Musician and songwriter Shon Wong thinks of Vancouver’s Chinatown as his back yard. It’s one of the few places in the world where he feels comfortable regardless of what’s going on in his life.
“I just remember going to Chinatown as a kid with my mom when it was in its heyday in the ’80s,” Wong tells Pancouver over Zoom. “Groceries were being sold all over. That’s where you would go to get your produce and all your food.”
His mom would visit one merchant for oranges, another for parsley, and yet another for the next food item on her list.
“You would go to different stores to get different things,” Wong recalls.
On Friday (November 3), Wong’s band, Son of James, will co-produce Once Upon a Time on a Chinatown Night with Vancouver Moving Theatre as part of the Downtown Eastside Heart of the City Festival. It follows Wong’s search for family, identity, and purpose.
“It’s a storybook brought to life and narrated while weaving together video images, photos, and live music,” Wong says.
The narrator is storyteller and former CBC broadcaster Ramona Mar. Historical visual projection will be provided by Elwin Xie.
Meanwhile, Wong plans to have his entire “Chynatruckerfunk” band on-stage. That includes erhu player Anna Fang and guzheng player Michelle Kwan. They’ll be joined by veteran Vancouver-born, Chinese-Ukrainian guitarist Henry Young, who used to play with Nina Simone.
“We’ll have a nice rug—like a living room—where the musicians are going to be,” Wong reveals. “Then, there’s going to be a projector where the videos and images are going to be played.”
Watch this promo video for Once Upon a Time on a Chinatown Night.
Wong traces roots of show back to 2018
It comes in the wake of a difficult period for many Chinese Canadians, including Wong. He was appalled by a stunning increase in anti-Asian hate crimes during the pandemic. And this scourge, including a 717 percent rise in Vancouver in 2020, was one of the things that motivated him to investigate his family’s deep Canadian roots.
Wong says the origins of the show go back to 2018. That’s when then-mayor Gregor Robertson delivered the City of Vancouver’s official apology to the Chinese community for historical discrimination.
“I rise today to acknowledge the darkness and suffering that anti-Chinese policies and legislation caused, and to vow that never again will Mayor and Council stand aside in the face of racism,” Robertson said.
“We will stand up to those who would use racial discrimination to divide us,” the then-mayor continued, “and we vow each and every day to challenge and combat intolerance, and to be vigilant against the rise of prejudice and discrimination.”
Wong says that this apology paralleled another heartwarming story that year—the launch of his Vancouver Chinatown rock band, Son of James. Wong is known as a performer as Son of James, because his deceased father’s name was James. And the band’s first EP, “Dragons in the Sky” was released in 2018.
That same year, the band performed at the Vancouver Asian Film Festival opening gala. Then in early 2019, it played the first Lunar New Year party at the Roxy Vancouver. This marked the rise of a new form of Chinese Canadian music, combining funk and rock with Asian instruments.
“We were getting gigs; we were getting better,” Wong says.
Watch Son of James perform “Living Under the C”.
Band responds to bigotry
But suddenly, the pandemic hit and the entire live music scene shut down. That was followed by the stunning spike in anti-Asian hate crimes.
As bad as this was, Wong and his bandmates persevered. They recorded “Mama Never Told Me”, which was a tribute to mothers. It was Wong’s response to the brutal bigotry, which often targeted women, including elderly women.
“They’re not coming after guys like me,” Wong told Global News BC. “They’re picking on women and seniors and that’s what really bugs me about the whole thing—it’s so cowardly.”
Speaking to Pancouver, Wong links the rise in hate crime to high housing prices.
“I have a lot of realtor friends,” he says. “They’ll tell you a lot of the housing price [increase] is because there was a lot of trust-fund babies that had inheritances.”
When Pancouver asks if the media played a role in whipping up anti-Asian hate by the way various outlets covered housing, he replies: “They definitely sculp the story.”
Watch the video for “Mama Never Told Me”.
An authentic Chinatown story
At the same time, it disgusted Wong that his Chinese Canadian identity was being questioned. He recalls people were being told to go back to China when the community had existed in Vancouver since the 19th century.
Wong’s grandfather moved to Canada in 1907. Coincidentally, this was the same year that a racist white mob went on a rampage in Chinatown. Wong’s dad was born in Cranbrook 20 years later. Wong was born in Vancouver when his own father was 60 years old.
The upcoming event, Once Upon a Time on Chinatown Night, reveals what Wong discovered while researching his family history.
“Without giving too much of the story away, I dig up all these family secrets,” he says. “It’s a real Chinatown story about a real Chinatown family.”
The Downtown Eastside Heart of the City Festival will present Once Upon a Time on a Chinatown Night at 7:30 p.m. on Friday (November 3) at Stretch Studio (2nd floor, 180 East Pender Street). This venue is not wheelchair-accessible. For tickets and information, visit the festival website.