Currently reading: Paul Yee’s Chinatown

There’s Bonnie Tsui’s 2009 American Chinatown and but before that, there’s Paul Yee’s 2005 Chinatown: An illustrated history of the Chinese Communities of Victoria, Vancouver, Calgary, Winnipeg, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and Halifax. I checked out the latter from the library for a light read–just 128 pages–about the Chinatowns in my fair country.

I couldn’t wait to get to the last chapter and learn where Chinatown is supposed to be in Halifax, where I come from. All we have is a restaurant named Chinatown in Bedford so our immature joke about “going to Chinatown, but it’s not a Chinatown” carried us through childhood. And I was certainly interested in gaining additional insight into the Chinatowns in the cities I have visited/lived in (Victoria, Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto and Halifax) and read up on the ones I have not yet visited (Winnipeg, Ottawa and Montreal). Further, I try to get to Chinatown in the cities I visit and have been to New York’s and LA’s and look forward to squeezing it into upcoming trips to Honolulu and Las Vegas. I’m just a geek that way.

There’s no real spoilers for this book so the following are my observations/take-home messages from the various cities covered:

  • Vancouver: Although more Chinese immigrants went to Toronto, Vancouver’s smaller population made the growing Chinese population more obvious. A section in this chapter is called “Why Are People So Angry?” and goes against the general image of laid-back Vancouverites. Yee addresses and rationalizes the common complaints and frustrations that are often pinned on Chinese: that they are to blame for rising house prices, for building oversized houses and cutting down mature trees, being poor drivers and rude shoppers, flaunting their wealth and refusing to speak English, and ESL students dragging down their classmates!
  • Calgary: Why Calgary? “Toronto was too busy, while Vancouver seemed too quiet-too many retired people”. In 1989, people found that they could bring in $500K and with it, in Calgary, get a house and car and still have half left over to invest. That was not true for Toronto and Vancouver.
  • Toronto: Toronto’s original Chinatown is where City Hall now stands and it kept having to relocate. It’s funny how in the big cities, the Chinese have learned how to exclude non-Chinese in return by marketing new housing solely to Chinese, having malls lacking English language signs.
  • Ottawa: Ottawa’s Chinatown is not really one but the city was included due to a huge growth in the Chinese population in the 1990s. True to the area, it seems the Chinese there were inspired to be more politically active. Investors chose Ottawa over Vancouver and Toronto if they wanted something slow and stable.
  • Montreal: Montreal’s Chinatown has the most public art. In Quebec, the Protestant and Catholic Churches vied for Chinese converts and it seems the Chinese enjoyed the spoils of many church-hosted services. You’d think that the need to speak French would keep immigrants away but “some newcomers from Hong Kong found it romantic to try to learn a new language”. (Hah!) In addition, Quebec went a different way and made investment easier and real estate cheaper and attracted immigrants from China who planned to stay compared to the typical Hong Kong immigrant. It seems that in Montreal, the Chinese were less successful than in other cities even when they worked together to oppose new policy like expropriation and additional tax to operate their wash houses. This is in some part, I think, due to the Chinese being a less visible minority than in other cities.
  • Halifax: Okay, there is no claim at all that there is a Chinatown in Halifax. I suspect that you have to mention Halifax or some Maritime Province city or there would be some outcry the book ended in Montreal. The first two Chinese arrived in Halifax in 1890 to extend a laundry empire eastward and they opened Wah Sing on Duke. From the sounds of it, Halifax had more Chinese grocers in town than they do now! And I wonder if any sort of benevolent association still exists as the Lee Benevolent Association was present in the past. In 1919, tension between the Chinese and military men came to a head and there was a major riot against Chinese cafes; military police had to be called in: “Some whites blamed the Chinese for bringing the riot upon themselves because a typical shopkeeper was seen to be making money here, but spending little here and sending most of the funds back to China.” Some people felt threatened that the Chinese controlled laundry and restaurant trade, and it’s also intriguing to think of a time when the latter was true. It may have occurred frequently enough to warrant a mention: Acadian women would arrive in Halifax to work as waitresses and, feeling as lonely as Chinese men, there were a number of Chinese-Acadian unions. Also interesting was the high proportion of Christian Chinese in Halifax in 1931 (77%), the highest in a Canadian city. It did not escape Yee’s notice that this also occured in Ottawa, another smaller city.
