Tea And Memories With Vancouver Author Jen Sookfong Lee

Oct 29, 2017
Originally published on October 29, 2017 2:48 pm

It's raining — of course — when we meet novelist Jen Sookfong Lee outside the Ten Ren Tea shop in Vancouver's Chinatown. About 49% of the population here is ethnic Asian — and over half of that is Chinese. Lee's novels explore Chinese-Canadian identity, and the repercussions of immigration in the city of Vancouver.

Her grandfather was a Chinese immigrant who came to this city at the turn of the century — and we're meeting her because this used to be his barber shop. Most of the shop is taken up by shelves full of brightly packaged canisters of tea, and teapots, cups and saucers for sale. But there's a table in the back corner where the employees brew samples for customers.

We pick out some jasmine tea to try, and settle down to talk with Lee about the neighborhood. "My mom would bring me down here every weekend to buy groceries. And everywhere we went, people knew us, because my grandfather eventually became kind of a leader for his community, so everybody knew who we were and would talk to us then give me candy — you know, weird old people candy that kids typically don't like, this is how I remember this," she laughs.

As we speak, our tea is being brewed. It's a fairly elaborate ceremony, and at the end of it we're handed cups filled with pale green delight. Lee tells me more about her grandfather and the days when this location was still his barber shop. "For a long time, his shop was the only barber shop in this neighborhood, and I think he knew everybody's secrets, and he was one of the few men who was literate in both English and Chinese, so he ended up doing things like reading newspapers and telling people what the news was, sometimes filling out government forms for people. He was also one of the first Chinese men to apply for Canadian citizenship when it became legal to do so ... he was really central, I would say."


Interview Highlights

On the new wave of affluent Chinese immigrants in Vancouver

For my family, because we've been here for a long time, people got really used to the idea of Chinese immigrants being working class, having sort of blue-collar jobs and working really hard, and just being the sort of people that were relatable. But I think oftentimes there's a hierarchy of who is allowed to have money in Vancouver, so when you have affluent families coming from mainland China, that kind of disrupts what we think of what immigrants are supposed to be, or what model minority immigrants are supposed to be.

There's hostility, yeah, for sure. And I often see that, until I open my mouth. Because I don't have an accent, right? I have a Canadian accent. So if I walk into a shop, for example, people ... will be reluctant to help me until they hear my voice, because I speak English and I speak it very well. Or, you know ... people complain to me all the time about clothing shops that only carrying sizes that would only fit tiny little Asian women. You know, like me. But they don't mean me.

On America's racial tensions spilling over into Canada

I think that when we look at America, Canadians, we see these racial tensions and I find them really disturbing. Like, I don't know how I could live through something like that, because the racial tensions are so obvious and so visible. But what's happened in America has trickled a little bit to Canada too. There was a white supremacist — supposedly a white supremacist — rally, was supposed to happen here. It didn't happen. Only a couple of people showed up. And I remember reading about this rally being planned, and I remember having like these weird heart palpitations. And it's funny, cause that kind of racism is not something I ever saw growing up, and it's not part of what my generation has ever even experienced, not that level. But I think I was just so terrified of what that might look like, and I started thinking about my grandfather, and how people used to go through Chinatown and break windows and have marches, and beat up Asian men ... I'm really quite frightened of it, actually.

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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Our last conversation in Vancouver is with novelist Jen Sookfong Lee. I spoke with her as part of our ongoing series where we talk to regional authors about what the headlines miss about their area.

(SOUNDBITE OF RAINFALL)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's raining, of course, when we meet Lee outside the Ten Ren Tea Shop in Chinatown. Forty-nine percent of the population in Vancouver is ethnic Asian. And over half of that is Chinese. Lee's work draws on her connection to Vancouver's Chinatown and explores Chinese-Canadian identity. Her grandfather was a Chinese immigrant who came to this city at the turn of the century. And we're meeting her here because this used to be his barber shop. Most of the shop is now taken up by shelves of brightly packaged canisters of tea and tea pots - cups and saucers for sale. But there's a table in the back corner where the employees brew samples for customers.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Do you guys want some tea?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I would love some tea.

