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How I wrote it

Jon Chan Simpson: How I wrote Chinkstar

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In Jon Chan Simpson's first novel, Chinkstar, Chinese rap gangs spin-kick their way through the underworld of Red Deer, Alberta, as two brothers pursue an intertwined destiny. The product of his master's thesis in Creative Writing at the University of Toronto, Chinkstar navigates a violent, fast-paced world with its own lexicon—from "kung pao reflux" to "stick literacy" (chopstick, that is).

In his own words, Simpson talks about how a university project grew into a much greater exploration of race and empowerment—from filling in the gaps in his cultural history to imagining a parallel universe in his hometown.

Chinkstar started as a short story, and in it I was trying to get into this idea of the experiences of one racialized group (Chinese-Canadians) being told in the voice of another (black hip-hop). Going in to the project, I didn’t know a ton about Chinese rap, but I did have this desire to mash together two stereotypes—Chinese and black. You can see it a lot in pop culture, like Bruce Lee’s Game of Death where he fights Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Or Rush Hour with Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan, or the TV miniseries Afro Samurai.

When my classmates at U of T read the original story, the reaction that I got showed me that there was something more to what I was working on. The reaction was enthusiastic and supportive, but it sort of… it also begged some questions for me. People found the idea of a Chinese rapper inherently funny. I was wondering what this says about the way we stereotype Chinese people, and I realized what I really wanted to do was blow it all up. That's how the novel was born.

There’s a parallel storyline that happens throughout the book, of re-imagined family fairy tales that run in tandem with the main storyline. This came from my feeling that many of the Asian-Canadian accounts of history involve a certain victimization and escape. I wanted to see what it would be like if a character were to imagine their own history in a way they preferred it to look. The stories talk about a grandfather character who decides to leave China—but not because he’s escaping persecution so much as he’s going to help others who have escaped. It re-imagines this family’s history as being one where the family’s in control of their destinies rather than just bystanders.

I'm a second-generation Asian-Canadian—my mother was born in China but she moved to Canada as a child. I feel this distance between myself and my family history and culture. My mother has always been the gatekeeper to that history. A couple of years ago I was doing a Cantonese class to try to gain some insight and connect better with my cultural heritage. And when I asked my mom to translate some sections, she couldn't really help me out. I realized that the window through which I was viewing my culture—my mother—was not as clear as I had thought it was. It was unfair of me to place this burden on her, and it made me realize that the stories we create, we do create them. The stories she told me weren’t the gospel truth, but rather her memories of our family. I wanted to take that idea and really see what would happen if someone were to re-imagine it completely.

The language of hip-hop really took over my mind while I was writing this book, and the way that hip-hop naturally quickens language. I started listening to rap battles online, and I discovered the Asian-American rapper MC Jin. He had a run on 106 and Park, a hip-hop show that aired on the BET network. MC Jin got up there and won six rap battles in a row. At that time he was a small Chinese kid who just shocked everyone. People loved him. He was so fast. That was inspiring and intriguing. I wanted to know whether people saw him as a true talent or just a sideshow. And truth be told, I think they probably saw him as both. But he won.

Chinkstar is set in Red Deer, where I was born and raised. I always thought, for a Canadian author, that you had to make your first novel autobiographical [laughs]. I actually set the novel in Red Deer because it's a place that can surprise you. Just when you think you know what’s it’s about, it changes. I never thought that Calgary would elect the mayor that they have [Naheed Nenshi], and I’m so pleased. And now we’re NDP and that’s crazy. These changes were brewing when I was growing up there, but I wasn’t aware of them. I wonder if I could feel the changes brewing and was trying to vocalize them in some way. I feel like my novel could happen in Red Deer. People tend to have preconceived notions of bigger cities like Montreal or Toronto, but with something that’s growing so quickly as Red Deer, there aren’t these written histories in the same way. I’ve already been getting a bit of feedback from friends saying the representation of Red Deer isn’t what they would have done—which is another way of saying I’m totally off base. But for me the book is like a parallel reality, an alternate universe. And that felt very possible in Red Deer. 

Jon Chan Simpson grew up in Red Deer, Alberta, and lives in Toronto. He is a graduate of the University of Toronto's MA creative writing program, and his work has been featured in Ricepaper Magazine. Chinkstar is his first novel.


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