As a writer, I’m constantly on the lookout for ideas especially anything that might help me discover more about my father’s history as a head tax payer. So a few years ago, when a friend mentioned that he was on a committee called The Ancestral Ceremony, it piqued my interest.
I remember my father used to say he “walked the mountain” with friends. Considering his advanced age, I knew he didn’t mean that he went hiking. When I questioned him about it, he said it was something the men in Chinatown did once a year. It turns out that he along Continue reading →
I saw the exhibit on the Fabergé Eggs at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts this week and they are an excellent example of this week’s Photo Challenge: Endurance. They are stunning pieces of art and craftsmanship that have endured over time. Carl Fabergé also created other jeweled and gold encrusted items such as frames, dishes, umbrella handles, cane handles, and carvings, but it’s the famous eggs that caught my imagination.
Doing research for a project can either be a chore or a pleasure. It was the latter for me recently. I’ve been researching Jewish history in Montreal when a friend mentioned that the Museum of Jewish Montreal gives walking tours. It sounded like a lot more fun than just reading about it, so I signed up for “Making Their Mark,” a tour of the Jewish community that existed in the Plateau area from the turn of the 20th century until the 1950s.
I met Laura, my tour guide, at the corner of St. Laurent and Milton. Since I was the only one who signed up for that day, it would be a private tour. We spent the next two hours viewing buildings that were formerly synagogues, schools and hospitals which Laura brought to life as she talked about the immigration of Eastern European Jews and how they established their community, culture and what was once Montreal’s thriving schmatta industry.
If you have always wanted to try dim sum but never got around to it, then here’s a good reason to go: May is designated as Asian Heritage Month. The Canadian Government’s web site (where you can download the poster above) says “Asian Heritage Month is an ideal occasion for all to celebrate the beauty and wisdom of various Asian cultures.” Of course, you can celebrate anytime of the year, but what better excuse to order Chinese take-out and indulge in a marathon of Bruce Lee or Ang Lee films?
Need some more ideas? Here are a few from my shelf of Canadian books and film:
I’m currently reading A Cowherd in Paradise – From China to Canada by May Q. Wong and am loving it. It’s the story of Wong’s parents who were forced to live apart for 25 years because of Canada’s exclusionary immigration laws. It is a well-written account with family photos and it brings to life the price the Chinese paid when Canada enacted the Chinese Immigration Act. I met Wong when she came to Montreal to do a reading of her book. You can read about it here.
The Measure of a Man: The Story of a Father, a Son and a Suit by J.J. Lee was a finalist for the Governor General’s literary award for non-fiction in 2012. This book deserved all the accolades it received. This memoir about a son who decides to become an apprentice to one of the last great tailors in Vancouver’s Chinatown in order to alter his father’s suit learns invaluable lessons about life instead.
The Jade Peony by Wayson Choy is, in my opinion, a classic. It’s the story of the children of an immigrant family living and growing up in Vancouver’s Chinatown in the 1930s and 1940s. Continue reading →
The Potato Wars is a true story about how in 1935, a group of Chinese potato farmers fought The BC Coast Vegetable Marketing Board for the right to sell potatoes. The Board had implemented a system of quotas and fixed prices that prevented the Chinese from selling their produce in Vancouver. It’s a piece of Chinese-Canadian history that graphic artist, Joanne Hui, examines in a unique way and in the process, makes learning history fun.
Dr. Vivienne Poy launched her book, Passage to Promise Land: Voices of Chinese Immigrant Women to Canada last night at McGill University. The book tells the stories of twenty-eight women who immigrated to Canada between 1950 and 1989. The title, Dr. Poy pointed out, is not a typo. “Promise Land” is the name immigrant women gave to their newly adopted country. The book is based on the research Dr. Poy used for her PhD thesis with follow-up interviews on the progress of these women. There are few books about women immigrants, Dr. Poy said, which is why she focused on them. She added that it’s time to recognize that women immigrants helped build Canada. The book also highlights the growth of Chinese-Canadian communities from the end of World War II to today.
Dr. Vivienne Poy
Dr. Poy was the first Canadian of Asian descent to be appointed to the Senate and was instrumental in having the month of May recognized as Asian Heritage Month.
