Devon Wong

Acknowledging the Past, Looking to the Future

It wasn’t until my early twenties that I realized I how very little I knew about my ancestry. In the past my parents told me colourful stories about growing up in Vancouver during the 60s and 70s; anecdotes about attending Strathcona Elementary School and forming friendships with other first-generation Chinese kids, in an era when cars lacked seatbelts. They also recounted walking along East Hastings Street towards the Woodward’s Department Store when it was the centre of the universe.

Like roots of a new family tree starting in Canada, my parents may as well have been seedlings dropped from the sky. In many ways this analogy would have simplified my understanding of the gaping holes in my family story that I never fully understood. Growing up, I realized that some parts of my family’s history were easier to talk about than others. Language barrier, for one, made it extremely difficult for me to converse with my grandparents beyond short exchanges about my parents’ whereabouts, or when I’d be graduating. Outside the home, I always knew the simplest stock answers if ever I was prompted with the dreaded question of “but where are you really from?” from a curious stranger prodding and determining my authenticity as a real Canadian. “From a village in China”, I would respond, “Taishan” on my father’s side, and “Poon Yue” on my mother’s side. “But my family has been in Canada for over 100 years” I would add to validate my Canadian identity.

I knew that my great-grandfather on my mother’s side arrived in 1911 and had worked as shingle mill worker. The only reason I know this now is because I had dared to open a Pandora’s box of my family’s history while in my mid-twenties. I was curious about what I could dig up between my great-grandfather’s solo arrival and my grandfather’s immigration with his young family in the late 1950s.

Visits to his headstone each Easter reminded me of distant ancestors. According to “official” documents, my great-grandfather, Kong Ming, was born on the fifteenth of April, in the year 1891. He left behind his roots of a simple solitary man, leaving his loved ones behind in China, and likely incurred loans to meet the $500 Head Tax requirement to enter Canada. He boarded a boat at age twenty and arrived across the Pacific Ocean to Vancouver Island on September 29th 1911.

For thirteen years, he lived in a makeshift community with other displaced Chinese bachelors. My great-grandfather made his living as a shingle mill worker, which was exceptionally dangerous work at the time. Many shingle weavers could be easily identified by their missing fingers and limbs and my grandfather was no exception. His missing right thumb is something my mother clearly remembered as a child. My great-grandfather wouldn’t leave for this new country of Gold Mountain for another thirteen years; and he would return home to China only once to make ensure that all his hard work would be passed onto an heir. In 1924, he left Canada at the age of 33 under the newly enacted Canada Immigration Act to return to the village in search of a bride.

My grandfather was born on the 2nd of December in 1931. His mother passed away shortly after his birth, and my great-grandfather was quick to remarry to maximize his brief time in China. He had a daughter with his second wife, and then quickly returned to Canada in 1933 without his new family. Great-grandfather wouldn’t see his son again for another twenty years. Grandfather, now a man himself, had arrived with his young bride and first child in 1958. My grandfather had grown up without a father figure in his life, and sometimes I wonder whether this emotional distance and staunch old fashioned family values simply mimicked the behaviour of his own father.

In 1959, my mother was the first child born on Canadian soil within our family, with two other siblings to follow. At the time, my grandfather was working as a cook in a Chinese restaurant in Chinatown. “One of the best”, I’ve been told, until a fire overcame the restaurant. My grandmother spent her time as a seamstress in a factory learning skills that I still get to appreciate today in my collection of homemade bed sheets. Chinatown was the centre of all their social and economic activities, and they never seemed to stray far from the comfort of their growing community.

My grandfather enrolled in adult classes to learn English at Strathcona School. Tuition was $18 a month, and while I never heard him speak English, I don’t doubt his understanding when I watch him skim over The Province newspaper and catch his worried reactions. And despite relocating to the Victoria Drive area of south-east Vancouver in the 1970’s, every day my grandfather takes public transit to Chinatown and continues his habit of eyeing the best deals on produce, and catching up with old friends along the way.

My mother remembers very little experience of the racism in her childhood with exception to the odd memory of “a few girls, who weren’t very nice”as they hurled racial slurs in the classroom. It’s a topic she continues to avoid discussing even today. Vancouver was a different city then, and perhaps any acknowledgement of racism could only be derived by the implication that you were an “other” or an outsider. Growing up in a predominantly white, working class neighbourhood on the outskirts of Chinatown, her fellow first-generation Chinese neighbour Anna quickly became her best friend from childhood all through to adulthood.

My father was born in Hong Kong and immigrated to Canada in 1967 at age ten with his large family. Most of my father’s favourite dinner table stories surround his athletic prowess throughout high school, and how he was able to gain respect by being “an Asian kid that could play sports with the best of them.” He played goalie for the Strathcona Dragons on the weekend, and point guard with the Britannia Bruins on schooldays. In his recollections, he doesn’t recall poignant experiences of racism, but admits that opportunities were few. Social mobility could only be achieved through higher education, which was afforded through my father’s stint as a janitor throughout his schooling.

My father never misses an opportunity to remind us of his humble roots in his early in Vancouver’s Chinese community. For twenty-five years, my parents have lived in the Victoria Drive neighbourhood, which some have colloquially dubbed “the new Chinatown” for its concentration of Chinese immigrants. Stories of modest beginnings pepper my father’s proud legacy of creating a standard of living that I remember enjoying as a child. When I ask how Chinese immigration patterns have changed over the course of his life, he never skips a beat in responding, as if proud, that they were poor, and today’s immigrants arrive with wealth.

I struggle with the notion that discrimination exists in Canada today but I acknowledge that I speak from a position of privilege, where I’ve experienced very little resistance in my own socio-economic ambitions. With the diversity in immigration patterns today, I would speculate that the experience of discrimination is caused by complexity in society rather than sheer racism. Nonetheless, it would be interesting to monitor the shifts in cultural experience of incoming Chinese immigrants as our roots in Canada continue to deepen and flourish.

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