Denise Chong

Straddling the worlds of writing and public policy, Denise Chong was a trailblazer for diversity and inclusiveness in the public service before raising Canada’s social consciousness with acclaimed works of nonfiction.

Denise Chong is a third-generation Canadian of Chinese descent who grew up in Prince George, British Columbia. She earned a bachelor of arts in economics at the University of British Columbia (1975) and a master of arts in economics and public policy at the University of Toronto (1978).

Denise Chong has straddled two worlds: writing and public policy. After graduating from the University of British Columbia, she moved to Ottawa for a career in the public service at the Department of Finance (1975-1980). From there, she moved to the Prime Minister's Office as a special advisor on British Columbia issues. In 1981, she became the senior economic advisor in the Prime Minister's Office, where she worked closely with Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. Chong stood out in the white male world of Ottawa as a brilliant young woman of Chinese origin; she was a trailblazer for the more inclusive public service that was to come. With the end of the Trudeau era, Chong left the public service to become a professional writer.

Often asked by readers how an economist by training can succeed as a writer, Chong replies that her early experience in the work world inspires and informs the questions that she explores in her writing. Chong's best-known book, The Concubine's Children (1994), tells the story of family members who were unable to leave China and lived there through the Japanese occupation, civil war, the Communist takeover, land reform, and the Cultural Revolution. The Concubine's Children won a number of awards, including the Edna Staebler Award for Creative Non-Fiction and the City of Vancouver Book Award. Translated into many languages, it touched a chord among readers far beyond the Chinese-Canadian world.

Denise Chong's second major book, The Girl in the Picture (2000), is the biography of Kim Phuc, a Vietnamese girl who was terribly burned in a napalm attack in 1972. The iconic photograph of the naked girl running down a road had a huge influence in the growth of the anti-Vietnam War movement in the United States. Chong's book covers Kim Phuc's life from her childhood to her terrible injury, her slow recovery, and her eventual settlement in Canada. Both The Girl in the Picture and The Concubine's Children were shortlisted for the Governor General's Literary Award for nonfiction.

Denise Chong has continued her involvement in public life. She has served on many public boards, task forces, and committees, including the Task Force on the Participation of Visible Minorities in the Federal Public Service, the National Advisory Board on Culture Online, and the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada. Chong holds an honorary doctorate from the University of Northern British Columbia. In 2013, she was named an Officer of the Order of Canada for “writing books that raise our social consciousness,” and she was appointed the Canadian writer-in-residence at the University of Calgary for 2017/2018. Chong is dedicated to sharing her craft: her rule is to say “yes” to every student and she offers author workshops and appearances for grades 1 to 12.