An Impossible History
- Paul Yee (Author)
Saltwater City: An Illustrated History of the Chinese in Vancouver. Douglas & McIntyre (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Christopher Lee
The publication of a revised edition of Paul Yee’s Saltwater City: An Illustrated History of the Chinese in Vancouver is a welcome event that will be of benefit to anyone interested in Asian Canadian Studies. Yee, whose children’s fiction has received the Governor General’s Literary Award among many other honours, wrote the first edition to accompany an exhibition of the same name held at the Vancouver Chinese Cultural Centre in 1986 (the book was published in 1988). The title, he tells us at the start, comes from the old Chinese nickname for Vancouver.
Saltwater City tells the story of an immigrant community that sought to escape upheavals in China only to encounter racism in Canada. Yee shows how racial exclusion functioned not only through the legal regulation of immigration and citizenship, but also through labour practices, economic hierarchies, popular culture, and city planning. The chapters take us through different periods in Chinese Canadian history: from early migrations to the establishment of a Chinatown community; the rise of a second generation whose military participation during World War II partially paved the way for their enfranchisement; the paranoia of the Cold War era; the liberalizing of immigration policy in 1967; and the diversification of the community as a result of those changes. While this story is not new, few writers possess Yee’s grace and polish. An archivist by training, Yee has used his professional skills to collect an impressive array of photographs, primary sources, and interviews.
Saltwater City has been out of print for some time now. The new edition features a redesigned (and improved) layout and includes a new chapter that s the reader on developments since the book’s original publication. Since the original edition has been extensively reviewed elsewhere, I want to focus the remainder of this review on the last chapter. Yee’s attempt to his narrative can tell us much about the current state of Chinese Canadian Studies and why a book like Saltwater City is increasingly impossible.
The first edition effectively ended its story with the opening of the Chinese Cultural Centre in 1980 and the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Garden in 1986. Both projects, along with the Saltwater City exhibition, symbolized the Chinese community’s coming-of-age. The book’s celebratory tenor is immediately evident in the original preface, which declared, “[early Chinese immigrants] had faith that things would be better for future generations. They have been proven correct.” Armed with this optimism, Yee suggests that Chinese Canadian history is necessary in order to understand “the broader history of Vancouver and Canada itself.”
The preface to the new edition has a noticeably different tone. The early sense of triumph has been replaced with the awareness that much of Chinese Canadian history remains unknown to non-Chinese as well as to many new Chinese immigrants. Moreover, the moment of promise that produced the first edition seems to have faded with the “resurgence of anti-Chinese feeling” after 1986. In order to explain these newer forms of racism, the last chapter summarizes changes in Canadian immigration policy during the 1990s, which were designed to attract immigrants with skills and capital. The arrival of these newcomers led to various conflicts over property values, house design, public school instruction, cultural integration, and city zoning. New immigrants faced racial hostility in addition to other difficulties in adjusting to their new surroundings. Even though Yee cautiously hopes for an end to anti-Chinese racism and the possibility of successful integration, the new edition concludes with the far more ambiguous observation that the community is changing.
The diversity of the Chinese community today—large-scale immigration from Hong Kong, Taiwan, the People’s Republic of China, Vietnam, and other places—poses additional challenges to writing community history, a problem that is especially noticeable as the final chapter tries to cover much social history while struggling to connect itself to the rest of the book. While the book attempts to locate recent developments within its narrative of community expansion and diversification, it is questionable whether that framework can address the experiences of more recent immigrants. For example, a narrative of Taiwanese immigration (which has actually been occurring since the 1960s) would require a very different story of (Asian) colonialism and migration. While the new edition of Saltwater City gestures towards these experiences, it simply cannot adequately represent them within the limited space of the text.
My point is not to fault Yee in any way for writing an incomplete community history. Rather, it may no longer be possible to write a general history of the Chinese in Canada just as it is impossible to speak of a Chinese Canadian community. Yee considers these difficulties, but concludes that the “racial visibility” of Chinese Canadians links recent immigrants to the early pioneers. He is, I think, correct to underscore the centrality of race over ethnicity, but we should nonetheless ask why Chinese Canadians should be considered independently of other racialized groups, especially other Asian Canadians.
If it is no longer possible to write a history of Chinese Canadians, then now seems to be the right time to encourage the writing of multiple histories (Saltwater City already attempts to do this by including diverse voices). To that end, the recently established Chinese Canadian Historical Society of British Columbia has made it its mission to encourage grassroots history writing in the hopes of illuminating a wider range of experiences. The Society has recently published Finding Memories, Tracing Routes: Chinese Canadian Family Stories (edited by Brandy Liên Worrall, see www.cchsbc.ca), a diverse collection of creative non-fiction. All this activity, though, would not be possible without Saltwater City and Paul Yee’s vision and eloquence. For these reasons, we should all be grateful that Saltwater City is again available.
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Books reviewed: The Mountain Is Moving: Japanese Women's Lives by Patricia Morley and From My Grandmother's Bedside: Sketches of Postwar Tokyo by Norma Field
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MLA: Lee, Christopher. An Impossible History. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 23 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #192 (Spring 2007), Gabrielle Roy contemporaine/The Contemporary Gabrielle Roy. (pg. 166 - 167)
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