All That Matters

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Doubleday Canada, Sep 28, 2011 - Fiction - 432 pages
5 Reviews

Set in Vancouver's Chinatown in the 1930s and 1940s, Choy continues the story of the Chen family household, this time narrated by First Son, Kiam-Kim. We first meet Kiam-Kim at the age of eight, staring at the yellowed photograph of his mother, who died in China when he was just a baby. Kiam-Kim, Poh-Poh (his larger-than-life grandmother) and Mr. Chen, his demure and honest father, journey to a new life in Vancouver's Old Chinatown. Following the dream of finding gold and then one day returning to China -- wealthy -- they, like many Chinese families around them, find themselves in a country on the brink of the Second World War, struggling to survive in a foreign land and keep alive the traditions of an older world.
Finely crafted, and rich in historical detail, All That Matters depicts 1930s Vancouver in the haunting hues of memory, and sees in the Chen family a fragile miniature of a larger world. Dwelling on Kiam-Kim's sense of responsibility to his community, Choy unfolds the Chen family's secrets in thoughtful and luminous prose, leading the reader to a breathtaking conclusion that far transcends the limits of its time and place, and gestures towards all humanity.


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LibraryThing Review

User Review  - charlie68 - LibraryThing

A good depiction of Chinese culture as it meets with Canadian society in the 1920s to 40s. About a boy growing up in that era, and his rebellions, could place that in any age. Read full review


User Review  - Jane Doe - Kirkus

Choy's second novel, about growing up Chinese in Canada, is a companion piece to his prize-winning debut (The Jade Peony, 1997).In his debut, Choy focused on three children in Vancouver's Chinatown ... Read full review



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About the author (2011)

Born in 1939, Wayson Choy grew up the son of Chinese immigrants in Vancouver’s Chinatown. His father worked as a chef on a Canadian Pacific ship, and the young Wayson often accompanied his mother at evenings of mahjong. He watched Chinese opera, but wanted to be a cowboy.

After attending the University of British Columbia, where he enrolled in its Creative Writing course, Wayson Choy left Vancouver and has lived in Toronto since 1962. He is Professor Emeritus of Humber College and is a faculty member of the Humber School for Writers; he taught English for thirty years until he retired in 2002. He has been a volunteer for community literacy projects and AIDS groups, and for three years was President of Cahoots Theatre Company. He was appointed a Companion of Frontier College in 2002.

A teacher himself for many years, he acknowledges those who helped in his early writing days, such as Jacob Zilber who guided him towards writing a short story called “The Sound of Waves,” which was selected for inclusion by the Best American Short Stories in 1962. Others were Jan de Bruyn, one of the first editors of PRISM magazine, and the poet Earle Birney, who taught creative writing at UBC. “I haven’t searched out mentors; they have been a kind of gift to me.” Choy was already teaching when he enrolled once again in the Creative Writing course; this time he produced the short story “The Jade Peony,” which was first published in 1977 and would be anthologized many times before Choy was asked to develop it into a novel.

The Jade Peony, Choy’s first novel, is narrated by Kiam-Kim’s three siblings — Sister Jook-Liang, Second Brother Jung-Sum and Third Brother Sekky — as they each grope for their own childhood identity within the Chen family in Vancouver’s Chinatown. Their stories tell of poverty and racism. Published to glowing reviews, it became a runaway bestseller in Canada, and was published in Australia, Germany and the United States, where it was selected as a notable book by the American Library Assocation.

It was after doing a radio interview about the book in 1995 that Choy received an unexpected phone call from a woman who had once been his babysitter, with a stunning revelation. At the age of 56 he learned that he had been adopted as a child. The feelings and memories unleashed inspired his second book, Paper Shadows, a memoir of his Chinatown childhood, which the National Post called a “lovely, agile dance of memory.” It won the Edna Stabler Award for Creative Non-Fiction, and was shortlisted for the 1999 Governor General’s Award, the Charles Taylor Literary Nonfiction Prize and the Drainie-Taylor Biography Prize.

Choy says, “I began writing the book as if it was going to be a light, entertaining read because I had a happy childhood, but the more I delved into the past, I realized that dark path of the ghetto, the racism, and the family sex life, and so on. So the book turned on me and let me see for the first time what Chinatown meant.” On the other hand, his love and understanding of his deceased parents grew deeper as he learned about them through his research and his writing. Secrets were discovered that his family were not able to share, such as what had happened to the false papers they probably were destroyed to avoid being deported.

Research forms an important part of the evolution of Choy’s work, whether it takes the form of talking to older people about their memories or of looking through old documents and photographs in museums for historical context. However, the depth of feeling in All That Matters evolved from a profound source. While Choy was writing it, he had a severe asthma attack, leading to a coma, during which he had more than one heart attack. As he recovered, he gradually discovered how terrible it had been for his friends and family. Though he had seen loved ones die of AIDS or cancer or old age, this made him realize more about the power of simple acts of decency, and the “deeper level, of connection between people,” something he went on to explore in the novel.

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