Speak Easy and D&M Publishing Inc Podcast
Hosted by John Burns
Music for podcast reading by the Vancouver Chinese Music Ensemble
Excerpt of The Jade Peony reading from Speak Easy Interview
In 1995 Wayson Choy published his first book, The Jade Peony. The novel is set in Vancouver China Town during the 1930s and 40s. It provides the setting for this poignant first novel, told through the vivid and intense reminiscences of the three younger children of an immigrant family. They each experience a very different childhood, depending on age and sex, as they encounter the complexities of birth and death, love and hate, kinship and otherness. Mingling with the realities of Canada and the horror of war are the magic, ghosts, paper uncles and family secrets of Poh-Poh, or Grandmother, who is the heart and pillar of the family.
The Jade Peony (Douglas and McIntyre, 1995), was co-winner -- with Margaret Atwood's Morning in the Burned House -- of the 1995 Trillium Award for the best book by an Ontario resident. It also won the City of Vancouver Book Award. The Jade Peony spent 26 weeks on the Toronto Globe and Mail bestseller list and placed Number 6 on its 1996 Year End National Bestseller List for Fiction. In 1997 it was released in the United States by Picador Books and in Germany by Ullstein Verlag. In 1998 Penguin published the book in Australia, where it quickly became a bestseller. The Jade Peony was one of eleven books chosen by the American Library Association as Notable Books for 1998. In 2007 it was re-released in the USA by Other Books, and published in French Canada by XYZ Editeur. The novel was broadcast in a 15-part dramatic reading on "Between the Covers" on CBC-AM radio. Portions were rebroadcast on "Morningside."
The Jade Peony Chapter 1
The old man first visited our house when I was five, in 1933.At that time, I had only two brothers to worry about. Kiam and Jung were then ten and seven years old. Sekky was not yet born, though he was on his way. Grandmother, or Poh-Poh,was going regularly to our family Tong Association Temple on Pender Street to pray for a boy.
Decades later, our neighbour Mrs. Lim said that I kept insisting on another girl to balance things, but Stepmother told me that these things were in the hands of the gods.
Stepmother was a young woman when she came to Canada, barely twenty and a dozen years younger than Father. She came with no education, with a village dialect as poor as she was. Girls were often left to fend for themselves in the streets, so she was lucky to have any family interested in her fate. Though my face was round like Father’s, I had her eyes and delicate mouth, her high forehead but not her high cheekbones.
This slim woman, with her fine features and genteel posture, was a seven-year-old girl in war-torn China when bandits killed most of her family. Found hiding between two trunks of clothes, she was taken to a Mission House, then taken away again, reclaimed by the village clan, and eventually sold into Father’s Canton merchant family. For years they fed her, taught her house duties, and finally put her on a steamship to Canada. She was brought over to help take care of Poh-Poh and to keep Father appropriate wifely company; but soon the young woman became more a wife than a concubine to Father, more a stepdaughter than a house servant to Grandmother. And a few years later, I, Jook-Liang, was born to them. Now, in our rented house, she was big with another child.
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. “
What will be, will be,” all the lao wah-kiu, the Chinatown old-timers, used to say to each other. “In Gold Mountain, simple is best.”
There were, besides, false immigration stories to hide, secrets to be kept.
Stepmother was sitting on a kitchen chair and helping me to dress my Raggedy Ann; I touched her protruding tummy, I wanted the new baby all to myself. The two boys were waving toy swords around, swinging them in turn at three cutout hardboard nodding heads set up on the kitchen table. Whack! The game was to send the flat heads flying into the air to fall on a roll-out floor map of China. Whack! The game was Hong-Kong made and called ENEMIES OF FREE CHINA.
One enemy head swooped up and clacked onto the linoleum floor, missing its target by three feet. Jung started to swear when Father looked up from his brush-writing in the other room. He could see everything we were doing in the kitchen. Poh-Poh sat on the other side of the table, enjoying Kiam and Jung’s new game. Bags of groceries sat on the kitchen counter ready for supper preparations.
“I need a girl-baby to be my slave,” I insisted, remembering Poh-Poh’s stories of the time she herself once had a girlhelper in the dank, steamy kitchen of the cruel, rich Chin family in Old China. The Chins were refugees from Manchuria after the Japanese seized the territory. Not knowing any better, Poh-Poh treated the younger girl, her kitchen assistant, as unkindly as she herself had been treated; the women of the rich Chin family who “owned” Poh-Poh were used to wielding the whip and bamboo rods as freely on their fourteen servants as on the oxen and pigs.
