provoking thoughts about the presence of our past

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Do only the "wrong kind of Asians" suffer from racism?

When my family moved from East Van to Victoria when I was a kid, we went from a school that had Chinese, Italians, Romanians, Vietnamese, Slovaks, Slovenians, Ukrainians and every other kind of all over the place, 'just trying to fit three generations into a Vancouver Special' families, to a neighborhood where there was one other Chinese Canadian family in my high school, and one Punjabi Sikh Canadian that too many people insisted on calling a “Paki” or a “Hindoo,” one Iranian Canadian family, one Palestinian Canadian family, one Black Canadian family, and everyone else was “white” and “Canadian” without a modifying adjective. Even among my best friends, one who kept insisting his family was Ukrainian and another that he was French Acadian from Nova Scotia were just generically “white” at almost every moment that mattered.

So many Asian Canadians right now are afraid of being the target of violence—verbal and physical. We hope that we are the “right kind” of Asian—Hong Kong not Mainland Chinese, born here not an immigrant FOB, Speaking English without an “accent,” over achieving and fitting in because you went to the right school, got into the right program, played the right sports (hockey not badminton). You were careful not to be the #wrongkindofasian and you thought you had made it, were exempt.

At the award ceremony at the end of Grade 12, I was recognized for being voted Student Council President, the point guard and co-captain of the basketball team, the captain of the track team—the trophies above were for Best Creative Writing, Sportsman of the Year, the Top Sportsmanship trophy, the Top Citizenship trophy, and six other trophies that I can no longer remember what I got them for; I received the Spackman Scholarship from the B.C. Minor Football Association, and the TS McPherson Entrance Scholarship from UVic. 

And if I’m on the street and someone wants to unleash their fury about CoViD-19 on the “bat-eating Chinese” who “caused” it, none of that will matter. Not being a Vancouver Canuck fan, or a Montreal Canadiens fan, or being popular, or fashionable or funny, or able to drink without turning red.

There is no right kind of Asian, no model minority. This is how racism works.


Coronavirus racism

Dakota Holmes and her dog, Kato. She credits Kato with driving off her attacker during a racist incident in a Vancouver park on May 15. Photo: Dakota Holmes
Dakota Holmes and her dog, Kato. She credits Kato with driving off her attacker during a racist incident in a Vancouver park on May 15. Photo: Dakota Holmes
Coronavirus racism: Go back to China, attacker said, as he punched indigenous Vancouver woman who sneezed
  • Dakota Holmes says a man who attacked her in a Vancouver park told her to ‘go home, you don’t belong here’ as he berated her about Covid-19
  • Indigenous Canadians are often mistaken as Asian, and the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs has sympathised with Asian groups targeted amid the pandemic

I was heartened to see the instantaneous response from Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, President of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs (UBCIC) standing in solidarity with those targeted by anti-Asian racism and calling for a stronger response.

In the South China Morning Post article, Dakota Holmes, daughter of Don Bains (who served with me in the Legacy Initiatives Advisory Council after the Province of BC’s formal apology for historical anti-Chinese legislation and discrimination in 2014), said something so brave and inspirational about the resilience that those continually experiencing racism in Canada have to develop just to be able to live day to day: 

‘...that as traumatic as the incident had been, “I’m kind of glad it happened to me and not someone else” because as an indigenous person she had a lifetime of experience with racism. “I’m used to it. It’s another day in my life … even though he got the race wrong, I’m still used to it.”
Holmes said she had previously been mistaken for being Asian “but not like this.”
“The only reason I’m sharing this story is that racism is not OK. If anyone else experiences something like this they should speak out. We’re all in this together.”’

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Not a case of mistaken identity

Indigenous woman says she was punched, told to 'go back to Asia' while walking in East Vancouver

Incident is the latest in a string of hate crimes recently reported in Vancouver

Anybody who wants to can quote me as a “historian” of anti-Asian racism and the politics of white supremacy: 

“Why do we think this is a case of mistaken identity? White supremacy historically has relied on defining non-white ‘races’ as abstract categories that generally are not coherent and blaming non-whites for things that aren’t their fault. That’s what racism as a tool for white supremacy means. Its never a ‘mistake’ to ‘get the wrong non-white’ and we should pause whenever we begin to think that something has gone awry in situations like this--as if, if the target had actually been ‘correctly’ identified as Chinese that we should be less perturbed because it somehow made sense.”

