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Brokering Belonging: Chinese in Canada’s Exclusion Era, 1885-1945

By Lisa Rose Mar

Review By Zhongping Chen

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 173 Spring 2012  | p. 147-48

This is a groundbreaking book in Chinese Canadian History and in the history of the global Chinese diaspora. It challenges conventional perceptions of Chinese relations with the mainstream society in Canada during the historical era of racist rampage, and sheds new light on the transnational connections of community leaders in Canadian Chinatowns.

This book focuses on the “individual ethnic leaders who acted as intermediaries between Chinese and Anglo worlds of North America’s West Coast” (p. 4), including British Columbia and especially Vancouver. The most fascinating portion of the book is its narrative and analysis of the rivalry between Yip On, a Chinese immigration interpreter in Vancouver, and a competitor for his position, David Lew, in 1910-1911. They respectively formed alliances with different factions of the ruling Liberal Party and used such cross-racial alliances, and their transpacific connections, to secure or pursue patronage appointments inside the immigration system. But both of them made legal or illegal attempts to foil anti-Chinese immigration policies in Canada, especially the head tax that had been imposed by the Canadian government from 1885. It is equally interesting to read how Lew and other Chinese legal brokers swayed the Anglo-Canadian judicial system in favour of immigrants, especially the illegal ones, from China, but they also helped expand Caucasian legal culture into Chinatowns through their efforts to resolve disputes inside their ethnic communities. In particular, Lew’s rivalry with Yip for the control of Nanaimo’s Chinatown even evolved into a legal battle in the Supreme Court of Canada from 1922 to 1924, when an unsolved assassination ended the colourful career of Lew.

Mar’s book also details how a new generation of Chinese power brokers, such as intellectuals, labour leaders, and civil rights activists, appeared in Canadian Chinatowns after World War I. They used anti-imperialism slogans and social movement politics to mobilize mass protests against school separation in British Columbia in 1922-1923. Starting from 1924, they organized the Chinese community to prepare for the survey of race relations in Vancouver by the Chicago School of sociologists, which set a precedent for their counterparts on the Pacific coast of North America and helped build the image of Asian immigrants as a model minority. Eventually, their mobilization of Chinese labour actions and other mass movements against the unpopular war policies during World War Two contributed to the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Acts in Canada in 1947, although the book ends its historical narrative in 1945.

In general, Mar’s book convincingly shows how Chinese Canadians, especially their power brokers, became deeply involved in Canada’s political and legal institutions as well as social movements between 1885 and 1945, even though they faced the head tax, disfranchisement, exclusion acts, and other discriminatory barriers. To a significant extent, their political activities in Canada were based on their transnational connections in the broader worlds of North America, the transpacific arena, and the British Empire. Certainly, more rigorous and systematic research is still needed to rectify the few errors and to develop the seminal themes in Mar’s pioneer work. For example, this book identifies a major historical figure in its first chapter, Yip On, with two Chinese names, Ye En and Ye Ting Sam [Ye Tingsan] (pp. 6, 38). However, a careful reading of relevant Chinese documents will find that Ye En and Ye Tingsan were two individuals, rather than one person (e.g., http://www.cinarc.org/Associations.html#anchor_243). More important, a systematic examination of the activities of new political organizations in Canadian Chinatowns during the early twentieth century, such as the Chinese Empire Reform Association and the Chinese Nationalist League, would greatly strengthen Mar’s arguments, which are mainly based on her selected cases studies of individual brokers and social movements. 

Lisa Rose Mar
Brokering Belonging: Chinese in Canada’s Exclusion Era, 1885-1945
Oxford University Press, 2010   pp. $24.95