Great Fortune Dream: The Struggles and Triumphs of Chinese Settlers in Canada, 1858-1966

Great Fortune Dream: The Struggles and Triumphs of Chinese Settlers in Canada, 1858-1966

David Chuenyan Lai, Guo Ding

Reviewed by LiLynn Wan

David Chuenyan Lai and Ding Guo’s Great Fortune Dream is a comprehensive history of the Chinese in Canada, from early settlement to the 1960s. While much has been written on the subject, there have been few attempts at an in-depth national history of Chinese settlement in Canada since the seminal works of the 1980s, notably Edgar Wickberg’s edited collection From China to Canada (McClelland & Stewart, 1982) and Peter Li’s The Chinese in Canada (Oxford University Press, 1988). First written in Chinese and published in Beijing three years ago for a Chinese readership, this recent release of an English edition of Great Fortune Dream makes a valuable contribution to the literature. Lai and Guo’s extensive use of Chinese language sources and oral histories, their attentiveness to the close relationships between families, organizations, and politics in Canada with those in China, and their keen awareness of the diversity and humanity of the people who made up the Chinese communities in Canada result in an insightful interpretation of this history.

In their preface, the authors claim to have produced “a more profound analysis of the experiences of migrant people” (9) through a reassessment of Canadian policies and attitudes. But Lai and Guo also achieve depth in their analysis by showing that many Chinese settlers derived a sense of self-respect and belonging from within the Chinatown communities as well as through their relationships with people and events in China. A history of systemic racism and discrimination against the Chinese in Canada, especially in British Columbia, has been well established in the historiography by previous scholars. These studies necessarily focus on Canadian government policies, Canadian public debates, Canadian organizations (both anti-Asian and human rights), and experiences of discrimination on Canadian soil. The Anglo-centricity of source material in this approach tends to unintentionally diminish Chinese communities into marginalized (and silent) roles in the narrative. However, as Great Fortune Dream demonstrates, their voices resonated in Chinatown, as well as across the Pacific -- even if they were not heard within the confines of English language Canada. This monograph offers a glimpse of the complex dynamics within Chinatown communities through detailed analysis of the various political and community organizations, and family associations, societies, and affiliations. The use of interviews and private collections in Great Fortune Dream enriches our understanding of daily life, business practices, and social relations in this time period. Lai and Guo acknowledge the persistent racism that shaped the experiences of the Chinese in Canada, but also make clear their economic and cultural contributions.

Great Fortune Dream focuses mainly on British Columbia, with considerable attention paid to central Canada and the Prairie region. As a “national” history, however, this volume, like those that preceded it, sweeps over of the history of the Chinese in the Atlantic region by citing a lack of population. Recent scholarship by Albert Lee (Nova Scotia) and Margaret Connors (Newfoundland and Labrador), which tell distinctly regional stories, suggests that an understanding of the experience of Chinese migration and settlement in rural and peripheral regions would enrich the national narrative. Regardless, Great Fortune Dream offers an updated and highly readable grand narrative of the history of the Chinese in Canada, with a particularly thorough examination of Canadian immigration policy. This edition does contain a useful bibliography, but does not include footnotes or endnotes.

Great Fortune Dream: The Struggles and Triumphs of Chinese Settlers in Canada, 1858-1966
David Chuenyan Lai & Guo Ding
Halfmoon Bay: Caitlin Press, 2016. 240 pp. $26.95 paper

BC Studies no. 194 Summer 2017