Chinatown Ghosts

Turning point meals are filled with possibility.

They have the potential to change characters’ circumstances and to shift their perspectives. Sometimes, these meals even move beyond the confines of a specific text and work to reshape the larger literary landscape and the country’s cultural fabric.

Jim Wong-Chu’s book of poetry Chinatown Ghosts, which was first published in 1986, is teeming with food narratives and meals that mark a significant turning point in Canadian literature. These poems and Wong-Chu’s other literary work—as a founding member of the Asian Canadian Writers Workshop and a co-creator of the first Asian Canadian literary anthology in 1979 (Inalienable Rice: A Chinese and Japanese Canadian Anthology)—helped to foster an Asian-Canadian writing tradition (Kamboureli 315; Chao ix).

Born in Hong Kong in 1948, Jim Wong-Chu came to Canada as a “paper son” when he was just four years old. At that time, Canada’s unjust immigration policies worked to exclude the Chinese from the country (Kamboureli 315).

Divided between his biological family in Hong Kong and his adopted family in Canada, Wong-Chu grew up working in restaurants across British Columbia and the United States. When he was thirteen, Wong-Chu moved to Merritt, British Columbia, where he worked in a family-owned Chinese café:

I peeled one hundred fifty pounds of potatoes a day…. A bit of your childhood gets lost that way, and I think a lot of Chinese kids my age, who grew up during that time I grew up, have probably had the same…. I used to be able to peel a potato without looking at it, I was so good at it.” (Wong-Chu, Voices 189)

Around 1969-1970, Wong Chu settled in Vancouver, and the city’s Chinatown inspired his various modes of expression (Voices 194).

In an interview, Wong-Chu recalls volunteering at the Pender Street YWCA where he conversed with elderly Chinese-Canadians about their own difficult immigration experiences (Voices). Because of the Canadian government’s exclusionary policies, a code of silence had befallen the community, yet long-time residents needed to share their stories.

After studying photography at the Vancouver Art School, Wong-Chu documented Vancouver’s Chinatown, using the images as “a means to communicate with people” (Voices 195). For Wong-Chu, the art of photography felt familiar, reminding him of working in cafés because “in the dark room you cook” (ACCESS Television interview).

In 2014, the Vancouver International Centre of Asian Contemporary Art held an exhibition featuring a selection of these photographs, entitled Jim Wong-Chu Photographs 1973-1981: People, Place, Politics. On a food-related note, the gallery’s website includes one image of a protest that took place in Chinatown during the 1970s when city health inspectors began unfairly targeting Asian merchants and their barbecued pork. Apparently, the merchants’ struggle to protect their rights and their livelihood lasted many years and became a national campaign when a group “took a roast pig to Parliament Hill for a taste and safety test. They won over . . . then-cabinet minister Jean Chrétien by asking members to compare pieces of savoury and tender meat to dry and tough ones” (Lee-Young).

In addition to his visual reportage of Chinatown’s history and residents, Wong-Chu’s creative writing captures the community’s storied emotions through literary fare. Chinatown Ghosts is one of the earliest books of poetry by a Chinese-Canadian writer in which Vancouver’s Chinatown figures prominently with food giving voice to immigrant experiences. In light of Wong-Chu’s past experience working in Chinese cafés, the book’s array of precise turning point meals is not surprising. Two of the food-related poems offer a kind of revelatory portraiture.

The book’s first poem, entitled “tradition”, features a speaker sitting down to a meal of a sticky rice dumpling (or Zongzi), untying the knotted, triangular bundle of green leaves.

“tradition” signals the speaker’s willingness to unwrap his cultural identity, to explore it for the reader in profoundly personal and public ways. Tradition has always been central to his daily life, and now writing re-shapes this tradition.

As he peels back the leaves to reveal “the sweet rice within”, he simultaneously peels back his own self-reflective layers and concludes with the line, “I begin to open” (11).

Food preparation, which takes place behind the scenes in restaurant kitchens, prompts further contemplation of the larger Asian community. A later poem entitled “the egg roll kid” captures a moment when the speaker watches a fellow co-worker use his “nimble fingers” to prepare the “egg roll skin” (34). No words are exchanged between the men, but the speaker senses this young man’s emotional journey to Canada as a recent refugee:

I feel his nothing
his no hope
. . .
because home and his young wife
are in deep fried
vietnam (34)

Here, the texture of the food recalls the horrors of the Vietnam War. Over one million Vietnamese citizens fled their country during the 1970s, and by the end of the refugee crisis, Canada had opened its doors to approximately 100,000 “boat people” who risked their lives to find a peaceful haven (“Boat People”).

For the “paper son” speaker in “tradition”, and the “egg roll kid”, food communicates their distinct personal journeys—the turning points in their own lives and in Canada’s history. The country redefined its cultural and culinary landscape through profound connections and unfolding stories that span the globe.

Canadian Literary Fare

“‘Boat-People’: A Refugee Crisis – Vietnamese-Canadian HistoryBoat People.” Asian Heritage Month. Radio Canada International, 2014. Web. 15 October 2015.

Chao, Lien. “Introduction.” Strike the Wok: An Anthology of Contemporary Chinese Canadian Fiction. Ed. Lien Chao and Jim Wong-Chu. Toronto: TSAR Publications, 2003. ix-xiv. Print.

Kamboureli, Smaro, ed. Making a Difference: Canadian Multicultural Literature. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1996. Print.

Lee-Young, Joanne. “Chinatown Meat Shops a Rallying Force in Human Rights Fight.” The Vancouver Sun  2 October 2015.

Wong-Chu, Jim. Chinatown Ghosts. Vancouver: Pulp Press, 1986. Print.

– – – . Interview in Voices of Change: Immigrant Writers Speak Out. Ed. Jurgen Hesse. Vancouver: Pulp Press, 1990. 184-201. Print.

Text and Photo Credits: Shelley Boyd

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