Where and when the Chinese met the First Nations peoples
On Friday, I had the pleasure to be part of the first Chinatown storyscapes
event bringing Chinese and First Nations peoples together and sharing
stories. Storyscapes began as a project to discover and tell the
First Nations stories of Vancouver, growing out of the Aboriginal Art
program with Kamala Todd, Aboriginal Social Planner for the City of
Vancouver. I had been contacted by researcher Diana Leung, one of the
“story gatherers,” who was looking for stories of interactions between
Vancouver's Chinese and First Nations.
has been said that to know who we are, we need to know the stories to
which we belong. When you are an Aboriginal person living in the city,
it can sometimes be difficult to connect to your stories.
This land is layered with ancient history, important happenings,
valuable teachings, and sacredness. But it’s not always easy to see
amongst the streets and buildings, signs and commerce of the city. Much
was erased with the colonial building of Vancouver. The stories and
cultural landscapes that have greatest visibility tend to be those of
the dominant Anglo culture. Consequently, many residents and visitors
have limited knowledge of the incredible depth of stories here on this
land. The roots we all share go much deeper than 200 years.
land and waters can tell you a great deal—stories about generations of
seasonal movements, animal paths, stream meanderings, abundant riches.
Likewise there is much to be learned about the knowledge,
contributions, struggles, and everyday lives of Aboriginal people
here—both the indigenous Coast Salish people and the diversity of urban
Aboriginal people who have made this place their home.
– from the Storyscapes description
The Storyscapes team introduced themselves: Kamala Todd and George Hui are the project leaders, with
Tania Willard, Project manager; Helen Ma, Planning
Assistant; Storygatherer/researchers are Terry Point, Mandy
Nahanee, Michelle Mah (Fred Mah's daughter), Diana Leung with Karen
Henry, Public Art Consultant.
We were at the SUCCESS Hall, on Pender St., right beside the Millenium Gate, How fitting that one of the special guest panelists was Vancouver architect Joe Wai
(my cousin), who is considered one of Chinatowns heritage guardians
according to Vancouver Magazine October 2005 story, “Chinatown
Calculations.” Wai said our grandfather had come to Canada in the
1800's, and that he came as an young immigrant. Wai said he had
more questions than stories, and acknowledged the early history of
Chinese pioneers such as the voyages of Chinese admiral Zheng He in 1421, and the first recorded landing of Chinese artisans at Nootka Sound with Captain John Meares.
Just before we got started, I asked Larry Grant
if he'd ever been mistaken for being Chinese. He told me he was
half-Chinese and had grown up on both the Musqueam Reserve and in
Strathcona neighborhood. His former sister-in-law is former
Musqueam Chief, Wendy Grant. Larry gives a welcome in his
language, and speaks very thoughfully and gentlely. He
acknowledges the ancestral Musqueam land, and Qayqayt lands, nodding to
Qayqayt Chief, Rhonda Larrabee sitting beside him. Larry shares some of
his stories and experiences growing up.
Rhonda Larrabee grew up in Vancouver Chinatown/Strathcona, thinking she was Chinese, a descendant of Rev. Chan Yu Tan. But she learned later that her mother was Qayqayt First Nations, and in 2005 a film called Tribe of One,
told her story to reclaim her First Nations status and heritage.
Rhonda acknowledged our Uncle Dan (her father's and my grandmother's
younger brother), who was sitting in the audience.
Howe Lee is a retired lieutenant colonel, and a founding member of both the Chinese Canadian Military Museum and the Chinese Canadian Historical Society of BC.
Howe talked about how some of the Chinese railway builders found refuge
in First Nations villages, after the railway was finished and the
promise to send Chinese back to China was reneged. He grew up in
in Shuswap, in the North Okanagan and told some stories from that area.
Bing C. Wong,
more known for being Chinatown's first Chartered Accountant, is also a
WW2 Veteran, and has been working to develop a First Nations project
called “Totem Town”, that could be a tourist attraction next door to
Gastown and Chinatown. “Uncle Bing” is an old family friend, whom
I have known ever since I was a child. He grew up at Alert Bay,
where his father ran a store amongst the large aboriginal population
Louis Smith is an aboriginal veteran, whom I have met
when attending events for the Chinese Canadian vetertans. Louis
talked about his roots in the aboriginal and mixed race Canadian
It was a very interesting afternoon, hearing
the intersections of Chinese and First Nations peoples and it served to
help develop a bonding between the groups. People in the small
audience could relate to the stories told by the many special
I shared a creation story, about why First
Nations and Chinese peoples are born with blue spots on the
bottoms. It is called a Mongolian spot, or Mongolian Birthmark.
My story relates to how the two cultures believe that their real home
is the spirit world, and the physical world is full of lessons, and
hardships…. so the soul has to be “kicked out.”
Everybody can relate to the story, and some of them laugh in
recognition. I think it serves to show that despite our stories
about Chinese seeking refuge in First Nations villages, and aboriginals
seeking refuge in Chinatown – all from racist elements from the
dominant Anglo culture, that we really do have more in common than just
discrimination for not being White. Perhaps we really all ONE
people, spiritually at least.