Canada’s Chinese and China Questions loom over B.C.’s new museum

Noble Horvath

Part 1. British Columbia’s Chinese at a crossroads “A visit to a museum is a search for beauty, truth, and meaning in our lives.”– Maira Kalman, American writer and artist British Columbia’s Chinese community is facing some of the most difficult challenges in its 232-year history in Canada’s westernmost province. Sinophobic sentiments […]

Part 1. British Columbia’s Chinese at a crossroads

“A visit to a museum is a search for beauty, truth, and meaning in our lives.”
– Maira KalmanAmerican writer and artist

British Columbia’s Chinese community is facing some of the most difficult challenges in its 232-year history in Canada’s westernmost province.

Sinophobic sentiments are at their highest levels in decades, fuelled by the COVID-19 pandemic and years of Chinese-scapegoating for the province’s housing, money-laundering, and opioids problems.

China’s president, Xi Jinping, has worsened anti-Chinese sentiments around the world as his government has antagonized Canada, the United States, and countries in Asia, Europe, and Africa.

As a consequence, the ethnic Chinese populations in the U.S., India, Indonesia, Australia, and Zambia are increasingly caught up in the anti-Beijing backlash in those countries.

B.C. remains a relatively harmonious place where good sense still prevails. The NDP provincial government has denounced the recent spate of pandemic-linked racist attacks against Chinese and Asian-looking people while police have stepped up enforcement measures against related hate crimes.

Last month, Premier John Horgan announced the building of a new museum dedicated to telling the Chinese Canadian story, starting with the first workers arriving in B.C. from China in 1788.

The initial $10-million project is a timely reminder that ethnic Chinese people have long been a part of the province’s political, economic, and human landscape. It counters the populist notion that B.C.’s Chinese aren’t “really” or don’t even “look” Canadian.

“We’ve been working closely with the community for years and it has told us how important this museum is for everyone in B.C.,” said Mr Horgan.

With the full backing of the community and the government, he declared his belief that “we will have a world-class museum.”

Over the past year-and-a-half, there have been many demonstrations outside the Chinese consulate on Granville Street.

The Chinese “struggles for belonging”

On August 15, the Museum of Vancouver and the University of British Columbia jointly launched the first exhibit to tell the “historical and contemporary stories” of the Chinese “struggles for belonging”.

The historical stories are straightforward, starting with two separate groups of Chinese labourers sailing with Captain John Meares into Vancouver Island in 1788. 

They arrived at least four years ahead of Captain George Vancouver who, in 1792, led a British naval expedition into what would become B.C. A city would be named after him, and the British would eventually “claim” the region as part of their empire.

B.C.’s Chinese population began growing after the first major wave landed in 1858 to join in the gold rush in the lower Fraser Valley. Many dispersed and settled throughout the region as farmers, miners, fishermen, and labourers, some marrying into the local populations.

European settlers’ subjugation of Aboriginal and other ethnic groups prior to Canada’s formation in 1867 intensified with the rise of Social Darwinism in Europe that brought white supremacism into the new country.

From 1871 when B.C. joined the confederation that formed Canada right through 1947, the Chinese became the target of more than 100 laws, regulations, and policies to curb their population growth, economic activities, and mobility.

This dark phase of Canada’s history began to lift only after the 1945 defeat of Nazi Germany in the Second World War. Having fought a devastating war against a racist regime, Canada could no longer defend its own racist policies back home.

In 1947, Ottawa reinstated the right of Chinese Canadians to vote and repealed the Exclusion Act that had specifically banned Chinese immigration into Canada. In 1982, Canada enshrined equality, and the fair and just treatment of all its citizens into the Constitution with the passage of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Pro-China demonstrators tried to shout down Hong Kong democracy advocates in duelling demonstrations at a Canada Line station in the summer of 2019.
Charlie Smith

The Chinese Question, then and now

The museum will have little problem curating this period of the Chinese story in B.C.

For most of Canada’s history, it has been easy to speak of a monolithic Chinese community whose identity and stories were shaped by the experience of state-sanctioned racism. B.C.’s Chinese Question could be covered in a single editorial, as evidenced in the oldest surviving copy of a Vancouver newspaper, dated January 15, 1886.

But narrating the contemporary Chinese experience will pose a bigger challenge as the stories are not as clear cut. For it to be considered world-class, the museum will have to push political and social boundaries, and accept controversy. There are at least five hot-button issues that the museum will have to address to deal with the evolving Chinese Question in B.C.

