"As Chinatowns all over the country become gentrified and disappear, Denison Avenue provides an important reminder of what is being lost."
Author Christina Wong explains why she wrote Denison Avenue in a brief introduction. Focusing on a neighborhood she knows well, she wants "to pay homage . . . before much of what we know disappears." The story that follows isn't a conventional narrative. Instead, Wong moves from prose poems to descriptions and shifting points of view—all at a granular level of detail. The result is a work that feels more like an anthropological study in its careful looking or an act of commemoration rather than a dramatic story.
On the face of it, the plot is set into motion when an elderly man is hit by a speeding car, later dying in the hospital. The rest of the book follows his widow in the aftermath of the loss as she moves through her neighborhood. It's not a linear journey, however, as the widow's memories of the past intersect with her present situation. Once again, this gives the story a granular feel, with layers of storytelling and experience pieced together, just as the community the woman lives in has its own rich strata.
A distinctive part of this is Wong's use of language. Throughout the book, Cantonese and Toisan dialect are used, written first in transliteration, then translated. The scene in the hospital after the accident is a good example:
"You had one of the beds by the window and the view looked towards Chinatown. It was as if you each wanted to see each other one last time.
The sky was clear; it was a bright blue. Like the colour of a blue jay, as you would say. The afternoon sun was beginning to shine, warming the room.
I brought the chair closer to your bed. 'Ah See Hei, lay nun nun muh?' [Are you warm?]
You have lost weight since you came.
Your checks, no longer rosy.
Your face, paler.
Your hair, even more disheveled.
Bruises and cuts still visible.
But if you woke up now, I know you would say, 'Gnoi ho gnor.' [I'm so hungry.]
And you would ask for fan see, hom sui gowk, far sang, or maybe ahn tat.
Then with a playful smile, you would take my hand and say, 'Ah Cho Sum, laaaaaay, mm swuy deem seem. Gnoi mo see." [See, there's no need to worry. I'm okay.]
Some readers may find this adds rich color to the book. Others may find it jarring, slowing down the action, forcing a halting rhythm to each conversation. Either way, it feels intrinsic to the storytelling, part of the texture of the world evoked here.
The ink drawings by Daniel Innes are similarly dense with detail, demanding slow, careful regard. Both Innes and Wong show their devotion to this vanishing world in their careful recreating of it in words and images. As Chinatowns all over the country become gentrified and disappear, Denison Avenue provides an important reminder of what is being lost.