provoking thoughts about the presence of our past

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Bilingualism isn't a sign of Community Decay

OpEd in the Province "Racism in Paradise" Series, Oct. 7, 2013

Resentment over multiculturalism seems to fester just under the surface

Guest column: Bilingualism isn’t a sign of community decay

Professor Henry Yu.

Photograph by: Arlen Redekop , PROVINCE

While riding the 99B bus last year when it was filled to standing room only, I overheard a man say to his companion that he hated how people spoke Chinese to each other. He said it with a visceral anger that caught my attention. I noticed that he was staring at a group of young people across the aisle who were conversing in Cantonese.
I wondered what so infuriated this man. Were they saying something that had offended him? I listened for several minutes but they were just joking about a mutual friend. I realized that what angered the man was not what they were saying -- it was that he could not understand what they were saying. The man, in the meantime, was now telling his companion how Vancouver had gone “downhill.”
I spent the rest of my cross-city journey listening to this pair of conversations -- one a lighthearted discussion among friends, and the other a running social commentary about everything wrong with our society.
Who are we in this city? Is that crowded bus a microcosm of us? On the one hand a city full of young people speaking Chinese, Punjabi, Filipino, English, and dozens of other languages; on the other a seething mass of not-so-quiet resentment?
I was born in Vancouver and I have seen many profound changes here in my life. I also study these changes as a historian. As with many devoted Vancouverites, I wonder about our future together. But I see it through a different lens. For me, the question of who we are is tied to where we are, and when we are.
Where are we? We live in a place that is the product of a long series of continual engagements between trans-Atlantic migrants, trans-Pacific migrants, and indigenous peoples. Our neighbourhoods contain a diversity of origins but also other important aspects of what makes for a rich and vibrant society.
Richmond, a city that to many seems monolithically Chinese, in fact contains a diversity of ethnic Chinese from a wide spectrum of backgrounds. Some speak Cantonese and others speak Mandarin, languages as different from each other when spoken as Italian from French.
When are we? For the first half of our civic history, we were a city of many origins speaking many languages. These included Cantonese, Japanese, Punjabi, and English, but also many Coast Salish and First Nations languages.
We are again a city full of many origins and multiple languages. The challenge is how we deal with what happened in between. We are still recovering from a dark period when non-whites could not vote, were legally excluded from most good jobs, and could not live in many neighbourhoods.
Residential schooling systematically split aboriginal youth from their families in order to strip them of their language and culture.
On the whole, we have repudiated many of the laws and moral values that shaped that period. But there are still many legacies that remain and which cannot be wished away just by saying we have changed.
One of those legacies is the odd belief that it is better that we all speak only English for the benefit of those who can only speak English, rather than allowing those who can speak both English and other languages to be respected and even rewarded for being able to speak many languages. English is extremely useful as a lingua franca, a language used in common by many people who can also speak other languages. That is fundamentally different than saying we should all speak only English all the time.
In this city, almost all those under the age of 25 who can speak Chinese can also speak English. They have the wonderful ability to speak multiple languages.
Those Cantonese-speaking youngsters on the bus likely use English most of the time at school and work. Why be angry at them for being able to also carry on a conversation in another language?
Earlier this year, a proposal was made to Richmond City Council that would require all businesses to have English-language signs. We should celebrate the council’s rejection of that idea. For too long, anti-Asian laws existed in Vancouver and British Columbia that targeted Chinese and other Asians. The memory of that legacy is still raw.
Is there a challenge for non-Chinese customers in a Chinese restaurant that has only Chinese menus and signs? If those who cannot speak Chinese want to eat at some of the best Chinese restaurants in the world, my suggestion is to make a friend at work, or in your neighbourhood, or at your church, who can speak both English and Chinese.
To thank them for translating, host a meal in return. Rather than trying to pass laws, cross the aisle and create a social bond that will make a more civil society that talks and eats together.
Dr. Henry Yu is a professor of history at UBC and was the Co-Chair of the City of Vancouver’s “Dialogues between First Nations, Urban Aboriginal, and Immigrant Communities” Project.

Monday, October 7, 2013

White Canada Forever?

A shameful history

UBC historian Henry Yu believes the province's history of race-based policies is best described with a simple, shocking word: apartheid.


