The Writers’ Block: Marty Chan



Edmonton’s Chinatown was the first destination for Marty Chan’s parents when they emigrated from southern China in the 1960s. 

He spent his early childhood growing up in the neighbourhood, which was established more than 100 years ago. Even after his family moved to Morinville, a small town north of Edmonton, Chan and his parents would make weekly trips to visit their favourite shops, restaurants and friends around 97 Street.  

“For my parents, Chinatown was their entry point into Canadian society,” he says. “That’s where they formed their friendships. I know immigration patterns have changed and now we’re seeing more Vietnamese and Somalis in the area, so it’s one of those things that morphs, depending on who needs it most when they arrive in the country. 


“That is a great thing about Chinatown—it has the ability to give people who start with very little a chance to get some footing.”


A woman in a dress and coat stands on the corner of a city street.
Shops and restaurants line 97 Street in Chinatown.


Lions, dragons and Edmonton’s spirit

Chan, one of the city’s beloved wizards of words and theatre, pays homage to Chinatown and its former Harbin Gate in his latest children’s book, Dragon on the Loose. Set in 2017, two friends visit the gate on 102 Avenue and inadvertently bring to life one of the dragon sculptures atop the red and yellow structure. 

Misadventure ensues and the friends must protect the dragon, Zhu, while trying to help her find a way back to her own home. Together, they visit nearby locations, including City Hall, the Stanley A. Milner Library and the Edmonton Chinese Garden in Louise McKinney Park, just north of the North Saskatchewan River. 

Chan initially wrote Dragon on the Loose for an online summer reading program for children across Canada in 2017. “I wanted to showcase Edmonton, I wanted to capture something that really had an Edmonton spirit,” says Chan. 

“I hit upon my memory of the Harbin Gate—I remember going for dim sum with my parents at Pearl City. It was a basement restaurant right on 97 Street. The gate was nearby and I remember reaching into the stone lion’s mouth, grabbing the stone ball inside and rolling it around for good luck. That became the jumping-off point for Dragon on the Loose.” 

Harbin Gate, erected on 102 Avenue in 1987, was demolished in 2017 to make way for the Valley Line Southeast LRT. A new gate will be erected on 97 Street, just around the corner from the original, in 2026.


A large pagoda-style gate, guarded by two lion statues at the base and topped with two dragon statues, spans a city street.
Harbin Gate, guarded by two lion statues and topped with two dragon statues, in 1989. Courtesy of City of Edmonton Archives.


Camaraderie and support

Just as Chinatown embraced Chan’s parents, Edmonton’s arts community welcomed him with open arms when he started his career as a writer. He first wrote plays, including several of the local theatre scene’s biggest hits of the 1990s—Polaroids of Don, a comedy about a male romance writer who hires an alter ego; and Mom, Dad, I’m Living With a White Girl, a look at interracial relationships and Asian stereotypes. (The latter was eventually produced off-Broadway and published as a book.)  

For Polaroids of Don, Chan was able to land one of Edmonton’s leading actors, Marianne Copithorne, when he still felt like an unknown playwright. 

“I dropped the script in her mailbox in the dead of night and scurried away,” Chan remembers. “A couple of days later, she called and said: ‘I like the script and I want to do it.’ She doesn’t know who I am, yet she was willing to do this—if you talk to anybody who’s worked in theatre in Edmonton, you’ll hear similar stories of people who are willing to help out those who are starting out. It speaks volumes about how you connect support with creativity, right?"


“As I started branching out into other creative communities in Edmonton, I saw the same sense of camaraderie and support—and that is an incredible source of fuel for somebody wanting to be creative. Because part of being creative is the ability to take a chance and fall on your face, right? It’s a lot easier to take a risk when you know there’s somebody there to pick you up.”


The covers of three books, featuring a dragon sitting on a gate, a girl with a backpack crouching in a school hallway filled with students, and a person wearing a cat-like mask.
A selection of Marty Chan’s books—Dragon on the Loose, Izzy Wong’s Nose for News and Cosplay Crime.


From frozen brains to igniting confidence 

“Don’t be afraid of new things” is one of the themes of Dragon on the Loose and it’s one that Chan has always followed in his own life. 

After establishing himself in Edmonton’s theatre community, Chan began testing the waters of the TV and publishing worlds. He wrote for several TV series and scored a book deal, thanks to another Edmonton author, Wayne Arthurson, who suggested Chan reach out to Thistledown Press, an indie publisher based in Saskatchewan. The Mystery of the Frozen Brains, Chan’s first children’s novel, was published in 2004. 

Twenty years later, he has published more than 25 books, such as Haunted Hospital, Cosplay Crime and The Ehrich Weisz Chronicles, a steam-punk trilogy set in an alternative version of New York. He has also helped countless aspiring writers—first as the Edmonton Public Library’s writer in residence in 2011. (He also held the same role at three regional libraries in 2016.)

“I loved that I could connect with the writing community and see how vast it is,” says Chan. ”And the thing that I really discovered is how hungry people are to tell their own stories.I sort of made it my mission, in that first year, to reach out to as many people as possible. That was my passion—sparking the love of writing in other people, right? I loved doing the one-on-ones and talking to people because you get a sense of what was important to them. My job was to lift them up and ignite their confidence.’”


Virtual encouragement 

Igniting confidence in young students across Canada is one of Chan’s current missions. He delivers virtual presentations to classrooms across the country. Since the start of the pandemic, he’s done more than 100 online visits per year. He talks to students about his books, his writing inspirations and offers writing tips—all from the comfort of his home in Forest Heights. 

He doesn’t rule out another career detour, as long as he can stay in Edmonton. “With technology being what it is, I can do whatever I want for my career as a writer and never have to leave the city,” he says. 


“It’s quite a beautiful city to live in and the community is supportive, so why would I move any place else?”


The Writers' Block series features yeg-cellent authors and their latest work. Read the other chapters: