Archive for March, 2013

Dim Sum Stories & The Measure of A Man – Book Reviews

March 24, 2013

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Dim Sum Stories: A Chinatown Childhood, by Larry Wong, Vancouver: Chinese Canadian Historical Society of British Columbia, Gold Mountain Stories, 2011 144pp, $20.00.

The Measure of a Man by JJ Lee, Vancouver, McClelland & Stewart, 2012, 293 pp; $29.99

Book Reviews by Janet Nicol

Mothers slip in to the shadows as father-son relationships are re-captured in two very different memoirs with Vancouver settings. The authors of “Dim Sum Stories” and “The Measure of a Man” are a generation apart, revealing experiences and histories unique to Chinese-Canadians.

Larry Wong’s slim collection, “Dim Sum Stories,” depicts, in a charming, straight-forward manner, his childhood growing up in Vancouver’s Chinatown in the 1940s and 50s. Each section of his book is titled after an item found in a ‘dim sum’ meal—and each anecdote is indeed a ‘tasty morsel’. Family photographs appear alongside some of the stories too. Starting with “Tea,” we are invited in to Wong’s family home.

Wong Quon Ho, the author’s father, left behind his first wife and son when he immigrated to Canada. His second wife, Lee Shee, was chosen by business arrangement and traveled from China to marry Wong’s father. The couple had four children. Wong was the youngest, born in 1938. In fact, Wong was the last child to be delivered by a midwife in Chinatown. He was still a baby when his mother became ill with tuberculosis and died.

Wong’s older sister by seven years, Jenny, and even older brothers, eventually left home. Jenny moved to Ontario, fell in love and married a “lo fan”—a Caucasian man, to her father’s initial dismay. Wong grew up like an only child with his father watching over him. Father and son lived at the back of the tailor shop, where the elder Wong worked.

Other characters living in the area included “F.P.”—or “Friend of Pop.” He was a bachelor, whose actual name was Gum Sing. As a child, Wong enjoyed walks with F.P. and listened to him talk about the men he knew who built the railway. Wong also describes with sensitivity, F.P.’s decline.

Wong’s school days in the Strathcona neighborhood included making friends with Wayson Choy, later to become a celebrated author. Wong recalls the feel of war-time Vancouver, with the wailing of air-raid sirens, the panic after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour and the subsequent disappearance of ‘Japan town’ on nearby Powell Street when Japanese-Canadians were removed to the BC interior.
“When the last of the Japanese were gone, their properties were eventually sold at giveaway prices,” Wong writes. People in Chinatown wore homemade badges on their lapels, Wong remembered, declaring themselves as Chinese, not Japanese. “They wanted to make it clear to the world that we were not Japanese.”

Threaded throughout these reminisces are issues of family immigration and identity. Wong comes full circle after his father dies, as he describes a trip to his home village at Lung Tow Wan in southern China. “I want to bring my father back to his village, back to his son, and back to First Wife,” Wong writes. “His last visit to the village was in 1929: he lived for another thirty-seven years, and never saw his family in China again.” Wong re-unites with relatives, gaining a sense of completion while honoring his father’s memory.

*

A fashion columnist and broadcaster, J.J. Lee’s beautifully layered and angst-ridden book, “The Measure of a Man” tells a complex story about his relationship with father, John Hing Foon Lee. The elder Lee died prematurely at age 52, just after the author moved to Vancouver from Montreal.
Lee also chronicles the evolution of men’s suits in a lively series of fashion history lessons—and central to the entire story is Lee’s re-fashioning of his father’s last suit. Lee plans to alter the suit, by his own hand, to fit his slighter frame. Time travelling in the telling of his growing up years, Lee begins by recounting his father’s youth.

Lee’s father was sent to Montreal from China at the age of four to live with his grandparents. He left school and home at 13 and became a ‘self-made’ man, working his way up in Montreal restaurants, from bus boy to manager. For the elder Lee, clothes ‘made the man’ and he was a sharp dresser. Lee’s dad married young and as the children began to arrive in the 1970s, so did life’s pressures. His father slowly went in to a downward spiral of alcoholism, domestic abuse and self-destruction.
The nuclear family imploded as a result; Lee’s mother moved out and Lee and his siblings were forced to cope with various parental and guardian environments until they finish their schooling.

Lee finds a surrogate father in Vancouver when he arrives to the coast. He apprentices with Bill Wong, a tailor in Chinatown, who owns “Modernize Tailors” along with his brother Jack. The Wong brothers have been the subject of a charming CBC documentary (“Tailor Made”) and occasional local newspaper features. They are well past retirement age when Lee crosses their shop’s threshold. “Modernize Tailors” is in fact, the last operating tailor shop in Chinatown, an area of the city where the younger generation has been moving out for some time, to live in other neighborhoods.

“Tailors are a collegial lot, “Lee observes “and Modernize Tailors is often a clubhouse. Fashion students, wardrobe designers, even a leather jacket maker who makes costumes for a superhero TV show—they all come here to bask in the glow of a genuine operating tailor shop.”
Lee proudly notes the shop has a buttonhole machine, dating back to the early 1900s. The machine is one of the few in the city able to make keyhole-shaped buttonholes.

But Lee doesn’t have a talent for the trade. His inadequacy and sense of rejection is relayed with a dose of humor, and it’s part of a process which leads him to accept himself. When Lee finishes re-fashioning his father’s suit and tries it on, he has also come to the end of recounting his story. As painful as some of his flashbacks are, he has faced them.

These two memoirs are informative and engaging stories of relationships and life journeys. Time and place provide the essential backdrops, enriching our understanding of Vancouver’s rich social fabric, past and present.

Reprinted from British Colombua History, Spring 2013.

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