By Ann Y.K. Choi
As an outsider looking in, our neighbourhood in the 1980s could be perceived as sketchy with the Madonna-inspired prostitutes sitting on the side steps of the imposing Ukrainian church at the corner of Queen and Bellwoods, and the homeless asking for loose change outside our variety store. Our best sellers really did include cigarettes and condoms.
But for my family and the characters in Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety, the neighbourhood was a vibrant reflection of the residents and our working-class background. The store allowed us to connect with everyone from immigrant families to starving artists–writers, musicians, and actors–who lived on white bread and cola but paid for brand named foods for their pets. And, although we were robbed frequently and our home vandalized, we felt a strong sense of belonging. People looked out for each other. One vivid memory of this was when someone set the entrance to our apartment (above the store) on fire in the middle of the night. One of the prostitutes who worked on our street corner called 911 and rescued us.
I was surprised to hear that any novel set in the 80s is now considered historical fiction. But that got me thinking about how much the city has changed.
Gone are the matchbox movie theatres and Mr. Greenjeans at the Eaton Centre. Queen Video used to be just west of the store where we rented movies like Blade Runner and The Gremlins on beta and VHS tapes. But change has also brought about shifts in Toronto’s cultural landscape. We now have 24-hour Korean supermarkets the size of Loblaws, and Korean cosmetics in high-end shops like Sephora. Many of us, who spent the 80s trying to reconcile our dual identities as Korean children at home and “Canadian” just about everywhere else, have since come to embrace our Korean selves as adults. Our children now have role models of Korean descent to inspire them. I still can’t believe there is even a national TV show about a Korean immigrant family on CBC!
Even though I live in the north end of Toronto, I find myself making my way down to the Trinity Bellwoods neighbourhood regularly. I still feel quite connected to that part of the city. I have learned that people can look at the same thing and have different perspectives and experiences–all of them being right. I hope that my readers can gain some insight into a different Toronto in the 80s by allowing themselves to view the world from behind our variety store counter.
Originally from South Korea, Ann Y.K. Choi immigrated to Canada in 1975. She is a graduate of the Humber School for Writers and the Creative Writing Certificate Program at the University of Toronto. Most recently, she completed an MFA in Creative Writing at National University in San Diego, California. Her debut novel, Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety, was a finalist for the Toronto Book Award. The story, set in the 1980s, was inspired by her experiences working in her family-run variety store. A teacher with the York Region District School Board, Ann lives in Toronto with her husband and daughter.
Author Vincent Lam will interview Choi at the CNE for IFOA @ the CNE on August 24 at 6PM. The event is free with a CNE admission.
For more info, click here.