Finding Memories, Tracing Routes: Chinese Canadian Family Stories
November 4, 2013
Review By Yuen-Fong Woon
This book is a product of the first Family History Writing Workshop sponsored by the Chinese Canadian Historical Society of British Columbia to encourage and facilitate the tracing of Chinese Canadian collective history, which has hitherto been neglected by professional historians and official records. While the preface, introduction, and afterword are written by academics (Barman, Worrall, and Yu), this edited volume is not a polished product of professional historians or creative writers; rather, it details the process whereby eight Chinese Canadians from diverse family and occupational backgrounds come together in the workshop, encouraged by the organizer and one another, to write their own family history for the first time. In less than ten pages, each author uses various sources (childhood memories, memories of family members, old photographs, archival and/or onsite research) to trace the unique experience of his/her elders or her/himself. As the author’s note at the end of each contribution indicates, they all found it challenging, yet enriching and therapeutic, to write family stories as a way of reconfirming their cultural identity while leaving a legacy for their descendants. In the end, they were inspired to continue with this endeavour.
Yet the significance of this edited volume goes beyond the personal fulfilment of the contributors. In recreating the voices of their parents, grandparents, uncles, or aunts, and in retelling the stories behind family photographs, these authors succeeded in making Chinese Canadian history come alive. They brought into public view the pains of split family existence caused by legalized Canadian racism and the troubled history of China. As Yu (73-82) points out, recent Canadian government apologies for head taxes imposed upon early Chinese immigrants is only a symbolic act. We, as Chinese Canadians, need to start moving the Chinese presence in this country from the margin to the centre. Only then can we break the silence of the past and begin to reclaim our lost history. Only then can we rediscover the central role played by the Chinese as early settlers of this province, before being dislodged by Caucasian latecomers who rewrote history to claim their status as the “dominant society.”
While recognizing the significance of this book in the making of micro and macro histories of Canada, I have a few minor squabbles. First, the editor should explain the use of the term “routes” instead of “roots” in the title. Second, despite the fact that the three academics – Barman, Worrall, and Yu – all point out that there are different historical truths, none gives any specific examples of discrepancies between accounts derived from official documents and those derived from individual memories and images. Third, while trying to extract commonalities among the diverse accounts in the volume, Barman sometimes goes overboard. In my view, there is not enough material in the volume to illustrate the essential role played by early Chinese Canadians in the Canadian economy (iii), nor are there enough convincing examples to illustrate the failure of Chinese Canadian elders to show the deference expected of them by the dominant society (iv-v). As this book is meant for a general audience, the preface should focus more specifically on placing the life experience of each Chinese elder within the context of Canadian history. Last, on a more frivolous note, it is rather repetitious to have every contributor expressing his/her gratitude to the workshop organizer. It sounds like Chinese peasants thanking Chairman Mao for their “liberation”!
All in all, I strongly recommend this volume to academics and the general community. It provides inspiration for ordinary Canadians (as well as professional historians) to collectively contribute to national histories by recording our own unique but diverse family and personal experiences. Acquiring this book has an added advantage: the proceeds go to a muchneeded scholarship fund established by the Chinese Canadian Historical Society to encourage education and research on Chinese Canadian history.