#99 Paul Yee
January 28th, 2016
LOCATION: Mau Dan Gardens Co-op, 350 East Pender, near the southern side of the intersection of Pender and Dunlevy Streets, Vancouver
From 1959 to 1968, Paul Yee lived as a child at 350½ East Pender Street, close to old Chinatown, where he attended Chinese school. The house was torn down during “urban renewal” but, in 1981, Paul Yee’s Aunt Lillian, his primary tie to Chinatown’s past and its families, returned to her old address at Mau Dan Gardens Co-op at 350 East Pender. Born in Chinatown in 1895, Lillian was delighted to come full circle and spend her final years in her old neighborhood.
“When I was a child,” he recalls, “growing up in the 1960s there were no books about my world–the world of immigrants, of racial minorities, and different histories. I had to learn about these things much later in life… Such books can reassure those in North America that it is valid to be different from the mainstream.”
Paul Yee has provided Chinese Canadian ghost stories, tales of romance, comic farces and sagas of quiet heroism against the backdrops of canneries, gold fields, farms and the building of the railroads. Most of his books for young readers are based imaginatively on the lives of the Chinese who came to North America in the late 1800s or early 1900s, as is his first novel for adults, A Superior Man.
Set in Vancouver’s Chinatown in 1909, The Curses of Third Uncle, for example, concerns a young girl’s search for her missing father, a tailor, into the bush north of Revelstoke. In Ghost Train, Choon-yi comes to Canada to join her father only to discover he has died after helping to build the railroad; she becomes determined to paint the giant trains that he died for. Set in Vancouver in 1907, The Bone Collector’s Son is about 14-year-old Bingwing Chan who resents his father because he gambles and because he forces his son to help him dig up the bones of deceased Chinese so they can be sent home to China for permanent burial. Set in the 1920s, A Song for Ba is another father-son story about a North American Chinese opera company that falls on hard times.
A transcontinental railway was one of the terms required by British Columbia in order to agree to assimilation into the political construct of Canada. At least 10,000 labourers were needed to complete the job of completing the coast-to-coast railway line, enabling British Columbia to join confederation. In 1881, the B.C. population included 19,500 whites, approximately 25,000 First Nations people and approximately 4,500 Chinese. Under the auspices of Andrew Onderdonk, the American engineer who was hired to complete the B.C. section of the railway, some seven thousand Chinese labourers, primarily from Guandong province, arrived to serve as three-quarters of the required labour force. Paul Yee’s diary-styled I Am Canada: Blood and Iron (2010) is the journal of a Heen, who, as a young Cantonese teenager in China, sets out with his father on a journey to British Columbia in 1882 to help build the new railroad that will connect the West Coast to the rest of the country. The wages he hopes to earn will erase the stigma of gambling debts incurred by his father and grandfather. Yee dedicates the text to Wong Hau-hon, from Sun-wui county, Guangdong province, a member of the ‘Gang 161’ on the Canadian Pacific railway in 1882. There is minimal indication that Lee Heen-gwong is a fictionalized character created by the author.
A Toronto archivist, multicultural coordinator and immigration analyst, Paul Richard Yee was born in Spalding, Saskatchewan on October 1, 1956. He moved to Vancouver in 1958 and grew up in Vancouver where he became a director of the Chinese Cultural Centre. He was also active in a Chinese Canadian radio program called Pender Guy. The Yee family had come to Canada near the beginning of the 20th century.
Paul Yee has an M.A. in history from UBC. His social history, Saltwater City, an illustrated history, earned the City of Vancouver Book Award. It blends historical facts and photographs to recreate the daily lives and emotional hardships of early Chinese immigrants to the Pacific Coast. It was revised and redesigned in 2006 to incorporate the years 1987 to 2001. A cross-Canada follow-up, Chinatown, is an illustrated survey of Chinese communities in Victoria, Vancouver, Calgary, Winnipeg, Ottawa, Montreal and Halifax.
In 2012, Paul Yee received the Vicky Metcalf Award for Children’s Literature ($20,000) via the Writers Trust, sponsored by the Metcalf Foundation (Jury: Deirdre Baker, Ronald Jobe, and Joanne Schwartz). The ceremonial citation stated: “Paul Yee has contributed uniquely and powerfully to our literary landscape over a writing career that spans almost 30 years. He was virtually the first children’s author to document the Chinese Canadian experience from its early days to the present. Ghost Train, Tales from Gold Mountain and Dead Man’s Gold now stand as classics. Layered and haunting, they strike at the heart of human character, while at the same time portraying a very particular historical setting in vivid, economical prose. Even in his quick, contemporary short stories he writes from a strong position of familiarity and knowledge, bringing up many facets and varieties in the Canadian experience of immigration. And yet, in almost all his stories, whether historical or contemporary, there is a moment of revelation or character change that pivots on human passions that we all share. His recent teen novels have a biting voice that speaks to issues of identity, racism and sexual discrimination, both inside and outside the Canadian Chinese community. His is a body of work to wrestle with, one that leaves the reader altered and that deserves our recognition.”
