Canadian eco-architect David H.T. Wong‘s debut defies simple categorization: while clearly a graphic work for younger readers (much of the language is soooo totally tweenage vernacular), Escape covers some 200 years of history through the fictional story of a Chinese Canadian American family, also named Wong, whose experiences are based “on my own family’s experiences, and was inspired by the many elders and friends I’ve been fortunate to meet along my own journey of discovery,” Wong explains in his “Preface.” And because “racism knows no boundaries,” Wong weaves together the histories of both sides of the northern border: “The early Chinese did not differentiate between Canada and the United States. … The new continent was one: It was Gam Saan [Gold Mountain], the strange new land.”
At the suggestion of Grandma Wong, three teenagers head to the Museum of Migration in Vancouver, home of the “Iron Chink,” an early 1900s canning machine that replaced hundreds of mostly Chinese workers. Billy, the visibly non-Asian friend, reacts to the disturbing name with laughter while making slanty eyes with his fingers (some friend, huh?). After being duly chastised, the kids get a sobering history lesson from a tearful Grandma: “The Iron Chink … it represents a people’s pain and sadness. All we wanted was work. But we were Chinese … they said we were not like them. We were called all sorts of names … and Chinese people in this country were killed – only because they were ‘different.'”
The Wong family history, which began in the Americas 150 years ago, bears witness to the abusive conditions of building the most difficult sections of the U.S. Transcontinental Railroad, then completing the western section of the Canadian Pacific Railway, the deadly competition during the Gold Rush, and the often murderous purgings from one community after another. With rigid anti-immigration laws in both the U.S. and Canada, the first American Wong’s only opportunity for a family is a result of happenstance, when he adopts a young man also named Wong, who has just lost his brother to brutal overwork. The generations criss-cross the shared border, seeking refuge and work wherever they can find either (rarely both), losing loved ones, fighting wars, and proving their loyalties. Race-based immigration laws finally change (1965 in the U.S., 1967 in Canada), and even more decades pass before official apologies are rendered for the institutionalized racism of Canada’s Head Tax and Exclusion Laws in 2006, and the Resolution of Regret over the U.S. Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 passes in 2011 (U.S. Senate) and 2012 (U.S. House of Representatives).
Wong proves that pictures can indeed hold thousands (and thousands!) of words, capturing 200+ years of history in as many pages; he also includes a “Chinglish” glossary, a timeline that overlaps China and Gam Saan, maps, extensive notes, and a thorough bibliography. In his “Afterword,” he distinguishes his fictions from facts, including his penultimate chapter, “Old Foes, New Relations,” which he based on the life of WWII veteran Frank Wong whose daughter married a Canadian “whose father served for the Nazi regime”!
Beyond the print, Wong reveals in the book’s blog how his original title of The Iron Chink got nixed because of a (then-) Knicks incident – the now-infamous ‘Chink in the Armor’-Linsanity media blow-up. How soberingly ironic that even after centuries, that single word continues to cause such angry, hurtful controversy.
Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult