Kiam-Kim is three years old when he arrives by ship at Gold Mountain with his father and his grandmother, Poh-Poh, the Old One. It is 1926, and because of famine and civil war in China, they have left their village in Toishan province to become the new family of Third Uncle, a wealthy businessman whose own wife and son are dead. The place known as Gold Mountain is Vancouver, Canada, and Third Uncle needs help in his large Chinatown warehouse. Canada's 1923 Chinese Exclusion Act forces them, and many others, to use false documents, or ghost papers, to get past the 'immigration demons' and become Third Uncle's Gold Mountain family.
This is the beginning of 'All That Matters', the eagerly anticipated sequel to Wayson Choy's bestselling first novel, 'The Jade Peony'. The author takes us once again to the Vancouver of the 1930s and 1940s to follow the lives of the Chen family, this time through the experiences of First Son, Kiam-Kim, whose childhood and adolescence in a strict but caring Chinatown family is at once strange and familiar to us.
Like many families around them, they must survive in unsavoury surroundings. Since the closing down of the railroad work camps, Chinatown is filled with unemployed labourers who live in poor rooming-houses. Sea winds fill the rooms with acrid smoke from the mills and refineries of False Creek, and freight trains shake their windows at night with noises the Old One says are dragons playing. Yet this is a land where the Chen family will not starve; where they will be able to keep a girl baby, and not sell her into servitude as was the Old One, whose back is scarred from whippings.
In their new life, however, there is a constant struggle to balance the new Gold Mountain ideas with the old traditions and knowledge of China. Old One doesn't like Kiam-Kim to speak English, and Kiam-Kim knows that to be without manners, without a sense of correct social ritual, is to bring dishonour to one's family. Children who lose their 'Chinese brains' are called 'bamboo stumps' by the elders because of the hollow emptiness within, so Kiam-Kim must study hard at Chinese school as well as English school. He must help Poh-Poh to cook for her mahjong ladies, and her hard knuckles rap his head when he misbehaves.
Although Poh-Poh urges him to stick with his own kind and not let non-Chinese 'barbarians' into the house, Kiam-Kim forges a lasting friendship with Jack O'Connor, the Irish boy next door. He also has a girlfriend, Jenny, daughter of one of the mahjong ladies who owns a corner grocery shop. Meanwhile, China is suffering during the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, and soon the whole world is at war. Boys at school are enlisting, and many Chinese have gone back to fight for the old country. Kiam-Kim wonders, "What world would we fight for?" Canada is his home, yet he knows that the new country does not want Chinese soldiers.