Closeup/The Society

Unhyphenated Canadians

A century later, the Chinese have truly arrived

Robert Miller April 18 1977
Closeup/The Society

Unhyphenated Canadians

A century later, the Chinese have truly arrived

Robert Miller April 18 1977

Unhyphenated Canadians

Closeup/The Society

A century later, the Chinese have truly arrived

Robert Miller

Gam Saan is what the older Chinese call North America. The Golden Mountain. The name dates from the California gold rush, when the initial wave of Cantonese rolled eastward across the Pacific, escaping famine and upheaval at home and hoping to strike it rich alongside, first, the FortyNiners and later, in 1858, the men moiling in British Columbia’s Fraser River Valley. The goldfields soon petered out, but North America remained Gam Saan, a place of golden opportunity where thrift and hard work were rewarded. The Chinese, ever frugal, ever industrious, could ask for nothing more—though frequently they had to settle for considerably less. Now, a century-and-a-quarter after the epic Chinese migrations began in earnest, Gam Saan finally is fulfilling its mythic promise, especially on its northern slope. Some 200,000 Chinese Canadians are quietly going about their substantial business today, pleased that this country has become what they always hoped it would: a good place to live and a great place to invest.

The signs are everywhere. Stunning new restaurants are popping up in once tacky Phinatnwns Sn are Chinese-owned shops

and office blocks. Chinese surgeons are pushing back the medical frontiers in Canada’s hospitals. Chinese students are flocking to the nation’s universities to prepare themselves for careers, mainly in the professions. Chinese investors, largely from booming but jittery Hong Kong, are pouring money into this country at an unprecedented rate. And the Chinese are beginning to play a more active role in Canadian politics, now that the frustrations and injustices they endured for decades are, finally, a thing of the past.

The Chinese community in Canada has moved, slowly but determinedly, through what Dr. Wally Chung, chief surgeon at Vancouver General Hospital, describes as the predictable occupational evolution “of any lower-class migrant group entering a new land.” The progression moves from menial worker to the development of a merchant class that uses its new wealth to educate its children who eventually enter the professions. “Finally,” says Chung,

“with wealth, education and leisure time, some members of the group enter politics.” Remarkably, this evolution has taken place without attracting much attention from other Canadians. Left weary and wary by turn-of-the-century turbulence

triggered by white racism, the Chinese withdrew into their own communities and for more than 50 years deliberately kept a low profile. The success of this collective modus vivendi has been such that today, if any minority group in Canada can be said truly to have overcome racial prejudice, the Chinese have made it. “They’ve been

quiet,” explains Mayor David Crombie of Toronto, which boasts North America’s fastest-growing Chinatown (estimated population: 50,000). “No one feels menaced by the Chinese,” adds a Torontobased sociologist.

Now that low profile can no longer be maintained: the community is too big, too prosperous. “The sojourner mentality is finished, completely gone,” says Dr. Graham Johnson, a Sinophile at the University of British Columbia who is working on a study of the Chinese in Canada. “The traditional idea that the Chinese came to North America to make a packet and then go home is dead. This is home.” Today, Canada’s Chinese are intensely Canadian, possibly the country’s proudest citizens.

Problems remain, of course. The Chinese-Canadian community is fragmented, perhaps as never before, along socioeconomic and generational lines, an aggregation of solitudes as uncomfortable with one another as anything in Flower Drum Song. Canada’s immigration policies continue to niggle, despite the reforms of a decade ago. The drive toward assimilation in a white-dominated society has taken a fearful toll of ancient Chinese customs. The threat of serious crime of the type now plaguing the Chinese communities of San Francisco, New York, London and even Amsterdam has become a source of profound worry in Vancouver and Toronto. And there is dissatisfaction over

what is seen as slow progress toward equal employment opportunities, particularly in the public service. Says Roy Mah, editor of the Vancouver-based Chinatown News: “Our main concern now is civil rights. There aren’t enough Chinese in the upper echelons of the civil service. We don’t have a Chinese senator. I’d like to see more Chinese in the media.”

