Jan Wong, April 17, 1998
This speech was presented in Calgary as part of our F5F Mentorship speaker series.
I'm very honoured to be part of the fundraising effort to raise a monument to the Famous Five. Parliament Hill apparently just has statues to dead monarchs and Prime Ministers and Fathers of Confederation, and I think it's wonderful that the statue will go up.
When Frances Wright first contacted me, I have to confess that I had never heard of the Famous Five. I had heard, of course, of Nellie McClung, because I am a journalist and she is one of my foremothers, but Frances explained to me the Persons Case and I said I would love to come, and later we met in Toronto and she showed me a picture of the monument, and I understand that there will be tours soon of it - of the work in progress. In this - it's sort of a tableau - if you haven't seen it - it's a tableau and you see the Famous Five together having tea and celebrating their victory. One of them is holding a newspaper up high with the headline "Women are Persons". Another is raising her tea cup in celebration. Another is standing beside a chair - an empty chair - and I believe that that is supposed to be an invitation for the next generation of women to take a seat in their circle of activism.
Interestingly, as today's luncheon date drew near, I began to receive phone calls and e-mails and letters. Do you know who these women are? Do you know what they stood for? How can you raise money for a statue to them? My curiosity was peaked, and as a reporter, I always like to find out what's the real story. So I began to do some research, and I discovered that these women advocated sterilization of the mentally retarded - some of them did - and helped to pass a law here in Alberta, the ramifications of which we are still feeling today, and I found out that they didn't always fight on behalf of all people. Some people say that they didn't want Catholics to have the vote or Jews or Natives or Metis or what they call the Hindus. They especially didn't like the Chinese, or Chinamen as they called them. They said they were peddlers of narcotics and they were intent on trapping white girls. Of course, they forgot about the Opium War which is how the British brought opium to China in the first place. So I looked up a book by Emily Murphy called "The Black Candle". She wrote under the pseudonym Janey Canuck, and I read through it, and I found a little passage which I will share with you. It says "the Chinese as a rule are a friendly people and have a fine sense of humour that puts them on an easy footing with our folk as compared with the Hindu and others we might mention". Still, it behoves the people in Canada and the United States to consider the desirability of these visitors, for they are visitors, and to say whether or not we shall be a home to them in the future.
The Famous Five were pioneers and like anyone in the vanguard, they made mistakes, but we are not honouring them today for their attitudes to non-whites, to non-Anglo-Saxon Protestants. We are not honouring them for the forced sterilization of some Canadians. Everyone is a prisoner of their times. Take Stephen Leacock - he was a misogynist. He refused to teach women. When you entered his lecture hall at McGill University, he would stop talking if you were a woman. Yet we rightfully honour him today as a great Canadian writer and humorist. The Famous Five thought on behalf of middle-class educated women who worshipped at the same churches they did. Maybe Emily Murphy hadn't meant for someone like me to sit down in that chair, but you know what? I think I'll just take it anyway!
What we honour them for today is the good fight that they fought which opened doors for all of us, and that is not to say that we sweep this less attractive bit of history under the rug. We must know our history, our whole history, because it teaches us something very important, that the fight goes on. Today, tomorrow and the next day. Whether on behalf of ourselves or on behalf of others whose rights are being infringed, and I cite the recent gay rights case in Alberta. The fight continues even at this day at the Globe and Mail. We recently had a marketing campaign. We were supposed to try to win over women readers and what they did was they put up a big billboard on top of the Globe and Mail building of a naked woman, with her legs spread, and said "What does a woman want?". Yes. It's true. And the ad copy quoted a lyric from "Stand by your Man" by Tammy Wynette. Of course, it ain't the 60's, so the Globe women protested and some of the men, too, and we enlightened them, and there were phone calls and petitions and we button-holed our bosses and the ad was withdrawn in about two days, but not before one of us, of course, tipped off a colleague from the CBC who ran over with a film crew and taped it. Because we really want to rub it in. I had been thinking about whether or not to say anything about this other aspect of the Famous Five today. I hesitated because I am a guest here and the purpose is to honour them, and then I decided this is exactly in the spirit of the Famous Five, to speak out, to say what you think, and you know what? They weren't shrinking violets, and I'm sure they could handle it.
My topic today is identity. Why is it important? How did it get me to where I am today? And I would argue that were it not for the battles the Famous Five waged on behalf of some women, we all would be much less uppity, much further behind, much less sure of ourselves today. I was the Globe's thirteenth China correspondent. I was its first female, however, and the first to speak Chinese, and I am still the first female and the first to speak Chinese despite two of my successors, but I think the most important first was that I was the first with a complete cultural revolution wardrobe, and that is because long before the Globe sent me to Beijing, I wanted to see the Chinese revolution for myself. So a little over 25 years ago, on June 1, 1972, I went alone on my summer vacation from McGill University and I arrived exactly 100 days after President Nixon. I was 19 and to save you the math, I am now 45. I had three reasons for going. The first was my roots. I am a third generation Canadian. Today I hardly seem like a minority if you look around the large cities of Canada, but back then, because of our restricted immigration policy, a law that was the 1923 Exclusion Act, Chinese were not allowed to emigrate to Canada for decades. As a result, I was one of the few Chinese families - I belonged to one of the few Chinese families in Montreal, and so in my classes, in high school and elementary school, I was the only Chinese kid, and so I wasn't treated badly, but I was an object of curiosity, and people would say to me, well where were you born, and I would say Montreal, and they would say, no, where were you really born? So I'd say the Montreal General Hospital, but I did get the sense that I was Chinese and not Canadian.
The second reason I wanted to go to China was to see the revolution. I went to college at the time of the Vietnam War and so if you were in the arts, which I was, it was the time of radical politics, of sit-ins and strikes and feminism, and that's when I first became interested in what does it mean to be a female? What does it mean to be liberated? And I read Simmone de Beauboir, Gloria Steinham, Betty Freedan, and I got all these interesting ideas and I went to McGill University and I took lectures in the Steven Leacock Building. I had no idea of his history at that point, and my teachers were quite radical. My Chinese History professors were very radical and they told me China was a Utopia and that's why I wanted to go there. And the third reason was that I came from a very middle class family. My father owned several restaurants in Montreal and if any of you come from Montreal, the main one was called Bill Wong's, so you would have heard of it on Tahkari Boulevard.
Some kids rebelled with drugs, but I chose Maoism, and in hindsight it's hard to say which would have caused more brain damage. But thanks to a lack in timing and being in the right place at the right time, I became the first Canadian and the first of only two Westerners to study in China since the cultural revolution. The other was a young woman named Erica Jeng. She was an American from Yale University, and Chinese, and together we bought Mao suits, we cut off our hair, we got Chinese glasses, and we looked - well, I looked, just like that Doonesbury cartoon character, Honey. And we studied Chinese language intensively. I didn't speak Chinese - third generation you lose the language - and Erica was second generation, which was lucky for me because she was fluent in Chinese, and because it was the cultural revolution, I don't know if you realize it, but all of the old text books were trashed, they were thrown out as politically incorrect, there were also no dictionaries, and the problem was I also had a very politically correct Chinese teacher who wasn't hired for her ability to teach language and she didn't speak any known foreign language. So when she wanted to tell me what the word "chair" meant in Chinese, she wouldn't point to a chair. She would just say it louder and louder and that was a good technique because then I would start banging on the wall and Erica would scream back the English and I learned in about six months.
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