Chinese Fairy Tale Feasts: A Literary Cookbook (Tradewind 2015), with texts by Paul Yee and recipes by Judy Chan, won the 2015 Gourmand Award for best Canadian cookbook as well as two other Gourmand Awards. It was illustrated by Shaoli Wang, with and introduction by Jane Yolen. [See news item below]
FACTS FROM PAUL YEE’S WEBSITE (2015):
— born in Spalding Saskatchewan, Canada
— grew up in Chinatown in Vancouver British Columbia, Canada
— attended Lord Strathcona Elementary School, Britannia Secondary School
— attended Cantonese language school as a child but studied Mandarin at university.
— has limited reading, writing and speaking ability in Cantonese
— graduated from University of British Columbia with Bachelor’s (1978) and Master’s Degrees in Canadian History (1983)
— worked as archivist at City of Vancouver Archives (1979-1987) and at Archives of Ontario (1988-1991)
— worked at Ontario Ministry of Citizenship (1991-1997)
— volunteered at Vancouver Chinese Cultural Center (1974-1987)
— past hobbies: swimming, jogging, taiko (Japanese drumming)
— member of Writers Union of Canada (TWUC), Canadian Society of Children’s Authors, Illustrators and Performers ( CANSCAIP)
— has lived in Toronto, Ontario since 1988
— dog’s name is Baxter, a Wheaten Terrier
Review of the author’s work by BC Studies:
Teach Me to Fly, Skyfighter!
Teach Me To Fly, Skyfighter and Other Stories (Lorimer, 1983)
The Curses of Third Uncle (Lorimer, 1986)
Saltwater City: An Illustrated History of the Chinese in Vancouver (Douglas & McIntyre, 1988, 2006)
Tales from Gold Mountain: Stories of the Chinese in the New World (D&M, 1988) illustrated by Simon Ng
Roses Sing on New Snow: A Delicious Tale (Groundwood, 1991) illustrated by Harvey Chan
Breakaway (Groundwood, 1994)
Moonlight’s Luck (Macmillan/McGraw-Hill, 1995) illustrated by Terry Yee
Struggle and Hope: The Story of Chinese Canadians (Umbrella Press, 1996)
Ghost Train (Groundwood, 1996/2003) illustrated by Harvey Chan
The Boy in the Attic (Groundwood, 1998)
Dead Man’s Gold and Other Stories by Paul Yee and Harvey Chan (Groundwood, 2002)
The Bone Collector’s Son (Tradewind, 2003)
A Song for Ba (Groundwood, 2004)
Chinatown (James Lorimer, 2005)
What Happened This Summer (Tradewind, 2006)
Bamboo by Paul Yee and Shaoli Wang (Simply Read, 2006)
The Jade Necklace by Paul Yee and Grace Lin (Tradewind, 2006)
Shu-Li and Tamara by Paul Yee (Tradewind, 2007), illustrated by Shaoli Wang 978-1-896580-93-7
Learning to Fly (Orca 2008)
Shu-Li and Diego (Tradewind 2009 $8.95), illustrated by Shaoli Wang
I Am Canada: Blood and Iron — Building the Railway, Lee Heen-gwong, British Columbia, 1882 (Scholastic 2010)
The Secret Keepers (Tradewind 2011) $12.95 978-1-896580-96-8
Chinese Fairy Tale Feasts: A Literary Cookbook (Tradewind 2014) $24.95 978-1-896580-68-5
A Superior Man (Arsenal Pulp 2015) $21.95 978-1-55152-590-7
City of Vancouver Book Award, 1989 – Saltwater City
Sheila A. Egoff Prize, 1990 – Tales from Gold Mountain
National I.O.D.E. Award, 1990 – Tales from Gold Mountain
Ruth Schwartz Children’s Book Award, 1992 – Ghost Train
Governor General’s Award, 1997 – Ghost Train
Prix Enfantasie (Switzerland) 1998 – Le Train fantome
Sheila A. Egoff Prize, 1999, The Boy in the Attic
Winner of the YALSA Best Book for Young Adults for Breakaway
Saltwater City: An Illustrated History of the Chinese in Vancouver [BCBW 1989]
JAPANESEJCANADIANS HAVE JOY KOGAWA,” says Paul Yee, author of Saltwater City: An Illustrated History of the Chinese in Vancouver (D&M $29.95), “The Mennonites have Rudy Wiebe. Jews in Canada have Mordecai Richler. “But so far Chinese-Canadians have not produced a major Canadian writer. I think that’s largely because we’re less familiar with our history here than other ethnic groups.” Born and raised in Vancouver’s Chinatown, Yee has been spreading the word about Chinese-Canadian history since undertaking a community history project with the Chinese Cultural Centre. He hopes Saltwater City will give Chinese-Canadians more emotional attachment to their history. “And in turn, I hope that emotionalism can help produce some important Chinese-Canadian writers.” In keeping with Yee’s hopes, lawyer Bennett Lee and poet Jim Wong-Chu are collecting material for a first-ever anthology of Chinese-Canadian writing.
