Dreaming of Home

  • Joanne Poon and Bill Wong
    A Year in China: Bill Wong's Diarie in His Father's Home Village 1936-37. ISTRCCS University of British Columbia
Reviewed by Ziyan Yang

A Year in China offers an intriguing perspective on Chinese Canadian immigration history. The diary entries written in Chinese by the fourteen-year-old Bill Wong and his father during their visit to China on the eve of the Second Sino-Japanese War are neatly accompanied with Joanne Poon’s English translation as well as numerous photos recording the original handwriting of the Wongs and this very first trip for the young Bill on his ancestral land. Bill’s family operates the hundred-year-old Modernize Tailors in Vancouver’s Chinatown, a business started by his father Gung Lai Wong in 1913. Born and raised in Canada, Bill would later join his father’s business as a tailor despite his degree in mechanical engineering, because in 1946 no one would hire a Chinese as an engineer due to prevailing racism. From 1936 to 1937, Gung Lai brought Bill and Bill’s younger brother Jack back to his home village in Canton so that the children could study Chinese at the local school while he helped to build a new house for his mother. Both father and son recorded this “Grand return”—one of the most glorious moments for all successful “Gold Mountain Guests”—in their diaries, which form the main content of this book. The transcribed diary entries are grouped into seven chapters, each detailing one stage of this journey which, according to Bill, would reshape his identity: departure, arrival, various visits, neighbourhood, local school life, house building, and return. Gung Lai’s texts, mostly in the first two chapters, demonstrate the influence of clas-sical Chinese, with a concise style but no punctuation, while Bill’s pieces, written in vernacular Chinese, show the vivacity of a teenager eager to explore his unknown homeland. The occasional mistakes Bill made while writing Chinese characters have been kept respectfully in the transcription for the reader to understand Bill’s journey in learning his ancestral language. Both father and son share a meticulous attention to details in their vivid descriptions, such as the visit to a pineapple factory in Honolulu, the sweet and juicy sugar canes, the constant battle against mosquitoes at night, and the local schools in Canton. This meticulousness, regretfully, also makes certain passages repetitive and monotonous, all the more so as the texts abound in names of the Wongs’ entourage, rendering the reading sometimes tedious for outsiders. Although the journey could be compared to the popular “China Summer Camps” for the present day Chinese diaspora, the Wongs’ journey translates a much more intense desire to sustain a China-centred diaspora culture among the early Chinese migrants, who had to confront severe discrimination and injustice while living in the isolated Chinatowns. On one hand, the study of the Chinese language was key to keeping up with the transforming homeland: Bill and his brother attended Chinese school in Vancouver before joining the local school  in Canton. On the other hand, the diaries communicate strong Chinese nationalist, anti-colonial, and anti-imperial sentiments through the Wongs’ grievances about their ancestral land being torn by Western and Japanese invaders. In one of the “Looking Back . . .” sections documenting his reflections on the past events from today’s perspective, Bill Wong recounts his quest for identity as one echoing the efforts of Chinese in Canada fighting against racism:

At that time, I definitely thought that I was Chinese. I did not feel that I was Canadian. . . .  Only when Chinese in Canada got the right to vote, were allowed to participate in events, and could choose to go and live anywhere, did I gradually feel that I was Canadian.

Indeed, home, belonging and identity are at the heart of the Wongs’ writing, as shown in the Chinese title, Si Gu Xiang (思故乡), the ending of the well-known nostalgic poem by Li Po, here translated by David Hinton, “Thoughts in Night Quiet”:

 Seeing moonlight here at my bed,

And thinking it’s frost on the ground,

I look up, gaze at the mountain moon,

then back, dreaming of my old home.

This review “Dreaming of Home” originally appeared in Queer Frontiers. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 224 (Spring 2015): 148-49.

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