1. Chinese community or communities?

Who is the “typical” Chinese Canadian, and what is his or her experience in a modern B.C. that is free of legalised discrimination?

Today, distinct sub-groups have emerged within B.C.’s estimated 600,000 Chinese population as a result of their varied political, cultural, and religious affiliations, and linguistic differences.

In a 2019 study, researchers Miu Chung Yan, Karen Lok, and Daniel Lai found distinct sub-ethnic groups within the population. While ethnic Chinese people share cultural traits, the study said there are clear differences among the more recent immigrants.

“They immigrated to Canada from different places with distinct social, economic, cultural, and political systems, and display different political tendencies, social values, and economic behaviours. They also differ in educational background, language (Cantonese, Mandarin or other dialects), and time of arrival,” said the study by the University of British Columbia researchers.

How does this diversity within the Chinese community impact Canadian politics and society?

Chinese president Xi Jinping’s actions have contributed to a backlash against people of Chinese ancestry in several western countries.
Loey Filipe/UN

2. China’s long shadow over the diaspora

With the People’s Republic of China (PRC) now a global power, the cultural and linguistic diversity within the Chinese diaspora is not even the main story.

Within B.C.’s ethnic Chinese population, there are growing tensions between the supporters and opponents of the PRC government under President Xi. The conflict will intensify as neither side is interested to seek common ground.

Meanwhile, the PRC’s ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is trying to expand its influence through Chinese business, cultural, and student associations in B.C. and around the world.

Last year, pro-Beijing immigrants and those from Hong Kong and their supporters clashed on the streets and campuses of Vancouver and other major global cities that have a significant ethnic Chinese presence.

How will the museum curate this intra-Chinese conflict between pro- and anti-Beijing forces? As funding for the project is expected to come mostly from within the community, which faction will ultimately prevail?

On Hong Kong, will the museum focus on the stories of those fleeing to Vancouver to escape Beijing’s oppression since the late 1960s? Or, will it reflect Beijing’s view that Hong Kong is being destabilized by the United States with the help of pro-democracy activists in Vancouver?

Might the museum itself become a battleground for influence?

The positions of both factions may yet be represented provided they can agree on a compromise narrative.

Or, the museum could avoid controversy altogether by omitting any mention of the conflict. But this would imply censorship of an important chapter in the contemporary Chinese story in the province.

The U.S.-China tussle for global supremacy has a Vancouver angle that would also enhance the museum’s relevance and attraction. On December 1, 2018, acting on the request of the U.S. government under a bilateral extradition treaty with Canada, the RCMP arrested a senior executive of Huawei, China’s leading telecommunications firm, in Vancouver.

Meng Wenzhou, a daughter of Huawei’s founder and a homeowner in Vancouver, was later the subject of an extradition hearing in a Vancouver court for allegedly violating U.S. laws pertaining to bank fraud, money laundering, and obstruction of justice. Her alleged crimes are tied to possible violations of U.S. trade and economic sanctions against Iran.

Shortly after her arrest, the PRC government detained two Canadian men, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, in China on espionage charges. Canada has suggested that their arrests were in retaliation for its role in Ms Meng’s detention, which China has denied.

These three individuals deserve a place in the museum as they have become part of the Chinese Question in B.C.

Many PRC nationals view her arrest as part of a bigger plot by the U.S. to stifle Huawei’s rise—and China’s—as a global tech giant. Canada, meanwhile, is taking heat from the two global powers.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is under pressure from the U.S. to exclude Huawei in Canada’s next generation of telecommunications infrastructure, and from China to free Meng of all charges.

Will the museum curate this convoluted tale in B.C. within the context of the wider U.S.-China geopolitical battle? The exhibits will have to include stories and photographs of clashes between B.C.’s Chinese demonstrators supporting Beijing and those defending Canada’s handling of her case.

Adding to the plot, the plight of the Uyghur Muslims in China’s Xinjiang region has found its way into B.C. 

Vancouver’s small Uyghur community has joined in a global push-back against President Xi’s regime despite the CCP’s attempt to shut down their voices in Canada.

These recent B.C. stories about Huawei, Hong Kong, Xinjiang, Tibet, and Taiwan do not fit with the sentimental message about the Chinese “struggles for belonging”. Instead, they point to a troubling theme of divided loyalties, and Beijing’s attempt to use B.C.’s Chinese to sell Mr Xi’s policies of intolerance, oppression, and racial discrimination.

