Trailblazing Vancouver-born author Wayson Choy dies

    1 of 4 2 of 4

      A Canadian literary giant has died eight days after his 80th birthday.

      Wayson Choy is best known as the author of The Jade Peony, which was a pioneering novel about three Chinese Canadian siblings growing up in Vancouver's Chinatown in the 1930s and 1940s.

      Douglas & McIntyre published the book in 1995 at a time when others in the industry weren't keen to embrace Chinese Canadian literature.

      The Jade Peony went on to win the Trillium Prize and the City of Vancouver Book Award and was later named as the One Book, One Vancouver honoree by the Vancouver Public Library.

      Choy followed that up with a memoir, Paper Shadows: A Chinatown Childhood, which was published in 1999.

      His second novel, All That Matters, also won the Trillium Prize and was shortlisted for the Giller after being published in 2004.

      Wayson Choy is the second from the right in the back row in this photograph of the 1945 kindergarten class at Strathcona elementary.
      Yucho Chow photo

      In addition to writing books, Choy taught at Humber College in Toronto for more than a quarter of a century.

      In 2015 he won the George Woodcock Lifetime Achievement Award for his contributions to literature in B.C.

      "I was that generation that was caught in-between," Choy said in his acceptance speech. "And I slowly realized that I will be surrendering my background to become a Canadian.

      "But in those days, I would be called a Canadian Chinese. Or, if you want to look the other way around, a 'Chinese-Canadian'. What it meant was I would be a human being and one day, it will not have to be hyphenated."

      Choy also talked about the promise of Canada, noting there was a time when Chinese people came to Canada under "shady names and shady terms" because of immigration restrictions of a bygone era.

      "The labour was cheap," Choy said. "We were expendable. But now and then, some of us became part of the human race that was to be Canada.

      "And today there are immigrants coming here that we may be biased against out of our own fear and ignorance in small pockets through certain towns and cities and villages but the majority of us now realize that we have an exceptional opportunity...where this country—lions and lambs, sheep and shepherds—can be together. And create a country that's an example to so many others."

      Video: Wayson Choy spoke at the Vancouver Public Library in 2015 after winning the George Woodcock Lifetime Achievement Award.

      Choy was born in Vancouver, lived on Keefer Street in Strathcona, graduated from Gladstone secondary, and attended UBC. He only learned that he was adopted while in his 50s.

      An out gay man, he often regaled audiences with amusing anecdotes of what it was like growing up in Vancouver and the ups and downs of the writing life. He also sprinkled his speeches with large servings of wisdom.

      At different times, Choy endured some serious health challenges. In 2001, an asthma attack resulted in him being put into a coma by doctors and he was kept alive with a ventilator. Three days later, he suffered a heart attack.

      He had another heart attack in 2005 and underwent quadruple-bypass surgery. These health challenges led to a second memoir, Not Yet: A Memoir of Living and Almost Dying, which was published in 2009.

      The Jade Peony and his other books inspired many others from minority backgrounds, including Vancouver's Jen Sookfong Lee, to become writers.

      “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,” she told the Straight in 2009.

      Winnie Cheung (right) was one of the organizers of a Vancouver dinner honouring Wayson Choy in 2012.
      Charlie Smith

      Choy was part of a tight-knit group of Vancouverites who grew up in Chinatown and Strathcona during and immediately after the Second World War.

      According to his childhood friend and classmate, writer Larry Wong, Choy was quite shy as a boy. In those days, Choy was called "Sonny" by some of those who knew him.

      But according to Wong, that changed dramatically in adulthood.

      In 2012, Choy was honoured by friends and admirers with a community banquet at Floata Seafood Restaurant in Chinatown.

      It was held in advance of the unveiling of plaques at the corner of Gore Avenue and East Pender Street featuring samples of Choy's writing in English and Chinese.