Wayson Choy (1939-2019)
Wayson Choy has died at home on April 28, 2019, after prolonged illnesses, at age 80.
April 29th, 2019
Wayson Choy was the first Chinese Canadian to enrol in a Creative Writing class at UBC where he wrote a story called The Jade Peony. He later received the Order of Canada and the George Woodcock Lifetime Achievement Award.
Wayson Choy was born in Vancouver on April 20, 1939. He died in Toronto from a heart attack brought on by an asthma attack. He had had previous heart attacks related to his asthmatic condition.
His mother was a meat-cutter and sausage stuffer; he was told his father was a cook aboard CPR ships. At age six he moved to an Edwardian house at 630 Keefer Street and thereafter was cared for in a variety of Chinese Canadian households, often dreaming of becoming a cowboy. At UBC he began writing a short story which would be turned into his best-known novel some 30 years later. The Jade Peony has been anthologized more than 25 times.
Wayson Choy moved to Toronto in 1962. He emerged foremost among Chinese Canadian fiction writers for his novel The Jade Peony (1995), an inter-generational saga about an immigrant family, the Chens, during the Depression. It was selected as the co-winner of the 1996 Trillium Prize (along with Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace). The Jade Peony also won the City of Vancouver Book Award and spent 26 weeks on the Globe & Mail’s bestseller list. The Jade Peony has been anthologized more than 25 times.
The Jade Peony was followed by Paper Shadows: A Memoir of a Past Lost and Found (1999), mostly about his childhood. Paper Shadows won the Edna Staebler Creative Non-Fiction Award and was shortlisted for a Governor General’s Award, the Charles Taylor Prize and the Drainie-Taylor Biography Prize.
At age 56, Wayson Choy accidentally discovered he had been adopted and that his biological father had been a member of the Cantonese Opera Company. Choy had often attended Chinese opera with his mother. Choy subsequently returned to the Chen family for All That Matters (2004), a sequel and prequel told through the eyes of First Son, Kiam-Kim, who arrives by ship with his father and grandmother Poh-Poh, in 1926. We first meet Kiam-Kim at age eight, staring at a photograph of his mother, who died in China when he was a baby. Kiam-Kim struggles to embrace Chinese tradition in a foreign culture in the 1930s and early 1940s.
“My character, Kiam-Kim, is heterosexual which I am not,” Choy has said. “You have to risk everything to make a breakthrough. Be on the side of the monster. Until we can make someone understand that any of us could have been the guard at a Nazi concentration camp or the uncle that abused his niece or the soldiers that napalmed Vietnam, until we can make others see that, it is not literature. A writer has to reverse things to get at what they know.”
Choy fell ill while completing All That Matters, leading him to examine his past more deeply, including his Chinese roots. Four years after a combined asthma-heart attack in 2001, when he was kept alive by machines and the loving kindness of friends, his heart nearly failed him again. His subsequent memoir of two near-death experiences is Not Yet: A Memoir of Living and Almost Dying (2009).
In 2002, The Jade Peony was selected by the Vancouver Public Library for its annual One Book, One Vancouver city-wide book club project. A symposium on Wayson Choy and his work was held in Toronto in May of 2003. It included a video biography of Choy produced by his Humber College colleague Michael Glassbourg, entitled Wayson Choy: Unfolding the Butterfly. An hour-long documentary about his trip to China, Searching for Confucius, premiered on VisionTV on March 29, 2005.
In collaboration with an event sponsored by Project Bookmark Canada, a Wayson Choy Special Tribute Evening was held on Sunday, October 14, 2012 at Floata Chinese Restaurant, 180 Keefer Street, in Vancouver historical Chinatown. At the corner of Pender and Gore, in a park situated across from where Wayson Choy attended Chinese school, there is now a pair of bilingual ‘Bookmarks’ displaying an excerpt from The Jade Peony.
Wayson Choy has taught English at Humber College in Toronto since 1967. He has been a volunteer for various community literacy projects and AIDS groups, and he served for three years as president of Cahoots Theatre Company.
“I think all stories should arise organically from characters’ definitions of the world,” Choy has said. “Otherwise you’re just falling into a plot genre. I’m not big on plot… that’s not where I think literature exists. I think it comes from the identification of the reader to the character. If you give details that ring true, as I hope I’ve given in both my books, readers go ‘that’s like me’, and that’s the meaning of writing.”
