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Remembering Wayson Choy
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Remembering Wayson Choy

By 49thShelf
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Remembering the work of celebrated Canadian author Wayson Choy who died on April 27 2019. He was a valued friend and mentor to readers and writers across the country.
All That Matters

All That Matters

tagged : literary, sagas

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, an …

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~ 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.

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Jade Peony, The

Jade Peony, The

also available: eBook
tagged : literary

Chinatown, Vancouver, in the late 1930s and ë40s provides the setting for this poignant first novel, told through the vivid and intense reminiscences of the three younger children of an immigrant family. They each experience a very different childhood, depending on age and sex, as they encounter the complexities of birth and death, love and hate, kinship and otherness. Mingling with the realities of Canada and the horror of war are the magic, ghosts, paper uncles and family secrets of Poh-Poh, …

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Not Yet

Not Yet

A Memoir of Living and Almost Dying
also available: Hardcover

Framed by Wayson Choy’s two brushes with death, Not Yet is an intimate and insightful study of one man’s reasons for living.

In 2001, Wayson Choy suffered a combined asthma-heart attack. As he lay in his hospital bed, slipping in and out of consciousness, his days punctuated by the beeps of the machines that were keeping him alive, Choy heard the voices of his ancestors warning him that without a wife, he would one day die alone. And yet through his ordeal Choy was never alone; men and women …

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Just as I was trudging down the stairs to leave for the Toronto airport, headed for Massachusetts, a sudden acidic tingling – a burning sensation – crept up from the back of my throat and triggered a hacking fit. My mouth contorted. My nostrils widened. My head whiplashed with the force of a hurricane; my mouth exploded in a sneeze. I snorted wetly like a cartoon pig. Gasping for air, I dug into my pocket for a tissue, and had anyone been there, I would have excused myself with, “Sorry. Allergies.”

My mind was too busy brooding over the deadline for my novel – the final deadline that would conclude three years of work. I had a month left to go.

As for the coughing, in the last two months or so I had fallen into fits of dry coughing, but if I held my breath, tightened my lungs, and didn’t move a muscle for at least five seconds, I could breathe with ease again.

During July of 2001, with my book deadline looming, far from my mind was any thought that these spells could be signs of ill health, or worse. Only in Victorian dramas and novels, and in grand operas, does a cough or two foreshadow finis. Certainly, a sneeze lacks any hint of funereal dignity.

When I was young, I believed that I might die instantly, in a car crash or a great train wreck. In my late forties, I thought I might have a heart attack because I devoured too much fried meat and scorned leafy greens. By my fifties, I was waiting patiently for some dramatic sign of illness: cancer, for example, or a stroke, or aids, which had, by my sixth decade, taken away a dozen beloved friends.

But I remained lucky.

Now, in my sixties, and believing that I looked at least ten years younger, I had my mantra: whenever I coughed suddenly, coarsely, I told anyone nearby, “Sorry. Allergies.

People nodded sympathetically. A few even said that they too swallowed little pills to numb their nasal passages. But by July my pills weren’t working, and my extended family members, Karl and Marie, Jean and Gary, over a banquet dinner at the Pearl Court, said to me in chorus, “See your doctor!”

Two weeks before I left for my summer writing retreat in Massachusetts, I dutifully visited my doctor and friend, the man I called Dr. David.

Even after he told me, “You’ve had an asthmatic predisposition for most of your life, Wayson,” I grumbled at the inconvenience of having so many damned allergies – to dust, pollen, cats, dogs, crabs, clams, oysters, smog.

David raised an eyebrow.

I did take care, I quickly clarified: we have a tabby, an aging cat named Belle, but I avoided petting her. Yes, my room was dusty, but only if I attempted to sweep did I suffer. I vacuumed every five years, religiously. I avoided certain kinds of shellfish, especially the kinds that I didn’t like.

“And,” I said, “I do have air conditioning in my third-floor space.”

“Get a good air cleaner, too,” David said. “Now that you’re in your sixties, you’re more vulnerable. You’re asthmatic.”

I blinked.


David patiently detailed in medical terms what that meant to me. He pointed to a set of bisected plastic lungs; his thoughtful demeanour suggested that he took me for one of his more intelligent patients, someone whose rapt Chinese-brown eyes actually glowed with understanding.

I smiled, I even nodded, as medical phrases sailed right past me.

David’s concern for me, his youthful good looks and perfect office manners, charmed me, but from that meeting, I can only retrieve this fragment: “Yes, yes, Wayson, any one of your allergies can trigger a serious asthma attack.”
Damn allergies, I told myself.

“Right after you come back from the States” – David tore off a prescription – “call me.”


