May is Asian Heritage month. In its honour, the Sooke Library Branch has invited Victoria author May Q. Wong to read from her book, A Cowherd in Paradise: From China to Canada on Saturday, May 18.
May was born in the Montreal community around St. Urbain Street and Saint Lawrence Boulevard, known colloquially as “The Main,” an immigration-based community made famous by Mordecai Richler’s The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. This context nurtured Wong’s strong sense of community and interest in social justice, along with a personal commitment to remember past injustices to create a better future.
Wong now lives in Victoria, her home since 1980. Her book tells her parents’ stories from both countries, China and Canada, and how they were affected by Canada’s Chinese Immigration Act of 1923, which was in effect until 1947.
The context of Wong’s community in Montreal gave her an empathetic multi-cultural understanding of immigrants fleeing their home countries in pursuit of a better future for their own families. In Wong’s case, her father, Wong Guey Dang, immigrated to Canada, and the Act of 1923 prevented him from bringing his wife, Jiang Tew Thloo. She raised her two children (Wong’s older sister and brother) in rural China, barely eking out an existence until the rise of communism in 1949. In 1954, Wong’s mother made the difficult decision to leave her 19-year-old daughter (Wong Lai Quen) in China in order to accompany her six-year-old son (Wong Yuet Wei, “Robert”) to Canada.
As described by the Vancouver Island Regional Library, “In this remarkable account, May Q. Wong follows the lives of Wong Guey Dang (1902-1983) and Jiang Tew Thloo (1911-2002). Married for over half a century, the couple was forced to live apart for 25 years because of Canada’s exclusionary immigration laws. In China, Ah Thloo struggled to survive natural disasters, wars, and revolutions: while in Canada, Ah Dang overcame discrimination to become a successful Montreal restaurateur.”
Wong will be at the Sooke Regional Libraryand (hint for aspiring authors), in addition to her expertise on this fascinating history, also brings with her a wealth of experience in both writing and publishing a book.
Wong’s visit to Sooke will also appeal to Sinophiles (people with a passion for anything Chinese) as her expertise includes a peek at life in China, behind the bamboo curtain, and what life was like for early Chinese immigrants in Canada.
Following is a set of questions we put to Wong:
SNM: How long did it take you to write your book?
Wong: I started in 2004, after I retired from the Public Service. I completed a first draft in 2008 and started looking for agents (only three responded and none were accepting new clients). In 2009, I started looking for publishers (all three were interested). In 2010, I was told to chop 20 per cen, so I hired an editor. I submitted my manuscript in May 2010 and by July, had a contract. This led to several more months of editing. The book was published and released in April 2012.
SNM: What inspired you to actually record these stories?
Wong: My mother had been telling me these family stories all my life. She came to live with my husband and me and stayed for over 16 years, until the end of her life. She actually planted the seed to write the stories down, and we started recording her. The Harper government apology was being considered (she missed hearing it and receiving any compensation by a few years) and she wanted the next generation to know what it was like to be excluded from Canada and to have her family separated for a quarter of a century. My mother inspired all who met her.
SNM: What authors have inspired you?
Wong: I have very eclectic reading tastes. Early on, I was inspired by Han Suyin and Pearl S. Buck, whose stories of China reached such a wide audience. I love mysteries – P.D. James, Louise Penny; fantasy – Anne McCaffrey, Guy Gavriel Kay; Jasper Fforde; epic fiction – Bryce Courteney – mostly books that are well-written and deal with the human condition and the personal struggle to do the right thing.
SNM: What was the most difficult story to tell?
Wong: The most difficult story to tell was my parent’s wedding night. It was not easy to admit that my father beat his wife.
SNM: What was the most personally pleasing?
Wong: I love the story about my mother’s relationship with her grandmother and the lessons she learned.
SNM: How has your own family received this book?
Wong: It has been very positively received. My sister is a main character, as much of the book is about how she was left behind. She was very pleased with the book and was proud to have had the family’s story told.
My parents are both deceased, but I think they would be proud of me.
SNM: Are you planning on writing another one?
Wong: Yes, I have been researching another social justice, human interest story, and there are a couple of irons in the fire.
On May 18 Wong will be at the Sooke library, 2065 Annamarie Rd. between 1 and 2:30 p.m.
Everyone is welcome.
To register, or for more information, please call the Sooke Library at 250-642-3022.