The evening included a panel discussion during which Professor Grace Fong, Janet Lumb and Walter Tom, an immigration lawyer, discussed multicultural issues with moderators Rosel Kim and Katie Spillane.
This spring, Canada Post came out with stamps featuring the gates that stand at the entrance to Chinatown in Victoria, Vancouver, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Toronto, Mississauga, Ottawa and Montreal. Interesting tidbit I didn’t know is that the North gate of Montreal’s Chinatown was donated by the city of Shanghai in 1999. Below are a couple of photos I took of the gates in Montreal.
South gate on Saint Laurent Boulevard
West gate on La Gauchetière Street
There are a couple of interesting books about the Chinese communities in Canada. One is by Paul Yee entitled, Chinatown: An Illustrated history of the Chinese Communities of Victoria, Vancouver, Calgary, Winnipeg, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and Halifax.
Yee’s book is an interesting collection of stories, historical facts and pictures. Starting in Victoria where Canada’s first Chinatown was established, Yee takes the reader on a cross country tour of each Chinatown. From the gold rush, the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway, the election of Doug Jung, the first Chinese-Canadian Member of Parliament in 1957 to the appointment of Vivian Poy, the first Chinese-Canadian appointed to the Senate in 1998, Yee shows how the Chinese communities grew and evolved to become what they are today.
The other book is by Arlene Chan. The Chinese Community in Toronto, Then and Now.
In addition to historical facts about the growth of this community, Chan also takes a look at living and growing up Chinese in Toronto. There are also fun tidbits about the Chinese culture. For instance, do you know where the word chopsticks comes from? According to Chan, “chop” means “quick” – “chop chop” is still in use today to mean “hurry.” The Chinese word for chopsticks means “quick sticks” that became “chopsticks” in the English language.
May Wong reads from her book, “A Cowherd in Paradise: From China to Canada”
When a friend e-mailed me that May Wong was coming to Montreal to do a reading this past Sunday, I knew I had to go. Her book, “A Cowherd in Paradise: From China to Canada” is about her parents who were separated for years because of Canada’s Exclusion Act which came into law in 1923. My parents story sounded similar to hers and so I went eager to hear what she had to say.
Wong had the audience’s rapt attention as she set the background for her story, explaining the historical details that shaped her parents’ lives. Her father chose her mother from a picture. Her mother didn’t know what her future husband looked like until after the wedding ceremony. While her father was establishing himself as a restaurateur in Montreal, her mother was in China stuggling to survive natural disasaters and the Japanese invasion. The title of the book is a tribute to her mother who was responsible for the family’s water buffalo when she was a little girl. The book includes old family photos and a copy of her father’s head tax certificate.
While I haven’t read the book yet, I think it would be interesting for those whose parents, like mine, didn’t talk about the past. It is very fortunate that Wong’s mother, not only wanted to tell her stories, but also wanted Wong to publish them. The book is a treasure not only for Wong’s family, but for families of other head-tax payers as well.
Years ago, when I decided to see if I had the stuff to be a writer, I took a creative writing course at a Continuing Education program at Concordia University. The teacher, to inspire us, told us to write what we know. It sounded simple, and I’ve heard that piece of advice many times since, but I had difficulty because I didn’t think people would be interested in what I knew. I ended up writing a short story based on my experience of working in my family’s restaurant which was eventually published as a children’s picture book, The Fragrant Garden. Since then, I’ve written several stories, both fiction and non-fiction about the Montreal Chinese Community. It’s a way for me to learn about its history as well as my family’s history. My father was a head tax payer. He was 13 years old when he landed in Vancouver on November 28, 1921 and paid $500 to enter Canada. He never said much about his past, so when I do research, I can only imagine what his story is about.
Now there is an educational website, The Long Voyage: From Pigtails and Coolies to the New Canadian Mosaic, about that period in Canadian history and the history of the Montreal Chinese Community. It has video interviews with descendants of head tax payers and an overview of the history of the Chinese in Canada. Anyone who is interested in Canadian history or the history of head tax payers will find this site useful and informative. It might also spark some interesting conversations in some families.