Wayson Choy's The Jade Peony (
Douglas & McIntyre, 240 pages, $10.95 paper) is about growing up in Vancouver's early Chinatown. The book, which began as a much anthologized short story almost twenty years ago, is divided into three sections, each narrated by a different child from the same family: Jook-Liang, the "useless" female, whose main interests are going to movies, tap dancing, and imitating Shirley Temple; the adopted orphan Jung-Sum, the second oldest brother, who discover he's gay; and Sek-Lung, the youngest brother and the only one in the family born in Canada.
Choy does a fine job of orchestrating the narrative voices and showing how family patterns and themes operate in diverse, often unpredictable ways, in the individuals' lives. Within the three main stories, the stories of other characters are also embedded, and this is where Choy truly excels. His "secondary" characters are not secondary at all. The most notable of these is Poh-Poh, the grandmother, who lives with the family. She believes in the "old ways"; hers is a world of ghosts and omens, of ancient lore and mysterious remedies. One of her favourite pastimes is making wind-chimes, the materials for which she and Sek-Lung (who considers her his "spiritual playmate") find in the neighbourhood trash bins. The family often feels embarrassed by the "Old One", but their superstition is as strong as their embarrassment: they take her views into account far more than they would like.
Choy sets his characters' personal stories against a background of political upheaval (the Depression, the Second World War, the Japanese invasion of China) and illustrates vividly the clash of the old culture with the new that most immigrants experience. As Sek-Lung notes, "What would white people in Vancouver think of us? We were Canadians now, Chinese-Canadians, a hyphenated reality that our parents could never accept." Choy's account of this reality is lyrical and moving.