“Too much bad memory,” Poh-Poh said, and then, midway in its telling, would suddenly end a story of those old days. She would make a self-pitying face and complain how her arteries felt cramped with pain, how everything frustrated her, “Ahyaii, ho git-sum! How heart-cramp!” Though she was years younger than Poh-Poh, Mrs. Lim would shake her head in agreement, both of them clutching their left sides in common sympathy. It was a gesture I’d noticed in the Chinese Operas that Poh-Poh took me and my brothers to see in Canton Alley.
Whack! Another head rolled onto the floor. Kiam swung his toy sword like an ancient warrior-king from the Chinese Opera. Jung preferred to use his sword like a bayonet first, and then, Whack!
“Maybe Wong Bak—Old Wong—keep you company later, Liang-Liang,” Poh-Poh said, happily stepping over one of the enemies of Free China to get some chopsticks from the table drawer. She was proud of her warrior grandsons. “Kill more,” she commanded.
Poh-Poh spoke her Sze-yup, Four County village dialect, to me and Jung, but not always to Kiam, the First Son. With him, she spoke Cantonese and a little Mandarin, which he was studying in the Mission Church basement. Whenever Stepmother was around, Poh-Poh used another but similar village dialect, in a more clipped fashion, as many adults do when they think you might be the village fool, too worthless or too young, or not from their district. The Old One had a wealth of dialects which thirty-five years of survival in China had taught her, and each dialect hinted at mixed shades of status and power, or the lack of both. Like many Chinatown old-timers, the lao wah-kiu, Poh-Poh could eloquently praise someone in one dialect and ruthlessly insult them in another.
“An old mouth can drop honey or drop shit,” Mrs. Lim once commented, defeated by the acrobatics of Grandmother’s twist-punning tongue. The Old One roared with laughter and spat into the kitchen sink.
Another head fell.
Stepmother rubbed her forehead, as if it were driving her mad.
“Wong Bak come for supper tonight,” Poh-Poh said, signaling Stepmother to start preparing the supper. The kitchen light caught something gleaming on the back of her old head; Poh-Poh had put on her jade hair ornament for Wong Bak’s visit tonight. He was an Old China friend of Grandmother’s; they were both now in their seventies.
Wong Bak had been sent from the British Columbia Interior by a group of small-town Chinese in a place called Yale. He was too old to live a solitary existence any longer. Someone in our Tong Association gave Father’s name as a possible Vancouver contact, because Old Wong might know Poh-Poh, who had once lived in the same ancestral district village.
Most Chinatown people were from the dense villages of southern Kwangtung province, a territory racked by cycles of famine and drought. When the call for railroad workers came from labour contract brokers in Canada in the 1880s, every man who was able and capable left his farm and village to be indentured for dangerous work in the mountain ranges of the Rockies. There had also been rumours of gold in the rivers that poured down those mountain cliffs, gold that could make a man and his family wealthy overnight.
“Go to Gold Mountain,” they told one another, promising to send wages home, to return rich or die. Thousands came in the decades before 1923, when on July 1st the Dominion of Canada passed the Chinese Exclusion Act and shut down all ordinary bachelor-man traffic between Canada and China, shut off any women from arriving, and divided families. Poverty-stricken bachelor-men were left alone in Gold Mountain, with only a few dollars left to send back to China every month, and never enough dollars to buy passage home. Dozens went mad; many killed themselves. The Chinatown Chinese call July 1st, the day celebrating the birth of Canada, the Day of Shame.
Some, like Old Wong, during all their hard time in British Columbia, still hoped to return to China if they could somehow win the numbers lottery or raise enough money from gambling. But now there was the growing war with the Japanese, more civil strife between the Communists and the Nationalists, and even more bitter starvation. Hearing all this, Poh-Poh gripped her left side, just below her heart, and said she only wanted her bones shipped back.
Father always editorialized in one of the news sheets of those Depression years how much the Chinese in Vancouver must help the Chinese. Because, he wrote, “No one else will.”
In the city dump on False Creek Flats, living in makeshift huts, thirty-two Old China bachelor-men tried to shelter themselves; dozens more were dying of neglect in the overcrowded rooms of Pender Street. There were no Depression jobs for such men. They had been deserted by the railroad companies and betrayed by the many labour contractors who had gone back to China, wealthy and forgetful. There was a local Vancouver by-law against begging for food, a federal law against stealing food, but no law in any court against starving to death for lack of food. The few churches that served the Chinatown area were running out of funds. Soup kitchens could no longer safely manage the numbers lining up for nourishment, fighting each other. China men were shoved aside, threatened, forgotten.
During the early mornings, in the 1920s and ’30s, nuns came out regularly from St. Paul’s Mission to help clean and take the bodies away. In the crowded rooming houses of Chinatown, until morning came, living men slept in cots and on floors beside dead men.