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Book Launches of Journeys of Hope

Proud to be able to celebrate with the editing, translation and design team (Sarah Ling, Szu Shen, and Baldwin Wong) the publication of Journeys of Hope: Challenging Discrimination and Building On Vancouver Chinatown's Legacies, on December 3rd at UBC, and December 5 in Chinatown at UBC Chinatown's new office at 188 East Pender Street at Chinatown House.

This book is the official publication in hardcover of the commemorative softcover version that was given out on April 22, 2018, the day of the City's formal apology for historical discrimination against the Chinese in Vancouver.

We will be having a pair of Book Launch events. The first is on Monday, December 3, from 4:00-5:30pm at the Irving K. Barber Learning Centre at UBC campus:
Journeys of Hope captures the story of how early Chinese migrants helped transform societies around the world, and how Chinatowns throughout Canada and the Pacific region are the living legacies of that transformation.

Please RSVP for Dec. 3 at UBC:

On Wednesday, December 5, from 5:00-7:00pm we will be celebrating in Chinatown at the brand new UBC Chinatown space next to the City of Vancouver's Chinatown Transformation Team in Chinatown House at 188 East Pender Street:

Please RSVP for Dec. 5 in Chinatown House on 188 E. Pender at:

UBC Chinatown provides a strategic hub for partnerships between UBC and Chinatown community stakeholders. Our mission is to: foster and enhance relationships between UBC and Chinatown; ensure UBC initiatives build upon pre-existing resources and expertise; reduce unintended negative impacts on Chinatown communities from UBC initiatives; and support potential research and learning initiatives in Chinatown involving UBC units.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Pacific Futures: Past and Present


ISBN-13: 9780824874452
Published: November 2018

320 pages | 4 b&w illustrations, 10 maps

Pacific Futures: Past and Present

  • How, when, and why has the Pacific been a locus for imagining different futures by those living there as well as passing through? What does that tell us about the distinctiveness or otherwise of this “sea of islands”? Foregrounding the work of leading and emerging scholars of Oceania, Pacific Futures brings together a diverse set of approaches to, and examples of, how futures are being conceived in the region and have been imagined in the past.
    Individual chapters engage the various and sometimes contested futures yearned for, unrealized, and even lost or forgotten, that are particular to the Pacific as a region, ocean, island network, destination, and home. Contributors recuperate the futures hoped for and dreamed up by a vast array of islanders and outlanders—from Indigenous federalists to Lutheran improvers to Cantonese small business owners—making these histories of the future visible. In so doing, the collection intervenes in debates about globalization in the Pacific—and how the region is acted on by outside forces—and postcolonial debates that emphasize the agency and resistance of Pacific peoples in the context of centuries of colonial endeavor. With a view to the effects of the “slow violence” of climate change, the volume also challenges scholars to think about the conditions of possibility for future-thinking at all in the midst of a global crisis that promises cataclysmic effects for the region.
    Pacific Futures highlights futures conceived in the context of a modernity coproduced by diverse Pacific peoples, taking resistance to categorization as a starting point rather than a conclusion. With its hospitable approach to thinking about history making and future thinking, one that is open to a wide range of methodological, epistemological, and political interests and commitments, the volume will encourage the writing of new histories of the Pacific and new ways of talking about history in this field, the region, and beyond.
  • Unbound Space: Migration, Aspiration, and the Making of Time in the Cantonese Pacific, by Henry Yu
    Over the course of the 15th century through the mid-20th century, hundreds of thousands of migrants left ports on the southern coasts of Guangdong and Fujian province in China heading out into Southeast Asia. They developed a set of circular migration networks that tied their rural villages with a diverse array of destinations throughout Southeast Asia. Beginning in the early 19th century, a specific Cantonese-speaking subset of these migrants went through the ports of Macau, Guangzhou, and then Hong Kong across and around the Pacific Ocean, creating a coherent century-long migration process that was persistent, recurring, and unique in its effect on global history. This singular process of migration, which we can label the “Cantonese Pacific,” developed a powerful conception of time that defined both geographic and social mobility, defining axes of spatial and temporal change through narratives of aspiration. Creating a future-orientation that was markedly different from the dynastic cycles of time that defined official histories of the rise and fall of Chinese imperial states, the “Cantonese Pacific” organized a powerful “futurity” that shaped the ideal “life cycle” of hundreds of thousands of long-distance migrants and the families that they left behind in rural villages. 
    This sense of a bounded future through migrating across unbounded space clashed with the innovation of spatially bound national time that defined geographic belonging in new “white settler” nations such as Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the United States in the 19th century. This conflict in definitions of the future created a century of racially exclusionary national politics all around the Pacific, as discriminatory anti-Chinese (and eventually anti-Asian) laws and practices curtailed and constrained the networks of the Cantonese Pacific. Ultimately, however, anti-Chinese policies could only bound Cantonese migrants to a limited extent. The affective power of the Cantonese Pacific’s conception of a prosperous future ignited aspirations for physical and social mobility and a desire for the acquisition of material wealth that was more effective in generating and sustaining mobility than the definitions of spatial and temporal belonging associated with the development of white settler nationhood, where a boundless undisciplined notion of time and bounded national space emphasized settlement and the acquisition of land and property.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Remembering the "Death Knell" Sounded in 2016 for Chinatown

