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All That Matters
by Wayson Choy
Doubleday Canada
420 pages, $35.95

Reviewed by Joe Wiebe
Posted September 25, 2004

Toronto author Wayson Choy has finally followed up on his wonderful 1995 novel, The Jade Peony, with an equally superb story. Described as a sequel, All That Matters is really more of a companion piece. It is populated by the same characters, members of the Chen family living in Vancouver's Chinatown between the two world wars. The Jade Peony was told from the perspective of the three youngest Chen children. This novel, however, is seen solely through the eyes of Kiam, their oldest brother, who was only three years old when he, his father, and his grandmother arrived in "Gold Mountain," as Chinese immigrants described Canada, their land of opportunity, at the time.

Many of the events of the novel will be familiar to readers who enjoyed The Jade Peony, but All That Matters still stands as its own book. It is an interesting choice for the author to make, and a strong one. With a true sequel, it is often difficult to read the second book without having read the first, but these two books can be read individually. Each contributes to the other, adding dimensions to the overall story of life in the crucible of Chinatown. No matter which one you read first, you will undoubtedly want to seek the other out.

Choy's effortless style is mesmerizing, and his characters are compelling. Perhaps the most enticing aspect of his writing is the glimpse he offers into the vibrant world of Chinese-Canadian culture at a time when they were still not fully accepted as proper members of Canadian society. They faced a wide range of prejudice, yet still managed to retain their cultural traditions and values.

Choy exemplifies this perfectly through his protagonist. Kiam is burdened with the responsibilities of being "dai-goh", the number one son who is expected to maintain the family's honour and act as an example to his younger siblings. His father is a practical man who scoffs at the Old World stories told by Kiam's grandmother Poh-Poh. Early in the novel, he dispels the magic of her myths by showing Kiam the trains at the CPR Roundhouse that she said were dragons. Yet, Kiam is torn between the old and the new, between his "Chinese brain" and his Canadian one.

"When I was almost ten, I stood with one foot deep in the rippling waves of Poh-Poh's storytelling while my other foot stood firmly on dry ground. I would watch over my siblings, catch them if they slipped into Poh-Poh's beguiling waters, as I had often slipped in my dreams, half believing trains to be iron dragons. […] I would turn my siblings around to see the world as it truly was. Show them at the proper time that the world was scientific and solid […] Yet when the talk-story mood entered into our day, it was hard even for me to resist."

This passage is a good example of Choy's fluid writing style that merges Chinese words and rhythms into the narrative. Non-Chinese readers will learn a lot about the culture and language without realizing they are being taught. And be warned, Choy's many descriptions of meals will have your mouth watering, and you may find yourself dialing for take-out.

As Kiam grows up against the backdrop of the Great Depression and the lead-up to World War Two, he leads his family—not just his siblings but his modern father and traditional grandmother as well—to integration in Canadian society. And he does so using a uniquely Canadian stance, with one foot in the waters of his cultural history, and the other on the dry, firm ground of Gold Mountain.

Joe Wiebe lives in Vancouver, just a little south of Chinatown.

Copyright Joe Wiebe. All rights reserved.

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