This week I read All That Matters by Wayson Choy. A lyrical piece of fiction, by way of the Asian tradition–rich in natural imagery, superstition, and family matters. Choy’s novel is a look inside the complex social dynamics of Chinese culture in light of the changing face of tradition as the Chen family adopts to life in “Gold Mountain,” more formally known as British Columbia, Canada. The Chinese understanding of filial piety is explored in a way that it is shown in the characters actions rather than told.
The Chen family is made up in a very non-traditional way of half-siblings, a stepmother, and an adopted son who are all tied together by forged papers connecting them to a rich, family-less exporter referred to as Third Uncle. In fragments, each family member becomes three dimensional by each experiencing their own hardships, sicknesses, and aspirations while all being told through the perspective of Kiam-Kim, the oldest son. The generational gaps between the members also makes for a fascinating study.
Considering the way the novel winds its way through all of Kiam’s childhood to young adulthood with delicious detail and a well-paced plot, the ending of All That Matters feels rushed. After spending so long seeing the Chen family grow (both in number and in experience), it feels like a let down to end the book with more minor characters like Jenny Chong and Jack O’Connor. Yes, they are Kiam’s best friends and their relationship is interesting in that it speaks to the larger themes of tradition, adaptation, and Canadian identity, but I found their triangular relationship not nearly as interesting as the Chen family dynamic and at times a bit cliché. Their struggles to maintain their friendship despite race divides and puberty feels dramatic in a television special kind of way. Especially when their story line often bumps into Poh-Poh, Kiam’s grandmother, who is a hilarious woman with her Old China ways and a fatalistic attitude (she spends nearly the entire book saying she will die soon). For the greater half of the novel Choy strings events together firmly, steering the plot as if he is stitching out a path for readers to follow, then suddenly the end is a series of very important events jammed together like an accident. The jump ahead to the future was so sudden and disconcerting that I lost track of the timeline of events–one minute Kiam is graduating from high school and the next he’s married. How much time passed between these two events?
The novel’s look at such a riveting moment in history from a less common perspective–that of a Chinese immigrant during WWII–is a welcome change. The text not only examines the relationships between people, but also Canada’s relationship to Britain (and the need to fight for “Queen and Country”), America’s relationship to Canada, China’s relationship to Japan, and Canada’s relationship to immigrants in general.
There’s one spelling inconsistency that I picked up on–the Tong family association isn’t capitalized at one point, whereas its capitalized in all other cases. The cover is appealing, the vibrant orange of mandarins.
All That Matters is a vibrant addition to the Canadian canon with a wondrous story of family and adaptation. Choy is a much-needed writer of the immigrant voice in Canada’s history. After all, almost all Canadians are immigrants in their own right.