His hand gently gripped my shoulder. “I’m booking you to see a specialist.”

“Oh,” I said, appreciatively. “Well, give my regards to your wonderful wife and family.”

As he does sometimes, David gave me a hug.

“You know,” he said, walking me out to the reception area, “I’ve talked to a lot of people about some serious problems they’re having, but, Wayson, you’re the only one that stays smiling.”

In the small waiting room, a few people looked up from the cushioned benches on each side of a burbling fish tank. On his mother’s lap, a toddler banged together some alphabet blocks.

I was standing with my luggage at the top of our hall stairs. I couldn’t wait any longer for Karl to assist me with my baggage: one bulging, scarred cowhide briefcase, one crammed-to-overflowing book tote, and my two seam-bursting suitcases.

The fifteen steps descending to our foyer might have discouraged a lesser man.
Think, I told myself, impatiently shuffling my feet.

A plan flashed in my head: I took a deep breath and lowered my left shoulder; next, my right one; looped the straps of each of the two smaller bags over them in turn, and stood up. The thick briefcase contained plastic Ziploc stacks of manuscript and research files, notebooks and index cards; the second, the oversized cloth bookbag printed with the face of Giller-winner Mordecai Richler, was stuffed with a collection of fountain pens, ball points, and pencils, rubber stamps of dragons and butterflies, erasers for ink and graphite, plus a brace of Chinese reference books. The two bags clunked against my hips like sacks of concrete. The belt-thick leather strap of the briefcase cut into my shoulder. Hands free, fingers ready to grasp the two suitcases, I stared down at the black-and-white-checkered hall below. I had forgotten to count the last footfall – the final touchdown onto the floor.
Sixteen steps.
All I had to do, I figured, was bend my knees a little, then grip the two suitcase handles, turn sideways, lift both cases, and negotiate the first step. I bent down, counted to three, and stood up. My shoulders and arms sagged with the weight of my favourite things: the big suitcase held the dictionary-sized reference books and more notebooks; six hundred manuscript pages; five files of research and clippings. The smaller suitcase contained my trusty laptop and portable printer with all its paraphernalia, plus enough clothes for two weeks.

My arms and legs went rubbery.

Didn’t Karl say he would help me when he got back in from loading Marie’s van? Didn’t he say, “Wayson, I’ll just be ten minutes”?
No. I can do this by myself.
I stiffened my back.
I can handle this.
My cough echoed down the staircase and through the empty house. The black-and-white floor tiles rose and fell in a wave. A meow rose from the kitchen below. Curious Belle trotted down the hall and sat by the bottom step, tabby tail flicking, to see what the madman from the attic was doing. I shrugged off the coughing. Allergies.
No time to waste. I gripped the suitcases and lifted them even higher. A gasp and half a cough escaped from me. I held my breath, tightened my lungs. The cough stopped.

With the baggage swaying about me, I turned sideways, and my foot landed on Step Two.
The damn cat has no deadlines to worry about.
My foot landed on Step Three, and a sudden sneeze threw me entirely off balance. The two suitcases banged against my legs. Briefcase and Mordecai Richler swung out. I began to pitch forward. But the weight of the briefcase swinging from my left side yanked me back against the railing. My body was bent at an angle.

Belle sat staring up at me.

I paused a few seconds to check for pain. Feeling none, I straightened up, too quickly. At once the shoulder strap on my briefcase began to slip down, freeing the bulk to arc away from me. The thing went flying, aiming on its return flight to smack the back of my knees and send me tumbling. Hissing through bared teeth, I twisted my head sideways, chomping my front ivories onto that tough strap of old leather. With clenched molars, adrenalin surging through me, I jerked the stiff loop back onto my shoulder. As the case swung back, I yanked the strap hard: the briefcase thumped safely to rest against my hip.

In my head, the trumpets of jubilation sounded: I was still standing.
My jaw aching, my neck throbbing, I thanked my stars that my front teeth, however imperfect, were my own. A pair of dentures would have spelled disaster.

On the other hand, no more book deadlines. But everything else to lose, I thought, and quickly added, No, not yet.

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Paper Shadows

Paper Shadows

also available: Paperback Hardcover Paperback
tagged :

In 1995, during the publicity tour for his much-acclaimed first novel, The Jade Peony, Wayson Choy received a mysterious phone call from a woman claiming to have just seen his mother on a streetcar. He politely informed the caller that she must be mistaken, since his mother had died long ago. “No, no, not that mother,” the voice insisted. “Your real mother.”

Inspired by the startling realization that, like many children of Chinatown, he had been adopted, Choy constructs a vivid and movin …

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