Whether she is doing media promotions, working for the government, or writing a book about a family divided between war-torn China and the early 1900s Chinatowns of Canada, Denise Chong is a living example of the extent to which the Chinese community has evolved in status and become recognized for its contributions to society.
The author of the newly released, The Concubine's Children, talked to Chinacity in Calgary, en route from Vancouver to Edmonton, Winnipeg, Toronto, and, finally, Ottawa, as part of her nation-wide book promotion tour in late April.
Raised in Prince George, British Columbia, Denise was an economist with the Department of Finance in Ottawa before becoming an economic advisor to Prime Minister Trudeau from 1980 to 1984. She speaks proudly of her accomplishments, especially when she looks back at the times of her grandparents' immigration to Canada.
"I didn't realize the extent of it, until I did my history, that my grandparents lived in Canada at a time when they could not participate in White society."
"They were excluded from it: they could not take out citizenship, they couldn't own land, they couldn't vote. And when I think back, that's part of their legacy."
"And, within a few decades, here I was, working for the Prime Minister."
Denise's discovery of her family's historic struggle would not have occurred had she not ventured to Chang Gar Bin, China, in 1987.
The author's mother had always repressed the past for fear of touching upon painful childhood memories and the events of previous decades remained a source of curiosity and mystery to her.
When her maternal grandmother died in a car accident, any hopes of finding the answers to her questions of the past were left behind only in the form of an Export A tobacco tin and its contents: forty-dollars and ninety-four cents, in change. Denise was thirteen at the time.
All that she knew about her family comprised of childhood recollections of the Vancouver Chinatown in the 1950s and 1960s. Of these, she could only recall images of rooming houses, a decaying culture, and the lonely life of her grandmother.
"I knew there was this really, it seemed, dark side to my grandmother. And I would have been left with this image, had I not gone to China."
The growing curiosities and suspicions of having possible relatives in China were answered when her husband, Roger Smith, a CTV journalist, was posted in China. In persuading her mother to go to China with her, she found not only family history, but actual family members. In an emotional reunion, Denise's mother met her sister and half-brother for the first time. This meeting and the many subsequent findings provided the missing pieces to the long mystery behind her maternal family history and set the stage for her book.
The Concubine's Children tells the story of her maternal grandmother, May-ying, who was sold at the age of seventeen as a concubine to Chan Sam, a lonely immigrant who left his family in China in search of wealth in Vancouver's early Chinatown. May-ying lived out her life as a tea house waitress -- her wages used to support and build a house for Chan Sam's family back in China. Eventually, she slid into a life of alcohol and became a single mother whose strict yet negligent ways were used to raise Denise's mother, Hing, in Canada.
Separated (by war, abroad, and racist legislation, here in Canada) from her two Canadian-born sisters who had been left in China to be educated, Hing relied on her father, Chan Sam, the only one who could read and write, to maintain contact. When he died, so, too, did the communication -- until fifty years later when Denise visited China with her mother.
Originally written as the cover story to the October 1988 issue of Saturday Night Magazine, Denise's work prompted numerous offers for her to write a book within a week of her article being printing.
"I think people realized that there was more to be told; I didn't, at the time."
"Of course, I never even imagined writing a book. But, in the end, I signed the contract and that's when the real work began. That's when I really had to have my mother pour out the past in detail."
To reveal the past called for a lot of emotions and pain, yet Denise realized that it was important to describe life as it happened, whether it required her to tell about her mother being beaten with the stick of discipline, or her mother having to clean up after her grandmother's alcoholism. Nonetheless, Denise's work improved relations with her mother.
"Eventually, we developed a woman-to-woman relationship. Mothers-and-daugthers became another thing. It was important for her to tell me the story and confide in me. It was like a mother to another mother."
After four years of exposing memories and linking the family history together, the positive interactions with her mother led to more being said between the two of them than could have ever been hoped, or planned, for in a lifetime.
For Denise, writing the book has been very self-fulfilling and has answered all her curiosities about the past. As importantly, in managing to compile her family history, she hopes that The Concubine's Children will offer a better understanding of the discrimination, heartache, suffering, and fear of the Chinese culture that her grandparents' generation faced.
"I hope this will show that our forbears, these people that immigrated to Canada, were not different from any other immigrant family that was trying to build a life: they struggled, they dealt with tragedy, and they were victims of history too."
And, in revealing the mysteries of her family's past and successfully reuniting a family previously torn by social hardships and struggles, Denise has been able to add a very human dimension to depict the role of the Chinese in history.