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Yip Sang and the First Chinese Canadians

By Frances Hern

Review By LiLynn Wan

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 177 Spring 2013  | p. 189-90

Francis Hern’s Yip Sang and the First Chinese Canadians is the biography of a prominent merchant in Vancouver’s Chinatown in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The story begins with Yip Sang’s arrival in British Columbia from San Francisco in 1881. Yip Sang supplied and managed Chinese railway labourers in the 1880s, and established the Wing Sang Company in 1888, which he managed until his death in 1927. Hern contextualizes biographical sketches and memoirs with broader historical events, including the politics of Confederation, political unrest in China, and the development of Canadian immigration policies in the twentieth century. As part of the Amazing Stories series published by Heritage House, this historical biography is geared towards “younger readers [and] new Canadians” (www.heritagehouse.ca). The target audience for this book makes the telling of these stories particularly important, because the function of this type of history is as much about creating the present as it is about learning about the past.

Certain problematic aspects of this monograph are common to literature that is intended to introduce young Canadians to their history. Despite Hern’s clear efforts to integrate “Chinese Canadian” history with the conventional master narrative of Canadian history, her interpretation is often Eurocentric and written from a top-down perspective. For example, in telling the history of the Canadian Pacific Railway which, in this context, should focus on the experiences of the labourers, Hern primarily describes the politics of the railway in relation to Ottawa and Confederation, the economics of nation building, and the Pacific Scandal. More significant, however, is that the racism that permeates this history is not adequately addressed. For example, in Chapter 5, which takes discrimination as its focus, Hern attributes the intense anti-Oriental attitudes that existed in Vancouver in the early twentieth century to the poverty and harsh living conditions that many immigrant labourers suffered. What she neglects to explain is that this poverty itself was a result of a complex history of racism. In Hern’s account, racism is often simplified into isolated incidents of discrimination. This problem is further exemplified in Hern’s use of the term “Chinese Canadians,” a descriptive that has been the subject of criticism since the late 1980s. Even in her chapter on the “Second Canadian-Born Generation,” Hern continues to describe her subjects as “Chinese Canadians.” Such language reveals how deeply ideas about race persist, where after three generations of permanent settlement, the ethnic prefix remains. Redefining early immigrants as something akin to historian Peter Li’s term “Chinese in Canada,” and their descendants as “Canadians,” better reflects contemporary understandings of the relationship between race, ethnicity, and citizenship, and resonates more closely with the mindset of both “young” and “new” Canadians today.

Yip Sang and the First Chinese Canadians
By Francis Hern
Victoria: Heritage House Publishing Company, 2011. 144pp, $9.95 paper