November 11, 2003
By Sook C. Kong
(Sook C. Kong is a Vancouver-based writer. Her poems and stories have been published in Canadian and American anthologies, journals and websites. She is the recipient of the International Poet of Merit award for 2002 given by the U.S.-based International Society of Poets. She has completed her first manuscript of poems, Arrhythmia. She is working on a novel, a collection of short stories and a book of critical memoirs. She recently co-made with Rupinder Sohal a DVCam film, The Road She Walks On, which premiered at Spatial Poetics II and she has helped to co-edit with Alice Lee, another film, Alice Lee's Look at the New China. Sook teaches university literature, composition and visual culture at Coquitlam College, and is active in several community groups.)
I first met Joy Kogawa a decade ago at the ultra-important Writing Thru Race conference in Vancouver, B.C. Like many of her readers, I had been touched beyond language by reading Obasan. I was additionally touched because my paternal grandfather, Anthony Kong Sip Chuen had his life stolen from him during World War II in Malaya, on the other side of the Pacific Ocean. I was new to Vancouver then and was shy meeting luminaries. Meeting Joy gave rise to an unexpected consoling, she was present and still, and she smiled. Ten years later I meet Ms. Kogawa again, this time at another historic eventher return to the childhood home in Marpole, Vancouver, that had inspired her to write Canada's landmark novel, Obasan. On September 27, 2003, Kogawa, with the support of Roy Miki of Simon Fraser University and Glen Lowry of West Coast Line journal, held an open event at the house she had not revisited since she was six.
From the outside, the house looks ordinary, almost like any other smallish house from that era. There's a low picket fence, an old but functioning gate, the original side staircase, now slanted but sturdy enough for the time being and the empty interior of the house. Empty as the house is being put on the market by the current owner who is not Joy Kogawa. However, soon the house filled up with people, filled to overbrim: more than 100 people showed up at the house to listen to Kogawa read from Obasan. It was a most poignant return. Her tears were complex. The cherry tree in her family garden is bandaged and wounded as she pointed out; she also said the tree is still alive. That tree has persisted for more than half a century--in it time past is simultaneously time present.
How does one return? There is no assured way. There is no singular bold action to match the human yearning yoked to the historical imperative. Anyone who has tried would know this: you can't step into the same river twice. Hence, a return is always less than and more than. Each accounting differs, even for the same person returning.
It keeps moving.
As the heart moves.
It is hard to do a reading when tears are in your eyes even if half of them are tears of delight. Words look so different, odd even, behind a sheen of tears. The everyday always has a place in any event of magnitude. So the packet of tissue paper before Kogawa's reading began. She read from when the protagonist was six years old and recalling her growing up years in the very same house that is both a material presence and re-imagined in Kogawa's novel. She said, "I woke up at 2 am today feeling happy. My tears stopped on finding the cherry tree [in the garden]. I love this house where I want to be buried. It is as if the cherry tree has travelled with us, it's so wounded, the sentience is around us in the universe. One of the great crimes is we don't know what we are seeingthe precursor of a new sight. All my life I had wanted to buy the house for my mothermy mother who wanted to go home". [Kogawa's mother is now deceased].
The audience was respectfully hushed in Kogawa's presence. We were in her momentousness. She looked strong, robust and very much holding her own in a deep blue denim dress with comfortable black shoes, the kind that can take you from the hard-pounding streets of the city to ravines of needed solitude amidst old-growth forests.
Kogawa went on to say, "I wish my parents were here. So many in our country lost every thing, they didn't get it back". She mentioned the shacks of Internment in Canada, the pig pens and the chicken coops where Japanese Canadians were forced to inhabit during the War years.
[And I was simultaneously thinking of the non-negotiable wrath of the Japanese Imperial Army, the mass killings of innocent civilians they had carried out and the decapitated human heads of Malayans and Singaporeans they had deliberately hung around public monuments and bridges in Malaya and Singapore at a time co-terminous with the Internment of Japanese Canadians].
Councillor Jim Green of Vancouver City Council was present at the event and he said City Hall was looking into the possibility of designating Kogawa's family home as "heritage" of importance to Vancouver, the province, and Canada. Kogawa's wish is that the house be a site of healing and reconciliation and simultaneously a site of creative and collective expressions to come. She had specially comed back from Eastern Canada for the occasion, an occasion that she noted was sparked by a Roy Miki brainwave. She said, "Roy is someone with ideas thundering through him". Miki is, among other things, last year's winner of the Governor-General's award for poetry.
After the open house event of that day, a dozen of us went to a nearby Chinese restaurant to have late lunch with Kogawa and Miki. We passed the time very amiably in informal conversations.
Two, three hours later after the meal, I and two friends had to pass the house again on our way back to the car. We couldn't help but look at the house again, this time from the road outside. Immediately a tingle ran up my right forearm with an instantaneous picking up of ghostliness from a corner of the house. I mentioned that to the friend standing next to me and he said he felt something similar too. We stood there in moments of silence, and then we left the neighbourhood.
Looking back at the event, this thought stayed with me all of yesterday, as I took the train to work, the day before Remembrance Day:
family home nation/the constant memento moris/constant, unstable
The Chinese, like the Japanese, endured bitter racism in Canada. In British Colombia, Canadian citizens of Chinese, East Indian and Japanese ancestry were not permitted to vote until 1948. In Saskatchewan, Chinese and Japanese were not allowed to hire white women to work for them, a law that was upheld by the Supreme Court of Canada in 1914. Many other laws, too numerous to list here, restricted employment and education rights.
The Chinese, however, suffered special hardship. The Chinese Immigration Act, which was not repealed until 1947, separated families and stranded many injured or elderly workers alone in this country. It also imposed the head tax on Chinese immigrants: $50 in 1885, $100 in 1900 and $500 in 1903. Another amendment to the Chinese Immigration Act in 1923 prohibited the entry into Canada of all Chinese except students, merchants, children born in Canada, diplomats and persons in transit. The same amendments prohibited "Chinese" in Canada (which included Canadians of Chinese ancestry) from sponsoring husbands or wives, children, and other relatives. The total number of entries from China between 1924 and 1930 came to a grand total of three. Canada has never given redress in any form.
The legacy of the Chinese Exclusion Act was particularly bitter after the Revolution in 1949 when return to China became impossible. These elderly workers were the shadow people of Chinatown this webmaster remembers from childhood, old men alone but for each other, glooming out their last days in small parks and on public benches.