Asian Affairs: An American Review, 40:156–162, 2013
Copyright C 2013 Taylor & Francis Group, LLC
ISSN: 0092-7678 print / 1940-1590 online
Escape to Gold Mountain: A Graphic History of the Chinese in North America
Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press
240 pp., $19.95, paperback ISBN 978-1-55152-476-4
Publication Date: 2012
It is a mark of the success of a national community when there is convenient leisure time for non-academic writers and non-government scribes to enhance the quality of its national community existence by writing about the community’s people and events. One such national community, a nation within a larger nation state, is Chinese Canada. As Benedict Anderson in his Imagined Communities (1991) surmised: a “nation is an imagined political community– and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign” (6).
Chinese Canada is not a nation state as it lacks a formal government, foreign policy, and thus a military presence. But it is a nation because it has a critical mass of 1.3million people that began to rise with the influx of Chinese refugees fromVietnam in 1979. Chinese Canadians now live mainly in Vancouver and Toronto. It has wealth in the personage of Li Ka-shing who became the first Chinese entrepreneur on a global scale when he bought controlling interest of Hutchison Whampoa in 1979. He and his sons, Victor and Richard, along with Michael Lee-Chin, Caleb Chan, the Louie family and others are the economic elites of Chinese Canada.
Chinese Canada has a strong political sense of self as a result of the 156 Book Reviews 157 successful anti-W5 civil rights movement (1979–1980). Most important, it has families, businesses, and school ties throughout the world as Chinese Canada is part of the burgeoning Chinese diaspora of 60 million people. It connects with the people of China and thus the 5,000-year continuous history of that nation. When Deng Xiaoping visited Jimmy Carter in 1979, this signaled a new respect not only for the Chinese in China, but the Chinese in the diaspora. It also has a diverse and varied cuisine unrivaled anywhere in the world.
Illustrating the cultural richness of Chinese Canada in recent years is a bevy of histories written by librarian Arlene Chan, public servant May Q. Wong, and architect David Wong. That these non-academics and nongovernment scribes have provided us with their thoughts and wonderment of the world known as Chinese Canada (and Chinese America) reveals a penchant to expand the historical horizon of this 21st-century nation. This is not academic history but a people’s history, written not only from the mind, but more importantly from the heart.
Of the three, Arlene Chan’s (no relation) The Chinese in Toronto from 1878 follows a conventional and chronological format. Her task is even more daunting because she must intersect the many Chinese in Toronto within the general history of Chinese Canada. That she does this successfully attests to her acumen in storytelling. Chan has a deftness in assembling the many personalities, events, and policies so that a coherent story emerges. The history of the Chinese in Toronto, like the history of the Chinese in Canada, is one filled with systemic racism in the Head Tax, Exclusion Act of 1923, and immigration policies denying equal access for the Chinese in Canada. It is a story of a European Canadian media bent on criminalizing the Chinese as drug smugglers, amoral sexual perverts, greedy pimps, corrupt merchants, and “cheating” students taking over entrance positions in professional schools in universities. But it is also a story of immigrants and Canadian-born Chinese who overcame these negativities and fought in World War II, even though the 600 men and women were not citizens of Canada. It is also a saga of women like Chan’s mother Jean Lumb who along with Chinese Canadian men met Prime Minister John Diefenbaker in 1957 to argue for more transparent and non-discriminatory immigration policies, especially in family reunification.
There are heart-warming stories about the development of laundries and where chop suey originated. Likewise, Arlene Chan understands the differences between a Chinese Cafe and a Chinese restaurant. She chronicles how the Toronto municipal government destroyed part of the old Chinatown without conferring with the Chinese Canadian residents there. Illustrating the history is a vast array of photos, including many from the Toronto archives and family collections.
That Toronto-born and raised Arlene Chan is able to include almost all aspect of Chinese Canadian life, politics, economics, and culture in a book of 206 pages is commendable. While it whets the appetite for more, nevertheless it is absolutely a must read for those interested in knowing more about the largest Chinese Canadian population inCanada’s largest city. The Chinese in Toronto from 1878 is indeed a stellar example of a people’s history at its best.
Whereas Arlene Chan concentrates on a panoramic view of a large group of Chinese Canadians in Toronto, May Q. Wong’s A Cowherd in Paradise is a more intimate family portrait of her own family in Montreal. For those interested in writing their own family histories, Wong’s A Cowherd in Paradise is a classic, textbook formula with a beginning, middle, and end that exudes passion, vision, and sensitivity. At the beginning of the story, it is not difficult to be drawn into the pathos of the author’s father Ah Dang being sold to another family. Her mother, Ah Thloo, spent her early years as a cowherd girl in China.
Like all histories of the Chinese diaspora, the opium wars, the beginning of the republic, Sun Yat-sen, Yuan Shikai, and the warlords are evoked as a background to the arranged marriage between Ah Dang and Ah Thloo. This marriage act was accomplished in China after Ah Dang had spent most of the 1920s in British Columbia working as a laborer. By the time Ah Dang left China and Ah Thloo in 1930, he was invited to work in Montreal from a new benefactor, Ah Ngay Gonge. Ah Dang toiled in a laundry and as a cook for a European Canadian family. By 1935, the couple gave birth to a daughter and then a son in 1948, and finally, to the author in 1955.