UBC historian Henry Yu believes the province's history of race-based policies is best described with a simple, shocking word: apartheid.
"We don't like to think of ourselves as a white supremacist society, but we were," said the founding member of the Chinese Canadian Historical Society of B.C. "We cleared people who were here first, we disenfranchised people. At the time, this was a white minority rule. Just go back and look at what they said at the time: 'White Canada Forever.' Doesn't that sound like South Africa?" It is a deeply uncomfortable question, but one British Columbians must confront if we are to truly grasp the way our past has shaped us, and to move past prejudices.
To Yu, the crucial difference between South Africa and ourselves is apartheid here
- in the form of laws banning ethnic groups from voting and immigrating - was dismantled without violence. "We are a more just society because people in that nightmare fought for their rights," Yu said. "But we're still dealing with these legacies."
B.C.'s deeply racist and exclusionary history spans many years and races. It includes our treatment of First Nations in the reserve system and residential schools, the Chinese head tax and Exclusion Act, discrimination against Indian passengers on the Komagata Maru and the Japanese internment. It has left a legacy of division in our society.
Take ethnic enclaves. The 1981 census counted six areas in Canada with 30 per cent ethnic residents. Today, there are over 260 ethnic enclaves in Canada.
Enclaves can be traced to British settlers who went west to avoid the French in the east and Eastern Europeans in the Prairies.
"You could have a land title in the British Properties that said you could not sell the land to nonwhites. They could play out this colonial vision in a way that wasn't possible in the rest of Canada," said Alden E. Habacon, UBC's director of intercultural understanding.
Without knowledge of history, he says, stereotypes about why cultures cluster together persist.
"White anxiety" that Indo-Canadians cluster in Surrey could be addressed by learning Indo-Canadians could buy land more easily in Surrey, which lacked the racist property restrictions of Vancouver. Where immigrants settled in desirable locations, we evicted them, like the selling off of Japanese properties along Kits Beach.
"We are living with the result of this history," said Habacon, a Filipino-Canadian.
"But we have so erased their memory. Ignorance of history is one of the most powerful colonial tools."
Barney Williams Jr. knows all about ignorance. A member of Tlaoquiaht First Nation, Williams was sent to a residential school at age five, where he was beaten for speaking his language, and abused by a priest. The schools left a generation with posttraumatic stress.
"We've had generations of violence, suicide, drug abuse, alcohol and dysfunctional families." Thousands of First Nations children were taught "we are a lazy good-for-nothing people. That is not true. We have a lot of successful First Nations, but nobody talks about them."
Williams is a member of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's Residential Schools Survivor Committee. When he talks to students, he's found few non-native youth have even heard of this dark chapter.
Miko Hoffman of Burnaby's Nikkei National Museum laments that, for interned Japanese-Canadians, the legacy of racism was a hollowing out of their core.
"We had a geographic community, and that all disappeared," Hoffman said of the diaspora from Japan Town and Steveston.
"We lost the centre, the heart. We're still struggling to rebuild."
Blacks in B.C. also lost their centre when Hogan's Alley was razed in the 1970s to make way for the Georgia Viaduct. But blacks are often omitted from tallies of B.C.'s racist legacy.
One reason, said B.C. Black History Awareness Society president Mavis DeGirolamo, is they suffered more individual than legal discrimination. Blacks retained the right to vote, could join city council and buy land.
However, it didn't protect them from prejudice and segregation in public spaces like pools and theatres.
"We need oral histories to point to the day-to-day discrimination," said DeGirolamo.
Surrey Art Gallery curator and cultural historian Naveen Girn has made a career of telling day-to-day stories of cultural communities.
His research on Indo-Canadian history has revealed lost tales of intercultural integration: a Chinese photographer famed for Indo-Canadian portraits, a Hindu paper
printed on a Chinatown press.
Girn believes prejudices - like the view B.C.'s non-white ethnicities should assimilate in language, culture or dress - linger because of a poor grasp of how formative they are to our society.
"People say, 'When in Rome, do as the Romans," said Girn, whose parents hail from Fiji.
"But we are the Romans." Yu believes its time to stop blaming people for ethnic clustering or clinging to customs. To move forward, we need to see diversity as an asset.
"We are an incredibly vibrant society," Yu said, "but for most of B.C.'s history, diversity is something we tried to suppress."
Habacon's story points a way forward. Despite his grandparents' pleas to marry "his own kind," Habacon's wife is Chinese and they have a son with dual heritage. How can B.C. become as intercultural? "With intent," Habacon said.
"We've been winging it. Putting a bunch of different people together and thinking they'll work it out. It takes so much work and fostering to get to that."
And, added Habacon, it takes re-engaging with our racist past.
"The absence of knowledge is what reinforces racism," he said. "We can't get there without the history."

