Rereading Wayson Choy’s The Jade Peony (1995) is a blatant act of homage.
When I first heard Choy read from his work, he was promoting his memoir Paper Shadows (1999) at a Pride event. He was reading with Marnie Woodrow and Sky Gilbert: one, a curly-haired slightly messy young woman who made me laugh about the separation anxiety she experienced watching her grocery purchases move away from her in the supermarket line and, the other, a broad-shouldered and a flamboyant-even-out-of-drag queen, who read a voice-driven monologue that was both entertaining and baffling to younger-me.
Reserved but generous, quiet but funny: Wayson Choy brought Vancouver’s Chinatown to life for me, freshly and fully. (Not in Toronto, either, a city with two Chinatowns and a city wherein more than half of the population is born elsewhere, but in London, Ontario, where the 2016 census reports 16% of the population being a visible minority, which is much lower than the province as a whole, but still higher than it was when I was living there.)
Vancouver is also the setting for The Jade Peony, a book of fiction. It is presented as a novel, with its three sections each devoted to one child’s perspective in a west-coast Chinese family, but is perhaps more properly a suite of tales – which would be continued (and billed as a “sequel” but that’s not quite right either) in All That Matters (2004).
This is the third or fourth time I’ve read The Jade Peony. It’s the first time I’ve read it since Wayson Choy died. A public remembrance ceremony last autumn, at the Harbourfront Centre, was well attended by a lot of other people like me, who had been touched by his work and his life, in small and large ways (and many close friends and family too).
It was very moving, attending that event. Just writing this, I’ve paused many times, pulled back to that auditorium in my memory. The intensity of all that listening and sharing still resonates with me, months later. I went with a poet-friend and we were quietly overwhelmed together, by both the rightness and the strangeness of attending. (Afterwards, my poet-friend, who is more gregarious than I, started a conversation with a gentleman who, it turned out, assisted Choy with this novel’s later drafts, and he confided that he is named in the afterword–sure enough, he is.)
This time, I told myself, when I am reading, I will mark my favourite passages. This time, I said, I will take notes. I’ll flag them and type them out: save them for later. Whenever, I picked up the book to read, in the evenings, I thought maybe I would read a few pages and always read a couple of chapters instead. Twenty pages from the end, I hadn’t flagged a single passage.
There are so many things that I want to share about this book. I want to tell you about Wong Suk and his cloak, about Jung-Sum and the turtle, about Sekky and his boxing. About Vancouver, this “city of fog and chills, of dampness and endless grey days” and how it might affect Stepmother when she is carrying a child. That was just a random find, as I flipped through the pages, to check the spelling of these characters’ names. I wonder why I didn’t mark that atmospheric passage when I was reading.
I could have: there are evocative or acute observations on every page-spread. (Even though Choy was ruthless and made sure there were not “too many rhinestones” on each page: he was also, eventually, a creative writing teacher.) There are many richly drawn scenes of family life, on the home-front and in the neighbourhood. The characters have their distinct segments of narrative but their presences wander across the novel, their threads pulling their separate stories together.
But what I really want to tell you about is Meiying, the seventeen-year-old girl who falls in love with Kazuo, at a time when her being Chinese and his being Japanese is everything. That time when Sekky loans Kaz his “I am Chinese” button, so that Kaz can avoid persecution in those Pearl-Harbour years. That time when the line, near the Carnegie library and the drugstore, between JapaneseTown and ChinaTown takes on a new and frightening importance. That time when borders mattered.
Many things stand out for me in this rereading: Sekky’s childhood understanding of the complications which surround his father’s virulent hatred of the Japanese, his stepmother’s hurried motions and quiet conversations with Meiying (who lives across the way and minds Sekky after school). The derisive comments that Sekky makes about Kaz, the confusion surrounding Sekky’s attempt to reconcile these attitudes with his observations of Meiying and Kaz together, when they do not realize the boy is paying attention. Sekky’s love for Meiying mixing with Meiying’s love for Kaz and together becoming something that Sekky cannot name, but which he is willing to pretend he hasn’t seen, when he is questioned about Meiying’s whereabouts. (So much is captured in Choy’s telling.)
For weeks now, in the news, the talk of the coronavirus has drawn fresh lines around the Chinese communities living outside China. What’s identified as a fear of contagion is often the same kind of racism that was called patriotism during WWII. A parent suggests that Chinese children be kept out of school. A neighbour storms a Chinese-owned business. For all of us, drugstores advertise disposable gloves and surgical masks for sale, and everyday there are tallies and warnings in the news; for some of us, this news translates into a double threat. (Efforts like this shouldn’t be necessary but people are at risk.)
Travelling north from Chinatown on the TTC, I was reading this part of Choy’s novel (Meiying’s story unfolds over just a few chapters near the end), and observing how Sekky draws and redraws the lines.
“Did you have fun at the library, Sekky?” Meiying asked, as if she hadn’t been with me earlier to meet Kazuo at Powell Ground.
For some reason, I suddenly felt I had to lie too.
“It was okay,” I said, and we walked home, barely able to make out the North Shore mountains in the winter afternoon light.
It’s all very ordinary, isn’t it? There’s a break in the chapter after this. So you can take a moment to think about how something as big as a mountain can fade in a certain light. You can think about how you might call it a mountain or you might call it light.
You can take a moment to be grateful for the writers who cultivate the extraordinary in ordinary everyday details. For the way that their words live on.