Interesting after the recent civic election and the importance of Chinatown in discussions of the future of the city, to remember how important the work of all of the community organizers and young activists over the last three years has been to give some hope for the community. I remember the interview with Douglas Quan that led to his excellent article in the National Post in 2016, and the sense of impending doom at the time that it captured. All credit to those who have devoted so much of their lives over the last three years to Chinatown for hopefully having helped turn the tide. This weekend there was an Open House at Chinatown House on 188 East Pender Street where the City's Chinatown Transformation Team was introduced at their new office. Next to them is UBC Chinatown 唐人街, a base for our many UBC students involved in Chinatown projects, and next to us is Hua Foundation. Commitments have been made to help transform Chinatown to be worthy of a UNESCO World Heritage site designation. It will be years of hard work, and we are still a long way from feeling safe about the community's future, but what a long way we have come over the last three years...

Seniors and youth play mahjong in the concourse at Chinatown Plaza. (Mark Yuen / Postmedia News)


By Douglas Quan
VANCOUVER — As dusk fell over Chinatown recently, a line formed outside the entrance to Kissa Tanto, a stylish Japanese-Italian eatery named Canada’s best new restaurant this year by enRoute magazine. A trio suited up for the downtown office towers nearby sipped cocktails over candlelight at the Juniper Kitchen and Bar. Around the corner, twentysomethings seated at share tables gorged on vegan pizzas at Virtuous Pie.
Hip new restaurants and glass and concrete condos in Canada’s largest Chinatown have, some say, injected a youthful vigour into an area that has been stagnant for years...

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Province of BC and City of Vancouver Announce Commitment to work on Chinatown UNESCO and Museum

Yesterday, on September 17, 2018, the Premier of BC and the Mayor of Vancouver announced the signing of an MOU committing the Province to work with Vancouver on obtaining UNESCO World Heritage status for Vancouver Chinatown, as well as to build a museum in Chinatown that would tell the stories of Chinese Canadian history.

I was proud that one of the speakers, along with Minister George Chow (MC), Elder Larry Grant of Musqueam, Premier John Horgan, Mayor Gregor Robertson, and His Honour Judge Bill Yee (the first Chinese Canadian elected to Vancouver City Council and former Provincial Court judge), was Sarah Ling, current President of the Chinese Canadian Historical Society of BC. She spoke with substance and conviction, from her own work on the history of Chinese-indigenous relations in BC, about the importance of telling the stories of relations between Chinese Canadians and other communities, and the diverse engagements that formed our history together.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Mary Keiko Kitagawa receives Order of BC

Found out last Saturday while at the Powell Street Festival that Mary Kitagawa has been announced as one of the appointees to the Order of BC. The honour is well-deserved and it was great to see a story in the Star Metro, a free local daily newspaper:

I had the great privilege of being one of the people who wrote a letter of support, so I'm proud to have played a small role in such a humble, self-effacing and yet inspiring woman getting recognition for all that's she has done for others:

To the Committee considering nominees for the Order of BC

I write this letter as a historian of British Columbia history who focuses on the long history of Asian immigration to Canada and the United States. In this capacity, I have worked at the University of British Columbia for the last 15 years, and have served the Province of British Columbia as the Co-Chair for the Legacy Initiatives Advisory Council (LIAC) that oversaw the legacy education and public history projects following the BC Legislature’s unanimous apology in 2014 for historical wrongs against Chinese Canadians. I also served as the Co-Chair of the Anniversaries of Change Steering Committee for events in 2007 marking the 100thAnniversary of the 1907 anti-Asian riots in Vancouver, as well as an Advisory Board member for the Landscapes of Injustice project at UVic currently examining the removal and dispossession of 23,000 British Columbians of Japanese descent between 1942 and 1949.

