Rediscovering Vancouver’s Chinatown
A group of UBC students is using modern technology to help further our understanding of history
By Joanne Lee-Young
Vancouver Sun April 10, 2011
It seems unlikely, but when Jennifer Yip staged a cute, but fake, date 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 in Vancouver, going back more than 125 years ago.
In 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 fiance.
“I know Vancouver isn’t an old village in China, but since my grandparents emigrated 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.
Tony goes on about wanting to be a commercial pilot. He snowboards, skis and plays hockey. She thinks he’s cool, too.
Yip produced Hybrid Husband as part of an assignment “to interview the person next to you” for her History 483, ‘Asian Migration to the Americas,’ class at UBC.
“I made it into a date because I thought it would be fun and entertaining to watch … I was trying to figure out how Tony saw himself as a Chinese,” she says.
It was fun, but she also wanted to dig into “family, place and identity.”
Instead of studying the history of Chinese-Canadians in Vancouver via lectures and textbooks, Yip is part of an effort to flesh out what is seen as a bare bones official version.
Lack of documentation
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.
“A lot of the stories of the people who were there, who were Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Filipino, South Asian, just were not in the archives, so you literally had to go and find those stories, create them, interview people, do family histories, oral histories, because they had not been collected before,” he says.
“It’s the kind of thing that takes a lot of work and, in fact, young students are the best vehicle for discovering those stories because it’s their own families and their own family stories that are literally being collected.”
An array of voices
Some of the 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 in Vancouver 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.
Backers include Vancouver real estate names like Concord Pacific and Allied Holdings, which have Hong Kong roots. They are synonymous with a set of Chinese immigrants who came to Vancouver in the 1980s and 1990s and, with their money and power, completely reset the place of Chinese-Canadians in Vancouver society.
Seed funding has given students better cameras and computer equipment for making digital videos, but also the means for a more formal program outside of History 483.
“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.
Recently, they broadcast the first of what will be an ongoing series on Fairchild Radio AM1470, the 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.”
To this end, another researcher, Joanne Poon, is using her language skills to make the most of old documents. Some of them, especially the Chinese-language ones, have been parked in city and university archives for years, untouched.
With the help of dialect-speaking elders, she has translated letters written by friends and family to Chinese male “bachelor” workers in the early 1900s, so named because they often came to Vancouver by themselves.
Says Poon: “The ones written from China say ‘please send money,’ and ‘haven’t heard from you.’ Others sent by uncles and brothers from other cities in the U.S. or Canada talk about job opportunities, how much they are being paid, if they are getting better paid, ‘you can come here too,’ ‘I can help.’”
Flipping through black ink brush characters on tissue-thin pages, she shows how an accounting book recorded the daily wages for one worker, but more interestingly, what he spent on certain items, buying them on credit from his employer and sometimes spending all of his wages before he’d received them.
“If you look here, on Sept. 2, he spent $1 buying a duck,” says Poon, going over the most minute details to piece together how these workers thrived.
The researchers will soon present the story of the Chinese Students soccer team, which played other Vancouver teams — including the UBC Varsity team, the Vancouver Police team and the Woodward’s (department store) team — during the 1920s.
Off the field, it was a time of great racism. Ottawa was officially limiting Chinese immigration to Canada. And in everyday life, most sporting teams in Vancouver were closed to Chinese-Canadian players. So when the Chinese Students soccer team defeated its opponents to win a succession of city titles over the span of a decade, it really captured the imagination of Chinatown.
Researcher Jennifer Rodriguez says she marvelled at finding the description of one of the team’s star players, Quene Yip. It was a sound bite from a coach who now coaches soccer now in Coquitlam, but remembers watching Yip play.
“Quene Yip. He was built like a brick, eff-ing house. There are these stereotypes about Chinese men and here you have this alternative view, that for whatever reason, shocks us when it shouldn’t because of how history gets passed down to us.”
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