Wayson Choy was included in a Vancouver Public Library’s initiative that generated twenty-five new literary landmarks for the city, co-sponsored by B.C. BookWorld, in March of 2015.
He returned to Vancouver in June of 2015 to receive the George Woodcock Lifetime Achievement Award for an outstanding B.C. literary career.
The flourishing of Chinese Canadian literature was kick-started by UVic historian David Chuenyan Lai and Vancouver cultural activist Jim Wong-Chu who co-edited a breakthrough anthology, Many-Mouthed Birds (1991), with Bennett Lee. Since then Paul Yee has gained considerable success as a children’s book author and Denise Chong has earned widespread notice for her non-fiction family stories. For seven years, Louis Luping Han helped his mother, Dr. Li Qunying-a medical doctor who had worked in China through WWII, the Chinese Civil war, and the Korean War-to write her riveting memoir of her experiences under repressive communism, The Doctor Who Was Followed by Ghosts (2007).
Also see: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/03/obituaries/wayson-choy-dies.html?emc=edit_th_190505&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=45201140505
The Jade Peony (Douglas & McIntyre, 1996, 2005)
Paper Shadows: A Memoir of a Past Lost and Found (Penguin, 1999)
All That Matters (Doubleday, 2004)
Not Yet: A Memoir of Living and Almost Dying (Doubleday, 2009)
Review of the author’s work by BC Studies:
Paper Shadows: A Chinatown Childhood
Wayson Choy receives Woodcock Award
Press Release (2015)
VANCOUVER, B.C. – One of the country’s foremost Chinese-Canadian authors, Wayson Choy, has been named as this year’s recipient of the George Woodcock Lifetime Achievement Award, recognizing his outstanding contributions to B.C. literature.
“We are delighted to be recognizing Wayson Choy for his considerable literary contributions,” says Sandra Singh, chief librarian at the Vancouver Public Library, which hosts a special event with the author next week (Thursday, June 11).
“His works over the years have served as a critical thread in B.C.’s diverse literary fabric,” she says. “His stories connect us, help us understand our city’s past, and let us see life through a different perspective. He has helped tear down barriers between cultures and generations.”
The George Woodcock Award is the province’s most prestigious literary honour, and recognizes a B.C. author whose outstanding literary career and contributions to society span several decades. It’s presented annually at VPL in a public ceremony, and is co-sponsored by the Writers’ Trust of Canada and Dr. Yosef Wosk.
“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,” says Choy, who travelled to Vancouver from Toronto to receive the award. “Most of all, 10,000 thanks to George Woodcock, whom this award is named after. His literary career established a legacy for many others to follow.”
Choy’s life has been a great influence in his writing. His struggles to embrace Chinese traditions as a first-generation Canadian, accidentally discovering he was adopted, facing two near-death experiences and being openly gay have inspired his writing and been the focus of documentaries such as Wayson Choy: Unfolding the Butterfly and Searching for Confucius.
With a background deeply rooted in Vancouver’s Chinatown during the 1940s, Choy was the first Chinese-Canadian student to enrol in a creative writing class at the University of B.C. This is where he would begin work on The Jade Peony – a bestselling novel that has received much acclaim, including the City of Vancouver Book Award in 1995. 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.
Choy will receive the George Woodcock Award at a special public presentation on June 11 at 7 p.m. at VPL’s central branch downtown. At the same event, author Shelley Wright will receive the George Ryga Award for Social Awareness.
All That Matters (2004)
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.
In their new life in unsavoury surroundings, 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.
All That Matters (Doubleday)
Born in Vancouver in 1939, Wayson Choy always believed he was the son of a cook on a Canadian Pacific ship. When he attended Strathcona Elementary School, he wanted to grow up and be a cowboy. Safe within the ‘bubble’ of his marginality, he accompanied his mother to her evenings of mahjong and watched Chinese opera.
Later he became the first Chinese Canadian to enrol in a creative writing course (taught by Earle Birney). At UBC he began writing a short story that would turn into his first novel more than 30 years later. As an inter-generational chronicle of the Chens, an immigrant family struggling during the Depression, The Jade Peony (D&M) won the City of Vancouver Book Award and the Trillium Award in the mid 1990s. [It has been re-issued in a revised edition.]
