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A Superior Man

A Superior Man

By Paul Yee
Categories: History, Canada, British Columbia, Fiction
Paperback : 9781551525907, 384 pages, 2015
Read Excerpt (PDF)


Paul Yee's first novel for adults: an historical account of a Chinese man on a journey to find the mother of his son.

For more than thirty years, Paul Yee has written about his Chinese-Canadian heritage in award-winning books for young readers as well as adult non-fiction. Here, in his first work of fiction for adults, he takes us on a harrowing journey into a milestone event of Canadian history: the use of Chinese coolies to help build the Canadian Pacific Railway in British Columbia in hazardous conditions.

After the CPR is built in 1885, Yang Hok, a former coolie, treks along the railway to return his half-Chinese/half-Native son to the boy's mother and finds himself immersed in the conflicts arising from road-building among the Chinese and Native peoples. Hok's guide on the often perilous trip, Sam Bing Lew, also of mixed Chinese-Native blood, urges Hok to take his son to China, while Hok has dreams of finding fortune in America. The two men agree on little, as many issues fester between Chinese and Natives at a time when both races were disdained as inferior by whites ("redbeards").

This far-reaching novel crackles with the brutal, visceral energy of the time--a period marked by contraband, illegal gambling, disfigurement, and death. It also depicts the bawdy world of Chinese "bachelors," whose families remained in China while they worked in Canada, and who enjoyed more freedom to live their lives without restraint. Yang Hok is not an easy man to like; but through the blood and sweat of his experience, he aspires to become the "superior man" he knows he should be.

Boldly frank and steeped in history, A Superior Man paints a vivid portrait of the Chinese-Canadian experience in the 19th century.


A delightful, captivating, and lively novel that is especially welcome for its rare depiction of the fragile relationship between the Chinese sojourners and the First Nations people. BC Bookworld

- BC Bookworld

A riveting story and fitting tribute to the harsh and complex lives of Chinese railroad workers as told by a master storyteller with an impressive knowledge of Chinese and Native Canadian history, literature, and culture. The novel is full of Chinese proverbs and graphic language, and rich with detailed descriptions of places, people, and events. A most enjoyable and informative read. -Judy Yung, Professor Emerita of American Studies, University of California, Santa Cruz

- Judy Yung

Paul Yee's A Superior Man is a superior foray into historical fiction. The book traces with poignant acuity one of the most hidden contact zones of Chinese Canadian experience in Gam Saan (Gold Mountain). As Chinese railway labourers and gold seekers along the Fraser River encounter Red Beards and Natives, their hybrid and racialized mashups display the raw undercurrents framing this colonized land. The storytelling in Paul Yee's novel reveals how colonial encounters get staged in an interactive and improvisatory drama of miscegenation and immigrant desire. He has given our memory a great gift through his incisive research into this hyphenated space, not the least of which is his delightful use of the poetics of the proverbs underlying the Chinese Canadian imagination. -Fred Wah, Canada's former Parliamentary Poet Laureate

- Fred Wah

Paul Yee's adrenaline-fueled story is life lived on a knife's edge -- sometimes literally -- in telling what a Chinese railway coolie intends to do days before returning to China: deliver his young son, of mixed Chinese-Native blood, to the boy's mother. Set in a time of lawless attitudes bred of racism, not just against the Chinese but also against Natives and those of mixed-blood, A Superior Man brings to life a coolie's daily travails, where the weight of expectations of those he's left behind in China and the fear of failure blur the line between honor and treachery. Above all, Paul Yee has made an important and valuable addition to the historical record of the Chinese coolie's role in the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway, helping to right a wrong of omission of more than a century. -Denise Chong, author of The Concubine's Children and Lives of the Family

- Denise Chong

Yee gives readers a raw, gritty, and skillfully written behind-the-scenes look at the lives of early Chinese immigrants. -Library Journal

- Library Journal

Yee's tale is as much a story of self-discovery as a portrait of a time and place. In his quest to unburden himself of his son Peter, Hok is revealed to be in a constant state of conflict. Though he is rude, boastful, self-serving, and prone to self-pity, in rare moments he also shows vulnerability and the capacity to be the 'superior' man he aims to be: honorable, strong, smart, successful, and caring. -Quill and Quire

- Quill and Quire

Truth is History and History Truth, and neither can be gussied up nor glossed over. In A Superior Man, Paul Yee wastes no page worrying about being politically correct. Instead, he's politically scrupulous, describing -- with characteristic dexterity--the nasty labour of railroad construction, the brutish suppression of Chinese-Canadian men once they had completed blasting an iron road through Gold Mountain, and the tense and intense relationships among Chinese men, Native women, and "redbeards" (white men), the bosses, the railway tycoons, and the Anglo imperialist racialists. Miraculously, Yee is able to takethe often ugly facts of History and its movers and shakers, its peons and oppressed, and weave an epic tapestry of unforgettable (because realistic) personalities, detailed dilemmas of love in a time of cholera and anti-"coolie"hysteria, and vivid recreation of migrant, Chinese overseasculture--and Sino-Anglo speech. The historical freight neverslows the express locomotive that is this novel, that pulls one in and carries one along, easily, unstoppably, through a landscape of story as marvelous and as perilous as The Rockies. Kudos to Paul Yee on his successful revelation of the Native and Chinese struggles and survival that give Canada, even now, a cosmopolitan citizenry. Likenesses? Think Garcia Marquez in scope, but Hemingway in directness. A Superior Man is a superb novel. -George Elliott Clarke, author of Whylah Falls and George & Rue

- George Elliott Clarke

A Superior Man is the work of a first-rank storyteller. In it, Paul Yee brings to life the Chinese railway experience in 19th century British Columbia with an impressive attention to detail and understanding of Chinese culture. His re-telling of the immigrant experience is taut, visceral, and ultimately redemptive. -Kevin Chong, author of Baroque-a-Nova and Northern Dancer

- Kevin Chong

Like Joy Kogawa and Wayson Choy, Yee has enriched our sense of B. C. history by bringing forward the too often silenced voices and experiences of new residents who didn't come from the dominant European ancestry settler gene pool.
Taken together with the work of First Nations artists like Lee Maracle and African-Canadians like Wayde Compton, they provide a valuable and more accurate account of the last few centuries on this long-settled and long-suffering territory. -Vancouver Sun

- Vancouver Sun

A roiling tale of innuendo, hypocrisy, and saving face, where almost nothing should be taken at face value . .. Yang Hok is a true antihero, difficult to like, trying to make good. It's compelling, this path to becoming a superior man. -The Globe and Mail

- The Globe and Mail