Jim Wong-Chu (1949-2017)
July 17th, 2017
With the passing last week of Vancouver poet, activist and mentor, Jim Wong-Chu, Vancouver lost a pioneer of the Asian Canadian literary community.
Wong-Chu co-founded the Asian Canadian Writers Workshop, loosely organized in the late sixties/early seventies when he and several other activists began questioning the lack of Asian Canadian voices in the country. They sought to bring their community’s perspectives to the larger public and challenge the dominant Canadian literary scene.
The ACWW was formally incorporated in 1995. And in 1996, the ACWW’s internal newsletter, Ricepaper Magazine, which had been around for many years, received a Canada Council grant that provided the resources to transform it into a glossy magazine format.
Wong-Chu himself wrote poetry and published Chinatown Ghosts (Pulp Press 1986) — one of the earliest collections of poetry published by an Asian-Canadian. He went on to co-edit a number of prominent anthologies — like Many Mouthed Birds: Contemporary Writing by Chinese Canadians (D&M 1991) — featuring such Asian-Canadian luminaries as Wayson Choy and Paul Yee.
Wong-Chu’s ongoing work as a mentor to young and new writers was profound. One of his earliest mentees and a former editor of the Ricepaper, Madeleine Thien, won a B.C. Book prize as well as the Governor General’s award last year and went on to be nominated for the Booker Prize.
“My love to Jim Wong-Chu’s family. I was lucky, like many, to be taken under his wing years ago and given the beautiful gift of his belief,” Thien tweeted at the news of his passing.
EXTENDED VERSION OF JIM WONG-CHU’S BIOGRAPHY FROM ABCBOOKWORLD AUTHOR REFERENCE SITE:
Chinese Canadians weren’t granted the federal vote in Canada until 1947. They first voted provincially in 1949—the year Jim Wong-Chu was born in Hong Kong. Jim Wong-Chu was brought to Canada in 1953 and raised by aunts and uncles as a ‘paper son’. His 62-page poetry book pertaining to Vancouver’s Chinatown, Chinatown Ghosts, appeared in 1986. It led to a collaboration with Vancouver lawyer Bennett Lee, a third-generation Chinese Canadian from Victoria. They edited an anthology of contemporary writing by Chinese Canadians, Many-Mouthed Birds: Contemporary Writing by Chinese Canadians (D&M 1991).
In 2014, at the Vancouver International Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, an exhibit called Jim Wong-Chu: Photographs 1973–1981: People, Place, Politics consisted of nearly 100 black-and-white photographs taken by Jim Wong-Chu during the years he attended Emily Carr, then known as the Vancouver School of Art.
In 2015, Wong-Chu co-edited AlliterAsian: Twenty Years of RicePaper (Arsenal Pulp $21.95) an anthology. AlliterAsian includes interviews with David Suzuki, Tobias Wong, Ruth Ozeki, Evelyn Lau, Denise Chong and Madeleine Thien; plus excerpts from works-in-progress by Joy Kogawa, Yasuko Thanh and SKY Lee; and poetry from Fred Wah, Rita Wong, Souvanhkahm Thammavongsa and Michael Prior. Other contributors are Kim Fu, Doretta Lau, Corinna Chong, Terry Watada, Derwin Mak, Eric Choi and C.E. Catchalian. AsianLit trailblazers Wayson Choy, Paul Yee and Lily Chow are absent from this anthology.
With collaborators, Wong-Chu has also edited two more antholgies of Chinese-Canadian literary works: Swallowing Clouds: An Anthology of Chinese-Canadian Poetry (1999) and Strike the Wok: An Anthology of Contemporary Chinese Canadian Fiction (2003).
Jim Wong-Chu was interviewed by Jurgen Hesse for inclusion in Hesse’s In Voices of Change: Immigrant Writers Speak Out (Pulp Press, 1990) pages 184-201.
HERE JIM WONG-CHU COMMENTS ON THE EVOLUTION OF ASIAN CANADIAN LITERATURE FOR AN ARTICLE IN BC BOOKWORLD:
“Most of the early pioneers of the Asian Canadian literary canon didn’t start off with aspirations of writing. They were community activists who grew up with racial discrimination and wanted change. They were compelled to write.
“People like SKY Lee and Paul Yee worked full-time jobs, but they needed to get their stories out there. Paul Yee was an archivist who knew a lot about Chinatown. But he wasn’t a writer. One day, Lorimer Books commissioned Rick Shiomi, a Japanese Canadian playwright, to craft a children’s book with an Asian Canadian theme. Rick ran out of time and rather than letting the project fall through, Paul stepped up and tried his hand at writing.
“That book, Teach Me to Fly, Skyfighter!, in 1983, is seminal because it was one of the first to depict life growing up in Chinatown. It was the first Canadian book that touched on that topic. It was a turning point when we realized that someone outside of the so-called literary establishment could publish, too.
“My book, Chinatown Ghosts, happened very much by serendipity. I trained in photography but I entered the creative writing program at UBC and tried my hand at poetry. I realized after two years that no one understood my writing which mainly revolved around Chinatown. I eventually realized writers of Asian descent needed some sort of organization that could get together to workshop and be comfortable in sharing stories that spoke about themselves.
“Chinatown Ghosts was a culmination of those two years of creative writing classes at UBC. I never intended to publish it. I hung out at Alvin Jang’s place one day. He was a visual artist who happened to be close friends with J. Michael Yates, a renowned Canadian author. After Alvin showed my poems to Yates, he came to me one day and said, “Give me everything you have. I’m going to be your editor.”
“It turned out that Arsenal Pulp Press needed one more book to fulfill its Canada Council grant and Yates was asked to search for manuscripts. With Yates as editor, Chinatown Ghosts immediately had legitimacy. It was published within five months.
“Wayson Choy is a case of hidden talent waiting to be discovered. It only took thirty years. Scott McIntyre came to me and asked if Bennett Lee and I could put together an anthology of Asian Canadian writers. In those days, there weren’t that many, so I scoured the UBC Library stacks searching for anything published by Asian Canadian writers in literary magazines. That’s where we found Wayson Choy.
“Although Wayson’s short story called Jade Peony had already been published in other anthologies, its inclusion in Many-Mouthed Birds: Contemporary Writing by Chinese Canadians, brought it into the spotlight as an Asian Canadian story. There were actually three stories by Wayson Choy that we shortlisted and Jade Peony wasn’t Wayson’s first choice. However, Douglas & McIntyre liked the story so much that it not only accepted it, but gave Wayson a contract to develop it into a novel.
“The Asian Canadian literary scene began mainly with Chinese and Japanese writers because historically they have been in Canada the longest. But times have changed. Other groups are emerging with recent immigration, from places such as Korea, Laos, Vietnam, the Philippines, etc. We’ve seen excellent writing from the likes of Madeleine Thien, Vincent Lam and Kim Thuy, just to name a few.
“The hyphenation of Asian Canadian is a residue of historical circumstances. I’ve noticed that not all of them define themselves as Asian Canadian and prefer to drop the hyphen. And that’s fine. We’re all Canadian writers first and foremost. It’s more important to continue to find the hidden talents in our communities, people who aren’t used to having their voices heard, rather than become sidetracked by identity.”