Problems aside, though, Canada’s Chinese in 1977—The Year of the Snake— were able to look forward with confidence and look back with pride. Astonishing things have been achieved.

The history of the Chinese in Canada is not a pretty story, but it is one they constantly study, particularly the Canadianborn. It is a shameful tale of legislated discrimination and exploitation, of head taxes and coolie gangs. Incredibly, it was not until 1947 that parliament repealed the Oriental Exclusion Act, a law that for 25 years kept families separated by the considerable width of the Pacific. From 1923 to 1947, only 15 Chinese were allowed into Canada, which meant the thousands of Chinese men already here had virtually no hope of being joined by their wives and children, or, if they were younger, of finding a wife and beginning a family. The Exclusion Act resulted from political agitation in British Columbia where, at one time, the Chinese made up 18% of the population (the proportion now is about 5%) and were in competition with white labor. Earlier, Canada had tried to stanch the influx of Chinese by imposing head taxes on immigrants—starting at $50 in 1885 and rising to $500 in 1904. Still, Gam Saan beckoned and the Chinese workers already in the country somehow managed to save the money to pay the tax for others; 6,600 Chinese were admitted in 1911 alone. In a paper he gave in 1975, Dr. Chung calculated that the 86,912 Chinese who entered Canada between 1885 and 1923 paid a total of $26,512,000 to Ottawa for the privilege of settling here. He observed that “if calculated at a modest 4% compound interest from 1923 to 1975, the amount would be $159,342,520. This is the amount the government of Canada morally, if not legally, owes the Chinese people, because of an unjust law.”

Despite the repeal of the Exclusion Act by the Mackenzie King government, it was not until Centennial 1967 that the Pearson government completely eliminated racial origin as a consideration in immigration policy. By coincidence, 1967 also saw an outbreak of violence in the British Crown colony of Hong Kong and the flow of Chi-

nese immigrants leaped from an average 2,500 a year to some 14,000. By 1971, the rate was down again, as Ottawa began to make it more difficult for all immigrants.

If the Chinese look back in sorrow at the treatment they received from the Canadian government, they look back with pride at the contribution they made to the building of the country—particularly by the 17,000 laborers imported to push the Canadian Pacific Railway through the Rocky Mountains. So many lost their lives along the right-of-way, doing work that Occidentals wouldn’t touch, that their plight gave birth to a white man’s crude definition of a loser: someone who doesn’t stand “a Chinaman’s chance.”

Despite the appalling conditions and treatment awaiting them abroad, the Chinese continued to pour out of their homeland. The reason was simple enough: there was little to keep them at home. China in the mid-19th century had fallen prey to marauding bands of thugs, the peasantry was helpless to defend itself, and conditions were made triply wretched by a series of crop failures. Accordingly, the Chinese began, albeit sadly, to scatter to the four corners. Today, more than 15 million Chinese live outside of China.

In Canada, because they were long denied any political rights—they were only granted the right to vote 35 years ago—the Chinese understandably looked toward politics across the sea. There were intense debates between the supporters of Nationalist Leader Chiang Kai-shek and the Communist giant Mao Tse-tung. Eventually, Ottawa’s 1970 recognition of Peking tipped the scales and most of Canada’s ultra-capitalist Chinese community now acknowledge the Communists’ hegemony over their motherland. “We say that it is the decision of our government in Ottawa, and as good Canadians we accept it,” explains Roy Mah of Vancouver. Today, in the social clubs and restaurants of Canada’s Chinatowns, the flag of the People’s Republic and a portrait of the late Mao are likely to be displayed alongside the Maple Leaf and a picture of the Queen.

The cultural shock experienced by new arrivals in Gam Saan must have been severe. Chinese society had developed through the millennia to a level of sophistication in many ways still unapproached by the West. The Chinese were reading and writing and had invented paper when Egypt’s pyramids were undreamed of. The Chinese had established a supremely civilized social pecking order that placed the intellectuals on the top rung. In terms of personal dignity, philosophical depth and cultural tradition, the Chinese who came to Gam Saan were light years ahead of their white masters.

