British Columbia

In new EP, Son of James recounts one 'hell of a day' in Vancouver's Chinatown

Shon Wong pays homage to the neighbourhood he grew up in with Dragons in the Sky, a four-track EP that blends Chinese Opera and classic rock.

Shon Wong's father, James, ran a business in Chinatown and had deep ties to the community

Shon Wong's father, James, is pictured far right. He was a member of the Chinese Hillbillies band, which formed in Vancouver's Chinatown. (Shon Wong/Supplied)

Vancouver's Chinatown has become a flash point in recent years over worries of creeping gentrification. 

But Shon Wong, a born-and-raised Vancouverite, is optimistic about a community his family has called home for decades. 

"Something's coming," Wong said on CBC's North by Northwest. "I like that energy of something being harvested there." 

Chinese-Canadian youth have publicly lamented the loss of legacy businesses in Chinatown and were credited as influencing the city's decision to reject a recent contentious development. 

But on his new four-track EP, Wong, who goes by Son of James, focuses instead on the neighbourhood's bustling character.

Dragons in the Sky recounts the "hell of a day" Wong had in Chinatown, in a style that blends Chinese Opera and classic rock.

Act One is him shaking the dust off from the previous night before heading to the area for some lunch.

Growing up in Chinatown

The day-long adventure echoes scenes from Wong's youth. 

His father, James, was a fixture in the neighbourhood. The two could barely walk down the street without being stopped. 

​James ran a watchmaking business out of the Sam Kee building on Pender Street, known as the narrowest building in the world. 

Wong's father also had his own band called the Chinese Hillbillies. James' suave style was influenced by music icons like Frank Sinatra and Louis Armstrong. 

James Wong's dapper style was largely influenced by the legendary Las Vegas group The Rat Pack. (Shon Wong/Supplied)

"When you look at old Chinese photos of Vancouver back in the day, they look depressed or bummed out and in rags," Wong said.

"But when you look at my dad's pictures, they're pretty well-dressed dudes and having a  good time." 

Two tragedies, 13 years apart

Wong's father passed away in 2000. Wong was only 20 years and devastated. 

"My father was kind of like the glue that held it all together." 

Shortly after, Wong moved to China for a year to teach English. After coming home, he learned how to play guitar and started composing music. 

"As an artist, you have to be OK with vulnerability and letting people in," says Vancouver-born musician Son of James. (Samantha Garvey/CBC)

Then, a second tragedy struck. Wong's girlfriend died in 2013 from an accidental overdose of painkillers. The two had been longtime friends before dating. 

"Doing those little things, like texting somebody or saying listen to this ... you don't realize how much a person was part of your life until that's taken away from you." 

His 2017 debut single, RUNNIN, was written for his late girlfriend. It was also his first stab at writing lyrics. 

"It's embarrassing for sure," he said. "But as an artist, you have to be OK with vulnerability and letting people in."

Wong will perform his new tracks Feb. 22 at an event in the neighbourhood that he's always called home.

With files from CBC's North by Northwest