The Calgary Chinese Cultural Centre is exploring the stories of Chinese Canadians this October who endured the effects of Canada’s Chinese Exclusion Act.
From Exclusion to Inclusion: The Journey of Chinese in Canada highlights the experiences of both Calgary’s Chinatown, which was forced to move three times due to anti-Asian racist sentiment in the city, and the broader Chinese-Canadian experience as they fought to be included in the fabric of Canadian society.
The goal, said former Canadian Citizenship Judge and board member for the Tribute to Early Chinese Immigrants Canada Foundation, Nancy Siew, was to educate the public on an oft-forgotten period in Canadian history.
“The most important thing is for us not to look back so much, not to point a finger, but to go forward and say we are here to make Canada a better place,” she said.
The foundation is displaying photographs as part of the exhibit from their work done in Ontario as part of the One Heart, One Canada campaign.
The Cultural Centre is also displaying works done by artists who collaborated with One Heart, One Canada, along with archival photos from the University of Calgary and the Glenbow Museum, and videos that discuss the Calgary-Chinese experience and history.
Additional contributions were made by the Canada Foundation, YRDSB Museum & Archives and Markham Museum, and Sien Lok Society of Calgary.
Connecting the past to the present
The show, said Siew, connects the history of Chinese Canadians to their roots in Chinese history, to the immigration experience pre-Exclusion act, to the heroism of Chinese Canadians—many of whom despite not having been granted Canadian citizenship though born in Canada—fighting in WW2, to the modern experience in Chinatowns across Canada.
She said that the 100th anniversary of the Exclusion Act made it a natural time to discuss this history with attendees.
“I think at least they would take away with an education that something bad that happened to people could turn into something so hopeful, so glorious, so forward-looking and for the next generation,” Siew said.
Grace Su, Chair of the Chinatown BIA, which sponsored the show, said that the video on display was a moving way to explore the question of what kind of Canada we want to live in.
“I can see even in my own family, one generation after one generation after one generation, is always built on the hard work and perseverance of the earlier generations. What kind of Canada do you want to live in? I think that is a question to us all,” Su said.
The Chinese Cultural Centre is also holding a number of related seminars as part of the programming, reflecting on Chinese cultural works, perspectives on the history of the Exclusion Act, and Chinese inclusion in Canadian life.
- Oct. 4, 12 p.m. to 1 p.m. – Lunchtime seminar on Sun Tze’s The Art of War: wisdom in life strategies and business.
- Oct. 5, 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. – The Chinese Exclusion Act: A Legal Perspective. Presented by Peter Wong, FACL Western Region.
- Oct. 6, 12 p.m. to 1 p.m. – Lunchtime seminar on Sun Tze’s The Art of War: wisdom in life strategies and business.
- Oct. 7, 10:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 1 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. – Documentary showing and artifacts on display of Larry Kwong: Chinese Legacy in Hockey. Hosted by Brian Wong with speakers from Larry Kwong’s family.
- Oct. 7, 3 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. – Untold Stories of Early Chinese Settlers in Canada, presented by Tony Wong, President of the Calgary Chinese Cultural Centre.
- Oct. 8, 4:30 p.m. to 6 p.m. – Tongs: history and the roles they played.
Message remains relevant today
Maylynn Quan, a Toronto-based photographer whose work profiled people in that city’s Chinatown throughout the pandemic, said that her work in the show came about as a result of racism that exists today in Canada.
“When Covid started, our elders got attacked and everyone assumed that we were the virus,” Quan said.
“We really haven’t passed it. As a child, we were hurt. I would often hear things like go back to your own country, you’re stealing our jobs. I just spoke to someone that came in from Montreal. He said his daughter recently heard because when Covid kicked in, people approached her and said ‘go back to your country.’ I was surprised that’s still something that people are still saying—it’s 2023.”
Her work, alongside that of 10 other artists and educators, captured the stories of the diversity in Toronto’s Chinatown.
She said that she wanted people to look at her photographs to see the stories of people who represent the modern experience of Chinese Canadians, but also the history of people who had to form their own cultural associations to battle back against Canadian racism.
“Because of the Exclusion Act, a lot of the Chinese weren’t allowed to fight. They weren’t given jobs. We weren’t able to get loans,” Quan said.
“What the families did, which was wonderful, was they gathered together… and were able to support their own community. In every town, there’s little associations that are there, that are remnants of the past.”
Quan said that she hoped that visitors would be able to walk away with a sense that Chinese people are not the same people that are depicted in media headlines.
“We tend to, just like with Black Lives Matter and the problems that we’re having with Indigenous women, it becomes just a title for a media person to write,” Quan said.
“I think by coming down here and actually seeing the basis, and also the origin and the next generation… I’m hoping that we can actually relate to what our ancestors had gone through and that we’re still trying to fight for as well.”
For more information on From Exclusion to Inclusion: The Journey of Chinese in Canada, see www.calgarychinatown.com/post/from-exclusion-to-inclusion-the-journey-of-chinese-in-canada.