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Tea And Memories With Vancouver Author Jen Sookfong Lee

Author Jen Sookfong Lee in front of the Vancouver tea shop where her grandfather's barber shop once stood.
Author Jen Sookfong Lee in front of the Vancouver tea shop where her grandfather's barber shop once stood.

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.

For a long time, his shop was the only barber shop in this neighborhood, and I think he knew everybody's secrets.

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 is the host of Weekend Edition Sunday and one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. She is infamous in the IT department of NPR for losing laptops to bullets, hurricanes, and bomb blasts.