Edmonton Chinese Garden
By Marty Chan
Nothing fills my heart with dread more than the question, “Where are you from?” As a Chinese-Canadian, I know that when I answer “Alberta,” this will prompt the inevitable follow-up query: “no, where are you really from?”
As I stand on the stone bridge in Edmonton’s Chinese Garden, I wonder if I belong in this city. The dozen Chinese zodiac statues which ring the pond offer little help. The dragon and tiger sculptures look as out of place in Louise McKinney Park as I do.
Even though I was born and raised in Alberta, I’ve felt like a visitor ever since I was young. The only Chinese kid at a Morinville school, I was the lone button in pocketful of twoonies. The only time I didn’t feel out of place was on the Sundays my parents made their weekly pilgrimage to Chinatown. The highlight of the outing was dim sum.
I remember fidgeting in my heavy green corduroy pants while I waited on the stairs leading up to the second-floor restaurant. I willed the seated customers to eat faster so we could get our table. My mom must have sensed my impatience, because she gave me two quarters and sent me to the Chinese grocery store below to kill time.
The sharp aroma of thousand-year-old eggs greeted my nose as I hurried into the store. I shimmied between the clay pot of pungent eggs and a plastic tub of floating tofu patties in search of Haw Flakes, sweet purple disks of gummy hawthorn goodness.
Next to the candy were a collection of Chinese magazines. When I couldn’t decipher the writing on the covers, it dawned on me that I was a visitor in this world. In my mind, my true home was across Jasper Avenue in a drugstore that housed a treasure trove of comics. There, I could read about Superman and lose myself in a world where aliens were revered as heroes.
But the drugstore owner had no patience for me or my purple-stained fingers. My Haw Flakes and I were not welcome in the store. I’d never find Haw Flakes in the drugstore, nor would I ever see Superman swoop into the Chinese grocery store. The two businesses were separated by a cultural gap wider than the street between them, and I was stuck somewhere in the middle.
Over the decades, the gap has narrowed. The City of Edmonton has made room in the river valley for this tribute to the Chinese immigrants who helped build the railroad. As I glance at the skyline from the garden, I’m taken by the fact that the park is just a few hundred metres from the Chinatown of my youth.
A poetic dedication to the Chinese Garden is inscribed on the open pages of a stone book near the gazebo; one page for Chinese characters and the other for the English translation. I am like the stone book. I write about my Chinese heritage in plays, books and radio programs; the stories are about the Chinese, but the writing is in English.
Like the Chinese Garden, it took great effort for me to gain acceptance as a writer. In the face of countless rejection letters and patronizing explanations about why there was no audience for my stories, I persevered and reached out to young readers with books like The Mystery of the Frozen Brains in the hope that kids would be colour blind when it came to the my characters’ racial backgrounds. To my delight, audiences from all cultures have embraced my stories.
Encouraged by this acceptance, I wrote The Forbidden Phoenix, a musical with composer Robert Walsh, to tell the story of the early Chinese immigrants who helped build the railroad and for whom the garden is dedicated. In my research, I learned these immigrants faced the same struggle for acceptance as I did. Amid the heartache, however, I also found an enduring spirit of perseverance.
The Chinese Garden stands as a testament to these early immigrants but for me, it will always serve as a reminder that what I’ve struggled so hard to find has been right under my nose all along. This is my home.
Reprinted with permission of Legacy, Alberta's Magazine for New Heritage, Arts, & Culture, Summer 2009.
Photo Credit: Emily Dutton
Marty Chan is a playwright, radio writer, television story editor, and young adult author. His work has been produced in New York City and throughout Canada. Marty's story, "Driven", will appear in an Asian Canadian collection of short stories called Henry Chow and Other Stories (May 2010). In October 2010, his latest book, The Mystery of the Cyber Bully, will launch.