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Review

From Slave Girls to Salvation: Gender, Race, and Victoria’s Chinese Rescue Home

By Shelly D. Ikebuchi

A Cowherd in Paradise: From China to Canada

By May Q. Wong

May 3, 2016

Review By LiLynn Wan

The history of the Chinese in British Columbia tends to focus on the lives of men, who were the vast majority of settlers and sojourners from China in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Yet their experiences were inescapably intertwined with those of the mothers, wives, and daughters who stayed in China, as well as the few Chinese women who lived in Canada. Shelley Ikebuchi’s From Slave Girls to Salvation and May Wong’s A Cowherd in Paradise suggest how women played a central role in this history. Taken together, these two very different works demonstrate the complexity and diversity of women’s historical experiences and cast new light on the early history of the Chinese in Canada. Ikebuchi’s monograph is a rigorous academic study of the Chinese Rescue Home in Victoria, while Wong’s book is a work of creative non-fiction. From Slave Girls to Salvation sets out to investigate the collective and multifaceted experience of the four hundred or so women who spent time in the Home, while A Cowherd in Paradise follows one family’s experience. As their titles indicate, both books address a persistent and formulaic trope in Canadian immigration narratives that is characterized by the dual stories of an “old” life that is left behind for a “new” and better life. But where Wong’s story is one that reinforces the celebratory narrative of immigration, Ikebuchi’s findings challenge this convention. 

Written from a post-colonial and feminist perspective, From Slave Girls to Salvation examines the reform efforts of the Methodist Women’s Missionary Society through Victoria’s Chinese Rescue Home. Ikebuchi’s analysis is primarily concerned with the white women who managed the Home, as well as the physical space of the Home itself — and not, as she concedes, a history of the women of colour who lived there. The book covers four main events: the transfer of management of the Home to the Methodist Women’s Missionary society in 1887/8; the construction of a new Home building in 1908; two related court cases pertaining to the Home that occurred between 1886 and 1888; and four habeas corpus cases the Home was involved in between 1893 and 1900 that were used to claim child custody.

The Home was established in 1886 by reformers to “rescue” Chinese women from prostitution, teach them domestic skills and Christian values, and transform them into wives, domestic servants, and missionaries. Much of Ikebuchi’s analysis rests on her interpretation of “domesticity” and the centrality of this concept to gender roles and racial identities. Here, “domesticity” refers not only to the familial home and private sphere, but also (and at the same time) concerns the nation, where “domestic” implies belonging and citizenship, in contrast to the notion of “foreign.” Ikebuchi situates the Home as a space where the domestic and the public/foreign came together in often contradictory ways. The Home was a residence as well as an institution. It was located in Canada, but it housed bodies that were perceived to be foreign to the nation. The women who ran the Home promoted Christian values of family and sisterhood, but they also maintained Victorian notions of the immutability of racial difference. Because of this ambiguity, Home women were able to challenge gender and racial norms. Through the Home, white women’s moral authority was extended beyond the private sphere while women of colour were able to claim better treatment within marriages and opportunities for work and education.

From Slave Girls to Salvation reads much like a dissertation. It is often overly dense with theory and sometimes lacking in historical context and a sense of chronological narrative. Regardless, Ikebuchi has done a commendable job of highlighting the intersectionality of gender, race, and religion in this case study. Considering the virulent anti-Asian sentiment, racism, and exclusionary practices and policies that were predominant in British Columbia in this period, the Home was exceptional in its emphasis on cross-racial contact and in efforts to protect, care for, and assimilate non-white women. Even more striking is the notion of racial inclusion that comes out of this analysis. Discussion about immigration remains controversial and still elicits racialized responses from government, the media, and the Canadian public. Problematizing racial inclusion, as Ikebuchi does through this study, offers a means of better understanding some of these contemporary issues. While Ikebuchi’s work does not give a voice to the Chinese women who came to British Columbia in the early years of settlement, it does provide a clear sense of the challenges and limitations that inevitably shaped their lives.

Ikebuchi’s silence on the lived experiences of Chinese women is the result of a lack of archival sources, a longstanding problem with histories of marginalized peoples. Still, voices of Chinese women do emerge when small claims to privilege like literacy and social class allow. In A Cowherd in Paradise, May Wong provides one voice in this aperture with her intimate reading of her own family history through personal interviews and memoirs. Wong’s novel follows the life of her parents through the course of the twentieth century, focusing primarily on their period of separation from the 1920s until the 1950s and the equally long process of reconciliation that followed. The story ends in 2007, with the fulfilment of a lifelong, multigenerational dream for the family to be united in Canada — almost twenty-five years after her father’s death. The British Columbia content in this book is minimal. Her grandfather spent most of his life working in Canada in the late nineteenth century, but Wong has little more than this to offer about his experiences as a “Gold Mountain Man.” His son, Wong’s father, worked in the fishing and logging industry in British Columbia the 1920s, but the stories in this novel are primarily set in Montreal, where he settled in the 1930s. Nonetheless, Wong’s rich account of the lives of the wives, daughters, and mothers of “Gold Mountain Men” has something to contribute to a part of British Columbia’s history that is often neglected because it did not happen on Canadian soil. A Cowherd in Paradise provides an honest and sustained description of the experiences of “Chinese-Canadian” women like her mother and grandmother, whose lives occupied two disparate worlds. As this story demonstrates, women, even in their absence, were one driving motivation that brought Chinese men to Canada and kept them working there despite racism and prejudice.

The story of a family kept apart because of racist immigration policies, A Cowherd in Paradise ends with the victory of citizenship. In her account, Wong’s family “overcame” racial discrimination to achieve success as Canadians. In contrast, Ikebuchi’s more subtle reading shows that Chinese, Japanese, and mixed race women were detained, trained, and re-educated in ways that reproduced and reinforced racial hierarchies in order to find acceptance within the Canadian nation. Still, A Cowherd in Paradise is not strictly a story of the triumph of immigration; it also tells of exclusion, separation, and prejudice. In the same way, From Slave Girls to Salvation affirms white privilege, but it is also about a space where cross-racial contact was encouraged and benefitted both white women and women of colour. In both these works we find a more realistic interpretation of Canadian immigration history than the duality of an old versus new life, and both books acknowledge the diverse experiences of Chinese women as well as the challenges of inclusion within a fundamentally racialized nation.

From Slave Girls to Salvation: Gender, Race, and Victoria’s Chinese Rescue Home
Shelly D. Ikebuchi
Vancouver: UBC Press, 2015. 264 pp. $95.00 cloth

A Cowherd in Paradise: From China to Canada
May Q. Wong
Victoria: Brindle & Glass Publishing, 2015. 256 pp. $24.95 paper