Kiam-Kim is three years old when he arrives by ship at Gold Mountain with his father and his grandmother, Poh-Poh, the Old One. It is 1926, and because of famine and civil war in China, they have left their village in Toishan province to become the new family of Third Uncle, a wealthy businessman whose own wife and son are dead. The place known as Gold Mountain is Vancouver, Canada, and Third Uncle needs help in his large Chinatown warehouse. Canada’s 1923 Chinese Exclusion Act forces them, and many others, to use false documents, or ghost papers, to get past the ‘immigration demons’ and become Third Uncle’s Gold Mountain family.
This is the beginning of All That Matters, the eagerly anticipated sequel to Wayson Choy’s bestselling first novel, The Jade Peony. The author takes us once again to the Vancouver of the 1930s and 1940s to follow the lives of the Chen family, this time through the experiences of First Son, Kiam-Kim, whose childhood and adolescence in a strict but caring Chinatown family is at once strange and familiar to us.
Like many families around them, they must survive in unsavoury surroundings. Since the closing down of the railroad work camps, Chinatown is filled with unemployed labourers who live in poor rooming-houses. Sea winds fill the rooms with acrid smoke from the mills and refineries of False Creek, and freight trains shake their windows at night with noises the Old One says are dragons playing. Yet this is a land where the Chen family will not starve; where they will be able to keep a girl baby, and not sell her into servitude as was the Old One, whose back is scarred from whippings.
In their new life, however, there is a constant struggle to balance the new Gold Mountain ideas with the old traditions and knowledge of China. Old One doesn’t like Kiam-Kim to speak English, and Kiam-Kim knows that to be without manners, without a sense of correct social ritual, is to bring dishonour to one’s family. Children who lose their ‘Chinese brains’ are called ‘bamboo stumps’ by the elders because of the hollow emptiness within, so Kiam-Kim must study hard at Chinese school as well as English school. He must help Poh-Poh to cook for her mahjong ladies, and her hard knuckles rap his head when he misbehaves.
Although Poh-Poh urges him to stick with his own kind and not let non-Chinese ‘barbarians’ into the house, Kiam-Kim forges a lasting friendship with Jack O’Connor, the Irish boy next door. He also has a girlfriend, Jenny, daughter of one of the mahjong ladies who owns a corner grocery shop. Meanwhile, China is suffering during the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, and soon the whole world is at war. Boys at school are enlisting, and many Chinese have gone back to fight for the old country. Kiam-Kim wonders, “What world would we fight for?” Canada is his home, yet he knows that the new country does not want Chinese soldiers.
The Jade Peony, was “a genuine contribution to history as well as fiction” according to author Margaret Drabble. It spent 26 weeks on the Globe and Mail bestseller list, shared the 1995 Trillium Award with Margaret Atwood, and won the Vancouver Book Award. Blending rich historical detail with powerful personal stories, All That Matters follows Kiam-Kim as he learns the responsibilities and rewards of family and community, as he approaches adulthood in a city much divided, and as he faces decisions about what truly matters in life. More than anything else, the novel is an exploration of his character. “I think all stories should arise organically from the characters’ definitions of the world,” says Wayson Choy, who believes that it is in the identification of reader with character that literature exists. “If you give details that ring true...that’s the meaning conveyed by good writing.”
About the author
Wayson Choy (April 20, 1939–April 28, 2019) was a pioneer of Chinese-Canadian literature. His first novel, The Jade Peony, was co-winner—with Margaret Atwood's Morning in the Burned House—of the 1995 Trillium Award for the best book by an Ontario resident. It also won the City of Vancouver Book Award. The Jade Peony spent 26 weeks on the Toronto Globe & Mail bestseller list and placed Number 6 on its 1996 Year End National Bestseller List for Fiction.
Born in Vancouver in 1939, Wayson Choy taught English Literature at Humber College in Toronto for over 25 years. In 2004 Choy was appointed to the Order of Canada and won the Harbourfront Festival Prize, awarded annually to a writer who "has made a substantial contribution to the world of books and writing."
In 2015, Choy received the George Woodcock Lifetime Achievement Award, recognizing his outstanding contributions to BC literature.
In his acceptance speech, Choy remarked "I'm proud to have my pioneer Chinatown stories—and my own personal ones—recognized as part of the shared literary history of all Canadians,"
Choy was also awarded the Edna Staebler Award for Creative Non-Fiction for Paper Shadows: A Memoir of a Past Lost and Found in 1999 and Ontario's Trillium Book Award in 2005 for All That Matters.
