In 1966, Randall Wong graduated from the University of British Columbia’s law school as one of only two Chinese-Canadians in a class of 60. He expected he would build a practice in Vancouver’s Chinatown, serving the community almost exclusively. That’s what other Chinese-Canadian lawyers in the city did.
But Mr. Wong, whose grandfather arrived in British Columbia with the wave of Chinese migrants seeking work along the railway in the 1880s, created history, becoming the first Chinese-Canadian lawyer to be appointed to a federal court. He went on to become the longest-serving judge on B.C.‘s Supreme Court.
The story of his accomplishment, and that of hundreds of other Chinese-Canadian migrants and citizens, is told in a new exhibition – A Seat at the Table – in Vancouver’s Chinatown. The temporary exhibit, which opens to the public on Saturday, explores the history of Chinese immigration in B.C. through food, culture, services and activism.
It is a forerunner of what will become the first museum in Canada devoted to the experiences of Chinese-Canadians.
“It is to educate people and also our descendants to take pride in the contribution of their ancestors and the difficulties they encountered and how they overcame it,” Mr. Wong said.
Mr. Wong’s mother was born and raised in Vancouver’s Chinatown. His father, who migrated to Canada from China’s Guangdong province in 1921, was among the last Chinese to enter Canada before the immigration curtain came down – the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in 1923, banning most forms of Chinese immigration to Canada. (The act was repealed in 1947.)
A Seat at the Table features pictures and videos of Chinese-Canadians over time and across generations. There are photos of Canadian Pacific Railway workers taken between 1870 and 1900. There are also images from a year ago of youth activists defending Chinatown traditions.
The exhibit displays significant moments in the Chinese community, including the story of Vancouver resident Mary Chan, who led protests against the city’s freeway plan in the 1970s and saved the Strathcona neighbourhood. There are also sweet personal video clips, such as one from artist Kee Toy Joseph, who is half Indigenous and half Chinese, learning how to cook a chow mein from his grandmother.
Asian immigrants to Canada have not had an easy path.
Before 1947, they were denied the right to vote federally. They were barred from self-regulated professions such as law, medicine, accounting and engineering.
But when Chinese-Canadians veterans, returning from serving in the Second World War, made demands for the right to vote, Chinese-Canadians were eventually granted full rights as Canadian citizens.
“And that’s when the opportunity started to open,” said Mr. Wong, adding that when he became a federally appointed judge, the whole community was “elated.”
“They never thought that would ever happen because of what they had lived through.”
A Seat at the Table is the first exhibit by the Chinese Canadian Museum, which does not yet have a home.
Last month, the B.C. government announced it is investing $10-million to build the museum, with $2-million to complete the planning and development and $8-million for an endowment to provide continuing support.
George Chow, Minister of State for Trade and the government’s spokesperson for the project, said the desire for such a museum arose within the Chinese community around 2006, when then-prime minister Stephen Harper delivered an official apology for the Chinese Head Tax.
It was around that time that people were saying: “How do we actually prevent something like that won’t happen again, and how do [we] actually celebrate the achievement of the community.”
An independent group called the Chinese Canadian Museum Society of B.C. has recently been formed to oversee the development and operation of the museum. The society’s chair Grace Wong said she hopes the museum will become a symbol that shows how Canadians of Chinese heritage are truly part of B.C.
History experts say the contributions of this community have often been forgotten.
“I think it’s an exciting moment because we are recognizing this as our history and I mean not just Chinese-Canadian history. ... It is to say that our history is B.C. history and B.C. history is our history,” said Henry Yu, UBC history professor and a board member of the society.
Both Mr. Chow and Mr. Wong said they have noticed growing interest in identity among young Chinese-Canadians, so the museum will be helpful for them in discovering their roots.
The museum is adopting a hub-and-spoke model. There will be a central provincial hub in Vancouver’s Chinatown and regional hubs in other parts of B.C.
Imogene Lim, a professor in the Anthropology Department at Vancouver Island University, said the hub-and-spoke network is “a reminder of how early Chinese were spread throughout the province.”
A Seat at the Table includes a recent newspaper clipping that records the Chinese community’s united fight against anti-Asian racism that has arisen during the COVID-19 pandemic. Last month, Vancouver police said they have had 66 hate-fuelled incidents against East Asian people reported to them so far in 2020, a huge spike from the seven during the same period last year. Similar attacks have also taken place in other parts of the country.
Ms. Wong said the increasing anti-Asian sentiment further illustrates the importance of such a museum.
“We see those examples and some of it is truly based on the lack of knowledge and understanding,” she said.
“We have [this museum] because Chinese-Canadians were helping to build this province, alongside many others. But to actually highlight that maybe helps to both educate and counter some of that racism.”
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