I’m writing from the beautiful campus of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, where tonight I’ve been to the opening dinner of the 5th International Conference of Institutes and Libraries for Chinese Overseas Studies. Henry Yu from the Department of History at UBC gave a really good keynote address (more on that in a minute) and we had great view – all rhododendrons and sea and sunset and distant snowy mountains. Being here in Vancouver is a bit like being in a slightly odd version of home – the mountains are pointier and snowier, the cars are on the wrong side of the street, the newspapers are a funny shape and ‘veggie burgers’ don’t seem to be vegetarian … but a lot of the ads on TV are the same, people are friendly and helpful and the Queen is still on the money. Perhaps Vancouver’s apparent familiarity is really a reflection of the fact that, over the past decade, my only foreign destination has been Guangdong, and Guangdong, and Guangdong again and again.
I spent some time this afternoon wandering in the UBC bookshop and was impressed that in the four shelves on Canadian history, there were seven books that specifically discussed Chinese Canadian history. I bought one of them – Colonial Proximities: Crossracial Encounters and Juridical Truths in British Columbia, 1871–1921 by Renisa Mawani, which looks at crossracial encounters particularly between aboriginal peoples and the Chinese. I will be interested to see if it mentions intimate relationships between Chinese men and white women at all; there seems to be quite a lot of interest in relationships between First Nations women and Chinese men, including a couple of sessions at the conference, but I haven’t yet heard any discussion of Anglo-Chinese relationships.
In Henry Yu’s talk tonight – titled ‘ The rhythms of the Cantonese Pacific and the making of nations’ – he set out to do two main things: introduce the major themes of the ‘Chinese through the Americas’ conference and tell us something of the $1.2 million ‘Chinese Canadian Stories’ project he has been leading. Henry used the term ‘Cantonese Pacific’ to talk about the ways in which Chinese in BC (and Canada more generally) were part of a network of nodes that stretched out from Hong Kong, including Sydney, Yokohama, Vancouver, San Francisco, Mexico and Hawaii, and of how this network was made up of people from a particular cultural and linguistic background. This was not a ‘Chinese’ world, but a ‘Cantonese’ one, with migrants coming from about eight different counties in the Pearl River Delta.
Henry spoke of how we need to try to understand the history of the Chinese in settler nations around the Pacific from their perspective, with an understanding of their terms of reference and their imaginaries. As an example, he discussed the idea of ‘gum saan’ (gold mountain). Each new Pacific settler society, as a destination for migrating Chinese, was called ‘gum saan’ – not because Chinese migrants didn’t have proper names for these places, but because ‘gum saan’ was naming a dream and a set of aspirations for life; it was not really the name of a place but that of a geographic imaginary where dreams of wealth, prosperity and a successful return home could be realised. Henry also discussed the importance of understanding the linguistic background of these early Chinese migrants – their letters make no sense and their poems don’t rhyme if you read them in Mandarin. An important part of the Chinese Canadian Stories project has been to draw on community knowledge to help with particular activities where dialect language skills are essential, such as making connections between the places of origin (or sending villages, as Henry called them) that are given in the head tax records with their proper Chinese names and locations.
Henry said a lot more about the Chinese Canadian Stories project and showed us some of the nifty visualisations they’ve developed from the head tax record data (they’ve got info on 97,123 individuals). Good stuff. I’m looking forward to hearing more about it in the following days.