JEN SOOKFONG LEE: That would be great.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: What would you guys like?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We pick out some jasmine tea to try and settle down to talk with Lee about the neighborhood.

LEE: My mom would bring me down here every weekend to buy groceries. And everywhere we went, people knew us because my grandfather eventually became kind of a leader for his community. So everybody knew who we were and would talk to us and give me candy - you know, weird, old-people candy that, like, kids typically don't like (laughter). This is how I remember this.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: As we speak, our tea is being brewed. It's a fairly elaborate ceremony. And at the end of it, we're handed steaming cups of tea.

(SOUNDBITE OF POURING TEA)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's really good, very smooth.

Lee tells me more about her grandfather and the days when this tea shop was his barber shop.

LEE: For a long time, he was the - his shop was the only barber shop in this neighborhood. And I think he knew everybody's secrets. And he was one of the few men here who was literate in both English and Chinese. So he ended up doing things like reading newspapers and telling people what the news was and sometimes filling out government forms for people. He was also one of the first Chinese men to apply for Canadian citizenship when it became legal to do so. So he kind of helped people navigate through all those processes. So he was really, yeah, central, I would say. That's a good word.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Obviously, a lot of cities have Chinatowns and have Chinese communities that are vibrant and very important. What makes this Chinatown different? And what makes Vancouver different because of the influence of the Chinese?

LEE: I think, first of all, our - you know, our Chinese community here is really old and has been here for a long time. But I think what makes Vancouver really particular is the constant sort of renewal of the Chinese-Canadian community. So in the '80s, there were lots of people coming from Hong Kong. In the '90s there were people coming from Taiwan. And then now there are people coming from mainland China. And there's this constant, like, tension where the city gets used to whatever the community has become, and the new people from a new place come.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The newest immigrants are affluent...

LEE: Yes.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...And they're investing in the property market. And they're having that kind of impact. How has that changed the way that people receive them and view these new immigrants?

LEE: So for my family, because we've been here for a long time, people got really used to the idea of Chinese immigrants being, you know, working class to having sort of blue-collar jobs and working really hard and just being the sort of people that were relatable. But I think, oftentimes, there's a hierarchy of who is allowed to have money in Vancouver. So when you have affluent families coming from mainland China, that kind of disrupts what we think - what immigrants are supposed to be or what model minority immigrants are supposed to be. They have money. They don't need to work in the jobs that, like, say, my grandfather, my father had to work in. And that kind of disrupts how people view Chinese Canadians and how they relate to what they think we are.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: More hostility?

LEE: There's hostility, yeah, for sure. And I often see that until I open my mouth because I don't have an accent, right? I have a Canadian accent. So, you know, if I walk into a shop, for example, people will be reluctant - who work there reluctant to help me until they hear my voice because they know then I speak English. And I speak it very well. Or, you know, people complain to me all the time about clothing shops carrying sizes that would only fit tiny, little, Asian women - you know, like me. But they don't mean me, you know?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: When Americans look north to Canada, many Americans see a more racially harmonious country. I guess, for many reasons, there are - especially right now in America, it's a period of particular strife. Do you see that?

LEE: I think so. I think that when we look at America - Canadians - we see these racial tensions. And I find them really disturbing. Like, I don't know how I could live through something like that because that - because the racial tensions are so obvious and so visible. But, I mean, what's happened in America has trickled a little bit to Canada, too. There was a white supremacist - supposedly, a white supremacist rally was supposed to happen here. It didn't happen. Only a couple of people showed up.

And I remember reading about this rally being planned. And I remember having, like, these weird heart palpitations. And it's funny because that kind of racism is not something that I ever saw growing up. And it's not part of what my generation even has ever experienced - not that level. But I think I was just so terrified of what that might look like. And I started thinking about my grandfather and how people used to go through Chinatown and break windows and have marches and beat up Asian men.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And now you feel that that might be happening again.

LEE: Yeah, I feel - I'm really quite frightened of it, actually, yeah.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Vancouver novelist Jen Sookfong Lee - she's the author of "The Conjoined" and "The Better Mother." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.