- Nominated, Scotiabank Giller Prize
- Winner, Trillium Book Award
- Nominated, City of Vancouver Book Award
Excerpt: All That Matters (by (author) Wayson Choy)
~ B E G I N N I N G S ~
When I hear the sea wind blowing through the streets of the city in the morning, I can still feel my father and the Old One — together — lifting me up to perch on the railing of a swaying deck; still feel the steady weight of Father’s palm braced against my chest and Poh-Poh’s thickly jacketed arm locked safely around my legs. I was three then, in 1926, but I can still recall their shouting in the morning chill, “Kiam-Kim, Kiam-Kim,” their voices thin against the blasts of salty wind, “Hai-lah Gim San! Look at Gold Mountain! Look!”
I saw in the distance the mountain peaks, and my toes curled with excitement. As I pressed a hand over each small ear to dim the assault of squawking gulls, fragments of living sky swirled and plunged into the waste spewing from the ship’s belly, and the sun broke through.
All at once, the world grew more immense and even stranger than I could ever have imagined; I ducked my head to one side and burrowed blindly into Poh-Poh’s jacket. Father plucked me off the rail and put me down to stand up by myself.
Poh-Poh did not stop him.
“We are near Gold Mountain,” she said, her Toishan words shouted above other excited voices. “Straighten up, Kiam-Kim!”
I watched as Father clutched the rail to hold our place against the surging crowd: he looked ready for anything.
I put my own hands around the middle rail and threw my head back, and tried to look as bold and as unafraid as Father. Poh-Poh glanced behind her. A wrinkled hand shakily held on to my shoulder. I shouted to her to look at the swooping gulls, but she did not hear me.
As the prow rose and crashed, and the Empress of Japan surged into the narrow inlet, gusts of bitter wind stung my eyes. At last, to greet the approaching Vancouver skyline, the ship blasted its horn.
“Look there, Kiam-Kim!” shouted Father. “Way over there!”
I looked: along a mountain slope, a black line was snaking its way towards the city.
“See?” Father said, kneeling down to shout above the chaotic machinery clanking away in the ship’s belly. “I told you there would be trains.”
I laughed and jumped about until the sea air chilled my cheeks. The Old One bent down to lift a thick coat collar around my neck. The air tasted of burning coal.
“Listen carefully, Kiam-Kim,” Father said. “Can you make out the train whistle?”
I listened. But I was not thinking of trains.
Grandmother had told me the story that dragons screeched and steamed out of hidden mountain lairs: sweating, scaly dragons whose curving bodies plunged into the sea and caused the waters to boil and the wind to scorch the faces of intruders until their eyes, unable to turn away, burned with tears.
The wailing finally reached my ears. The black line turned into freight cars headed towards the city’s row of warehouses and jutting docks.The train engine gave another shriek.
In response, the ship blew its horn again. A shawl of sea birds lifted skyward. Ship and train were racing to reach the same point of land. People behind us applauded.
Father raised his hand to shield his eyes against the dancing sunlight.
“We’re here, Mother,” Father said to Poh-Poh.
I said to myself, “ . . . here . . . ,” and gripped the rail even harder.
The long train now disappeared behind a shoreline of low buildings. With my eyes following the great billows of smoke, I heard clearly the echoing screech of wheels.
“The cries of a dragon,” said Poh-Poh.
Father said, “Just the train coming to a stop, Kiam-Kim.”
But the Old One’s voice was so certain that I held my breath.
~ O N E ~
When I was three years old, Father, Poh-Poh, and I were sent away from our Toishan village to Hong Kong, sent away by the Patriarch Chen, who was recently a Mission House convert and the head of our clan. As a demonstration of his Christian charity, the old Patriarch had agreed to clear the way for Third Uncle to sponsor us to come to Canada, so that Father, Grandmother, and I, First Son, would have a chance to escape the famine and the civil wars raging in the Pearl River Delta of Kwantung province. Those who could leave Sze-yup, the Four County village district in Southern China, would have a chance for a better existence. Those who settled in Gold Mountain might find work and send back remittances to help the ones left behind; every sojourner would return home when life improved in China.
Much later, I learned that before he had put up the money and bought the documents for us to join him in Vancouver, Third Uncle had to consider the feelings of his dead wife. He consulted Chinatown’s Madame Jing, who set up her fortune-telling table in Market Alley and had known him since he first arrived in Gold Mountain. She interpreted the final toss of the I Ching coins.
“The spirit of your dead wife approves,” she said.
Soon after this sign of approval, American gold and large Mexican silver coins were paid into various hands. Six months later, we sailed on an Empress steamer and landed in Victoria, then headed to Vancouver to settle in the Chinatown rooms that Third Uncle had rented for the three of us in a building on East Pender Street, just half a block from his warehouses on Shanghai Alley.