Could we help out with Wong Bak? Perhaps a meal now and then, a few visits with the family…? asked the officer from the Tong Association. It turned out that Poh-Poh indeed knew Wong Bak when they were in China, more than thirty years ago.
“Old-timers know all the old-timers,” Third Uncle Lew said, taking inventory of his warehouse stock with an abacus. “Why not? The same bunch came over from the same damn districts,” he laughed.“We all pea-pod China men!”
And now, tonight, Wong Bak was coming for dinner.
I looked up past Stepmother’s swelling stomach, at the kitchen counter beside the sink with the pots and pans. Father had splurged on groceries: a bare long-necked chicken’s head, freshly killed, hung out of the bag he had carried home. Poh-Poh also unwrapped a fresh fish, its eyes still shiny. Once it was cooked, Kiam and Jung would fight over who would get to suck on the hard-as-marble calcified fish eyes. I wanted the chicken feet. I wondered which part Wong Bak would want.
Father was worried about our meeting him for the first time. Wong Bak, I sensed from Father’s over-preparation and nervousness, was indeed not an ordinary human being. He was an elder, so every respect must be paid to him, and especially as he knew the Old One herself. Grandmother must not lose face; we must not fail in our hospitality. Excellent behaviour on the part of my two brothers and me would signal our family respect and honour for the old ways.
Father looked at his watch and put down his writing brush.
“Let us talk a moment,” he said to my brothers, and they left their game and stood before him. He told Kiam and Jung that Wong Bak might appear “very strange,” especially to me, as I was so young, and a girl, and therefore might be more easily frightened.
“Frightened?” Stepmother said.
My ears perked up.
Father answered that the boys, being boys, would not be as easily scared about you-know-what. He spoke in code to Stepmother but whispered details to Kiam first, then Jung, whose eyes widened. After the whispering, Father delivered to the three of us a stern lecture about respect and we must use the formal term Sin-saang, Venerable Sir, as if Wong Bak were a “teacher” to be highly respected, as much as the Old Buddha or the Empress of China.
Respect meant you dared not laugh at someone because they were “different”; you did not ask stupid questions or stare rudely. You pretended everything was normal. That was respect. Father tried to simplify things for my five-year-old brain. Respect was what I gave my Raggedy Ann doll. I knew respect.
“I don’t want you boys to stare at Wong Sin-saang’s face,” Father warned, which I thought was odd. Old people’s faces were all the same to me, wrinkled and craggy. “Wong Sinsaang’s had a very tough life.”
“We know how to behave,” First Brother Kiam insisted, waving the toy sword over the buck-toothed “WARLORD” nodding on the edge of the kitchen table. Jung poked his sword, bayonet-fashion, and two 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.”
The Warlord was one of three Enemy-of-China “heads.” The other two were a Communist and a Japanese soldier named Tojo. All three had ugly yellow faces, squashed noses and impossible buck teeth. It was a propaganda toy to encourage overseas Chinese fund-raising for Free China.
Watching Kiam and Jung jump up and down was far better than having them force me to play dumb games like Tarzan and Jane and Cheetah. Kiam had seen the picture Tarzan three times. Kiam got to be Tarzan; Jung, Cheetah; and I got to be Jane doing nothing. I embraced my Raggedy Ann and watched another swing of Jung’s sword Whack! take off Tojo’s head. Father said that Tojo, a Japanese, was in command of the plot to enslave China for the Japanese.
The third head went flying.
“Don’t forget,” Father repeated, thinking of the worst, “no staring at Wong Sin-saang’s face. No laughing.”
“Tell Liang-Liang,” said Jung, waving the wooden sword at me.“ She’ll stare at Wong Sin-saang’s face and behave like a brat.”
“Jook-Liang will be too shy,” Stepmother said. “I promise she’ll do nothing but run away. At five, I would.”
“Jook-Liang almost six,” Grandmother interjected. “She look. I look.”
Stepmother turned away. Jung swung. Whack!
“Liang-Liang’ll say something to Wong Sin-saang,”Kiam said.“She’ll say something about Wong Sin-saang’s face.”
“You will, won’t you, Liang-Liang?” Jung said, following First Brother’s cue to be superior at my expense.
I looked up at them through the flowered wall and tiny windows of my Eaton’s Toyland doll house. I put Tarzan’s Jane, whose doll legs would not bend, in the front room. At Sunday School, I had learned how all visitors, like the Lord Jesus, for example, and even Tarzan and his pet chimpanzee, Cheetah, should always politely knock first, before you invited them into the front room of your house. At Kingdom Church Kindergarten, I also learned to say the words “fart face,” and that upset Miss Bigley.
“Fart face,” I said.
Jung opened his mouth to reply. Kiam looked darkly at me.
“If you have eyes, stare,” Poh-Poh said to me. “Eyes for looking.”