Hiroshima Immigrants in Canada, 1891-1941
Yi Fao: Speaking through Memory: A History of New Westminster's Chinese Community, 1858-1980
November 4, 2013
Review By Jacqueline Gresko
In 1998, Patricia E. Roy reviewed several books in which Chinese- and Japanese-Canadians combined archival projects and oral history to tell “their own history.” She praised these “active voices” but called for more research on childhood and more “analyses of class, gender, and generation relations.” Jim Wolf and Patricia Owen, in Yi Fao: Speaking through Memory: A History of New Westminster’s Chinese Community, 1858–1980, and Michiko Midge Ayukawa, in Hiroshima Immigrants in Canada, 1891–1941, answer Roy’s call. Their books make significant contributions to the histories of those communities in British Columbia and serve as models for future projects.
Preparation for a museum exhibit on Chinese immigration for the New Westminster Museum and Archives led Jim Wolf, a heritage planner, and Patricia Owen, a curator, to interview members of the Law, Lee, Quan, and Shiu families and to write Yi Fao. Their text and photographs give voice to three generations of these families, descendants of the merchants, contractors, labourers, and farmers who settled at “Yi Fao,” or the “Second Port City” after Victoria. The community and its organizations grew amidst the racism of the surrounding society. Some men brought wives and established families. Immigration restrictions, particularly between 1923 and 1947, along with economic changes, meant that Yi Fao’s population declined. By 1979, families and their businesses had integrated into local neighbourhoods and most of the Yi Fao buildings were gone.
The community lived on in memories as “a place … where people banded together to support one another in the new country” (135). For example, during the Depression, widowed See Quan supported her family by working at various jobs. She also organized other mothers to hire Reverend C.C. Shiu as a teacher for a Chinese language school (99). The children brought together there after public school classes formed friendships that eased generational tensions at home and racist restrictions in the larger society.
In researching Hiroshima immigrants in Canada, Midge Ayukawa explores themes similar to those addressed by Wolf and Owen with regard to Chinese immigrants in New Westminster; however, in several areas she goes further than they do. As a child of Hiroshima immigrants living in Vancouver in the 1930s, she knew the Japanese-Canadian community as an “insider” before the events of the Second World War destroyed it. Years later, after a career as a scientist, she visited Japan and was inspired to research the context of her family’s migration. She returned to university to study history.
For Hiroshima Immigrants Ayukawa draws on eighty interviews that focus on life in the Hiroshima homeland and a range of experiences in British Columbia: mining at Cumberland, farming in the Fraser Valley and the Okanagan Valley, labouring in company towns, and running businesses in Vancouver. She builds on her academic publications on Japanese immigrant women to recount the efforts these women made to support their families.
Ayukawa argues that the Nisei (second-generation immigrants) faced their own challenges. First-generation immigrants (the Issei) held varied views on assimilation, but most believed that, in a racially restricted labour market, Japanese-language skills were necessary for getting jobs with Japanese-speaking bosses. Many parents pressured the Nisei to attend Japanese-language classes after school, thus limiting their participation in extracurricular activities such as sports. Some Nisei “developed their own particular subculture” (110–11).
Ayukawa’s ability to link such findings regarding Hiroshima immigrants to academic literature indicates directions for future studies of Asian immigration in British Columbia.