Bookmark #12 Vancouver, British Columbia

The Jade Peony, by Wayson Choy


Luxurious blasts of steam penetrated every fibre of the coat. The machinery hissed and sang; the flames danced blue and red in a ring beneath the water heater. The wool material stiffened “like new” in the mix of chemicals and steam. The brass buttons began to gleam in the sunlight pouring from the store window. Gee Sook pulled the last panel through the steam and then swung the heavy, now quite stiff topcoat majestically off the machine. Everyone stood back in the narrow work space of American Steam Cleaners.
– from The Jade Peony, by Wayson Choy, published by Douglas & McIntyre.
Bookmarked at Vancouver, October 15, 2012.

Wayson Choy unveils Bookmark #12.

Wayson Choy unveils Bookmark #12.

Project Bookmark Canada Founder and Executive Director Miranda Hill with author Wayson Choy.

Project Bookmark Canada Founder and Executive Director Miranda Hill with author Wayson Choy.

 

The Jade Peony is Bookmark 12 in the cross-Canada series, but at the site on the southeast corner of Pender Street and Gore Avenue in Vancouver’s historic Chinatown, you will find two plaques: one with The Jade Peony passage in English and one with the passage in Mandarin. The Bookmarks were made possible with the assistance of the Metcalf Foundation, the City of Vancouver, the Vancouver Writers Fest and a collective of individuals brought together through the fundraising and promotion of The Asian Canadian Writers’ WorkshopGung Haggis Fat ChoyHistoric Joy Kogawa House Society and Vancouver Asian Heritage Month Society/explorASIAN. The Bookmarks were unveiled on October 15, 2012 by Wayson Choy and City Councillor and Deputy Mayor Raymond Louie.

Banner photo credit: Monica Miller, Peak Publications Society.


About Wayson Choy and The Jade Peony

Wayson Choy was born in Vancouver in 1939, and his family’s experience in that city has inspired much of his writing, including his first novel, The Jade Peony, published in 1995. The Jade Peony is told through the eyes of three children in an immigrant family, living in Vancouver’s Chinatown in the 30’s and 40’s. Mingling with the realities of Canada and the horror of war are magic, ghosts, paper uncles and family secrets. The Jade Peony and its companion novel All That Matters (published in 2004) feature many recognizable locations around the city. The American Steam Cleaners cited in this passage was located at the corner of Pender and Gore.

The Jade Peony shared Ontario’s Trillium Book Award for best book in 1995, and won the 1995 City of Vancouver Book Award. All That Matterswon the Trillium Book Award in 2004 and was shortlisted for the 2005 Giller Prize. Choy’s other works include two memoirs (Paper Shadows: A Chinatown Childhood and Not Yet: A Memoir of Living and Almost Dying). Among Choy’s many awards and honours is his appointment, in 2005, to the Order of Canada.

Wayson Choy lives and writes in Toronto, Ontario. This excerpt is used with the kind permission of the author.

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The Passage

Liang and I used to like sniffing the smell of the drycleaning chemicals mixed with the bolts of cloth and bags of material lying everywhere around Gee Sook’s shop, and we had fun watching the long blasts of steam shoot into the air as we threw handkerchief-sized rags at the machine and they rose like kites against the large picture window. Sometimes Liang and I just sat mesmerized looking at the fire lit in a ring beneath the water heater tank in the corner of the room. Gee Sook could make the flames dance up and down and hiss at will. 
But now I was twelve years old, too tall and grown up to be patted on the head by Gee Sook. At his cheerful greeting, I shook his hand and stood patiently still while he expertly checked the inside of the coat now lined with the navy-dyed cotton twill Poh-Poh insisted was bess-see for long-lasting wear.
“Good job,” the tailor said, and quickly threw the coat over my shoulders and brushed over it, dusting away loose threads. At last, Gee Sook raised the garment onto the massive steam-pressing machine that he worked with a wide foot pedal; he began raising and lowering a metal panel, pulling it down with one hand, as he wiped the fog from his wire-rimmed glasses with his other hand.
Luxurious blasts of steam penetrated every fibre of the coat. The machinery hissed and sang; the flames danced blue and red in a ring beneath the water heater. The wool material stiffened “like new” in the mix of chemicals and steam. The brass buttons began to gleam in the sunlight pouring from the store window. Gee Sook pulled the last panel through the steam and then swung the heavy, now quite stiff topcoat majestically off the machine. Everyone stood back in the narrow work space of American Steam Cleaners.
Gee Sook slowly draped the coat over me.
“Jung looks like the young Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek,” Mrs. Lim said, clapping her hands. “We should take a picture.”
“This is a man’s coat,” Gee Sook grandly announced. “All of you women stand back.”I felt intense heat embrace my shoulders, then curve over my back and drop upon my chest. I felt like a young warrior receiving the gift of his bright armour, a steely-grey coat born from fire and steam.