Just for a flicker moment, I felt like a pseudo-hippie, a relic from the 1960’s, a helping hand for social justice on equity and race relations. But not at all. I was there in the 1980’s in Toronto.
A few months ago, I was interviewed by a Canadian history professor, Angie Wong who will have a published book in 2 years, about the now-defunct magazine, Asianadian. I was one of several volunteers for this frontier magazine, then only one of its kind in Canada, which covered the arts by and about Asian-Canadians, on identity, race relations, and equity in portrayal and participation in mass media, arts, politics and social policy.
Pre-Asianadian Magazine — Living in the Desert
Asianadian existed from 1977-1985. It had a paid subscription of 300 readers and organizations across North America, which included various major university libraries. That’s how I discovered the magazine –at the library when I was a English literature undergraduate student at the University of Western Ontario.
After ploughing through Eurocentric English literature courses which included medieval prose, Shakespeare (which I loved including King Lear, except for other king plays), 17th and 18th century Enlightment, moody Romantics and finally, dynamic 20th century works, I was exhausted and ready for something different. Figuring out biblical allegories in centuries-old literary works got a bit too much. Besides, I only had 3 years of Sunday school –a puny foundation for literary metaphorical dissection at university.
Mural in Chinatown painted just after Black Lives Movement protests across North America –a mix of black people amongst mythological clouds, traditionally reserved for heroes, heroines and divine folk. Artist, Joe Sterling is standing at base. Calgary, AB 2020. Photo by J.Chong
During all my 4 years in my English literature classes, I never saw any other student of colour. At any given time, there was probably over 140 students in my year, within the faculty. I was dimly aware there was a black student in junior year courses. He was Cameron Bailey, now one of the co-leaders for the famous star-studded, Toronto International Film Festival. His linked 2018 convocation speech at the awarding of Honorary Doctor of Laws to him, focuses on stories of belonging and inclusivity.
I needed literary relevance or at least, peer connection to opine and drink copious cups of coffee, over our volumes of required reading. I got neither.
Books by Asian-Canadian writers to buy at LiterAsia 2018. Vancouver BC. Photo by J.Chong
I wasn’t until after my graduate degree in library science (which was a far less isolating experience), I got my chance: I headed off to Toronto from quiet, conservative London, Ontario, which was too boring and Anglo for me, after growing up in historic German-Mennonite cities of Kitchener-Waterloo.
Soaking Up Shared Passion for Frontier Magazine
While landing a job at a bookstore chain where I was working up to 3 different store locations in Toronto plus part-time at a geriatric medicine and gerontology library, I hooked up with Asianadian magazine groupies a few times in the evening.
Above interview that I conducted and wrote for Asianadian 1984. It was published incorrectly with wrong author.
Since Toronto was still a big city adjustment for me, I was happy to be a follower with Asianadian for its remaining 3 years. I listened in discussions on upcoming themes for magazine issues, progress in story submissions and logistics of mail-outs for distribution. I was happy to stuff large mail-out envelopes for new magazine issues, before we hauled them over to the post office mailbox. I chatted with other volunteers who shared same passion –we knew we were producing a unique Canadian magazine that was the lone voice for articulating an alternative Asian-Canadian voice that was innovative, leading edge because it did not conform to the quiet, model minority Asian stereotype.
Burying a Special Friend
Almost three years after I joined, Asianadian had to be reluctantly buried. No new volunteers for the past year had stepped up to solicit manuscripts from writers, do grunt work or provide leadership and inject new energy to sustain it. It wasn’t the lack of money since Asianadian already had paid subscribers –that was the killer ironic point. It took several weeks of prolonged meetings, which all of us were sad and tired. It was not just burying a magazine, it was snuffing out a collective creative torch of possibilities raised high, for others.
Angie who interviewed me, told me she had heard that Ricepaper an e-zine, based in Vancouver, was co-created a few years later, by poet and social activist Jim Wong-Chu who was inspired by Asianadian.
Special event poster commemorating Asianadian magazine at LiterAsia, an annual literary festival on Asian-Canadian literature in Vancouver 2018.
Birth of Chinese-Canadian National Council Coincides with Personal
After Asianadian, I hopped over to Chinese-Canadian National Council to volunteer in 1986. CCNC was a national organization that promoted awareness of issues on race relations, equity and social justice. While true, I heard of CCNC via Asianadian folks, there is another personal side connection.
