Yee, Paul

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Yee, Paul

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Paul Yee, a Canadian writer and historian, was born in Spalding, Saskatchewan, in 1956. His father, Gordon Yee (1905-1957), emigrated from China to Canada in 1922. In 1951, four years after the Government of Canada repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act, Yee’s mother, Gum May Yee (1914-1958), immigrated to Canada to join Gordon Yee in Naicam, Saskatchewan, where he ran a café.

Following the deaths of Paul Yee’s parents, Yee’s mother’s brother Foon Wong (1894-1969) and Wong’s wife Lillian Ho Wong (1895-1985) adopted Yee and his elder brother Vernon and brought them up in Vancouver, British Columbia.

As a child and young adult, Yee attended Lord Strathcona Elementary School and Britannia Secondary School, from which he graduated in 1974. Yee also attend Mon Keang Chinese School, where he studied Cantonese. In 1974, Yee matriculated at the University of British Columbia (UBC), where he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in history (1978) followed by a Master of Arts degree in Canadian history (1983). While at UBC, Yee took courses in Mandarin and Japanese. In the early 1980s, Yee completed coursework in archival administration from the University of Alberta. In 1983, he completed the archives course offered by the Public Archives of Canada (now Library and Archives Canada).

Yee’s work as a cultural and social activist began when one of his teachers at Britannia Secondary School encouraged him to join the organizing committee for a conference on identity and awareness for Chinese Canadian youth. Yee worked on two more such conferences while an undergraduate at UBC.

In 1976, inspired by a suggestion made at one of these conferences, Yee and several other young Chinese Canadians established the Pender Guy Radio Collective, which produced a weekly program on Vancouver Co-operative Radio until 1981.

From 1974 to 1988, Yee was active with several other Vancouver-based cultural organizations, including the Chinese Cultural Centre of Vancouver, Katari Taiko, and the Asian Canadian Writers Workshop. As a member of the latter group, Yee co-edited and published essays, poetry, and short stories in the Inalienable Rice anthology (1979) and the Vancouver edition of Asianadian magazine (1980).

Yee worked for the City of Vancouver Archives beginning in 1979, first as a summer student and later as a full-time archivist, writing poetry and prose in his spare time.

In 1981, publisher James Lorimer & Company asked Yee to write a book of stories about children living in Vancouver Chinatown. These stories were published as the book Teach Me to Fly, Skyfighter and Other Stories. In 1986, Lorimer published Yee’s second book, a historical novel for children titled The Curses of Third Uncle. Yee has gone on to publish many more works of fiction for children, including short story collections such as Tales from Gold Mountain (1989) and What Happened This Summer (2006); novels such as Breakaway (1994); and picture books such as Ghost Train (1996). ) Ghost Train won the Governor General’s Award for English-language children’s literature (text) in 1996 and was produced as a play by Toronto-based Young People’s Theatre in 2001. In addition, two of Yee’s stories have been into animated films by the National Film Board of Canada.

From 1985 to 1987, Yee served as chair of the committee that mounted a major exhibit at the Chinese Cultural Centre in celebration of Vancouver’s centennial. Titled Saltwater City, the exhibit was the first to assemble and display artifacts, photographs, oral histories, and written records of immigrant and native-born Chinese Canadians living in Vancouver in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Yee’s book based on the exhibit, Saltwater City: an Illustrated History of the Chinese in Vancouver, was published in 1988, winning the Vancouver Book Award in 1989. Yee's updated version of the book was published in 2006. He has written two more history books, Struggle and Hope (1996), about the Chinese living across Canada, and Chinatown (2005), about Chinese communities in Victoria, Vancouver, Calgary, Winnipeg, Winnipeg, Ottawa, Toronto, Montreal, and Halifax.

Yee moved to Toronto in 1988 to work as the multicultural coordinator for the Archives of Ontario. In 1992, he joined Ontario’s Ministry of Citizenship as a policy analyst, and in 1997 he left public service to write full-time. He continues to live and work in Toronto.


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