sis do in the book) while fighting for the bigger things in life.

Café Jause is written by Wena Poon. To find out more about who she is and her works, click here.

And I’ll see you next week!

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