CCNC was created in response to a national documentary 1979 CTV program, W5, “Campus Giveway”. The program falsely claimed that too many foreign students were taking up spots meant for Canadian students in some faculties –medicine, engineering and pharmacy. There was tv camera footage zooming on Asian student faces at the University of Toronto. In fact, many of those students were Canadians.
This distorted, racist depiction, launched significant public protest and criticism against CTV, including a court application against CTV from CCNC.
A sister of mine, who was in first year pharmacy at University of Toronto, that same year during W5 program filming, was outraged. A few years ago, I found an archival tv clip on the Internet, where I identified some cousins in the audience (1:78 min), listening to speeches of condemnation. Those cousins were there probably because their brothers were pharmacists and also graduated from the same university, decades earlier.
Downtown Chinatown. Vancouver BC 2021. Photo by J. Becker
Volunteering in the Shadows
At CCNC, I was more of listening volunteer to other national volunteer board members, which included Amy Go, Julia Tao, Alan Li and Gary Yee, a lawyer and president who later launched the Chinese head tax redress campaign. He also founded the first and still only Chinese and Southeast Asian Legal Clinic in Toronto, if not also the only in Canada. It is currently run by Avvy Go, lawyer and sister of Amy Go.
Above poster was to promote a special exhibit which were historic photos and book, Jin Guo: Voices of Chinese-Canadian Women, by the Women’s Book Committee for Chinese-Canadian National Council. Poster now hangs at home in our study den.
What was noticeable as a quieter volunteer board member, was the level of articulation at our evening meetings, on complex historic, social and sometimes, legal issues that sometimes bled from the past into the present. CCNC’s position compared to another organization on the head tax, was financial redress, not just an apology from the federal government for the $500 head tax on each Chinese up to 1923, which was then was replaced by the Chinese Immigration (known as Exclusion) Act. I explained in an earlier blog post, blocked Chinese immigration until the early 1950’s.
Some national board members were working with low-income Chinese-speaking clients with legal and social service support needs who were long-time citizens (like my mother who speaks only Chinese), while some were recent immigrants. Occasionally Dr. Joseph Wong, main founder of CCNC, would be at our fundraising events. Later, he was worked with Amy Go (who was a social worker) and others, to harness government and community support for the building multi-phase nursing home facilities for Chinese seniors, now known as Yee Hong in Metro Toronto.
Koi fish mosaic art. Downtown Chinatown. Vancouver BC Apr. 2021. Photo by J.Becker
During the years I was with CCNC, the national office did outreach to sister city chapters of CCNC across Canada to learn their local activities and outreach efforts. Some larger city chapters were more activist by lobbying for and establishing local social support programs for counselling, immigrant resettlement, housing and race relations awareness. Smaller city chapters stay focused on social events for local bonding.
Pender St. gate. Historic Chinatown, Vancouver BC Apr. 2021. Photo by J.Becker
As one of several volunteers, I helped for one of their projects which resulted in a book on profiles of Chinese-Canadian women, Jin Guo: Voices of Chinese-Canadian Women. I transcribed from audio recordings for one of their chapters. It’s alot harder than you think. The poster that graces earlier in this blog post, was used to promote the book and a public signing event at the main Toronto Public Library. I bought several copies as gifts for several family members. I had my free poster, laminated and mounted to hang as artwork in our study den.
Other History Touchpoints on Family
This post has been a long winding saga of living social justice activism at ground zero; now has been written in recent Chinese-Canadian history. If I stretch backward in time, the big arc of history and its intersections with personal markers –for myself and my extended family:
Art work at special exhibit, “A Seat at the Table”, Museum of Vancouver, Chinatown location. Vancouver BC Jan. 2021.
My paternal and maternal great-grandfathers (who never knew each other), each went to North America in the early 1900’s to work in laundries and restaurants for several years before they returned to their families. As a child, my mother got a roll of Lifesaver candies as gift from her grandfather. Of course, given the head tax at that time and harsh attitudes towards the Chinese, it would be unthinkable to bring along their families.
Both sets of grandparents never went North America.
As noted earlier blog post, my father immigrated to Canada just 4 years after the Chinese-Canadians were granted the right to vote by Parliament in 1947. He was sponsored by my great uncle who had the $500 head tax paid for him when he came as a teen.
Several years later, my father then sponsored my mother who was a picture bride. She met him for the first time at Toronto International Airport. They married several weeks later. I was born a year later and then over next decade, there were 5 other babies.
Five more new voices. This story is just one voice that has not yet finished.