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Review

Chilliwack’s Chinatowns: A History

By Chad Reimer

November 4, 2013

Review By LiLynn Wan

Writing about immigrants has long been central to Canadian historical scholarship. Today, the history of immigration also constitutes an essential element of the popular imagination in Canada and, in turn, of our sense of national identity. Chad Reimer’s Chilliwack’s Chinatown is a particularly interesting monograph because it speaks to both academic and popular audiences: it employs academic rigour in its extensive use and presentation of archival material and is also written in a narrative that is highly accessible to a popular readership. Reimer offers a detailed and thorough account of the brief existence of Chilliwack’s two Chinatowns in the early part of the twentieth century, from the labourers who cleared land in the 1880s to enable non-Native settlement in the Chilliwack region, to the controversial fires that permanently destroyed both communities in the 1920s and 1930s.

Taking what Franca Iacovetta has described as the “cohesive community” approach, Reimer unearths rich accounts of everyday experiences and evidence of the diversity of immigrant life. In his stories, the fluidity of racial and ethnic hierarchies is revealed through descriptions of the interactions and networks that existed among the residents of early Chilliwack. Chilliwack’s Chinatowns follows the conventional master narrative of Chinese immigration that begins with the gold rush and ends with stories of the victory of integration into mainstream Canadian society. It focuses too heavily on men and the merchant elite in reconstructing these communities and is framed in the unproblematized language of contemporary liberal multiculturalism. Nonetheless, Reimer’s work makes some valuable contributions. His regional and rural focus offers a useful balance to the existing literature on Chinese and non-European immigrants more generally, which tend to concentrate on urban communities. This rural focus also reveals the essential connections between peripheral regions like Chilliwack and core urban regions like Vancouver, particularly in his discussion of market gardening. As Reimer points out, the surviving documents favour the experiences of the merchant elite, and their stories constitute the bulk of this history. However, the most engaging and analytical parts of this book are found in chapters 10 and 11. These chapters are based on court records and provide insight into the experiences of the labouring classes, who were the demographic majority of the Chinatown community in Chilliwack at this time.

Chilliwack’s Chinatowns offers an interesting local history and a wealth of primary document material. It is an excellent resource for students and scholars of race, ethnicity, and immigration in Canada, and will serve as a basis for further interpretation and analysis.

Chilliwack’s Chinatowns: A History
by Chad Reimer
Vancouver, B.C.: Chinese Canadian Historical Society of British Columbia, Gold Mountain Stories, 2011  240pp, $45.00