by Monika Kin Gagnon


"I call these things, as you know, somewhat derisively, chromatism: basing everything on skin colour .... " 1

Several years ago at a panel discussion for the launch of a feminist anthology, myself and five other women writers were subjected to the public attacks of a seventh panelist, who had decided that we and the audience be targeted as "Guilty!" of racist indifference. Oblivious in her tirade to the actual differences amongst the writers present to celebrate the pioneering collection of essays. This writer decided that this was yet another forum that necessitated "bringing to light" the predominant "white-ness of feminism," and therefore, in her judgement, the racism of the event, the book and of all of us involved.

The black writer's accusations relied on the now automatic elicitation of white liberal guilt. I am not even white and I felt guilty. Her aggressive strategy quickly revealed itself to be inadequate for dealing with difference in this context, whether of race, culture or class. As, predicted, her litany of oppressions soon disintegrated into a hierarchy of oppressions confessed in hushed tones. How could one measure such oppressions? But the hierarchy of tyrannies began: 'Tm working class", "I was .... ". Public confessionals of private histories. She laid bare: histories of trauma, fear, anger and rejection. Quite aside from my own visible difference, how could she presume a homogeneous experience for every allegedly "white" woman in that room?

My heart raced as she aggressively referred to the "white" writers dealing with "white" issues in this "white" book. Would I have to respond? Should I merely lean over and make my presence, two seats from her, more visible? Perhaps I should tug at the corners of my own eyes a little bit. I rehearsed my meek voice intervening in clumsy, halted phrases, "Excuse-me, but ...". No, I couldn't do it, be reduced to a crude essentialism like that. My face was hot, quite hot. I felt puzzled with strange eyes upon me, as well as those of friends who had witnessed when I was repeatedly told I was the spitting image of, predictably, Yoko Ono. Needless to add, I don't look anything like her. I feared if I became conspicuous perhaps in another inadvertently racist presumption, the writer might rant at me for not foregrounding my racial difference enough as she had in her own work, thereby making my identification, well, difficult.

Moments flashed before me, as her accusatory voice faded away into my own isolated childhood images. Stories of being spat on, children "imitating" my almond eyes, jeering and giggling at my difference, being called "nip", "chink", "frog" and shouted at to "go back to China". What was astonishing was how someone whose work was so prominently invested in questions and analysis of racism deeply embedded in her subjectivity as a black woman, had herself become so colour-blind. Why was I so invisible to her, she who was purportedly so specialized in identifying, experiencing and policing racism? I said nothing, letting her own colour-blindness be visible to the audience sitting before us.


" ... the whole notion of authenticity, of the authentic migrant experience, is one that comes to us constructed by hegemonic voices; and so, what one has to tease out is what is not there. One way of doing this (if one has knowledge from a particular culture), is to say: But look, this is what is left out, this is what is covered over; this kind of construction is taking place, this kind of reading is being privileged or, this series of readings is being privileged; and then to ask, What readings are not privileged, what is not there, what questions can't be asked?'" 2

It was undoubtedly with a sense of disappointment to many Chinese Canadians that Eldon Garnet's proposal was selected as the "Chinese Railroad Workers Memorial", commemorating the contribution of Chinese laborers to the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Garnet's work fulfills the celebratory, heroic "nature" required of such a monument in a predictable way. It is absent of any reference to the appalling racist experiences of the Chinese at the hands of the Canadian Government throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. In fact, what is revealed in the Memorial's complete evacuation of the racist underpinnings of Chinese Canadian history, is precisely the necessity for the creation of such a monument. As Mark Lewis has pointed out, " ... if it were not for the history of racism and oppression which is one of the histories of the Chinese railway workers, then we would probably not even be contemplating such a memorial. Whenever a history requires an 'erasive grooming', that is to say, a tidying up in order to make it acceptable to a dominant history, we can be sure that there will be lurking, somewhere, plans to produce 'public art'." 3

In anticipation of an influx of Chinese workers for the building of the CPR in 1878, the British Columbia legislature voted that no Chinese be employed on provincial public works. Despite this, the federal government allowed a CPR contractor, Andrew Onderdonk, to import Chinese workers. As many as 17,000 Chinese (half from China and many from the US) immigrated between 1881-84, providing cheap labour for the pick and shovel work necessary to forge a path through the Fraser Canyon. With the completion of the railway, the Chinese were "encouraged" to leave. As well as imposing a $10 head tax in 1884, the BC government "banned such Chinese customs as the exhumation of bodies for shipment back to China and the nonmedical use of opium; it attempted to force Chinese to adopt a more expensive standard of living by requiring dwellings to provide a minimum number of cubic feet for every resident; it denied Chinese the opportunity to acquire Crown land; and it prohibited Chinese immigration.” 4