After a radio interview about the book, Wayson Choy received an unexpected phone call from a woman who had been his babysitter. At age 56, he learned he had been adopted. This revelation led him to write Paper Shadows (Penguin) a memoir set during the 1940s.
Now Wayson Choy has returned to the saga of the Chen family with All That Matters (Doubleday), a prequel told through the eyes of eldest son, Kiam-Kim, who arrives by ship at Gold Mountain with his father and grandmother, Poh-Poh, in 1926. Neighbours-one Chinese, one Irish-are both racist. Flowers and teas are sent back and forth between the families, but they still don’t want their sons and daughters to inter-marry.
“Kiam-Kim must choose between becoming a bridge that connects the difference – or a wall,” says Choy. “It’s a choice we all must make.” The wise and spirited Poh-Poh is a compilation of the women who influenced Choy when he was growing up. He took the elements revealed by the elders to create Poh-Poh’s secrets of abuse and rape as a slave girl in China.
“Everyone in Chinatown cooperated in keeping secrets. They would buy, sell and trade children. Immigrant people do dreadful things to survive. The women who came to Canada from China were tough cookies, they were survivors. Often they came as waitresses when they were actually prostitutes and the pretty ones were bought by the rich merchants.”
The title All That Matters comes from Confucius. “He was asked by a group of young scholars what to say when they spoke to the poor, to the ordinary people,” Choy says. “They likely expected a long dissertation, but instead the master said a few words: ‘all that matters, is to express the truth.'”
Although Choy has never had a family of his own, he depicts many domestic scenes with children, including the birth of a baby. “I grew up with a large extended family and I have two goddaughters who are so important to me, as are their families. When I was writing this book, dear friends gave me a great gift–the opportunity to witness the birth of their baby.”
For his writing, Choy says it is essential to trust the point of view of others. “My character, Kiam-Kim, is heterosexual which I am not. You have to risk everything to make a breakthrough. Be on the side of the monster. Until we can make someone understand that any of us could have been the guard at a Nazi concentration camp or the uncle that abused his niece or the soldiers that napalmed Vietnam, until we can make others see that, it is not literature. A writer has to reverse things to get at what they know.”
Although Choy has been teaching remedial English and creative writing at Humber College in Toronto since 1962, he remains haunted by the Chinatown of his youth. Ghosts and phantoms; omens and signs. They inhabit Wayson Choy’s literary landscapes. Choy believes “that people who loved us still occupy and exist in our lives. I can talk to them and sometimes they talk to me. They are not gone.”
–by Johanne Leach, a Vancouver freelance writer.
[BCBW Spring 2005]
Searching For Confucius
Press Release (2005)
The Chinese philosopher Confucius died broken and despondent, convinced that his life’s work had been in vain. Little did he realize that his ideas would survive some 2,500 years. Who was Confucius, and why do his writings continue to inspire men and women to this day?
In the documentary Searching for Confucius, Canadian novelist Wayson Choy voyages to China on a quest to understand the great philosopher’s life and legacy. VisionTV presents the film’s world television premiere on Tuesday, March 29 at 10 p.m. ET, 2005, as part of its “History, Mystery, Travel & Treasure” documentary series.
Choy, author of the award-winning novel The Jade Peony, fell gravely ill while working on the 2004 sequel, All That Matters. The experience left him determined to learn more about his past. He was intrigued, in particular, by the way Confucianism had shaped the worldview of his immigrant parents. “My life has been lived in the shadow of Confucius,” he says.
In the hour-long documentary, Choy travels to the city of Qufu, the home of Confucius and the site of a massive temple built in his honour. There, the author meets with China’s foremost Confucian scholars, as well as some of the philosopher’s present-day descendants.
Born in 551 B.C., Confucius grew up in humble circumstances and sought to better himself through diligent study. He eventually became a minor government official in the state of Lu, now part of Shandong Province.
China in those days was a land of constant turmoil, as nobles waged an endless series of wars among themselves. Confucius longed to bring order to politics, society and culture, and believed education to be the key. He became a teacher, gathering students together in open spaces like orchards and fields. Where education had before been a privilege of the nobility, he made it available to anyone willing to learn.
