New vision of history
With digital videos, Chinese-Canadian students open window to the past
VANCOUVER — It seems unlikely, but when Jennifer Yip staged a cute, but fake, date as part of a history assignment and posted a short video clip about it on YouTube, she was at the beginning of a new way of looking at the history of Chinese-Canadians, going back more than 125 years.
In the video Finding a Hybrid Husband, Yip, a researcher at the University of B.C., goes off on blind date “number 27” with then classmate Tony Leung.
She’s sweetly hilarious, telling the camera she’s looking for a fiancé.
“I know Vancouver isn’t an old village in China, but since my grandparents immigrated here in the ’40s and ’50s … well, some traditions seem to be stuck in time.”
Tony chats about his childhood, how he moved from Hong Kong to West Vancouver when he was seven, spoke Cantonese growing up and learned many Chinese traditions.
Yip weaves in her own family, with imaginary gongs of approval for Tony from her mother and grandmother.
Yip produced Hybrid Husband as part of an assignment “to interview the person next to you” for a history course about Asian migration at UBC.
Instead of studying the history of Chinese-Canadians via lectures and textbooks, Yip is part of an effort to flesh out what is seen as a bare-bones official version.
Technically, it all starts in the late 1880s when the very first Chinese arrived in B.C. to seek gold and work on the Canadian Pacific Railway. The mostly male labourers, who left their families behind in China, later constructed the beginnings of Chinatown. They settled despite racist federal government policies, which included a head tax followed by an outright ban on Chinese immigration from 1923 to 1947.
But much of what students like Yip saw in their families as Chinese-Canadians growing up in Vancouver hasn’t been documented, says History 483 professor Henry Yu.
“It’s a strange paradox because, at home, I knew from family stories that my great-grandfather had come during the railroad time, and my grandfather, who I lived with, on my mother’s side, came in 1923,” Yu says.
“He had paid the head tax. I knew about that from inside the family, but it was not reflected in the formal education, which, when you’re a kid, doesn’t mean anything. It just means you don’t see yourself as part of Canada. And so, the Canadian history I was taught never reflected my sense of belonging, so maybe there was a missed sense of belonging.”
After teaching history for more than 10 years at the University of California, Los Angeles, Yu decided to transplant to UBC the “bottom-up” approach he’d used to teach Asian-American history there.
Other History 483 videos, all found on YouTube and Vimeo, are more melancholy and true-to-life than Hybrid Husband. But each, in its own way, and through an array of voices, says something about how Chinese-Canadian life has evolved over the years.
There are the bedroom musings of Ericsson Xu Wang, a student who introduces his hometown, Harbin in northeastern China, and talks about his family arriving in Vancouver in 2003. They bought their first car, a Chevrolet Cavalier. His father gave up a comfortable government post in China so his son could go to school in Vancouver.
There is a fantastic profile of Simon Hoy, who left Hong Kong in 1981 to start Dai Tung, a popular dim sum spot at 1050 Kingsway St., the kind you might see anywhere across the city.
The videos are all short and rather unconnected, but together they caught the attention of some corporate donors who want to encourage more of this work.
“Students can do this in a class context, but also, for the really good ones, they can be hired as researchers over the summer,” says Yu.
And so, the project Chinese Canadian Stories: Uncommon histories from a Common Past was launched.
There is a website (chinesecanadian.ubc.ca) and researchers like Yip are collecting new material and spreading what they find.
Recently, they broadcast the first of what will be a continuing series on a local Chinese-language station.
“We are trying to see everything in terms of a sense of arrival and belonging, but not being in a certain time frame,” says Denise Fong, a project manager. “Instead, how (these feelings) are different at different times in history.”