Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Ten Questions, with Arlene Chan

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Arlene Chan

Librarian, Toronto bookmobile coordinator and writer Arlene Chan is the author of The Chinese in Toronto from 1878, which chronicles not only the obstacles confronted by Toronto's Chinese community but also their contributions, achievements and unique experiences.

Arlene speaks with Open Book about our city's seven Chinatowns, a librarian's research process and key figures in the history of Toronto's Chinese community.

Open Book:

Tell us about your book, The Chinese in Toronto from 1878.

Arlene Chan:

The Chinese in Toronto from 1878: From Outside to Inside the Circle is about the development of the Chinese community as told through first-hand stories, historical accounts, archival and present-day photographs, newspaper and magazine reports and excerpts from literary works that describe Toronto’s Chinese community yesterday and today.

The early years were filled with struggles and survival at a time when discriminatory immigration laws kept the Chinese living in a society with only a handful of families. In the 1890s Toronto’s Chinese population numbered 50. Today the Chinese make up the second-largest visible minority, a population of half a million. The Chinese communities have broken out of the Chinatown mould and successfully established themselves in all areas of the Greater Toronto Area and across all walks of life.

OB:

What was your research process like for this book?

AC:

I find that research is the one of the most exciting and exhilarating parts of writing. As a librarian, I felt comfortable scouring the deepest recesses of libraries, archives, private family collections and the Internet. The topic of the Chinese in Canada has always been on my radar since my high school days. My parents were very active in the Chinese community and I spent my youth growing up in downtown Chinatown. So as I delved deeper into the past, I was really on a personal journey navigating my childhood memories through the lens of adult eyes. My research spanned decades although it was the most intensive in the last five years.

There were incredible moments of discovery. So many individuals who figured so prominently in the community, people I used to call “Uncle” or “Auntie,” made huge strides in bettering life for the Chinese in Toronto. I had so many revelatory moments when I understood the significance of their place in history.

OB:

What do you think makes Toronto's Chinatowns unique as downtown neighbourhoods?

AC:

Out of the seven so-called “Chinatowns” in the Greater Toronto Area, three are in downtown Toronto: Old Chinatown at the intersection of Dundas and Elizabeth streets; Chinatown West at Spadina Avenue and Dundas Street; and, Chinatown East at Broadview Avenue and Gerrard Street. Old Chinatown is a shadow of its former self with only a few remaining Chinese restaurants and businesses.

On the other hand, Chinatown East and Chinatown West are still popular destinations where locals and visitors can eat, shop, and walk around. What makes them unique as neighbourhoods is the mix of residential and business properties that are distinctly Asian-focused and have been spared from the bulldozers of urban modernization. They help make Toronto one of the most multicultural cities in the world where you can easily step into a neighbourhood that is so different and yet so familiar. With some exceptions, the buildings and homes look pretty well the same as they did fifty years ago. That being said, however, both Chinatowns are undergoing changes that are making them more culturally diverse as new waves of residents and businesses move in. Time will only tell how both of these Chinatowns will look in the future.

OB:

Who are some of the most notable members of Toronto's Chinese community, historically?

AC:

Jean Lumb — first Chinese Canadian woman and first restaurateur to receive the Order of Canada
K. Dock Yip — first Chinese Canadian lawyer
Gretta Wong Grant — first Chinese Canadian female lawyer
Reverend T.K. Wou Ma — first Chinese Presbyterian minister from Ontario
Tom Lock — first Chinese Canadian pharmacist
Victoria Cheung — first Chinese graduate from the University of Toronto’s School of Medicine, first woman to intern at the Toronto General Hospital and first female Chinese Canadian doctor
Valerie Mah — first Chinese Canadian elementary school principal in Toronto
Adrienne Clarkson — first Chinese Canadian Governor General of Canada
Vivienne Poy — first Chinese Canadian Senator
Bob Wong — first Chinese Canadian Cabinet Minister in Ontario
Ying Hope — first Chinese Canadian school trustee and chair, Toronto Board of Education

OB:

Describe your ideal writing environment.

AC:

I work in a small room with a large window overlooking our backyard. There’s lots of natural light which I find so important when you’re hunched over a keyboard all day long. I like writing from home because it’s quiet and everything that I need is at my fingertips — my books, notes, research documents and my computer.

OB:

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received as a writer?

AC:

Know when to stop researching and start writing.

OB:

Who are some people who have deeply influenced (fellow writers or not) your writing life?

AC:

Although my first work, a short story, was published in my high school yearbook, I thank Ken Pearson, Umbrella Press, for publishing my first book some twenty years later. It was a children’s book about my mother who was the first Chinese Canadian woman to receive the Order of Canada. Entitled The Spirit of the Dragon: the Story of Jean Lumb, a Proud Chinese Canadian, the book practically wrote itself because it was really her voice that told such engaging stories. I also thank two other publishers who were so generous with their guidance and support: Kathy Lowinger from Tundra Books and Barry Penhale from Natural Heritage Books, now merged with The Dundurn Group.

I have always been an avid reader even from the early days when “lights out” meant flashlight time under the covers. I was fortunate to have such easy access to the incredible resources of the Toronto Public Library. As a child, I went to the Annette Street Library in the city’s west end until our family moved downtown to Chinatown. There, my local library was the Boys and Girls House on College and St. George streets. And, of course, when I worked as a librarian for thirty years at the Toronto Public Library, there was nothing better than seeing all of the new books. It’s hard for me to list my favorite authors but some of the ones whose writing makes me think twice about how words can be combined in such wonderful ways include Jane Austen, Yan Martel, Barbara Kingsolver, Timothy Findley, Kazuo Ishiguro, to name a few.

Naturally, I have read many works, both fiction and nonfiction, about the Chinese experience in Canada. I have been so inspired by writers like Paul Yee, Denise Chong, Wayson Choy, Judy Fong Bates and especially Dr. David Lai who is, in my opinion, the godfather of Chinese-Canadian history. There was a time when there were just a handful of Chinese-Canadian writers. Now there are so many more. It’s fantastic.

OB:

If you had to choose three books as a “Welcome to Toronto” gift, what would those books be?

AC:

Toronto: The Way We Were, by Mike Filey
Imagining Toronto, by Amy Lavender Harris
Headhunter, by Timothy Findley

OB:

Is there a book you’ve read recently that you wished you had written?

AC:

I’ve made that wish many times but the most recent book that I would add to my list is The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. It tells the story of a young boy who is on a journey in search of a treasure. How can such a simple story told in such a seemingly simple way resonate so deeply on so many different levels?

OB:

What are you working on now?

AC:

I have many works-in-progress although, at this moment, I am resting.


Arlene Chan was born, raised and educated in Toronto, Canada. After obtaining an undergraduate degree in English and Psychology at the University of Toronto, she graduated with a master’s degree in library sciences. Her career as a librarian started at the North York Board of Education and ended at the Toronto Public Library where she spent 30 years in progressively advanced positions.
She is the author of The Spirit of the Dragon: the Story of Jean Lumb, a Proud Chinese Canadian, which was selected as a Choice Book by the Canadian Children’s Book Centre, and The Moon Festival: a Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival, which was shortlisted for the Silver Birch Award, as well as Awakening the Dragon: the Dragon Boat Festival and Paddles Up! Dragon Boat Racing in Canada.

For more information about The Chinese in Toronto from 1878 please visit the Dundurn website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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