Jim Wong-Chu: Iconic Asian Canadian

Jim Wong-Chu

Jim Wong-Chu was a founding member of various community and cultural organizations including: Asian Canadian Writers’ Workshop (ACWW), Vancouver Asian Heritage Month Society/explorASIAN, the Pender Guy
Radio Program, Asia Canadian Performing Arts Resource (ACPAR), Ricepaper magazine, and literASIAN: A Festival of Pacific Rim Asian Canadian Writing. In addition to founding many community and cultural organizations, he was also involved in explorAsian (Vancouver Asian Heritage Month), Go for Broke Festival, B.C. Sinfonetta Society, Federation of British Columbia Writers, The Chinese Community Library Association, B.C. Heritage Trust and the Chinese Cultural Centre in Vancouver.

Many of these organizations continue to thrive in Vancouver today with their volunteers, employees, participants, and communities continuing to offer programming and supporting emergent artistic practices and community activism. Beverly Nann, tells the story of how the torch passed from Jim to herself in 1999 and the early form of Asian Heritage Month became Vancouver Asian Heritage Month Society (VAHMS) which remains a thriving organization today:

“I came to know Jim through a dance production Cha which was brought to my attention by my daughter, Andrea, one of four Asian Canadian dancers involved in the creation and performance of Cha in Toronto. As I am not in the field of dance myself, I reached out to Jim for his assistance. My background is in Social Work. Jim generously offered his support in bringing Cha to Vancouver as part of the celebration of Asian Heritage Month. After the successful performance, Jim informed me that he was ready to throw in the towel on producing Asian Heritage Month, as he was the last of the original five founders left to carry on. So I said to Jim “this is too good an idea to let it die. Let me see what I can do to help you.” Jim and I embarked on the task of building a board with myself as president and Jim as VP in charge of programming and grants. This is how Vancouver Asian Heritage Month Society (VAHMS) as a society was established.”

— Beverly Nann, Senior Advisor, Vancouver Asian Heritage Month Society

He continued to be involved and over his lifetime served on juries and advisory panels for various government grants and book prizes including the Vancouver Book Prize, B.C. Book Prize, and Kiriyama Pacific Rim Book Prize, and Multiculturalism Canada publishing grants.

He was the recipient of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal, the Queen’s Golden Jubilee Medal from the Department of Canadian Heritage, and the Canada Post Silver Postmark Award. He was published and edited numerous publications including: Inspection of a House Paid in Full (author), Chinatown Ghosts (author), A Brief History of Asian North America (author), Strike the Wok: An Anthology of Contemporary Chinese Fiction (co-editor), Inalienable Rice: A Chinese and Japanese Canadian Anthology (contributor), ManyMouthed Birds: Contemporary Writing by Chinese Canadians (co-editor), Millennium Messages: An Anthology of Asian Canadian Writing (contributor), and Swallowing Clouds: An Anthology of Chinese Canadian Poetry (co-editor). He has also had written works published in magazines. The West Coast Review, Bridge, Mainstream, New Shoots, Asianadian, and Shift Current Anthology. Selected Photograph Publications and Exhibitions: The B.C. Photographer (publication), Mainstream (publication), Asianadian (publication), Inalienable Rice: A Chinese and Japanese Anthology (book), and Yellow Peril: New World Asians (exhibit).

Photograph Courtesy of Ricepaper Magazine

Jim Wong-Chu, Iconic Asian Canadian was a writer, photographer, historian, radio producer, community organizer and activist, editor, and literary and cultural engineer. Born in 1949 in Hong Kong, he was sent to live with his aunt and uncle in Canada as a “paper son”. The term referring to the practice of children who immigrated to Canada by using real or falsified identification papers of relatives living in Canada.

In 1957 Jim Wong-Chu was sent back to Hong Kong by family, who feared authorities might discover his paper son identity. Four years later, he returned to live with his aunt and uncle in Canada. With an early interest in visual arts and social commentary he attended Vancouver School of Art (now Emily Carr University of Art + Design) to study photography and design from 1975-1981. He later attended the University of British Columbia for creative writing from 1985-1987 and worked as a letter carrier for the Canada Post from 1975 until his retirement in 2013.

As indicated by the certificate of name change, Jim Wong-Chu had two names for most of his life, and officially combined the names in 1978. Taking Chu from his given name Oi Shun Chu, and adopting Jimmy Wong from his boyhood passport.

A letter to Jim–written after his death in July 2017–by longtime friend and fellow writer Paul Yee, best captures his multifaceted work in the community and beyond. The letter was published in a 2018 second edition of Jim Wong-Chu’s collection of poetry and photographs Chinatown Ghosts (original published in 1986). This posthumous edition included letters and writings in his memory by Allan Cho, Sky Lee, Rita Wong, Catherine Hernandez, Terry Watada, and Fred Wah. Each letter demonstrates his powerful connection to the literary and strongly formed friendships and relationships.

Beyond working as associate editor for Douglas and McIntyre and Arsenal Pulp Press he did consulting work for various community organizations, edited and reviewed work for friends. Jim Wong-Chu was also a founding member of various community and cultural organizations including: Asian Canadian Writers’ Workshop (ACWW), Vancouver Asian Heritage Month Society/explorASIAN, the Pender Guy Radio Program, Asia Canadian Performing Arts Resource (ACPAR), Ricepaper magazine, and literASIAN: A Festival of Pacific Rim Asian Canadian Writing.

In addition to founding many community and cultural organizations, he was involved in explorAsian (Vancouver Asian Heritage Month), Go for Broke Festival, B.C. Sinfonetta Society, Federation of British Columbia Writers, The Chinese Community Library Association, B.C. Heritage Trust and the Chinese Cultural Centre in Vancouver.

This rigorous involvement in community is demonstrated throughout the exhibition in the items he collected and saved. Many of them are personal notes and copies of documents that push actions forward: early plans, board meeting minutes and marked-up drafts. These documents belonged to a person who possessed the grit and determination to create a better community. Jim Wong-Chu’s involvement in the many projects he launched was ground floor and a part of his legacy remains in these organizations which continue to thrive with life. In addition to being a published author, poet and photographer Jim Wong-Chu was a force in the community when it came to tackling issues of racism and representation. Taking extensive notes about actors, roles and films and collecting racist ephemera. Beyond the collection of these items, Jim Wong-Chu often participated and organized letter writing and critical viewings of films.

Many of these pieces in the collection demonstrate that while some ground has been gained, there are still strong connections to today’s current political landscape. Jim Wong-Chu’s criticisms in his notes detail both the lack of representation of asian characters, but also the types of stereotypes they encounter when they are present on the screen (often portrayed by white or non-asian actors). His notes identify different tropes and how they played out on screen with a strong dose of his acerbic wit and humour.

Also included in this collection was a Racism Task Force Kit. The kit, which was designed for Canadian educational institutions to use in overhauling their curriculum, had a leaflet published by the Manitoba Indian Brotherhood in 1977. In the leaflet, they outline, as Jim Wong-Chu did, issues of colonial attitudes and blatant racism in children’s educational material. The flyer, reproduced for your study, speaks to racism against the representation of indigenous people that remains an issue to this day.

Further, the racism and discrimination present in migrancy was a topic that concerned Jim Wong-Chu in his artwork, and political thought. This, alongside representation of people of colour, is another line that clearly connects with the political landscape of today. The bound copy of the USA Concentration Camp Regulations is a particularly chilling item in the collection. Page 4, a flyer indicating government instructions for Japanese Internment in San Francisco in April 1942, is reproduced for your study. The flyer demonstrates the “official” language of discrimination when it is supported by governmental bodies.