January 10, 2000
First day of the odyssey and my first shoot with Cheuk. Not sure what to expect. Just doing what I do best… going with the flow.
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 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.