By J Brian Dawson|
Detselig. 256 pp. $19.95.
THE FIRST CHINESE to settle in the City of Edmonton in July, 1892, was a "refugee" fleeing Calgary.
So writes historian and author J Brian Dawson about Chung Gee's arrival in Edmonton, 100 years ago. How times have changed.
Devoted readers of Chinese Canadian history will likely recognize Harry Con's and Edgar Wickberg's From China to Canada: A History of the Chinese Communities in Canada as the definitive and, to date, the most current, reference on the subject, but Dawson's Moon Cakes is a much needed addition to the meagre literature on the history of Chinese settlement in Alberta.
Well-researched and heavily footnoted, Moon Cakes promises in its preface to provide more than a chronological and statistical review of Chinese settlement. While it includes a general history of the Chinese experience in Alberta, covering the period from the earliest Chinese immigration in 1885 to the present, Moon Cakesalso attempts to "assess and explain the components and essence of the Chinese community in Alberta by employing a Chineseperspective and viewpoint on significant topics." A most ambitious and very difficult undertaking, since the author is not, himself, Chinese.
The book's author, J Brian Dawson, whose effort in putting together the book originated from research undertaken while pursuing his MA in Western Canadian History at the University of Alberta, is able to offer us insight into some of the most shameful and painful periods of our province's history by relying in part on the oral testimony of Chinese pioneers in Alberta.
The book examines, among other things, the Chinese clan associations that took hold from 1910 onward, a phenomenon which was originally forced on the Chinese by necessity and under which they eventually benefitted and preferred to live.
As is often the case for recent immigrant groups arriving in Canada, the Chinese faced "Prejudice, Discrimination, and Racism," the title to one of the book's chapters. The public's attitude toward the Chinese changed substantially during and soon after the Second World War, and some Chinese community members eventually became well-known locally and beyond for their achievements. Among these included the sons of Ho Lem in Calgary (notably, George Ho Lem, Sr, who was the first Chinese Canadian to be elected alderman of a large city in Canada in 1959, and, later, as the first Chinese Canadian MLA in the province in 1971) and the football great, fullback Normie Kwong, "The China Clipper."
Yet, while the Canadian Citizenship Act was finally passed in 1947 to permit Chinese males to have equal opportunities to become citizens and to allow them to send for their wives and children outside Canada, it was not until 1967 that the last vestiges of overt discrimination based on country of origin were actually eliminated by the establishment of a "point system" for assessing the eligibility of all potential immigrants to Canada.
One criticism: Dawson can be accused of a parochial bias in emphasizing the achievements of the Chinese community in Calgary, although this feeling can be easily attributed not so much to a lack of research on the part of the author as to an astute observation of historical differences. Moon Cakes, after all, is also a study in contrast between the Chinese communities of the province's two largest cities.
While Chung Gee and, later, other Chinese settlers like him, may have fled to escape the violence and racial tension in Calgary before the turn of the century, Dawson notes that, traditionally, the Chinese community in Edmonton has taken a less assertive role in civic issues.
When, for example, the Canada Place project forced Chinese businesses to relocate or dissolve as recently as 1985, and effectively fragmented Edmonton's Chinatown, the Chinese community put up little opposition. In direct contrast, the Chinatown in Calgary was last relocated in an area of the Chinese community's own choosing in 1910 -- despite challenges to its existence commencing in the mid-1960s -- where it still stands today as one of that city's major attractions.
Perhaps Moon Cakes should be required reading for both the members of Edmonton's city council and current leaders of the city's Chinese community. And what better opportunity for our local leaders to show direction than during the 100th anniversary of settlement by the Chinese community in Edmonton?
Kenda Gee is a graduate of Osgoode Hall Law School, Toronto, and was born in Edmonton.