Voices Rising: Asian Canadian Cultural Activism
November 4, 2013
Review By Anthony Chan
The publication of Xiaoping Li’s Voices Rising is a rare literary event, a cause for celebration. Through its analysis of the social and cultural movements of Asian Canada, especially in Vancouver and Toronto, her work signals the dawn of a truly Asian Canadian intellectual presence in the nation. It was not always this way.
For too long, the emergence of a purely Canadian civilization that was postcolonial, postmulticultural, non-European, and assuredly postseventeenth century has been hampered by the continuing binary debate between English and French settlers and their descendants. Many volumes stressing issues such as French language retention and the division of Canada into “two solitudes” have pointed ad nauseam to this enduring and uniquely “Canadian” process. It was as if Canada without the English-French debate did not have a soul. More significantly, it was as if, in Canada, only the English and French peoples and their cultural traditions mattered. Even when considered within the context of this “binary debate,” these other cultures were usually portrayed as peripheral to the main story.
The intellectual essence and episte mologies of the Arabs, Asians, Africans, Latinos, and First Nations – Canada’s “others” – were relegated to the status of “multicultural” Canadians, especially during the first reign of Pierre Elliott Trudeau. Multicultural status was marked by such exotic practices as strange dancing, drum banging, pungent cooking, wearing colourful costumes, and speaking unintelligible languages: practices that did not convey a normative identity as “Canadian.” Since being English or French was the standard of excellence in Canada, state endorsement for the arts and cultures was common. The yardstick of legitimacy for all peoples, including Asian Canadians, was measured against the ability to write in fluent English or French and the ability to secure government funding.
Unlike Asian American programs, which evolved from the widespread institutional and intellectual protests that erupted spontaneously in San Francisco and Berkeley in 1969, Asian Canadian studies, as an institutional unit, has never mattered in Canadian universities. It was simply not part of the typical Canadian “binary debate.” Whereas Asian American studies flourished within numerous departments and programs funded both publicly or privately, proponents of Asian Canadian studies are still debating whether programs that dispense Asian Canadian knowledge ought to be known as “Asian Canadian studies,” “Pacific Canada studies,” “diaspora studies,” or “migration studies.”
Yet, even with a paucity of government funding, studies of Asian Canada did come about. For instance, in the 1980s, standard Asian Canadian histories and social science studies, included works by Adachi, Chan, Indra and Buchignani, and Wickberg.
With Xiaoping Li’s Voices Rising, the study of Asian Canada has reached a new level of inquiry and analysis. Going beyond the traditional English- French binary debate, it sets new standards of excellence and expands the intellectual conversation about race, power, and gender in Asian Canada. Utilizing a compelling analytical thrust informed by such writers as Antonio Gramsci, Stuart Hall, and Edward Said, Li’s narrative creates a provocative landscape in which one sees the historical beginnings of the social and cultural movements that served to construct and/or recognize a distinctively Asian Canadian identity. That beginning involved social and cultural activists whose roots, for the most part, were in East Asia.
At the heart of the social and political movement whose purpose was to construct an Asian Canadian identity was The Asianadian: An Asian Canadian Magazine. Published from 1978 to 1985 and comprising twenty-four issues, it was the only Asian Canadian community journal that adopted an overtly antiracist, anti-sexist, and anti-homophobic stance. As writer Kyo Maclear recalled, “I went to the library and found those back issues of The Asianadian. It is great because some of the people who wrote for the magazine later became professional writers – pretty established names like Richard Fung and Joy Kogawa. The Asianadian introduced a way to articulate a racial identity that was not just about ‘being victimized’” (209). Indeed, it was in the 1980s that a truly Asian Canadian intellectual movement began to emerge. Professor Li states that “a national network was established, connected by conferences, festivals, Rikka, The Asianadian, Pender Guy, friendships, and common goals” (79). Her intricate analysis of The Asianadian sets the historical stage Book Reviews 141 contained in Part 1, “Mapping Asian Canadian Cultural Activism.”
Following Part 1, she begins Part 2, “Voices,” with a series of provocative interviews with social and cultural activists from the 1970s to the present. It is essential to know the Asian Canadian precedents that gave rise to the vibrant voices of these dancers, filmmakers, journalists, musicians, painters, poets, and writers. During the 1970s, Asian Canadian voices began to emerge. In Japanese Canada, musician Harry Aoki, Tora publisher and writer David Fujino, artist Aiko Suzuki, civil rights activist and photographer Tamio Wakayama, and musician and writer Terry Watada began to tell their stories. They personified the internment history of Canada and depicted how they, as Japanese Canadians, went beyond simply being victims of a brutal state policy. In Chinese Canada, filmmaker Keith Lock, poet and bassist Sean Gunn, and radio journalist Keeman Wong of Pender Guy established a concrete foundation for media and music. Thus, Chinese Canadians began to come to terms with exclusion, the head tax, and the Red scare.
All these artists transcended their own ethnic boundaries to include many other Asian Canadian artists and social commentators. The emergence of this Asian Canadian intellectual sector created, in the two decades that followed, a significant and enduring stage for other artists and activists. The vital twenty interviews in Part 2 of Voices Rising demonstrate that Asian Canadians have a compelling intellectual milieu within which they can discover themselves and their place in the world. They establish a cross-section of Asian Canadian performers, artists, writers, and filmmakers who galvanized and gave life to the Asian Canadian social, political, and cultural movement.
What this twenty-first-century book reveals is that Asian Canadian cultural activism has empowered many Asian Canadians within the specific context of being Asian Canadian. In fact, Voices Rising tells us that there is a new Asian Canadian persona – one that seeks approval and legitimacy only from within. This is a new civic concept, and it is neither Asian nor Canadian; rather, it is uniquely Asian Canadian. Indeed, this movement has given rise to a confident intelligentsia that will continue to write in the radical mode of Jen Lam, to produce films in the intriguing style of Mina Shum, and to dance with the vigour and creativity of Alvin Erasga Tolentino. Voices Rising is a remarkable book. It proclaims a new voice in Canada. With a more powerful Asia and its diaspora as a source of inspiration, this unique Asian Canadian intellectual sector ventures beyond Canada’s anachronistic multicultural state policy and, even more significantly, beyond the binarism of the English-French debate.