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February 7 Lunar New Year

January 29, 2003

In Asia, the lunar new year falls at the end of winter and the beginning of spring. A Chinese proverb tells us that all creations are reborn on New Year’s Day. It is a time for change, from the old to the new. It is a time to seek good fortune.

There are many traditions and symbols associated with Chinese New Year. Your house should be cleaned of things from the old year – but all the cleaning tools should be put away! Your debts should be paid, and disagreements with those close to you resolved.

Red and orange are the colours of Chinese New Year. Red, for happiness, can be seen in the new clothes and shoes bought for children, the lanterns swaying from the houses, the lucky money envelopes with new money from the bank, the banners. Orange or gold, for wealth, can be seen in oranges, tangerines and prosperous cakes.

More and more, Canadians have the opportunity to learn about Chinese experience in Canada from books, films, exhibits and events. It wasn’t always so, for the history of Chinese immigrants to Canada is one marked by racial discrimination and segregation. While there has always been a significant press and literature written in Chinese, it is only in the last 20 years or so that works have been published in English, many of them by women. Come and meet these women, learn about their lives and about the life we share in Canada. Enjoy their story-telling and writing. History does not have to come from history books!

Poet and critic Lien Chao, in Beyond Silence, the first comprehensive study of Chinese Canadian literature in English, grounds her study of the literature in the history of the Chinese in Canada. From the perspective of the English mainstream in Canada, for decades the Chinese appeared “silent” because they were denied “access to mainstream politics, media, religion and literature.” The period of silence is a long one, more than 100 years (the Chinese Canadian National Council has selected 1858 as the date when the Chinese settled in what became Canada, although they had been coming here long before then).

Silence imposed by the dominant groups, paradoxically engendered the Chinese community with a double life force. On the one hand it helped the community preserve its language as a functional tool, and on the other it gave birth to contemporary Chinese literature in English ... An imposed silence can give birth to a resistant voice.

It was only when they started to write in English, in the late 1970s, that Chinese Canadians gained “voice” in the mainstream. Lien Chao observes that many of the first writers were community activists or archivists and that the first publications were anthologies, created collectively.

As imposed silence is neither a sign of muteness nor an expression of passivity, Chinese Canadians’ hundred-year silence in mainstream Canadian culture signifies a collective resistance against the latter’s cultural and racial hegemony. For many decades, this resistance was voiced in the Chinese language, thereby creating an enclosed alternative subculture in Chinatown. At the same time, collective and individual efforts were made historically from within the community in order to communicate with the rest of Canada. However, these efforts were less fruitful because institutionalized racism not only denied Chinese Canadians an equal access, but also imposed upon them various racial stereotypes. Breaking through the historical silence for contemporary Chinese Canadian writers means to construct the community's unrecorded history in English, in the language that originally ordered the silencing. Writing the historical experience into the dominant discourse is the first step undertaken by contemporary Chinese Canadians in order to stop “institutional forgetting” from further damaging the community.

A woman, Sky Lee, wrote one of the first novels to deal with the life on Chinese immigrants to Canada. It was published in 1990. Titled Disappearing Moon Cafe, it is set in the years between 1892 and 1939 – the years when government measures to limit or virtually end immigration from China were in full force.

After the railroad was completed, the Canadian government imposed a head tax on Chinese immigrants. Canada didn’t need Chinese labour anymore, so Canada made it difficult for the Chinese to come. When they continued to come despite paying what amounted to two years wages, the exclusion acts were enacted in 1923. Until they were repealed in 1947, only a few Chinese with special exemptions were allowed in.

One of the effects of these measures was to severely limit the number of Chinese women entering Canada. Most of the men, like Wong Gwei Chang, the central character in the novel, were bachelors living in a Chinatown. Through the central character, Sky Lee weaves historical events through the fabric of the novel. Wong Gwei Chang, for instance, leads a “bone-hunting party” along the Canadian Pacific Railway tracks in the Fraser and Thompson river canyons. Some 17,000 Chinese labourers worked on the British Columbia portion of the CPR, often doing the most dangerous work in the lowest of the living standards provided to the workers. Official railway estimates put the death rate at four Chinese labourers to each mile of track. Other sources argue that the rate was more like 26 deaths to every mile. The line was opened in 1885. After several years, Chinese organizations in Canada organized men to collect the corpses of those who had died so that they could be sent back to China for burial.

