The “Thrill” of Not Belonging: Edith Eaton (Sui Sin Far) and Flexible Citizenship

During the era of North America’s Chinese Exclusion Acts and Head Taxes, Chinese, regardless of country of origin, found it difficult or expensive to enter North America and were denied citizenship in both the US and Canada. The Chinese Exclusion Act, passed by US Congress in 1882, was the first US legislation to significantly restrict immigration. The Act excluded Chinese skilled and unskilled laborers and Chinese employed in mining from entering the country for ten years under penalty of imprisonment and deportation. Soon after the passage of this Exclusion Act, the Canadian government followed suit, passing legislation in 1885 (after Chinese labour was no longer needed to build the transcontinental railroad) that required all Chinese immigrants to Canada to pay a fifty-dollar head tax, which increased in 1903 to five-hundred dollars (or two years’ salary).

Beginning in 1896, half-Chinese author Edith Eaton published fiction under the pen name Sui Sin Far that sympathetically portrayed the suffering caused by these policies and the anti-Asian racism that underwrote them. Less well known is the fact that Eaton also contributed a large body of anonymous journalism to the Montreal Daily Witness and the Montreal Daily Star that documented the experiences of diasporic Chinese in Montreal and other parts of Canada.1 Although sympathetic to the Chinese, this early journalism challenges the common assumption that diasporic Chinese prior to the Chinese Revolution desired citizenship or, at the very least, it definescitizenship in terms of economic opportunities rather than democraticrights. Indeed, to most diasporic Chinese during this period, the privileges of what we now understand as citizenship—voting, democratic representation, etc.—were unfamiliar because power during the Qing Dynasty in China was concentrated in the hands of a very small number of people and no one outside of this group could be said to be enfranchised. Those who left China sought their fortunes elsewhere precisely because they didn’t have much power if they remained. Although the psychological and personal costs of legal exclusion from North American citizenship should not be minimized, Eaton’s 1890s journalism complicates the presumed desirability of North American citizenship for diasporic Chinese, suggesting that the Chinese in the 1890s desire mobility—in terms not only of space, but also of class and identity—more than they desire formal citizenship. They covet what Aihwa Ong has called flexible citizenship: the ability to move between spaces and benefit from the opportunities these spaces represent. Eaton makes this clear in The Chinese Defended,an uncollected letter to the Editor of the Montreal Daily Star that was published on 29 September 1896—a week after her more well-known letter to the Editor Plea for the Chinaman: There is no danger of the teeming population of China overflowing this fair country.… The Chinaman likes his own land too well—he is an exile here—he has no wish to remove—and if some Chinamen are coming in all the time—others are going out.

I have recently discovered over eighty-five works of fiction and journalism by Eaton that significantly complicate the critical orthodoxy surrounding the writer known as the mother of Asian North American literature, particularly because Eaton takes up a number of different authorial modes: from a third-person objective journalistic mode of authorship, to embodied stunt-girl/ sob-sister narration, to what I am calling stenographic authorship—a kind of third way of authorship that performs the neutrality of the journalistic tradition while actually mimicking the feminine power a stenographer wields in her capacity as transcriber of authoritative discourses. Here, I offer commentary onThrilling Experience of a Band of Smugglers in the Lachine Rapids,an anonymous uncollected piece of journalism identified by Dominika Ferens as by Eaton, which was published in the Montreal Daily Star in July 1895. Thrilling Experience demonstrates a transitional phase between the mode of objective journalism Eaton practiced in her earlier articles in The Star and the more embodied mode of stunt-girl journalism that Eaton assumed in journalism published in Gall’s Newsletter in Jamaica in 1896 – 97.

Like later fiction by Eaton that challenges the hallowed status of suffrage discourse among Progressives by pointing out its class and racial exclusiveness, Thrilling Experience questions assumptions about the desirability of citizenship by suggesting that the mobile subject position and discursive power of the non-citizen may in fact be more thrilling than the fixed identity position of the citizen. Thrilling Experience appeared on the front page of Montreal’s most important daily newspaper and it covered a widespread problem within the Chinese community in Canada following the 1882 passage of the US Chinese Exclusion Act: illegal passage to the US through Canada. The reportage, however, does not follow the style of the other front-page stories that day: i.e., reports of finding gold in Russia; British election results; and news of the Vanderbilts’ gaining control of railroads. The other front-page stories are objective factual reportage that participates in the invisible reporter tradition that became the journalistic standard in the late nineteenth century. Thrilling Experience, however, as its title suggests, is written in a style that is the antithesis of objective hard-boiled news. Rather than criticize the illegal activities of the fourteen Chinese men and the three smugglers paid to transport these men from Montreal to the US border, it describes in sympathetic detail the great risks the men take in order to cross the St. Lawrence River near Lachine—a particularly treacherous point in the river because the notorious Lachine Rapids are mere metres away.

