Chinese railway worker history comes to life in new Canadian children's book

Illustration by Jessica Warner/The Railroad Adventures of Chen Sing

The old saying is better late than never and that's what playwright George Chiang thought when he finally decided to create the children's book The Railroad Adventures of Chen Sing.

"It was sitting on the shelf, and you know what? I'm not going to live forever," Chiang told me in an interview over Skype from his home in Montreal.

The 68-page colour book just came out in early March and the Montreal-based actor/writer is feeling relieved and a little reticent. The book was almost two decades in the making.

"I waited it out," Chiang said. "I had the idea back in the 1990s but this book by Paul Yee [Ghost Train, 1996] had just come out and won the Governor General's award. No publisher was interested in another Chinese railroad children's book."

Chiang's book concerns a teenage boy who ventures to Canada's West to build the transcontinental railway through the Rockies. There are disasters, encounters with wild animals and friendships that mark Sing's journey. The book is based on the stories told to Chiang by Ike Sing when he was in his 80s, before he passed away in 2003. The stories were about Ike's life and that of his father, Chen.

"This book is important now because it highlights the relationship of the Chinese workers to the Indigenous people," explained Chiang.

"For example, this actually happened: Chen Sing's railroad crew was dying of scurvy but they just didn't know what it was back then. He was dispatched to find help and the natives taught him to make spruce tea, from which they could get vitamin C. They also gave him berries so the crew could eat them right away. The Indigenous people saved their lives."

Chiang and Ike Sing met by accident in Cuba -- the actor was on vacation and so was Sing. They ran into each other twice and it was on the plane back to Canada that the two got talking.

"I realized this guy was a masterful storyteller with a great memory of the past."

Months later, in the fall of 1995, Chiang was at Sing's Cawston, B.C. home and spent more than two weeks recording stories of his life and of his father -- who worked on the railway. Chiang returned the following spring to do more recordings.

"He had so many stories! I had to go because his wife was tired of me," Chiang said laughing.

The playwright had a few publishers interested over the years but things never seemed to gel. In fact, he ended up writing a Chinese opera-musical called The Golden Lotus, which launched in Hong Kong in 2014 to acclaim and nabbed the Hong Kong English Drama Award for "Best Original Work." Chiang told me he's now working on a railroad musical based on Chen Sing.

"I was a history major in university and none of the history I studied was about Asians…when I graduated, I decided I wanted to tell that history in whatever form I could."

Sing's relatives getting older

About four years ago, Chiang decided he needed to make the book -- Sing's relatives, many of whom are elderly, kept asking him if he had something to give them. He enlisted the help of an illustrator, a student at the time, and it took about six months for Jessica Warner to come up with about 80 illustrations. Chiang also had to get back to the "writing" board.

He had written it out as a series of children's books but then compiled and re-wrote it as a "chapter book" and put the stories together. Sing's sole son, Roland, also had a hand in making suggestions -- one of which was to keep as many of the illustrations as possible because he thought they were top quality.

"It's different than an opera because with a book, I have to be careful of grammar -- that was a challenge," revealed Chiang. "Also it's for children aged 7 to 11, so it has to read slower -- I had to cut out a lot of descriptions."

Perhaps the waiting played in Chiang's favour. Chiang had originally envisioned it as an e-book because publishers are reluctant to produce a book with so many illustrations but he found Friesen Press in British Columbia and the author was able to bring the story to life -- as a book you can hold.

The writer -- who had lived in Toronto with his family until last year -- has been invited to the Chen Sing Annual Family Reunion and Picnic in Vancouver in July where he hopes to hold court and hand out some books. More than 200 people attend annually.

"I wrote it for children because I didn't want just one generation to know this story. Good books last from generation to generation," he noted. "So I hope the schools also buy this book so it can be passed to new groups of kids every year."

There are more books in Chiang. The sequel, which he hopes to publish in the next couple of years, is The Pioneer Adventures of Chen Sing. And then after that, will be another one about Ike's experiences as a frontiersman in northern B.C.

"It's called 'Ike Sing Speaks' and I have the first draft written [and] the third book will be based on Ike's childhood but it will be fiction. That might be my one novel."

Find the book or e-book online.

June Chua is a Berlin-based journalist who regularly writes about the arts for rabble.ca.

Illustrations by Jessica Warner/The Railroad Adventures of Chen Sing

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