Book Supplement: Three Hours North
by Wayson Choy
(Picador, USA) $24
Wayson Choy has written a memoir depicting Vancouver's Chinatown in the '40s and '50s--a Chinatown that may be familiar to readers of The Jade Peony, his prizewinning 1995 novel. The Jade Peony tells the stories of three Chinese children growing up on Pender Street and environs; Paper Shadows covers similar ground, narrating Choy's own childhood. Both books are rich in memorable characters and strange voices, and enrich our understanding of that place. You won't ever walk past the old Kuomintang Building at Pender and Gore without recalling Choy's fanatical headmasters at the Chinese school there, or even the old men he saw painting Chinese signs in the top-floor auditorium 50 years ago. Paper Shadows is a haunted book, full of ghosts of the difficult history of the Chinese in Vancouver, seen dimly through the opaque narcissism of the child.
Another muted presence throughout is the Canadian Pacific Railroad (CPR). The history of early Vancouver is tied to the CPR and the Chinese labor that built it; Choy's father works for the CPR as a galley cook on the overnight Victoria-Vancouver-Seattle steamship. "'We work five times as hard as anyone else did,' Father told me. 'No choice. Work harder or someone else take your job.' Father would clench his fist at the memory, his voice choking. 'Five times as hard.'" And there are glimpses of the "old-timers" from before the Exclusion Era (1923-1947) when racist laws stopped all immigration, and families were separated, sometimes forever. In Choy's memory they are lonely old men, bent and grotesque from a lifetime of doing the worst work, struggling to send remittances back to families in China. Suicide was common. One man's body is found holding a letter that begins, "Husband, shall we sell our daughter...?"
In Choy's narrative, however, the hardships of immigrant life belong to others; this is not a narrative of painfully acquired consciousness of ethnic identity. The child spends a lot of time trying to escape the identities that adults try to impose on him, from his teachers to his father's constant "Dai gai tong-yong.... We all be Chinese," to the girl who laughs pityingly at him when he flunks out of Chinese school: "Don't you want to be Chinese?" The formative events of his childhood don't involve encounters with the racial "other." More important, evidently, are embarrassments like the time he falls out of his chair in class because he is too vigorously scratching his ass on it, or his first orgasm experienced while riding on his uncle's shoulders. At one point, his dog Winky dominates the book. I confess to feeling a little embarrassed for the 60-year-old author, in his childhood persona, describing his dog's feces in glowing terms: "It was the rest of Winky's excitement--steaming fresh and rolling about like small chocolate eggs." Before deciding that this was an act of literary terrorism, I rationalized it as some kind of Freudian narrative focalization (the old children-shit connection). The pleasure he takes in his dog is far removed from the world of the adult figures who come from that Old China. No pets; certainly not dogs: If you're going to give an animal precious food, better make sure it's because you're planning to eat him. When Old Wong administers Winky an enema after the dog has made itself sick eating too much porridge, we know it's about animal husbandry; this is not an enema for Old Yeller.
I think Choy dwells on these weird things not just because he wants to represent the in-between state of children of migrant families; there's also something of an aesthetic program. The writer and the child live in this Pacific Rim convergence zone where languages interfere with each other and new cultural forms and goods are created. The child and the writer wander through this cultural chaos like flâneurs. While the young Wayson is busy flunking out of Chinese school, an uncle gives him a Disney hand puppet--Dopey, one of the Seven Dwarves. He adds a few items to turn it into a hybrid Chinese opera puppet soldier. "Dopey was now as Chinese as I wanted." No respect, here, for either Chinese or Western culture. What matters is what satisfies and gives pleasure in being just right. And this is why Choy's books matter.