Wednesday, November 07, 2018

Book Notes: Crean on Wong

Down the other night to the Gladstone Hotel -- inspiration for my favourite Paul Quarrington barroom rockers -- for the launch of Finding Mr Wong by my friend Susan Crean. 

Mr Wong (1895-1971), born in Taishen, China, came alone to Canada around 1911, paid head tax, and became, eventually, live-in cook and houseman to Crean's grandparents in Toronto's Forest Hill, and one of the pillars of Crean's childhood experience of the world. Crean, whose long career in writing and activism gives honour to that often derided phrase social justice warrior, tries in this book to do justice to Wong and through him, all the isolated bachelor immigrants who constituted the houseboy population of Canada.  She takes to her childhood, to his retirement rooms in Toronto's Chinatown, to her own later visits to his home village, weaving a history of Canadian class and race and policy-making throughout.

Our host at the Gladstone, Marc Glassman, is impresario of the Pages Unbound nonreading series. He explains that he often finds "readings" a rather 19th century in style, hearkening back to a time when many people had little actual access to books.  At his events he prefers conversation and complementary performances: in this case an interview with Crean by Carianne Leung, sociologist and equity scholar.  But we began with the Donald Quan jazz trio, improvising something that combined Chinese sounds and rhythms with allusions to "Danny Boy" or "Crofters' Lament" from Crean's Scotch-Irish heritage. They were kind of making it up as they went along, with much nodding and signalling between the players, but at one moment the flute player would put down his flute and take up the bagpipes, or Quan would cease shifting between keyboard and guqin zither and pick up a fiddle.  It was quite extraordinary as an contribution to the collision of cultures that is Crean's theme.

Not your average history book launch, is all I'm saying. 

Follow @CmedMoore