British Columbia

Vancouver literary mentor Jim Wong-Chu remembered fondly

Jim Wong-Chu, an important writer and mentor in the Asian-Canadian literary community, passed away this week.

Wong-Chu, who mentored many young writers and artists in Vancouver's Asian-Canadian community, has died

Jim Wong-Chu, an important writer and mentor in the Asian-Canadian literary community, passed away this week. (Gung Haggis Fat Choy Festival)

A much-loved Vancouver community builder, who had a hand in discovering and amplifying such celebrated Asian-Canadian writers as Madeline Thien and Wayson Choy, has passed away.

Jim Wong-Chu was a poet, radio show host, photographer, activist and mentor to many Canadian writers and artists.

Among his many accomplishments, Wong-Chu wrote a book of poetry called Chintatown Ghosts — the first book of poetry published by an Asian-Canadian.

He was the man behind the scenes. He boosted so many people- Todd Wong

He went on to edit a number of prominent anthologies — like Many Mouthed Birds (1991) — featuring such Asian-Canadian luminaries as Wayson Choy and Paul Yee.

He helped found the Asian Canadian Writers' Workshop to create space for Asian-Canadian writers to flourish and challenge the dominant voices in the Canadian literary scene.

"We were coming out of the civil rights movement in the U.S.A., and we were starting to look at everything and [feeling like] we needed to get these voices out," said Todd Wong, the longest serving board member of the Asian Canadian Writers' Workshop.

The Asian Canadian Writers Workshop's early days in the 1980s: (from left to right) Rick Shiomi, Robert Kikuchi, Sammi Yakimato, David Henry Hwang and Jim Wong-Chu. (Asian Canadian Writers Workshop/Instagram)

Wong said Wong-Chu's desire for such a space came from his own personal experience.

Born in Hong Kong in 1949, he arrived in Canada in 1953 with his aunt and uncle in a "paper son" setup — a way of coming into the country to get around the Chinese Exclusion Act.

"[Jim] wanted to get past the stigmatism of the systemic racism that Canada had for a long time," Wong said.

The workshop eventually created Ricepaper Magazine, which Wong described as the only published magazine across North America that dealt with Asian-Canadian literature and then expanded to arts and culture.

Through Ricepaper, Wong-Chu was able to further elevate the voices of Asian-Canadian writers and artists.

One of his earliest mentees and a former editor of the Ricepaper, Madeleine Thien, won the Governor General's Award last year and went on to be nominated for the Booker Prize.

On Twitter, Thien said she was lucky to be taken under Wong-Chu's wing.

The heart of a community

But Wong-Chu's most important work was being the thread that linked the Asian arts community. He would continually welcome newcomers, share his insight and host soirees at his favourite dim sum haunts.

Kristin Cheung was the managing editor of Ricepaper magazine from 2012 to 2016.

She says when she arrived in Vancouver from Edmonton as a 21-year-old, she didn't know a soul. Jim was her entry point into a community she had never known.

"I came into this Asian-Canadian writers community, and it was the first time that I met like-minded people like myself," she said.

"He brought us into this community that we'd been seeking our whole lives. I always wanted to be part of a community like this and he kind of opened the door."

Today, Cheung is paying Wong-Chu's kindness forward with her own mentorship program for young women of colour in the arts. 

"He was the man behind the scenes," Wong said.

"He boosted so many people. He cheerleaded for so many people. He was humble. He inspired people. His legacy will be us carrying on that inspiration."

With files from The Early Edition