I open with this information about who I am as a scholar and public historian in order to emphasize the grounds for which I make the following statement:

Mary Kitagawa is one of the most important individuals in terms of public impact in the last twenty-five years of BC history. 

As a historian, I argue to my students that the great currents of history are borne by mass movements, social changes that reflect the aggregate actions of many people working together in concert or driven by larger shifts in economics and demography. Historians seldom argue now for viewing historical change as the results of the impact of individual “great men” such as political leaders, seeingthese individuals instead as reflections of the broader changes that they come to represent. And yet, even with the de-emphasis on the role of individuals as agents of change, there is no denying that there are some people who nevertheless cannot be considered as anything less than significant historical actors who changed the world. Some of these people do so unintentionally as catalysts or triggers—significant in their impact and yet motivated by their own particular concerns.

Keiko Mary Kitagawa, in contrast, has changed British Columbia through a series of conscious and intentional acts that have had such broad impact that it is stunning to consider that she has done all of this as a grandparent after retiring from a long career as a school teacher. If you have not met Mary Kitagawa, you will not know that she is physically tiny and at first appearance you might easily overlook her in a crowded room. That is what makes her story all the more impressive and unlikely. She is not an elected official who held political office for decades and whose accomplishments are largely due to the demands of the constituents and voters who elected her. She is not a “captain of industry” whose impact on commerce and business large or small was merely the by-product of self-interested desire for personal gainNeither is she a scientist whose discoveries were the results of the curiousity and stated goals of her profession of choice

Mary Kitagawa has changed BC society because shewas seized on two particularly significant occasions to do something merely because she believed it was the right thing to doI say merely, because such moments may pass by each one of us every day of our lives, and whether acted upon or nottheir consequence for our broader society is seldom large. But every once in a while, and in the case of Mary Kitagawa, this belief in the righteousness of your cause can indeed change the world. 

In 2007, just as the City of Vancouver had completed a year of events marking how far we had come and how much we had changed in the century since vicious anti-Asian racism in 1907 had led to days of anti-Chinese and anti-Japanese violence and rioting, Mary Kitagawa noticed an announcement that the new Federal Government Building in downtown Vancouver was to be named in honour of former Conservative Member of Parliament Howard Green. Seeing the name triggered a long ago memory, and a quick check of old newspapers confirmed the memory, that Green as an MP during 1942 had been one of the most virulently racist leaders of the political movement to remove Canadians of Japanese descent from coast British Columbia. Mary had been a young child at the time living on Salt Spring Island, and her family had lost all of their possessions and property as the result of the process of removal and exile. Howard Green had been a principal architect not only of the removal, but also of the egregious forced sale of the property and possessions of Japanese Canadians, arguing in particular that seizing theirproperty would leave them without a home to which to return. The effective ethnic cleansing of Japanese Canadians from BC has left a profound impact on our province and on Canada, for which the Federal Government apologized in 1988. So it was with a sense of dismay that Mary Kitagawa, retired schoolteacher, began a petition and campaign to not name the building after Green. The alternative was to honour someone else whose values reflected better a nation which since 1988 had admitted how wrong it had been to listen to and follow the policies of Howard Green and other political leaders who had used racism and the excuse of the attack on Pearl Harbor to implement long-cherished dreams of the racial cleansing of Japanese Canadians in BC

The campaign that Mary began succeeded in rallying enough supporters and persuading enough elected officials to reconsider the name, and the committee that oversaw the naming agreed with her argument, deciding to name the building instead in honour of Douglas Jung, the first Asian Canadian to be elected a Member of Parliament in 1957, 10 years after voting rights had been restored to non-whites in British Columbia and 85 years after they had been taken away in 1872. The name change took place in 2008, after a year in which Mary’s quiet determination and careful research persuaded countless people (many forwhom the name of a building had previously meant little or nothing), to actively care about the name of this building.

