Orienting Canada: Race, Empire and the Transpacific, Pacific Connections: The Making of the US-Canada Borderlands, Chasing the Dragon in Shanghai: Canada's Early Relations with China, 1858-1952

  • Orienting Canada: Race, Empire and the Transpacific
    by John Price
  • Pacific Connections: The Making of the US-Canada Borderlands
    by Kornel Chang
  • Chasing the Dragon in Shanghai: Canada's Early Relations with China, 1858-1952
    by John Meehan

Reviewed by Laura Madokoro

The history of Canada’s Pacific relations has long been a neglected subject. The general consensus was that Pacific relations were not central to understanding the history of the country and its place in the world. In their own way, the three offerings under study here repair this imbalance.

Read together, they form a sort of triumvirate. Even though they take different approaches and explore different issues, at least two of them converge on questions of temporality; on place and the construction of borders; on racism and its impact on relationships in multiple contact zones; and on the significant and tangible bonds that were forged between Canada and the Pacific for centuries. Together, these three books provide a rich tapestry upon which to trace the multitude connections that shaped relations between Canada and the Pacific and, in the hands of these authors, the very nature of Canada and the Pacific since the mid nineteenth century. At the same time, they all move beyond narrow investigations of Canada’s Pacific World to suggest how Canada’s Pacific relations can inform the historiography of border studies, colonialism, imperialism, racism, and international relations more broadly.

Kornel Chang’s book is an innovative exploration of the dual processes of globalization and border formation on the Pacific coast of North America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Contrary to conventional studies that focus on the history of particular groups in motion between different parts of the Pacific Rim, Chang focuses on the Pacific Northwest (loosely defined but assumed to encompass British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon). He slices a thin wedge of the region’s temporal history to consider how different groups experienced the region and how the responses of local, national, and imperial authorities were informed by global phenomena. Chang argues that the “connections and transformations wrought by a globalizing world kindled a countermovement to solidify national borders among white settler societies in Canada and the United States, who together elaborated new forms of sovereignty in an attempt to control Asian migration across the Pacific and across landed borders in North America” (3). In his rich analysis, Chang documents the manner in which Chinese “managerial elites” benefited from the supply of Chinese labourers to North American markets, the politics of white union activists and how they flowed along imperial circuits, the confluence of interests between labourers and South Asian activists under the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World), and how migrants’ successful evasion of growing immigration regulations led to greater state surveillance and intervention in their lives. Chang’s studies of the role of migrant elites in bridging various interests, as well as the impact of illegal migration in shaping the character of the Canada-US border, build on interventions made previously by Lisa Mar in Brokering Belonging: Chinese in Canada’s Exclusion Era, 1885-1945 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010) and Erika Lee, At America’s Gates: Chinese Immigration During the Exclusion Era, 1882-1943 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003). However, Chang covers important new ground in his efforts to delineate a geographic space in which to tease out the paradoxical, contradictory, and twinned dynamics of globalization and the establishment of national borders.

John Meehan also takes a stab at the “spatial turn”[1] by exploring the history of Canada’s experience in Shanghai from 1858 to 1952. In a lively read, Meehan documents the wide range of people who made their way to Shanghai and lived and worked there both during its heyday and in the lower ebbs of its history. Meehan is interested primarily in filling the gap in the historiography on Sino-Canadian relations, turning to an earlier period than the standard Reluctant Adversaries: Canada and the People's Republic of China, 1949-1970 (Toronto: UTP 1991, edited by Paul M. Evans and B. Michael Frolic), to investigate the relationship. The result is a twinned analysis. On one level, Meehan looks at the Canadians -- loosely defined as “those who were born in Canada, those who came from there directly, or, in certain cases, those whose ties were more tenuous” (9) -- who lived, worked, and visited Shanghai. On the next, Meehan traces the parameters of Canada’s formal relations with successive Chinese governments over nearly a century of turbulence and conflict on the mainland. The two-pronged approach means that readers gain significant insights about Canadians in Shanghai as well as various efforts to establish formal relations between the two countries. In his conclusion, Meehan suggests that the story of Sino-Canadian relations in the years he documents demonstrates a kind of parallel “coming of age,” though in a vastly different guise. He suggests that over time, Canadians came to distance themselves from the “Shanghai mind” (the sense of superiority ascribed to many Western residents of Shanghai in this period) “particularly as their own nationalism developed during the interwar years” (180). Yet how this translated into Canada’s formal relations with China, if at all, remains at the margins of Meehan’s analysis. This is partly due to the fact that Meehan draws back from engaging fully with the question of racism in Canada.

What Meehan leaves unspoken, John Price makes patently clear. In Orienting Canada, Price places questions of race and racism at the core of Canada’s relationship with Asia from 1907-1954. Rather than focusing on bilateral relations, Price addresses the sweeping political and cultural connections between Canada and Korea, Japan, Vietnam, and China. Through an analysis of major events in the region, Price argues eloquently that Canada’s transpacific (a term never clearly defined) relations were informed by notions of racial supremacy and changing ideas of empire. Price persuasively demonstrates how Canada supported the United States in the “remilitarization of the Pacific” (7). During this process, Price suggests, the interests of Asian leaders were marginalized in favour of efforts to carve out an American sphere of influence. In each chapter, Price documents the history of major events in Asia before exploring the history of Canadian engagement and participation with events in Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. Price convincingly demonstrates not only that issues in Asia played “a foundational role in Canadian and world politics” (2), but that it was the upheaval in Asia that lay the groundwork for America’s imperial ambitions and inspired Canadian diplomats to actively encourage the United States to take on this role (128). Price’s masterful intervention fundamentally alters understandings of Canada’s engagement with Asia, pairing it with notions of racial superiority as well as the expansion of the American empire.

These three books situate British Columbia’s history of entangled relations with the Pacific within broader questions of globalization and empire. Of the three, Chang is the most forthright about making connections between the history of places and the circulation of notions and practices of imperialism. It is troubling, therefore, that Chang mentions the presence of First Nations people only twice. The Pacific Northwest was not an empty region upon which the politics of empire were played out on the backs of migrants alone. Moreover, as Bonita Lawrence and Enakshi Dua have suggested, all immigration needs to be understood as a form of settler colonialism.[2] Chang’s thoughtful analysis of the dynamics that shaped the trajectory of the Pacific Northwest and its place in the larger Pacific World neglects this important issue and his analysis therefore invites further study. Questions of how to account for the particularities of place, structural racism, and the impulse for encounters between Canada, Canadians, and the Pacific World remain provocative ones. These three works make a substantial contribution in expanding the horizons upon which such scholarly inquiries are pursued.

[1] Although the spatial turn tends to refer to the use of GIS technology, beginning in the 1990s, to map historical spaces of inquiry, I use the term more generally here to reference efforts to pursue translocal or local histories that inform discussions of the nature of globalization.

[2] Bonita Lawrence and Enakshi Dua, “Decolonizing Anti-Racism,” Social Justice 32, no. 4 (102) (2005): 120-143.

Pacific Connections: The Making of the US-Canada Borderlands
By Kornel Chang
Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2012. 264 pp, $29.95 paper

Chasing the Dragon in Shanghai: Canada’s Early Relations with China, 1858-1952
By John Meehan
Vancouver: UBC Press, 2012. 260 pp, $32.95 paper

Orienting Canada: Race, Empire and the Transpacific
By John Price
Vancouver: UBC Press, 2011. 464 pp, $34.95 paper

BC Studies, no. 178, Summer 2013.

BC Studies 178 (Summer 2013)