Commentary: Jim Wong-Chu leaves a lasting mark

The man behind the growth of Asian Canadian writing in Canada, Jim Wong-Chu, dies at 68.

By Ted Alcuitas

“Knowledge does not set you free—it enslaves you.”

Strong words from a strong man.

Jim Wong-Chu’s insatiable appetite for history and what he learned motivated him to “create a new reality”, giving birth to such organizations like the Asian Canadian Writers’ Workshop (ACWW) which he co-founded.

The 68-year old Wong-Chu died on July 11 after a stroke he suffered earlier this year.

In his last TV interview (February 2016) he told Sid Chow Tan of Access TV that there was “no inspiration” for him when he started the seminal literary grouping, Asian Canadian Writers’ Workshop, back in the ’70s.

“There was no inspiration—it was euphoria and discretion,” he recalled the beginning of the movement to create a space for Chinese Canadian writings.

“Bellyaching” with him at the time was Paul Yee and SKY Lee who later rose to prominence with their writings.

“We asked ourselves: What if? And why not?” Wong-chu told Tan. “None of us were writers and we didn’t know the basics. We started from scratch.”

The “paper son” who never finished Grade 11 first dabbled in photography before pursuing a degree in creative writing at UBC.

“I was working in a cafeteria and photography was just like making coffee,” he told Tan.

He finished a photography course at the Vancouver School of Art, now called Emily Carr University of Art + Design.

His collection of photographs of Chinatown taken from 1973 to 1981 lay dormant until 30 years after when he realized he had a treasure trove of historical significance.

The 80 photos (out of 500 negatives) were shown in an exhibit at Centre A Gallery in October 2014.

It was accompanied by his own poems and Paul Yee’s.

Paper son

Born in Hong Kong in 1949 two years after Chinese Canadians were granted the right to vote, Wong-Chu came to Canada as a “paper son” by an aunt when he was four.

Paper sons and daughters adopted false identities at a time when Canada restricted Chinese immigration.

It was not until he was seven years old that his aunt told him: “I am not your mother.”

That discovery completely devastated him, knowing that he did not belong neither to the country he was raised or the country he was born into.

Up and until his death this month, Wong-Chu was still haunted by the ghosts of his past.

“It feels like you’re not a part of everything around you, that your participation is not welcome and not well-received…” he told writer Nikki Celis of the Georgia Straight on April 16, 2016.

“In my late teens and early 20s, I was very confused. You’re constantly haunted by this idea that you’re not legal. It destroyed me totally as an individual,” he says, stone-faced. “That’s identity for you—when you talk about identity to the infinite extreme, it feels like you’re a fake.”

Giant of a man

Jim Wong-Chu was quite literally a giant of a man.

He stood not all of 5’5” but he could talk about almost anything—from books to history and politics and everything else.

Some called him the Moses of the Asian Canadian literary world for finding and nurturing emerging writers and eventually having their works published.

The list includes Paul Yee, Wayson Choy, SKY Lee, and Evelyn Lau, among others.

Madeleine Thien, the recent winner of the Governor General’s Award for Fiction and the Giller Prize, was hired and mentored by Jim to be editor of Ricepapermagazine even before anybody knew her.

“I remember going to met Jim and being amazed at all the knowledge at his fingertips, all the stories and memories he had,” Thien recalled in an interview for B.C. Bookworld.

Jim (left) at his last board meeting of the Asian Canadian Writers’ Workshop (ACWW). (Provided)
Wong-chu lamented the lack of visible minority writers in mainstream literary festivals and saw the need for one that showcased them.

“In the past, many of the mainstream literary festivals were good at recognizing diversity and inclusiveness but as we are seeing, including one or two token visible minority writers is hardly a way to illuminate the writing of a community,” he told B.C. Bookworld in September 2014.

He was the driving force behind LiterAsian, an annual literary festival launched in 2013.

The first of its kind in Canada, LiterAsian seeks to promote and celebrate works of Asian Canadian writers through readings and workshops.

This year’s event will run from September 21 to 24 during which the recipient of the now-renamed “Jim Wong-Chu Emerging Writers Award” will be announced.

One of his most enduring legacies is Ricepaper magazine, which is published by the ACWW.

It was started as a newsletter and its first editor was architect and author David Wong, who went on to write Escape to Gold Mountain, a graphic history of Chinese immigration to North America.

Now a webzine publication, Ricepaper celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2015 with an anthology—AlliterAsian: Twenty Years of Ricepaper Magazine, co-edited by Wong-Chu, Julia Lin, and Allan Cho.

This was Wong-Chu’s last anthology although he revealed in his Access TV interview that he was working on a book about Chinese immigration in B.C. for the provincial government. Neither the publication nor its title has been confirmed.

Wong-Chu also spearheaded a Chinese Canadian radio program called Pender Guy and collaborated with Todd Wong to start Gung Haggis Fat Choy .

Among Wong-Chu’s books:

Chinatown Ghosts (Pulp Press, 1986)
Many-Mouthed Birds (D&M, 1991) co-editor
Swallowing Clouds: An Anthology of Chinese-Canadian Poetry (1999)
Strike the Wok: An anthology of contemporary Chinese Canadian fiction(Toronto: TSAR Publications, 2003) edited by Lien Chao and Jim Wong-Chu.
AlliterAsian: Twenty Years of RicePaper (Arsenal Pulp 2015) co-editor with Allan Cho and Julia Lim.

How I got involved in ACCW:

About a decade ago Wong-Chu broke the news that the organization was in a sort of crisis because of a lack of volunteers.

He invited me and a few others in the Filipino community to come and join the board of ACWW. Until that time, there was no representation on the board from the community.

Several years ago he asked me (ordered me) to write an anthology of Filipino Canadian writers. I kept resisting and putting off until just before his illness when we were talking on the phone and he told me:

“Ted, you can do it. It’s just like doing your paper.”

I could sense his frustration when he said “If you’re not going to do it, I will ask somebody else.”

I am now working on the project and it will be dedicated to his memory.

That’s how Wong-Chu dealt with his protegés and emerging writers.

His persistence was legendary.

In 1977, he wrote this poem which was included in Inalienable Rice: A Chinese and Japanese Canadian Anthology, now out of print.

old chinese cemetery
(kamloops 1977/july)

like a child lost
wandering about
touching, feeling
tattered grounds
touching, seeing
wooden boards
etched in ink
etched in weather
etched in faded memories
etched faded
I walk
on earth,
above bones of a multitude
of golden mountain men
searching for scraps
of haunting memories
like a child unloved
pressing his face hard
against the wet window
peering in
straining with anguish
for a desperate moment
I touch my past.

His lifelong friend, poet and activist Sean Gunn, who accompanied him to look for the cemetery, summed up Wong-Chu’s passing this way:

“Jim left behind his gift—the ACWW which inspires future writers. It is his legacy.”

“Jim recorded history and now he is history.”

Jim Wong-Chu is survived by his wife  Marlene, stepdaughter Debbie, sisters Margaret, Anna, and Rose, brothers Peter, Thomas, and Francis, many beloved nephews and nieces, and mother Sui Tung Chu.

Ted Alcuitas is the editor and publisher of the online newspaper He has known and collaborated with Jim Wong-Chu for a number of years as a board member of the Asian Canadian Writers’ Workshop.

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