by Terry Watada
The last meal I shared with Jim Wong Chu was in 2016 at the Arisu Korean Restaurant at Bloor and Bathurst in Toronto’s Markham Village. He loved Asian cuisine and made a study of it throughout his life. On that day, he was looking for kalbi, Korean short ribs marinated in a thick aromatic sauce. He claimed he couldn’t find a restaurant with this delicacy in Vancouver. I found it hard to believe but he swore that that was the case.
It was just one more meal in a long line of meals since the late 1970s. No matter what, if we were dining in a group or just the two of us, he was in his element. I could see joy in his face when he explained the specialty of the house; what region the restaurant represented; and more often than not, the owners’ story. He was in his element.
Thus, over the years, I sampled oversized wonton in a tasty soup with homemade noodles no less, French inspired Vietnamese sandwiches (for a dollar each), and fragrant fried rice with lamb to name a few. Sometimes, however, he would wax poetic about a dish I “just had to have”. So we sought it out, often in the sketchiest of restaurants either in Vancouver’s or Toronto’s Chinatown, only to be disappointed when presented some strange concoction.
Once, he went on and on about a soup a northern Chinese restaurant served. It was called Winter Blossom Aromatic Soup with Pork. Well I like pork, Chinese style, so he drove me to a place housed in a typical Vancouver Chinatown building with cheap tables, heavyset chairs and garish lighting. Jim spoke animatedly with the waiter. He told me I was in luck because the soup had just been made. It came out in a large bowl, the hot liquid grey, with bits of bitter melon and meat floating in it. It tasted awful, it had the consistency and flavour of clay (not that I’ve eaten clay). And I hate bitter melon. He took the leftovers home. Another time, he brought durian, a fruit that looked like grapefruit, to a friend’s dinner party. He presented it to us proudly and told us of its creamy texture. He proceeded to slice it open. The first cut released such a noxious smell, most of us headed out of the house for fear of embarrassing ourselves. He couldn’t understand the fuss. I was later told, the odour lingered for weeks afterwards.
I say all this with great affection for Jim who was so ambitious to share his knowledge with his friends. Another time, after a sumptuous, “authentic”, Cantonese meal at the Golden Dragon, a place similar to his beloved Ho Ho Restaurant in Vancouver, he took me through Toronto’s Chinatown for a bit of a tour. He was very aware of the history and importance of certain buildings. He was particularly anxious for me to see the DVD and electronic stores. “You can get movies cheap,” he informed. And indeed you could: ten DVDs for $5.00. I knew these were bootlegs and so demurred and browsed. For his part, he asked to borrow $70 (they only accepted cash) so he could buy a library’s worth. I lent him the money, and we had to carry everything back to my house. The mostly Asian movies themselves were badly copied with suspect dubbing or subtitles. But he was happy.
Back in the 1970s, community lynchpins like Garrick Chiu inspired Jim, Martin Kobayakawa, Sean Gunn and me for that matter to define and record the Asian Canadian experience. Garrick made films; Sean, Martin and I played music; while Jim took photographs. Garrick also inspired us to collect artifacts: magazines, posters, books, records and anything else related to Asian Canadians. With Garrick’s untimely death in the 1980s, Jim took over as the community archivist. He amassed an amazing amount of history.
But his greatest talent lay in the literary world. I once dubbed him the “Ezra Pound of our community”. If not for Pound, the world probably would not know TS Eliot, HD, James Joyce and a score of others. In the same vein, Jim was responsible for advising, encouraging and perhaps getting published writers like Madeleine Thien, Wayson Choy, Paul Yee, and a score of others.
He had a magic about him. For my first novel, I had an agent who hawked it to over twenty publishers in Canada and the US. Every one of them rejected it. Jim made one phone call and I received a request for the manuscript. It was subsequently accepted for publication. He never let me down whenever I asked for advice and help in getting published. He even recommended me to anthologists to contribute. I have a story in the best-selling anthology Vancouver Confidential, as a result, which led to the same publisher accepting my second novel, The Three Pleasures, for publication. Jim also advised me about negotiating the contract.
I often told him to become an agent or at least take a share of the advance. He just disregarded my suggestion, wanting to go on his own selfless way.
During that last meal in a restaurant just outside of Toronto’s Koreatown, he sincerely told me he was worried about his legacy. I laughed until I realized he was serious. I assured him he had nothing to worry about. Nevertheless, he had spent the trip back east talking to author friends and publishers about various project ideas he had. He wanted them to take up his ideas and work to produce them. Thus he gave me the idea of a ghost story featuring a Chinook demon and an Issei woman abused by her husband. He suggested it as a full-length novel and promised he would get it published once completed. I still held to the notion that he didn’t have to worry about his legacy. However, I was touched by his confidence in me. I further realized he wanted me to succeed and would always be in my corner.
That all changed with his untimely passing. I was shocked, and I do feel a profound emptiness. On one level, I will miss those wonderful dinners we had together. Oddly enough, I look for that Winter Blossom Soup with Pork now and again. Not to order but to smile that Jim’s spirit is still with me.
Above all else I and countless others will miss his steadfast support and his sage advice. He truly was a great man, a term I don’t use lightly since there are so few in the world today. In the next there are multitudes of them and I’m sure Jim is rising among them.