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
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
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
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
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
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.