Paul Yee speaks about the role of fiction in re-telling Chinese History in Canada

A book is fanned open
A book is fanned open

On Jan. 16, York’s Canadian Writers in Person course presented Paul Yee reading from his book, A Superior Man. York teaching assistant Dana Patrascu-Kingsley sent the following report to YFile.

Paul Yee
Paul Yee

Paul Yee visited York University on Jan. 16 to talk about his historical novel, A Superior Man, as part of the Canadian Writers in Person series.

Yee has an undergraduate and graduate degree in Canadian History and has worked as an archivist at City of Vancouver Archives (1979-1987) and at Archives of Ontario (1988-1991). His writing includes adult and youth fiction, children’s stories, and history books.

A Superior Man is a novel set in 1880s British Columbia and told from the point of view of Yang Hok, who is trying to deal with his mixed-race son and return to China. Through his journey and attempts to return the son to his Indigenous mother, the reader encounters  many other Chinese workers and witness snippets of their day to day life in Canada.

The Globe and Mail review notes: “It’s a thoroughly unsentimental novel about finding home: Yang has escaped crushing familial expectations – for now – but only amid the deadly work and searing racism of Canada. He’s a true antihero, difficult to like, trying to make good. It’s compelling, this path to becoming a superior man.”

During his visit to York University, the author talked about his early life in Vancouver’s Chinatown, and the extensive research he did on Chinese history in Canada. His books draw on both his lived experiences and on this research.

Yee explained why he set his novel in the past and set in at the time of the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway. “The building of the CPR is the signature event of Chinese-Canadian history, but without the signatures,” he said, noting that while we now know that Chinese workers were instrumental in the building of the CPR in British Columbia, the official records are very sparse.

“We don’t know how many workers came, how many quit, how many died, how many returned home. We don’t know the thoughts and feelings of these people,” said Yee. His book leads the reader to imagine the worlds of the Chinese workers who came to build the railway.

Yee’s writing draws on and supplements the historical record and cultivates a fuller  understanding of the lives of early Chinese Canadians.

Soraya Peerbaye will be coming to the Canadian Writers in Person reading series on Jan. 30. She will discuss her collection of poetry Tell.

Readings are free and open to any member of the public. For more information, contact Professor Leslie Sanders at or Professor Gail Vanstone at All readings are held Tuesdays from 7 to 9pm in Room 206, Accolade West Building, Keele campus.