Confucius emphasized moral education: he believed that raising a person’s moral standards would make them more compassionate and bring light to dark times. Some 500 years before the birth of Christ, he articulated the essence of the Golden Rule: “Do not impose on others what you yourself do not desire.”
At the heart of his philosophy lies compassion or benevolence, tempered by self-discipline. Confucius taught that a ruler governs successfully by demonstrating virtue. But he had a hard time selling this concept to China’s feudal lords. For more than a decade he traveled the country, trying to persuade the ruling class to adopt his philosophy of enlightened leadership, only to be greeted with open hostility.
At the time of his death in 479 B.C., Confucius believed his life to have been a failure. But devoted disciples kept his ideas alive. (His teachings were compiled in a posthumous volume called the Analects.) And ordinary people embraced his vision of a peaceful society and a meaningful life. Eventually, many of China’s ruling dynasties would adopt Confucianism as their guiding philosophy.
Through the centuries, Confucianism has passed in and out of favour. It came under attack most recently during the Cultural Revolution. But interest is growing again, particularly as China opens up its economy to the outside world. This Choy discovers when he visits the headquarters of Confucius Family Liquor, a firm whose business practices are based on the philosophy of its namesake.
Confucius desired nothing less than to change the world. He succeeded. His philosophy has influenced millions, from great emperors to the parents of Wayson Choy. His ideas, says professor of fine arts Dr. Gao Yi Qing, endure because “they are full of the wisdom of life.”
Searching for Confucius was directed by Trevor Grant, who wrote the script with Carrie-May Siggins. Gerald P. Sperling was the executive producer. The film was produced by 4 Square Productions in association with VisionTV.
WAYSON CHOY (in brief)
Wayson Choy has emerged foremost among Chinese Canadian fiction writers for his novel The Jade Peony (1995), an inter-generational saga about an immigrant family, the Chens, during the Depression.
Born in Vancouver in 1939, Wayson Choy was the only son of two working parents. He was cared for in a variety of Chinese Canadian households in the Strathcona neighbourhood, dreaming of becoming a cowboy. He grew up being told his absent father was a cook on a Canadian Pacific ship.
Choy often attended Chinese opera with his mother and became the first Chinese Canadian to enrol in a creative writing course (taught by Earle Birney) at UBC. There he began writing a short story that turned into his best-known novel, The Jade Peony, some 30 years later.
The Jade Peony won both the City of Vancouver Book Award and the Trillium Award in Ontario. It has been anthologized more than 25 times. While on a publicity tour for the novel, Choy received an unexpected phone call from a woman who had been his babysitter, during which, at age 56, he learned he had been adopted. This led him to write Paper Shadows (1999), a memoir of the 1940s.
Choy returned to the Chen family for All That Matters (2004), a prequel told through the eyes of eldest son Kiam-Kim, who arrives by ship with his father and grandmother, in 1926.
For his writing, Choy has said it has been essential to trust the point of view of others. “My character, Kiam-Kim, is heterosexual, which I am not. You have to risk everything to make a breakthrough. Be on the side of the monster. Until we can make someone understand that any of us could have been the guard at a Nazi concentration camp or the uncle that abused his niece or the soldiers that napalmed Vietnam, until we can make others see that, it is not literature. A writer has to reverse things to get at what they know.”
Wayson Choy Special Tribute Evening
Press Release (2012)
On October 15, 2012 at 11 am on the Southeast corner of the intersection of Pender and Gore, Project Bookmark Canada and Wayson Choy will unveil two plaques to highlight and commemorate the physical landscape so vividly rendered in Choy’s iconic novel, The Jade Peony. Members of the public are invited to attend the plaques’ unveiling and to hear the author read from his novel.
Project Bookmark Canada is a national charitable organization that marks the places where the real and imagined landscapes meet. We do this by installing poster sized ceramic plaques – called Bookmarks – in the exact physical locations where literary scenes are set. This is the first Bookmark to be installed in British Columbia, with ten Bookmarks unveiled in Ontario and one in Newfoundland.
