Jim Wong-Chu arrived in Canada from Hong Kong at the age of four as a "paper son" with falsified documents. Three years later, he would learn that the woman he thought was his mother was in fact an aunt.
He was raised by relatives, moving frequently as a child, before arriving as a young man in Vancouver, where he worked a series of blue-collar jobs. He became a seminal figure on the Vancouver literary scene through unpaid activism at nights and on weekends. Even as he was hailed as a Moses of Asian-Canadian literature, he never escaped a disquieting sense of dislocation and fraudulence.
He spent a lifetime wrestling with a confusing sense of identity as someone who arrived illegally but had only tenuous ties to his foreign birthplace. What was his place in the world? Where was a Chinese-Canadian such as himself supposed to fit in the Canadian mosaic?
"It feels like you're not part of everything around you, that your participation is not welcome and not well-received," he told the Georgia Straight newspaper last year.
Mr. Wong-Chu, who has died at 68, addressed those questions through his poetry, activism and photography, though his greatest influence was as a mentor to other storytellers. It was his ambition, as he once told the author Jurgen Hesse, "to continue to find the hidden talents in our communities, people who aren't used to having their voices heard, rather than become sidetracked by identity."
As an anthologist and a founder of the literary magazine Ricepaper, he encouraged and promoted such writers as Madeleine Thien, Wayson Choy, Denise Chong, Sky Lee and Evelyn Lau, among countless others. His influence cut across generations, as well as cultures.
As a community volunteer in the 1970s, Mr. Wong-Chu heard many stories from Chinatown old-timers about the Chinese Head Tax and subsequent Chinese Exclusion Act, which banned all but a handful of immigrants and was only repealed in 1947. He later felt compelled to write because he feared that he "had so many stories about so many people that the stories would die with me. I felt I had to write them, I had to put them down."
A serious and determined figure, Mr. Wong-Chu would go so far as to scold friends whose dedication to activism was not as committed as his own. Much work needed to be done on the literary scene and in Chinatown.
"You get involved with Jim," recalled Todd Wong, a long-time friend and founder of the cross-cultural festival known as Gung Haggis Fat Choy, "and you're going to get involved in a lot of projects."
Born in Hong Kong on Jan. 28, 1949, Jim Wong-Chu was brought to Canada by an aunt who had lost a son about his age. The racial restrictions on which Canadian immigration policy was based barred his biological family from uniting with him in his adopted land for many years.
The boy worked after school and on weekends in family-owned Chinese cafés, an experience that separated him from his classmates. As part of his chores, he peeled 150 pounds of potatoes daily, a task he learned to do without needing to look at his hands.
As a young man, he moved from Merritt in the British Columbia Interior to Vancouver, arriving not long before Chinatown residents successfully concluded a campaign to halt a freeway and a redevelopment certain to ruin their historic neighbourhood. He relearned the Cantonese that he had lost over time after moving to North America.
Mr. Wong-Chu worked on the trailblazing Pender Guy radio program in Vancouver, the first English-language show about the Chinese-Canadian community. The show took its name from Chinatown's commercial street, Pender, and a bilingual pun on the Cantonese word gaai for street.
He was a founder of the Asian Canadian Writers' Workshop, whose newsletter evolved into Ricepaper. Mr. Wong-Chu's stellar work as an anthologist encouraged novice writers to develop their craft, while also introducing them to a wider audience
In 1979, one of his poems, old chinese cemetery (kamloops, 1977/july), was included in Inalienable Rice, an anthology of Japanese- and Chinese-Canadian writers. (The print run was just 600 copies.) Seven years later, a 63-page collection of his poems, titled Chinatown Ghosts, drawing on his experiences as a waiter and an outsider, was released by Pulp Press of Vancouver. It has since been celebrated as the first commercial publication of its kind by a Chinese-Canadian writer.
Although he considered himself more of an activist than a writer (and his writing an act of activism), Mr. Wong-Chu's success turned his cronies at the pool hall into aspiring poets, as well.
The publisher Scott McIntyre of Douglas and McIntyre asked Mr. Wong-Chu to co-edit an anthology of Asian-Canadian writers. He scoured literary journals at the University of British Columbia, where he had studied creative writing. One of the stories he came across was The Jade Peony by Mr. Choy. Though the story had already been included in several collections, its appearance in Many-Mouthed Birds (1991) led to a contract for a novel of the same title, which is now regarded as a classic of Canadian literature.
Other anthologies for which Mr. Wong-Chu served as a co-editor include Swallowing Clouds (1999), Strike the Wok (2003) and AlliterAsian (2015), the latter a collection from the first two decades of Ricepaper.
In the 1970s, he studied photography at the Vancouver School of Art (now the Emily Carr University of Art and Design), missing many lectures as he wandered the streets and alleys of Chinatown. He captured shoppers and merchants at businesses such as the Kwong Hing Co. greengrocer, while also documenting a campaign to protect Chinatown's barbecue-pork restaurants from onerous heath regulations. The black-and-white images mostly went unseen until displayed at a show in Vancouver in 2014, by which time they were hailed for chronicling a disappearing way of life ever more threatened by development.
Mr. Wong-Chu worked for BC Ferries before getting a job as a letter carrier for Canada Post. Many meetings of the writers' workshop were held at his modest home, a small bungalow on a busy, four-lane street less than a block away from a cemetery.
He suffered a massive stroke in March. He died on July 11. He leaves his wife, Marlene Enns; a stepdaughter; three brothers; three sisters; and his mother.
Since 1999, the Asian Canadian Writers' Workshop has sponsored an emerging-writer award designed to introduce new writers to publishers. (The second winner was Ms. Thien.) The winners are now announced at LiterAsian, an annual literary festival launched four years ago thanks to Mr. Wong-Chu's efforts. The workshop's board has decided to name the award after Mr. Wong-Chu as a tribute to his tireless efforts to champion those seeking to have their voices heard.
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