It is still a long way from a hand laundry and a pickaxe to, for example, ownership of Vancouver’s Board of Trade Tower, which businessman Geoffrey Lau recently bought for $16 million. It is no wonder that Chinese Canadians point with

pride to the more successful members of their race. Among some of those frequently cited: Andy Joe of Vancouver, the first Chinese to be admitted to the Canadian bar; Henry Chung, a Vancouver realtor who is the number-one-ranking Canadian member of the Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks; the Louie family of Calgary, which has raised 11 children and put them all through university (four are doctors) and seen one daughter, Elizabeth, marry lawyer Art Lee, the young Chinese Canadian who represents Vancouver East as a Liberal MP; Toronto restaurateur and community leader Jean Lumb; millionaire Geoffrey Lau, president of the Hong Kong Businessmen’s Association; and so on. Yes, there is a Chinese establishment. But it’s not necessarily living in Chinatown anymore. Working there, maybe ...

In San Francisco, it’s Grant Avenue. In New York, Mott Street. In Toronto it used to be Elizabeth Street, until the 1961-1965 construction of Toronto’s clam-shell city hall and the explosion of the Chinese population forced it westward along Dundas Street. In Vancouver, it’s Pender Street. Every Chinatown of size has a principal thoroughfare that traditionally featured seedy cafés, cluttered shops selling trinkets and magazines from the Orient. Always there were a few ambitious and busy restaurants, favored by white families during conventional meal hours and by midnight carousers. Upstairs, above almost every shop and café, were the import-export companies and the family flats. Downstairs, there were the social clubs, where the men went to talk, argue politics, and drink tea and play Mah-Jongg. No matter which main drag it was—Grant, Mott, Elizabeth, Pender—the atmosphere to outsiders seemed faintly forbidding.

No more. Stimulated by the surge of immigration from Hong Kong, financed by local savings and a new sense of certainty in dealing with such Occidental institutions as the chartered banks—to say nothing of the millions brought to Canada from Hong Kong—the Chinatowns of Canada today are a far cry from yesterday’s stereotype. Highrise office buildings, shopping malls, eating palaces of breathtaking design and scope have become almost commonplace. As for neon signs, the Chinese are outdazzling Las Vegas. The drug and gambling industries continue to thrive in the “new Chinatowns” just as they did in the old, yet the new Chinatowns make one thing abundantly clear: the Chinese community in Canada is going high-profile at last, even as its members go suburban.

The Bank of Montreal’s Tommy Mah, first chairman of Vancouver’s Chinatown Historic Area Planning Committee, established in cooperation with city hall and charged with preserving the tradition of Canada’s first and still largest (approximately 60,000) Chinese community, says his group is anxious to see modern facil-

ities developed but not at the expense of the community’s distinctive character. “Of course,” he smiles, “some of the old values are changing. When I first joined the bank in 1946 I never thought I could be a manager. A teller, yes, an accountant, maybe. But a manager? No way... It’s all happening so fast, there’s so much more to learn today. Many of the kids can’t speak Chinese, never mind read or write it... I guess we’re all becoming Westerners.”

Doing business with the Chinese-Canadian community can be a pleasure, as well as profitable. “The Chinese are very cautious,” notes Mah. “They measure all the angles before they make any deci-

sions.” But, once a decision is made, a deal can be arranged with lightning speed and often with a minimum of legal fuss. Personal honor is considered ultra-important, loss of face a catastrophe.

Most business conducted within the Chinese community may be honorable, but there are grim signs that trouble is on the way. The Chinese are no different from other minority groups as far as susceptibility to bullying by their own kind is concerned. In San Francisco and New York, for example, Chinatown is prey to gangs of young, unemployed hoodlums practising protection rackets. Known as the Hung Mun, or Triads, these gangs victimize

restaurateurs and shopkeepers, many of whom are afraid to go to the police. “The Chinese have a long-standing mistrust of the police,” says Constable Bob Cooper of the Vancouver department’s community relations branch. “To them the police are traditionally lower than a prostitute,” Cooper and his senior partner, Bob Murphie, patrol Vancouver’s Chinatown in the fashion of television’s Starsky And Hutch. They wear windbreakers and jeans, turtlenecks and boots. They think nothing of sitting in a restaurant with their jackets off and their revolvers hanging down from underarm holsters. They are tough cops who love the Chinese people—Murphie grew up among the Chinese, Cooper is married to a Chinese girl—and speak the Chinese language. (Curiously, Vancouver has no Chinese policemen. “They’re all in medical school,” Cooper laughs.)

