Literature Comes to Life in KPU Prof.’s Chinatown Walking Tour

Students of ENGL 1202 see history, fiction, and biography come together

Lord Strathcona Elementary School is another major setting of the novel. Lord Strathcona once had the nickname of “The Little League of Nations” due to there being at least 36 different nationalities represented in the student body. (Tristan Johnston)

Though Greg Chan’s 1202 class teaches English, the students who joined him on a walking tour of Chinatown on Oct. 13 might have felt that they were learning equal parts history and anthropology.

In Chan’s class, students are reading The Jade Peony by Wayson Choy. The novel, released in 1995, follows three children of the Chen family living in Vancouver’s Chinatown throughout the 1930s and 1940s. The work is fiction, but it borrows heavily from Choy’s own life growing up in Vancouver.

“My class is a first year topics in literature course, so we study novels and plays,” says Chan. “We’re studying the Wayson Choy novel and one of the benefits is that it’s local, so I thought, ‘Let’s put together a field study so that they can come and see for themselves what the characters were living through.’”

Accompanying Chan and his students was John Atkin, a civic historian who conducted the Chinatown tour.

“Of course, we can’t take them back to 1930s Chinatown, but with [Atkin] giving the history lesson on Chinatown, we can a little bit,” says Chan. “Exact locations are mentioned in the novel and he brings us to those sights, so it really brings the novel to life for them.”

Along the tour route are the real-life locations where the fictional Chen family lived. Among them are houses they lived in, schools they went to—both public and after-school language classes—and the places where they interacted with their community.

Chan and Atkin have been doing the walking tour for 15 years, making small tweaks to it along the way but sticking with the same book. He says that many of his students feel the tour brings the book to life, and many of them consider it to be a highlight of the course.

“I think [by] using a fictional book that had a lot of research behind it … you are largely portraying a realistic Chinatown,” says Atkin. “This isn’t a fantasy. This is something based on both the lived experience of Wayson Choy growing up in Chinatown and the Strathcona neighbourhood. At the same time, it gives the framework of the characters and how they experience things, but it’s also based on that reality.”

One could argue that both a history book and a semi-autobiographical novel are able to transport readers to a different time, but each will provide them with very different perspectives. History will offer a dry one that comes with a lot of context, and fiction offers a rich one that depicts days or years in the life of characters who lived in that time and place.

“The novel allows you to explore a lot of the themes present within Chinese culture, but you’d have a hard time bringing it to life [in a history book] compared to fiction,” says Atkin.

While Choy’s novel details the experiences of Chinese-Canadians living in a much more prejudiced Vancouver, visiting the actual locations where thousands of Chinese immigrants made their homes can provide a greater understanding of both the fictional story and the history than inspired it. By reading about their lives, visiting the places they lived in, and ultimately contemplating their experience, students in Greg Chan’s 1202 class have had the chance to understand what their fellow Canadians’ lives were like all those decades ago.


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