Almost immediately after this triumph of democratic, engaged civic participation, Mary Kitagawa noticed another wrong that could be made right, despite the passage of almost 70 years. Seeing that numerous universities in the United States such as Stanford, Berkeley, and the University of Washington had granted honorary degrees to Japanese American students who had been removed in 1942 and never been able to return to finish their degrees and graduate, Mary wrote a letter to UBC President Stephen Toope requesting whether the University of British Columbia might do something similar. 

Three long years later, after countless follow up letters had achieved nothing, Mary went public in her request with a story in the Vancouver Sun about her letter and the 76 Japanese Canadian students of UBC who had never been able to finish their degrees. Again, as with the renaming of the Douglas Jung Building, a strong belief in the righteousness of her cause combined with careful research and persuasive reasoning led to wide-scale support and the rapid (if long-delayed) response of the University of British Columbia. In a moving ceremony that President Toope called one of the most memorable and significant events of his 8 years as President of UBC, and which was subsequently designated in 2015 as one of the most significant events of the first century of UBC’s history, the May 2012 graduation ceremony honouring the surviving Japanese Canadian students of 1942 and their families with honorary degrees became a historic and widely reported moment that will be remembered as an iconic symbol of how British Columbians think about their moral relationship to the past

It is this idea, that Mary Kitagawa through her actions both triggered and captured the spirit of our times, that I would emphasize in your deliberations about whether she deserves to be called to the Order of British Columbia. We sit now at a point in time when for fully half of our history as a province legalized white supremacy and racial discrimination ruled in nearly every facet of daily life. We are at the other end of the latter half, when the quiet dismantling of racial apartheid and legalized discrimination has led to a recognition and acknowledgment of what we now repudiate through apologies and reconciliation processes. In this sense, Mary Kitagawa reflects the tenor of our times. And yet in focusing all of us on seemingly mundane or forgotten events—a building named after a man long dead, a number of students now in their 90s who never finished their degrees seven decades before—and infusing them with meaning and purpose and the symbolic weight of all the ideals and dreams of a better society that is inclusive and just, Mary Kitagawa is not the mere product of our circumstances, but the author of our best attempts to live up to our loftiest aspirations and goals. 

We are a better society than we were because of the brave determination and courageous struggle of women such as Mary Kitagawa. Brave because it takes courage to stand up for what you believe is right, especially if you can convince others of its meaningful purpose in the face of nonchalant dismissal. It is precisely because what MaryKitagawa has triggered was so consciously an expression of our best ideals, and yet unfulfilled in the most mundane and apathetic way, that makes her all the more heroic. Every parent who has pleaded with a teenager and been met with an oblivious shrug of the shoulders knows how difficult it is to sustain any belief in the face of such bored dismissal. And yet Mary convinced us at UBC that we should work long days every day for five months searching for the surviving 76 Japanese Canadian students and their families, and amidst our busy schedules to prioritize the planning for this singular event because it would, and did, turn out to be one of the most meaningful and rewarding things we would ever do in our lives. 

This is what Mary Kitagawa accomplished as a retired teacher armed only with the conviction that someone needed to speak for those 76 students who had never been allowed to fulfil their dreams of graduating with a UBC degree. This is the gift she gave all of those who had the privilege and honour of witnessing on that day amidst flowing tears and standing ovations, the 10 surviving students who could travel to Vancouver that sunny day to cross that stage 70 years too late. What Mary showed us is that it is never too late to make right a wrong, and that even seven decades after a world in which racism was so quotidian and mundane, that it is still worth revisiting the darkness and pain of those days for those who suffered so that we can remind ourselves of just how far we have come, and at what cost it was that we took so long to get here. 

I have been a part of a number of moments over the last two decades when recognizing and reckoning with our past has become a necessary act of atonement for moving forward together. That is the era we are in now, and it requires moments of iconic inspiration to insure that these acts of contrition are substantive and genuinely forward looking rather than easy dismissals of the past as dead and gone. Mary Kitagawa gave us the gift of bringing the past alive so that we can see its relevance to us today as a beacon for moving forward. Mary inspired in so many of us a clarion clarity about who we aspire to be in our struggles for a just and inclusive society. That is why her quiet acts of righteous determination have had such a profound and wide impactThat is why she is, in my judgment as a historian, one of the individuals who has had the most significant impact in BC over the last two decades on a sense of who we are and when we are in our long history as a society. That is why she deserves to be included in the Order of BC.

Sincerely,Dr. Henry YuAssociate Professor, Department of History, UBCPrincipal, St. John’s College, UBC