This book read a bit like a monotonous history book, ringing off dates of first arrivals and population size at various points. It was business-centric while I wanted to know the salient details about notorious and infamous characters and the personalities of each Chinatown as reflecting on the city housing it. That’s why I’ve jotted down the details above that stuck out to me. I also noted some of the similarities across the Chinatowns:
  • Chinese people hilariously put so much stock in names. It is not a coincidence that the Chinese areas of cities reflect that; Richmond in British Columbia, Richmond Hill in Ontario and Fort Richmond in Manitoba. But which came first, the town or the Chinese?
  • I like to take pictures of a Chinatown gate if they have one. The gates are newer than I thought: Victoria (1981), Vancouver (2001), Winnipeg (1981) and Montreal has four, one for each direction.
  • It is a reflection and reaction to the times but in each city (almost), opposing Chinese Empire Reform Association, Kuomintang and Freemason chapters set up. Benevolent associations were formed that informally governed Chinatown, supported the Chinese who otherwise are very far from home and did not have the power to represent themselves. These are such relics to me as even in my parents’ generation and when they arrived in Canada, such associations were on the decline.
Sometimes when NPY grumbles about perceiving racism or receiving a “look”, I’ll yell at him for not being appreciative. The first Chinese to arrive in his now very-Chinese city paved the way and eventually built up the population such that he feels as comfortable as he does today. But do I really understand the trials? Sometimes I confess I do think they harp about the head tax and extracting official apologies. That’s because my parents came in the post-war immigration wave and I don’t know anyone descended from the “Old Timers”. “The principle that the taxes had undermined the human rights and dignity of the Chinese”, but weren’t a lot of things back then vastly unfair that would not be stood for for a minute now? I’m afraid my upbringing has landed me in the camp that “accepted a loss of dignity as the price of entry and never challenged the privileges of the middle and upper classes”. I can’t help but cheer for the Canada’a citizenship act of 1947 declaring Canadian-born and foreign-born to be equal, though.
But then my pulse quickens and I seethe at the examples of ill-will towards the Chinese. I did not know that there were segregated schools and Chinese could not go to the pool or hire white women because of all of the fear surrounding them. The level of fear surrounding Chinatown, “the Chinaman will always adhere to his own customs…already they are grouping themselves together and congregating into a district that will soon be entirely their own where gambling (a weakness natural to all chinamen), opium smoking and ornery vices may be carried out with small fear of interruption” shows how far we’ve come.
I had a laugh-out-loud moment when I read a passage with a rant explaining how difficult it is to be in the restaurant business leading to frequent ownership changes in Winnipeg and elsewhere: “…open a restaurant? It is not worthwhile. There are a thousand things that you have to watch out [for] as if they were your last chance. You think of the food, fuel, customers, waiters, health inspectors and grocery deals…You do the waiter’s work when he is not around. You do dishwashing when no one else will. You work and work just to make ends meet. Then there are those students. They don’t turn up if they have exams, and they don’t turn up if they have dates. I would much rather work for someone else. If I am sick of working for one boss, I can simply pack up and go to another. Never again.”
It was especially in the case of reading about Chinatown in Vancouver that I felt like the book was a bit out of date. Big changes are occurring in Chinatown but then again, it is just superficial. The biggest changes from past residents carving out a niche in Canadian society have already occurred. While the book is titled “Chinatown”, it is about the communities first and foremost and that is represented by where they lived.
Besides being dense commercial hubs and tourist attractions, what do Chinatowns serve today for the Chinese community that largely lives outside of Chinatown? Spoken like a yuppy, a Calgary resident responded, “To the Chinese Canadians like myself who do not reside in the core, we look to Chinatown as a social-psychological well to which we can return to try refresh ourselves.”  More poignantly, Yee notes, “Looking at … dark history through the lens of Canada’s vibrant Chinatowns can illumine the spirit that thrived in Chinese communities through service groups, politics, sports, and other cultural pastimes. The Chinese survived racism in part by living their lives as fully as possible.”

Below, I’ve photographed the page with the famous photograph of neon-lit up Vancouver Chinatown in its heyday. I would like to own a copy of this print.

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