All That Matters

by Wayson Choy
ISBN: 0385257597

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A Review of: All that Matters
by Nancy Wigston

Wayson Choy adds a strong new presence to his Chinese-Canadian mosaic with this novel, shortlisted for this year's Giller Prize. A journey that begins in "Old China" and continues throughout the depression and war years in Canada's "Gold Mountain", is narrated with clear-eyed honesty by Kiam-Kim, eldest or "First Son" in the immigrant Chen family. The three youngest Chen children were heard from in Choy's 1995 debut, The Jade Peony; once more Choy breathes a whole vanished world of family and political history into life.
Born in China to a lovely mother, now dead, Kiam-Kim remembers arriving, age three, with his father and his grandmother on a ship that deposited them in 1927 amid the bustle and grime of Vancouver Harbour. From the first, Choy plays with the threads of love and tension that bind Kiam-Kim's accountant father and Poh-Poh, his grandmother, formerly a household slave. Poh-Poh's folk wisdom comes fully stocked with ghosts, herbal cures, damning curses, ruses designed to both bribe the gods and to deflect bad luck. She cooks intricate meals, nurtures the children, plays mahjong with her friends. As the years pass, her intermittent refrain, "I die soon," becomes something of a family joke. Although her rational, hardworking son labours at many jobs and writes for the Chinese newspaper, it is Poh-Poh who dominates the family and the book-a larger-than-life character that we may not love, but cannot forget.
Throughout his childhood, Kiam-Kim perches on the border between two differing worldviews. To prove that the screeching monsters that emerge from False Creek are indeed trains and are not the dragons that his grandmother assures him they are, father takes son to the CPR Roundhouse, where the little boy is shown the machinery up close. Yet images of "steel-plated, steam-hissing" dragons pop up before sleep-oddly evocative of his fiercely protective grandmother. One of the great strengths of the novel is the way that Choy implies, without ever stating, that the events that occur throughout the Thirties and Forties-war, disease, famine-are as satisfactorily explained by Poh-Poh's mythic images as by his father's rational mind.
Although clever and mathematical like his father, Kiam-Kim cannot deny the role that luck has played in his family's fortunes. In response to a request from a "Third Uncle", the three were sent to Canada from their village in China. Not a blood relation, Third Uncle lacks heirs; friends' recent deaths have brought his own mortality home to him. The resulting fake, or "paper" family, soon forms a cohesive unit, eventually adding new members, starting with Stepmother. Before moving to their own small house, the threesome from China live a hardscrabble life in a Chinatown rife with lonely men marooned by the infamous Exclusion Act of 1925. Much later we learn the human truth behind the "luck" that has brought them to Canada.
When the Chens appeared in The Jade Peony, successive episodes featured Kiam-Kim's younger siblings. Narrating the family history from the eldest child's viewpoint is a bold move for Choy. Just as in real families, events and people pack a different emotional punch, depending on birth order. In Kiam-Kim, Choy portrays the evolution of a child who is firmly eased into the burdens and responsibilities of his family role both as First Son and as dai-goh (big brother). During his high school years, Kiam-Kim casually utters one of the book's truly breathtaking lines. Sitting under the stars on his back steps with his almost-girlfriend, Jenny Chong, as the talk turns to the consensus among mutual friends that getting away from their difficult parents is a major priority, Jenny assumes that Kiam-Kim agrees. "Don't you?" she asks. "Not really," he responds. "No reason to." Excuse me? A teenager who sees no need to escape?
Indeed, Kiam-Kim's childhood seems like a case study in raising a successful immigrant child. "Knuckled" aptly describes a not-infrequent parental punishment, but greater force is absent. Praised, prodded, encouraged to develop a "Chinese brain"-kept busy in the house (some of the kitchen scenes seem to go on forever) and out of it, First Son is the opposite of neglected. Once, when the thoughtful boy falls into a depression pondering the existence of Catholic Hell, Third Uncle takes him to Christian English classes to learn more about the subject from a Mrs. Simpson, who assures him he is at little risk. Although the Hell question is not neatly resolved, the teenager-whose mood is not brushed away but taken seriously-eventually regains his equilibrium.
The Chen family is literally close-knit; indeed, one of the enduring images at the end is of Stepmother knitting a sweater for the ailing Poh-Poh, her needles clicking away. This is not to discount family problems. The fact that Stepmother' is called that even by her own children-so as not to offend Kiam-Kim's mother's ghost-becomes a source of great pain; and there are spectacular bumps in the road, like the day that Kiam-Kim gets disgracefully drunk, to the horror of his father.
Although not consciously rebellious, Kiam-Kim becomes best friends with Jack O'Connor, who lives next door. Poh-Poh does not allow this pale ("soon die") Irish child-who mugs at her cuisine-into the Chen house, although the two fathers speak politely on the street. In Kiam-Kim's words, "Jack and I took for granted that both our families were too familiar and too strange too explain." The bond between the friends endures. Yet the very existence of the O'Connor family next door to the Chens says much about racial fluidity in Gold Mountain. At times this instability becomes tragic, as when a neighbourhood beauty falls in love with a Japanese boy, a tale told with greater drama in The Jade Peony.
This time, the main love story occurs between Kiam-Kim and Jenny, the grocer's daughter, a marvellously tough cookie who softens somewhat in adolescence. Kiam-Kim, dazzled by her sexuality, remains at a constant disadvantage in her presence; moreover, his courtship is stage-managed by Poh-Poh and Jenny's mother. The question of Jenny, who clearly feels true passion not for First Son, but for his blonde friend Jack O'Connor, raises issues about free will-or lack thereof-that will surely fuel discussions among students and book club members for years to come.
Although there is much that Kiam-Kim, like the rest of us, does not fully grasp, he is not dull. The alert three-year-old who arrived in Gold Mountain to join a paper family never loses his sense of wonder at the world around him. Moving with degrees of ease between his family's spoken dialect, formal Cantonese, street slang and school English, Kiam-Kim's day starts with the Lord's Prayer with its inimitable, "Harold be his name." Kiam-Kim is both Old China and new Vancouver. When Jack O'Connor departs for the war, he asks to be invited inside the Chen home at last to share a family meal. His wish is granted. We witness one last time the selection of the best pieces of food for the guest, the effort made to make him feel at home (Stepmother makes hotdogs, his favourite dish). We see daily life transformed into something magical. In this often-wondrous novel, Wayson Choy invites us too into the Chen home, redolent with its smells, its beliefs, its characters and its history, setting a special place for us at the table.

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