Out into the current glided the canoe, and in several minutes the party was in the centre of the swift current of the St. Lawrence. Down, down, they sped, the paddlers working like Trojans, but making little headway to the opposite shore. Back in the wake towered the [Canadian Pacific Railway] bridge, and in the distance could be seen the white caps and spray from the turbulent waters of the Lachine Rapids. The canoe now and anon would rise on the heavy swells that were rapidly drawing it towards the cataract of rushing waters.

Eaton sympathetically identifies with the Chinese male travellers, following the movements of their bodies through space in great detail as they attempt to thwart US border officials who may be on the lookout at various points along the St. Lawrence River. Assuming a more feminine mode that draws on the tradition of sensation fiction, a mode that enables her to treat some of the facts of the story allegorically, tropically, the way a fiction writer would, Eaton writes:

The occupants now, for the first time, realized their danger, and for a time lost their heads. The paddlers, worn out, quickly changed places with the more robust of the Celestials. Then commenced the race for life. With every plunge of the paddles the canoe rose on the heavy swells and cut its way through the small white caps. It was a case of life or death. On they went; the current getting swifter and the swells heavier. Less than a quarter of a mile off could be seen the raging cataract of the rapids. One hundred yards distant was the shore for which they had risked so much. The work was laborious, but slowly the canoe forged ahead, but as it did so it was carried down stream sideways. Nearer and nearer they approached, until finally the prow of the canoe rounded the reef opposite the rapids and grazed upon the sand of the cove.

The greatest shock for the reader comes with the realization that thiscove that the Chinese men have risked everything to reach is not on the American side of the border; the sand of the cove is on the shores of the Caughnawaga Mohawk Reserve (now known as Kahnawake) just south of Montreal; the US border is another fifty miles south. Eaton’s Montreal Star article neither narrates the Chinese men’s safe arrival to the American side nor endorses the US government’s prerogative to keep Chinese out; rather it keeps the Chinese men in between, by focusing narratively on two moments at which the identities of smuggled subjects are most up for grabs: the first, when they are on neither side of the river but rather, spatially dramatically, in the river at the mouth of the Cataract—and second, when they have successfully crossed the river but still haven’t yet crossed the border.

Eaton’s 1900 short story The Smuggling of Tie Co has a lot in common with Thrilling Experience. Tie-Co is only able to attempt to cross the border with an experienced smuggler because he thinks she is a man. However, in Thrilling Experience, the mobility of the Chinese men who are being smuggled into the US appears linked to their cross-racial masquerade as they paddle an Indian war canoetoward the Mohawk reservation on the south side of the river. Eaton’s delight here is less in the achieved outcomes of this one effort at smuggling or many other historic smuggling efforts—undetected passage into the US—and more in the tremendous mobility—literal and metaphorical—that smuggled Chinese enjoyed in various parts of the country. In particular, Eaton seems entranced by their ability to hide themselves in various containers—from coffins to canoes—and to take on different racial and even gender identities. Later in the article, Eaton sympathetically profiles one smuggler as a wealthy Chinese man from Boston, a son of the Flowery Kingdom [who] has a keen insight into the workings of the authorities.… This is the man that also … hit upon the hollow cane and umbrella handles for conveying … expensive drugs into the States. The ability to hide one’s identity in different kinds of containers—this kind of flexible subjectivity—rather than citizenship is the ideal. Thrilling Experience, like Chinese Defended, does not accept the desirability of citizenship as much as promote self-making and self-transformation outside of formal citizenship.

Eaton’s article ends without providing an account of the smugglers’ successful crossing of the US border. Like characters Fabian and Tie-Co in The Smuggling of Tie-Co, the Chinese men succeed in crossing the St. Lawrence, but they are still at risk of being caught as they hike the fifty miles south through the Eastern Townships of Quebec to the New York border. Yet why does Eaton represent their journey as if the Caughnawaga reservation is the travellers’ final destination? When arranging for this trip, she writes, the Chinese miscalculated the danger of the St. Lawrence at this point, and let nothing come into their minds but their one ambition to cross to the land of the free.… One hundred yards distant was the shore for which they had risked so much. The (still Canadian) space of Caughnawaga on the shore for which they had risked so much is the symbolic if not final literal destination of the smugglers and their human cargo. Kahnawake, as it is now known, is currently one of the most, if not the most, militant sovereigntist reservation in North America. Although the reservation has been technically under Canadian/Quebec jurisdiction since Confederation in 1867, its land has never been ceded to any European colonizer. For Eaton, then, Caughnawaga represents an imaginary extra-legal space of liberty and self-making for the Chinese, in which they are under the authority of neither state government. Once the Chinese men arrive there, they cannot be followed by US agents. In this article, Eaton turns the Chinese men’s borrowing of a Mohawk canoe into an act of racial masquerade, and by so doing, grants the Chinese symbolic access to the rights of Mohawks and other members of the Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy, under the Jay Treaty of 1794, to cross the US-Canada border freely and to transport goods across that border without paying duty: the ultimate example of Ong’s flexible citizenship.

