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All That Matters By Wayson Choy

all-that-matters-by-wayson-choy-200Wayson Choy was scheduled to be here in November but the event had to be postponed while he recovered from heart surgery. We are very pleased that he is now well enough to travel and to read from his work to an audience eagerly awaiting this event. Mr. Choy grew up the son of Chinese immigrants in 1940s Vancouver.

His father went away for weeks at a time to work as a chef on a Canadian Pacific ship and his mother often took him to long nights of gossip and Mah Jong.

He watched Chinese opera as a child, and wanted to be a cowboy, Chinese genes notwithstanding. This childhood is the subject of Mr. Choy’s book, Paper Shadows: A Chinatown Childhood.

This is a book that tells of the author’s discovery of his own personal history–one that was hidden from him until after the publication of his first novel, The Jade Peony, in 1995.

The Jade Peony is narrated by three siblings growing up in Vancouver’s Chinatown during the Second World War. It received excellent reviews, and much publicity.

A radio interview with Wayson Choy was heard by a woman who knew him as a child–she remembered the year 1939, when she was 17 and babysitting baby Wayson while his parents went to Vancouver to see the King and Queen drive by in their motorcade.

Hazel called the radio station and left a message. When Mr. Choy called her back, Hazel told him not only that he was adopted, but that his biological mother was still alive.

Although Mr. Choy discovered that his birth mother had in fact died long before Hazel’s call, he did learn many details about his past from Hazel’s mother Helena, who had run a kind of transit house in Chinatown for babies and orphans. Helena wouldn’t tell him the names of his parents because she still honoured the pact she had made with the past, but she did tell him that his birth father was a member of the Cantonese Opera Company in Vancouver.

The very same opera that his adoptive mother often took him to–he now believes she did it so that his biological parents could see how he was growing.

Mr. Choy remembers his adoptive mother destroying his grandfather’s papers before a move from Vancouver to Ontario–that memory haunts him still.

“Even when it was happening, I knew something important was going on,” he says. “I think my mother knew what she was doing. In those days–up until the 60s–the Canadian and American governments were hunting for people with false papers and deporting them.”

In the same way that refugees often destroy their documents today, an uncle and an aunt came and helped to decide what to burn and what to keep.

Having nothing seemed safer than keeping papers that might be incriminating.

Mr. Choy’s novels are as fascinating as his own life. In his most recent novel, All That Matters, winner of the 18th annual Trillium Book Award, Mr. Choy again seduces his readers with a gentle, lyrical, and witty voice that underscores his unflinching examination of Vancouver’s Chinatown during the most turbulent decades of the 20th century.

Set in the 1930s and 40s, All That Matters continues the story of the Chen family, this time seen through the eyes of first son Kiam-Kim, the only child of his father’s beautiful, fragile first wife.

Having left behind the harshness of life in their Toishan village, Kiam-Kim, his principled, tireless father, and his indomitable grandmother, Poh-Poh, arrive in the Gold Mountain with dreams of a better future.

From his earliest years, Kiam-Kim is deeply conscious of his responsibilities to maintain the family’s honour and to set an irreproachable example for his Canadian-born brothers and sister.

As he grows up, Kiam-Kim’s life is broadened as well as complicated by his burgeoning awareness of the world outside Vancouver’s Chinatown, as he becomes ever more sensitive to the nuances of belonging and exclusion.

In All That Matters, Wayson Choy accomplishes the extraordinary: blending a haunting evocation of tenacious, ancient traditions with a precise, funny, and very modern coming-of-age story, creating a world that will linger in the memory of readers long after the last page is turned.

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