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Interview with Paul Yee
By Elisa Oreglia

Posted: May 2003

Chinese Canadian author Paul Yee's family emigrated to Canada at the turn of the century, and he's been writing about the Chinese immigrants experience in North America for many years. He grew up in Vancouver's Chinatown, and
worked for many years as an archivist in Toronto. This interview took place during the 2002 Vancouver International Writers' Festival, where Paul met with big crowds of young readers and mesmerized them with his stories.

You grew up here in Vancouver.
Yes. I was born in the prairies, but moved here at a very young age because my parents died, and I moved in with an aunt who lived in Vancouver Chinatown. My aunt was born in Vancouver in 1895, so she grew up in a city that was very different from the one I grew up in - the racism was terrible, and it was very difficult being Chinese. She raised me to be very careful, she was very protective, but at the same time she made sure that I spoke Chinese. She was fluent in English and Chinese, and her rule was that when my brother and I came back home from school, we were not allowed to speak English, only Chinese. We also went to Chinese school.

Did you read a lot when you were little? What kind of books did you grow up with?
I read a lot, yes, because we were very poor. My aunt's house was one of the few in the neighborhood that did not have a television, and I think that's why I read a lot. Boys' books, adventure books, Hardy Boys... I liked reading adventure books about faraway places, and a bit of science fiction, although back then there wasn't a lot of it.

At the time there weren't many children's books that had Asian children in them. Did you ever feel there was something missing, or was it just the way things were?
It was just the way things were, but in my world there was always a very strong Asian and Chinese presence - I went to Chinese school, where we had books in Chinese and stories from China. As another part of her strategy to make sure that we spoke Chinese my aunt also took us to see black and white movies from Hong Kong every weekend, so we had this huge exposure to Chinese traditional stories, Chinese values, Chinese concepts of good and bad, evil and justice.. I grew up surrounded by plenty of Chinese images.

Did you grow up with the idea of becoming a writer?
No, but there was a natural stream into in. After I finished high school, I went to a conference about Chinese Canadian youth, identity and awareness. By that time I had moved away from Chinatown, and had no real consciousness of being Chinese any more. I was attending a workshop and somebody was talking about Chinese railway workers. I was getting very impatient and bored, so I said 'Why would you want to talk about them? They were just a bunch of coolies!'. The room went silent, I suddenly realized what I said, and was completely shocked. It was at that point that I became aware of how far removed I had become from my own community's history, even though I had grown up in Chinatown. That was my point of rebirth, in the sense of being reborn into the community. I began to do volunteer work at the Vancouver Chinese Cultural Center, teaching English to immigrants, and organizing festivals and exhibitions about the history of the Chinese. For the first time in my life I had a sense of really belonging to a community beyond family: these were my people, and we had common interests and common experiences.

Do you go to China often?
No, I've been back only two or three times. I don't go there to research my books, as all my research is done here, but China is useful to give me a background. For me the starting point of the history here is China, because so much of what we are today comes from the peasant folk culture of South China. In Dead Man's Gold, I write about the Chinese coming here, trying to find work and to make a new home, and about the difficulties that they encountered. I think that they would have fallen back on what they knew from China, that you would work hard, send money home, and so on. I think that the landscape also has an effect on how people view the world, whether they perceive it as harsh or comforting, whether or not they can control it. In southern China the landscape was very controlled, but when those peasants came to America, they found huge mountains, deserts, a completely different landscape! So how they reacted to this became part of Chinese culture here.

How did you feel the first time you went back to China?
In part I could feel that I belonged there. In Hong Kong I could walk around and nobody would stare. I went to mainland China in 1976, when people were extremely poor, and any kind of foreigner stood out. As overseas Chinese, we stood out - the clothing we wore was different, our eyeglasses were different, everything about us was different. I didn't feel I was part of China then, but I think that if I went back now that it has modernized so much, I would feel a bit more at home, at least in Canton.

So you are Chinese Canadian, that's where you belong.
Yes, very clearly: my history is here, my sensibility is here, and the fact that I don't speak perfect Chinese means that I'm not fully Chinese, I'll be always on the margins of formal Chinese culture. But I'm proud of where I come from: it's between two worlds, and although there are a lot of compromises to make, the margins of two cultures is a very interesting place to be.

Your stories so far seem to be set mostly in the past. Is that because of your interest in history and your job as an archivist? Are you planning to write stories that are set in modern times?
Yes, I do want to write stories set in modern times. I would like to do stories like Dead Man's Gold but with modern immigrants from China and Taiwan. They are another wave of immigrants. They face different difficulties and so once again you have encounters and confrontations between new comers and the existing society. I set most of my stories in the past because I want to stake a claim on this country's history. Because of the new waves of immigrants, people tend to think that all Chinese are new immigrants, who come to take advantage of the great social security system. I wanted to bring attention to the fact that the Chinese have been here 150 years, which is longer than most people, and everybody should know about it. In the end my stories are not only about Chinese Canadians, they're about Canadians, about Canada.

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More about Paul Yee:
Take a look at Paul's bibliography and list of awards on the Canadian Children's Book Centre website, or f
ind a collection of sites dedicated to his work on the open directory.

Listen to an excerpt from Ghost Train read by Paul himself at the 1996 Governor General Award Gala Reading, or read reviews of his books published by Canadian Materials, A Reviewing Journal of Canadian Materials for Young People.


Dead Man's Gold was a 2002 Kiriyama Prize Notable Book. Browse through the list of Fiction Notable Books on our sister site...


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