Monday, September 9, 2013

Fraser River Rafting for Ages 8 to 82

Fraser river raft expedition project (trailer clip) by Alejandro Yoshizawa

Fraser River Raft Expedition August 20-22, 2013

The Fraser River "Cedar and Bamboo" Raft Expedition--organized by UBC student Liz Cheong for the New Pathways to Gold Society and the Chinese Canadian Historical Society of British Columbia--was a great success. We had participants from ages 8 to 82, with three of the dozen rafters above the age of 70, and three teenagers, all eager to have a unique experience that combined the fun and excitement of rafting on the Fraser River with the educational experience of visiting rarely seen historical sites from the Gold Rush and the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Some of the intricately built stone walls used by Chinese miners to create water ditches to look for gold over 150 years ago still remain intact as if they had just left yesterday. Trails that they had created through walking back and forth across the forests every day still show in the landscape. 

For the Chinese Canadians who took part in the expedition, being able to literally walk in the footsteps of Chinese miners and labourers was often a moving experience. Imagining the hard work that it must have taken to travel up the Fraser River and work together to build such impressive walls transformed history lessons from school into something much more real for the children and teens who went on the trip. Teenagers James and Hovy Qiu talked about how they learned things that they had never been taught in social studies about the importance of Chinese Canadians in the Gold Rush and in building the railway, and Hovy remarked that seeing the work that had gone into the stone walls at Browning reminded him of the feelings he had when he saw the Great Wall of China. 

For Mylo, the youngest member of the expedition at age 8, riding the river rapids was the funnest part of the trip. At first, he had been "scared thinking about Hell's Gate" but by the end of the trip, he was riding at the front of the boat and eager to rush to the next rapids!

Chloe, age 9, loved the feeling of camping on the beach and being able "to see so many stars" that she had never seen living in the city, and realizing how bright the full moon really was at night, "like a big lamp." 

From the impressive historical sites left by Chinese miners, to the exhilarating rapids at Hell's Gate and Sailor's Bar, everyone had fun and learned about just how important Chinese migrants up the Fraser had been to B.C. history, and how they engaged with the First Nations up and down the Fraser. The "Cedar and Bamboo" name for the expedition refers to the film made by CCHSBC, produced by former Board members Jennifer Lau and Karin Lee, and directed by Diana Leung and Kamala Todd, that told the story of the long history of Chinese-Aboriginal  interrelationships in B.C. 

For Dr. Henry Yu, born and raised in British Columbia, being able to see history come alive along every step of the Fraser River was a once in a lifetime experience. "I study this every day of my life, but it's a totally different thing to read it in a book versus seeing and touching it right in front of you." He thought of his own great-grandfather travelling up the Fraser to Lillooet, where he had worked in logging and mining camps, and became emotional when he realized that he might be walking in his very footsteps. For Dr. Yu, the trip brought together in a profound way his work as a scholar of history and his own personal history as a descendent of pioneer Chinese Canadian migrants. 

The expedition also involved students and researchers from UBC who made a film focusing on the experiences of the Chinese Canadians on the trip as they explored the rich history of the Fraser River and the importance of relationships between Chinese and the First Nations who lived there. CCHSBC's student representative Sarah Ling, a graduate student at UBC who researches Chinese Canadian farms on Musqueam reserve at the mouth of the Fraser River, brought a unique perspective on the trip, noting how Chinese migrants 150 years ago were respectful of the customs and land of First Nations where they mined and worked. They would dig for gold while being careful to leave "sacred sites untouched" and built good relations with local First Nations communities, in contrast to the way that many of the other miners treated indigenous peoples. Sarah was the recent recipient at UBC of the Chinese Railroad Workers Commemorative Scholarship, and so being able to see first hand on the banks of the Fraser the railroad that the Chinese built was a fitting way to honour the workers for which the scholarship was endowed.

For Chinese Canadian elders Larry Wong, author of Dim Sum Stories, and Lily Chow, author of Sojourners in the North and other important books about Chinese Canadian history in B.C., the river raft trip might have seemed too much a challenge for those in their senior years, especially for 82-year old Lily Chow. But it was "worth it to see these important historical sites." In fact, they worried about the need to create some kind of preservation policy to make sure that future generations will be able to see and study these invaluable sites. Without protection, this important history will be lost and younger generations like those who went along on this trip will not be able to have the same learning experience. 

