July 12, 2017

Remembering Jim Wong-Chu: Thank You from the Asian Canadian Writers' Workshop Society (1949-2017)

Born in Hong Kong in 1949, and raised in Canada as a paper son, Jim Wong-Chu is known as a pioneer of the Asian Canadian literary movement. A poet, editor and historian Jim Wong-Chu is among the writers of Asian descent to question the Canadian literary establishment at the time that was devoid of diversity.  Without role models or any blueprint, Jim and fellow like-minded activists such as Sean Gunn, Sharon Lee and Paul Yee began to experiment with different forms of fiction and decided to not only get published but also form informal writing networks to encourage other Asian Canadians to hone their craft.

An idea for an Asian Canadian literary anthology thus germinated in the 1970s, when Jim Wong-Chu and a group of young Asian Canadians began to explore their identities. That exploration took them back to their roots and ignited a desire to express who they were as Canadians of Asian descent.   At a time when Canada Council began to open up new funding to independent publishers, it was timely for these new Asian Canadian activists to step into the realm of creative writing.  It was timely.  Lacking voice from the Asian Canadian communities, an anthology was published, called Inalienable Rice: A Chinese and Japanese Anthology (1979,) is groundbreaking as it was the first anthology entirely comprised of Canadian writers of Asian descent.
Fresh from his UBC Creative Writing courses, Jim Wong-Chu was discovered by a publisher, who encouraged him to publish his UBC compilation of poems into Chinatown Ghosts (Arsenal Pulp Press, 1986) and is the first poetry book by an Asian Canadian writer.  It was a coming of age or sorts for Asian Canadian writing, as fellow writers Paul Yee, Sky Lee, Wayson Choy and Denise Chong also began their writing careers and quickly established themselves as acclaimed authors.       

Before Asian Canadian writing was considered a genre unto itself, one of Wong-Chu’s most critical projects took place in the library stacks of the University of British Columbia, where he went over the entire inventory of books with a fine-tooth comb, looking up any literary magazines within the past thirty years.  His mission in 1989 was to map all of the Asian Canadian writers and their material to compile them into an anthology of Asian Canadian literature. In selecting the best twenty best pieces, Wong-Chu and co-editor Bennett Lee co-edited an anthology called Many Mouthed Birds (1991).

The publishing of this anthology set the way for the emergence of an Asian Canadian genre that continues to take shape today. One of the short stories included a piece by Wayson Choy, and was subsequently expanded into the Vancouver Book award-winning Jade Peony. In addition to co-editing Many Mouthed Birds, Wong-Chu also co-edited with Andy Quan Swallowing Clouds, published by Arsenal Pulp Press in 1999.

In 1996, Jim Wong-Chu became one of the founders of the Asian Canadian Writers’ Workshop (ACWW) and moved from the basements to a formal registered not-for-profit society. Until the early 1990's, there was not much of a critical mass of Asian Canadian writers.  It wasn't until closer to the end of the 90's that university English departments were producing a lot of young people who wanted to write, and within a couple of years, a handful people in the Asian Canadian Writers’ Workshop suddenly grew to more 70 members.

Wong-Chu started off simply, by offering workshops and then later turning to manuscript preparation by helping young writers to find a publisher. The Asian Canadian Writers’ Workshop became both an editor and agent for young emerging writers. In 1995, ACWW created an internal newsletter called RicePaper which later became a Canada Council-funded literary arts magazine. Wong-Chu was interested in creating a body of literature to legitimately establish an Asian Canadian genre that could be put into a library and used in educational institutions.  In 2015, Wong-Chu co-edited his final anthology, the best of Ricepaper, called AlliterAsian (Arsenal Pulp Press).  Ricepaper continued strong in its twenty years as a quarterly print publication featuring new and existing Asian Canadian writers, and evolved to become a digital webzine.  

Jim Wong-Chu's most recent project was the establishment of a literary festival celebrating Pacific Rim Asian Canadian writing, hosted by the Asian Canadian Writer’s Workshop Society.   For the past five years, the festival organized workshops and panels led by critically acclaimed authors such as Paul Yee, SKY Lee, Joy Kogawa.  As Jim Wong-Chu had once said, "Knowledge sets you free."  Thank you for all that you've done for the community.  

May 5, 2017

Jim Wong-Chu's Recollections of Asian Canadian Writing

The following is a conversation I had with Jim Wong-Chu in 2010. As I was doing some spring cleaning with my files, I came across a transcription of his words to me in an interview I had with him.  I thought it an appropriate way to honour the man who devoted his life to nurturing emerging writers. A #ThrowBackThursday, too.  

[Jim Wong-Chu]

The funding members of the organization goes back to the 1960s credit goes to SKY Lee, Paul Yee, Rick Shiomi, Sean Gunn, Garrick Chu and myself. We were a support group originally called the Chinese Canadian Writers Workshop. Our counterpart was the Powell Street Review, a Japanese-Canadian group that later spawned the Powell Street Festival and a ground-breaking photo book project called Dream of Riches. Members of the two groups later collaborated on the first Asian Canadian anthology in 1979 called Inalienable Rice. By the late 1970's, Paul Yee (Teach Me How To Fly Skyfighter, Saltwater City and Tales of Gold Mountain), Sky Lee (Disappearing Moon Cafe) and myself (Chinatown Ghost) also got published. We looked around and decided that we needed to create a new genre of Asian Canadian literature, and began to embark to attract and support emerging writers. We set up workshops and discussed creative writing.

In 1995, the small group of around twenty all of a sudden blossomed into seventy or more members.  As many of them were coming out of the universities and starting out on their own, these students were curious about us and wanted to explore their own identity in their writing. They could not get the same positive reinforcement in their classes because often they fell isolated from their Caucasian peers.

An opportunity came around with the Many-Mouthed Bird anthology project with Bennett Lee and myself at the helm. I went out to search for every Chinese Canadian writer that had published in the past and that's when I discovered people like Wayson Choy.  He had published a short fiction piece "Jade Peony" in UBC's Prism Magazine in the late 1960s and was largely forgotten and, up to then, toiling away teaching English at Humber College in Toronto. I had missed Fred Wah because none of his work had any content related to his cultural background -- it was much later when he published "Waiting for Saskatchewan" that we finally connected.  

In Many-Mouthed Birds, we showcased the first batch of emerging Chinese Canadian writers.  At the same time, I was working closely with the editor and publisher to help develop and launch Sky Lee's Disappearing Moon Cafe and Wayson Choy's acclaimed Jade Peony onto the Canadian literary scene.

Turning ACWW into a non-profit society in 1995 solidified our mission. instead of competing with the writing programs offered by the various colleges, we turn to manuscript preparation. The mission was to find and nurture deserving emerging AC writers helping the through the early stage when they already have a substantial body of work and guide them through to the manuscript stage at which point we connect them up with a publisher. In essense, we act as editors and agents and even legal consultants on their contracts. All for the price of membership. 

In this fashion we have help a large majority of the contemporary writers you currently see on the Canadian literary scene.  ACWW also created a "Emerging Writers Award" to attract manuscripts. Madeline Thien (short fiction) and Rita Wong (poetry) were the chief beneficiary of these project.  In 2008, ACWW continues with this cutural engineering process. We recognized the need to create new voices in young adult fiction. and in 2010, in collaboration with published the anthology.