The Story of the First Son

The Everybody Reads project, focusing on Stubborn Twig, the story of a Japanese immigrant family, reminds me of another immigrant story I read not so very long ago -- All That Matters by Wayson Choy. It is 1926 and from the deck of a ship, Kiam-Kim, First Son, sees the distant peaks of Gold Mountain near Vancouver, British Columbia. He is three years old. He, his Father and Grandmother Poh-Poh have been sent away from their Toishan village to Canada to escape the famine and civil wars raging in China. Sponsored by Third Uncle, they are to find work and send back money to help the ones left behind. Every sojourner is expected to return to their home in China when things improve. As things happen, the family does not return to China, but settles into the Chinatown community in Vancouver.

This story of First Son growing up in the 1930s and 1940s Vancouver is filled with tales of Old China, ghosts, war, cultural divisions, “face” and family honor, ancient traditions and a mixed race triangle.

I liked the story so much that I next read The Jade Peony which is actually the first book in this family's story. Sister Jook-Liang dreams of becoming Shirley Temple and escaping the ways of old China; adopted Second Brother Jung-Sum struggles with his sexuality and finds his way through boxing; third brother Sekky, not comfortable with the old ways, plays war games with his friends. He comes to understand the tragedy of real war when his 17-year-old babysitter dates a Japanese man.

I later learned that 18 years after watching his mother die in a hospital, the author Wayson Choy received a phone call from a woman claiming that she has see his "real mother" on a streetcar. He recounts his search for the truth about his family secrets in Paper Shadows: A Memoir of a Past Lost and Found. This intriguing story complements and enriches the reading of his two novels.