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An Archaeology of Asian Transnationalism

By Douglas E. Ross

Review By Grant Ross Keddie

July 14, 2015

BC Studies no. 188 Winter 2015-2016  | p. 123-24

Although descriptive work on historic artifacts of Asian origin has been sporadically produced by American archaeologists since the 1960s, and by British Columbia archaeologists since the 1970s, recent years have seen a blossoming of Asian archaeology in North America into a more humanities-informed scholarship. By subjecting archaeological finds to historical (written and oral) documentation and to the analytical writing on diaspora and transnationalism, Douglas Ross in An Archaeology of Asian Transnationalism develops a useful model for understanding historical Asian archaeology in British Columbia of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Ross’s book, along with Michael Kennedy’s “Fraser River Placer Mining Landscapes” in BC Studies (2009), and a recent (2015) special issue on Chinese railway workers in North America in Historical Archaeology, edited by Barbara Voss, show an increasing interest in this subject.

Ross argues that the excavation of Asian manufactured artifacts in British Columbia has often been undertaken by contract archaeologists unfamiliar with current analytical writing on Asian archaeology from other places, a literature which, he argues, can have a bearing on specific local context and material culture. Ross argues that archaeologists lacking the appropriate conceptual/ analytical background should focus on describing the detailed site context of their finds and leave the theorizing to those with specialized academic knowledge. His principal analytical frameworks are derived from concepts of transnationalism and diaspora — the dispersal of people from their homeland. He examines transformations arising from the displacement associated with the migration of Asians to British Columbia and how immigrants from common homelands created and maintained communities and collective identities. He sees diaspora as a process of dispersion and identity formation. He emphasizes the social processes through which diasporic groups were created. Although he recognizes that ethnic bonds formed the basis for diasporic social organization, he views diaspora as a process rather than the continuation of a fixed identity.

Specifically, Ross focuses on the material remains of Japanese and Chinese settlers at industrial work camps on two small islands associated with commercial fishing, Don Island and Lion Island, on the lower Fraser River. In assessing the role of ethnic identity in influencing material culture, Ross recognises the role of multiple and interacting factors. I have observed from my own research that the same material goods in different places might tell quite different stories. The presence of Asian goods in archaeology sites may have less to do with ethnic identity than with the profit-oriented ambitions of Chinese merchants exploiting a market demand for Asian products. In Victoria, for example, Chinese and later Japanese goods were available and inexpensive for any potential purchaser — Asian or non-Asian – owing to the city’s location as colonial port of entry, major north Pacific port, and site until 1890 of BC’s largest Chinatown. Asian goods were therefore cheaper there than in other parts of British Columbia. Chinese wine bottles re-used by non-Chinese settlers for water storage will, of course, mislead an uninformed archaeologist. Therefore, a knowledge of local costs, context, and usage is important in how we interpret the presence of Chinese artifacts.

Although in my opinion we still need good quality descriptive studies, I agree with Ross that analytically-informed archaeology is vitally important, in combination with other historic documentation, in assessing the experiences and consumer habits of migrant communities as they navigated diasporic identities and transnational relations.

An Archaeology of Asian Transnationalism
Douglas E. Ross
Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2013. 245 pp.  $103.95 cloth