'Chinese Canadians,' or 'Canadian Chinese' (with or without the hyphen)

'Chinese Canadians,' or 'Canadian Chinese' (with or without the hyphen)

It's almost as interesting as the question: “What is a Canadian?”  But, truly… What is a “Chinese-Canadian?”

I used to think it was like being a French-Canadian, but instead of my ancestors being from France, they came from China.  Presto!  I am a Chinese-Canadian.

But then I discovered that French-Canadians have different historical and parliamentary differences.  In 1985 I spent 2 weeks in Montreal and Quebec City, trying to speak French exclusively.  I learned that  being “Quebecois” is different from being a “Quebecker.”  A Chinese-Canadian friend went to Montreal, and phoned me saying “Guess what? I'm not Chinese-Canadian anymore, now I'm an Anglophone!”

So… what is a Chinese-Canadian, or a Chinese (un-hyphenated) Canadian?

Susanna Ng asks the question on her weblog “Chinese in Vancouver.” She cites a study by Julianne Rock titled “We are Chinese Canadian: The Response of Vancouver's Chinese Community to Hong Kong Immigrants, 1980-1997.”

Susanna finds it interesting to discover that the “established” Chinese Canadian community (pre-1967) felt threatened by the new immigrant waves from Hong Kong during the 1980's, because of different values and cultures.  As one of the Hong Kong immigrants, she “didn't realize the Hong Kong Chinese were seen so much as an outsider by established Chinese Canadians then.”  She goes on to “comtemplate about the recent wave of immigrants from China
and how we – the Hong Kong Chinese now the established Chinese
Canadians – responded. We see big differences in
culture/habits/behaviours between 'us' and 'them.'”

I find Ms. Ng's article interesting and I look forward to meeting with her. After growing up in Canada amongst Chinese-Canadian pioneer descendants, then making friends with each of the subsequent Chinese immigration waves in the 70's, 80's and 90's – it is clear to me that each immigrant wave brings different cultures and regionalities of location and time.  This is similar to each of the different ethnic immigration waves that came to Vancouver's Strathcona neighborhood: Jewish; Russian; Chinese; Hong Kong; and Vietnamese.

The Vancouver / Canadian “Chinese-Canadian” community is itself very
diverse and multicultural. Fact: China is many times larger than
Europe, and filled with many “types” of Chinese ethnic groups. So it
makes sense that there should be as many “types” of Chinese people, as
there are European peoples.

I have made this point many times, especially when organizations try to
label “somebody” a “representative” of the Chinese community. It's like
asking somebody to be representative of the “white community” or the
“Canadian community.”  I once went to a CBC Radio breakfast meeting of “Chinese community representatives” and was shocked to see so few multi-generational born in Canada pioneer descendants.  Most were Chinese language speaking immigrants.

As a 5th generation Canadian, it's not surprising that Chinese-Canadian
pioneer descendants from prior to the 1923 Exclusion Act would feel
threatened by the massive immigrant waves from; post-1967 with a new
immigration point system; 1980's Hong Kong exodus; recent Taiwanese
immigration wave; and recent Mainland China immigration wave. 

Nor is it surprising that ethnic Chinese immigrants from Hong Kong,
would find themselves resentful of the new recent immigrants who don't
integrate easily.  These complaints are not as harsh as the sentiments of the White
Canadian (largely immigrant) population that created both the 1885-1923 Chinese head
tax, or the 1923-1947 Exclusion Act, when they said that the Chinese would not integrate into Canadian
society stating, “We don't want Chinamen in Canada, This is a white man's country and white men will keep it.” or “The people of Canada do not want to make a fundamental alteration to the character of our population.”  Hmmm… did anybody ask First Nations if European or Asian immigrants could come to Canada?

It was great when many of the post 1990 immigrants joined the Head Tax redress movement. Gabriel Yiu, Thekla Lit and Bill Chu really represented the immigrant-Chinese community very well.  The BC Coalition of Head Tax Payers, Spouses and Family was a very cooperative work group of both Canadian-born pioneer descendants, China-born sons and daughters of pioneers who couldn't come to Canada because of the head tax / exclusion act – but came 1947-1967, and immigrants who arrived post 1967. It was an issue that brought Chinese Canadians together across the country, not dependant upon their regional or historical immigration culture or history.  Yiu, Lit and Chu spoke in many Chinese language debates in the Chinese media, as many pioneer descendants like myself do not speak Chinese (In 1967 – who would have ever thought that so many ethnic-Chinese immigrants would come to Canada, overnumbering Canadian-born pioneer descendants?).  A Georgia Straight article titled Head Tax Unites Activists summarized this alliance very well.

The reality is this: after a few generations everybody gets
inter-married, and calls themselves Canadian. In the between-time, new
immigrant Chinese will call themselves “Canadian” to distinguish
themselves from the homeland they have recently left, than they will
call themselves Chinese-Canadian, to distinguish themselves from
mainstream white-Canadians, then as families inter-marry, they will
call themselves Canadian.  Full circle.

Below is an excerpt from Susanna Ng's article.

We are 'Chinese Canadians'

I found an interesting study done by Julianne Rock for her master thesis at SFU. The title of the study is “We are Chinese Canadian: The Response of Vancouver's Chinese Community to Hong Kong Immigrants, 1980-1997“.

indicates that local born Chinese and post-1947 immigrants comfortably
called themselves “Chinese Canadian” after the establishment of the
multiculturalism policy. However, the term “Chinese Canadian” was even
more important to these groups of Canadians of Chinese descent when
Hong Kong Chinese began their exodus to Canada in the 80s, whom were
seen as people refusing to integrate into Canadian society.

Rock states:

speaking about nationality, older Chinese Canadians who were either
born in Canada or who immigrated in the post war years are adamant
about their identity as Canadian first and foremost.

And she quotes how prominent Vancouver architect felt about the “invasion” of the Hong Kong Chinese:

Thom, a Vancouver architect with ties to the Chinese Cultural Centre,
called himself a “true-blooded, third generation Canadian” and admitted
that he is “getting the uncomfortable feeling now that, because [he] is
of Chinese heritage, [he] is looked upon as an immigrant again.

notes the lavish lifestyle of the Hong Kong Chinese has made older
immigrants/locally born feel threatened and “concerned about a possible

read more: We are 'Chinese Canadians'

One thought on “'Chinese Canadians,' or 'Canadian Chinese' (with or without the hyphen)

  1. Anonymous

    thx for quoting my article.
    you said: “It was great when many of the post 1990 immigrants joined the Head Tax redress movement. Gabriel Yiu and Thekla Lit really represented the immigrant-Chinese community very well. ”
    I cannot agree more that Thekla is a highly respected personnel in the immigrant chinese community. I admire a lot for her having the courage and dedication to fight for justice, fight for a proper place of us being the chinese in history. Thekla is *truly* a selfless person who isn't doing things only hoping to reap personal benefits.
    the other person, i think, who should also be considered a selfless figure in the chinese community is bill chu. i may not agree with him on everything, but i respect him a lot. i respect his insistence on doing what is right.


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