I Am Canada: Blood and Iron by Paul Yee (Scholastic $14.99)
Review [BCBW 2010]
A transcontinental railway was one of the terms required by British Columbia in order to agree to assimilation into the political construct of Canada. At least 10,000 labourers were needed to complete the job of completing the coast-to-coast railway line, enabling British Columbia to join confederation.
In 1881, the B.C. population included 19,500 whites, approximately 25,000 First Nations people and approximately 4,500 Chinese. Under the auspices of Andrew Onderdonk, the American engineer hired to complete the B.C. section of the railway, some seven thousand Chinese labourers, primarily from Guandong province, arrived to serve as three-quarters of the required labour force.
Paul Yee’s diary-styled I Am Canada: Blood and Iron (Scholastic $14.99) is the journal of Heen, a young Cantonese teenager in China, who sets out with his father on a journey to British Columbia in 1882 to help build the new railroad that will connect the West Coast to the rest of the country. He hopes the wages he earns will erase the stigma of gambling debts incurred by his father and grandfather.
Yee dedicates the text to Wong Hau-hon, from Sun-wui county, Guangdong province, a member of the ‘Gang 161’ on the Canadian Pacific railway in 1882. You have to read the fine print to realize Lee Heen-gwong is a fictionalized character created by the author.
“When I was a child growing up in the 1960s,” Paul Yee explains, “there were no books about my world—the world of immigrants, of racial minorities, and different histories. I had to learn about these things much later in life… Such books can reassure those in North America that it is valid to be different from the mainstream.”
Three Gourmand Awards (2015)
Held in Paris last year, the Gourmand Cookbook Awards is an international event that was staged this year in Yangtai, the most northern major city in China. So when B.C. publisher Michael Katz learned his Tradewind title Chinese Fairy Tale Feasts—A Literary Cookbook had won three Gourmand awards, he had a good problem on his hands. Who could accept the prizes on behalf of co-authors Paul Yee (texts), Judy Chan (recipes) and Shaoli Wang (illustrations)? Through a professor at UBC, he managed to hook up with an agreeable English teacher at Yangtai University, Peggy Macdonald from Nova Scotia, who happily accepted the task of attending the banquet. Launched earlier this year at Dr. Sun Yat Sen Gardens in Vancouver, Chinese Fairy Tale Feasts won for best book for Chinese cuisine in the world as well as best cookbook from Canada and best children’s food book.
Veteran author Paul Yee of Toronto provided original stories as well as his interpretations of Chinese folklore. Each story is followed by a recipe for a traditional Chinese dish. Born in China, Shaoli Wang graduated from the Department of Fines Arts of Qingdao Normal College, specializing in children’s book illustration. She immigrated to Canada in 1995 and now lives in Coquitlam. Judy Chan teaches at Eric Hamber Secondary in Vancouver. The book has an introduction by Jane Yolen.
A Superior Man by Paul Yee (Arsenal Pulp Press $21.95) review by Lily Chow (2015)
Marilyn Bowering’s To All Appearances A Lady in 1989 was a rarity—an adult novel set in B.C. with Chinese characters as protagonists. More than twenty-five years later, Lily Chow, one of the leading authorities on the Chinese in B.C., is enthusiastic about the authenticity and storytelling in Paul Yee’s first novel for adults, A Superior Man, that emanates from the world of Chinese labourers in the 19th century.
Yang Hok, Paul Yee’s protagonist, is introduced as a bodyguard in a frenzied gambling hall amid the chaos of Victoria’s Chinatown in 1885. There were “hordes of jobless railway men jammed into town… [They] ate in cookhouses and vowed to pay later … [They] lacked passage money… [They were] kicked out of their lodgings and napped in back alleys.” Shouting gamblers plead for the fan tan beads to favour them, yelling at the dealers, disputing their winnings with Boss Long (the cheating owner), leading to a riot.
Taller than most men, Yang Hok never feared a fight. Once a bandit in his home village, Hok wanted to go to the States but landed a job as a labourer in the CPR construction gangs. From 1881-1885, he worked at different jobs, smuggling Chinese labourers to the States and selling liquor at construction campsites. With winnings from gambling, he had amassed a handsome bankroll, enough to buy his ticket home with extra money to purchase gifts for family members.
