Yee at VPL, Victoria, Writers Fest
October 06th, 2015
Governor General Award Winner Paul Yee will launch his first adult novel, A Superior Man (Arsenal $21.95) at the Vancouver Public Library, Wednesday, October 14, 2015 from 6:30 p.m.- 8:30 p.m., Central Branch, Alice MacKay Room. The event is co-sponsored by the Chinese Canadian Historical Society of B.C. (CCHS) and the Vancouver Public Library.
“We are absolutely delighted to partner with VPL on Paul’s latest book,” says Larry Wong, a past president of the Chinese Canadian Historical Society BC who will be moderating Yee’s program at VPL. “Paul is a long-time supporter of CCHS and has deep roots in Vancouver.”
The presentation is part of Yee’s British Columbia tour as he also speaks in Victoria, October 18, and Nanaimo, October 19, and concludes with a speaking engagement at the Vancouver International Writers’ Festival, October 22-23.
Yee has written 27 works on Chinese Canadian history including an opera. See bibiography below.
Set in B.C., Yee’s novel is a frank account of Chinese Canadian history in the 19th century.
Here is a review by B.C. historian Lily Chow.
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.
Lily Chow lives in Victoria.
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