In 1886, the federal government followed suit and imposed a $50 head tax on all Chinese. This rose to $100 in 1900 and to $500 in 1904. A Royal Commission on Chinese and Japanese Immigration had concluded that the Chinese were "obnoxious to a free community and dangerous to the state" 5 therein justifying discriminatory practices. Ironically, "the Royal Commission inquiries remain today as the single most multi-faceted and comprehensive testimony of personal and systematic racism against the Chinese." 6

In 1923 the head tax was replaced with yet another Chinese Immigration Act that simply prohibited Chinese immigration. This Act permitted Chinese Canadians and the Chinese who had paid head taxes to stay (special permits were provided for diplomats, clergymen, teachers, actors, importers, exporters and tourists). A total of 16 Chinese were admitted between 1924-47. This Act was revoked in 1947 "not because of Chinese militancy or radical ideological changes in Canadian politics, but because Canada must yield to international pressure.” 7

The historical amnesia implicitly insisted upon by the Chinese Railroad Workers' Memorial jury is by no means exceptional, but rather, endemic. In an article celebrating the recent influx of entrepreneurial, wealthy Hong Kong Chinese to Canada, a similar historical rewriting is evident as Canadian Business reports that "Australia is trying to attract Hong Kong investment with considerable success. But many Chinese are wary of that country because of the Oriental-exclusion policies of previous generations. Canada by contrast, has long been regarded as a stable, secure and relatively tolerant environment for education and investment.” 8

The contingencies upon which Canada's immigration policies have historically been based in relation to the Chinese is blatant. Selective policies are no longer based on racial criteria, but on economic status. They underline the explicit relationship between immigration and economics, which made the Chinese a desirable work force during the building of the CPR, but an otherwise disposable social constituency immediately after the completion of the CPR. The current policy has loopholes for wealthy Hong Kong citizens that enables them to obtain visas. They must pay upwards of $250,000 in guaranteed Canadian business "investments". This makes the exploitation by the Canadian government within the historical context of head tax, even more invidious. As one journalist recently wrote, "There is something obsequious and demeaning about the program that reflects badly on this nation ... an attitude that suggests the solution to all our ills is more money and more business and that the only way we can acquire both is to entice from other nations not those citizens who are the best and the brightest, but who are the richest." 9

The federal government's procrastination over redressing Chinese Canadians with the symbolic sum of $23 million (symbolic, as the head tax collected from 81,000 Chinese between 1886-1924 would now be equivalent to billions of dollars), represents the most profound denial of Chinese Canadian history, as if the atrocities of this history have to remain unspoken. The demands outlined by the Chinese Canadian National Council in support of some 2,500 registered claimants, now in their 80s and 90s, continues to fall on the deaf ears of the Ministry of Multiculturalism.


The legacy of Prime Minister MacKenzie King's racist government policies established with the 1923 Chinese Immigration Act, continued through the Second World War with the 1942 internment of almost 23,000 Japanese and Japanese Canadians residing within 100 miles of the Pacific coast. 1O Following Orders-in-Council specifying the removal of all persons of "Japanese racial origins" (despite their citizenship), the RCMP were authorized to conduct searches without warrants and to seize items such as cars and firearms and to enforce a dusk-to-dawn curfew. Property such as cameras, radios, automobiles, boats, land and houses was confiscated. Families were broken up, as thousands of Japanese Canadians were relocated from the coastal region to ghost towns in Alberta, beet farms in the Prairies, and work camps in northern Ontario. "The [sponsoring] beet farmers met us at the railway station," recalled one Japanese Canadian, "for them it was just like picking up slaves." 11

In 1943, property that had been seized and purportedly held in trust was given over to the Custodian of Enemy Alien Property. It held the legal sanction to dispose without consent from the owners, assuring therein that Japanese Canadians would not have homes and businesses to return to. Following the war in 1945, plans for the "dispersal" of Japanese Canadians further prolonged the government's racist policies forcing Japanese Canadians to settle east of the Rockies, or to "repatriate". The option to repatriate was particularly disdainful and was "viewed as despicable," by Japanese Canadians, "the majority of those affected were individuals whose 'patria' or country of birth was Canada, so they could not be 'repatriated'. 11, 12

