Quill and Quire

REVIEWS

« Back to
Book Reviews

Paper Shadows: A Chinatown Childhood

by Wayson Choy

Wayson Choy avoids potential second-novel pitfalls by turning from fiction to non-fiction, following the spectacular success of The Jade Peony with a memoir. The relationship between the two books is so intricate and reflexive that it challenges the critical vocabulary. Words such as “pentimento” and “palimpsest” – with their connotations of painting over and writing around – come to mind, save that the subsequent work does not erase but enhances the original. In fact, so closely are the two woven together that to separate the pair seems to diminish each one.

The starting point for Paper Shadows is a phone call alerting the author to a fact – known by many but not by Choy – that he was adopted. “I had written a book exploring the secrets of Chinatown,” he says. “Why wouldn’t the gods of Chinatown strike back?”

This memoir revisits earlier territory in order to explore the writer’s own ancestry. Where The Jade Peony described Chinatown through the first-person narratives of three fictional characters, now a single narrator describes the childhood of Choy Way Sun.

The memoir has the same dense texture of Chinese idioms and customs, shaped by history, complicated by ever-present racism; every event in the life of the child is resonant. For instance, Choy’s exposure to Chinese opera foreshadows his understanding of his ancestral past. Only as an adult does he learn that operas have tragic endings. As a child, his mother said of the weeping characters, “They cry for happy. Everyone cry for happy.” Again, when the family moves from Vancouver to Ontario, they leave behind Choy’s beloved pet. The fate of the dog is a chilling image for the many Chinese women abandoned because of the infamous head tax, which made it impossible for them to travel with their husbands.

Choy compares the layers upon layers of mysteries that he uncovers to Chinese boxes in which each sliding panel reveals a secret. He compares the weaving back and forth of threads to the endless knots of wind chimes. The endlessness of the knot is especially pertinent, for the last page of Paper Shadows brings no sense of a final ending. Rather it suggests that much still remains, waiting for a time when it too can be told.