Vancouver community leader and literary pioneer Jim Wong-Chu dies

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      One of Vancouver's most beloved residents and a giant in the world of Asian Canadian literature has passed away.

      Jim Wong-Chu was founder of Ricepaper, a pioneering poet, community builder, and a mentor and supporter to three generations of writers. Earlier this year, he suffered a serious stroke.

      His friend Sid Chow Tan simply wrote on his Facebook page: "Always remembered. Always loved. Rest in Peace."

      Wong-Chu was born in Hong Kong in 1949 and moved to Canada in 1953 for four years as a paper son. He settled in Vancouver for good in 1961 and spent most of his working life with Canada Post.

      In an interview with the Straight last year, he said that his aunt brought him to Canada hoping to reunite with a husband whom she hadn't seen in 23 years.

      Writer Nikki Celis noted in the article that Wong-Chu's aunt's son had died in transit.

      “I was the same age as the dead child,” Wong-Chu said. “They just plucked me in there and I became her son.”

      He didn't learn until he was seven years old that his aunt was not his mother.

      This experience of displacement and the racism he experienced in Canada led to a lifelong interest in cultural identity.

      Watch "The Dichotomy of Identity, by Nikki Celis, in which Jim Wong-Chu discusses some of the challenges that Canadian-born people of Asian ancestry face.
      Nikki Celis

      His book of poems, Chinatown Ghosts, was published by Arsenal Pulp Press in 1986. (Fred Wah, Roy Miki, and Roy Kiyooka were three Canadians of Asian ancestry whose poetry was published before that.)

      Wong-Chu and Bennett Lee coauthored Many Mouthed Birds in 1991, which was the first anthology of Asian Canadian literature.

      It was published by Douglas & McIntyre and included a story by Wayson Choy. This was later expanded into the Jade Peony, which was also published by Douglas & McIntyre and won the first City of Vancouver Book Award.

      Jim Wong-Chu with Gung Haggis Fat Choy founder Todd Wong in 2015.
      Craig Takeuchi

      Wong-Chu's friendship with publisher Scott McIntyre played a pivotal role in McIntyre's company publishing books by Choy and other Canadian writers of Chinese ancestry. And Choy has gone on to boost the careers of many other Canadian authors.

      Wong-Chu also founded the Asian Canadian Writers' Workshop, which created Ricepaper. One of its early editors was Madeleine Thien, who was nominated last year for the prestigious Man Booker Prize for Do Not Say We Have Nothing. The novel won the Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Governor General's 2016 Literary Award for fiction.

      Others associated with Ricepaper over the years included the Straight's Craig Takeuchi, CBC Radio's Charlie Cho, author and architect David Wong, poets Evelyn Lau and Rita Wong, author Kevin Chong, and poet and writer Alan Woo, among many others.

      Nikki Celis

      Wong-Chu was often eager to showcase the work of others and nurture their talents. He also built bridges between different communities, and dinners organized by the Asian Canadian Writers' Workshop invariably included people of Chinese, Japanese, Philippine, Indian, Korean, Vietnamese, Taiwanese, and European ancestry. But he was not one to seek the limelight himself.

      His kindness, generosity, and sharp intellect created pathways for others who've left a lasting mark on the country.

      Wong-Chu's name may not have been well-known beyond his wide circle of friends and admirers, but his impact will continue to be felt in Vancouver for many years to come.

      Jim Wong-Chu (left) and David Wong (right) joined Straight editor Charlie Smith at a banquet at the Pink Pearl in 2013.