Born in Hong Kong in 1949 and raised in Canada as a paper son, Jim Wong-Chu is known as a pioneer of the Asian Canadian literary movement. A poet, editor, and historian, Jim Wong-Chu is among the writers of Asian descent to question the Canadian literary establishment at a time that was devoid of diversity. Without role models or any blueprint, Jim and fellow like-minded activists such as Sean Gunn, Sharon Lee, and Paul Yee began to experiment with different forms of fiction and decided to not only get published but also organize informal writing networks to encourage other Asian Canadians to hone their craft.
An idea for an Asian Canadian literary anthology thus germinated in the 1970s when Jim Wong-Chu and a group of young Asian Canadians began to explore their identities. That exploration took them back to their roots and ignited a desire to express who they were as Canadians of Asian descent. At a time when Canada Council began to open up new funding to independent publishers, it was timely for these new activists to step into the realm of creative writing. This led to the publishing of a groundbreaking anthology called Inalienable Rice: A Chinese and Japanese Anthology (1979), the first one to be entirely comprised of Canadian writers of Asian descent.
Fresh from his UBC Creative Writing courses, Jim Wong-Chu was discovered by a publisher, who encouraged him to publish his compilation of poems from UBC into Chinatown Ghosts (Arsenal Pulp Press, 1986), the first poetry book by an Asian Canadian writer. It was a coming of age or sorts for Asian Canadian writing, as fellow writers Paul Yee, Sky Lee, Wayson Choy, and Denise Chong also began their writing careers and quickly established themselves as acclaimed authors.
Before Asian Canadian writing was considered a genre unto itself, one of Wong-Chu’s most critical projects took place in the library stacks of the University of British Columbia, where he went over the entire inventory of books with a fine-tooth comb, looking up any literary magazines within the past thirty years. His mission in 1989 was to map all of the Asian Canadian writers and their material to compile them into an anthology of Asian Canadian literature. In selecting the twenty best pieces, Wong-Chu and Bennett Lee co-edited an anthology called Many Mouthed Birds (1991).
The publishing of this anthology set the way for the emergence of an Asian Canadian genre that continues to take shape today. One of the short stories included a piece by Wayson Choy, which he subsequently expanded into the Vancouver Book Award-winning Jade Peony. In addition to Many Mouthed Birds, Wong-Chu also co-edited with Andy Quan Swallowing Clouds, published by Arsenal Pulp Press in 1999.
In 1996, Jim Wong-Chu became one of the founders of the Asian Canadian Writers’ Workshop (ACWW) and moved from the basements to a formally registered not-for-profit society. Until the early 1990’s, there was not much of a critical mass of Asian Canadian writers. It wasn’t until closer to the end of the 90’s that university English departments were producing a lot of young people who wanted to write, and within a couple of years, a handful of people in the Asian Canadian Writers’ Workshop grew to more than 70 members.
Wong-Chu started off simply by offering workshops, later turning to manuscript preparation by helping young writers find a publisher. The Asian Canadian Writers’ Workshop became both an editor and agent for young emerging writers. In 1995, ACWW created an internal newsletter called RicePaper, which later became a Canada Council-funded literary arts magazine. Wong-Chu was interested in creating a body of literature to legitimately establish an Asian Canadian genre that could be put into a library and used in educational institutions. In 2015, Wong-Chu co-edited his final anthology which compiled the best writing published in Ricepaper, called AlliterAsian (Arsenal Pulp Press). Ricepaper ran strong in its twenty years as a quarterly print publication featuring new and established Asian Canadian writers, and evolved to become a digital webzine.
Jim Wong-Chu’s most recent project was the establishment of LiterAsian, a literary festival celebrating Pacific Rim Asian Canadian writing, hosted by the Asian Canadian Writer’s Workshop Society. For the past five years, the festival organized workshops and panels led by critically-acclaimed authors such as Paul Yee, SKY Lee, Joy Kogawa. As Jim Wong-Chu had once said, “Knowledge sets you free.” Thank you for all that you’ve done for the community.
This article was first published in the Asian Canadian Writers’ Workshop website, and has been modified with their consent.