Murphie tells of the time when a gang of San Francisco toughs, known as the Wah Ching, decided to claim partnerships in selected Vancouver establishments. “We j ust rousted them back across the border, and that was that. The Chinese have a saying: ‘When you cut off a snake at both ends, where can it go?’ and that’s more or less what we did with the Wah Ching.”

A similar attempt by San Francisco gangsters who invaded Toronto was dealt with more directly, by members of the Chinese community itself. After their initial demands, the Americans were invited to a follow-up conference, and found themselves badly outnumbered by a hard-looking group of young Chinese, all of whom bristled with muscular, Bruce Lee-type self-confidence. The Americans got the message and left.

In Vancouver, Murphie and Cooper have developed an easygoing relationship with the people who live and work on their beat. They wander in and out of the social clubs, watch the card games and drink tea. They ignore Mah-Jongg (“Everybody plays it, it’s like bridge”) but will bust an illegal fan-tan game in a flash, although they rarely have to. They are phlegmatic about the Chinese and gambling, anyway. Says Murphie, “I don’t care who it is. You take a bunch of men and put them together for any length of time, especially if there aren’t any women around, which for a lot of years was the case, and sooner or later someone’s going to start a card game.”

But gambling, real estate, upward mobility and cultural assimilation aside, what Chinatown still means to most Canadians is food. Delicious food: bamboo shoots, barbecued duck, sweet-and-sour chicken, fried rice, delicate soups. To most Canadians middle aged and under, wherever they’ve lived there has probably been a Chinese restaurant that was special, that was their place in the withdrawn community next door. I remember Mr. Lee’s Sun Grill in Fredericton, and later the more up-to-date Paradise, with its after-school chocolate cokes and chips-and-gravy. Then Johnny Hong’s New Service Café in

Halifax (which, according to legend, he’d won in a card game), with its hot-chicken sandwiches and easy credit. Hop Sam’s in Toronto, which actually served Chinese food and winked at the bottles reporters

brought in at 3 a.m. For less boisterous Toronto occasions, there was Jean Lumb’s Kwongchow with its massive menu and framed testimonials from the great and near-great who’d eaten there. A little later, there was the Marco Polo, on King’s Road in London’s Chelsea district. (One wintry Friday suddenly fed up with my almond

chicken soo guy and London, I left the Marco Polo, took a cab to Heathrow, caught a Caravelle jetliner to Paris' Le Bourget airport and took in the late show at the Lido, where the chickens weren’t covered in almond sauce—or anything else.) Later still, there was the Chop Sticks in Nairobi, Kenya, perhaps the most memorable Chinese restaurant in my experience. Patronized by a polyglot collection of journalists, airline crews, tourists, minor diplomats and incompetent spies, the Chop Sticks was more than just a restaurant. It was widely held to be both post office and pay wicket for Peking’s fledgling intelligence-gathering operation in East Africa, its profits the source of the hard currency the spy industry seems to devour. The Chop Sticks never failed to amuse at lunchtime, when itssmall barwas taken up by the resident spooks from assorted countries: the casual Englishman with his gin and tonic, the intense American with his Jack Daniels, the sour-faced Russian from the KGB with his vodka, deferentially served by a smiling Chinese barman who probably outranked them all. We used to speculate. Who was watching whom? Did they compare notes? And did the MI-6, CIA and KGB paymasters at home realize where all that expense-account money was going? Ah, the Chinese. Ever resourceful, ever industrious and doing ever so well. Especially here in Gam Saan now that the top of the mountain is in view.^