Here is a heartfelt letter written by Allan Cho, the executive director of the ACWW, to Jim Wong-Chu, at the opening of the Jim Wong-Chu exhibit at UBC on October 10, 2019.
“Dear Jim, from Allan”
October 10, 2019
It’s been almost two years now since I’ve last written to you. I think about you a lot, and verses of our conversations still replay in my head often. It’s an honour to be speaking before friends and community here at UBC.
It’s almost serendipitous that we’re here at UBC. I met you for the first time about ten years ago here on campus at UBC in 2009. We had lunch at the UBC Pendulum cafe and you regaled me with your literary knowledge for more than an hour. The second time was with you and Winnie Cheung as the two of you planned the resurrection of explorASIAN and I saw the magic that you and Winnie had together and one of the greatest teams I’ve seen in community organizing. I’m so happy that explorASIAN is organizing today’s event and this exhibit. It’s only fitting.
I remember as I was driving in my old banged up Hyundai accent hatchback to an explorASIAN event one time, with you in the passenger side — clutching onto a brown manila folder across your chest — you said you guarded explorASIAN and ACWW with your life. I think your quote was: “You guys can never pay me enough for the work I do. But I wouldn’t want it any other way, because then it wouldn’t be fun anymore.” I was rather touched when you said that. And I continue to follow your advice. Do what’s right and the community will be a better place for it. And don’t just do it for yourself.
LiterASIAN just completed its festival in September, Jim. It’s been three festivals since you left us. I’ve been festival director each year, and even though each year has been a success, I still feel like a fraud without you here. Your vision has been so prophetic. We had a terrific turnout. You’ve been right since day one: if you have a good idea, people will come and follow. LiterASIAN has brought so many writers together – both established and emerging. Now, the catering wasn’t the greatest but then again food was never our specialty, and I can’t complain as I didn’t have to lug platters of BBQ pork fried rice out of your car like we did at our first LiterASIAN festival in 2013.
When you decided to wind down Ricepaper and end the print magazine in 2016, I remember you, Jim, had all these plans for this Asian Canadian festival. I can’t say that I wasn’t skeptical. You said that all the writers festivals in Canada were too vanilla, it lacked diversity. Imagine, you said, if an entire festival could feature only Asian Canadian writers? It’ll be awesome, all the publishers, agents, and booksellers would sit up and pay attention to Asian Canadian Writers. You’re so right – over the past three years – we’ve had the likes of Madeleine Thien, Evelyn Lau, Janie Chang, Rita Wong, Catherine Hernandez, Chris Gatchalian, Philip Huynh, just to name a few. The literary community anticipates now the date of when LiterASIAN will take place.
I think many people owe you a debt of gratitude for your trailblazing the path for Asian Canadian writers. You were the first to do many things, including the one of the first Chinese Canadian poets published by a mainstream publisher. When you began as editor of Ricepaper 25 years ago, it was literally just a newsletter manually stapled together on 8 pages of paper. You barely had enough Asian Canadian writers who you could find to submit work for one issue. But look at how far Ricepaper, and Asian Canadian writers have come. Asian Canadian writers who have appeared or edited in Ricepaper have gone on to win the Governor Generals award, Giller Prize, City of Vancouver Book Award, just to name a few.
This year’s winner of the Jim Wong-Chu Emerging Writers Award is Jamie Liew for her manuscript Dandelion Roots. Jim, you wouldn’t believe it. But we connected her to an agent and guess who it is? It’s Denise Bukowski, who happens to be Wayson Choy’s agent. We couldn’t have scripted it any better. Denise loved Jamie’s book the moment I told her to read it. Your spirit still guides a lot of the work that ACWW does. It can’t be a coincidence.
You know, I remember it was in Emergency ICU that I told you we changed the name of the award in honour of you. Even though you weren’t talking, I could sense from you that you were honoured. I could hear in that moment of silence that you agreed with the decision. I could sense that you agreed to seize the moment, no matter how tragic it may seem.
You’ve always told me that you’re not necessarily the most talented writer but you’ve been doing this the longest. The only thing you’ve got that many do not is longevity — because you’ve been doing it the longest, eventually people are forced to take notice. Slow and methodical beats fast and furious any day, you say.
Thank you Jim for bringing us together. Thank you for creating the team that you’ve left behind and taken on your work.
Elwin has done an amazing job. He’s not only recording the entire LiterASIAN festival which we will be broadcasting online, but he’s also been webcasting events around town. I joke with him and Fannah that they have become the Yucho Chow of our generation.
Eric Li. He’s doing well. He’s recovering from his injury. As Vice-President of ACWW, he’s guiding us with the same dedication and good humour that you’ve had during your days at the helm. Marlene was on the jury of the Emerging Writers Award. Marlene has been the guiding light for us in our times of darkness, Jim. Marlene has supported you through thick and thin, and continues to do that with us. Sean Gunn, one of the original founders of ACWW with you, is on our board now, and he’s been so wonderful telling us stories of the good old days and constantly reminding ACWW of its roots and where we came from and why we’re here. Cynda, Ada, Evelyn, Bonnie, David, Todd, Sid, Kristen, Jeannie, Vanessa, Todd.. You’ve brought us a long and now we’ve become the JWC Team as I call it.
So Jim, even though you’ve left us, the team remains. Your gift to us is our coming together and helping each other out, and making a difference to each other and our community.
Like I said during that car ride home when I dropped you off. You’re a part of Canadian fabric. I said don’t worry about your legacy – you’ll do fine – you’ll get into Wikipedia and your work will continue to grow. We joked about it and laughed as I dropped you home on 41st Avenue, but you know it’s true. Just look at the people here today with you. So Jim, as I finish up my letter, I just want to say I’m grateful for all that you’ve done for me, for ACWW, and for the community. Please let dad know that I’m doing fine, and if you have a chance, tell him that I miss him.