In 1992, the Women’s Book Committee of the Chinese Canadian National Council published Jin Guo: Voices of Chinese Canadian Women(Women’s Press). The book tells us that the title comes from an ancient Chinese saying “jin guo is as strong as xu mei.” Although jin quo literally translated means “jewellery worn by women,” the phrase has come to mean that women are as brave and strong as men. The Committee was responding, to extend Lien Chao’s approach, to a silence within a silence that is consistent with the history of women in other countries and cultures:

Canada’s Chinese community possesses a long and rich past in this country. However, little of our history has been recorded. Canadian history text books have focused on English and French explorers and politicians, ignoring aboriginal peoples, people of other racial and cultural backgrounds, women and workers. The few texts which do mention Chinese Canadians talk primarily about the history of the men – the infamous exploitation of Chinese workers who built the Canadian Pacific Railway and the bachelors of early Chinatown who were separated from wives and children because of prohibitive immigration laws. The imbalance in the documents can be explained by historical demographics. Chinese men here outnumbered Chinese women for a long time. However, women’s history is equally as important as men’s history, regardless of the numbers.

Indeed, one of the virtues of Jin Guo is the detailed look at the history of Chinese women in Canada included in the introduction of the book. Its richness comes for the stories of individual women. Over six years, the Committee interviewed 130 women in Chinese and English. Nine stories are told at length, with many others interwoven into a look at common themes, shared experiences in the lives of Chinese women immigrants to Canada.

In 1994, Denise Chong’s The Concubine’s Children (Penguin Books) was published to critical acclaim and bestseller status. Although in its structure it is a biography of Chong’s grandmother, Leong May-ying, it is also in some senses a history of life in the Chinatowns of Vancouver and Nanaimo, British Columbia and the story of Chong’s immediate family in Canada.

May-ying was sold in 1924 at the age of 17 as a concubine to Chan Sam, an immigrant to Canada who left his first wife and family in China in search of wealth in Vancouver’s early Chinatown. May-ying eked out a living as a tea house waitress, with Chan Sam sending her money back to China to support his family and build a house for them. Two of her daughters were sent back to China to be educated. Hing, Chong’s mother, stayed in Canada and watched her strict mother cope with a life of alcoholism and prostitution. May-ying died when Chong was 13 (her grandfather Chan Sam before that).

When, as a grown woman, Chong had an opportunity to go to China in 1987, she convinced her mother to come and to explore whether they could find relatives in China. Chong’s mother met one of her sisters and her half-brother for the first time. And Chong settled into the arduous task of reconstructing the family’s history.

Judy Fong Bates is the author of China Dog and Other Tales from a Chinese Laundry (Sister Vision), published in 1997. She came to Canada as a young child, growing up in several small Ontario towns. This book has a more contemporary focus, on younger generations and their struggles in Canada. It explores experience in Canada through a more personal lens, looking at the day to day stuff of peoples’ lives. One reviewer, Rita Wong, says of this book:

Violence, be it accidental or intentionally inflicted, comes up again and again in Bates’ stories. She does not shy away or try to cover up the very physical expressions of frustration that immigrants experience and inflict upon one another ... This is the world of small family-run laundries and restaurants, seven day work weeks, long hours each day, self-denial in the present for the sake of the future.

There are other fine books which offer different perspectives on life in Canada for women of Chinese descent. Jan Wong was born and educated in Canada, going to China in 1972 at the height of Mao’s Cultural Revolution to study in China. Red China Blues (Doubleday/Anchor), published in 1996, is the story of her journey at this pivotal time in the history of China. Evelyn Lau, the subject of another CoolWomen feature, has written numerous books, including Runaway: Diary of a Streetkid about her life on the streets of Vancouver as a teenager.

We know that writers have many motivations, many that are personal and some that are political. These authors have created bridges for all who live in Canada and are interested in understanding our shared past and thinking about our future. Immigration to Canada and the lives that immigrants lead here have always been some of the most dynamic forces in shaping our society. There is no better time than the new year to think about the old and the new. There is no better time than the new year to look forward to the new Canada.

Resources for this story
  • Statistics Canada, 2001 census
  • Lien Chao, Beyond Silence: Chinese Canadian Literature in English (TSAR), 1997)
  • Sky Lee, Disappearing Moon Cafe ( Douglas & McIntyre, 1990)
  • The Women’s Book Committee, Chinese Canadian National Council, Jin Guo: Voices of Chinses Canadian Women (Women’s Press, 1992)
  • Denise Chong, The Concubine’s Children: Portrait of Family Divided (Penguin Books, 1994)
  • Judy Fong Bates, China Dog and Other Tales from a Chinese Laundry (Sister Vision, 1997)
  • Rita Wong, “A Review of Judy Fong Bates’ China Dog and Other Tales from a Chinese Laundry,” originally written for Kinesis
  • Jan Wong, Red China Blues (Doubleday/Anchor, 1996)
  • Evelyn Lau, Runaway: Diary of a Street Kid (Harper Collins, 1989)

This feature was first published on section15.ca’s predecessor site CoolWomen.

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