In 1949, Ah Dang made a move to acquire Canadian citizenship, two years after the Chinese in Canada were granted the franchise. The aim was to then apply for his family to emigrate from China under the sponsorship of a Canadian father. Even with Canadian citizenship in 1951, it took Ah Dang three years to bring his family together in Montreal.
As a successful operator of a restaurant in Montreal, Ah Dang personified a typical Chinese immigrant: industrious, family-oriented, and patriotic. But the marriage of Ah Dang and Ah Thloo was not an easy one. They both had bad tempers and large egos (194).When her father dies in 1983, the author writes, “Ah Dang’s passing enabled Ah Thloo to soften her carapace of anger” (215). In another remark, “With widowhood came freedom for Ah Thloo and in 1985, she returned to China for a long visit” (218). Many of the photos of Ah Thloo are restrained without any hint of joy. What this couple endured has been retold for centuries. It could be a story of a Cambodian, Greek, Korean, or Macedonian immigrant family. There is nothing new. What is new is how May Q. Wong tells it, with verve, good pacing and a flare for the dramatic.
In many ways, this book could be anyone’s journey from the old country to a new one. The need to discover an identity lost through emigration is apparent. How does an immigrant deal with a new language, a new marriage partner, and a new culture? Wong’s portrayal reveals the inevitable setbacks and many triumphs.
Of the three books under review, the most stunning and gripping is David Wong’s Escape to Gold Mountain: A Graphic History of the Chinese in North America.
Capturing the Canadian and American reading market with its deft writing and the many line drawings, it not only illustrates but also delineates the many women, men, and machines that populate the history of the Chinese in North America. The drawings are so life-like that many resemble people in my family or people in my many work places. The Japanese invasion of Pearl Harbor is exquisitely captured as bombs rain down and Franklin Delano Roosevelt is depicted as if he were a painting. Likewise Chinese Canadian and American military men and women are accurately portrayed in dialogue as well as in graphic design. David Wong writes his dialogue with panache and precision.
Chinese North American icons, Woon Foon Sien, Jean Lumb, Wing Luke, Hiram Leong Fong, March Fong Eu, Judy Chu, and even National League Hockey player, Larry “King” Kwong, are drawn so eerily accurate that they almost jump out at you. Even Sun Yat-sen and Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie looked exactly like their official portraits.
After a very cursory, but needed Timeline, Travel Map (from China to North America), and Prologue, the opening chapter evokes the Iron Chink as the penetrating technological protagonist able to can fish, thus laying off hundreds of Chinese workers in New Westminster, British Columbia. The wide shots of the cannery and the anguish on the close-ups of the workers demonstrate the use and abuse of Chinese workers that, in fact, continues to this day in many sweatshops in some Chinatowns of North America.
Chapter Two cuts to China where Wong depicts the sorrow of opium in 1835 on a Chinese family where the mother says to the addicted father, “You beast, you sold our only child, damn you.” This is the author’s segue to the Opium Wars where a British merchant says to an officer, “Opium is a brilliant success.” This then begins the narrative of the Chinese to the United States where Chinese miners dig for gold and Charles Crocker builds the railroad with Chinese labor. What follows the final construction of the westernmost portion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869 is a well-documented history of lynching, burnings, and the taking of Chinese queues as trophy. With Wong’s meticulous drawings, this history is raw, brutal, inhumane, and barbaric. The author does not mince his words or pen.
For the first time in Chinese North American history, a graphic history of such proportion helps reader 13 years and older grapple with the complexities of the opium war, famine, poverty, depravity, racism, imperialism, Chinese gold seekers and railroad workers, and the bachelor society. Canada is not spared David Wong’s insight into its own racism and the portrayal of the Chinese in the European North American media as criminals, slave traders, and sexual perverts.
Andrew Onderdonk is Canada’s Charles Crocker. In his building of the Canadian Pacific Railway, there is the gripping story in 1882 in Hell’s Gate, Fraser River Canyon, of Chinese workers killed while planting dynamite to blast mountain sides in British Columbia. This is not new in Chinese Canadian history.
What is new is Wong’s introduction of Native or First Nations people nursing injured Chinese workers back to health thus forging a bond that endures until today. The First Nations-Chinese liaison is a bold idea as other books have merely hinted at this symbiosis.
The author even evokes a marriage between the son of one Chinese family and his new bride from the Nootka people near Ucluelet, British Columbia.
The other bold stroke is how David Wong is able to intersect similar histories of the Chinese in the United States and Canada in such a digestible manner. The simplicity of the drawings and spare dialogue are forceful techniques that help the reader navigate through much of the complex historical issues. First-time readers of the Chinese in North America will find this book to be a marvel. Many will find it difficult to set the book down once they begin reading the dialogue and absorbing the graphic designs.
Escape to Gold Mountain is a tour-de-force artistic and conceptual achievement that will redefine how the Chinese in North America and others perceive our common history. Along with Arlene Chan’s The Chinese in Toronto and May Q. Wong’s A Cowherd in Paradise, David Wong’s Escape to Gold Mountain reveals that Hugh MacLennan’s Two Solitude (1945) is a mid-twentieth century anachronism. There are now many “solitudes” in Canada and Chinese Canada is one of the most prominent. Likewise, Chinese America as an Asian Pacific American nation continues to evolve into a distinct entity.
ANTHONY B. CHAN
University of Washington
Copyright © 2013
Taylor & Francis Group, LLC