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In Post-War Chinatown, the Siren Call of Sinatra

Larry Wong strained to escape Vancouver’s Chinese enclave. Decades later, he strived to preserve its legacy. Third in a series.

By Christopher Cheung 5 Jul 2017 | TheTyee.ca

Christopher Cheung is a reporter and page editor at the Tyee. You can find his stories here and follow him on Twitter at @bychrischeung.

[Editor's note: This is part of a series profiling how children of Chinese immigrants have carved out identities differently over five generations in the Vancouver region.]

On Saturday mornings, hanging around the back of his father’s tailor shop, 10-year-old Larry Wong would turn on the radio to hear his sister’s voice. The year was 1948. Jennie was a DJ at a local radio station, and she would introduce Larry’s favourite tunes by the stars of the day. Frank Sinatra. Glenn Miller. Kay Starr. Artie Shaw. For a boy growing up in Vancouver’s Chinatown just after the Second World War, their songs were like a beacon from a distant, alluring world.

Larry Wong was born in 1938, one of the last babies to be delivered by a midwife in Chinatown. He was part of a generation of Chinese that shouldered the hopes of elders like his father, who paid the head tax to immigrate.

Vancouver had long been a discriminatory and even hostile place for Chinese who strayed beyond Chinatown’s borders. But racial tensions began to shift when the war erupted. The Japanese became the Asian minority targeted more than the Chinese. While Japanese Canadians were rounded up and interned in harsh rural camps, local Chinese played a significant role in Canada’s war effort, working in industry, donating food and buying bonds. Soon after war’s end, in 1947, Chinese were given the right to vote and the policy that forbade immigration was revoked. These looked to be the first steps of a more accepting Canada.

But for Larry, the larger struggle wasn’t to be accepted by Canadians. It was accepting that he was Chinese.

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A parade in Chinatown at the end of the war. (Larry’s brother Wah was in the parade, holding up the Russian flag.) From the City of Vancouver archives, item CVA 586-3965. Public domain.

His sister Jennie was always the westernized one in the family. She went out with white boys, to her father’s disappointment. She became Canada’s first Chinese and first female DJ at 17 after winning a contest judged by Sinatra himself. She was also the one who introduced Larry to his love of reading. When he was younger, Jennie would hold his hand as they crossed Main Street from the tailor shop to the Carnegie Library. Their mother had died soon after Larry was born, and Jennie was a maternal figure to him.

In 1950, when Larry was 12, Jennie introduced him to a book called The Great Escape. The story of a mass breakout from a German PoW camp was one of Larry’s favourites. It was a fitting title for Jennie to recommend. Not long after, she ran away.

“Chinatown was like a village,” said Larry. “Everybody knew everybody and you could only do so much. My sister and brother felt that way, like they couldn’t wait to get out. Both were eager to leave and expand their horizons.”

His brother Wah also left two years before to pursue a master’s in political science at the University of Washington. He would later go on to get a doctorate in political law at New York University. Scholarships helped pay the way. After that, he was hired by a young United Nations and sent to Pakistan — a very different future from the one their father had in mind for them, owning a grocery store in Chinatown.

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Larry and his father in 1945. Larry was 7. Submitted by Larry Wong.

Like his siblings, Larry longed for something more than life in Chinatown. He didn’t understand why he had to attend village association dinners or Chinese language classes. He had an Italian friend in elementary school who never felt the same family pressure to maintain his cultural roots. “Did John have to [go to] Italian school? No,” Larry recalled.

He considered himself and his siblings “bananas” — yellow on the outside, white on the inside. His sister was so desperate to look less Chinese that she once wore a clothespin to sleep to try and make her nose look more Anglo.

This divide was especially evident when Larry came face to face with newly immigrated Chinese in the early 1950s. He felt as if he had nothing in common with them.

“In the wintertime, we would beat the heck out of them in snowball fights,” said Larry. “They didn’t know much English or a darn thing about Vancouver or Canada, so we made fun of them.”

A classmate of Larry named Deanna Wong also felt like their generation belonged to two contrasting worlds, each with its own language. Deanna also grew up in Chinatown and used to answer the phone at her stepfather’s fruit and vegetable company. It was a struggle because she only knew a little Cantonese, Chinatown’s lingua franca.