Appearing as it does in the midst of a discussion of smuggling, border-crossing, and US-Canadian relations, the Chinese men’s masquerade also recalls an iconic event in American history in which North American settlers who desired life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness masqueraded as Native Americans in order to assert their independence from imperial authority: The Boston Tea Party of 1773 in which a group of thirty or forty male colonists disguised themselves as Mohawks and boarded three British ships and dumped their cargo of tea into the harbour. This dramatic act of civil disobedience was a response to laws that inhabitants of the Thirteen Colonies considered unfair: the taxation of British tea and legislation forbidding the importation of tea from other nations (something that encouraged the smuggling of Dutch East Indian tea into the Thirteen Colonies). These colonists—whom Americans call patriots now because their actions jumpstarted the American independence movement—dressed as Mohawks because, to them, Native Americans in general represented North American freedom from British tyranny. The democratic traditions of the Iroquois Confederacy, of which the Mohawks are a significant part, in particular served as inspiration for America’s Founding Fathers.

Reading Eaton’s Thrilling Experience in the context of an American Revolutionary racial masquerade figures the smugglers and their cargo as resisters of tyrannical state authority; it also turns the tables on the binary of the smuggled (non-citizens) and the US Customs officials (citizens), making the smuggled more legitimately North American than the US authorities by casting the Chinese men as revolutionaries— who value freedom, entrepreneurialism, and democracy. In this allegorical reading, the US Customs officials are placed in the role of tyrannical British authorities. This is similar to the move Eaton makes in her letter to the Editor, The Chinese Defended, when she defends the Chinese in British Columbia against the racist criticisms of white settlers: Why, the Chinese are the pioneers of British Columbia; they are the true British Columbians, and it is they and not the whites who should be claiming privileges from the Government (Chinese Defended).

The thrill of not belonging is one Eaton herself enjoyed: as a British-born child growing up in Canada; as an Anglophone living in a predominantly Francophone city; as a half-white journalist reporting on a predominantly Black Jamaica or a predominantly Aboriginal Northern Ontario; and finally as a Canadian living in the US. Eaton herself never achieved US citizenship or even Canadian citizenship although she lived at least forty-four of her forty-nine years in these two countries. If she carried any passport at all, it was a British one, although clearly in terms of cultural citizenship and in terms of her contribution to an imagined community through a public sphere she made great contributions to both Canada and the US. But she enjoyed incredible mobility and travelled easily back and forth between the two countries throughout her life, even though one might presume that as a half-Chinese woman travelling alone, and as a non-American, she may have experienced some difficulties at the border. By 1895, when she wrote Thrilling Experience, Eaton had crossed national borders (between England, the US, and Canada) many times—at least five trips are documented. She also achieved literary success—a kind of print cultural mobility that permitted her to comment publicly on politics in both countries. Even if she had been granted US or Canadian citizenship, as a woman she would still not have been permitted to vote. Yet the fact that she achieved cultural citizenship in both countries is clear by the attention we devote to her today.


  1. Ferens identifies four anonymous articles, including Thrilling Experience, appearing in the Montreal Daily Star and one piece appearing in the Montreal Daily Witness between 1894-95 as authored by Eaton (201). I have located other articles appearing in the Montreal Daily Star from 1892-96 that I suspect are by Eaton, because the language and themes in the anonymous journalistic articles are echoed in Eaton’s later fiction and/ or because they appear to match descriptions in Eaton’s autobiographical writings of articles about murders, fires and smallpox outbreaks to apaper down east from Northern Ontario.

Works Cited

  • Eaton, Edith, A Plea for the Chinaman. Montreal Daily Star 21 Sept. 1896: 5. Microfilm.
  • —. The Chinese Defended. Montreal Daily Star 29 Sept. 1896: 5. Microfilm.
  • —. The Smuggling of Tie-Co. Land of Sunshine 13 (Jul. 1900): 100-04. Print.
  • [Eaton, Edith.] Thrilling Experience: Of a Band of Smugglers in the Lachine Rapids. Montreal Daily Star 9 July 1895: 1. Microfilm.
  • Ferens, Dominika. Edith and Winnifred Eaton: Chinatown Missions and Japanese Romances. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 2002. Print.
  • Ong, Aihwa. Flexible Citizenship: The Cultural Logics of Transnationalism. Durham: Duke UP, 1999. Print.

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