Wayson Choy was born in Vancouver in 1939. His mother was a meat-cutter. He was told his father was a cook aboard CPR ships.
Dreaming of being a cowboy, Choy was raised in various households in Chinatown and later became the first Chinese Canadian to enrol in a creative writing class at UBC.
Now he has become the first non-B.C. resident to win the $5,000 George Woodcock Lifetime Award co-sponsored by the Writers Trust of Canada, Yosef Wosk and the Vancouver Public Library.
A permanent plaque for Choy, author of The Jade Peony, will be installed in the library’s ‘Walk of Fame’ that includes Alice Munro, Jane Rule, W.P. Kinsella, David Suzuki and 16 others.
Wayson Choy moved to toronto in 1962 and began teaching English at Humber College in 1967. He emerged foremost among Chinese Canadian fiction writers with his first novel, The Jade Peony (1995), based on a short story he’d written at UBC.
An inter-generational saga about an immigrant family, the Chens, during the Depression, The Jade Peony was selected as the co-winner of the 1996 Trillium Prize (along with Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace) and won the City of Vancouver Book Award.
Soon afterward Paper Shadows: A Memoir of a Past Lost and Found (1999), about his childhood, won the Edna Staebler Creative Non-Fiction Award and was shortlisted for a Governor General’s Award, the Charles Taylor Prize and the Drainie-Taylor Biography Prize.
At age 56, Wayson Choy accidentally discovered he had been adopted and that his biological father had been a member of the Cantonese Opera Company. Choy could vividly recall attending Chinese operas with his mother.
Choy subsequently returned to writing about the Chen family for All That Matters (2004), a sequel and prequel told through the eyes of First Son, Kiam-Kim, who arrives by ship with his father and grandmother Poh-Poh, in 1926.
“My character, Kiam-Kim, is heterosexual which I am not,” Choy has said. Choy fell ill while completing All That Matters, leading him to examine his past more deeply, including his Chinese roots.
Four years after a combined asthma-heart attack in 2001, when Wayson Choy was kept alive by machines and the loving kindness of friends, his heart nearly failed him again. His subsequent memoir of his two near-death experiences is Not Yet: A Memoir of Living and Almost Dying (2009).
In 2002, The Jade Peony was selected by the Vancouver Public Library for its annual One Book, One Vancouver city-wide book club project. A symposium on Wayson Choy and his work was held in Toronto in May of 2003.
A video biography of Choy has been produced by his Humber College colleague Michael Glassbourg, entitled Wayson Choy: Unfolding the Butterfly.
An hour-long documentary about Choy’s trip to China, Searching for Confucius, premiered on VisionTV in 2005.
“You have to risk everything to make a breakthrough,” he says. “Be on the side of the monster. Until we can make someone understand that any of us could have been the guard at a Nazi concentration camp or the uncle that abused his niece or the soldiers that napalmed Vietnam, until we can make others see that, it is not literature. A writer has to reverse things to get at what they know.”
Wayson Choy has been included in the Vancouver Public Library’s initiative to erect new literary landmarks for the city. His marker can be found at 15 East Pender, the former headquarters of the Jin Wah Sing Musical Association, former producers of Chinese opera.