From Museum Exhibits, Personal Stories to Anti-Asian North American Sentiment in 21st Century. Part 1

This year, I biked through a bunch of peaceful activists gathering for anti-racism public rally. I felt quite guilty I didn’t stop for a few minutes to show my support for them. After all, my personal history includes volunteer work for several years in Toronto on social justice, anti-racism and equity matters.

torontorally Toronto rally by City Hall. Mar. 2021. 

Our local public protest was one of several over the past year and across North America, ignited by local Black Lives Movement (BLM) rally march in the summer after George Floyd in Minneapolis was killed by a knee press on his neck, from a police officer when they tried to hold him down and arrest him for handling a counterfeit bill.

vancouverVancouver rally by Vancouver Art Gallery. Mar. 2021

With less limelight until recently, during covid, there has been a rise of reported North American anti-Asian incidents in mass media, photos and videoclips, during this pandemic. This wave of hatred and fear, pushed some Asian-American activists and citizens to publicly voice some concerns.

WWII overseasChinese-Canadians from British Columbia who enlisted to fight for Canada in WWII –even though no Chinese-Canadian could vote before 1947.  Exhibit at “Seat at the Table”,  Museum of Vancouver, historic Chinatown location. 2021. 

Sometimes for Chinese-Canadians, especially those born in Canada with immigrant parents, we might make an effort to educate each generation, each recent immigrant group that for Asian-Canadians to be able to vote, to walk around safely and equally participate in public life, should never be taken for granted.

In 2020-2021, the hard truth is there have been several Asian North Americans physically hurt or verbally abused while they were walking just down the street, on transit, usually solo or shopping.

chinese as steerageChinese ship passengers in 19th century to early 20th century relegated to steerage, third-class at the bottom of ships bound for Canada. Canadian Chinese head tax and then later Chinese Immigration Act 1923 (known as Chinese Exclusion Act), was in place in Canada to keep out Chinese immigration –due to fears  them taking away jobs from locals and Canada over run by Chinese-Canadians. Museum of Vancouver, special exhibit, “A Seat at the Table”. 2021.

All this ugly stuff I didn’t quite expect (but was not surprised), when several months earlier, we visited the Vancouver museum exhibit on Chinese-Canadian history in British Columbia, “A Seat at the Table” in Jan. 2021. It includes a history, especially in 1800’s to mid-1900’s on struggles for Chinese-Canadians to overcome prejudice and institutionalized racism.dragonheroes

Front display for “A Seat at the Table”, exhibit on Chinese-Canadian history. Downtown Chinatown, Vancouver BC 2021. Sponsored by Museum of Vancouver. Photo by J.Chong

We went to the first mini-exhibit in old Chinatown. We decided not to bike since it was raining hard for hours. During this covid pandemic, a lot of Chinatown businesses were shuttered or struggled to stay open. I was dismayed and saddened, now even more visible graffiti scrawls and more dilapidated some buildings left. Good thing, we didn’t bring bikes. With the shortage of new bikes worldwide, we needed to reduce theft of our own wheels.

Then next day, we went to the second larger exhibit at the Museum of Vancouver.

pin locationPinning the thread of my parents’ and previous family generations’ journey to Canada  –Ontario, Vancouver and Calgary.  Museum of Vancouver, special exhibit, “A Seat at the Table” at historic Chinatown location. 2021

Both history exhibits intertwine themes of struggle for equality, participation in nation-building and society for Chinese-Canadians. There are photos and text on western Canada Gold Rush days in mid-1800s’, dangerous, 19th century hard labour by Chinese men building the transcontinental Canadian Pacific railway, $500 head tax and impact of 1923 federal Canadian Chinese Immigrationhansard debates Left, text taken from British Columbia Hansard Debates, in Legislature 1885.  Right, was the start of head tax imposed by the Canadian federal government which later rose to $500.00.  Special exhibit, “A Seat at the Table” Museum of Vancouver 2021.

