the numbers i remember.
not long ago, i realized that once-favourite, often-used numerical combinations for The Girl Who Was The One, That Other Girl, and That Other, Other Girl are lost from memory. the consequences of drifting apart, getting older, and the conveniences of Google Contacts. just a few phone numbers remain, by heart: my brother, my dad’s restaurant, our family home in the ’80s, the Cinematheque office. and Jim Wong-Chu.
Jim was a renaissance man: writer, photographer, historian, pioneering radio host, founder of the Asian Canadian Writers’ Workshop, cultural engineer. if you’ve read a published work by any Asian-Canadian writer in the last 20 years, chances are Jim had a hand in making it happen. or a hard, double-handed push: i recently heard him described as the “Vito Corleone of Asian-Canadian literature.”
much time has passed since Jim and i talked over the phone or worked together — promoting Cheuk Kwan’s Chinese Restaurants at The Cinematheque was the last, i think — but the patterned movement for 604-322-#### remains, like a physically ingrained auto-dial. our conversations weren’t always about projects: we had mutual interests in Asian cinema, quality pirated DVDs, and cheap, tasty protein (his pro tip: lemongrass-marinated chicken from a Vietnamese grocery @ Fraser & Broadway, now gone). when he retired from Canada Post, i bugged him to get back into martial arts, which didn’t happen, but i’m certain he thought about it: 50% of his emails were kung fu-related, and after a trip to China, he gifted me a pressing from the Shaolin Temple. on a few occasions (not nearly enough), over “Chinese soul food” i listened to him spill on the turbulent inner workings of Vancouver’s Chinatown, past and present. he introduced me to proper teas, distinguished from the cheap stuff at restaurants. and once, he convinced me to show up at a group dim sum, with the hopes that a young woman and i might connect. (didn’t work.)
hustle & vision / trust & typography.
years earlier, i had no idea who this guy was. sitting across from me in a booth at Reno’s was a serious but unassuming middle-aged Chinese dude with glasses and a moustache who needed a graphic designer. Jim was producing Go For Broke Revue, a multi-day Asian cultural festival at the Firehall Arts Centre, and precursor to Asian Heritage Month. by the end of our meeting, i was caught up in his hustle and vision, calm and certainty, and a perpetual motion machine of ideas and stories about culture and community. the festival guide was a lo-fi affair: two colour cover, cheaper black & white throughout. it was just my third paying design gig ever and, more importantly, my introduction to the Asian-Canadian arts scene.
four years later, Jim brought me on as graphic designer/art director for Ricepaper, a nationally-distributed literary & arts magazine going through growing pains. the editorial staff, led by then-CBC intern, now-CBC producer Charlie Cho, was smart and passionate, but young and inexperienced. their previous designer had bailed, and the current production was delayed: not a good sign. my aesthetic at that time — experimental, de-constructive, intuitive, indulgent, and bratty — was incommensurate with the magazine’s decidedly conservative presentation. a punk rock guitarist added to a string ensemble.
as publisher, Jim was completely hands off. he allowed me the freedom to develop a visual language that included mixed type thrown around grid-less pages as a middle finger to the Swiss School, and being smart-ass about cultural marginalization by completely ignoring tacit and established “rules” for layout, like respecting margins and gutters. not once did he pull executive power, even though each page had the potential to alienate advertisers and piss off readership. he did, however, wisely suggest that page numbers could be useful, so i incorporated them in later issues. sort of.
Ricepaper’s redesign was met with raised eyebrows, a few thumbs up — and, oh yes: complaints. but never from Jim. maybe he understood what i was trying to do; he had an art school background. or maybe he trusted us kids to figure things out ourselves.
somewhere in the margins.
in March, while packing to move, i found an archive of my early work, including stashes of Ricepaper, Front Magazine and indie label vinyl records and cd packaging. i thought it would be humbling — and hilarious — to revisit some of these Ricepaper issues with Jim, 17 years after they went on sale, but i never got the chance. Jim suffered a stroke that month, and died in July.
when i look at these pages now, between sadness at Jim’s passing and eye-rolling at some of my choices, somewhere in the negative space and margins (despite my complete disregard for them) is gratitude for his extraordinary warmth of inclusion, his generosity of spirit.
during a post-seminar Q&A at Capilano University, i was asked, “how did you get into design?” i responded, “i fell into it” — true, a story for later. but to answer that question another way, with relevance and respect: “because Jim Wong-Chu took a chance on me.”
SELECTED LAYOUTS FROM RICEPAPER v6.2
how it began. the opening line of Angela MacKenzie’s punchy editorial gets a punchy type treatment. a taste of what was to come.
an actual lemon slice, scanned, accompanies the editorial in full, while “6.2” announces the volume and issue number. the Contents page (with no page numbers) features traditional Chinese medicine practitioner Mellissa Tong, as photographed by Ann Gonçalves somewhere on Commercial Drive.
details of production are slowly coming back to me: our printer was somewhere in Winnipeg, i believe. back then, it was far more economical to use a press in the middle of the country, over 2000 kilometres away, and have everything shipped back Vancouver, than to have the job done locally. the downside was no press check — and i can’t be entirely sure, but think we might have done the whole thing without seeing hard or soft proofs.
Andrea Gin’s piece on Miko Hoffman’s Birthday Machine, Japanese snacks and Eugene Choo sees pop culture emerging from the space shared between pages. gutters? what gutters? repetition of images, as you see here with Barb Yamazaki’s band photo, was a motif that would be played in other layouts, dramatically in some instances, especially if the subject or comp was cool or interesting. the other reason was merely pragmatic: most of the time, we didn’t have options for quality, usable photographic content. come on, i scanned a lemon just a few pages earlier.
the Casey Kasem call-out is funny, and works as an alternate title for Doretta Lau’s interview with Eric San. copy and images go right past safety to the edges, into/out of the gutters, while also occupying a single, thin alley. it’s a shame the printer wasn’t included on the masthead (and that i can’t remember the name) because they totally nailed the trim on these pages, getting content within 1.5mm of page edge, just what i wanted.
“I’ve spent the past few hours trying to put a man in a box, but he refuses to fit,” writes Regina Yung. here, Harry Hiro Aoki is so big he can’t fit on the page, and everything about him is “outside the box” in the centre. revisiting this reminds me of just how much text there was to handle vs. how few images we had. it’s a literary magazine, right? but at times, it was maddening. here’s what Mr. Aoki looked like, by the way. he’s the one playing stand-up bass.
the blanks in the sentences of Hiro Kanagawa’s article on identity and race aren’t words that are missing, or histrionic spacing choices. each one is actually the word “white” — but in white ink, and thus not visible when printed. the only readable instance is the large script in contrast to/placed against Sarah Shiu’s photos. this “white out” treatment happens two dozen times, forcing the reader to constantly (re)consider the word and its meaning when engaging with the text.
this is the original 3-page layout for the excerpt from Terry Woo’s Banana Boys — but it never went to press like that. taking a cue from Joy Division, i tore it apart, and inserted the pages in different sections of the magazine, far from each other. for readers, the actual spreads looked like this: