By Gracelynn CY Lau Sep 29, 2019
Last month I came across a CBC podcast “The Secret Life of Canada” and listened to an episode on The Oldest Chinatown in North America.
I know Victoria has the oldest in Canada, but to my surprise, I learned that in the Haida oral history, the first time Chinese people had came to this land was in 500AD. They were a small group of monks from China, stayed on the island for a year and traded plants knowledge with the Haida peoples.
My ancestors came even before the European traders and colonizers, skill-traded and hung out with Haida here? No wonder the Cowichan River told me, “Our people knew your people long before you introduced them to us. Love your people, love your ancestors, we have medicine for them.”
Every time I stood at Victoria’s inner harbour, I could see the shadow of another Victoria harbour miles away. Victoria is the name of Hong Kong in the colonial era. When I was a kid, my parents would take me to see the Christmas lights every year at the Victoria harbour in Tsim Sha Tusi. I can’t remember how many nights I spent at the harbour trying to take the best shots of Hong Kong Island’s skyline; how many nights my peeps and I would hang out at the stairs, sang and chatted and watched the night gets deep. I had spent 20 years in that Victoria, but it had never felt like home. I had never felt belong. But in this Victoria (capital of BC), I found my clan.
I came to Vancouver Island in Oct 2014. As the ferry approached Departure Bay terminal in Nanaimo, I remembered the strange strong sensations in my body, a big sigh of relief and release of some sort, as if somebody finally recognized who I am. Two days later, my friend and I were invited to a sweatlodge. We got the invitation serendipitously on Salt Spring Island. Not until we were on our way to the sweatlodge, I found out that it was actually gonna be in Port Alberni, in a Nuu-chah-nulth family home.
That was my first sweat. The lodge keeper took me and my friend to prepare some devil’s cup medicine because we were first-timers. Barely made it to the end of the first round, I found myself bawling in front of the fire.
The grandmother and lodge keeper took me under their wings, and said to me, “leave all your prayers and tears to the grandfathers, ask the smoke to carry your prayer with the wind, to the air, to the water, to the Creator and the ancestors. Leave it all to them, we want you to come out the lodge happy and smiling.” And I did. That few hours felt as intense as a 2 months Vipassana retreat. After the lodge everyone shared a feast together. At dinner, I learned the meaning of the word “Love” in Nuu-chah-nulth language, “it means ‘You Are My Pain’.” That night, I stayed at their house. I felt like I shredded 20 pounds overnight, invisibly.
The podcast’s hosts also said that when the British trader John Meares had recruited 50Chinese men in 1788 and brought them to Canada, they had landed at Nootka Sound. The Nuu-chah-nulth peoples gave them some land to live on. And then came the Nootka Crisis, which I don’t know much about, but I know while the Spanish and the British were fighting, the
Chinese workers were captured or killed.
I once wondered why I felt so belong and at home on Vancouver Island. My elder said, your ancestors on the island are the ones calling you here.
Many Chinese men from the southern part of China came to work at the gold fields in Fraser Valley or to build the Pacific Railway during 1780–1850. It has never crossed my mind that many of them had to go to Victoria City (Hong Kong) the British Colony (since 1841) at the time, in order to get on a ship to Victoria (Canada), in order to get to BC lower mainland.
Both Victoria(s) were a place of transition and of anchor, for hope, for finding a better future, for separation and union, for lives and families across the Pacific.
According to the podcast, there were 300 Chinese people living in Victoria Chinatown area in 1923. Oddly enough, I never enjoyed going to Chinatowns, or any Chinese immigrant development zones. When I worked in Markham, ON, I would rather spend 3 hours on public transit everyday to commute back and forth from my downtown home. My mentor B would say,
“how come you are allergic to your own people? Don’t you realize this is what the British had done to our indigenous peoples here too? They disintegrated the young ones from their own culture, so deeply that many young ones don’t want to learn from their elders again.” Am I racist against my own people? Or is it because some parts of my being just can’t handle
the inter-generational traumas of my ancestors that my sympathetic nervous system wins over to react?
In 1867, John A. MacDonald’s government took the right away from the Chinese and the Indigenous peoples by enacting the Chinese Immigration Act and the Indian Act. The rest is history. A long history of past wrongs that Canada is finally trying to right.
What does it mean to me to be a Chinese diaspora settling in Canada? Coming from a place where my parents were born in a British colony, I considered myself the 3rd generation of refugees. My paternal and maternal grandparents fled to the British colony of Hong Kong because they were afraid of the Communist Party in China. I grew up in the Christian church, my family never talked about our ancestors, and I never participated in a traditional ceremony.
