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Stepping Outside the Bamboo Lines

Jen Sookfong Lee on the problems and pleasures of writing 'Chinese.'

By Charlie Cho 1 Jun 2007 |

Charlie Cho is a current-affairs associate producer at CBC Radio in Vancouver, and a freelance contributor to various media, including the WestEnder.

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'Jennifer Lee is the most popular name in the entire world for women.'
  • The End of East
  • Jen Sookfong Lee
  • Knopf (2007)

Today is the day after Asian Heritage Month. Which is fitting, since Jen Sookfong Lee wants to talk about living outside the definitions of "Chinese Canadian" and "Chinese Canadian writer." And she chuckles at the predictable, yet fitting, choice of interviewing her in Chinatown at Boss Bakery and Restaurant on Main Street in Vancouver.

Lee spent seven years working on her first novel, The End of East. Her story of three generations of a Chinese family with roots in Vancouver's Chinatown is especially timely now, with its backdrops of the Chinese Head Tax and Exclusion Act.

While politically relevant and historically accurate, its perspective is personal, drawing on the details of her own family. Saints mix with sinners, characters are flawed, and history unfolds through them.

After a discussion about the story, Lee spoke frankly about Chinatown, not wanting to write about Chinese people again and making peace with bamboo lettering.

On Kevin Chong's assertion (in 2001) that he didn't want to write books with "bamboo lettering on the cover"

"I remember he did an interview with the [Vancouver] Sun when [Kevin Chong's first novel] Baroque-a-nova came out. I actually went to school with Kevin, and I've known him since I was 18. And when he talked about that, I was thinking, 'That's just great. You can write whatever you want. It doesn't matter to me.' But to say that, 'I don't want to be seen as a Chinese Canadian writer.' Too late, man. Like that's who you are. Your last name is Chong. You're a Chinese guy. Everyone knows. Okay? It's not like you can ignore it."

On fear of Chong

"I was really terrified Kevin would review [The End of East], and would say something about it. I was, 'Oh my Lord, if Kevin reviews this book, I'm screwed. He's gonna hate it!' [Laughter]

"[The bamboo pattern on the spine and back of The End of East] was actually from a scarf or something, and they had Chinese characters on it. But I don't read Chinese. So I was like, 'You gotta take those out 'cause I don't know what it is.' Imagine how Chinese people would be all over me if it were gibberish."

"I love the cover, actually. It's pretty close to what some of my ideas were. It's a very Chinese cover, and that worried me a little at first. I realize they wanted to do something historical, which is fine. But the cup is a modern cup. That's what I always fixate on.

"But what I love about it is the bubble. The bubble just cracks me up. Because you know what it reminds me of? I sent them a file of a bunch of Chinese advertisement posters. From the '40s, '50s and '60s, and a lot of them have this kind of look."

On why she loves book club ladies

"[The cover model] is very stiff and very perfect. People ask me, 'Is that you?' And I'm like, 'Does that look like me? Do you think I could look that serene?' I don't think so.

"I did say to my editor, 'You know, I'm worried that this will make men not want to buy my book.' But [my editor said] 'Actually, men don't buy that much fiction anyway.' And it's true. There are lots of men who buy fiction but, by and large, people who do buy fiction are women. And they're mostly women of a certain age too. You know book club ladies. I love book club ladies."

On not being Wayson Choy

"There was a time when I felt, 'What if somebody thinks I'm going over the same thing as some of these other writers?' And then I think, 'There are a lot of rural, white, coming-of-age stories in Canadian literature. Surely, there's room for another Chinese Chinatown novel.' There's only been a couple."

"And [Wayson Choy] is from a different generation, right? And he also hasn't lived in Vancouver for a while. So when he's writing about Chinatown, in fiction or otherwise, it has the flavour of a memoir. And often he's talking about childhood in Chinatown in a certain era.

"So to me, the way I was approaching Chinatown was totally different. I wanted it to be really current, so you felt like you were there. You didn't feel like you were hearing somebody's stories about it. You felt like you were with these characters."

On never writing about Chinese people again

"I actually said when I finished this, 'I don't think I want to write another book about Chinese people again. [Laughter] I've said everything I want to say.' Which is probably not true.

"I will probably write another book with Chinese characters in it, but I don't think I will ever write another book that's so specifically about the Chinese Canadian experience, like that archetype.

"I felt like I was like submerged in this world for a really long time. It was hard work, and the responsibility I was talking about before, I don't want that again necessarily."

On wanting to see Chinese people at readings

"I certainly worried about how the community was going to see it because obviously I care very much about their opinion on it. In a way, I almost wrote it for them.

"I want them to read it. I want to go to a reading, and see them there. Because readings are not usually populated with Chinese Canadians. Even at the Wayson Choy reading a couple years ago at the Stanley Theatre, there were the most Chinese people I had ever seen at a reading, but there still weren't that many."

On having the most common name in the world

"[Sookfong] is my Chinese name, but it's actually not on my birth certificate. Yeah, it's my writer name. Nobody actually calls me that, except my mother, and usually only when she's angry.

"But do you know how many Jennifer Lees, or Jen Lees, are out there? There are billions! And it was impossible for me to use that name. Darn my parents for giving me the most common name in the entire world, which it is. Did you know that? Jennifer Lee is the most popular name in the entire world for women.

"I actually looked up how many Jennifer Lees there are who are writers. In North America, there are eight. There's one who writes for the New York Times. She calls herself 'Jennifer 8 Lee.' '8' like the number eight. I wish I came up with that. It's so lucky.

"But I was glad I at least had that to fall back on, because what if I didn't even have that? I'd have to change my name altogether."