Asian Heritage Month: Connecting with the past through books

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Throughout May, CBC Books will be highlighting great works of Asian-Canadian literature as part of Asian Heritage Month. CBC producer and Asian-Canadian history enthusiast Adrian Ma kicks off this series by discussing how literature connected him with the past.


adrian-headshot-70.jpgWhen I was growing up, I'd often be asked this question when meeting new people.

"So, where are you from?"

I'd usually respond back by naming the city where I was born, Hamilton, Ont. (Go Ti-Cats!) And then I'd wait for it.

 "Sure, but where are you really from?"

Many people see the black hair, the brown eyes, yellow skin, and immediately discern that while my passport says "Canadian," I am not of Canada. My parents were born in Hong Kong. My grandparents were from mainland China. I was born here, but I'll always be Chinese-Canadian.

JadePeony-125.jpgAnd I never really explored that aspect of my identity until my first year English literature class in university. We were assigned to read The Jade Peony by Wayson Choy, a historical novel about a Chinese-Canadian family from Vancouver's old Chinatown. I thought, "Great! A book about my peeps, experiences I can relate to." But soon after delving into the story, I learned that while the characters in the book, Wayson himself, and I, are all considered Chinese-Canadians, we're not the same.

My parents immigrated to Canada in the 1980s after getting college and university educations here. This was after the federal government saw the economic benefits of having more educated and skilled foreigners and further opened its immigration policies. My mom and dad saw Canada as a better place to raise their kids and were welcomed with relatively open arms.

I say relatively because the Chinese-Canadians of the past, like the characters in The Jade Peony, had a much different relationship with this country. Shortly after the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1885, a backbreaking project that relied on cheap, imported Chinese labour, the government introduced a $50 head tax to discourage Chinese immigration, basically saying, "Thanks for the help, you know where the door is." Actually, they didn't even say "thanks" at the time. No Chinese person was invited to the historic ceremony when the last spike was driven into the ground. 

The Chinese still wanted to come, so the government doubled the tax. Then they quintupled it. Finally, when they realized how badly they underestimated Chinese people's desire to live in Canada, the government introduced the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1923. With the exception of a few wealthy merchants or visiting scholars, no Chinese would immigrate to Canada until after the Second World War, in which Canada and China were allies.

I knew little about this sad past, of the lonely men saving their meager earnings in hopes of bringing their wives and children over, of the families that were separated for more than two decades. They didn't teach much of this in school, and most modern Chinese-Canadian families, who immigrated in the latter half of the 20th century and make up the bulk of today's Chinese-Canadian population, have no connection to this time. But I felt it was important to know about the generations that came before me, and their struggles and triumphs.

So I connected to this past through literature. Sure, I learned a lot by reading history books, but it was mostly through fiction that I could feel a powerful, emotional tug in my chest. After reading The Jade Peony, I found other authors who brought this era to life like no history book could, like Sky Lee and Paul Yee.

electric-field-120.jpgThen I read novels by Japanese-Canadian writers like Joy Kogawa and Kerri Sakamoto, in which the tragic reality of Japanese internment during the Second World War, and the intense alienation it led to, were haunting themes.

And I'm discovering more voices every year, from lawyer-turned-novelist Kim Thuy (who fled war-ravaged Vietnam in the late 1970s) to Hong Kong-born Kevin Chong, whose novel Beauty Plus Pity captures what life is like for many young contemporary Asian-Canadians. I've also learned more about the sense of cultural dissonance felt by those of South Asian heritage thanks to writers like Anita Rau Badami and up-and-coming author Gurjinder Basran.

In the coming weeks, I'll be talking about some of the wonderful novels that contributed to my knowledge of Asian-Canadian history, but also helped me gain a better understanding of my own cultural identity and place in this world. And my suggestions are by no means definitive: please feel free to mention other great Asian-Canadian books you've come across in the comments section below, fiction or non-fiction!

It's my hope that every Canadian, whether they are of Asian descent or not, will pick up one or two of these books at some point and have a look. Because not only are they beautifully written and compelling stories, they touch upon something that many of us in this country strongly relate to: the search for identity and belonging, the search to feel at home.

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Thank you!

Adrian Ma is the author of
How the Chinese Created Canada. You can follow him on Twitter @adrianma.



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