Raised in Vancouver’s Chinatown by both his adoptive parents and his extended community, Wayson Choy was an only child whose father, a cook for the Canadian Pacific Ocean Steamship Line, was often away at sea. Even as a child, Choy felt a calling to be a storyteller. “I lived in my imagination with my puppet shows, hauling in the neighbourhood kids,” he told the Vancouver Sun in 2015. “I was such a ham and I think all that contributed to me being a storyteller. People who babysat me told me stories because they knew that would keep me quiet.”
After graduating from Gladstone Secondary School in East Vancouver, Choy attended the University of British Columbia in the late 1950s. He was the first Chinese Canadian student admitted to the university’s creative writing program and studied under the tutelage of poet Earle Birney.
Choy moved to Toronto in 1962 and began teaching English at Humber College in 1967. He was also a faculty member of the Humber School of Writers. He loved to teach and mentor young writers and remained on the faculty at Humber even after his literary successes.
The Jade Peony (1995)
Although he experienced some success with his early short stories, Choy did not return to writing in earnest until 1977, when he again enrolled in UBC’s Creative Writing program, this time studying under Carol Shields. He took one of his most successful stories, “The Jade Peony,” which was anthologized in more than 20 publications, and over the course of 18 years expanded it into a novel.
Published in 1995, The Jade Peony is an intimate portrait of an immigrant family living in Vancouver during the Second World War. Told through the eyes of the Chen family’s three youngest children, the novel vividly captures the lived reality of Chinatown from the perspective of these first-generation Canadians. As Choy told the CBC in 1996, “I wanted to write about the interlocking pain and anguish and confusion created by that kind of world, when your language was not understood by the majority and you didn’t understand them and your children grew up understanding a little of both and struggling to be themselves.”
After spending six months on the Globe and Mail bestseller list, The Jade Peony won the 1996 City of Vancouver Book Award and shared the 1996 Trillium Book Award with Margaret Atwood’s Morning in the Burned House. The Jade Peony was also named a notable book of the year by the American Library Association in 1998 and was the featured title in the Vancouver Public Library’s One Book, One Vancouver book club in 2002. In 2010, The Jade Peony was a finalist in CBC’s Canada Reads competition, where it was championed by War Child founder Samantha Nutt.
Paper Shadows: A Chinatown Childhood (1999)
Following the success of his first novel, Choy’s memoir Paper Shadows: A Chinatown Childhood (1999) was inspired by his discovery at the age of 56 that he was adopted. It was nominated for a Governor General’s Literary Award and named a notable book of the year by the Globe and Mail. It also won the Edna Staebler Award for Creative Non-Fiction in 2000.
All That Matters (2004)
Choy’s second novel, All That Matters (2004), revisits the story of the Chen family, this time from the eldest son’s point of view. Kiam-Kim immigrates to Canada as a small boy and grows up struggling to contend with the intergenerational pressures and cultural anxieties that come with his new life in Vancouver. All That Matters was awarded the Trillium Book Award for 2004 and was shortlisted for the 2004 Scotiabank Giller Prize.
Not Yet: A Memoir of Living and Almost Dying (2009)
Choy’s second memoir, Not Yet: A Memoir of Living and Almost Dying (2009), was inspired by his near-death experience following an asthma attack in 2001 and a heart attack three days later. The book reflects his state of mind at the time, drifting in and out of a coma and unsure whether he was conscious or not when interacting with friends and family members. “They came back to haunt me,” he told the CBC in 2009. “I didn’t know what was going to happen. Suddenly, I heard voices, I saw faces, it was my extended family and friends. At one point, I heard a very firm voice say to me, ‘Wayson, don’t you dare die!’ I just snapped back and said, ‘That's right, I want to find out what happens next.’” In 2005, Choy suffered a second heart attack, which required quadruple-bypass surgery.
In 2001, Michael Glassbourg produced a documentary film on Choy’s life titled Wayson Choy: Unfolding the Butterfly. Choy himself hosted Searching for Confucius (2003), a film exploring the life of the ancient Chinese philosopher.
Honours and Legacy
A pioneering figure in Asian Canadian literature, Wayson Choy influenced a generation of Chinese Canadian writers, including Allan Cho, Jen Sookfong Lee and Carrianne Leung. When Choy was made a Member of the Order of Canada in 2005, the Governor General’s office noted that Choy “is equally known as a passionate, caring and motivating teacher” and that “he consistently gives of himself, whether for the crusade against AIDS or through teaching at shelters for abused women, runaways and homeless children.”
When Choy was presented with the George Woodcock Lifetime Achievement Award in 2015 for his contributions to BC literature, Vancouver Public Library chief librarian Sandra Singh said, “His works over the years have served as a critical thread in BC’s diverse literary fabric. His stories connect us, help us understand our city’s past, and let us see life through a different perspective. He has helped tear down barriers between cultures and generations.”
In 2012, Project Bookmark Canada unveiled two plaques at the corner of East Pender Street and Gore Avenue in Vancouver’s Chinatown with excerpts from The Jade Peony in English and Mandarin.
- City of Vancouver Book Award (The Jade Peony) (1996)
- Trillium Book Award (The Jade Peony, shared with Margaret Atwood’s Morning in the Burned House) (1996)
- Edna Staebler Award for Creative Non-Fiction (Paper Shadows: A Chinatown Childhood) (2000)
- Trillium Book Award (All That Matters) (2004)
- Member, Order of Canada (2005)
- George Woodcock Lifetime Achievement Award, Vancouver Public Library (2015)
- Civic Merit Award, City of Vancouver (2018)
- Doctor of Literature, Wilfrid Laurier University (2010)