Big blue Western sky…Endless fields of wheat… A perfect Neil Young album cover shot. Even with the gorgeous warm amber prairie light, it’s so freakin’ cold that I can see my own breath inside the car as we make our way on a two-hour drive from Saskatoon airport to the remote town of Outlook.
We take our time stopping along the way to grab beauty shots of the prairie landscape. It’s magic hour by the time we arrive in Outlook. We drive down the main drag like two modern day gunslingers rolling into the sleepy prairie town. All that was missing were the tumbleweeds and the Chop Suey Western sound track. We arrive at the New Outlook Café, home of “Noisy Jim”. I’ve been looking forward to meeting this old Chinese Cowboy.
My mum nicknamed me Ngow Jai, which has a double meaning, Cowboy or Little Cow. It was old village superstition to hide the identity of the eldest son moi, from the demon so no harm would come to me. Some families gave their number one son female names… but my mum got creative and decided to disguise me as an insignificant Little Cow.
Everyone including my close friends find my whole cowboy obsession odd and eccentric because I’m Asian and not White. Yeah… I don’t look anything like John Wayne or Clint Eastwood, but the whole cowboy spirit has little to do with race. It has more to do with a state of mind, a pioneering spirit of risking the unknown against all odds. Since my ancestors risked the unknowns to build the railroad that eventually connected these wild Western frontiers to the rest of the country, I feel a kinship and birthright to their cowboy spirit. I’m the quintessential Banana Kowboy.
The gregarious cowboy, Noisy Jim, and I have a lot in common. He came to Canada as a “paper son”, as my father did. His adopted dad Chow Yun paid the Head Tax to get into Canada and worked as a houseboy serving rich white folks as my Great Grandfather did. We both came from a long line of family-run Chinese restaurants and speak the same singsong village dialect from Toishan County. I feel a warm familiar déjà vu like a long lost son on his home coming sojourn as I enter the New Outlook Café even though I’ve never been there before.
The odyssey eventually took me around the world to these other diaspora stories...
I went into this journey without any expectations. I believe that expectations only bring you disappointments. So…two cameras, thirteen countries, mega miles of digital media, more mileage than Che’s motorcycle can rev up, copious varieties of Chinese food, an extended global family and five years later… the "fat man’s feet" has shown me more than just the global extent of our culture. It has transcended my own ethnicity and cultural boundaries beyond my imagination. This series has made me much more confident in terms of who I am. I’ve been subconsciously living on the margins without borders for most of my life. But the series became the glue that solidified my experiences and now I’m making peace with that notion.
For more journal archives, please visit www.tissa.com/production%20diaries.html. Rice Bowl Diaries were my way of keeping balance or sane. Anyone’s questions it may address are as irrelevant as the answers are absurd. The film may be the only possible answer. And getting to it might mean little to anyone but us. I hope to find strength in recollecting my experiences as they had happened… and hopefully by sharing and exposing my vulnerabilities to you. My memories or thoughts in Rice Bowl Diaries might only have resonance then because they’ve been the things helping me move on.
Peace & Rice.