Books

Breaking the silence of Chinatown

An author conjures up a world of secrets

John Bemrose April 1 1996
Books

Breaking the silence of Chinatown

An author conjures up a world of secrets

John Bemrose April 1 1996

Breaking the silence of Chinatown

Books

An author conjures up a world of secrets

Wayson Choy never dreamed that the publication of his first novel last fall would uncover a central mystery about his own life. Choy’s semi-autobiographical The Jade Peony—nominated for the Chapters/Books in Canada First Novel Award and Ontario’s Trillium Award for Fiction—evokes Vancouver’s Chinatown during the late 1930s and ’40s. When the soft-spoken 56-year-old author appeared on an open-line radio station in his native Vancouver to promote his book, one of the callers mentioned that she had recently seen his mother on the streetcar. Choy pointed out that his mother has been dead for almost 20 years. “No, no!” the woman told him. “I mean your real mother.” Naturally, Choy was taken aback. “I had set out to write a book about the secrets of the city’s Chinese community,” he says, “and one of the secrets I hadn’t understood was that I myself may well have been adopted.”

Choy, who teaches English at Toronto’s Humber College, has not yet been able to confirm or dismiss the caller’s allegation. But he says he was not altogether surprised by it.

In his view, Vancouver’s Chinese community seethes with buried information, much of it connected to the unhappy time when Canada’s immigration laws turned Chinese immigrants into secondclass citizens. In The Jade Peony (Douglas & McIntyre, $18.95), Choy points out that many older Chinese refer to July 1, Canada Day, as “the Day of Shame,” because on that date in 1923 the Canadian government passed the Chinese Exclusions Act. Among its provisions was a clause that kept Chinese women out of Canada. The Chinese-Canadian community was already composed mainly of men, who had come to work on the country’s railways and in its mines. The new law divided families and created untold suffering. It also fostered an atmosphere of secrecy and fear, as Chinese-Canadians used false papers to avoid the act’s stringencies.

“They learned to keep their secrets well,” Choy remarks, adding another example from his own life: “Not till after my mother’s funeral did I find out that she had been married once before.”

The Jade Peony sensitively re-creates Vancouver’s prewar Chinatown through the eyes of three children: Jook-Liang and two

of her brothers, Jung-Sum and Sek-Lung. All are witnesses to adult realities that they cannot fully understand, from a tragic love affair to dogged devotion to old-country ways. Not surprisingly, many of their perceptions are rooted in Choy’s own memories of Chinatown. His father, a ship’s cook, was often away, and his mother, who worked in a sausage factory, used to leave him in the care of other families. In the evenings, she would take him along to her mah-jongg games. And so Choy got to meet the older Chinese men and women whose personalities and stories inspired much of The Jade Peony. “When the War was over, and I was maybe 6 or 7, the older generation began to pour out their stories,” Choy recalls. “We didn’t have television,

and it wasn’t a literate generation, but oral history was the way we discovered meaning. All of us who grew up in Chinatown absorbed those mythologies without thinking.”

Choy believes that those stories, told around kitchen tables, were crucial in sustaining the Chinese through their difficulties. Indeed, he speculates, storytelling— whether oral or in novels and movies—may be the best defence that individuals and cultures have against despair. ‘We all have to die,” he muses, “but if we have to die in silence, as if all our struggles were meaningless, I think that’s the truest tragedy.” When Choy attended the University of British Columbia in the late 1950s and early ’60s, he was the first Chinese person to enrol in its creative writing course. A year before he graduated, he published a short story, “The Sound of Waves,” which was later chosen for the prestigious anthology The Best American Short Stories of 1962. It seemed like the beginning of a great career. But Choy was oddly diffident: “I said to myself, ‘I can write, but I don’t want to. It’s so hard, and I don’t have anything to say.’ ” Over the next three decades, he published only four stories. But one of them, “The Jade Peony,” attracted the attention of Patsy Aldana, fiction editor at the Vancouver publishing house Douglas & McIntyre, who in 1994 contracted Choy to write a book oí short stories. Instead, he ex¿ panded on “The Jade Peony,” § and two years later the novel 1 appeared.

% The Jade Peony is one of the 5 finest works of fiction yet to £ break the silence that surrounds so many of the country’s immigrant communities. In one of its most moving passages, it contains a vision—idealistic yel convincing—of a moment when they briefly attain multicultural harmony. Aí Vancouver’s Strathcona Public School, which Choy himself attended, Sek-Lung falls under the spell of a rather crusty teacher, Miss Doyle. Her classroom contains not only Chinese, but also Japanese, Irish, Jewish, native and other minorities Her kindly evenhandedness shows then: that, although there might be prejudice in the streets outside, their background neec be no hindrance. Remarks Sek-Lung: “In side Miss E. Doyle’s tightly disciplinée kingdom we were all—lions or lambs— equals. We had glimpsed Paradise.”

JOHN BEMROSB