In 1997, Hong Kong was handed over to the People’s Republic of China, a party that had rigorously threw away ancient Chinese culture and bruised my great-grandparents’ and my grandparents’ generation tremendously, so badly that my grandparents (when they were alive) didn’t want to talk about their past at all.
I remember that day, July 1, 1997. The UK flag came down, the 5-stars red flag went up. Chris Patten, the governor of Hong Kong at the time, and his family said goodbye to Hong Kong people on the TV. Like Mr. Patten three teenage daughters, I was in tears. Sad and angry tears. “How dare the British government gave us ‘back’ to an authority that killed their own people with tanks and guns!”
When Tiananmen Square Massacre happened, I was 7. I couldn’t sleep. I made a lot of newspapers clippings. My father took me to join the protest in Hong Kong Island. 3 million people showed up in front of the Legislative Council Building. After that summer, many of them decided to emigrate somewhere else. My father said, “we are from here, we won’t go
My hatred towards the Chinese government had never ceased. My father wanted to give me a different perspective, so our family went to Peking (now Beijing) for Christmas. That didn’t help. Peking was dirty, uncivilized, chaotic, plus the food was really bad; plus I would never forgive a
government that killed their people with tanks and guns! 8964 had became parts of my password or phone number since then.
I remember that day, July 1, 2003. The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) government celebrated the Founding of the Chinese Communist Party, which is also the establishment of HKSAR, in Wan Chai. I was among 500,000 protesters in the march organized by Civil Human Rights Front, holding up signages and distributing info sheets on why we must oppose the legislation of Basic Law Article 23. Since that day, July 1 had became an annual protest rally in my birth home. Since that day, July 1 means the day of anger, solidarity and grief.
It wasn’t until 2007, July 1 took on another layer of meaning. I came back to Toronto for my graduate studies in the Fall of 2006, after taking care of my seriously injured mother and the after-care of my father’s funeral. They had got into a major accident in Egypt during Chinese New Year. Mom almost lost her life. I lost my father. I stayed with her for 6 months for her
recovery and grieving. When I returned to Toronto in the Fall, it was my time to grieve.
My British boyfriend at the time was my anchor for grief. My friend used to joke about that, “are you being colonized in your romantic relationship too?” My boyfriend was involved in organizing medieval reenactment at the Pride Parade, so we went. Again, July 1. With unsettling grief and anger from my family lost and all the protest news from Hong Kong, I found myself at
the intersection of Yonge and College, in solidarity and celebration with a bunch of colourful, joyful half nude people. In Hong Kong, the streets don’t belong to people, but they do in Canada. We watched the Canada Day fireworks after dinner at a brewpub near St. Lawrence Market. I looked at the clock, and realized that my “today” in Canada will always be “tomorrow”
in Hong Kong.
Fast forward, 12 years later, July 1 took on yet another layer of meaning. The Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in 1923, it went into effect on July 1.
1997, 2003, 1867 and now 1923. I have 4 layers of July 1 and two Victoria Harbour in my personal history as someone in diaspora. What does it all mean to me to be a Chinese diaspora settling in Canada?
My research reached out and found me on the lands of the Coast Salish peoples. On Nov 25th, 2018, I said yes to the Creator and the ancestors of my own and of theirs.
10 months later, here I am, at Queen’s, on the traditional territories of the Anishinaabe and Haudenosaunee peoples. As I stand in front of Lake Ontario, by the Murney Tower, I realize that I’ve forgotten to bring Cowichan River water with me. I don’t recognize the trees in the park. I can’t
call the plants by their names. Here I am, on my own, without the familiar ecosystem of my plant allies, elders, mentors and fellow villagers. How do I start? I miss the ocean, I miss the feeling of walking on earth not pavement, I miss the smell of Western Redcedars…
“Listen, you have earned your Eagle feather for the work you’ve done in the last 4 years, that was equivalent to someone serving at the Sun Dance for 4 years,” that voice comes through my heart. My elder’s voice. I recognize it. “Work from the ground up. That’s your foundation. You have what you need, not what you want, to start your work.”
That moment, I know. I must start by introducing myself.
My Cantonese name is 劉頌恩 meaning honor and praise to the Creator and be grateful. My English name is Gracelynn Lau, meaning gracious as waterfall. I was born and raised in the British Colonial Hong Kong and moved to Canada in 2005. The last 5 years I have been living in the Cowichan Valley at OUR ecovillage, learning the way of the Cowichan Tribes peoples and practice rebecoming villagers with my global family. It is my learning with them that taught me how to embrace my own indigeneity and villager culture, as Chinese; that which also is the motivation, intention and integrity of my research. Thank you for having me on this land.