“Chinese grocers and cafe owners would phone in,” said Deanna. “They would order so many kinds of fruit and veggies. ‘Bok choi! Sang choi!’ And I would write it all in English. Another worker would write the names for me in Chinese so it would be easier for the guys on the floor.”

Larry had been fluent in Cantonese, but he started to lose it as he read more English books and listened to English music. “That was very typical of our generation,” he said. His disconnect with Chinatown widened when he went to the University of British Columbia. His yearning to be part of a bigger world grew as he studied creative writing, philosophy and psychology.

“It was like any other kind of growing pains,” said Larry. “I hated everything that was Chinese. I was very resentful. I didn’t want to leave my father because he was getting kind of frail, but I had to leave. I felt this need to be on my own. We used to fight like you wouldn’t believe. I was not exactly the Chinese way he wanted me to be.”

At 25, Larry was the last of the Wong children to leave their father and abandon Chinatown. He moved into an apartment on Robson Street in Vancouver’s West End. To make rent, he worked a midnight shift with Canada Post, sorting mail and ordering stamps.

Larry still visited his father. He went home once a week for dinner for three years until his father passed away.

Larry left Vancouver soon after. He was promoted by Canada Post to Ottawa to handle budgets and later to be a financial auditor, travelling from post office to post office in southern Ontario. The opportunities gave him the freedom he was looking for. “There was always a life and a universe outside Chinatown waiting for me,” he said, “and it was up to me to make a break for it.”

‘What my home really is’

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Though the friends and shops he grew up with are no longer in Chinatown, Larry still visits the neighbourhood today. Photo by Christopher Cheung.

Larry retired in 1994 and returned to Vancouver. But then a strange thing happened. He found himself drawn back into the world of Chinatown. In 1998, a childhood friend asked Larry if he’d be interested helping with a history project. Larry had a lifelong interest in history since reading war stories as a boy and agreed.

The project turned out to be the creation of a museum for Chinese who fought in the war. His job was to sit down with Chinese veterans and interview them. They were older than Larry, but they also grew up in Chinatown. Something stirred in him when he listened to the stories — an appreciation for his heritage that he never had before.

“It’s like rediscovering my home,” he said. “It’s the only way I can describe it. Knowing what happened before me, I had a better sense of the background I belonged to.”

Larry today is one of Chinatown’s local historians. He gives tours of the neighbourhood to school groups and politicians and is always jolly when he tells a story. He’s written a book about his childhood called Dim Sum Stories. From those pages, this snapshot:

As young boys, we were usually doing something interesting when we weren’t in school. We were always on the lookout for cops patrolling the streets. One day, Farmer (a friend) was selling squabs when he saw a cop approaching. The squabs were in a carton but there was no place to hide it. He scooped up the squabs and stuffed them under his shirt, zipped up his jacket, and walked past the cop with an uncontrollable smile, not because he was getting away with it, but because the squabs were tickling him. Though usually, it was a man we called the Pigeon King who sold squabs on the streets of Chinatown. He was an old Irishman, redheaded, unshaven, his suit jacket and pants wrinkled and filthy. Not to mention smelly. He would snatch baby pigeons from their nests underneath the old Georgia Viaduct, shove them in a gunnysack, and sell them on Pender Street.

Larry Wong’s passion for memorializing and enhancing his childhood neighbourhood may strike some as surprising, given that as a young man he so dreamed of his own “great escape.” But to Larry, it makes sense. “I had to leave home to find out what life was all about,” he said. “Coming back, I now know what my home really is.”

Larry still remembers all the sights and sounds of his childhood when he strolls through Chinatown today. The go-to shop for buying firecrackers. The butchers who slit the throats of live, squawking chickens. The old lady who sold toasted peanuts on the street. The tailor shop on Main Street that displayed handmade shirts in the window. A barber has since taken over the space. But once upon a time, this was his father’s shop, and their family home. Larry remembers being fitted for custom shirts by his father. No one else in his class had such nice shirts and he’d wear them proudly at school. Despite the fights with his father, despite wanting to leave Chinatown, this would always be home.

“I wrote my book in such a way that I hoped my father would forgive me,” said Larry, “but he never held me back from leaving. I think, in the end, we understood each other.”

* Excerpts from ‘Dim Sum Stories’ courtesy of the Chinese Canadian Historical Society of B.C.

Part four: The first Chinese Canadians to settle in Vancouver’s white neighbourhoods faced racist taunts and fistfights.

Find all the stories in this series here.  [Tyee]

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