“All that matters” book review
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Wayson Choy is a Canadian writer of Chinese origin, whose latest book is All That Matters, published earlier in 2004. This book is the history a Kiam-Kim, a boy who moved to Canada with his parent in the late 1920s, supported by his Third Uncle, who probably had to defray the head tax for Kiam-Kim and his parent or distort documents to bypass Canadian immigration establishment.
The story is set in Vancouver, in the Chinatown, in the 1930s and 1940s. It is a novel of experiences Kiam-Kim, as a second generation refugee has, trying to maintain faithful to his family and community, find his way in school and life, and match to those of other backdrops. It describes the immigrant plans of Kiam-Kim, his parents, and other representatives of the Chinese community. Kiam-Kim and his mates have to control dealing with others of Irish, Italian, and Japanese backdrops – some of these meetings are good and some are bleak.
Paragraph 1: Chinese ways of being
In their new Canadian life, yet, there is a continual fight to balance the new Gold Mountain concepts with the old traditions and wisdom of China. Old One dislikes Kiam-Kim to speak English, and Kiam-Kim knows that to be without manners, without a feel of correct social ceremony, is to take dishonor to one’s family. Kids who lose their “Chinese souls” are called “bamboo beats” by the elders because of the false emptiness within that is why Kiam-Kim has to study strenuous at Chinese school as well as English school. He has to support Poh-Poh to prepare for her mahjong ladies, and her arduous knuckles rap Kiam-Kim’s head when he misbehaves.
Certainly, in “All that matters”, Wayson Choy shows many people of his parents’ generation in Chinatown like expels from the native country. Most of these characters, who are already well settled in Canada stay, especially, oriented towards China, or what they define as orthodox Chinese ways of being.
Why were the Chinese historically singled out for prejudice in Canada, in particular, when they gave so much to this country? In spite of the fact that the Canadian establishment wanted to keep Canada “white”, other Asian nations were never subjected to the equal humiliating policies, and all Chinese, whether Canadian born, naturalized or new refugees, were subjected to the equal policies. Professor Peter S. Li thinks that the “Chinese nation” was publically constructed in Canadian society in the background of unequal power contacts between the dominant majority and a subordinate minority, and is used as a gear and justification for a social split. [Li]
Paragraph 2 : Wong Suk’s dangerous job
In the first half of the 20th century, Chinese ancestors, who came to Canada to seek economic stability like most other immigrants, were subordinated as a community in order to be used and ruled. White Canada needed Chinese workers, not only for building the railroads, but other industries and manufactures such as fish cannery, lumber trade and mining. White Canadians needed them, but also did not want contest from them. All that matters also challenges ordinary Canadian situation with past stories about the treatment and exclusion of the Chinese railroad builders. The railroad is often praised in Canadian history as uniting the state but the severe obstacles of the Chinese are left untold. Wayson Choy uses the hero of Wong Suk to disperse the stereotypical white statements of the railway and narrative his statements of dismay and unfair treatment. Wong Suk is simply blemished from years of strenuous work on the railroad. His semblance is “monkey-like”, and he has “thick gnarled fingers curled tightly onto bamboo canes”. [Choy] While often slighted in Canadian history is the fact that the Chinese had to do the most dangerous of jobs. This case is displayed by Wong Suk’s experiences. Wong Suk had “climbed the steepest mountain slopes, then come skidding down legs and arms flying to escape the dynamite blasts, rockfalls”. Chinese men such as Wong Suk were given the most perilous jobs including dynamite, but were only hired half the wages of their white workers.
