I have been privileged. Over the course of my time working on the Chinese Legacy Initiatives, a world of worlds has been opened to me. In every archival accession I digitize, every file tells a story.
Given the thematic scope of this project, the vast majority of the narratives I have encountered are of a tragic nature. Digitizing materials which detail interactions with Chinese Canadians and their experiences over the past 150 years inevitably involves bringing to light acerbic, anti-Oriental perspectives and ugly histories—legally sanctioned racism, discriminatory language, deeply internalized prejudice.
My understanding of and respect for human resilience has grown as a result of the intimate awareness I have developed handling records for the Chinese Legacy Initiatives.
This is precisely the purpose of the project, as I understand it—to highlight the history of Chinese Canadians in British Columbia as represented in the collections of the Royal British Columbia Museum and Archives, in an effort to acknowledge and apologize for past mistreatment. Through exposure these dark episodes—all the more significant for their uncomfortable nature—can contribute to the development of a healthier historical understanding of BC. I wholeheartedly agree that only once a more holistic vision of the Chinese Canadian experience in BC has been recognized can that thorny past be appropriately reconciled.
However, grinding through records of hate and hurt, it is easy to lose sight of the narrative of success that ultimately underscores the Chinese Canadian legacy in this province. While uplifting accounts and heartwarming anecdotes have been regrettably scarce, one collection in particular did strike a chord.
One of the first sets of records I worked to digitize was a set of about 20 editions of the Chinatown News, a bi-monthly publication out of Vancouver founded by Roy Mah for English-speaking Chinese Canadians. Running for four decades beginning in the 1950s, the Chinatown News highlighted the accomplishments of individuals from the community, promoted local industry, celebrated club activities and reviewed cultural events. Smiling faces of Miss Chinatown hopefuls and proud business owners fill every edition.
One series of articles published in this collection seems particularly relevant. Opening with a piece titled “Were Chinese the Original Natives of B.C.?”, author Quan Lim details accounts of Chinese in British Columbia beginning well before Christopher Columbus. In successive editions Lim summarizes the historical experience of Chinese immigrants with headings including “Hazards of the Gold Rush”, “Resentment Replaced Goodwill” and “Early Chinese Settlers Helped Save B.C. for Canada”.
Printed in 1958 by a Chinese Canadian for Chinese Canadians in recognition of Canada’s centenary, these articles effectively promote and validate cultural identification with the province, its heritage and development, from the region’s earliest recorded history.
Lim concludes the featured series on an encouraging note, commemorating the involvement of Chinese Canadians in BC’s first election in Lillooet in 1863. He writes that although Chinese votes were ultimately discounted, “at any rate, they voted and thereby gained the distinction of participating in BC’s first election.” Significantly, Lim does not underline the hurt faced by those whose efforts to participate in their society were coldly dismissed. Rather, he champions the simple fact that they did participate and that their participation is resoundingly legitimate regardless of subsequent outcomes.
Lim acknowledges, but refuses to linger on the unhappy circumstances faced by many Chinese immigrants during the mid to late nineteenth century. He focuses on the patience and resourcefulness of Chinese Canadians and distinguishes those who found relative success.
Such is the tone presented in most of the articles in the Chinatown News that objectively cover the socio-political difficulties encountered by the community in the mid-twentieth century.
I find personal significance in the responses of the Chinese Canadian community to their legacy of hardship in BC. Within these records one finds something hardier than hope; the drive to eke out a life and to improve that life through work and withstanding.
So, in a similar manner, I wish to emphasize the continuous and permanent impact of Chinese Canadians on BC’s heritage, to celebrate this group’s resourcefulness while acknowledging their suffering. I choose to highlight an attitude, the spirit of resilience, embedded within a collection of records that testifies to the success of a now thriving community.