This is an uncomfortable story confronting B.C.’s Chinese, and it deserves a permanent exhibit in the museum.

White residents descended on Chinatown and Japantown in 1907 in a violent reaction to the presence of Asians in Vancouver.
UBC Special Collections

Part 2. The Universal Struggle for Belonging

“It’s not a museum. It’s not a place of artifacts; it’s a place of ideas.”
– Jeanie Kahnke, The Muhammad Ali Center

3. Vancouver’s crisis stories: housing, money-laundering, and opioids

Where the Chinese struggle for belonging has resonance is in its complaint against an ongoing campaign to blame the community for Metro Vancouver’s recent socioeconomic problems.

For decades through the early part of the 20th century, Chinese immigrants were scapegoated for stealing jobs from the white workforce, depressing wages, and corrupting society. It culminated in Vancouver’s anti-Asian riots of 1907 that led to more anti-Chinese legislation, and propelled the political careers of Mackenzie King and publisher Louis Denison Taylor.

King, an admirer of Adolf Hitler, went on to become Canada’s 10th prime minister. Taylor, who was also Vancouver’s mayor for a total of 11 years, built a political platform from which he railed against Chinese immigration, big business, and other issues of the day that helped establish his reputation as a populist leader”, according to Wikipedia.

Remarkably, aspects of this dark period of Canadian history are being repeated today.

Once again, Chinese Canadians are being accused of corrupting B.C., implying the province did not have crime or bad people until the arrival of wealthy Asian immigrants. Douglas Todd, the Vancouver Sun’s self-proclaimed expert on diversity, has suggested that the late David Lam, the province’s first lieutenant-governor of Chinese descent, may have engaged in influence-buying through the Chinese practice of “guangxi”.

Over the past few years, a handful of politicians, academics and journalists have created a composite story that Chinese immigrants and gangs are the main cause of Metro Vancouver’s most serious crises related to housing, money laundering, and opioids.

Future prime minister Mackenzie King bolstered his reputation in 1908 by highlighting opium use in Chinatown after racial attacks on Asians.
Yousuf Karsh

The scapegoating related to housing deserves mention in the museum, according to the B.C. NDP government’s 2019 report that sets out the case and scope for the project.

On page 14, under “Racism endures today”, the report said Chinese Canadians are being subjected to a “more subtle and nuanced” form of discrimination.

“[Chinese] immigrants today are seen as having money and driving up real estate prices,” it said.

Most crucially, will the ruling B.C. NDP government recognize that its flawed money-laundering inquiry has helped the resurgence of Sinophobia in the province?

The inquiry has been found to use speculative data and media stories to support a predetermined conclusion that a handful of Chinese criminals control Vancouver’s $50-billion per year housing market.

The high-profile campaign deserves mention in the museum for implying that the Chinese community is the source and domain of B.C.’s long-established criminal and money-laundering activities.

4. Racism in the time of the pandemic

The global COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on B.C.’s Chinese community are another compelling addition to the museum. As Wuhan city in China was the epicentre of the 2020 outbreak, the diaspora in several countries found itself in the firing line of blame for the deadly disease.

This included people of Chinese descent of various nationalities who had never been to China or visited for years. Even people who “look Chinese” such as Japanese, Koreans, Thais, Vietnamese, and Indigenous Canadians reported being racially abused, even physically attacked.

In B.C., it came to the point that Premier Horgan was moved to condemn the anti-Asian attacks and slurs.

“We are hearing disturbing stories of a rise in anti-Asian racist behaviour since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic,” he said in a statement on May 17. “Hate has no place in our province and it will not be tolerated. Our strength is in our diversity and we reject all forms of racism, discrimination, intolerance and bigotry.”

While officials have acted promptly against street-level racism, the media has played an ambiguous role. Some of the COVID-19 reporting has contributed to Asian scapegoating, similar to the Chinese-blaming stories on housing and money-laundering.

One of the most disturbing narratives to emerge from the pandemic is that Beijing controls the diaspora in Canada and other countries.

On April 30, Global News blanketed Canada’s estimated 1.7-million Chinese population as agents for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). On the back of a poorly translated and interpreted Xinhua news article, its investigative reporter Sam Cooper wrote: “Every overseas Chinese is a warrior”.

The original Xinhua article in Mandarin stated that “Every overseas Chinese is a warrior in the fight against the pandemic.”