Anti-Chinese consideration became a powerful energy in British Columbia politics. Blaming Chinese immigrants when the economy made weak became a way of arranging migrants from England and Europe around the idea of “white primacy” captured best in the term “White Canada Forever”. In “All that matters” White Canadians called Chinese “chinks” because it is referred to the shape of Asian eyes. White Canadians also firmly convinced that their way of life was better than all others. They saw China as a feeble nation of backward people who could never learn to live like white Canadians. Furthermore, they said that Chinese carried illnesses and other bad habits (such as smoking opium) that threatened Canada’s well-being. Racism against Chinese people and other immigrant groups such as Japanese and South Asians were expressions of a vigorous belief in white superiority. Well known, the Chinese people in Canada have been subjected to xenophobia and systemic intolerance by the Canadian establishment since the first Chinese moved to Canada over a hundred years ago. While the first Chinese faced terrible and unfair treatment from all levels of Canadian society, Federal legislation arranged to limit Chinese movement to Canada by imposing economic and humanitarian troubles were, probably, the most overt examples of entrenched bias, and that is why, perhaps the most telling. Charters such as the Chinese Immigration Act, which applied a head tax on Chinese people entering Canada, and its adjustment in 1923 that limited immigration to students, diplomats, sellers, and the problematically explained “Canadian-born Chinese” were a part of the systematic and structural xenophobia that was arranged to compensate what Karin Lee calls the “threat” of Chinese work to the white Canadian workforce. In particular, as Karin Lee marks, “acting in reaction to white racist violence was problematic, as it placed the community in a defensive position, rather than aggressively fighting for their rights”. [Lee] The heroes of this book were also victims of this policy which mean that every Chinese worker, wanting to enter Canada to pay a $50 head tax: “They passed the Chinese Exclusion Act and shut down all ordinary bachelor-man traffic between Canada and China, shut off any women from arriving, and divided families”. Also the greatest dare faced by early Chinese Immigrants was that of protecting their native language and culture. “Look Liang, if you want a place in this world, do not be born a girls-child. This is Canada, not old China”.
Paragraph 3 : “White Demons”
In “All that matters”, assimilation caused individuality conflicts and generational collision amid the characters. The old people in the book opposed assimilating fearing a loss of culture and individuality. The youth, growing up and attending school reconciled toward the larger public cultural Canadian landscape. The old adults, Poh Poh and Wong Bak, never merged into the Canadian Society, and they were incapable to reconcile the Canadian culture and society. They were sincerely dedicated to their homeland and had to come back to China to die, as affirmed by Wong Bak’s promises: “Bone must come to rest where they most belong”. Adults such as Father and Stepmother were attempting to fit into the new socio-cultural structure and were prepare to give up their Chinese ways. In that time, adults such as Stepmother easily got a “prisoner” who was locked between two civilizations. “What does this White Demon want? – said Stepmother, I could see she wished Suling were here, with her perfect English”. The new generations born in Canada, such as Liang Liang and Sekky, were ready to grow real Canadians.
They wished to be treated equally as the White Canadian kids, but even though they were born in Vancouver, they were stay considered to be Chinese by other Canadians, especially White. The young generation was devastated under the pressure of adults, they said: “Neither Chinese nor Canadian, born without understanding the boundaries, born No Mo – no brain”. “Smart English not Smart Chinese”, – was another pejorative comment young Chinese Canadian had to bear. It was very grueling to balance between their natural identities and their chosen identities. In “All that matters”, “Golden Mountain” is quintessential of the immigrant desire and close to the theory of the “American Dream”. In particular, in both situations, the desire and its realization are basically inconsistent and the promise of prosperity never materialized for the Chinese refugees. Wong Suk is one of those refugees, believing there is a “Golden Mountain” that could do them wealthy. “There had also been rumors of gold in the rivers that poured down those mountain cliffs, gold that could make a man and his family wealthy overnight.” Through the story “All that matters”, we can see that the socio-economic circumstances of the Chinese in Vancouver were harsh: “There might never be enough money to buy more food for another mouth; never a secure job to pay regular rent, never enough decent work to feed the children that would come along”.
There has been a Chinese presence in Canada for well over a hundred years, but only in contemporary history has the Chinese population felt truly apart of Canadian society. The Chinese society has grown from its modest beginnings to a bright and mature force helping to create Canada’s multicultural identity. It helped assemble a milestone in Canadian engineering and a sign of Canadian unity. It came through both world wars and has proven its engagement and confinement to Canada. Against social and cultural strain, it hung on and endured refusing to yield, overcoming both rough and subtle forms of prejudice and racism.
In fact, Canada is a country in which there are total layers of prejudice, reflecting the difficulty of a society made up of so many dissimilar immigrant cultures. This can distinctly be seen in Wayson Choy’s All that matters, a book which shows the Chinese experience in Vancouver. It took the Chinese society well over a century to get an integral part of Canadian population. The process has been unpleasantly slow, but Chinese Canadian was not given the rights as presents. They have deserved them through the years of hard labor, embarrassment and sacrifice.
Choy, Wayson. All That Matters, Doubleday Canada. 2004
Li, Peter S. The Chinese in Canada. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1988.
Lee, Karin. At Canada’s Gates: Chinese immigration during the exclusion era, 1882-1943. New York: Verso, 1999.
Chinese Cultural Centre. About Us [cited January 2005]. Available from: www.cccvan.com