New archive highlights years of racism faced by Chinese Canadians
The Chinese Canadian archives, which opened Tuesday at the Toronto Reference Library, contain hundreds of donated articles that tell snapshots of daily life and discrimination.
Seventy-one years ago Mavis Chu Lew Garland and eight of her preschool classmates were photographed on the porch of the Chinese Canadian Institute on the corner of Dundas St. W. and University Ave.
Times were different, rather “extremely difficult,” she says, being born to a Chinese immigrant father and a white mother when interracial marriages were seen as unacceptable.
But now, at the age of 76, Garland and her classmates have come together to recreate a photo that was taken during a period of discrimination, and now represents a snapshot of Canadian immigrant history.
The photo, which Garland found while scrounging through old shoeboxes is just one of the artifacts donated to the Toronto Public Library as part of a three-year initiative, the Chinese Canadian archives, which opened on Tuesday at the Toronto Reference Library.
Since the announcement calling for donations in July, the library has received hundreds of articles to commemorate the historic voices of the Chinese people in Canada. Among the collection are old photographs of the city’s first Chinese restaurants, and businesses that once existed in the area where City Hall stands today.
But among the pieces of colourful memorabilia are documents highlighting a Canadian history of discrimination, including documentation on the racist Chinese head tax, showing how it rose from $50 in 1885 to $100 in 1900 and eventually to $500 in 1903 — at the time the price of buying two houses in Toronto.
“We can’t tell the history of Toronto, even Canada, without telling the stories of the Chinese Canadian,” project co-ordinator Suk Yin Ng of the TPL said. “We have to tell their stories illustrating their daily living, community spirit, struggles, successes, failures, dreams … and for the younger generation, to learn about the history of their ancestors and what brought them to where they are.”
The Chinese-Canadian legacy began before the birth of the nation. In 1778, Chinese workers were used as cheap labour by British fur trader John Meres to build a trading post for the area that is now Nootka Sound, B.C. The Chinese workers were recognized as hard-working and willing to take lower wages. Many more immigrated to help with the Fraser River Gold Rushes in 1858.
Then there was the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1881, when an estimated 17,000 Chinese workers were brought to Canada and endured long working days, for around $1 a day. Due to the poor working conditions and illnesses, records estimated that they died in the thousands.
“All of them remained nameless in the history of Canada,” the monument standing just outside the Rogers Centre commemorating the Chinese CPR workers reads.
“I feel like a lot of the lives, work, and contributions of Chinese-Canadians have remained nameless,” 28-year-old Coly Chau told the Star.
Chau immigrated to Montreal from Hong Kong at the age of 5.
“Elementary and secondary education gave me very little exposure to the history of Chinese Canadians” Chau says.
After graduating high school, Chau said a lack of belonging pushed her to “dig deeper” to research and learn about her history.
“As an immigrant, my experiences have been greatly attributed to the contributions and experiences of those Chinese Canadians that came before my family and I,” Chau said. “There are instances of racism that I’ve experienced, or the feeling of being an outsider — but those that came before me worked very hard to dismantle a lot of it, and lessen it for us now.”
Author Arlene Chan, who is serving on the advisory board of the project, has spent most her life researching the lost stories of Chinese-Canadians in Toronto. Growing up in Toronto’s first Chinatown, Chan remembers the beauty of the burgeoning community, but also the fight for the community’s survival.
“Our stories need to be told,” Chan told the Star. “This is not just for people who are Chinese Canadians, this is part of the city’s history.”
Chan’s book, The Spirit of the Dragon: the Story of Jean Lumb recounts a time when her mother, Jean Lumb, the first Chinese Canadian woman to receive the Order of Canada, fought her way out of poverty to become a central voice in the Chinese community.
Lumb arrived in Toronto with only $200 in her pocket, from her birthplace in Nanaimo, B.C., and opened up a grocery in The Junction. Later she and her husband opened up Kwong Chow restaurant, one of the four first Chinese eateries that included Sai Woo, Lichee Garden, and Nanking restaurant.
“Times were really different, the vision was for a white Canada,” Chan said. “(She) really fought hard for what was called family reunification … we wanted whoever was here to be able to bring their families over.”
Lumb continued to fight decades of Chinese discrimination, including the development of City Hall in 1961 that threatened to demolish Chinatown. Leading the “Save Chinatown Committee,” Lumb was able to work with the community to relocate it west to Spadina Ave.
“Toronto has a great reputation of being diverse, multicultural and welcoming … but that is because of our history, of our elders and what they went through so we could have what we have today,” Chan says.
For Chase Lo, the Executive Director of the Chinese Canadian National Council Toronto Chapter, the archives are a step in the right direction to debunk the perpetuation of a “foreigner” self-identity often seen with Chinese-Canadians and new Canadians, and to “give them a sense that they also belong.”
“There has been an ugly history in Canada in terms of discrimination,” he says. “Our piece is that it’s important to learn from our past mistakes so we don’t repeat them and remember to do things different.”
In the next three years, the Library aims to collect artifacts to help fill in the gaps of the lost names, histories, and voices of Chinese Canadians.
“They tell of the suffering and struggles and daily life that early Chinese Canadians experienced, illustrating the perseverance, resilience and spirit that helped build today’s society with harmony, mutual acceptance and appreciation,” Ng says.
The archive will be preserved and maintained at the Special Collections section in the Toronto Reference Library.