The New Pathways to Gold Society supported the expedition, as well as commissioning young film makers Alejandro Yoshizawa (former undergraduate at UBC who first made oral history films in Prof. Yu's history classes and whose documentary shorts for "Chinese Canadian Stories" was nominated for a Leo Award in 2012) and Farzine Macrae to create a video chronicle of the groups trip down the Fraser. Yoshizawa put together a quick preview of  some of the footage from the trip,, but expect in the coming months a series of short films as well as educational resources about the important historical sites along the Fraser late next year. The plan is to work with teachers to create fun and yet informative learning materials that highlight the relatively unknown stories of Chinese migrants and their engagements with the First Nations throughout British Columbia. If there is interest, CCHSBC may organize an annual expedition exploring important Chinese Canadian historical sites along the Fraser River.

UBC student Liz Cheong, who worked with Prof. Yu in the "Chinese Canadian Stories" project which CCHSBC supported, did a fantastic job organizing the the expedition, creating everything from the initial proposal to the budget and daily itinerary, even enlisting her own sister Sincere to come along! Liz did all of this despite the fact that she was headed to London for a semester abroad just three days after the Fraser River trip! Liz summed up the meaning of the trip to her, capturing the sentiments of many who were fortunate enough to go:

"I had a really great time on the trip. It was a privilege to be able to visit the places that we did and I feel like everyone should have a chance to witness in person the beauty and rich history of the Fraser River corridor. Even if I wasn't Chinese, I would've been impressed by sites such as Browning's Diggings and remnants of the Cariboo Wagon Road; but because so many of the miners and workers were Chinese, I was truly inspired and felt a sense of connectedness to the region. The river raft journey was also very exciting! I think everyone, no matter what age, had a blast."
Gold Mountain River: Exploring History on the Fraser

Gold Mountain River: Exploring History on the Fraser (Chinese version)

Elaborate Stonework Created by Chinese Miners in the 1860s at Browning's Diggings
(all photos courtesy of Al Yoshizawa)

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Children's Charade on Point Grey Road

Opinion: Road signs sent powerful messages about disparity in Vancouver

Ten years ago, commuting every day between downtown and the University of British Columbia on Point Grey Road, it struck me that there were a lot of “Children Playing” signs urging motorists to drive 30 km/h.

They seemed to be everywhere. Curious, I stopped and counted them. On or within a half block of Point Grey Road between Macdonald and Alma, there are 23 “Children Playing” signs.
That is probably the highest concentration in an eight-block stretch for “Children Playing” signs in all of Vancouver. I know that when I used to live in East Vancouver I could go for 10 blocks without even seeing a single such sign. In fact, when I was in Grade 2 walking home from school, I had been struck by a car and nearly killed trying to cross Knight Street because for a 10-block stretch between 12th Avenue and Kingsway, there was not a single pedestrian crosswalk at the time (there is now one), and certainly no “Children Playing” signs anywhere to be seen. This was despite the presence in that neighbourhood of multiple elementary schools and Clarke Park playground, as well as a very high concentration of family homes with young children.

For the last 10 years, every time I drove along Point Grey Road, those 23 “Children Playing” signs sent powerful messages about disparity in this city. After a decade of daily commuting, I have yet to see a single child under the age of 18 in those eight blocks. Indeed, my hunch is that if I accessed census data, I would find that those eight blocks might have the lowest number of school age children per capita in the city, certainly lower than any eight-block stretch in East Van.

Why are there 23 “Children Playing” signs along Point Grey Road when there are so few children playing? Perhaps it is about the desire of city engineers to slow down traffic and an inexplicable lack of road signs for 30 km/h that did not have children on them. Perhaps it is about wealth and the power to create favourable changes to traffic patterns in ways that those without wealth cannot.
Whatever the reason, I am glad that the charade of “Children Playing” on Point Grey Road will soon end. With the cars gone, the need for those 23 road signs will also be gone. Perhaps then we can all think about another message that those eight blocks long symbolized: the idea that the public good should take precedence over the desires of the few, even if those few happen to be extremely rich. Within those eight blocks of beautiful views of sea and mountains — and extremely high land values — there are three public parks giving every citizen in Vancouver access to those same views. I am sure that if those lots were sold, some very expensive houses could be built. But unlike in Malibu and parts of southern California, where private houses often cut off access to the water for everyone else, those parks represent the protection in Vancouver of the public good, even in the heart of great wealth and privilege.

Democracy does not require an equal distribution of wealth among all citizens. But it does require that great wealth not become synonymous with unchecked power. I will miss using Point Grey Road as a commuting shortcut, but at least Vancouverites will still have access both on foot and on bikes, and I will not miss those 23 road signs. The misuse of something as straightforward as a “Children Playing” sign was long a bad sign for all of us.

