The Vancouver of Kevin Chong’s boyhood was not one of hikes through dense woods, nor waterskiing on English Bay, nor schussing down Grouse Mountain.
The natural wonders of the City of Glass on the edge of the rainforest were backdrop to a boy who preferred indoor entertainments. He watched a lot of television. “I like a lot of comedies like Night Court and The Cosby Show,” he said. “ The A-Team. Little House on the Prairie. WKRP, a great show,” he said.
When his immigrant parents spent an evening with friends huddled over mahjong tiles, he spent the night with the friends’ children playing computer games.
As he grew older, books, movies and music informed the worldview of an aspiring writer who considered himself to be modern, media-savvy and pop-culture satiated.
A decade ago, on the release of his debut novel, Baroque-a-Nova, Mr. Chong let it be known he was “loath to write any books that might have a cover with bamboo lettering on it.” He did not want to be limited in his subject matter by his ethnicity. So, no restaurants, no railroads, no laundries. No “joy,” no “luck,” no “jade.” Not his immigrant experience.
Although both grandfathers had paid the hated head tax, Mr. Chong, 36, was born in Hong Kong. He arrived in this land at age five with a bowl haircut and a hunger for what he would recognize as an adult as a desire for cultural fluency.
None of the major characters in the first novel are of Chinese ancestry. His second novel, Beauty Plus Pity, released recently by Arsenal Pulp Press of Vancouver, is about a young man struggling with a romantic breakup and the death of his father. Malcolm Kwan is the son of immigrants from Hong Kong who aspires to be a male model. (“This is where the autobiography stops,” Mr. Chong quips.)
“It deals with how I experienced being a child of immigrants,” he said. “I wasn’t fixated on having to straddle two cultures. It was more indirect. I’m an outsider. It made me more indoorsy and culture-obsessed.”
In trying to learn more about his late father, the character uncovers an affair that produced a love child, a half-sister with whom he develops a friendship.
The city in which Mr. Chong was raised provides the setting for both his novels. “I write about Vancouver out of a lack of imagination,” he said. “It’s the world around me. I toyed with the idea of writing about different places and different times. Maybe I’m too self-absorbed to write outside of the world that I know, and of the obsessions that take up my daily life.”
What are those obsessions? “Media. The hyphenated culture. Being raised in a place like Vancouver, which is so strongly Asian but also has this British under-layer.”
His Vancouver includes a Legion on Main Street at which he and other writers gather for Thursday beers, as well as such hybrid joints as a Japanese restaurant serving Chinese-style poutine. The city becomes ever more cosmopolitan even as it becomes more expensive and less friendly.
He went to elementary school in Ladner, then attended the Catholic middle school Vancouver College, where he developed a “brutish, fart-centred sense of humour,” before entering Eric Hamber Secondary. “Hamber was an alienating experience,” he said. “The school has two major populations – Asian kids who liked hip-hop and Jewish kids. I was the Asian kid who liked Neil Young. That was a lonely year.” He completed high school at the Prince of Wales Mini School with fellow “brainy misfits.”
His musical passion led him to take a road trip with three boys detailed in the comic memoir Neil Young Nation. Another nonfiction book will be released next spring when GreyStone issues My Year of the Racehorse, Mr. Chong’s tour of tracks from Kentucky to Hong Kong. For a time, he owned a share in Mocha Time. “She was an honest runner,” he said. “Not very talented, but always gave it her best.” She twice won races at Hastings Racecourse before being claimed at a race two years ago. He still misses her.
He is sad to see the sport of kings in such decline. “Once, it was the only game in town,” he said. “Now people want to lose their money more quickly.”
A part-time writing teacher, Mr. Chong likes to show his classes a clip from the movie Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle. He asks his students the difference between Kumar and the stoners of Dude, Where’s My Car? All kinds of convoluted suggestions are offered: “Harold is more studious than Seann William Scott,” or, “Kumar is more tied to familial obligations.”
The Harold & Kumar story works on two levels, he tells the class. It’s about two guys who want to go to White Castle. It’s also about two men of Asian ancestry seeking mainstream acceptance. “They take pains to avoid the obvious,” he said.
Mr. Chong knows that to be described as a Chinese-Canadian writer is to arouse certain expectations. A writer who happens to be of Chinese ancestry is less likely to have bamboo lettering on his dust jacket.
Kevin Chong will be appearing on a panel called “Bamboo Lettering” with Ling Zhang and Jen Sookfong Lee on Saturday at the Vancouver International Writers Festival. He will be reading in Seattle on Oct. 24, in Ottawa on Oct. 25, in Toronto on Nov. 3, and in Montreal on Nov. 5.
Special to The Globe and Mail