He was also literate, savvy and bold. Hok wrote and carved out names in Chinese characters on markers for casualties in makeshift cemeteries; he understood that giving a Chinese name for a child required the knowledge and understanding of the traditional naming systems of Chinese families; and he once ventured to blow up a bridge supported by trestles, with a fellow-worker, soon after its completion to avenge the deaths of so many Chinese labourers, as well as the maiming of many who were then left stranded.
Hence Paul Yee’s title A Superior Man describes someone who is resourceful, ambitious and courageous—but not without problems.
Hoks wife Mary left their three-year-old son Peter with him and disappeared, hoping he would take Peter to China. Hok believes his son should remain with his mother in order to protect him “from spiteful stepmothers and humiliation in China.” Determined to find Mary and deliver Peter to her, he sets off for Lytton on the Fraser River.
On the journey from Victoria, Peter falls overboard into the river. Hok cannot swim. He is astonished and ashamed when a white man saves his son from drowning.
Needing a guide upon their arrival in Yale, Hok reluctantly accepts the recommendation of Soohoo, owner of a brothel, to hire Lew Bing Sam, a First Nations man with Chinese ancestry who speaks different Chinese dialects. Sam agrees to help Hok and won’t charge a guiding fee on the condition that Hok carry his merchandise. Even though Hok believes, “a man with self-respect doesn’t porter for a mix-blood,” he has no choice.
Amusements and delights commence through the conversations and interactions between these two characters as they travel together. Hok becomes jealous when he notices Peter is becoming increasingly attached to Sam because “no father should look weak in front of his son,” but Hok admires Sam for being able to perform correctly the rituals of showing respect to the Chinese who were buried in a cemetery, and reciting the names of ancestors in five generations of his Chinese family.
For his part, Hok can hardly remember the names of his extended family members, let alone the earlier generations. The two men retrieve a dead body floating on the Fraser River and bury the corpse. Hok wants to return to China to show his success and achievements; Sam wants to go to China to find his roots.
Paul Yee does a wonderful job describing the striking features of the Fraser River, the majestic yet dangerous landscapes at Hell’s Gate, and the arid and dusty setting of Lytton at the confluence of the Fraser and Thompson Rivers.
The Chinatowns in Yale and Lytton present a remarkable contrast to that of Victoria. In Yale, Chinatown was peaceful and orderly. In Yale, the reader is introduced to a clever prostitute, named Goddess, who sent men from her bed beaming with satisfaction. Details of colourful sex and other sexual encounters — including the sexual activities of other prostitutes, Chinese, First Nations, and whites and the sexual desires among Chinese men — are boldly and frankly presented.
Yee is also adept at describing First Nations people, their love of children, especially among the female elders, and the hardship and sufferings of the Chinese labourers who bore the brunt of the challenges in railway construction.
To tell more would be to ruin the plot.
Throughout the narrative, Paul Yee has appropriately used colloquial dialects, slang, and proverbs to reveal the ways of thinking and expressions of the Chinese old-timers. Many of the Chinese proverbs such as “falling leaves land on the roots” or “at low door bend down” project the dreams and tolerance of the sojourners respectfully.
Besides historical authenticity, this novel is replete with Chinese culture as indicated by the rituals of preparing a dead body for burial and planning a funeral, and by the filial piety and moral values of Chinese families. A Superior Man is a delightful, captivating, and lively novel that is especially welcome for its rare depiction of the fragile relationship between the Chinese sojourners and the First Nations people.
Paul Yee’s One FAQ Answered [From Paul Yee’s website]
Why are my books about Chinese people?
This is a question many people ask.
1. They’re the people I know best. I grew up in a Chinatown. I’m familiar with the language, history, and culture.
2. They’re the people I care about. Some of the characters in my books are drawn from my own family or the community.
3. They’re the people about whom I’m most curious. This means I enjoy the research I do.
The more I learn about Chinese people, whether they live in North America, China or elsewhere in the world, the more I learn about experiences that affect me. I say this because people see I am Chinese right away, no matter where I am. Often, they make assumptions about me.
“He doesn’t speak English.”
“He doesn’t speak Chinese.”
“He’s an immigrant.”
“He know a lot about Chinese food.”
“He’s going to complain about racism.”
4. When I was a child, growing up in the 1960s, there were no books about my world–the world of immigrants, racial minorities, and different histories. I had to learn about these things much later in life.
5. My books mirror images of Chinese people back to themselves. Such books can reassure those in North American that it is valid to be different from the “mainstream.” As well, the books let Chinese in North America see themselves, and each other, from new and different angles.