In 1988, thousands of Japanese Canadians received acknowledgement for the humiliating stripping of civil rights under the Canadian War Measures Act 13 and the National Emergency Transitional Powers Act, but only after extensive lobbying by the National Association of Japanese Canadians. The Canadian Government publicly apologized for the xenophobic treatment of their Japanese Canadians during World War II and prepared to redress some 12,000 affected individuals with a compensation package amounting to $290 million, including monies for a new Canadian Race Relations Foundation. 14


"Isn't it pitiful this situation of us? I mean Nisei! We're a people without a country. We're not wanted here, we're not suited to Japanese customs, gosh what a pickle! If we go east, we're called Japs and shunned - if we go to Japan, they'll consider us something like 'hakujin' because we're born and educated out here in America." 15

Without privileging marginality, so as to ascribe too much power to the centre, how can identities of inbetween cultures be asserted? If one becomes "invisible" in a public forum because one's origins are vague, or told that one's presence is contingent on particular economic factors, or if one's "in a pickle" because repatriation from your own country is a violent expulsion that leaves you with no place to go, what then is the answer? Nothing less than to locate a space of belonging within the violence of exclusion.

The "Yellow Peril" is redefined and identified as everpresent insidious new forms: with the increasing "invasion" of Japanese money, with the Vietnamese "boat people" and Hong Kong "yacht people". This is further ideologically inscribed in interchangeable forms of journalistic reportage that gives us "Sikh extremism and the violence of Asian youth gangs .... " 16 This violence of exclusion is not simply the unfortunate by-product of temporary disruptions in the fabric of the industrial and social landscape. This perpetuated exclusion is in fact the very means by which such historical disruptions are continually created and made acceptable. Yellow peril, whose peril, indeed.


1 Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (with Sneja Gunew), "Questions of Multi-Culturalism", The Post Colonial Critic: Interviews, Strategies, Dialogues, ed. Sarah Harasym (New York: Routledge, 1990), p. 62.

2 Ibid, p. 61.

3 Lewis' remarks were in response to a letter by Donald Schmitt, Chairman (sic) of the City of Toronto Public Art Commission correcting erroneous information in footnote 10 of Lewis' article, "The Technologies of Public Arts", Vanguard (Nov. 1987), pp. 14-17. Lewis cited that no Asian artist had been shortlisted: in fact, Judi-Michelle Young, a Chinese-Canadian was among the five on the final shortlist, as Schmitt points out. More interestingly, however, Schmitt's letter provided the opportunity for an elaborated and revealing critical assessment of the Memorial selection process in Lewis' response, far exceeding its mention in the small footnote in his original article. See "Letters", Vanguard (Feb./March 1988), pp. 44-45.

4 Jin Tan and Patricia E. Roy, The Chinese in Canada, (Ottawa: The Historical Association of Canada, 1985), p.8.

5 Ibid.

6 Kwok B. Chan and Denise Helly, "Introduction to Special Issue: Coping with Racism: The Chinese Experience in Canada", Canadian Ethnic Studies vol. XIX, no. 3 (1987), p. 2.

7 Ibid, p. 11.

8 Alexander Ross and N.V. Freedman, ''The Richest Refugees", Canadian Business (May 1987), p. 36.

9 David Lees, "Hong Kong Hustle", Toronto Life (March 1986), p. 87

10 Prior to his position as Prime Minister and his instituting of the Chinese Immigration Act and the internment of the Japanese during World War II, MacKenzie King was "Commissioner in charge of investigating and reporting Oriental Immigration", and had reported that the East Indian, "used to the tropical climate and different manners and customs, was a person not suited for this country." See Chan and Helly, p. 1.

11 Ann Finlayson, "Memories of Shame", Macleans (3 October 1988), p.12.

12 Muriel Kitagawa, "This is my own," Letters to Wes and Other Writings on Japanese Canadians, 1941-1948, ed. Roy Miki (Vancouver: Talonbooks, 1985), p. 47.

13 The War Measures Act was more recently deployed to detain 500 Quebeckers without warrant during the 1970 October Crisis.

14 William Walker, "Japanese Canadians win apology to 'cleanse past"',Toronto Star (23 September 1988).

15 From a censored letter sent between Japanese Canadians during World War II, quoted in Kitigawa, p. 50.

16 Jane O'Hara, "Asian Money and Power", Macleans (11 July 1988), p. 13.