Jen Sookfong Lee first stumbled across the work of Wayson Choy in the early ’90s, when she was in Grade 11. Choy, who was raised in Vancouver, had written a short story called “The Jade Peony”, which was distributed to Lee’s creative-writing class.
“At the time, I was really struck by it, partly because up until that point, I hadn’t read many Chinese Canadian stories—actually, none,” Lee told the Georgia Straight in a recent phone interview.
Lee said that she was really excited when the novel of the same name was published in 1995. With that book, Choy showed her it was possible to write stories about Vancouver’s Chinatown that people wanted to read. “I think a lot of us grow up thinking that the city that we live in or the kinds of communities we come from are not very interesting,” she said. “It was really Wayson Choy who opened my eyes to the idea that, in fact, we were quite interesting, if you wrote about it the right way.”
Since then, Lee has gone on to enjoy great success as a novelist, poet, and CBC broadcaster. Her 2007 debut novel The End of East (Vintage Canada, $19.95) tells the tale of three generations of the Chan family. Like some of Choy’s writings, it takes place in Vancouver’s Chinatown and includes a ghost. She said if she hadn’t been exposed to Choy’s work, she probably still would have become a writer, but she doubts that her first book would have been set in Vancouver’s oldest Chinese district.
Allan Cho, another Vancouver writer of Chinese descent, told the Straight in a phone interview that he was deeply moved by The Jade Peony. “It was the first time I’ve come across a book that was about Chinatown written by somebody who has lived in Chinatown during the exclusion era [from 1923 to 1947],” Cho said. “It was something that was very authentic. It was something that really touched my heart.”
Cho said that Choy’s emphasis on character development has influenced his work. He remembered Choy once saying that sometimes it isn’t even necessary for a story to have a plot to resonate with readers. “It really revolves around his characters,” Cho said. “This is a style”¦that is really set in my own writing.”
Vancouver historian and writer Larry Wong has witnessed Choy’s ability to inspire young minds. Wong, a childhood friend of Choy’s, recalled attending a lecture by Choy at the Oakridge branch of the Vancouver Public Library more than a decade ago. According to Wong, Choy was shocked to see that the audience was comprised of children too young to appreciate the stories in The Jade Peony. Most were six or seven years old.
In a recent phone interview with the Straight, Wong described how Choy dealt with this conundrum by picking up a piece of paper and creating origami. “The kids were spellbound,” Wong said. “He had them in his hands. Anyway, then he starts to tell a story about how you can create something out of a piece of paper—it’s a matter of using your mind and your imagination. That was the lesson he gave the kids in that room that day. It was a real magical moment.”
Jen Sookfong Lee had her own moment of Wayson Choy magic at the Sunshine Coast Festival of the Written Arts in 2007. She was getting ready to do a reading when her husband turned to her and said, “Holy shit, Wayson Choy is sitting in the back.”
“I wasn’t nervous before then, but I thought I was going to die,” Lee recalled with a laugh. “I got up on-stage. I lost my head. I couldn’t even see my notes. I was all blurry—all I could see was Wayson Choy’s face in the back.”
Fortunately, she regained her composure after a few minutes and carried through with her lecture. “When I was signing books afterward, Wayson Choy came up to me and told me I was wonderful—that I did a good job,” Lee said. “I felt like crying.”
Only after spending time with him did Lee see a side of Choy’s personality that doesn't always appear in his writing. “He’s quite naughty in a way,” she said. “His books are quite lovely, but they’re not naughty.”