(known as Exclusion) Act which blocked alot of people from China until after 1948. This was a long-standing paranoia that after the completion of the CPR railroad there will be too many Chinese flooding Canada and taking jobs away from locals.railway workers

Some Chinese labourers for building of the transcontinental Canadian Pacific Railway 1880-1885.  By 1882, 9,000 men were employed to construct the railway from the east coast of Canada, with 6,500 Chinese workers many in British Columbia.  The most dangerous, difficult section was through the mountains of B.C., where the Chinese were used since it required using explosives and not surprisingly, loss of lives.

My father immigrated to Canada in 1951. Of course, he had no clue then, it was only 4 years earlier, Chinese-Canadians  just won the right to vote.posters

But I digress –theme of food and Chinese restaurants which sprung up all across Canada since the late 1800’s, was a light touch on both exhibits. “Seat of the Table” was used as metaphor of equal participation in society. calgary2

While I do consider myself equipped with a decent knowledge on history of Chinese-Canadians, I only learned a few months ago, more details just how recent the history of institutionalized racism was. Some highlights from this  60 minute video by Dr. Henry Wu at University of British Columbia. (It’s worth going through.)  As a history professor, he researches, teaches courses which include Chinese-Canadian history and has been interviewed by major Canadian national news media:

• 1886-1948, Chinese-Canadians couldn’t vote. Not being able to vote for even those born in Canada and those living, working in Canada for decades, meant no vote in federal, as well as municipal elections for ie. in Vancouver, etc. and other British Columbian municipalities No right to vote meant also no Chinese-Canadian could run for municipal political office.

• 1880’s – 1952, the above gave municipal power for City of Vancouver, not to hire any Chinese-Canadians for municipal jobs and block contract companies doing business with the municipality from the company hiring Chinese-Canadian workers. The contracts at that time, stipulated those restrictions.lantern art

Giant lantern art featuring designs of Canadian indigenous, Chinese, Filipino and Italian artists. English Bay, Vancouver BC 2021. Photo by J.Becker.  Later, artwork was trashed by vandals.

Problem of not having the right to vote, meant blocking Chinese-Canadians from voting and become a member of professional associations in, ie. accounting, law, pharmacy, etc. This occurred in British Columbia. In other provinces, it may have been unevenly applied. More published historic research would need to be done.


A Squamish First Nations-Chinese artist displaying influences of mixed heritage. Special exhibit- “Seat at the Table”, Museum of Vancouver 2021

  • West Vancouver and the now wealthy Shaugnessy neighbourhoods had covenants for many decades, where home owners could not sell their home to Chinese-Canadians. As recently as 2020, a Chinese-Canadian councillor for West Vancouver put through a city council motion to remove the covenant from land title for his own house and others that may be unearthed over time.  The provincial Land Title Authority did acknowledge these racist land title covenants do still exist but some owners may not be aware unless there is further research.

• Chinese-Canadians for many years, if they showed up in emergency services at a hospital in Vancouver, they were told to go to the basement.  St. Joseph’s Hospital in Vancouver was established partially to serve the Chinese in 1928 as St. Joseph’s Oriental Hospital in Chinatown. The population and needs of the Chinese community slowly grew that a much larger facility had to be constructed east of Chinatown.


Dr. Madeline Chung, graduating from medicine 1948, Yale University.  She was Vancouver’s first Chinese female gynaecologist-obstretrician for many local Chinese pregnant women. Over 3,000 “Chung” babies have been delivered by her in last few decades.  Photo provided to Vancouver Sun.

For several decades, many pregnant Chinese Vancouverite women had their babies at St. Joseph’s Hospital. There was 1 and the first  Chinese-speaking gynaecologist-obstetrician in Metro Vancouver, Dr. Madeline Chung who helped with those births from 1956 until 1992 when she retired.  Thus, some long-time Vancouver-born Chinese may be a “Chung” baby.  Henry Yu, the history professor who led the research recently about Vancouver’s racist past, was himself a Chung baby in the late 1960’s. 

History is much closer to some of us than we want it to be.  If you aren’t bored by now, stick around for Part 2, later in another blog post, where history bumps into personal.


16 Comments Add yours

  1. Jane Fritz says:

    Thank you for writing this series, Jean, and for sharing your personal history and experiences as well as the shameful history of anti-Asian racism in Canada. This story needs to be told over and over again until it becomes ancient history.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jean says:

      Don’t think I said much of personal history. There will be a part 2 in a few months.