Third Uncle was not my father’s brother. In fact, he was a very distant cousin from Sze-yup, connected to us only through our mutual clan name of Chen; his own blood brother had died years ago in the interior of British Columbia. Over fifty, and successful as an import-export warehousing merchant, Third Uncle had been shocked into acknowledging his own mortality. In less than a month, five of his Chinatown associates had died, two from heart attacks, two from the coughing sickness, and one from a stomach tumour. He confronted a chilling fact: he had no family members in Gold Mountain to carry on after him. What legacy, then, had thirty years of his work and investments built? He promptly decided to sponsor a “namesake family” from Old China, a maaih-gee ga-ting, a “bought-paper family” that would replace what he himself had tragically lost.
"All That Matters is a quiet and moving book. On the surface, the gentle narrative voice seems to belie the weight and power of the story, but as we read along, the energy accumulates and the momentum accelerates. The novel shows convincingly what is fundamental in humanity, and it also shows the author’s firm belief in human decency. It is a genuine story of the Chens, a family that embodies the real immigrants, 'the wretched refuse’ tossed on the American continent.I greatly admire Wayson Choy’s craftmanship demonstrated in this book, particularly his way of blending the personal with the historical, his patience, and his restrained, sublte prose. Above all, his understanding, compassion, and wisdom. This is one of the best novels on the Asian American experience."
—Ha Jin, author of War Trash
“What a pleasure to read Wayson Choy again. . . . The language, the rhythms and the images are so seductive and often so exquisite . . . a thing of sheer beauty. . . . In delicate balance, Choy holds the ghosts of the past and the resolve to survive in the present, two countries, two cultures, two worlds.”
—The Globe and Mail
“A new book from Choy is an event. His writing has a quiet integrity and an exquisite grace that can electrify readers . . . Choy’s handling of childhood memory is dazzling. . . . All That Matters is a beautiful novel.”
“A magnificent novel . . . accomplished, heartfelt and true . . . a meditation on memory, love, family and forgiveness — and aren’t they all that matter?”
— Toronto Star
“Superb . . . Choy’s effortless style is mesmerizing, and his characters are compelling. Perhaps the most enticing aspect of his writing is the glimpse he offers into the vibrant world of Chinese-Canadian culture at a time when they were still not fully accepted as proper members of Canadian society.”
— Edmonton Journal
“In some ways, that is Choy’s ultimate gift: to be able to employ words like ghosts, curses, blessings and omens and have even the most analytical of heads nod with understanding. Gold Mountain, the Vancouver of the 1930s that Choy has created, is where the historical meets the mystical . . . Choy sustains the balance even as he touches on heavier issues — war, cultural divisions, a mixed-race love triangle. And life, he seems to tell us, isn’t so hard to figure out.”
“Beautifully drawn . . . Choy is a master of evoking the exotic and seedy sights, the clamour and the pungent smells, of a crowded immigrant neighbourhood. . . . expertly wrought . . . a moving, fascinating read.”
“It’s taken almost a decade, but there’s good news for fans of Wayson Choy’s memorable first novel, The Jade Peony. All That Matters, Choy’s sequel to his earlier beguiling tale set in Vancouver’s Chinatown in the 1930s and 1940s is every bit as good as its predecessor. . . . Survival, duty and filial obligation as some of the big themes All That Matters grapples with. . . . All That Matters is a paean to decency and humanity.”
—The Gazette (Montreal)
“Choy writes beautifully of the sights, sounds and smells of daily life in a crowded household. His descriptions of family meals are perfect, sparkling little set pieces. . . . All That Matters rewards the reader with a richly textured evocation of childhood in a community as oppressive as it is nurturing. Once again, Choy has created a complex world, peopled with characters you will love as though they were your own family.”
“An immensely appealing novel. . . Populated with captivating characters and laced with a wealth of Chinese lore, the book, short listed for this year’s Giller Prize, is a worthy contender.”
—London Free Press
Praise for The Jade Peony and Paper Shadows:
“Rich . . . delightful . . . Choy ranges over this familiar territory with a fresh eye.”
—New York Times Book Review
“A sweet and funny novel . . . beautifully written. . . . It renders a complex and complete human world, which by the end of two-hundred-odd pages we have learned to love.”
—The Boston Book Review
“This is a haunted memoir, full of phantoms and secrets, but it is also full of rich historical detail and sharp, clear descriptions of daily life. . . . The unknown is always an alluring prospect, but this book suggests that what counts in the end is a more ordinary reality, the patience and forgiveness and sense of responsibility that make daily family life possible. . . . In the era of the talk-show memoir, in which telling it all passes for telling it well, Paper Shadows stands out as a thoughtful, luminous and finely crafted work.”
—The Globe and Mail