Chinese community fights accusations of “cultural segregation”
By Ken Yum
Editor’s note: Some of the quotes in this story are not grammatically correct, because many of the people interviewed call English their second language.
Think of Chinese communities in Canada and you probably think of a busy Chinatown, street vendors peddling their wares, the bustle of the Chinese elderly as they pack the subways and streetcars downtown on their way to a dim-sum brunch. Just look around in any Toronto street, mall or school. Chinese Canadians have their own malls, newspaper, and community centres.
There has clearly been a phenomenal growth in the Chinese community in Metro and across Canada. But recently, this large vibrant community has become a little too intimidating for some Canadians.
In recent weeks, there has been an uproar in Metro’s Chinese community following remarks made by Carole Bell, deputy mayor of Markham. Bell said in Markham, “there is a growing cultural segregation and this is a threat of racism and social conflicts… the weakness of it comes when there is a concentration, when you are getting only one group of people.” Some believe that Bell’s statement was a racist comment directed at the growing Chinese—Canadian community. Almost 20 per cent of the voters in Markham are Chinese.
With the recent events in Markham, some see the surface of a more subtle racism, now directed at the new generation of Chinese Canadians. In 1997, Communist China will reclaim Hong Kong from England. As a result, the number of immigrants from Hong Kong is increasing, and many of them are coming to the Metro area. In fact, some 40,000 Asian immigrants come to Canada every year.
“The recent influx of immigrants are actually middle class Chinese from Hong Kong,” says Keith Wong, executive director of the Chinese Canadian National Council (CCNC), Toronto. He says many of the new immigrants have suburban dreams, and settle in areas like Markham.
But Wong does not believe that these communities are segregating themselves from the rest of Canada.
“Ethnic concentration is a natural phenomenon.” he says. “People need to have a certain time to establish themselves.”
Wong says that when immigrants first come to Canada, it is almost natural for them to go where their communities are, and integration with society eventually happens.
If recent trends are any indication, Canada’s Asian population will continue to grow. Metro’s Chinese speaking population now numbers more than 350,000, and Canada’s total Chinese population is approaching 1 million.
Raymond Yeung is a visa student from Hong Kong. He came to British Columbia 3 years ago to study. Now he is in the Mechanical Engineering program at Ryerson and a member of the Ryerson Chinese Student Association (RCSA). Yeung says that for visa students and recent immigrants, Canada is a land of opportunity and education. But he also says there are barriers that exist between cultures — barriers based on language.
“The friends I know here, they don’t speak much English,” Yeung says. “If they want to get involved in Canadian society, they should practice their English more.”
He says the linguistic and cultural differences often create discomfort between new immigrants and Canaidans.
While some new Chinese Canadians stay away from other Canadians, Yeung says both sides should take the impetus to get to know each other. “I like to get along with white guys, some of my best friends here (in Ryerson) is Arabic,” Yeung says.
For the Canadian-born Chinese, there tends to be a different experience. Many of them have grown up in a generation of tolerance and multiculturalism, and for that, they may feel the clash between the two cultures – traditional Chinese, and mainstream Canada. Many of them almost lead double lives. On one hand, they live like any other Canadian growing up. On the other hand, they are comfortable with their traditional Chinese upbringing, pressures of succeeding, and keeping the culture alive.
“As visible minorities, a lot of children grow up here always have an identity crisis,” Wong says. The young people consider themselves Canadian, but they cannot escape the fact that they are of Chinese descent.
“I have an English culture and a Chinese culture,” says Jade Tom, a Ryerson student. “I think that’s normal.”
She was born in Montreal and moved to Toronto in grade nine. Her parents immigrated to Canada 30 years ago.
“When I was small, my parents didn’t mind me if I spoke English or Chinese. I didn’t have any Chinese friends , only one or two,” she says.
Tom admits that she hesitated joining the Ryerson Chinese Student Association because there were too many Chinese people. She is not president of the association.
Despite being president of the RCSA, she wants students from all ethnic cultures to get involved. But there are still some Chinese Canadians who tend to stick together, almost segregating themselves from the rest of the population.
“Some orientals dress all the same, and hang around together and they don’t associate with other groups,” Tomy says. “I think that’s mean sometimes.”
Like Yeung, Tom attributes the segregation in part to language difficulties.
“I think at first they are afraid to approach other cultures because… they don’t know how to speak English (well).”
Much has improved, as Canada has become a more tolerant society. Chinese Canadians have integrated into Canadian society, and they have also had a big hand in building it. Prominent doctors, lawyers and even some politicians are part of the Canadian landscape. Many of us are familiar with cultural celebrations such as Chinese New Year and the Dragon Boat Races.
But for Chinese equal rights groups, like the CCNC, racism continues to raise concerns.
“People may not suffer that blatant racism like people throwing stones, those were considered racism 20 to 30 years ago. People are more aware of (racism) and condemn it more up front,” Wong says. “However there still a lot of barriers still exists. Racism is more subtle.”
Wong points to government decisions such as the $975 “head tax” on refugees and immigrants implemented by the federal Liberals this year. Wong says that visible minorities should not be complacent with the way things stand right now. He stresses the need to be critical when there is racism, be it subtle or blatant.
Which brings us back to the situation in Markham. The debate among the public has been around the signs; even Chinese Canadians agree that there should not only be the Chinese language on signs. “They should never only put Chinese, this is not China, this is Canada,” Tom says.
But to the CCNC, the issue is not language, but a more pressing matter. “(Markham deputy mayor Carole Bell) is only accountable to some people who she hears and she is not accountable to Chinese Canadians,” Wong says.
It’s almost an issue of ‘us and them.’ Do Canadians consider recent immigrants to be Canadian citizens?
“The Chinese Canadians who move here and want to call this place home, and after ten, fifteen years living in this country, they (other Canadians) still consider you as not one of us,” Wong says. “This really, really hurts.”
Carole Bell certainly isn’t helping the pain go away.
|A proud and tragic history
|Even though Chinese Canadians have a 140-year history in our nation, most of us know little about the Chinese-Canadian experience.
The first Chinese settlers landed in Victoria, British Columbia in 1858, seeking dreams of riches during the gold rush. They sent their money back home with hopes of returning to their native land to retire. Many stayed, and when it came time to build the Canadian Pacific Railway, more Chinese labourers were brought over to work, for less wages than white. (see photo above)
By 1885, the Canadian government forced Chinese immigrants to pay a “head tax” of $50 if they wanted to enter Canada. The tax, which was directed only at Chinese immigrants, rose 10 fold, and by 1903, Chinese immigrants had to pay $500 – which was equivalent to one to two years of a worker’s wages – to enter Canada. Despite the tax, Chinese immigrants continued to pour into Canada. It is estimated that over 81,000 Chinese settlers paid head taxes in the 38 years it existed.
In 1923, the government decided to scrap the “Head Tax”, and bar any Chinese from entering Canada. The Chinese Immigration Act, dubbed the “Exclusion Act” lasted until after WWII, when it was repealed in 1947.
It is still difficult for many to believe that the State had legally instituted racism against the Chinese.