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.”
Born in 1939, Wayson Choy grew up the son of Chinese immigrants in Vancouver’s Chinatown. His father worked as a chef on a Canadian Pacific ship, and the young Wayson often accompanied his mother at evenings of mahjong. He watched Chinese opera, but wanted to be a cowboy.
After attending the University of British Columbia, where he enrolled in its Creative Writing course, Wayson Choy left Vancouver and has lived in Toronto since 1962. He is Professor Emeritus of Humber College and is a faculty member of the Humber School for Writers; he taught English for thirty years until he retired in 2002. He has been a volunteer for community literacy projects and AIDS groups, and for three years was President of Cahoots Theatre Company. He was appointed a Companion of Frontier College in 2002.
A teacher himself for many years, he acknowledges those who helped in his early writing days, such as Jacob Zilber who guided him towards writing a short story called “The Sound of Waves,” which was selected for inclusion by the Best American Short Stories in 1962. Others were Jan de Bruyn, one of the first editors of PRISM magazine, and the poet Earle Birney, who taught creative writing at UBC. “I haven’t searched out mentors; they have been a kind of gift to me.” Choy was already teaching when he enrolled once again in the Creative Writing course; this time he produced the short story “The Jade Peony,” which was first published in 1977 and would be anthologized many times before Choy was asked to develop it into a novel.
The Jade Peony, Choy’s first novel, is narrated by Kiam-Kim’s three siblings — Sister Jook-Liang, Second Brother Jung-Sum and Third Brother Sekky — as they each grope for their own childhood identity within the Chen family in Vancouver’s Chinatown. Their stories tell of poverty and racism. Published to glowing reviews, it became a runaway bestseller in Canada, and was published in Australia, Germany and the United States, where it was selected as a notable book by the American Library Assocation.
It was after doing a radio interview about the book in 1995 that Choy received an unexpected phone call from a woman who had once been his babysitter, with a stunning revelation. At the age of 56 he learned that he had been adopted as a child. The feelings and memories unleashed inspired his second book, Paper Shadows, a memoir of his Chinatown childhood, which the National Post called a “lovely, agile dance of memory.” It won the Edna Stabler Award for Creative Non-Fiction, and was shortlisted for the 1999 Governor General’s Award, the Charles Taylor Literary Nonfiction Prize and the Drainie-Taylor Biography Prize.
Choy says, “I began writing the book as if it was going to be a light, entertaining read because I had a happy childhood, but the more I delved into the past, I realized that dark path of the ghetto, the racism, and the family sex life, and so on. So the book turned on me and let me see for the first time what Chinatown meant.” On the other hand, his love and understanding of his deceased parents grew deeper as he learned about them through his research and his writing. Secrets were discovered that his family were not able to share, such as what had happened to the false papers they probably were destroyed to avoid being deported.
Research forms an important part of the evolution of Choy’s work, whether it takes the form of talking to older people about their memories or of looking through old documents and photographs in museums for historical context. However, the depth of feeling in All That Matters evolved from a profound source. While Choy was writing it, he had a severe asthma attack, leading to a coma, during which he had more than one heart attack. As he recovered, he gradually discovered how terrible it had been for his friends and family. Though he had seen loved ones die of AIDS or cancer or old age, this made him realize more about the power of simple acts of decency, and the “deeper level, of connection between people,” something he went on to explore in the novel.
"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