I decided to break up my food lit reading list with a little Canadian fiction and over the weekend I read The Jade Peony by Wayson Choy. A shout-out to my Vancouverites, it takes place in VanGritty's own Chinatown in the 1930s and 40s. When I lived on Main Street, I used to cut through Chinatown to get to my hairdresser in Gastown. The only time I have ever NOT enjoyed myself in that special little asian pocket of life bordered by sketchville and wealthy hipster lofts was during the garbage strike a few summers back. Then I feared death by asphyxiation.
"Tòhng Yàhn Gãani was what
we once called
where we lived: "China-People-
Street." Later we mimicked
and wrote down only
Wàh Fauh - "China-Town."
The difference is obvious: the people
- Wing Tek Lum, "Translations"
Here are some tidbits from a worthy award winner:
"Poh-Poh, being one of the few elder women left in Vancouver, took pleasure in her status and became the arbitrator of the old ways. Poh-Poh insisted we simplify our kinship terms in Canada, so my mother became "Stepmother." That is what the two boys always called her, for Kiam was the First Son of Father's First Wife who had died mysteriously in China; and Jung, the Second Son, had been adopted into our family. What the sons called my mother, my mother became. The name "Stepmother" kept things simple, orderly, as Poh-Poh had determined. Father did not protest. Nor did the slim, pretty woman that was my mother seem to protest, though she must have cast a glance at the Old One and decided to bide her time. That was the order of things in China."
"'We know how to behave," First Brother Kiam insisted, waving the toy sword over the bucktoothed "WARLORD" nodding on the edge of the kitchen table. Jung poked his sword, bayonet-fashion, and the other heads nodded away, waiting for decapitation.
Third Uncle Lew had given Kiam the ENEMIES OF FREE CHINA game for his tenth birthday. Third Uncle had imported some samples from Hong Kong with the idea of selling them in Chinatown. Kiam read the game instructions written in English: "USE SWORD TO SMACK HEAD. COUNT POINTS. MOVE VICTORIOUS CHINESE AHEAD SAME NUMBER."'
"I believed in ghosts, like everyone else in Chinatown, and i knew that sometimes enemies, like hobo runaways from the tent city on False Creek, like Japanese from Japtown and Indians from dark alleyways - like ghosts - could lurk in the woodshed. Fights, muggings, knifings, these were not uncommon. There was treachery in the world. But there were good ghosts and bad ghosts, and you had to be careful not to insult the good ones nor be tempted by the bad ones. And you had to know a ghost when you saw one."
"If visions and good sense didn't combine to make us pay attention, what then was the meaning of anything?"
Photo from Google Images.