A Wayson Choy Special Tribute Evening will take place prior to the unveiling on Sunday, October 14, starting at 6pm at the Floata Chinese Restaurant, 180 Keefer Street. This unique event will take the audience on a 73 year journey back in time to witness the remarkable life of this literary iconic born in Vancouver’s Chinatown in 1939. During the evening, you will hear for the first time, stories told by relatives, close friends and colleagues from Choy’s past to illuminate Choy’s remarkable journey beginning with his early care-free childhood days at home and school and taste what it was like to grow up in pre-war Chinatown. There will be stories re-accounted by his childhood neighbour and best friend, Garson Lee and his older tap-dancing sister, Shirley Wong who babysat a young Sonny Choy. Listen in on intimate anecdotes told to you by his university schoolmates and instructors and how he became the precedent-setting first Asian-Canadian to enrol in UBC’s creative writing program.
The evening’s program will include a rare interview footage of Carol Shields who, during the summer of 1977, taught as a guest instructor for a creative writing class. Hear her impression of Wayson and the exercise she used to inspire Choy to create his famous short story, The Jade Peony. The story was first published in the UBC Alumni Chronicle in 1979.
Wayson’s journey as a writer continues when his publisher, Douglas & McIntyre recounts that faithful decision to publish a ground-breaking collection of linked stories titled The Jade Peony. Many successes followed and after the many literary prizes and acknowledgements, in 2002, the book was chosen as Vancouver Public Library’s inaugural ‘s One book, One Vancouver. The evening will also include appearances by media personalities who have shared intimate moments with Choy and a new generation of writers and readers inspired by this remarkable man’s writing.
The event will be hosted by CBC radio personality, Sheryl Mackay and Todd Wong. It is jointly presented by The Asian Canadian Writers’ Workshop, Gung Haggis Fat Choy, Historic Joy Kogawa House Society and Vancouver Asian Heritage Month Society/ explorASIAN.
The Wayson Choy Special Tribute Evening will be held on Sunday, October 14, 6pm at Floata Chinese Restaurant, 180 Keefer Street in Vancouver historical Chinatown. The event includes an eight course Chinese dinner. Tickets are $55 per person or $500 for a table of 10. Proceeds of funds will go in support of the Project Bookmark Canada.
LITERARY LOCATION: 15 East Pender. Former headquarters of the Jin Wah Sing Musical Association.
Wayson Choy emerged foremost among Chinese Canadian fiction writers for his novel, The Jade Peony (1995), an inter-generational saga about an immigrant family, the Chens, during the Depression. Born in Vancouver in 1939, Choy was raised as the only son of two working parents. His mother was a meat-cutter and sausage stuffer, and he was told his father was a cook aboard CPR ships. At age six he moved to an Edwardian house at 630 Keefer Street. At age 56 he accidentally discovered he had been adopted and that his biological father had been a member of the Cantonese Opera Company. Choy had often attended Chinese opera with his mother. [At the corner of Pender and Gore, in a park situated across from where Wayson Choy attended Chinese school, there is also a pair of bilingual ‘Bookmarks’ displaying an excerpt from The Jade Peony.]
QUICK REFERENCE ENTRY: Wayson Choy became the first Chinese Canadian to enrol in a creative writing course (taught by Earle Birney and Jacob Zilber) at UBC. There he began writing a short story set in Vancouver’s Chinatown that turned into his best-known novel, The Jade Peony, some 30 years later. He moved to Toronto in 1962. “We are now sharing our stories,” he has said. “I really think that when the stories are well told, they are human stories. They don’t have any borders or racial barriers.”
Cared for in a variety of Chinese Canadian households in the Strathcona neighbourhood, Wayson Choy dreamed of becoming a cowboy. It was during a publicity tour that Choy received an unexpected phone call from a woman who had been his babysitter, during which, at age 56, he learned he had been adopted. This led him to write Paper Shadows (1999), a memoir of the 1940s.
Choy returned to the Chen family for All That Matters (2004), a prequel told through the eyes of eldest son Kiam-Kim, who arrives by ship with his father and grandmother Poh-Poh, in 1926. For his writing, Choy has said it has been essential to trust the point of view of others. “My character, Kiam-Kim, is heterosexual which I am not. You have to risk everything to make a breakthrough. Be on the side of the monster. Until we can make someone understand that any of us could have been the guard at a Nazi concentration camp or the uncle that abused his niece or the soldiers that napalmed Vietnam, until we can make others see that, it is not literature. A writer has to reverse things to get at what they know.”
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