Henry Yu was born in Vancouver, growing up in East Van, and now teaches history at UBC.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Henry Yu speaks at Sam Sullivan's Public Salon on June 5, 2013

Published on Jun 24, 2013
UBC history professor Henry Yu speaks at Sam Sullivan's Public Salon on June 5, 2013 in Vancouver BC. Presented by Scotiabank and Global Civic Policy Society (

Monday, June 10, 2013

The Foreign Investment Myth

The Foreign Investment Myth: Understanding the Housing Crisis & Confronting Rightwing Populism in Vancouver

Event organized by The Mainlander, 7pm on Monday, June 10th at the SFU Harbour Centre.
A forum highlighting the complex nature of the affordability crisis and the need to popularize alternative explanations that go beyond historic scapegoating. Jackie Wong spoke to the experience of low-income Chinese seniors and renters in Vancouver, while Mainlander editor Nathan Crompton provided an overview of the past and present use of racism to obscure housing issues through scapegoating. UBC researcher Pablo Mendez gave an introduction to housing demographics and the causes behind housing price increases in the Lower Mainland.

Nathan Crompton's articulate and well-researched series of articles appeared in April 2012 in The Mainlander:


At different points throughout the 125 years of its history, colonial Vancouver has blamed its problems on others. The relation between “citizens” and “foreigners” underlying the identity of Vancouver has been at times explosive – as when anti-Asian riots attacked Chinatown and Japantown in 1907. Flashpoints occurred again in the 1880s, the 1900s, the 1930s, the 1970s and 1990s, always with the same result: to draw up new lines of exclusion and discrimination while deepening the political disorientation of the times. At other moments the relationship has been segregated but passive, embedded in the habits and rituals of the city. Today, when it is assumed that xenophobic movements could not gain the same momentum as 100 years ago, the penchant to blame “foreigners” for local problems continues. In an assessment of contemporary Vancouver, Henry Yu once asked presciently, “is Vancouver the future or the past”?[1] If the question reads like a riddle, it is because the answer is equally uncertain. As extreme-right movements today pick up momentum in Europe and elsewhere in the context of financial crisis and long-term economic stagnation, it is now more than ever that we should examine global and local histories of racism and xenophobia...

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Uncovering Gold

The Activist Network

Saturday, January 12, 2013 - 14:00
Join the MOV and CCHSBC in a special dialogue with author David H.T. Wong, Professor Henry Yu, Vancouver historian Jean Barman, to discuss the implications and contours of this increasingly visual and interactive landscape on their work as historians, artists, and storytellers. 
Date: Saturday, January 12
Time: 2:00pm
Cost: $8 | MOV Members and CCHSBC Members free
Tickets: (members must RSVP)
Included: Light refreshments will be served. Includes admission to Object(ing): The Art & Design of Tobias Wong
The history of Chinese immigration to Vancouver is an integral part of Vancouver’s founding story, and evolution, yet is not always well understood between generations, talked about beyond academic settings, or accessible to other communities.  At the same time, new media technologies, evolving forms of historical storytelling, and digital sharing have become more commonplace,  changing the ways in which we talk about our histories.
Central to this dialogue will be a broader interactive discussion which attempts to connect these historical sightlines traced from the Chinese Canadian experience in Vancouver, to the emergent histories of Vancouver’s exponentially multicultural communities.
Wong is author of the newly released “Escape to Gold Mountain,” the first graphic novel to tell the history of Chinese Canadians to be published in North America. 
Professor Yu is project lead for an innovative online project, “Chinese Canadian Stories: Uncommon Histories from a Common Past” ( a $1.7 million initiative which has created a one-stop web portal for the reinterpretation of Canadian history through the lens of Chinese Canadians, and features a set of unique, state-of-the-art set of visualizations of historical data created in partnership the Spatial History Lab at Stanford University.
Dr. Jean Barman is emerita professor in the Department of Educational Studies of the University of British Columbia, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.  Professor Barman has written and edited numerous books about British Columbia and its Pacific coast communities, including Stanley Park’s Secret (2005) which won the 2006 City of Vancouver Book Award as best contributing to “an understanding of Vancouver’s history, its unique character & the achievements of its residents.”

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

After an appearance on B.C. Almanac, March 11, 2013

Hello Mr. Yu
I am very disappointed and concerned about the comments you made yesterday on BC Almanac.   You stated that Canada used to be a "white supremist society..." This comment was an ignorant racist generalization and I find it deeply offensive.  My family dates back far into Canada's history and and I resent you calling us "White Supremacists."  I am shocked that the host allowed this type of hate filled comment to continue on the air and that this how you conduct yourself talking about the wrongs of others.
I would appreciate a follow up to this, and speaking of apologies I think a heartfelt one it due.

And my response: