Charlayne Thornton-Joe is a third generation Victorian with a connection to Canada’s oldest Chinatown like no other. Her grandparents came to Canada from China in the early twentieth century in search of opportunities. Her grandfather pioneered a life for his family in Victoria and owned a shoe store in Victoria’s Chinatown. Her father, Jon Joe (Chow) is a leader in the Victoria Chinese community and is one of the only four Chinese Freemason’s Esteemed Elders in Canada. And Charlayne is a notable city councillor who has been president or director of a number of organizations (including the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, the Victoria Chinatown Lioness Club and the Inter-Cultural Association of Greater Victoria).
I wanted to interview Charlayne because of this unique connection to the past, present and future of the Chinese community in Victoria.
What are your earliest memories of the Chinese Cemetery?
My earliest memories are of being a young child and going with my mother to the cemetery. She would go there several times a year to visit/pay respects to her father. We would also go visit a brother of hers, who passed away when she was a baby. When we were there, I would go play by the rocks and she would take some time to tidy, cut some of the grass around the grave, and arrange the flowers that she had brought. When she was ready, she would call me over and I would bow three times in front of my grandfather’s grave.
As I got a little older, I would drive my mother there and I remember asking her if she talked to my grandfather and she said yes. I asked what she talked about. She said she asked him to help her win the Lotto 649! Then in the 1990s the cemetery wasn’t being as cared for so my husband and I became volunteer caretakers of the cemetery for several years.
What is the significance of the Chinese Cemetery to you and the Chinese community in Victoria?
On the one hand, the Chinese Cemetery is a reminder of the discrimination that many encountered in the early days. Chinatown was created due to the discrimination of the day, the leper colony on D’Arcy Island was created also due to the discrimination. It is also due to the discrimination that we had a Chinese school and the Chinese cemetery. But, there is also the important message of people coming to Canada to give their children and grandchildren an opportunity for a better life… whether by raising money to send back to China, or with the hopes of bringing family to Canada. It is a reminder of the hardships and the perseverance of those who came, such as my grandparents.
You grew up in Victoria’s Chinatown and are now a prominent local figure in politics and social change. Has your perception of the cemetery changed throughout your life? How?
As I have grown older and learned more about the history of those that came to Victoria from China in the late 1800s and early 1900s, I have come to appreciate and honour my Chinese heritage. As a child, not understanding it, and growing up with childhood taunts and some degree of racism, I rebelled against my Chinese background and never learned to speak Cantonese.
Now I wish I had asked my grandparents more about their lives and how they came about coming to Canada. I learned to appreciate the struggles of all immigrants which led me to become President of the Inter-Cultural Association of Greater Victoria. The Chinese Cemetery keeps me grounded with my past and appreciative of the sacrifices that my ancestors made to give me opportunities that I have today.
After a long struggle, the cemetery became a National Heritage Site in 1995. How did this status change the perception of the cemetery?
I feel fortunate that I was involved in a small way with this. I had the opportunity to give a tour of the Chinese Cemetery to a man who had been sent to write a report on whether the Chinese cemetery should be made into a National Heritage Site. Shortly after this tour, it was announced that the designation would be given. Although for many, the Chinese cemetery was already known, when it became a National Heritage Site, others became aware of it. The most important aspect of the designation was the money that came forward to do much needed work.
What is the future of the cemetery?
I know that each year there seem to be fewer and fewer visitors to family plots. Although I still visit the family graves just as my mother taught me, especially during Qing Ming festival, I now include my mom’s grave at the Royal Oak Burial Grounds to my visits. I carry on the tradition because I knew how important it was for her. I have faith that groups such as the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association and the Cemetery’s Society will continue to ensure that the history is not forgotten and that care to the site is provided.