My Uncle Jim

Outlook, Saskatchewan, Canada
January 12, 2000

It’s a typical day for Jim at the café. He’s up at the crack of dawn serving breakfast like he’s done most of his life. I track him with my Steadicam as he goes about his routine.

On most shoots, I’m to listen, react and document like a fly on a wall. But it’s hard not to interact with Jim. He would shout at me the odd times like when he wants to know how I want my eggs. But most of the time, he’s totally non-self-conscious and very natural. He makes me feel like I’m just having a nice visit with my long lost uncle. I can tell this is gonna be a great shoot.

Jim Kook with baseball cap
Jim Kook with baseball cap

As I follow Jim around, it dawned on me that he is someone I’ve aspired to be. A chameleon, a Cowboy, a Chinaman, a Canadian, sometimes a Native American or just some dude from Hong Kong. Jim walks his own theatre of life. He can be anyone he wishes to be at any given moment. He can be so Chinese one minute and be one of the good ol’ boys the next. I wonder if his secret is “by treating folks the same regardless of where they came from… they’ll treat you the same”.

We take a drive to Rosedale Cemetery in Moose Jaw with Jim and his bobsie twin Chow Fong. They look like Almer Fud from the Looney Tunes with their floppy Canuck winter duds. Their funny-cartooned chatter of broken Chinglish will probably need some hardcore subtitling.

Death has a strange dichotomy in our culture. I’ve had this experience with my own parents. They’re obsessed with the preparation of it but don’t wanna talk about it. Jim is no different. I thought it would be a bad idea to confront him about death at the cemetery. But Cheuk wanted the footage. It worked out OK and was actually quite amusing the way Jim kept dodging Cheuk’s questions and running away from his father’s grave and the camera. Sure was cold though! My camera was still frozen when we got back to our pit stop in Moose Jaw.

We stopped in Moose Jaw on the way back and visited the Quan’s, friends of Jim that run the National Café. While we were there, I heard fragmented tales of secret tunnels with hidden passageways from Chinese businesses along the main drag leading into the old CPR station. These tunnels were apparently built by early Chinese railroad pioneers and later taken over by the infamous American gangster Al Capone when he was on the run from the FBI. I am curious of their fate. Why did these Chinese built the tunnels? Did they leave on their own or were they massacre by the notorious gangster in their plight? This piece of history was so tight that not even “the walking encyclopaedia of Chinese Canadian history”, Jim Wong-Chu, had any tips on it.

We leave for Toronto this morning. I felt this in explainable melancholic sadness… the same feelings I get when I say goodbye to my uncles in China like I might not get to see them again-uncles that I’ve only spent a few days with… but those few days felt like a precious lifetime.