From a hang-up to a cultural phenomenon: Jim Wong-Chu on Asian Canadian literature

Originally published April 16, 2016 on the Georgia Straight.

A feature piece for the Georgia Straight, suggestions from my colleagues at the editorial office led me to one of cornerstones of contemporary Asian-American/Canadian literature, the late Jim Wong-Chu.

Hours of conversation and shared history resulted in the culmination of what could be considered a final manifesto of the literary pioneer.In a way, my interactions with Wong-Chu had cemented my interest in the diasporic identity that many multi-generational minority Canadians face (including myself) when navigating the complex, sometimes discouraging social sphere that is Canadian society.

Step into your local bookstore and you can find the names of Asian-Canadian writers shelved beside their literary peers.

Writers such as Bharati Mukherjee (now American), Terry Woo, Wayson Choy, Larissa Lai, Madeleine Thien, Rohinton Mistry, and Anita Rau Badami can be found alongside the likes of Joseph Boyden, Alice Munro, and Margaret Atwood. More than 20 years ago, Asian-Canadian literature wasn’t as prominent as it is today. In reality, it was still in its infancy: born out of growing frustration and the need for expression.

“We called those ‘hang-ups’,” remarks Jim Wong-Chu, in an interview with the Straight. He sits in his office, Ricepaper magazine’s East Broadway headquarters, which is cramped with boxes and books, the walls a weathered green. Wong-Chu, now 67 and greying, is many things: a poet, author of the acclaimed 1986 poetry collection Chinatown Ghosts; a photographer, whose work was exhibited at the Centre A gallery in 2014; an editor of various literary anthologies; and a former postman. Above all, Wong-Chu is a pioneer of Asian-Canadian literature.

“Hang-ups are things that you haven’t resolved inside of yourself,” the founder of the Asian Canadian Writers’ Workshop (ACWW) says. “Problems that manifest in itself at odd times and odd social occasions, things rooted in the back of your life—discrimination, the relationship with your family, whatever it is.”

He remarks that what exists today wouldn’t have been possible without other prominent writers of his time, such as Paul Yee and SKY Lee (both cofounders of the ACWW), and their desire to build something from the ground up. “When you go to a library 20 years ago, there’s no such thing in the card catalogue as Asian-Canadian writers,” he says. “No such thing.

“Nowadays, yes, there are whole categories of academia that are now focused on minority writing and Asian-Canadian writing,” he notes. “That’s what 20 years does, but it takes that long—if I knew it was going to take this long, I probably wouldn’t do it.”

He blames the enthusiasm of youth. “When you’re young, you feel like you’re immortal. You feel that it’s a dare. You just gotta do it.”

Wong-Chu was born in Hong Kong in 1949, and came to Canada in 1953. He was brought along by his aunt in hopes of reuniting with her husband in Canada, whom she had not seen for 23 years. However, he arrived as a “paper son”, someone who came to North America from China with documents claiming false blood ties or illegal citizenship. Her child had died in transit to Hong Kong. Under the care of his father, they saw an opportunity with her nephew, Wong-Chu.

“I was the same age as the dead child,” he says. “They just plucked me in there and I became her son.”

Because he’d been too young to remember at the time, Wong-Chu didn’t know about his true heritage. When he was roughly seven years old, his aunt, whom he still thought was his mother, brought it up.

“One day, my aunt just said, ‘I’m not your mother.’”

“In my late teens and early 20s, I was very confused. You’re constantly haunted by this idea that you’re not legal. It destroyed me totally as an individual,” he says, stone-faced. “That’s identity for you—when you talk about identity to the infinite extreme, it feels like you’re a fake.

“It feels like you’re not a part of everything around you, that your participation is not welcome and not well-received. That’s what you’re looking at.

“I was sad and outraged.”

In his 20s, Wong-Chu was one of many Asian-Canadians who the rise of the Asian-Canadian movement of the 1970s, when the idea of consciousness prevalent among social activists. Many of his peers shared the sense of displacement that he had—of what it meant to be Canadian, and how it affected their own cultural identity.

“With identity, it comes down to this: where is your home, where is your family? Where are your roots? Sometimes, in order to do that, you have to validate it,” he observes.

“The more I found out our history, I found out it wasn’t just me…the whole Asian-Canadian movement started off with history: because we had to examine…what [we] can do to make society better for others.”

With the emphasis on the notion of consciousness, communities had started to develop; one of them was the ACWW, established in the late '70s, inspired by his time as a student in UBC’s creative-writing department, where he was unsatisfied with his experience.

The realization of living what he calls a borrowed life still haunts him. He says it took him years to reconcile himself with the fact that he had a separate family—separate identity. Coupled with his experience of racism, Wong-Chu felt a strong sense of displacement.

“In workshops, I was writing what was important to me, but when I was workshopping it with other people, most people didn’t understand it,” he says. “They just couldn’t understand what your problem was because they couldn’t relate to it.

“That’s why we started the ACWW, for us to create a community where you can read and understand where you come from. That’s how you build community, but you had to find it and you had to build it yourself.

“You have to put up or shut up.”