In response to my protest, Global News amended the story by deleting the illustration of a group of Chinese-looking people being controlled by a puppet-master. The illustration, often used by anti-Semitic groups to demonize Jews, was adapted by Global News to apply to Canada’s Chinese people.

But demands by some activists for a retraction and an apology from Global News floundered because they received little support from the Chinese community.

Many do not think the story amounted to scapegoating. Most probably were not even aware of the story or of its significance.

While quick to recognize the threats of street-level racism, the Chinese community, who are mostly apolitical or opposed to Beijing, do not grasp the danger of being cast as agents of the CCP.

The community’s divided and uncertain responses to the Global News story are similar to its acceptance in being demonized by the media’s reporting on the housing, money-laundering and opioids crises. For failing to call out these stories, the Chinese community is enabling Sinophobia as a permanent and pervasive condition in Canada.

There’s not a single Chinese-speaking member of Vancouver city council.

5. Under-representation

One of the most notable aspects of the contemporary Chinese story is the community’s under-representation in B.C.’s political, corporate, cultural, and media establishments. Even more notable is that the issue is rarely reported on, discussed or studied.

The Chinese themselves accept the apparent the lack of representation, which reinforces the community’s outsider status.

Comprising around 20 percent of MetroVancouver’s 2.6 million people, the Chinese population is better educated and likely more affluent than the average Canadian. But there is little curiosity and even less research into why they are so missing in decision-making positions in key institutions. The community itself appears not to be concerned.

The museum would help the cause if it generated discussion on Chinese Canadian under-representation in B.C. institutions and public life.

The Chinese Question in the post-2020 world

The Chinese have been in B.C. for much longer than Canada has been in existence.

So, why are they still struggling to find “belonging”?

With its mandate to narrate the Chinese story, the museum can facilitate the community’s search for answers and solutions.

First, it can help by reducing the community’s obsession with the past in favour of tackling current issues and future challenges. There already is an abundance of research, literature, and exhibits about Chinese lives in B.C. in the last century or two. The various levels of government have apologized and taken action to redress the injustices of the past. It is time to move on.

Second, the museum must facilitate an open discussion on the challenges posed by China under President Xi’s government. Xi is appealing to Chinese nationalism and blood ties to gain the support of the estimated 70-million diaspora population around the world.

Xi is consciously developing and exporting a form of Sinofascism that is incompatible with a diverse, multicultural society like Canada.

In B.C., the CCP’s United Front Work Department is trying to sell Beijing’s policies through Chinese business, civic, and student associations. B.C.’s Chinese community is at growing risk of suspicion from mainstream Canada that it is influenced by the CCP.

Third, the museum should look into the unexplored area of race relations between B.C.’s Chinese and other ethnic groups. In view of rising anti-Chinese and anti-China sentiments, it is imperative for the community to actively know how it is being perceived by other Canadians.

The recent surge in anti-Chinese sentiments is no surprise to anyone paying attention to mainstream media reporting and social media discussions on B.C.’s problems with housing, money laundering, and opioids.

Yet, the Chinese community and its leaders seem oblivious to the threat of their negative portrayal in the public’s eye.

In recent years, the image of the Chinese in Canadian society has deteriorated from outsider to threat, and now, potential enemy. There are no polls to show the state of race relations but B.C. faces political and social risks if the recent deterioration in the Chinese Canadian image continues unchecked.

Fourth, the museum should spur B.C.’s Chinese to increase dialogue with other communities on a range of common issues such as the environment, drugs, homelessness, sexual inclusiveness, and racial injustice.

While they have been vocal about pandemic-related racism against Asian-looking people, B.C.’s Chinese need to also examine their own views and treatment of “other” people. Chinese people in Canada have sometimes been described as not doing enough to reach out to other communities. The museum offers an opportunity to build inter-community ties.

Fifth, the museum must position the community as part of Canadian society and not as a group living within its own ecosystem. This poses the biggest question for the project itself.

If the goal is to help the community achieve belonging in B.C., a museum dedicated to telling Chinese stories is a mistake. Its existence reinforces the point that the Chinese stand apart from the rest of Canada, and do not belong in the mainstream.

If the proponents of the project are unable to reconcile this fundamental contradiction, would they consider turning this into an all-Canada museum to explore B.C.’s growing diversity challenges?

What does it mean for people of varying identities trying to find their place in a world rocked by the culture wars, racial injustice protests, economic uncertainties, and China’s decoupling from the West?

When Chinese Canadians can tell their stories within this context, they have a better chance of finding belonging in the province.

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