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Wayson Choy – the storyteller as survivor, the survivor as storyteller

When author Wayson Choy was growing up in Vancouver, there used to be signs in the tony British Properties subdivision that read: “No Chinese, no Irish, no dogs allowed.” The Purdy’s Chocolate store had a sign saying: “We use white labour only.” During the Second World War, the Chinese Canadian community made up its own signs in the form of buttons that read: “I am Chinese.” Taking care not to be mistaken for the Japanese was one of the few times Choy, who was born in 1939, recalls his community asserting its Chinese background. After all, assimilation was the goal. Choy, who describes himself then as a banana (yellow on the outside but white on the inside) says “Chinatown had no history for someone like myself.”

“I kept balled-up newspapers in a box by my bed to burn the Chinese school down,” he confessed recently to the members and guests of the Victoria Chinatown Lioness Club. “You never saw a more disappointed arsonist in your life!” he said of his thwarted plans.

His antipathy toward his Chinese culture is partly the result of the silence of the elders on matters of personal history.

“Part of their silence and dullness was because they didn’t want to talk about the humiliation and racism they’d experienced,” he said. “But as they got older, they thought ‘oh what the hell. You might as well know!’”

Choy started to tell their stories himself after he joined the creative writing program at the University of British Columbia – the first Asian to do so. Mentors like Earle Birney encouraged their students to “write about something you know about that we don’t know about.”

 ”I got pink” – and the rest is literary history

Returning to UBC in 1977 on a sabbatical from Toronto’s Humber College, Choy was encouraged by instructor Carol Shields – not yet a ‘name’ herself – to write about Vancouver’s Chinatown. She got him started with a class exercise in which she distributed pieces of paper with the name of colour written on each one. The task was to emphasize that colour in the story.

“I got pink,” said Choy. “It was symbolic to me because I’m a gay man. Then I heard my aunts in the kitchen discussing some jade my mother left behind. They mentioned pink jade. The next time in the kitchen another aunt mentioned peonies. That night I wrote the first sentence of The Jade Peony – it was a story about a young boy receiving a piece of pink jade carved into the shape of a peony.”

The story won a contest in the UBC Chronicle and was republished 25 times. Then an editor asked Choy to turn the story into a book. That book – about the immigrant Chen family living in Vancouver’s Chinatown during World War II – was eventually published in 1995. In 1996 it shared Ontario’s Trillium Prize with Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace  and won the City of Vancouver Book Award. It has gone into its 30th printing and sold almost 200,000 copies.

Unlucky times, lucky life

“I was born in unlucky times but have had a very lucky life,” says Choy, who now encourages others to seek out their family stories.

“What stories have you not told or been told by your parents and grandparents? A country is nothing if it loses the stories of its survivors.”

And in Choy’s view, every person is a survivor.

“Every one of us has a history of discrimination if we look far enough back,” he says. “You are survivors. You can share one collective label. My God, you are heroic!”

Tell your story so we are human together

“But it’s as if it were shameful to have survived – to have fought and won. Don’t talk about it – shout about it! Tell others what it took to make this country.  Tell your story so we are human together.  If you don’t leave your stories you don’t leave who you are that matters.”

Wayson Choy has taken his own advice. In 1999 he published his first memoir, Paper Shadows. All That Matters, a companion novel to The Jade Peony, was published in 2004. His latest book, Not Yet, was published in 2009. Sub-titled “A Memoir of Living and Almost Dying”, it recounts Choy’s two near-death experiences.

“You have to buy a copy to find out if I live!” he jokes.

Spoiler alert: he does. And thanks to that, so does an important part of Canada’s rich literary history.

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