  2. Lani says:

    Recently, foreigners living in Thailand have had to stand up for their rights to receive CV vaccinations. There is also this “blame the foreigners (any non-Thai)” for CV rise and any other problem like pollution. I saw the same thing in Cambodia with waste and trash. Unfortunately, any “other” or outsider in any given country is considered a convenient scapegoat for a myriad of issues.

    This isn’t to say that Asian Canadians or Asian Americans (or any other ethnic minority) in a primarily white country hasn’t been treated unfairly, brutally, and unjustly, it’s simply to say that this seems to be a fault of our human DNA, this belief that if you don’t belong to our tribe then I don’t like you or trust you or want to even be around you.

    It’s a complex issue that’s receiving a lot of airtime these days. I’m glad that the exhibits tell the story of not only the struggles but achievements as well. Personally, I believe in the importance of truth-telling, balance, and progress. Folks have been beaten down, on all sides (well, not the ultra-wealthy 1%), and I don’t know about you, but I need some hope and light at the end of the tunnel, too.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Lani says:

    OH, and because I don’t want to be “called out” for saying this is just the way humans are — I want to add that this isn’t an excuse but something that we need to figure out how to overcome, millions of years of evolution. xo


    1. Jean says:

      thx for this insight as an Asian descent American living in Cambodia and now in Thailand, for awhile to see certain local attitudes. It is disappointing when humans revert/regress to tribal attitudes. I’m not sure about foreigners and undocumented workers in Canada getting vaccinations…the ID requirements are generous but minimally seem to require some sort of federal ID or provincial health care insurance card.

      I’m not sure if I remembered to highlight some achievements in a near future blog post, ie. part 2. But it will be a little more personal. You’ll see..

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Lani says:

        Great. Family history can be some really fascinating stuff. You’re good about planning in advance, too.

        I tried to look up the numbers, but it was challenging. As much as 10% of the population in Thailand is non-Thai so that’s a fair chunk to put aside considering most Western foreigners are teachers or retirees. And others are in at-risk situations as well because they are labor workers. It’s complicated, but all this to say, it’s been a mess.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. Jean says:

          Does Thai govn’t have the resources to deploy vaccination program? Or it’s more of a coordination/logistics /communication issue?


          1. Lani says:

            I suspect it’s more of a ‘greasing of palms’ issue. They turned down help rather mysteriously late last year by Pfizer and India. Right now we only have access to the AZ made by a company with ties to the royal family and the Chinese vax. And supposedly there isn’t enough to go around, but I just saw a group of teachers at a school getting it, so who knows what’s really going on.


            1. Jean says:

              😦 I hate that kind of stuff when people’s health and lives are directly affected. I assume you got vaccinated.


            2. Lani says:

              Yeah, me too.

              No, I haven’t. Since we’re in between jobs the choice was out of our hands. What I mean is, we were told that appts were being made but we were given no date, and so I said, well, if you can’t give me a date then I can’t do it esp if you are going to financially penalize me if I make an appt and don’t show up. We might have been able to get the first one, but again, I need a date because we’re moving.

              Liked by 1 person

            3. Jean says:

              I hope you’ll get the right vaccine soon, Lani. Do you still have American citizenship?

              Liked by 1 person

            4. Lani says:

              Yes, thanks, Jean. If need be I’ll try to hit the US at the end of the year to get the American vax.

              Liked by 1 person

  4. Mabel Kwong says:

    This is a well-thought out piece about Chinese-Canadians and the struggles they faced. Thank you for shedding light on this. I am not too familiar with Canadian history, and from reading your post, it sounds like many Chinese faced racism on different levels for so long in Canada.

    Like Lani said, I liked that the exhibition you went to showcased both the struggles and achievements. In the face of struggles, immigrants do work hard and try to make the best of their situation, and they probably keep soldering on silently hoping discrimination will fade away. It will not fade away but we can raise awareness and education. Really like the title of the exhibition and what it stands for.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jean says:

      There will be a sort of part 2 in 2 months which will be abit more personal.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Sue Slaght says:

    Thank you for bringing voice to this intolerable racism and your own personal history.


    1. Jean says:

      Thx for dropping by Sue.

      Liked by 1 person

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