For our vacation this year, my husband and I decided to take our daughter, adopted from China, to another city with an even higher proportion of Asian Pacific American residents than our hometown of New York. Despite our last name, neither my husband nor I am Chinese, but we are a Chinese American family. We were eager to see Vancouver, British Columbia, not only because of its beauty but because it has the largest Chinatown in Canada. In fact, since the wave of immigration following Hong Kong’s return to the People’s Republic of China in 1997, the city is sometimes referred to (rather condescendingly) as Hongkouver.
I was curious, too, about Vancouver because, from the research I had done for the Museum of the Chinese in America, I knew that from the late 19th century into the mid-20th century, it had been a major port of entry for Chinese people on their way to New York. The dark side of this fact is that, because of the various U.S. Exclusion Acts, in effect from 1882 to 1943, immigration from China was strictly and pointedly limited.
On our trip we learned that the first Chinese immigrants arrived in British Columbia in 1858 on the heels of the gold rush in the Fraser River Valley. From 1880 to 1885 the Chinese population swelled as laborers from China were actively recruited to work on the Canadian Pacific railway.
But history got pushed to the back of my mind as we enjoyed the aquarium and spray playground in Stanley Park, the market on Granville Island, the funk of Kitsilano, and the chic of Yaletown. While we made sure to visit the Dr. Sun Yat Sen Garden in Chinatown, I mostly forgot any other agenda. We were there, seeing a world-class city — that was the only “lesson” I felt was necessary.
Our next stop was charming Victoria, and then we drove up the eastern coast of Vancouver Island. It was in the excellent little museum in Fort Campbell, which has exhibits on both First Nations culture and the industrial history of the area, that my ethnic consciousness was reawakened.
Along with logging and mining, we discovered, salmon canning was a historically important part of the British Columbia economy. At one time, there were 1,200 canneries in western Canada, each employing approximately 800 people. Chinese workers were key among the many, which included First Nations people and also Japanese.
The workers’ tasks were divided by ethnicity. The Chinese were assigned the butchering. Included in the display on canning was an advertisement for a mechanical device, first introduced in 1906, which took over some of the work the Chinese had previously done — it was named “The Iron Chink.” My husband and I did not think it necessary to point this out to our daughter, who thankfully has been met with very little prejudice so far in her 8 years.
But the boldness with which a slur was used as the name of a product was rather shocking to us — until we understood that Canada, too, had enacted laws to limit Chinese immigration. In 1885, after men were no longer needed to build the railroad, a “head” tax — which eventually rose to $500 — was imposed on each Chinese person entering the country. In 1887 and again in 1907, there were anti-Asian riots in Vancouver. Finally, Canada instituted its own Exclusion Act, in effect from 1923 until just 1947.
We returned to the mainland via the 15-hour ferry ride on the Queen of the North to Prince Rupert. Just south of town on the Inverness Passage is Port Edward, which was an active cannery from 1889 to 1968.
There, on the factory floor, was the very device we had first learned about in Campbell River. The words “Iron Chink” were actually stamped prominently into it.
We found out something else on the cannery tour. In 1942, during World War II, under the Canadian government’s order to evacuate all Japanese residents, almost 2,500 workers were forced out of the canneries. Overnight, the population of the cannery communities was cut in half. In all, between 22,000 and 23,000 nikkei — Japanese Canadians — three-quarters of them citizens, were sent to internment camps.
On the last leg of our trip, after a ride through the jaw-dropping beauty of the Rockies, we stayed in the lovely little town of Nelson. At the park that evening, we encountered a group of local people holding a potluck dinner. Two flags had been hung up side by side over the benches: the Canadian flag and the Japanese flag. We decided then to make an unplanned detour to the small towns of Kaslo and New Denver, to which thousands of nikkei had been transported.
In New Denver a group of camp survivors has established the Nikkei Internment Memorial Centre. They had been taken away in 1942 and were not allowed to return to British Columbia — or vote — until 1949, four years after the Japanese surrender. In 1988, the Canadian government apologized to them and paid reparations to the survivors.
The elderly caretaker told us that he had been sent to the camp there at the age of 14 and had returned many years afterward to help set up the museum.
We tried to explain to our daughter the significance of what had happened at New Denver and why it occurred. We’re not sure how much she understood about Pearl Harbor or racial hatred. As we left, the caretaker handed her an origami crane.
In going to Vancouver, I had thought only to show my daughter a place where Asian people were fully integrated into every aspect of society. Now I see it was inevitable that our trip revealed not only the current positive climate, which accepts our family as nothing unusual, but also the very recent, and still painful, history of intolerance.